Stellan leaned down and kissed me.
I stood on my tiptoes and forced my lips to follow his, in another kind of dance that he could lead and I could follow all too easily. We were lucky that was true, because we couldn’t give away the fact that, far from this being a sign that Stellan and I just couldn’t keep our hands off each other, this was the first time the Circle’s new golden couple had kissed since our actual first kiss.
As numb as I’d been for so long, all my senses came suddenly, painfully alive. I heard Mrs. Melech clear her throat uncomfortably. I sensed every eye in the room on us. I noticed the spread of Stellan’s hands on my waist and the stiffness of his collar under my wrists as my arms looped around his neck. I felt his lips parting mine. He tasted like—
The memories came in a rush. How his mouth had tasted like vodka and lime that night in Cannes, and the air was scented with the sea. His hands in my hair, mine undoing the buttons on his shirt, my head dizzy with drink and wanting. And then, different memories. A few days later. The smell of blood permeating that room in Paris, hot and coppery. My hands slick with it, crimson spatter all over my mother’s clothes, her slim hand grasping at my wrist as I knelt beside her. Confusion. Screams. Death.
I pulled away with a gasp. The first thing I saw was Mrs. Melech’s scowl, and I tried as fast as I could to put back on something nearing a smile. Tried to cover up how that kiss had, for some reason, just caused the most visceral flashback I’d had yet to the day my mom died.
Stellan’s brows crooked down for a second at how rigid I’d gone, but I gave a tiny shake of my head. He looked back up, like he was annoyed to find everyone still standing there. “We’d very much like to be alone for a few minutes,” he repeated. “Do I need to make that an order? By blood?”
He said it teasingly, but you could almost hear the atmosphere in the room shift.
“By blood” was an order the families gave to Keepers. It wasn’t an ask. It wasn’t just a cute use of the Circle’s motto. It was a threat.
“You can’t order us around until tomorrow,” said Daniel, his faux-joke and fake smile colder than Stellan’s had been. I knew that we, the thirteenth family, were technically the closest thing to leaders the Circle had—according to tradition, at least. What that would actually look like, after tomorrow, remained to be seen.
I found myself holding my breath, the fear that this wouldn’t work and they’d toss us out before we got to see the box edging through the panic I’d felt a moment ago.
Finally, Mrs. Melech reluctantly put her hands to her forehead in the Circle’s gesture of respect. Daniel curled his lip, but followed suit.
Stellan’s hand tightened on my waist in a real way, not for show. I understood. No matter how much we didn’t want this, there was something heady about having the most powerful people in the world submit to us.
They wanted us—the mandate, the union, the potential power we held—enough to give up their dignity. Enough to allow us to do what we wanted, knowing it might benefit them in the future.
Every once in a while, in a moment like this—a moment that felt like control when nothing else in my life did—a tiny part of me wondered whether being part of the Circle wouldn’t be so bad.
But I’d thought finding my family would fill the hole in my sad little heart, too. And instead, they’d killed my mother and unleashed a plague.
The Melechs left the room, and Elodie made a pleading face as she and Jack followed. She hated being left out.
“Are you okay?” Stellan said. “What was that?”
“Nothing. I’m fine,” I lied, hurrying across the room without waiting for him to catch up. Even if I did want to stay with the Circle, this was one reason I never could. It would always mean memories I couldn’t handle. Until I could leave, though, I would ignore them, like I had been for weeks.
The box was in a glass case. There was no lock. “Should we just—” I whispered.
Stellan was already opening the door. We looked inside, on the lid, on the outside of the box. “It doesn’t even look very old,” he said. “There’s no way this is from Alexander’s time.”
I sagged with disappointment. “It’s a copy at best. They probably already have the real one at the ceremony, if we’re even right about what we’re looking for. Does that mean—”
Stellan set the box back down and dragged a hand over his face. “I think,” he said, “it means that tomorrow, we get initiated as the thirteenth family of the Circle of Twelve.”
Stellan and I stood in a courtyard outside the Old City, waiting to be called in to the initiation ceremony. The plan was to watch for the box, and if it looked like what we needed, do something to pause this ceremony before it actually went through.
Above, palm trees rustled against the cream stone. We’d been to Jerusalem once before, when the Saxons were considering marrying me off to Daniel Melech, but I hadn’t seen much of it that day.
For some reason, I had expected the city to be stuck in time, all old stone and desert and prayer, but I was wrong. It was also modern and clean and bustling. As I looked out the window on our car ride here, people crowded around bus stops, and bikes and cars shared the streets. Blue-and-white Israeli flags waved against a cloudless sky, and a riot of multicolored flowers peeked over balconies.
Jack had told me a little about the city’s history the last time we came here. Jerusalem was one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. There had been so much devastation here—wars, natural disasters, being conquered over and over. And yet it had survived it all, on this same spot, a city of great importance to three major religions and to so many cultures through history. A melting pot and a highly contested land, a bustling modern metropolis and an ancient stronghold all in one. None of us were fans of the Melech family, but their city was a different story. If things were different, I’d want to spend time here.