28.3 | Requiems for Lonely Souls

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Nika didn't know how much time had passed when a number of voices grew clearer. Among them were Kozlowski, Paulson, and a few other keepers whose names she kept forgetting. But one of them, deeper and more distinct than the rest, made her go stiff with panic—Ren.

"Where is she?" he was asking.

"In the garden, talking to the Minister."

"You should take a break. I'll keep an eye on her for a bit."

"But we're supposed to be guarding the walls," Kozlowski said.

"You look hungry," Ren replied in a flat tone. "Go feed yourselves."

"We have orders from the High Keeper—"

"Take a hint, Kozlowski," Paulson hissed. "They want privacy."

"Oh." A nervous laugh. "Right. I'll just..."

A storm of footsteps pattered upon the stone paths, growing fainter with each heartbeat. But the familiar steady thud of Ren's boots became louder.

Nika instinctively wiped her eyes and smoothed her hair, then sat on the swing bench and tried in vain to conceal the anxious tremble running through her body.

She didn't know why she bothered with the fuss. Her last words with Ren were...not ideal. But the recollection only made her question his presence further.

Ren emerged from around the corner of a hedge, wearing his usual black-on-black-on-black. Nika surged from her seat with wince-worthy enthusiasm, then froze after glimpsing the tote in his hand.

I asked Emil to transfer me away from headquarters.

And it appeared he'd already packed. Perhaps this was a goodbye, then...

He cleared his throat and greeted her with a nod. "Nika." She didn't miss the way he lingered at a careful distance. Neither of them dared to make eye contact for longer than a blink.

Nika forced herself to ask, "Why are you here?"

"I came to pick up my things." He set the tote on the ground and shoved his hands in his pockets. "And to see how you're doing."

Nika crossed her arms, more to hold herself together, rather than to shut him out. She tried to find the right words, wanting neither falsehoods nor the full truth to be exposed.

She wasn't well, and hadn't been for a while. But her attempt to conceal it failed, however, because Ren suddenly said, "I'm sorry."

Nika blinked.

"For everything I said and did the other night," he clarified. "A part of me wanted to get even with you, but I took it too far."

Apart from the bobbing of his throat, Ren didn't move. As if waiting in suspense for a reply.

"I'll forgive you," she said, taking a bold step closer. "But only if you forgive me, too."

His mask of neutrality strained to conceal whatever emotions were brewing behind it. "I want to. But before we can move on, you need to tell me what happened in those woods."

The tension was great enough to swim in, and Nika knew it would evaporate easily, if she just told him the truth. A crease formed between Ren's brows—the only sign of his restraint. She wished she knew what he was thinking.

Especially as she whispered, "There was a voice. It called me away from the manor."

So she told him. Everything. And when she finished, they sat side by side on the bench swing. Nika felt featherlight without the burden of her secret, but at the same time, she was sinking with the dread for his reaction.

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