“He called you Snowball,” Alexei adds with a laugh. It’s a detail I’d almost forgotten, how it never snows here and my grandfather would watch me run around, my white hair blowing in the wind like dandelions. Like snow. He loved me then. But now … now I am something he despises.
He’s a smart man.
I despise me, too.
“Grace, breathe. All you have to do is breathe.”
And for a second, I let myself believe him.
I am safe, high above the city. No one can find me here. No one will get me. I can run and run and run around the wall. No one — not even my own ghosts — are fast enough to follow.
“Tell me something,” Alexei says. “About you. About the past three years. Tell me what I’ve missed.”
So I say the only thing that matters. “My mother died.”
“I know.” Alexei sounds like he now regrets asking the question. He looks out at the sea. “I wanted to go to the funeral, but my father said it wasn’t appropriate. I should have been there. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I wasn’t there either.”
He doesn’t ask me why, and I am glad. I don’t want to tell him that I was in a hospital, strapped to a bed, chemicals fogging my brain and making me dream terrible dreams.
I reach down and touch my wrists. I can still feel the cuffs of the restraints, the shearling lining that was probably soft once but had grown stiff from too many years of sweat and blood and terror. He doesn’t know that I would jump from this wall and gladly break my other leg before I would ever let my wrists be bound again.
“Grace?” Alexei says when the weight of my silence becomes too heavy.
“I saw the man who killed my mother. He’s here. I talked to him.”
I wait for Alexei to tell me that I’m wrong. I wait for his eyes to say that I’m lying. But he stays silent, watching. Listening.
So I whisper, “And he’s going to do it again.”
The lecture is supposed to come now, but it doesn’t. Alexei shifts and leans slightly forward, hands braced between us.
“And you discussed this with your grandfather?”
I shake my head. “He doesn’t believe me. But I heard it, Alexei. I swear. I saw him. And I heard him. And I —”
“I believe you.”
It’s like he’s speaking to the sea. I’m almost certain I’ve misheard him. I want to lose respect for him, call him a fool. But I just keep talking. About everything. About nothing. I tell him about the tunnels and the Scarred Man’s late-night trip to my embassy, about the new threat he poses and seeing him on the street. I talk like I’m not talking to Alexei at all.
“You should have told me,” he says when I’m finished. But Alexei doesn’t know what I know: that telling people doesn’t get you help. It gets you strapped to a bed in a psych ward. It gets you three years of looks and fears and dread.
“You wouldn’t have believed me.” My voice cracks and I hate myself for it. I hate myself so much.
“Yes, I would have. And then you wouldn’t have been on your own.”
I think about Noah and Megan and Rosie. Telling Alexei about them feels more like telling a grown-up. Like maybe I might get them in trouble. But I don’t want to hide anything from him either. So I tell him.
“Now” — I wipe my runny nose on my sleeve — “not even they believe me.”
“Listen to me, Grace. Listen to me,” he says slowly. “You don’t talk to Dominic again. You don’t go in the tunnels by yourself. You don’t go anywhere by yourself. Do you hear me? You’re going to be careful. And you’re going to include me.”
“No, Grace. You don’t get to be stubborn this time. This time you have to be safe. Okay?”
“Okay,” I say, knowing it’s bigger than me and my multitude of issues.
“From now on, we’re a team. Right?”
When the wind blows my hair across my face Alexei reaches up and tucks a piece behind my ear.
“Now, come on.” He scoots back the way we climbed up. “I guess I should walk you home.”
He doesn’t mention Jamie.
There is no lecture in his tone or his eyes. We’re almost to the embassy’s gates, and then he’s closer than he was. I feel the gate against my back. The gaslight goes dim, and there is nothing but the pounding of my heart in my chest. One more time I cannot breathe, thinking about how — right now — he doesn’t look like Alexei. He doesn’t feel like my brother’s best friend. He is old and familiar and he is new and alive. Both. I feel it now. I feel everything.
“Hey, Megan,” I say the next day.
Technically, Megan and her mom don’t live in the embassy; they reside in an apartment on the grounds. Once upon a time, these rooms were servants’ quarters for the large estate, but now they are reserved for the most essential personnel. I know Megan’s mother’s work is important. And risky. And super, super secret.
I tell myself that’s why Megan doesn’t bother asking me inside.
“What’s up?” she says, shutting the door behind her. For a moment, I wonder if there’s a boy in there. For another moment, I wonder if it’s Noah.
“I wanted to tell you something. Or a couple of things, actually.”
“Okay.” Megan doesn’t look or sound as mad as she should.
“First, I’m sorry. For not telling you about … the other times.”
She waves this away as if I might be wasting her time, so I take a deep breath and plow on.
“And the second thing is that I figured out where the Scarred Man went the night I followed him. I know where … if you’re still interested.”
“Where?” Megan asks.
“Here,” I tell her. “He was meeting someone here. In the US embassy. In the basement.”
It takes a long while for Megan to speak. And when she does, she just says, “Come on.”
“What’s going on?” I ask, but Megan keeps walking.
We’re climbing up a busy street, heading toward the palace. Something big is drawing her up this hill, and I am almost afraid to follow.
“You know how we’ve been wondering who the Scarred Man’s target might be?” Megan says to me.