Luc was pacing to and fro, coffee cup in hand. “They might be afraid of you, but you’re still part of the Circle. We initiated you. You have a right to be at any Circle activity as much as I do.”
The back of my neck prickled. All this time, I hadn’t been thinking of it that way. We didn’t have to hope they’d let us be one of them. We already were.
But Elodie waved a dismissive hand. “They’ll say the initiation wasn’t finished. We don’t even have the tattoos.”
There were murmurs of agreement around the room.
I glanced at Stellan. He smoothed the edges of Anya’s picture over his knees. “So we get them,” I said. All the murmurs stopped. “We finish the initiation, and we get the tattoos. Then we’re official.”
Next to me, Stellan opened his mouth, closed it again. His silence made me pause. I should have asked him first. I might have survived this experiment, but my future with him was still uncertain. And if he was leaving tomorrow, committing to the Circle might not be what he’d want.
But I did want it. This wasn’t a marriage ceremony I’d just committed us to. We’d figure out us whenever he was ready. This was me, pledging myself.
“I guess I should say I’ll get the tattoo,” I said. “Nobody else has to.”
“Yesterday was her seventeenth birthday,” Elodie said. “That’s when Circle members usually get their tattoos. And technically, only one witness from another family has to be present.”
Luc raised his hand.
I glanced at Stellan, and his eyes were boring into me. I gave him as good a smile as I could muster, and he gave a small one back. I love you, I thought. You love me. It sucks that that’s not automatically enough.
“It’s settled, then,” Colette said. I tore my eyes from my fake husband’s. “Let’s make you official.”
• • •
We’d designated the Dauphins’ grand library as our ritual space. We’d pulled the shutters closed, and it was dark enough inside that it might as well have been night.
We stood around a table in the center of the cleared room. The only illumination was the pool of light from a single lamp.
“Each family has a book,” Elodie explained. “It’s their history, their motto, everything that matters to them, and you swear your loyalty on it, to the Circle and to your family. Your family doesn’t have one, so you’ll need to swear on something else.”
I looked around the room. “You all. You’re what I want to swear on. I know it’s cheesy,” I said when Elodie cocked an eyebrow, “but there’s nothing else that makes more sense.”
Jack cleared his throat, then put his hand on the table and looked up at me. I smiled. Elodie shrugged and placed her hand over his, then Colette, then Luc. I motioned to Rocco, and he came from where he’d been standing a few paces back and put his hand on the pile, too, and finally, Stellan put his on top. I placed my hand over all of theirs.
Elodie read some passages from a book in Greek, her face lit from below by the lamplight. I pressed my palm down, feeling the slight movements of all these people I loved holding me up. “Do you pledge your loyalty as long as you remain a member of the”—she looked up—“the Korolev family?”
I met Stellan’s eyes. “I do pledge my loyalty,” I said, then repeating the Circle motto, “By blood. And—”
Before the Circle ceremony where we were to become the official thirteenth family, we hadn’t only discussed what name our family would take, and what symbol. We’d talked about the family motto. These had been Alexander the Great’s words first, declaring how much of the earth would be his. But they meant more now.
Stellan nodded, and I finished the pledge. “I pledge my loyalty. By blood,” I said, “and to the ends of the world.”
An hour later, I was sitting in an armchair, wincing as a tattoo artist Elodie had paid to come here during a citywide lockdown and paid more to keep quiet about it inked the symbol from my necklace onto the inside of my left wrist.
I hissed through clenched teeth, loud enough that Elodie laughed. “That hurts,” I said.
“You were shot in that arm,” Elodie reminded me. I made a face at her.
As the needle buzzed, Stellan stepped up beside me. He’d been quiet since I sat down. Now he stared at my wrist and chewed his lip. “It looks good.”
It did. It was almost finished: the thirteen-loop symbol from the necklace I’d worn practically my whole life, now inked into my skin, part of me forever.
“I suppose we won’t be quite official if I don’t get one, too,” Stellan said after a pause. I’d been trying to not think about it, trying to let him bring it up when he was ready. I glanced back at everyone else. Nisha had just come in to give an update on the new experiments they were doing on the vaccine, and Jack and Elodie were asking questions.
“You don’t have to,” I said.
“I know I don’t.”
The knots in my stomach drew tighter. I’d just declared my intention to take my place as part of the most powerful group in the world, but I was afraid to ask what exactly he meant. It didn’t have to mean he was staying. He’d told me he loved me yesterday—but he’d also said it might be his only chance to say it. This could be the last thing he did with us before he left for good.
I should just ask. Get it out of the way. I was scared to.
The tattoo artist wiped a rag over my wrist one more time. There it was: our family’s symbol.
I couldn’t stop staring at it. Stellan took my wrist, ran a thumb around the edge of the tattoo. “I’m getting it,” he said. “If that’s okay with you.”
“Yes,” I said, to whatever it meant. Just like I’d still be in love with him if he had to leave the Circle, I’d always feel like he was part of the thirteenth family. Same for Jack and Elodie.