1. The Preparation

32 Day of Spring, 1288


One

Nathaniel Cadmus was proud of himself. He didn't flinch when his father threw the envelope down on the library desk. He didn't touch the envelope. He didn't even look at it. Nathaniel calmly closed the book he was reading and looked up at his father.

Robert Cadmus was seething. He towered over the desk, his blue eyes flashing with rage. For a second, Nathaniel thought his father might strike him, but Robert kept his clenched fists pinned to his sides.

Nathaniel's fingertips itched with the desire to tear open the envelope that rested innocently on top of the desk. Nathaniel knew what was inside that envelope and, as much as he wanted to see the acceptance letter with his own eyes, there was no chance of it now—not since his father had discovered the college application.

They stared at one another; the unspoken words 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 connected by a spiral staircase. Three massive, bay windows stretched from floor to ceiling on each level of the library, which looked over the south wall of the North District and offered a view of the glass skyscrapers in downtown Shion.

Most of the shelves hosted books that were over a thousand years old, with peeling spines and yellowed pages, written by the first members of the Cadmus. Nathaniel rarely read the older books, afraid that if he were to touch them, the books would disintegrate in his hands. Nathaniel preferred to read the newer books, more specifically, the fiction books—something his family disapproved of greatly. Reading fiction did nothing to prepare Nathaniel to inherit the position of Head of the Cadmus.

From the moment thirteen years ago, when 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 learn 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.

Nathaniel leaned back in the swivel chair and met his father's gaze. He refused to be the one to look away first.

"What is this?" asked Robert, violently prodding the envelope with his index finger.

"I don't know. You're the one with the envelope. 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 College of Arts and Sciences. You applied to their science department?"

Robert waited for his son to reply, but Nathaniel kept his mouth clamped shut.

"I didn't know you applied to the College of Shion," said Robert. "I thought we'd agreed that you didn't need to go to college. You have access to all the education that you could possibly need right here in the Cadmus Mansion."

Nathaniel kept his gaze fixed on his father's face.

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 and the occasional Nameless who have been rejected from the police force and political offices. You are neither a Nameless nor one of the People. You have a Name. You belong to the Cadmus House. You are greater than all the college graduates in the city of 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 eyes grow brighter as the speech went on. He waited nervously for Robert to finish talking and then he said, "I applied for the geology department, Father. But that doesn't mean I want a job in geology, I just want to take the classes. I'm good at science, ask any of my tutors, and I think that taking classes with the People and the Nameless is a good experience—especially if I'm to become the Head of the Cadmus one day."

"The Head doesn't like the idea of you being educated amongst the People," said Robert. "That's why none of the Cadmus chimera attend public schools."

"Maybe that should change." Nathaniel 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—you've been telling me that since I was twelve."

"I don't think you do know!" Robert slammed his hand down on top of the envelope.

Nathaniel leapt to his feet. A row of books flew from one of the shelves on Nathaniel's left. The books rained down on the floor.

Father and son turned to stare at the heap of fallen books, the pages spread and the spines cracked open.

"You should control that," said Robert.

"It happens." Nathaniel lowered himself back into his seat. His hands were shaking.

"It shouldn't. 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. Even you lose control of your abilities from time to time as well."

"But I'm not a candidate to be the next Head." Robert's voice was strained. His own mother had declared him unfit to become the next Head of the Cadmus and passed over Robert and his brother to offer the position to her grandsons.

Nathaniel's eyes flickered down to the envelope sitting on the desk. He took a deep, calming breath and then looked back up at his father. "I'm sorry. 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." 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—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. He debated pulling the envelope out, just to read the word "accepted" on the page. It took all of Nathaniel's willpower to get up from his seat, walk across the room to the pile of fallen books, and start putting them back on the shelf. He was proud of himself, 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 against 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.

Margaret Cadmus was a beautiful woman who had almost reached the age of fifty. Her long, blond hair hosted streaks of gray, but rather than make her seem old, they gave an attractive shimmer to her hair. She had faint wrinkles across on her face and her eyes possessed a tired shadow to them; however, what made her beautiful was not youth, but pride. She was a grand woman, and by design, everything from her posture to her tight, green dress added to this grand appearance.

"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's 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." Nathaniel bent over and picked up a thick book with a worn, gray cover.

A faint smile curled at Margaret's lips. "A soul is like a bucket of water with a tap running into it."

