Free fiction…kind of.

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This is it! The final week before War Among the Crocodiles comes out! w00t!

So this week, I’m kinda cheating, as it were. I’m offering you the first few chapters of the new book to read.

It was an interesting book to write. I like this book a lot. I hope you do as well.

Enjoy!

War Among the Crocodiles

As a modern wizard, Yvette knows many things: how to imprint her name on the very stones of her land to protect it, how to hear secrets from winds great and small, and how to bake the perfect souffle (she is French, after all).

However, Yvette doesn’t know how to stop the soul eaters—a group of corrupted human magicians who steal knowledge from her mind as easily as she picks daisies from a field.

When the soul eaters also attack the clans, the ancient families of shape shifters hidden among the humans, a war erupts in the shadows.

Can Yvette stop the soul eaters from destroying not only the clans, but her fellow magicians as well? Particularly when the clans have never trusted her kind, and wage their own internal wars?

Book three in The Shadow Wars Trilogy. Be sure to read books one and two: The Raven and the Dancing Tiger and The Guardian Hound.

 

PART I

Becoming

Yvette

“But Mama, it’s cold outside!” Yvette complained.

The snow had come early that year, and stayed, piled high around their little cottage. It was over eight-year-old Yvette’s head! That night, it sparkled under the half-moon, like the sugar sprinkled on shortbread, frozen and beautiful. Their sleigh stood in the center of the front yard, and beyond that, columns of dark, grand pines. Even the trees couldn’t escape the garlands of snow, though they’d tried to shake themselves free, shivering in the winter winds.

“Tsk,” Mama said, scolding. “It’s the fin de siècle. The end of the century. With that kind of attitude, you might not see the next.”

Yvette sighed and turned away so Mama wouldn’t see her roll her eyes. “Oui, Mama.”

Mama had seen the previous century change—from 1799 to 1800—when she’d been younger than Yvette, merely five. However, Mama still seemed to be a woman in her late fifties, with long gray hair braided into a crown around her head, beautiful pale white skin, a tiny nose and wide dark eyes.

At least after Yvette sighed again, Mama went back to the trunks in the storage room of their tiny cottage and pulled out two more quilts. She handed them without a word to Yvette, just a sharp look.

Yvette carried the quilts out, across the front room and past the roaring fire in the fireplace that took up most of one wall, to the door where their bags were piled. She held the soft and warm quits in place with her chin as she carried them, breathing in the cedar, lavender, and mint that Mama used to keep the moths away. Being wrapped in them would be like walking in Mama’s garden.

But it wouldn’t be enough. Yvette would be cold. Which was just awful. And Mama wouldn’t teach Yvette any spells for keeping herself warm. Claimed she was too young.

Mama would drive them in their sleigh from their cottage on the mountain down to the village of Lamoura that evening. The sun left the mountains early that time of year, so it was dark as night outside, though it wasn’t that late—just after dinner.

The carriage was open, not closed in. Nasty winds would seek Yvette out, burrowing in and finding her skin no matter how tightly she wrapped up. They always found Yvette, were always bothering her.

Finally, Mama finished gathering everything together by the door, all their bags and blankets and gifts. It was time to get dressed. Mama helped Yvette into her layers of stockings and petticoats and skirts and blouses and sweaters. Yvette felt caged in, unable to move. She walked stiffly, like a wooden doll. She felt ridiculous.

When she saw her friend Thierry, down in the village, he’d make fun of her.

It was still better than freezing.

Yvette knew better than to complain any more about the cold as she helped Mama carry everything out to the sleigh: the blankets, their bags, Mama’s bag of magical sachets to sell to the village women, the little jams and jellies they’d give as New Years’ gifts, and whatever was in the strange lumpy satchel that Mama had kept hidden under her bed and had worked on next to the large hearth with the fire banked low after Yvette had supposedly gone to sleep.

The cold bit into everything not covered up, stinging the skin around her eyes above the muffler drawn tightly across her face. She breathed in the scene of lanolin and wet wool. The piece over her mouth froze quickly, moistened by her breath. At least Mama had let her draw her fur cap well down over her ears, mashing her dark curls.

She’d cut them all off if Mama would let her. Shear them off like the shepherds sheared the sheep every spring.

Mama tucked Yvette into the sleigh, making her a nest of furs and quilts, tucked in behind her and around her, surrounding her with their warmth.

The sleigh wouldn’t move on its own, unlike those new horseless carriages that the boys in the village were all talking about. Yvette didn’t agree with Mama that the new vehicles would be the ruin of them. She wasn’t exactly sure why Mama felt that. Mama liked trains. She’d even promised to take Yvette to Geneva by train the next spring.

The secrets of the internal combustion engine fascinated Yvette. How did they go? What made them move? How did all the parts work together?

Even Yvette knew those engines were important.

Mama got free use of the neighbors’ horses in exchange for overseeing the births of all their animals, making sure their cattle and sheep were healthy. She had a way with animals, could get the shyest of mice to creep out from the hedge and feed from her hand. Yvette hadn’t inherited her gift—she didn’t know what her magic was.

