1. The Preparation
Allison dug her heels into the mulch and felt the swing beneath her slow to a halt. She stared down at her bare feet, the marks of dirt around her soles barely visible in the dim light. She glanced at her yellow sandals, discarded next to the metal poles of the swing set. She took a deep breath. Allison pushed off the ground again and the swing moved backwards. Allison clutched the metal chains. She swung backwards and forwards for a minute, careful not to let her feet touch the ground. The swing slowed to a stop again and Allison repeated the process.
Next to her, Thom was soaring ever higher. His legs moved backwards and forward in rhythm with the swing, never ceasing the perfect pattern.
He seemed so at ease in the air. For second, Allison wondered if he would just fly off the swing and never come back down. Her heart fluttered at the thought and a cold fear grasped her stomach. Then, she shook her head and smiled at the thought. He wasn't a chimera. He wasn't going anywhere.
She relaxed her grip on the chains. She had not realized that she had been holding on so tightly.
Allison sat still and inspected the light indent that the chains had left in the palm of her right hand. The crossing marks disappeared after a little while. She then watched Thom for another minute, wondering when he was going to remember her existence. It didn't seem like any time soon.
The night was getting older and Allison wondered how close she was to breaking curfew. The Cadmus kept a tight watch. They wouldn't be happy to find her playing on a swing set outside her boyfriend's apartment. Allison could imagine the scene already. It'd be some time in the middle of the night; the silver, full moon high in the sky. The park was illuminated by a single dull, orange street lamp that shone over the rusted swing set, the metal slide, and the jungle gym. Allison and Thom would be enjoying their date, laughing and talking without a care for the time. And then the Cadmus would come. They would come silently and quickly, with disapproving scowls on their faces. Allison wouldn't even know the chimeras were there until they stepped forward under the streetlight, their blond hair shining brightly in the dark. They would call out to Allison. Tell her it was time to return. The Head demanded it. Thom would call them interfering pricks and try to ignore them, but Allison—with her head bowed—would slide off the swing and follow the Cadmus without question. She owed them too much.
"Allison. Hey, Allison!"
Allison blinked, Thom's sharp voice bringing her back to reality. He was standing in front of her, a grin on his tan face.
"Hey, you," said Allison, allowing herself a small smile. "Are we leaving?"
"Do you want to leave?" asked Thom.
Allison shook her head from side to side. Then, she stopped and rested her head against the chain of the swing, her white-blond hair brushing against her cheek. "I should leave."
"Blah. You just can't wait to leave me and get back to that mansion of yours." Thom laughed. "My apartment just isn't big enough for you, is that it? I'm sorry that my washroom is only as big as your bathtub."
"It's not even," murmured Allison.
"What's that?" Thom cocked his head to the side to hear her better.
"I said—your washroom isn't even as big as my bathtub."
Thom rolled his eyes. "I'm sorry. We can try to flood my washroom and use it as a tub. Will that work for you?"
Allison's smile widened. "I'd rather stay here all night with your tiny washroom than go back to that gigantic bathtub."
"Then why don't you?"
"The Head would not be happy."
"The Head is never happy," said Thom. "I say screw the Head."
"You don't understand," said Allison.
"What don't I understand?"
"You just don't."
Allison shook her head. "Never mind."
Thom kick the ground with the scruffy toe of his tennis shoe. He didn't look at Allison for a minute, his attention focused on the pieces mulch shifting beneath his foot. He stopped. "Don't you like to swing?"
Allison felt her face turning red. She bowed her head so that her long hair covered her cheeks. "What?"
"You weren't swinging," said Thom. "I was having fun."
"I know," said Allison quickly. "You love to swing. It's great! You look like a bird when you're swinging. You look so happy."
"But you don't."
Allison bit her lip. Slowly, she lifted her head to meet Thom's gaze. "I don't know how to swing."
"What?" cried Thom, with mock horror. "You don't know how to swing? You've been alive for twenty-three years and you don't know how to swing? Man, what kind of life have you lived?" Thom paused. "I guess chimeras really do live differently. What do you do when you're bored in that huge mansion of yours?"
"We don't know if I'm a chimera yet," said Allison.
"You are," said Thom. "And you'll find out for sure tomorrow."
Allison shrugged—an awkward, lopsided movement. "Tomorrow. At the Tasking Ceremony."
"Ah, yes." Thom stepped back and folded his arms across his chest. "The all-important Tasking Ceremony. Where you receive a number that judges how strong your talent—correct?" His eyes grew lighter, proud that he knew even that much about his girlfriend's life.
