Last time we saw MARA… (click for recap)
After finding the Nowhere Woman, Amelia, Mara begs her to help find Zoe. But Amelia isn’t interested in helping. Until Jason shows up. Jason tries to get Mara out of there, but something he says triggers suspicion in Amelia, and they argue. Jason accuses her of being a spy, and she denies it. But Mara has a vision and sees soldiers and Watchers. Instinct, or something buried deep in her subconscious, takes over Amelia. She ties a mask over her eyes and readies her weapons. Then she tells Jason and Mara to hide. Mara and Jason hide while Amelia fights the soldiers. When they come out, the soldiers are dead. Mara convinces Amelia to let Jason come with them in their escape, and she finally relents. The three of them remove their trackers and run. They escape to an airship Jason had planned to escape the city in, and attempt to flee. But soldiers have found them. They get the ship airborne, but Watchers take over Jason. He says that Amelia can fly the ship. Her training as a spy will kick in. But after she shocks the Watcher out of him and tries to fly the ship, she realizes that she cannot. Their ship is hit, and they crash into the river…
A fountain covered in snow….
The haunting fountain fading to black just before Mara opened her eyes and coughed up river water. As her body squeezed water from her lungs, the moments before they hit the water flooded back to her.
They’d been flying over the city, trying to escape when the Watcher had invaded. Amelia had shocked Jason to banish the Watcher, but the shock had rendered him unable to fly. It turned out Amelia didn’t know how to fly, and as airships fired on them, blowing a hole in the back of their ship, they plummeted to the river below.
Water stung her nose and throat, but at least she was breathing.
“There she goes, she’ll be all right. Shit. That’s a lot of water,” a voice said. “Tryn’ a drink the river, huh, kid?”
Mara rolled onto her stomach and stared at the metal floor beneath her. The pool of water from her lungs shivered and fluttered with movement.
“Where are we?” she asked, looking up. Her throat was raw.
A large man with an unremarkable face, a receding hairline, and a thin dark braid stared down at her. “You almost blew my escape,” he said, his voice shifting lower. Angry. That was an angry tone. Mara knew she should be careful of this man. His nondescript face tensed, and lines drew themselves around his eyes and nose, and his mouth turned down to a caricature of a frown instead of the real thing. A chill ran down Mara’s spine.
“What?” she asked, looking around the room, trying to take in her surroundings. She appeared to be in the back of a small airship. Up past a small set of doors was the cockpit, and Mara caught her breath as she saw the window. Bubbles floated upwards, and a school of little fish swam past them like a flock of birds. They were underwater.
A dark shadow, vague and unclear in the water, appeared up ahead. Mara stared at it as it drew closer and closer, fish darting around it and parting their schools, and then, too quickly, the form came into focus. A body.
Mara scuttled back and yelped and slammed into something cold and metal. She watched as the pale corpse, lifting its arms in the water like it was dancing, faded in the bright water. And then it was gone.
“That was almost us, thanks to you,” the large man said, and he wasn’t smiling.
She spotted Amelia and Jason over the man’s shoulder, dripping and wrapped in gray blankets. Amelia nodded to Mara, and Jason smiled. Mara quickly looked away from his smile and back to their rescuer.
“You almost got me caught,” the man repeated. “Thanks a lot.”
“I’m sorry,” Mara said. “What happened? We hit the water and then…”
The large man with the thin braid rubbed his forehead. “I fished you out. I was on my way out of here myself when you come flying by. I had to dive to hide from the soldiers. That’s when you went down, and I pulled you out. What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
“Call me Styx.”
“That’s Jason and Amelia.”
The man stood and turned to them, but his eyes lingered on Amelia.
“Burned?” he asked, although he didn’t have to. Amelia’s shaved head and Jason’s long braid were enough to tell him their stories.
Amelia nodded. Jason shook his head.
“Burned, but not forgotten,” said Styx. His face slipped into a wolfish smile. Light flickered on his face from the bright flow of bubbles out the window and turned his teeth blue in the watery light. “I know your name,” he said to Amelia. She looked up at him. “Your real name. Before you were Burned.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Sure it is. I used to get you in and out of Windrose all the time.”
“And why would I want to do that?”
“Because it was your job. You’re not from here. Last I saw, you and Aaron were on your way to find Perseus out in some middle of nowhere West village.”
Jason shifted the blanket around his shoulders, and Mara realized that he had been right about Amelia not being who she said or believed. Mara didn’t know who Perseus or Aaron were, but she knew they weren’t Windrose agents. Maybe they really were Unseen, like Jason had said. She didn’t know what he had meant by Unseen, but whatever he meant, he knew things he wasn’t supposed to. She wondered what he knew about her.
Amelia frowned at the large man. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?” she asked.
He smiled, and it was a crooked and pointed smile. “You have a scar on your left forearm. And one across your back and one across your belly. The toes on your right foot have been broken, and your middle toe is crooked. You broke your foot on my ship a few years back, actually. I don’t usually take people across the Wall myself, but, well, you and Aaron were in a jam.”
Amelia stared at him without responding. Mara guessed from her silence that he was correct about all the scars. She wondered how Amelia had gotten them.
