Jared squeezed my hand, and I remembered too late his rule of silence. A man at the front of the opposing group ripped away his hood, revealing his enraged eyes. “You are not all owed to speak here!” he said. His body shook as he spoke.
Samuel and Claire took a defensive stance in front of Jared and me. Jared squeezed my hand again, this time in comfort. He brought my fingers to his lips and kissed them. An overwhelming urge to cry overcame me, and although I begged myself not to, my eyes fil ed with salty tears and dribbled down my cheeks.
Eli casual y pushed Samuel and Claire to the side to approach me. “Look what you've done,” Eli said, lifting my chin. He used his thumbs to wipe the twin lines of tears. “Upsetting the bride on her wedding day.” He turned to the man. “Apologize, Michael, and then mind your manners for the remainder of our time here.”
Michael stood tal . “Forgive me,” he said, his body rigid with subdued rage.
I nodded once, cowering against Jared.
Samuel took a spot next to Jared, and Claire stood next to me. Eli returned to his position, but this time he stood more central between the two groups. He lowered his head and closed his eyes. The Ryel siblings, along with Samuel and the cloaked men, did the same. I fol owed suit, wondering if I looked ridiculous, or if it was expected. Jared didn’t offer a suggestion either way, so the safe option was to imitate the others.
After a short time, Eli began to speak in his usual soft, matter-of-fact tone. “Al praise to the Most High, as this is His court and His kingdom. I wil use the common tongue for our Nina, so that she may understand. I, Eliath, angel of the Divine Plan, wil act on the Lord Almighty’s behalf. My decision is final.” He glanced at both Jared and Michael. “Aggression wil not be tolerated.”
Jared and Michael nodded.
Eli looked to me, and his eyes softened. “Michael has made a claim against Jared for the death of his earthen son, Isaac.”
My first inclination was to open my mouth, but after my public reprimand from Michael, I was hesitant.
Eli sensed my fear, and smiled. “Don’t be afraid, Nina. You may speak.”
“Um….” I looked to Jared, who’d told me just the opposite just a few minutes before. Any caution was absent from his face. “Jared didn’t kil Isaac,” I said. My voice was soft, but firm. Even if I incriminated myself, I couldn’t let Jared take the blame for my actions.
Eli nodded, knowingly and patiently. “The actions leading to Isaac’s death are why we’re here, Nina. You may enter your argument in a moment. I assure you this wil be a fair proceeding.”
“Then why do Jared and Claire seem so nervous?” I said, deliberately leaving Bex’s name out. “This doesn’t feel like a casual inquiry.”
“You’re right. It’s not. The charges against Jared are very serious. A life was lost. Archs are not all owed to kill humans to protect their Taleh. Half- Breeds are exempt from our rules, as they are half human and all owed free wil . However, because Half-Breeds are privy to those rules, it is important that they not take advantage. Do you understand?”
“Y-yes,” I said, afraid to say my next words. Eli seemed to have unending patience, but I didn’t want to test it. “But…Jared didn’t kill Isaac.”
Michael’s body twitched, and he began to speak in a language so beautiful, I knew it was of Heaven. Eli interrupted.
“English, Michael. It’s polite.”
Michael sighed with frustration. “Why do you waste your time?” he said to Eli. “We don’t explain ourselves to them.”
“Patience,” Eli said simply. He looked to me, then. “Al actions leading to Isaac’s death are in review. In this case, Jared revealing himself to you plays a part. Typical y, we would trace to the beginning, and hold the individual responsible. In this case, the individual would be Jared’s father, Gabriel, for revealing himself to Lil ian Van Buren. That action ultimately resulted in Isaac’s death. But, because Gabriel has already been judged for that action, the responsibility fal s on Jared.”
I frowned, stil confused.
Eli smiled in understanding. “Think of the Garden of Eden. Our Lord judges wrongs based on chain reactions. It is the way of things.”
“You mean he holds grudges,” I said.
“No,” Eli said with a smal chuckle. “No, that is not what I mean. He considers the root of the problem when He makes a decision.”
“’The sins of the father’ type of thing?”
“It’s difficult to explain in human terms, Nina. The short answer is yes.”
