"Are you all right?" asked Jason. Horror twisted through him at the bloody mess that shredded Gray's wrist and lower left arm.
"Yeah, I—" He clutched his arm, as if trying to shield it from view. "I just—needed some fresh air."
"Can I come up?"
Gray nodded absently. Jason wasn't sure if it was the best call, but he had to do something.
As Jason walked up the steps, Gray backed away until he was leaning against the opposite railing. He looked from side to side, as if trying to see a way to escape.
Jason spread out his hands. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"I know that." His voice quavered, belying his words.
Jason gestured to his arm. "You need medical attention."
Gray glanced at his arm as if he was surprised it was a part of him. "It's nothing."
He flinched, as if he expected Jason to tear into him. Jason took a step back, leaned against the railing, slick with rain. He'd have to tread carefully—or just call Connie or Tasha. But in a way, he felt it was his responsibility.
"Tasha's worried about you."
"I don't know why. I'm hardly an asset."
"Not just as an asset. As a person."
Gray looked down, then tentatively caught Jason's eyes. "I understand that even less. And why you'd be concerned about me. You should want this." He grasped his arm.
"I don't. I want you to get better, Gray."
"That's not even my real name. It's a name I'm unworthy of. Besides, why would you want me to return to the way I was? Even if I could. That person tortured you mercilessly."
A twinge of phantom pain flashed across Jason's back, where the whip had slashed…. He took a deep breath. "I don't want you to become the same person. I want you to become a better person."
"Even if I wanted to, how could anything good come out of—this?" He raked his fingernails across his arm, ploughing through the bloody gashes.
Jason leaped forward, then caught himself, stopping in the center of the gazebo. "Please, don't do that to yourself."
"I deserve much worse. I deserve to go back to the cell, let them—" He choked. Closed his eyes, shuddering.
Jason ripped a piece off the bottom of his shirt. "Please, let me help you." He approached carefully, holding out the cloth.
"I don't want help," he said sharply, looking up. Then he said more softly, more anguished, "I don't want to need help."
"There's no shame in needing help."
He grimaced. "I suppose I'll have to get used to it. It's better than…my other option. I just…don't know if I can do this mission at all. If I can't even let myself be touched—if everything scares me—if I keep having nightmares….How much of an asset can this be? I'm more of a liability."
"You know how to be an agent, even if you've…been out of the game for a while. It's just too bad you had to go back in the field this soon. But Gray, those symptoms you mentioned don't make you weak. It just means you have PTSD. I should know….I went through it too."
"I thought I was immune to the effects."
"No one else would be able to go through what you did without having the same symptoms."
He tipped his head. "How much did Tasha tell you. About what happened to me." His voice was dark, strained.
Jason pursed his lips. "She…said you were tortured horribly. Much worse than I was. I can't even imagine what you went through."
"You don't want to," he said in a barely audible voice. He snatched the cloth from Jason's hand, wound it quickly around his arm, some of the blood seeping through the white fabric.
He turned away, looking out at the garden, the colors dulled by the mist of rain. He stood there for a few minutes; Jason wasn't sure what to do. He longed to give him the comfort of a human touch that did not hurt, but he didn't want to startle him either. Jason wasn't sure how to help him. His mission would be separate, too—pursuing illegal weapons sales instead of human trafficking. At least that would not be as sensitive an issue for Gray.
"If there's anything I can do, just let me know. If the mission gets to be too much for you, I'll take it on instead."
Gray whirled around. "I do not want to be that helpless."
"You're not recovered yet. Some things will be hard until you're better."
"I have to go on this mission. Whether I'm ready or not."
"All right. I won't take your place. But I'll help you if I find out you're in trouble. Don't hesitate to call me."
A puzzled expression crossed Gray's guarded face. "I don't understand why you'd want to help me. But I suppose I do need it…till I'm back on my feet. Until I can be an agent again." Longing haunted his eyes. "I don't know if I can. But I'll have to try to keep from being afraid—at least enough so I don't go running off like a coward just because some innocent boy ran into me. Even if I have to resort to this in private." He grasped his arm.
"Gray—please don't hurt yourself again. I can't possibly know how you feel, how deeply this has impacted you so you feel like you have to hurt yourself. But it's not going to make things better. I'm no expert—but see if you can find constructive ways to deal with it, instead of destructive ways that'll only hurt your mission."
Gray's eyes sparked. He nodded.
"And –if you ever need someone to talk to, you can come to me."
"Thank you, Jason." A small smile tugged at the edge of his mouth. "I think that the best way for me to get over this is to be an agent. Or at least, try to. It's in my blood; it's all that I am. Without it, I'll always be broken. If I can even get some semblance of what I was ….Until then, I'll try to find constructive ways to….deal with this. Even though I don't even deserve to be an agent again—I never was one in the first place, really—I was always capable of becoming this—this pathetic creature that can't even cope with—couldn't even defend himself when—" He took a deep breath. Looked down, pink suffusing his cheeks. "I will try—try to keep above this, deal with it—but with all this—mess inside, I can't make any promises."
He clung to the railing for a moment, his head leaning out in the rain, droplets dripping off of his blond hair. Then he turned and without a glance at Jason he strode out the gazebo and down the steps, avoiding Connie even when she offered him her umbrella.
Jason's heart swelled with love for her at this simple, kind gesture. Even if she hadn't forgiven Gray, she was making an effort. And that, Jason knew from experience, was hard. It became easier, but the hardest part of forgiveness was not acknowledging it but going out of your way to help the one that needed to be forgiven.
He strode out of the gazebo and popped up his umbrella again. He walked down the path and joined Connie, stunning in her white dress. He kissed her cheek when he reached her; she laughed, gave him a quick kiss on the lips. Then she twined her hand in his and they walked back through the garden toward the palace.
Jason called Tasha and told her they'd found Gray. As they neared the palace, the rain poured harder, gusts of wind pressing against their umbrellas. Gray walked slowly ahead of them, getting drenched by the rain.
They stepped into the entryway and shook the water off their umbrellas before closing them. Tasha dashed in, soaking wet, her umbrella inside out. "It's turning into an actual storm out there."
They walked into the brightly lit front hall. Gray stood near one of the statues. Tasha hurried over to him, spoke to him in low tones. She led him down the hallway of private suites.
A man in a black suit and tie walked up to them. "His Majesty would like you to join him for breakfast."
"We wouldn't miss it," said Jason. They followed the man to the left. A door opened onto another grand room with an elegantly painted ceiling, images of war and peace swirling across it.
The king and queen sat at the head of a long mahogany table, as glossy as a dark mirror. Stefan lounged with his arm draped around the back of the chair, his ruffled shirt open at the collar, his dark curls spilling to his shoulders. Luna leaned forward, her arms leaning on the table, her face alight with excitement as she spoke.
"Welcome!" said James, lifting an arm and beckoning them closer. "Don't let the setting fool you; we're very informal here, as long as it's not a state dinner."
The queen gave a gracious smile. Luna waved vigorously. Stefan regarded them with interest as they approached.
Jason sat down to the left of Stefan, and Connie sat down at his side.
"Did you find your companion?" asked the queen.
It took Jason a moment to figure out she was talking about Gray. "Yes, we did. He's all right."
"Good. Will he be joining us?"
"I'm not sure. He…he has to get into some dry clothes first."
"It's too bad your visit had to coincide with the rainy season," said the king, "although we can't help what time of year our Centennial falls on."
Stefan leaned forward, resting a ruffled sleeve on the table. "The man I ran into…."
"I didn't hurt him, did I?"
"No, he's all right. You just…startled him, that's all."
"I'll try to be more careful next time. What happened to him, anyway?"
"It's a sensitive issue, so I don't think he'd want us talking about it."
"Sure." Stefan leaned back as if satisfied, but curiosity smoldered in his dark eyes.
"We were just talking about the festival," said Luna. "You're coming, aren't you?"
"We'd love to," said Jason.
"When does it start?" said Connie.
"It kicks off tonight. There's gonna be fireworks! And James is coming. I mean, the prince."
"You can call him James, you know," said the king. "You practically grew up together."
"I know, it's just confusing. He used to be Jamie but he doesn't want to be called that anymore." Her lower lip pouted.
James looked at Jason. "We used to call my son Jamie to distinguish him from me. But now that he's sixteen, he thinks Jamie is babyish and so he wants to be called James. I suppose I'll have to choose another name. Which will be confusing for the people, but…c'est la vie." He smiled. He had hints of gray in his hair that he hadn't had seventeen years ago, and carried more cares in his face, but he also seemed happier, more fulfilled. Though there was still an undercurrent of sorrow, nearly muffled by an all-encompassing joy and a less rough and reserved demeanor from his days as an exile in the Czech mountains. He was now fully king, with a confident but not proud manner, easy, approachable. He'd grown into his role, become a king that Muldavia could be proud of. A twinge of happiness pierced his heart for having had a small role in bringing this king to power and toppling the communists that had smothered the country.
"You are King Roderick," said Darya, looking at him with affection. "So you could take on that name." She whispered in his ear. He laughed. Laced his fingers through hers.
"You may call me Roderick, I suppose. Although I associate it with my father. Or you may choose from among any of my other hundred names." His hearty laugh echoed through the room.
Three men in identical black suits entered, bearing silver trays. They set the trays onto the table, lifting the lids, revealing breakfast food of all kinds. A delicious smell wafted through the room; Jason realized he was hungry, especially after their excursion this morning.
Two more of the servants set plates and silverware in front of them. Connie gestured to her fork, mouthing, Is this real silver?
Jason replied, Probably.
Roderick bowed his head, and the others followed suit. He prayed for the meal and for the state of the nation. He thanked God for Luna's grandfather's recovery, and for the fact that Jason and Connie had joined them.
Then everyone dug in. Jason snatched up two large sausages, several potato rolls, toast, cheese, strawberries. He picked up one strawberry and lifted it to Connie's lips. She bit into it, closing her eyes. "Mmmm." Juice ran down her chin. She hurriedly wiped it away with a cloth napkin.
"These strawberries are really good," she said. "Where are they from?"
"They're from the Dakaley district," said the king. "The best strawberries in the world, in my opinion."
The sausages were plump, juicy, with just the right amount of spice. He was so hungry that he dove into the whole meal and barely looked up until his plate was empty.
"Have all you want," said Roderick. "There's more where that came from. Privileges of being a king. Although—I find myself longing for the simplicity of the Romani camp, or the stillness of the mountains….I do like to treat my guests, but overall, I really try to keep my personal expenses as austere is possible. Still, there are these accusations of corruption….."
"Against you?" said Jason, unable to believe it.
"Sometimes I think they're right. Not the corruption but the fact that this institution really is antiquated. We have a republic with an unelected monarch. I've democratized the country to a certain extent, but it's not enough. To still have royalty in this day and age, inherited by blood…It would be okay if it were just symbolic, like in England. But I have entirely too many powers. I'm considering stepping down soon. The problem is, half the country supports the present system, and half does not."
"It is…difficult to balance the two sometimes," said Darya, looking sympathetically at her husband.
"A monarchy has many inherent weaknesses. A democracy is much more stable, and much fairer to the people."
"It does seem like a necessary step," said Jason. "Although…if you had a democracy, there's no guarantee the president will be a good one."
"True. But he would only be in power several years, as opposed to a lifetime. Even though I came to power with the people's support, I do not feel like I deserve this position. The time has come to end the monarchy, while there's still someone in power who does not wish to be in power. Although I don't think James would abuse his position when he became king, I don't want to give him this burden either. I plan to present my proposal to Parliament at its next session."
"I am not entirely certain that's a good idea," said Darya. "There are many things we need to accomplish before we can destabilize the country with elections."
"Sometimes a little instability is needed to reform old systems. My rule has been a transition period between communism and democracy. It's provided the necessary stability."
"This is…a particularly sensitive time."
"When isn't it? Besides, it will take several years before elections can take place. I will make the necessary reforms between now and then."
Darya nodded, her brow furrowed. She was beautiful, noble, elegant; red-blond hair cascaded over her shoulder, contrasting with her dark red velvet dress.
Stefan leaned forward, shoved his plate to the side. "Uncle James, we're not always straightforward with you. We want you to think you have created a utopia, and we're living well and free. But there's a point where…it's too much to bear."
Alarm spread across the king's face. "What is it?"
"The countryside is in trouble. Crime has reached the roads. We were safe at first, but now—the people blame the Romani for their problems. They're afraid of us like they used to be under the tyrant. We've been harassed, abused…That we could bear; we don't want to trouble you with something we can handle. But now—you know our cousin Karima?"
"Yes, she married someone from another kumpania."
"She had two daughters. But they were attacked one night and stolen—we think. We've heard of others attacked and stolen. It's not just because they hate us. They're selling us."
Roderick stood, pushing his chair back with a scrape. His eyes flashed. "How do you know this?"
"We don't know it. Except Aunt Jael thought she saw some Romani girls being bundled up into a van one day. It was in a bad part of Rakima, where there have been lots of disappearances."
"There's already too much trafficking going on in the country, and if they're enslaving Romani—a minority I'm supposed to protect—"
"They're also attacking Turkish people."
"It's not even like you're immigrants. Both minorities have been an integral part of Muldavia since the beginning." His face was flushed with anger. "I'll do everything in my power to help you. It's true, I do get a bit sheltered here in this palace…."
"We did try to keep it from you. No one else comes to the aid of Gypsies." Bitterness seized Stefan's voice.
Darya turned to the king. "You need to be careful how you handle this. Some are already calling you 'Gypsy-lover'."
"It's just that…with the situation as it is, you need to be careful how you present your image."
He flung out one arm toward Luna. "These are our family."
"We'll help them in every way we can. But we should not announce it to the country. That way, we won't tip off the criminals that you're onto their plan."
Roderick nodded, eyes narrowed. He turned to Jason.
"You're here to investigate human trafficking, right?"
"We're searching for the boy of a client of ours."
"That's why you're consulting with Saul and Kris. And Tasha and Gray are chasing the weapons angle of Yavesh."
"That's why we need you to stay in power," said Stefan. "No one else would help us like you do. No other ruler would care about us like family."
"Your family saved me when no one else would. I will not abandon you. But I cannot stay in power forever. You must trust the people—"
"Trust the people who are attacking us?" Stefan stood. "If you abandon us, perhaps we should just take care of ourselves like we always have." He strode out of the room, the door slamming behind him.
Luna giggled nervously into the silence. She looked at Jason. "Family gets into arguments sometimes."
"Especially me and Stefan," said Roderick. "This time, he's has a point. I cannot abandon him." He looked at Darya, who seemed a little shaken beneath her composure. "Perhaps I should postpone the vote. At least until this crisis is over. The last thing we want is chaos. If order is breaking down even in the countryside, where it's usually peaceful…." He looked down at his empty glass pensively. Then he stood. "Excuse me." He bowed swiftly, then strode from the room.
"Thank you for joining us," said Darya. "Excuse me." She followed her husband, leaving just Luna, who fiddled with her fork then stood.
"I've gotta go call my mom. I'll see you later!" She skipped out the door, her green dress flying.
Connie looked at Jason. "I'm…not really sure what to think."
"When I was shot, Stefan's grandparents took care of me. I might not have been brought up in their camp like Roderick, but I do feel like I owe them. While we're looking for Ben….we might find evidence about the ones who were kidnapped. Just as long as I don't get in the direct sights of Yavesh."
"I don't want you to get hurt. They…tortured that agent that Kris told us about. It was too much like my dream."
"Don't worry. I'm not going to run headlong into danger like I used to. Most of all, I don't want to put you in danger." He caressed her hand softly with his. She pressed her hand to his cheek, kissed him. Kept on kissing him—He pulled away reluctantly.
"Let's go back to our room," he said, breathless, and her hand snugly in his, she followed him back down the hallway to their luxurious suite.
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
sorry it took so long to post, I forgot to post the last chapter here (it's on fanfiction.net)
here's a long chapter to make up for it.
Rain pattered softly onto Jason's umbrella, which he shared with Connie. She huddled snugly against him. All around them, people were jumbled in a vast mass on the cobblestone plaza. A red brick building with ornate white trim stood in front of them. On either side its large central balcony stood two soldiers; the center of the balcony was empty.
A strong feeling of déjà vu hit Jason. Along with an echo of apprehension. Last time he was here, he'd been undercover, listening to the speech of the communist premier, Karl von Warberg. And then a soldier had started beating a man for holding his umbrella for his wife—a sign of disrespect to the premier—and Jason had gone to rescue the man. He'd beaten the soldier to the ground, felt a rush of exultation—and then realization slammed into him of what he'd done. Made it impossible to finish their mission—and maybe not even get out of the country alive.
Somehow, his impetuous actions had not ended in their deaths—and miraculously, events had worked together to bring about the downfall of the communists and the rule of the king. But not before the king was nearly executed, in this very square….He could almost hear the surge of the crowds as they attacked the soldiers who'd oppressed them for decades. The bloody, glorious clash of revolution. Despite the insistence of others, it had happened in spite of him, not because of him.
Elena had said that his actions had given the people hope. But that had all been an act. She had been working for Zahl all along….He fought the memory of her lips on his. How had he ever fallen for her? What a foolish boy he'd been…..
Tasha stood on his right, Gray beside her. Somehow she'd coaxed him out to this vast crowd. Admiration stirred in Jason—he knew in a small way what effort it took to face your fears. And with the pain Gray was going through, it would take a lot of strength to simply be here.
