I stiffened.

   “But she’d be proud of you. I’m proud of you, Avery.” He glanced down the path. “I heard about your dilemma. I don’t think it will come as a surprise that I strongly encourage you—all of you—to get out while you can. The Circle has already taken too much from me, and from you. I hope you’ll realize that your mother was right all along, and that you deserve more than this. I’ll help you in whatever way I can.”

   He kissed me on the temple and strolled down the path to join the others, leaving me alone with the chirping of birds and the distant hum of a lawn mower.

   He was right. My mom would hate that I was part of this. I’d come to understand her. She’d run from it not because she was weak, but because she was strong. She’d left her whole life behind—everyone and everything she knew—for me. She’d made the choice she’d thought was best, and because she had, I now had a choice, too. Just like hers, nothing about it was black and white. Not good or evil. Not right or wrong.

   I opened the Book of Fate to a page with questions, and my eye lit on one immediately. Is my intended path the correct one?

   When an Internet algorithm wasn’t doing it for you, you were supposed to make a complicated series of marks on a paper, count them, and find the answer. I chose one at random, and turned to that page. Fight it as you will, destiny will always win.

   I closed the book. Maybe it was true. My mom had run from this, and I’d ended up right back here anyway, like fate was determined to have its way.

   I picked up a sprig of freesia and rolled it between my fingers, releasing the scent into the air. I glanced at my friends, and Elodie, watching me, gave a tiny nod and herded everyone down the hill. Stellan was leaning on a crypt, one hand in his pocket and his suit jacket draped over the other arm, and it made my chest hurt. We still hadn’t talked. He stood, ready to leave me alone, too, but I let myself catch his gaze and hold it. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say with the look, but it felt too bold, too open, too risky. Too much like everything I’d been denying for too long.

   Stellan glanced down the hill, then made his way up the path to me instead. He tossed his jacket over a low-hanging branch, taking something out of the pocket before he did.

   I accepted the small paper envelope. Holding the sprig of freesia between two fingers, I opened it. Inside was a picture of my mom and me.

   “I’d sent it in to get printed last time we were in Paris,” he said gruffly. “It’s for your necklace, since the last one burned.”

   I stared at the photo. It had been taken sometime between Cannes and Fashion Week. My mom and I were laughing, her face bright red like it always got when she laughed so hard she couldn’t breathe.

   I hadn’t remembered this. In my mind, we’d spent that whole time fighting, or worrying. But I was wrong. At least some moments in my mom’s last days had been . . . nice. Despite everything.

   I clicked open my empty locket and slipped the picture inside. It fit perfectly.

   I looked up at Stellan, tried to say something. Thank you. Why. The words wouldn’t come out.

   He nodded, like he understood anyway. I squeezed the locket in my fist.

   I hated that my mom would never know the version of me I’d become since I came to the Circle, and that I’d never understand the version of her that had existed before them. But I loved that we’d had the time we had. I loved that even though I had sad, sullen memories of our moves, I also had memories of her drawing me out with Broadway sing-alongs. I loved that copying her when I was younger was why every morning, I drank at least two cups of coffee that were at least half sugar. I loved that, even though I looked so much like the Saxons, it would always be my mom’s smile staring back at me from the mirror. Maybe that would make me try to smile more.

   I had to look up at the rustling leaves of the tree overhead to stave off tears.

   When I looked back down, Stellan was watching me. I held his gaze, and then he wrapped his arms around me from behind without a word. We looked down at the mound of flowers.

   I loved him. And not just him—I loved us. Our whole little family. Things were hard, but it wasn’t terrible and sad all the time. Just like there had been in the hard moments with my mom, there was a lot of happiness. This was a life. This was some form of what my mom had always wanted for me. What I’d always wanted for me.

   Love and hate. Good and bad. Salvation and destruction. They weren’t opposites, either. We were both. I was both. Maybe everyone was. Maybe that was okay. Maybe we did what we could with whatever we were given.

   I let my head rest back against Stellan’s chest, the freesia caught in both our hands and the ground in front of us littered with sunshine. Even though this was a funeral, every beat of his heart against my back said alive alive alive.

 

 

CHAPTER 22

 

Back at the Dauphins’, we gathered awkwardly in the front hall. Even Luc seemed reluctant to enter the quiet, empty apartments after the funerals. But then we heard a bang from up the stairs, and a kid’s shriek of laughter.

   Luc elbowed Stellan and grinned, and then he ran a hand through his hair, pulling his careful coif back into his usual bedhead. “Alors, my first act as head of the Dauphin family will be to invite in the people half the Circle still thinks are their enemy and the other half are afraid of. Sounds right. Everyone come in, make yourselves at home, and I will open some ridiculously expensive wine.”

   It broke the awkwardness, and I twisted my newly filled locket around my fingers as I followed everyone into what had become our favorite sitting room.

   Before we were even settled in, Jack perched on the arm of the couch, his hands in his pockets. “I hate to bring us back to duties so quickly, but I was speaking with Fitz at the ceremony, and he told me something we need to think about right away. We’d mentioned earlier that it was possible the Circle could come back from a Saxon takeover.”

   Elodie had been lounging on a couch and now she sat up, interested.

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