However, Mama hadn’t borrowed any animals that night.

Yvette sat, curious, wondering what Mama would do. She wouldn’t pull the sleigh all the way into the village on her own, with her magic, would she? That was too far away. And the path was very steep in places. Mama’s magic wasn’t that strong.

Instead, Mama stepped in front of the sleigh and started conjuring. Yvette paid careful attention to the words, even though Mama wasn’t speaking French but Latin, mixed with some language Yvette didn’t know. Mama was slowly teaching Yvette spells and potions, herbs and healing, but Yvette always wanted to know more.

Mama raised her arms up to the half-moon just peeking over the pines. She wore her great, shaggy, brown-fur cloak, the one that made her look like a bear. Her skin looked as pale and white as the snow, her small nose and sharp chin catching the light. The words swirled out of her delicate mouth like the lightest frost, there and gone, carried away by the winds.

When Mama stopped, the silence of the mountain rushed back in, filling the small yard. Yvette was afraid to move, afraid she might accidentally break the spell.

From her perch on the sleigh, she saw the snow start rippling. The clean white surface moved as if it was being blown by strong winds. A sifting sound came, like freshly falling snow.

Suddenly, snow weasels popped up out of the snow near Mama’s feet. One, two, a half-dozen!

Their fur wasn’t truly white, but more golden. It shimmered in the pale moonlight. They were the same size as the weasels who lived in the woods. Their dark eyes burned like coals as they came to sit on their hind legs, looking up at Mama.

Yvette forgot about being cold for the moment. Thierry had made fun of Yvette when she’d told him about the snow weasels. Said they were just a fairy tale.

He was wrong.

Yvette hadn’t known that Mama could call snow weasels to her.

Yvette was absolutely going to have to learn that spell.

Then Mama started the next spell. The language sounded older to Yvette, with less French and Latin, with more words she didn’t know.

The weasels swayed back and forth in time with Mama’s words, as if she was singing to them, though Yvette didn’t think the spell was musical at all. Finally, two of the weasels dropped down and went to stand in front of the sleigh, while the other four slid back under the snow, the ripples on top showing them swimming away quickly.

Again, Mama raised her arms to the sky, throwing her head back as well. This time, instead of her words and the steam from her breath flowing out, light poured down, a silver cone, as if Mama had her own personal snowstorm raining down on her.

She gathered the light together, then directed it, her arms moving in circles, as if she was fluffing the light up.

The snow weasels started to grow. Their legs got longer, while their bodies and tails shortened. Their fur grew as white as the moonlight and shorter as well.

They were turning into horses!

Yvette remembered to shiver in the cold. But it didn’t matter as much.

Mama never did big magic like this.

Maybe the coming of the year 1900 was as important as Mama said it was.

Finally, by the time Mama was finished, two handsome white horses stood where the weasels had been, already harnessed to the sleigh. They looked as fancy as the horses of the English Queen, Victoria, in the postcards the master stonecutter in the village had up on the wall of his shop. Red leather harnesses tied the pair together. They had silver bits, and more red leather made up the reins.

If Yvette squinted just right, she could kind of see the snow weasels underneath, puffed up huge with magic, their golden fur glowing. Mama wanted Yvette to develop her sight more, and now, Yvette understood why.

If her mama could do this kind of magic, and she’d always claimed to be just a minor magician, what could someone really powerful do? How would Yvette be able to see through their spells?

Mama climbed slowly into the sleigh beside Yvette. She seemed very tired. Yvette helped tuck quilts in around Mama, sharing her own.

“Mama,” Yvette started, “that was, that was…magnificent!”

Mama smiled tiredly up at Yvette. “Couldn’t have done it without the snow weasels,” she murmured, then yawned. “Always easier to start with a magical creature, or to use some part of one, nail clippings or hair or something.”

“Yes, Mama,” Yvette said, nodding. “I remember.” Mama had taught her that a while ago about the clans, the people who could change shape into boars or hounds, tigers or crocodiles, vipers or ravens. There had been a whole family of boars just to the south of them, farther down the mountain, but they’d moved from their vineyard recently and Mama hadn’t bothered to find them again.

“You’re a good girl,” Mama said eventually, shaking herself, then picking up the reins.

Merci,” Yvette said proudly. “I am trying,” she couldn’t help but add.

Mais oui,” Mama said with a sly smile. “And after tonight, you will try even more.”

With that, Mama flicked the reins and they were off, dashing across the top of the snow.

What did Mama mean by that? Yvette knew better than to ask. Mama would never reply until she thought it was the right time.

But maybe, tonight, it would be time for answers and teaching.

And more magic.

Ξ

When Mama reached the end of the lane to their cottage, instead of directing the horses down the mountain, she turned up.

“Where are we going?” Yvette asked. They weren’t going to give a neighbor a ride into the village, were they? There wasn’t really room for anyone else on the seat of their tiny sleigh. They were all tucked in together, wrapped in quilts and furs, their gifts and bags and that one mysterious satchel wedged in under their legs and beside their feet.

