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Category: chapter reveal

CHAPTER REVEAL – Ashes in the Sky

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Today Jennifer M. Eaton and Month9Books are revealing the first chapter for ASHES IN THE SKY, which releases March 15, 2016! Check out the gorgeous cover and enter to be one of the first readers to receive a eGalley!!

 

A quick note from the author:

Hello alien fans!


I have to admit that Fire in the Woods was meant to be a stand-alone. When approached to write a second novel, I really had to scratch my head. I mean, the story was over, right?


Well, apparently I “left them screaming for more” as everyone always says.

I really didn’t want to deal with the direct aftermath of book one, so I decided to fast forward a few months: to a time when things should be settling down for poor, exhausted Jess. All she wants to do is get her life back to normal again, and to do that, she needs to get back to school.


Unfortunately for Jess (and maybe fortunately for us) it will be a little while before our girl has anything close to a normal life again. So enjoy Jess’s first day back at school after saving the world. Here is chapter one of Ashes in the Sky: book two of Fire in the Woods.


Alien Kisses!
Jennifer M. Eaton

 

About the Book

Title: ASHES IN THE SKY

Author: Jennifer M. Eaton

Pub. Date: March 15, 2016

Publisher: Month9Books

Format: Paperback & eBook

Find it: Amazon | B&NGoodreads

After inadvertently saving the world, eighteen-year-old Jessica Martinez is ready to put adventure behind her and settle back into the familiar routine of high school.

 

Though when she’s offered an opportunity to photograph the inside of an alien space ship, Jess jumps at the chance. After all, she’d be crazy to turn something like that down, right?

 

Spending time with David on the ship has definite advantages and the two seem to pick up right where they left off. But when Jess discovers a plot to sabotage David’s efforts to establish a new home for his people on another planet, neither David’s advanced tech nor Jess’s smarts will be able to save them.

 

ASHES IN THE SKY is an action-packed, romantic Sci Fi adventure that will leave readers screaming for more.

 Excerpt from the Book

1

 

 

Dad’s brow creased. “You don’t have to do this, Jess. We can turn around now and go home.”

His fingers rapped on the limousine’s armrest as we pulled up to the entrance of my normally quiet school. Outside, police officers and several uniformed security guards held advancing reporters and camera crews on the sidewalks.

“Relax, Major,” Elaine said, across from me. She pulled out a compact and touched up her lipstick. “Two months after single-handedly saving the world from an alien invasion, Earth’s teenage savior returns to finish high school.” She snapped the case shut. “This is the public interest story of the year.”

Dad’s nose flared. “Yes, she’s supposed to be going to school, but you’ve made it a media circus. Why’d you have to schedule a press conference in the auditorium?”

She slipped her lipstick back into her designer purse. “They would have been here anyway. The best way to calm a stalking fox is to invite him in for tea.”

“Tea? I’ll give you tea.”

I held up my hand. “Dad … ” I didn’t have to finish. I never did. Their arguments were always the same. Father protects daughter, while the publicist pushes media exposure as far as she can legally get away with—and me stuck in between.

Elaine wasn’t all that bad, as far as publicists went. Not that I’d known any other publicists, but she’d been by my side since my very first press conference, and the hundred or so more over the past two months. She could be pushy, but she understood the power of a pint of Death By Chocolate ice cream at the end of a long day, which totally earned her brownie points in my book.

Dad’s gaze returned to me. “We just got back. Do you really need to do another press conference?” The deep lines around his eyes added to the weight of my own exhaustion.

I shifted in my seat, my hands clammy against the leather interior. “If we go home, they’ll just show up here again tomorrow. Let’s get this over with. Maybe then things can get back to normal.” I grabbed his hand. “I can do this.”

Dad pressed his lips together. Of course, he knew I could do it. But knowing and wanting me to answer another set of invasive questions were two different things, and I loved every stubborn inch of him for it.

Elaine fluffed my hair and adjusted the collar of my shirt. “Show time.” She knocked twice on the window, and the Secret Service agent outside opened the door for her. She glided through the crowd with a practiced grace.

Camera-palooza erupted outside. Dang, there weren’t this many photographers when I met the president.

Dad stepped out before me, an imposing figure in his combat uniform. Having an over-protective father did have its advantages. No one was getting by this bodyguard. No one.

I closed my eyes and clutched the charm on my necklace. My mother’s strength seeped into me, giving me courage. You’ll be fine, I heard her whisper. You’re my strong little girl. Always have been.

“I’ll try, Mom.” I opened my eyes and shuddered. You would think I’d be used to the feeding frenzy by now. This was the longest fifteen minutes of fame ever.

Steadying myself on the limo door, I stood.

“Jess, look over here.” Flash.

“Miss Martinez, how does it feel to be back at school?” Flash.

“Jessica, to your right.” Flash. Flash.

The faces and camera lenses blurred. My mind filled with the phantom sounds of alien weapons. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply to ward off memories of blinding lights and screaming voices.

It was over. The aliens had left, and I was alive. We were all still alive.

The Secret Service closed in around us as Dad placed his hand on my back, guiding me to the front entrance. With a well-rehearsed smile, I made my way forward, hoping to avoid a repeat of tabloid-gate when the worst-of-the-worst photos of me turned up on the cover of the National Daily.

Dad moved beside me as we stepped over the threshold. I slipped my fingers into his hand and squeezed. One more press conference. Just one more. I could do this.

We made our way through a throng of reporters, students, parents, and teachers to the auditorium. Hundreds of voices jumbled into one chaotic roar rebounding off the lockers.

A microphone appeared in front of my face. “Ms. Martinez, how did you—”

Dad pulled me to his chest as two Secret Service agents pounced on the guy. The reporter and the agents sunk back into the crowd, disappearing like a stone thrown into water.

“There will be question and answer time after the presentation,” Elaine called as we passed through the auditorium’s stage door.

I exhaled, rubbing my arms. That had to be the worst crowd ever.

Dad circled the area behind the curtains and checked the cracks and crevices backstage. The Secret Service agents had long since given up on trying to convince him that the government pre-secured all of my speaking engagements. I used to joke about their paranoia, until someone actually found a bomb. Those guys in ugly suits quickly became my best friends.

“Did you practice your speech?” Elaine asked.

I raised an eyebrow. “No.” You’d think she’d stop asking me that. I hadn’t memorized one yet. Why would I start now?

I pulled aside the curtain and scoped out the auditorium. A sea of smiling, wide-eyed faces filled the room. Camera crews and reporters intermingled with the student body.

Going back to high school was supposed to help me get my life back.

This fiasco was not getting my life back. But maybe if I answered everyone’s questions now, they wouldn’t keep asking later.

Hey, a girl could dream.

Elaine patted my shoulder before heading out past the curtains. Her heels clopped across the wooden stage as she passed a huge poster of National Geographic’s “The Night the World Stood Still: Special Edition.”

Steven Callup’s cover photo was one of those shots every aspiring photographer dreamed of catching: perfect lighting, engaging subject, active backdrop, and undeniable emotional tone. I wasn’t drooling over this masterpiece, though; because the photograph featured me.

The flames over my shoulder were in crisp focus and flawlessly mirrored in my dark hair. The mottled hues of a fresh sunrise blended perfectly with the devastation in the background. And my God, the expression on Dad’s face as we embraced … the love in his eyes.

That night would haunt me forever. Something incredible had happened, and it had nothing to do with an alien invasion. That cover immortalized the moment for the world to see: a year after my mother’s death, my father finally opened up and started to feel again.

I released the curtain, ready to face my peers, knowing that no one gave a rat’s ass about me or my dad.

They only wanted to know more about David.

I mean, I totally got it. An alien guy crash lands on Earth and has to escape before his people wipe out humanity. Heck, I’d be interested, too. But the clincher was that David changed his people’s minds because of me. I was the heroine in the story of the millennia, whether I liked it or not.

I cringed, thinking of how many people had contacted me for the movie rights. Ashes in the Sky, they wanted to call it. What kind of idiotic title was that? Ridiculous, all of it. The world almost ended right in front of me. I didn’t need to see it again on a big screen.

As Elaine announced my name, and the audience applauded, I wondered if anything would ever be as it was before David’s people arrived.

I took my place behind the microphone and squinted into the harsh auditorium lighting. I’d been in that audience dozens of times, but never on stage. The faces looking back at me were familiar, but distant. Awestruck.

This place was my school. My safe haven. Having the media here was wrong.

I gritted my teeth and gripped the sides of the lectern. This assembly would be the absolute last time I talked about what happened to me in public. Ever.

A mop of perky, blond curls caught my attention from the third row. My BFF Maggie beamed as she gave me a thumbs-up. Part of me relaxed, knowing I had a friend near.

Maggs was the only other person who’d known about David before the Army started chasing us. She even risked her own rear-end helping us escape. She’d talked her way out of a grounding from her father, the general, thank goodness. Damn, he must have been ticked when he found out what she’d done.

Taking one last breath to steady myself, I edged closer to the mic. “You’d have to be dead not to know what happened two months ago. So I’m just going to open it up to questions.”

Hundreds of hands shot into the air.

One of the moderators handed a microphone to a bubbly girl with a blond ponytail. “Is it true that the alien looked just like Jared Linden?”

And, it starts.

