In a filthy alley outside the King’s Ransom on another day in Razor City…
Petra dropped the red light and backed into the shadows.
The prince pushed himself up into a sitting position. It looked as though it hurt to move. Even in the dim, blood red glow, his expression was scared and hunted. “Where are you? I can hear you, but I can’t see you. I’m hurt. Please help me.”
He didn’t sound like the arrogant, imperialistic plutocrat she’d seen on television. She hesitated. She edged slightly closer. Her mind raced. She wasn’t sure exactly what she intended to do, but an insane idea was forming in the back of her mind. She ignored it for the moment.
Dante pushed laboriously to his feet. For a moment, he wobbled unsteadily. Then he stumbled. Petra made her decision in a split second. She rushed forward and caught him around the waist. She staggered under his weight, but they didn’t fall. He leaned into her to steady himself. He moaned softly as though the effort had been painful.
In the faint, bloody light, he looked down at her. He was nearly a head taller. His eyes were stormy, brilliant grey. They looked curiously soft, curiously gentle. He looked nothing like Prince Dante Scarlet. He looked like a lost, scared little boy. Petra’s heart skipped a beat.
“What happened to you?”
He shook his head. His fingers bit into her arm. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Petra frowned slightly. “What are you even doing here?”
“Do you know me?”
She paused. For a moment, she wasn’t sure what she should say. “You don’t remember?”
His eyes were huge and frightened. “I don’t remember anything.”
“What do you mean you don’t remember anything?”
He pressed a hand to his head. “I don’t know. I don’t remember. They must have hit me in the head.”
“Who hit you?”
“I told you! I don’t remember! Please! Do you know me?” He gripped her arm so tightly, she was sure his fingers would leave bruises on her pale skin.
She replied before she thought it through completely. “Yes. Of course. It’s me. Petra.”
“Petra?” He said it slowly, as though he was trying to hear something familiar in the sound. “I know you?”
She nodded. “We live together.”
“What?” He sounded completely shocked. She rolled her eyes.
“Not like that. We live together in a compound with some other kids.”
“Come on. I’ll take you. We’ll be safe once we get there.”
He sighed and leaned against her. “Okay.”
Petra’s stomach roiled uneasily. The prince looked so different. He looked scared and tired and hunted. There was something young and vulnerable about him. She knew what she was about to do was wrong, but it didn’t matter. She didn’t have a lot of choice, not anymore. This was Prince Dante, King Scarlet’s son. No matter how sad and trusting he looked, he was the enemy. She could think of several uses for the King’s son.
There was too much to lose to let the opportunity pass.
“Come on. The compound is just a little ways away, but you have to be quiet. We have to be careful. It isn’t safe on the streets at night.” She peered up at him. He looked back at her as raptly and innocently as a child. “Do you understand?”
“Can you move all right?”
“Yeah. I think so. It hurts, but I think I can manage.” He was staring down at her with an odd look in his eyes. He smiled wanly.
Her stomach roiled again. “Ribs?”
He pressed his head to his side. He huffed out a breath. “Yeah, I think so.”
Petra sighed. “Okay. We’ll take it slow.” She reached into her satchel and fumbled out her cell phone. She punched Key’s number up on speed dial.
He answered in seconds. “Petra? Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m bringing…” She paused and met the prince’s tempestuous grey eyes. They made her feel strange. “Grey. I’m bringing Grey home.”
“What?” Key demanded on the other end of the line. “What the hell are you talking about? Who’s Grey?”
“He’s been hurt. He’ll need medical attention. Meet me in my room.”
“Petra, are you bringing someone here?”
Key sighed. “Are they safe?”
She chuckled wryly. “No. Not exactly.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Petra, are you up to something you ought not to be?”
She considered this. The prince didn’t look as though her conversation was worrying him. He just looked lost. “Yes, but we don’t have a lot of choice. You’ll see when we get home. We’re coming through the back entrance. Can you be waiting there for us? I don’t want anyone else to see him…like this.”
He sighed heavily. “You’d better have a really good reason for this, Petra.”
“I do. See you in fifteen minutes.”
“Grey?” the prince asked as she hung up the phone. “Is that my name?”
