Solan's Mate
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Author: ,
Series: The Last Alphas of Thracos #1
Genre(s): , ,
Released: August 31, 2016

Book Description

Just when life can’t get any worse…it does.

My sisters and I somehow managed to escape the clutches of sex slavers, only to run straight into the arms of monsters. At least, we’d always thought the terrifying wolf shifters inhabiting Thracos were monsters…until they took us in and saved our lives.

Our own people exiled us because of our curves. Wargs love us for them. When the leader of the Valley tribe starts looking at me like I’m the missing piece to his puzzle, I’m not sure what to do. To join their tribe, we must become Wargs ourselves, giving up everything we’ve ever known.

When a nighttime raid by the enemy puts my sisters in danger, I need to make a choice. Do I choose the man I love or the only family I’ve ever known.

 

Solan's Mate is Book 1 in The Last Alphas of Thracos trilogy.


Also in this series:

Read the First Three Chapters

CHAPTER 1

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… but now it’s all over!”

Arlynn lifted her bottle of orange juice, speaking in a voice that was only half-hushed.

“To the three Musketeers! May we go forth and, uh…prosper and stuff.”

“Great speech,” Natalie hissed, rolling her eyes from her post at the doorway. “Could you be any more dramatic? Or louder?”

“Aren’t you just Miss Congeniality?”

Arlynn hurled a snack bag of pretzels at Natalie’s head. Natalie swatted it away, and one of the other girls fell off her bunk trying to catch it. The first-year orphans burst into giggles.

“Alright, cut it out, ladies,” I whispered as loudly as I dared, darting a glance over to the door. “Thank you for the toast, Arlynn. To us!”

“To us!”

“To the graduates!”

The girls around us lifted their smuggled snacks and drinks into the air for the toast.

What were we actually celebrating? I thought, as everyone tried to cheer quietly. The end of this chapter, but the beginning of…what?

As though she could read my mind, Natalie leaned over to me.

“You haven’t received your mission specs yet either, have you?”

I shook my head and popped a yogurt-covered raisin into my mouth, chewing it absently. We’d spent the past month hoarding the extra snacks away from the guards’ watchful eyes, but now that the time had come to leave, I found I wasn’t hungry.

“Nope. I wonder when they’ll give it to us. Aren’t you anxious to find out?”

“I’ll be sent to a research station,” Natalie said confidently, leaning against the doorframe. Her long blonde hair flipped over her shoulder as she turned to check the hallway again. “That much is obvious.”

“Yeah, but where?”

She shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter. A research lab is a research lab, no matter which planet. The only difference will be the gravitational coefficient.”

I stifled the urge to sigh. Natalie was practical to a fault and, even though she was right, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering about the details of my mission.

Every orphan was sent away from the Training Center when they turned twenty-one. And while I was thrilled to be getting away from the strict diet and gene therapy regimens, I worried about what would replace them. At least I was here with people I loved. It was a prison, but it was a prison I knew.

“Are you two talking about your missions?” Arlynn asked, bouncing up to us.

Shh!” Natalie hissed.

“Sorry,” Arlynn said in a voice that was only a few notches lower. “Well, what do you think?”

“I haven’t heard anything yet.” I didn’t bother to hide my disappointment. “What if I’m sent out of the star system? I won’t even be able to call you guys.”

“There’s still interstellar com,” Natalie said.

“Text coms won’t be the same. I’ll miss hearing your voice chewing me out for being irrational,” Arlynn said, slinging her arm around Natalie’s shoulders and planting a loud kiss on her cheek.

Natalie couldn’t help but smile a bit through her scowl, her blue eyes shining with moisture she’d never admit to. “And you won’t be able to look down on me anymore.”

Even though we were all big girls, Natalie was a head taller than either Arlynn or me…or any other orphan in the Center, for that matter. Sometimes we joked that she came from a race of Nordic giants. If she wasn’t always hunched over a lab table, she would easily be taller than most of the guards as well. Maybe that was why she hunched.

“I think I’m going to be sent on a secret seductive spy mission on one of the moons,” Arlynn continued. “Tooibas, probably.”

“Is that what your tea leaves told you?” Natalie teased.

Maybe. Maybe I’ll find my parents there.”

