Authors: Jennifer Quintenz
I heard Amber’s steps behind me, but I wasn’t expecting her to grab my arm. I turned to face her reluctantly.
“I bet you’re just loving this.” Amber’s face was blotchy with shame and anger.
“No, Amber, I’m not.” I sighed, suddenly tired. What would it take to end this feud?
“You’d better forget what you heard. Because if you tell anyone—”
The threat, so familiar, suddenly kindled a white-hot spark in my chest. “You’ll what?” I stepped closer to Amber. Startled, she stumbled backwards a pace. “Hurt more of my friends? Maybe actually kill one of them this time?”
Amber faced me down, but instead of her usual sadistic calm, I saw real pain in her eyes. “Just keep this to yourself.” She turned and stalked off, scraping together what was left of her dignity.
I watched her go, feeling sick. Amber was a spotter, something the Guard was in sore need of right now. I knew it, and Lucas knew it, but neither of us wanted Amber anywhere near the Guard. So we’d agreed not to tell anyone about her. Now, if only my conscience would get on board. Because as it stood, every time I saw Amber, I felt another little stab of guilt for keeping her a secret from the Guard.
I picked myself up off the practice mat, winded. Hale, concerned, hurried forward, offering me a hand. I took it gratefully.
“Good one.” I managed a smile as Hale helped me to my feet. “Guess I let my attention wander for a second.” It was partly true; I’d spent the prior evening convincing Karayan to start training with us in the basement. She’d agreed to come and check it out, but was way beyond lukewarm about the idea of sparring with Hale or any other Guardsman. A small part of me wanted to show off for her, to make sparring more appealing. So it was while I was sneaking a look at Karayan to gauge her reaction that Hale struck. I hadn’t seen the punch coming fast enough to block it. Hale’s fist connected solidly, tagged me hard in the shoulder.
“Maybe you should sit down for a moment.” Hale studied my face, his brows drawing together.
“Probably not a bad idea.” I glanced back to the wall, where Karayan stood watching us, arms crossed. I walked over to her, grabbing my water bottle off the table. “So,” I started, forcing a bit too much cheerful enthusiasm into my voice. “What do you think?”
“I think you’re lucky Hale didn’t take your head off.” Karayan’s eyebrow quirked up. “I’ve found, when you’re in a fight, it’s usually a good idea to keep your eyes on your opponent.”
“Right.” I took a long drink of water, blushing.
Hale joined us, blotting at his face with a small towel. “So, Karayan. Interested in starting some training with us?” His voice was measured. Not too friendly, but not too cold, either. He hadn’t made up his mind about her. I glanced at Karayan, and saw an equally reserved expression on her face.
The basement door opened above us as several newcomers started down the stairs. I heard them talking with each other long before they came into view. I felt a tightening in my chest and battled the urge to cloak myself. Not that it would do any good. The new spotters—the spotters that Hale and Dad had tried so hard to keep me away from—would see through my cloak in an instant. I didn’t want to give them another reason to mistrust me. Being Lilitu was more than enough to put me on their hit list.
After the Seal had opened and Karayan had joined our side, Hale decided the time had come to introduce us to the spotters. It was a very tense meeting. Gretchen had managed to talk them out of attacking me, but only after they’d verified that none of the Guardsmen were currently in Thrall to me. Not that I’d expected the meeting to be easy, but I’d hoped that once they’d realized I was on their side, they’d warm up to me. They hadn’t. In fact, since that first meeting, none of the new spotters had said word one to me.
Rhea saw us first. The temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees. Short and stocky, with pinched eyes and a thin smile, Rhea was the one spotter I had no interest in getting to know better. She was maybe 40 years old, and she carried herself like she believed the world was out to get her. There was something about her, something mean and spiteful. Frizzy, dirty blond hair framed her pale face, while a smattering of freckles dusted her cheeks. In another lifetime, she might have been cute. But whatever was wrong with her inside eclipsed any potential beauty outside. She was the spotter for one of the last units that arrived in Puerto Escondido before the Seal was opened. I hadn’t had too much interaction with her. That being said—what little interaction we’d had was more than enough for one lifetime. She froze, hands automatically moving to the daggers at her side. The other spotters tensed in response.