Petra stared at him a split second. Then she smiled. “Yeah. It’s…what we all call you. On account of your eyes.”
His brow furrowed, and he opened his mouth to reply to this.
She pressed a hand to his mouth. “Shh. Don’t talk anymore. You need to save your strength for the trip home.”
She almost laughed. It would be dangerous for Prince Dante to wander the streets of Razor City alone. It was suicide for Grey, who had no idea who Prince Dante was. If someone came across him in this state, he’d be lucky if they didn’t kill him. And if they didn’t kill him…
Well, they’d probably do exactly what she was doing right now. Find a way to use him.
“The outlanders come out at night. Sometimes they rob people or hurt them.”
“Is that what might have happened to me?”
She didn’t want to think too much about what had happened to him. This gentle, innocent man had been Prince Dante, the King’s ruthless, vicious son only moments ago. He had probably deserved it. It probably hadn’t been as random as an outlander attack. She didn’t bother to tell him the outlanders rarely wandered this far into the city center.
“Yeah,” she told him. “It might have been.”
Whomever had attacked the prince, they had surely known exactly who he was. In fact, she ought to get him quiet and get him out of there as quickly as she could. There could be someone coming back to finish the job any second now. She was amazed he’d been left alive. If he’d remembered anything, he might have been able to tell her why. Perhaps they were both better off not knowing what had really happened.
He didn’t speak again as they stole through the alleys, slinking through the shadows toward the compound. She was glad. Her heart pounded as she struggled to keep him moving quickly toward the edge of town. She didn’t think she could fight off any thieves, outlanders or bounty hunters who recognized them. It would be worse if they encountered any of the King’s Marshals. Her charade wouldn’t hold up for long. She needed it to hold up at least as long as it took to get him under lock and key before he remembered that Grey didn’t exist.
There was a shout in the street beyond the darkness of the alley. It was a girl. Several men laughed in response. It was mean laughter. Petra had heard it before. The prince hesitated. He lurched away from Petra toward the voices. “What are you doing?” she hissed.
He peered out of the shadows toward the voices. Four of the King’s Marshals surrounded a young girl. Petra had seen it before. Grey had never seen it. He started toward them with a scowl.
Petra caught his arm. “No! You can’t go out there!”
He turned back to look at her. The expression in his grey eyes took her by surprise. He looked angry. He looked as though he intended to rush out and save the day, completely mindless of the danger and his injuries. “We have to help her.”
“No. You can’t.” Petra clutched his arm. “Those are King Scarlet’s men. They’re his private army. You can’t save her, and they’ll kill you for interfering.”
“But she’s in trouble.”
“She’ll live. If you go out there, you’ll both be dead.”
His brow furrowed. He looked toward the street then back at her. “We can’t leave her. It isn’t right.”
Her fingers bit into his skin. “You don’t have a choice, Grey. It’s the way it is here.”
He pushed his hand through his dark, mussed shoulder-length hair. He glared at her with stormy eyes. “Am I the sort of person who would just let this happen?”
She thought about this for a moment. She wasn’t sure how to reply. She didn’t know what sort of person Grey was. She knew Prince Dante was the sort of person who would have been there, in the thick of things, egging the men on or joining them. She didn’t know anything about what Grey would do. “You’re the sort of person who knows not to stick his nose in business that could get him killed. You’re smart enough to stay out of it.” She hoped he was, anyway.
He scowled. “I don’t like this, Petra.”
“You don’t have to like it. But if you want to live, you have to leave it alone and come with me. I’m sorry.” She stepped up to peer up into his face. “It’s horrible. But it’s the way it is.”
He glanced away angrily. “How can we live like this?”
“It’s the way it is in Razor City. King Scarlet and his people do whatever they want.”
“Scarlet?” Something flashed in Grey’s eyes. He frowned as though he was trying to remember something.
Petra’s pulse raced. “What? What is it?”
“A face. A man. He’s angry.” His eyes cleared, and he looked back down at her. “I think I remember him.”
Her breath caught in her throat, but she didn’t reply to this.
“He seems like a real jerk.”
Petra laughed wryly. “He is. Come on, Grey. Please. We have to get back. I have to get you looked at.”
