21.3 | Speaking Stones and Guilty Ghosts

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"You've got a lot of explaining to do," Misha said as he walked past Ren without an invitation. Early morning sunlight chased him inside like the shadow of a truth to be unveiled. "Or else I'm gonna think you've lost your mind. Pretty sure I heard you say 'talking necklace' on the phone."

Ren cleared his throat. "I did."

Because Nika had kept the red-haired lady's amulet, because she claimed it could be a tool for finding Lu. Misha, being the investigator and also someone who wouldn't misuse the knowledge, deserved to know about it. So Ren had summoned him to Dimitrovich Manor.

Misha raised his eyebrows.

"Sorry for not explaining," said Ren. "I thought it would be best to handle this in person."

As they took a seat, Misha squinted. "Why do you look hungover?"

Considering the fact that a set of magical claws had shuffled the contents of his head, he supposed there were worse descriptions.

"You're still wearing the same clothes as last night. Haven't you gone home?"

"No."

Ren scrubbed his face. There was little he wouldn't give to take a nap right now. And shower. Hell, he would nap inside the shower as soon as he got the chance.

"What's wrong?" Misha asked.

He regarded his friend for a long moment, considering. And ultimately, Ren decided to tell him. Everything. By the time he was finished, Misha's face was blank with disbelief.

"I asked Nika why she'd gone to the shop," Ren was saying, "but she hasn't been keen on sharing. I would've pressured her more, but..."

I don't want her to be afraid of me? Or hate me more than she already does?

He hadn't dared to confront her since the medic had left several hours ago, hadn't known what to do with his guilt, or how to act around Nika. Being her keeper was going to be a hundred times harder now that she didn't trust him. Perhaps she'd never trusted him, though. Ren didn't know why the idea bothered him so much.

"I told you," Misha exclaimed. "Nika and my dad—they're working together."

"Slow down, Misha. I'm not sure about Emil. I hope it isn't true, but the current evidence makes him suspicious."

"And Nika?"

Ren folded his hands in his lap, remembering the shape of Nika's neck trapped inside them.

He sucked in a sharp breath, and the image vanished. "I can't say if she has a connection to your father, but I know she isn't allied with the Volkari. Her nearly dying last night proves that she isn't on good terms with the woman who kidnapped Lu."

Misha's knee bounced rapidly. "Or that's how they made it seem, so you wouldn't suspect anything."

Misha's eagerness to mark her as guilty was vexing but understandable. This case was monumental because of the conflict flaring between the Daemonstri races, and it was also personal. Ren knew him, knew he needed to know the depth of Emil's involvement. And such desperation led to sloppiness.

"As much as I trust your instincts," Ren said slowly, "Nika would never wish Luiza Lazarov any harm. She says she's trying to rescue her. But the only way we'll find out more is by asking Nika directly."

"You're going to confront her?"

"We are confronting her. Right now."

For that was the pitter-patter of her feet in the upstairs hallways. Ren bolted from his seat and met her as she descended the stairs.

He couldn't help scrutinizing. The minor cuts and bruises seemed to have healed, no doubt a result of the prescribed blood pills. She still wore the sling for her elbow, and the markings around her neck were barely shadows beneath the skin. Even though she looked much better, his guilt wouldn't relent. Especially at the sight of the odious pendant, which Nika had wrapped inside a handkerchief.

Before Ren's thoughts could produce the image of her struggling for breath, he extended a hand in a silent offer. He hoped she didn't notice how it trembled.

Nika stalled, eyebrow arching. "You want me to read your palm or something?"

"I thought you might need help," he said with a frown.

A mischievous smile. "It appears you've finally found those manners."

Ren didn't know whether to be eased or appalled. From her relaxed manner and ever-watchful eyes, he had to wonder... Was her teasing mood because she simply couldn't help herself, or was she trying to make him feel better?

When Nika accepted his hand and allowed him to lead her the rest of the way—though not without mocking his mammoth strides—he concluded it was a little of both.

But as they entered the parlor where Misha stood, her mild demeanor suddenly vanished, replaced by a predatory glare. A falcon spying a fish.

She drew to a halt, slowly turning toward Ren. "What's he doing here?"

"Let's sit dow—"

"Ren," she warned.

"He's going to help us."

She went stiff, and Ren could have sworn he felt those emerald eyes cutting straight through his soul.

"How much did you tell him?"

"Everything," Misha answered. He sauntered toward them, hands resting in his pockets.

Several moments of silence passed, during which Nika and Misha just stared at one another in silent conversation. It didn't take long for Ren to realize that they knew something he didn't.

"What's going on?" he pressed.

"Should you tell him or should I?" Nika said. At Misha's hesitation, she pounced: "The other day, he interrogated me about—"

"It wasn't an interrogation," Misha corrected, "I just had some questions."

"About what?" said Ren.

Misha hung his head. "About what she'd been doing at the Vigil base."

Nika crossed her arms. "Don't forget the part when you accused me of secretly meeting with your father. As if he's the bad guy."

Now...now Ren understood. An ache bloomed in his temples as he shook his head. "Why, Misha? Why didn't you come to me first?"

"We talked about it later that night."

"But the damage was already done," Ren said through clenched teeth. "You shouldn't have—"

Misha threw an accusatory finger at Nika. "I'm not apologizing until she proves herself innocent!"

"Innocent of what?" Nika yelled.

"Of helping the Volkari steal Konstantin's journal and kidnap Luiza Lazarov! Of doing my dad's dirty work!"

Ren held his breath, watching her react. Rage slowly settled on her face, giving him time to throw his body between them before she took a threatening step forward.

"I don't have the energy or the patience for this bullshit," he growled, "so both of you sit down and let me do the talking."

With an exasperated breath, Misha obeyed, and Nika's hostile gaze lingered as she sat opposite to him.

"I just have one question," she said. "Why the hell would you think that Emil Kovac and I are conspiring with Volkari?"

Ren exchanged a look with Misha, and after determining that he had permission to reveal their findings, he turned to her and replied, "Three days before Konstantin's journal was stolen, Misha overheard Emil talking on the phone..."

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