I hesitated, my hand hovering over a piece of pink cake. I was here because I trusted Knox more than I trusted most people, but some days I wasn’t so sure he cared about me more than he cared about why he needed me in the first place. “If you don’t want me to think you’re an enemy, then stop treating me like a prisoner.”
Knox sighed. “I wouldn’t have to if you quit acting like you don’t know how to behave in public. It’s been months. You should know the rules by now.”
“How can I when you keep changing them on me?” At the next table over, I spotted little bites of steak wrapped in a fluffy puff pastry, and my mouth watered. I hadn’t eaten red meat since October. By now I was almost used to it, but there were days I would have given my right arm for a cheeseburger. Today was one of them.
If it was wrapped in a puff pastry, no one would notice, I decided. Edging toward that table, I tuned out whatever lecture Knox was whispering in my ear and casually picked up a piece. One bite. That was all I wanted.
It was half an inch from my lips when Knox’s fingers closed around my wrist. “Lila, darling, that has red meat in it.”
“Are you sure?” I said innocently, trying to tug my hand away, but his grip was too strong.
I dropped the pastry onto his plate, and the last of my patience went with it. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to pee.” And find Benjy before he gives up on me.
“You need to freshen up,” corrected Knox in a low voice.
“Minister Bradley is staring at me like I’m some prize pig,” I said. “I need to pee.”
Without warning, Knox wheeled me around toward an antechamber nearby, his fingertips digging into my arm, and he didn’t say a word until we’d passed through the doorway. “Do you realize who’s here?”
I glanced over his shoulder. Now that we had left, suddenly the buffet had become the most popular corner of the room, as Ministers, their families, and the clingiest social climbers in the District of Columbia milled around, waiting for us to emerge. They all had VIs tattooed on the backs of their necks—the highest rank we could earn after taking an aptitude test on our seventeenth birthday. The same one that decided the rest of our lives, including our jobs, where we lived, how many children we could have, and how long our lives would be. Their VIs meant endless privilege and put them at the top of the food chain. The III hidden under my VII had earned me a one-way ticket to cleaning sewers for the next four decades, if I’d managed to live that long with the few cruddy resources I would’ve been granted by our gracious government. “Yeah. Every bottom-feeder in Washington.”
“Enough.” Knox glared at me, and his carefully crafted facade finally dropped. He shut the door. “You can either play nice, or you can explain to Daxton why the entire country suddenly knows who you really are. Because those people out there aren’t idiots, despite what you seem to think, and if you keep talking like this where they can all hear you, they will figure it out. Your choice.”
“The only thing that’s going to make them figure it out is if I act like I’m perfectly happy out there, pretending like I care about any of this,” I said, my fake nails digging into my palms. “Lila wouldn’t have stuck around this long.”
Knox grimaced. Glancing at the door, he took a step closer, lowering his voice. “I know, Kitty. I’m sorry about that, I am. But if we slip away now, someone will come looking for us, and that’s the last thing we need tonight, all right?”
“Then you should’ve told me that to begin with instead of playing this ridiculous game,” I said. “I’m not completely unreasonable, you know. If you’d tell me these things—”
“I tell you as much as I can.”
“You treat me like an object, Knox. Right now, in that room—I’m your prop.” I shook my head, torn between seething and breaking down. All I wanted was to go upstairs and be alone with Benjy. With the only person left in the world who still cared about the person underneath Lila’s face.
“You’re not my prop,” said Knox, his tone softening. “I’m trying to protect us both. What we’re doing, dangerous as it is—it’s the right thing to do. You know it is. Don’t mess it up just because you’re having a bad night.”
A painful knot formed in my throat, and I swallowed hard. It was an argument we’d been having for the past month, ever since I had agreed to continue to impersonate Lila. Originally it hadn’t been my choice; after Prime Minister Daxton Hart had bought me at a gentlemen’s club, he’d knocked me out, and I’d woken up two weeks later to discover he’d had my body surgically altered—Masked, he’d called it—to be an exact copy of his niece, Lila Hart, whom he’d secretly had assassinated for leading a rebellion against him. I was supposed to take her place and stop it.
Instead, thanks to Knox, Lila was still alive and hidden underground. And as for me—turned out I wasn’t okay with standing by and letting the government slaughter the people I love.
That was the only reason I’d agreed to stay when Knox had asked me three weeks ago. It had been after an exhausting night and day, when Augusta Hart, Daxton’s mother and the real iron fist around the country, had tried to not only kill me and Lila, but Benjy, too. Instead, I’d put six bullets in her. Now, with Lila seriously injured, it was up to me to pretend to be her until someone took the Prime Minister out of the picture.