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 chimera, however, the tap flows more strongly and the excess water that spills over the edges of the bucket can be used."

Margaret nodded. "Used in what way?"

"Talents. Some chimeras can make objects move. Some chimeras can heighten their senses. Some chimeras can affect the minds of others. Some chimeras can shape their excess souls into objects. And some chimeras can make the world burn."

Nathaniel slid the book back into place on the shelf, sparing a glance for his mother.

She smiled; the gesture was more menacing than pleasant. "You learned your lessons well."

"Every chimera knows that. It's our first lesson." He paused and added, "It's a stupid metaphor, though. A thousand years and that's the best metaphor they could come up with?"

"It serves its purpose."

Nathaniel placed the last book back on the library shelf. Then, he turned to face his mother, wary of her every move.

Margaret took a step forward and another and another until she was standing opposite her son. His shoulders stiffened as she surveyed him, up and down. Finally, Margaret said, "Allison Tveit's Tasking Ceremony is tomorrow."

"I know."

"Do you think she will be given a high Tasking Number?"

Nathaniel considered his response carefully. "She hasn't shown any signs of a talent since she was six-years-old."

"The strongest often show signs late in life."

"The Head has high hopes for Allison, but I don't know if Allison can appease the Head."

Margaret's painted lips pulled back into a smile. "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 had thrown all the books from the shelf only a few minutes earlier.

"Yeah," said Nathaniel. "Let's hope."


Two

Allison Tveit dug her heels into the mulch and felt the swing beneath her slow to a halt. She stared down at her bare feet, the dirt marks on her pale skin barely visible in the dim light. Her yellow sandals lay discarded next to the metal poles of the swing set. Allison took a deep breath. She pushed off the ground and clutched the metal chains as the swing swayed backwards and forwards. She was careful not to let her feet touch the ground, however, the swing still came to a stop and Allison repeated the process.

Next to her, Thom was soaring ever higher. His legs moved 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, never coming back down. Her heart fluttered at the thought and then a cold fear grasped her stomach. She shook her head and smiled at her ridiculous daydreams. She released the chains, which she had not realized she had been holding so tightly, and inspected the light indent that the metal had left in the palms of her hands. The crisscrossed marks disappeared after a little while. She 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 colder 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 the swing set outside her boyfriend's apartment.

Allison could imagine the scene already. It'd be some time in the middle of the night with the full moon high in the sky. The park was illuminated by a dull-orange streetlight 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, one of the Cadmus chimera would come. He would come silently and quickly, with a disapproving scowl on his face. Allison wouldn't even know he were there until he stepped under the streetlight and she recognized his blond hair and blue eyes. He would call out to Allison, tell her it was time to return, that the Head demanded it. Thom would call the chimera an interfering prick and try to ignore him, but Allison—with her head bowed—would slide off the swing and follow the chimera back to the Cadmus Mansion without question. She owed them too much.

"Allison. Hey, Allison!"

Allison blinked as Thom's sharp voice brought her back to reality. He was standing in front of her, a grin on his boyish, freckled face.

"Hey, you," said Allison, allowing herself a small smile. "Are we leaving?"

"Do you want to leave?"

Allison shook her head. Then, she stopped and rested her right temple against the cool 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. I say screw the Head."

Allison traces the metal chain with her right thumb. "You don't understand."

"What don't I understand?"

"You just don't."

"Understand what?"

Allison shook her head. "Never mind."

Thom shifted the mulch around, drawing circles with the toe of his scruffy running shoe. He glanced up at Allison. "Don't you like to swing?"

Allison bowed her head so he couldn't see her cheeks turning red. "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. "I don't know how to swing."

"What?" cried Thom with exaggerated shock. "You don't know how to swing? You've been alive for twenty-three years and you don't know how to swing? What kind of life have you lived?" Thom paused. "I guess the chimera 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," murmured Allison.

"You are."

Allison shrugged, an awkward, lopsided movement. "We won't know for sure until the Tasking Ceremony tomorrow."

"Ah, yes." Thom folded his arms across his chest. "The all-important Tasking Ceremony. Where you receive a number that determines how strong your talent is—correct?" He grinned, proud that he knew even that much about his girlfriend's life as a chimera.