“You’ll see,” Mama said. She sat back and held the reins loosely in her hands. The horses didn’t really need much direction, as they weren’t really horses.

They flew up the lane, the horses dancing daintily across the top of the snow. The cold wasn’t too horrible, though the wind did blow on them constantly. Yvette stayed snuggled into her quilts, breathing in the scents they carried, the lavender and mint. The pines stood back from the road in places, letting in the pale light.

Not too far up the mountain, Mama tugged on the right rein. The horses leaped off the road, racing down a path Yvette hadn’t seen. It was dark under the trees. The wind whistled sharply here. It would have been scary if Mama hadn’t been there, going so fast and barely able to see.

Why were they in such a hurry? Were they late?

The horses ran faster now. Yvette could see more of the weasel about them here in the dark tunnel made by the trees, their front legs stretching out, their long bodies curving up as their hind legs then hit. The gold of their fur shone, brighter than the half-moon.

Suddenly, they burst out of the woods into a large clearing. Yvette recognized it as the place Mama had taken her that summer, for the solstice, for them to sing in new sun.

It was much brighter here, as though after the moon had spilled her light into the meadow, the snow had captured it and now softly glowed. Under the top of the smooth surface ripples played out—the other snow weasels, keeping up with their brothers.

The horses slowed and came to a halt in the middle of the meadow.

Merci! Merci!” Mama called out as she got off the sleigh. She was still moving slowly, as if the winter cold had crept into her bones.

“Come,” she said, holding out her hand to Yvette.

Yvette bit her lip. It was going to be cold out there, out from under the quilts. Her boots would get full of snow and her toes would be wet for hours.

But Mama had that sparkle in her eye, that gleam that meant fun. Like the time she’d conjured ice for them in the middle of the summer so they could have cherry-flavored cold treats, or the time she’d made madeleine cookies that were like real clam shells, so they could open their mouths and sing Happy Birthday to Yvette.

With a barely concealed sigh, Yvette shoved off the quilts and furs on top of her, one by one, until the cold could get at her. She stood, ready to hop off the sleigh, when Mama said, “Get the big bag.”

Yvette’s heart started racing. Did Mama mean the mysterious bag with the bulky thing she’d been working on all fall?

Oui,” Mama said to Yvette’s unasked question. “The bag you’re not supposed to know about.”

Yvette grinned and bent down, her hand going straight to the bag in question. It was heavier than she’d expected. The satchel itself was plain, made of heavy black cloth, with two wooden pieces forming the handles and a brass latch locking it tightly. It was longer than Yvette’s arm and as big as Mama’s wooden cutting board, the one she used to make long loaves of bread on.

Yvette picked it up with both hands and sniffed it before she handed it over to Mama. It smelled smoky, which made sense, because Mama often worked on it next to the hearth fire. It also smelled like dandelions, warmly bitter and full of sunshine.

Mama took the bag and set it in the snow. It gleamed with its own dark light against the whiteness. Then she held out her hand for Yvette.

Even through her mittens, Yvette could feel Mama’s inner fire burning her hands. Someday, Mama would have to teach Yvette how to keep herself warm like that. Mama said it wasn’t healthy for her, but Yvette hated being cold.

Which was also why Mama wouldn’t teach her yet—she claimed Yvette would overuse her power.

Yvette jumped down from the sleigh. The weasels stayed as horses but they drew away, ambling to the edge of the meadow. Their brothers joined them there. The non-changed ones stood on their hind legs so they could touch noses with their horsy brothers. They chittered quietly to one another. Yvette imagined they were telling each other about their adventures.

Thierry wouldn’t believe her, but Yvette might still try to tell him about the snow weasels.

Mama left the bag where it was, sitting in the snow, then unlatched it. Light spilled from the inside of it, golden light, as if it was lit by summer fireflies.

Using both hands, Mama scooped up the item from inside the bag. It grew in the air, now that it was no longer confined, as Yvette expected it would: The bag really had been heavier than she’d expected it to be.

The rolled up thing stretched out until it was about a meter wide. Then Mama put it down on the snow, where it continued to unroll itself.

Yvette clapped her mittens together in delight when she realized it was a rug, maybe a meter wide and twice as long.

Was it a flying rug? Would it take them around the world?

Golden thread twisted and knotted along all the edges of the rug, like the beautiful ancient crosses that she saw in the old graveyard. Brown vines with large red and green leaves snaked across the body of the rug, like the ivy that covered the ruined church and hid the cheerful larks and mourning doves. In between the leaves were huge yellow blossoms, each one bigger than Yvette’s outstretched hand. She didn’t know what kind of flower it was, though the petals were shaggy, like a petunia.

“It’s wonderful, Mama!” Yvette said, taking her mother’s hand again.

“And it is yours, my darling,” Mama said, wrapping both of her warm hands around Yvette’s.

“Mine?” Yvette asked, surprised. They’d already exchanged their Noël gifts. Yvette didn’t have anything more for Mama for fin de siècle. “Thank you, Mama,” Yvette said.

