I miss you every minute, every second
Are you near? Hope no longer beckons.
I want to sob, but here, now, I can only kneel.
Emptiness is the only thing I feel.
Tell me, please, how I’m supposed to go on.
For the rest of eternity, you, Little “Bow” Peep, are gone.
Has grief erased Victor’s optimism? I’ve heard no more talk about the Resurrection. How can we convince others to vote for Archer? Do we even try?
Soft music drifts through the air. A live band plays amid the wealth of roses. Their instruments, like so many other things in Troika, are different than what I’m used to seeing, and the sounds...oh, wow, the sounds! The melody is hauntingly beautiful. My ears tingle. Tears well in my eyes.
“Have you ever heard anything so exquisite?” Winifred stares at the band with dreamy eyes.
“Excuse us, everyone. I’m going to steal Ten away.” With an arm snaked around my waist, Meredith herds me toward the Great Throne room, even though the door is closed.
“Why—” I spot the Secondking to the right of the doors, speaking with a man and woman.
His violet robe is the most ornate I’ve ever seen, the seams bound together with gold thread, the hem glittering as if soaked in Lifeblood. He’s tall, his face plain, but his eyes...they are bluer than a morning sky, brighter than a sapphire and lovelier than a blue jay.
The man and woman notice our approach and take a step back, clearing our path. My mouth dries, and my insides perform a series of flip-flops. I’m about to meet Troika’s king. In person.
Don’t trip. Don’t spit when you speak. Oh, zero, how’s my breath?
Meredith bows, and I clumsily do the same.
He smiles at us, and I would swear the sun just rose over the entire realm. Plain? No, this man is the definition of beautiful. “I’m pleased you chose Troika, Tenley.”
He knows my name! And though he spoke only six words, I jolt as if I just consumed an entire smorgasbord of manna. I’m electrified from the inside out. “Thank you...” Eron? Too casual. Great King? Perhaps too formal, considering our surroundings. Dang it, what’s the proper way to address him? “Majesty.”
He inclines his head. One point for Ten. I nailed it.
So...is now a good time to mention my thoughts on the war?
As if reading my mind, Meredith urges me away. As I huff and puff with irritation, she says, “A party is not the time for politics.” She stops in front of the pair who spoke to the Secondking before us.
“This,” Meredith says, “is my mother. Your great-grandmother Hazel. She’s a Laborer.”
My eyes widen with surprise and pleasure. I should have guessed. Hazel is petite and blonde, just like Meredith, with a similar regal bearing. But...how is my dark-haired mother part of their familial line?
Hazel tsks at her daughter. “What have I told you about playing Barbie with the new recruits?” Her voice reminds me of a lullaby: soft, sweet and calming.
Meredith snorts. “You said to wait for you so you could play, too.”
Hazel nods and looks me over, a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. “I hope you don’t expect me to call you Ten. I refuse to refer to my great-granddaughter as a number. I’ll call you Blue.”
She refuses to call me a number, even though it’s my name, but she’s fine with a color? I take a page from Clay’s book and pat the top of her head. Only family can get away with such illogical logic.
“I’m good with Blue. How about I call you Meemaw?”
“Yes!” She fist-pumps the sky. “Meemaw it is.”
“And this,” Meredith says with a laugh, “is Steven, your grandfather. He’s a Laborer, though a different subset. He harvests manna.”
Steven smiles and shakes my hand. He’s on the tall side with clear Native American roots. “So wonderful to meet you, Tenley.”
“Call me Ten. Or Blue,” I add with a wink. I wonder if he and my grandmother are still married.
What the heck. I go ahead and ask.
“During a human marriage, two bodies are bound together, not two spirits.” She pats Steven on the shoulder. “Upon Firstdeath, the bond is voided. But no worries. We’re best friends now.”
With her gaze on something—or someone—behind us, Hazel frowns. “What is she doing here?” Annoyance drips from her tone. “Only friends and family of the newbies received invitations.”
Foreboding rushes through me, a river without a dam. I turn...and spot Elizabeth. Great!
She whispers something to the freckled redhead at her side, and the two glare at me before making their way to Nico, Raanan and Sawyer, who have congregated in a corner.
“She’s distantly related to Raanan.” Meredith wags a finger in her mother’s face, and I begin to understand why she’s a Leader. “And we’re happy she’s here, aren’t we? We hope she has fun. Right? Right! Because we love our fellow Troikans, no matter what.”
Well. Raanan’s silent treatment now makes sense.
“Right,” Hazel grumbles. “Happy. Fun. Love.”
I catch sight of Clay, Reed and Kayla as they enter the courtyard, and a spark of happiness ignites. “Over here!”
They spot me and rush over. Before I dole out hugs, they notice Meredith and bow their heads in greeting. Hazel and Steven receive handshakes.
Clay wiggles his brows at me. “Hey, baby. You must be the square root of negative one, because you can’t possibly be real.”
I bark out a laugh.
Meredith rolls her eyes. “Your pickup lines need serious work, Clayton.”
“So you keep telling me.” His smiles widens as he focuses on her. “But that wasn’t a pickup line. This is. On a scale of one to ten, you’re a nine...and I’m the one you need.”
She throws back her head and laughs with delight.
Whoa. Full stop. Did eighteen-year-old Clay just try to pick up my grandmother? Gross! Killian, at least, is nineteen and only a year and a half older than me.
Forget contacting him. I want to see him, breathe him in. I want to touch, hug and kiss him. I want his skin pressed against mine, without a flicker of pain. And the desires do not spring from my crush on him. Not entirely. I think... I think the Grid is trying to tell me I’m not supposed to be here without him.
Impossible. Right? The Troikan Grid would never welcome a Myriadian.