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No doubt they also realized that an annihilation like the one they had planned for the summit gathering could very well incite full-scale war between the vampire nation and mankind.


War that could last for decades. Or longer.


"No sacrifice is too great for the ultimate cause of a lasting peace," the leader of the conspirators reminded them. "A true peace that can only be had with the Order out of our way."


The group answered in unanimous agreement. Then someone began to chant the cabal's motto: "Pax opus nostrum."


One by one, each member joined in, until the phrase rumbled so loudly, Benson worried Martha might hear it through the walls of his secret hideaway in their ill-gotten abode. But he knew all eyes were on him, so he picked up the chant too, murmuring the Latin phrase that proclaimed "Peace is our work."


"Until tonight, my brethren," said the synthesized, inhuman voice Benson would hear in his nightmares for probably the rest of his days. "And a word of advice, Director. The eyes of Opus Nostrum are everywhere. Don't even think about betraying our trust again."


Benson nodded. He waited until the group signed off, then he closed his computer and exhaled, collapsing in a boneless heap onto the top of his desk. "What have I done?" he moaned into the crook of his elbow. "God, forgive me. What have I done?"


Chapter Twenty-Four


MIRA HAD JUST TURNED ON THE SHOWER WHEN A KNOCK sounded on her bedroom door at the Order's mansion. Still dressed in the clothes she'd arrived in a few hours before, she cut the tap in the bathroom and walked out to see who was there.


"Nathan."


A study in black, from his short ebony hair, to his fitted T-shirt, fatigues, and combat boots, he stood in the hallway, grim and unsmiling. "I heard Tess healed your sight. I'm glad you're well. How are you holding up?"


She lifted her shoulder in a faint shrug. "I'll be better once I see Kellan again."


Nathan didn't respond; instead he glanced down to the object he held in his hand. "I wanted to return this to you sooner, but with everything else going on . . ."


He handed her the blade she'd lost the day her whole life veered off the rails.


"You found my dagger."


He nodded. "The first night you were missing, Rafe, Eli, Jax, and I went looking for you. We found the blade in Ackmeyer's lawn. I kept it for you."


"Thank you." Mira turned the weapon over in her hands, grateful to finally have it again. Although her eyes took in the delicate hilt's intricate design and lettering, her mind raced back over everything that had occurred in the time since she'd lost the cherished blade. God, it all seemed like a hundred years ago. "Thank you for being a friend to me, Nathan . . . and to Kellan. I know things could've gone much worse for him last night."


He grunted. "I wanted to kill him for all he'd done. To you, to the Order, to everyone hurt by his deception."


Mira looked at her friend, the laboratory-bred assassin who was forever so unreadable and remote, always the most stoic warrior. She saw true hurt in him now. And he was angry too. His handsome face was schooled to stony neutrality, but Mira didn't miss the flicker of amber crackling in his greenish blue irises. "You're angry, but you don't hate him, do you, Nathan?"


He scowled, seeming to consider the question. "Last night, when I found the Archer insignia at the rebel bunker and suddenly realized the truth, yes, I did hate him. I never felt so strongly or so certain about anything before in my life. I was prepared to kill him, Mira. Until I saw him and realized I couldn't hate my friend. Not even after discovering he was my enemy." He exhaled a heavy breath. "I can't guess how you must feel. He's surely hurt you the deepest of all."


"He has," she admitted quietly. "But nowhere near as badly as it will hurt if I lose him all over again. I'm not going to let that happen, Nathan. If the GNC wants to take Kellan away from me, put him on trial to make some kind of political statement, they're not going to get him without a damned bloody fight."


Nathan's mouth pressed flat, his dark brows drawing together. He started to shake his head. "Mira, you can't expect - "


"I have to try," she insisted. "I'm not giving up on him. Fuck the GNC, and fuck fate too. I won't let go of him, even if that's what he wants. And I plan to tell Kellan the same thing when I go see him today, wherever JUSTIS is holding him."