Allison nodded. Her Tasking Ceremony would take place on the 32 Day of Spring. Thirty-three days after her twenty-third birthday. Chimeras liked the number three. There were three heads to the original Chimera (a goat, a lion, and a serpent) and there were three powerful Houses that inherited the Chimera's gifts (the Aegon, the Leandre, and the Cadmus). The highest possible score on the Tasking Ceremony was a 3.00 and a person was not considered an adult until age twenty-three. Allison's world evolved around the number three.
"You'll do fine," said Thom. He reached out and closed his hand over hers. Allison let go of the chain and let her fingers wrap around his hand. Thom beamed at her. "You always do great. You're one of the smartest girls I know."
"It's not about smarts," said Allison. "It's about ability. Either you're born with it or you're not."
"What happens if you go through the ceremony and you're not born with it?" asked Thom.
"I don't know," said Allison softly. "If I am not a chimera, perhaps the Head has no more use for me."
The words created a sharp pain in Allison's chest, an ache that had been brewing there for a very long time. The throbbing beat of her heart had grown more painful as the date of her Tasking Ceremony grew closer. The possibility of uselessness frightened Allison more than she was willing to admit. She had lived with the Cadmus House since she was six-years-old. Her father had died in a house fire and the Head of the Cadmus, Louisa, had kindly extended a hand to Allison. She gave Allison a home in the Cadmus Mansion and raised Allison like one of her own Named children. Head Louisa had given Allison everything Allison could ask for and more besides—but even with all the love that the Head had shown, Allison knew the truth. Allison had lived with the Cadmus long enough to know that the Head gave nothing away for free. The Head expected Allison to have a high Tasking Number. The Head expected Allison to be a powerful chimera who could benefit the House. And if Allison did not provide the expected results, perhaps her home in the Cadmus would be lost.
Allison wrapped her arms around her shoulders, even though it was spring, the chill wind of winter had not wholly disappeared from the evening air. She felt an icy shudder run over her body. She glanced up at Thom and saw his hazel eyes blurred with thought.
"Here." Thom placed one hand on either side of the swing, gripping the chains. His face was suddenly very close to Allison's. She felt another burning blush creeping along her cheeks. Thom didn't seem to notice as he pushed the swing back and then brought it forward.
"It's all in the shifting of your body," he said. "When you swing forward, you stretch out your legs in front of you. When you swing backwards, you curl up legs beneath you." He pushed the swing back again and Allison giggled.
"Stretch your legs out," said Thom. "Lean back."
"I'm going to fall!" Allison laughed. "Don't let me f—" She stopped. Her blue eyes grew very wide and she almost fell off the swing.
"What is it?" Thom released the swing and turned to see what had captured her attention.
A man with a neat brown beard and gray eyes stood beneath the lamppost; the dim, orange light gave him an eerie appearance.
Allison recognized George Walder-Cadmus instantly. He had come to pick her up from her dates with Thom before. And each time George had worn the same disapproving, icy expression.
Allison hopped off the swing and started towards him, pausing only to pick up her discarded sandals.
"Good evening, George," said Allison.
Allison did not know much about George Walder-Cadmus. He mainly followed the Head's grandson, Michael Cadmus around with unwavering loyalty. George had been taken into the Cadmus at a young age, similar to the way Allison had been. Strong chimeras who were not born into one of the Houses (Nameless, they were called) were often invited into the homes of the Houses. These Nameless are raised by the Houses, taught how to fight, act, and serve. And then, when the Nameless are old enough and have received a high score in the Tasking Ceremony, they are married to one of the Cadmus. George Walder had married Michael's cousin, Joanne Cadmus a couple years ago.
Allison swallowed. When she looked at George Walder-Cadmus, she saw her future. If she received a high enough Tasking Number, Allison would marry one of the Cadmus men and she would have to change her name to Allison Tveit-Cadmus. (The Nameless could never possess the full Cadmus name. Their surnames must be hyphenated, so that no one confuses them for a full-blooded Named. However, their children would possess the Cadmus surname.)
"Your curfew has passed," said George, flatly, as Allison slipped on her shoes. "The Head was concerned."
"My mistake," said Allison. "It will not happen again."
George glanced over the top of her head at Thom. Allison turned around as she fastened the buckle on her sandal. A deep frown was fixed on Thom's face. He kept glowering at George, though George did not seem the least bit disturbed by Thom's threatening gaze.
"We must go," said George.
