Something had changed. And it was very, very wrong.
Wren could feel a heaviness about him, an impenetrable grey quietness that seemed to descend from the sky and envelop him as he sat on his mother’s bed. It was an almost violent stillness, and full of dread. It reminded him of being woken in the night by a sound that he couldn’t be sure if he’d heard or just dreamt. Reminded him of those long, sweaty moments, lying in darkness, straining to hear, and being met by nothing but an oppressive silence. It was almost a living thing, beyond hearing.
The Weir had changed. Wren had felt it the previous night, in the cold morning hours, before Mama had gone running from her room. Remembering it now, he wished he’d warned her earlier. But even now, in the light of day, it was still such a distant feeling and hard to put into words; like the hour before the fever comes when you know you’re going to be sick, even though nothing hurts yet.
He couldn’t just ignore it, though. Something was definitely different about the Weir, something dangerous and terrible. But Wren had no idea what that difference was. Not exactly. There was no doubt they had coordinated during last night’s attack. And not just in the way they’d scaled the wall. The others near the gate had been a distraction, and Wren couldn’t escape the feeling that it had been deliberate; an organized misdirection, to enable the others’ assault.
Then there was the call, or chant, or whatever it had been. Even as young as he was, Wren had spent more time than most out in the open, and had heard the usual cries of the Weir. As frightening and unnatural as they were, still they were not so unearthly as the sound they’d made last night.
A knock sounded at the door, with a gentle familiarity. Wren knew it was Able, so instead of saying “Come in,” he just slid off the bed and opened the door himself.
“Hi, Able,” Wren said.
Hello, Wren, Able signed. You have a visitor.
“Does my mom know?”
Able nodded. She’s with him now. It’s Painter.
Without knowing why, Wren felt a little jolt of anxiety, an unusual reluctance to see his friend. He found himself hoping to find an excuse to delay the meeting. “How long until the address?” he asked.
Half an hour, Able signed, and then added a shake of his hand afterwards to indicate the uncertainty… could be sooner, could be later.
Wren was already dreading facing the crowds. And he really did want more time to prepare. “Maybe I should tell him to come back another time?”
From Able’s expression, Wren could tell he must’ve picked up on his own uneasiness. Able gave a slow shake of the head.
You should see him now.
Wren sighed before he could catch himself, and felt bad about it. “OK.”
He stepped out into the hallway and closed the door to his mother’s room behind him; their room, at least for the past few nights. Able turned and walked down the hall, and Wren followed behind with a flutter in his stomach. Why was he so reluctant to see Painter? Maybe it was just that he hadn’t been prepared. An unexpected situation, while his mind was busy with other things. An unwanted interruption. And, he realized, he’d kind of forgotten about Painter. Just for the time being. He was still sorry for his friend, but he’d wanted to deal with it before. Now there were other things to worry about. Wren felt bad for thinking that way. But it didn’t change the fact that he was annoyed by Painter’s selfishness.
Able led the way to the eastern side of the building, down a flight of stairs, which suggested that Painter had probably come in through a side entrance. They found him in a side room, a sort of sitting room that had mostly gone unused. Cass was there as well, evidently keeping him company. Wren gasped when he saw him.
Wren asked, “Painter, what happened to your face?” His right eye was puffy and mottled with bruises, his upper lip split and swollen.
“Hey, I cuh-can’t help it if, if, if — I was born uh-ugly,” Painter said with a shrug and a strained smile. It made Wren feel terrible for being annoyed at him.
“No, really, are you OK?”
Painter nodded. “Took a tum — a tumble in the street. Caught myself with mmmm- my fuh- with my face.” He held up his hands like it was no big deal, but behind it all his eyes seemed sad, even with their moonlight glow. Maybe a little angry.
“Painter came to talk to us about the girl,” Cass said carefully. “He’d like to see her.”
“Oh. OK. Does Mouse know?” Wren asked.
“He’s all set. We’ll go whenever you’re ready, Painter.”
Painter looked at Cass and drew a deep breath. His gaze dropped to the floor as he absent-mindedly scratched his cheek and then ran his fingers over his mouth. Finally, he nodded. “I’m ready.”