Mama drew Yvette forward, urging her to step onto the rug.

The magic swirled up around them, golden dust motes dancing in pale moonlight.

“What’s it for, Mama?” Yvette asked, stopping, afraid to make the magic swirl up any higher.

“To help you in your studies,” Mama said. “It will be your focal point while you are learning.”

“Oh,” Yvette said. She couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. She’d really hoped the rug would fly.

Still, it was a wonderful gift.

It meant that she could learn more magic now. Maybe without Mama always saying no, too young.

“Tonight, the rug will bring you to your focus,” Mama said, letting go of Yvette’s hand and stepping back.

“What do you mean?” Yvette said. She stayed where she was, but she did turn to see Mama better.

“Sit in the middle of the rug,” Mama instructed. “Then listen to all that the rug has to say.”

Yvette bit back her sigh. Why couldn’t Mama just tell her things? What was she supposed to hear? How would the rug speak to her?

Still, she did as Mama said. As she sat down, more golden dust motes rose up, then floated back down, dotting her tights and skirt.

At least the rug felt warm under her butt. It would have been awful if it was cold.

Yvette looked around the clearing. The weasel horses and their brother snow weasels were still off to the side, standing under the lone oak still bravely holding onto its brown leaves. She couldn’t hear them chittering anymore, but they weren’t paying any attention to her.

Mama stood someplace behind Yvette, as she’d done in the past when she wanted Yvette to learn something on her own.

But what was Yvette supposed to learn?

The half-moon had already gone past the center of the sky and was setting. Stars glittered in the thick black sky. Even in the dim light, the snow still sparkled. The wind carried the sounds of the snow shifting, flakes blown against one another, a quiet, peaceful sound. The air smelled tangy, as though a thunderstorm was on the way.

Then the winds came.

The first one merely brushed across Yvette’s shoulders, sending a chill down her spine. Then another came, fluffing the curls that had escaped from where she’d smooshed them down with her hat.

Then another, and another, all lightly touching her in different places, like her knee, the back of her hand, her nose, her cheeks, her toes, and her lips.

Winds had always sought her out, determined to steal away her heat and make her cold. The rug wasn’t letting them do that, though.

Or was it?

Cracks had formed around the edges of the golden looping knots that surrounded the rug. The winds flowed through those holes, like dark vines seeking the sun.

Why was the rug letting them through? Wasn’t this supposed to be her focus place, where she could study and learn? The winds were just distracting.

Yvette tried hard to listen to the rug. Mama had said she had to listen, right?

However, the rug wasn’t saying anything, at least, not anything she could hear.

Yvette was about to look over her shoulder, to ask Mama for advice, when she heard a soft sigh.

The wind on her right. Was it trying to tell her something? Did the winds talk? Mama’s animals could, Yvette was certain, though they’d never had anything to say to her.

“Go on,” Yvette whispered to it.

The wind sighed again, then told her of an avalanche higher up the mountain. It carried the last breath of the three mountain goats who’d been caught in it.

Yvette shivered, feeling their deaths but not mourning them. That was just the way of things, life and death. At least the wind remembered them, for a short while.

The wind that kept tickling Yvette’s curls spoke up next. It told of the fireworks to the east of them, in the countries already celebrating the New Year. Yvette suddenly smelled the sulfur the wind carried with it and felt the grainy soot from the blown-apart explosives.

Then the next wind came, carrying news of the bears sleeping deeply in their caves, the wind having brushed lightly across the tops of the rocks, unable to dive any deeper.

And more.

Stories of squirrels stirring in their nests, the fight a newly married couple had had, the way the brilliant diamonds in the town of Lamoura shone after the master gem cutter had finished with them, how happily the birds to the south sang, waiting for the spring and the chance to return to the mountain.

Yvette caught her breath when she finally realized what was happening.

She didn’t have a way with animals—not that they’d bite her, she was more skilled than that. But they didn’t come to her calling, not like Mama. She could see when a cow was distressed in birth. Everyone could see that. But she didn’t know before it got dangerous, couldn’t ease a calf out.

The winds, though. They spoke to her in a way she was certain they didn’t speak to Mama. Did the animals carry news to Mama? Maybe the birds did, in the summer, when Mama fed them and they came and sang sweetly, perched on her shoulders, whispering in her ear.

It was marvelous, all the things the winds knew. All the things they’d tell her. All that she could learn. She could know everything in the world!

This was her magic. This was what Mama had meant, that Yvette would find her focus. That she’d try even harder now.

Mama had been right. Yvette would happily sit and study and listen to the winds for hours on end.

Still, Yvette couldn’t help but sigh.

It also meant that she was going to always be cold, the winds constantly blowing on her.

But such was her fate.

Li Li

The man was there again. He stood just across the lane, opposite the great round gate to Li Li’s family complex. Not many people were in the street that early that morning: two older women taking their morning stroll for their health and gossiping about everything, a businessman hurrying to his office, and three workers in their paint-stained tunics sauntering along.

