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Gena Showalter

Okay, yeah. She probably knows what I plan to ask. Disappointed, I change the subject. “I haven’t seen any animals. Are pets allowed in the realm?” I’ve always wanted a dog or a cat, but my parents flat-out refused.

“Oh, baby, the animals!” Clay slings an arm around my shoulders. “There’s a sanctuary in the Capital of New. Animals are allowed anywhere, anytime, but they usually prefer to stay in the sanctuary or visit the Sanatorium where Healers work. You’re welcome to visit either place.”

My brow furrows. “Why do animals prefer the sanctuary? Why don’t they live with families?”

Meredith snorts. “Why don’t you ask the animals? They’d love a chance to fill you in.”

Is she implying the animals...talk? No, surely not. But...maybe? How cool would a talking dog or cat be?

I see you has manna, hooman. I has no manna. Give me your manna.

We stroll down the sidewalk and enter another Gate, this one posed between two buildings. I hardly notice a change in my surroundings before we exit. Or rather, try to exit. A mammoth crowd blocks our path.

“This,” Meredith says, ramping up the volume in order to be heard over the crest of murmurs, “is the Temple of Temples, where the Secondking lives. There are three separate parts. The courtyard is located on the east side and opens to the Waft of Incense. The Waft of Incense—or WoI—leads to the Great Throne, where Eron presides.”

“And when the Firstking visits Troika, he stays here,” Clay adds, his tone wishful.

He wants to meet the Firstking, doesn’t he?

I’ve seen both kings only once before, when Archer allowed me to view Troika through his eyes.

A twinge of grief causes me to hiss. “How often does the Firstking visit?”

“Once a month.” Light flashes on the brands in the center of her palms. Frowning, she taps one, and a text message appears, hovering just over her hand. She sighs.

When she cants her head toward the Gate, I understand it’s time to go. We enter, returning to the House of Secrets. Next stop—my apartment. The tour is over.

“Something wrong?” I ask her.

“Nope.” She offers no more, and I decide not to press. I’m a newbie with, like, zero clearance.

However, I decide to ask questions about the realm while I have the chance. “Where does the Secondking’s fiancée live?” I got a glimpse of Princess Mariée, and she is more exquisite than the realm itself, her hair as pale as a lily of the valley, her cheeks as pink as a rose, her eyes as blue as the clearest ocean. “How long have they been engaged? And why is she called princess when she’s not yet married into the royal family? Are there other princesses here?”

Clay becomes waxen, disconcerting me.

Meredith wilts like a flower in summer heat. “Mariée is missing. I mean, we know she’s here—and alive—because she’s the other Conduit and her Light continues to shine through the Grid, but no one has seen or heard from her since your Firstdeath. Otherwise she would be overseeing your tour and training herself.”

I rub the galloping pulse at the base of my neck. If she’s out of commission, I’m needed now, not later.

But no pressure, right?

Am I wheezing? I think I’m wheezing.

“And no, there are no other princesses,” my grandmother adds, probably to distract me from a possible panic attack. “The title denotes her engagement. After marriage, she’ll become known as Secondqueen. Oh! They’ve been engaged for almost two thousand years.”

I nearly choke on my tongue. “Um, that doesn’t seem like an excessive wait time to you?” Like, put a ring on it already and lock that baby down.

“When you live forever, two thousand years is nothing. They say they’ll seal the deal after we’ve won the war.” A lock of my hair twirls in a sudden burst of wind, and she reaches out to shift the strands between her fingers. “What about you and your...boyfriend?”

“We are a classic example of it’s complicated.”

And yet, if he appeared in Troika right now, I’d pull him into a hidden corner and kiss the air from his lungs. I miss him as I’d miss a limb. He’s one of my favorite things.

Two people rush past us, their conversation snagging my attention. I cling to the distraction with all my might. They are speaking... Russian, I’m pretty sure, reminding me of the special Troikan language. “Where can I go to learn Troikan?”

“Nowhere,” Meredith says. “You’ll learn it when you use your Key and not a second sooner.”

Another light flashes on her brands. She checks the new message and stiffens. “Apparently I’m taking too long. We need to go.” Steps quick, she ushers us to the first Gate we exited.

As soon as we reach the Capital of New, she kisses my cheek and says, “I’ll pick you up tomorrow night at seven. I’m your date to the welcome party.” She rushes off, disappearing inside another Gate.

“You ready to go home, Number Girl? No? Good, didn’t think so. We’re going to have some fun.” Clay returns me to the woodland wonderland.

Reed and Kayla are seated at a table in back, looking at ease and without a care. The other tables are occupied by people I’ve never met...people who notice me and terminate their conversations. Silence descends.

I shift from one booted foot to the other. War is daunting, but this is worse.

Reed frowns. I gulp. Will he pretend not to know me?

“I should go,” I whisper.

A second later, Reed waves us over.

In a show of solidarity, Clay takes my hand and leads me to our friends.

“—Archer,” I hear someone say.

“I know. She’s the reason he’s dead,” another replies.

The heat drains from my face.

My choice, my consequences.

Before my stay at Prynne, my parents decided everything for me. At Prynne, Dr. Vans did all the deciding. What I ate, what I wore, who I spoke with. When I finally claimed the reins of control, I crashed and burned. Archer paid the price.

He had a life here. A family. People who counted on him. Because of me, they lost him.

I want to shout, “We can bring him back in the Resurrection! Spread the word. Vote for Archer.” But I don’t know anything about the others in the running. Maybe these people hope to bring back a beloved family member.

“I should go,” I repeat. I’m linked to these people through the Grid, so, I don’t just feel the white-hot ping of their stares; I feel the sickening burn of their dislike.

How can I end the war between realms when I can’t convince people predisposed to like me to actually like me?

Buck up. Find a way. The end result matters. Failure isn’t an option. My mom lives in Myriad, along with family I never had the chance to meet. And then there’s Killian, of course.

“We stay.” Clay squeezes my hand. “What has six wheels and flies?”

I’m in no mood for a joke—so what better time to make one? “What else? A garbage truck.”