11. The Selection
42 Day of Spring, 1288
The Readjustment Season took place once every three years. The rules were simple—every citizen of Shion could vote for one candidate for Seat and every candidate must belong to one of the Houses. The candidates with the most votes would possess their respective Seats for the next three years. The only exception to this was the Warrior's Seat, which was determined through a single-elimination, sixteen-person, public competition. People would pay a lot of money to watch strong chimera fight—which meant the Shion treasury was a little bit fatter at the end of the day. Each House was allowed to enter five candidates and the sixteenth candidate was chosen by the People's popular vote. Of course, the People's candidate was only a straw man. The Warrior's Seat had always been possessed by a House chimera.
The last time Dietrich had been forced to attend the Aegon meeting on Selection Day, he'd been bored out of his mind. Three years ago, it had been fairly obvious that Sabine Leandre—with her monstrous 2.82—would possess the Seat. While Sabine Leandre might not be the most tactical fighter, there had been no one who could compete with her when it came to sheer power. The only chimera who had a fighting chance was Peter Oswalk. In short, three years ago, the Aegon didn't have a hope in the world of winning the Warrior's Seat.
Actually, Dietrich thought, the Aegon still didn't have a hope of winning. The reason he was so interested in the debate this year was Dani Tveit. The Cadmus would undoubtedly want Allison to represent them; the only question was, "Would Dani want represent them?"
Dietrich sat in the Stateroom surrounded by about two-hundred black-haired chimera, a handful of brown-haired Nameless, and of course, his red-haired siblings. Since midnight when the debate began, most of the chimera came and went from Stateroom as they wished. Only the red-haired siblings had remained in the circular auditorium the entire time, and they stayed only because their mother required it of them.
Dietrich sat four rows from the front, slouching in his seat and running his fingers through his already rumpled hair. Clare and Roden, who sat on either side of him, were not better off. Roden had circles under his eyes and Clare was running on coffee alone. Cord and Magda were sitting a few rows back, trying to nap while their mother wasn't looking. Only Elena had been pardoned from attending and that was because she had morning sickness. For the first time in his life, Dietrich was envious of a pregnant woman.
"Can they just announce Adam's name already?" asked Clare. "He competes in every competition."
Roden yawned. "He doesn't win though."
"He just enjoys a good fight." Clare drummed her finger on the arm of her seat and smiled wistfully, no doubt remembering her combat lessons with Adam.
Dietrich had to admit that if anyone in the Aegon had a chance of defeating Sabine Leandre it was Adam.
Roden sighed. "We all know Allison Tveit will possess the Warrior's Seat. Can they just pick the five sacrificial goats and get it over with already?"
"She might not compete," said Clare. "The Cadmus hasn't announced their candidates yet. And you know there was that incident where she ran away from the Cadmus."
"Head Louisa will never let the 3.33 chimera not compete." Roden glanced down at the center of the Stateroom and Dietrich followed his gaze. There was a debate going on between the four figures at the table. Dietrich watched his father's icy glare bore into Gereon, while Emilie smirked in triumph and Markus shook his head.
"Mother must've won an argument over Uncle," said Clare.
Dietrich sighed. "She does love winning."
"Careful," said Roden, grinning. "Every time you sigh, you lose three seconds of your life."
"Where did you hear that?" asked Dietrich.
"I'll never tell." A mischievous grin worked its way onto Roden's face.
"At the sports bar just down the road," said Clare. "Probably from the pretty waitress—what's her name? Lara?"
Roden's eyes narrowed. "How do you know that? You're too young to drink at a bar."
Clare smiled and turned her attention back to the front table. "Do you think they'll make a decision soon?"
"They took thirteen hours last time," said Dietrich.
"How hard can it be?" asked Roden. "You pick the five strongest chimeras and be done with it."
Dietrich rolled his eyes. "By that logic, Mother and I would be competing for the Warrior's Seat."
That was impossible, of course. While Dietrich and Emilie had two of the highest Tasking Numbers in the Aegon, their talents weren't suitable for combat. Dietrich's skills with a gun were slightly above average, and Emilie, who had a talent for healing, stayed as far away from weapons as possible.
Dietrich pulled his cellphone out of his jeans pocket and checked the time. Soon, Knute would be meeting with the sect of Those Who Name Themselves to which he'd been assigned. Knute had gotten a message from Caarina yesterday around noon, telling him to meet her outside Kinnunen's Conservatory at eight-thirty in the morning. At first, Knute had been thrilled to continue his infiltration, but as the reality sunk in, Knute had begun to panic so Dietrich had spent most of the afternoon playing the role of the encouraging friend. It wasn't a role he enjoyed.
"I'm predicting it now," said Roden. "Adam, Mikkel, Paul, Ytsen, and Thelma."
Dietrich shoved his phone back into his pocket. "Thelma won't make it past the first round. She's only a 2.50 chimera and she has poor tactical skills. Stefan is a weaker chimera, but he knows how to defeat more powerful opponents. I'd pick Stefan."
"Stefan doesn't have a chance against opponents like Sabine Leandre, Peter Oswalk, and Allison Tveit," said Roden.
"None of the Aegon really has a chance against them," said Dietrich. "Most of our chimera are better suited for espial and subterfuge."
"I could compete."
Clare spoke suddenly, causing both Roden and Dietrich to turn in their chairs to stare at their younger sister.
"Don't be stupid," said Roden. "You haven't even had your Tasking Ceremony yet."
Clare leaned over Dietrich to make sure that Roden saw her scowl. "I'm stronger than you. Adam and I were talking about it yesterday. I can fight with him on an even level, and my aim with a gun is far better than yours or Dietrich's."
Roden groaned. "Adam's been putting ideas in your head again."
Dietrich shook his head and feigned outrage. "I always knew he was a bad influence."
Grinning, Clare prodded Dietrich on the arm. "Adam wouldn't suggest I compete unless he was certain I was up to scratch."
Dietrich glanced at his sister. She had a spark of excitement in her green eyes; Adam's suggestion had really stuck with her. Clare was only twenty-one, but there was no rule that said the candidates had to be legal adults—fifty years ago, the Warrior's Seat had been won by a nineteen-year-old girl from the Cadmus. And Clare was a strong chimera, possibly stronger than both Adam and Dietrich.
Roden must have seen the decision in Dietrich's eyes, because he groaned and said, "Don't encourage her."
"If you want to compete," said Dietrich, ignoring Roden's comment. "You'd better go present yourself as a possible candidate. Give them something more to debate—because this hasn't gone on long enough."
A wide smile spread across Clare's face and she gave Dietrich a quick hug before getting to her feet.
Roden's eyes narrowed. "Don't even think about it."
"Wish me luck." Clare patted Roden on head and then headed down the aisle towards the table at center of the Stateroom. Emilie noticed Clare first and smiled as her daughter approached, but as Clare made known her request, Emilie's smile vanished. Soon, the four figures at the table were in a heated debate. From what Dietrich could tell, his father had no problem with Clare competing, while Gereon and Emilie were dead-set against it and Markus was undecided.
"So she's actually going to do it," said a smug voice.
Dietrich glanced at the aisle to his left and saw Adam, hands in the pockets of his jeans, grinning down the steps at Clare who was arguing vehemently with her mother. Adam was Dietrich's first cousin once removed, though everyone in the family just referred to him as "a cousin". According to Dietrich's sisters, Adam Aegon was boyishly handsome—as in, he was one of the most heinous players in Shion, but all it took was look at his innocent face and a woman would ignore every rumors she'd been told about him and jump his bones.
"Look who decided to show up this year," said Dietrich dryly. Thanks his eyes, Dietrich knew all about Adam's romantic conquests—including his relations with married women like Odila Aegon. That combined with the fact that Dietrich hadn't slept in over twenty-four hours meant Dietrich really wasn't in the mood to talk to Adam. Unfortunately, Adam wasn't going anywhere.
