“The Silver family is honored to choose…”
Skye stepped forward, trying to catch Baron’s eye, as his mother reached toward the tile table.
“… Nari Tiger.”
There was only one astonished gasp in the crowd when Nari’s tile was plucked up. Baron’s eyes did not waver from his newly chosen bride-to-be. Skye’s own tile was still encased inside Baron’s fist, to be chosen that night by no one. Realization gathered like rocks in her throat.
I will need you to be my general.
He hadn’t said wife.
Skye dissolved backward into the crowd, then sprinted out the door and down the hill alone, into the deep night, yanking the rings from her hair. She ran to run, something primal within her chest demanding escape.
At the giant rolling door of the hangar she stopped, her hair wild around her face. Another girl might have gone home to weep into her mother’s arms, but Skye had always felt more at home in the garage with her father, fixing things or, when she was little, breaking them.
It felt good … No. Nothing felt good, but it felt right to get out of the hanbok, to tie her hair up the way she liked it, to rub off the makeup. The familiar grease and gunpowder smell of her jacket soothed her. She climbed up into the mech she’d reappropriated to figure out how she’d ever show her face among the other pilots. How she’d apologize to umma for running out like a minion on fire.
But she could only think about what Baron had said.
There are times I wish that the mines would disappear.
In the quiet, dark hangar, encased in the machine, Skye heard his voice as if he were still close by.
…we would have no need of mechs and tanks, nor the filthy minions, nor this ridiculous choosing ceremony…
“The choice would be ours,” whispered Skye.
Baron no longer had a choice, but there was a way she could choose for him.
She powered up the mech, pulled on her gloves, and gripped the handles. Before anyone could stop her, before she thought long enough to stop herself, she walked the mech outside.
Despite the humiliation of the night, despite the gravity of what she was going to do, driving the lighter mech was a thrill. So agile, so fast. She avoided the main gate — unauthorized use of a mech was still a crime, general’s daughter or no — and tip-toed the mech through the minion camp. The beasts slept in haphazard piles, their snores warbling; they were known for brute toughness and obeying orders, not thinking fast, so they gave her no trouble. She shot over the security gate, zig-zagged through a mandarin orchard, hovered over rice paddies and cabbage fields. Here and there laid the rusted and broken remains of rice transplanters and plows, the first machines that had evolved into blasthole drills and frontloaders when Baron’s ancestors had struck silver. When they’d hit crystal, and the other houses discovered the power of the halcyon within the crystals, the mining machines had been repurposed for war. Farmland gave way to trampled dead battleground, brown with bloody mud.
The mech glided over coiled barbed wire and then landed, strong as an eagle perching, on the reinforced wall. Ball-shaped security bots buzzed around her, scanning the mech code, then her retinas.
“Pilot seven-zero-five, you are not authorized for the use of decommissioned mech one-eight-six-four. Please return to headquarters immed-”
With a squeeze of the trigger, Skye strafed to the left and fired. One by one, the bots burst apart and fell, crackling, to the mud.
Staring down into the glowing blue, she flicked a switch to arm the missiles.
“Okay.” She patted an autocannon. “Let’s end this war.” The jet nozzles activated. The mech rose, then hovered over the mine.
The first missile shot deep inside.
The explosion rocked the ground and blasted out millions of tiny crystal shards. Skye ducked behind her arms as the shards pinned themselves into her jacket, poked her legs.
There was no time to lose. She had to complete her mission before anyone could stop her. She strafed and fired, let loose salvo after salvo of missiles, rained death from above into the mines, destroying the crystals that had powered a civilization for generations. The halcyon power that so many had fought and died to possess bloomed into the night sky, then dispersed into the night air.
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