Deliverance Page 86

She waits, her boots braced against the ramp, until we’ve all climbed the ladder. Then she gestures for us to precede her up the ramp and onto a wide walkway that seems to soar through the middle of the city. Every few yards, a narrow bridge stretches from the walkway into a line of buildings. Below us, the river swirls past the stilts that hold up the walkway. The land that anchors the stilts in place is too far below the surface to be seen.

Frankie looks like he’s going to be sick. He clutches the ornately carved railing that brackets the walkway and refuses to look down. Connor and Orion have death grips on the railing as well. Willow, Adam, and Jodi move up the ramp as if it’s a tree branch they’re leaping, but Smithson moves carefully, one hand on the railing and the other wrapped around Nola to keep her from slipping. Even the Commander looks ill at ease, though he doesn’t hold on to anything. I give two seconds of thought to taking a page out of the Commander’s book and pretending that I’m not worried about falling into the river, and then wrap my hand around the railing too. Better to be honest about my fear than to see it come true.

“It’s been a long time since your last visit, Jason,” the woman says.

“As I said, we need a meeting with you. Quickly.”

The woman nods, but then she notices the brooch on Connor’s cloak. “You’re the representative from Lankenshire?”

“Connor Vaughn, son of Clarissa Vaughn. I’m here representing Lankenshire’s interests.” He reaches into his pocket for the letter bearing Lyle Hoden’s seal. “I’m also the grandson of Lyle Hoden and am here in his stead as well.”

“Indeed. Lyle’s messenger arrived yesterday saying to expect you and that he supported you.” She reaches for the letter and says, “Tara Lanning, daughter of Aaron Chelming and leader of Chelmingford. I’m pleased to meet you, Connor, and I admit I’m tremendously curious as to what business could bring Baalboden, Lankenshire, and Hodenswald to my door at the same time.”

“If we can meet somewhere private, we’ll explain everything,” I say. Tara assesses me, as if wondering what role I play in all of this that would give me the right to speak for everyone, but then she turns on her heel and leads us over the walkway and into the heart of the city.

We walk past shops with brightly colored banners hanging from their windows, narrow homes with boxes of pink, yellow, and purple flowers blooming in crates bolted to the walls, and even a playground that resembles a giant planter filled with dirt and grass, balanced securely on stilts. Children run and tumble over the playground, and Frankie makes a choking noise even though an iron fence wraps around the area, keeping anyone from falling into the swiftly moving river below.

“This way. We can talk at my house.” Tara turns left onto a slender bridge that arcs from the walkway to a bright-blue door nestled in the front of yet another narrow house. We follow her, most of us clinging to the rail, and enter her home.

In moments, she has us settled around a long oval table with an arrangement of dried flowers resting in a vase at its center. The flowers are brown and crumbling, a stark contrast to the cool blues, whites, and yellows throughout the rest of the home. Tara swings in from the kitchen, a tray of dried fish in one hand and a pitcher of water in the other, and follows my gaze.

“My father’s funeral bouquet,” she says, and in that moment, I feel connected to her in ways that have nothing to do with her smoky voice and smiling eyes. She understands loss, and the lengths we’ll go to keep the memories of our loved ones alive. She keeps her father’s funeral bouquet. I kept my mother’s necklace in my pocket for thirteen years until the day I realized that Rachel was my new family and gave the necklace to her instead.

The pain of missing Rachel twines around the hole that was carved in me when my mother died, and suddenly it’s hard to breathe. It’s painful to think about how much I loved my mother and to wonder if she felt the same. It’s even harder to know how much I love Rachel and to wonder if I can get to her before James Rowan receives the message that I’m not coming.

Tara sets a plate of salted, dried fish in front of me and squeezes my shoulder briefly before moving on. I realize I’m still staring at the dried flowers, and I quickly look at my plate.

When everyone has been served, Tara sits at the head of the table and says, “I apologize for the lack of fresh food, but our mainland farms have recently been destroyed. We’re busy rebuilding in another location, of course, but for now, we’re relying on the last of our winter stores.”

“Who destroyed the farms?” I ask, and Tara’s gaze pierces mine.

“Interesting. You ask who, not what.” Her voice is steady, but a spark of anger lies beneath it. “I have a question of my own. You sit here representing Baalboden, Lankenshire, and Hodenswald. Are you not allied with any other city-state as well?”

“Carrington,” the Commander says. “But what you’re really asking is if we are allies with the Rowansmark trackers who ruined your food supply.”

Tara leans forward. “So you know about Rowansmark.”

Quickly, the Commander fills her in on the fact that both Baalboden and Carrington have been destroyed, that Schoensville and Thorenburg have committed troops to Rowansmark in exchange for protection, and that Lankenshire and Hodenswald are infested with trackers, but that I’ve disabled the beacons that would call the tanniyn to attack them.

“I can fix any beacons in your city or your farmland as well,” I say, even though the Commander seemed sure Chelmingford wouldn’t need my services. “I can guarantee the safety of your city and your farms. And in return, we’d like to request that you join us in attacking Rowansmark and destroying the tech that gives them the ability to terrorize the rest of us.”

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