Interlude Four

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The anesthesia wore off, leaving deep, throbbing pain in its place.

Melanie groaned. Her mouth was impossibly dry and her stomach churned. Waking up after surgery never got any easier.

Blinking against the harsh fluorescent lights, she groped around for a nurse's call button. Everything below her right knee ached and, though it was covered by a thin, scratchy hospital blanket, she knew her calve was grotesquely swollen. Though she was never one to flinch at gore, Melanie had to push out the mental image of a surgeon chasing her severed Achilles tendon up the back of her leg so it could be properly reattached; she was still too woozy for that.

The call button was not close enough for her to find without looking, so with a wince, Melanie turned her head and realized she wasn't alone.

"Fuck," she gasped through her raspy throat. Pain shot up her leg from flinching. "Wyndam, why didn't you say something sooner?"

Wyndam Aviar, senior aldermember and high-ranking Loyal, sat in a low vinyl-covered armchair at Melanie's bedside. He smiled wanly, staring at the call button he held pinched between his thumb and forefinger.

"Just giving you a moment to get your bearings, Mel." He turned his face to her, his dark eyes simmering dangerously. "Didn't mean to frighten you. How are you feeling?"

Melanie inhaled deeply and trained her eyes on the light overhead until her vision blurred. There was no discernible inflection in his voice, but she knew she had disappointed him anyway.

"I'm fine," she whispered.

"Surgery, though," Wyndam pressed with faux astonishment. "A devastating blow from such an easy mark."

This stung almost as much as the incision site on the back of her ankle. May Alana should have been an easy mark, especially for one of the Loyals' top enforcers. From sheer strength to the element of surprise, Melanie had the upper hand the night she made her move. May would either give up the whereabouts of the new Starborn or she wouldn't, but in either scenario she wasn't supposed to make it out alive. The fact that she had not only survived but had also wounded Melanie badly enough to need medical attention was a scar that would linger long after the incision on her leg healed.

"I was overconfident," Melanie admitted through clenched teeth.

"You were sloppy," Wyndam corrected, his tone biting.

If Melanie had been someone else, she might have pointed out that despite being incapacitated, she had evaded capture. In the dark cover of the island forest she had secured her injury and hobbled slowly, painfully, to the only highway on the island. She had limped through the night, following the desolate roadway north until she reached the small city on the opposite shore. Exhaustion, dehydration, and, of course, her gaping heel — Melanie had played the role of an inexperienced hiker who had wound up lost and injured somewhere in the island's deep brush. The doctors didn't believe her. How could they when faced with such a clean cut — the kind only a knife could deliver? But Melanie stuck to her story, only admitting the truth when she called in to report her whereabouts and the fact that she had failed.

But Melanie was a Loyal. She believed in their cause as much as she believed that there was no one to blame but herself — that Wyndam Aviar's critique was justified.

"It won't happen again," she promised.

Wyndam didn't reply.

Out of the corner of her vision, Melanie could see him staring at her. When she called to report her situation, moments before she was to be prepped for surgery, she knew the Loyals would send someone to collect her. What she hadn't expected was that someone to be one of the most influential members of the society. In the presence of Wyndam Aviar — one of the original leaders of devout followers of the Stars — Melanie was both mortified and honored. She lay frozen beneath his scrutiny.

"Tell me you at least learned something," he drawled, leaning forward in his chair. The call button dangled from his fingers.

Melanie swallowed her shame and focused on the details of that night.  "May Alana claims she and the Starborn have split-up. She says she has no idea where she is or what WIND is planning."

Wyndam eyed her carefully. "And do you believe her?"

"Not at all."

Humming thoughtfully to himself, Wyndam rose. He stared off into nothing as his mind churned.

Melanie grabbed his sleeve between her fingers.

"We could go back for her," she hissed desperately. "She is injured and vulnerable. It would be even easier to get what we need from her now. Or perhaps we hold her, use her as bait."

Wyndam took her hand and laid it on the bed beside her. "We won't be doing anything. You will be removed from this island before authorities tie to you to the attack." He nodded toward the door, where Melanie spied another Loyal keeping watch through the narrow rectangular window. At Wyndam's signal, the Loyal ducked into the room, followed by another two that she recognized dressed in nurse's scrubs.

"But what about May?" Melanie asked as the Loyals in scrubs set to work unlocking the wheels of her bed and securing the guards on either side. "How will we find the Starborn?"

"We have a new plan in mind." Wyndam replied as he strode across the room.

"What plan?"

The Loyals in scrubs rolled the bed toward the door. Wyndam paused in the threshold and turned back, his man in the hallway still keeping watch. "These fine folks are going to smuggle you out of this hospital and off the island. Please do as they say and play nice, won't you? I want you healed and back in the field as soon as possible."

"Sir." Melanie struggled up onto her elbows, her face set and resolute. "What plan?"

Wyndam smiled, shark-like.

"Just focus on getting back on your feet, Mel," he said. "I'll see you on the mainland."

And with that, he turned into the hallway and disappeared. The scrub Loyals steered her in the opposite direction. Melanie fell back onto her pillow, bitter at being left out.

But under that bitterness was chill running through her veins.

She didn't know what Wyndam was up to, but she knew it wasn't going to be good.

**********

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