"Zack?" But there was no answer, not even after several knocks.
She went to Ricardo's office next and that was when she heard him talking, presumably to someone over the phone. When his words sunk in, Joey threw the door open. "Father?"
At the other end of the line, Niko heard the anxiety in Joey's voice, and everything in him reacted. So possessive, so protective – such instincts were not supposed to be something he would feel for a human being. As the Prince of the Morteia, it was his duty to be loyal only to his race and the Brethren. As a Prince of Morteia, he had no right to love –
So what was this anxious feeling inside him, one that made his heart beat furiously as the seconds ticked by and he could hear Ricardo fumbling in his effort to explain.
"Do not let her leave," he gritted out. "I will go there." He ended the call and burst into speed, the phone falling to the ground. Joey needed him – the thought of it alone was enough to spur Niko de Luca into action.
Joey allowed Ricardo to lead her to the couch. She shook her head in pained confusion. "Why would he need to leave so suddenly? I just don't understand – is it because of something I did?"
"No, my dear, of course not. Zack…is going through something – sorting out issues that I have no right to speak of. It has to come from him, but for now the best thing you can do is to respect his decision – even if you do not agree with it."
"And I don't! Father, don't you remember how he used to be when he first came to us – he had nightmares every night. Every night," she stressed. "How can we just let him go like that? How can he expect us not to worry?"
"He does not," Ricardo said gently. "But in the end, Joey – it is his life."
She got to her feet with a shake of her head. "I want to hear it from himself, Father. I'm sorry if this means I'm disobeying you, but I must make sure he's all right." Zack was family – one of the few she could consider as such. She just couldn't let him go like that.
Going back to her room, she took her winter coat from the closet and shrugged into it. When she closed the closet doors shut, Joey almost jumped a foot.
Niko di Luca was in front her, wearing a white uniform with gold tassels on the shoulders – the kind that Joey knew the Morteia only used when they were scheduled to have lessons at the Brethren and were not expected to…fight. He also had a beautiful silvery gray scarf around his neck, and it contrasted wonderfully with his dark hair.
He was so very exquisite to look at, and Joey's knees started to shake at the realization that the prince also happened to be in her room.
They were alone in her room.
The thought almost made Joey forget her very name. "Y-Your Highness?" His eyes darkened, blue turning to black, and knowing why it was so, she hurried to say, "N-Niko?" Her voice sounded terribly weak, but then – that was how she really felt. "W-what are you doing here?"
"I have a meeting with your father and he's told me that you had an argument."
Joey's lips tightened. Trust her Father to tattle to the prince!
Niko raised a brow. "Joey?" His voice was soft and gentle.
She mumbled, "It's nothing." She had a very, very strong feeling the prince would not approve of her decision if he found out about it.
The way Joey's beautiful face suddenly became shuttered frustrated Niko. So young. So innocent, weak, and utterly human and yet – and yet how was it that she had him tied in knots? Women of all races, the most beautiful and alluring of them – they all threw themselves on him and yet none of them had even a fraction of the power that this tiny girl had over him.
Joey noticed the prince staring at her, and she asked self-consciously, "What is it?"
He shook his head slowly. "Nothing." Glancing at her winter coat, he asked, "Are you heading somewhere?"
"Umm…to the school building," she said after a beat. It was a lie, of course. Joey was still determined to go to Zack.
He nodded. "I will walk you there."
She opened her mouth to protest.
Seeing it, he said politely, "It would be my honor." But he also said it as if it were a command from not just Niko de Luca but the Prince of Morteia himself. So of course she had to obey.
Ricardo looked happy, excited, and dreadfully sly when the prince bid goodbye to him, with the grave assurance that he would make sure Joey got to the school building safely. It made her glare at Ricardo and then sigh ruefully at Niko.
"You make it sound as if we're going somewhere dangerous," she chided him. "The school building's just a few blocks away."
Before answering, the prince opened the door for her. Outside, she was not surprised to see Ilia and Dashin waiting for the Prince. He was never really alone, and if she was honest Joey liked it that way. There were just too many dangers in the world for someone like the Prince of Morteia to so carelessly risk his life by going anywhere without company.
Ilia nodded respectfully to her while Dashin smiled. Neither of them made the mistake of speaking to her. Attuned to their prince's moods, they sensed his moody possessiveness and restlessness and knew better than to provoke it.
The Chairman's girl might be human but there was no point denying the truth. She was special to the Prince and anyone who dared forget that was doomed.
Still shy with the other Morteia, Joey could only nod. Her shyness pleased Niko, like it always did – he liked it very much that it was only with him Joey was comfortable with. Or at least – it was only with him and Zack.
A black mood threatened to rise inside Niko, but he ruthlessly controlled it. He looked down at Joey. "Shall we?"
They walked side by side to the school building. Around them, the Caros they passed by were stunned, curious – and many of the Caro girls who saw them were incensed. What did that human have to deserve the right to walk by the prince's side?
In minutes, they reached the school building. "Well," Joey mumbled, unable to look into the prince's eyes, "we're here. Thank you for, umm, walking with me."
He tipped her chin up, his touch surprising Joey and making her blush.
"You must take care, Joey."
The surprising words had her blinking.
"For me," he said quietly. "You must take care if only for my sake, mm?"
Unable to understand why the prince was asking her such a strange request but responding to the command in his voice, Joey could only nod.
And then they were gone, disappearing into the whiteness of the wintry background behind them. Her heart beat hard at the prince's last words. What could that mean?
She pondered this as she swiftly made her way to the back exit of the school, pulling her coat closer as icy cold winds, seemingly stronger than it should be, hit her the moment she stepped out, as if pushing her away.
But Joey forged on, making way to the farthest building in Livingfire's compound. It was a very imposing structure made of old red bricks, their marred surfaces making it seem as if they had successfully gone through war.
She climbed the short flight of steps leading to the main front doors, which were made of brass that appeared to have been left unpolished for years. She was just about to raise her hand to use the knocker but the doors were suddenly pulled to the side, making Joey's heart jump in her throat. Its rusty hinges caused the doors to make a squeaking-rumbling sound, and it was terrifying enough to make Joey hesitate to enter.
How could Zack choose to live here?
The thought that something was wrong gave Joey the courage to move forward, and her heart jumped again when the doors slid back into place without anyone controlling it.
The floor was made of marble tiles, and the tiles ahead of her suddenly lit up, creating a pathway. After a second's hesitation, she followed the bright tiles, feeling all the while that she was following a yellow brick road that was not created for the Good Witch.
The tiles took her to a maze of halls, with so many twists and turns she feared she would never find her way back out. But even so, she continued, her worry for Zack giving her the strength to push aside her fears. She could worry for herself later. For now it was all about-
The tiles had stopped.
Slowly, Joey looked up and there she saw it, making her scream.
It was like the past all over again.
The sound of the scream made Niko de Luca stiffen. Even though he had expected it, the sound of Joey's fear still chilled him until the very deepest part of him. Zack Mancini would not hurt her for the world. The Abyss also had strong defenses – no one who had yielded to its authority would be able to break through its barriers. But still he feared, he raged, and he needed.
Niko needed to see that Joey was all right.
He said harshly, "Let us go."
All six of his Morteia followed him into the Abyss, unquestioningly and without hesitation. It was the Prince's command – and so it should be.