Allison glanced at Thom. His eyes were pleading with her, begging her not to go. She could still recall the warmth of his hand intertwined with hers. She managed a small smile and a wave for Thom before she followed George across the park and back to the car that waited for her.
Nathaniel was proud of himself. He did not flinch when his father threw the envelope down on the desk. He did not touch the envelope. He did not even look at it. Nathaniel calmly closed the book her was reading and look up at the red face of his father.
Robert Cadmus was seething. Robert was a hulking man that towered over others—and, as a result, he was rather intimidating when angry. His blue eyes were sharp with a burning rage and his muscular body was taut with emotion.
Nathaniel's tried to prevent his heart from racing. His blood was pounding in his ears and it took all Nathaniel's effort to keep a calm, unconcerned mask plastered on his face. The inside of Nathaniel's chest itched with the desire to tear open the envelope that rested so innocently on the desktop. Nathaniel knew what was in that envelope and, as much as he wanted to see the acceptance with his own eyes, he knew that there was no chance of it now. Not since his father had discovered it.
Nathaniel stared at Robert and Robert stared at Nathaniel. The silence between the father and son filled the empty library.
The Cadmus library was three stories high; its walls lined with books and the different floors connects by a staircase the spiraled from the bottom to the top. There were three bay windows that stretched from floor to ceiling on each level of the library. Nathaniel sat behind the huge, claw-footed desk beneath the window of the second floor.
Most of the books in the library were over a thousand years old, written by the first members of the Cadmus. The spines were peeling and the pages were yellowing. Nathaniel barely touched the older books, afraid that if he were to so much as brush against them, the books would disintegrate in his hands. Nathaniel preferred to read the newer books, more specifically, the fiction books. Not that his father approved of such a past time. Reading fiction did little to prepare Nathaniel for the position of Head of the Cadmus.
From the moment that Louisa Cadmus declared that the title of Head would pass to one of her two grandsons, Robert had done everything in his power to ensure that Nathaniel was the perfect candidate. From forcing Nathaniel to train in all forms of martial arts to hours of training to perfect Nathaniel's chimera abilities, from hiring personal tutors to make sure that Nathaniel had the best education to denying Nathaniel leave from the Head's side to attend college, Robert spent every fiber of his being trying to maneuver Nathaniel to the position of Head.
It was Robert's stubborn determination that caused the silence between father and son to stretch through the library shelves, but it was also Robert's stubborn determination that caused him to open his mouth and break the unending silence.
"What is this?" asked Robert, violently prodding the envelope as if it were diseased.
"I don't know," said Nathaniel. "I haven't seen the contents. I can open it if you'd like and tell you what it says inside."
Robert's eyes narrowed. "Don't be ridiculous. You know what this is. It's a letter from Shion's College of Arts and Sciences. You applied to their engineering department?"
Robert waited for his son to reply, but Nathaniel stared at his father in stony silence.
"I didn't know you applied to the College of Shion," said Robert stiffly. "I thought we'd agreed that you did not need to go to college. You have all the access to education that you need here in the Cadmus Mansion. Is there some reason you feel obliged to attend Shion College?"
Nathaniel could not tear his eyes from his father's face. Robert was no longer beet-red, but more of a light shade of pink. Trying to calm himself, Robert took a deep breath and fixed the collar of his gray, button-up shirt.
"Shion College is for the People," said Robert. "And the occasional Nameless who feels that they can contribute to society in ways other than serving in the police force or politics like normal chimeras. You are neither a Nameless nor one of the People. You have a Name. You belong to the House of the Cadmus. You are greater than all the engineers in Shion. You were born for a greater purpose. You are here to protect and guide the People, not to serve them."
Nathaniel watched his father's blue eyes grow bright as the speech went on. He waited patiently for his father to finish talking.
"I don't want a job in engineering," said Nathaniel. "I just want to take the classes. I am good at math and science, and I think that a little education amongst the People might be good if I am to become the Head of the Cadmus."
"Mother doesn't like the idea of you being educated amongst the People," said Robert. "That's why none of the Cadmus's chimeras have attended public schools."
"Maybe that should change," said Nathaniel. He turned the book he was holding over and over in his hands nervously.
"Maybe it should," said Robert. "But that will only happen when you are Head. Do you think Mother is going to change that tradition? Do you think Michael will change that tradition? No. It's up to you—and only you."
"I know that," said Nathaniel. "Believe me, I know. You've been telling me that since I was twelve."
"I don't think you do know that!" Robert slammed his hand down on top of the envelope.