"Did you mother force you to attend again?"
"We've been here since midnight," said Dietrich.
Adam's eyebrows shot up. "You've been here for all eight hours?"
"And counting," said Roden. "Mother says that if she has to suffer through the debate, we do too."
"The record for the longest Selection Day debate in the Aegon is twenty-three hours," said Dietrich. "And they only stopped because they'd reached the deadline. I think they rolled dice to decide the last candidate."
"Do the other Houses have this much trouble?" asked Roden, sinking deeper into his seat.
"The Cadmus' candidates are decided pretty much solely by the Head," said Adam. "I don't know how long it takes the Leandre Council to decide. The reason we take so long is that we allow every member of the Aegon to have their say."
"What a pain," groaned Roden. "Why do we have to save the debate for today?"
"Tradition," said Adam. "Several hundred years ago, some old coot decided it'd be more interesting to decide everything in a day."
Roden snorted. "Stupid old coot."
"Adam, you actually bothered to show up this time."
Dietrich glanced over his shoulder and saw the salt-and-pepper hair, hazel eyes, and stocky figure of Karsten Geog, the possessor of the Master of Coin's Seat. Adam punched on the shoulder, Karsten returned the gesture, and then the two of them laughed.
"I just came to see if Clare would present herself as a potential candidate," said Adam, gesturing down to the center table where Clare was now trying to persuade Gereon. "How'd you manage to get away from work?"
"Cassandra practically kicked me out for the morning," said Karsten. "She said I should at least pretend to be surprised when you're announced as a candidate."
"Oh." Adam grinned. "I've been practicing my shocked expression in the mirror for the past few days. How am I doing?" Adam froze his face with his eyes wide and his mouth gaping open.
Karsten snorted. "Don't ever do that again."
"How'd it go?" asked Adam as Clare came back up the aisle steps. "Good news?"
"That's not promising," said Roden. "They could just be 'considering' to humor you."
"Father wouldn't do that," said Clare. "If he's considering, then he's serious about letting me compete."
"You'll wipe the floor with the Leandre and the Cadmus," said Adam smugly.
Clare had been about to respond, but she was cut off by an announcement from the center table, telling everyone to settle in their seats.
"Well," said Karsten. "That was a fast consideration."
"Already?" asked Roden. "It's only been eight hours. This must be a record for the quickest decision the Aegon's ever made."
In the clamor to get to seats, Dietrich ended up with Roden to his left and Adam to his right, a situation that irked Dietrich to no end. At least Adam was quiet when Head Theodore began his speech on the importance of the Warrior's Seat and the selection process. The Stateroom became very still as over two-hundred chimera listened attentively.
"A member of the Aegon has not possessed the Warrior's Seat in over thirty years," said Head Theodore. "The Aegon's representatives have been chosen based on their Tasking Numbers, their skill, their experience, their dedication, and their loyalty. The first candidate selected is Adam Aegon."
The Stateroom was filled with tepid applause and Adam grinned smugly, not even bothering to use the surprised face he'd supposedly been practicing.
Dietrich listened halfheartedly as the Head listed off Adam's credentials. "Age thirty-six, Tasking Number 2.74, ability to create waves of unseen force, worked as an police officer in the Third District for six years and a police officer in the South District for seven years."
"I do love surprises," said Adam, cheerfully.
Dietrich snorted. "We're all shocked."
Adam reached out a hand to ruffle Dietrich's hair, but the look Dietrich gave Adam stopped him.
"You're terrifying, did you know that?" Adam leaned back in his seat. "A few words, a couple of subtle threats, and you could have half the Aegon trying to murder me."
Dietrich didn't bother to deny the obvious truth in Adam's words. Instead, he said, "You're lucky I'm very good at keeping secrets."
Adam grinned. "I know. You need anything, Dee, don't hesitate to ask."
Dietrich didn't respond, instead turning his attention back to his father. Even after eight exhausting hours of debate, Theodore still presented himself as the cold, flawless Head of the Aegon. His white shirt was tucked neatly into his slacks, his red tie hung perfectly straight, and not a single black hair was out of place. Dietrich almost over looked the purple shadows that had started to appear under Theodore's eyes.
"The second candidate selected," even the Head's voice was cold and flawless, "is Mikkel Nyland-Aegon."
Dietrich glanced across the Stateroom where a thin man with mousy hair and bright blue eyes was laughing with relief as the people next to him murmured their congratulations.
"Age thirty-three, Tasking Number 2.66, ability to influence movement, worked as a police officer in the Redwater District for ten years."
"No surprise," said Roden.
Adam scrunched his nose. "He looks as if he'd piss himself if he ever came face to face with Peter Oswalk."
"He lost to Peter Oswalk in the last Warrior's Seat Competition," said Karsten.
"I know," said Adam. "And he pissed himself with blood."
"Nice image there," said Clare, grinning.
Head Theodore plowed through the list as if to get it over with as soon as possible. "The third candidate selected is Paul Aegon. Age twenty-six, Tasking Number 2.64, ability to create light, worked as a police detective in the Third District for three years."
Paul Aegon sat two rows in front of Dietrich. His wife, Adele, wrapped an arm around his shoulders in congratulations.
Adam snorted. "He's a sissy. He only got picked because he has a 2.64 Tasking Number. I bet you he doesn't even know how to fire a gun."
The Head's voice cut through the murmurs of conversation. "The fourth candidate is Thelma Jahr-Aegon. Age thirty-six, 2.50 Tasking Number, ability to create unseen lightning, worked as a police officer in the Third District for three years and an Aegon bodyguard for ten years."
Dietrich shot Adam a warning glare. "If you say another word, I'll tell Ytsen you're sleeping with his wife."
Adam grinned and held a finger to his lips. It didn't matter, because Roden then said, "Thelma's useless. She just throws all her excess soul at whoever's standing in front of her and hopes she'll win."
Dietrich groaned. "Is it over yet?"
"Last one," said Roden.
Adam remained silent.
Head Theodore surveyed the Stateroom, his sharp eyes taking in everything. Dietrich could practically see the gears turning his father's mind as he evaluated all two-hundred chimera present. It was only when all side conversations had ceased and all attention was fixed on him that Head Theodore spoke, "The fifth candidate selected is Clare Aegon. Age twenty, Tasking Number not yet measured, ability to create illusions."
Dietrich glanced over at his sister. Grinning, she leaned over Karsten to give Adam a celebratory high-five.
Dietrich scanned the Stateroom and saw expressions of shock and outrage on the faces of some of the chimera. It didn't take a genius to figure out what they were thinking. Not only hadn't Clare entered the Tasking Chamber yet but she was also the daughter of a half-foreigner. Someone with laqui blood couldn't represent the Aegon.
Dietrich smirked at their outraged faces. They could protest as much as they liked. It was Selection Day. All decisions made were final.
Knute stuffed his hands in his pockets and tried not to look suspicious as the foreigner surveyed him quietly. The foreigner's brown face and oily hair set Knute on edge. Even if the man spoke with an accent from the South District and was dressed in a simple gray suit that could be bought from a clothing store in Shion, his face was that of a ciosaolean—and Knute could never fully trust a ciosaolean.
They were standing in the garage of the foreigner's house. The garage was empty except for a wooden table with about ten white, plastic chairs around it. Most of the chairs were filled. Other than Letta, who sat at the end of the table with a laptop open, Knute didn't recognize any of them. The group had been talking in low murmurs until Caarina had stepped in through side door with Knute in tow. Immediate, all conversations died and the sect members had turned to stare at Knute, sizing him up.
As the host, the foreigner was the only one who had gotten to his feet and moved to welcome Knute to the sect. The foreigner was half-a-head taller than Knute with a mean glint to his eyes. Knute glanced helplessly at Caarina, before he remembered that she was a half-ciosaolean. Knute took a mental note—the Self-Named were welcoming of foreigners.
