That was why I was doing this. Not for the people who wanted to keep their heads down and live as happily as their ranks allowed, but for the people whose lives didn’t belong to them anymore. For the people who saw what this world was really like and had no way of escaping it.
Knox led me through a twisting hallway full of armories and colorless bunks, where refugees and members of the Blackcoats stayed. The heart of the bunker was set in the center, where roughly a dozen people had gathered on ratty and worn chairs and couches, each poring over papers I knew would be burned once the meeting ended. Several heads raised when Knox and I joined them, and a few of them even waved. Knox didn’t wave back.
I watched them closely. Most were decades older than me, their faces lined by age and stress. A handful looked to be in their twenties, but even they seemed weighed down. My heart sank. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t good.
In the center of the ragtag group sat an officer wearing a black-and-silver uniform. Sampson, a high-ranking member of the Shields, and one of the leaders of the Blackcoats. I’d only met him a few times, but as I found a place at the edge of the group, he offered me a warm smile. I smiled back.
“Well?” said Knox impatiently. “What happened?”
Sampson’s smile faded. “The raid failed.”
Knox swore loudly. “How? We had everything planned down to the last detail—”
“Celia found out right before it happened,” said Sampson. “She changed the plan.”
Silence. Slowly Knox’s face went from pink to red to purple. Not once in the past few months, not even when I’d been at my worst, had I ever seen him turn those colors.
It was then that I noticed Celia and Lila were missing, despite Knox’s assumptions that they’d be there tonight. Was this why? Was Celia avoiding him? Or had she been uninvited from her own rebellion?
“You know not to listen to Celia without going through me first,” said Knox in a low, dangerous voice. “No matter what she says—”
“Her ideas weren’t bad,” said Sampson. Even he seemed to shrink under Knox’s glare. “And what was I supposed to do? Say you’d taken over her own army?”
“You should have protected our people.” Knox slammed his fist into a worn wooden coffee table, and half the group jumped. I dug my nails into my palms. “Days—that’s how long we have. Days, Sampson. We needed those supplies. Celia doesn’t have the military knowledge or experience—”
“And you do?” snapped Sampson.
“I’m not some spoiled VII who’s never had to work for anything a day in her entire life,” said Knox.
Before I could stop myself, I snorted.
All eyes turned toward me. My face grew warm, but it was Knox’s stare that made me feel as if I were about to spontaneously combust.
“Did you have something to say, Kitty?” he said. His voice slithered through me, turning my blood to ice.
I should have kept my mouth shut. After everything that had happened that evening, the last thing I should’ve done was add fuel to the fire that was Knox’s temper, but something inside me broke. “If you’re going to rag on Celia for inheriting her VII, then at least acknowledge you had your VI handed to you, too. We all know your father’s title will pass to you one day, and it wouldn’t do to have the next Minister of Ranking with a IV or a V, would it?”
As I repeated the very words he’d said to me when he’d first told me he’d never taken the test, Knox’s face drained of all color, and the silence around us turned deafening. “If you have a problem with any of this, then there’s the door,” he said in a deceptively even voice. But the dark look in his eyes offered me a single promise: if I walked out of there, I would never be allowed back.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—” I sucked in a deep breath. I didn’t owe him an apology for defending Celia, not when he was acting like this. “I’m just saying, we’re here because none of us believes in the rank system in the first place. You have every right to be upset with her, but don’t drag Celia down based on her rank. It only makes you look like a hypocrite when your VI is as good as my VII.”
“Perhaps so,” said Knox coldly, “but between us, I’m the one who could earn my VI if I had to, while you’re the one who earned a III.”
My mouth dropped open, and his words twisted in my chest like a knife. No matter how bad a mood he was in, no matter how rebellious I was feeling, he had never used my III against me before.
Guilt flashed across his face. He knew what he’d said, but he made no move to apologize. We stared at one another as the seconds passed. My hands tightened into fists, and the edges of my vision went dark as I tried to figure out what to say. He was right, of course—I’d earned my lowly III, but not because I wasn’t smart. I couldn’t read anything more than my name, and I’d had to take the test orally, which had resulted in me never getting the chance to finish it. If I had—maybe I’d be a VI, like Benjy. Maybe Daxton would have never hunted me down, and maybe my life would be completely different.
But I couldn’t live off of maybes, and neither could Knox. He might have thought he was the smartest person in the room, but that didn’t mean the rest of us were worthless. That didn’t mean my opinion didn’t matter at all. And if this was what he really thought of me, then no matter what I said, no matter how many good ideas I had, he would never really listen to them. Why would he, when his VI was so superior to my III?