Li Li tugged on Auntie Fu’s sleeve. “There’s a man over there, watching us,” she said quietly. Though she was only eight, she knew better than to point at him. Not because it wasn’t polite, but because she didn’t want to call attention to herself.

Calling attention to herself or her family was bad. Being noticed was bad. Bad things could happen. Had happened to more than one of her friends and their families.

The man stood as still as a statue, leaning against the gray stone gate to the hu tong. He wore an older, longer tunic in a bland, light brown color, with matching pants, not the usual outfit of Mao and his Red Guard. A straw hat perched on top of his long, gray hair, peaked, like what the farmers in the market wore.

His face was broad and wide and plain. The only thing interesting about it were his dark eyes, which shone wetly like a rabbit’s. He didn’t look like any of her cousins or uncles, but he still reminded Li Li of someone, like he should be family.

Auntie Fu looked up from tying her bag shut. “Hmmm, dear?”

Though Li Li loved her auntie, she sometimes wondered if the chickens in the yard were less scatterbrained.

“There’s a man over there,” Li Li insisted. “He’s been there every day this week. Watching.”

Auntie Fu looked up and over. “I don’t see anyone, dear,” she said.

Li Li looked back. The man was more difficult to see than he had been. It was like his clothes blended into the wall now, the brown fading into the gray stone archway.

But Li Li could still see him. Some part of her just knew he was there.

She didn’t insist that they go and ask the man what he was doing. Again, that would be calling too much attention to herself and her auntie.

Instead, she took her aunt’s arm, protectively leading the way to the market. She would defend them if anything happened, if anyone came after them. She wasn’t exactly sure how she would do it, but she had a sense that she could do it, better than anyone else in her family.

Something deep inside her soul nudged up against her, waves of agreement flowing from it.

Li Li didn’t know what that was either, though she’d felt it before.

It was yet another thing that she didn’t bring up, didn’t tell anyone. Wasn’t about to draw attention to it, to herself.

Bad things could happen if she did, she knew. They already had. Papa couldn’t work anymore, and last week Mama had gotten yelled at in the market for being too proud.

It was a scary time, and Li Li never wanted to cause more shame for her family.

Ξ

Li Li didn’t know what to expect when Mama came and got her late one night. Her two sisters still slept on either side of her, all of three of them piled together on the one big bed. Only Li Li had woken when Mama had opened the door, the light from her candle casting a soft glow.

Had Mama known that Li Li would wake first? Li Li didn’t know, but she assumed so.

Mama stayed in the doorway and beckoned to Li Li with her other hand. She wore her long hair down, as if she’d been getting ready for bed.

What did she want?

This was different. Unusual. It had never happened before.

Different was almost always bad.

Li Li wished for a moment that she could close her eyes, pretend to be asleep like her sisters.

But even though Mama couldn’t see in the dark like Li Li (none of her family could), it was already too late. Mama knew she was awake, and obviously wanted Li Li to crawl out of the bed and come with her.

With a sigh, Li Li did just that, sneaking out of the warm, sour smell of the nest she and her sisters had made and walking silently across the room to where Mama stood.

Mama lifted the candle a little higher and peered at Li Li, as if trying to find a spot on her face or her top that Li Li had neglected to wash away.

Shenme?” Li Li whispered. What was wrong?

“Come,” Mama merely said.

Li Li followed Mama out of the sleeping quarters, across the courtyard, and into the Hall of Greeting. Many candles burned brightly in the hall, though it had electric lights as well. The hall itself wasn’t that big or grand—just a square room with the family poem done in her father’s flowing calligraphy on the wall, proud lists of her ancestors hanging beside it, a small statue of Shin Lo, a god of good fortune, in the corner with faded purple peonies and a bowl of rice at his feet.

She hadn’t known what to expect, but it certainly hadn’t been the man who’d been watching their family complex for the last week.

He knelt in the place of honor behind the formal ebony table in the center of the room. Tea had been served, the cups sitting empty, the musty scent of Mama’s good chrysanthemum tea still lingering. Papa knelt uncomfortably beside the man. He, at least, had put on a good robe, brown and green, while Mama still wore her red robe from the day before.

“Li Li, this is Han Zhe,” Papa said, introducing them.

Li Li gave the man a formal bow. Was he actually family? She still thought he looked familiar, or felt familiar, or something.

“Do you recognize me?” Han Zhe asked.

Instead of replying, Li Li looked at Papa first.

Papa gave Li Li a tight smile. “You can answer him,” he said. “Truthfully,” he added.

When Papa said that, it meant that Li Li should not lie about who she was. Papa had told her that sometimes it was okay to lie, particularly if someone was trying to hurt her. And too many strangers asked too many questions in the market these days.

“Are you a cousin?” Li Li asked Han Zhe. “Or an uncle?”

She didn’t like the smile of triumph that the man gave Papa and Mama.

“Not exactly,” he said. “I’m part of your shizu, though.”

The word he’d used for clan seemed to echo through the room.

It meant more than just her family’s ancestors, she knew that.

The other who now swam inside her, who twined around her soul, nudged her again, making Li Li look down.

