Lydia coughed again, choking, her whole body tensed with panic.
“Shh,” I said. “You didn’t lose me. I’m here.”
She rested her head on my shoulder. I wasn’t sure whether it was on purpose or she couldn’t hold it up anymore. I wiped my wet face with the back of my hand and positioned the tip of my knife between her ribs, where I was pretty sure Stellan had taught me the heart was. Could I really bring myself to do it? What if I didn’t hit the right place—
Stellan knelt in front of me. He readjusted my hand. Inside the room, someone wailed.
“I’m sorry,” Lydia whispered again, and I nodded at Stellan.
I had been waiting for so long to get revenge on my siblings. Now Stellan and I together slipped my knife between my sister’s ribs.
Lydia shuddered, and I held her tight, and then she sagged.
Stellan ran his hand over his face. I laid Lydia gently on the concrete balcony, and then let him help me up. He swiped his thumbs across my cheeks and we pushed through the curtain to a bloodbath. Too many people to count were on the floor, their bodies racked with coughs, or already dead. Some were just starting to show symptoms, panicking anew.
Jack and Elodie had Fitz restrained.
I glanced over my shoulder. The riot was getting worse. “Where’s the pope?” I said. “The actual pope. Someone go find him.”
A couple of people darted out of the room.
“The Order did this!” someone I didn’t know shouted. He must have been a Keeper.
Stellan stepped forward. “The Saxons orchestrated it, on the command of one rogue Order member. We’ll have justice—”
The man raised a gun at Fitz. “We’re not waiting for justice anymore.”
Jack stepped in front of him, still the noble knight, after all this time. “Jack—” I said.
But he didn’t move. “The way to solve violence is not with more violence.”
From behind him, Fitz met my eyes. We were all doing the same thing, I realized. Us. Lydia. Even him, behind it all. Each of us trying to do the best we could for the people we cared about.
Maybe everything depended on how you framed it. Family. Power. Love.
“Put down the gun,” Stellan yelled, but it was too late.
The Keeper was pulling the trigger.
I lunged for Jack, but as I did, I saw Fitz shove him out of the way. Then I was on the floor, Elodie on top of me. Jack and Stellan were in a heap next to us. All four of us had jumped in to keep one another from being hit.
Jack sat, dazed, and looked up at Fitz.
Fitz dropped to his knees, his eyes wide behind his round glasses. And then he fell, a pool of blood beneath him.
Elodie clapped her hand to her mouth. A sob escaped from mine. The only sounds in the room were the hacking coughs and wet, rattling breaths of the dying.
The doors to the room opened, and a man in all-white robes came inside.
The pope surveyed the carnage. He murmured under his breath and crossed himself, then calmly stepped over the bloodied bodies littering the floor. Two priests in red followed, and they flipped some switches and adjusted what must have been a microphone at the pope’s collar. He stood at the doors to the balcony composing himself for just a moment before he stepped outside, over Lydia’s body. His voice boomed out of the speakers surrounding St. Peter’s Square.
The crowds outside fell immediately silent. The pope started to pray, and his assistants pulled heavy velvet curtains shut behind him, closing us off from outside.
Luc stepped to the head of the table, breaking the eerie silence that had finally fallen over the room. “Everyone, guns down,” he said quietly. “Put your weapons on the table. All of you.” People looked at each other, then guns and knives were tossed down next to the unsigned treaties and the no-longer-smoking weapon of destruction Fitz had brought.
Luc turned to me, Jack, Stellan, and Elodie. “You too,” he said. “Thirteenth family.”
Jack and Elodie reluctantly relinquished their guns. My knife was still in Lydia’s chest.
“Now,” Luc said. “Back away from the table. There will be a lot to discuss. This atrocity. The Order and what to do going forward. But there will be no more death today.” He looked at us. “It’s over. It’s all over.”
All in favor?”
Hand after hand went up. Stellan and I looked at each other, and I raised my hand, too. Ten to three. Passed. It wasn’t a major issue—we’d voted not to touch any of those for a while—but any kind of agreement was a positive.
“Korolev family?” Zara Koning said. “Your floor.”
“For the third item on the agenda, I outlined the pros and cons yesterday,” I said, “and now we’d like to put it up for a vote.” The Mikados asked a question, and I explained.
Stellan was watching me, little frown lines between his brows that said he was taking something seriously. I wasn’t sure why. We knew exactly where we stood on this issue.
“Excuse us for one moment while we discuss.” He closed the laptop.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
He framed my face with his hands and kissed me hard. “You really have to stop looking like that while discussing trade agreements. I can’t concentrate. I’m going to accidentally put in a motion for Luxembourg to invade Belgium, and it’ll be entirely your fault.”
I hid my grin as he opened the computer back up. “Thanks for your patience,” he said seriously, turning the floor back over to me.
“If there are no more questions, we’ll take a vote,” Zara said. She and her brother were both at the meeting. Zara was older, but in the past, her brother would have been next in line, as the male heir. That was one of the items on the docket for future vote, but for now, families were allowed to have anyone they wanted present at council meetings, and all thirteen families took turns leading them. When we’d voted and the issue passed, Zara said, “And with that, the meeting is adjourned. Reconvene tomorrow, at the same time.”