“Alright then. This way,” Cass said. They all left the room and walked the long halls to the compound’s clinic in a heavy kind of silence. It seemed awkward not to say anything, but it seemed like it’d be even more awkward to say something inappropriate. And Wren couldn’t think of anything that seemed appropriate for such a time.
Mouse was waiting for them when they arrived. He had a kind expression on his face, and a quiet way of welcoming that seemed mismatched with his size, a gentleness that made Wren feel calm and safe.
“Mouse, this is Painter,” Cass said. Mouse reached out his massive hands and shook Painter’s hand with both of his.
“Painter,” he said with a nod. “I’m sorry we haven’t met before now.”
“That’s alright,” Painter replied. “Wren’s muh-muh-mentioned you en-en-nough, I forgot we hadn’t.”
“We’re ready to see the girl,” Cass said, her voice even and cool.
“Sure,” Mouse answered. “Wren, why don’t you wait here with Able?”
For a moment, Wren felt relief at the idea of avoiding seeing the dead girl again. But if it really was Snow, if it really was Painter’s sister… it just didn’t seem right to take the easy way out. He knew he’d regret it if he didn’t stand there by Painter’s side.
“No, I want to come too,” Wren said.
“You d-d-don’t have to, Wruh-Wren,” Painter said.
“I want to.”
“Alright,” said Mouse. “She’s this way.”
Able waited in the front room while the others followed Mouse through the clinic and into a room in the back. Wren had never been in the compound’s morgue before. It was small, and there were a couple of steel tables and some things that looked like tools, but not the kind of tools Wren would ever want to have to use. He didn’t know what they were for and really didn’t want to.
There was something under a white cloth on one of the tables, and Mouse moved next to it. He put his hand on the covering and paused. Wren took a deep breath, tried to prepare himself. Painter nodded, and Mouse drew back the cover.
She was there, the girl that had attacked Wren, looking calm and peaceful and lovely, and so very young. Apart from her absolute paleness, it was hard to believe she was dead and not just sound asleep. The breath caught in Wren’s throat and everything came flashing back, and it seemed so impossible that such a beautiful and fragile creature could have ever tried to do him any harm.
Painter didn’t react at all. He just stared at the girl, emotionless, expressionless. They waited in strained silence for him to identify her, to acknowledge it was his sister — or to confirm that it wasn’t, to give some sign of recognition. Anything. But he just stood there.
Mouse watched him for a few moments, and then slowly slid his eyes over to Cass.
“Painter, sweetheart,” she said in soothing tones.
He rubbed his nose with the back of his fingers, and then abruptly turned and walked out of the room. Wren could hear him sit heavily down in the room next door. The three others stood in silence for a moment, watching, and then Cass finally turned to look back at Mouse. He covered the body again.
“What do you think?” Cass asked.
“I think that’s a confirmation,” Mouse said. “But someone ought to talk to him.”
“I’ll do it,” Wren said.
“We’ll go together,” Cass replied.
“No, Mama. Just me. To start.”
She chewed her bottom lip for a second, the way she did when she was nervous, or thinking, or both. But finally she nodded. “OK, baby. To start.”
Wren walked to the room next door, feeling hot and cold at the same time. His palms were all sweaty, and he felt a little bit like he might throw up. He didn’t know if it was from having seen the girl again, or from fear of what Painter might say. Or do.
When he entered the room, Painter was sitting in a chair with his hands on his knees, looking at the floor. He didn’t look up when Wren came in. Didn’t show any signs of knowing Wren was even there. Wren stood in the door, wondering what to do next. An empty chair was next to Painter, so eventually Wren just went over and lowered himself carefully onto it.
They sat in silence for several minutes. Or at least what seemed like minutes. Finally Painter started moving again, just running his hands along his legs, back and forth, like maybe he was trying to dry his palms on his pantlegs.
“That’s alright,” he said. “That’s alright. She’ll be alright.” And then he laughed, a short bark that made Wren jump. “I ffff-ffff… I forgot to bring her coat. I have a cuh-cuh-coat. She left it. I was suh-suh-ssss… supposed to give it back t-t-to her.”