“Yes. David mimicked an advertisement and looked just like Jared Linden’s character in that movie Fire in the Woods.

Okay, that was only half of it. The truth was far too embarrassing. David pulled Jared Linden’s features from my mind. He didn’t look exactly like Jared. Just the hotter parts. The rest was an amalgamation of other cute guys he’d yanked out of my brain. There was no way I would admit to that, though.

A tall kid in a black band tee stood. “So what really happened out there? They were going to annihilate us. How’d you get them to change their minds?”

I cleared my throat. A flash of David’s smile and the warmth of his touch sent a shiver down my spine. “Luck was totally in our favor. If David’s plane hadn’t crashed, we never would have met. It didn’t take long before he realized the human race was worth saving.”

A teacher handed a microphone to a girl wearing glasses. “How long will it take them to terraform Mars?”

Ugh. I tried to think of David’s new home like Seattle or Los Angeles, but it wasn’t. It was Mars. As in: not Earth. Talk about your long distance romance.

“I have no idea how long it will take them to make Mars livable. I do know that they are running short on supplies, so I’m hoping it will happen pretty quickly.”

A girl in a cheerleader uniform flagged down the lady with the microphone. “Everyone says you and the alien were doing it. Inquiring minds want to know. Was he any good?”

Camera flashes singed my eyes as a teacher tried to pull the mic away from the girl.

“No,” a reporter shouted. “Let’s hear the answer.”

The audience murmured, shifting like hyenas waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting foal. Beside the stage, Dad’s face became an unnatural shade of crimson.

Crap.

“Well?” the cheerleader asked.

I wiped the sweat from my palms, remembering the shockwave that raged through me when David’s lips covered mine. The tabloids had reduced our relationship to supermarket trash, and Rah-Rah Girl probably wouldn’t know a real emotional connection if it bit her.

David and I shared something so deeply intimate it transcended everything. No one could possibly understand. I wasn’t even sure I understood. All I knew was that I was in love, and I’d probably never see him again.

I blinked, realizing the room had gone quiet, awaiting my answer about doing it.

My hands fisted, but I forced a smile and rustled up the rote response Elaine had prepared for me. “I heard that rumor, too, but David and I were only friends.” A sickly gash sliced through my heart. The thought of living the rest of my life with him on another planet was akin to living in the desert without water.

Was he out there somewhere, longing for me as much as I yearned for him?

My stomach fluttered. I hated how people’s stupid questions dredged up feelings I’d worked hard to suppress. I had to get off that podium.

A kid in the back stood. “How does it feel to know that six million people died while you were out there hugging dear old dad?” He pointed over my shoulder to the huge magazine cover behind me. “How does it feel to know the death count is still rising?”

It was? “Umm—”

“When did you know they were hostile?” someone else shouted.

My heart thumped against my ribcage. “I, uh—”

A reporter snatched the microphone. “Do you honestly believe they won’t come back and finish us off?”

The rumble of voices intensified. Cameras flashed as dozens of voices drowned one another out. So much for school being my safe haven.

Elaine gripped my shoulder and pulled me from the dais. “Thank you,” she said. “That’s all the questions we have time for today.”

She scooted me past the curtains, Dad following close behind. The volume in the auditorium escalated.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We should’ve been ready for that. Next time—”

“There’s not going to be a next time.” I thrust my chin in the air. “That was my last public appearance. I’m already behind in school, and I need to graduate this year. I just want to get back to my classes and put this all behind me.”

She grinned in that syrupy way adults do when they are about to condescend your butt. “We’ll talk about this later, honey.”

Dad’s gaze seared through her before he offered me a nod of approval.

No, Elaine. We would definitely not be talking about this later.

 

About Jennifer

Jennifer-M.-Eaton-Promo-Protrait-239x300

Corporate Team Leader by day, and Ranting Writer by night. Jennifer M. Eaton calls the East Coast of the USA home, where she lives with her husband, three energetic boys, and a pepped up poodle.

 

Jennifer hosts an informational blog “A Reference of Writing Rants for Writers (or Learn from My Mistakes)” aimed at helping all writers be the best they can be.

 

Beyond writing and motivating others, she also enjoys teaching her dog to jump through hoops—literally.

 

Jennifer’s perfect day includes long hikes in the woods, bicycling, swimming, snorkeling, and snuggling up by the fire with a great book; but her greatest joy is using her over-active imagination constructively… creating new worlds for everyone to enjoy.

 

Connect with the Author: Website | Twitter Facebook | Goodreads

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CHAPTER REVEAL – Nameless (Chapter 2)

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Welcome to this week’s M9B Friday Reveal!

This week, we are revealing CHAPTER TWO of

Nameless by Jennifer Jenkins

presented byMonth9Books!

NAMELESS is in development for film by Benderspink! That’s the same company who optioned Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen and produced the
I AM NUMBER FOUR film!

Jennifer is also one of the co-founders of Teen Author Boot Camp, and works with amazing authors like James Dashner and Brandon Sanderson to help teens master the craft or writing.

New York Times bestselling author Jessica Day George read NAMELESS and loved it!:

“Jenkins brings edge-of-your-seat adventure to this intriguing new world. I can’t wait to read more!”

Be sure to enter the giveaway found at the end of the post!

 

Nameless_450x675

Four clans have been at war for centuries: the Kodiak, the Raven, the Wolf and the Ram. Through brutal war tactics, the Ram have dominated the region, inflicting death and destruction on their neighbors.

Seventeen-year-old Zo is a Wolf and a Healer who volunteers to infiltrate the Ram as a spy on behalf of the allied clans. She offers herself as a Ram slave, joining the people who are called the “nameless.” Hers is a suicide mission – Zo’s despair after losing her parents in a Ram raid has left her seeking both revenge and an end to her own misery. But after her younger sister follows her into Rams Gate, Zo must find a way to survive her dangerous mission and keep her sister safe.

What she doesn’t expect to find is the friendship of a young Ram whose life she saves, the confusing feelings she develops for a Ram soldier, and an underground nameless insurrection. Zo learns that revenge, loyalty and love are more complicated than she ever imagined in the first installment of this two-book series.

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Pre-order Links:

Amazon | B&N | BAM | Chapters | Indiebound | Kobo | TBD | Google Play | iBooks

 

excerpt

 

You can read CHAPTER ONE here!

 

Chapter 2

~~~Zo~~~

The cold air traveling over Zo’s skin smelled strangely

mineral. She walked blindfolded with Tess in her arms,

and the tip of a spear at her back. She memorized the turns as

they prodded her forward, knowing it would do little to help if

she couldn’t pass whatever trial the Ram leader had in store.

The path sloped down and the moist air grew colder. Her foot

caught on a rock and Zo fell to her knees, sending Tess flying

into the darkness. Hands grabbed Zo’s collar and hoisted her

back to her feet.

 

“Carry the small one,” the leader ordered.

 

“Zo?” Tess’ voice cracked, weak and distant.

 

“I’m here,” said Zo, straining to see through the blindfold.

 

She didn’t want her sister to say more. Her accent might betray

them both.

 

The ground leveled beneath them, and a guard yanked off

the blindfold, taking a chunk of Zo’s dark hair with it. She

didn’t cry out.

 

They couldn’t hurt her.

 

She looked at the limp form of her sister in the arms of a

bare-chested Ram guard and crumbled at the contradiction. It

wasn’t supposed to be this way. If only Tess hadn’t followed.

 

If only …

 

Guards lined the opposite wall. Shadows from the

torchlight made the scowls on their faces all the more sinister.

Each carried a round shield at his back, a spear in hand, and a

short sword at his hip.

 

A redheaded boy lay on a narrow bed in the center of the

room silently weeping. His body was long, but judging from

his young face, he couldn’t have been much older than twelve

or thirteen. The deep wound just above his hip swam in dark

red blood. He whimpered while biting down on a stick.

 

Zo didn’t ask questions. “I need blankets!” she yelled,

as she washed her hands in a basin of scalding water. With

pulsing, red hands, she took a stack of linens from a supply

table and pressed it to the wound. The boy kicked and jostled.

 

“Hold him down or he’ll bleed out!” shouted Zo.

 

No one moved.

 

Two women in white robes came in through a different

tunnel entrance carrying woolen blankets. When they saw Zo,

they froze.

 

“Help me!” Zo snatched the blankets from their hands

and rolled the boy onto his side. Lifting his legs, she wedged

blanket rolls under his good hip. The redheaded boy cried out

in pain but Zo needed to keep the wound above his heart. She

wrapped a bandage around his trunk, keeping as much pressure

on the open wound as possible.

 

The boy’s skin turned alabaster from blood loss. Zo yanked

more blankets from the hands of the women, covered him up,

and rubbed warmth into his arms and legs while muttering the

words of one of her mother’s blessings. “Hold as still as you

can,” she whispered into his ear. “You’re going to be fine. I

promise.”

 

Zo approached the intimidating line of Ram soldiers.

 

Each wore animal hide trimmed with fur. Thick leather straps

crisscrossed their chests housing a variety of evil-looking

weapons. “Where is my pack? It has the medicines I need.”

The men barely moved, barely blinked, with hands clasped

behind their backs like dangerous statues of unfeeling.

 

The bald leader shook his head. A taunting, wicked, grin

stretched across his face. Tess whimpered from one of the

dark corners of the cave. Water dripped from the jagged, rock

ceiling. The quiet symphony of sounds and silence contrasted

with Zo’s rapidly beating heart.

 

She swore and darted to the opposite wall where the

healers stood just as still and lifeless. “Do you have any pseudo

ginseng root?”

 

The aging healer looked over to the Gate Master, shook his

head, and looked down at his hands.

So they would put this boy’s life in danger just to see if she

would fail?

 

I shouldn’t be surprised.

 

Zo ran back to the steaming water and plunged four inches of

her long braid into the basin. Sweat dripped from her forehead.

She scrubbed the crusted mud from her hair and went to the

closest soldier, holding out the dark braid. “Cut it,” she said.

 

His gaze swept over her body before fixing on her face.

 

His lips curled into a crooked grin.

 

She hated when men looked at her that way.

 

“Cut it!” she yelled, eyeing the knife at his hip, wondering

if she had any chance of taking it from him without meeting a

quick death.

 

A young soldier to his left stepped out of rank. His long dark

hair was tucked behind his ears, his brows knit together and a

muscle in his neck leapt as he frowned. The unexpected flash

of his dagger made Zo scream. A small segment of her braid

dropped to the ground and the young soldier took his place back

in line, ignoring the disapproving scorn of the Ram leader.

Zo gasped as she snatched up the braid. She stumbled over

to the sink again to rinse the hair one final time to prevent

infection. Convinced the hair was clean, she darted back to

the boy and removed the crimson-soaked dressing from the

wound. The blood had slowed, but not enough. He’d die if this

didn’t work.

 

She shoved the hair into the wound and piled the excess

on top.

 

The boy screamed then passed out.

 

Zo placed her hands over the mound of hair and uttered

words of healing. The flame of her energy flickered as she

willed the blessing to take effect. Her head swayed without

permission as she reapplied a bandage.

 

When Zo finished, she slumped to the floor before they

carried her and Tess away.

 

