Three and no more, they had said; three volunteers to follow up on Ferris and Vargul's information, because it felt too much like bait. If it all turned out to be a trap, three was the most they could risk losing. Kumiel dimly remembered volunteering to join the scouting group, but now, lying facedown in the cramped space between the roof and the ceiling with her eye plastered against a crack in the wooden planks, she couldn't remember why.
The room beneath them was empty.
Swallowing past the dry taste of dust in her mouth, Kumiel turned her head toward her companions—a tall, lanky stranger wearing a masquerade mask, and a solid, hulking brute of a man who looked vaguely familiar—though she could only see their outlines in the dim light. The building had not been designed for fitting people into this narrow gap, and the larger of the two gentlemen was trying valiantly not to squirm.
The mask, she said into the darkness.
If we must be seen, the man replied, a hint of amusement in his voice, it will make an impression.
Kumiel didn't ask him how he could be so sure, or what the mask meant to him, or whether it would make the same impression if they were caught and imprisoned for the rest of their lives. He didn't seem to expect a response at all, so she took her time to reply. It looks uncomfortable, she said finally. What—
They're here, their compatriot hissed.
Kumiel snapped her mouth shut and returned her attention to the room. She had taken the time to study the names and pictures of known Community officials, and Kumiel never forgot a face. If nothing else came of this scouting mission, she hoped that at least some of the more elusive enemy leaders would attend the meeting. She would be able to commit their faces to paper later.
Her sketches would never be able to capture the spirit, the life, of what she drew, but she could do this one small thing for her comrades.
Beneath her, the ten Community officers had finished seating themselves around the table—all except one. She could only see the back of his head, but his role here as leader was clear. Councilor Brendt, Kumiel's memory supplied. Head honcho. Sixth year in power. More devious than his predecessor. Really buys his own propaganda. Bad news all around.
Friends of the Community, welcome. I will be brief. Brendt clasped his hands in front of him, back straight and shoulders relaxed, looking like he could very well be proposing a weekly tea party. Maybe that's all it was, for him. The criminals who call themselves the revolution declared war on us a long time ago. It's time to return the favor.
Kumiel had a moment to wonder what he meant. After all, it wasn't like they were fighting a one-sided war, and they lost more soldiers and potential recruits to the Community than they cared to admit.
Elra, Brendt said, and Kumiel followed his gaze to the woman sitting across from him—steel-eyed but prim in demeanor, with undisguised streaks of gray in her hair. Have Hal transport the prisoners from last month's raid to the townhouse so they can be questioned more privately. Make sure that they have told us everything they know.
Kumiel felt her breath catch in her throat. It was always easier to free captives while they were being moved—fewer guards and locked doors. A chance to recover some of the men and women they'd lost? Surely it couldn't be that easy.
Then, round up the ones we've been keeping an eye on: the painter on the corner of Sixth Street, and, Brendt added with a faint sneer, the one just off the main avenue, who fancies himself a bookkeeper.
She couldn't tell who he addressed, but it was a stern-faced man with impressively bushy whiskers and eyebrows who replied. I have not finished my investigation, said the man in question. If they are innocent—?
Then the rebels will know that others will pay if they do not. Brendt pulled out a chair and sat, looking each of his collaborators in the eye as he spoke. Kumiel wondered how much of his posturing was deliberate. Whether this simple gesture actually meant, look at me, listen to me, I am one of you. Burn the warehouses and fields in the northern sector, he continued, and tell the people they must ration their food for the rest of the month because of vandals.
The investigator grimaced. Councilor, do you really think this is necessary?
My dear, Brendt admonished, and something in his tone caused an uncomfortable prickle of fear to run up Kumiel's arms, I know this is necessary. Just as you know how much I regret that this must be done.
I do, the investigator mumbled, looking away.
The councilor seemed to lose interest in him. Lastly, it seems we have some rats among us—hush, Samuel, I'm aware of your loyalty to the Community—that must be flushed out. If you have not been assigned a task, please double your efforts to identify them. They must be removed. All around the table, people nodded in agreement.
Brendt stood, and as if on cue, everyone stood with him. Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot allow the revolution destroy the peace that we—and the people—have worked so hard to build. In an hour, we go to war. Long live the Community!
