13.2 | Fight and Flight

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She stared at him, at his oddly young face. When acting authoritative, he seemed so much older than forty. But here, now, she remembered that he'd been Ren's age, or even younger, when he became a father.

"You'll be no help to Lu if you're dead," he whispered.

Nika shut her eyes, letting the darkness soothe her stormy emotions. Letting the reminder of Lu, a hostage of Volkari, sharpen her focus.

"Fine."

In the minutes that followed, Nika was only half-aware of the conversation. Markos informed both her and Ren that he would be taking a spontaneous trip to Romania to visit the Daemonstri King. But he had a mountain of paperwork to finish first, so he shooed them away.

As Nika made an exit, her father said, "You can see Jade, but return by dawn. I want to give you a kiss before I leave."

She neither agreed nor disagreed, then pulled the door shut behind her.

After they'd created some distance from Markos's office, Ren growled, "Is it truly that terrible to be protected by someone?"

She lifted her chin haughtily, training her gaze on the end of the corridor.

"While he's gone, I'm putting you under house arrest."

Nika scoffed, but when she looked at him, there wasn't a trace of amusement in his features.

Oh, hell no.

She whirled on him. "What if your keeper buddies in Russia found out you're guarding the Halfblood Bastard? It's a disgrace. Your reputation would be ruined."

His lips pulled into a sneer. "I don't have any friends in Russia."

She blinked, trying to figure out how she could respond to that. But before she found any viable options, he stepped close enough to devour her with his shadow.

Nika, to her own surprise, didn't cower.

"I made the Sacred Oath when I entered the Vigil, and I don't intend to break it."

His voice was like an uncut diamond—rough but pure. Honest.

"If I can't honor my duty as a keeper, then I can't honor anything."

"Is honor really worth public condemnation?"

"It's not about honor, or glory. It's about protecting people."

"Not people—Serafi. Purebloods."

And Nika was a halfblood. According to the majority of society, she didn't even deserve to own her last name.

"I never knew my father's identity," Ren said abruptly, a crack splintering his keeper's mask, "And neither did the woman who raised me."

Nika blinked. She recalled Markos mentioning that Ren had been abandoned by his birthparents as an infant, and a Russian keeper had adopted him. But the fact was hardly relevant to the current discussion.

And just when she opened her mouth to tell him, he said, "It gives me a uniquely unbiased view on blood status. And unfortunately for you, I'm more concerned about the Volkari targeting you again."

Ren seemed to check himself and stepped back. "To the rest of the world, Nika Dimitrovich might be a traitor of the state. But to me, she's just a girl with terrible luck."

It wasn't too often that Nika could be shocked into frozen silence, but this was one of those rare times. She had nothing to say, nothing to do. She simply gaped. And the only thing she felt was...gratitude.

The next thing she knew, Ren was stalking down the hall. Then he halted, turned around. His demeanor shifted into curiosity as he said, "Out on the lawn, what was that move you did—the one to get back on your feet?"

She managed a shrug, despite her sudden mixed feelings about this man. "Just a classic kick-up."

"How'd you do it?"

"Are you asking me to teach you?"

"No. Just explain. I'll figure out the rest."

An idea ignited within her. "Let's make a deal. I'll show you a kick-up, and you teach me how to fight a guy your size...and win."

"So you can successfully escape me?" A scoff. "Not happening."

"Then I suggest stocking up on ice packs. Learning a kick-up can be pretty painful without proper guidance."

Ren's eyes narrowed for a few moments. "Fine," he ground out. "My shift ends at noon. We can use the basement for sparring."

"But that's the middle of the day—when I sleep."

He turned around again. "Sucks to be you."

Nika's jaw dropped. "Manners!" she called as he reached the end of the hall.

Without looking back, he made a crude gesture, involving one particular finger, then vanished around the corner. Nika didn't know whether to be surprised or offended, but she smiled nonetheless.

After sending Ren and his daughter out of the study, Markos Dimitrovich spent the next several hours drowning in documents.

The trip to Romania was last-minute—an emergency, according to King Gregor, the supreme ruler of Daemonstri on the other side of the world. And as the duration of his visit was uncertain, Markos needed to complete a long list of duties before his departure.

Around dawn, he emerged from his office to a near-ghostly house. It felt like this too often. Or so everyone told him. Colleagues and acquaintances constantly fussed about when, exactly, he planned to settle down and fill the manor with green-eyed, golden-haired goblins.

"I'm too busy to think about that," he always told them.

Lie.

The day he married would be the day Nika's mother appeared on his doorstep and confessed she'd made a mistake in leaving them. Perhaps Markos was a fool. Despite seventeen years of distance, he still loved her madly.

Only with Nika's mother would he settle down. Only with her would he have more children. He'd decided that long ago.

Markos set about preparing to leave. After retrieving the compact suitcase he kept pre-packed in his closet, he approached the closed door of Nika's bedroom.

He would have invited her to eat a meal with him, but Ren had claimed that she took an early night on account of a training session they'd planned.

Markos had been surprised at first. He couldn't discern if they hated each other or not, so he told his head keeper, "If you bruise her—"

"No worries, Minister. She wants to know how to beat a man of my size, and the lesson is rather simple." Markos raised his brows. He could've sworn Ren smiled as he said, "She can't."

And that had brought him here, before Nika's door. It was eerily quiet beyond the dark slab of wood, and when Markos peeked inside, he made out Nika's small shape snuggled in bed. He watched for a moment, marveling at the fact that he'd played a part in creating her.

Then he noted the utter stillness. She wasn't even breathing.

A paternal instinct surged within him, then fizzed away as she finally exhaled. After that, her breathing returned to normal, and Markos realized that there hadn't been any threat.

Nika wasn't even asleep. She must have been pretending. Holding her breath.

The idea squeezed Markos's heart. He'd hoped to say goodbye, but it seemed Nika was in no mood. As usual. So he shut the door. And since he knew she wouldn't open it—she never opened any of his letters—he left Dimitrovich Manor without writing his daughter a note. 

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