~~~Gryphon~~~

 

Joshua’s dried blood tugged on Gryphon’s arm. A deathly

plaster, equal parts unforgiving and taunting. He scratched

away at the memory of the ambush, the way young Joshua’s

eyes doubled in size when the arrow entered his side. It was

Gryphon’s fault. He’d let the kid come with his mess unit

against his better judgment.

 

It was his fault.

 

Gryphon took the mountain trail home from the caves. He

attacked the climb like he would any enemy. After the first mile

his legs warmed. After the second they burned. He welcomed the

dull pain creeping through his fatigued muscles. Pain equaled

progress. With enough pain he might outpace his grief.

 

Joshua.

 

Gryphon sprinted the last hundred yards of the climb. The

wind picked up as he reached the summit overlooking the

ocean below. High waves crashed into the cliff wall. An arctic

spray carried on the breeze, stinging Gryphon’s eyes.

 

He turned and showed the ocean his back, casting his gaze

over the valley of the Ram. Wind whipped his dark brown hair

and made the metal of his weapons clink together. From this

view he could see far beyond the training grounds and housing

complexes, past the fields where hundreds of Nameless bent

over acres of dying soil. Even beyond the fabled wall of Ram’s

Gate that corralled the vast lands of his people.

 

He felt powerful. In control.

 

Not like this morning when he couldn’t slow Joshua’s

bleeding.

 

The twenty members of Gryphon’s mess unit were encouraged

to sleep in the barracks, even though many of them were

married men. Unity meant everything to a Ram mess unit.

Gryphon abided this and every other command issued by

his leaders with exactness. But tonight, the thought of facing

his brothers of war with all their questions and condolences

seemed too much.

 

No. Tonight he would hide behind the walls of his

inheritance like a child hides behind his mother’s skirt.

The brick-and-plaster house sat back on a five-acre plot.

It was one of the furthest family plots from the main gate and

the center of town. A red sun dipped behind the towering wall

of Ram’s Gate, casting an ominous glow around the house as

Gryphon climbed the dirt path. The solid oak door whined

with complaint as he nudged it open.

 

“Who’s there?” Gryphon’s mother reached the entry with

her arms and hands covered in white flour and her graying

bun sitting at an angle on her head. She studied Gryphon and

the corners of her mouth sank into the frown he’d come to

associate with his childhood.

 

“Wash the blood off your hands.” She retreated back to the

kitchen without another word.

 

Gryphon leaned his long spear and shield against the wall

and sloughed off his pack. He turned and noticed the rusted

metal shield mounted above the hearth. His cheeks colored in

shame. He looked away, but it didn’t stop the boiling wave of

anger that always came when he looked at his father’s shield.

 

The symbol of his family’s disgrace.

 

Despite Gryphon’s countless protests, his mother refused

to take it down. “It’s good to remember,” she would say.

Then she’d go out into the forest where she thought no one

could hear her and cry, rocking back and forth with her hands

wrapped firmly about her stomach. As if she’d fall apart if she

didn’t hold herself together.

 

No matter how hard he worked in the training field, that

shield would always hang over his head. Always.

In the kitchen, Gryphon plunged his hands into a basin of

water. As he scrubbed, the water turned the color of salmon

flesh.

 

His mother kneaded her palm into a batch of dough with

more force than necessary. She used her forearm to push aside

a clump of silver hair that fell into her face. “How many?” she

asked with her back to him.

 

Gryphon couldn’t scrub his hands hard enough. “One. We

were ambushed.” His excursions used to be so boring. They used

to go weeks without running into another clan, but lately …

 

“Who?” His mother stood up straight, prepared to take the

news like a strong Ram woman was meant to.

 

“Joshua.” Gryphon felt his control slip. He chewed on his

tongue until he could steel his emotions. “Spear,” was all he

trusted himself to say.

 

Joshua wasn’t a member of a mess unit yet. The System

didn’t allow thirteen-year-olds to join. He had still been in

training, but he’d begged to go, and Gryphon—his mentor—

didn’t have the heart to turn him down.

 

“Will he live?” she asked, kneading the dough again.

 

“I … ” Gryphon cleared his constricting throat, thinking of

the dirty Nameless girl they’d let work on Joshua in the cave.

 

“I don’t think he will.”

 

about-the-author

©NicholeV Photography, LLC 2008. http://actions.nicholeV.com. This work is registered and protected under US and international copyright laws. Any violation of this copyright will be diligently prosecuted.

With her degree in History and Secondary Education, Jennifer had every intention of teaching teens to love George Washington and appreciate the finer points of ancient battle stratagem. (Seriously, she’s obsessed with ancient warfare.) However, life had different plans in store when the writing began. As a proud member of Writers Cubed, and a co-founder of the Teen Author Boot Camp, she feels blessed to be able to fulfill both her ambition to work with teens as well as write Young Adult fiction.

Jennifer has three children who are experts at naming her characters, one loving, supportive husband, a dog with little-man syndrome, and three chickens (of whom she is secretly afraid).

Visit her online at jajenkins.com

Connect with the Author: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads | Pinterest | Instagram

 

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CHAPTER REVEAL – Super Freak

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Welcome to this week’s M9B Friday Reveal!

This week, we are revealing CHAPTER ONE of

Super Freak by Vanessa Barger

an MG title presented by Tantrum Books!

Be sure to enter the giveaway found at the end of the post!

 

Super Freak

 

Thirteen-year-old Caroline is a freak. Her parents have uprooted her to a town full of Supernaturals. You’d think she’d be thrilled. But, with someone without a magical bone in her body, this daughter of tree sprites feels like even more of an outcast than she has ever before.

To make matters worse, her new home is cursed. But when Caroline takes to investigating the mysterious and strange happenings of Harridan House, her BFF goes missing. Seems someone doesn’t want Caroline sticking her non-magical nose where it most certainly does not belong. Determined to prove herself, Caroline uncovers a plot to destroy her new hometown.

Undeterred, Caroline can’t give up. But what’s a human without magical powers to do? Caroline better figure it out fast, before she loses everything she has ever loved and the whispers she’s heard all her life prove true: Caroline is a useless superfreak.