Nathaniel leapt to his feet. A row of books flew from one of the bookshelves to Nathaniel's left. The book rained down on the floor.
Father and son turned to stare at the heap of fallen books, their pages spread and their spines cracked open.
"You should control that," said Robert.
"It happens," said Nathaniel, lowering himself back into his seat.
"It shouldn't," said Robert. "I've never heard of Michael losing control like that."
"You've never heard," said Nathaniel, through gritted teeth. "That doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. You lose control of your abilities from time to time as well."
"But I am not a candidate to be the next Head," said Robert.
Nathaniel's eyes flickered down to the envelope sitting on the desk. It was only for a brief moment, then Nathaniel looked at the little red-cover book clutched in his hands. He took a deep, calming breath and then looked back up at his father.
"I'm sorry," said Nathaniel. "It won't happen again. The accident or my application to college."
"Good," said Robert. "And you should pick up those books before someone sees and reports to Mother."
"I'll make sure," said Nathaniel. The words came out more a sigh than a statement.
Robert snatched the envelope off the table and strode out the room. He opened the doors at the far end of the second floor of the library—the doors with the pair of snakes entwining at the top of the arch—and, pausing long enough to toss the envelope and its contents in the trashcan, slammed the doors closed behind him. Nathaniel stared at the trashcan long after his father had gone. Nathaniel debated pulling the envelope out of the trashcan, just to read the word "accepted" on the page. It took all of his will power to get up from his seat, walk across the room to the fallen books, and start putting them back on the shelf. He was proud of himself for that. It was quite the accomplishment. His eyes strayed to the trashcan only once.
"Maybe you weren't accepted."
The sound of the simpering voice caused Nathaniel to jump a little, but when he turned around he saw his mother leaning again a bookcase on the far side of the room. She had slipped in through the side door, the one that connected to her brother, Phillip's private study. There was no way to determine how long she had been watching.
Margaret Cadmus was beautiful for a woman in her fifties. Her long blond hair hosted streaks of gray, but rather than make her seem old, they gave a shimmer to her hair. She had faint wrinkles etched on her face and her eyes possessed a tired shadow to them. What made her beautiful was not youth, but pride. She was a grand woman and she moved in a grand way. She wore a long dark, green dress that clung to her thin, bony figure. Even when she was spending a day in the Mansion, Margaret made certain she looked her best.
"Hello, Mother," said Nathaniel, bowing his head slightly in greeting.
"Maybe you weren't accepted," repeated Margaret.
"I applied with the Cadmus name," said Nathaniel. "There was no way they could not accept me."
A faint smile flickered across Margaret's face. "Clever boy." She traced the line of a bookshelf with her fingers. "But how clever are you?"
"Very clever," said Nathaniel. He bent over and picked up a thick book with a worn, gray cover.
"A soul is like a bucket of water with a tap running into it," said Margaret.
Nathaniel glanced down at the book in his hand. He did not have to open the book to know the next line. "In the People, the tap drips into the bucket. Water slowly spills over the edge and disappears without use. In the chimeras, however, the tap flows more strongly and the excess water that spills over the edges of the bucket can be used."
Margaret smiled. "Use in what way?"
"Talents," said Nathaniel. "Some chimeras can make objects move. Some chimeras can heighten their senses. Some chimeras can affect the mind of others. Some chimeras can shape their excess souls into objects. And some chimeras can make the world burn."
"You learned your lessons well," said Margaret.
"Every chimera knows that," said Nathaniel. "It's our first lesson."
Nathaniel placed the last book back on the library shelf. Then, he turned to face his mother, his blue eyes wary of her every move.
Margaret took a step forward and another and another until she was standing opposite her son. Margaret surveyed him, up and down, before speaking. "Allison Tveit's Tasking Ceremony is tomorrow. It will be thirty-three days after her twenty-third birthday."
"I know," said Nathaniel.
"Do you think she will be given a high Tasking Number?" asked Margaret.
Nathaniel considered his response carefully. "She had not shown any signs of chimera abilities since she was six-years-old."
"The strongest often show signs of talent late in life," said Margaret. "It is an unexplained rule."
"The Head has high hopes for Allison and I don't know if Allison can appease the Head."
"Let's hope then, for Allison's sake, that she has talent."
Nathaniel glanced at the bookshelf. The spines were neatly aligned in coded order. Not a single page was out of place. No one would know that his talent that thrown all the books from the shelf only a few minutes earlier.
"Yes," said Nathaniel. "Let's hope."