“I’m so sorry, Painter. I was hoping it wasn’t her.”
“It’s not — it’s nnn — it’s not her,” Painter said. He was still looking at the floor, still running his hands back and forth, back and forth. “Not r-r-really.”
Wren felt a chill race down his back, felt vulnerable. He glanced at the other room where Mouse and Able were with his mama.
“That isn’t your sister?” he asked.
“No,” Painter answered, shaking his head, his voice calm and even. “No, Snuh-Snow’s not… she’s not… Snow dances, Wren. She’s a duh-duh, a dancer. Best dancer you ever saw. She g-g-g-glides. That grrrr — that g-g-girl, she’s just lying there.”
“Just luh-luh… just lying there,” he said, still rubbing his legs. Wren looked down and inhaled sharply. Painter’s pant legs had grown dark and torn, his fingertips blotched and spattered. Wren only now realized that Painter’s claws were out and he was cutting into his own flesh.
“Painter, your legs…” Wren said, too terrified to move. Painter stopped and slowly lifted his hands, turned them over. He watched them as if they belonged to someone else.
“That’s my baby sister,” he said quietly. “My… baby… sister!” He flashed up out of his chair and in a single motion whipped it off the floor and across the room. The chair shattered against the wall, and Painter let out an inhuman howl of rage.
Mouse was there in an instant, grabbing at Painter, and Wren saw Painter’s hands flailing, thrashing in Mouse’s powerful grip. Able materialized seconds later and grabbed Painter from behind. Cass skidded into the room and put herself between Wren and the others, while the two men struggled to pin Painter’s arms down and control him. Finally their combined strength overpowered Painter’s, and he dropped to his knees, his fury giving way to bitter anguish. Able held on to him as he shook with soul-deep sobs.
“Snow,” Painter said, “Snow, Snow, Snow.”
Cass knelt next to him, and put her hand on his head, consoling him. Wren couldn’t stop his own tears, and no one seemed to mind. Gradually Able released his hold. Painter slumped further forward until his face was almost on the floor, his hands slack in front of him. Cass gently pulled him over until his head was on her lap, and there she held him like a child.
Able remained crouched next to them, ever watchful, but all the fight seemed to have gone out of Painter. Mouse motioned for Able’s attention, and when Able looked up, Mouse said, “If you’ve got this under control, I’m gonna get cleaned up.”
Wren noticed the cuts across Mouse’s arms, and chest, and face. Bright blood ran freely from a cut along his cheekbone.
How bad? Able signed.
Mouse shook his head. “Stings a little, but they’re not deep. He wasn’t trying to hurt anybody.”
Able nodded, and Mouse disappeared. Painter’s loud weeping eventually dwindled to an exhausted sort of despair, and he sat up with his hands in his lap.
“Sorry about… the, the, the, sorry about the chair,” he said quietly. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and stared at the floor.
“It’s nothing to worry about, OK?” Cass answered.
“Can I be a-a-alone for a few minutes?” he asked. “I woh-woh- won’t go crazy.”
“Sure, Painter. Whatever you need.”
Cass motioned to Wren and together with Able they left the room and returned to the front of the clinic.
“What do you think?” Cass asked in a low voice.
Keep him here for a couple of days, Able signed.
Wren collapsed into a chair in the corner by the door, exhausted and overwhelmed. Cass and Able carried on a quiet conversation, whispering and signing, but Wren didn’t care to try to follow any of it. The scene that had just played out before him had been more terrible than he had imagined it would be. Death was nothing new to him, unfortunately, and he had seen the many different ways loss could affect the grieving. But Painter’s unrestrained fury had surprised him. Since his Awakening, Painter had never been anything but softly spoken, humble, and kind. To see him tormented so fully broke Wren’s heart.
“Do you think I should take him some water?” Wren asked across the room.
Cass stopped her conversation and looked over her shoulder at him. She smiled gently and then nodded. “Sure, baby. That’d be very thoughtful. I’m sure he’d appreciate it.”
