Read an Excerpt
A Scarred Souls Novel
By Tillie Cole
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Tillie Cole
All rights reserved.
Manhattan, New York
Present day ...
"Sykhaara," I murmured in shock, my chest cracking open with hope, a hope that I hadn't dare let myself feel in the twenty years since the massacre. The hope that my brother was alive. Now, after all these years, he was alive.
"Miss?" Avto, my protector and minder, pushed, but I was frozen on the spot. My legs were numbed in shock. Zaal, my Zaal, was alive.
Water blurred my eyes as I looked to Avto once more. "And Anri? Is there news of Anri?"
Avto's face fell with disappointment. "No, miss. There is no word of Anri. But our source got word of a Kostava arriving in the city. They watched him; they watched him and watched him. And —"
"And what?" I interrupted, hanging on every word Avto said.
"And it is Zaal, miss."
A sob ripped from my throat and my hand covered my mouth. I pictured Zaal in my mind. His eight-year-old face looking at me as he held me in his arms, walking us from our estate's forest toward the house. His smile was wide as he looked at me counting the three moles on his left cheek, "One, two, three." I remembered long black hair hanging down his back and his green eyes bright with life. And I remembered Anri walking beside us, his frame and hair the exact replica of Zaal's, but his eyes were a dark brown, like mine.
A hand landed on my shoulder pulling me from the memory. Avto was looking at me in concern.
"Miss, are you okay?"
"Yes," I whispered, then shook my head, "I don't know. It's just all so ... I had hoped and prayed that he had survived, that both of them had, but when nothing was heard in all of these years, I had lost that hope. It ... it is all too much to take in."
A sinking feeling hit my stomach. "Are you certain, Avto? I'm not sure I could take it if this was a mistake. My heart has been broken for over twenty years; it cannot take any more pain." Avto's gentle brown eyes softened. "We are sure, miss."
I frowned. "But is he in hiding still? Who has been protecting him all of these years? How has his identity been found out? Is he in danger?"
Avto's soft gaze turned sorrowful. My hand jerked out and wrapped around his arm. "Avto? Tell me. Where has my sykhaara been?"
Avto sucked in a long inhale and said quietly, "Miss, the Jakhua took your brothers and used them."
"Used them? How? I don't understand?" I wanted answers.
Avto tensed and said, "Miss, there are things in our world that you are unaware of. People that exist, places that exist, only in the underworld. Only in secret."
My eyebrows pulled down. "Avto, what are you trying to tell me? Where has my Zaal been? What did that man do to my brothers?"
Avto's arm muscle was rigid under my hand. Taking a deep breath, he explained, "Zoya, the Jakhuas were developing drugs."
"What kind of drugs?" I asked.
"Obedience drugs, miss. Drugs that wipe the memories of the victims, coerce them into doing horrific and despicable acts."
I swallowed, my chest tightening. "Like what?" I whispered.
Avto's shoulders slumped. "Killing. Murdering. Doing anything their Master asks of them. And I mean anything. No matter the moral implications."
Bile built in my throat, but I choked it back down. "And Jakhua." I swallowed again when my voice broke. "Jakhua used this drug on my brothers?"
Avto nodded, but his face blanched.
"What?" I probed.
"Miss," Avto rasped, "Masters Zaal and Anri were not simply put under the influence of the drug. It was on your brothers that the drug was developed."
I stared. I stilled. My hands trembled. My throat closed in, but I managed to ask, "He, Jakhua, he used my brothers to test his drug on? He experimented on them like laboratory rats?"
Hot tears streamed down my cheeks when Avto answered, "Yes, miss. Since they were twins he used them to test all the stages of the drug's development. He compared the results."
Jumping to my feet, I ran to the wastebasket and threw up.
Avto followed behind, his old hand gently pressing my back in comfort. But there was no comfort to be found at the thought of my brothers, my strong and brave beloved brothers, being injected with that, that poison, for years and years, until they had no memory —
Gasping, I wiped my mouth and turned to face Avto. "Their memories? Zaal's memories?" Fear filled me as I confronted the possibility that my brother would not know who I was. It had to be the cruelest of God's jokes, my twenty-year wait for their return, only to find one of my brothers, my only family, could be a stranger.
"We have heard that his memories are returning each day, and Zoya, we believe he remembers you, but —"
"But what?" I said almost inaudibly.
"Miss," Avto said, and stepped closer, "he believes you died in the massacre. He has no idea that you survived. He never got word that your body was never found."
My head fell forward at the thought of Zaal remembering his family after all of these years of blackness, only to believe we had all perished. "He is all alone?" I asked, imagining what he must be going through.
Avto did not say anything in response. When I lifted my head, Avto was rigid, his seventy-five-year-old body taut with tension. This time I didn't ask what was wrong. I simply waited.
"He is not alone," Avto admitted, after many strained seconds.
"He has minders that found him? People loyal to our family?"
Avto shook his head, his crepe-thin skin paling. I edged forward and placed my hand on his arm. "Avto?"