Raoul Leandre released his sword and watched it skid across the blue mat. His eyes flickered back to the front and he found himself face-to-face with the sharp end of Marcel's blade. An easy grin slid onto Raoul's face and he lifted his hands into the air.
"I surrender," said Raoul. "I surrender, your Headliness. You have defeated me."
Marcel lowered his sword and sighed. He glanced at Raoul's weapon, which lay on the padded mats a good distance behind Raoul. Marcel shook his head. "You let me win."
"I would never, your Headliness," cried Raoul, feigning shock. "You fought well. You've been improving and I was simply no match for your skills with a sword."
Marcel snorted. "The day I defeat you in sword fighting is the day I will no longer require your services as a bodyguard."
"Let's hope that day never comes," said Raoul. "Though when it does, I can always provide other services." He winked.
Marcel's face turned pink and the Head of the Leandre quickly busied himself with wiping the sweat off his face with a white towel.
Laughing at his own joke, Raoul crossed the mat and picked up his sword by the handle with a quick, light grace that came from years of practice. Marcel treated the Leandre gym as a stranger and was always nervous around the swords—even the blunted blades of practice swords. Raoul, on the other hand, had practically lived in the gym. The three white walls and the one wall made of glass from which spectators could watch, the bright blue mats and the wooden benches of the practice rooms—they were all too familiar.
"You look troubled today, your Headliness," said Raoul, glancing sidelong at the Head.
"How many times have I told you not to call me that?" asked Marcel.
"I shall never cease," said Raoul. "I have far too much fun calling you that."
"Of course you do," said Marcel.
He took a swig of water and then unzipped his duffle bag. He slid the sword back into its case and placed it in the black case—yet another of the weapons in which the Head was well-practiced. Guns, knives, and spears were all beyond Raoul. His collection of weapons contained six swords. Two for practice. Two for work. Two for spare. Raoul needed nothing else. When he was nine-years-old, Raoul had realized that his chimera talent was, to put it nicely, pathetic. Ever since that realization, Raoul poured his strength into learning the sword. He may not be able to compete with other chimeras on a talent level, but he would be damned if he allowed them to be beat him in battle. When Raoul's Tasking Ceremony had come along, he had scored a measly 0.28—barely a chimera by some standards. But by the time Raoul achieved the position as the Head of the Leandre's bodyguard, no one questioned his ability to fight.
Raoul glanced at Marcel. They were related somehow. Second or third or maybe even fourth cousins. They had been raised together. As Named chimeras with no more than three years in age difference, Raoul, Marcel, and Sabine had taken lessons together in the stuffy classrooms of the Leandre Mansion. No one knew the Head and his wife better than Raoul.
"Allison Tveit's Tasking Ceremony is tomorrow," said Marcel.
Raoul gave his right-hand sword a test swing. He had trained his weaker hand to be just as strong as his left. "Allison Tveit?"
"Yes," said Marcel. "You remember her. When she was born, she burned a hospital room, killing her mother, her sister, a doctor, and two nurses. Then, seventeen years ago, she burned her house to the ground, killing her father."
"Burned it?" asked Raoul. He picked up his other sword in his left hand and tested its weight, finding the perfect grip. "Like matches burned it?"
"Chimera burned it," said Marcel. "The neighbors describes it as unseen flames. The wooden blackened and burned to the ground and the father could be heard screaming, but the neighbors couldn't see the red fire, but they could feel it and they could see its affects."
"Definitely a chimera," said Raoul. He swung both swords and listened to them whistle through the air. "Beautiful."
"She's been raised by the Cadmus," said Marcel.
"Oh." Raoul's arms dropped to his sides and the swords hung limp in his fingers tips. "And if she scores high?"
"If she scores anywhere near Sabine's level, we're in trouble," said Marcel. "The Aegon have the General's Seat and the Master of Coin's Seat and the Cadmus has the King's Seat and the Judge's Seat. Sabine possesses the Warrior's Seat for the Leandre at the moment, but Readjustment Season is upon us. We have always banked on Sabine possessing the Warrior's seat, but what if Allison Tveit can contend with Sabine?"
Raoul frowned. "Can we win any of the other Seats?"
"The General's Seat has not changed in nearly ten years," said Marcel. "Hendrik Aegon is ironclad."
"Shion has seen a rise in profits since Karsten Geog of Aegon became Master of Coin," said Raoul. He paused and scowled. "Karsten always was a sly piece of shit."
"The People will support Karsten Geog," said Marcel. "Even if you don't like him, the People do. We have no hope of ousting him any more than we have of ousting General Hendrik. The Judge's Seat is filled by Phillip Cadmus—who is, I hate to say it, a legitimately just man."
