“Good. Position Two.”
I straightened, hands still up, as Dmitri approached. He drew back his right fist and aimed it at my face. He jabbed and I dodged, slapping his fist away and shoving hard against his arm to throw him off balance. He took a step and caught himself.
“Attack.” He bent at the knees and waved me to him.
I edged to his right and darted in, aiming the tips of my straight fingers at his throat. He swung when I got close. His fist grazed the top of my head as I ducked and stabbed upward with my hand, but he caught my wrist before I made contact.
“Good.” He grunted his approval.
“Your greatest strength is surprise. Your greatest skill—speed. Do not forget, Krasivaya. You look weak. You small.” He tapped the side of my head. “Use to your advantage.”
Sin approached. “She’s got a few moves. I can see that. But I think you could have done more to—”
I exploded off the ground and kicked my legs up. Sin wasn’t quick enough this time, so I was able to straddle his neck and take him down. Landing on his back, he tried to shove me off. I tightened my legs around his neck as I sat on his chest, pinning him.
I pulled my fist back and smiled in triumph. “I could break your nose if I wanted to.”
He glanced between my thighs, his eyes sparkling in the sun, before staring up at me. “I think I like this brand of training.”
I RAN MY FINGERS through her hair, sifting the strands while my mind did the same with memories. She slumbered at my side, snuggled up to my darkness as if it gave off some sort of heat. The only warmth I had was a reflection of hers. Nothing more.
Sun streamed through her bedroom windows, lighting the bed and the quilts along the walls. Mother still asked every so often if I would make one to commemorate my Acquisition, as if it were a badge of honor. I enjoyed disappointing her each time she brought it up. If it were up to me, I’d destroy every one of them.
I studied the oldest one, the seams still tight. Its artistry reminded me of what we once were—sharecroppers and seamstresses. When my great-great-grandfather unwittingly saved the life of the reigning Sovereign, he’d damned us to this life. Seeing us now, raised so high amongst our wicked cohorts, would he regret his act of mercy?
I closed my eyes, blocking out my history, and relished every point of contact I had with Stella as her breath tickled my chest.
I’d been back for two weeks, ignoring my work and, instead, focusing on her. She trained and fought, thriving despite the hellish environs of the Acquisition. I wondered at her strength, where it came from, why I didn’t have it. But I also saw her self-destruction—how she pushed herself further to the brink every day. Her torment was mine. It pained me to see her so hell bent on punishing herself for wrongs she never committed. Still, trying to stop her was like trying to stop the Acquisition itself.
She shifted and her breathing quickened. Perhaps my shadowy thoughts had invaded whatever pleasant dream she’d been having.
“Who was Cora?” Her voice was still thick with sleep. “Renee told me she was your aunt, but nothing else.”
“What makes you think of that?” I ran my fingers along her smooth side.
“I dreamed of that night. The one with your mother.” Her eyelashes fluttered against my chest.
That hellish night. I sighed. I kept nothing from her anymore. She knew me, all of me, and yet she still lay here in my arms as if I weren’t a twisted monster. I kissed the crown of her head. “My aunt, yes. She was the youngest in my mother’s family. The one my mother fought to save.”
“She was Rebecca’s Teddy?”
She rolled back so her head was nestled on my shoulder, her green eyes piercing even as she emerged from the cobwebs of her dreams. “But Rebecca won. So, what happened to Cora?”
“Cora witnessed it all. She saw what Rebecca and Renee went through. She knew from the start that it was her life on the line. Years after it was all over, she hung herself in the woods.”
Stella clenched her eyes shut. “God. I’m sorry, Sin.”
“I don’t remember her much.” Her red hair and warm smile were almost lost to me, just like my mother—both women erased by the Acquisition. “My mother took it in, ingested the blame like a fine meal, and let it drag her down even further. It was all for nothing. My mother screamed those words at Cora’s funeral.” The memory of her, all in black, sinking to her knees and screeching at the clear blue sky, passed before my eyes before disappearing.