Despite the fact that he’d nearly gotten us killed reporting on me to the Saxons for what he thought was my own good, and despite the fact that I hadn’t forgotten how it felt to learn he’d been lying to me, I trusted that Jack was on our side now. He had promised his loyalty to us, and if nothing else, I knew he’d honor that. He didn’t know how not to.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t awkward. Especially at times like now, or last night, when I could see him deliberately overlook Stellan’s hand resting on my back, how I reached up to whisper in his ear. With everything else going on, that unresolved tension was the last thing I wanted to deal with, which was why I hadn’t. The boy I’d cared so much about until he broke my trust and my heart. The one who was my “destiny,” who I’d had this purely chemical, completely unwanted attraction to until we’d finally given in to it after too many drinks.
And then my mother had died. And then nothing mattered.
I turned when Elodie’s boots clicked across the courtyard. She and Jack didn’t have to wear the ceremonial robes, so she was in her usual black top and black pants. Her platinum-blond hair was as sleek as usual, but at her hairline, there was an odd patch of what could have been darker hair. I’d never seen Elodie with even a hint of grown-out roots. These really were different times. “They’re ready for you. Give me your phones. They’ll go in the car with everything else.”
There were no weapons allowed inside Circle ceremonies. Stellan had given his up easily enough to make me remember he was just about as deadly without them. I wasn’t. I could feel my little knife strapped to my thigh. I hadn’t gone anywhere without it since my mom died, and I wasn’t about to start now. Elodie was taking just one thing in: a slim bag strapped across her back with Alexander’s bone inside, just in case.
When she’d stashed our things away, Elodie led us forward, and Stellan stiffly offered me his arm. I felt the rustling of the thin linen shift against my legs as I walked, the late afternoon breeze flapping its hem.
Elodie took her place on one side of us, Jack on the other. I felt Stellan draw me just a little closer, the ropes of muscles in his forearm tight and tense under my palm. When the four of us were alone, there might be uncomfortable moments. But here, even I had to admit it was us against the world.
With Stellan and me leading the way, we took the steps down into the darkened cave to candle flames flickering low, and a sea of people in black.
A low chant started at the center of the group, and it moved outward until it filled the chamber. We stopped to acknowledge each person, both bowing low and raising our hands to our foreheads as if in prayer. Each person responded with a modified version of the gesture, their raised hands opening before us into a sign of acceptance. Arjun Rajesh smiled. The Fredericks and the Mikados nodded formally. When we reached Luc and his father, Hugo Dauphin, Luc bowed deeply, but Monsieur Dauphin hesitated. He used to have both of us under his thumb: Stellan had been his Keeper, and the Dauphins had once tried to kidnap me and marry me off to Luc. But finally, he raised his hands, too. I felt Stellan tense just a little, and then I felt him stand straighter.
Despite everything, goose bumps rose on my arms, just like they had when the Melechs had obeyed our order last night. We were standing at the center of a group more powerful and dangerous and ancient than I could have imagined existed until recently, and they were accepting us as equals and more. It’s seductive being wanted, Stellan had said once. He wasn’t wrong. We both felt it. We both liked the feeling it gave of being in charge of our lives.
I could tell as both our heads swiveled, searching for the next clue, that we were both still hoping it wouldn’t be our fate.
As we passed, the Circle members pulled up the necklines of their black robes into heavy hoods, forming a shadowy knot that enveloped us more and more thickly as we approached the center of the cavern.
Above the crowd, on one of the walls, a symbol was etched. Our symbol—the symbol of the new thirteenth family. There had never been a question what it would be. I touched the locket around my neck that bore the same symbol. The thirteen-loop knot. I’d had this locket nearly my whole life, since I found it in my mom’s things when I was little. I wasn’t sure where the symbol had come from, but I knew it had been instrumental in the quest that had led to where we were now. Our mentor, Fitz, had used it to signify clues he wanted us to pay attention to, and before him, so had Napoleon. And now, if we did finish this ceremony, we would all be tattooed with it.
“This ritual is one the Circle hasn’t performed in thousands of years,” said the man who must have been the master of ceremonies.
I looked around the cave. It was so dark, I couldn’t see anything beyond the assembled Circle members. Did someone have the box, or could it be hidden in here?
“. . . brings together the full Circle once again as we welcome back to the fold a line that has been lost for as long as we can remember,” the man was saying. “The acceptance of the new thirteenth family is an important step in our growth as a Circle. I now present to you the candidates for the new thirteenth family of the Circle of Twelve. The Korolev family.”
I felt Stellan look down at me. We were taking my symbol, so we were taking his name. It only seemed fair.
Behind the mass of Circle members, I could see Keepers standing against the far wall. Jack and Elodie, though, were near us. I met Elodie’s eyes for a second, and she gave the smallest shake of her head. She hadn’t seen anything, either.
“Repeat my words,” the moderator said, translating into English after a long speech I couldn’t understand. “I pledge fealty to my brothers, and may nothing come between us, to my death.” We repeated the words. “I pledge to do no harm to my own, or risk losing my life. My blood, my family, my brothers, stronger as one than apart. The thirteen as one, a world ruled by blood.”
“By blood,” came a murmur from the group.
From all corners of the room, bells tolled, their light tinging reverberating off the walls. The chanting started up again, low, the bass to the bells’ soprano, and then the crowd parted to reveal a fire that had just been lit. I was startled for a moment that they’d let smoke touch this ancient place, but this was the Circle. Of course they would.