- - -
Kumiel half expected a long walk that would squander away most of the hour, so when they stopped in front of a house not too far away, she gave her comrades a pointed look.
We weren't followed, the masked man told her, though she hadn't noticed him checking. And besides, we still have a ways to go.
The inside of the house was littered with furniture. It looked like whoever once lived there had moved out, and someone was now using the entire place for storage. Three mismatched couches sat next to a hideously garish cabinet. A small, lopsided vase stood alone on the ground in one corner. Empty shelves lined two of the walls, some of them facing the wrong way.
Kumiel wrinkled her nose skeptically, but she helped to haul one of the shelves away from the wall. The larger man peeled back a section of the carpet, did something similar with the floorboards, and scraped his fingers through the packed dirt. She heard the click of a latch, and a trapdoor swung open.
Here's where I leave you, he said as Kumiel dropped carefully down into the tunnel after the man with the mask. Good luck, Tear. You too, Kumiel. He smiled at her and shut the door after them with a soft thunk, leaving Kumiel faintly embarrassed about not remembering his name.
She could barely see her own hands in front of her face, so she followed the wall to her left and Tear's voice in front of her. He must have noticed, because he kept up a running commentary about all the different meals he'd had during the past week. Kumiel didn't know how, but he seemed as sure-footed here as he did outside. She kind of hated him for it.
Tear was rambling about some inane training exercise they'd had to do last month when Kumiel realized that it had gotten lighter. Up ahead where another tunnel intersected theirs, a man wearing a Community uniform waited with his hands in his pockets. Tear didn't appear to be alarmed, so she kept walking.
The stranger glanced at Tear, then at Kumiel, before falling into step alongside them.
Um, Kumiel said, because she wasn't crazy enough to think that was normal.
He winked at her.
She was starting to think that they were lost when Tear came to an abrupt stop in front of her. Je! he exclaimed, sounding startled.
Kumiel did an elaborate backpedal to avoid stepping on his heels, then craned her neck to see around him. Yep, definitely Je. She was still new, but not so new that she wouldn't recognize one of their leaders.
J, said Je, who was frowning suspiciously at their newest companion.
Je! the stranger replied. I, uh, found them for you.
No one was making any sense anymore. Baffled, Kumiel scratched the back of her neck and looked in Tear's direction. He shrugged. When she scowled at him, he sketched the letter J in the air and shrugged again.
Je was silent for a long moment. Apparently deciding to ignore the other man—J?—he turned to Tear and Kumiel. What did you find out?
We, Tear started to say. He paused. That is, wouldn't it be more convenient if we told both of you at once? We've unfortunately found ourselves on a bit of a timer.
Reed doesn't have to know yet.
This is highly irregular, Kumiel ventured. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tear nodding encouragingly. J just folded his arms and watched the three of them like a hawk, his face neutral. Why aren't we telling Reed? Yet. I mean.
He'll destroy them, Je said, as if that were a sufficient explanation for the sudden division of leadership.
And why, J said coldly, shouldn't we just let him?
He forgets, Je snapped in reply, to consider what we may lose when he rushes headlong into ill-conceived plans. He would have us all become martyrs before this war is over.
They stared at each other. Then, slowly, J held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. I'll concede that point, Boss. I still don't know about all this, but it's your call, if they don't mind telling you.
It's fine, Kumiel said. Don't fight. Look, we don't have a lot of time...
- - -
Grim faces surrounded her. She looked and saw only white-knuckled grips on weapons, and a quiet sense of purpose. It didn't matter that many here were strangers; there were no strangers to their cause. Maybe it was a little sad that this common enemy made them, for a moment, the closest of friends, but everyone had found the Revolution somehow. Everyone had a story that brought them here, and the only way left to go was forward.
Too many roads led to the councilor's townhouse. Their most viable point of attack was almost right at its doorstep, so they had to cover the building's exits to prevent unwanted foes from joining the fight. For now, they stayed hidden from sight, waiting to intercept the prisoners' transport vehicle.
Cover the townhouse, hit them hard and fast, rescue their own, and run—that was the plan. Or as much of one as they could come up with in less than half an hour.
Well, darling, J drawled from somewhere to Kumiel's left. looks like we're all set to go. How did the other teams seem?
