Authors: Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright Â© 2015 by Amelia Atwater Rhodes
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York
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He who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watch-word of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget.
Marcel offered her hand to the seven-year-old, who had paused, fighting the urge to flee. Kadee's fingertips were trembling, and the edges of her vision wavered. She pulled in deep breaths, bringing to mind the fleshwitch's voice saying, “Tell me what you must do, when you feel this way.”
Calm my body. Draw a breath, and let it out slowly, naturally. Recognize the tightness in my muscles and relax, bit by bit. Make myself quiet.
Kadee refused Marcel's hand, thinking,
This isn't fair!
She wanted to cry and scream and throw a tantrum. But she didn't want that to happen in front of Marcel, or in front of her new family.
My fake family.
Her real family was far away. They probably didn't even know what had happened her. All because Marcel felt Kadee would be “better off” with the strange, magical people related to the man who had abandoned her mother than she was with the two loving human parents who had raised her.
“I'm ready,” she told Marcel.
It was the sight of the door to the serpiente palace that had stopped her. It didn't look like a palace in a fairy tale. The walls were stone, brick, and wood, and they weren't even as high as the healer's hut had been. The grand doors were heavy, dark wood, carved with intricate designs that might have been beautiful if they hadn't led into this low, squat thing, which looked like the house of a troll.
Guards stood next to the door; their eyes locked on Marcel and Kadee as they approached. Their uniforms were dark, midnight-blue shirts and slacks mostly covered by black leather vests, wrist guards, and high boots, and they each carried a sword, a dagger,
a bow. One was a woman, but she was dressed just like the man, and her gaze was hard.
“Trader Marcel of the Shantel and Kadee, here to see Diente Julian,” Marcel said. “We are expected.”
The guards nodded. One pushed open the heavy doors.
“Much of the palace is underground,” Marcel explained as they descended polished, marble stairs that might as well have led into the belly of Jonah's whale. The grand entryway had a vaulted ceiling high enough to contain the entire church where Kadee had once said prayers with her father, steeple and all. Light filtered down from arched windows in the ceiling and was reflected by magnificent mosaics made of mirror, gold, silver, copper, and precious gems.
Beautiful, againâ¦except that the mural depicted a pair of snakes, writhing around each other, ruby eyes glinting, and there were more guards here.
This time, Kadee's hand sneaked into Marcel's against her will.
The far door opened, and suddenly the guards were standing to attention as a man stepped out, flanked by two children.
The man was tall, with very pale skin, black hair, and red eyes just like the snake on the wall. He was dressed in black trousers and a loose, flowing black shirt. Kadee's father never would have gone out or greeted company without a jacket on, but this man didn't seem to notice or care that the neck of his shirt was open. The adolescent boy near him had dark brown hair and bright green eyes, and he wasn't wearing a real shirt at all, just a tunic that completely bared his arms, including a silver band on his upper arm.
The girl was older, maybe a teenager. She had the man's coloring but was dressed almost like the guards, except that her version of the outfit was more provocativ
eâthe shirt and bodice were cut low, and her arms were bare.
“Hello, little one,” she said, stepping forward and kneeling in front of Kadee, who recoiled. She wasn't sure this creatureâwith its red eyes and outlandish clothesâwasn't some kind of demon.
“She's shy,” Marcel said apologetic
ally. “Kadee, this is Hara Kiesha Cobriana. She's the serpiente princess.”
the girl replied, tone surly, before asking Kadee, “Were you really raised by humans?”
“Let her breathe, Hara,” the man chastised. Then he also knelt, so he was eye to eye with Kadee. “My name is Julian,” he said. “These are my children, Haraâwho you've just metâand Aaron. I am Diente, which means I'm your king, but that doesn't mean you need to be afraid of me. You can come to me if anything ever worries you, or if you need anything at all.” He spoke slowly, as if Kadee might be a little stupid, but it was his last words that set her off. “I can imagine how hard it is to lose your parents, butâ”
“I didn't lose them. I was kidnapped,” Kadee announced, enunciating each word carefully. She was a child, but she wasn't an idiot; if there was one thing her father had taught her, it was the truth about her past . “My father fought in the colonial militia, and my mother followed the drum in the War of Independence. I'm an American. I don't
OUR MONTHS LATER
The dancers' nest was hot and sweltering. Unlike the other serpiente children, Kadee sweat, her skin becoming slimy and sticky.
That wasn't the only sign of her half-human heritage that set her apart. None of the other children tripped over their own feet either. None of them had trouble drawing complex rhythms from the tall drums that accompanied the dancers or matching those rhythms with their legs and bodies as they danced.