A wide grin spread across the foreigner's face, revealing a set of white teeth. "So was Raoul Leandre really as scary as they say or has he been riding off rumors this whole time?"
Knute's mouth was dry. He fought every instinct to run away from the foreigner, and said, "He was just as big as the rumors said."
Laughing, the foreigner wrapped one arm around Knute's shoulders—Knute suppressed a flinch—and steered him towards the table.
"Welcome to Pearson's sect. I'm your sect leader, Viktor Pearson. Hm. Let's see. You've already met Caarina."
"I'm Rahel." A young woman with brown hair and ash-gray eyes leaned forward to wave at Knute.
"Don't interrupt me during introductions or I'll lose my place."
Viktor ushered Knute into a chair before settling himself into the seat at the head of the table. Viktor went down the row, throwing out names of the sect members until Knute was dizzy with trying to remember them all. Then, before Knute could register all his new acquaintances, the side door opened and a bald man carrying several boxes of pastries entered the garage, calling out, "Brunch has arrived." The boxes of sweet pastries were spread out across the table and sect members tore into them. Viktor was nothing but courteous. He made sure that Knute had a donut before taking his own and he even offered to get Knute a cup of coffee, which Knute politely declined.
"So where do you get your talent from, Knute?" asked Viktor.
Knute had just taken a large bite of a donut, so he took his time answering. Was it supposed to be some sort of trick question? Didn't all chimera get their talents from the Ancestor?
"I get mine from my father," said Rahel. "We have different talents though. I can only create a few colorful lights, but he can restrain people's excess soul."
Knute eyes widened, not having to feign his surprise. "I don't know where my talent comes from. Both my ma and da are of the People. Same with my grandparents."
Viktor nodded sympathetically. "My da was of the People, but my ma was a necromancer from Ciosaoles. It's from my da's side that I get my talent—even though he has none. Thankfully, I didn't inherit my ma's abilities."
Knute opened his mouth to ask about the ciosaolean necromancers, when the bald man to Knute's right spoke, ""My mother's mother was a weak Nameless chimera."
"Good thing strength isn't inherited." Viktor turned to Knute and added, "Aage is one of our strongest chimeras—I bet if he had a Number it'd be higher than Sabine Leandre's."
Knute highly doubted that, but he tried to appear impressed.
Rahel released a fit of laughter. "He couldn't fight Sabine Leandre even on his best day and Sabine's worst."
"I'd like to think I could," said Aage.
"I'm trying to keep you realistic," said Rahel. "So you don't start any stupid fights."
The table roared with laughter and Rahel reached for another donut. She winked at Knute as she sat back down.
Julia, a plump woman with graying hair, suddenly let out a squawk of surprise. All heads turned to the end of the table where Julia and Letta were staring at the laptop screen.
"The Aegon has just announced their five candidates," said Letta.
Yesterday, Dietrich had been complaining that Emilie Mathilde-Aegon always forced her children to attend the selection. For Dietrich's sake, Knute was glad the selection had only taken eight hours.
"Who is it?" asked Aage.
Letta read the names off the computer screen. "Adam Aegon, Mikkel Nyland-Aegon, Paul Aegon, Thelma Jahr-Aegon, and Clare Aegon."
Clare Aegon. Dietrich had mentioned his youngest sister and few times and Knute had listened in on her phone call to Dietrich once. Knute suddenly imagined a younger, female version of Dietrich facing Dani and her unseen fire in the stadium. A shiver of pity ran down Knute's spine.
"Adam Aegon and Mikkel Nyland-Aegon were givens," said Aage, sitting back in his chair.
Rahel frowned. "Isn't Clare Aegon underage?"
"There's no law against it," said Viktor.
Knute glanced around the table where the twenty members of Pearson's Sect were all eagerly discussing the Aegon's candidates. Knute struggled to suppress his frown. Why were the Self-Named so excited about the Houses' candidates? Shouldn't the Self-Named be fighting against the Houses?
"What's on your mind, newbie?" asked Olov, a ginger-haired man sitting on the opposite side of the table.
Knute hesitated. It seemed like an innocent enough topic, so he said, "I just thought you'd be more, uh, anti-Houses."
Olov snorted. "Of course, we're anti-Houses, but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate a competition between elite chimera."
"Besides." Rahel stretched her arms over her head. "We have Sindre."
"All the Self-Named voted yesterday," said Olov. "And we've been campaigning all season. That's why we're gathered here today. To see if Sindre Pavind gets chosen as the People's candidate."
Knute blinked. "Is Sindre Pavind one of the Self-Named?"
"Of course," said Viktor. "Our strongest."
"He's always been one of our more outspoken members," said Rahel. "A few years ago, the Leandre made an offer, but he rejected them outright. Because even if he was one of the strongest chimera alive, they'd always see him as the Nameless chimera from the slums. Sindre wants absolute equality between all chimera. He won't settle for anything less."
Knute kept his mouth shut. Sindre was an idiot. He had no idea how many people would kill to be made an offer by the Leandre. It was better to be an antipathized member of the Houses than be trapped in the slums for the rest of his life.
Letta took the last donut from one of the boxes. "Do you think we'll get to see a rematch of Lady Sabine Leandre and Peter Oswalk?"
"I hope so," said Aage. "Last time was intense."
"You mean terrifying." Julia shuddered. "Some of those House chimera are monstrous."
"They're chimera, the same as you and me," said Viktor. "The only thing that makes them seem monstrous is the amount of power the Houses give them.
"You know who's monstrous," said Rahel. "Allison Tveit."
Knute coughed, trying and failing to hold back a laugh. When Rahel's eyes flickered to him, Knute managed a weak smile. "She's insane."
"A 3.33 Tasking Number is insane," said Rahel, not getting Knute's meaning. "My father jut about flipped a table when he heard about it."
"Your father?" asked Knute.
"Niklas Pehr," said Viktor smugly.
The name had no meaning to Knute. He glanced around the table at the members of Pearson's Sect, who were all looking at him as though he should revere the ground this man walked on. Eyes widened when they realized that Knute had no idea who Niklas Pehr was.
Finally, Julia decided to put Knute out of his misery. She leaned forward and said, gently, "He's one of the founders."
Knute stiffened. One of the founders of the Self-Named, the very same founders who had imprisoned Dani's soul for the past twenty-three years. And there was Knute, sitting in a garage and eating pastries, with Niklas Pehr's daughter.
Allison Tveit stared at the elegant serpent paperweight on the Head's desk. She would rather stare into the snake's garnet eyes than meet the sharp gaze of Head Louisa Cadmus. Allison had been sleeping when, at ten minutes to nine, her cellphone rang with a message from the Head's secretary, Catherine—the Head requested a meeting at nine o'clock that morning. Allison had rummaged through her closet, thrown on a yellow dress and white heeled-shoes, and sprinted to the Head's office. She'd only been late for the meeting by six minutes, but those six minutes were an eternity according to Head Louisa.
Allison shifted in the rigid, black-velvet chair. Finally, she lifted her eyes.
For the past few minutes, the Head had sat on the other side of the clawfoot desk, sipping tea and saying nothing. Allison hadn't figured out if she was supposed to speak first or if the Head was punishing her for being late. The confusion was tearing at Allison and she fidgeted nervously under the Head's gaze.
"You wanted to talk to me," said Allison when she could bear the silence no longer.
"Yes. The competition for the Warrior's Seat is approaching."
Allison felt something turn over in her stomach. Of course. She had known it was coming, but she'd become preoccupied with the Dani situation and had completely forgotten. Dani. The one who would have to participate in the Warrior's Competition was Dani. But would Dani want to participate?
