Gabe’s features were almost unrecognizable behind the swelling and crusted blood. His lips were thick and split in at least three places, his left eye was swollen shut, and a circular cut around his right eye suggested he’d been wearing his goggles when the beating started.
The bondsan left him against the bar, and Gabe groaned when he hit the floor.
“You came back,” Avril said through his own split and swollen lips and winced against pain at the base of his skull.
The bondsan who’d dragged Gabe into the room glared at Avril. Blood gleamed on the knuckles of the bondsan’s gloves. “Shut up.”
“I never left,” Gabe said.
“Shut up!” the bondsan growled at Gabe.
Avril recognized the same stubborn streak in Gabe that had driven Avril to provoke the bondsan even when he was already at their mercy. The fuck you embedded in their acts of defiance was futile, but witnessing Gabe play the same game, Avril felt his own pointless desire to deny the bondsan’s dominion over him bubbling back to the surface.
“I just wanted these idiots to think I had,” Gabe said. “I knew you two wouldn’t take my crap, so I—”
The bondsan strode forward and kicked Gabe in the ribs.
Gabe grunted and spat blood onto the floor.
There were six members of the cadre in the room. Avril’s gaze took them all in. Each one sported injuries that ranged from minor cuts and abrasions to barely healed wounds that should have ended their lives permanently.
Another bondsan entered the room. A bullet wound had collapsed his right cheekbone, and his voice rasped when he spoke. “You think you’re clever and tough, but I already told you, that doesn’t matter.”
“Thorn?” Avril asked.
“I thought you understood, but you don’t. I told you, people understand us on an intellectual level, but until their experience catches up, they don’t get it. Your experience must be catching up. We knew you were coming, we heard everything you said in front of Ariel. We recruited the vultures we caught earlier to slow you down and let you think you could stroll in here and take your friends.”
Thorn, Avril was certain this was the first-sworn, turned to his companions. “Should we let them go again, we net a couple more of them each time we do?”
Avril wanted to stay silent. Engaging with the bondsan only led to more pain, and he wanted to avoid another beating, but he asked, “Who are your words for? Did that last bullet screw with your telepathy or are you trying to impress us?”
A bondsan behind Thorn took an AI from her pocket and tapped the screen without looking away from Avril. A tingling sensation swept over Avril’s forearms from his wrists to his elbows, and he gritted his teeth against the fear of an impending shock.
The sensation faded, but the bondsan held onto the device.
Thorn shook his head and said, “Fighting me every step to Ardel will just cause you more pain.”
“It’ll wear you down,” Avril said with forced bravado.
Thorn walked to the large windows that faced the street and let out a long sigh. He looked like he was about to speak, but he stiffened and stepped back from something he saw, then strode toward the door. The windows were behind Avril, so he shuffled onto his knees and twisted to see.
On the other side of glass dusty from the devastation outside, Zin stepped down from the assault vehicle’s cab. Her movements were slow and sleepy, and she looked both ways along the street, her eyes searching and taking in the wreckage but not surprised by what she saw.
When her gaze penetrated the window, and she saw Avril, Laurill, Maxian, and Gabe a look of confusion crossed her features, but then she smiled at the bondsan who appeared on the street and grabbed her arm.
Avril looked down at his restraints. This was no crude device cobbled together from the components on hand. If he tried to jam it, he’d either receive a lethal shock or be knocked unconscious.
The door opened, and a bondsan pushed Zin inside. Thorn moved back to make room for her and her escort. The grogginess had vanished from her movements, and the bondsan with her grabbed her upper arm again, but Zin strode forward as if unaware of the bondsan’s grip.
She met Avril’s eyes, and for the first time, the connection between them manifested without physical contact.
Zin said, “I was worried I’d missed you.”
“Go, Zin. Leave this place.”
She shook her head and said, “I can’t.”
“You can, I’ve seen you. I believe,” Avril insisted.
“No, silly, that’s not what I mean.” Zin’s radiant smile was so out of place that even the bondsan exchanged puzzled looks.
Avril glanced at Thorn, wondering why the first-sworn was letting her speak at all, but his attention returned to Zin, and as he looked away from Thorn, he realized everybody was transfixed by her. Zin’s smile was a balm against his injuries. It was only a temporary relief, and more pain would follow for both of them, but in that instant, it didn’t matter, and Avril took strength and comfort from this strange, beautiful woman’s presence.
“People are in pain, and I can fix it. My dreams showed me how.”
“We’ll be fine. Please go, Zin,” Avril said.
“Not you, silly, them.” Zin faced Thorn and said, “I know what they did to you, and I know what went wrong. It pushed you further than you meant to go, and you’re worried about the consequences when you return to Lord Mikkel.”
“We serve Lord Mikkel,” Thorn said. “If our actions displease—”
“I can fix it,” Zin cut him off gently.
The bondsan who held Zin’s arm, pushed her and she stumbled to her knees.
She looked up at Thorn and said, “You don’t have to be in pain, and you don’t have to worry about disappointing Lord Mikkel. None of you do. I can help you.”