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Super Freak by Vanessa Barger
Publication Date: October 13, 2015
Publisher: Tantrum Books
Genre: MG, Fantasy

BAM | Chapters | Amazon | B&N | Kobo | TBD | iBooks

 

excerpt

 

Chapter One

Twenty-five feet into town. That’s as far as we got before the first disaster happened. Dad turned onto Main Street, and just as we pulled up next to Greywolfe’s Spells and Supplies, a huge puff of smoke and flame burst from the front doors. Shattered glass and a large, hairy man shot into the path of our over-packed SUV.
Dad slammed his foot down on the brakes and jerked the wheel to the left, throwing us around the inside of the car. In the back, I covered my head, expecting the piles of wedged boxes to topple over, burying me in an avalanche of dishes and teddy bears.
“Caroline! Are you all right?” Mom reached into the back seat, her horn-rimmed glasses dangling from one ear.
“I’m good. Did we hit him?” I craned my neck, looking to see out the front window. Dad unbuckled and leapt from the car to help the man who had flown in the road to his feet.
“I think he’s fine. You’d think he’d at least have the decency to let out a warning before coming out like that. He could have been killed! We could have been hurt! Dishes might have fallen on you and broken!”
I rolled my eyes. The dishes would be a high priority.
Mom shook her head, letting loose a shower of tiny green leaves. It always happened when she was stressed. Dryads weren’t really known for their calm temperaments. You’d think, being tree spirits, they’d have that stoic thing going for them. Maybe it was because Mom was a weeping willow, but calm wasn’t really part of her vocabulary. Dad on the other hand, was solid as an oak.
Because he was an oak. After unhooking my seatbelt, I slid from the car. Mom followed suit. Her lips compressed into a tight line and she shed another couple handfuls of leaves, but for the moment, she contained herself.
Dad stood, tall and wiry, one arm hooked around a large, barrel-chested man with more facial hair than I’d seen in my life. Had to be a werewolf. He pulled away from my dad and brushed at the gravel and purple residue covering his gray suit.
“Thank you, Mr. …” The stranger held out one hand to my dad.
“George Bennings,” Dad said, shaking the stranger’s hand. “And this is my wife, Grace, and our daughter, Caroline. We just moved here from Lost Creek.”
“My name is William Grouseman. I’m thrilled you’ve come to town, but glad you didn’t pull in a few moments sooner.”
I wanted to warn him that sarcasm was lost on my parents, but he seemed to get the message when they didn’t share in his chuckle. They exchanged a confused glance and smiled blankly at him.
He offered his hand to me and I shook it. “Nice to meet you, sir.”
He frowned, looking between my parents and then back at me.
Mom’s arm curved around my shoulder, nudging me forward. She sniffed. “She’s just a late bloomer. We’ve got great hopes for her future.”
I sighed. She meant well, but it never failed. Supernatural people could sense the paranormal on each other. But when they got to me there was nothing. A void. A great, empty space where everyone expected some sort of natural magic.
The supernatural had been the normal since 1978 when an explorer by the name of Albert Merriweather stumbled into a cave in Greece and found Pandora’s Box, and then opened it. Apparently the myths about the box were off a little. Instead of holding all the evils of the world, it held all the magic that had been pulled out of it. Releasing magic out into the world, well, now every person was a little bit paranormal. It didn’t mean everyone could cast a spell or levitate. But everyone had something. Kids were tested in elementary school.
The ones with lots of magic were usually the popular crowd. The rest of the population lived with it, picking up what they could, where they could. You could ask to be retested anytime. Sometimes people really did make progress.
Except me. I hadn’t just tested low, I’d flunked. So badly they brought in national analysts to make sure there wasn’t someone tampering with the tests. It was a relief really. I mean, my parents were powerful. Who wants to try and beat that?
My lack of powers drove my parents batty. Most people figured I was adopted. Two dryads–tree spirits who could change shape, manipulate the natural world, and talk to trees–produced a normal child? Impossible.
My parents were convinced I would show signs as I matured. I didn’t have the heart to tell them differently, but I really didn’t think it would ever happen. And that was fine by me. Magic was great–when it worked.
Maybe when I turned forty my parents would figure it out. Until then, I’d smile and nod when they gave me their speech about reaching my potential and discovering hidden talents.
I met Mr. Grouseman’s chocolate eyes and gave him a weak smile before he turned to my parents.
“Ah, well, it happens sometimes. If anyone can draw out her gift, it’s our teaching staff at the school. I’m the principal at Stein Middle School.” His eyes moved from them to me. I wished I were small and hidden under a rock. “You look like you’re about middle-school age. What grade will you be in?”
I swallowed. This was not how I planned to meet the school principal. “I’m supposed to start eighth this year.”
“I thought so. You’ll love the school. Excellent courses and teachers, and the students are some of the best.”
Just like every other school I’d been to. They always said that. It must be in a rulebook principals get when they start their jobs. Luckily, that was the end of his conversation with me. He told my parents where the school was, and what the summer office hours were, then waved at us as he headed back into the shop.
Mom raised a tentative finger and cleared her throat. “Are you certain it’s safe to go back in?”
Mr. Grouseman loosed a deep peal of laughter. “Of course! My nephew runs the store. What you saw was an accident when a new display tipped over. Have a great day!”
I didn’t buy his story, and I didn’t think Mom and Dad did either. But clearly he wasn’t going to share family quarrels with the new people in town. With a shrug, I climbed back into the car, put my cryptogram book away, and watched the town unfold outside my windows. The buildings wound around a central park with huge old-growth trees and the county buildings were the same as they’d been when the town was founded in the seventeenth century. My Dad gave me tidbits about the history of Hecate Bay for the last two weeks, trying to pump up my anticipation. History was one passion Dad and I shared.
Spell suppliers, voodoo parlors, psychic readers, and magical bookstores rubbed elbows with Food Lion, florists, and churches. The human and the paranormal had merged and become just like the country–an inseparable mix.
We headed for our new house. As we turned away from town, the library caught my attention. A huge stone building that, based on the size, I knew held thousands of books. I started to drool at the prospect. As I watched the people wandering down the street, and we passed another spell shop and magical supply store, my excitement began to fade. I thought about what I’d seen so far, the encounter with my new principal, and the new school year approaching, and my stomach churned with dread. I knew that no matter what, Hecate Bay wasn’t the restful small town my parents told me about. I’d hoped for one of those rare towns populated with only a few magical creatures and big magical talents. This place, well, I could practically taste the magic in the air.
I was doomed.

 

About-the-Author

Vanessa Barger was born in West Virginia, and through several moves ended up spending the majority of her life in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She is a graduate of George Mason University and Old Dominion University, and has degrees in Graphic Design, a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and a Masters in Technology Education. She has had articles published in Altered Arts Magazine, has had some artwork displayed in galleries in Ohio and online, and currently teaches engineering, practical physics, drafting and other technological things to high school students in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. She is a member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), the Virginia Writer’s Club, and the Hampton Roads Writers. When not writing or teaching, she’s a bookaholic, movie fanatic, and loves to travel. She is married to a fabulous man, and has one cat, who believes Vanessa lives only to open cat food cans, and can often be found baking when she should be editing.

Connect with the Author: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads | Pinterest | YouTube

 

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CHAPTER REVEAL – Strange Country Day, Chapter One

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Welcome to this week’s M9B Friday Reveal!

This week, we are revealing THE FIRST CHAPTER of

Strange Country Day by Charles Curtis

presented by Tantrum Books!

Be sure to enter the giveaway found at the end of the post!

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Alexander Graham Ptuiac, the son of an inventor, wants to play for the school’s football team. During tryouts, and under the watchful eye of the team’s coach, he suddenly manifests mysterious superhuman powers. Alexander makes the team, but not before the some ill-intended adults take notice, putting his life in danger.

Alex struggles to suppress and control his strange new abilities, worried about exposing his secret and being kicked off the football team. Then he befriends Dex, a diminutive classmate who can somehow jump as high as ten feet in the air. Seems Alex isn’t the only one at school with a secret.

As the school year unfolds, Alex will find himself the target of bullies, holding hands with his first crush and discovering the shocking truth about himself and his parents.

