Her parents sat down at her small kitchen table and read the letter together.
It was her mother who broke the silence. “Well, it makes sense.” Gwen stared down at the floor, her eyes crinkled at the corners and her arms wrapped around herself. “When you were a fetus,” she murmured, “I had a serious problem maintaining Silence. The obstetrician sent me to a specialized M-Psy who did a complete workup, then told me it was simply an unusually severe but known side effect of pregnancy.” Her shoulders grew stiff. “He must’ve known, kept me in the dark.”
“I’ve never heard of an E designation. How can we be certain it’s as the Arrow says?” her father said with his usual practicality.
Ivy had asked the same question. “Vasic told me to contact Sascha Duncan for confirmation.” Former Councilor Nikita Duncan’s daughter was famous for her defection to a changeling leopard pack . . . and for being a cardinal derided as weak and flawed for most of her lifetime.
The parallel was a difficult one to avoid. As was the dangerous hope that came with it. “I don’t think she’d have any reason to lie, do you?”
Gwen nodded, but it was Carter who spoke, his words unexpected. “When your mother and I made the decision to take you in for reconditioning, we thought we were helping you.”
“Father, I know,” Ivy began, distressed he’d think otherwise.
“Ivy, let me speak.” When she nodded, biting back her words, he said, “I don’t judge us for making that decision. It was all we knew to do to help our child. You were in excruciating pain, and had we done nothing, you would’ve been forcibly rehabilitated.”
Ivy couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “I know,” she whispered again. “I know.”
But her father hadn’t finished. “It wasn’t until afterward that we realized we’d made a terrible error and that the price might well be our Ivy.”
Ivy’s eyes burned at the love embodied in those uninflected words.
“You were a ghost.” Gwen stared off into the distance.
Rabbit immediately scampered over to stand with his paws on the tops of Gwen’s scuffed boots, whining in his throat until she bent to pet him.
“The Ivy we’d nurtured from birth seemed erased”—Gwen’s hand clenched on Rabbit’s coat—“and while Carter might not judge us for the decision we made, I’ll never forgive myself for handing my child over to be violated.”
Ivy knelt in front of her mother. “I wanted to go,” she reminded them both. “I thought it would help, too, and it did in one way. I don’t think I’d be alive now without the reconditioning, no matter how bad it turned out to be.” Her mind had literally been crushing itself.
“Our daughter is correct.” Carter shifted to face Gwen, holding her gaze with his own until Gwen gave a slight nod.
Ivy glanced away, feeling as if she’d intruded on a private moment. She didn’t know what her parents’ relationship was beyond a joint commitment to her, but Carter was the only one who had the ability to get Gwen to change her mind. It made Ivy hope that they’d discovered a fragment of joy in the darkness.
“The reason I brought up that day,” her father said into the silence, his skin pulled taut over solid bones, “is that whatever was done to you during the reconditioning brutally harmed an integral part of you.” He pushed back sandy hair glinting with more strands of silver than there should be on a man his age.
Ivy’s reconditioning had marked them all.
“This may be your opportunity to undo that harm,” he said, “to find out who you’re capable of being without the cage of Silence.”
“But the decision must be yours.” Gwen’s voice was unflinching, her gaze steady. “If you need to run, get away from the Arrow, we’re with you.”
Ivy had a feeling there was no way to run from Vasic. Dark and dangerous and with an ice to him that made her want to brush her fingertips over the sharp edges of his cheekbones, see if he was cold to the touch, he was a hunter no one could escape . . . but Ivy had had enough of being prey.
“No more running,” she said to her parents, her stomach tight and a strange exhilaration in her blood. “It’s time I made my stand.” Even if it meant going up against an Arrow with eyes of winter frost.
• • •
HAVING informed Aden of his decision to accept responsibility for the protection detail on the empaths, Vasic teleported that night to a man who had never been an Arrow but was a member of the squad in ways an outsider would never understand.
Those like Vasic were taught how to snap necks or garrote in shadowy quiet, how to build covert bombs and effect subtle sabotage as needed. They weren’t taught how to set up businesses or invest money. The irony was that while Arrows were paid commensurate to their lethal skills and the danger so often inherent in their ops, over the past century, most had died without spending any but a tiny fraction of it.
Since Arrows were legally expunged from their family groups upon entry into the squad, that money had gone directly into an Arrow fund set up by Zaid Adelaja. The first Arrow had fought to make certain the Council would never have any right to a lost Arrow’s assets. It was Aden who’d realized a decade ago that the processes were now so automated that everyone in power had forgotten about the fund in the interim.
It meant the squad had millions upon millions to work with as they sought to save those of their own destined for cold, quiet executions because the Arrows in question were too broken to any longer be the perfect killing machines. But first, they’d needed someone who understood money, who could help them create a solid financial network of properties and investments that no one could trace back to the squad. Most of all, it had to be someone who could be trusted with the lives of men and women who had earned their peace.