Gray's jaw was taut, his face pale under the umbrella. His blond hair was sticking up in spikes and he wore an immaculate charcoal suit. He almost looked like the old Gray, and a chill ran through Jason. But his very posture was tense, his fists clenched against his sides as he looked straight forward, as if trying to avoid seeing anything close to him.
A man walked onto the balcony. The king. He wore a black suit with a red sash across it. Behind him stood Darya, resplendent in a silver gown. A muted roar swept through the crowd, interspersed with cheers. People from the media began snapping pictures, leaning against the iron fence; security guards in dark sunglasses stepped closer warningly.
The king's voice boomed out over the square. He spoke of the accomplishments of the last seventeen years. Of his own journey to become king, hiding with the Romani, and in the cabin in the Czech mountains, and then coming back to share the fate of his people.
"When I stood on that scaffold, I told you that even though I would die, you should not give up hope. It was not me—it was you who started the revolution. It would not have happened if you hadn't acted against your oppressors. As long as we let the flame of freedom burn in our hearts, as long as we don't forget the lessons of history, we will forge forward into an even greater future.
"As I pledged on the day of my coronation, I will always serve you, and protect that future with all that is within me."
A swell of applause and cheers burst around them. The king spoke and they quieted again. "At midnight, Muldavia will officially be one hundred years old. If it is God's will, we will celebrate another centennial in a hundred years. As long as we remain a nation of freedom and of justice."
The crowd cheered, tossed confetti in the air. Hats flew high and disappeared in the crush of the crowd.
The rain had lightened and Jason collapsed his umbrella. Connie's hand snuck into his. They made their way through the mass of people; they could hardly help but bump into someone. Jason looked back to make sure Tasha was coming and saw Gray's face, white and drawn, his eyes shot through with fear and pain.
They reached the front gate. Security men blocked them, hands near their guns.
"We have an invitation," said Jason, his voice drowned out by the roar of the crowd. He carefully reached into his shirt and drew out a piece of paper with the king's signature on it. A guard inspected it with a frown and then nodded. He unlocked the gate and let them in, then shut it swiftly before a member of the paparazzi could dart inside.
Escorted by some guards, they walked into a large hall with a red marble floor and eighteenth-century portraits on the walls. Then they went through a labyrinth of narrow corridors until they reached a large room with long rectangle tables decorated with Muldavian flags and abundant bouquets.
"This is beautiful," said Connie softly.
"The one in the US was just a pale imitation. This is the real thing."
"It's nice to have another reason to wear my dress!"
"You look stunning." He kissed her cheek, remembering the banquet in DC, how he'd longed to be closer to her, close the gap, repair their love….
"You look amazing yourself." She kissed him lightly on the lips.
The guards ushered them to the table at the front of the room, where a few people had gathered already. They sat down next to their nameplates, Connie on his right, Gray on his left and Tasha beside him.
"Are you all right?" Jason asked. Gray's face was ashen.
"Yes. It is…better now, out of the crowd." He looked at Tasha. "Without you, I could not have done it."
"It's part of my job to get you back into peak operating condition."
"I will fight to become an agent if it's the last thing I do."
"It will take time, but you have it in you to overcome this."
"I'll be praying for you, Gray," said Jason.
"Me too," said Connie.
Gray looked taken aback; he nodded but did not reply.
A woman with short red hair strode up to the table.
"If it's not Jason Whittaker!" she said, leaning across the table with proffered hand, which Jason took.
For a moment, Jason couldn't place her. Then an image sparked in his memory. "Dana?"
"Yes! I'm flattered you remembered."
"Well, you're hard to forget."
She laughed and sat down next to Leila. "So what have you been doing with yourself since last time? Saving any more countries?"
Heat rose to Jason's cheeks. "No…well, I never did much to save this one."
"Nonsense! You were instrumental in bringing the prince back, saving him from Zahl."
"After almost getting him killed."
She waved one hand. "All's well that ends well. And who's this? You're beautiful bride?"
"Yes. This is Connie. How'd you know?"
She shrugged. "I'm a reporter; discovering the truth is what I do." She held out her hand to Connie, who took it. "It's nice to meet you, Connie. I'm Dana."
"It's nice to meet you!"
"So how long have you been married? Any kids?"
"Not yet," said Jason, stiffening, hoping to avoid any more questions about children. "We've been married—oh, four months."
Surprise crossed her face. "I would have guessed at least a few years. Though you do have this honeymoon glow about you…."
"We were friends for years before we got married," said Connie.
"Ah, the best kind of relationship. Like my second marriage."
"Where's your husband now?" asked Jason.
"He has to work tonight."
"During the Centennial?"
"He's a security guard. We met on a story—never looked back. It's been five years. So—you were never married before this?"
"I took my time."
"To find the right one, I see." She smiled. "Well, congratulations."
"Thank you," said Connie. She slid her hand into Jason's, lacing her fingers with his.
A group of people spilled into the room and filled the remaining seats at the table. Stefan, Luna, a beautiful girl in a red dress, a man who looked vaguely familiar, a woman with gray streaking her long dark hair—Jason had seen her before. "Marija?"
Marija embraced him, then she introduced her husband, Stefan Sr., whom Jason had met just once after he'd had gotten out of prison. He looked much better now, hearty and strong rather than thin and frail. She also introduced Zara, the young woman in red, who curtseyed and gave a bright smile. "Maybe we can dance this time," she said, her eyes twinkling. He remembered her as a little five-year-old girl, twirling around the fire….
Sofia and Nikola, Marija's parents, came over and gave Jason a hug. They had saved his life when he'd been shot, and brought him to their camp to heal. Jason introduced Connie and they all welcomed her as if she were part of their extended family.
Then the Muldavian national anthem played and everyone stood. Many sang the words, which Jason didn't know, so he just laid his hand on his heart, pondering the sacrifices of the past that suddenly seemed so vivid, as if he'd leaped in time from the revolution to the centennial. The contrast made his heart skip a beat. He drew Connie close; she pressed her cheek to his.
Then the king and queen entered and the crowd hushed. Behind them walked the prince, James, in a dark suit that matched his father's. The king took his place at one head of the table, the queen on the other, while James sat beside Tasha.
The king welcomed everyone and led them in prayer. Then waiters brought in hors d'oeuvres on tiered crystal plates. Connie lifted a crepe shaped like a flower, turned it carefully around. "This looks too pretty to eat!"
She ate it slowly, as if savoring every bite. "It's really good." She snatched up another. "Oh—I don't want to eat all of them."
"That's okay," said Dana. "There's more where those came from."
"Anything you want, just ask!" said the prince. "You're our guests of honor. Without some of you, Muldavia wouldn't exist."
Jason wished he could set the record straight—they all thought he was some kind of hero. He knew he'd never be able to live up to the pedestal they'd put him on. It was false—a mirage. Even many years later, he hadn't become a great agent. He'd failed miserably, many times.
"I'm no hero," he said quietly, almost to himself.
"It's true, you did do some pretty foolhardy things," said Dana.
"That's an understatement."
"You were young, inexperienced. Of course you made mistakes. But you cannot downplay what we all saw, at the end. It took an outsider to show us that we could resist. And the most Muldavian of us all." She lifted her glass toward the king.
"But I too was an outsider," said the king. "I abandoned you."
"It's what you had to do. To save yourself. So you could come back and save us all. In the end, it doesn't matter what mistakes we made along the way. It's the result that matters. A hero is an ideal, a figurehead, something that doesn't really exist but which we strive for. It's the best that's in us, that overcomes what's worst in us."
"Well said," said the king, who raised a glass. "To heroes."
Jason raised his glass, which was filled with wine, and clinked it against Connie's. He took a sip; it was heavy and tangy.
"Well, I guess a little wouldn't hurt," said Connie, and she sipped some of the wine, reddening her lips. Longing sprang up inside him to kiss those lips. He had to look away for a moment or he might forget himself and kiss her right there.
"What do you think?" said Saul. "It's one of our best wines, called Lessanne."
"Delicious," said Jason.
"It's grown not far from here," said Leila. "Near where we live. If you'd like to come out to our place for a day or two, you're welcome."
"We're not exactly here on vacation."
"Of course not. But we are also investigating Yavesh, so it could be a working vacation. And you could meet our kids. They're sitting at another table with our relatives; maybe we can introduce you later."
"I'd like to meet them," said Connie. "You have five, right?"
"Gina, Tessa, Mark, Lukas, and Katrina," said Saul.
"That's our youngest," said Leila. "Is something wrong with the name?"
Connie laughed. "No! It's just that Katrina's the name of one of my good friends."
"Good namesake, then. She's our little ray of light. Our surprise baby."
"She's the sweetest little thing!" said Zara. "I want a whole bunch of kids l after I graduate."
"You need to get married first," said Marija.
"Of course, Mama." She lowered her eyes. "That's what I meant."
"Any good prospects in college?" said Nikola.
"Not yet, Grandpapa."
"Then what are we sending you to college for?"
"Nikola!" said Sofia, giving him a playful nudge.
"To be a teacher," said Zara.
"And leave the kumpania, I suppose." Nikola sighed.
"I could teach our kids."
"Times are changing," said Sofia. "The opportunities for smart young women are in the city, not traveling about the countryside. We'll miss you, but you will always be a part of us, and we'll come visit you when you have a family of your own."
"I will see if I can settle down with a nice Romani man. There are not many at the university, though."
"Well, just do your best and come back to us if you can," said Nikola.
"Are you planning to leave us too?" asked Marija, looking at Luna.
She looked up from her salad. "I don't know, Mama. I don't want to leave. But I do want to learn, like Stefan and Zara."
"You're already away from us so much."
"There's so much I want to see. And I need to see Uncle James sometimes too." She looked at the king. Then her eyes strayed to the prince. He gave her a bright smile; she flashed a smile back at him and then looked down at her plate.
The main course arrived—steak and potatoes. Jason cut into the steak and lifted it to his mouth. It was tangy and tender.
He looked at Tasha. "We certainly eat better this time around."
She nodded. "When we were on the run, we had to take what we could get."
"Times have changed," said Dana. "We are a more prosperous country now than we ever were under communism. Not to say we don't still have kinks to work out."
"It's your job to keep us accountable," said the king. "Especially since we don't yet have a true democracy. Something I plan to rectify. It's unconscionable that I have been so complacent as to wait so long to create one. We need full, free and fair elections within the next few months."
A murmur rippled across the table, and some of it spread to the crowd below. People looked at each other, whispered excitedly, apprehensively.
"It's a credit to your rule that we have been satisfied as a people," said Dana. "We trust you to make the right decisions for us."
"But that's the problem with absolute rule. The communists were right about that part—they just went too far the other way. When the power is in the hands of one person, the country has to rely on the benevolence of that monarch. There are no checks and balances. A constitution is the foundation of a country; without it, we could easily fall prey to a demagogue or a revolution. Even I could go the wrong way and abuse power."
"This may not be the right time, your Majesty," said a man next to him. "There is unrest in the provinces. We need a strong hand. Later, we can craft this constitution, when things have settled down."
Roderick waved one hand. "There is never a perfect time for a transition. But it must be done. We will make it as smooth as possible. I will not step down until a legitimate candidate has taken my place and transfer of power is guaranteed peacefully. Our country must enter the modern age. It's only because we're so small that we've escaped scrutiny from the rest of the world about democratic progress."
"And because of your impeccable record," said Dana. "There are no human rights abuses here. The people are happy and prosperous. It's true, few monarchs would be able to resist the temptation for corruption."
"It is only by the grace of God I have kept on the right path."
"Ironically, there are those who take issue with your faith. We're still quite a religious country, but there are more atheists and agnostics than there once were. We're becoming more diverse, and that brings the clashes of culture and race that we've been seeing lately."
"Elections may settle things down. Or they may bring to light just how divided the people are."
"We are not divided," said the man who had spoken before. He had steel gray hair and glasses. "We are happy and prosperous, as you said."
"Yes," said Dana. "But with all due respect, you are not among the people every day as I am. I look into their faces, and there is joy, but there's also suspicion and hatred simmering beneath the surface. If we're not careful, it could explode. It could even bring new revolution. Elections may bring us stability; they may fan the flame of conflict. That's just the risk we have to take."
"I see what you do not see as well," said Stefan. He leaned forward, dark curls slipping over his forehead. "I see the hatred against my people. It is getting worse, not better. My own father was hurt when he tried to intervene when gadje were attacking some of us."
"Perhaps, if the Gypsies were more integrated," said the man with the steel-gray hair, "these attacks would not happen."
"You would not allow us to be integrated. Even if we wanted to be. At the university, they stay away from us like we carry a plague." Stefan clenched his fist.
"It is not as bad as all that," said Zara. "I've made lots of friends. Maybe you should try being less adversarial."
"You see the silver lining everywhere. Even after you were attacked."
"It wasn't so bad." She brushed her cheek with her fingers, looked down.
"Two men hurt her. I wasn't there to stop them."
"Zara—I didn't know," said the king.
"We don't want to beg favoritism," said Zara. "I'm fine, really. It was in my sophomore year. The majority of students have been very welcoming."
"That is how most Muldavians are. But there are bad elements too, and it's my job to eliminate them as much as possible and protect our minorities. When I step down, there will be provisions in the constitution that will protect the Turkish, Jewish, and Romani people and give them seats in Parliament." He looked at Stefan, who nodded.
"That will take care of the common criminals," said Dana. "But there is a cancer in our society and it has deep roots, taking advantage of the unrest and the economic hardship of some."
"You're not talking about Yavesh," said a blond woman next to Sofia. "That's a fairytale."
"Most fairytales are dark and violent. But it's real and spreading. If we don't stop it, it will undo all the hard work as a country and consume us."
"From what I've seen, no, I'm not. There are just enough pieces to connect into a pattern. We have to destroy it before it uproots our society."
"You think it is that intertwined?" asked the king.
"It's roots are deeper than we realize. We have a lot of work to do before we can even scratch the surface. I would almost consider postponing the vote, if I were you; it might take advantage of the country's instability. It might even engineer a coup."
"I wasn't aware it had political ambitions."
"From the pattern I've seen, it wants to take over as much of the country as possible. If it can't take over like a vine rotting a tree from the inside, it will crush the state and take over completely. Like cancer, it will survive at all costs, even death of the host."
"We would appreciate any help you can give us," said Leila. "If we work together, share information, we can accomplish more than we could alone."
Dana nodded. "I'd be happy to share anything I come up with. Though I've scraped up little concrete so far."
"We have a chance to bring down Yavesh if we all work together," said Saul.
"My niece's two girls were stolen by them," said Marija. "Could you help us?"
"Yes, we will. Just give us as much information as you can. That might not only help us find the girls, but bring down Yavesh and save many more children. If you see anything suspicious, report it so we can have as clear a picture as possible. We have to find a weakness of some sort. A way to destroy their foundation. Right now, we're just going after the periphery, not the heart, the brain of it."
"If I have to fight them myself," said the king, "I will."
"Rod," said Darya, "you are not expendable."
"On the contrary, I am…or soon to be…obsolete." He smiled a little wistfully. "If the only way to save my country is to sacrifice myself, I will do it in an instant. It is…only by the grace of God that I did not sacrifice my life seventeen years ago."
"It would have been me that caught that bullet," said Jason, gratefulness rushing through him for what the king had done. He was truly a selfless man, a great leader if there ever was one.
"You saved me; I only had to return the favor. You brought me to life by connecting me to my people."
"Is there anything I can do?" asked the prince.
"It might be good for you to learn more of Muldavian affairs. If you want to, you can look at the reports, see what you can learn. And maybe you can shadow some investigations—as long as they don't go into danger."
"Thank you." He bowed his head, the circlet of a crown around his hair glinting in the light from the chandeliers.
After dessert of strawberry shortcake, an opera singer in a pearlescent silk dress stood on stage and sang a song in Muldavian. Jason lost himself in the beauty of the language, the soaring heights of the music.
"It's beautiful," whispered Connie when it was done. Jason gently brushed away the tear on her cheek. His heart ached to gather her close, but he drew away, leaving disappointment in her eyes.
After the opera singer came a rock group which caused everyone to get up and sway to the pounding of the drums and rhythm of the guitar. Finally there was a scene from a play, and this was in Muldavian too, so it was hard to follow. But it seemed like a version of Romeo and Juliet, only between a wealthy city girl and a poor country boy.
When the scene ended, everyone got up from the tables. Saul and Leila introduced them to their kids, who had black hair and dark eyes like their parents. Leila lifted little Katrina up and kissed her; the little girl laughed and Leila hugged her tight.
Connie turned away, pain in her eyes.
"Connie—" He led her away toward the wall.
"I'm okay. I'm just tired and there's so much going on and—seeing her made me think of what Jeremiah would've been like if….."
"We can go back to the palace."
"I'm okay. I want to dance." They walked to the ball room, a grand room with shimmering chandeliers with pictures of battles swirling across the floor.
He held her close as they danced. She draped her hand over his shoulder, fingers caressing the back of his neck. He gazed into her beautiful green eyes, her face perfectly framed by her cinnamon-brown hair. He kissed the bridge of her nose, unable to help it; she laughed and pressed even closer, then kissed his cheek, close to his ear. Thrills raced through him.
"My Connie," he whispered.
"My Jason." He pressed his lips to hers, savoring a slow soft kiss.
She lifted her hand, brushed his hair back from his brow. "You are more beautiful every time I look at you." She ran her hand down delicately over his scar. He closed his eyes, remembering a flash of pain, wondering how she could see any beauty in him.
"I don't want to do anything but be near you." She closed her eyes, pressed her cheek to his. They swept past the other dancers, like mirages in mist.
