“I did it!” Agnes announced, as if that was something to celebrate. She smiled at me. I didn’t smile back. All that work, all that sacrifice had been for nothing. Agnes might be powerful, but it wasn’t her body. Sooner or later, she would lose her grip, even if only for an instant. And that would be enough.
“You’re crazy,” I told her.
Pritkin started toward her, but Agnes held up a hand. “You don’t have the right,” she said simply.
His eyes cut to me and narrowed. “She won’t.”
“She must,” Agnes said calmly. “You swore an oath.”
Pritkin walked over and knelt by my side. I felt something cold touch my skin and looked down to find him pressing one of his knives into my hand. “Make it quick,” he said grimly. “One slice, clean across the jugular.”
I stared at him. “What?”
He closed my hand over the hilt. “Myra condemned herself from her own lips. You heard her. By every law— human, mage, or vampire—she deserves death.”
The pieces finally all fell into place. I didn’t much care for the picture they made. “This is why you really wanted me along, isn’t it?”
He didn’t try to deny it. “I swore an oath to protect the Pythia and her heir, with my life if necessary. The Circle believed I would disregard it on their order, that I would kill Myra with nothing to prove her guilt. But when I give my word, I keep it.” His lips curled into a sour smile. “Which is why I don’t give it often.”
“You didn’t bring me along to keep Myra from shifting,” I accused. “You expect me to kill her!”
His expression didn’t change. We might have been discussing anything—the weather, a football game. It was surreal. “If I could do it for you, I would,” he told me calmly. “But Agnes is correct. Only the Pythia can discipline an initiate.”
“We’re not talking about discipline! Myra isn’t being sent to bed without supper.” I looked at Agnes, hoping to find support. “This is life and death!”
She shrugged Myra’s slim shoulders, her face blank. She trained her for years and they must have been close once, but there was no sign of regret on her face. “You said it yourself. I can’t hold her. Not for long.”
“If this is what the job does to you,” I told her bluntly, “I know I don’t want it.”
Blue eyes met mine, and suddenly they were a little sad. “But you have it.”
I felt the knife blade bite into my hand, where my grip had slipped from the hilt, and the pain seemed to suddenly bring everything home. I shook my head violently. “No. We’ll find another way.”
Agnes regarded me gently. It was extremely weird to see that expression on Myra’s face. “There isn’t one. What were you planning to do? Keep her tucked up your sleeve? Carry her about with you? Sooner or later, she would get free. I taught her too much to doubt that.” Her expression became more stern. “And dealing with rogues is part of your job. That’s the rule.”
rule,” I said hoarsely.
“Someone has to do it,” Agnes said implacably. “Someone has to take responsibility. And whether you like it or not, that someone is you.”
I swallowed hard. The tears I hadn’t shed earlier were rolling down my face, but I didn’t care. Another death, this time not only my fault but by my hand? That was not the plan. That was, in fact, the exact opposite of the plan. I’d wanted to win, but not like this. I was sick of death, especially death I helped to cause. A bitter taste flooded my mouth. “I can’t.”
Agnes bent down and a gentle hand cupped my face. “You haven’t even started to learn what you can do yet. But you will.” She stepped away from me, a small, sad smile on her face. “I would have liked to have trained you, Cassie.” She looked at Pritkin. “She’ll need help,” she said simply.
Pritkin was back on his knees, his face white. “I know.”
Agnes nodded and looked at me. A spasm passed over her face for a moment, but she regained control. “I will never teach you most of the lessons you will need,” she continued, “but I find I have time for one.”
I only realized that the knife was gone when I saw it in her small hand. “Agnes, no!” I scrambled to my feet, but it was too late. She didn’t hesitate for a second. By the time I reached her, she’d already sunk to her knees, Myra’s pristine white gown drenched in blood. She settled to the floor almost gracefully, her body a pale smear in the middle of all that vivid color.
I stared around frantically, but there was no sign of her spirit. Neither hers nor Myra’s. I whirled on Pritkin, who was still on his knees, watching the blood spill across the boards in a widening stain. For a second, he looked lost, like a bewildered child. Then the expression was gone so quickly I wasn’t sure it had been there at all.
“Where is she?” I demanded, my voice shrill with fear. “I can’t see her!” He looked up at me, but it was almost as if his eyes didn’t focus for a moment. I looked back at Myra’s crumpled form, and my vision blurred to the point that it was hard to tell where the blood ended and the red fabric of the dress began. “Pritkin!”
