There were footsteps in her forest. Keita shimmied up a vantage-tree and let herself slip into the foliage, camouflaged from the view of the few people that would think to look up.
A man walked through, skinny and wearing glasses, too clean for the forest, too tidy for the world outside. He looked around, muttering words to himself that Keita couldn’t quite discern, and then he looked up, through the foliage and directly at her.
“Keita Casarez?” His voice was still quiet, but it seemed like shouting against the noise of the woods. “My name is Reid Solomon.”
He knew her name. She didn’t move. She’d learned from the animals in the woods that moving was the dumb thing. You didn’t move until the predator showed that it was about to pounce, because maybe it hadn’t seen you yet.
“Keita, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here from a school, a safe place, called Addergoole.”
She was safe here. She’d been safe here than she had been anywhere else, anywhere before she left. Keita stared at the man’s shoulder. His clothes were spotless. He looked like a scientist.
“It’s a small place, but it’s got running water and power still, and it’s safe. There aren’t any mobs, no falling buildings…
He seemed to have no problem talking to a blank spot in the trees. How had he found her?
“Your parents enrolled you, back before you were born. And you’re the right age to come to school now.”
Despite herself, Keita hissed. He nodded, as if not completely surprised by that response.
“All right, so your parents are not your favorite people. I can understand that. Nevertheless, they made a legally binding promise on your time.”
She scrambled down a few branches, still way out of reach but where she could see him better. “Screw that. Law’s dead. Nothing left of the government.”
“True. But fae law still holds.”
“Those freaks?” She snorted. “Nothing to do with me.”
He tilted his head. “How long have you been out here, Keita?”
“What year ‘zit?”
“2014, in August.”
“Season’s obvious,” she scoffed. She hadn’t spoken to another human in a while. She was surprised the words were still there. “Hunh.” He had to be lying. No, there’d been that first winter, which had been awful, and then the things – no, the things had started before that. Flying overhead. And she’d slept in a hollow tree with a stolen sleeping bag and prayed she didn’t freeze to death.
And then there’d been the second winter, and she’d been prepared. The camps around the woods hadn’t missed a few things she’d stolen, and most of them seemed pretty empty, anyway. It had been a colder winter than the first, but she’d stayed cozy in her nest, eating hoarded scraps.
The third winter, that had been mild, and she’d been hunting, but there’d been more people in her woods. She’d spooked some of them away and hidden from the rest…
…and it was the end of summer, so the fourth winter was coming.
“You’ve been out here three years?” The man in the too-clean clothes looked startled. Keita hissed at him.
“And I’ll be out here a lot more. Stay away, make everyone happier.”
She jumped up into the tree and darted away before he could answer, half-remembered fears jabbing at her mind.
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