After about five dances, Connie said her feet hurt and they sat on a bench along the edge. He wrapped his arm around her waist, while she leaned her head on his shoulder.
Saul and Leila swirled past them, completely absorbed in each other. Dana danced past with her husband, a tall man with brown hair and intense brown eyes. She introduced him. "This is Sam."
"It's good to meet you," he said. "I would like to throw my hat in the ring, if possible. See if I can get a transfer to Internal Security, help fight Yavesh."
"You'd be a good asset to the team," said Jason, not sure what he should say, since he was just here as a freelancer.
"He would, wouldn't he?" said Dana, wrapping her arm around Sam's. She pressed close to him with a laugh, and they swept around the dance floor, blending with the other dancers including Nikola and Sofia, Stefan Senior and Marija, and the king and queen in the center, regal and graceful and perfectly in sync.
Stefan and Zara twirled past, laughing. Luna and Prince James danced slow and close, Luna's cheek against his, her eyes closed, the prince gazing at her with affection in his eyes.
"Do you think they are… together?" said Connie softly.
"I don't know. They look pretty close. I wonder if the king knows."
To Jason's surprise, Gray was on the dance floor with Tasha. He looked awkward and uncomfortable; Tasha draped her arm around his shoulder. He closed his eyes, his head bowed for a moment. Then his body relaxed and his steps moved with the rhythm of the music and he swept Tasha around the dance floor, moving elegantly. His dark suit and her red dress complemented each other, while her dark hair and his blond hair contrasted, as if they'd chosen each other as partners to maximize effect. They danced in symphony, almost as if they anticipated each other's thoughts. The next dance was faster and Jason marveled at their moves. Even the king and queen stopped and admired them, while only a few others remained on the floor. The rest watched the masters at work, while they remained oblivious to anything but each other. Jason had never known Tasha was such a great dancer, and wouldn't have suspected it of Gray, although they were both the kind that strove for excellence in all that they did. The only thing that marred their movements was Gray's slight limp. Otherwise, one would never suspect that he'd been horrifically tortured, or how broken he'd been earlier that day. It was as if he'd shed who he was and something else had emerged—similar to his old supremely confident self.
Connie leaned over as the music tapered off. "You don't think…there's something there, do you? Something between them?"
"I…don't know. I wouldn't think so, but…." For some reason, the thought disturbed him. Not jealousy of course, but even with Gray's reformed attitude, his present harmlessness, it didn't seem right that Tasha would fall for someone like him. She wasn't the kind that could ever care for a murderer….
Maybe I haven't forgiven him as much as I thought. There is this part of me that cannot trust him. Not yet.
Gray and Tasha came over and sat down beside them. Sweat sheened their skin.
"That was amazing!" said Connie.
"Thank you," said Tasha breathlessly. "I haven't danced like that in a while."
"You could dance professionally."
"Maybe we'll do that," she said wryly, looking at Gray. "How are you doing?"
"I'm all right," said Gray. "I…didn't think I could do that. Not with all these people. But somehow I was able to forget. Like it was just us two in the room. You're good at knowing just the right thing to say, to do."
"You just have to believe you can do it. Look what you just did." She touched his hand.
People were still stealing glances at them and murmuring. Gray looked away, a blush spreading across his cheeks. "I hope they did not see my limp."
"All they saw was your expertise."
He gave a sheepish smile. "I just…can't help but think they can see it, sense it, somehow. What…happened." He looked sharply at Jason and Connie, as if he thought he'd said too much. Jason had never told him that he knew the worst of what had happened, and didn't know if there'd ever be a right time to tell him.
Connie changed her blue dress for a more practical white one. While Jason waited for her outside the bathroom, he heard soft rustling around the corner. He crept down the hall and slowly turned—
Prince James had his arms around Luna's waist and was kissing her passionately. Luna swept her arms around his neck and kissed him near his ear—he laughed, gathered her lips in his once more—
Jason cleared his throat.
The teenagers whirled around, pink suffusing James' cheeks, Luna's eyes wide. "We were just—um—" James stumbled.
"I can see what you were doing." He strode up to them.
"It kinda just…happened," said Luna. "It's a good thing you showed up, because we…don't want to get too carried away."
"I don't want to keep this a secret, anyway," said the prince. "Now that I know how you feel." He wrapped his hand in hers.
"I love you, James!" She giggled.
"I love you too, Luna. I want everyone to know, especially because there's no law anymore about who I can marry."
"You're getting a little ahead of yourselves, aren't you?" said Jason.
"If I love her, there's no reason to wait."
"Well, speaking as someone who waited too long—maybe you're right. As long as you wait till you're married to…"
"We will!" said Luna.
"I know we're young," said James. "But if Mom and Dad approve…" He pulled Luna down the hall and she followed, her green dress flowing behind her as she laughed.
Connie came around the corner. "What was that all about?"
"Young love." He came up to her, grasped her hand. "It's too bad I waited so long to realize how I felt about you."
"Those years weren't wasted, because we were friends. And now …we get to catch up with all we didn't do." She caressed his face, drawing her fingers down over his jaw to his lips.
"Maybe those two had the right idea…." He turned her hand over, kissed along its edge. She drew in a sharp breath, looked up at him with sparkling eyes. He grasped her shoulders, slowly, gently pushed her against the wall. She leaned back, closed her eyes, her lips slightly parted. He admired her astonishing beauty, totally unworthy before her. She grasped the back of his neck, pulling him closer. He gathered her mouth in his, reveling in her graceful movements.
She slid her hand into his hair, ran her fingers delicately over his neck. Loosening his tie just a bit to slide against his throat. Chills raced through his body, longing for more of her bursting through him.
But he pulled away, settling for entwining his arm around hers and whispering, "You are so beautiful."
"I still can't believe I…kept myself away from you for a month."
"You were in pain. I understand—I felt a lot of it, though I can never know what it's like to …to carry a baby, and lose him." Infinite sorrow rose in his chest.
She nodded, tears sparking in her eyes. He wished he could comfort her. There was only so much he could do; he didn't want to invade her space if it was something she was working out for herself.
They headed up onto the balcony, joining the king and queen, the prince, Sofia and Nikola and their family, and Tasha and Gray.
Jason walked up to the prince. "Have you told him?"
"Well…I didn't think this was the right time…"
"There's never a right time. If you're serious about this girl—"
"Then—"He swept his hand toward the king.
James nodded. He stepped over to his father and mother and spoke to them; Roderick patted James on the back, and Darya hugged him. James beckoned Luna over to them. James gave Jason a thumbs-up sign.
Jason leaned back against the brick wall, Connie beside him. "It's a much different scene that it was seventeen years ago," said Jason.
"Von Warberg stood here on the balcony and gave his speech," said Tasha. "We were down there, pretending to be reporters." She laughed. "I could've done a lot better myself back then. Though I was a bit…distracted."
She gave him a meaningful look.
"Oh. By me, you mean." He felt supremely awkward.
"Don't worry. I don't have that problem anymore." She gave a small smile.
BOOM! Bright fire splashed across the sky. Two more, bright flowers of green and blue, that left puffs of smoke against the dark.
As they watched the fireworks, Jason pulled Connie close, wrapping his arms around her to keep her warm. He had long sleeves while her dress was sleeveless. Men's and women's formal fashions really weren't very fair….Good thing she took those painful looking high heels off and was standing in her bare feet. He almost got distracted from the fireworks, admiring her beautiful feet….
Afterwards, they headed to the palace in the king's limousine. The prince could hardly contain himself, now that he'd declared his love. He kept looking out the window, talking about Luna.
"She has her own family to go back to," said Roderick.
"I want to get her the most beautiful ring…"
"Maybe you should wait a while. Let your relationship grow."
"You can't know if it's the real thing yet," said Darya.
"I do! I love her."
"It's best to have a courtship period," said the king. "Perhaps a year—"
He smiled. "We will see. It's not like you won't see her during that time. You do have to be careful, you know—"
"I know, Dad. I don't want to hurt her."
"Good. I know how passions can get the better of you, though." He looked at Darya, who pursed her lips.
"We almost did," said Darya. "At least there is no law now, against you marrying a commoner or a Gypsy."
They stopped at the palace, shining in the dark. Connie leaned on Jason's arm, carrying her shoes while he carried the bag with her dress in it. "I'm so tired…."
He kissed her temple. "We'll get to bed right away."
She smiled wearily.
The king's cell phone rang and he picked it up as they entered the foyer. "Yes? What is it? No, she didn't come back with us. Yes, James is with us. She's not—Yes, I'll do everything I can. I know. It'll be okay, Marija. I will." He slid the phone back in his pocket.
"What is it?" said James. "Is Luna all right?"
"They don't know where she is. They thought she came back with us but….
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
Here is a little shorter chapter
“What?” said the prince, looking stricken. “How can she be gone?”
“Maybe she got lost in the crowd. I’ll send the police, my best agents, right away.”
James leaned his head in his hands. “What if it’s Yavesh?”
Connie’s heart flipped. What if that sweet girl had been kidnapped—bound for a horrible fate….
Darya laid her hand on his shoulder. “It’s probably just a mixup. They thought she was going with us, we thought she was going with them. If she’s smart, she went back in the building. We might get a call from a security guard any moment.”
“Is there anything we can do?” said Tasha.
“Not at the moment,” said Roderick. “The police should be able to handle this. But if it’s Yavesh….” He closed his eyes, shook his head. “I don’t even want to think of it. But we have to consider every possibility. If it is—we’ll need your expertise.”
Connie’s heart sank. What expertise do I have? I’ll just have to support Jason in whatever way I can. And get out of his way if I’m going to mess it up by not knowing what I’m doing….
Connie followed Jason back to their suite.
They didn’t wake up until 9:30 the next morning. In the breakfast room, a table was laden with pastries and coffee and juice and biscuits and eggs and sausage and strawberries. Connie gathered some of each. She sat down beside Jason and devoured a sausage-egg biscuit—salty and delicious. Then she ate one of the pastries, and flakes of it fluttered off onto her shirt but she didn’t care, it was wonderful, all the more so because she was practically starving.
Jason pulled the stem off of a strawberry. “Here,” he said, and lifted it toward her mouth. She opened her mouth and he dropped it in, his fingers just brushing the edge of her lips. She bit down on the berry, and juice flooded over her tongue.
She picked up a strawberry from her plate and twisted off the stem. Then she lifted it to his mouth. He bit into it, a little juice reddening his lips.
He lifted into his arms, his hard biceps pressing into her back, and gave her soft, smooth kisses— every second satiated her and made her long for more of him and she gasped as her love for him poured through her, finding expression in every touch—
A throat cleared behind her. Connie sat up to see Tasha and Gray standing in the doorway.
“What have you been doing all this time?” said Tasha.
“Well…” said Jason. “We slept in.”
“I can see that. Do you have any sense of propriety?”
“What do you mean?” said Jason, standing.
“Our hosts need our help. We’re not here for the luxury tour.”
“I….I’m sorry,” he said. “I did get carried away with how luxurious this place is. And we’re….kind of on another honeymoon.” His face flushed beneath his tan.
Tasha’s eyes flicked down a moment, and then glanced at Connie before looking at Jason again. “I see,” she said. “Perhaps it’s better to keep out of the game completely if your head’s only half in it.”
“No—you’re right. I’m sorry. I…do have to start acting professionally. The celebration is over—time to get to work.” He took Connie’s hand and she stood. “Although…I can’t bring myself to regret anything we’ve shared.” He kissed her lightly on the bridge of her nose and a pleasant shiver ran through her. She longed to lean into his touch. But there would be time for that later—although her entire being ached to be as close to him as she could every waking moment.
“Have they found Luna?” Connie said.
“It’s beginning to look like she was kidnapped. It’s become a criminal investigation—and they want us to cover the Yavesh angle, just in case they’re the ones that kidnapped her.”
A horrible chill ran through Connie. “Luna—she’s so sweet and innocent. She can’t—“ She shook her head, not wanting to imagine what Yavesh would do to that beautiful young girl, like it might be doing to Ben, the one they were here to rescue…..
“We have to look at all the angles—and get her back as soon as possible.”
Jason strode over to the doorway. Gray flinched, pressing back against the corner.
“Sorry,” said Jason, and backed away, giving Gray his space.
Gray frowned. “I’ve got to get over this if I’m going to be of any use.”
“It’s all a process. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
“I can’t just be okay with how I am, either.”
“No—but it will take a while. Give yourself a break sometimes. This will be hard enough without you being your own worst critic. Be okay with not being perfect all the time.”
Gray tipped his head. “You’re starting to sound like a psychiatrist.”
“I’ve been to one a few times—trying to get over… the worst of it.”
Gray looked at him for a moment, then nodded and looked away.
Gray was the reason Jason had had PTSD in the first place. But despite the residual anger that she wasn’t sure she’d ever be rid of, she felt more sympathy for Gray than anything. He was struggling. He knew now, more than ever, what Jason had gone through, and even worse.
They followed Tasha out into the hall and into the entryway, where they met Roderick, Darya, and James.
“Thank you for helping us,” said Roderick. “I know you have other priorities, but I feel better knowing that Tasha and Jason are on the case.”
“Even if they have not kidnapped Luna,” said Tasha, “Yavesh is a plague on your society and we’ll do all we can to bring it to justice.”
“Be careful,” said Darya, her face pale and weary, a few strands of blonde hair hanging from her otherwise perfect braids. “They are the most dangerous people in the country.” She blinked back tears, and grasped Roderick’s arm. “Luna—somewhere out there—“ He caressed her cheek, running his hand down to her chin.
“We’ll get her back,” he said, although his strong voice trembled slightly.
“I’m going,” said the prince, stepping forward.
Darya turned to him. “No. We need to keep you safe.”
“I can’t just stay here and—“ He took a deep breath, anguish in his blue eyes.
“If he’s just at the security center,” said Roderick, “he should be okay.”
“He’s the prince. He could be a target.”
“There’s no evidence they’ve targeted us.”
“But if they took Luna….”
“It could’ve been random. Not everyone thinks of the Romani as part of our family like we do. They’ve kidnapped many and if she happened to get lost she might’ve been an easy target. I should’ve made sure she was protected…..”
“There is no evidence that she’s been kidnapped by Yavesh,” said Tasha.
“But they have been kidnapping Gypsies…” said Darya.
“It’s true, we just don’t know at this point.”
“That’s why we cannot let James out of our sight.”
Roderick turned to Jason. “Would you mind keeping an eye on him? Make sure he stays in the security center and doesn’t go out into the field.”
“Thank you.” He turned to James. “You’re not a professional. You’re just learning—make sure you don’t do anything rash. Others are better equipped to find Luna; don’t forget that. You’re in a support capacity, not a leader. If the way you’re asked to support is to bring the agents coffee, then that’s what you’ll do. Understand?”
James nodded solemnly.
“Rod…” said Darya, looking worriedly at her son.
“He’ll be fine. I trust Jason with my life. Besides, he’ll basically be in a fortress. It’s safer than the palace.”
Darya, looking doubtful, turned to James. “Be careful.” She grasped his shoulders. “Don’t do anything foolish. Do what Jason and the agents tell you.”
“I will, Mama.”
She kissed his forehead and he stepped back, his hand sweeping back his brown hair.
“The car will take you to Aleem Center.” Roderick gestured to the doors; a black, nondescript car was idling, a driver just visible in the front seat.
“Aleem?” said Jason, alarm in his voice.
“I know. We didn’t change the name. But it’s been repurposed; it’s not the slaughterhouse that it was.” A shadow crossed his eyes.
Tasha and Gray headed out to the car. Roderick hugged his son, who then followed Jason and Connie outside. Tasha and Gray were already in the front two seats.
Jason opened the door for Connie and she slid into the middle seat. Jason sat beside her, the prince on the other side behind the driver, who started the car off down the driveway.
“What is Aleem Center?” Connie asked, wanting to know what had made Jason react like that, and at the same time dreading the answer.
“It’s the internal security headquarters. Although it was a lot different under Von Warberg….” He looked out the window, his profile gilded by golden light. Sorrow reflected in his eyes, and he didn’t seem like he’d say any more. It must be a bad memory, and she didn’t want to make him relive it. But then he continued, “Zahl, the security director, showed me and Tasha the cells where they kept the political prisoners. It was…very hard…not to intervene when I saw how they were brainwashing and torturing people. Somehow I didn’t blow my cover and we didn’t end up as prisoners….but after we were captured, we ended up back there anyway.”
“Did they hurt you?”
“Not really. They mostly focused on James—I mean, the king—and Tasha. They were very hard on them both.”
“It was the first time I was tortured,” said Tasha, matter-of-factly. “Not nearly the worst, though.” Her voice became strained, and as she glanced at Gray, they shared a meaningful look. “They hurt the king much worse than me. They wanted to punish him because he was the rightful heir. They also wanted to show a broken, defeated prince. But he didn’t give them the satisfaction. He had so much honor and dignity, even as they were torturing and humiliating him. True nobility.”
“My father never told me that happened,” said James. “He never talks much about the revolution.”
“It was probably hard for him to talk about. And his humility would forbid him from flaunting how well he conducted himself. Although it would only improve people’s estimation of him.”
“There’s no question he was the right person for Muldavia, king or not,” said Jason. “Although….”
“What?” Connie asked, when he didn’t finish the sentence.
“I’ll see if Whit will tell you the story sometime. Since you’re part of the family now, you have a right to know. But it’s his story to tell.”
Curiosity burned in her, but she knew better than to try to pry a secret out of Jason.
