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Authors: Kimberly Derting

The Offering

BOOK: The Offering
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To Todd Kneer, who had the most infectious laugh and wasn't afraid to share it!

acknowledgments

Being the last book in the Pledge trilogy, it was hard for me to say good-bye to these characters that I'd grown so attached to. In the acknowledgments for the first book I discussed how I came up with the idea for
The
Pledge
, but I just want to (again) thank Marie Lucas, the woman who told me her stories of growing up in World War II Germany that eventually sparked the idea for Charlie's world. She will always and forever be the original Angelina.

I've always said how much I love my U.S. covers for the Pledge trilogy, and I've had Michael McCartney to thank for those. But finding the right title for this final book was no easy feat. In fact, my editor and I had been going back and forth, when my brilliant cover designer, Michael McCartney, who happens to be a linguist as well, threw out the idea:
The Offering
.
And just like his gorgeous covers, it fit this book perfectly . . . so thank you, Michael.

Also, because I love those covers so much, I have to give a shout-out to Anna Þóra Alfredsdóttir and her wonderful photographer Ugla Hauksdóttir, who have done all the covers for this trilogy. I only have one word for you both:
gorgeous!

Thanks, too, to Ruta Rimas, who has been amazing and a genius and everything else I have ever wanted in an editor for these books. She's been fierce and tireless, and I cannot thank her enough! And for everyone at S&S/McElderry Books, you guys are truly, truly,
truly
awesome! Thank you all for letting me tell Charlie's story.

To Taryn Fagerness, who has been a genius at putting my books in the hands of overseas publishers, and to my foreign publishers, who have been crazy supportive—I love you all! To Laura Rennert, who has been my champion from day one, never flinching even when I might have wanted to flinch—thanks for being the best agent in the business. And thank you to Alicia Gordon, Ashley Fox, and Erin Conroy at WME because, well, you know what you do.

And no writer can do this job without friends and family who learn, and hopefully tolerate, the strange patterns of a writer's life. So to all of you who've seen me in my pajamas in the middle of the day (you know who you are!), and have accepted that I may (or may not) call you back in a week because the voices in my head have taken over, and who don't mind that I stare off into space in the middle of a meal . . . thank you!
I really do love you most of all!

PART I

prologue

Unflinching, the executioner stood on the bloodstained floor facing the prison cells as he wielded an axe with a razor-sharp blade.

“What's the matter, darling? You're not having second thoughts, are you?” a woman's voice crooned amidst the barbaric scene—the cavernous surroundings, with bars and cells, and echoing all around them the desperate pleas of prisoners begging for their lives.

Niko straightened, shifting his gaze away from the executioner. He tried to shake off any last-minute qualms the beautiful but treacherous queen might be able to sense coming from him. Her gossamer green gown was inappropriate for the occasion, as if she'd dressed for a ball rather than a slaughter. But that was typical, he'd come to learn. She was as frivolous as she was deadly.

“Of course not. How could I possibly have any doubts? If we don't do this, we'll never be able to convince Queen Charlaina that we're to be taken seriously.” He matched her expression,
wicked smile for wicked smile, hoping she felt half the anticipation he did beating through his veins.

The sound of shackles and the rumble of an approaching scuffle made it clear that Xander was nearing them. Niko was a fool if he expected Xander to go down without a fight.

A part of Niko wanted to skulk back into the shadows. To hide where Xander wouldn't be able to see him, so Xander wouldn't know that it was he who'd betrayed him.

After all, Charlie had sent the two of them to make peace with the Astonian queen. To find a way to come to agreeable terms with Queen Elena so that no one—on either side of the border—would come to harm.

Yet here he was, making his own bargains. Ones that would keep him safe forever. Ones that would, hopefully, bring him and Sabara back together again.

Even if it meant sacrificing those around him.

“Niko.” Xander spat his name when he saw him standing at Elena's side. Her hand was draped possessively over his. “You . . . you t
raitor
,” he snarled, curling his lip. “And you.” He turned his silver eyes on Elena then. “How could you let this . . . this coward convince you of anything? Are you so weak of will? Don't you see he's only using you?”

Niko stiffened, wondering just how much Xander knew about him. About his history—and how far back he and Sabara, the old Ludanian queen, really went. About how long he'd been alive.

But Xander continued as he thrashed against his chains and the guards on either side of him. “I trusted you. You said if my revolutionaries joined forces with you to overthrow Sabara,
Ludania would have peace with Astonia. Have you no conscience?” he shrieked at the queen with whom he'd come all this way to negotiate. “I thought we were friends.”

Her grip tightened, and with it her resolve. She drew Niko along with her, forcing him out of the shadows, until they were standing face-to-face with Xander, watching him resist, like an animal caged. The guards shoved him to his knees and forced him to kneel before her. “I suppose that was your first mistake, then,” she answered in a voice so devoid of emotion, it made Niko shudder inwardly. “Because I most certainly do not have
friends
.” She gave a signal to the man in the executioner's mask—a black leather covering that exposed only his mouth and his unsympathetic eyes.

