Authors: Heather Knight
The General’s Daughter
A Stand-Alone Dark Romance in the
Snow and Ash Series
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The Snow and Ash Series
On June 14, 2018, a well-known super-volcano blew, covering half of North America in a thick layer of ash and leaving sulfur and other gases trapped in the stratosphere. With the sun’s rays deflected off the earth’s surface, the planet is now enveloped in a volcanic winter that will last years, perhaps decades. No country, no climate, no civilization remains unscathed. Even the mighty U.S. Government has fallen. Millions died in those first weeks. Even more starved off, froze to death, or were taken by illness. Those who remain fight over what few resources are left.
Each of these stand-alone novels takes place in or near the once lushly forested Appalachian Mountains, which, if you look at a one of the few remaining maps, is located in what was once the mid-southern United States.
The General’s Daughter
begins three years into the volcanic winter.
JUNE 9, YEAR 03
(Three Years after the Ash)
“Hey! How ’bout you get over here and suck my dick!”
The soldier’s smile is full of bravado, and the soft pink cheeks and the prideful way he struts tells me he is young, not quite out of his teens. He grips his rifle awkwardly, as though it hasn’t yet become a part of him.
His friends cast him horror-filled looks. One of them gives him a shove like he wants to lose the guy as fast as possible.
“Fuck’s wrong with you?” growls Sgt. Garrett, one of my bodyguards. “That’s the general’s daughter.”
The youth’s ruddy cheeks bleach white, and so they should. My father holds the lives of the entire territory, some thirty-thousand people, in the stern grip of his fist. Even mine.
I nod once, as if to say
I won’t report you, and neither will my guards
. But I keep my face carefully void of expression, so they’ll understand—all of them—that I am not their friend.
The soldier and his buddies scuttle past, no doubt heading off to find something strong and liquid to ease their nerves. I hate them for that. Escape.
More soldiers pass me, civilian workers, too, as we make our way to what used to be the fanciest restaurant in town. There is to be a celebration tonight for the officers and the members of my father’s cabinet. As I pass, people’s expressions slide somewhere on the scale between fear, envy, and disdain.
I deliberately blur my vision, and the opinions of others disappear. Yes. I am General Balenchuk’s daughter, but if you think that makes me more fortunate than you, think again. The pretty clothes I wear probably came from another young girl who died during some raid. I can almost smell her death. My father controls everything—the food I eat, the movies I watch, the style of my hair, the words I speak. Even my mannerisms are under constant scrutiny. His or his spies’. I gave my last gasp of free will years ago.
We enter the circular drive—a governor’s drive they used to call these. The bodyguards remain silent and vigilant, as they’ve been instructed. They are under long-standing orders not to speak to me. If one of them were to break that rule, it would be considered flirting—or worse, seduction—and my father would have their heads. Literally. I know my guards by first name, and they spend enough time in my company that I know their favorite foods, recognize their family members on sight, know which girls they sleep with. The reason for my father’s orders? He’s afraid I’ll debase myself by fraternizing with the great unwashed masses. Of all the things I’m forbidden, that’s the biggest one. Boys. Men.
The taller of the two—Sgt. Morey, a good-looking guy who is married and has a baby on the way—reaches the door before me. He opens it, steps back, and casts his eyes downward, but not before I see the tension that creases his brow. I want to ask him how Erin is. Erin labors in the hydroponic gardens, but a year ago she and Andy Morey fell hard for each other. I know her from long ago, when we cheered for the junior varsity football team together. But even if I ask, I won’t get an answer, so I pass through the double oak doors into the lobby.
“I won’t be long,” I tell them. Unlike the guards, I am allowed to speak. How else would I give them orders? “As soon as the dinner part of tonight is over, I’ll want to go for my walk.” And then go home and hide in my room, where no one can look at me. Hear me. Taste the scent of my perfume.
Morey and Garrett bow their heads in unison, as close to an answer as I’ll ever get.
I leave my coat with the attendant and smooth the folds of my dress. Emerald-green silk with a flared skirt. Chosen by my father, of course.
I enter the ballroom, and as usual it is thick with uniforms and testosterone. I’m surprised I haven’t sprouted my own set of balls by now.
“Ah, Ilsa. There you are.” A smile bright enough to bring back the sun spreads across my father’s face, as though seeing me is the highlight of his day. He once owned a chain of car dealerships. He’s used to smarm.
Bile claws up my throat. I spread my lips in a suitably pleasant smile of my own. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.”
I sound thirty-five. I feel like it too. Truth is I just passed my eighteenth birthday.
I kiss his cheek, and as I do, I notice a small fleck of blood where he’s cut himself shaving.
“Never,” he says, taking me by the arm. Impatience fills his companion’s face. I have stolen him from something important.
Dad guides me toward the section reserved for the elite.
“We’ve got corn on the cob,” he says as though offering me the rarest of treats. It is. Ordinary citizens only get potatoes and mushrooms. I know the corn will be fresh, probably picked no more than an hour ago. It’s actually grown for fuel production, but whatever Dad wants, Dad gets. At the buffet he fills my plate with fresh steak, blueberry salad, and of course, the corn.