Connie watched the countryside roll by…the gentle hills, dotted with clusters of trees. Horses and cows grazed in broad green pastures. The prince looked out the window, his face pensive. She wished she could comfort him. He’d lost the love of his life; she knew what that felt like.
It struck her how much he looked like Jason. He could have been a cousin, a nephew—or a son.
A twinge hit her heart. No. I can’t go there. Not yet. Besides, he doesn’t look that much like him….the pictures of Jason at 16 are a quite a bit different. For one thing, I have a feeling Jason was always fooling around, not taking things seriously. The prince seems more grounded. And he wanted to get married already…while Jason waited till he was almost forty.
Maybe that was a mistake. To wait so long. He should’ve married someone else—Gloria from college, or Tasha…. Look at how I’ve hurt him already! No matter how much I try, I’m not ready to have a baby yet. I know how much he wants one, and I’m still making him wait to start a family. He didn’t abandon me after I lost Jeremiah like I abandoned him. Another woman would not have been so selfish…And she would have been able to bear a child without harming it. He could’ve been married long ago and had the family he wanted….
The car entered the city, driving down the expressway, the suburbs giving way to high rise apartments glittering in the morning sunlight. When they reached the brick buildings at the heart of the city, Connie had a nagging feeling she’d forgotten something. “Did we need to bring something else with us?”
“You have your cell phone, right?”
She nodded, and lifted her purse, digging out the cell phone from the front pocket.
A horrible feeling shot through her. She scrambled through her purse, trying to find the package of pills. Looked in the little pocket it usually was in—but all she found were pens and old candy wrappers and pennies.
“What is it?” he asked. “Did you forget something?”
“I—I don’t know. It might be back in our room, but….” Horror clutched her heart. “I don’t remember taking it from the hotel in Washington DC.”
The car pulled to a stop, but she barely felt it. She dug out old movie tickets and napkins and her checkbook and lipstick and laid them on the seat. The others climbed out, including the driver; the open doors sent a breeze through the car, sending some random papers flying. Jason caught them before they could fall out of the car. “Connie—what is it?”
“The birth control pills. Jason—“ She grasped his arm. “The last time I remember taking one was three days ago.”
“Maybe we can get some here.”
“But they kind of build up and if you don’t take one it throws everything off, and you can get pregnant even if you start up again.”
“Well, we’ll just have to…keep from getting too close.” His face fell.
“It might already be too late.”
He caught her eyes. “We have needed each other so much after…all that happened, it’s not surprising we forgot. I should’ve reminded you.”
“It was up to me to remember. Jason—what if I—“ She couldn’t finish the sentence.
He sat back and took her hand. The others were speaking together in a group; someone else had joined them. “Connie—would it be so bad? I mean…what if it’s God’s will that we have a baby now?”
“I want to go to a doctor first. I don’t want to hurt another baby. I can’t—not again.” Panic welled up in her. He gathered her to him and kissed her cheek.
“I know. I know, my love.” He stroked her hair back. “Maybe you aren’t pregnant. And if you are…we’ll get through this. We’ll get health checkups—we’ll do everything to make sure the baby is born. God will be there for us.”
She nodded, and wiped away her tears. “I know.” I should know, she thought. I’m still not over…losing him.
“Are you coming?” said Tasha, leaning down to look into the open door.
“Just a minute.”
She nodded and turned to walk inside with Gray and James.
Jason folded his hands around Connie’s and prayed that God would heal her, and that if she were pregnant, the baby would be born healthy without any complications. Pain squeezed her heart at each word. But it also gave her a tiny sliver of hope—that maybe everything would turn out okay.
She looked in the mirror in the front seat and wiped away some stray mascara, and then followed Jason into a low gray building, its modern design a little out of place among the ornate brick buildings and cobblestones.
Inside, it was bright and spacious, lit by fluorescent lights. At the front desk, a receptionist with honey blond hair and black-rimmed glasses greeted them and told them to follow the hall to the left. “Your colleagues are in room 2 B,” she said, and turned back to her computer.
Connie followed Jason down a long corridor and they stepped through a frosted glass door labeled 2 B.
Inside, Markov sat at a round wooden table, his back to a floor-to-ceiling window. Beside him sat Saul and Leila. Among about ten others she didn’t know sat Dana, with her bright auburn hair. Tasha, Gray and James sat near some empty chairs close to the door. Connie slid in beside Jason, hoping not to be too conspicuous, because she didn’t feel like she belonged with all these agents. What am I doing here? she wondered. Because I can’t stand to be apart from Jason.
“Thank you for joining us,” said Markov. “We were just discussing the purpose of this group. For instance, it can be beneficial to have an outsider’s perspective, especially on a complex issue like this. However, efficiency is also important, and extraneous elements will only hinder our mission.” His piercing eyes roved to Connie, and she felt like shrinking into the floor. He knows I don’t belong here. Maybe I should just run out the door…But she was rooted in place.
“I have gathered experts in their fields, who will work on their areas of expertise and then report back to me. We will meet periodically and collaborate when necessary. Most of those here are leaders in their own divisions and will direct field agents to carry out their orders. Some are consultants, who will be working on a freelance basis and may conduct field missions of their own, but their non-traditional points of view will keep us from getting too insular.” He looked at Dana. “I was hesitant to include a reporter; however, Dana has convinced me that she knows the streets of Rakima, and she has informants with crucial sources. As a veteran reporter, she has investigation skills akin to those of a junior agent.”
Dana smiled wryly and inclined her head.
“As deputy director, I will decide who is valuable to the team and who is not. Some of you are not officially part of this group, and will mostly work on your own, although we may periodically ask you to supply intelligence.”
“That would be us,” said Jason.
“You are here for your own ends, and you are not beholden to us. However, as long as you work with us, you will conduct yourselves professionally and according to our parameters.”
“This includes not bringing amateurs along on a mission where the slightest mistake could mean death.”
“Kris—“ said Dana.
Markov shot her down with his eyes. “I owe the king the deepest respect. But this is my domain. To arbitrarily send a young prince to assist in any capacity shows either a shocking naivety or a regrettable disregard for my position and service.”
James cleared his throat. “I am sorry if you have misunderstood. I do not want to become an agent. I just want to do something to help find Luna.”
Sympathy sparked in Markov’s dark hazel eyes. “I know. You have lost someone you love. You cannot sit by and do nothing. But that’s precisely what you must do. You have to let the professionals do their jobs, because interfering will make it harder for us to recover her.”
James shrank in his chair a little. “My father said to respect you and do as you say. He said that if you order me to give you coffee, I have to do that.”
Laughter rippled around the room.
“If you wish to demean yourself with such menial tasks. Otherwise, you would be better served to return to the palace.”
“That’s just it. I…don’t want to be stuck in the palace, separate from the people. I don’t want to become an agent… but I want to learn how this country’s institutions work.”
Markov nodded. “That’s very commendable. And I would let you if circumstances were different. However, the situation with Yavesh has reached a crisis. We cannot afford to waste time or resources on anything that will hinder us from our ultimate goal—destroying this criminal organization so it can never rise from its ashes.”
The agents around the room nodded in agreement.
“Isn’t there any place where he could serve in a support capacity?” said Jason. “A task that requires minimal skills?”
“All of our resources must be focused on a single goal. I am not about to risk one shred of my resources just to train a non-professional for a redundant role. Perhaps another agency would be more lenient.” He glanced at Saul and Leila. “But I am in charge of the investigation against Yavesh, and I will decide what is needed and what is not.”
Connie’s heart sank. She wanted to help—but Markov had not even deigned to address her, as he had the prince. She was the very definition of amateur. She whispered to Jason, “Maybe I’d better just leave.”
“No. Don’t let him intimidate you.” He turned to Markov. “They can stay for this meeting, at least?”
Markov inclined his head. Then he lifted some manila folders onto the table and opened them. “Let’s get started.”
They discussed what the best angle of attack was, and whether Yavesh had any weaknesses to exploit. They admitted they didn’t even know if it had weaknesses. A lot of it went over Connie’s head and she felt herself zoning out as they delved into more of the details.
I’m not meant for this. I’m fooling myself if I think I’ll be able to help find Ben and Luna. I just wish I could do something….I can’t stand the thought of those kids sold, hurt….
After the meeting, most of the agents left while a few stood speaking in a small group. Markov approached Connie and Jason. Connie instinctively stepped back, but Markov focused on Jason. “Now, I want to know how closely you wish to work with us. I can give you an assignment, but you’d have to adhere more closely to our rules, although as freelance agents you’ll retain more leeway. I can also give you resources and you can conduct your own investigation and then report back to me if you find anything of interest. If you’re on your own, you’ll be able to choose your own colleagues and will be free to make your own mistakes.”
Jason gave Connie a meaningful look. “I think I’ll take my chances.”
“And you?” He looked at Tasha and Gray.
She and Gray exchanged glances and then Tasha said, “I think we’ll work on our own as well.”
“I do have a mission that might suit freelancers. They would have no official ties with our agency, and thus would have a harder time getting caught. I would like to have someone to masquerade as buyer, perhaps an entire fake criminal cell. Would any of you be interested in something like this?”
Connie automatically shook her head, and Jason took her hand as if to reassure her.
Gray stood, his jaw set, his eyes determined. “I am.”
Tasha turned to him. “Are you sure?”
He narrowed his eyes. “I have experience inside criminal organizations.”
“If your cell performs well, you may just be able to impress the higher-ups enough for them to let you in. I can’t lie, it’ll be dangerous.”
“I’m not going to run from danger.”
“Good. Tasha, will you be accompanying him?”
“I will go wherever he goes.”
“You’ll need substantial resources to pull this off, and I’ll offer my support; it’s the best chance we have of truly finding out what lies inside Yavesh. I’ll give you what you need to start out, Jason, and then I’ll work personally with you both to set this up.” He looked at Gray and Tasha.
He turned to the prince. “Will you be returning to the palace?”
“That would be best. Don’t worry, we’ll do our best to find Luna. But your best hope is for Luna to be not kidnapped by Yavesh in the first place.”
James looked horrified. Connie’s heart went out to him.
“I’ll go back too,” she said.
“You don’t have to do that,” said Jason.
“I’ll only be in the way.”
“Connie—“ He squeezed her hand. “You’re never, ever in the way.”
“I wouldn’t know what I’m doing.”
“It helps me for you to just be with me. As long as you’re not in danger—and I’m not planning to go anywhere dangerous—you might as well tag along. You too, James, if you want.”
“Really?” His face lit up.
“Yeah. I’m freelancing, so I can choose whoever I want. Your father did tell me to look out for you.”
Jason looked at Markov. “Would it be okay if they stay, just for the day?”
Markov nodded. “I suppose. They can always wait in the lobby; the receptionist has coffee and cookies there. Now, let’s get started.”
Jason’s phone rang. He snatched it from his pocket.
“Hello? Oh, hi, Sierra. Have you found out anything—? Really? That’s wonderful!”
“Did they find Ai?” Connie asked, her heart pounding.
Jason shook his head. “But she finally has a lead! She’s found a witness who was at Ai and Jerry’s wedding.”
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
"What does the witness know?" asked Connie.
"Sierra didn't tell me yet."
Markov looked at him disapprovingly as he led Tasha and Gray further down the hallway.
"Have you talked to the witness?" he asked Sierra, leaning against the wall.
"Of course. I wouldn't have called if I didn't have any information of value. But I'd better tell you up front—it's not good news."
Jason's heart fell. "Is—she still alive?"
"I'm sorry, Jason." Sympathy filled her voice. "From what I can piece together, she tried to get out before Saigon fell. But the government captured her as a spy and she was executed."
Horror filled him. Jerry's wife—gone….killed amid terror and torture… He forced out the words, his voice shaken. "It's….the worst thing that could've happened. But thank you for finding this out for me."
"How is your main investigation going?"
"I've hit a dead end for the moment, except there might be some clues on the dark web….But Jason—that's not the end of the story."
"What do you mean?"
"For one thing, Ai's sister is still alive. That's who the witness is. You might want to meet her family, learn more about her."
Jason's heart ached. "Maybe I would," he managed.
"And—there is some possible good news. Ai had a son."
His heart leaped. He had barely considered the possibility, considering how little time they were married. "Really?"
"Ai's sister, Yen, raised him after she died. She tried to give him all the attention she could, but she had five children of her own, and he ran away when he was eleven. She hasn't heard from him since."
"So that's another dead end then."
"Not necessarily. She heard rumors he had joined the communist party, and it turned out to be true. He was a low-level official in government for years until there was an internal feud and he was forced out. He had to flee to another country—it looks like he went to the Philippines. That's where I'm going to check next."
"So he could be in the Philippines."
"This happened only a few years ago, so unless the communists got to him in another country, or he contracted an illness or something, it's likely he's still alive. Oh—and get this. He had a wife—she left him—and a daughter, who it appears he took with him. The wife's name is—well, never mind her. Ai's son is Lam Minh Tam and his daughter is Lam Hue Mai. It took some finding because Tam changed his name—he had been named after his father, Jerry, with Tam as his middle name."
"I have a nephew..." He could hardly comprehend it.
"I'll do all I can to find him and his daughter."
"Thank you, Sierra."
"Don't mention it. I'll call you when I have more info."
As they followed Markov down the hall, he told Connie what Sierra had told him. Tears came to her eyes when he told her that Ai had been killed. Anger flashed across her face when he told her that Tam had joined the communist party. It hit him, then, the implications of the information he hadn't totally processed yet. Ai's son had betrayed everything she and Jerry had died for. How could he do such a thing? Especially when it seemed he had abandoned Ai's sister, who had raised him. There was probably much more to the story. But he couldn't help but share Connie's anger at his nephew, and wonder if, when Sierra found him, he would ever want to connect with the family he had never known, the family of a father he'd rejected.
Markov led them to the elevator at the end of the hall and they ascended to the second floor, where he opened a door to his office. They all filed into a spacious room with a large antique desk.
"Jason, I'll give you the resources you need to start and then you can go off on your own. Some angles will be more difficult with non-professionals involved." He gave Jason a meaningful look, and then turned to his computer. "There are not many options, as we barely know anything about Yavesh to begin with. You could examine financial records of possible suspects. You could collaborate with the police on human trafficking investigations. You could work with at-risk kids to see if they've seen anything suspicious, families of children who have been taken, and victims of human trafficking who have been rescued to see if they can give us any leads."
"We'll work on all of those angles, if we can."
"I'll send you our unclassified files. The case with our agent who was killed is still open, and we'll take any leads we can get, so if you want to look into that as well…."
"Just so you know, we have been threatened not to investigate by anonymous messages that appeared on our supposedly unhackable computers. With Yavesh, there is no such thing as being out of the danger zone. If you're not willing to take a certain amount of risk, it's better if you just pack up and leave right now."
Jason looked at Connie. Fear sprang up in her eyes.
"Everything has some amount of risk to it," said Jason. "Just because I'm not willing to go past a certain point doesn't mean I'm not willing to risk anything at all. I may be afraid, but not so much that I would shield myself from danger. Not anymore. But I cannot leave Connie alone."
Markov looked at him, his eyes narrowed, for a moment. Then he nodded. "I understand. You have a family. That is why it's easier in this business to be unattached. The agent that we lost left behind a widow and a son. It's had a deep effect on our organization as well. Our agents are family. It's hard to approach this professionally, but we'll be less likely to succeed if we give in to emotionalism. Although it can be a strong motivation if channeled correctly…." He sighed. "I might as well show you. You need to know the full extent of what you're up against, so you don't make the same mistakes." He motioned them forward, and Jason, Connie, Tasha, Gray, and James gathered around the computer.
When Markov clicked on a file, a picture appeared of an official-looking photo, a man in a suit against a generic blue backdrop. The man had wavy brown hair and green eyes with a hint of mischief and a wry, brilliant smile. He looked like he could take on the world, and have a good time doing it.
Markov clicked to another picture. Shock shot through Jason. It was a picture of something vaguely recognizable as a face—eyes swollen shut, massive blue bruises spreading over the cheek and jaw, a large cut across one cheek, and the angry welts of several burns on the skin.
"Is it—?" Jason asked.
"Yes, it's the same man. Agent Beck." Markov's eyes were haunted. He clicked to the next picture.
A body lay in an ally, crumpled next to some refuse. Jason wanted to turn away, but Markov would probably see that as a weakness. The body was covered in cuts and bruises, and several of the fingers were missing. One arm was bent completely backwards. Burns crisscrossed his skin. Jason had never seen such extensive torture.
"I get the picture, Markov."
The deputy director nodded grimly and exited the file.
Connie had turned to the window, her face pale. James stood, transfixed, as if in shock. Gray was sitting on a chair in the corner, his head in his hands, Tasha kneeling next to him.
Jason crept over to them, Connie beside him. "Is he all right?" Jason asked softly.
"I—don't know," said Tasha. She stroked his hair back. His breathing began to slow a little. "The pictures hit too close to home, I think."
Markov strode over to them. "What's wrong with him?"
"It was a little much for him to take," Tasha answered.
"If he can't take a few pictures—how can he possibly go on a mission? I mean, they are hard to look at, but they should not be enough to incapacitate you. Yavesh would see through him right away, and you would end up just like Agent Beck. Perhaps I should not give you any of my information—I don't want to be responsible for your deaths."
"He's just…recovering. He can do this."
"What's he recovering from?"
"Is that why he has these injuries?" Markov gestured to the bandage on Gray's arm, and he flinched.
"Why is he being sent out into the field so soon? He's obviously not fit for it."
"It was the Agency's orders."
"And here I thought the NSA was a professional organization."