“Wanna know your real name?” Styx asked.
Amelia hesitated, but only for a moment, then nodded.
He smiled, his teeth white and pointed in the blue-green light. “Your name is Cassandra. And I can take you home.”
“Cassandra. Kind of a nice name, don’t you think?”
Mara smiled and tried the name out. “Cassandra. Yeah, it’s nice.”
As they sailed through the clouds, Mara and Cassandra sat in the back of the ship, resting and eating. They had been silent for hours. Jason sat up front in the cockpit with Styx, watching the ground disappear beneath them.
Styx had told them a wild tale about Cassandra being from the Unseen, a hidden city filled with people fighting Loraine. Cassandra had been a spy, well, a go-between for the Unseen and an agent named Aaron. She had passed messages for them and had gotten them safely to and from this Unseen City. And now they were all going to this Unseen and secret city.
“He was right,” Mara said.
“Jason. You’re what he said you were.”
“Looks like it.” Cassandra turned her hands over and examined her outstretched fingers like she had never seen them before.
“It must be nice.”
“Finding out who you were before you were Burned. I’ve always wondered.”
Cassandra shrugged. “Yeah, but what good is it if I can’t remember it? All I have are someone else’s words and stories. And I’m not that person anymore. I’m… different. Without memories and a past, I’m a completely different person, aren’t I? And I don’t remember this place we’re going to, so how can I miss it?”
“It’s probably better than Windrose.”
They sat quietly.
“What happened back there?” Cassandra asked, staring down at the floor beneath her.
“In the apartment. How did you do that?”
Mara swallowed. If anyone found out about her visions, she feared what would happen to her. She feared that she would never find and save the dying man. Part of her wanted to tell Cassandra about the visions, especially about the one of Jason and the knife. But as much as she trusted Cassandra, she would not risk the future. Not yet.
“How did you do that thing with the blindfold and the sticks?” she asked Cassandra. “You fought those soldiers all on your own and with your eyes covered. How?”
Cassandra opened and closed her fists, testing them. “I don’t know, but what you did was… different.”
“It was… luck.” Mara looked down at the floor beneath her feet.
“Luck had nothing to do with it. You grabbed my arm and….” she opened her hands and set them in her lap. “I’ve never felt such… hope before.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When you grabbed my arm, something happened. What was that?”
Mara’s mouth went dry. Cassandra wasn’t talking about Mara’s premonition about soldiers and Watchers. She was talking about the rush of emotion when her eyes glowed gold. It was the same sort of feeling she had someone sometimes touched her skin, a sort of burst of emotion that filled her and seemed to flow out of her. Had Cassandra felt her emotions? Had Jason?
“And you said that six of them were coming. And six of them came,” Cassandra whispered without looking at her. “What are you?”
Mara flushed. She didn’t know. She ran a hand over her prickly head. “Do you trust Styx?”
Cassandra bobbed her head like she was considering. “Some. He was right about my foot. And all the scars.”
“We don’t know him or these people he’s taking us to. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, and neither do I.”
“What are you saying?”
Mara gripped the seat under her. The gentle vibrations of the ship set her fingers trembling. “I’m saying I don’t know what… what’s going on. I just… I just want to be careful. That’s all.”
“We will be.”
“And please… don’t tell them about what happened in the apartment. Please….” she whispered, casting an anxious glance at the cockpit. She turned and saw Cassandra’s cat eyes watching her carefully.
“All right. I won’t tell them.”
Mara shifted, relaxing just a bit.
Cassandra leaned back and crossed her arms. “Styx said that I was going home. It’s funny, but I never really thought of myself as having a home. My place back in Windrose wasn’t home, and I knew it. Did your Windrose place feel like home?”
“No. Not my apartment.”
Cassandra opened and closed her fists again, slowly. “I wonder what home feels like.”
“There was this abandoned tower near my apartment. There were all these old statues in the lobby. It was kind of creepy, I guess. But it was also kind of nice to have them there. Like they were protecting me. I have no idea why a place like that would feel most like… I don’t know, home, but it did. From that tower, I could see the stars. I liked that.”
“Yeah. It was.”
The rations were filling, but not necessarily good. Styx had assured her that the turbulence wouldn’t be bad, but it was worse than Mara would have liked. She sat in the gray shadows of rain clouds picking at a packet of some kind of dried meat, trying to keep herself occupied through the bumping and jolting. She couldn’t decide if it would be a good idea to try and identify all the flavors in the dehydrated meat or not. Probably not, but she had nothing better to do, and it might keep her mind off the thousands of feet of clouds and rain and wind underneath her feet.
While they had been flying towards this Unseen City for hours, they still had many more hours to go. Styx didn’t want to fly straight there and take the risk that they had been followed, so he’d gone out of his way to take the long way and avoid crowded areas and cities. His roundabout path had taken them straight through rough weather and gray rain clouds.
“Any more of those?”
Mara looked into Jason’s wide-open eyes.
A rush and a sudden drop. Falling.
Then the ship leveled out, and Mara unclenched her fists, but her gut remained tight.
