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I just don’t know if I buy it.

Because I still can’t forget that this is the woman who slashed Jaxon’s face so severely that she scarred a vampire. The woman who took him away from Hudson without a backward glance even as Hudson sobbed for the little brother he loved.

And yet she is winking at the crowd. She is smiling and thanking people by name and even cracking a joke or two just to make her public adore her a tiny bit more.

It’s such a strange dichotomy that I’m reminded of an Andy Warhol painting. He did the same image in four different—usually tertiary—colors because each person’s brain sees colors differently, and it is up to the brain to make its color perception fact. Looking at this woman, watching her after seeing the way she was in Hudson’s memory yesterday, makes me wonder which shades of her my brain is really seeing…and which one I should make my reality.

Until I can figure out the answer, I think it behooves me to stay very, very far away from the queen. I’m guessing her name isn’t Delilah for nothing.

Eventually, she manages to thank everyone in existence, but it’s not until she starts talking about the prize that I lean forward, breath held and eyes peeled. Let it be the bloodstone, I beg the universe. Please, please, please let it be the bloodstone. Don’t let Byron’s parents have changed their mind.

“I know that the usual prize for the annual Katmere Ludares tournament is a trophy and a small monetary prize to be divided among the winning team.” She smiles at the audience and seems to enjoy the sudden uptick in enthusiasm that seems to fill the auditorium. “But this year, we thought we’d do something a little different, a little bigger”—she waits for the spontaneous applause to die down—“since we have a big occasion to celebrate as well.” She pauses to lean in herself, like she’s about to share a secret with her most favorite loyal subjects. My stomach bottoms out, partly because I realize I might be the occasion she’s referring to and partly because it terrifies me to see just how anxious everyone is to know what she has to say.

“Of course,” she continues with a big, wide smile, “you already have up-close-and-personal knowledge of the occasion I’m referring to—the discovery of the first gargoyle in a thousand years!” Again she looks around the crowd, and again I slump a little farther down in my seat. “The Circle and I are thrilled to welcome Grace Foster into our world.

“Welcome, Grace. I want you to know how very excited the Circle is to meet you.” She lifts her hands in the gesture for applause, and the audience gives her what she’s after, even though it’s suddenly nowhere near as enthusiastic as it was. Which is okay with me, honestly.

Again, she waits for the noise to die down before continuing. “Now, let’s talk about the prize—everybody’s favorite part, including mine.”

She reaches into the box and pulls out a large, deep-red geode, as richly colored as the blood that formed it. It glows—whether from the light reflecting off its angles or from within, I’m not sure—but it is absolutely breathtaking. “For the team that wins this year’s very special Ludares tournament, we offer up this rare and beautiful bloodstone, donated by the distinguished Lord family, in fact originally gifted to them from our own personal royal collection!”

The auditorium goes wild, teenagers and faculty alike applauding and stomping and cheering her generosity. She loves it, of course, and so does the king, who sweeps in to take the microphone from her.

Looking at him up there, I realize he’s nearly as tall as Jaxon and Hudson, and probably as muscular, though the three-piece suit in bright blue that he’s wearing makes it hard to be sure. But that’s where the similarity ends. Sure, Hudson gets his blue eyes from his father, but while they are the exact same shade of cobalt, they couldn’t be more different. Hudson’s are warm and alive, dancing with humor and intelligence even when he’s angry with me. Cyrus’s eyes are just as alive, but they are constantly moving, constantly observing, constantly helping him calculate and adjust.

Everything about Cyrus screams that he is as much a showman as his wife. But unlike Delilah, who works the audience, Cyrus seems happy just to bathe in their adoration. And unlike Delilah, I don’t have to think about who this man is or what he wants. Even without living through Hudson’s painful memory last night, I know Cyrus is a textbook narcissist, one who cares about nothing more than his own power and prestige.

One who is willing to turn his own son into the greatest weapon the world has ever seen if it means he can use him to increase that adoration.

Delilah fascinates me even as I refuse to trust her. Cyrus just disgusts me.

My gaze darts to Hudson, concerned about what he must be thinking or feeling. But he might as well be watching the Home Shopping Network for all the emotion he’s displaying. On a day when they’re selling cookware or something equally as useless to a vampire.

I turn back to Cyrus—who is like a cobra, because it serves everyone best if you don’t take your eyes off him for longer than a second or two—just as he starts to speak. But even as I do, I reach for the armrest between our seats and lay my hand next to Hudson’s, so that just our pinkie fingers are brushing.

