8 | Strange House

Start from the beginning

Romanovich stopped at a door on the second level, a secret place tucked away in a corner of this Gothic world.

"He had this room made a few years ago, in case you decided to live with him."

Nika floated inside. It was less grand than those downstairs but in no way humble. Broad and square, with doors leading to a balcony, and a large bed centered between two paintings of distant ancestors.

Live with Markos? she thought.

"He honestly thought I'd leave Konstantin?"

"Perhaps he doesn't fully understand a keeper's devotion to the Vigil."

She scoffed. "My devotion isn't to the Vigil. It's to Lu."

After all, the only reason Nika wanted to join the league of protectors was to be Lu's keeper. She trusted no one more than herself to defend her sister-friend.

And a lot of good that did!

She shut down the heinous thought, feeling the keeper's attention.

"What?" she urged, shifting from foot to foot.

His only response was an imperturbable frown.

Though she wouldn't exactly call him handsome, Romanovich's face was difficult to ignore. He might have been chiseled by a Renaissance sculptor, the sole intention being to capture a countenance whose only friend was war.

Nika envisioned it with ease—a lone survivor on a fresh battlefield, grimly observing the smoke and corpses. It was as if the word warrior had been invented for him.

"Why were you carrying a gun during the attack?"

Nika blinked. How did he know about that? She'd been sure to hide any evidence of the pistol, fearing that Headmaster Kovachev would punish her most severely for it.

Her bewilderment must have been evident in her face, because Romanovich explained, "There were traces of belabane and gunpowder at the site. And your roommate—she sold you out."

Damn it, Jade.

Nika observed him speculatively, and unsurprisingly, he didn't balk. She didn't think anything could fluster this man.

Nika, however, found herself increasingly uncomfortable under the weight of his gaze. His eyes were forged from steel and obsidian, harsh and dark as they pinned her into place. A perfect match for those rock-hard, perpetually angry features.

"Am I going to get in trouble for this?" she asked.

"That depends on whether or not you tell me the truth."

She released a long breath from her nose. "It was me."

He eased back into the door until it clicked shut. His impressive physique, adorned in all-black attire, harshly contrasted the white wood and elegant carvings.

"Why would you feel the need for a gun? Konstantin has good security."

"Obviously, it isn't good enough."

She waited for him to scowl or return her attack—something, anything. He was a monster of a man. There was no way he didn't have a secret rage boiling beneath his skin.

But despite his appearance and that gruff, Russian accent, he remained calm and said, "Did someone threaten you?"

Nika's breath hitched. It seemed he'd done his research on her. Though it wouldn't have been entirely absurd to assume that half of the students and staff at Konstantin Academy despised her. After all, she was the world's most infamous halfblood.

"Who?" Romanovich said, his frown deepening.

"There are a few kids that...mess with me sometimes. I'm not particularly fond of getting beaten up, so I got the gun. Not to use it on them. Just to scare them off."

"Give me their names."

"No."

He shook his head, and a crack appeared in that keeper's mask of his, revealing confusion, curiosity, pity. Nika forced herself to disregard them.

"You can't tell Markos about this," she said.

"If you've been harassed at that school, he deserves to know."

"He's just as guilty as they are," she hissed. "None of this would be happening to me if he hadn't declared to the whole world that he had a bastard kid. Sometimes, I wish he'd just given me away when I was a baby."

Romanovich prowled a step closer, growling, "Don't say that."

"It's tr—"

"It's not true, and you know it."

Nika studied the threatening stance, the scowl etched into his alabaster skin. There it was, that secret rage. It was almost as if he'd taken her words personally.

"Your father chose not to abandon you. Some people aren't as lucky."

"Some people like you?" she wondered aloud.

Romanovich flinched.

Interesting, Nika thought.

The keeper slipped back into his usual composed state and said, "Where is it—the gun?"

Despite herself, Nika glanced at the bag she'd discarded on the floor. Romanovich didn't miss a beat.

He held out a massive hand. "Give it to me."

"Why?"

His black eyes scanned her from head to foot, then up again. "I'm friends with the investigator working the case. I can make sure no one else discovers that you own a firearm. Including Markos."

"So I won't get in trouble?"

"No. But only if you give it to me right now."

With a sigh, Nika fished the gun from her bag and dropped it into Romanovich's palm.

As he turned to leave, she blurted, "Why help me?"

He didn't meet her gaze as he said, "Because it isn't your fault."

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