22.1 | Myth Meets Reality

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In the center of headquarters, there was an elaborate garden, which Nika and Lu had frequently visited in their childhood. During the spring and summer, it was often busy, but on a late afternoon, as sunlight gilded the hedges and most Serafi chose to linger indoors until dusk, the gardens were deserted.

So when Nika had called Elliot yesterday and told him what happened at the hedgewitch's shop, they'd agreed to make it the location of their next meeting. Shortly after the conversation, she'd dropped the pendant in Elliot's mailbox at Mirza Manor. He'd been studying it and the journal ever since.

And now Nika sat on a stone bench beside the statue of some or other historical Daemonstri figure, surrounded by green hedges and the delightful scents of April in full bloom.

Standing under a vine-covered arch to her left, Misha fidgeted like a five-year-old. He checked his watch for the thousandth time since they'd arrived.

"Your friend is late," he grumbled.

"He'll be here soon."

As Misha continued to anxiously wait by the arch, Nika snuck a glance at Ren. He looked clean and well-rested. Ready for duty. Back to normal. The sight eased a weight off her chest.

He must have sensed her attention, because he tore himself away from the statue he'd been studying and sat next to her on the bench.

"I know it doesn't seem like it," he whispered, "but Misha is grateful. Without your help, we might have been forced into drastic measures."

"I'm not doing it for him," Nika admitted. "I'm doing it for Lu...and you."

Even Ren's newly fortified keeper's mask couldn't hide the surprise that rippled through his features.

"I can see how close you are," she explained. "The Kovacs are to you what the Lazarovs are to me. So if there's anything we can do to exonerate Emil, then I'm happy to help."

Ren stared in silence, as if he was trying to look into her. So intensely that her breath hitched in her throat, and she was a heartbeat away from blurting something embarrassing when Misha exclaimed, "Finally."

Elliot emerged through the arched a moment later, bearing Tatiana's amulet and the diary in his hands.

"You're never gonna believe this," he said by way of greeting.

Nika saw the spark of excitement in his eyes and immediately jumped to her feet.

"What is it?"

They met halfway and Elliot's eyes dragged up and down her figure, no doubt taking in her injuries.

"I thought you said you weren't hurt."

"Blood pills have a way of numbing the pain."

Elliot scowled. "You should be resting."

Nika was beginning to regret that she hadn't spared him the details of her violent encounter with Tatiana, including the fact that Ren had been the source of her wounds. And she didn't know how to react to Elliot's worry with anything but facetiousness.

He's a Mirza, after all. An enemy.

She reminded herself of that too often these days.

"Just tell us what you found," she half-growled as Ren and Misha joined them.

Elliot's eagerness swiftly returned, and it was contagious. "Better yet," he said, "I'll show you."

He flipped open the leather-bound journal and placed the snake-and-stone amulet on top of a yellowed page.

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