In the forty years that Irina Rostova had been Prime Minister, never—not even once—had she interviewed someone. Not a single witness, suspect, or even an honored guest.

And yet, from the balcony where dozens of keepers observed, Ren watched Rostova descend from her throne and walk toward Nika Dimitrovich, the infamous Halfblood Bastard.

Beside him, Misha said, "Oldbloods save her."

Some equalist Ministers stirred with confusion, sending each other apprehensive glances. A blindside, no doubt. But the purists on the left—their smiles dripped with smug disdain.

As she stood in front of the witness, Rostova's regal stance and sterile-white pantsuit exuded an air of superiority. Her intentions were clear; she wanted Nika to remember who was pureblooded and who was not.

"Where were you on the night the journal was stolen from Konstantin Academy's library?"

Nika cleared her throat and said, "At the old dorm cabins."

"Not in class?"

"No. I...wanted some alone time."

"Please, more specific. Why were you there?"

"I was avoiding someone and didn't want to run into them in class."

"Who?"

"I don't see how that's impor—"

"Who."

Ren felt a pang of sympathy. This was going to get personal.

"Miles Crane."

"Why would you avoid your friend?"

Nika tore her eyes away.

"Answer the question, Miss Dimitrovich."

"Because Miles told me he...had romantic feelings for me," Nika said, her cheeks flashing with color. "I didn't feel the same, and I wasn't ready to see him yet."

Rostova pressed her lips together. "Normally, we would have Miles corroborate this story, but we can't do that, seeing as he's—conveniently—dead."

An equalist Minister named Nina Dragovich cleared her throat. "Please, Irina. Stay on topic."

"Yes, of course. My apologies." She regarded Nika again. "What kind of things did you do at this cabin?"

"I just sat around. Thinking. Until someone knocked on the door. He introduced himself as Dante Azzara, a new student. Then he asked for directions to the library, which I gave."

As Nika spoke, Rostova was handed a photograph from one of the purist Ministers. Ren vaguely made out the face of a young man as she held it up.

"Is this the boy you met?"

"Yes."

Rostova then showed Nika several documents bound together.

"This is the profile found in the Vigil's database, filed under Dante Azzara's name. Do you believe that he is a keeper?"

Nika didn't even glance at the papers before saying, "No."

The smug look on Rostova's face melted.

"And why not?"

"He might have a keeper's profile, but the person I met is no keeper," Nika said. "He doesn't act like one, talk like one, or dress like one. And I watched him transform into a wolf. There's no way a Volkari would have been able to live and work in this community without being noticed."

In the balconies around Ren, keepers nodded and echoed their agreement.

"Perhaps he could have," Rostova said, "if he'd been protected by someone with a position of authority."

Misha muttered something nasty under his breath, and Ren glanced at his father. Emil Kovac had a placid demeanor, completely unfazed by the Prime Minister's suggestion.

It was clear to Ren, and probably to everyone else, that Rostova intended to make Emil look guilty of aiding this Azzara person. The High Keeper was perhaps the only thing standing between the Ministry and control over the Vigil, and she'd wanted to get rid of him for as long as Ren could remember.

Nika cocked her head at Rostova and said, "Someone like you?"

A fluttering, breathy laugh swept through the keepers in the balconies. The Ministers below either raised their brows or coughed their surprise.

"That girl is ballsy," Misha whispered.

So it seems, Ren thought, fighting a smile.

Scowling, the Prime Minister returned the papers to her associate. "Do you believe Dante Azzara stole Konstantin's journal?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"A number of reasons. First, Dante needed directions to the library, and that's where the journal was held. And when he confronted me and my friends the next day, he all but confessed to doing it."

"Please tell us about your interaction with him that night."

"I asked what he wanted, why he was there, and why he stole the journal. He said those were complicated questions. After that, he showed us his eyes—golden, glowing. Volkari eyes. Then he told us that he needed to take one of us. So I offered myself—"

Rostova raised a hand for silence. "Why?"

Nika frowned. "To protect my friends."

"But why did you think he needed you?"

There was enough emphasis placed on the final word for Ren to understand what was happening here. Rostova would dig, poke, and claw at anything she could. For no other reason than to reveal the supposed faults that had been caused by Nika's halfblood status.

Tainted blood, people called her.

Ren shook his head in disapproval.

Nika folded her hands in her lap and didn't lift her gaze as she said, "I thought that maybe he wanted money. It's well-known that the Dimitrovich and Mirza families are wealthy, so I figured he'd take either me or Elliot. Hold one of us for ransom."

Rostova smiled, a cruel, cold slice of her thin lips.

"And you believed your father would pay any price to have you brought back?" A short snicker. "Markos, tell me, how high would you go?"

Markos Dimitrovich was the picture of bored indifference as he raised his eyebrows at Rostova and shrugged. Nika didn't even glance at him, as if she knew what he would say next. 

"I suppose I have a few million to spare, but it would be such a pity to waste. I'd hoped to purchase a few items at an antique auction in Italy next month."

Chuckles arose from several Ministers, who didn't appear to notice the way Nika shrank deeper into the witness chair.

"That's fucked up," Misha whispered.

"He doesn't mean it," Ren said. "It's all for show."

"Tell that to his daughter."

When the amusement faded, Rostova pivoted, her face flashing with unsettling excitement as she led Nika into the snare. In two long strides, she was looming over the witness and slamming her hands on the armrests.

The little-bodied Nika Dimitrovich—to Ren's eternal surprise—didn't even flinch. He saw it, then. Something swirling in those emerald eyes. Something darkening.

"Miss Dimitrovich, have you been acquainted with Dante Azzara for longer than a few days?"

From the tone of voice, the hush of the room, and the question itself, Ren knew...this was no interview. It was an interrogation.

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