Allison was frozen in place, her hands gripping the armrests of the chair as she listened to each word the Head said.
"As you know, the Cadmus is permitted to select five candidates for the Warrior's Seat. I have weighed all my options, looked at the abilities of each of my chimera, and I have decided that you are to be one of our representatives."
Allison's throat was dry. Should she agree? Should she refuse? Shouldn't Dani be the one answering the Head. Why was Allison still in control of the body? Shouldn't Dani take over and tell the Head that she would never represent the Cadmus? What was Allison supposed to do?
Desperately, Allison tried to release control of the body, but she wasn't a chimera and she didn't have such control over her soul. Dani wasn't taking change, which meant Allison was supposed to answer the Head. But what was Allison supposed to say? Yes? But didn't Dani hate the Cadmus? Dani wouldn't want to represent the Cadmus. So should Allison refuse? Would the Head let her refuse? Would Allison and Dani be forced to participate in the Warrior's Seat Competition?
Suddenly, Allison was struck with the image of Dani possessing the Warrior's Seat. Dani was violent and temperamental. She hated the Houses. She hated the Self-Named. The idea of Dani possessing power in the government, even if it was the limited power of the Warrior's Seat, was frightening.
No. Dani couldn't possess the Seat. Allison wouldn't let her.
Taking a deep breath, Allison tried to recall all her lessons on how to politely refuse someone. "Head Louisa, I am honored by your decision to name me a candidate. The Cadmus is my home and I will serve the Cadmus until my dying breath. However, it is for that very reason that I cannot represent the Cadmus in the Warrior's Seat Competition."
Allison bit her bottom lip as the office filled the Head's quiet rage.
Head Louisa clasped her bony hands in her lap and said, "Lord Johnathan and I found you when you were homeless. We took you in, saving you from an orphanage in the slums. The Cadmus raised you, paid for you to enter the Tasking Chamber, and arranged your engagement to the heir. You are a legal adult now, which means the time has come for you to repay the Cadmus for all that we have done for you. You are a member of the Cadmus, Allison, which means that the Cadmus's success is your success, the Cadmus's glory is your glory, and the Cadmus's failures are your failures."
Allison's throat was dry. She knew all of that. She knew how much she owed the Cadmus. But Dani couldn't possess the Warrior's Seat. Allison found her voice somewhere deep inside her. "I can't compete."
The icy tone shot through Allison's chest. Her face drained of all color and her heart was pounding, but still, Allison said, "I can't."
"Would you care to explain?" The Head set her teacup down and placed her hands neatly in her lap.
"I can't. I can't compete and I can't explain to you why I can't compete. But you must know—"
"You have a duty to the Cadmus." Head Louisa's voice shook with fury on the last syllable. "Did all those pretty speeches delude you? You are not my grandchild. You are a Nameless. You were an orphaned child who killed your own parents. But I took you in. I saved you from poverty and loneliness. I gave you a home and food and an education. These things were not given out of charity. I took you in for the sake of my House and the power you could bring us. Do not think you have the luxury of refusing to me. You are here to serve and to serve alone. Do you understand?"
"I can't. I am not saying this for fun—when I say I can't, I mean that I can't." Allison bit the insides of cheeks. She was doing her duty; she was trying to protect the Cadmus.
"Allison Tveit, you are a chimera of the Cadmus and—"
"But I'm not," cried Allison. "I'm not."
The serpent paperweight flew from the desk. Allison screamed and threw her arms up in front of her face as the stone smashed into her hands, grazing against her forehead. Allison fell to the wooden floor with a heavy crash, the chair and the serpent paperweight coming down with her.
For a moment, Allison lay on the floor, her hands clasped to her forehead. She was afraid to move, afraid that the Head would strike again if Allison showed any signs of resistance. She heard the sound of a chair scraping against the wood floor as Head Louisa rose from her seat and walked around the desk to stand over Allison.
"Get up." Head Louisa's voice was quivering with emotion. "Get up and do not argue with me again."
Allison pulled her hands away from her face and saw drops of red blood on the fingertips of her left hand.
"You are pathetic," said Head Louisa. "You have an immense power and yet you won't even use it to defend yourself."
"I can't," repeated Allison.
"You can and you will fight in for Warrior's Seat." Head Louisa took a shuddering breath. "And you had better win."
A sudden white-hot rage burned through Allison's chest. She pushed off the ground and got to her feet, ignoring the dizzy pain that shot through her head. Her chest was tight as she turned around and left the office, pausing in the doorway just long enough to say, "As the Ancestor wishes it, so it shall be."
Peter Oswalk arrived outside the Head's office just as Allison Tveit was leaving. The door swung open with such force that both Peter and Catherine could only gawk Allison stormed from the office. Peter hesitated when he saw that the gash on the left side of her forehead. For a second, he imaged Dani, all arrogance and temper, driving the Head to violence. Peter opened his mouth to say something to Dani, but Allison carried on past him, as though he were a shadow. She made a right turn at the end of the hall and disappeared from sight.
Peter stared. "Well, that must have been some meeting."
Catherine shifted nervously at her desk. "The Head is ready for you now."
"So I see."
Peter pushed open the double doors that Allison had just exited. He stepped into the Head's office, which was still in disarray from Allison's visit. Peter felt a wave of malicious glee wash over him as he surveyed the black-velvet chair that lay upturned on the floor next to the hideous stone serpent paperweight that Head Louisa loved so much. Peter decided to congratulate Allison on successfully trashing the Head's office.
"Redecorating?" asked Peter.
"Hardly." Head Louisa sat down in her leather armchair and clasped her bony hands in her lap. "Allison Tveit is having her rebellious phase."
Head Louisa stared at Peter expectantly. Peter raised his eyebrows, wondering what the Head wanted him to do about Allison's rebellious phase.
Finally, Head Louisa snapped, "Well? Are you going to clean it up?"
"Oh." Peter glanced down at the chair, the paperweight, and the scattered droplets of blood. Part of him wanted to tell Head Louisa to clean the damn mess up herself, but Peter had more self-control than that. He pulled the chair to an upright position and placed the serpent paperweight back on the desk. He decided he'd leave Allison's blood on the floor for someone else to clean, so he sat down in the chair and smiled at Head Louisa. "Your secretary called. I am here. What do you need of me, Head?"
Head Louisa stared at Peter, most likely debating whether to punish him for his attitude or not.
For a moment, Peter regretted his tone. In the seasons following Lord Johnathan's death, Peter had gone through, what Head Louisa called, his rebellious phase. At his lowest point, Head Louisa had locked him in the Tasking Chamber overnight. A shudder ran down Peter's spine as the memories came back to him. That wasn't an experience he wanted to repeat.
Head Louisa must have forgiven him for his insolence, because she broke the silence and said, "I have decided to name you a candidate for the Warrior's Seat Competition."
Peter's mouth twitched into a half-smile. "I'm shocked."
"No one finds your sarcasm amusing. You must accept before I write your name down."
Two parts warred within Peter. One side wanted to tell Louisa to fuck off, while the other side was determined to serve the Cadmus. Finally, through gritted teeth, Peter said, "Of course, I'll fulfill my duty—I always wish to serve the Head of the Cadmus to the best of my abilities. I accept this opportunity wholeheartedly."
Head Louisa plucked her teacup from its spot on the desk. She took a dainty sip and pretended she couldn't hear the edge that lay beneath Peter's words.
"Who else have you selected?" asked Peter. "Robert, Neal, Levi, Allison?"
Head Louisa's brow furrowed, making her seem a decade older than her seventy years. "Allison Tveit refuses to participate."
Peter didn't even bother to hide his laughter. "Why?"
"She won't say."
"That rebellious phase can be a real bitch."
Head Louisa's upper lip curled back into a sneer.
Peter gripped the arm of his chair, all reservations forgotten. "You want my advice? You could at least pretend to be likeable."