“Are you taking me to a doctor?”
“A medic. He’s as good as a doctor. He’ll take care of you.” She tugged urgently on his arm. “Please. I’m sorry you have to let that happen out there, but we really, really have to go. I’m sorry.”
He sighed, but finally he relented. When he turned back toward her, she was shocked to see a single tear streak down his cheek. He dashed it away angrily and nodded sharply. She steered him back toward the edge of town, but a strange sensation crept over her. She had thought Prince Dante was as bad as his father. She had heard the rumors and the stories of the misery he visited upon anyone foolish enough to get in his way. She realized now that she really didn’t know anything at all.
There wasn’t time to think of it now. She could ponder the impact of nature versus nurture another time.
Grey was limping heavily by the time they reached the old mall. Petra struggled under his weight. He’d looked wiry and slender on television, but he was more solid in person than she’d expected. She was relieved to see Key waiting for them around the back of the compound. When he saw them, he rushed forward to take Grey’s weight from her.
The dim, flickering light above their heads illuminated the prince’s pale face. Even with the bruises and blood dripping from his brow into his grey eyes, Key could not mistake him. He paused and stared between them in shock. “Petra?” he said. He glanced at the prince. “Grey?”
Petra’s eyes bore into his. “He was attacked outside the King’s Ransom.”
Key stared between them for another indecisive moment.
“A little help, please, Key?”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.” He stepped forward and ducked under the prince’s arm. He didn’t ask any more questions, but he scowled at Petra. She would hear about it later.
Grey frowned and reached out his hand. “Petra.”
She looked back at him in surprise. She took his hand. His fingers clenched around hers almost urgently. She avoided Key’s eyes. “Does anyone else know we’re coming?” she asked. She was pleased that her voice sounded even. She felt as though her stomach was turning somersaults.
Key’s expression went blank. “No. I didn’t tell anyone. They’re at dinner. We can get through the back without anyone noticing us.”
Grey frowned as they entered the long hallway. The overhead lights were off. Small red track lights illuminated their path toward the gated off area of the mall. “What is this place?” His voice was low and toneless, but Petra suspected he was nervous. An almost imperceptible tremor passed through his hand to hers.
“It’s the compound where we live.” Petra met Key’s gaze. “Grey doesn’t remember anything.“
Key’s brilliant blue eyes widened for a split second. Then he nodded. “Right. I understand. Come on, Grey. We’ll get you fixed up.”
“Thanks.” They stepped out of the hall into a small vestibule. On one side, a metal gate closed off areas of the mall that had been destroyed in the looting and the fires. On the other side, a hallway led toward the shop spaces that the older kids had taken as their private rooms.
Grey didn’t say anything as Key and Petra led him to the shop she used as a bedroom. She gently shook off Grey’s hand to unlock the padlock on the gate. Not all the older kids or even the younger kids who shared their bedrooms on the main floor locked up their rooms. Petra, though, liked her privacy. She yanked open the heavy metal gate and pushed aside the thick emerald green curtain that hid the inside of the room from any outside observers.
Key hoisted Grey inside. Petra gestured toward the large, round bed in the center of the room. A silvery grey counterpane lay haphazardly upon it, as though she’d tossed it hastily off when she’d awakened. She had. She strode forward and pushed it aside. “Just put him down there,” she ordered.
Grey sat heavily on the bed and looked around at Petra’s room with an expression of unconcealed surprise. It had once been an electronic store, but it had been completely looted before she’d gotten to it. It was a huge room, though, and it served her purpose nicely. It was the first place that had felt like home since she’d been a small girl and her parents had been killed in the war.
Her computers covered an entire side of the room. Large, flat screen monitors lined the wall. The floor on the other side of the room was littered with tossed aside clothes, hand-held video games and shoes. She kicked them out of the way a little sheepishly; she hadn’t expected to host a prince in her bedroom or she would have cleaned up.
“What is this place?” Grey asked again as Key bent over him to examine his wounds.
Petra paced in front of the bed. Her fingers itched. She wanted to sit down at her computers and–well, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She needed to think about what was going on, about Prince Dante and Grey and the way his sad, scared eyes made her stomach turn over. A computer probably wasn’t going to be much help there.