But Avto did not say anything; instead he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled put a picture. My heart kicked into a sprint as I stared at the white back of the photograph. Zaal. I knew my Zaal was in that picture.
I reached out my hand, but Avto pulled it back. I met his eyes in annoyance. Avto cleared his throat. "Zaal is not alone, Zoya. We have heard the news that he is recently engaged to be wed."
My lips parted in shock and I shook my head. "Engaged? How is that possible? I thought he had been imprisoned by Jakhua? When did he have time to find a woman? I don't understand how any of this is possible."
Avto stared down at the picture in his hand, then pushed it out for me to take. My hands shook as I reached out and grasped the picture. I brought it to my chest and closed my eyes. I'd always wondered what Zaal would look like older. Would he be as tall and strong as I always thought he would be? Would he still wear his black hair down to the middle of his back, like the Georgian warriors of old? Would he still smile with carefree abandon, yet be quiet and reserved in personality?
The picture against my chest felt like it was burning a hole through my clothes. With a deep breath, I pulled the picture back and dropped my gaze to the two figures captured in the scene.
My heart swelled in my chest as I stared at the man. The hugely built man with tanned olive skin and long black hair that fell to his back. His green eyes were bright, three moles standing proud under his left eye.
And he was smiling.
He was smiling so wide. The smile packed with an abundance of love, as my brother — my now adult and strong brother — stared down at a woman with nothing but adoration.
My eyes drifted across the picture to the woman and a lump clogged my throat. She was beautiful. Long blond hair fell down her back. She was slight of build, utterly captivating, and her deep brown eyes were looking up at Zaal, her lips smiling, too.
It felt surreal. My brother who I thought had died was very much alive. Alive and in love. My heart was full and warm.
Bringing the picture closer to my face, I could see tattoos marring Zaal's skin, and on closer inspection I could see scars littering bare arms revealed under his short-sleeved shirt. I had to close my eyes as a wave of sorrow washed over me. What must he have gone through under the hand of that evil man?
Blinking fast, I glanced to Avto. "Who is the woman?"
Avto did not reply; instead he rocked on his feet, his hands clasping together behind his back.
Shaking his head, Avto said, "I can scarcely believe it to be true, but his fiancée is ..." Avto trailed off, his jaw clenching.
"Who is she?" I demanded, injecting an urgent tone into my voice.
Without lifting his head, he revealed, "Talia Tolstaia."
I was sure the walls and floor of the apartment were falling down around me at the mention of that name. I shook my head, convinced I had misheard. "Can you repeat what you said?" I asked.
Avto shook his head. "You heard me perfectly, miss. Zaal, our new Lideri, our leader, he is betrothed to Talia Tolstaia, daughter to Ivan Tolstoi, one of the Volkov Bratva Red Kings."
My legs weakened so much that Avto reached forward and guided me to the nearest couch. Once I sat down, I studied this picture with new eyes. This woman, this blonde, was the daughter of the family that betrayed my father. The family my brothers, the Kostava Clan, were set to hate, to inflict their revenge upon.
"I don't understand, Avto. How could he do this to our family? How could he disgrace us and dishonor our Kostava name by being with this woman?"
"Miss Zoya, our source informed us that although he does not know the whys — no one can infiltrate their inner circle — the Volkov Bratva were responsible for the rescue of your brother. They found him in the clutches of Jakhua. They somehow freed him. It was under their protection that he fell in love with the Tolstaia girl."
I stared and stared at the picture, and a war broke out inside my heart. My brother was alive, yet he had fallen for our greatest enemy. I could barely wrap my head around this impossible truth.
Avto placed an arm around my shoulders offering comfort. I melted into his side, and just as I had began to relax Avto added, "Lideri Zaal killed Levan Jakhua. With the help of the Volkov knyaz, Luka Tolstoi, he killed the man that massacred your family. The Jakhuas are no longer a threat, miss. We are no longer in hiding. Our people, you, are free."
Startled by Avto's words, I straightened and absorbed them.
"Did you hear me, miss? We are no longer in hiding."
"You mean I can leave this apartment?" I whispered, not saying the words aloud, fearing they were false.
"Yes. And our people, miss. All of our people that have been in hiding — the lieutenants, the guards — every one, they are beginning to hear of the news as well. The fact that our Lideri is alive, in your brother, is traveling like wildfire among those in hiding." Avto smiled and said excitedly, "Our clan can rise again. The Kostavas can take their place here in New York — at long last!"
My eyes dropped to the picture of Zaal and his Tolstaia love, and my heart fell. "What if he does not want to be Lideri? What if everything he has gone through under Jakhua has scarred his soul too much? What if he wants a life with his woman, and not to be leading our people?"
Avto's smile faded. "He is Zaal Kostava, of the famous and noble Kostava Clan. He was born for this role."
"Yet you said he has spent his days as a killer created by an evil man." Avto's mouth hung at my words, but I shook my head. "None of us are the people we were born to be. I have been in hiding all my life. Zaal has been fighting for his life since he was eight. And Anri? Where is he? What I do know is that none of us are the same. How can we be? All we knew was taken from us and destroyed."