Wren rummaged around and found several empty steel drinking canisters in a cabinet. He took one and filled it with water from a nearby tap. The water ran cold and clear, drawing from a reservoir deep within the ground. Mouse had once explained how the compound’s system worked, but all Wren remembered clearly was that it was a combination of natural water collected mostly from rainfall and water recycled from other sources. The fact that Mouse had stressed how many times the water was filtered and sterilized made Wren uneasy about what exactly “other sources” might have meant.
With the canister full, Wren walked carefully back to the other room, quiet so he didn’t disrupt Painter, listening carefully to see if he’d started crying again. As Wren got close to the room, though, he heard Painter muttering. He leaned closer, straining to make out the words.
“I swear,” Painter said. “I swear I will find them, Snow. I will find them and I will drain every last drop of blood from their veins for you. I swear it.”
The words sent a shock of cold racing through Wren’s body, like ice water through his veins. He stood frozen in place, unsure of what to do. Painter shifted in the room and sounded like he was standing up. Afraid of being caught in the hall, Wren crept slowly backwards, and then quickly made his way back to the front room. Too afraid to face Painter, terrified by what he’d overheard.
When he reached the front room, Mouse had joined the others. Wren’s mind was flooded with emotion and thought. Surely he had to tell someone. Or did he? Was there anything to Painter’s words besides the raw emotion anyone would feel in his situation? Had he even heard him right?
“Didn’t want it?” Cass said. Her words called Wren to the moment, but meant nothing to him.
“What?” he said.
“The water. He didn’t want it?”
Wren shook his head and paused, trying to figure out how much of the truth to tell them. But they didn’t give him a chance.
“We need to get up to the Council Room,” said Cass. “Everyone else is already there.”
“What about Painter?” Wren asked.
“I’ll keep him company,” Mouse answered. His cheek had a sheen where he’d sealed the lacerations. Now they were just two thin red lines running along his high cheekbone, maybe half an inch from his eye. “And I’ll walk him back when he’s ready.”
“Able thought maybe we ought to keep him here for a day or two. Make sure he’s not going to hurt himself.”
Or anyone else, Able added.
Mouse ran a hand along his jawline, scratched at the coarse stubble while he mulled it over. “I guess we could put him up on our floor.”
“Alright, I’ll talk to Swoop about it. See what we can work out.”
“Thanks, Mouse,” Cass said. Mouse just dipped his head in something between a nod and a bow. She looked back at Wren. “Why don’t you leave that with Mouse, sweetheart?”
Wren handed the canister of water to the big man, who in turn placed a huge hand gently on top of Wren’s head. A momentary reassuring touch, like a priest offering a blessing. He didn’t tousle Wren’s hair, though, and Wren always appreciated him for that. Cass stretched out her hand to Wren. He reached up and took it, warm and soothing. But just as they were turning to go, Painter appeared in the doorway.
“Hey,” he said, head bowed, staring down at the floor.
Wren was glad for that. He knew he couldn’t have met Painter’s eyes. “I’m suh-sorry… for all of th-th-that,” Painter said.
“We all understand, Painter,” Cass answered. “You don’t need to apologize.”
He shook his head. “I do. I do nnnn-need to.” He raised his eyes, glanced around at them. Wren started to look away, but caught himself. Painter looked calmer, softer. More like his usual self. “I sh-sh-shhh… I shouldn’t have l-lost control like that. I’m real sorry. Especially to you, Mouse.”
Mouse walked over and laid a hand on Painter’s shoulder. “All’s well with us, son.” He squeezed Painter’s shoulder once, dipped his head in a meaningful nod, and then let go and propped himself against the nearby wall.
“We were just going up,” Wren said, finding himself starting to feel better. “I have to give an address. Want to come with us?”
Painter smiled at him a little sadly. “Actually, if you d-d-don’t mind. I was wuh-wuh, I was wondering if I could buh-buh…” his lips tightened as he fought to force the word out. He closed his eyes and took a breath. “…I’d like to bury my sister.”
“Why don’t you wait?” Cass said. “After the address, we’ll all do it together.”