Gray sat up slowly, his jaw set, his eyes afire. "I need to do this."
"You can work on the sidelines. There is no shame in that, especially with the condition you're in."
Gray stood, facing Markov, trembling, fists clenched. "Give me this chance. I will be the agent you need me to be."
Markov tipped his head. "I admire your determination. But sometimes, not even an iron will can force your body and mind into the right shape. You have been through a harrowing ordeal. Give yourself a chance to recover. Then you can prove yourself."
Desperation showed in Gray's eyes. Jason knew the motivation behind it—which he could not tell to Markov. If Gray did not perform the missions the Agency gave him, they'd give him back to Vivian to wreak her perpetual revenge.
"This is part of my recovery. I need to be who I was."
Markov nodded. "I can understand that. How about this. I give you a more straightforward, less dangerous mission, and if you can perform that, I'll let you go undercover."
Gray considered for a moment. Then he gave a quick nod.
"I think it's a good idea to not jump right into the deep end. I am responsible for him, after all."
"I'll see what I can find for you." He looked at Jason. "I've sent you the files you need, so you can begin your investigation."
"Thank you," said Jason. "We'll get out of your hair."
Markov gave him an absent nod and turned back to his computer.
"Let's go, James."
James, looking a bit dazed, rushed over from the wall to the door.
"See you at the palace later," said Tasha. "We'll probably stay there until we go undercover."
Jason looked at Gray. "You can do this."
Gray nodded, a determined look in his eyes, though still desperate and wounded. Jason hoped he'd be able to pull himself together enough to do this mission. Because it would be fatal if he couldn't—either way. He would not be able to survive going back to the secret detention center to face more abuse. Not after all he'd experienced, and how much effort it was taking to recover.
They headed back to the palace, and Jason spent most of the afternoon at his computer going over the material Markov had sent. James was with him most of the time, sitting beside him, sometimes leaning over his shoulder to look excitedly at the information. Not only for Luna's sake, although that was a driving factor, but because he seemed to enjoy it.
Connie, on the other hand, stayed with them for a little while then she said, "I'm not going to do you any good—I don't have a clue what I'm doing," and left to explore the palace. Jason was fine with that; he didn't want her to do anything she was uncomfortable with. She wasn't the kind of person who would ever want to be a secret agent. He wanted to make her happy too, though, and not drag her all over the place for his own sake. She did want to find Ben and Luna—but after this mission, he'd ask her what she wanted to do.
He found Connie talking with Darya in a large living room, the golden walls lined with paintings. Darya wore an elegant white dress, while Connie wore a green shirt and jeans. Connie looked just as ravishing as the queen.
"Connie has been illuminating me about your life in Odyssey," said Darya, rising from her chair. "It sounds like an idyllic town."
"It has its moments," said Jason. "You have quite the idyllic country yourself."
She inclined her head. "It is not without its problems, as you are discovering. But there is great beauty here, and the people are good and honest. It is only a small criminal element which is trying to spoil it."
"It would be a shame if the communists were deposed just for criminals to take over. I doubt you will let this happen. But it has been a common theme since the fall of the Iron Curtain—countries either descend into chaos or a dictatorship takes over."
"We have tried to strike a balance. Perhaps we have been too lenient, and allowed the criminal element to grow….but Roderick is right. We need to step aside; we have guided our country long enough. However, I hate to leave it to the people when Yavesh is still a growing force. It is the single biggest threat to peace and stability this country has, so we should wait until it is defeated to have elections. I'm not sure Roderick agrees with me, but I don't think we should leave such a significant threat for the people to take care of. It arose during our regime, after all, and perhaps we are partially responsible for its rise."
"I doubt that."
"We're a small country, Jason. There is only so much we can do without resorting to authoritarian measures….and we may have to get a bit tougher on crime in order to eradicate this disease. Although there are methods I would employ that the king would avoid. Now that Luna has been kidnapped, perhaps he will be more receptive to them." She turned, the hem of her gown sweeping along the carpet. "Come. I believe it's time for dinner."
Jason took Connie's arm in his, and they followed Darya to the dining room. James was already sitting at the table with his father.
Roderick turned to Jason after he sat down. "It sounds like you've found some interesting avenues to your investigation."
"Markov wasn't kidding when he said he had information for us," said Jason. "And this isn't even the classified files. But we're going to have to start somewhere. I can't just sit around and look at information without acting on it."
"What angle do you think you'll work on first?" said Darya.
"I'd like to talk to some suspects. And of course I would like to work with the police on Luna's disappearance, to see if there are any connections. I'd also like to interview victims and families of victims, like Marija's cousins. Working several angles at once will help me find commonalities between them."
"That sounds like a good strategy—as long as you keep your focus."
"I've gotten better at that over the years. At focus, I mean." He smiled. "I also want to see if I can work with Saul and Leila, get the international angle."
Several servants came in with a salad and they began to eat.
Something struck him. "Where are Gray and Tasha?"
"They are not back yet," said Roderick. "Markov must've given them quite the project."
"I wonder what it is…." Curiosity bit into him. He wished he were able to work more closely with Gray and Tasha, but they had a directive from the NSA and he was a freelancer…best to keep a distance.
"Can I go with Jason on his investigations?" asked James.
"It's probably best if you confine your search to the computer," said Roderick.
"But I can learn a lot more on the ground!"
"I see." Roderick looked at Jason. "I don't want you to get in Jason's way, though. And I don't want you to go into danger."
"He's not in my way," said Jason. "And I'm not planning to go into danger. I'm fine with him coming with me."
"We'll discuss it later," said the king, looking at James, who looked disappointed.
After supper, Jason went back with Connie to their room and called his father.
"Jason! I was just thinking about checking in. The last thing I knew, you'd texted that you were headed to Muldavia."
"We're there now. We went to the centennial yesterday and today I just started my investigation."
"Are you and Connie all right?"
"We're fine. I'm not planning to run headlong into danger, although it might be harder to avoid than I thought. Yavesh—the organization that perpetrates most of the human trafficking in this country—is professional and lethal. They've got deep roots in Muldavia, though we have no idea how extensive the organization is; we barely know anything about it, except that it is involved in weapons as drug sales as well. Most of what we have on them is just assumption."
"Be careful, Jason."
"I will. I…would be okay with tackling this head on, even though I'd rather not face that kind of danger again—if it were just me. But it's not. I have to consider Connie in all this, and I can't risk leaving her, especially after all that's happened." Connie gave him an appreciative glance from where she stood by the window.
"I'd rather you stick to tamer adventures myself. There have been too many times in the past few years when I thought I would lose you."
A pang struck Jason's heart at this. Somehow, he'd rarely thought of what his father would feel if he lost him as well as Jerry. Partly because his father knew this business; he'd practically gotten Jason into it. He knew the risks. And partly because, for most of his adult life, Jason had felt invincible. Gray, however, had shattered that image of himself.
"Speaking of which," said Jason, "Sierra called today with news about Ai."
"Has she found her?" Jason's heart broke at the hope in his father's voice.
"I'm sorry, Dad."
"The communists killed her, a long time ago."
"Oh…Jason." For a moment he didn't speak. When he did, his voice was hoarse, as if he were holding back tears. "It would have been so wonderful to bring a part of Jerry's life into ours again."
"Maybe we still can."
"What do you mean?"
Jason told him about Ai's son—that he was a communist, that he had fled to the Philippines, that he had a daughter.
"I have another grandson!" his father said, renewed hope in his voice. "And a great-granddaughter. They can't be living in too pleasant of conditions after being kicked out of the communist party and becoming refugees."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"We need to bring them home. I wonder….You couldn't give me Sierra's number, could you?"
"Sure. You want her to give you updates too?"
"More than that. I want to go there."
"Dad—maybe you should just let Sierra—"
"I've been around the block, Jason. And I'm not that old—not as old as having a great-granddaughter would suggest. I can't just sit around here while I have family on the other side of the world."
"Be careful, Dad. They could be in a bad neighborhood."
"That's true. But that's why I have to go. If they're in a desperate situation—I have to help them."
"I wish I could go. Maybe I'll join you when I'm finished here—if you haven't found them already. It'll probably be a long, involving process to bring them back to the States."
"This still hardly seems real. It probably won't, till I see them with my own eyes."
"Do you want to talk to Connie?"
"I'd love to."
"And Dad—I think she'd like it if you'd tell her the story of how you saved Muldavia."
His father chuckled. "I'll do that. It's time she knew one of the deepest Whittaker secrets."
Jason held out the phone for Connie and she grabbed it, pressed it to her ear. "Whit! I have so much to tell you!"
Connie paced the room talking to his father for about an hour. There was a long silence punctuated with gasps and cries and "Really? No way!" When the story was apparently finished, she said, "That's awesome!" and turned to Jason, lifting the phone away a little. "Jason, your father was a king! For a day! No wonder you look like the king and the prince." She lifted the phone back to her ear and told him about staying in the palace.
Meanwhile, Jason showered and then made a fire in the fireplace. A smoky smell drifted through the room, reminding Jason of campfires he'd sat around with his family, long ago…
After Connie hung up, she sat beside him in one of the high-backed red chairs. "It's amazing that both you and your dad saved Muldavia."
"Whenever he tells that story, I'm always impressed with how heroic he was, even though he tones down what he did."
"Yeah…." She leaned forward, her elbows on her thighs, her eyes reflecting the fire.
"We both care for this country. I wonder if Dad would want to come back here…after we find Tam and—" For a second, he forgot the little girl's name.
"That's crazy, your dad going there!"
"I don't know if it's the best idea."
"No, I mean—it's all crazy. That you have a long-lost nephew! In the Philippines. It's all going to work out after all."
"I don't want to dash your hopes—and I didn't want to mention it to Dad. He was so excited. But they might not want anything to do with us."
"They won't want to meet their family?"
"He pretty much rejected his father and everything he stood for. Let's just hope he's had a change of heart. Otherwise….we may never meet them."
Connie's brow furrowed, sorrow glittering in her eyes. "I don't want to think about that. There has to be a happy ending after all of this."
He nodded. "After Tam and Mai, and Ben and Luna, and—" He stopped himself. He was about to say "us" and something about a baby.
Connie leaned back. "I have to trust God that he knows what he's doing. Maybe he has healed me, who knows. I just…really hope that I'm not pregnant. I don't feel ready yet. Someday we can try again…just not for a while."
"It's only been two months. If you're okay with it—a year from now—"
She nodded and caught his eyes, a slight smile on her lips.
He climbed into bed and then he felt her lay down behind him. She slid her arm beneath his, searching for his hand, and he laced his fingers in hers.
He jolted awake, his heart slamming hard against his chest. Connie's face, pale in the dark, her eyes wide.
"What is it? Are you okay?" He sat up beside her and drew her close, her body shaking. Then she pulled away a little, her hair tangled, tears gleaming across her cheeks.
She swept her tangled hair back. "I had the dream again. The one where you were—" She closed her eyes. "It was worse. I saw the agent, you know, the one Markov showed us. Just pictures. Then the pictures came to life, and it wasn't the agent, it was you, and—Jason, please don't go into any kind of danger."
"I wasn't planning to."
"Maybe we should just leave. I can't lose you. I can't—lose anyone else."
"I'm not going anywhere, Connie. We can leave if you want."
"I know we have to try to find Ben….we promised. I just wish I could do more. And I wish there wasn't any chance of you getting hurt."
"There's not much of a chance."
"Markov said they warned them to stop investigating! What if…"
"How about this. If I see any sign of danger, I'll pull out. I'll let Sierra handle this, once she's done with the investigation in Southeast Asia. That's what I was going to do anyway."
She looked up at him, her face caressed by moonlight, and he couldn't help but lean down, meet her lips in a gentle kiss. The kiss grew stronger, and morphed into more kisses. But then she pulled away, a hint of regret in her eyes.
In the morning, Jason climbed out of bed, careful not to wake her, snatched a quick breakfast, and headed back to the city.
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
I totally think you should keep writing. You have a great talent.Ameraka wrote:How is it in accurate? I mean, I know it has diverged quite a bit from the show to the point of being AU, but is it to the point it is not Odysseyish at all? Of course the subject matter is for an older age group.... Are the characters too OOC? Should I keep writing? Not that I have been writing lately.....
It's been a while. But after a break, I might have a new vision for moving forward. What I had in my head wasn't working. I didn't know how to get to the part I was excited for-- the climax. Can't just jump there. Didn't know if I knew what I was talking about. But it's fanfiction; I can write what I want
Connie woke with a start. Panic seized her when she saw that Jason was gone, an empty space beside her on the bed.
She threw on a robe and stepped out into the hall to peek into the breakfast room. He wasn't there, but Tasha and Gray were.
"Are you looking for Jason?" said Tasha.
"Have you seen him?" She tried to keep the panic from her voice, without succeeding.
"He left about an hour ago. Don't worry; he just went to the police station."
"The police station?" That didn't settle her pounding heart.
"He's investigating Luna's disappearance. Come and have some breakfast. We're a little late this morning as we got in after one last night."
Connie pricked a few sausages and dropped them onto her plate, then scooped up some eggs and biscuits. She avoided the strawberries; they made her sad that Jason wasn't there to share them with her. After hesitating for a moment, she sat down beside Tasha. She didn't want to unsettle Gray. Though he did look better today—not so pale, although he still had dark circles under his eyes.
"How are you doing?" she ventured, looking at Gray.
He hesitated, then his ice-blue eyes pierced hers. "I'm not going to let anything stop me from being an agent again. Not this." He grasped his arm, right above the bandage. "Not…what they did to me. I have to—stop letting them keep me from being who I am. I will never be anything other than an agent—and if I don't have that, I am nothing. The best revenge is to forget the…ones who…tortured me, to not let this affect me. Easier said than done. But…I am grateful for how you and Tasha and Jason have supported me. I could not do this on my own. And…" A puzzled expression crossed his face. "Each of you should by all rights hate me. I can't begin to understand it… but thank you. I would not blame you if you decided to abandon me at any point, let me fend for myself."
A pang twisted in Connie's heart. "I won't abandon you. I'll do anything I can to help…I'm not sure how much I can do. You're right—I did hate you. I thought that you needed to...be tortured like you tortured Jason."
Gray flinched at the word. She vowed to be more careful in what she said.
"But then I thought, I didn't want you to keep hurting me. I wanted to move on. Forget you. I did…until you came on this mission with us. You've changed. You're not the same person you were."
He nodded solemnly, a little sadly.
"I felt horrible for what happened to you. No one should ever have to go through that, not even—the one who…hurt Jason." Anger rose up in her; she stifled it. "And you were still sort of the same person, even though you had changed—and I was angry." She hesitated, then said, "I still am struggling with that. Maybe I always will. But like you said, I don't want the past to drag me down. I don't want you to be hurt anymore, either. Part of me doesn't think that it's my right to forgive, because all you did was kidnap me—I broke my own leg jumping out of the window." She gave a short laugh. "It was Jason that you hurt. But what hurts him hurts me—so… it really is my responsibility to forgive. I…want you to know I forgive you, Gray." As much as I can, she thought. God will have to do the rest.
Shock sparked through Gray's eyes. Then he nodded slowly. "I am…not sure what to do with your forgiveness, and I don't deserve it. But thank you."
"If you ever need my help for anything—just ask."
After breakfast, Gray and Tasha left on their assignment, which had something to do with interviewing suspects. Connie lingered in the breakfast room, looking at her phone, wishing she could call Jason. He was probably in the middle of something, and she shouldn't interrupt him. She might call later or just wait for him to call her. Though she couldn't push down the thread of uneasiness that the nightmare had dragged to the surface.
He's all right, she told herself. He said he wouldn't go into danger. Not this time.
At lunch, she sat at the grand dining room table with Darya and Roderick. James had gone with Jason. "I'm still not sure about this," said Darya, and took a sip of her water. "Even if there is no danger, the paparazzi might find out where he is."
"Jason is taking precautions," said Roderick. "The police are professional. They won't let anyone in that's not supposed to be there. I had reservations about it too, but there isn't a much safer place he can be than a police station. It's good for him to be out doing something instead of just sitting around in the palace, thinking about Luna."
"I suppose you're right." She shook her head. "I can't think of a good end to this. The best case I can imagine is that she's been kidnapped for ransom. Then they would not harm her. But we have not heard any demands."
"I would give them anything they asked if it helped get her back," said the king. He swept his hand around to indicate the room. "None of this matters compared to Luna's life."
"We would not be able to give in to their demands, you know. Especially if it's Yavesh. They want us weak, or gone. They want the country in chaos. We have to stay strong."
"Then she would be harmed."
"We could send in a team to get her."
"But Yavesh is professional. They would not reveal their location. They would not make mistakes. If I have to make a concession to save her, I will."
"You are not just her adopted uncle. You are the king. As hard as it is, you have to make the choice that will save more lives in the long run. Even if it means…letting her go."
"Darya. I would find another way. Perhaps I should abdicate, become a private citizen. Then I would not have to choose between Luna and my country."
"You would invite chaos."
"Not if there could be a peaceful transition. I could appoint an interim successor. Then would come elections. I was already planning this; it would just be sooner than we anticipated. Excuse me." He stood, leaving his plate mostly full, and strode out the door.
Darya set down her fork with a clank. "He can be so stubborn…." She said, almost to herself. Then she looked at Connie. "It's not like I don't love her. I love her like the daughter I never had. But as rulers, we don't have the luxury of thinking like private citizens. We are part of something greater….we have to think of the bigger picture. But Roderick has always had a weakness when it comes to his adopted family. He just cannot force himself to be objective where they're concerned."
