Chapter One (The Handball Court)
I lifted my hand to my forehead and squinted my eyes, trying to shade my face from the bright morning sun.
“You gonna play too, D?” Soda called, bouncing the small blue rubber ball on the concrete with the flat of his palm. Conner stood beside him in the handball court, his white t-shirt already damp with sweat. They both stared at me expectantly and I shook my head, watching them from the park bench on the other side of the chain-linked fence that separated the court from the rest of the park.
“It’s more fun just to watch you two jump around in there.” I said, shrugging as I leaned back into the wooden slatted seat.
Conner’s mouth twisted up into a wicked smirk and he winked suggestively at me before reaching out his hand to snatch the ball from Soda mid-bounce.
I rolled my eyes, laughing as they resumed their positions on either side of the court. Soda bounced the handball once - twice - then batted it hard with the palm of his hand, sending it flying towards the middle of the concrete wall. It connected with a loud pop before bouncing back. Conner quickly darted to the left, his hand smacking it hard, sending it spinning back towards the wall.
I watched them through squinted eyes from the bench, the sunlight almost blinding with its intensity. The winter chill had passed, leading without much notice into the sweet warmth of springtime. I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs with the pleasant scent of freshly cut grass. The park trees were dappled with small bright green buds, preparing the sky for the impending explosion of lush leaves and flowers. I should have been happy for the change of season - the gray and white world of winter always left me feeling despondent and lonely, especially around the holidays. Now all it seemed to remind me of was how much time had passed and how little I had accomplished of late.
It had been just one delay after another. Waiting for the nettles to grow - waiting for Silas to return - waiting for Eva Applegru to figure out why the revealing solution she’d made for my mother’s journal wasn’t working anymore…
“D, check this out!” Soda’s voice pulled me out of my thoughts. I grinned as I watched him attempt to hit the ball from over his shoulder. It rolled off the tips of his fingers, careening in the opposite direction and hitting the chain-linked fence with a reverberating shake of metal. Julian squawked angrily down at the boys in the handball court, quickly taking to the air and then landing on the back of the bench beside me. His dark eyes glared at Soda and Conner in annoyance. I blinked hard, peering into the tree branches overhead for signs of my other two brothers. I had been so lost in my head, I hadn’t even noticed Julian watching us from the top of the fence.
All the waiting was driving me crazy. I felt fidgety and restless. I needed to do something - but other than gradually collecting the items for my brothers’ cure, I was at an impasse. Special, rare nettles were required for the last part of the antidote and Silas’ tree-cursed cousin Maeve had said it would take until spring to grow the quantity I needed.
Just one more infuriating delay.
I took another deep breath of the crisp, fragrant air. It was finally time, but I needed Silas’ help to retrieve them from Maeve, and Silas hadn’t been seen in months. That thought alone sent a pain shooting straight through my chest.
Conner’s Irish accent caught my ear, “I don’t think she’s paying you any attention, buddy.” He laughed, bending down to fetch the wayward rubber ball as it rolled away.
Even though it had been awkward, I’d honored my word to Silas about keeping an eye on his “nephew”. With his brother Graham off hunting Leena, Conner had been left alone in a city he hardly knew. Despite their earlier resistance, he and Soda hit it off, spending quite a bit of their free time hanging out together. Though Conner and I were no longer dating, there was still a lot of tension between us. Much to my relief, Soda did most of the “keeping an eye” on Conner for me.
Soda laughed, his cheeks ruddy and flushed, his forehead beading with sweat. He took several quick steps backwards and smacked hard at the ball.
“She’s not paying mind to either one of us.” He snorted, grinning playfully up at me.
I stuck my tongue out in his direction before turning my gaze back down to the cell phone in my lap. I had gotten a text from Eva Applegru the night before. Every time I read her words my heart raced with anticipation.
Revealed another page last night. I think this solution may be working finally. I need you to come by Manuscripts for another donation.
The night Silas had left to protect Leena from Graham, I had gotten a message from Eva, excited that she had figured out how to reveal the hidden writing in my mother’s book - but when I arrived the next morning, something had changed.
Eva was resting her elbows on the smooth wooden counter when I arrived at Manuscripts that morning. Her short blond hair was unusually messy, like she had just rolled out of bed, and she had dark purple bags under her eyes.
