“Now about your names,” he says. “I’m adopting an old Italian tradition—a Moretti tradition, anyway: my girls can only bear names with three letters. More than three implies that a girl has earned a higher place beside her master than slave.” He points to Nora. “You’ll be Aya.” Then he looks at me and says, “And you’ll be Naomi.”
That’s my real middle name.
Only a little surprised, I think about the five-letter name for a second, knowing right away why he gave it to me: so he doesn’t have to treat me the same way Nora will likely be treated. As much as I appreciate the special treatment, I can’t help but feel bad about it, too. I want to be as good as Nora in all things; I want to live up to her skill and be taken as seriously in this line of work as everyone takes her.
“OK,” I say, “so what exactly will be the difference between Aya and Naomi?”
Niklas looks me straight in the face.
“Aya will be my slave,” he says, “but you, Naomi, will unfortunately have to suffer the role of being my girlfriend.”
My brows draw inward.
“But I thought I was going to play the slave role, too?” It dawns on me now that earlier he said Nora should familiarize herself with the terms and rules.
He leans forward, his elbows on the tops of his legs.
“You’ll play the role that I tell you to play, Izzy,” he says firmly, “or I don’t go. That’s the condition. Take it or leave it. I can take another plane right back to Boston when we land if I need to.”
Furious, I let my breath out long and hard, crossing my arms over my chest and pressing my back to the seat.
“This is bullshit.”
“Call it what you want,” he says, leaning back up, “but it’s the way it’s gonna be.”
“How am I ever going to learn if everybody keeps treating me like a child? I can play the role of a slave, Niklas—”
“No you can’t,” he says calmly, not looking at me.
“Dammit, Niklas, I was a slave for nine years!”
“And that’s exactly why you’re not going to do it!” he snaps, his eyes hard, full of authority and resolve—his sudden shift of temperament stuns me.
I clench my fists against the seat beneath me.
Niklas leans forward again, seizing my gaze. “It’s bad enough you’re doing this at all,” he says. “The things you’ll see; the environment; the shit that neither you nor I will be able to stop, that we’ll have to pretend we’re used to, that I enjoy, that you’re indifferent to—it’s a big enough risk having someone like you, who was a slave for nine years”—he reiterates my own argument—“but going as far as turning you into a slave again—it’s not gonna happen; might as well throw the gas on the fire .”
I’m experiencing the conversation with Victor about me going back to Mexico, all over again. And it infuriates me. I know I can do this. I know I can play the role of a slave without breaking character, without dark memories of my old life interfering with my performance. Why don’t they trust me? Why won’t they give me a chance to prove myself? I wonder if Victor knows about this. Since he and Niklas aren’t talking, I’m guessing he doesn’t. And he didn’t have a problem with it at our meeting; he didn’t demand I play Niklas’s ‘girlfriend’—this is all Niklas’s doing, and I wonder if it’s not some game he’s playing to get back at Victor.
“What’s it gonna be?” Niklas says.
For a long time I just look at him, and then I glance at Nora. She shrugs casually, but says nothing on the matter. There’s not much she can say, really, because she knows as well as I do that Niklas is not the type to cave—what he says goes, and that’s that.
I turn to look at Niklas again, who sits in his polished suit, waiting for my answer.
Figuratively biting my tongue, I lick the dryness from my lips and say with a nod, “OK. I’ll play whatever role you give me.”
Niklas nods in return.
“So I take it I get to be a snobbish, wealthy bitch again like I was on my first mission with Victor?” I rest my back against the seat and cross my legs. I kind of miss playing that role, the first time I ever became Izabel Seyfried—as a character, anyway—being her was exciting.
“No,” Niklas answers. “You definitely won’t be a snobby bitch. You may not be my slave, but you’re still submissive to me, would never raise your voice or show defiance. Besides, a mouthy bitch is more likely to put a target on your back, give Francesca more reason to want to slit your pretty little throat. I want you to be kind and pleasant, Izzy—hope that’s not too hard for you.” He smirks.
I smirk right back at him.