Connie did think she was being a little cold about this. But she could see her reasoning. More than Roderick, she seemed like she was able to make the hard, logical decisions without sentiment getting in the way. Something Connie would never be able to totally understand…..
"From what Jason tells me," said Connie, "They did save his life."
"Yes. I suppose one doesn't get past a debt like that. And he grew up with them. I am not as close to them as he is. So I suppose I cannot be too harsh with him. But I cannot allow Yavesh to win and plunge this country into chaos. If Rod abdicates, that may happen."
"It might not," said Connie, feeling out of her depths, but wanting to defend the king. "Maybe if he does what he said…have the…" She couldn't remember the term. "Another leader," she finished lamely.
"Interim successor," corrected Darya. "Perhaps. I must defer to him ultimately when it comes to rule. But I can influence what he does….and if he becomes especially foolhardy, I might have to step in."
"What if James had been kidnapped? Would you do the same?"
Her eyes sparked. Then she said, "I don't know. I would hope so…but he is my only son. I would give my life for him." She lifted her wine glass to her lips, took a sip. "I almost lost him, you know."
Connie's heart jolted. "What?" she said, her voice unable to get much louder than a whisper. "What do you mean?"
"I almost lost him before he was born. There was bleeding…they thought there might be a miscarriage. I prepared for the worst. Then it subsided….everything seemed fine. Til his birth. He—almost didn't survive. Labor came on suddenly, too soon, and everything went wrong. They had to do an emergency C-section. At first he was not breathing—" She closed her eyes. "But the doctor saved him. He was a little small at first, but he quickly became as healthy as any other baby." She sighed. "It…turned out there was something wrong, internally. The reason for the bleeding, the difficult birth. I could have tried again…but it would have endangered the next baby. And so….that's why James is our only child, and why I—never really want to let him out of my sight." She gave a slight smile. "Sometimes I think he takes a bit too much of my love…." Her voice trailed off. She looked out the window, the sunlit hills reflected in her eyes.
Connie's heart beat hard in her chest. "I'm sorry." She knew what it was like. She should say more. But it was like her voice had been stolen from her. It was too close to what had happened…and yet Darya had had her baby. Jealousy pricked Connie's heart and she immediately felt guilty. How could she begrudge Darya this beautiful son after all of her troubles before his birth?
"It just makes me appreciate what I have even more, that's all. I have this irrational dread that what I love could be snatched away from me….."
"I know what that's like. With Jason."
Darya nodded. "I know he was taken from you."
"It was—horrible. But it's not just that. I know how you feel….because it happened to me."
Darya raised her eyebrow. "What did?"
"The um….." She hesitated, her throat tight. She didn't know if she could talk about this, not without crying. She didn't want to start sobbing uncontrollably in front of this beautiful, composed woman. But at the same time, they were not just queen and foreigner; they were both women who had gone through similar traumas. Connie forged forward. "A couple months ago….I had a…miscarriage."
Darya's expression changed to one of shock. Then sympathy. "Oh, Connie. I am so sorry."
"I mean, it's not like I lost a baby that I knew. He was…gone….and he did not feel pain. But I loved him so, so much." Tears spilled from her eyes; she could not hold them back, not when talking about this. "Sometimes I feel like it doesn't count, like I didn't lose a real baby. I don't tell people, because they wouldn't understand how much he means to me, even before he was born."
"Of course it counts. He was your child. You lost him…."
"I didn't even get to hold him!"
Darya stood, strode over to her with a sweep of her gown. Its blue fabric gleamed in the corner of Connie's blurred vision. And then Darya's hand was on her back, and her arm wrapped around her shoulder, and she sat down next to her, and held her close, stroking her hair.
Connie's heart ached, and she tried to hold back, but the tears streamed down her cheeks in hot rivers and she leaned against Darya's shoulder, hoping she wasn't ruining her dress.
My Jeremiah….she thought. I love you, so much….
The tears subsided, drying on her cheeks. She sat back, wiping away the tears. "I'm sorry."
"That's okay. Sometimes it's good to cry."
Connie did feel a little better, although her heart ached desperately, as empty as the moment she had learned he was gone.
Darya squeezed her hand. "I don't know what I would have done if I'd have lost James. Even as it was….After he was born, I just let myself love him, let that heal me, but later on….it was like I thought I would lose him, so I drew away from him. I couldn't bear the thought of losing someone I loved so much, so I…uprooted some of the love from my heart. Or…dulled it. The doctors say it was depression. I try to 'rationalize' it, but really, it just happened, and I wasn't there for my child. Rod had to take over, raising him, and James would come to me crying, wanting me, and I…just wasn't there for him." Pain crossed her face. "Now, I can hardly believe I would do something so cruel. But it was…something wrong. A little like PTSD. Maybe it was a mild form of it, though I don't feel like I have the right to take that label. With medication, I was able to….drag myself out of it, and James helped. Such a sweet, angelic little boy he was. And Rod helped….I was not good to him. Didn't appreciate his help. So…I guess I'm saying that you have every right to feel like you do. With what happened to me—and I…don't have as much of a right."
"It must've been hard, to almost lose him though." Connie's voice was thick with tears. She cleared her throat. "I…wasn't the best to Jason, either, and he was only trying to help. I have no excuse….I pushed him away….I hurt him. With my words, my actions….keeping myself from him…." She looked away, glimpsing the sun-gilded hills.
Darya lowered her eyes, then looked at Connie. "I never told anyone else this…but we went through a rough patch too. I pushed him away. Partly because we couldn't have any more children and so….well, it was years before we…got back together." A blush suffused her pale cheeks. Connie could guess what she was hinting at. "I can't justify that. He was nothing but solicitous, understanding, and he kept away from me because I wanted it, and we became nothing more than an official relationship, while behind the scenes we did not touch, barely spoke….Long story short, we reconciled when James was about five. Still, I was terrified that birth control would not work, and I might hurt another baby…. But gradually, it became easier, and though we've had our ups and downs since, it's never gone back to such inexcusable coldness between us. If…if I may ask you an extremely personal question…"
"Well, this is a personal conversation."
Darya half-smiled. "Yes. Well…. Do you know if you can have children again?"
"The doctors said nothing is wrong. But…. I don't know if I can take that risk."
Sorrow flashed across Darya's eyes. "If they say nothing is wrong, then you should believe them. Let yourself have the joy of a child, let it wash away the pain."
"I don't know if I can."
"I understand. It'll take time. But if you're okay with it… and you want children—it's the most wonderful experience one can have. I don't want you to miss it. It's not replacing the one you lost…but it would help."
Connie nodded. "I'm open to it…eventually."
"Well, I'm glad you have reconciled—sooner than I did. Jason seems like a wonderful man."
"He is. So does Roderick."
Darya smiled. "He is the best. According to me anyway. Sometimes I am a bit too hard on him….I take my role as queen a bit too seriously. Sometimes I think I was born to be a ruler. So was James…but he puts his family first. Or at least, does not allow them to conflict—he's wonderful at balancing work and family life. Except when it comes to their lives, or his country… I think I know what he would choose."
"Maybe there's another way. A compromise."
"Maybe. But Yavesh doesn't compromise."
"Maybe it wasn't Yavesh."
"I hope not. I can deal with common criminals. It's these ruthless organized crime rings….Yavesh is the worst of them. Not only in our own country. It's on par with some of the worst in the world, in my opinion."
A shiver ran through Connie. She hoped that Sierra would accomplish her section of the mission soon, so that they could go home…. Even if Jason were relatively safe, she didn't want him anywhere near a ruthless crime organization.
They had to get back to America. As luxurious as it was here. As much as they needed to help Luna and Ben. Connie couldn't stand the thought of Jason getting hurt, even a little. Nothing was worth that.
They finished dinner, and spoke of lighter subjects, and Connie was more at ease with the queen now that they had shared the most intimate details of their lives. After lunch, she headed back to the suite and collapsed on the bed and slept.
She jolted awake. Her phone was ringing on the bedstand. Jason's number! She snatched it up, her heart throbbing, longing aching through her.
"Hi, Connie! Sorry I dashed out this morning, but I didn't want to wake you. Would you like to come with me now, though?"
"I'll just get in the way, Jason."
"You'll help me just by being there. If you'd rather not, I can cope… but I'd rather have you with me. If that's what you want. The prince is learning on the job—you can too."
"I don't know… I don't think I have the mind for that kind of thing."
"You have a wonderful mind. Besides, what I'm doing isn't all that complicated. Even if there's not a lot you can do, anything will help."
"I won't drag the investigation down?"
"No, of course not. We're not planning on going into danger, so I won't have to worry about your safety. But if you'd rather not come…."
Her heart thudded hard. "No—I want to be with you. The palace is wonderful…but it's empty without you."
"It's getting to the point I can't work anymore—I keep thinking about you. We're meant to be together. Maybe…." He paused. "Maybe with this investigation—this new kind that isn't dangerous—we could become a team. Work side by side. We would hardly ever have to be apart."
"That does sound…amazing." Longing pierced her soul at the thought. Jason had been basically living on savings, but eventually he'd have to go back to work. They'd talked about it. Connie had been working at Whit's End part time—but every waking moment she was without him, there was something empty about it. To be with him almost constantly—it was a thrilling dream.
At the same time, doubt pricked her heart. She wasn't agent—or investigator—material. She knew that in the depths of her soul, and a sinking feeling seized her. She wasn't exactly worthy of him…. with Tasha, he could have worked side by side with an agent…. But he'd chosen her, he loved her—and she loved him. Just the thought of not being with him horrified her, even if someone else would have been better. If he'd loved someone else… yes, she wouldn't be so selfish as to want him to be with someone he didn't love. But he was with her, for better or for worse, and she was going to give him her best. Though she couldn't help but think he'd be disappointed—she'd mess up the mission somehow, and eventually he'd rethink his request.
I did say I'd help find Ben…. I don't know how I can possibly help though… but I'll give it my best. It might not be enough. But I'll try, for Jason.
"I'll pick you up in half an hour," he said, and hung up.
She set the phone down and sat there for a moment, excitement coursing through her, a heavy feeling settling in her heart. She had to do this…and yet…she didn't know how she could.
At least Jason would be with her.
She got up and brushed her hair, changed clothes, and waited for Jason to arrive.
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
Jason wound the car down the streets of Rakima toward the center of the city. He passed the Aleem Center, its pristine brick façade gilded by late afternoon sunlight. Seeing it still sent a shiver through Jason. Although he had gotten off easy compared to Roderick and Tasha….
Connie sat beside him, oblivious to the shadows of the past. Good. He never wanted her to experience the horrors he had—as much as he wanted her at his side, he didn’t want her to risk getting into danger of the kind he’d experienced. She had no idea of the pain he’d gone through—and he never wanted her to know. He needed her to stay ignorant of that sort of agony. He’d protect her with his life—and more than that. He’d experience any pain that existed in order to keep her from it.
Stefan, Luna’s brother, had also asked to come along, and the two sat in the back, both looking out the window.
“Take the next left,” said Stefan, leaning forward.
Jason nodded and turned the car down a narrow cobblestone street lined with old brick buildings. They had elegant moldings on the window sills and doorways, but some were crumbling, and some had broken windows.
A group of little children ran in front of the car and Jason had to pull the car to a stop so they could get by.
“Just a couple blocks more,” said Stefan, swiping black curls back from his eyes.
Jason pulled up in front of one of the apartment buildings, identical to the others except for some graffiti scrawled across the front. It was in Muldavian, so Jason couldn’t read it, but it was in garish green and had a skull emblazoned beside it. A young woman was trying to clean it off with soapy water, but so far only blurring it slightly.
“I’ll go in first,” said Stefan. “Aunt Jael doesn’t know you. She’s been known to shoot at people she thinks are trespassers. Especially after…the incident.”
He slid out of the car. Jason followed. He quickly went to the other side of the car and took Connie’s hand as soon as she climbed out. “You okay?” he asked. “This isn’t the best neighborhood. I can take you back.”
“No—we’re here already. Besides, Stefan knows them. It should be okay.” She looked up at the building rather apprehensively, but with a determined set to her jaw.
“Anything seems off, we’re getting out of here.” His pistol weighed heavily in his pocket. If anything threatened her, he’d use it without hesitation. And he’d defend the prince and Stefan if need be, too.
But she was right—this was Roma territory. They were among friends. Just because they were poor and there was graffiti didn’t mean that it was crime-ridden….
He walked up the stairway following Stefan, James and Connie at his side. James didn’t look frightened—more like excited. Roderick had implied he’d never let his son go out without a bodyguard—if it were with anyone other than Jason. Jason didn’t think he deserved such trust, but he’d try to be worthy of it.
A couple old men stood at the base of the stairway, smoking. Jason nodded at them; they stared at him, their eyes flickering from him to his companions. Then they gave him a wary nod in return.
Stefan led the way up the stairs, climbing with determination and grim energy. In trying to match Stefan’s ruthless pace, Jason’s breath came in hard gasps as they reached the twelfth floor.
“Wait—” said Jason, stopping for Connie’s sake, if nothing else. But his breathlessness betrayed him as not the man he used to be.
“It’s just the next floor up,” said Stefan, looking at him a bit curiously, as if mystified why the stairs would be any kind of obstacle.
“Okay.” He looked at Connie apologetically. She smiled, a little disheveled and out of breath herself. A strand of hair draped fetchingly across her cheek, accentuating its delicate shape….
They climbed to the next floor, where a fluorescent light flickered over a worn, olive-green carpet. Then they walked down a hallway that smelled as if smoke had baked into the ancient, peeling green wallpaper. Paneled wood doors with peeling gold numbers: 1415….1416….
“Here it is,” said Stefan, and knocked below the number 1417.
No answer. Not a sound except muffled shouts from a few doors down.
“Jae, it’s me, Stefan. Your nephew.”
The door swung open, creaking on its hinges. A large woman appeared in a dimly lit room. “Why didn’t you say so? Oh—who are these—” She gasped. “The prince! Your highness!” She plunged to her knees, bowing.
“Ma’am—” said the prince. “Please don’t bow to me.”
“It’s probably best if we don’t make a scene,” said Jason. It wouldn’t do to draw much attention to James. “May we come inside?”
“Y-yes, of course,” said Jae, hefting herself to her feet. James leaped forward and grasped her arm, helping her inside. Stefan shut the door swiftly and silently.
Inside, the TV chattered quietly, glowing into a living room with old but comfortable furniture. A sizzling sound came from the kitchen, and the smell of cooking meat and spices wafted into the living room. A young woman called, “Everything okay, Mama?”
“Yes— better than okay! Come see who it is!”
A silhouette appeared in the doorway, a slender young woman in a knee-length floral dress, her dark hair pinned back. Her mouth dropped open. “Your Highness!” She lowered herself to her knees, but the prince rushed over and helped her to her feet.
“He doesn’t want anyone to bow to him,” explained Jae.
“We’re family,” said James. “We’ve never met, but you’re related to Stefan, and he’s like my brother, so….”
“Yeah, we’re the city branch, always been kinda removed from the rest of you, but that doesn’t mean we don’t think of you as family. We been independent, not wanting to take advantage of our relationship and all. Apologies if we seemed a bit standoffish.”
“No—that’s okay. But you wouldn’t be taking advantage.”
“Ah, well, there’s a lot of us. And we’re a proud people. Don’t want no handouts. We make our own way; that’s the way we want it. We do fine, don’t we, Lia?” She looked at her daughter.
“But that doesn’t mean we won’t be hospitable when you visit. Please—have a seat.” She gestured to the couch and chairs.
Jason sat in the couch, and Connie settled in beside him. James sat down next to Jason, while Stefan sat down in one of the chairs.
“Would you like anything? I’ve got tea—and we were just about to sit down to supper. Got enough for all, if you like.”
Stefan’s eyes lit up. “We’ll stay.” He looked at Jason. “If that’s all right with you.”
“Sure.” Jason felt more at ease now; there was no danger here, and he hadn’t sensed any on his journey up. The shouts behind closed doors were a little disturbing, but he doubted they were a threat.
“I’ll just go get the tea started.” Jae bustled into the kitchen, and there were sounds of cupboards opening, clanks of china.
“Stefan,” said Lia, “I was so sorry to hear about Luna.” She tucked a stray curl behind her ear. “If there’s anything I can do….”
“That’s kind of why we’re here,” said Stefan. “That—and what happened two weeks ago….”
“It’s terrible,” said Lia. “So many being taken—those girls, our cousins—and now Luna…. I can’t bear to think….” Her voice strayed and she wiped her face. Light from the kitchen spilled onto her cheek, and for the first time Jason caught a jagged scar across her cheekbone. His stomach flipped over.
“Are you safe?” asked the prince. “I mean—you and your mom? Has anyone….”
“Mama’s got her gun, and she makes me carry one when I go outside. I don’t like guns—they creep me out—but I… don’t want to risk…anything.” She dropped her eyes, staring at the floor for a moment. “Excuse me. I better get back to the stew before it burns.” She turned and headed into the kitchen. Her mother came back in and sat down in the orange chair opposite the couch.
“I can’t say I’m sorry enough about your sister, Stefan,” said Jael. “If there’s anything I can do to help….”
“Just keep an eye out. Like you did the other night.”
Jason leaned forward. “Can you tell me more about it? About what you saw?”
“I was out visiting a friend and I took a shortcut back through the alley a few blocks away. It was dark—I wanted to get home. Didn’t want any trouble, but I had my gun, just in case. Up ahead, I saw a van parked in the alley. Two men came up carrying a bundle. An old carpet, I thought, or some laundry. Then the bundle started to move. A muffled scream. I ran toward the men, whipping my gun out, but they shoved the girl in the back before I could get there, and the car squealed off.