Allison nodded. Her Tasking Ceremony would take place on the 33 Day of Spring, exactly thirty-three days after her twenty-third birthday. Chimeras liked the number three: three parts to the Original Chimera (a goat, a lion, and a serpent), three powerful Houses that inherited the Chimera's gifts (the Aegon, the Leandre, and the Cadmus), the highest possible score in the Tasking Ceremony was a 3.00, and a person was not considered an adult until the age of twenty-three. Allison's world evolved around the number three.

"You'll do fine." Thom reached out and closed his hand over hers. Allison let go of the chain and let her fingers intertwine with his. Thom beamed at her and said, "You'll 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?"

"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 and had intensified 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 in the Cadmus Mansion since her father died in a house fire when, she was six-years-old. Head Louisa had raised Allison like one of her own Named grandchildren. Anything Allison could ever want had been given and more besides—her own bedroom and bathroom, an extensive education, an extensive allowance, and a status equal to that of a full-blooded Cadmus chimera. However, Allison had lived with the Cadmus long enough to know that nothing was given without a price. The Head had taken Allison into the Cadmus Mansion because Allison was supposed to be a strong chimera who could benefit the House. If Allison received a low Tasking Number or none at all, the Cadmus would have no use for her.

Allison pulled her light jacket closer around her shoulders. Even though they had entered the Spring Season, the chill of winter had not wholly disappeared. A biting breeze brushed over Allison's exposed skin and she wished she had not worn such a light dress.

"You cold?" asked Thom.

"I'm fine."

Thom watched her curiously for a moment, his hazel eyes clouded with thought. Then, he stepped forward and placed one hand on either side of the swing, gripping the chains. Their faces were almost touching. A burning blush crept along Allison's cheeks, but she could not look away as Thom pushed the swing back and 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."

Allison giggled as she clutched the chains.

"Extend your legs," said Thom as he moved the swing forward. "Lean back."

"I'm going to fall!" Allison laughed. "Don't let me f—"All traces of a smile drained from her face. "Thom, stop."

"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 cast eerie lines on his face.

Allison recognized George Walder-Cadmus instantly. He'd come to pick her up from her dates with Thom before. Each time George had worn the same disapproving expression—a chimera shouldn't be dating one of the People.

Allison hopped off the swing and started towards George, pausing only to pick up her discarded sandals.

George was born into the talentless Walder family, but after showing incredible abilities at the age of nine, George was taken in by the Cadmus. The Head paid for George, and other strong Nameless chimera, to be taught how to fight, act, and serve. When George was old enough, he passed through the Tasking Chamber and received the high score of 2.23—meaning that the Cadmus House still had use for him. In order to tie George to the House, he was married to Catherine Cadmus.

When Allison looked at George Walder-Cadmus, she saw her future. If she received a high enough Tasking Number, she would marry into the family and become Allison Tveit-Cadmus. She would serve them for the rest of her life.

"Your curfew's passed," said George, flatly, as Allison slipped her sandals onto her feet. "The Head's concerned."

"My mistake," said Allison. "It will not happen again."

She glanced over her shoulder as she fastened the buckle of her left sandal. Thom still stood beside the swing set, a deep frown fixed on his face. He was glowering at George, though George did not seem the least bit disturbed—George had seen and been through worse things in his time than the irritation of Thom Anderson.

"We have to go," said George.

Thom's gaze flickered to Allison. She swallowed when she saw the pleading expression on his face as he silently begged her not to go. She could still feel the warmth of his fingers intertwined with hers. She managed a small smile and a wave for Thom before she followed George across the park to the car that waited for them.


Three

Raoul Leandre watched through the glass as Head Marcel pulled the trigger of the gun repeatedly, creating bullet holes in the distant paper image of a human male. Through the sound-deafening walls, Raoul could still hear the faint crack of the handgun. Beneath the dark-red, electronic earmuffs, Marcel had an intense expression on his pale, thin face. The slight build and soft features made Marcel seem more likely to spend his spare time reading than practicing his aim with a gun. However, as the young Head of the Leandre House, Marcel was well trained in the use of firearms.

When Marcel finished a round of bullets, he pressed a button on the wall, causing the target to move closer on an electronic wire. From his place behind the glass, Raoul could tell that, while all of the bullets had hit the target, none of them had struck the bull's-eye.

Marcel sighed and pulled the sheet down from the wire. He tossed it in the trashcan as he headed for the weight lifting room from which Raoul watched.

"You're improving," said Raoul as soon as Marcel opened the door.

"Did you see my aim?" asked Marcel. "It was atrocious."

