9.3 | A World Soaked in Blood

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Nika's hands curled into fists. "No."

"And yet, by giving him directions to the library, you aided in his efforts to steal the journal."

"Unwittingly."

"Did you lure your other friends to the abandoned cabins?"

"That's just—"

"Are you the reason Luiza Lazarov got kidnapped?"

Nika was trembling. With fear? Anger? Ren couldn't detect it.

The Prime Minister released the armrests and stood straight again, mouth twisting into a vile grin.

"Are you a traitor, Nika Dimitrovich?"

Nika was on her feet in a flash. Ren—along with the rest of the audience—jolted at the rage that seemed to pour out of her, hot as molten iron.

She was half-wild, this novice. Ren wondered if Markos might have found her in some far-off land because, in this moment, she seemed more jungle-cat than girl.

"No!"

The word boomed through the Hall of Valentine, and yet, Rostova didn't shy away. She raised her hand out before Nika and turned to her purist allies.

"This is why those with tainted blood don't deserve to be in the Vigil. How can we trust halfbloods to protect us if they're cozying up to the enemy?"

Ren saw Nika's restraint withering, and he wondered if she might have attacked.

Jungle-cat indeed.

But before any violence occurred, Emil Kovac bolted out of his seat and quickly wedged himself between them.

"Irina, need I remind you that Nika is one of the most promising novices at Konstantin Academy? She's in the top ranks of her Nefili class. She's proven herself to be a skilled fighter, and she's passed the psychological exams without a single red flag."

Misha was tense at Ren's side, leaning over the balcony railing so far that Ren thought he might have fallen off if he wasn't careful. There was a fleeting thought to push him, just to see the looks on the Minister's faces. But he only elbowed his friend and the young man took a step back.

In the pit below, Emil held his arms out, either to shield Nika or to hold her back.

"I think I'll continue the questions from here," he announced.

A moment of tension followed, a silence Ren could almost touch. Then Rostova ascended the platform to her emblazoned chair and gracefully took a seat.

Nika sunk down again as Emil turned to face her.

"On the night of the attack," said the High Keeper, "did you see the Volkari take Luiza Lazarov?"

Misha leaned forward again, and Ren didn't bother warning him this time. Even if they were like brothers. Sometimes, Misha had to learn from his stupidity.

Nika opened her mouth, then hesitated, brows furrowing. "I think so."

"Please explain."

"There was a woman—one with bright red hair. She appeared out of nowhere, then took Lu and ran into the woods. Three of the wolves followed her."

"And was this woman a Volkari?"

"Maybe. She didn't shift, and her eyes were blue. Not gold. I just assumed..."

Emil looked like he was thinking, trying to solve a puzzle. But Ren wondered why he'd begun with the attack. It wasn't like Emil to disregard something as important as the journal thief. Perhaps it was because of Azzara's connection to the Vigil.

"Do you think it's possible that this woman isn't a wolf? Perhaps she was working alone."

"I don't know," Nika replied, shaking her head. "Dante said he needed one of us. It seems unlikely that the red-haired lady wasn't there to help him."

"Unlikely, but possible." Emil shrugged. "Perhaps the wolves didn't have anything to do with Luiza's kidnapping."

The moment Emil had said it, Misha turned around and darted for the exit.

Ren whispered, "Where are you—"

But Misha was already gone.

With a sigh, Ren turned his attention on the interview below. But his thoughts roared.

Something wasn't right about Emil's questions. And no one had mentioned the Volkari curse, or the fact that magic was real.

Ren shouldn't have been shocked. The Ministry didn't want it to seem like they'd provoked the attack.

But it was too important if they were going to rescue Luiza Lazarov. Couldn't they sacrifice their idealized perfection for the sake of an innocent young woman's life?

It was a fair question, but Ren feared he wouldn't approve of the answer.

When the interview was over, Nika's lungs screamed for release. She couldn't breathe, and the Hall of Valentine was growing smaller. She needed to get out.

She bolted through the door and into the antechamber, where she made a direct route to the restroom. She held herself over the sink, inhaling and exhaling again and again. If she was going to vomit, it would have to be here, because she didn't think her trembling legs would carry her safely to the toilet.

Quickly turning on the faucet, Nika splashed water onto her cheeks, eyes, and forehead. The coolness of it immediately soothed her, and she huffed in relief that she wouldn't plunge into a breakdown.

Not today. Not ever.

After cutting off the water, she gathered a handful of paper towels to dry her face, then scrutinized herself in the mirror. Dark circles gathered beneath her eyes. Her skin was pale, dust-gold braids looking like they'd been caught in a hurricane.

She didn't know how long she stared at herself, trying to forget all that had been said and done in the interview, before the walls spoke.

"Feeling ill?"

Nika whirled toward the door to discover that the voice hadn't come from the walls, but rather a man. She might have exclaimed what the hell he was doing in a ladies' restroom, if the sight of him hadn't stolen her ability to speak.

His princely figure leaned against the door frame, and a devilish smirk hung off his chin. Not a single word could describe the harmony with which this man's face shaped itself into one entity. Skin as golden as the sun possessed a subtle, glowing halo. The inner light of an angel.

Nika was struck dumb.

When she finished gawking, the recognition clicked. This was Viktor Kostopoulos—the Rogue Minister and the only person with a more scandalous reputation than herself.

"Tell me, Nika." His voice was as slick as the rest of him, and his eyes, amber in color, shimmered seductively. "What's it like, being the world's most infamous halfblood?"

The word rocked through her like a slap on the cheek. "What's it like being the world's most infamous Minister?" she bit back.

Viktor's smile grew. "I think you could use a night of fun," he said in a dangerous purr.

Nika assessed him for a moment, then said, "As a matter of fact, I could." 

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