“I told you,” she said in a slightly sharp voice. “It’s the compound.”
“I mean, what is it?”
“Oh.” She glanced at Key, but he ignored her pointedly. “It used to be a shopping mall. After the war, it was looted and half of it was burnt out. People took most of what wasn’t bolted down and burned the rest–that gated off area we passed is where most of the damaged happened. It’s not safe for the littler kids to wander around back there, so we keep it closed off. Most of the rest of the place is okay, though. There were still some beds and some furniture left over that was too big to carry out. There were even some food supplies and storage that no one found.”
“And we all live here?”
Petra gestured around. “Sure. It’s one of the nicest places in the city. We have everything we need here. Electricity, running water, Internet, plenty to eat, and a safe place to hide from Scarlet’s people and the outlanders.”
“They don’t know about it?”
Petra shrugged. “If they do, they don’t seem to care. They don’t bother us here. They aren’t interested in a bunch of lost kids.”
Grey blinked. “Lost kids?”
Key glanced up at Petra. He looked as though he didn’t approve of her telling the prince about their hideout. She wondered if he suspected Grey was faking. For a split second, she wondered if he might be right. The prince’s eyes were so innocent, and they peered up at her with such frank, guileless trust, she almost felt guilty about what she was doing to him.
“Everyone who lives here has lost their family to the war or King Scarlet and his people,” she explained in a low voice.
“Some died in the fighting during and after the war. Others were accused of treason by the Nobles and imprisoned or executed.”
Grey’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”
“We’ll explain everything to you once you’ve been cleaned up and gotten some rest,” Key told him in a surprisingly gentle voice. He seemed to have decided the prince was harmless for the moment. He hated Dante and Scarlet as much as Petra, but he wouldn’t refuse to help anyone if they needed him; it wasn’t in his nature. “You look like you’ve been through hell. Do you know what happened?”
Grey shook his head, but Petra answered for him. “He doesn’t remember any of it.”
“That’s probably for the better. It’s worse than I expected. I need to get some supplies.” Key rose and jerked his head at Petra. “Petra?” She followed him toward the door. He spoke in a quiet voice, but Grey didn’t even seem to be trying to overhear. “What are you planning to do with him?”
He might not be trying to overhear them, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t. “He can stay in here until he feels better. I’ve got plenty of room for two.” She stared pointedly into Key’s eyes. He sighed.
“Are you sure about this?”
“It’ll be fine. I can sleep on the bean bag chair or something.”
“That is not what I meant.”
Petra lifted her chin. “I’m sure.”
When he was gone, Grey held out his hand to Petra. She perched on the bed beside him. “I can go to my own room, if I’ll make you uncomfortable.”
She wasn’t sure how to answer this. She took his hand. He clenched his fingers around hers. “It’s okay. I would prefer to keep an eye on you until you are feeling better.”
He smiled. It was such a nice smile. Her breath caught in her throat. “I want to stay with you, Petra.”
She felt her cheeks heat. She ducked her head to hide her blush behind her long, pale blonde hair. Grey lifted a hand to brush it aside. She looked at him in surprise. He didn’t say anything, but his expression sent her heart racing. For a strange moment, she remembered the cold, austere face she’d seen on television days ago. He didn’t look anything like that now. He made her very nervous.
Key swept back into the room, startling her. She shot to her feet as though he’d caught them doing something they shouldn’t. Grey looked at her bemusedly, but he didn’t ask any questions. He leaned back on the thick, plump pillows and kept quiet as Key bent over him.
Key didn’t say anything, either, and his expression was perfectly neutral. Petra had known him long enough to know he was not happy about this. His shoulders were tense. She didn’t look forward to hearing what he had to say about the prince, but when he understood what she intended to do, he’d get over it.
She paced as Key patched up the prince’s wounds. They were bad. She was actually surprised he was still conscious, but he gritted his teeth against the pain. She suspected he had a few cracked ribs. His ankle might have been broken. He looked as though he’d put up a fight. His knuckles were bruised as if he’d gotten in a hit or two of his own. He didn’t make a peep. When Key cleaned the blood and grime from his face, it was swollen and bruised. She almost hadn’t even noticed. She’d been too wrapped up in his expressive eyes and his unnerving good looks.