The room quieted down as a few of the girls overheard what we were talking about. As abandoned gene-rejects, we were all given the title of ‘orphan’ when we arrived at the Training Center. It wasn’t that our parents had died, though — it was that they had rejected us completely. Handed us over to the state for gene reconditioning, diet, and physical modification. Given us up for good.

But Arlynn always insisted that there must have been another reason. Out of all of us, she was the only one who talked about her family like they were still out there, waiting for her.

“Who wants to find their parents?” Natalie huffed.

“I do.”

“Then maybe you will,” I said, trying to smooth things over. I didn’t want our last night here to end in an argument. “I hope we all get the mission we want.”

“Sienna, what about you?” Natalie asked.

“What about me?”

“Has Hank told you anything about where you’ll be sent?”

“No! Why would he tell me anything?”

My heart skipped a beat. I was glad for the topic change, but I wasn’t happy about the direction it had taken.

“Because he totally secretly loves you,” Arlynn said, tilting her head and studying me with her piercing dark brown gaze. Her red-purple hair fell over her cheek.

“He does not!”

“I think he’s attracted to you,” Natalie said. “Even though he’s not supposed to like our kind.”

“Hush!” Blood rose hot to my cheeks. “I can’t believe you’re taking her side on this.”

“Well, if you weren’t—”

I didn’t get to hear the rest of Natalie’s sentence. Heavy footsteps rang down the steel hallway.

“Hide everything,” Natalie hissed into the room.

Everyone stuffed their snacks under the mattresses, in their pockets, wherever there was a hiding space. But we weren’t fast enough. As the guard stepped through the door, one of the younger girls spilled her package of dried carbo-nutes. Raylen gasped as the small spheres scattered everywhere on the floor.

“What’s this?” the guard snarled. The others averted their eyes as he towered over Raylen.

“It was my fault,” I said, stepping forward. “They’re my nutes. I saved an extra package, and I asked her if she wanted some.”

“Shut up,” the guard said, shoving me aside and pulling Raylen up from the bunk by the front of her gray jumpsuit. “You. Come with me.”

“But—”

“Enough from you, orphan,” the guard said, shooting me a glare. “You know the rules. No extra snacks. No hoarding. No sharing. Especially not with this one. She’s fat enough as it is.”

Raylen cried silently, her head tilted down to the floor as tears slid down her cheeks. I tried to give her a sympathetic look, but the guard yanked her to the door.

“Everybody back to their bunks,” he said, a sadistic smirk on his face. “Early lights out tonight and an extra cardio workout tomorrow morning before breakfast.”

A grumble ran through the room.

“That’s not fair,” Arlynn cried. “It’s our last night here!”

Shh,” Natalie hissed, tugging on Arlynn’s elbow. “Do you want to get us in trouble?”

“But—”

A slap rang out, and Arlynn cowered back, holding her cheek, as the guard raised his hand again.

“Quiet, or I’ll make sure you get sent into the wilds for your mission,” the guard said. “Do you want to be gobbled up by Wargs?”

Arlynn opened her mouth to retort, but I shook my head once and she thankfully clamped her lips shut. If there was one thing she didn’t want, it was to end up outside the colony’s walls where the giant wolf-like monsters ran rampant and feral.

I’d never seen a Warg in person, of course, but every Terran child heard tales of them their entire lives. They were ferocious and bloodthirsty, and didn’t think twice about devouring colonists when they ventured into their territory. Nobody who wanted to survive on Thracos took a step outside the walls without being heavily armed.

Even then, they said that Wargs’ teeth could pierce tellurium armor, and their claws could rip apart steel mesh. Our only protection was the electric wall shielding the city’s border. Natalie sometimes remarked about how easily the Wargs could invade the colony if the power went out, until she realized she was scaring the younger girls.

Hell, she scared me with that kind of talk.

“Everyone out,” the guard said. “Now.”

We fell into lockstep and marched down the hallway. Raylen’s roommates glanced back uneasily as the guard dragged her off. I ached with the thought that our secret going away party had ended in punishment. She would undoubtedly spend the rest of the night in forced exercise, and that was if the guard was feeling merciful. If he was in a bad mood, he might send her for an extra round of gene therapy.

I shuddered as I thought about the way the steel clamps held my body in place during therapy. The gene replacement serum coursing through my veins. The changes forcing themselves into my starved body.

They could call it rehabilitation, but we all knew it was torture. Punishment for not being perfect.