Painter shook his head. “I’d like to d-d-do it alone, Miss Cass. There’s a p-p-p-place we used to go as k-kids. Just us. Our secret place.”
“Burying’s hard work, son,” said Mouse. “Harder when it’s your own.”
“I, I think… I think she would’ve w-w-wanted it, this way. And I’m a l-l-luh, I’m a lot stronger than I look.” He added a little smile, but there was no humor in it. Mouse, Cass, and Able all exchanged looks, and all seemed to agree.
“Alright,” Mouse said. “You all go on. I’ll make sure he’s got what he needs.”
“Come on back to the compound when you’re done, OK?” Cass said. “We’d like you to stay with us for a little while.”
“Thank you, Miss Cass, b-b-but I’ll be alright.”
“I know you will be, but we still want you here.”
“Maybe just a night or two,” Painter said. “If it’s n-n-n-not any tr-tr-trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” said Mouse. “We’ve got it all taken care of.”
“Well… alright. Th-thank you.” Painter’s shoulders relaxed and Wren could tell he was really moved and relieved. It would be good for him to be surrounded by friends.
We need to go, Able signed, and Cass nodded.
“We’ve got to run, Painter. After you… when you’re done, just come to the side gate again, OK? We’ll take of everything.”
Painter nodded. “Th-th-thanks.”
“Mouse, you’ll be on the wall after?” Cass asked.
“Yeah, Finn’s covering till I get there. Shouldn’t be long.”
“Alright, see you in a few,” she said. “Painter.”
Painter raised his hand in goodbye. He looked at Wren. “Good luck, l-l-little buddy.”
“Thanks,” Wren answered. He almost said “you too”, but stopped himself. “See you later.” It sounded too casual for the moment, but he didn’t know what else to say.
Wren took his mama’s hand again, and together they followed Able through the wide and empty halls up to the Council Room. His stomach churned the whole way, adrenaline and anxiety mingling together. He was still shaken from Painter’s violent reaction, and the thought of standing in front of a crowd of people made his chest feel like it was buzzing.
They reached the Council Room where Aron, Vye, and North were waiting for them.
“Lady Cass,” Aron said, bowing slightly when he saw them. “Governor.”
“Hi, Uncle Aron,” Wren said.
“The others?” Cass asked.
“Already outside,” North answered. “The crowd formed earlier than we expected.”
“Then we’d better get out there,” Cass replied. An attendant brought her veil to her, and she began to put it on. Before she covered her face, she drew Wren to her and knelt in front of him. “Are you ready, baby?”
“Not really,” Wren said.
“You’ll be great. Just speak up, be confident. And see if you can spot Wick.” It was sort of a game they played, though it had other purposes. Looking for Wick gave Wren something to think about besides all of those eyes staring at him. And Mama said it made it seem like he was talking to everyone in the crowd. And though no one had ever mentioned it, it didn’t take much for Wren to figure out Wick was down there for security, too. He’d only managed to spot Wick once out of a dozen times.
Cass gave him a strong hug and kissed his cheek, then looked him in the eye. There were tears in her eyes, reflecting their hollow glow.
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
“Nothing, baby,” she said quietly. “I’m just so proud of you, and I love you so much.”
“I love you too.”
“Let’s go get this over with.”
She stood and drew her black veil down over her face. Wren hated when she wore it. Hated that Cass felt like she needed to. She was his mama, no matter what she looked like, and she was beautiful.
He followed Cass out, with North and Aron coming on either side and slightly behind him. Vye trailed further back, and Wren had the sense that she wasn’t going to join them on the wall. Something in her posture. He glanced back over his shoulder and caught her eye. She smiled quickly, but it felt false. He smiled back as best he could. She was nervous, but then she always seemed nervous. Maybe she was just feeling the same anxiousness that Wren was.
This wasn’t the first time he’d had to address the citizens of Morningside. The people. His people. He’d done it maybe a dozen times by now. The Council agreed it was important, that his words reassured the city. Letting himself be seen, really. But it felt different this time. More dangerous. More at stake.
