28.2 | Requiems for Lonely Souls

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Every night since Laguna's assassination, Nika had dreamt of Miles. Sometimes, he rose from the grave like a zombie, screeching and snarling and spewing spittle. Others, he drank her blood or ripped out her heart.

She could only attribute the nightmare to recent events, and perhaps the fear of another friend's death. Or maybe she was just going mad.

Whatever the case, as morning approached, she decided sleeping was pointless and opted instead to call her father.

They'd also spoken the day before, a conversation during which Nika was forced to explain everything that had happened in his absence. Markos wanted to come home, despite having been ordered by the Prime Minister to stay in Romania. Nika convinced him that she would be fine on her own, and in truth, she felt better knowing there was vast land and sea separating him from the vengeful Volkari.

As they talked, she wandered around the gardens of Dimitrovich Manor, needing to occupy both her mind and her body since she was forbidden from leaving the property. But all of that was forgotten when she drew to a halt near a large, red stain on the concrete path, where Sokol had died defending her.

She wondered when the young woman's funeral would be, and if she'd be permitted to attend.

"Nika?" Markos's voice yanked her back to the here and now. "You wanted to ask me something?"

Tearing her eyes away, Nika inhaled deeply. "Yeah... It's about my mom."

"We've been through this. Your mother doesn't want her identity to be exposed, but when she's ready, you will be the first person to know about it."

"At least tell me how you met her?"

A sigh. "It was when I first became a Minister. My work brings me all over the world, and she was doing security during one of my travels."

"So she's a keeper?"

"Yes. Same as all Nefili."

Nika gnawed on her lip. "Are you sure she was a Nefili? Maybe she lied to you."

"Where is this coming from?"

Answering that question with honesty was not an option. What would Markos do if he suspected that Nika wasn't a member of the guardian race?

She knew that he loved her, though his methods of showing it were flawed. And he'd made it clear how much he despised their estrangement—a result of the indifferent facade he'd carefully built so people wouldn't realize how much he truly cared about her.

Being a father to the Halfblood Bastard was bad enough, but if she was also a wolf? Perhaps he'd finally cast her off, as so many people had encouraged him to do.

So Nika said, "Nowhere. Forget I asked."

"I know for certain that your mother was a Nefili," Markos said with conviction. "And if she wasn't one, I would've told you."

So it was Markos's word against Dante's. The man who brought her into this world, or the thief who'd done nothing but deceive her.

"You don't believe me?" Markos asked.

"I just...heard a rumor. It was foolish of me not to trust you."

During the ensuing silence, she plunked into a seat embedded in a secluded corner of the yard. With the toe of her sneaker, she pushed herself back and forth in the swinging bench and studied the arching structure around it.

Ivy and flowered plants had been weaved through a criss-crossing wooden frame. Beyond it, a towering willow's supple branches dangled over the paved sitting space, and the scents of a hundred blossoms danced with morning dew. As nearby wind chimes tinkled and the breeze that gave them a voice ruffled her hair, Nika felt at peace for the first time in a long time.

"Sometimes," Markos said quietly, "I wish things could be different. That your mother had stayed. That we were all human. But these are the cards we've been dealt, Nika. We have to make the most of them."

"Then maybe we should change the game."

"Careful." She frowned at the smile in his voice. "You're beginning to sound like a politician."

"Oldbloods save me."

Voices sputtered in the background, one of them calling Markos's name. "I have to go. The Daemonstri King has summoned me."

Nika's heart sank. With Lu gone, Elliot being forbidden to contact her, and Ren ignoring her existence, Markos was all she had left. A part of her wanted to ask him not to go, to distract her from the clamor of her own mind.

"I lo—" He stopped himself, inhaling sharply. "Goodbye, Nika."

Then the line went dark, leaving only a dull ringing in its wake. Nika held the phone to her ear as a knife of pain sliced her open.

I know it might not seem like it, but I love you.

Stop saying that! It only makes me hate you more!

It appeared she'd gotten her wish. Only now did she realize how foolish a desire it had been.

She stared into nothingness for a small eternity, and the only thing that snapped her attention into place was the distant ringing of church bells. It was followed by the wails of a melancholy funeral dirge. A final farewell to Minister Laguna, a requiem for her lonely soul.

Somehow, it seemed appropriate for Nika, too.

Most of headquarters' four thousand citizens had gone to the funeral in the center of town. Nika, however, hadn't been invited.

Not that she had any intention to go, anyway. She couldn't even leave Lirovin Square without being hounded by reporters or interrogated by the keepers in Rostova's pockets. She'd attempted to visit Elliot once, but Minister Mirza had all but chased her off his property. Elliot had even been banned from basic communication. He'd scarcely departed from his own house, too.

It was almost comical that Nika missed his goofy charm. Not too long ago, she'd hated him more than anything in the world.

Her desire to see him wasn't just a craving for company, though.

She'd hoped to continue working with him to find clues from the companion journal—about Tatiana, Asteroth, the Volkari curse, the moonstone ring... Surely, he could find something to use as an offensive strike.

If Rostova and Mirza had upheld their end of the bargain, then the diary still belonged to Elliot, and Nika was certain that he'd hunt for answers with or without her. But after two days, she wasn't sure it even mattered anymore.

It had been one whole month since Lu's abduction, which meant today was a full moon. The Volkari would surely take advantage of their wolf forms, and the lethal bites that came with.

Would they be so stupid as to attack headquarters again? Nika hoped so; maybe killing a few of them would make her feel better.

One whole month...

An involuntary hiccup rattled through her, and wave of despair that followed couldn't be subdued. Hugging her knees to her chest, she let the tears drain, and they did so with speed and ruthlessness.

She'd been holding it all in, waiting until she found Lu. Because that was the only way Nika Dimitrovich would cry. Lu was her sister, her friend. Her place of refuge.

But now... Now, Nika was desperate. So she cried and prayed to the Oldbloods for help.

Just one miracle.

They didn't answer. They probably never would. Which left her to the harrowing plan-but-not-a-plan she'd concocted these past couple of days.

Whatever it was, Nika's chances of success were slim to none. At the beginning of this mission, she'd believed she could do it all alone. In hindsight, she wouldn't have gotten anywhere without Jade's sleuthing, Elliot's expertise on language, Misha's resources and connections, and Ren's tactical thinking and body mass.

Now there was just her. The world's most infamous halfblood—lone crusader.

At least I have speed, she told herself. And the guts to do what no one else will. At least it can't any get worse.

Indeed, she had nothing more to lose, and perhaps that was what made her so dangerous...

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