“Sienna.”

Hank’s whisper startled me, and I nearly cried out when his hand closed around my wrist. He pulled me out of line and into a recessed doorway. Arlynn’s gaze lingered over her shoulder at us until Natalie nudged her back into step.

“Hank?” I looked up at his chiseled, pale face. He ran one hand over his buzzed blond hair, eyeing the hallway with suspicion before turning back to me. “What is it?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, his lips suddenly came down on mine, his body pushing me back into the metal door. Surprise mixed with desire as his mouth moved insistently over mine.

He did want me! 

I’d noticed his glances passing over my body during training sessions, the way his tongue darted out to lick his lips when my baggy, gray workout shirts rode up and exposed my curves. He wasn’t supposed to find me attractive. I was genetically inferior, after all, or so they said. But I had always wondered…

Now he took my hand and pressed a square of cold steel into my palm.

“It’s my key card,” he whispered, breaking off the kiss as suddenly as he started it. “Come by after lights out. I’ll leave your door unlocked.”

“Wh-why?”

“I thought you might want to go out in style.” His lips curved into a smile, a sight so rare that it made my heart nearly burst with hope. “I’ll give you something to remember me by.”

“Are you serious?” I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he whispered. “Just come by as soon as you can. You want it, right?”

“I, uh, sure. I mean, yes,” I sputtered. “Yes!”

“Good. I can’t wait to take you for my own.”

His smile disappeared and he checked the hallway again. Another guard had just turned the corner, his boot heels clacking against the metal floor.

“Now get back to your quarters!” Hank yelled so fiercely that I almost believed it. But the metal key card in my hand was proof otherwise.

Take me for his own. His own. He wanted me.

Someone wanted me!

I walked down the hallway with my head bowed, trying not to squeal with anticipation as I passed the other guard. Tomorrow I would be released from the Training Center, on my way to freedom.

But tonight…

 

A frisson of desire shivered my nerves. Tonight would set me free in a totally different way.

CHAPTER 2

“May the union of Urdrum and Yara bring generations of joy, love and, above all else, female offspring.”

The crowd that had gathered in our forest’s ceremonial clearing murmured the usual appeal to our ancestors for girl babies to be born to our tribe. I couldn’t bring myself to utter the prayer again.

They never granted our requests, no matter how often we called upon them for help. They weren’t listening. They’d abandoned us.

A few of my tribesmen glanced in my direction, noting my silence. They probably wondered what their alpha knew that they didn’t. The last thing I wanted to do was take away their hope, so I lowered my head and whispered the prayer, the words bitter on my lips.

“Grant us the gift of girls, oh elders of the Warg.”

“Urdrum, your duty is to protect and be of service to your mate, Yara,” our tribe’s shaman, Binkor, droned on.

A hard black ball settled in my stomach at the giddy grins plastered on the couple’s faces. They were so happy, and why shouldn’t they be? They’d found their fated mates, a rarity these days. “Yara, your duty…”

I sensed Chorn’s approach a heartbeat before he sidled up next to me. My most trusted advisor had a knack for stealth, if not subtlety.

“I still don’t understand why you didn’t claim her, Solan. She’s the most beautiful female we have left in the tribe, and as alpha you would have been well within your rights to take her as your mate.”

“She wasn’t mine to claim, Chorn, you know that. Urdrum and Yara are fateds. Nothing can break that bond, and what kind of leader would I be if I tried?”

Chorn placed a hand on my shoulder, a hard glint in his amber eyes. “Some are wondering that already, Solan.”

That black pit in my stomach grew tenfold. It wasn’t lost on me that some in my tribe questioned my ability to lead. There would always be that element in any group, but lately the rumblings and whispers had grown louder.

“What do you expect me to do about it, Chorn? Take a friend’s fated mate from him and live my entire life knowing her heart and soul belong to someone else?”

“You’re a good man, Solan, but there aren’t many unmated females left in our tribe, if you haven’t noticed. An alpha your age should have a litter of whelps running around wreaking havoc, with more on the way.”

I couldn’t stop a humorless chuff. “All male, no doubt. That’s the last thing we need.”

“You don’t know that. Jorek’s getting closer to discovering the cause of our…drought.”

“Not fast enough. If he doesn’t hurry up, it’ll be too late for us.”