She, this sister, this twin inside her, also recognized this man.

When Li Li looked back up, the man had golden eyes with merely slits for pupils. His skin had a green sheen and was patterned, like scales.

The sharp smell of Papa and Mama’s fear spiked through the room.

Li Li stepped forward, ready to defend them against this man. “Stop it,” she growled.

Her own voice was surprisingly low. She found that she’d already raised her hands up, ready to claw at this man, tear him to pieces.

He would not hurt her family.

Han Zhe merely chuckled. “You see?” he said, spreading his hands wide, like a priest giving a benediction, his eyes already returned to their normal, piercing black.

Mama and Papa’s fear hadn’t gone away, though. Now they were looking at her, afraid.

“What?” Li Li asked. She knew she wasn’t being polite. But she was also scared, and tired, and she didn’t like any of this at all.

“Your eyes are like his,” Mama whispered.

“Oh. Oh,” Li Li said, suddenly understanding.

This man also had another who swam inside him. That was what made them kin.

“Do you want to go with this man?” Mama asked abruptly.

Li Li looked at the man, then back at Mama. The ties she felt to this man ran deep, deeper than those she had to her own family.

She still wouldn’t abandon Mama and Papa. Not just yet. “Do I have to?” she asked.

“Not now,” Mama said, her own smile triumphant.

“But soon,” the man said. “She needs training, or she could be a danger, not just to herself but to others.”

Li Li nodded. She understood what the man was saying. This other who had come much closer to the surface now didn’t understand the need to blend in, how dangerous standing out could be. She didn’t care much, either, certain that her claws and fangs and great crocodile scales could protect her.

“I will keep her tame,” Li Li assured the man.

He just smiled at her, that indulgent smile that adults gave children all the time, that smile that said he knew better.

But this Han Zhe didn’t know Li Li. He didn’t understand that despite being only eight, once she’d set her mind to something, she would do it.

They arranged for Li Li and Mama to go to the compound where Han Zhe and the others lived. She would start her lessons with them, while still living with her family.

After Han Zhe left, Mama pulled Li Li to her, holding her tight against her chest.

“I’m not leaving yet,” Li Li complained as she started to feel stifled.

“I know,” Mama said, letting Li Li go and wiping her own eyes. “But you’ll be gone soon.”

Li Li didn’t say anything, but she was more determined than ever to keep control of herself, of this other, and not bring any shame to either her family or her clan.

Long after Li Li had crawled back into bed, her sisters close around her and breathing in time with their soft snores, she stayed awake, thinking about her differences, thinking about her ancestors, thinking about how she might keep everyone safe.

As Papa said, these were trying times. Mao was calling for a revolution. There were demonstrations and people punished in the street every day.

That just meant Li Li would also have to try even harder.

Carlos

Carlos always bragged that when he was an infant, snakes had come to visit his cradle. They’d formed long ropes to tug on it, rocking him to sleep. His room kept getting bigger as the years went on, the snake ropes longer and longer so they could have a firm anchor from which to pull on the (now) hand-carved wooden cradle that his grandfather had slept in, that rose five feet above the just-polished wooden floor.

Of course, it wasn’t true.

Carlos never talked about his real mother, who’d been addicted to crack cocaine. The kitchen had been squalid, and Carlos didn’t learn until much later that rice wasn’t alive and it didn’t usually wiggle on its own. The cracked linoleum floor from that room haunted him, its green and black splotches spreading like a curse. His nightmares involved him crawling over the same spot over and over again, never able to get away from it.

When he was eight and his mother died, the snakes really did come for him—the viper clan, his brothers.

They took him from Mexico City and up into the mountains of Guatemala, to one of the hidden temples there. The pyramid stood as tall as his former apartment block, the top just poking out above the trees, made out of carved stones, each taller than he was. The paint that covered the pyramid was as faded as the greatness of the viper clan, Carlos felt. The jungle that crept up on all sides scared him at first: There was no place to hide, or maybe too many places.

Instead of the sound of the freeway and the honking of cars, Carlos only heard bird song, the rustling of the vines, and the chanting of the viper priests. The air was clean and even the water tasted sweet.

However, Carlos never fell in love with the temple. The priests were all very nice, but pimps drove better cars, had better clothes, ate better food. He didn’t get the whole vow of chastity thing either. Wasn’t he supposed to feel good? Why be ashamed of his strong body? It was easy enough to be careful, to never deposit living seed in a woman, particularly once the priests had taught him how to control his body.

So, though the priests raised Carlos and he learned the songs, stories, and recitations of the viper clan, he always knew that the temple was too small to hold him.

Until he was fourteen and had his first vision.

Ariel

Ariel sat in the school’s reception, just outside of the principal’s office, kicking her heels against the old wooden chair. The air conditioning unit smooshed into the window wheezed, but didn’t help make the room cooler, not one lick. A wooden counter thicker than the old wall down by the levee ran between the three chairs lined against the wall and the rest of the office, like a great brick wall, keeping the kids on one side and the adults on the other.