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CHAPTER ONE

You always hope your first day of school is uneventful. You lay low, you blend into the background, and you make it through without doing something that’ll get you tormented for an entire year.
That didn’t happen in my first few hours at Strange Country Day.
Here’s what did happen: just as I was about to be demolished by an elephant-sized bully named Flab, some superhuman power possessed me and I bloodied his nose. Another new kid named Dex escaped an ancient initiation ceremony by clambering up a bookcase like a mountain goat. That night, I played catch with a football-hurling robot.
That was Day One. A week later, I started crushing on the prettiest girl I’d ever seen.
Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning:
I stood at the front gates to Vance M. Strange Country Day School, staring up at the name of my new school, the letters set high above a set of iron bars that looked as if they had been there for centuries. The curlicues and script looked just as ancient.
It was Orientation Day, so I wouldn’t have to sit through any classes until tomorrow. After a tour given by an upperclassman, my new prep school brought the seventh graders to our state-of-the-art auditorium, where we listened to the headmaster lecture all 110 of us about Strange Country Day’s policies. It’s exactly what you’d expect—no gum in class, no graffiti, no lateness. But there were also some weird ones, like the ten-page booklet on “uniform violations.”
Oh, the uniforms. I couldn’t believe my parents made me go to a school with a strict dress code. I looked down at what I was wearing and winced: a button-down white shirt with a yellow tie—not a clipon, so we had to learn to tie a Double Windsor knot, whatever that was—that felt like it was choking me. I also sported tight khakis and brown, shiny loafers. The whole thing wouldn’t be complete without the navy blazer with the school emblem, a griffin—the mythological lion with wings—and words displayed below “Vance M. Strange Country Day School, est. 1904” above the front gate: In Via Incipit Hic.
I used my phone to look up the meaning: “The Road Starts Here” in Latin. My new school was some rich kids’ academy past presidents had attended, where future Wall Street barons first learned the quadratic equation and where I’d now start myself on the supposed road to greatness.
That road was real—it weaved through the gigantic campus. The school consisted of a dozen ivy-covered buildings spread out over a campus that spanned what looked like miles. Walking from the art building to where I was supposed to take history would take at least ten minutes, or so our tour guide warned us. I could see different trees planted everywhere with plaques describing them and what seemed like acres of neatly trimmed grass. My old school back home had been one small, cramped brick building with a slab of concrete out back that we played on during recess.
With the half-day orientation over, we headed for the front gate, where the buses would pick us up. I looked at the other kids in their uniforms and saw them joking around and greeting each other with complex handshakes, as if they were a basketball team after a playoff win. I heard nearly everyone entering seventh grade had graduated from Strange Lower School, so they all knew each other already. I wanted to introduce myself to someone, just so I wouldn’t feel awkward, but they passed me as if I were invisible. I turned back around to confront those iron gates, realizing that they were a jail from which I couldn’t escape.
I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. I turned around to look up at a big kid wearing a maroon and yellow jacket with a giant version of the griffin on it. I could see a jersey with the number 77 underneath.
“Come with me—with them,” he said, pointing at a group of seventh grade boys.
We were led down a walkway, ushered inside one of the buildings and into a classroom. When the big guy opened the creaky windowless door, I saw most of my other male classmates. They all had the same fear written on their faces. We were surrounded by bigger guys—ninth graders, probably. Some of them were football players. A few more kids were squeezed in, and the “guards” shut the door. In front of the room, standing over us, was another player in a maroon and yellow jacket. He was the biggest guy in the room, hefty, but you could see it wasn’t all fat.
“Welcome to Fresh Meet Friday!” the enormous kid announced. The other ninth graders whooped and hollered. “Boys, since you’re about to join the Strange brotherhood, you can call me what everyone calls me: Flab.” That’s the worst name I’ve ever heard for someone that size.
“This is all about tradition, boys. Strange Country Day is filled with tradition. For starters, you are standing in the oldest building on campus, built in 1904. Three years later, this tradition began right here in the Roger Basil Thayer Room.” Strange alumni donated heaps of cash to have a room, a library desk, a water fountain, anything, named after them.
“Here’s how this works: you will stand in front of the room and pledge allegiance to Strange Country Day. Only then will we tell you the next step.” Flab paused for dramatic effect, and his classmates asked, almost in unison, “And what’s that?”
“ … You’ll find out soon enough,” he said, with a big grin.
We seventh graders exchanged looks but stayed silent. Flab explained the rules of the mysterious tradition: in exchange for our participation, they would agree to stay out of our way the rest of the year. Violations of this pact would result in punishment to the violator(s) and random acts against other classmates throughout the school year. We were not allowed to breathe a word of this to our parents, teachers, advisors, bus drivers, or otherwise at school. “We went through the same thing you’re about to go through, and not one of us retaliated,” he said as the mob nodded approval. One of the other ninth-graders interjected and pointed out that he’d heard of a kid decades ago who rebelled.
“And he had to transfer two months later.”
“Fight back and you’re fighting against Strange’s hundred years of tradition,” Flab finished with a grin. He picked up a book from the nearby desk and opened it. “Let’s start with … ” he trailed his chubby fingers over the pages. My heart nearly leapt through my crisp white shirt. “ … Dex Harrison.”
No one reacted. Flab looked up. “Dex. Get up here. Now,” he said.
The seventh-grader sea parted, and a kid emerged who looked to be about five feet tall. His skin was pale, an almost grayish color, and his pointy ears appeared to be higher up on the sides of his head than usual. His eyes were like slits. I never saw anyone who looked like that. There were some snickers among my classmates as he walked slowly to the front of the room. He stood there, surrounded by four ninth graders.
“Dex, do you swear to uphold the traditions, honor, and virtue that those before you have also sworn to defend?” Flab recited.
A barely audible, high-pitched “Yes” came out of Dex’s mouth. He scrunched up his eyes. “You have now joined the brotherhood of Strange Country Day,” Flab said, as he leaned back to watch the action.
As the quartet of ninth-graders began to move toward him, Dex jumped away. They tried stepping closer, but Dex kept backing away. The entire room, seventh and ninth graders alike, gasped. Some of us started laughing.
“Shut up!” Flab yelled. He slammed his fist down on the desk and marched over to Dex. “Don’t make this harder on yourself. You took the vow; you have to fulfill it.”
Flab and the others reached out to grab him, but Dex somehow eluded their grasps. He backed away as some of the seventh graders began to root him on. The others yelled for Dex to stop, knowing we would all suffer if he messed up the tradition. The noise in the classroom got louder. Dex backed into a bookcase filled with dusty volumes; he looked like he was about to be trapped. Just as Flab was ready to pounce on him, Dex darted up the bookcase with lightning speed. The roar was huge.
Dex had a weird way of celebrating his victory—he bared a set of sharp teeth and hissed at his pursuers, who grabbed books off the shelves and threw them at him. With incredible dexterity, he dodged every one of them, repeatedly displaying his spiky teeth at the ninth graders. That brought the room to a fever pitch.
The older kids began to shove some of us to stop the cheering. It was the beginning of a riot … and I was stuck in the middle of it. I tried to push my way back to the door.
There was no way that was happening—I felt shoves from behind. Sweat began pouring down my face as I saw Flab turn his attention away from Dex, who looked down at the action with a mix of horror and fascination. “Everyone stop!” Flab shouted. The seventh graders didn’t listen, pushing every kid in a football jersey they could see. I was shoved into Flab’s expansive back and stumbled back. As he turned to look at me, something, well, strange happened at Strange. Something that had never happened to me before today.
My vision got blurry, and my head began to pound. I smelled toasted marshmallows. Then it was like someone poured water through my veins, and it rushed through my arms, down to my feet and into my head, which stopped pounding. I couldn’t hear any of the noise of the chaos around me. Instead, a highpitched whistle took its place.
Squeeeeeeeee
Then it disappeared—the marshmallows, the water in my veins, the blurry vision … everything.
I watched as if detached from my body as my fist flew toward the behemoth standing before me and connected with his nose.
The entire room stopped moving. Silence. Shock. I looked down at my fist and back up at Flab, who stumbled and touched his bleeding nose. He couldn’t believe what I had done and neither could I.
“What the heck is going on in here?” The entire room turned its attention to the door, where a young man wearing a tie and a white shirt stood.
The man glared at us. “Anyone want to take a trip to visit Headmaster Hoyer?” It sounded like he was a teacher.
More than a hundred Strange students shook their heads in unison.
“Good. Then I’ll wait here while you clean up the mess you made, and maybe I’ll forget I saw anything.”
Silently, everyone started picking up books, papers, and uniform jackets. When we finished, the ninth-graders filed out, followed by my classmates.
“Thanks.”
I looked down at Dex. I was surprised to hear him talk. His voice was squeaky, like he’d swallowed a balloon full of helium.
“For what?”
“If you hadn’t hit him, they would have gotten me,”
“Now, it’s your turn to save me when they come to beat me up,” I said. I wasn’t kidding, either.
“Anytime,” he said with an odd grin. Up close, his teeth were even weirder, as if they were a little too big for his mouth.
“You did a pretty good job in there,” I replied. “Alex.” I offered my hand, and he shook it vigorously. His palm felt clammy.
“Dex.”
We figured out that we lived near each other, and that he was new, like me. But there was something else I was itching to know.
“How did you get up the bookcase so quickly? That was amazing!” Dex didn’t answer. Instead, his eyes got wide as he peered around me. I turned around to see Flab and a few other yellow and maroon jerseys headed our way.
Flab looked around to see if anyone was watching and then got close to me. I could see some dried blood near his nose.
With every word out of his mouth, he poked me in the chest. Hard. “You.” POKE. “Got.” POKE. “Lucky.” HARD POKE. He glanced down at his notebook.
“Alexander Ptuiac,” he growled, pronouncing what was supposed to be a silent “P” as he pushed his way past me, as did his fellow football teammates. I turned around to see what they would do to Dex as they brushed by him.
But Dex was gone.

 

About-the-Author

Charles Curtis

Charles Curtis is a writer and journalist based in New York City. He has reported and written for publications including NJ.com (where he is currently the site’s sports buzz reporter), The Daily, ESPN.com, ESPN the Magazine, Bleacher Report, TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly. Charles has covered the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, golf, tennis and NASCAR. He has also written about television, film and pop culture.
In addition, Curtis has also written, produced and was featured in videos for ESPN.com and The Daily. He has made radio appearances on stations including 92.9 The Ticket in Bangor, Maine, WLIE 540 AM in Long Island and on morning shows across Canada via the CBC.
He can be reached on Twitter: @charlescurtis82.

Connect with the Author: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

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CHAPTER REVEAL – Chapter 3 of Serpetine

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Welcome to this week’s M9B Friday Reveal!

This week, we are revealing CHAPTER THREE of

Serpentine by Cindy Pon

presented byMonth9Books!

Be sure to enter the giveaway found at the end of the post!

 

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SERPENTINE is a sweeping fantasy set in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology.

Lush with details from Chinese folklore, SERPENTINE tells the coming of age story of Skybright, a young girl who worries about her growing otherness. As she turns sixteen, Skybright notices troubling changes. By day, she is a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a very wealthy family. But nighttime brings with it a darkness that not even daybreak can quell.

When her plight can no longer be denied, Skybright learns that despite a dark destiny, she must struggle to retain her sense of self – even as she falls in love for the first time.

