But before I can follow, she stops. Pulls Heathcliff up sharp. Holds out her hands in a gesture of surrender. Why? And then I see two Free UK ahead with weapons trained on Heathcliff. She won’t risk her horse.

There is a sound behind: a choke, a gurgle, and I turn. Katran has the Lorder, one arm pinned behind his back, but then he releases him, pushes him away. He wipes his knife on the grass as the Lorder makes a slow crumple to the ground.

Red.

Not just a drop of red like I’d tried last night. A sheet of red. His throat is a curtain of blood that pulses with his heart. His body twitches on the ground then lies still, just as I fall from my horse.

CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT

* * *


My mouth tastes sour, full of gravel, and all is darkness. I am lying down, on something soft. Head full of fuzzy cotton. Where…what? My eyes open. Everything is a blur that as I blink becomes clear.

A small room, a shut door. One square window, barred. And I’m not alone: Dr Lysander stands a few feet away, looking out through the bars.

I sit up.

She turns at the movement. ‘All right, Kyla?’ she asks, voice quiet, calm.

Confusion is thick. ‘What happened?’ I say, and my voice sounds wrong.

‘You might know better than I. But maybe not. You appear to be locked up in here with me.’

I sit up. My mouth tastes sour, awful. My clothes are a mess. Mud, and worse. Vomit?

The smell makes my stomach twist, and I breathe in and out, slow, until it passes.

‘Is there any water?’ I ask.

‘No.’ She bangs on the door. ‘Hello, out there! We require some water,’ she says. Her voice has its usual note of quiet authority, one that may not work here.

There is a murmur through the door; time passes. Then a voice: ‘Stand away from the door.’

It opens: Tori peers in. ‘It stinks in here.’ She wrinkles her perfect nose, looks at me. ‘You stink!’ Past her, Katran is sat in a chair, alert, weapon in hands. I recognise Nico’s office. So we are where I thought, but why am I…?

A wave of fear grips me inside. Perhaps Nico found out about Coulson, and thinks I am a traitor.

Katran shakes his head slightly as Tori gives Dr Lysander a bottle of water. His eyes say be quiet. Wait.

‘Let me go,’ I try. But instead of demanding, my voice sounds weak, a plaintive whimper.

Tori laughs. ‘I don’t think so,’ she says, and leaves, locks the door, looking far too pleased with the situation.

Dr Lysander has a small drink, then passes me the bottle. ‘You have the rest. You will be dehydrated, after that.’ And she gestures at the mess I am in.

I drink some, then dampen the cleanest corner I can find of my sleeve to wipe my face. As for as the rest of me, there is no hope. I sigh. My head throbs. What happened? I try to focus, to think, but all is a fuzzy mess.

‘I used to think you’d make a good doctor, Kyla, but I see I was mistaken. Have you always had a phobia of blood?’

‘I don’t! I…’ And I stop. With her saying the word, it floods back. All I can see is her Lorder guard, and red red red….

A curtain of blood. Tears are rising in my eyes now, and I’m shaking. All that blood. Forget it, put it away, banish it—

But Katran said I mustn’t forget, I must remember, I—

Katran. He killed him. Cut his throat and did it in front of me in a way that almost said watch this. Why did he kill him? Why that gruesome way?

A phobia of blood makes a failed terrorist.

‘Can you get over a phobia?’ I ask.

‘Of course. It isn’t easy. The most successful way is systematic desensitisation: facing the thing you fear in a controlled environment until it begins to lose its power to terrify. Such as putting a person who fears spiders in their company more and more while teaching them to relax. Witness a few dozen more murders, and you should be just fine.’

Desensitisation. A word that echoes, deep inside, until the world is spinning and I am back. Flashes of images, like an old-style 3D horror film where things of terror jump out at you, again and again. No peace. Explosions, screaming, blood. I wrap my arms around my head, curl up into a ball, some distant part aware that Dr Lysander is calling my name, that her hand is on my shoulder. I’m shaking and fighting it, clenching eyes shut but it is all still there. A whistle; a flash; an explosion. A bus full of children. Screaming, bloody hands beating against glass windows. And then, it all happens again. It runs over and over.

On a loop. On…replay? With realisation, the images twist and morph into something flat. A movie screen. Me, in a chair, unable to move. Not reality. All those horrible things. I was never there, but forced to watch: an attempt to desensitise. One that never worked.

I uncurl, open my eyes. Maybe…I never killed anyone. Maybe, I couldn’t.

Time passes. I avoid Dr Lysander’s eye. She must know everything is my fault. Yet she doesn’t do or say anything. She is pulled into herself; calm, contained. Watchful and waiting.

And then – sounds of a car.

Soon there are voices on the other side of the door, and my skin goes cold. Nico’s voice. Only he could have said to lock me up. Why?

Minutes pass, and then our door is unlocked, by Nico himself. A very cheerful-looking Nico.

‘Ah, hello there; Dr Lysander, I presume? Would you like to step through? It is time for some afternoon tea.’

He holds the door, smiles, as if inviting a guest. She pauses, steps through, and Nico turns to chuck the keys in a desk drawer. I think I am ignored, but after Nico asks her to take a seat he turns back to me.

‘And what have we here?’ He wrinkles his nose. ‘Oh, dear child. Perhaps…yes. I think before you join us you must get cleaned up a little.’

He turns to Tori. ‘Take her out for a wash and find her some clean clothes, please, then bring her back.’