Mrs. Grady, the large black woman who ran the office, sat at her desk like a queen and ruled over the two other secretaries. She’d finished with her typing and was talking on the phone now while she filed her long blue nails and shot nasty looks at Ariel now and again.

With a sigh, Ariel leaned back further in her chair. But she kept drumming her heels, mainly ’cause she knew Mrs. Grady hated it. Any minute now, Mrs. Grady would blow up. She’d slam the phone down and tell Ariel to stop making that confounded racket, and Ariel would say she was sorry and she would stop.

For about two minutes.

Then she’d start right back up again.

It was like everything else that happened at that school. Ariel just didn’t fit there and the kids knew it. It wasn’t that her skin was a different color or something: At least three-fourths of the school were black, like her. But they’d all grown up knowing each other, and she was still the new girl, the hick come from the backwaters of Mississippi to the big city of New Orleans.

She knew Mama was disappointed when Ariel got into fights—she was only nine, not yet ten—but she couldn’t help it. There was just something inside her that wanted to fight. She tried to control it, to not give in to this angry thing inside of her, but she couldn’t help it.

Everything was all unfair: the new school, the tiny apartment, the winds that snuck through the tiny streets and into her bedroom at night carrying smells that just about made her crazy with longing to run.

Plus, Ariel was getting stronger, too. She couldn’t tear those boys apart, not yet, but she’d left her mark but good on old Theo Wilie. Scratched his skin until it bled. That sight of blood had been like a jolt of electricity through her, making her howl and clench her teeth so she wouldn’t bite him.

Took three of the bigger boys to pull her off him.

Next time, she might actually carry through on her threat and choke him to death.

She didn’t have to put up with disrespect. That place inside her that was always boiling mad made sure of that.

When the door to the office opened, Ariel couldn’t contain her surprise when she saw Aunt Mabel come walking through. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I’ll see to you in a minute, dear,” Aunt Mabel replied in that prissy, white-woman tone of hers that would have even the school board shaking in their loafers.

Ariel sighed again as Aunt Mabel marched directly into the principal’s office. Mrs. Grady looked up from her nails but didn’t actually try to stop Aunt Mabel. She seemed to recognize a force of nature when she saw one.

Instead, Mrs. Grady just smirked at Ariel and went back to her phone call.

Aunt Mabel wasn’t really an aunt. She was a friend of the family, had evidently looked after Mama back in Mississippi as a little girl. She was as old as the hills, and looked it some days, too, her white skin as pale as the white roses she grew in her yard, age spots scattered across her broad forehead, wrinkles fixed and solid. Her hair was so white it was nearly blue, done up in perfect curls. Her eyes were what marked her as different, though, as green as the pond scum back in Mississippi.

It wasn’t necessarily a good sign that Aunt Mabel had come to get Ariel instead of Mama. Her aunt didn’t understand what life was like for Ariel, being uprooted from her home, Mama still looking for work. Dad had split long before. Ariel didn’t even have a picture of him.

Just a minute or so passed before Aunt Mabel came out. Her eyes flared dark and stormy. She paused in front of Ariel as she straightened her white-and-blue floral dress, setting her matching purse on her arm just so.

Ariel gulped and sat up straighter in her chair.

“You’re coming with me,” Aunt Mabel said in those clipped tones of hers.

Ariel paused, just for a moment, the urge to disobey, to stomp her foot and say no, surging through her.

She shook herself, hard. That wasn’t really her, was it? Mama had raised her to be a good girl. And she tried to be. Mostly. Why was she so set on having her own way?

Ariel got out of the chair and quietly followed Aunt Mabel out.

She didn’t think the old white woman would be able to help her figure out what was going on inside her own head.

But maybe Ariel should ask anyway. If there was anyone who’d keep her secrets, it would be Aunt Mabel.

Ξ

Ariel’s next surprise came when Aunt Mabel drove them straight to the freeway and started heading out of town. “Where we going?” Ariel asked, unable to contain herself.

Aunt Mabel’s car was nicer than most any Ariel had ever sat in. The outside wasn’t anything to look at: It was an old Mercedes, painted a plain brown color that had faded. But the inside was cream-colored leather, smooth and soft, and smelling like money.

“First, I should apologize to you. I know that I’ve waited too long. I should have done this a while ago,” Aunt Mabel said. “But I wanted to make sure before I introduced you to the sisterhood.”

Ariel raised her eyebrows at that. Sisterhood?

One of their neighbors, back in Mississippi, had called Aunt Mabel a witch and accused her of doing spells out in the swamps.

Aunt Mabel had just laughed and laughed, a throaty kind of funny growl, but she hadn’t paid any more heed than that.

“What kind of sisterhood?” Ariel asked. It wasn’t going to be lame, like a bridge group or something, was it?

“You’ll see,” Aunt Mabel said with a smile that didn’t reassure Ariel at all.

When had Aunt Mabel gotten sly and hard? Was she really a witch? Or just a crazy old white lady?

“Does Mama know where you’re taking me?” Ariel asked.