Vivid worldbuilding, incendiary romance, heart-pounding action, and characters that will win you over–I highly recommend Serpentine.Cinda Williams Chima, best-selling author of the Seven Realms and Heir Chronicles fantasy novels

Serpentine is unique and surprising, with a beautifully-drawn fantasy world that sucked me right in! I love Skybright’s transformative power, and how she learns to take charge of it.” ~Kristin Cashore, NYT Bestseller of the Graceling Realm Series

Serpentine’s world oozes with lush details and rich lore, and the characters crackle with life. This is one story that you’ll want to lose yourself in.” ~ Marie Lu, New York Times bestselling author of Legend and The Young Elites

 

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Title: Serpentine
Publication date: September 8, 2015
Publisher: Month9Books, LLC.
Author: Cindy Pon

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excerpt

 

Chapter 3

Skybright sneaked back into the Yuan manor through the unguarded side entrance, relieved that no one saw her along the way in the dim alley. Like all matriarchs, Lady Yuan was unconcerned with the goings on of her servants—as long as they performed their duties and kept out of trouble. Skybright always had, until today. The door panels to her small quarters were wide open, but the room was empty. She quickly changed into a silk tunic and trousers in sky blue, beaded at the collar and along the sleeve edges in silver, a mark of her mistress’s favor. She plaited her thick hair into two braids and wound them tight against her neck. She hadn’t even realized that Kai Sen had seen her hair unbound until now—something saved only for a husband. Skybright snorted, and had to suppress the hysterical laughter that was rising within her. What did it matter if he had seen her hair unbound when he had already seen her unclothed? She pressed a hand to her mouth and bit the flesh of her index finger to calm herself.
Hurried footsteps and excited conversation carried to her from across the courtyard, and she ran to Zhen Ni’s quarters, pushing the panel aside without knocking. Stepping through the reception hall, she found her mistress hunched over on the platform bed, her hair in disarray. Lan had her arm wrapped around Zhen Ni and dabbed at her wet cheeks with an emerald handkerchief, a gesture both intimate and tender. Whispering soft words into Zhen Ni’s ear, Lan leaned closer till their faces were nearly touching.
“Mistress!” Skybright threw herself at Zhen Ni’s feet and knocked her forehead against the floor. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to worry you.”
Her mistress uttered a strangled cry.
“Worry me!” Zhen Ni pressed her hands beneath Skybright’s chin and lifted it. Her mistress’s hair had been haphazardly arranged that morning, and most of it had escaped in wild wisps around her face. She hadn’t bothered with any cosmetics or accessories.
“I thought you’d been kidnapped, or ran away, or were murdered—”
“None of those.” Skybright squeezed Zhen Ni’s wrists. “I’m here. I’m well.”
Zhen Ni allowed herself one more sob and snatched the handkerchief from Lan, blowing her nose noisily. The other girl folded her hands in her lap, eyes downcast. She sat with her thigh pressed against Zhen Ni’s, and Skybright felt a sharp pang of jealousy, that Lan felt so close and comfortable with her mistress in the short time they’d known each other. Distracted, she didn’t sense Zhen Ni’s wrath until she shook Skybright hard by the shoulders.
“Where were you?” Her mistress’s porcelain complexion was mottled. “Where did you go?”
“I—” Skybright had never lied to her mistress before. “I must have wandered away in my sleep.”
Zhen Ni wrung the silk handkerchief, twisting it mercilessly. “You sleep walked? But you’ve never done that before. You don’t even talk in your sleep.”
Skybright bowed her head. It still ached, and she couldn’t bear seeing her mistress’s face any longer. She had to lie. A rush of dizziness seized her, and she crouched low again. The bedchamber spun in lazy circles. “I don’t feel well.”
“Skybright!” Zhen Ni slid from the edge of the bed, folding her arm around Skybright’s shoulders. “Lan, could you ask my mother to fetch Nanny Bai? Please hurry.”
She heard Lan’s retreating footsteps. Zhen Ni stroked Skybright’s hair and held her. Skybright clutched at her own tunic and leaned into her mistress, refusing to cry. Zhen Ni hadn’t put on any perfume that morning, she noticed. The jasmine would do for today, Skybright thought, once she had the chance to rearrange her mistress’s hair and pin the kingfisher hair sticks into her locks.
Yes.
The jasmine perfume would be perfect.

 

Skybright drifted in and out of consciousness after Zhen Ni helped her into her own bed, plumping the cushions behind her as if she were the handmaid and Skybright her mistress. Unused to being fussed over, she tried to wave her mistress away and rise, only to be pushed back against the cushions.
“Don’t be a fool, Sky. I command that you lie back and rest!”
Skybright smiled weakly at that. Zhen Ni was used to getting her way. She leaned back and closed her eyes while her mistress sat beside her.
“You like Lan,” Skybright said after a while.
There was such a long pause, she opened her eyes, wondering if Zhen Ni had not heard her. Her mistress was studying her with an unreadable expression, and Skybright had always been able to read her mistress as easily as a deck of cards. “She makes a good friend. I enjoy her company.” Zhen Ni arched her graceful neck and examined a lotus painting, avoiding eye contact in that way she did when she was being evasive. “Don’t you like her?”
“She’s nice,” Skybright said. But in truth, Skybright wasn’t used to sharing Zhen Ni’s attentions, not used to seeing her laugh and chatter so easily with another girl their age. They sat without looking at each other, and listened to the soft trickle of the waterfall from the courtyard. “I can never be a true friend to you,” Skybright whispered after a long silence. “I can only ever be your handmaid.”
“Sky!” Zhen Ni grabbed her hand. “You’re my sister, my better and kinder half.” She gripped her fingers. “How can you say such a thing? You’re delirious!”
Lady Yuan swished in with a bustle of flowing silk panels on her beautiful dress, followed by Nanny Bai and Lan. “Skybright! You’ve sent the household in an uproar. We’ve had servants scouring the entire village and had others going into town to search for you, twice.”
“Three times,” Zhen Ni said.
“I’m sorry, Lady Yuan. I must have wandered off in my sleep.” Skybright stared at the silk sheet embroidered with chrysanthemums.
Lady Yuan stood beside the bed and touched the back of her hand to Skybright’s brow. “Zhen Ni said you weren’t feeling well?”
“I think … I’m just overtired, Lady.”
“It isn’t—?”
“No, Lady. It isn’t that.” Skybright had a feeling that her monthly letting would never come.
Lady Yuan nodded and smoothed the stray strands of hair from Skybright’s brow. It was such an intimate, maternal gesture, one that they had never shared before, that Skybright almost cringed. Lady Yuan clapped her hands. “Come girls, let’s leave Skybright with Nanny Bai.”
Zhen Ni gave her a hug before following her mother and Lan out into the courtyard.
Skybright breathed a sigh of relief and sank into the cushions.
“What happened, child?” Nanny Bai asked. What had once been a husky voice was now coarse with age. The same voice that used to sing her to sleep on rare occasions. Nanny Bai was the closest thing she ever had to a mother.
“It’s as I said. I think I wandered off in my sleep.”
The older woman felt the pulse at her wrist and her throat, leaned closer to listen to her breathing. “You never sleep walked as a child. It’s … unusual to start so late in age.”
“Am I that old?” Skybright asked without thinking.
Nanny Bai laughed, the sound like the wind stirring brittle leaves. “Where did you go?”
“Into the forest.”
The older woman made a strange noise in her throat, catching Skybright’s attention. The lines around her old nursemaid’s eyes and along her mouth had deepened in these passing years, but her brown eyes were still as sharp as ever. She smelled of pungent herbs, as she always did—a rich, earthy bitterness.
“What is it?” Skybright whispered.
“I’ve never told anyone this, because it was your story.” Nanny Bai glanced down at her strong, able hands, though the knuckles were beginning to thicken with age. “I was the one to find you, yes. But it wasn’t at our front doorstep.”
Skybright pushed herself up. “What do you mean?”
“I found you abandoned in the forest, child.”
She shook her head in disbelief, and her old nursemaid clucked her tongue in sympathy. “It was the beginning of summer, and the weather was fine that day. I decided to go into town to pick up some medicinal herbs—Lady Yuan was so near to giving birth to our Zhen Ni. For some reason, I was drawn to the forest, and taking my way through there.” Nanny Bai paused, lost in the past. “It was unusual, as I never walked through the forest. Not alone.”
Skybright knew it was true. Her old nursemaid seemed to avoid it, often sending Skybright into the thickets to gather wild mushrooms and plants for her, never saying why she disliked entering its cool depths.
“But that morning, something drew me.” She said again, nodding for emphasis. “And I followed the creek, not wanting to lose my way, but I heard something deep within the forest. A baby’s cry.” She closed her eyes. “I thought it was some sort of trickery—strange things can lurk among the trees—or that I had imagined it. But it didn’t cease. I tracked the sound, until I was lost in the thickets. And there you were.”
Abandoned in the forest … left to die.
“You weren’t a day old, child. And it was as if your mother had given birth to you in the wild and left you there, with your cord still attached. You weren’t covered or swaddled. It’s a wonder some wild animal didn’t come along—”
Skybright’s tears finally came, held in since the previous night, when she had slithered her way back into the forest as a monstrosity—the same forest where she had been cast aside by a mother who didn’t care if she lived.
“Dear.” Nanny Bai touched her arm. “I’m sorry to be so blunt. But I thought you should know. You understand now why I never before spoke the truth? I feared that Lady Yuan would not have wanted you if I did.” She smiled a gentle smile. “I took you home wrapped in the cloth I had intended for my herbs, and bathed you, then presented you swaddled in red satin in a pretty woven basket to the Lady.”
Skybright rubbed her face, furious with herself for crying. What was the point of wasted tears?
“You know how Lady Yuan always loves a gift well presented,” Nanny Bai said.
She laughed, even though it sounded bitter to her ears. “Thank you, dear nanny. You saved my life.”
“Look at the lovely, capable young woman you’ve grown into, Skybright.” She patted her arm again. “You would have made any mother proud. It’s a pity you can never wed, but Zhen Ni loves you as her own sister. Your lot in life could have been much worse.”
The older woman rose, still agile despite her age. “You’re weak from exhaustion and overexcitement. I’ll bring something to help you sleep.”
Skybright nodded. “Thank you again, Nanny Bai. And—and my mother left nothing behind at all? No memento for me?”
Her old nursemaid shook her head in regret. “Nothing. It was clear you were a newborn babe. Although … ” Hesitant, Nanny Bai tugged at her tunic edge.
“What?” Skybright’s hands tingled, as if in warning or anticipation.
“When I washed you that first time, there were flakes stuck to you. Like scales from a fish. They were quite beautiful but … strange.”
“Like scales from a fish,” Skybright repeated dumbly. “What color were they?”
“Crimson,” Nanny Bai said. “They glittered like jewels in the light.”