The fate of our tribe rested on figuring out why our female population had dwindled over the last few generations. As the alpha, I carried the weight of that responsibility. Everyone expected me to pull the solution out of thin air.

“Any progress?” I finally asked.

Chorn shook his head full of shaggy brown hair, as frustrated as we all were.

“Really close, but he’s hit a wall. There’s some missing element that he can’t identify. He’s certain that’s the source of the problem, but it’s like trying to find a grain of reet on the forest floor in the pitch black. He doesn’t know what he’s looking for, so how can he find it?”

“Damn it!”

Several ceremony guests shot dirty glances in my direction. When they saw it was me who cursed, they quickly turned away, but not before I noticed two or three rolling their eyes. Chorn saw it, too. He caught my eye again, his expression softening.

Was that pity?

“See? You need to do something, Solan. You need to take a mate and prove your dominance.”

Anger bubbled up inside me. I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone, and I certainly didn’t need a beta telling me I did. My closest friend or not, he needed to remember his place.

Drawing my Warg out of my darkest depths — only a little — a low growl started in my chest. A quiet warning to my second that he was dangerously close to stepping over the line. Chorn snatched his hand from my shoulder and stood straighter, at attention.

“Is there any news from the border, sir?” he asked, falling back on official topics of discussion. His pride was bruised, but he’d get over it.

“The truce is holding, but barely. Our front line guards have caught a few scouts trying to cross the river, but they sent them packing before blood was shed.”

“What do you think they were after?”

I gave him a rueful sidelong glance. “What do you think?”

“Really? Do they really think we don’t protect our females? As if a raiding party could make it as far as the Grandmother Tree without getting slaughtered.”

“We didn’t capture any so it’s hard to say, but our friend on the hill insists that Thrane’s researcher is no closer to finding a cure. I can only assume they’re getting as desperate as we are.”

Indeed, a vocal contingent of Valley Wargs were advocating similar raids into enemy territory. So far, I’d been able to quash the suicidal suggestion, but I could sense they might try something on their own one day soon. They only had to muster enough courage, if you could call such insanity courageous.

Chorn squinted his distrust. “Are you sure he’s feeding you reliable information? He could very well be trying to sabotage our efforts.”

“I’d be a fool to trust him completely, but he’s the best source of information we could ask for.”

Chorn leaned in close. “Come on, tell me who it is. I’m dying to know.”

I couldn’t help laughing. At least once a day, he begged me to tell him who my source was. He always knew what the answer would be, but it never stopped him from asking.

“You know I can’t—”

A section of thick bushes encircling the clearing shook violently, a sonorous rumbling rolling through the crowd. Yara squealed in fear as her new mate whirled around to stand in front of her protectively, his teeth bared.

I was just drawing my beast to the surface when the small, frail figure of a woman burst out from the bushes. Untamed white hair flew every which way atop a leathery face that had seen far too many years. A filthy, ragged shift hung loose on her skeletal frame. The pungent aroma of wild herbs, animal scat and body odor hit us all like a punch in the face. Behind me, a few people gagged.

“Ouma!”

The old crone rarely left her hovel deep in the woods. She’d lived there for as long as anyone alive could remember, cloistered away and utterly mad. It drove my scouts insane that she always managed to sneak past them. Not because she wasn’t free to roam as she wanted, but because they never spotted her. She clearly knew more about the ins and outs of the forest than anyone.

I started toward her when she collapsed to the ground. Her body went rigid and her milky pale blue eyes rolled back into her head. Yara screamed at the sight, burying her face in Urdrum’s shoulder.

To the uninitiated, the sight was terrifying. Hell, even to those who’d seen it more times than they wanted, it was terrifying.

I shot a glance at the shaman, who grimaced and nodded. We’d both witnessed Ouma’s spells before, and the only thing to do was wait. Wait for the prophecy.

“What do you think it will be this time?” Chorn whispered.

“Hopefully not another prediction that ‘a bird falling from the sky will save us from destruction.’ People watched the skies for weeks after that one.”

Ouma’s prophecies were taken very seriously by the Valley Wargs, even though not a single one had come true. Once, she commanded to ‘mix the reet and the curls for the breeding of girls.’ No amount of questioning could suss out what ‘curls’ she meant.

Consequently, women with curly hair had cut it all off and shared it around. For months, women choked down bowls full of cooked reet with hair mixed in. It took several baby boys to discover they’d guessed wrong.