"But you're improving. That's the important part. No one becomes an expert gunman overnight. Do you think I mastered swordsmanship in a month? No. It was years and years of grueling practice. I'd go months without any progress—sometimes I'd even move backwards. So you see, even the slightest improvement on your part is a huge step forward."

Marcel unzipped his duffle bag, which rested on a wooden bench below the window. "I don't need a pep talk—but thanks."

"I protect both your body and your mind," said Raoul. "You won't find a finer bodyguard anywhere in Shion."

Marcel and Raoul spent every other night at the Leandre gym going through a series of workouts. Even after years of this routine, Marcel still treated the gym as a stranger and was always nervous around the weapons. Raoul, on the other hand, had practically lived in the gym for the past seventeen years. The white walls, the heavy equipment, the small practice rooms with blue mats covering the floors—they were all too familiar.

As Marcel wiped his face down with a towel, he asked, "Did you get a good workout?"

"The swords are well worked," said Raoul, pointing to the black case that rested on the bench next to his knee.

The case was long and thin, holding a set of dual swords. Raoul had trained with guns and knives, but swords would always be his favorite. His collection of weapons contained six swords: two for practice, two for work, and two for spare. Raoul needed nothing else. When he was ten-years-old, Raoul had realized that his chimera talent was, to put it nicely, pathetic. Ever since that revelation, Raoul poured his strength into learning physical combat. He may not be able to compete with other chimera on a talent level, but he would be damned if he allowed them to beat him. When Raoul's Tasking Ceremony had come along, he had scored a measly 0.28—barely a chimera by some standards. But three years later, when Raoul achieved the position as the Head of the Leandre's bodyguard, no one questioned his ability to fight.

Raoul glanced at Marcel, who was putting his handgun away in its case.

They were related somehow. Second or third or maybe even fourth cousins. 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. They grew up together, reached adulthood together, lived together—no one knew the Head and the Lady of the Leandre better than Raoul.

"What's up?" asked Raoul.

"Huh?" Marcel glanced over at Raoul, a crease forming between his eyebrows.

"What's bothering you?"

Marcel hesitated. He glanced around the gym, and after making sure no one was within hearing distance, he said, "Allison Tveit's Tasking Ceremony is tomorrow."

Raoul plucked his water bottle from the bench and took a sip. "Allison Tveit?"

"Yeah. You remember her? The girl who burned down a hospital wing when she was born and her house when she was six."

"Oh yeah. The Cadmus girl with the unseen flames. What about her?"

"Tomorrow's her Tasking Ceremony."

"Oh."

Marcel smiled wearily. "If Allison Tveit scores anywhere near Sabine's level, we're in trouble. Readjustment Season is almost here. We've always banked on Sabine possessing the Warrior's Seat, but what'll happen to us if Allison Tveit can contend with Sabine?"

Raoul frowned. "Don't you have a meeting about this tomorrow with the Council?"

"Yeah, but I want to run everything by you."

"I'm at your service," said Raoul with a mock bow.

Marcel sat down on the bench beside his blue duffle bag. "The General's Seat has not changed in six years. The past two Readjustment Seasons have gone by with Hendrik Aegon winning the election by a landslide. The police respect him and so do the People. He's doing a good job and we don't have a candidate to replace him."

Raoul nodded. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to say anything or not.

"Next," said Marcel. "The Master of Coin's Seat. Shion has seen a rise in profits since Karsten Geog of the Aegon gained control of the Seat three years ago. He's cunning and effective, and the People love him—his wife is of the People. Neither the Leandre or the Cadmus have a candidate who can compete with Karsten Geog."

Raoul watched Aimee Leandre run on a treadmill, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, which bobbed up and down in rhythm with her strides and her mouth moved soundlessly to the music that streamed through her pink headphones.

"The Judge's Seat is filled by Phillip Cadmus." Marcel continued talking, completely unaware that Raoul's attention was wandering. "I hate to say it, but Phillip Cadmus is a legitimately just man. He does everything he can to make sure that the guilty are punished and the innocents go free. He's competent and moral. We wouldn't be able to take the Judge's Seat from him if we tried."

"And you don't want to take the Seat from him," said Raoul.

Marcel shrugged. "He's a good man. Shion needs more men like him sitting in the government."

Lois Leandre was reading a book while running on the elliptical machine. He kept glancing in the direction of Marcel and Raoul, eyes sparked with curiosity. Raoul scowled at Lois when they met gazes and Lois quickly looked away.