 

Skybright dozed through to the next morning after taking the bitter draught Nanny Bai offered her. Zhen Ni had refused to let her return to her own quarters. In the evening, Skybright was vaguely aware of her mistress slipping into the large bed beside her. She woke with a start before dawn, her forehead covered in sweat. Terrified, she kicked her legs beneath the thin sheet, feeling her toes and her knees. What would happen if she changed with her mistress beside her? Skybright’s throat closed at the thought. She heard Zhen Ni’s steady breathing, and slipped out of bed and into a courtyard dimly lit by starlight.
When she had shifted, it was always at nighttime—she only wished she knew what triggered it, so she could anticipate it. Could she control it somehow? Will it away when it happened? Skybright sat on the stone bench beneath a peach tree, digging her toes into the earth and enjoying its coolness.
Miiisssstress …
The hairs on Skybright’s neck rose and sharp needles danced across her scalp. The word was carried on a soft summer breeze, barely audible. Her imagination, after the past week, was getting the better of her.
Huuuuungry!
Skybright leaped from the bench and whirled, turning in a circle, heart in her throat. That word had been as loud as a stone falling from the sky.
“Who is it?” she said into the night.
Another breeze rustled the leaves overhead, seeming to hold and then disperse a multitude of pleading voices.
Pleeeease…
Coooome…
A single firefly materialized in front of her, hovering before her nose. It looped three times and flew a few steps ahead. She followed the insect, past the dark quarters, along winding stone paths. If she concentrated enough, Skybright thought she could hear the murmur of a hundred voices upon the wind.
Finally, the firefly paused in front of the main gate into the manor, with its grand double doors. She unlatched the lock and pulled one door open. It groaned like a dragon disturbed in its sleep, and Skybright stepped across the threshold. The heavy door slammed shut by itself; an empty street greeted her. Their manor was not near the main road, but their street was broad enough for horses and carriages to travel through. Plum trees dotted the wide path, and she could see the neighbor’s red gate and main entrance across the way.
The firefly had vanished, and Skybright stood with her head tilted, listening.
Miiiiistress Skkkky …
Shadows darted around her, an icy wind. She clutched her bare arms with her hands. “Who are you?” she whispered into the night. The air stilled, then wavered. Images coalesced, and a group of people suddenly surrounded her. There were men and women, girls and boys, dressed in shabby clothing with dirt-smudged faces. She knew she should have been afraid, but instead, she was only curious.
They gaped at her with mournful faces, but when she tried to look at one straight on, the spirit would melt into shadow again, absorbed by moonlight. So she observed them from the corners of her eyes. At least a hundred ghosts surrounded her, and they pressed closer as one, chilling the air. Beyond them, she sensed more spirits, too tired or weak to manifest their human forms.
A man in his thirties floated forward from the rest of the pack. His cheeks were rough with facial hair, but the flesh was gone from the upper left side of his face, exposing an empty eye socket. “Mistress Skybright. We were but humble servants, as you are—”
A chorus of voices echoed.
I served Lady Pan for thirty years.
I took care of the horses and dogs for the Jins.
I was a cook for the Wang family until the kitchen fire took my life.
I’m an orphan but kept my master company!
The last voice was high-pitched and cheery, and Skybright glimpsed the shadow of a boy no more than eleven years near the front of the crowd.
“What do you want from me?” she whispered.
Their response was an uproar, lifting the loose hair from her head. She staggered back from the force of their sheer need.
Love.
Vengeance.
My wife.
Retribution.
Peace.
Rest.
My Son.
Life.
Tears sprang in her eyes because, inexplicably, she knew their loss, felt their wants and desires as if they were her own.
The man who had spoken to her raised a blurry fist and snarled. The silence that followed was immediate and eerie, and her ears rang with it.
“Please, Mistress Skybright,” the man said. It seemed to take great effort for him to speak so clearly to her. Each of his sentences was followed by the restless echo of hundreds of others. “Feed us. We have no relatives left to do so. And those who remain are too poor.”
“But the Ghost Festival hasn’t started yet,” she said. They were a few days from the middle of the seventh moon, when the gates of the underworld were supposed to open for the ghosts to visit the living. The Yuan manor was already beginning to prepare elaborate feasts in remembrance of ancestors, to pay respect and symbolically feed the dead.
We escaped, followed, pushed through. Wanting. Hunger.
“There was a breach between the realms,” the man said. “We escaped the underworld early.”
Skybright’s skin crawled, fearful for the first time in this exchange with the dead.
“But why did you seek me out?”
Us. See you. Are us.
Their crackling chants shivered across her.
“Because you’re the only one who can see us,” he said, his voice almost gentle. “Hear us.”
“The only one … ” she repeated.
He paused. “The other one is too well protected.”
“I will. I’ll feed you and burn incense in your memory. I promise.” Skybright’s eyes swept past the hundreds of glimmering ghosts floating before her in the empty road, to the indistinct forms crouched beneath the shadows of the plum trees. “But who’s the other one?”
The man grinned, though the flesh dissolved from his mouth and chin, exposing yellow, jagged teeth. He didn’t answer her question. Instead, the spirits hissed in delight, as if in acknowledgement of who she was—what she was. One of us, they had said. Could they see the monstrous side of her so easily? As easily as she could see them, she realized. They whirled until the pins fell from her hair, freeing her locks.
Then, the air stilled, as sudden as when it erupted.
A cat yowled in terror in the distance.
She was alone.
Something bounced against the cobblestone and rolled into her bare foot. Skybright stooped to pick it up. A copper coin, hundreds of years old, tinged green with age.
A token of gratitude.

 

