Chapter 9

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I lower my brows suspiciously. "Do I know you?"

"No." She says. "How could you possibly... I'm no one."

I glance up at Jaron. He glares at the stranger, veins bulging around his biceps as his hand hovers near the sword at his waist.

"I know you, though." The woman twists her hands in front of her, edging away from Jaron. "You're the Runner. I recognize you from the posters."

"What posters?"

"Then ones in Babel." Her gaze darts around the circle of suspicious Wasters. "You can hardly turn a corner without seeing your face. The Madam's labeled you a dangerous terrorist."

"Fitting." Someone murmurs.

I take a step closer to the woman, studying her carefully. She freezes in place, a light sheen of perspiration plastering her strawberry-blonde hair to her forehead. I take note of the scratches marring her skin and her torn dress. Dried mud coats her boots and ankles.

Mud.

Water.

Babel still has water.

"Who are you?" I ask, keeping my face within inches of hers. She trembles visibly at my tone, which tells me that she may truly believe Babel's propaganda. Either that, or she's a pawn of the Madam and a gifted actress.

"Mayweather." She extends a hand, then seems to think better of it and wipes her sweaty palm on her thigh. "Or Mia, if you like."

"And what are you doing outside the dome, Mia?" I press.

"I escaped."

"Escaped." I repeat doubtfully. "And are there more of you?"

"There were." She stares back in the direction of Babel, brushing at the sudden waterfall of tears streaming from her eyes. "Those...those things got to them. Tore them apart like so much—" She chokes on the words and collapses in a heap of wracking sobs.

Looking past Mia's miserable figure towards Jaron, exchanging a look with him. He obviously still distrusts the Babelonian, but seems willing to let me push her further.

I ease myself down into a crouch, wincing from the ache in my tired legs.

"Listen here." I place a hand on her heaving shoulder. "Mia, look at me."

She raises her head, blinking up at me with red-rimmed eyes.

"You're in the Wastelands, now." I say. "Out here, you can't afford to come undone. I take it you lost someone you cared about during your escape?"

She nods wordlessly.

"Use that pain." I tell her. "Let the hurt drive you to survive."

Her trembling slows and then ceases as she draws a shaky breath.

"Good." I say. "Now, look around you."

She casts a furtive glance over her shoulder, registering the image of Jaron and the other Wasters with their various weapons clenched tightly, as well as the endless barren desert surrounding us.

"I'm sure I don't have to tell you that presently, very little trust exists between us." I let my words hang heavy with meaning. "So right now, your job is to explain to me why my comrades and I shouldn't leave you to the lions."

"No, please." Mia gasps, terror etched across her elfish face. "Please, I'm telling you the truth."

I sit back on my heels, one brow arched, waiting.

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