“Where is it?” I asked excitedly as I slid up to her on the other side of the counter.
Eva’s expression darkened when she saw me.
“Denora, hey…” She fidgeted with the stack of books spread out in front of her, refusing to look me in the eye as I eagerly bounced on my toes. I was so excited I could hardly stand still. Eva sighed, “Look, something happened after I called you last night.”
My eyebrows shot up in surprise, and a sour grimace plastered over her pale pink lips. Eva pushed her hair back up out of her face with both hands, her palms pushing hard at her forehead before she dropped them flat onto the counter.
“You all right?” I asked, watching as she hesitantly reached under the counter and lifted up my mother’s journal wrapped in a protective cloth.
Eva nodded, “Yeah. I was just up all night trying to figure out what happened.” She unrolled the covering and opened the leather-bound book to the first page.
It was still blank.
My eyes widened in disbelief. It felt as if someone had just sucker-punched me in the gut.
Eva cleared her throat loudly as my mood spiraled into despondency in front of her, “It was there - I swear to you. When I called you I had just finished reading the first three pages…”
“What happened?” I gently reached out and turned the book around to face me, peering down at the empty paper suspiciously.
“I—” She gulped hard, “—don’t know. From all my experiments and studies, it should have worked. It did work… but when I went back for it later, the words were slowly evaporating off the page.”
“Evaporating?” I lifted one eyebrow and Eva flinched.
“I’ve tried everything to get the words to re-appear. It’s like they’re just gone!”
“Maybe the solution you made only works once?”
“Perhaps.” Eva scratched her head, “I started working on a variation of the solution just this morning. I think if I—”
“You’re saying you might still be able to do it?” My mood lifted, just for an instant.
“I’m not promising anything, but I’ll keep trying if you want.”
I sighed. There wasn’t really any other option. It was either let Eva keep trying or resign myself to never being able to read my mother’s words.
I was starting to feel like a hamster, running tirelessly on a wheel that wasn’t going anywhere fast.
Eva slid an empty jar towards me across the counter. She needed another sample of my essence if she were going to make a new revealing solution. I gritted my teeth, presenting her with my hand. She pricked the end of my finger with a sharp pin until a bubble of red blossomed over the tip. Three droplets swirled, landing in the bottom of the glass container. Without a word, Eva quickly sealed the jar and slid it, and my book, back under the counter out of view.
“Let me know if you make any new progress.” I groaned over my shoulder, heading for the exit. Eva rubbed her eyes, her jaw tightening as she resisted the urge to yawn in front of me.
It had been five months since that day, and Eva was now on her ninth version of the revealing solution. Though she could get the words to appear, they only lasted a few minutes before they’d start to vanish again. At this rate, Eva was getting to read more of my mother’s journal than I ever would. It took every ounce of patience I had, knowing that when we succeeded what was written inside would be worth the wait.
I slid the phone back into the pocket of my jeans and glanced up just as Ru entered the park from the street. She looked agitated, a frown pulling at the corners of her painted red lips. As she slowly strolled up the path her dark eyes squinted over the row of benches, lighting up when she spotted Soda and Conner in the handball court. Her expression immediately softened, and she quickened her step, her heels clicking on the pavement.
“Hey baby!” She chirped cheerfully, wrapping her fingers through the chain-link fence that separated the court from the sitting area. Soda turned at the sound of her voice and the rubber ball snapped back off the wall, striking him hard on the shin.
“Oh, damn!” Conner laughed, “Fouled by your own girlfriend.” His eyes darted across the court suddenly, fixing on my face. Conner smiled sheepishly, his dimple cutting into the left side of his cheek before he looked away.
We didn’t talk about what happened between us - what we almost were. I’d made my choice and Conner his. Now we both had to find a common ground and live with it.
Soda bent down with a look of embarrassment, snatching up the ball with one hand while his other rubbed at his shin. Conner shrugged, stepping to the side as Soda bounced the ball again, launching it furiously towards the wall. Ru slowly turned from the fence, smiling in a way that didn’t quite reach her eyes. I slid over, giving her space on the bench, and she dropped down beside me with a look of exasperation.