Now she paused and eyed him narrowly. He met her gaze. She couldn’t hold his eyes. She turned away from him. She pushed her hands through her hair. She could still feel his stare as it followed her from one side of the room to the other. She seriously wondered for the first time who had attacked him in the alley. Outlanders, disgruntled citizens, the boyfriend of some girl he hit on at the bar…
Prince Dante had a lot of enemies. He was one of the most hated people in Razor City. Anyone could have come upon him in the alley, recognized him and taken advantage of the opportunity. It wouldn’t be the first time one of the King’s people had been taken alone and unaware. The prince, though, usually traveled with at least a couple bodyguards. Where had they been?
“I think that’s as good as we’re going to get,” Key said finally.
Petra spun back toward the bed. Grey looked better. His faced was cleaned and his wounds were bandaged. He smiled weakly at Key. “Thanks for fixing me up.”
Key patted his shoulder a little awkwardly. He looked up at Petra. She perched on the edge of the bed. Grey reached for her hand. He looked as though he wanted to say something to her. He didn’t. She brushed his dark hair from his eyes without thinking. “You should get some sleep.”
He groaned. “I don’t know if I can sleep. It hurts.”
Petra glanced at Key. He was frowning slightly, but he nodded and dove into the first aid kit beside the bed. He handed Grey a couple pills. “Take these. They’ll help with the pain and help you sleep.”
Grey hesitated, but Petra nodded encouragingly. “It’s okay, Grey. You can trust Key. He wouldn’t let you take anything that would hurt you. You should get some sleep.”
This seemed good enough for him. He tossed the pills into his mouth and swallowed them. He leaned back on the pillows. “Thanks, Key.” His eyes rolled back to Petra. “I’m lucky you found me, Petra.”
Her eyes cut to Key, but she nodded. “Yeah. Lucky.”
“Did you know where I would be?” Grey’s voice sounded a little dreamy, but his eyes were still alert.
She looked at Key again, but he didn’t offer any help. She’d chosen to lie to the prince. It was her show. “No. But you knew I was working a job at the King’s Ransom. You must have come back to find me after you were attacked.”
“By outlanders,” he murmured. His eyes were starting to droop a little now.
Key’s mouth tightened. He glanced at Petra. “Yeah,” she said. “By outlanders.”
“Where did I go tonight?”
Petra shook her head. “I don’t know. You didn’t tell me where you were going.”
He could barely keep his eyes open. “Oh.”
She pulled the silver counterpane up to his chin. “Maybe you’ll remember more when you wake up.”
He was asleep before he’d finished nodding. Key stepped forward and seized Petra’s arm. He dragged her all the way out of the room and into his own. It was much neater than hers. “What the hell are you thinking?” he hissed.
Petra yanked free of him and crossed her arms over her chest. “I found him beaten up in the alley outside the club. He had no memory. What else should I have done? Turn him into one of the King’s men?”
Key frowned. “You have no idea what happened to him?”
“No. I just found him like this. He was alone. I don’t know what happened to his bodyguards.”
Key sighed. “So the King might not even know he’s missing yet.”
“Right. And when he figures it out…”
“What are you planning to do with him, Petra?” His voice suggested he suspected whatever she planned was a bad idea.
“He’s the prince, Key! We have leverage now.”
“Over the King. We could use him…maybe with him we can get Ren back. And the others.”
He frowned. “How do you think that will work?”
“When they discover he is missing, we can trade him.”
“That’s crazy, Petra. It’s too risky. We can’t do something like that. Scarlet’s people would kill us all.”
“Not if they can’t find us. We’d have to be careful, but we could work it out. We can’t let this opportunity pass, Key.”
He sighed. “We should talk to the inner circle about this.”
She frowned. “How long do you think we have until he regains his memory?”
“No idea. It could be minutes. It could be never. I’m not a doctor. Do you plan to just lie to him until then?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what I planned. We need to keep him here until we have our opening to use him.”
He stared at her for a moment as though he hardly recognized her. “Petra, this is…I don’t even know what this is.”
“It’s all we’ve got, Key! If we play this right, we could get our friends and family back.”