"The King's Seat is occupied by Toran Dechamp who is backed by the Cadmus," said Marcel. "But the People don't particularly like him."

"So we have an opportunity to steal the King's Seat?" asked Raoul, tearing his eyes away from Lois.

Marcel shook his head. "No. 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. Isan Mortien is known for his charity work; the People love him. We don't possess a candidate that can rival either Dechamp or Mortien." Marcel hesitated. "Do you know what happened the last time the Leandre House failed to win one of the Five Seats?"

"Enlighten me."

"The Leandre House almost disappeared. We lost half our income. The General and the Warrior Seats were both possessed by the Cadmus. Since Leandre House had no political power, the Cadmus had control over the payment of our officers in the police force. With limited income to add to the treasury, the Leandre nearly went 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.

Marcel nodded.

"No one alive can compete with Sabine except maybe Allison Tveit, right?"

"Definitely."

"Then why don't we just stop Allison Tveit from competing?" Raoul rose from the bench and glanced down at the pale face of the Head. "Sabine will shoot you with your own gun if she ever finds out you doubted her ability to keep the Warrior's Seat."

"I know." Marcel sighed and picked up his own duffle bag. "I need a shower."

"I'll say," said Raoul. "How come I look a million times better than you after a workout?"

Marcel snorted. "Only you find yourself appealing after a workout. Sabine always complains when you come back from the gym and insist on hugging her before you get a shower."

Raoul grinned. "That's why I do it."


Four

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. In a way, the nightlife looked beautiful, but beneath the busy colors and pulsing music, 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, drug-addicts, 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 didn't deliver the drugs, 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. That nagging feeling wasn't 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 swollen breasts was smiling at him. She wasn't pretty, but the thick make-up and clinging dress made men 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 pass through the gates into the South District. Knute took a right turn and found himself passing through the gap between two six-story apartment buildings. The faulty pipelines dripped water 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 walked a little faster.

Back alleyways might not be the safest place in the city, 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 special—that's what his father called it. From a young age, Knute could make objects move with his mind. He need only will it and a car would slide forward to make a larger parking spot.

Private tutors were brought in to teach the House chimera how to use their abilities. Knute had no tutors. His talent varied from sometimes useful to somewhat uncontrollable. When he had fights with his sisters, 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. Money was tight, and 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, stone 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 had been given to the People some fifty years ago by the Aegon House as a sign of good faith. The Aegon still insisted on paying for the upkeep even though 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 didn't 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.

"Stop!"

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 man stood at the entrance to the garden, gasping and panting as he clutched the metal gate. He looked like a frog—that was the best way to describe him. His gray-streaked, black hair was mattered with sweat, his eyes were wide and bulging, and his neck was swollen out of proportion.

There was something wrong with him. Something very wrong.

Knute scanned the garden until his gaze landed on a graffiti-covered bench. If necessary, Knute could use it as a weapon.

"You. Chimera." The man took a step toward Knute and then stopped. He released a spluttering cough before hunching forward and vomiting on the grass.

Knute's heart was thundering in his chest. "Are you alright?"

"No." Grunting with the effort, the man managed to stand upright. "I'm dying."

"What? Ah. Hospital. Ambulance. I'll call for an ambulance." Knute fumbled in the side pocket of his backpack, searching for his cellphone.

The man groaned and clutched his stomach. Knute took a step closer, wondering if he should try and support the man, but the man growled at Knute. "I've been poisoned. I've been fucking poisoned."

"What?"

"They named themselves." The man took a staggering step forward. "They named themselves." Then he crumpled to the ground and started retching blood onto the grass.

Knute's stomach rolled over in revulsion. "What? What are you talking about? Should I call an ambulance?" He pulled his cellphone out of his backpack.

"The Houses."

Those two words alone were enough to stop Knute from calling the hospital. Cellphone clutched in his hand, Knute lifted his head and stared at the crumpled figure before him. Blood dribbled from the corner of the man's mouth. He released a hacking cough, spraying blood onto the ground. 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.

"Tell the Houses."

The man knelt at Knute's feet, bent over until his forehead touched the ground. Blood dripped from the man's mouth and pooled onto the ground. His hands and head twitched madly for a minute before he shit himself and the smell of urine filled Knute's nose. Then, the man fell still and died.