Ru nodded, “Just some stuff with my mom. She’s really stressing me out right now.”
“She still pressuring you about the Equinox Celebration?”
Ru dipped her head in confirmation while her hand fished around in the bottom of her shiny leather purse. She chanced a quick glance over at the handball court before lifting the crisp white envelope out and handing it to me.
I lifted an eyebrow as I peered down at the fancy silver lettering on the front:
Denora Duvain, Representing the Duvain Clandestine.
“Your invitation.” She said, her voice dipped low so the boys couldn’t hear.
I sighed, slipping the unopened envelop into the bottom of my bag.
The entire Clandestine community of New York was preparing for the Vernal Equinox Celebration, a formal event that happened only once every twenty years. The next one was only a week away.
Ru and I sat for a moment, watching Conner and Soda dart and dance around inside the handball court in silent admiration. Their faces were hard with focus, broken only by occasional bouts of laughter. I was startled when the ball flew past Conner’s head, shuddering into the fence. He held his hands up in surrender, lifting his chin in our direction. When Soda’s bright blue eyes landed on Ru, he broke out into a toothy grin.
“You haven’t mentioned anything about the Celebration to Mike, have you?” Ru said under her breath as she watched Soda retrieve the wayward handball from the corner of her eye.
“I had barely even thought about it - so no.” I shrugged. Soda slapped Conner hard on the back as they stepped out of the gate into the main area of the park. They were laughing about something between them, shuffling down the path in our direction. I turned my gaze towards Ru who was watching them approach with a pained look in her eyes, “Why?”
“It’s just—” Her lips twisted into a melancholy frown, “I can’t take him. He’s not Clan, you know? My mother would skin me alive if she knew we had even been seeing each other.”
I nodded to myself in agreement. Mrs. Ti’Lao was a stern woman, and very set on Clan traditions. The entire Equinox Celebration was her family’s most enduring tradition. Every twenty years, the reigning Ti’Lao Matriarch would choose her successor during an elaborate ceremony. It wasn’t how most Clans chose their leaders anymore, but the Ti’Lao’s clung to it, and poor Ru was stuck in the middle of all the planning and preparation for the big event.
Ru sighed, rising back up onto her heels, “Just don’t say anything, okay? I don’t want him to be upset.”
I smiled tightly as she turned away. Her face shifted back into a cheerful grin as she skipped towards my blue-haired friend and wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him affectionately on the lips. A moment later I heard laughter boom from Soda’s throat and Ru stepped back with a look of dismay, wiping at the front of her dress where his sweaty body had pressed up against hers. Conner shook his head, his lips curled into an amused smirk as he passed them, heading straight towards the bench without stopping.
I passed him a small hand-towel from inside my bag as he slid into the seat beside me. He smiled, dimples bursting in his cheeks.
“Thanks.” He said, running it over the beading sweat dripping down his forehead, his blond hair slick over his skull. He rubbed the cloth over the back of his neck, his eyes following to Soda and Ru with a look of jealousy. “So, you get your invitation yet?” He said absently, reaching across my lap to grab a bottle of cold water from beside me on the other side of the bench, his forearm brushing against my thigh. I held my breath as his arm retracted back, trying to ignore the way my cheeks warmed at his touch.
I knew he’d done it on purpose. Just the fact that I was still hyper-aware of any physical contact with him made me squirm with guilt - so I pretended not to notice.
My hand patted at the invitation through my bag, “Yeah, Ru just gave it to me.”
Conner twisted the cap off the bottle with a smooth turn of his wrist and shrugged back at me, “Have you picked your escort?” His Irish accent somehow made even the most mundane words sound sexy, and I wasn’t immune to it, no matter how hard I tried. I chewed at my lower lip, watching the two lovebirds slowly pick their way down the path towards us.
“I’m not going.” I said under my breath so Ru wouldn’t overhear.
The Vernal Equinox was a strict and formal event - as in “ball gowns and petite heels”. I had already decided against going, especially since it required I bring a date. Ru would be livid, but there was no way in hell I was going to go and “represent” my so-called Clan just so some stuck up old-timers could feel nostalgic.