The hardest had been after the last big attack. Some people blamed Wren, of course, for not doing more. For not saving more. But the anger had been defused by his order to open the city to everyone — to bring all people inside the wall. And it had been his order. The first and only time he’d ever overridden the Council’s vote. His right as governor. Now it seemed like maybe a terrible mistake with delayed results. Too much change, too fast. Too many unintended consequences. And no way to undo it.
The doors opened and sunlight flooded into the hall through the main entrance. The tall steps seemed higher, the walk to the gate farther. And beyond the gate, a press of people — held at a distance by a thin line of guardsmen. When he stepped out onto the stone staircase, a cheer went up from the crowd. It made Wren feel sick to his stomach.
“Steady,” North said behind him. “You’ll be fine.”
The cheering continued during his entire walk to the gate, and as he mounted the stairs to the top of the wall. Climbing the stairs was always the hardest part. The height made him a little dizzy, but it was the memory of the place that brought such disgust.
It was the very place that the previous governor had died, thrown down by a usurper. Governor Underdown, the father he never knew. The murderer Asher. Wren’s half-brother. Him, he knew all too well. Now they were both gone, gone because of Wren.
And he was left here, in that same spot, with hundreds of people below just waiting to hear what he had to say. He’d never told anyone how horrible this place made him feel. Wren had been too scared to say anything the first time they’d made him give a speech. And after that, he figured since he’d done it once, they’d just tell Wren he could do it again. He climbed the final steps and tried to push the memories from his mind. Time to pretend he was someone braver and wiser.
As he crested the wall, Wren nearly choked. It wasn’t a crowd below. It was a sea. He had never seen so many people gathered before: thousands of them, as if the entire city had shown up to hear his words. He turned back to Mama. She was there, smiling gently towards him, an expression he more felt through the veil than saw. North and Aron stood on either side of her. North looked unfazed by the enormity of the crowd, but Aron’s eyes were wide as he scanned the multitude. And Wren noticed Vye was nowhere to be found. Three would’ve been proud that he’d picked up on that. It was small comfort.
The noise from the mass of people died down, and all the moisture left Wren’s mouth. He glanced up and down the wall. Finn stood further down to his left, scanning the crowd with a grim look. On his right, maybe fifteen feet away, Gamble stood guard. That made him feel a little better, knowing Gamble was watching over him. She was great.
Wren stepped up to the edge of the wall, looking out over the crush of humanity below. He drew a deep breath and through his internal connection accessed the secure frequency that would broadcast and amplify his voice to the masses. There were so many. So many faces, so many smiles, so many fears. And throughout, oversized pictures dotted the crowd, held aloft in hopes that he would see. Held by women, mostly — mothers, though here and there a father, or brother, or child. Pictures of loved ones lost. Taken. Silent pleas for Wren to find them and bring them back. It was overwhelming, and Wren felt as though his legs would give way at any moment.
Find Wick, he told himself. Just find Wick.
He started slowly sweeping his eyes across the people, looking for that one face, and in doing so, the mass of individuals faded into scenery. Not men and women and children waiting for him to save them all. Just a backdrop for Wick to hide in.
“Go ahead, Wren,” he heard his mama’s voice behind him, speaking in low tones. Wren realized he had no idea how long it’d been since the crowd had quieted. He cleared his throat, and tried to remember to speak slowly.
“People of Morningside,” he said, and the echo of his voice sounded thin and weak. He hated hearing his own voice. “My people. I don’t want you to be afraid.” Already it wasn’t going quite as planned. Wren was supposed to say they had nothing to fear, because Aron said that was reassuring, and it didn’t suggest anyone was a coward. Aron had said no one would ever admit they were afraid, and coming from a child it would sound even more childish. But it wasn’t true. There were lots of things to fear, most of them they didn’t know about. And Wren couldn’t stand up here and lie.
He said, “Some things have happened these past few days. You’ve heard stories. Some of us are angry. Some of us are sad. Some of us are confused. I know, because I can feel it all myself.” Where was Wick? It seemed almost useless to look for him in that mass of people, but not looking for him seemed even more daunting. “I can’t tell you how you should feel. I just don’t want you to be afraid.”