The two guards dragged Xander toward a small, round opening in the stone floor, a hole through which blood could easily drain away to the sewers. They, along with two others who'd appeared, pinned him to the ground while he continued to writhe and scream. They waited until he was too weary to fight any longer, until he had no other option but to accept this fate he'd been handed.

Then the executioner raised his blade.

Niko would have closed his eyes, if those of Elena hadn't been observing him as keenly as they were watching the scene unfolding before her. Unlike Niko, she had no interest in turning away. She seemed to relish the moment.

When the axe fell and the sharp crack of metal struck stone beneath, Niko felt the slightest jerk from beside him. But when he turned his gaze on her, he saw that she was frowning at the hem of her gown rather than at the grisly view at her feet.

“Will you look at that,” she said, and clucked, craning her neck to get a better look, and ignoring everything else going on around her. “He got blood on my new dress.”

She shook her head and turned her attention back to Niko. A smile replaced the frown. Her look spoke nothing of the horrors they'd witnessed or the defiling of her gown. Her entire demeanor shifted into something else as her hand slid from his wrist and moved up his arm to his chest, her fingertips finding their way along the ridges of his still tensed muscles. “Come, love. Let's go back to bed,” she purred. “I need to get this
mess
off me. Besides, I have other things I'd like to show you.”

He obeyed numbly, allowing the queen of Astonia to pull him along, back through the corridors and along the cobbled stones until they reached her opulent—if somewhat overdone—bedroom, where she dragged him back into her bed. He wondered if he'd ever be able to purge from his memory the image of what he'd just witnessed.

Or forget the sound of Xander's screams.

i

My lips stretched into a tight smile as I made my way to the front of the congregation of stone-faced officials who'd gathered in the crowded meeting room. Everyone stood when I entered, and I tried my best to appear calm, but my heart was racing as I looked out at all the intense expressions of the people watching me, judging me.

At any other time I might've explained my reaction away as nerves, but not today. Today I had something to prove.

I needed to show them that all the changes I'd been leading us toward, all we'd sacrificed, had been for the best. That today we would make progress.

That I hadn't made a colossal mistake in risking so much on one venture.

My gaze slid to the transmitter on the table in front of me, where it sat, still and silent. It was hard to imagine that something so bland-looking might possibly change everything.

I took my seat and waited apprehensively while everyone else in the room took theirs. Several moments ticked by, during
which I could feel the weight of their misgivings searching me out, settling over me like a heavy blanket. I explored their faces, too, careful not to fix on any one for too long. I picked out certain features and tried to guess which region each council member might hail from, a game to kill time and distract my thoughts. A man with leathered skin might have been a farmer, or possibly a builder who'd spent many years laboring beneath a baking sun. I thought he might have been from the eastern region, where grains were plentiful. Another woman with perfectly coifed hair made me think of a large metropolitan area. From right here in the Capitol perhaps, or possibly from 3E, which had been recently renamed Charletown, now that cities were allowed to have names of their own. There was another man who had a distractingly bulbous nose, which had nothing at all to do with either region or occupation but caught my attention nonetheless. My cheeks heated when I realized he'd caught me staring for too long.

From outside, even through the closed windows, I could hear the people gathering on the streets below us, both allies and opponents, all awaiting word of the success, or failure, of our . . . experiment.

A thousand worries spun through my mind. A thousand reasons why everything could go wrong on the other end.

What if Aron hadn't made it to his destination? Or what if he had but work hadn't been completed on time?

Worse yet, what if those engineers and designers who'd said our project was impossible had been right after all? What if the lines were irreparable?

But if all that were true, if the lines were too faulty to fix,
wouldn't we have learned as much before now? Wouldn't someone have told us so—at some point before I'd left the palace to stand facing a hundred administrators from different districts and boroughs around the country awaiting our very first message?

Suddenly the walls of Capitol Hall felt too close, and the ceiling far too low. I was suffocating.

“Give it time,” Max assured from beside me.

I turned to Brooklynn, who stood near the entrance in her crisp black uniform, searching the room for the slightest sign of trouble. I hoped in vain that she might offer me the same sort of encouragement Max had. A smile or a nod. Even one of her hallmark winks. But she never even glanced my way.

Nothing much had changed between us over the past months, since we'd returned from the summit at Vannova. Not since that fateful moment when I'd killed her father.

She still couldn't forgive me for what I'd done.

So I'd spent my time since then focused on Ludania instead, and what I could do to improve my country's future.

Which meant going back in time, it seemed.

Funny, how things worked. Sabara hadn't just stunted our country; she'd turned back the hands of time for us. There was a time when Ludania had been considered progressive in the eyes of the world. A leader in both technology and strategy.

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