Outside, people are starving by the thousands—the millions—but in here, in our own little microcosm, I am a princess, and Dad makes sure I eat steak. I almost ask him where the baked potato is, just to see how he reacts. But I don’t want to deal with the reprimand, even the subtle ones he’s so good at dishing out. I accept the plate with thanks and allow him to escort me to our table. It is set apart from the others, round, and covered with color-coordinated tablecloths, the kind they used to put out at weddings.
A couple of Dad’s advisors are already seated, and they nod their greetings. Colonel Ernshaw’s wife moves aside to give me the best chair. She doesn’t so much as bat an eye, but I tense anyway. After all, who am I, really? I never even finished ninth grade. The colonel’s wife not only graduated college, but she used to write books. Before, that is. And she has to make way for me. I smile at her, trying to convey apology and gratitude, but she merely bows her head once and moves on.
That happens a lot around me.
Dad takes the seat next to mine and begins salting my corn. No butter—that would not be healthy, and God forbid that anything should happen, that any risk should be taken with my life. He nudges my napkin; I forgot to place it on my lap when I sat.
“When I am away,” he says, “I don’t want you leaving Morey and Garrett. Understand? You are to stick close to them at all times.”
Rather than roll my eyes, I flick my gaze to the wall and hold it there. “Okay.”
What planet is he on? Did he inhale some of that volcanic ash? There’s absolutely nobody on the entire mountain who would want to hang out with me, who would even be allowed to without my father’s express permission. Without his direct orders.
He steals a blueberry and pops it in his mouth. “We’re not sure how close General Barry will send his scouts, so I want you to restrict yourself to the house and grounds.”
This is news to me. I knew Dad was heading a large party out tomorrow, but I didn’t realize another army had encroached so far inside our territory. “Do you think he’s planning to attack us?”
He gives my shoulder a squeeze. “Don’t worry about that. Barry’s group is little more than a gang. We’re three times their numbers. They’ll never get anywhere close.”
“Do I really have to stay near the house?”
“I’d rather you did.”
The walls of my prison creep ever closer. Someday they will crush me. “What about the movies?” I ask, careful not to reveal how much the Wednesday shows at the crumbling theater mean to me. The films are pathetically ancient, as in movie-reel old, but it’s the only escape I have. He doesn’t even like me to read books. God forbid that I learn something, get an independent thought of my own. God forbid that I get any ideas that rise above what kind of shampoo to use. His own library is filled with books on military history.
I read them when he’s not looking.
I’m that bored.
He ponders that, scratches behind a reddened ear, and I notice for the first time that he has a hair growing in there. “Only if Morey and Garrett escort you,” he says finally.
Relief rushes through me. Actually it’s more like wild excitement, but the only reaction I can show is curling my toes. If I seem too happy, he’ll think I want to meet some guy. Ha! Like that’ll ever happen. I smile, though, happy for this one concession.
His whole face lights with pleasure, as though I just told him the Yellowstone crisis is over and the sun will come up tomorrow.
“Colonel Ernshaw’s daughter might make a good companion for you. Would you like me to arrange it?”
Tara Ernshaw. I can’t stand the little bitch. She acts all nice to my face and then goes and tells people how snotty I am. She’s damn creative sometimes, the lies she tells. If people didn’t already hate me for being well fed, clothed, and housed, they’d almost certainly hate me from the rumors.
Not that a couple of them aren’t true.
“Tara’s fun,” I tell him. “All the guys like her.” I throw in a giggle for good measure.
Dad’s eyes narrow, and by the downward turn of his lips I’m pretty sure Tara will not be joining me at the movie.
Colonel Graham approaches the table and salutes. “Sir.”
“Graham,” says Dad. He wipes at his eyes as though he’s tired and gets to his feet.
“First truck leaves tomorrow at 0500 hours.”
This time I can’t prevent the flush of excitement that heats my cheeks. I shove a blueberry into my mouth to mask my reaction. He’s leaving. Leaving!
“I’m sorry, honey.” Dad places a hand on my shoulder and squeezes just a little too hard, and I know that’s my cue to give him a brave smile, a perky smile that will tell him I’m happy, everything’s fine, and I’m sorry he has to go.
Instead I take a sip of water.
“We’ll be gone a few days, a week at the most,” he adds.
This time I produce the smile. “I’ll be fine.”
The only obsession he has that’s stronger than managing every detail of my life is Bluefield Mountain.
He and his minions rebuilt Bluefield, West Virginia on a nearby mountain by raping the original buildings to get the materials. Now he has his kingdom, and from a military aspect it’s strategically placed.
He says so, anyway.
Dad is the commander in chief of this sizable army of survivors, and that’s no small feat. People were desperate when Yellowstone first blew. They still are. At all times he stands vigilant, preparing, watching for those who might want to invade our territory. To kill the men and enslave the survivors, and take everything he’s managed to preserve from the pre-Ash world, as well as all he’s built to feed and house us. The fact that he’s saved so many—or collected them, depending on how you look at it—is damn near heroic.