Aunt Mabel gave a bark of a laugh. “That she does, honey. Though she’s part of the reason why I waited so long. She had to be sure as well.”

“Sure of what?” Ariel asked. Could she just open the car door and throw herself out? Aunt Mabel was sounding crazier and crazier. Or was that a sure way to get herself killed?

“Who you truly are,” Aunt Mabel said. “Now sleep. It will take some time to get there.”

Where? Ariel wanted to ask. However, her eyes were already closing and she was drifting away with the steady hum of the wheels on the interstate.

She shouldn’t feel safe. Part of her knew that. Aunt Mabel really had gone around the bend.

Yet, she still trusted her aunt. Aunt Mabel had always kept her word. Never told any of Ariel’s secrets.

And that dark place inside of Ariel, the part of her that wanted to fight all the time, and rend and tear, was comforted by her aunt’s presence.

Ξ

Ariel woke with the late afternoon sun bathing her face through the windshield of the car. They’d stopped, and some part of Ariel, deep inside of her, knew they’d been resting for a while.

Cypress trees and blackberry brambles surrounded the car. Ariel couldn’t even see a road behind them. It felt to her like they were deep in the bayou. Water pooled to her right, covered with swamp grass and tall cattails. Even through the closed windows of the car the chorus of insects screamed loudly, cycling up and down. Birds called out, waking from their afternoon nap, about to go hunt up their dinners.

Aunt Mabel stood in front of the car, resting against the hood, her head tilted back and her face lifted up. Was she enjoying the sunshine? That didn’t seem right. She was the whitest white person Ariel knew. She always went outside wearing a fancy hat that kept her face in the shade, as well as gloves, protecting her fair skin.

So what was she doing?

That thing inside of Ariel stirred. Aunt Mabel was doing something else.

Somehow, Ariel recognized that Aunt Mabel was scenting the air.

Ariel lifted her head too. There were too many unknown scents for her to track—that sour smell, maybe humans, about a mile to the west; the brackish water, trapped by the reeds; a sweeter scent that was almost like flowers, that seemed familiar, somehow.

Aunt Mabel didn’t change her position any, just lifted one lily-white hand and beckoned for Ariel to come out and join her.

Ariel sighed. She wasn’t scared, not exactly. That dark place inside her could defend her from a skinny old white lady. But she was a long, long way from home. Nothing but wilderness surrounded her.

And maybe her aunt was a witch. Ariel sure had fallen asleep fast on the way there.

Ariel stepped out of the car, the sound of the insects as overwhelming as the drilling noise got at home, from where they were tearing up the street just a few houses up from hers. The air was wet and hot, but that didn’t seem to bother her as much as the emptiness of the bayou.

Sure, there were probably people around somewhere. But Aunt Mabel had chosen a spot where they were well hidden.

No one would find Ariel’s body for days. If ever.

Ariel strode around to the front of the car, then deliberately mimicked the way Aunt Mabel was standing, head back, eyes closed, taking in deep snoutfuls of air.

Something inside Ariel stirred. She realized that it was like a second soul, swimming around her own.

That wasn’t normal, was it? She tried to push it down, but it was like an oil slick on water, and just oozed the other way.

Aunt Mabel started humming. It sounded like one of those old-time ballads. A sea shanty, maybe. It had that kind of soft sway to it, of waves and currents.

The other inside Ariel swam more peacefully. Ariel stopped trying to push it down. Aunt Mabel started singing. Though Ariel didn’t know the language, she still understood it. The song suggested they, she and this other who called herself Gret, were both meant to be. The sound of it was like spring rain in the garden, full of quiet and that fresh rain scent, relaxing.

“You can feel it, can’t you?” Aunt Mabel asked when she finished.

Ariel wasn’t sure what she was asking about. The heat of the sun? The amazing way the air smelled, carrying a hundred different scents? That dark twin of hers, deep inside, named Gret?

When Aunt Mabel turned to face Ariel, her eyes had changed. Instead of that bright green they were more brown and golden, shining with light.

Ariel felt something shift inside of herself. Though she didn’t know for certain, she would have bet good money that her eyes now matched her aunt’s.

“Are you a witch?” Ariel felt compelled to ask. Was she also a witch?

Aunt Mabel’s snorting laugh came in reply. “Oh, no, dear. Nothing as mundane as that.”

Her aunt started to transform.

Ariel stepped back, terrified and amazed. Was her aunt a werewolf? Her jaw elongated and wicked tusks sprang up out of it. Her hands changed, her fingers fusing into black hooves with sharp edges. Thick, curly brown hair laced with gray sprang up across her forehead, arms, and chest. Her nose turned into a pig-like snout, though ridged with bones.

She didn’t fall to all fours, though. She remained upright, taller than she’d been, proud and strong.

She gave a great roar of greeting. Ariel found herself roaring back, that other inside of her recognizing this being in front of her as kin.

“I am a warrior of the boar clan,” Aunt Mabel announced. Her voice was gruff, but it still held the prissiness of the old white lady.

“And so are you.”

 

If you enjoyed this sample, find the rest of the book at Book View Café.

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