Jared had made his choices, but being blamed for being the product of his parents’ love, and for me for the death of Donovan was unacceptable to me. He was my husband, after all . It was now my duty to protect him, as wel . I stood tal . “What about me?”
Jared tensed. “Nina,” he chided.
I glanced at Jared, but didn’t heed his warning. “On grounds that my father made choices that could have been the cause of everything that’s happened, and the fact that I am the one who kill ed Isaac’s Taleh…shouldn’t I be the one on trial?”
“Yes,” Michael growled, low and frightening, through his teeth.
Eli touched my shoulder. “You are, Nina. Every choice you make. His decision for you wil be later. Jared is held to a different standard, set apart from Heaven and Earth; rules for his kind that he is aware of. Now,” he smiled with kindness and maybe a bit of amusement, “if you are satisfied, we wil continue.”
Knowing that even if I did come to understand, I would never agree, I nodded. The expression on Eli’s face told me that he was aware of my feelings, and he appreciated that I was wil ing to let him move forward.
A new level of intensity weighed on everyone—everyone but Eli, who seemed impervious. Michael’s chest heaved as he readied himself to make his case and avenge Isaac’s death. As Michael took a step forward, his smal army lifted the cloaks from their faces. I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised. I expected them all to look like Michael: Dark eyes and hair. Instead they more closely resembled Claire. A few of them looked upon me with curiosity, others with disdain, but mostly they seemed to be there out of duty and not personal reasons. That logic went against why Claire and Samuel appeared so uneasy.
Eli spoke. “Michael….”
“Isaac had no choice!” he said. “He was important. He was given gifts unlike any Half-Breed. The choices of his Taleh do not justify his death!”
Eli nodded. “Jared….”
Jared showed no emotion. “The choices of our Talehs never justify our deaths, but it is the duty and curse that we must accept to be obedient.”
Michael shifted his weight. “What do you know about duty, Half-Breed?”
Blood rushed to my cheeks. “How dare you,” I seethed.
“Nina,” Jared warned.
“Your son—the one with such gifts—was also half human. I suppose since Jared doesn’t support his Taleh living a life of crime and serving a demon, he doesn’t take his duty seriously?” I said, my temper temporarily removing any thoughts of my own safety.
A deep line formed between Michael’s brow, and his eyes glistened with anger. “My son was not as fortunate as Gabe’s. He accepted his fate and made the best of it. We cannot interfere with the free wil of humans. It is against His wil .”
“So is serving the other side,” I grumbled.
“Nina!” Jared growled.
Michael jerked forward, and arms burst from the long, black sleeves of cloaks behind him as hands held him at bay. Simultaneously, Samuel angled his body toward Jared in a protective stance. He didn’t crouch, as I had seen Claire do so many times before when she protected me.
Samuel would not fight his brothers, but he wouldn’t all ow them to harm us.
Claire leaned against my arm, and whispered in my ear. “Shut up, stupid. You’re not helping.”
“She should not speak here!” Michael said, jerking away from his all ies.
“Enough,” Eli said, his voice calm and even. “Nina’s fate is affected. She is all owed an argument,” he said, looking to me. “Your thoughts have been considered. That wil be all .”
For the first time, I didn’t feel Eli’s bias. I nodded quickly, showing my obedience with a smal step back.
“Claire….” Eli said, moving the trial forward.
“The truth is, Isaac and Donovan were working with Shax, and they were there to kill Nina, in effect to kill Jared,” she said in her no-nonsense way.
“Eli, it was going to be Donovan or Nina. Isaac or Jared. If you ask me, the best man won.”
Her words stung Michael, but he didn’t argue.
Eli’s eyes scanned the looming angels behind Michael. “Do any of your supporters wish to enter opinion?”
Michael shook his head. “It is my claim.”
“And what exactly is your claim?” Bex asked.
Michael’s eyes narrowed, staring directly at Jared’s younger brother. “That he murdered my son.”
Claire took a step forward. “Your son murdered Nina’s father.”
When recognition hit that Claire was speaking of my father, my knees buckled, and Jared tightened his grip to keep me on my feet.
“W-What?” I said, my voice barely a whisper.