“Now, I only got a glimpse, but I could swear I saw a bunch of girls inside. Our girls. Chained up to the inside of the van, their eyes so scared. I tried to get an aim on the tires, but it was too late.” She shook her head, her face full of regret and anguish.
“I’m sorry,” said Jason, not knowing what else to say, his heart aching for the stolen girls.
“Next day I heard an outcry all along our street—girls taken, in the night.” She lifted her arm. “I wish I’d been able to stop them. I should’ve taken a shot—even if I wasn’t sure I’d get it. Not like it wasn’t night, not like I would hit anything not worth hitting.” Anger flashed through her eyes.
“Could you tell anything about the suspects?”
“They were dressed in black, like shadows. Their van was—not black, but a dark gray. I can’t say anything for sure, but I’d bet they’re professionals. Taking girls for—” She shook her head. “I pray for them every day with all my heart. If nothing else, that God takes them before….” She closed her eyes. A tear streaked down her cheek.
Sorrow cut Jason’s heart. And then a flash of anger. How dare these men kidnap and hurt little girls—all for sick pleasure? Not only that—but exploiting twisted desires for their own personal gain. Exploiting the pain of these innocent little girls. And of Ben, the boy he was trying to find.
It might already be too late.
“Could you tell me anything else about them? Height, hair color—?”
“Well, I’m glad I can say this, ‘cause it’s not always true—to our shame—but they weren’t some of us. They were outsiders. As far as I could tell, Muldavians—about six feet, slim, medium brown hair, probably—though I couldn’t tell for sure since it was dark. Muscular—more than normal. I could tell because their clothes were close-fitting.”
Jason nodded. That fit—with what he was pursuing. Not just small-timers, but professionals who did this like a business. Treating children like commodities. That was what Yavesh was.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to go on. “Did they have any distinguishing marks of any kind?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Come to think of it, one of them had a bandage on his hand. His left—no my left. His right. Could’ve been blood on it…not sure. I think it was the little girl they just caught that did it. She was a fighter.” Her eyes snapped, then took on a faraway look, and she was silent for a moment. Then she said, “That’s about all I can say. It was so fast. Oh—there’s one more thing. Two things, really. The license plate. I gave it to the police—they didn’t do anything. I just got part of it but…. It’s Y-J-K 7 or Y-I-K-2. Something like that. And there was a scrape along the back of the van. Like it got hit. Cops told me they ran the info through, didn’t find anything, but… It’s what I know.” She shrugged. “Not sure if they were telling the truth, to be honest. The king tells them to be good to us, but they don’t always…. Can’t really blame them. It’s how it’s always been, for us. The king is the exception—not the rule. And he can’t force everyone to treat us fair.”
“They should do it anyway!” said James. “We’ve got rules—cops can’t just—dismiss you like that. I’ll tell my father.”
She looked at James. “Well—good thing you’re here then. Maybe we can get things done now.”
“We were at the police station earlier today,” said Jason. “I’ll run those plates again, look for any accident reports with a gray van.”
Jae pressed her hand to her heart. “That would be wonderful. Thank you. I’m sorry—didn’t get your name.”
“I’m Jason. This is Connie, my wife.”
“Hi,” said Connie.
“It’s great to meet you both. You are American?”
She squinted, leaning forward. “Come to think of it, you bear a passing resemblance to the king. You aren’t the American, are you?”
“The one who saved Roderick.”
It’s actually my father who did more saving…. He wished he could deny it, but he guessed he was, in general, what she was talking about. “I suppose I am.”
“Boy—this is a night. If I were a bit more superstitious, I’d say it was a sign. That things were turning around.” She twisted in her chair. “Hey—Lia. We’ve got another celebrity with us.”
“Just a minute, Ma. I’m getting the tea.”
“Oh—let me help you with that.” Jae hefted herself to her feet and hurried into the kitchen.
Connie reached for Jason’s hand and he clasped her hand in his. It was warm and delicate and just her touch sent a thrill through him. “You didn’t know you were marrying a celebrity, did you?” he spoke softly.
“No, but I knew there was something special about you.” She kissed his cheek.
Lia and Jae came back, each carrying cups of tea. They set them down on the lampstand and the coffee table.
Connie picked up the one closest to her. It was decorated with flowers, filigreed with gold. She turned it in her hands, careful not to upset the tea. “This is beautiful!”
Jae beamed. “They’ve been handed down for—well, since my grandma. When we first settled here at the turn of the century.”
“Wow. I’ll try to be careful.” She looked at the cup a bit apprehensively. Steam roiled off the cup. She set it down slowly.
Next, their hosts brought out steaming bowls of stew that smelled heavenly. Jason had just had a bite to eat at the police station and realized he was starving. There was also a chunk of bread and orange slices.
Jae asked James to lead them in the blessing, and James complied, a bit nervously but with the strong clear voice of a future king. It made Jason a little wistful to think that James would most likely never rise to the throne. Democracy was better—though not in practice always better than a benevolent monarch (which were few and far between).
Jason tasted some of the stew. It had a hearty flavor, spices he couldn’t quite define, but harmonized perfectly together. “This is amazing,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Lia.
“You made this?”
She nodded, looking a little abashed at the praise.
“She’s a better cook than me,” said Jae.
“I really like cooking. I’m so glad you like it.”
“You’re the best cook there is,” said Stefan. “You make food like—like symphonies.” He swiftly swept his fingers together in an emphatic motion. “It’s too bad that—” He stopped, his face froze. Then he looked down, chewing absently, like he’d said something wrong.
Lia reached out toward him. “It’s okay, Stefan. It’s… been two years. You don’t have to walk on eggshells around me.”
Stefan clenched his fist. “If I ever catch the gadje that did that to you—” He gestured toward her face. “It makes me want to go down there right now and—” He shook with anger.
“I wanted revenge too. But… I don’t want it anymore. All there is for me is to…. Do the thing that’s not quite as hard as forgiveness. Step outside—try again.” She smiled sadly, her eyes shining.
“Did someone—hurt you?” asked James.
Lia nodded, and gently touched her right cheek, near the scar, as if it were a foreign thing. “I was hired—to be a cook, two years ago. My first day. I was so excited…. And so happy that it all went well. Everyone seemed to like my food.” She stopped, her eyes haunted. “When I went out the back door after work, before I could get on my bike, three men attacked me. said they didn’t want Gypsies poisoning their food. They shoved me up against a wall and—” She closed her eyes, a furrow of pain cutting through her brow. “A bright flash of fire. Here.” She pressed her palm softly to her cheek. “And here.” She cradled her elbow. Then touched her side. Her knee. “Cut me. Then they left me. I thank God for that. I was lying there, bleeding in the street…. A kind woman picked me up, took me to the hospital…. It’s been a long road. I didn’t go outside for a year after the attack. I still…. Well, it’s hard. I didn’t even cook. But I’ve helped Mama by being here. And…. someday—I’ll be back. Give my gift to the world.” She smiled, her eyes shining. “I just need to give myself a push…. It’s a harsh world out there. But there are good things in it too. They make it worth it.”
“That’s true,” said Jason. He glanced at Connie, who gave him a smile through her tears. “I’ve felt pain, too—and I know what a struggle forgiveness is. And… the long road home.” He brushed his face, near his own scar, and held out his hand so the light from the kitchen spilled onto it, highlighting the mangled scar in the center of his palm. To let her know she was not alone.
She looked at him, understanding in her eyes, at his unspoken gesture of empathy. Then he drew his hand back and cradled it, as if it were a broken thing—which it was. Never quite the same again after—he shuddered—the nail had driven its way through his flesh…. He’d forgiven, but some scars were so deep they became a part of you. Changed you. For better, for worse—or both.
They finished their meal and headed out the door. Jason thanked them profusely for the wonderful meal, all the more so because of the pain that Lia had overcome to give it to them.
They were halfway down the hall when Lia ran out of the door, the limp in her stride evident for the first time.
Jason stopped, his hand in Connie’s. “Is everything okay?”
She nodded. “I just have something else to tell you. I volunteer at a women’s shelter a few times a month. A couple of them…were trafficked. They might have some information about Yavesh.”
“They could give us the lead we need.”
“It might be hard getting the info out of them. They’re scared—they don’t want to drag up the horrors of their past. But if it helps keep others from the same fate—I hope they have the courage.” She paused. “I know firsthand what courage it takes to—face what you’re most afraid of. So do you, I think.”
“I’ve tried…. It’s not easy.”
“But it’s important—to become your true self. To beat away the dark. I didn’t come to that on my own—therapy helped. After holing myself up for so long—then forcing myself to step out—I discovered that… to fully recover, you have to share your gift with the world. No matter how scared it makes you. I know it—all I have to do is do it.” She smiled ruefully.
Jason touched her arm gently. “You’re doing great.”
Her smile spread. “Thank you.” She pressed a piece of paper into his hand. “Here’s the shelter’s number.”
“I hope you find them.”
“I will. If it’s the last thing I do.” Jason was surprised at his vehemence, but he meant it. A promise. How could he do anything else? Faced with this kind-hearted, courageous girl—and all the pain that was spreading with the disease of Yavesh.
But what that promise entailed, he wasn’t entirely sure….
It was growing dark, but before leaving the city, he gave the license numbers to the police, and made sure they followed up on it. Then, he drove back to the palace.
Connie reached for Jason but didn’t feel him in the bed beside her. She opened her eyes. He was standing shirtless in the light splashed between the luxuriant red curtains.
His physique took her breath away. She marveled at him as he stood, scrolling swiftly through his phone screen. Every part of him made her long for him—and for the moment, she didn’t know why she shouldn’t indulge in admiring his beauty. The glorious contours of his back, the long, softly curved indent of his spine…. The delicious chestnut curls where his hair met the back of his neck….
She slid out of bed; he turned, his scintillating blue eyes meeting hers. Softly, she walked up to him, gave him a gentle touch on his shoulder, and slid her hand down to his elbow. A tremor shook through him; he grasped her arm, hunger in his eyes.
He looked at her for a moment, then her lips met his in a frenzied kiss. She pressed closer, desperately seeking his incomparable mouth. She slid her hand into his hair as she kissed him, making sure she gave him what he wanted, not only satisfying her own desire.
He grasped her arm, stopping her mid-kiss.
“What’s wrong?” Her voice broke the spell. She couldn’t imagine anything more important than this.
He knelt in front of her. “I just want to be sure. Do you want this or—did you forget…?”
“What?” Confusion rippled through her. It was true she was only half awake—there was only his glorious self at the moment—he filled every part of her mind—
Then realization hit her. Her stomach flipped over, and darkness closed over the delight, smothering it. “Oh. I…we can’t do this. Unless….” She couldn’t say it. Unless she wanted to risk having a baby. Not yet.
Disappointment seized her. Couldn’t she have it both ways?
“Jason—could we see if we can get some birth control pills? Or—well, that’s what we’ve been relying on. I…can’t really do the natural birth control method. I don’t like that at all.” She laughed.
“Me either. I would gladly—well—more than gladly—” He laughed, blushing. “But I don’t want you to…risk a baby…if you don’t want to.”
Sorrow hit her like a wave. I’m so sorry, Jason…. I can’t… not yet….
He sighed. “Otherwise—yeah, we can go get some today.”
“Oh, Jason—could we? I don’t want to wait till we get back to the States. I mean—this is like a second honeymoon. Staying here anyway.”
He caressed her cheek, love burning in his eyes. “I know. I want everything you have to give—and I want to give you everything in return. Especially since… well, we’ve had so much time apart, for basically newlyweds.”
It was all her fault. She couldn’t blame him in the least. Even more kissing might lead to her forgetting herself—a baby might result—
She gave him an apologetic kiss and, reluctantly, pulled away.
They stopped at a drug store on the way to the women’s shelter, and she snatched up what she needed. A week—just a week—and we can be all that we were—hold nothing back—I can’t do this to him much longer. Some wife I am….
Near the edge of the city, they pulled into the parking lot next to a medium-sized yellow house, the morning sunlight spilling on its yellow siding. A large yard surrounded the house, rimmed with a white picket fence. A far cry from the crumbling brick buildings of yesterday. Still, there were signs of peeling paint on the broad white porch, which was hung with baskets of gorgeous pink flowers.
As they headed up the sidewalk, a dog barked inside the house, a vicious, snarling bark. Connie stopped short. “Are you sure we’re at the right place?” she asked.
“This is the address Lia gave me. Makes sense they’d have a dog for protection.”
“I like dogs—he just sounds mean.”
“Well, we are strangers.”
The barking became more muffled and they walked up the porch. Jason rang the doorbell.
A moment later, a short woman with curly gray hair answered. “Hi! Sorry about that. The girls feel a lot safer with Amira here to protect us. Don’t you worry, I put her out in the yard.”
Sure enough, the barking began again, this time from behind the fence.
The woman eyed Jason a moment. “Now, I’ve got to warn you. I told the girls you’d be here, and they agreed to have you. But don’t be surprised if they react negatively to your presence, or even change their minds about you being here. I hope you’ll respect their wishes.”
“Of course,” said Jason.
“Most of them are… a bit scared of men. No offense to you personally but—it was men who abused them, and so they’re wary of any strange man, or even men they know—because for some of them, it was the men closest to them who hurt them. That’s why all the staff here are women; I’ve made sure the girls have the most calming environment possible. I’m surprised they even agreed to this—but there have been so many kidnappings lately, and they want to help. A couple of them did agree to have you in the house, they just… are staying upstairs for a bit, till you leave.” She motioned them inside.
The foyer was bright and airy, with morning sunlight creating golden patterns on the wood floor. A large fern spilled over its pot on a table, and roses sat beside it in vases. A double staircase wound upwards.
“This is a beautiful house,” said Connie.
“I want the best environment possible for the girls. Took some doing but me and Jan saved up enough to buy it. Give our gift to them in our retirement. Then Jan passed away and…” She shoved her fingers into her gray curls. “Anyway, I’m here fulfilling his dream as much as mine. He was in law enforcement and saw so many… especially in the last year….” A tear gleamed in her eye.
“That’s one reason why you’re here. I wouldn’t allow a strange man in here otherwise, unless it was on police business.” She held out her hand. “I’m Sonya. Sonya Moreski.”
Jason introduced himself, and Connie followed suit. Sonya had a warm, strong handshake.
“Come on in. I’ll go get Ana and Nika, the girls who were rescued from trafficking.” She ushered them into a well-lit sitting room with yellow and pink floral chairs and a lavender couch. A ledge along the windows was filled with flowers. Purple and pink hibiscus-like blooms, and delicate little yellow blossoms. Connie leaned over to smell them, and she inhaled a sweet almost overwhelming fragrance. The purple flowers had a more delicate smell and conjured visions of a far-off paradise….
She sat down beside Jason in the lavender couch. Sonya and her husband had really spared no expense in making sure these girls had a pleasant home.
Sonya bustled away and Connie glimpsed her ascending the shadowy stairway. Upstairs, the floorboards creaked softly a few times, as if someone was trying to move without being heard. It broke Connie’s heart to think that it terrified them just to have a man in the house. And Jason… he would never hurt them in a million years. Her heart swelled with pride for the man she loved. How gentle he was with everyone, yet how fiery his rage with those who would hurt the innocent….
A creak on the stairs. Sonya was descending, her arm linked with the arm of a tall, slender girl with blond hair that fell past her shoulders. Behind her in the shadows, another girl crept, this one shorter with close-cropped black hair.
They stopped in the doorway. The tall girl’s eyes widened when she saw Jason, but she smiled softly. The other girl darted back near the stairway as soon as she came into the light and Sonya went to her and spoke in gentle tones, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
“No—I want to,” said the girl firmly, with a hint of a tremor in her voice. Sonya helped her forward while the tall blond girl introduced herself.
“Hi, I’m Anastasia. But everyone calls me Ana.” A few light freckles spilled across her fair skin. She looked about sixteen and she wore a green dress that fell past her ankles. She sat down in the chair across from Connie and looked at both of them, but Connie had the feeling that it took courage just to be in the room with Jason.
The other girl stood at the edge of the carpet, as if afraid of going any further. She had medium tan skin and large brown eyes, deep and soulful, hinting at inner anguish. She wore jeans and a bulky purple sweater, despite how warm it was. “H-hi,” she said. “I’m Nika.”
“Hi, I’m Jason and this is my wife Connie.”
Sonya helped Nika over to the chair beside Ana, shielding her partly from Jason as she did so then sitting down in the chair beside her, still clasping Nika’s hand.
“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me,” said Jason. “I know it wasn’t easy.”
“I want to help other girls still trapped in slavery,” said Ana. “If there’s anything I can do, I don’t want to keep from helping them just because I’m afraid.”
“Ana has become something of a mentor to the other girls,” said Sonya. “She’s been here for almost two years. She’s almost ready to face the world—she even has a part time job. I’ll miss her when she moves out—but I am so proud of her. Of how far she’s come.” Sonya smiled, her eyes glistening.
“Thank you, Mama,” said Ana. “I almost don’t want to leave—but then there will be room for another girl to come in my place. And I want to still volunteer. I think I actually want to go into law enforcement. There are too many girls trapped in the life I was. I cannot abandon them.”
“It takes a lot of courage to turn something evil that happened to you into something good,” said Jason. “Do you know what part of law enforcement you’d like to go into?”