Raoul almost laughed. "You actually don't want to compete with Phillip for the Judge's Seat."
"He's competent and moral," said Marcel. "You don't usually see that combination together. Especially from the Houses."
"Phillip Cadmus is popular with the People too," said Raoul. "You wouldn't be able to take the Judge's Seat from him if you tried."
"The King's Seat is occupied by Toran Dechamp backed by the Cadmus," said Marcel.
"The People don't particularly like him him," said Raoul gleefully. "He might be our only place to steal the Seat. And it's the most powerful Seat."
Marcel shook his head. "While the People don't particularly like Dechamp, he's not incompetent. Besides, even if he does lose his Seat, the Aegon have the perfect candidate."
Raoul let out a low groan. "Don't tell me it's Isan Morettian. If I have to hear one more word about Saint Isan, I will be taking heads." Raoul swung his left sword threateningly.
"It is," said Marcel. "Do you know what happened the last time Leandre House failed to win one of the Five Seats?"
"Do I want to know?" asked Raoul.
"Leandre House almost disappeared," said Marcel. "We lost half our income. The General and the Warrior Seats were both possessed by the Cadmus and since Leandre House had no political power, the Cadmus had control over our payment in the police force. They nearly drove us bankrupt. Thankfully, we survived the three years, and by the time the next Readjustment came around Leandre House was able to take the Warrior's and the Master of Coin's Seats."
"Are we facing that again then?" asked Raoul.
"Why are you discussing this with me and not your advisors?" asked Raoul. He moved to the bench pushed against the wall of the practice room. He carefully sheathed his swords, first his left sword and then his right.
"I'm preparing," said Marcel. "I'm having this conversation with them tomorrow morning."
"No one alive can compete with Sabine except for maybe this Allison Tveit, right?" asked Raoul, wiping some sweat from his face with a towel.
"Definitely," said Marcel.
"Then why don't we just stop Allison Tveit from competing?" asked Raoul. He laughed as he picked up his swords and headed for the exit. "Sabine will skewer you on your sword if she ever finds out you doubted her ability to keep the Warrior's Seat."
"I know," said Marcel. He sighed and picked up his own duffle bag. "I need a shower."
"I'll say," said Raoul, sniffing. "How come sweat isn't nearly as appealing on you as it is on me?"
"Only you find yourself appealing after a workout," said Marcel. "Sabine complains when you come from the gym to work without showering."
Raoul let out a deep, booming laugh. The two men headed for the showers, letting the glass doors of the practice room swing shut behind them.
The streets were lit by neon signs advertising night activities—bars, strip clubs, 24-hour pharmacies, coffee shops, fast food. The world was a blur of bright colors, creating a canvas of glowing paints. In a way, the nightlife looked beautiful, but beneath the busy colors and pulsing music, the people wandered from place to place dulled in mind and energy. Even in the early hours of the morning, the streets hummed with the voices of drunkards, prostitutes, and criminals.
Knute Vidar shifted the backpack strap on his shoulder. He could feel the plastic case filled with cash shifting in the bag. It wasn't a lot of cash, but it was good pay for a dishonest day's work.
Knute didn't like the work he did, but it paid too well to ignore. Besides, if Knute did not deliver the drugs for the dealers, someone else would. Knute was simply taking advantage of his opportunities. The people who wanted drugs, it was their choice. Knute couldn't do anything to stop them. It was their choice.
No matter how many times Knute tried, he couldn't get rid of the nagging, itching feeling in the depths of his stomach. Using his thumbs, Knute lifted the backpack straps off his shoulders. The nagging feeling was not enough to stop him from working though.
"You look a little down, Honey. You need a pick-me-up?"
Knute's eyes flickered to the right where a woman with rounded hips and a puffed up chest smiled at him. She wasn't pretty, but the thick make-up and clinging dress made Knute think otherwise. He shook his head and walked past her as quickly as possible.
Whenever prostitutes approached him, Knute couldn't shake the image of Gull standing on a street corner in a short red dress out of his mind. He couldn't be attracted to prostitutes when, underneath the thick make-up, he saw each prostitute with the face of his sister.
It was a relief to get off the main street of the red light district. Knute took a right turn and found himself plodding along the gap between two six-story apartment buildings. The faulty drains dripped into the gutter at a steady pace. The ground was damp from lack of sunlight and weeds were growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. Knute wrinkled his nose at the faint odor of mold and decay, and walked a little faster.
