“Very curious. I assume your mother lost her mate. Why did she not seek shelter with her family?”
The focus of the room was back on them both, and Ava tried not to cringe under the scrutiny. She felt like she had every time she entered a new school. Her stepfather’s money and connections meant that people had certain preconceived notions about who Ava would be. Their notions always exceeded the reality.
“You’re not crazy. You’re a miracle.”
His voice whispered to her, reminding her to sit up straighter. “My mother is human, not Irina.”
Sari frowned. “I know a human raised you, but who is your real mother? A nanny? A servant? It wouldn’t be unheard of after the Rending to hide among the humans, but someone must have shielded you as a child. Didn’t they ever find out? Surely the scribes with all their voluminous records could find your real mother. Even in America, they have archives.”
Why hadn’t Damien explained it better? “No. Lena Matheson is my real mother. And my father—”
“So she is Irina.” Sari looked as frustrated as Ava. “And mated to a human?”
“No, my mother is not Irina. I told you—”
“She’s not,” Ava said through gritted teeth.
“But you’re Irina!” Sari said, grasping Ava’s wrist. She tried to pull away but couldn’t. “I can feel you. So powerful. You’re like a shot of pure energy. And mated, as well. Marked, Astrid said.”
“So there must be some mistake.” Sari squeezed her hands tighter. “You must not have known. Your real mother—”
“Lena Matheson is my mother,” she said. “Now let me go.”
She didn’t. “But your mother must be Irina.”
“Well, she’s not. And before you ask, I look exactly like her. Everyone knows I’m her daughter. A single look would tell you.”
The whole room had fallen silent, and Ava fought the urge to crawl under the table or run screaming from all the eyes on her. She trained her eyes on the scarred grain of the wood table, trying to block out the room.
“How is this possible?” Sari’s voice soft and searching. “Sister… how did you survive?”
The sudden softness in Sari’s voice startled her. “I just did. I knew I was different. Always different. Obviously, the scribes were looking—”
“But how?” Sari lifted a hand to her cheek. “Who shielded you? Who taught you to silence the voices?” She turned her hands to weave Ava’s fingers with hers, her grip strong. When she did, Ava felt safe, like a blanket of protection covered her, and she understood why all the others followed the woman. In that moment, Ava knew that Sari would fight to the death to protect her, no matter where she had come from. Because she was Irina.
“No one taught me anything,” Ava said. “I’ve heard voices my whole life. I just thought I was crazy.”
The collective gasp from the women around the room made Ava want to run. She would have, if Sari’s hands hadn’t held her in place. She chanced a look up.
The color had drained from Astrid’s face, and she held her hand to her throat.
“Oh, Ava…,” she murmured.
Sari looked murderous.
“I’m not hungry.” Ava tried to push back from the table, but Sari locked her foot around the leg of Ava’s chair. “Let me go. I want to leave now.”
Sari looked around for a moment, then she barked out something in another language and the women around the table bustled back to their tasks. When she spoke again, her voice was chillingly calm. “So the humans thought you were mentally ill?”
Ava shrugged. “What were they supposed to think when a little girl told them she heard voices no one else heard?”
That was a question none of them seemed to be able to answer. After a few moments, a rich bowl of steaming soup was placed in front of her along with a basket of sliced bread. As the food was set down, Sari removed her foot from Ava’s chair.
Ava had the urge to leave again, just because the woman’s commanding tone rubbed her the wrong way. But the scent of the soup was enticing, and Astrid’s hopeful eyes met hers.
“Please, Ava. Stay and eat with us.”
“Fine.” She picked up a piece of the bread and dipped it in the soup.
Astrid and Sari both murmured something under their breath, then they began to eat.
“I’m glad Damien brought you here,” Sari said after a few minutes of silent eating. “It is not good that you were in the world for so long on your own. You could have easily hurt someone, including yourself. Not to mention, I’m amazed you’re not locked up somewhere, rocking in a corner.”
“I’m rich enough to avoid padded rooms,” Ava said. “So that helps.”
“I imagine it does.” She paused and looked out the window toward the cottage. “And then you had to go and stumble into my mate’s scribe house.”
“He wasn’t very happy to have me.”