“They are the world’s finest warriors. None can match them in strength or grace. They are ruthless. Strong. Fast.” There was a fierce pride in Astrid’s eyes when she spoke. “Their talesm is like a living armor around them. A trained scribe could take on a dozen Grigori soldiers and walk away with their dust on his shoulders. Do you want to fight like that?”
She wanted to scream, Yes! But Ava flashed to the image of Malachi as he battled Grigori in the alley in Kusadasi, the graceful thrusts and twisting combat. The powerful way his muscles moved under his shirt. She didn’t think she’d ever be able to match that. What was she thinking?
“I… I don’t know if I—”
“You can’t.” Astrid cut her off. “You never will. You are not Irin. You will learn physical fighting—we learned our lesson two hundred years ago—but Irin have their strengths”—her eyes flickered to Damien—“and we have ours. To fight as an Irina, you must learn to use magic. And we can teach you that. The scribes think we withdrew?” She shrugged. “That just shows you how well we can hide.”
A surge of desire shot through Ava. The dark voices whispered in her mind and a ripple of power teased her lips.
Kill them,they whispered. Take them. Hurt them as they hurt you. Hurt them more…
“You want that,” Astrid said.
“I can see. But before any of that happens, you must do something else.”
Astrid’s voice softened. “You must rest, sister. You must grieve. And you must heal.”
The Irina’s words were sour in her ears. An ache rose in her heart, and she tried to push it back.
“I’d rather just kill something,” Ava whispered.
“You try to forget him, but you can’t. You never will. He is the other half of your soul.”
“Astrid,” Damien said softly, but the Irina ignored him.
“Half of you died with him, Ava.”
“Half of you died, but you must understand, half of him still lives.”
She could feel the tears welling. Tears she’d shunned. Tears she forced herself to battle back. If she let them loose, they would fall forever.
“Shut. Up.” She choked on the lump in her throat. “You have no idea—”
“I have every idea.” Astrid took a hand and put it to her throat. Then a whisper came from her lips in the Old Language, and the marks on her skin began to glow. Her mating marks were intricate, like gold lace covering her skin. When she pulled her hand away from her throat, Ava saw a band appear. Duller than the other marks, it crossed her collarbone and disappeared over her shoulders.
“What is that?” Ava asked.
Damien put his hand on Astrid’s shoulder, leaning down. “Too soon, sister.”
Astrid blinked and her mating marks disappeared. “Of course. Forgive me, Damien. I forget myself.”
“A rare occurrence, if I remember correctly.”
“Not so rare as before,” she said with a smile. She turned back to Ava, all friendly business again. “Shall we meet in an hour? That will give you time to dress and eat some breakfast. Did Karen bring a basket?”
“Yes, it’s in the kitchen.”
“Good.” Astrid nodded brusquely. “Eat something, dress warmly. Good shoes. I’ll be back in an hour to show you around.”
“And if you need anything, if you’re not sleeping well… Just know that’s very normal when we lose a mate. I can help if you wish it. I’m the resident healer here.”
Damien stepped to the door as Astrid walked toward it. “Thank you.”
Ava saw him grasp Astrid’s hand in both of his. Saw the gentle hold she knew must be easing some of the other woman’s tension. Then Astrid smiled sweetly at him and left.
“She’s a widow,” Ava said a few moments after the door closed. “Astrid. She’s a widow.”
Damien nodded. “Yes.”
“What was that band around her throat? Does that happen when…”
“No,” he said softly. “Nothing has changed with your mating marks, Ava. Astrid wears a mourning collar to show respect for her lost mate, but it’s not permanent like a mating mark.”
“He was killed during the Rending. He was a good man. A friend.”
Ava looked out the window. She could still see Astrid walking along the pathway to the large colorful house where most of the Irina lived. Her soft brown curls bounced cheerfully and she saw her stop another woman and exchange some words that made both throw their heads back in laughter. Would she ever laugh like that again? Would she mourn for two hundred years, as Astrid had?
Half of you died with him.
Only half? It felt like more.
As if he could read her mind, Damien said, “You will take your own path to healing, Ava. Don’t ever look to another to rule your grief.”
She didn’t want to think about Malachi. Didn’t want to think about her dark dreams and the dull pain that lived in her chest.
Ava slid on a facade and turned from the window. “I heard someone brought breakfast?”