Head Louisa smiled at Peter. It wasn't a genuine smile, but it was probably the closest thing Peter had seen on her since the day Lord Johnathan died.
"You really hate me," said Louisa.
"More than anything."
Michael groaned and leaned back in the office chair. He stared at the computer screen, reading the last sentence of a lengthy report concerning the Cadmus' investment in the hydroelectric power plant on the west side of Lake Lycia. Ever since he had been named the heir, Michael's workload had increased immensely. He had only just begun to appreciate the fact that he had various departments within the Cadmus to which he could distribute some of the workload.
Enjoying the moment of freedom, Michael stretched his arms over his head and admired his new, polished office for the first time. Adrianna had helped him move in a couple days ago and his office had gone from being empty to filled with a mahogany desk, a widescreen computer monitor, and a handcrafted flat weave rug (Adrianna's choice). Michael ran his fingers through his already messy blond hair and breathed a sigh of relief. Years of hard work were finally paying off.
He leaned forward, getting ready to forward the report, when his office door opened and Allison Tveit walked in.
She stood there for a moment, staring at Michael through those wide, glassy blue eyes of hers. Her shoulders were trembling ever so slightly and her breathing came in quick pants as if she'd just been running. She seemed to be on the edge of saying something as her mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out. Then, Michael noticed the deep cut on the left side of her forehead.
"Oh shit," he said, getting to his feet. "What happened?"
"I can't," gasped Allison. "I can't do it."
"What?" Michael grabbed some tissues out of the box on his desk.
"You have to talk to her. You're her grandson and heir. She has to listen to you. Tell her. Tell her I can't do it."
Michael had enough on his plate without having to deal with his hysterical fiancée. He placed his hands on her quivering shoulders. "Calm down. Breathe. I can't help you unless you explain everything clearly."
Allison stopped gasping, at least. Michael released her and then held the tissues to her bleeding temple. The gash wasn't as bad as it first appeared. He didn't think she'd need stiches.
"What happened to your head?"
Allison closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said, "The Head threw a paperweight at my head."
"The one shaped like a snake?" Michael couldn't believe it. His grandmother loved that paperweight—she wouldn't risk damaging it.
"I think it might have been an accident." Allison opened her eyes. "I think I pushed her too far and she accidently let lose her excess soul."
"And you got hit in the head with a stone paperweight?"
She took the dirty tissues from him and Michael moved to the desk to get more. Michael didn't like bending over backwards to keep the Head complacent, but it was something most Cadmus chimera had learned to do from a young age. Allison, who hadn't shown many signs of her talent before her Tasking Ceremony, had been a popular target for the Head's frustrations. Michael had once watched Allison skillfully apologize her way out of a punishment; she knew how to handle the Head. If Allison had upset Head Louisa to the point of losing control, she had good reason for it.
Michael dabbed at Allison's forehead with the fresh tissues. "Grandmother really shouldn't bludgeon my fiancée."
"She wanted me to compete for the Warrior's Seat," said Allison softly. "And I refused."
Michael had to reconsider his opinions of his future wife's intelligence. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with the back of his right hand and said, "Why did you refuse?"
Allison grabbed his wrist, forcing Michael to meet her eyes. He was surprised to see that they'd lost their glassy look and were now filled with determination.
"I can't tell you," said Allison. "But you have to understand, I'm loyal to the Cadmus. I need you understand. The Cadmus is my family and I will do anything for the sake of the Cadmus. And that's why I can't compete."
She was looking at him with those big, blue eyes and Michael was certain that there was something he was supposed to say to comfort her, but he couldn't think of a damn thing. He could only stand there and stare at his future wife.
Allison stiffened suddenly, her eyes widening in shock. "No."
"What?" Michael grasped her wrist.
Allison's eyes started to roll back and her legs gave out beneath her. Michael darted a hand forward to catch her before she hit the ground. A second later though, Allison regained her balance and pushed Michael's arm away. She lifted her head and her sharp, blue eyes met his. He recoiled at the sudden harshness in her gaze, but a moment later, he thought he had imagined it.
Allison smiled sweetly. "Sorry. The head wound must be worse than I thought."
Michael stared. "Are you all right?"
"No," said Allison with a short, shaky laugh. "I'm freaking out over nothing."
It took Michael a moment to follow her train of thought. "The Warrior's Seat Competition?"
Allison grinned, an expression that seemed so un-Allison like that Michael was taken aback for a moment. Then, he caught sight of her hands, which were trembling violently. Allison saw where Michael was looking and her hands curled into fists.
Through gritted teeth, Allison said, "Tell the Head, I'll compete. I'll win the damn Seat—so she can stop throwing paperweights at me."
Without sparing a second glance for Michael, Allison turned around and briskly walked out of his office, her blonde hair dancing between her shoulder blades as she walked
Michael watched as the office door swung shut behind her, In the end, he gave up trying to make sense of the conversation he'd just had and collapsed back into his chair. He reached for his cellphone and searched for the Head's number.
Dani tried to release control, but her hands were shaking and she barely keep up the barriers around her soul, let alone switch places with Allison. Dani pressed a fist to her mouth to smother the whimpering noises she was making. Dani didn't want to be there. She didn't want to be in control of the body. She didn't want to be inside the Cadmus Mansion. She hated the Cadmus. She'd burn them all to the ground.
Seventeen fucking years of watching them. Of watching Lord Johnathan welcome Allison to the Cadmus. Of watching Allison attend their father's funeral pyre. Of watching Nathaniel and Allison attend lessons together. Of watching Allison try to find a well of power that wasn't there. Of watching the Head light to her husband's funeral pyre. Of watching Peter Oswalk transform into a savage dog. Of watching Adrianna pretend she was a chimera. Of watching Margaret and Robert try to turn their son into something he's not. Of watching Sarah and Samuel push their son to his limits. Of watching Michael and Nathaniel envy one another from a distance. Of watching Head Louisa try to bring out Allison's nonexistent talent. Of watching people call out Allison's name and watching Allison answer. Of watching people go about their lives, not knowing Dani existed, trapped and helpless in her own body.
Her back pressed to the wall, Dani slowly slid down until she was sitting on the floor of the hallway with her knees pulled up to her chest and her fists pressed against her eyes.
She didn't want to be in the Cadmus Mansion. She'd always given Allison control of the body when they had to return—anything to avoid setting foot on the grounds long than necessary. She'd barely managed to hold it together when she'd taken control to stop Allison telling Nathaniel and she'd been shaking the entire time she'd talked to Peter Oswalk at the pool. Peter had said she was a terrible actor. He didn't know the half of it. She was the best fucking actor in the world that she hadn't fallen to pieces in front of him.
It all Allison's fault. Allison didn't want Dani to compete for the Warrior's Seat, so she'd fought with the Head. That was fine. Dani knew the Head would never let Allison refuse. But then Allison had gone to Michael, and Michael had believed Allison. He'd been about to agree, to help her convince the Head to let her not compete. Dani had held out as long as she could—she wouldn't take control of the body, she wouldn't stand on Cadmus grounds any more than she had to—but Allison had forced her. Allison had been about to ruin everything.
"Fuck," Dani hissed. "You parasite, I'm trying to save us."
Her breaths came in strangled gasps that grated against her throat. Her mouth tasted like salt and her cheeks were wet.
So that's what it felt like. What it felt like to break down. The feeling was really different when she had a body that could tremble and cry.
Dani stiffened and she slowly lifted her head from her hands. She stared up at the small figure of Adrianna Cadmus, who was clutching the strap of her blue purse and leaning over Dani, concern flitting through her brown eyes. In that moment, Dani had never hated anyone as much as she hated Adrianna.
