Queen (The Blackcoat Rebellion #3)(3)

At some point while I’d been speaking, Benjy had joined Knox on the side of the stage, his red hair fiery in the sunlight and the look on his freckled face relaxed and encouraging. I flashed him a small smile. He was the reason I’d risked my life and entire future to stay, but he was mine—he was private, and while anyone in Elsewhere could see the pair of us walking around together, working on target practice or tending to the recovering victims ofthe battle, I wasn’t going to tell the world about him. He was the chink in my armor, and I wouldn’t give anyone the opportunity to use him against me.

“If you’ll bear with me, I promise this all has a point,” I said as more and more people began to shift and glance at their neighbors. The revelation that I was really the Prime Minister’s illegitimate daughter was only good for so much rapt attention, and I was rapidly burning through it. But the Blackcoats wanted me to tell my story. I wasn’t the only victim of the Hart family, but I was the only one who the people already cared about, without even realizing who I truly was.

“At the brothel, Daxton Hart bought me. But instead of—well, you know—he offered me a VII.” The highest rank in our country, one you had to be born into in order to receive. “I had no idea I was actually a Hart at the time, but even then, no one turns down a VII. No one. A VII meant luxury, enough to eat, and what I thought would be a good life—it was an easy choice, so of course I said yes.” I leveled my stare at a painfully thin woman in a red jumpsuit. I didn’t recognize her, but I needed to look at someone. “On the way out of the brothel, my best friend saw us together by chance. Daxton Hart had her murdered in the alleyway, and while I was screaming, he gave me something that made me black out. When I woke up, it was two weeks later, and I had been Masked—surgically transformed into an identical version of Lila Hart, whom her family had secretly assassinated days earlier.”

More murmurs ran through the crowd, and the woman I was watching held my stare. I had their attention again. Good.

“I was given a choice. Pretend to be Lila, or die. It wasn’t a real choice at all. It never is when you’re staring down the barrel of a gun and waiting for someone to pull the trigger. And I thought that was what my life was going to be—a series of dodged bullets until one day, I wasn’t lucky anymore.

“But when I agreed to impersonate Lila, it opened up an entirely new world to me. Not just the unparalleled luxury of the Hart family’s day-to-day lives, but a real opportunity to change things through a revolutionary group called the Blackcoats. As soon as my education on becoming Lila began, Celia, Lila’s mother, and Knox, Lila’s fiancé, made sure my education on the Blackcoats did, too.

“They didn’t have to tell me about the injustices our citizens face day in and day out. How Shields often kill and arrest innocent people in order to meet their quotas, or because they’re having a bad day and have the power totake it out on us. I already knew that—I’d been dodging Shields since I was a kid. But Celia and Knox did tell me how IIs are given rotting food, houses with leaking roofs, and no respect or support from anyone above them. Howmost extra children born to IIs and IIIs are sent to Elsewhere, to be raised inside a prison, and never see the outside world. How our entire lives are dictated by a single aptitude test that only caters to one type of intelligence, and how children who are lucky enough to be born to Vs and VIs get certain advantages. Tutors, inside information—in fact, every single one of the twelve Ministers of the Union received VIs, not on their own merits, butbecause of the family they were born into. They never took the test, and neither will their heirs.

“Before I became Lila, I believed the lies the government feeds us—that we’re in charge of our own lives, that if we just do well enough on the test, they’ll take care of us. They’ll tell us where we belong, and that every single one of us has a place in society. I believed them when they told us we were all important and needed. I may have rejected the life they wanted for me, but I still believed them.

“The first lesson in my education came the day I was finally declared ready to impersonate Lila. Daxton Hart brought me to a wooded area for a hunting trip. But we weren’t hunting deer or quail,” I added. “We were in Elsewhere, and we were hunting humans.”

I let this sink in for a moment, and the crowd stared at me with slack jaws and pale faces. During my few days as a prisoner, I’d quickly discovered none of the other citizens of Elsewhere knew why so many of their ranks were plucked without warning, never to be seen again. Now they knew. Now everyone knew how VIs and VIIs had hunted humans for sport, all because there was no one to stop them.

“All of the VIs and VIIs took part in these hunting trips, and as Lila, I was expected to shut up and go along with it. And I did, because while I hated watching innocent people die, I knew that blending in and doing what was expected of me then meant a chance to help others now.

“America is supposed to be a fair meritocracy. We’re all supposed to receive what we deserve based on our skills and intelligence. But unlike the rest of us, there is a small section of the population that is born into a life of luxury that they never have to work a day in their lives to earn. The Hart family included.

“But being born into a life of privilege isn’t the only way to get a VI or a VII. I received a VII after I was Masked, for instance. And I wasn’t the only one.” I gripped the edge of the podium so tightly that I felt a splinter wedge its way into my palm. “Over a year ago, another citizen was Masked as a Hart—a man named Victor Mercer. Except he wasn’t Masked as a background figure like Lila, too many steps away from power to be anything more than a pawn. Victor Mercer was Masked as the one and only Daxton Hart—Prime Minister of the United States.”

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