"Mira," Nathan said, and something about his tone - so full of concern, so gentle - made her blood start to freeze in her veins. "Mira, there won't be time for any of that. Not now."


Her heart dropped, heavy as a stone. "What do you mean?"


She looked at him, realizing only now that his returning her dagger was only part of the reason he'd come to see her.


"Tell me what's going on, Nathan."


He glanced down, swore a low curse. "Since Kellan's former Order, Lucan got the GNC to agree to hearing the charges and handling the situation privately rather than turning Kellan over to the criminal courts for a full-blown trial."


"Okay," Mira said cautiously. "That's good, right?"


Nathan merely looked at her. "Because of the riots and public calls for justice, and because the peace summit opens tonight, the GNC feels it needs to demonstrate decisive action to avoid potential disruptions during the gala. It's agreed to the private hearing, but the GNC will be conducting it - and determining Kellan's sentence - at a special meeting. It's taking place at GNC headquarters today."


All her fears came rushing at her in a buffeting wave. She staggered back on her heels, feeling as if the air had been sucked out of her lungs. "They're going to decide Kellan's sentence . . . today? Can't Lucan delay it? There must be something more he can do."


"He's calling in every political favor he's got, Mira. He's been in touch with each member of the Council, trying to bargain with them for a promise of leniency."


"How many?" she asked, going numb with a dread that made her stomach roil. "How many have agreed so far?"


Nathan didn't speak for a long moment. "There are sixteen Council members, representing eight key nations, with one human and one Breed member each." Nathan cleared his throat. "He's got confirmed votes from a few, but there are still several more Council members left to persuade in order to have the majority. Lucan's making a lot of promises, Mira. He's putting his balls on the line for Kellan. He's doing everything he possibly can."


She wanted to feel hope. She wanted to believe that everything would somehow work out and that, by some miracle, she and Kellan would come out of this terrible situation as one, together. But dread was a cold weight in the center of her chest.


"I can't talk anymore," she murmured, already backing away from the open door and Nathan's concerned expression. "I have to go. I thought there would be more time. I have to see Kellan before he goes in front of the Council."


Nathan gave a slow shake of his head. "There won't be time for you to see him before he's brought to the hearing. The Council is assembling to meet him there within the hour."


"No." She swallowed, her throat gone dry. "No, this can't be happening. We need more time . . ."


Words began to fail her, fear swamping her. She edged farther into the bedroom, holding Nathan's apologetic, regretful gaze. She closed the door on him and sagged against it, her forehead pressed to the cool wood panel.


She had to see Kellan. And there was no way in hell she'd let him stand before that Council assembly without her there to help defend him. To fight for his freedom, with blood and blades, if it came down to that.


Tossing her dagger onto the bed, Mira headed into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She undressed and stood before the mirror, staring into the face of the woman she'd become.


Blood-bonded, in love.


Never so terrified in all her life.


She knew the reflection would be cruel, even before she removed her purple lenses and lifted her gaze to confront the gift of her Sight.


The vision appeared in no time at all. The same terrible outcome, playing before her eyes.


Kellan, dead on the floor in front of her.


She, weeping in grief-stricken anguish over his lifeless body.


Mira stared, horrified and heartsick, until the steam of the shower filled the room, breathing a thick fog across the awful vision she couldn't seem to escape.


Kellan knew, when the phalanx of heavily armed JUSTIS officers - four Breed and two human - came to retrieve him from his cell just before noon that day, that he couldn't be heading into anything good.


But the full impact of that suspicion didn't hit him until they led him into a cavernous, private hearing chamber at the GNC's headquarters building. There he found himself staring at a panel of all sixteen Council members, seated on a dais behind a broad U-shape judicial bench. At the center of the assembly was Lucan Thorne, looking grave in his role as chairman.


Most of the Order's elder members were present as well, the warriors and their mates seated on rows of benches below the dais.