Touching but not.

“What an incredible prize we have for you!” He moves across the stage like he owns it, like he was born for this, his accent adding a sophistication to his words I know he doesn’t deserve. Suddenly he pauses and sweeps his hand in front of him to encompass the entire audience. “As you all know, a bloodstone is an incredibly rare and powerful magical object. But I want to let you in on a little secret. This is not just any bloodstone!” He holds the collective breath of everyone in the palm of his hand, and he knows it. He even goes so far as to wink at Delilah before continuing, “As my beautiful wife Queen Delilah mentioned, this particular bloodstone was gifted to the Lords from our personal royal collection. Truly a prize beyond measure for our winning team this year because”—he pauses as the auditorium erupts in cheers again, a wide smile never wavering on his handsome face—“because this bloodstone is in fact the most powerful bloodstone to ever exist.”

He leans forward, his whole demeanor changing as he grips the microphone with both hands and his tone grows somber. “As you all know, we lost our firstborn son sixteen months ago. Hudson was a lot of things—a misguided youth, to be certain—but also the joy of his mother’s and my life. And he was also the most powerful vampire ever born.”

He smiles softly, as though remembering Hudson fondly. But I’ve seen the real Cyrus. He’s not proud of his son. He’s proud that he created him. “I still remember the first time he used his gift to persuade the kitchen staff to swap out my evening blood for Kool-Aid.” He chuckles now and shakes his head, as though a loving parent were remembering his child’s antics, and the auditorium laughs with him, surely just as he planned.

Hudson, meanwhile, is eerily still during this recitation, and I have the distinct feeling Cyrus isn’t sharing the full story with his audience.

“He wasn’t as amused then, as he’s implying, huh?” I venture a guess.

Hudson snort-laughs. “Sure. If you consider banning me from feeding for a month as amused.”

My jaw falls open as I gasp. “He starved you for a month?”

His gaze never leaves his father. “It’s no big deal. We’re immortal, so it’s not like I was going to die. It’s just not very comfortable.”

Without thinking, I lay my hand on his, but this time he flinches and pulls away. I watch as he crosses his arms over his chest, like just the suggestion of openness is too much for him right now.

Not that I blame him. His father is as close to a monster as I can possibly imagine.

Cyrus, meanwhile, is having a great time as he continues. “When Hudson was born, we all knew he was special. So we had his blood stored in a bloodstone for eternity—the very bloodstone, in fact, that the Lords have donated for this year’s tournament!”

He pauses, arms up, as he waits for the audience to erupt. A portion of them do, cheering and whistling at his words. Others slouch down in their chairs, try to look invisible, like they’re terrified of attracting his or his dead son’s attention. I expect that to piss him off, but Cyrus pauses, stands up to his full height again, and bathes in their adoration and their terror. It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of attention he’s getting, as long as he’s getting a lot of it.

It’s the most bizarre and terrible thing I think I’ve ever seen.

“What better way to celebrate this amazing tournament?” Cyrus continues. “And also, of course, to welcome the newest member of our paranormal community—the first gargoyle born in over one thousand years. Mate to my son, niece to our amazing headmaster. How lucky are we to be here to witness this miracle? I can’t wait to meet our young Grace.”

Where Hudson was still before, now he has a violent reaction to his father’s words, everything in him rising up to reject what Cyrus said, especially as people around the audience start looking for me.

“Get down, Grace,” he hisses. “Pull your robe up around your face. I don’t want him to see you.”

“If I pull my robe up around my face, I’m going to look a lot more obvious than I do now,” I shoot back. “Just chill. The assembly is almost over.”

On the stage, Cyrus is introducing Nuri and Aidan Montgomery, a mixed-race couple who I realize with some astonishment are Flint’s parents. The witches, Imogen and Linden Choi, are next, followed by werewolves Angela and Willow Martinez.

As I stare at the eight people onstage, I realize for the first time that each is with their mate. “I forgot only mated pairs can be on the Circle,” I whisper to Hudson. “I can’t remember, is that a law?”

“Pretty much,” he answers, completely disgruntled. “You don’t have to be mated to get on the Council, but you have to pass a Trial that is impossible to pass by yourself. And since the only person who can help you in the Trial is your mate…you see the conundrum.”