Jason had been sleeping in a seat opposite her for a few hours, and she’d almost forgotten about him. The turbulence must have awakened him. Cassandra sat up in the cockpit with Styx, talking about forgotten memories and lost histories.
Mara tossed Jason a ration pack. He inspected it. “Looks… appetizing.”
She did not respond.
“Did she learn anything helpful?” he asked, gesturing with the ration pack to Cassandra.
Mara did not respond.
“You might as well talk to me,” he said.
“Because I’m the only one here you can trust.” Anger fizzled in her gut. He was the only one here she didn’t trust. “I’m serious,” he said and unbuckled himself from his seat. Mara wanted to protest, but the airship rocked like a ship on rough seas, not that she’d ever been on a ship at sea, but she imagined this is what it felt like. She closed her eyes against the movement. When she opened them, Jason sat next to her, strapped to the seat. She instinctively tried to edge away from him, but the straps held her tight.
The airship shuddered and bucked again.
“Think about it,” he said. “Cassandra is a spy. She was trained to lie and fight. You saw what she did back at the apartment. She’s dangerous. She doesn’t even know what she’s fully capable of. And Styx, well, he’s not much better. He helped the Unseen. He’s a traitor. And he’s taking us to the people who have rebelled against Nova and tried to bring about our destruction for centuries.”
“And you murdered Zoe.”
There was a moment of weightlessness, followed by a drop, then more shaking.
“I am sorry about Zoe,” Jason said. His fist tight around the ration pack. “I am truly sorry. But… but imagine… imagine someone you loved—” he paused, then started again. “Imagine someone was going to die. If you did nothing, they would die anyway. But if you did something, you could save them, and someone else would die instead. Either way, someone would die. Wouldn’t you make that choice? To save someone you… cared about?”
“No. I wouldn’t.”
His face fell, his mouth pulling down into a deep frown and his nose crinkling. “It wasn’t just your life at stake, Mara. I had to give them someone.”
“But you don’t get to decide who dies. You can’t just… decide someone else’s fate like that.”
“No? But you did.” And that red and sleek thing raised its head and looked at her from deep inside Jason.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“When you persuaded Amelia to bring me with you on your escape, you decided to save me. I would have died if you had just left me there. They would have found me eventually, and we both know Cassandra was all set to shackle me to the wall and leave me for the Watchers.”
“That was different. I chose life.”
“Is it different?”
“Yes. You chose to hand Zoe over to die. I’d never murder someone like that, even if it was to save someone else.”
The airship trembled and rocked.
“Well,” Jason said when the ship leveled out. He stared at some invisible point in front of him, some ghost hovering nearby, watching. “Things are never quite that simple, are they?”
“Sometimes they are.”
He smiled, and his smile did not reach his eyes. “It wasn’t just about you, Mara.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m saying Zoe didn’t just die for you.”
The airship hung suspended in the clouds, weightless. Suddenly it jolted and surged through the gray and out into the sunshine and blue skies, leaving the storm clouds behind.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
Jason squinted in the sudden light, and that red and sleek thing vanished in the bright. “I mean, the Agency was Observing every Transfer from West Six.”
“But… what does that have to do with me?”
Jason squinted harder. “You were there too. You’re from West Six.”
The airship tilted and turned, and the sun suddenly filled the cabin. She had a name for her past, a home. She was from West Six.
“There are hundreds of you. They transferred all of you after the attack on that factory, and the Agency has been Observing you all ever since. It was… unusual. Highly unusual. We don’t Observe Burners. There’s no reason. But the Agency was getting anxious,” Jason said. “She was getting anxious.”
Mara didn’t have to ask who she was. She knew he meant Loraine.
“Why does she care about a bunch of Transferred Burners from nowhere?”
“I don’t know. But she does. She was looking for someone, one of the West Six Burners. If I didn’t give them someone, they’d have taken you all in.” He turned and looked at her. His eyes had gone watery and red. “If they didn’t find who they were looking for, they were going to kill every single person from your village. They were going to kill hundreds just to make sure they killed one. I had to do something.”
Mara’s heart raced. “Who were they looking for?”
Jason only looked at Mara, but she saw him through different eyes. He was a man who had been forced to make a terrible choice, and she wondered what she would have done in his place. Were they more alike than she had thought?
“We’re almost there,” Cassandra said from the cockpit. “Get ready.”
Mara looked to Jason, who nodded once slowly. “She’s a spy for our enemies. Who do you think they were looking for?” he asked.
If the Agency was looking for Cassandra and was willing to destroy an entire village to find her, then Jason had saved her and people from her home village. He had probably saved her family, whoever they were. She wondered if she should trust Jason after all. Maybe she had misunderstood her visions. Maybe he wasn’t as dangerous as she had thought.
“Remember,” he whispered. “They were after her. She’s why your village was Burned. That’s why you were Burned.”
She looked at Cassandra. Her short dark hair tinged red in the sunlight. Why would they Burn and kill an entire village just for her? And why should she trust a spy and her courier? A weightless feeling filled her like the ship dropping through the air, and Mara wondered what she was flying towards….