But the thing that really put a jangle of alarm in Kellan's veins was the sight of Mira standing directly in front of the Council. Outfitted in black fatigues and combat boots, her long blond hair woven into a tight braid that snaked down her back, she was dressed for the hearing as though she'd come prepared for war.


What the hell was she doing?


Kellan nearly shouted it to her, but then she pivoted around to face him as his guards shoved him forward into the room. Her cheeks were flushed, eyes rimmed with red as she looked his way.


Her eyes . . . ah, Christ. Her eyes looked straight at him, no longer milky and unfocused, but bright behind the violet contact lenses and fixed squarely on him.


She'd been healed.


She could see.


He'd been afraid to trust the bond that told him earlier that day she was whole again, but now he felt a surge of elation - of bone-deep relief - to see for himself that either Tess or Rafe had been able to do for Mira what he'd been unable to with his blood.


Now he wanted to run to her and sweep her into his arms. He would have, if he didn't suspect his sudden break would invite the JUSTIS officers walking him into the hearing room to open fire on him and possibly Mira in the process.


The guards guided him forward, a pair of Breed males on each side of him, the two humans at his back. Kellan didn't miss the grim faces of the Order and their Breedmates nor the disapproving glowers of the majority of men and women seated on the dais. He was there to be judged - here and now - his guilt perhaps already determined, if the pall of heavy silence in the room was any indication.


And there was Mira, facing the Council on her own.


Even without the foreknowledge her vision had given him, Kellan understood Mira's presence in the hearing room. She'd come to plead her case before the judges. For him.


His beautiful, stubborn Mira.


His steadfast mate, standing with him even though he knew he'd broken her heart by turning himself in.


Pride and humility tangled inside him. He hadn't wanted her to be a part of this. And yet he knew there would have been no keeping her away.


As she looked at him now, her face collapsed in distress. She pivoted back around to Lucan and the Council members. "No, wait! Please, hear me out. Kellan is no killer. He was trying to save lives - to prevent a dangerous technology from being released. That's why he took Jeremy Ackmeyer. I'm not trying to excuse what he did, I only ask that you consider why he did it."


At the far end of the dais, an elderly human with sunken eyes and an unhealthy pallor cleared his throat. "The Council has heard your argument. All factors will be evenly weighed as the Council makes its determination in this matter."


"Director Benson," Mira implored, turning to face the old man directly. "I realize that this hearing is personal for you too. Jeremy was your nephew. He was a good man, an innocent man. I am truly sorry for your family's loss. I want you to know that Kellan tried to save him. After he realized the truth, Kellan did everything he could to find Jeremy. He tried to correct his mistakes, but it was too late - "


"Enough!" The old man's outburst shot through the assembly like gunfire. His heavy-lidded eyes were sluggish as he looked around the chamber, his gray head drooping between his slumped shoulders. "I've heard . . . quite enough. Please, let's have done with this."


A look from Lucan brought Nikolai out of the audience to collect Mira. She struggled at first, throwing a worried gaze in Kellan's direction as Niko led her back to her seat.


Kellan felt her distress echo through his veins as the armed guards directed his approach to the dais. They brought him to a halt before the Council, and Lucan's sober eyes settled on him.


"Kellan Archer," he announced to all those gathered. "Because of the unique circumstances of your case as a former member of the Order, the Council has agreed to a private hearing of the charges against you and a determination of your sentence by majority vote today. We have reviewed the crimes you stand accused of and have heard statements delivered on your behalf. These are serious crimes, calling for serious punishment. Guilt on any one of the charges carries a penalty of death."


"I understand," Kellan replied, taking in the solemn faces of the men and women who would decide his fate. He saw little mercy in any of them.


Then again, he'd expected none.


He listened as, one by one, the charges against him were read, then he gave his response to each of them. He hardly registered the words. All of his thoughts - all of his senses - were trained on the only person in the room who mattered to him.

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