She yanks me out the door and round the side of the house, and I’m thinking: run? But there are others. Guards, guns in hand: Katran is outside now, as well as two more. Courtesy of Dr Lysander’s presence, no doubt.

‘Wait,’ Tori says. She goes round the back and I hear water splashing. She returns with a bucket in her hands and dumps it over my head, an icy shock of cold water. I cough and sputter. She stands back, considering. ‘No, not good enough.’ Another bucketful follows. She leaves me there, shivering, and goes back in the house. Returns moments later.

‘Put these on,’ she instructs, and tosses jeans and a hoodie at me. I look up, and the guards are watching. Then Katran coughs with a pointed look and they turn away. I shuck my clothes fast. Shivering, numb. Head light. When I bend to pull the jeans on it spins so I almost hit the ground. I pull the hoodie over my head, shaking violently as I struggle to get my arms in the sleeves, until Tori gives it an impatient tug. The other guards still look away. Not Katran: his eyes lock on mine, calm, steady, saying something. What?

‘Come on,’ Tori says, kicking my clothes out of the way with distaste. ‘Nico waits.’ She smiles, and my flesh crawls as I follow her into the house. It is only marginally warmer than outside, and I shake with cold and fear.

There is an extra chair now in Nico’s office.

‘Ah, there you are,’ he says. ‘Sit down, Kyla.’

Tori lingers in the door.

‘Go!’ he says, and she jumps back through the door and shuts it behind her, but not before I see the look on her face: serious annoyance.

‘Tea, Kyla?’ Nico asks, teapot in one hand.

‘Y-y-y-yes please,’ I say. Teeth chattering despite attempts to control it.

‘Ah, poor thing. We don’t have hot water here, I am afraid,’ he says to Dr Lysander. ‘Still, we make do as best we can.’

He pours a cup and passes it to me, and I wrap my hands tight around it, concentrate on the heat absorbing into them.

Nico leaves the room but returns seconds later, blanket in hands, and drapes it over my shoulders. ‘Can’t have you freezing to death before we decide what to do with you.’

Dr Lysander is sitting, legs crossed, a cup of tea in one hand. Still in her day-off clothes, of course, but she is back in hospital mode as much as if she had on her white jacket. Observing, and calm.

‘Perhaps it is time you told me what is going on?’ she asks Nico, one eyebrow up as if gently interrogating an errant patient.

‘Let’s have a biscuit first.’ He opens a box, holds it to me but I shake my head, stomach empty but unable to contemplate anything beyond the tea clenched in my hands.

Finally Nico finishes his tea and handful of chocolate biscuits. Sits back in his chair.

‘You may have heard of Free UK? You will perhaps be more familiar with the Lorder name for us: AGT,’ he says.

She inclines her head. ‘Now and then.’

‘You have been honoured today with an invitation to help our cause. To overthrow the evil Lorders that stifle and choke our youth, and everything else in this great country.’

She raises an eyebrow.

He looks at me. ‘Take this poor child, for example. Look at her, shivering. Lost and alone. The government Slates her, makes her incapable of judging her friends from her enemies. She can’t think for herself. So easy to turn and manipulate to whatever purpose. Generally Lorders’ purposes, but we can do so as well. What next for her? What does this country give as a future?’

Part of me, some small sliver of defiance inside, jumps and rages and screams. Is this what he thinks, what he has done? Twisted me to his purposes, and now sees me for as useless as I am, to discard? But more of me is numb, cold. Aware that interrupting Nico could be the last thing I ever do.

‘Strange questions you ask of me,’ Dr Lysander says. ‘Her future? By having her take part today you have extinguished it like blowing out a match.’

‘Might as well end it now, then,’ Nico says, and opens a drawer in his desk. He pulls out a pistol. Checks the barrel. Smiles. Raises it casually, flicks the safety off. Points it at my head.

Terror, hot and real, fills me inside. Yet…no. Nico would never shoot me in here. He doesn’t like mess. He’d have me dragged out in the woods and shot if that was his plan.

‘Don’t,’ Dr Lysander gasps. ‘Please.’

He raises an eyebrow in surprise, half frowns. ‘Why not?’

She seems rattled by the question. ‘I am a doctor, sworn to protect life. She is my patient.’

He half smiles. ‘No. That isn’t it, is it, Dr Lysander? It is apparent, all over your face. You actually care. I can see it. This miscreant,’ he says, and smiles at me fondly like a favoured puppy who makes messes but you still love, ‘is like the child you never had.

‘You care, as do I. And that, Dr Lysander, is what this is all about.’ He lowers the gun. ‘You may go now, Kyla.’

‘What…?’

He opens the drawer again, replaces the pistol and draws out something else. ‘Here.’ He throws my school ID across the desk. ‘I saw to it that you were in all of your classes. Get going, or you’ll be late home and need excuses.’

I stand, confused and uncertain, looking from Nico to Dr Lysander. Her composure cracked then, just that bit when Nico had the gun. She hasn’t got a blood phobia. I’m sure she’s seen worse than gunshot wounds, though maybe not inflicted at close range in front of her.

I step to the door, reeling with the discovery: she cares.

‘Why, Kyla? Ask yourself why,’ Dr Lysander says softly as I step through, shut the door behind.

All of this, today, was Nico playing a game with her. That is what it is about.

Nico and his games, games within games. Hidden meanings and manipulations. He is a master, and there is something he wants from Dr Lysander, that much I can work out.

But somehow I think she is his match.

Tori is lying back on one of the bedrolls on the floor, hands behind her head. Laughing.

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