Whatever she was going to say this time, I had no doubt it would rile up everyone yet yield nothing once again.

As the day’s last rays of sun shot through the forest’s canopy, Ouma’s wrinkled lips parted, exposing her nearly toothless gums. The others probably expected a thin, quavering voice, but I knew better. Almost everyone in attendance jumped when a deep, booming voice thundered through the clearing.

“THREE WILL UNITE THE TWO!”

For the first time after hearing one of her exclamations, a chill rippled up my spine.

CHAPTER 3

“What did he say to you?”

Arlynn pounced on me with questions as soon as I walked in the door. I flopped on top of my bunk with a dramatic sigh.

“Oh, nothing.”

“If you don’t tell us, a Warg will come and eat you in the middle of the night,” Arlynn joked, bouncing on the end of the bed. “Natalie, you tell her.”

“Uh huh. A Warg. Right. As if those even exist.”

“They do!”

“Shapeshifting wolf monsters? Please. Sure, there might be some predator wildlife in the wilds, but that’s all.”

“What about all the stories you hear?”

“They’re just that,” Natalie said, crossing her arms as she sat down next to us. “Stories. But I believe Sienna has a story of her own to tell us, if I’m not mistaken. And this one might even be real.”

“Oh right! What did Hank say?” Arlynn repeated, her attention now fully back on me.

I merely grinned and held up the key card. It glinted in the harsh fluorescent light.

“Oh my God!” Arlynn squealed.

“Are you serious?” Natalie asked, her eyes slightly wider than normal.

“That’s what I asked him,” I said. “He said he wants to send me out in style, and I should come back after lights out.”

“Holy crap,” Arlynn said, clapping her hands to her round cheeks. “That’s awesome!”

“Are you going to go?” Natalie asked, her surprise settling immediately into a more subdued reaction.

“What kind of question is that? Of course she’s going to go. What a chance!”

“But…this is the last time you’re going to see him,” Natalie said, turning back to me. “And this is so sudden. Is that really how you want your first time to be?”

I frowned, clasping the key card to my chest. To be honest, I’d been so excited about Hank’s proposition that I hadn’t thought about what it meant. I would be losing my virginity to someone I would never see again. Leave it to Natalie to rain practicality all over my parade.

“I still want to see him,” I said stubbornly, changing into my nightgown as I spoke. “After all, we’ve been talking to each other for a while. It’s not that sudden.”

That wasn’t the whole truth. Hank hadn’t spoken much to me at all. But I’d seen him watching me, and whenever he gave me orders, it was in a much less strict tone than I’d heard him use with the others. And he’d touched me before, a hand on the shoulder when I’d gotten out of line, a smack on the hip when I was moving too slowly during a workout. Sure, it was punishment…technically. But it seemed like more to me.

Anyway, I wasn’t going to let Natalie spoil my chance at this.

“He kissed me,” I continued, clinging to the idea that Hank had been pining over me for as long as I’d been pining for him.

“I think it’ll be perfect,” Arlynn practically swooned. “You have to tell us every detail.”

“Lights out! In bunk!”

The voice from the overhead speaker blared a moment before the fluorescent overheads clicked off. Arlynn and Natalie scrambled back to their bunks as the door opened.

“Night check,” a guard said, his flashlight beam searching over our beds. I lay still, holding Hank’s key card next to my pounding heart. The guard quickly finished his inspection and then left, the steel door clanging shut behind him.

In the dark, my heart sounded like the beating of alien drums, loud and insistent. I started counting. By my estimate, the night check guard would take only a minute or two to finish our hallway. After that, I would wait another five minutes and then sneak out. My fingers were slick with nervous sweat where I gripped the metal key card tightly.

Four minutes fifty… four minutes fifty one…

It was the longest five minutes I’d ever waited. Flashes of Hank’s face and body passed through my mind as I counted. His perfectly sculpted arms, in exact proportion to the government-mandated genetic ideal. His lean frame and square shoulders, standing straight upright.

I couldn’t imagine what tonight would be like, but maybe that was for the best. My breath was already coming shallow and fast as the minutes plodded by.

Five.

I took a deep breath and swung off the cover. The shapeless linen shifts we wore as pajamas were ill-fitting and too tight over my curvy hips, but I tugged the fabric down anyway, smoothing out the wrinkles. Tiptoeing lightly to the door, I willed myself to calm down.