Karayan stepped up beside me, offering a united front. The spotters eyed us with open hostility.
“Nice afternoon for a practice session.” Hale moved forward to greet them, subtly putting himself between the spotters and Karayan and me.
Rhea’s eyes slid from Hale to me. “We didn’t realize the basement was occupied.”
“Actually, I usually train Braedyn and Lucas every day after school around this time,” Hale said, keeping his voice warm and open, “but I don’t see any reason why we can’t all train together. There’s more than enough room. If you need more practice mats, you’ll find them over there.” Hale gestured at a line of mats stacked up against the far wall of the basement.
Rhea hesitated, giving me another beady glare. “Fine.” She turned on her heel, heading for the mats. The other spotters followed suit, more than one taking a moment to gawk at Karayan or me before helping set the mats out.
Hale turned back to me and I saw his shoulders ease. So he’d been more worried than he’d let on.
“How’s the shoulder?” Hale moved forward and touched my shoulder. I hissed as his fingers made contact.
“Sorry. Still a bit sore.” I knew the bruise—if it even formed—would fade quickly. That was one—on a very short list—of the advantages of being a Lilitu. But the initial pain of the injury was just as intense for me as it would be for a regular human girl. I edged the collar of my shirt aside. Sure enough, an angry red welt was blooming across my shoulder.
“Should we call it for today?” Hale asked.
I glanced at Karayan and sighed. It had been hard enough to get her to come down here with me. “No, I want to keep going.” Before Hale could argue, I smiled lamely. “I promise to pay more attention this time.”
Hale shrugged. “If you’re sure.” He walked out onto the mat.
Before I joined him, I turned to Karayan and dropped my voice. “I know you’re not sure about this, but training is about more than just learning how to fight.”
“Oh?” Karayan sniffed. “Enlighten me.”
“It’s about showing
,” I didn’t have to point to the spotters behind me; Karayan’s eyes sought them out, “that you’re one of the good guys. It’s about building trust with the Guard, and earning their trust in return. It’s about becoming part of the family.” I saw my words strike home.
“Family, huh?” Karayan’s eyes hardened. “Then you might want to turn around. Your bitchy older sister is headed this way.”
I turned. Rhea walked straight toward me, a neutral little smile on her lips. “So. Brenda, right?”
“Braedyn.” I said, forcing myself to smile.
“Braedyn, sure. We’ve got odd numbers, and I noticed you guys have odd numbers, too. So how about you spar with me?”
I felt a little shock of surprise. “Sure.”
“Great.” Rhea turned and walked back to an open mat. I followed her, unsettled. From any of the others, I might have taken this as an overture of friendship.
Rhea planted herself at one end of the mat. I took my place at the other end. Before I’d settled into my stance, Rhea lunged. I swung for her, startled at the attack. Rhea dodged under my swing and stepped into my personal space, smashing a fist into my stomach. I dropped to one knee, breathless. Dimly, I was aware of the other spotters snickering behind me.
“Easy!” Hale rushed forward. “What the hell was that?” He spun on Rhea, who eyed him levelly.
“Sorry.” Rhea shrugged, but she didn’t look sorry. “We were taught not to pull our punches when we train.”
“I’m not asking you to pull your punches.” Hale’s fists were balled tight with fury. “She wasn’t ready for—”
“You want to fight, spotter? Fight me.” Karayan strode forward, something almost feral in her grin. Alarms blared in my mind. The last thing we needed was open war between the spotters and Karayan.
“It’s okay.” I pushed myself to my feet, refusing to let the pain of Rhea’s blow register on my face. “She barely got me.” I eyed Hale, urging him to deal with Karayan before things got out of hand.
“Why don’t you spar with me, Karayan?” Hale asked. Either he’d picked up on my silent plea, or he could see where this was headed the same as I could.