Knute couldn't move. What should he do?

A spring breeze swept through the garden.

Knute open and closed his trembling fists, hoping to calm his muscles, but soon his whole body was shivering. Chills ran up and down his spine, spreading across his skin until Knute was convinced that the Houses were going to find him and kill him. It was over. It was all over. Not even his talent could protect him from the Houses.

Perhaps what he did next was not the right thing to do, but in his petrified state, it was the only thing he was capable of doing.

Knute turned and fled, leaving the dead man kneeling face down in the dirt.


Five

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 stared at the steaming mug with the same intense expression that he always wore after a fight with his father. He didn't even notice as Allison crossed the kitchen and turned on the self-heating kettle. The click of the switch yanked Nathaniel from his thought. He looked over his shoulder, placing one hand on the edge of the stool to provide balance, and finally caught sight of Allison.

"You were out past curfew again," he said.

"You got into a fight again," she said.

Nathaniel turned back to his hot chocolate. "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.

"I assume so. I never actually got to see the letter."

"I take it Robert wasn't happy." Allison chose a packet of hot chocolate and then put the box away. She opened the packet and poured it into an empty mug. "Why do you want to go to college so badly? The Cadmus can provide any education you desire."

"It's not about the education," said Nathaniel. "It's about the experience. I want to know the People outside of what the Cadmus has taught me."

The kettle clicked as the water reached boiling. Allison 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?"

"Cupboard on your left," said Nathaniel. "Maybe I'm just dreaming. Maybe college is terrible and I'll hate every moment of it—but I'd like the right to decide that for myself. I don't want to not go just because my grandmother told me not to."

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. After putting the bag away, she slid into the seat on the opposite side of the table. She let out a long breath as 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.

"So do you."

"I know. I know that very well." Allison bit her bottom lip. "The Tasking Ceremony is tomorrow. 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 for sure."

"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." The sharp edge of pain flashed through her blue eyes, but other than that she betrayed no emotion towards the two events that had resulted in the deaths of both her parents. Practice had perfected her acting abilities. "I didn't do that. I didn't burn down my house and kill my father. That wasn't me. I know the Head thinks it was, but it wasn't me."

Nathaniel frowned. "Witnesses saw. It was a chimera's unseen fire."

"It was not me."

The two of them stared at one another. Finally, Nathaniel took a sip of his hot chocolate and said, "Sabine Leandre has held the position of the strongest for far too long."

"I can't score higher than a 2.82," said Allison. "That's a ridiculous number. Sabine Leandre is a ridiculous woman. I'll be happy if I score higher than a 2.00, then the Head will keep me,"

"You'll score higher," 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 gritted her teeth. "If the Head believes I am a suitable wife for you, then I will accept the engagement."

"You're a Nameless," said Nathaniel. "The Nameless aren't supposed to have loyalty."

"I have loyalty."

"I know you do." Nathaniel smiled at her before taking another sip of his hot chocolate. "But the Head won't believe that until she sees it. She'll want to tied to the Cadmus permenantly through marriage. And you know if you score above a 2.50 in the Tasking Ceremony, she'll 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.

Allison ran her figners through her white-blonde hair. "I have a boyfriend."

"Then I hope you score low in the Tasking Ceremony."

"But then the Head will throw me out."

"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 steaming hot chocolate to her lips. The liquid burned her mouth, but she swallowed it anyway. "I don't have much of a choice."

"There is no choice," said Nathaniel. "Break up with the boyfriend already."

"I won't," said Allison stubbornly. "He's my happiness."

"You'll have to if you remain in the Cadmus."

"I know." Allison took another sip of the scalding 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 you buy it?"

"The store was out and I needed a hot chocolate fix."

"I always need a hot chocolate fix," said Allison. "Even if it is not as good as Southern Mountain."

Nathaniel 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. It' almost midnight."

"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 wooden frame. "You really should break up with him."

Allison smiled grimly. "I know."


I wrote this story last year. I got to chapter 29 out of 31 and then, for some reason, stopped writing. Now that it's summer and I have a ton of free time (no one wants to hire me...), so I'm going back and editing this story - which means I should update pretty quickly on this story.

This is my first time writing such a complicated novel with so many main characters (it ends up having like ten main characters and numerous side characters), so I have plenty of areas I need to improve in. If you ever get confused with which characters are which, tell me and I will publish a character list on my profile.

Please, please, please review.