Conner fixed me with a disappointed frown, “You need to go, D. Ru will be crushed if you skip this. It’s kind of a big deal for her.”
I groaned inwardly, “And I suppose you’re offering to take me?”
Conner’s cheeks spread into a dazzling smile in confirmation.
I glared hard in response, one eyebrow raised at Conner. He blinked innocently, hiding his grin behind the mouth of the bottle as he took a small sip and swallowed it down.
“I’m with Silas now, Conner. You know that.” I said slowly, trying not to sound as annoyed as I felt.
Conner’s smile tightened. He took another long drink, chugging it down, and tossed the empty bottle into the air. My eyes followed the clear plastic tube as it sailed over our heads in a wide arc, landing neatly into the large metal garbage can several feet away. When I turned back to him, Conner’s expression was playful, but his voice held an edge of frustration.
“Really? Because I don’t see him anywhere. I haven’t seen him in months, have you?” He lifted an eyebrow in challenge.
Conner was right - though I hated to admit it. I hadn’t seen Silas since that night in Henriette’s brownstone, when he’d told me his plan to protect Leena from Graham - and spy on her in the process. I had barely accepted my feelings for him before he was whisked away, leaving everything up in the air, and dumping me with his distant nephew whose eyes still sparkled with hope whenever he looked at me. The prospect of going on anything that even resembled a date with Conner brought up such a confusing mixture of emotions it made me nauseous, and the longer Silas remained away, the more Conner seemed to take it as an invitation to continue pursuing me.
“Like I said, I’m not going. I’m sure Ru will forgive me eventually.”
Conner stood without a word as Ru and Soda stepped up to the bench. Ru quickly took the vacated seat, and I tossed the other hand-towel at Soda, hitting him square in the face.
“I’m that bad?” He laughed, rubbing the cloth up over his short blue hair before sliding it back down his forehead.
“Your girlfriend seems to think so.” Conner chuckled, peering at me from over his shoulder as he said it.
For a split second our eyes locked, and I quickly turned away, staring down at my own hands in my lap to hide the warm tingling spreading across my cheeks. I had almost been his girlfriend, and Conner never wasted a chance to remind me of what I had passed on when I chose Silas over him.
“There’s just something about watching two hot guys get all sweaty, smacking a ball back and forth.” Ru said with a playful wink.
“Just as long as they don’t hug you afterward?” I joked.
Ru made a face, her delicate hands smoothing over the damp spots on the front of her dress. Soda leaned his head over, pouring cold water over the back of his sweat-slicked hair. He shook it out like a wet dog, sending his girlfriend into a frenzy of squeals as she scrambled to get out of the spray. Soda laughed, gulping down the rest of the bottle before wiping his mouth with the back of his arm.
“I’m going to head back to the apartment. You guys coming?”
I shook my head in denial, “I have an errand to run. I’ll be back this afternoon though.”
He looked expectantly at Ru and she smiled regretfully, “I need to talk to D about something. I’ll be over later too.”
Soda simply nodded to her, dipping down to steal a quick kiss before turning down the path towards the street. I expected Conner to follow, but he remained hovering over us.
“I promised Nadine I’d come help at the shop today.” He called out, “Work before play, you know?”
Soda turned as his sneakers hit the pavement, pausing to wave at us before disappearing out of view. The moment he was gone, Ru sank miserably into my shoulder.
“Come on, woman! Something is eating at you, just spit it out already!” I said, nudging her with my elbow before hopping to my feet.
Ru sucked her breath in surprise, and then her whole body relaxed. She sighed heavily, rising from the bench, and the three of us started a slow shuffle out of the park towards China Town.
“The Vernal Equinox Celebration…” She shook her head, deciding to start over, “So, my family has some strange customs.”
Conner snorted out a laugh, “I’ve heard of stranger ones.”
He was referring to his own Clan’s unusual practice of animal-shifting. Though Conner hadn’t imbibed the family tradition, his older brother had - tattooing his body with ritual inks and symbols to give himself the ability to change into the form of a monitor lizard - just as Silas had done over a century before to gain the attributes of a predatory feline.
Ru shifted uneasily on her feet as we rounded the corner, and the large unassuming black door to The Garden came into view.