For the most part the crowd was relatively still; as still as people ever are when they’re standing close together. But there was some movement off to Wren’s left that caught his attention. Some commotion; people being jostled. He tried not to let it break his concentration.
“Last night the Weir attacked the western gate, and we lost one of our guardsmen. But they were turned away. You can rest safely here in our city, because you have many men and women watching over you. We’re safe here.”
More motion off to the right, similar to the other side. A couple of people made angry noises. And there in the center of the crowd, bodies shifting.
“Our walls are strong, and our people are stronger. There’s nothing from the outside that can touch us. But inside our walls…” Wren trailed off for a moment, not sure how to say exactly what he wanted to say. And he could see now what was causing all the commotion. Several men were shoving their way forward through the crowd, quickly and roughly. They looked angry. Find Wick. Find Wick. “Here inside, we have to do our part. Each of us. The only thing that can harm this city is its own people.”
A hand came down on his shoulder, grasping hard, and Wren felt himself being pulled back from the edge.
“Get him off the wall,” Gamble said, right next to him. He never even saw her move. She was turning him, pushing him towards his mama. “Get him off the wall.”
She wasn’t shouting or anything, not really even raising her voice. But it was so controlled and direct Wren knew without a doubt something was going wrong. A murmur came up from the crowd, punctuated by a couple of cries. Finn was closing in, moving swiftly towards them, somehow without looking like he was rushing at all. Mouse was behind him, pointing down towards the crowd. How long had Mouse had been there?
“What about us?” someone shouted from below. “What about us?”
Wren tried to turn back to see who it was, what was happening, but he couldn’t get free of the tide that was sweeping him from the wall, down the stairs. The crowd got louder then, people started shouting. As they got to the bottom of the stairs, Cass grabbed Wren’s wrist and started pulling him along, too fast for a walk, but not quite a run. Something thumped loudly, and there were screams, and the sounds of panic. Wren smelled smoke.
“What’s happening, Mama?” Wren said. “What’s happening?” he repeated.
“Just go, baby. Go.”
Wren tried again to turn and see what was happening but North and Aron were right behind him, shepherding him back towards the building. There was another thump. He thought of the line of guardsmen that had been holding the people away from the gate, wondered if any of them were hurt. Or, from the sound of it, if any of them weren’t.
“Back inside,” Aron said, his hand coming down on Wren’s shoulder, steering him along. “Up the stairs, quickly.” Cass slowed her pace for a moment.
“Not through the front,” she said, and she walked across in front of Wren, redirecting him. The pressure from Aron’s hand made Wren twist funny, and he nearly tripped. They all stopped awkwardly.
“We need to get him somewhere safe,” Aron said.
“Through the side,” Cass answered.
“There’s no time or reason–” said Aron, but Cass interrupted.
“Take your hand off my son.” She said it low, but there was almost a growl in her voice.
“Cass…” Aron responded, like she was being unreasonable. But he didn’t let go.
“Take your hand off or I will.”
Wren didn’t understand what was happening. There was so much noise, so much confusion, and the air was growing harsh with an acrid smoke. He stood off balance, stretched between his mama’s grasp and Aron’s. There was tension between them, and for a moment Wren thought Mama was going to do something to Aron. Something terrible. And just before it came, Aron let go and raised his hands. Cass didn’t wait. She pulled Wren along around towards the side of the compound.
“Where are you taking him?” Aron called, but Cass didn’t answer. Wren looked back to see that Aron was watching them go, with North’s hand on his chest. He couldn’t tell if North was comforting him or restraining him. They disappeared from view as Cass drew Wren around the corner of the main building.
He followed her silently through a side entrance, down a flight of stairs, and then another, and into a small maintenance room that accessed some underlying infrastructure to the compound. She shut the door behind them and locked it. Removed her veil.
She didn’t answer. Cass just took Wren by the hand and led him to the back of the room, away from the door. There, in the corner, she sat down, and brought him gently into her lap. The way she used to. When it had been just the two of them. When they had been on the run.
Wren sat quietly there, with his head on her shoulder and her arms around him, just letting himself be held. Something had broken in the city, and he wondered if it could ever be repaired.