Karayan looked at me, a question in her eyes. I nodded in encouragement. “Fine,” Karayan sighed. “Show me what you’ve got.” Karayan followed Hale back to his practice mat. I watched them, curious.
“Well?” Rhea stepped into my line of vision. “Are we doing this or not?”
“I’m not sure what you’re doing, Rhea.” I met her gaze, keeping my voice level. “I’m getting a drink of water.” I pushed past Rhea and headed back to the safety of the wall. I heard more snickers behind me, and did my best to ignore them. I picked up my water bottle again and sat on the ground, trying not to strain my tender body any more.
Rhea turned her back on me, returning to her group. I put her out of my mind, focusing instead on Hale and Karayan.
Hale was showing Karayan a few basic moves. She looked irritated, and gestured for him to get to it already. Hale shrugged and stepped back. Karayan took a defensive stance. Hale attacked, a simple but powerful charge.
Karayan twisted to the side, slicing her arm down to block his blow. Hale overshot her but recovered quickly. He spun back to face her, his face a mask of concentration. Karayan watched him with a bland expression. Hale attacked again, this time swinging out with the full force of his arm. Karayan slid past the punch and dropped to the mat, sweeping Hale’s foot out from under him. Startled, Hale dropped to the mat. I couldn’t help but let out a
The spotters turned in time to see Karayan offer Hale a hand. He took it and let her help him up.
Hale eyed her, grinning ruefully. “Nicely done.”
Karayan crossed her arms, but I could tell she was pleased. “You do realize Thane started me training in hand-to-hand combat around the time I could stand, right?”
“And look how well that turned out.” Rhea’s voice, though directed to the other spotters, was loud enough to carry.
It wiped the small gleam of satisfaction out of Karayan’s eyes. Hale turned, irritated.
“Hmm?” She gave him a flat look, daring him to call her out.
“Is there a problem here?”
“Is there a problem?” Rhea gave him a look of pity. “The fact that you can’t see it makes it all the more serious.”
“If you have something to say, please, go ahead.” Hale was keeping his anger on a tight leash, but I could see the muscle in his jaw jumping. I glanced at Karayan, worried.
“Look. We’ve been watching that Seal for almost a month, right? And nothing. Then you put her on duty—” without taking her eyes off of Hale, Rhea pointed her finger directly at me, “and a Lilitu comes through. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what’s going on here.”
I was on my feet in an instant. “What are you—Are you accusing me of
Rhea shrugged. “I just think it’s interesting timing, that’s all.”
I charged Rhea, fury drowning out caution. Hale caught me around the chest, keeping me from reaching the smirking spotter. “I’m loyal to the Guard,” I hissed.
“Right. So, answer a question for us—‘cause we weren’t there, and no one seems willing to tell us—how exactly was the Seal opened? I mean, you were there, right? So what happened that night?”
An icy splash of fear drove out my anger. Hale, sensing my change, released me. He caught my eye, worried.
Karayan’s laugh filled the room like the peal of bells.
Rhea glanced at her, irritated. “Something funny, demon?”
“You are.” Karayan’s laugh faded, and her eyes glinted. “Braedyn, don’t let them get under your skin. They’re clearly threatened. Not only can we do their job, but we’re faster than they are, stronger than they are, and—” Karayan tossed her glorious hair, playing up every one of her remarkable advantages. Hale had to tear his eyes away from her. “Well. Maybe I should leave it at that. No need to get catty.”
Rhea’s eyes strained with outrage. “Really? You just saw me drop your little friend with one punch.”
“Oh, sweetie, no.” Karayan’s voice dropped to a dangerous tone. “She’d take you apart in a fair fight.”
“Okay, I think that’s enough training for one afternoon.” Hale ushered Karayan and me out of the basement.
But as I followed them up the stairs, I risked one look back. Rhea’s pinched eyes were still fixed to me, radiating cold hatred. I sighed. Looks like we weren’t going to be planning a girl’s night out any time soon.