“In the Ti’Lao Clan, the Matriarch is not passed down from mother to daughter upon her passing like it is with the other Clans. The heir is chosen from all the eligible young women in the family by the current Matriarch.”
Conner and I both nodded in unison. We were already aware of the old-school nature of her family’s ceremony.
Ru stopped short as we reached the secret entrance into The Garden sanctuary. Conner grasped the doorknob in his fist, his eyes focused in concentration as he commanded the spelled lock to release. He was still learning how to use his abilities, but he had been training with Nadine for the past few months, and he was quickly adapting to life as a Clandestine.
Ru’s gaze fixed down the dark hallway with a look of dread as he swung the door open in front of us. At the other end was a patch of well-manicured grass and trees, dotted with sitting benches that encircled a bubbling water-fountain at its heart. The outer ring was lined with Clandestine shops with worn wooden signs that carried rare items for spells and curses - one of which belonged to Ru’s family.
She didn’t move.
“What I’m trying to say is that the choosing process is different. It’s not a birthright. It has to be earned.” The way she said it made me paused mid-stride. Ru gulped hard as if trying to find her voice. “Every twenty years, the Ti’Lao Clan’s Matriarch choses a new heir at the Vernal Equinox. As a female child of my Clan, I have been groomed since the day I was born to make the best impression - to make me the best candidate for heir.”
“Seriously?” I smiled excitedly, “So, you could end up Matriarch one day?”
I had always wondered why Ru’s mother was so strict about her homeschooling and study. Now it all made sense.
Ru groaned, “If my mother has her way - yes. In one week’s time, when the Clans gather to celebrate, the Matriarch of my Clan will choose a new heir and I’m one of those in line.”
She looked so miserable.
Conner smiled reassuringly, looping his elbow through hers as he led her down the corridor, “You don’t want to be Matriarch?”
She was dragging her heels, as if what awaited her in the sunlight at the other end was a pit of vipers.
“It’s not that simple. I’ve been preparing for this my whole life - but now things are… complicated.”
“Why is that?” He asked.
Ru swallowed hard, “Because of Micheal. To be Matriarch, I must be escorted by a suitable companion - a Clandestine-born companion. My mother has been picking out suitors for weeks.” Her eyes welled-up with tears, her mascara smearing on the upper curve of her cheek, “I don’t know what to do. How do I tell Soda I’m going to a big party he’s not invited to with some guy my mother expects me to spend the rest of my life with?”
The rest of her life?
I felt as if all the warmth had been sucked out of me. If what she said were true, it would break Soda’s heart. I opened my mouth and realized I couldn’t find the words. She had just hit me with a burden I didn’t know how to handle and my brain was trying desperately to process it. No wonder Ru was such a wildfire. When your family controlled every aspect of your existence, a free-spirit like Ru was bound to chaff against their rigid customs.
“Does your mom know you’ve been seeing Soda?” Conner said quietly as he released her arm. Soda was his friend too, and I was certain he was struggling with the same feelings I was over how Soda would react.
Ru simply shook her head.
I sighed, wrapping her in a tight hug as we reached the end of the brick hallway.
“I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could do.”
She hugged me back hard, “You are going to be there, right? I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel more confident when you’re around.” Her cheeks turned slightly pink at the admission and I blinked hard in surprise. I hadn’t had any intention of going, but the hopeful look she gave me made me squirm with guilt.
“I wasn’t planning to.” I admitted.
Ru’s dark eyes grew wide with panic, “You have to come! Denora, please!”
I chewed my lower lip. Would it really be so bad to just dress up for one night and play the part? My friend needed me.
“I’ll think about it.” I finally said.
“I guess that’s good enough for now.” Ru suddenly brightened, “On the plus side, I’m fairly sure a certain green-eyed hunk will be there, if that makes your decision any easier.”
I sucked my next breath in so sharply it stung. I had never imagined that Silas might attend the celebration. He’d been gone for so long, it hadn’t even occurred to me.
Ru smirked triumphantly at my reaction, “Leena never misses a ceremony this level of importance. She’s already RSVP’d, and you can be sure that if she’s coming, he’ll be there as well.”
My heart swelled with excitement, an elated grin plastering over my face at the mere thought.
Silas would be returning home.