Our door was unlocked, as Hank had promised. Low blue lights illuminated the empty walkway, but that was all. Barefooted, I raced down the hall as quickly and quietly as I could. Hank’s room was in the next wing, and it only took me a minute to get there. I bit my lip and slipped the key card into the door lock.

Click.

I was in. I pushed open the door, ready to throw myself into Hank’s arms, but stopped cold just inside the door.

“You’re going to get in a lot of trouble if you keep this up, private!”

The head guard was shouting at Hank. I shrunk back into the doorway. My whole body told me to bolt out of there. But my curiosity got the better of me, especially when I heard Hank speak up.

“I didn’t think—”

“Exactly! You didn’t think. What, you wanted your dick wet, was that it? Admit it. You were thinking with your cock!”

“Sir, I only—”

“Enough, private! Forget about the disgusting nature of your so-called attraction. Do you know what would happen if you plucked that fat cherry from the tree?”

I held my breath as I listened.

“Sir, no, sir!”

“The general would have your head. The one on your neck, and the one between your legs. They want the girls we send them to be untouched. Got it?”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

A frown drew across my forehead. Where were they sending us? Why did they want us to be “untouched”? As the head guard continued his ranting, I leaned forward to hear more.

“Spoiled girls are useless. They’re paying top dollar for this pussy, private. These are officials we’re talking about.”

“Yes, sir!”

“They’re not going to fuck some secondhand goods.”

“Yes, sir!”

“And our girls aren’t going to go to them wasted. They’re going to be good little fuck girls. This is going to be the best crop of comfort maidens we send off. We’ve trained them to be as perfect as those slobs can be, and that’s how I want them shipped out. Understand?”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

My stomach churned. Shipped out? Secondhand goods?

We weren’t going on missions tomorrow. We were being sold.

And Hank knew it.

The head guard’s footsteps approached my hiding place. I whirled around, closing the door behind me quietly before sprinting back to the orphans’ hallway. I threw myself into our room, tears already spilling down my cheeks.

It was horrible. All of it. Not only did Hank not care about me, he was going to help the Training Center sell us as cattle. I couldn’t keep the sob from ripping out of my throat.

“Sienna?”

Arlynn’s voice floated through the darkness.

“Sienna? Are you okay?”

Arlynn. Natalie. They weren’t simply other orphans — they were my sisters. I couldn’t let them be sold off as sex slaves to the military.

“They’re lying to us,” I choked out.

“What?” Natalie whispered. “Sienna, what are you talking about?”

“The head guard was there,” I said, stumbling over my words as I tried to keep back the tears. “They didn’t see me, but I heard them. They’re selling us off to the military to be used for sex.”

What?”

“Holy shit.” I heard Natalie’s feet hit the floor as she jumped off of her bunk. “I knew it. I knew there was something more.”

“Are you sure?” Arlynn’s voice quavered. “Maybe they were playing a joke on you.”

“I’m sure,” I said. My voice came back to me as I quelled the tears.

“Then we have to do something,” Natalie said.

“Like what?” Arlynn asked.

“We have to escape.” The words spilled out of my mouth before I knew they were coming.

“Escape?”

“We can’t let them ship us off to do God knows what to us.”

“Rape,” Natalie said, her tone flat. “That’s what they’re selling us for.”

“Oh my,” Arlynn whispered. “Oh my.”

I reached out into the darkness and found my sisters’ hands. I clasped them both tightly, pulling them close. Even though we didn’t share blood, we were as close as any family I could imagine.

“We’re going to be on the shuttle together,” I said, “until we get to the transport hub, where they separate us. We’ll have to escape before then.”

“But how? How?

“Don’t panic,” Natalie said. “That’s not going to help.”

I squeezed Arlynn’s hand.

“First things first. Don’t let on that we know anything. We can come up with a plan tonight, and then tomorrow morning—”

The door opened, and the light in our room flashed on. I blinked against the sudden brightness. Three guards loomed in our doorway. One of them was Hank. He looked down at me with a hard expression on his face. My throat closed up.

“Get up,” he snapped. “And get dressed. We’ve decided to send you out on your missions early.”

“Early?” The word barely squeaked out from Natalie.

“That’s right,” Hank said, and gave us the iciest smile.

“Aren’t you excited?”