“The national branch. I want to have some input into the strategy that crushes the evil of human trafficking.”
“I know the deputy director of the internal security service. Maybe I could see if he could recommend you a mentor.”
Her eyes lit up. “I’d like that.”
“I assume you’d want it to be a woman.”
“I…” A blush suffused her cheeks. “Y-yes, I suppose… that would be best. I… will eventually have to work closely with men, but… I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.”
“There’s no shame in that. It’s best to take small steps instead of plunging into it before you’re ready. That can do more harm than good.”
Ana nodded. “My therapist tells me that. I—want to get on with my life, but… I’m still so afraid…so much of the time….” She looked away, toward the window, blinking back tears.
Jason leaned forward. Nika flinched and he slowly settled back. “I know what that’s like.”
“You--?” Ana looked incredulous.
“I can’t pretend to know what you’ve gone through, and my experience was—well, I wasn’t trafficked. I was captured and sold but rescued before anything serious happened. Before that, though….” He closed his eyes, a pained furrow creeping into his brow. A pang shot through Connie’s heart and she grasped his hand. “I was captured and tortured. Twice. It took me… a long time to… come to terms with it. To have some semblance of peace…. To where I didn’t have nightmares every night. To the point that small sounds didn’t make me jump out of my skin. I won’t ever be totally free of it. But time, and focusing on the good things, has helped me.” He looked at Connie, his eyes full of gratitude. Connie’s heart ached—for the pain he’d gone through, and with happiness that she’d played a part in his healing—though she didn’t think she could take that much credit. He was strong; he’d done a lot of it himself.
“It’s true, I’m a lot less afraid than I was. A year ago, I probably couldn’t even talk to you. But now I know not all men would hurt me. I still can’t imagine…being close to someone.” Her eyes dropped to Connie and Jason’s entwined hands, with something like jealousy in her eyes.
“It doesn’t have to be romantic relationship,” said Jason. “Connie was there for me even before we started dating.”
“Well, the girls here, and Sonya and the other volunteers, they have helped me a lot. Without them, I’d be….” She flipped over her arms, revealing her wrists. They were crisscrossed with scars. Some of them looked like they were from deep wounds.
“Ana, I’m so sorry,” said Jason.
“When I was… I got hold of a piece of glass. I…wanted to die rather than one more…” She shuddered. “But they caught me before I could…finish it. Bound my arms up and forced me to….” She shook her head. “Then… after I was rescued… in the system… at night, it was like it was still happening. The men… ripping me apart… the memories were real, against the dark. So I ran to the bathroom, found a razor…. I almost died, they said. I woke up in the hospital, my arms bandaged. Then—Sonya appeared, like an angel. That’s what I thought she was.” A smile crossed her face. “And she brought me here. I hardly remember those first months…. Just a jumble of pain and fear… but Sonya helped me through it. So did Jan, when I was able to stand to be in the same room with him. So kind, like you.” She tilted her head. “Somehow, I didn’t think of men as being victims, ever. I only ever saw girls being…. In that place. But I know it happens. Somehow, it makes it better. Not that—” She made a cutting motion with her arm— “I don’t want it to happen to you—or to other men! But it makes you more human, instead of these…superhuman gods. They were like gods—they controlled our every move. What we ate, what we drank…. When we slept…”
“It was always men, then?”
She nodded. “Though I know Nika had a different experience…”
Nika inhaled sharply, as if she’d been hit.
“Sorry, Nika!” said Ana. “I won’t tell them anything about it if you don’t want me to.”
Nika nodded slightly, her dark eyes like a frightened deer’s beneath her thick bangs.
“Would you be able to tell me some more about…what happened to you?” said Jason. “I don’t want to ask anything that makes you uncomfortable, so just tell me if you want me to stop.”
“That is why I’m here. I want to do anything I can to help catch the men who hurt me.”
“So the police didn’t find anyone?”
She shook her head. “It was a raid, but they were tipped off beforehand. Thankfully, it happened too fast to pack us all up—so they left us. The raid almost scared me to death—I thought they were coming back to hurt me. Didn’t help that there were cameras, but later I learned the police just wanted to document everything they could.”
“So… the cameras… why would that….?” Jason stopped, realization dawning on his face. “Oh. I see.”
Connie struggled to figure out what she meant. Then it hit her. Not that it made what happened to Ana any more horrible… but to not only be violated in the worst way possible, but to have it filmed for others to see…. Connie didn’t want to think about it, but for these girls, thoughts of it even after it was over were inescapable. Connie could not avert her eyes, run from the room like she wanted to do. The least she could do was to face the horror of the past with them.
Ana took several deep breaths, her face pained, her eyes brimming with shame. “They would take videos of us and sell those on the internet. Sometimes it was live, I think. I…wasn’t exactly paying attention to what the cameramen were doing….”
“So…did the…. Did clients come in or…?”
She shook her head. “It was all in-house. There were about eight men, and they all took turns with us. One of them was in charge, though. He seemed to order the others around. He was… the most brutal of them. We all dreaded when he would be the one…. it seemed like he would come to us when it was time for punishment. When we did something wrong, and we didn’t even know… we were all so scared, but we had to… perform… sometimes we were so scared we could hardly hear or move and so if that happened, he’d come and beat us, tie us up….” She shook her head. “I think…. They still filmed that, and I heard him talking, boasting, that his videos brought the highest payment of all…” Her whole body was trembling by this point.
“Hey—it’s okay,” said Jason. “Don’t go there if it’s too hard for you.”
“No—I can do this.” She hazarded a semblance of a smile. Her hands gripped the armrests, her knuckles white.
“I suppose it’s too much to hope for that these men had their faces captured on video.”
“No… they blurred their faces out. They were all in black so no one could see anything distinguishable about them.”
“Did you see them? Do you remember?”
Ana nodded. “I’ll never forget their faces….”
“Would you be able to describe them at all?”
She nodded. Trembling, she gave him descriptions, and she even drew the ringleader. She was a very good artist; she’d captured every detail.
“Did you draw one of these for the police?” asked Jason.
Ana nodded. “But they still couldn’t find him. It’s like they just disappeared into thin air.”
“Were the police able to find where they distributed the videos?”
Ana nodded. “It was a site… they took it down. But there are other sites like that all over the dark web. The police can’t trace the origins—they can just take the sites down, but others pop up in their place. Maybe with the same… the same content.” Her blue eyes were haunted.
She meant, Connie realized, that the videos of her as a slave might still be out on the internet. Revulsion filled her. That anyone could be so depraved to want to watch videos of girls being raped and tortured. It was a side of life she’d barely known existed, but now she was confronted with the fact there were thousands of girls in the same situation as Ana and Nika. Such evil—what could she do? She didn’t have the first idea of what it was like to be hurt in such a way, and never wanted to know. But she couldn’t just turn a blind eye. Not with these girls who had to live with it, daily—and the girls –and boys—still trapped in that horrific life.
Ana leaned forward. “But there was one thing… Once I…was able to get to a computer. It’s how the police found me. I almost forgot it… but I did catch the usernames of some of the watchers. The ones who were on the billing list for payment. I… don’t think the police tracked them down, mainly because they were in other countries and they couldn’t do anything about it.”
Ana asked Sonya for another piece of paper and quickly wrote down the usernames. “I’m not totally sure about them… but one was distinctive.” She tapped her pencil on the paper next to the last name. Connie leaned over to see. It was enchanted_kaiser. Disgust filled Connie, seeing it. That it was an actual client. Someone who hid behind a computer screen, safe in their home, enjoying the degradation of young girls.
“Thank you, Ana. Were the computers wiped before the raid came?”
She nodded. “I still can’t believe they didn’t take us. But they didn’t want to get caught…. They could always catch more girls.”
“How did they… capture you?”
“They… lured me. I was only fourteen. There was a modeling agency ad… I was stupid. I went. I wanted money for new clothes to impress a boy. And when I got there… it seemed legit. They took pictures of me…. Then they told me they’d hired me. Took me in a back room to fill out paperwork. Gave me something to drink…. That’s the last thing I remember. I woke up in that… horrible house.”
“Did the men ever say who they worked for? Were they working for themselves?”
“For themselves, as far as I could tell.”
“They never mentioned anything about Yavesh?”
She shook her head. “I only heard about it afterwards, from the police. It almost seems like a legend. No one ever seems to find out anything about it except its name and the kinds of things it does, and that it’s to be feared. I’ve been trying to find out stuff about it online, but it’s just rumor, as far as I can tell.”
“It probably uses a cell structure. Most people probably don’t even know they’re working for it.”
She nodded. “It also works anonymously, on the dark web. Nothing can ever be traced back to it.” Her eyes flashed. “But I’ll find it. When I go into internal security.” Ana touched Nika’s shoulder. “Do you want to tell your experience? That time you heard something….?”
Nika looked at Jason, then looked down again. “I….” She stopped. “Th-the one time… I-I’m not sure if it was…. They…kept me drugged…. I’m not totally sure of anything.”
“It’s okay,” said Jason. “Just tell me anything you can.”
Nika nodded. She hazarded a glance at Jason, and her eyes snapped with fear. She looked away and seemed to shrink into herself. She mumbled almost inaudibly, “It… was the woman who took payment…. A man came one day, and th-they were arguing in the main room, next to mine… He shouted at her and—slapped her. She fell to the floor. He said Yavesh didn’t take kindly to stealing. ‘You think we wouldn’t notice you skimming off the top?’ he said. ‘Miras add up.’ Sh-she said, ‘Please give me another chance.’ It was silent for a little bit… and then there were footsteps. I was scared he would come into my room, but he left.” She breathed a sigh of relief, as if it had just happened.
“Thank you, Nika. Did you know about Yavesh before that?”
She shook her head. “I thought it was just a weird dream… I had those, sometimes. I think. I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and nightmares…” She shuddered.
“It probably wasn’t a dream, since you hadn’t heard about Yavesh before. The woman must’ve been the cell leader, and the man was probably the courier… looks like he was part enforcer. Did you get a glimpse of him?”
She shook her head.
“What about the woman? Did they capture her?”
Nika nodded. “But she killed herself in prison. She never told the police anything. Nothing that would catch the…others.”
“So the others weren’t captured?”
“A couple of them. I don’t think they told anything about Yavesh though….”
“That makes sense, if it has a cell structure. They didn’t give away the other traffickers either?”
“I don’t think so. I… hoped the police would catch them… they just…disappeared. They’re still out there.” Her eyes darted to the window. She huddled down further into her sweater and wrapped her arms around herself. As she did, she pressed her arms against her stomach; it was more rounded than Nika’s slim figure would suggest. With a jolt Connie realized the girl must be pregnant. It didn’t take much imagination to figure out how it had happened.
“It’s all right, Nika,” said Sonya in soothing tones. “You’re here now. They can’t hurt you.”
Nika nodded, and a tear streaked down her cheek.
Ana slowly reached over and touched Nika’s shoulder. “I’m here. I’ll take care of you. I’m not leaving till after…”
They sat in silence for a few moments, giving Nika her space.
Connie wondered what Nika felt about her baby. Probably more scared than excited. She wished she could ask but didn’t see how she could bring it up without hurting her.
“Would you mind answering a few more questions?” asked Jason softly.
Nika wiped her face. “Okay.”
“What sort of place did they take you to?”
“You mean—where I was kept?”
“It was an apartment… Here in the city. There were rooms—horrible little rooms where we had to live, there were like three of us in each of them and—” Her breathing grew faster. She glanced frantically around, as if looking for a way to escape.
“It’s okay. Take your time. Don’t feel like you have to answer anything, especially if it makes you uncomfortable.”
A ghost of a wry smile crossed her face. “E-everything… just being in this room with you—scares me to death. But I—I just can’t bear the thought of other girls out there, feeling what I did… what I do… every second….” Tears spilled onto her cheeks.
“Nika,” said Jason. “You are very brave. You’re facing your fear—for others. That is—amazing. You are amazing.”
A shy smile spread across her face, the first genuine smile Connie had seen from her.
“It sounds like your experience is different from Ana’s…. A woman was in charge, for one. Were the others men?”
She nodded. “Except one. They were all guards. And one I think was a doctor… or something… he gave us the drugs…” Slowly, she flipped over her arm and slid her cuff back partway, revealing faded needle marks dotted over her skin. Then she quickly flipped her arm back over and pulled the cuff past her wrist, as if it were a shameful thing.
“Do you know what sort of drugs they were?”
She shook her head. “Some sort of special kind…. I don’t remember the name… just that they kept my mind fuzzy. I could hardly move… the men came in and—” A look of deep anguish and shame crossed her face.
Connie leaned forward. Nika didn’t flinch. “It wasn’t your fault,” she felt compelled to say. “None of it was your fault. What those men did to you—is not what you are.”
Nika nodded, as if trying to convince herself.
“It’s those men—and women,” said Jason, “who deserve the worst punishment possible for what they did to you. To the both of you.” Connie felt a tremor run through him. “I almost hope I run into some of them, so that I can—” His fists clenched. “I know I’m not supposed to be about vengeance, but some people are not redeemable. They deserve to be hurt for what they did. For what they’re doing.” Fire flashed in his eyes and Connie felt some of the same anger. She also felt admiration and respect for him, and fear—not for herself—but for the traffickers, if he ever ran into them. She didn’t feel sorry for them in the least, but Jason’s wrath on them would be terrible, and wonderful, to witness. Jason had let go of his anger for what Gray had done to him, but she doubted he would let go of his anger at the traffickers. And she didn’t think he should. Righteous anger was justified.
I’d like to give the traffickers a bit of my own vengeance, she thought, a little shocked at her thoughts. But she could hardly help it, faced with the unspeakable abuse these girls dealt with.
Ana smiled. “I hope you do find them. We don’t need to be afraid of you. Only the traffickers need to be afraid.”
“I’m here to rescue trafficked kids, not carry out justice,” said Jason, “but if any of the traffickers get in the way… well…. Mercy won’t be the first thing on my mind.”
Nika looked at Jason with wide eyes, for the first time more awed than afraid. There was a hint of incredulity, as if she could hardly believe a man could be so empathetic. “W-will you find Natasha?” she asked, her voice trembling.
“Who is Natasha?”
“They—they were tipped off, the police said. Some of them got away with the girls. I was the only one…. I was sick, so they—left me. But they took my friend, Natasha. Sh-she was….” She hesitated, then said, in a barely audible voice, “pregnant.”
“I will try to find her. If you could tell me more about… your situation, the people that escaped, it would help.”
Nika looked startled, but she said, “Okay.”
“How…far along was your friend?”
“About eight months.”
“It’s surprising they didn’t leave her. Usually… in that ‘business’, pregnancy is a liability.”
Nika shook her head. “They want us to get pregnant. Sometimes. They do it on purpose. I was hoping….” She swallowed, looked down. “Th-they… some of them… want it.” Her voice grew very small, and she shivered as if from a sudden chill. “And I think they… actually sell the babies. I’m not sure where. I hope it’s not…” She stopped. Connie had a pretty good idea of what she wasn’t saying. To sell a baby… there was no end to the horror and depravity these traffickers could think of.
“Do you know…where they might have taken the other girls?”
“Well, they moved us to different places. The police checked out the ones I could remember but… maybe there are clues there.”
“The…clients… did they… were they local?”
“I think so…”
“That’s another angle I can take, then. Nika, I know this is hard for you, but can you remember what any of the clients looked like? Any of their names, or…?”
Nika jolted as if she’d been shocked. She closed her eyes, grasping the armrests, nails digging into them. “I….” Her eyes shot open, but they had a faraway look, as if she was seeing something no one else could see. Terror flashed through them. “Th-they…. There was….” Tears fell from her eyes. “The men, they—” She buried her face in her hands, trembling violently. Sobs shook her body. Sonya slid her hand onto her back but Nika flinched away.
“Oh… I’m sorry,” said Sonya. “I think she’s had enough for now. She’s done amazingly well… first time she’s seen a man in months. But I think it’s time that you leave.”
“O-of course,” said Jason, rising slowly.
Just then, his cell phone buzzed. He picked it up and stepped into the foyer.
Connie sat there, not sure what to do. She didn’t want to startle Nika by getting up. But she’d have to in order to leave, anyway. So she slowly got to her feet and crept around the couch to join Jason.
“Okay, thanks Markov,” said Jason. “I’ll be right there.”
He slid his phone back into his pocket and turned to Connie. His face was guardedly excited, but also apprehensive. “Connie, would you be able to… would you mind staying here for a little while?”
“I doubt they’d object to your presence. We’ll ask of course, but—I don’t exactly want to take you—it could be dangerous.”
“What is it?”
He grasped her arm. “They found one of them. A trafficker. Markov thinks it’s one of the cell leaders.”
“Why do they need you?”
“They don’t. They’re going on a raid—and there might be clues. Markov was gracious enough to call me, but I need to leave, now.”
“Won’t it be dangerous?”
He smiled. “Nothing I can’t handle. After what these girls told me, I’m not about to avoid a little risk.” He kissed her cheek. “Don’t worry, there’ll be a ton of professional agents with guns between me and the trafficker. This could be the break we need.”
Fear shot through Connie’s heart. But she said, “Okay.”
He kissed her swiftly on the lips, then stepped at the edge of the sitting room to ask Sonya if she could stay. Sonya agreed, and then Jason was off, through the door, leaving her alone.
GURL. The talent you have. Keep it up--PLEASE!
Buck and Jules Shipper
Wooton is the best character on Odyssey ever. Fight me.
"It's not that we don't make sense, it's that we have a different way of looking at things that do make sense." ~Wooton Bassett