She glanced over at him, but his gaze was fixed on the distant road. Mobilizing the Revolution's forces had not been her job. She didn't even know who went with the other teams, and the likelihood that the question was meant for her was slim to none.
There was a half a beat of silence. Kumiel could almost hear everyone trying to figure out who he was talking to. Cautious but optimistic, Tear said when no one else answered. Feeling a bit rushed, understandably.
And you? J asked.
The corner of Tear's mouth tipped upwards. More cautious, less optimistic.
J huffed out an inaudible laugh. As we all should be. Doing all right, Kumiel?
Yes. But—he's frowning. She tilted her head at Je.
I think he's just concentrating, J said thoughtfully. It's hard to tell sometimes. Besides, he's not looking this way.
It occurred to her that they might not want civilians getting constantly underfoot. Do you think he's angry with me? She wasn't a soldier. Kumiel stared down at her first aid kit and envisioned herself knocking someone out with it. Maybe with a bit of improvisation...
Someone behind her stirred. Little girl, why would he be angry at you? A woman's voice, laced with thinly-veiled amusement.
Kumiel was neither little nor a girl, and she bristled at the implication that she was too insignificant to be the object of anyone's ire. She turned around to retort, but froze before the words could leave her mouth. Pale mask, red lips, and a scornful smile—the woman had the air of someone poised to strike, though she hadn't moved a muscle.
You don't argue with a tiger, her Da used to say. And Kumiel didn't. Perhaps he's not, she said, ducking her head.
She was saved from having to say more when someone signaled that their target was approaching their position. The automobile rolled slowly toward them, expelling a hiss of steam that temporarily drowned out the sound of whirring gears. Its only windows were in the front—traitors of the Community were seldom granted the luxury of seeing the outside world. The vehicle was accompanied by an armed escort of five uniformed guards, all on foot, which explained why they were running behind schedule.
Kumiel watched with bated breath. Half of her group headed directly for the guards and the driver, while the other half swung around between the target and the building. So far, so good. A woman began working on one of car's rear doors—then, with a triumphant crow, she yanked it open.
There was no one inside.
Everything exploded in a blinding flash of light, searing through Kumiel's eyelids before she had the chance to turn away. A shrill, deafening noise ripped through her head and sent her to her knees. She clapped her hands over her ears, dropping the med kit, but the pain didn't lessen. Someone tripped over her in an attempt to flee. It hurt to move, but she managed to wobble to her feet.
—got the rebels, a man yelled. I think we—
—let them get away, someone else said from nearby, the words piercing through the ringing in her ears. People were shouting. A hand closed around her arm. She lashed out with her elbow, then kicked and felt rather than heard her foot connect. The person yelled, and she yanked her arm out of his grip.
—eyes on the other rebel groups...preparing to move in...secure the perimeter—
Kumiel sprinted blindly for a few seconds, nearly bounced off a brick wall, and fumbled her way around a corner. Walk, she told herself. Slow down. Her head throbbed with each beat of her heart. She squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them again, she could see blurry shapes—better than nothing.
She walked for what felt like hours. It couldn't have been longer than a few minutes, because she could still hear the shouts of the Community soldiers and the baying of hounds, though the sounds were becoming more distant. Too late, she realized that one of the shapes in the edge of her vision was barreling toward her.
They collided. Kumiel reached out and felt the distinctive shape of the red sash tied around his arm. Up close, she could see him clearly—a young man, wide-eyed and shaking. She looked at the sash, then back at him; he did the same.
Kumiel unraveled the sash from her arm and tossed it aside. Yours, too, she said to the man.
He shook his head.
Get rid of it, she insisted, untying it for him despite his protests. It's too bright, draws too much attention. Oh, come on, she added when he kept clutching the sash to his chest, Reed is not going to jump out from around the corner and kick you out for not wearing it. You want to try fighting the Community from the inside of a cell? It's just a piece of cloth. Drop it.
He dropped it.
Some fought for freedom; others fought because they were long past the point of no return. There was only one way left to go, and that way was forward. Kumiel wasn't a soldier, but she fought all the same.
She waited, ready to move, listening for a directional cue so that they wouldn't scamper straight back into the Community's arms. A little luck, that's all they needed now. She hoped that her friends had a little luck as well.
The hounds bayed.
Go, she said.
[ to Mission 5... ]