"Are you okay?" Adrianna's voice soft and soothing. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Fine." Dani ignored the thickness in her voice as she pushed off the ground and got to her feet. Her eyes still stung with tears and her hands were still shaking. However, Dani lifted her chin and said, "I don't need anything from you."
Adrianna actually took a step back when she heard the disdain in Dani's tone. She swallowed. "Do you need me to get Nathaniel?"
Dani couldn't stand another second on the Cadmus grounds. She couldn't stand to be around these people one second longer. She gave Adrianna one last vicious glare before pushing past and starting down the hall towards the nearest exit.
Dani didn't care that she was underdressed for the weather. She didn't care that her makeup was smudged and her nose was running. She didn't care that she wasn't even pretending to be Allison. Dani just needed to get away from the Cadmus. Get away before she decided to forget her sister and burn them all to the ground.
The members of Pearson's Sect were surprisingly ordinary. They argued over the last slice of pizza, they drank beer and soda, they told inappropriate jokes, and gossiped over the members of the Houses just like any of the People. To hang out with them, they seemed like a group of regular friends getting together for a Selection Day party.
It was approaching one in the afternoon, and neither the Cadmus nor the Leandre had announced their five candidates yet. Knute didn't mind. Over the past four hours, he'd learned a lot about the sect. Aage Engman was a police officer who had joined the Self-Named five years ago with his brother-in-law, Jens Pedersen. Letta Boysen worked at a clothing store and had the weak ability to mask her presence. Olov Berg, who had the ability to see the colors of hostile emotions, worked at the port for one of the big fishing companies. Rahel Pehr and Caarina Macris had been childhood friends even though one was from the North District and one was from the Riverend District. Julia Naess had joined the sect ten years ago after her son had been forcibly adopted by the Leandre and eventually married to Aimee Leandre.
Bit by bit, little by little, Knute learned about the members of Pearson's Sect. He stored each fact in his memory, wondering if the information might be useful later when the Aegon decided how to deal with the Self-Named.
Letta swallowed a bite of pizza and said, "I love red hair. All of Emilie Mathilde-Aegon's children have red hair and I'm jealous."
"I have red hair." Olov pointed to the curling mop of ginger on his head.
"You have orange hair," said Rahel. "There's a difference, you know."
"Please," said Olov. "Dietrich Aegon's red hair is dyed."
"Are you saying that Emilie Mathilde-Aegon and all her children dye their hair?" asked Caarina.
Olov made a face. "The red hair's unnatural."
"A lot of people from Laque have hair that color," said Viktor.
"Really?" Julia leaned forward in her seat. "When did you have time to visit Laque?"
"My ma visited Laque once," said Viktor. "She said there was a mountain city run by a red-haired family who knew the healing arts."
Letta reached for another slice of pizza. "Is that where Lady Emilie Mathilde-Aegon comes from then?"
"I suppose so."
"It's strange that the Head of the Aegon married a half-foreigner," said Olov. "If I came home with a half-foreign wife, my parents would kick me out on the street." He paused and grinned across the table at the two foreigners present. "No offense, Viktor, Caarina."
"I'm used to it," said Viktor amiably.
Caarina's expression wasn't nearly so forgiving.
Julia released an exaggerated sigh. "It's a shame Dietrich Aegon's part-laqui."
"I don't care," said Letta. "That man is fine."
Knute suppressed a groan. "My sisters say the same thing."
Chiara laughed. "Your sisters have good taste."
"You know who I've always thought was hot?" said Olov, leaning back in his seat. "Sabine Leandre."
Aage, Viktor, and the rest of the men around the table nodded in agreement. Knute remembered the pictures he'd seen of Lady Sabine Leandre and couldn't help but agree.
"It's a shame," said Olov.
"What's a shame?" asked Knute.
Almost instant, the entire atmosphere in the garage changed. Rahel and Caarina exchanged nervous glances, while Olov was suddenly occupied with removing the pepperoni from a slice of pizza. Viktor shifted uncomfortably in his seat and Julia rose to get refill her plastic cup with soda. Knute looked around the room, taking in every single one of the sect members who suddenly wouldn't meet his gaze.
"Ah!" cried Letta. "The Cadmus have announced their candidates."
Instantly, the excitement returned to the garage as everyone turned to listen to Letta read aloud the list of candidates. "Peter Oswalk."
"No surprises there," said Caarina.
"Allison Tveit, Robert Cadmus, Neal Cadmus, and Levi Joakim-Cadmus."
Knute blinked. So Dani had agreed to represent the Cadmus. That didn't seem like Dani. She hated the Cadmus, hated them to a degree that would put the Self-Named to shame.
"I can't believe Levi Joakim-Cadmus would agree to participate." Rahel's voice was strained with anger.
"Why not?" asked Viktor, helping himself to the last piece of pizza.
At the sound of that one name, the entire sect fell silent. Knute's eyes widened and he tried to appear innocently interested as the sect members spoke.
"Is it true?" asked Julia in a hushed voice. "Did Peter Oswalk really kill the Tekla Valden?"
Rahel nodded. "But do you know who was being interviewed by Aunt Tekla when Peter Oswalk killed her?"
Knute listened intently. So Rahel had known Tekla Valden personally—well, she would considering her father was Niklas Pehr. Knute's eyes flickered to the right and he saw that Caarina was watching Rahel talk with a disapproving scowl. Clearly, someone didn't approve of over-sharing.
"Who?" asked Olov.
"Jarle Joakim," said Rahel. "Levi Joakim-Cadmus' younger brother."
Mouths opened and incredulously glances were exchanged. Finally, Letta leaned forward and asked, "Why would Levi Joakim-Cadmus represent the Cadmus then?"
Julia snorted. "Once the Houses sink their claws into you, there's no escape."
Letta immediately reached out and wrapped an arm around Julia's shoulders. Knute frowned until he remember what Julia had said about the Cadmus handing her money and threats until she agreed to give them her son Cathal.
"It's not the individuals," said Caarina suddenly. "That's what my brother says. Levi and Cathal, they're only tools of a system. All these names that we hear today—Peter Oswalk, Allison Tveit, Clare Aegon, Adam Aegon, Robert Cadmus, even Dietrich Aegon—they've molded since their youth to serve the Houses. The Houses are a system that has been in place for over a thousand years. Why do you think the Aegon clings to its polygamous practices? Why do you think the title of Head is still inherited? Why do you think the Houses are so exclusive? Because no one has challenged them in over a thousand years. The system has always been in their favor, so the Houses see no need to change it." Caarina paused for a breath. "Don't blame the individuals. They're trapped in the system just as much as we are."
A silence had settled over the table. Knute glanced around and saw that the lighthearted attitude was gone, replaced by faces of grim determination.
"The House chimera may be trapped," muttered Olov. "But I'd rather be trapped in their place than in mine."
Chiara scowled. "You'd rather have your parents murdered so the Cadmus can adopt you and train you to be their errand boy?"
Olov opened his mouth to respond, but he was cut off by the deep, smooth voice of Viktor. "We are all chimera, we are all descendants of the first, great Chimera. The members of the Houses are our brothers and sisters. We will liberate them from the system that chains us all. For the first time in a thousand years, the chimera will all be equal."
Raoul Leandre fought back the urge to sigh as he looked around the table at the Council. Lady Sabine was in a bad mood, her arms folded stiffly across her chest and her lips pursed with stubbornness. Head Marcel was exhausted, deep lines appearing beneath his eyes, as he slouched back in his seat. Ignace Leandre, the master of legal affairs, was checking his cellphone, a faint smirk on his lips as he read the message. Richaud Leandre, master of education, looked bored, his chin propped up on his right hand as he surveyed the Head and Lady. Eloi Leandre, master of the treasury, was sipping a cup of tea. He smiled congenially when he caught Raoul watching him and Raoul returned the grin. Bonnaire Mannes, master of defense, had a thick scowl on his face as he watched Marcel type on the laptop. Finally, there was Bastien, who sat at the back of the room next to Raoul, a cup of black coffee in his hands and deep shadows around his eyes.
