“That’s not an argument. You’d probably eat your own shoe if it had barbecue sauce poured on it. I mean look at your ass.”

“What about my butt?”

“I’ve seen cows with smaller rear ends.”

A sputtering sound followed, then, “Quit looking at my ass!”

Tucker stared toward the door. “Diplomacy at its finest,” he mumbled. “Your friend out there sure knows how to mend fences.”

Tucker had been included in the meeting inside the hut—not because his expertise was needed. It was because of the skinny black arm around his dog’s neck. Baashi had taken a real shine to Kane and what had started as terror now seemed a source of strength.

“No, I tell you again,” the boy stressed. “I heard no one speak of a white woman in the mountains. Not here. Not at all.”

A map had been spread out on the dirt floor.

Captain Alden crouched on the far side of it, next to the boy. “Okay, Baashi.” He leaned back and sighed. “I’m sorry, commander. I may have sent you miles out of your way for nothing. Word may have never reached here.”

Gray stared at the map. “It was a gamble,” he conceded.

Seichan heard the tick in Gray’s voice. Without even seeing his eyes, she could imagine the gears turning. He wasn’t giving up, not yet.

And it wasn’t just him.

“I can go out again,” Baashi offered. “Into the camp. Ask questions. Not just listen.”

“No,” Seichan snapped. The vehemence of her response surprised her.

Still, Gray backed her up. “Seichan’s right. It’s one thing just to eavesdrop and pass on what he’s heard, but to actively ask questions will put him in the crosshairs of our enemy. Remember what happened to Amur Mahdi back at Boosaaso.”

“And it’s not just the risk to the boy,” Seichan started. “It’s more than that.”

Gray gave her a concerned look, perhaps hearing the sudden stress in her voice. She gave a small shake of her hand, not wanting to continue, not trusting herself. The boy had already been used and brutalized as a child soldier. How would they be any different if they turned the boy into their spy? It was bad enough that the British SRR was using the kid as an informant.

Seichan stared at her hands and found her fingers tightly bound together. She knew how easy it was to twist such innocence to foul purposes as the strong preyed on the weak, twisting children into monsters, turning them into soldiers or scouts, or even sending them ahead of an advancing army as living mine detectors.

She forced her hands apart. Her fingers found the silver dragon at her neck. She recognized why the boy’s situation struck her so deeply, so personally. The realization made her both angry and ashamed.

She remembered little of her own childhood in Vietnam. Bits and pieces, none that included her father. And what she remembered of her mother she wished she could forget: of being ripped from her arms, of her mother being dragged out a door, bloody-faced and screaming, by men in military uniforms. Afterward, Seichan spent her childhood in a series of squalid orphanages across Southeast Asia, half-starved most of the time, maltreated the rest—until finally she’d taken to the streets and back alleys. It was there, when she was little older than Baashi, that the Guild found and recruited her. Over the course of the next year, the trainers stripped away not only her remaining childhood but also much of her humanity, leaving behind only an assassin.

I was this boy, she thought, abused and tortured into bloody servitude.

But she also knew there was one distinct difference between them. She pictured Baashi playing with the dog, carefree and happy. Unlike her, he was still young, malleable enough to rediscover his humanity.

She let her fingers drop from the dragon pendant, the memory of her mother dissolving away into faded whispers in the night and soft kisses on her cheek—but even then there had been tears, as if her mother knew she was about to lose her child.

The memory sparked a sudden insight regarding their current mission. “She’s a mother, too,” Seichan said, drawing Gray’s attention. “The president’s daughter …”

His eyes narrowed on hers—then widened with understanding. His fingers found her hand and squeezed his thanks, then remained there.

She stared down, wanting to feel more, but at this moment, all she felt was loss—for her childhood, her mother, even Gray. How could she ask more of his heart when she wasn’t sure what was left of her own?

“Amanda’s not only unusual because she’s white,” Gray explained to the others, “but also because she’s pregnant.”

Alden nodded. “Such a condition is rare in a kidnap victim. Someone might have made note of it.”

“And hopefully talked about it.” Gray turned to Baashi. “Have you heard anything about a pregnant woman being moved into the mountains near here? Someone with a large belly?”

To emphasize, Gray pantomimed a swollen stomach.

Baashi twisted his lips in thought and sat quietly for a moment, then slowly sagged. “No. I hear nothing about a big-belly woman with the pirates.”

Seichan studied the boy. He stared too hard at the map, kept his attention diverted away. Even his arm fell from around Kane’s neck.

“He knows something,” Seichan said. Tucker wasn’t the only one capable of reading emotions buried under the surface.

Especially this boy.

I was this boy.

“He wouldn’t lie to me,” Alden said.

“He’s not lying,” Seichan agreed, but angrily. “We’re just not asking the right question.”

Baashi’s gaze met hers. Fear shone there—and resistance.

How many times had the same emotions warred inside her?

Tucker came and sat next to the boy. “It’s okay, Baashi. Kane and I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

A silent hand signal followed: a flick of fingers, a digit pointed at the boy’s lap. Baashi didn’t see it, but Kane obeyed. The dog came forward and rested his muzzle on the boy’s knee.

Baashi placed his palm on the dog’s shoulders, drawing strength there.

“It’s okay to tell us,” Alden said softly. “No one’s mad.”

Baashi glanced sheepishly up at his father figure. “I no lie. I hear no stories about big-belly woman.”

“I never thought you did, my boy. But what is scaring you? What are you so afraid to tell us?”

He finally broke down. “I hear other stories. Of a demon man in the mountains. He make a place like this.” Baashi waved his other arm in a circle.

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