Avto reached for my hand and squeezed. "Our people have been hiding from Jakhua for over twenty years, some found and killed in the most horrific of ways. Our people need this; they need us to be strong again. They need Master Zaal to be our Lideri."
Silence stretched out as I replayed Avto's words over and over in my head. But he was correct. Our people had lived in fear for over two decades. Only the hope of my brothers' survival kept their days filled with optimism.
"I have to see him," I said, and felt the tension seep from Avto's body. "I have to tell my brother I am alive. I have to know where Anri is." My eyes filled with tears and I sniffed. "I need to have my family again. I need to see my sykhaara."
"I understand, miss," Avto said. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a piece of paper. He handed it to me and nodded his head. "Zaal's home address is on there, as well as the Tolstois'. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, he goes to the Tolstoi household in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. We will decide on a day and take you there, soon." Avto squeezed my hands tighter as I realized today was a Tuesday. "He will not be able to believe it. His sister, his bloodline, is still alive."
Nodding my head, I leaned into Avto and kissed his cheek. "You're a good man, Avto. Now go home and celebrate this news with your family. If all you have said is true, I am finally safe on my own. That is a blessing."
Avto looked to me as a father would to a daughter, then got to his feet. "I'll come by tomorrow evening. I'll arrange a car to take us to Brooklyn, to the apartment Zaal shares with his fiancée."
I smiled at Avto, and nodded my head as he left the apartment. I heard the door locks snap shut and I flopped back against the couch. When Avto and his family found me as a child, on the brink of death, under my deceased family's bodies, our people had rejoiced. I was alive. The Kostava Clan, who had been a royal family of sorts to the people of Georgia, had a living heir. And Anri and Zaal were missing. Not dead, but missing. A hope that was diminished was suddenly reborn.
Like the proverbial princess locked in the tower, I had been hidden and treated like a goddess my entire life. We had moved around a lot, until I feared I would go crazy from the suffocating seclusion my life had become. I was treated more like a prized jewel than a human, too precious to lose to our enemy. The last pillar of hope for the Tbilisi Kostava dynasty.
Jumping to my feet, I rushed to the heavy black curtains that were always drawn in my apartment. Pushing the curtains aside just a fraction, I stared out into the cold dark night, searching for any signs of life. People were walking past, going about their business, but other than that, I could see no danger.
Dropping the curtains, I closed my eyes. "There is no more danger," I said aloud, convincing myself that the threat to my life was no longer there.
Moving to the closet, I took out my long hooded dark coat and slipped it over my black slacks and black silk blouse. Tucking my long black hair down my back, I clutched the paper with the addresses on and headed toward the door. I needed to do this, alone. And after twenty years of waiting for this news, I could not wait one more second to see my brother.
I rarely left the apartment, yet I knew the territory like the back of my hand. Years ago, when Avto brought me to New York, he had made sure I memorized every road, every subway station. I had to be prepared, in case I had to flee alone. I was trained to sink into the shadows.
Opening the door to the Manhattan street, the snow falling down painting the darkened concrete roads in white, I pulled my hood up, and made my way down the steps of my apartment building, immediately becoming one of the people on the street. With my head down, I arrived at the subway and entered the busy station. Sitting down on a spare seat, I allowed myself to pull out the photo and stare at the happy couple.
The long journey to Brighton Beach was much quicker than I imagined it would be. My focus was on the brother I'd thought I'd lost forever, mixed with the heady anticipation that within the hour I would meet him again.
The train pulled to a stop, and I hurried out of the station. I had never been to Brighton Beach before, and when I stepped out onto the street I gasped at my surroundings. I felt like I was in another world. The gray buildings were empty and falling apart. The streets were dark and dingy. Cold wind whistled through the boarded-up houses and half-standing restaurants and shops. It was nothing when compared to the opulence and beauty of Manhattan.
Ignoring the icy chill racing down my spine, I forced my feet to move, the soles of my black boots crunching on the snow beneath. I stayed in the dark of the unlit streets, becoming one with the night, until I arrived at a row of brownstones. The center house stood proudly in this place of dilapidation. Its upkeep clearly showing the owners had money.
My heart raced.
The House of Tolstoi.
The windows were high and wide, and anyone could see that the people residing in this house were a cut above the rest. Then my heart stilled when shadows moved past the window. I squinted my eyes, focusing through the petals of falling snow. There was a tall man, with a broad chest, holding on to a woman with long brown hair. I held my breath when a blond woman moved into center stage. Her hands were on her hips as she joked and laughed with the brunette.
I searched for lost breath as I stared at my brother's fiancée; then I ceased to breathe at all when two large arms threaded around her shoulders from behind. The arms were olive skinned and tattooed, and I knew I was staring at Zaal.
Excerpted from Ravage by Tillie Cole. Copyright © 2016 Tillie Cole. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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