Back alleyways might not be the safest place in the world, but Knute was confident in his ability to overcome any mugger. Being a chimera gave him the advantage in a fight with one of the People.
Knute had been born talented. That's what his father, Konrad Vidar called it. From a young age Knute could make large objects move with his mind. He need only will it and a car would slid forward to make a larger parking spot for his father.
Private tutors were brought in to teach the children of the Houses how to use their chimera abilities. Knute had no tutors. His talent varied from sometimes useful to somewhat uncontrollable. When he had fights with his family, Knute would send chairs flying across the room. There was no way to afford a tutor for Knute. His parents were of the People and had both grown up in the slums of Shion. Money was not something they had to spare. Knute had to learn to deal with his talent on his own.
He reached the end of the alleyway and took a sharp left through another backstreet to the Hornless Goat's Garden—called so because in the center of the small, city garden there stood the huge bronze statue of a goat, whose horns had been sawed off by some drunk college students. Knute took the shortcut through the garden every day on his way home. The garden was given to the People by the Aegon House as a sign of good faith. The Aegon paid to have the flowers kept fresh and the grass kept green—even when the People allowed their children to trample the flowerbeds and encouraged their dogs to shit in the grass.
Knute slid through the opening in the metal fence. He did not follow the dirt path that circled around the garden, but walked straight through the flowerbeds, making sure to step on as many tulips and roses as possible.
Knute paused just before his right foot landed on some wilting petunias. He turned to see who had called out to him—who cared so much for the Aegon flowers.
A huge, hulking man stood at the gate, gasping and panting. He looked like a frog. That was the best way to describe him. His gray-streaked black hair was mattered with sweat and his eyes were bulging out of his head, like he was straining to see Knute and the effort was driving his eyes out of their sockets. His cheeks were bright red and his neck was thick and swollen.
"What do you want?" asked Knute. He glanced sidelong at the graffiti-covered bench that rested in the garden. If necessary, Knute could use it as a weapon.
"You." The man took a step toward Knute and then stopped. His eyes grew wide and, after a moment, the man bent down, placed his hands on his knees, and threw up on the grass.
"Are you alright?" asked Knute.
"No," snapped the man, forcing himself to stand upright. "I'm dying."
A choking couch escape Knute's lips. Finally, he said, "I can get you to a hospital."
"I've been poisoned," said the man. "I've been bloody poisoned."
"They have names," said the man, staggering forward. "They have names." Then he crumpled to the ground and started retching blood onto the grass. "They named themselves."
Knute stared at the man. His stomach rolled over in revulsion. "What? What are you talking about?"
"The Houses, Boy." The man choked on his words. Blood dripped from his mouth. In the dim light of the silver moon, Knute could see that the veins in the man's forehead had turned black and like a spider web, they crisscrossed beneath his skin.
"You are?" Knute didn't know what to say.
"Tell the Houses."
The man knelt at Knute's feet, bent over until his forehead touched the ground. His hands and head twitched madly for a minute and his bowels released what was inside. Blood dripped from the man's mouth and pooled onto the ground. Then, the man fell still and died.
Knute didn't know what to do.
He stood, rooted to the spot, in the middle of the garden. His hands were trembling. Knute open and closed his fists, hoping to calm his muscles, but soon his whole body was shivering. Chills ran up and down his spine, spreading across his skin and filling Knute with an overwhelming sense of terror.
Perhaps what he did next was not the right thing to do, but in his petrified state, it was the only thing he could do. Knute turned and fled, leaving the dead man kneeling face-down in the dirt.
Allison found Nathaniel where she always found Nathaniel, sitting in the kitchen with a cup of hot chocolate wrapped in his long, thin fingers. Nathaniel was staring at the steaming mug with the same intense expression that he always wore after a fight with his father. When Allison entered the small kitchen, Nathaniel showed no signs of noticing her presence. Allison crossed the kitchen and turned on the self-heating tea kettle. The click of the switch caused Nathaniel to lift his head. He turned and looked over his shoulder, placing one hand on the edge of the stool to provide balance.
"You were out past curfew again," said Nathaniel.
"You got into a fight again," said Allison.
Nathaniel turned back to his hot chocolate and sighed. "Father found my acceptance letter from Shion College of Arts and Sciences."
"You were accepted?" Allison opened the cupboard door above the kettle and pulled out a box of hot chocolate mix.
Nathaniel shrugged. "I assume so. I never actually got to see the letter."
"Mister Robert was not happy," said Allison. She chose one packet of hot chocolate and put the box away. She opened the packet and poured it into an empty mug.