“But like I said before,” he goes on, “just keep your mouth shut—your normal mouth anyway.” He pauses and looks me right in the eyes. “And I apologize in advance—for the record.”
I don’t like the sound of that.
“For what?” I ask, wary.
Niklas keeps a straight face.
“For anything I might have to do,” he says.
I just nod back at him, accepting everything, including his apology.
“Now about those clothes,” Niklas speaks up.
We spend the rest of the flight going over the terminology and the rules and how Nora and I should act and dress and carry ourselves at all times.
Maybe I’m feeling a false sense of safety knowing why Victor sent Niklas with us, because I’m not as nervous as I probably should be. But I do feel safe. More than that, I’m overwhelmed with determination, excitement. Because I know I can do this. I know I can prove to them that I can be in this ‘environment’ and not be affected by it. Even though I’m not going to get to actually play the slave role on this mission, maybe I can still show Victor that I can handle it and he may change his mind later and let me play the slave role on the mission to Mexico.
I will do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Izabel isn’t anywhere near as nervous as she should be, but she’ll come around. Once she’s inside that place, feeling dozens of eyes combing every inch of her, she’ll start to feel the repercussions of her decision to go through with this. She’ll do exactly what she said she doesn’t do: flinch and recoil when someone touches her; she’ll have debilitating flashbacks of her old life when someone says a trigger word—she thinks she’s over what happened to her in Mexico, but no one gets over something like that, that easily. No one.
But I’ll be there to catch her when she falls—I’ll have to be, so she doesn’t get us killed. And she already despises me, so whatever I have to resort to doing to her while on this mission, at least it won’t change the already tumultuous relationship between us much.
As far as her relationship with Victor though—my brother…my dear, murderous brother, what have you done? What were you thinking sending Izabel, of all people, into an underground world like this one in Italy?
I know. Oh, I know all right.
It’s no surprise, really, what Victor is doing. I’ve known him all my life, and deep down, despite his love for her, he’s the same man he’s always been. And he always will be.
We arrive in Naples, and it’s like setting foot on a memory when I step out of the plane. I was here years ago, on a mission for The Order. But it was my short time with Claire that brings back the memory—not the mission. Claire told me once that she’d always wanted to go to Italy. I even went as far as promising I’d take her someday, though I knew it’d probably never happen.
I’ll never forgive my brother for what he did.
Izabel, Nora and myself set up in the most extravagant hotel in the city center. I check in as the wealthy and cruel bastard, Niklas Augustin. From here on out until we finish this mission, I’ll have to let my nuts suffocate in these suits and feel more like my brother than I want to feel. I swore to myself I’d never wear another suit again, but kind of like that promise I made to Claire, I should’ve known better.
A bellboy, dressed in a black pinstripe suit and bowtie, leads the way to our suite on the top floor of the hotel overlooking the sprawling city below. Nora keeps her eyes down until I tip the bellboy and he leaves us alone in the room.
I go toward the balcony doors and push them open with the palms of my hands into the mild autumn air. Izabel and Nora do a sweep of the room to check for audio or video devices. It’s unlikely there’d be anything in here now since no one knew we were coming, but it never hurts to be sure. This is precisely why we left so quickly, instead of giving Moretti’s people time to contemplate and plan for the arrival of a new customer.
“It’s clean,” Nora announces as she puts the bug detector away in a bag. “Only wireless signal it picked up was the internet.”
“Same here,” Izabel says, stepping up. “So what’s our first move?”
I turn from the double glass doors and look at them both. Izabel is dressed in a thin cream-colored dress that hangs just above her knees, pulled tight around her small waist by a thin black ribbon belt. She wears a pair of high-heeled cream shoes with a delicate strap over the top of her feet. Nora, needing to appear more my property than Izabel does, wears a simple slate gray dress, but is longer, stopping two inches below the knees and left to hang freely about her body; she wears flat-soled white shoes cut below her ankles. Their hair is pulled into tight ponytails at the back of their heads. Only Izabel wears jewelry and carries a small black purse. They’re both really fucking beautiful. It’s roles like these that make this job so worth it.