Raoul suppressed the urge to yawn. They'd been debating for the past sixteen hours and still no conclusion had been reached.
"Let's go from the top again," said Marcel. There was a collective groan amongst the council members; Marcel liked to go over things from the top.
Marcel looked down at the laptop screen and read his notes aloud. "Sabine is definitely a candidate."
"Are you certain you can defeat Allison Tveit?" asked Eloi.
"Of course." Sabine's eyes sharpened with dislike. She'd answered the same question multiple times in the past sixteen hours. "I'm a seasoned fighter. I've won this competition twice before."
"If Sabine can't defeat Allison Tveit," said Ignace, putting away his cellphone, "Who can we expect to defeat her?"
"I'm not questioning Sabine's candidacy," said Eloi. "What I am asking is this—is there a point to anyone else competing if you can't defeat Allison Tveit?"
"I can defeat her," repeated Sabine. "I'm sure Peter Oswalk is capable of beating her. Adam Aegon too. Allison Tveit has been shut up in the Cadmus Mansion for most of her life. She has no experience. Adam, Peter, and I have been fighting in this competition for years. We know what to expect."
"Allison Tveit isn't reliable."
All eyes turned to Ignace, who was reclined in his seat, rubbing his stiff lower back.
"I've heard from certain sources," said Ignace. "That Allison Tveit was slow to reveal her talent. There was the incident with her childhood home and the Tasking Chamber, but she never showed any signs of possessing talent during her lessons."
Raoul frowned. He and Sabine could never figure out where Ignace got his endless supply of information.
"That's good news for us," said Richaud.
"We must agree upon five candidates despite Allison Tveit's Tasking Number," said Marcel wearily. "Sabine is a definite. Who else?"
"Bastien is our next strongest chimera," said Richaud, nodding at the corner of the room where the taciturn bodyguard sat. "But his talents are not made for direct combat."
"Then there's Fabrice." Eloi took a sip of tea. "But he works as an errand boy and I'd like to keep him away from the cameras."
Marcel added a note to his laptop and then said, "There's Ragnar Kvaldheim-Leandre. His talent certainly lends itself to direct combat."
Bonnaire snorted. "Are we even questioning Ragnar's participation? He has always participated in the competition."
"And he's lost to Peter Oswalk every time." A smirk played at the corners of Ignace's mouth.
"Ragnar is one of the most capable chimera I've ever seen," said Bonnaire.
"There's Tessan Riis-Leandre," said Marcel.
Bonnaire scowled. "She's not aggressive enough."
"She's plenty aggressive when she wants to be," said Sabine.
"She has no tactical skills whatsoever," insisted Bonnaire.
Sabine's eyes narrowed and Bonnaire gritted his teeth. Marcel, Raoul was relieved to see, had the sense to interrupt them by saying, "We'll put a question mark next to Tessan's name for now. What about Kaare Sivertsen-Leandre?"
"I like Kaare," said Richaud.
"Earnest and hardworking," said Bonnaire, leaning back in his seat. "I vote yes."
"Me too. He has excellent taste in tea. He introduced me to this ginger tea that is superb." Eloi held up his cup of tea as if this proved everything.
Raoul fought to hold back his scowl. Kaare made no secret of his support for Eloi, Richaud, and Bonnaire's policies. He considered Head Marcel to be "unrealistic and naïve".
"Kaare is impulsive," said Sabine. "He loses control of his excess soul too often."
Marcel nodded, making notes on his laptop. "Tessan is much more reliable."
"Perhaps both Tessan and Kaare could compete," said Ignace. "They are our only other combat-oriented Leandre chimera left who have over 2.50 Tasking Numbers."
"The candidates are not required to have high Tasking Numbers," said Bonnaire stiffly. "By the Ancestor, Clare Aegon hasn't even passed through the Chamber and she has been selected as a candidate."
Ignace yawned. "Tessan and Kaare have equal odds of winning the Seat—which is to say none. I suggest we select them both and they can exhaust some of the tougher candidates to increase Sabine's chances of winning."
Raoul's eyes narrowed. He could never tell whose side Ignace was on.
"We still have one last slot to fill," said Richaud.
Marcel checked his laptop. "Our next possible candidate is Vivill Magnessun-Leandre with a 2.47 Tasking Number."
"She's too old," said Eloi.
Sabine crossed her arms over her chest. "She's only fifty-one."
"She's older than me," said Richaud. "And that's too old."
"We have Adaline Runde-Leandre," said Marcel.
"She's in the hospital," muttered Ignace, while Eloi and Bonnaire exchanged sharp glances.
Marcel paled and quickly checked the list again. "The next highest Tasking Number is a 2.32—which belongs to Richaud Leandre."
Marcel glanced across the table where Richaud snorted with laughter and said, "Don't even think about it."
"Why not?" Sabine leaned forward, her brown eyes glittering with frustration. "You don't want to fight me in front of the cameras?"
Richaud's laughter vanished in an instant and a sneer appeared on his face. "I'd rather be watching from a distance when Allison Tveit roasts you alive in front of the cameras."
And it had started again. The last sixteen hours had been a cycle. Decide on at least two of the candidates before Sabine got into an argument with either Bonnaire or Richaud, or Eloi would make some dig at Marcel's inability to keep the Council under control. Then, everyone would start glowering at one another and, in order to keep the peace, Marcel would suggest that the Council go over everything from the top.
Raoul pinched the bridge of his nose and fought back a sigh. They were going to need another coffee break soon.
Just then, Bastien's deep voice cut through the room. "Raoul could do it."
Raoul choked back a laugh. "What?"
"Actually," said Ignace, "that isn't an altogether terrible idea."
Every council member's turned to survey Raoul. He shifted uncomfortably and then shot a venomous glance in Bastien's direction. Of course, Bastien kept his eyes fixed on the floor, determined not to meet anyone's gaze.
"Raoul is barely a chimera," scoffed Bonnaire.
Raoul scowled, but he had to agree. "I have a 0.28 Tasking Number. I can't compete in the Warrior's Seat Competition."
"Certainly you can," said Sabine. "You can keep up with me."
"I've never beaten you," pointed out Raoul.
"Sabine is a 2.82 chimera," said Ignace. "Hardly anyone can beat her. Most candidates will have much lower Numbers than Sabine."
Raoul blinked. Marcel, Sabine, and Ignace were all in agreement. Looking around the table, Raoul was glad to see that the other council members were less convinced. Eloi was frowning, though Raoul suspected that had less to do with his doubt in Raoul's abilities and more to do with the fact that Bastien had suggested the idea.
Richaud and Bonnaire were exchanging meaningful glances until finally, Bonnaire said, "Raoul would be the best choice."
A wry smile formed on Eloi's face. "A 0.28 chimera in the Warrior's Seat Competition. The other Houses won't know what to do."
All eyes were fixed on Raoul again, and he realized that they were waiting for his response. Raoul didn't want to compete. He had no desire to possess the Warrior's Seat. It may technically be the weakest of the five Seats, but it still held more power than Raoul ever wanted to possess. He was happy being a subordinate. Let Marcel and Sabine handle the politics; Raoul fit the role of the supporting friend just fine. He wanted to refuse, but one didn't refuse the Leandre Council. Raoul took a deep breath and, despite his better judgment, he said, "I am ready to do my duty to the Leandre."
A flash of relief crossed Marcel's face.
"Excellent." Eloi leaned back in his chair and taking another sip of tea. "We're decided then."
Yes, sixteen hours and the Leandre Council had finally made a decision.
"The Leandre have announced their candidates." Kirsten Pehr looked up from the laptop resting on the coffee table. Anton Macris glanced at Niklas, who sat beside him on the black leather sofa, and then back at Kirsten.