"What do you think?" asked Nathaniel.
"Why do you want to go to college so badly?" asked Allison. "The Cadmus can provide any education you desire."
"The People," said Nathaniel. "I want to know the People outside of what the Cadmus has taught me."
"The grass is always greener on the other side," said Allison.
The kettle clicked as the water reached boiling. She poured the steaming water into the mug and watched the water mix with the grainy chocolate until it formed a smooth dark brown drink. "Do we have marshmallows?" she asked.
"On your left," said Nathaniel. "Maybe I am just dreaming. Maybe college is terrible. But I'd like the right to decide that for myself."
Allison opened the cupboard to her left and found a bag of mini marshmallows. She opened the bag and tossed a few marshmallows in her drink. She put the bag away and then slid into the seat on the opposite side of the table to Nathaniel. She curled her fingers around the cup and let the warmth spread through her fingertips; Nathaniel smiled and had a sip of his own hot chocolate.
"You have a duty to the Cadmus," said Allison. "A duty to your Name."
"So do you," said Nathaniel.
"I know, I know," said Allison. "The Tasking Ceremony is in twelve hours. If I fail, the Head's investment in me will have gone to waste."
"I'm not talking about that," said Nathaniel. "I know you're going to score ridiculously high in the Tasking Ceremony."
"You don't know that," said Allison.
"I do," said Nathaniel. "You burned down two buildings when you were young. A hospital when you were born and—"
"My house when I was six," said Allison. The sharp edge of pain flashed through her blue eyes, but other than that she betrayed no sorrow at the two events that had killed her parents. Practice had perfected her acting abilities. "I didn't do that. I did not burn down my house and kill my father. That was not me. I know the Head thinks it was, but it was not me."
"It was a chimera's fire," said Nathaniel.
"It was not me."
The two of them stared at one another. Silence stretched through the kitchen, moving at an exhausted pace. An easy breath and then Nathaniel said, "Sabine Leandre has held the position of the strongest for far too long."
"I cannot score higher than a 2.82," said Allison. "That's a ridiculous number. Sabine Leandre is a ridiculous woman. Perhaps if I score higher than a 2.00, the Head will keep me,"
"You will," said Nathaniel. "And when you do, you must fulfill your duty to the Cadmus."
Allison's grip on the mug tightened. "You know I will always fulfill my duty to the Cadmus."
"Even if it is an engagement to the heir of the Cadmus?"
Allison sighed. "The Head doesn't believe I will serve the Cadmus without being tied to you."
"You're a Nameless," said Nathaniel. "The Nameless have no loyalty."
"I have loyalty," said Allison.
"I know you do." Nathaniel smiled at her before taking another sip of his hot chocolate. "But the Head will not believe that until she sees it. If you score above a 2.50 in the Tasking Ceremony, she will have you compete for the Warrior's Seat."
Allison paled at the thought. "But I don't want the Warrior's Seat."
"You must fulfill your duty to the Cadmus," said Nathaniel in a dull voice. It was a tune he had sung many times over. They both had.
"I have a boyfriend," said Allison.
"Then I hope you score low in the Tasking Ceremony."
"But then the Head will throw me out onto the street."
"Then I hope you score high in the Tasking Ceremony."
Allison closed her eyes. She took a deep breath. Then, she opened her eyes and lifted the streaming hot chocolate to her lips. The liquid burned her mouth, but she swallowed it anyway. "I don' have much of a choice."
"Break up with the boyfriend already," said Nathaniel.
"I won't," said Allison stubbornly. "He's my happiness."
"You will have to," said Nathaniel.
"You're an idiot," said Allison. She took another sip of her hot chocolate. "I don't like this brand."
"I don't mind it," said Nathaniel. "Southern Mountain is better though."
"Southern Mountain is the best," said Allison. "Why didn't we buy it again?"
"The store was out and I needed hot chocolate," said Nathaniel.
"I always need hot chocolate," said Allison. "Even if it is not as good as Southern Mountain."
Nathaniel didn't respond. He lifted his mug to his mouth and gulped down the last dregs of hot chocolate. He got to his feet and placed the mug in the sink for the kitchen servants to clean in the morning.
"I'm going to bed," said Nathaniel. "You should to. You need your rest before the Tasking Ceremony."
"When I finish," said Allison, lifting her mug into the air for Nathaniel to see.
Nathaniel headed for the exit, but he paused in the doorway, his hand resting on the doorknob. "You really should break up with him."
Allison smiled. "I know."