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Then they looked at me and the blood drained from their cheeks. I tried to pull my arm away from Zoya’s shoulders as she smiled and greeted her people in return. But Zoya gripped my hand tightly, forcing me to stand beside her. Forcing her people to see that I was hers. Introducing me as her male.

My heart swelled knowing she wanted me this much. I would never understand it, but I would never refuse it, either.

The farther we walked toward the beach and the pier, the more the Georgians came out to see her. I watched in awe as the people kissed her hand or waved at her from afar. She was a printsessa. They were overwhelmed that she had survived, and Zoya thanked her people for their love and support.

Children came out with their mothers, Zoya stopping to stroke their faces. I watched, starving for breath, seeing Zoya with the babies. An image sprang into my mind—Zoya holding our child in her arms. A peace drifted through my body at the thought.

As we continued our walk, I stored the image at the back of my mind, not wanting to lose the happiness I felt when I pictured it.

We had crossed the road that led to the pier when a little girl called out, “K’alishvili!” The little girl shouted again and ran across the road holding a red flower in her hand.

She stopped before us and held her flower up for Zoya to take. Zoya smiled at the little dark-haired girl and bent down to take the flower. “Thank you,” Zoya said, and the little girl nodded her head shyly.

Then the little girl looked up at me and her mouth dropped open. I tucked my head farther into my collar to not scare her anymore just as the little girl asked Zoya, “Is he a monster, K’alishvili?”

My stomach fell and I saw Zoya tense. “No, baby,” Zoya replied softly. “He’s a warrior, big and strong. He has fought his whole life and sometimes got hurt. That’s why he wears scars. They show how brave he has been.” Zoya glanced up to me. My muscles tensed at the look of pure love written on her face, at the words coming from her mouth.

Turning back to the little girl, she said, “Valentin has moved to this area with me so he can protect us all and keep us safe. You see how big and strong he is?” The little girl nodded, her brown eyes wide. “Well, that’s so he can fight off the bad people.”

“Like the scary monsters that live under my bed? Those bad people?”

Zoya laughed and nodded her head. “Yes, just like those. And Valentin always wins, because he has a pure heart.”

The little girl looked up at me again, but this time in awe, this time seeing someone else other than a monster.

All because of my Zoya.

The little girl gave me a huge smile, then turned round and ran across the road to her waiting mother.

As Zoya stood, she threaded her hand in mine, and silently led us down the pier. The old wood of the floorboards creaked under my weight. The sound of the waves crashing against the shore grew louder. We reached the end of the pier and gazed out to sea.

I closed my eyes, feeling Zoya’s hand in mine. As soon as I was met with darkness, images of my sister infiltrated my mind. The dread that always accompanied them took hold. I slowly breathed in the salty air, pushing the dread aside. We were going to get her back. She just had to hold on a while longer. And she would. Inessa was strong.

Opening my eyes, I looked down at Zoya, who was staring out to sea. Inessa was strong, just like my little Georgian kotyonok.

As if feeling my stare, Zoya glanced up at me and smiled. My heart almost cracked. When her hand tightened in mine, I looked at her hand and remembered savoring that moment in the chamber, convinced that I would never be able to hold her hand again.

“What are you thinking about?” Zoya inquired.

Pulling her into my chest, I pushed back her long windblown hair from her face and said, “You.” I lifted our joined hands. “Us, like this. Out here. Free.”

Zoya laid her head on my chest, and I held her close. “Those people…” I trailed off and shook my head. “The way they treat you. You are their printsessa.”

“No,” she argued, but I shook my head in disagreement. She was. She was beautiful, she was loved, and best of all, she was mine.

Zoya lifted her head. With those huge dark eyes, she stared up at me with nothing but love. Reaching up her hands, she pulled back the collar of my coat and smiled. “That’s better. Now I can see you.”

Leaning down, I pressed a kiss to her lips and tilted my head toward the sun. The warm rays immediately heated my face. I smiled.

Here I was, my hand in Zoya’s, sun on my face, and free.

I was happy.

I never imagined I could be happy. But it was Zoya. It was all Zoya. My kotyonok, the thief of my heart, my little Georgian.

Here I was, the monster that she saved.

The one she searched the dark woods for.

The one she believed deserved to be loved.


The Blood Pit


As Master left my room, his release calming the fire inside, my eyes drifted shut. Images of a little girl with an older boy suddenly filled my head. My heart beat fast as I saw the boy holding a trembling girl in his arms.

“I am scared,” the little girl said.

“Don’t be scared,” the little boy replied. “I’ll never let anything bad happen to you.”

I felt the little girl calm and hold out her finger. “Big Brother Promise?” she asked with such trust and hope.

The boy smiled, his handsome face bright with love. He wrapped his finger around the little girl’s and said, “Big Brother Promise.”

As the memory faded in my mind, now alone in my cell, I opened my eyes to see my hand held up, my finger curled in the air with that promise. Tears ran down my face. Just as the fog in my mind began to thicken again, I stared at my finger, and whispered, “I’m holding on, Valentin. I promise I’m still holding on.…”

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