So that was it, then. The prisoners weren’t people to the Mercers. They were something to be managed—a product that, in the end, they would send back to society in pieces, meant to save the lives of citizens who hadn’t been desperate enough to steal an orange or a loaf of bread.
“I need to go to my bunk,” I said, standing abruptly. “I have to pick up my things before the other girls take them.”
“If they do, we’ll find them. Don’t worry,” said Mercer, but I shook my head.
“I’ll be quick.”
“I’ll escort her,” said Knox, and he folded his napkin and stood, too. “I’d like to take a look around without the guards hovering anyway. See what it’s really like for the prisoners.”
“Of course,” said Mercer, though he sounded dubious. “If anyone gives you trouble, I’ll make sure they’re handled.”
Anyone would have to be suicidal to hassle Knox, a Minister’s son, but he nodded anyway. And though I would’ve rather chewed off my fingers than let him touch me again, he set his hand on my shoulder and guided me out of the room.
We dressed in coats and boots in silence, and it wasn’t until we were halfway down the Mercer’s drive that he spoke. “Are you all right? You look terrible.”
I gaped at him. “Am I all right? Today, after I watched you pick out your prey among my bunk mates, I handled eleven human hearts—still warm, by the way. Yesterday a pack of girls beat me up, and a guard shot a girl named Chelsea in the head because I tried to help her. The day before that, my supposed fiancé killed my boyfriend, and the Prime Minister tried to break my spine. Which part of that is supposed to make me feel like anything other than shit?”
Knox stared straight ahead as we reached the Mercers’ gate. The guards had dispersed, and no one else was stupid enough to linger nearby. “The girls are fine. I didn’t go hunting.”
“Yeah, because Daxton had something more important for you to do,” I spat. “Why didn’t you pick me?”
He raised an eyebrow and finally glanced at me. “Do you want me to kill you?”
“You promised you would. You swore you’d put a bullet in my brain before you ever let me wind up here.”
“Is that what you really want?”
“I want you to stop playing games and tell me the truth for once.” My eyes began to burn, and despite my best efforts at bottling my fury, my throat tightened. “Why did you do it? If you wanted to punish me, then you should’ve killed me instead. Benjy never did anything to you. He didn’t deserve to die.”
Knox pushed the gate open for me, and it was only through a supreme act of willpower that I resisted the urge to knock his head into one of the spikes. “I did what I did to save your life.”
Tears blurred my vision, and I wiped my eyes angrily. “You think I care about my life anymore?”
“You should,” he said. “It’s the only one you’ve got.”
Before I could stop myself, I drew my arm back and punched him directly over the heart. My wrist buckled under the force of it, bending awkwardly, and pain shot up my arm. “You’re sick,” I said, my voice breaking. “You’re no better than the rest of them. You don’t care about anyone but yourself, do you? You didn’t just kill Benjy—you betrayed the Blackcoats, too. How many people are dead because of you, Knox? A dozen? A hundred? A thousand? How many people are going to die before it’s all over because you care more about your own worthless life than the freedom of millions?”
His expression remained blank. “Believe what you want, but I did what I did because it was my only option. Sometimes pawns have to be sacrificed for the game.”
“I’m not a pawn, and my life isn’t yours to sacrifice.”
“No, it isn’t,” he agreed. “You did a fantastic job of securing that fate for yourself. And for Benjy.”
“Say his name again, and I’ll show you sacrifice.”
Knox sighed, and for the first time since I’d spotted him the evening before, he looked like the same Knox who had pretended to care about me in D.C. “I’m sorry, Kitty. I really am. If I could’ve done it any other way...”
“But you didn’t,” I said. “And now this is my life. Thank you for that, by the way. I’m sure I’ll find some way to repay you eventually.”
“I’m sure you will, too,” he said with a resignation I didn’t expect. I eyed him, and a few seconds passed. My fingers grew numb in the cold, and I shoved my hands in my pockets.
“Why are you even here, Knox? If you want to kill me, just get it over with already. Stop playing with your food.”
He tilted his head and peered at me curiously. “Is that how you really see me? As one of them?”
“What do you think?”
Knox raked his leather-gloved hand through his hair. “I needed an excuse to be here, Kitty. When I saw an opportunity to gain Daxton’s trust and get you out of D.C., I had to take it. I had no other choice, not if I wanted to keep you safe.”
“This is what you call keeping me safe?” I gestured wildly. “Do you have any idea how many people have threatened to kill me in the past day?”
“But they won’t, because you’re Lila Hart, and even if they hate you, they value their life more,” said Knox. “The Mercers took you in at my request. They’ll continue to keep you safe until everything’s over.”