Jared leaned into my cheek, his nose grazing my ear. “Donovan shot your father. Isaac was with him.”
My eyes widened, focusing on Michael. “You want to blame Gabe and Jared? You come here, interrupt our wedding day, yel at me, accuse us of murder, and your son was an accessory to the cause of all of this?”
Michael’s dark eyes darted from me to Eli.
Eli shrugged. “She has a point.”
Michael’s jaw dropped. “Isaac did not to deserve to die. He was a good son. He accepted the curse and honored his duties.”
“Michael,” Samuel said in his deep, firm voice.
Michael stepped toward Eli. “Gabriel’s son should be punished! He all owed his Taleh to kill my son! Rebecca’s son!”
Eli looked to the ground in thought. “Rebecca was unhappy with Isaac’s choices, was she not?”
Michael’s eyes flickered to each of us. “I demand Jared be punished for taking Isaac’s life.”
Samuel spoke again. “Michael….”
“Jared should be kill ed, and leave his Taleh to the savages,” Michael said, pointing to Jared.
“Michael…” Samuel repeated, this time with a low growl.
“An eye for an eye, Eli! I demand it!” Michael said, his fists bal ed at his sides.
“MICHAEL!” Samuel boomed. The earth trembled when he spoke, and my hands flew to my ears.
Eli watched the interaction between Samuel and Michael for a moment, and then spoke. “Okay. all right. I’ve heard enough from each side. Only one argument remains.”
We all looked to one another, wondering who was left.
“My apologies,” a warm voice spoke. It was a voice I hadn’t heard in a long time. A voice from my childhood.
Jared’s hand was stil in mine, and the moment the voice could be heard, his hand went limp. “Dad?” he said.
I turned, seeing Gabe Ryel at the top of the chapel’s rock steps. He looked exactly as I remembered him: tal , his blond hair and piercing, ice-blue eyes glowing even from several feet away. A flash broke from the crowd and up the steps, and in the next moment, Claire was in her father’s arms, sobbing uncontrol ably. She pressed her cheek against his chest, whispering something I couldn’t understand. Gabe bowed his head, spoke something back, and then he kissed his daughter’s forehead. They descended the stairs together, and approached Bex.
Gabe offered a smal smile to his youngest son, who fel against him with a clap.
My mouth fel open, and I immediately searched Jared’s face for a reaction. There was none.
Gabe’s expression turned remorseful. “I’m sorry for your son, Michael. You and I are in unique positions…to know love for a child. You and I agree that if we could change the outcome, we would make it so.”
Eli reached out to Gabe. “It’s important to remember that it is in the height of adversary that we must come together. Michael, you’ve lost your son. Your widow has now lost her husband and her son. It is unfortunate.”
Michael bowed his head.
Gabe approached Michael, pulling him into his arms. “We need you on our side, Brother.”
Michael shrugged out of his grasp.
“Eli?” Michael pleaded.
Eli offered a smal , comforting smile. “You already know the answer.”
Michael shot an accusing glare at Jared.
Jared’s brows pul ed in. “I didn’t want Isaac to die, Michael. I swear to you, I wish it hadn’t happened.
“Very wel , then.” He gestured to the cloaked angels, and they all disappeared into the darkness.
Eli clapped his hands together, lacing his fingers together. “Impeccable timing, as always, Gabriel.”
Gabe nodded. His eyes paused on me for a moment before fixing on Jared. “This isn’t your fault, Jared.”
Jared didn’t speak. His face tense, his dark eyes meeting the eyes of his father, he was paralyzed. The scene brought back memories of the moment I saw my father for the last time, and I ached for Jared. He would have to say goodbye a second time.
“Jared,” Gabe began, “it’s not your fault. You’ve done everything right.”
Jared’s head dipped slightly as he attempted a nod.
“Son….” Gabe cupped both of his hands on Jared’s shoulders. “I’m proud of you.”
Jared choked, and his body gave way, all owing him to fal against his father. I covered my mouth, unaccustomed to seeing Jared relinquish control of his emotions. They embraced, and Jared’s knuckles turned white as he held Gabe in his arms. When Gabe released him, Jared used his thumb and index finger to make a quick swipe of his wet eyes.