Anton had always thought that Kirsten was what mothers should look like. She wasn't beautiful; her face was etched with laugh lines and the beginnings of crow's feet around her dark eyes. But Anton had watched Kirsten play hide-and-seek in the backyard with little Rahel, he had watched Kirsten and Rahel dance offbeat to electric music, and he had watched Kirsten kiss Rahel on each cheek before sending her daughter off to bed. It was as if Kirsten had been made the perfect mother just to remind Anton and Caarina of what their childhoods had lacked.
Niklas swirled his brandy glass, watched the amber liquid move about. "Who did they pick?"
Kirsten turned back to the computer and read aloud the names. "Sabine Leandre, Ragnar Kvaldheim-Leandre, Tessan Riis-Leandre, Kaare Sivertsen-Leandre, and Raoul Leandre."
"Raoul Leandre?" Niklas frowned. "He might have the record for the lowest Tasking Number to be entered in the Warrior's Seat Competition."
"What were the Leandre thinking?" murmured Anton.
Niklas rose from his seat and moved across the living room to the minibar where he refilled his brandy glass.
"There's only the People's candidate left," said Niklas.
Anton nodded. "Every member of the Self-Named voted for Sindre."
Niklas grimaced. "Our collective vote is miniscule compared to the People. They could favor a different chimera."
"There's no other unassociated Nameless who can compete with Sindre," said Kirsten. "All the strong chimera are snatched up by the Houses."
"Still," said Niklas. "What if the People don't choose Sindre?"
Kirsten moved across the living room to her husband's side. She wrapped an arm around his waist and murmured, "How could they not?"
Anton glanced out the windows of the North District house. The backyard was bathed in the orange light of the sunset, giving everything—the pool, the grass, the bushes, the sculptures—an ethereal glow.
Both Kirsten and Niklas turned to stare at Anton.
"What about him?" asked Niklas.
"His brother was murdered by Peter Oswalk on Head Louisa Cadmus' orders." Anton drummed his fingers on the armrest of the couch. "Do you think he wants to fight for the Cadmus?"
"You think you can convince him to join the Self-Named?" asked Niklas.
Kirsten bit her lip. "That poor family."
Neither Niklas nor Anton were listening to her. In their minds, they were both running through a list of what they could say to Levi to convince him to join the Self-Named.
"If he's loyal to the Cadmus," said Niklas. "Contacting him could put the Self-Named in danger."
"The Cadmus already know we exist," said Anton.
"They could use him as a spy."
"We give him limited information. He won't be a member of a sect; he'll talk to me and me alone."
"It might be better to approach Levi Joakim-Cadmus regardless of whether Sindre is a candidate or not," said Niklas. "The more Self-Named were have fighting for the Warrior's Seat, the better our odds."
"Levi isn't as strong as Sindre," said Anton.
The front door of the Pehr house opened, signaled by the chime of the alarm system.
"The girls are back." Kirsten released her husband and moved towards the hallway.
Niklas sent Anton a sharp look, meaning that they would discuss Levi Joakim-Cadmus later.
There was the sound of hurried footsteps and then two young women, both dressed in jeans and t-shirts, appeared at the doorway of the living room. Rahel flung her arms around Kirsten's neck and planted a kiss on her cheek, while Caarina turned to offer Anton a half-smile.
"Have you been following the announcements?" asked Caarina, moving to join her brother on the couch.
"Of course," said Anton. "How was the sect meeting?"
"We have a newbie." Rahel bounded across the living room to give her father a hug as well.
"The one who beat an unarmed Raoul Leandre in a bar fight," said Caarina. "Rahel already has a crush on him."
"Hey!" cried Rahel. "You're not supposed to tell my parents that."
Niklas set his brandy glass down on the bar counter and turned to survey his daughter. "Who is this newbie?"
A wide grin spread across Rahel's face and Anton suppressed a groan. He and Caarina knew that look very well. She'd worn it for her classmate Erik, for the waiter at a nearby restaurant, for Olov when she first joined Pearson's Sect—she'd even worn it for Anton at one point. Shaking his head, Anton couldn't help but feel a wave of pity for the unsuspecting Knute Vidar.
So Sindre Pavind had been chosen as the People's candidate. Dietrich had heard of Sindre Pavind, the Nameless chimera from the slums. Six years ago, Head Marcel Leandre had offered him a spot in the Leandre and a marriage to one of Marcel's cousins. Sindre Pavind had rejected the Head's offer with gusto and that was the last the Houses had seen of him. Until now, apparently.
Dietrich leaned back on his leather sofa and watched the figures on the television screen move about. He wasn't even watching the movie. All his energy was focused on staying awake for at least another hour. Roden, Clare, Magda, and Cord had gone to bed the moment the candidates had been announced, but Dietrich had insisted on staying up so that he didn't screw with his sleep schedule. After being awake for thirty-six hours straight, Dietrich was beginning to regret his decision.
He blinked, trying to keep his eyes open.
It had been decided. Five candidates from the Aegon, five candidates from the Cadmus, five candidates from the Leandre, and one candidate from the People.
Dietrich snorted. If Sindre Pavind thought he could deprive the Houses of the Warrior's Seat, he had another thing coming. The Houses had a way of making sure the People's candidate never reached the finale.
Not that the Houses would have to do anything this year. Dani would be enough to keep Sindre Pavind away from the Seat.
Dietrich had been surprised when he'd seen that "Allison Tveit" was listed amongst the Cadmus candidates. He'd been certain Dani would never represent the Cadmus. Not even if it meant she could gain the power of the Warrior's Seat. But maybe Head Louisa Cadmus had submitted Allison Tveit's name despite Dani's refusal.
A buzzing noise filled the room as Dietrich's cellphone vibrated against the leather couch cushion. Knute had sent a message that Pearson's Sect meeting had ended and he would report tomorrow. Dietrich didn't bother to respond. Knute would come whether Dietrich replied or not.
Thirteen more days, thought Dietrich, sinking a little deeper into the couch. Thirteen more days until the Readjustment Season began.
There was the dull thud of a fist hitting the front door. Dietrich turned to stare at the door, but the blinds were down so he couldn't see who was standing outside. He debated pretending he'd fallen asleep so he wouldn't have to answer it. He didn't want to deal with his family right then. However, the living room lights were on and all his siblings knew he could never fall asleep knowing he was wasting electricity.
Sighing, Dietrich got to his feet and headed for the door.
The sharp knock came again.
Dietrich unlocked the deadbolt and wrenched open the door to find himself face-to-face with the wreck that was Dani Tveit.
The light of his front porch exaggerated her swollen eyes, red nose, and smeared make-up, making her seem distorted and almost ghost-like. There was dried blood on the left side of her forehead, but she barely seemed to notice. Her blue eyes were fixed on Dietrich and the expression on her face was enough to make him cringe.
Part of Dietrich knew he should comfort her, that was gentlemanly thing to do, as his sisters would say, but honestly, the only thought running through Dietrich's mind right then was: so Dani Tveit can cry.
"You look like shit."
"So," said Dietrich, stepping back so she could enter the house, "I guess I'll be sleeping on the sofa tonight."
That was a long chapter to edit. I scrapped most of the original so sections 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 are all new. But I got to introduce two of my favorite characters in this chapter.: What did you think of Karsten Geog and Adam Aegon? What about Roden and Clare? What did you think of Pearson's Sect? How's Knute doing as a spy? What do you think of Rahel Pehr? And Anton and Niklas' plotting? What do you think's going on with Peter and Head Louisa's relationship? What about Head Louisa bludgeoning Allison with a paperweight? What do you think of Allison's attempt to thwart Dani? And what about Dani's break down?
Please, please, please REVIEW. I don't know how to get you to do it, but I really want to hear your opinions. PLEASE.