And none of them thought it strange that the children were allowed to do almost anything they wanted, except when the nest leaders called them to lessons. They weren't expected to be “seen and not heard.” Kadee was pretty sure most of them weren't orphans like her, but she wouldn't have been able to say whose parents were whose. They all ran about like wild dogs, shouting and careering through the nest, the marketplace, or even the public areas of the palace. It was a good thing that serpiente healed faster than humans, because scraped knees, bruises, and sprained wrists and ankles seemed like a daily occurrence for many of them.
And that was the
ecially the young onesâwere even worse.
Across the room, Hara was practicing for some important performance, surrounded by a bevy of admirers. To Kadee's eyes, the seventeen-year-old serpiente princess appeared nearly naked in her skimpy dancing costume, but she showed no signs of shame. One of the boys came up to her, wrapped an arm around her waist, and kissed her throat. Hara didn't slap him. She
That was what Kadee had come to expect. The serpiente touched each other all the time. The older kids flirted, kissed, and worseâin public!âand no one thought it was odd or indecent. No one chaperoned them when they slipped off together privately.
Several of Kadee's cohorts were also practicing. Their dancing costumes were equally skimpy, in their cases not to be sexyâthey were too young for thatâbut because no one cared about modesty. They would rather paint pictures on their skin than cover it. Kadee had to beg for slacks that went all the way to her ankles; they wouldn't let her wear skirts, saying they couldn't teach her to dance properly if they couldn't see how she was moving her legs.
Trying to convince them she didn't want to dance was pointless. They either didn't believe her, or they didn't know what else to do with her. She was an orphan, and serpiente orphans were always raised by the dancers' nest.
One of the boys Kadee's age plopped down beside her, practically falling into her, saying, “Kadee, come on, it's time toâ” His bare arm touched hers, and he recoiled with the exaggerated grace that even the littlest ones seemed able to manage. “Eww,” he said, wiping her sweat from his skin.
It was the last straw. She shoved herself to her feet, ignoring the black spots that danced at the edges of her vision as she did so. The lessons the Shantel witch had taught her when he had first “rescued” her had mostly controlled the seizuresâalso a result of her half-human heritageâbut at that moment, she wasn't thinking about them. She was hot, sweaty, disgusted by everything going on around herâ¦and lonely.
“If I'm gross, don't touch me,” she snapped.
“How are you going to learn to dance if you don't let anyone touch you?” he challenged her. “Come on. I want to dance for the princess, but Mindi said I could only if I'd be your partner first, since otherwise no one willâ”
If I cry, they'll only tease me more. Hara will come over and give me a hug to try to comfort me, but I'm all sweaty, so she will pull away in disgust.
Hara tried to be niceâwhen she noticed Kadeeâbut she always ended up saying the wrong thing.
“Chicken!” the boy accused. “Are all humans chicken? Was that why they didn't keep you?”
It was stupid, childish nonsense, but Kadee reacted in the best way she knewâa way common among serpiente. They touched all the time. They flirted. They danced. And they
Kadee launched herself at the boy, punching, kicking, seeking fistfuls of his hair, shouting. She didn't even know what she was shouting, just that the emotions inside her were threatening to rip her apart. If she couldn't stand to cry in front of the other dancers, then she had to find another way to express everything she was feeling.
Serpents fought all the time, but rarely with viciousness that could only be described as hatred. She didn't just want to make a point. She wanted to
someone, the way she was hurt when they snickered at her attempts to dance, or called her “water snake” behind her back, or complained whenever Mindi, the children's nest leader, told them they must work with her.
Royal guards, who had come with Hara to the nest, were the ones who eventually grabbed Kadee's arms and pulled her back from the now bleeding, cowering boy. They were also the ones who carried her away two months later, when the nest leaders declared she was utterly hopeless as a dancer. They didn't care about her temper; among the serpiente,
was the unforgivable crime.
Well, the first one. She would discoverâand commitâothers later.
OUR YEARS LATER
Kadee angrily dashed the tears from her cheeks. She ducked her head when she passed one of the palace guards, hoping he wouldn't notice that she was crying. But when she turned another corner too quickly, she nearly ran into the king's son, Aaron. The now eighteen-year-old boy caught her shoulders, then tilted her face up.
“You're crying,” he said.
When the dancers' nest had kicked her out, no one else had wanted her, so the king had taken her in. She didn't see him much, but his children were often around, especially at embarrassing moments like this one.
She pulled back. “Justâ¦being silly,” she said. That was what he would think, if she tried to explain what had happened.
“Weren't you with that boyâ¦Reese?” Aaron asked. “You looked like you were having fun.”
been having fun.
Reese was the son of one of the guards, an awkward thirteen-year-old whose friendship Kadee had initially welcomed. He danced, of courseâwhy did
serpents need to dance?âbut he was widely considered to be quite bad at it, a fact he wore like a badge of pride, grinning as his famously atrocious steps brought gales of laughter from the audience.