I rounded on him, stunned and disbelieving. “What do you mean, she’s gone? Gone where? Into another host?”
“No.” He got up and came over to her body, and with a whispered word, the area around her was engulfed in crimson flames. They cast a reddish glow on the old boards and sparked glints off the gilt frame of the stage, but it wasn’t a normal fire. The slim figure at the heart of the blaze dusted to ashes in seconds, leaving only charred boards behind. Pritkin turned to me, and his eyes were pained. It was that look, more than his words, that got through. “Just gone.”
I shook my head, blindly. “No! We could have found someplace safe for Myra. Agnes could have found another host. I’d have helped her. It didn’t have to end this way!”
He gripped my arms painfully. “Do you still not understand? ”
“Understand what? She died for nothing!” I was crying, but it was panic that clouded my vision, making the world run in streams of color. Agnes couldn’t be gone. I’d believed I was on my own before, but I hadn’t truly understood the odds against me. Now I did, and I knew I wouldn’t be enough. “I’ll go back, I’ll save her—” I began, only to have him shake me so hard, my teeth rattled.
“Lady Phemonoe died doing her duty. She was one of the greatest of her line. You will
“Disgrace her? I’m talking about saving her!”
“There are some things even the Pythia cannot change,” he said, his hard expression softening. “Myra had to die, and someone had to make sure that she couldn’t use her power to jump into another body before her spirit was pulled away. And the only way to do that . . .”
Understanding finally dawned. “Was for someone to go with her,” I whispered. I stared at the charred boards, disbelieving. It had all happened so fast. Maybe a fully trained Pythia wouldn’t be plagued by doubts or worry, wouldn’t second-guess her decisions or wonder what right she had to the power she held. But I hadn’t been trained, and I didn’t know what to do. Panic stopped my throat, froze my brain. I was on my own, and I was terrified.
“I assume you will go after the
no matter what I decide?” Pritkin asked.
It took a moment for my brain to catch up with my ears. And even then I didn’t get it. Why was he asking about this
? A hundred problems were pulling at me, tugging me in different directions, to the point that I couldn’t think clearly about any of them. All I knew was that Agnes was gone. And that it was all up to me now.
“What?” I asked stupidly.
,” he said patiently. “You are determined to seek it out?”
“I don’t have a choice,” I said, confused. “The
won’t budge. And I can’t function if it gets much worse.” At the moment I wasn’t sure I could function anyway.
He nodded once, up and down. “Then I will help you.”
I could feel the tears drying on my face, but I couldn’t be bothered to wipe them away. “I always wondered if you have a death wish. I guess now I know.”
“I promised Lady Phemonoe that I would help you.”
I wrenched away from him, suddenly furious. “Agnes is gone! And I don’t want another corpse on my hands. They’re bloody enough!” I tried to move back, to get away from those burned boards, but my foot caught on the hem of the dress and I ended up on my hands and knees.
“I wasn’t asking your permission,” he informed me coolly.
I looked up at him through a curtain of tangled hair. “I’ll never be the Pythia she was,” I warned. “I may not be any good at all.”
For the first time ever, I saw what looked like a genuine smile cross Pritkin’s face. “Well, that’s encouraging.” He hauled me to my feet. “No one who wants power should ever be allowed to wield it.”
“Then I’ll be great,” I said bitterly, “because no one could possibly want it any less than I do.”
Pritkin didn’t answer. Instead, to my disbelief, he sank to one knee in front of me. His clothes were torn and bloody, his face soot-stained, but there was still something impressive about him. “I don’t recall the exact wording,” he said. “And there should be witnesses—”
“What am I?” Billy asked, indignant, as he flowed back inside my necklace.
Pritkin ignored him. “But I believe it went something like this: I swear to defend you and your appointed successor against all malefactors present and to come, in peace and in war, for as long as I live and you continue to remain true to the ideals of your office.”
I stared down at him, and suddenly a weight seemed to lift from my shoulders. However exasperating, annoying and just plain asinine Pritkin could be at times, he was a good man to have in a fight. And I had a feeling there was a lot of that ahead. “So I guess you’ll be calling me Lady Herophile the Second from now on?”
“The Seventh.” He was on his knees, but I received the same old arrogant look from those green eyes. “And don’t count on it.”
The main door slammed open and a stream of vamps poured in, murder in their eyes. I grabbed Pritkin’s shoulder and gave him a weary smile. “I can live with that,” I said, and shifted.