“Yes, and if we mess it up, this entire compound and everyone in it is in danger.”
Petra lifted her chin. “Then we won’t mess it up.”
Meanwhile, in dreamland…
He was small. He knew he was small because Elia was small, and he stood at exactly the same height. Elia was a pirate. He was a pirate, too. They wore red bandanas and black eye patches, and they brandished their swords at each other in an epic battle to the death. He was having fun. He always had fun playing with Elia.
He jabbed his sword at Elia, who giggled and smacked it away with his own sword. They clanked like metal, and they gleamed in the sun. They weren’t sharp, but they were real swords. They hurt when they hit each other. They weren’t supposed to hit each other with them, but they did anyway. There was a bruise on his arm. Elia’s leg looked purplish, but they were having fun and real pirates got hurt.
They were in his backyard. It was sunny and warm. The grass was soft and green. A man came over the rise of the hill. He saw the man over Elia’s shoulder. He wasn’t scared. His father’s friends came sometimes and played with them. They brought him toys and masks and hats to play with.
The man was carrying a gun. Pirates used guns sometimes, but he really wanted a cannon. The man raised his gun. Elia didn’t see the man or his gun. He didn’t know what was happening, but for the first time, he felt a shiver of fear. There was shouting in the distance. Men in red suits came running over the hill toward the man with the gun.
They were too late. He’d never heard a noise so loud. It was like an explosion. If cannons sounded like that, maybe he didn’t want one. He covered his ears, but it was too late. He fell to the ground. There was another explosion. He trembled. What had happened to him? He didn’t feel as if anything had happened to him.
He opened his eyes. The men in red suits stood over the man with the gun. A large, red puddle pooled around the man’s body. He looked around. Elia. Elia was laying in a puddle, too. He rushed toward his friend. What was this game?
Elia wasn’t playing a game. Red spread over Elia’s white shirt.
“Elia?” His voice was small and scared.
Elia’s tiny fingers clutched feebly in the air. “Daddy…”
“Elia?” He didn’t understand what was happening. Elia didn’t move or speak, but his eyes were open. He prodded at him, but nothing happened. Elia didn’t sit up or laugh as though he’d played a masterful trick.
There was more shouting. He looked up. His vision blurred with tears. He couldn’t see his father’s face, but he knew his voice. He knew he was there. Elia’s father screamed and fell to the ground beside him. He tried to prod him awake, too, but it didn’t work. Elia’s father clutched him to his chest and sobbed.
The scene spiraled wildly, as though he was spinning quickly round and round. He couldn’t see his father. He couldn’t see Elia’s father. He could only see Elia, who seemed fixed in space, lying silent and still in a pool of thick, crimson blood….
Grey shot up in bed. Ice cold sweat dripped from his brow and soaked the sheets. He gasped. “Petra?” For a moment, his vision blurred and he couldn’t see anything in the pitch black room. “Petra!”
A tiny light sparked in the darkness. He heard her move before he saw her. Her pale face appeared above him. Her long, blonde hair brushed his cheek. “What’s the matter, Grey?” Her voice was soft and gentle. The moment he heard it, he relaxed. He reached for her.
She wrapped her fingers around his. His hands were slick with sweat. “It’s okay. It was a dream. Did you have a nightmare?”
He sighed. “I saw a little boy. He was shot. I was there. I saw him die.”
He could barely see her face in the dim light, but he thought he saw her brow furrow.
“Was it a memory?”
She stared at him. “I don’t know.” She smoothed his moist dark hair back from his forehead. “Go back to sleep.”
“Will you stay with me?”
She sighed, but she did not move away from him. “I’ll be right here.”
He nodded and leaned back on the pillows. His eyes were already closing. For a moment, Petra was still. He tucked her hand against his cheek.
His breath was slow and even. She tried to tug her hand away, but even in sleep, he didn’t let her go. She sighed. For several long moments, she waited. He didn’t release her. Finally, she curled up beside him. He was warm and his chest rose and fell with such a calm, steady rhythm, she’d drifted to sleep in mere moments. She didn’t dream of blood or war or Scarlet’s men converging upon her in a dark alley. All she saw was grey.