Skybright hurried toward Zhen Ni’s quarters with the small coin clenched in her hand, and made it back right as the roosters began to crow. She almost bumped into her mistress when she entered the reception hall. The tall girl had a lavender silk robe drawn about her.
“I was just coming to find you.” It was clear Zhen Ni was concerned, but she withheld her reprimand.
“I needed fresh air, mistress.”
“Look at you, wandering like a wild animal in your bare feet. Really, Sky! Do you not want to get better?”
Skybright smiled, glad that her mistress had reprimanded her after all. It meant things were returning to normal between them. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
Zhen Ni pulled her into her bedchamber, and Skybright lit the giant pearl lanterns in each corner. Skybright’s arms shook, and she did her best to steady them.
“Are you feeling better?” Zhen Ni asked.
In truth, she felt drained and wanted more than anything to crawl back into bed. Too much was happening to her at once, all inexplicable and strange. Instead she said, “I am. And you?” She had been a poor handmaid these past few days, and it was the only normal aspect of her life now, reassuring in its rituals and cadence.
Her mistress unconsciously pressed a palm to her abdomen. “The worst of it is over now … until the next moon.”
“How long do you plan on keeping this from your mother?”
“Forever,” Zhen Ni said vehemently.
Skybright’s mouth dropped, but she clamped it shut when her mistress shot her a challenging glare.
“My parents already have two grandsons and a granddaughter! And another on the way. Why must I be married off as well? It’s not fair!”
Skybright stared at her fists. Her mistress sounded like a petulant child. There was nothing fair or unfair in the way things were. Was there any point in challenging them, when in the end, a girl such as Zhen Ni must accept her fate, no matter what? Just as Skybright must accept her own? Memories of herself in serpent form filled her mind—how alive she had felt. She shoved them aside. There was no place for that here.
“You’ll help me, Sky? Hide the truth from Mama?”
She led Zhen Ni to the vanity to prepare her for the coming day. “Of course, mistress. I’ll help you for as long as you want.”
Zhen Ni grinned, her relief plain. “I’ll wear the turquoise tunic today, what do you think?”
Skybright retrieved the tunic and matching skirt from her mistress’s giant rosewood wardrobe. The color especially complemented Zhen Ni’s ivory skin and set off her warm brown eyes. The tunic was embroidered with golden chrysanthemums. “Is it a special occasion? Are we receiving a visitor?”
Zhen Ni’s cheeks colored, surprising Skybright.
“Not at all.” Zhen Ni brushed her own hair in long strokes. “I just wanted to dress especially nice today, after all that’s happened this past week.”
Skybright took the brush from her and smiled. “I’ll do something fancy for your hair then, to match the outfit.”
Zhen Ni folded her hands in her lap and Skybright saw how the flush in her cheeks enhanced her natural beauty. Her face was more rounded, like she’d gained some weight in these past weeks, softening her features. Her eyes shone as she watched Skybright plait her hair, and a faint smile lifted the corners of her generous mouth. Skybright ran a cursory glance of her own reflection, noted how her dark eyes appeared too large in her pale face, before concentrating on her mistress’s locks once more, Zhen Ni had turned into a woman as well, seemingly overnight.
The realization struck Skybright with a pang of fear and regret. How long could they cling to their childhoods, ignoring the fact that they had become young women? She twisted tiny braids near the top of Zhen Ni’s head, weaving ruby flowers in them, before winding the small braids to join her single, thicker braid.
The color of the dazzling stones reminded her of her serpent scales, and Skybright’s hands trembled as she clipped the final hairpin into her mistress’s hair. What would Zhen Ni think if she ever discovered the truth? How could she possibly care for her the same? Skybright would be cast out as the cursed monster that she was.
Zhen Ni turned her head this way and that, admiring Skybright’s handiwork. She paused when she caught Skybright’s reflection in the mirror.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing, mistress.” She rubbed gardenia musk against her mistress’s wrists and behind her ears. “You look beautiful. And you haven’t even put the tunic on yet.”
Skybright helped Zhen Ni into her thin chemise and silk shorts, then dressed her in the luxurious turquoise tunic and skirt. She drew back when she was done, and her mistress stood in front of the mirror, smoothing the silk, making certain everything was in place and perfect.
“I need to change, too, mistress. I’ll meet you in the main hall?”
Zhen Ni turned, and her smile was warm. “Yes. I’ll fetch Lan on my way.”
Skybright stopped by the kitchen before returning to her own quarters. Cook was busy preparing the morning meal and ignored her as she collected the items she needed in a woven basket. She changed quickly in her own bedchamber before pulling her small rosewood table outside. A narrow unused alley ran behind her bedchamber, along the perimeter of the manor’s high stone wall. Skybright pushed the table against it, then placed oranges and apples on a blue porcelain plate. Beside the fruit, she set down three bowls of rice and a bamboo and bean curd dish. Cook’s famous nut cakes were her last offering. She lit an incense stick and set a woven cover over the table.
It was a humble offering, food that servants would be used to, except the fruit and nut cakes. Skybright bowed her head and said a prayer, wondering how this could possibly be enough for the hundreds of lost souls she had seen.

 

The next two days, before Skybright would see Kai Sen again, passed agonizingly slow. She accompanied Zhen Ni and Lan throughout the day, sewing and embroidering, feeding the song birds in their gilded cages in the courtyards as well as the wild ones fluttering among the trees. On occasion, Skybright would hear the distant gong from the monastery, and she’d always turn her head in its direction, wondering what Kai Sen was doing in that moment.
The girls lounged now on the covered balcony of the fish pond room. Skybright leaned over the wooden railing carved with ducks, contemplating the clear water below. The square pond was enclosed by high walls open to the sky, giving the young ladies sunlight yet allowing them their privacy. She couldn’t quite reach to trail her fingers through the water as she would have liked—it was a hot day in the seventh moon. Silver and gold fish darted below, and Skybright sang under her breath about lovers separated in the springtime. The lattice woodwork framing the top of the balcony threw sunlit geometric patterns against the walls, adding to the serene, dreamlike quality.
“Sing louder, Skybright,” said Zhen Ni. “Your voice is so lovely.”
Skybright turned her head toward the two girls, and froze. Zhen Ni was nestled at Lan’s feet, her legs tucked beneath her, leaning into Lan’s legs like a contented cat. Lan had unraveled Zhen Ni’s thick hair, and it fell across her shoulders past her waist, its jasmine perfume scenting the air. The girl ran a brush through her mistress’s locks, a dreamy look in her eyes. Skybright tried to choke down the knot that had risen in her throat. No one was allowed to arrange Zhen Ni’s hair except herself, not unless Skybright was ill.
Zhen Ni lifted her face and smiled at Skybright. “Doesn’t she have the prettiest voice, Lan?”
Lan inclined her head, the movement like a sparrow’s, then nodded. “She does. But she’s stopped singing.”
“Do go on, Sky. But sing something happy. About lovers who are together, not apart and missing each other.” Zhen Ni draped an arm over Lan’s knees, a gesture that was both familiar and affectionate.
Skybright felt as if she were missing something. As if Zhen Ni and Lan were playing a game that she hadn’t been invited to join. Lan was a shy and demure girl, the exact opposite of Zhen Ni. But her mistress seemed to coax Lan out, as only Zhen Ni could, eliciting rich bursts of laughter from her. As high in station as Skybright was and as close as she was to her mistress, she was still only a handmaid and didn’t feel comfortable chatting with Lan, befriending her. It wasn’t her place.
Skybright lowered her chin and cleared her throat before singing again. This song was about lovers reunited, and the endurance of their love, as certain as the changing seasons. Her voice rose, sweet and strong, as she sang for the two girls. Skybright closed her eyes, and also sang for herself, to try and ease the inexplicable ache in her chest. So much had changed in so few days—Skybright wasn’t certain who she was any more. And Zhen Ni, the person who had always known her best, now knew Skybright very little at all.
Zhen Ni and Lan clapped when Skybright finished her song, but she kept her head bowed. Soon after, Rose and Pearl swept in bearing trays laden with tea, fruit and sweets. Zhen Ni and Lan stood as one with identical smiles. Skybright hurried to set the plates for them and pour the chilled jasmine tea. Her mistress winked and patted the enameled stool beside her. “You sang so beautifully, Sky. Are you feeling back to normal?”
Nibbling on a taro rice ball without tasting it, she forced a smile for her mistress.
Would she ever be normal again?

 

Skybright rearranged the thin sheet on her bed numerous times then opened the lattice window to air out her stuffy bedchamber. She was supposed to meet Kai Sen tomorrow morning and had to think of an excuse to give to Zhen Ni so she could sneak away. Her heart beat faster at the thought of him, and she chided herself over such a pointless crush.
A shadow obscured the moonlight that had filtered into her bedchamber, and a gust of wind stirred the crabapple trees outside. The night whispered to her. She stepped into the courtyard, not bothering to pull a robe on over her sleep clothes. Excited murmurs drifted from the back alley behind her chamber, and she padded toward the sound, barefoot.
Skybright rounded the sharp corner and stopped abruptly. The narrow alley was jammed with spirits crowding close to the makeshift altar she had made for them. They glowed, some wavering like candle flames. She could push through their insubstantial forms if she wanted, but she stood there, stunned that so many ghosts had filled this confined space.
The scent of sandalwood drifted to her. She had lit another incense stick before she had gone to bed. The tall ghost who had spoken to her hovered in front of the small table, directing each spirit as it took its turn. He saw her and nodded with a smile, his broad face morphing into a leering skull. The other spirits seemed to sense her with their leader’s acknowledgment.
Thank you, miiiiistress some rice wine next time are there lychees lychees were my favorite. I miss them so.
The voice rose and melded together with others until they were unintelligible to her.
Their leader thrust his fist in the air, and the spirits ceased speaking as one. “Quiet. He comes.”
Who comes?
“He can force us back to the underworld if he chooses,” the leader told the other spirits. “We must go.”
The spirits shimmered, then extinguished into darkness. Just then, a shape rose over the manor wall, crouched at the top. The person dangled, then dropped without sound to the ground below.
The moon was still bright, even as it cast the back alley in shadows. Skybright dared not move, afraid this would catch the intruder’s attention. He was dressed in black and blended with the darkness. She caught a quick glimpse of a brow and cheekbone touched by moonlight. The intruder paused in front of the altar, examining it.
Skybright held still, then made the smallest shift to her right, hoping to escape back around the corner. The hidden face whipped in her direction, and within two breaths, he had shoved his hands against her shoulders and pinned her to the wall. She opened her mouth to scream. He clamped a palm over her lips and they stared at each other, eye to eye. Recognition dawned at the same time.
“Goddess. Is it you, Skybright?” Kai Sen asked, dropping his hands from her.
Her knees wobbled, and he caught her by the elbow. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to see anyone.” She shivered from the feel of his palm against the back of her arm. “What’re you doing here?” he whispered.
“Me?” She replied too loudly. “I live here! What’re you doing here?”
She could sense his surprise despite the darkness. He released her and she leaned backward, propping herself against the wall, her heart racing.
“I was following—” He stopped abruptly. “I thought I heard something.”
The spirits. Kai Sen had heard the ghosts.
“But why are you so far from the monastery?” He still stood close enough that she could feel the heat of his skin. “In the dead of night?”
He grinned sheepishly. “You wouldn’t believe me.”
She glared at him, hoping he got the full effect, even in the shadowed alley.
“All right. I’ve been hearing strange … noises these past few nights. Voices. They would come and go with the wind.” Kai Sen tilted his head and studied her. His features were half hidden, making him seem like a complete stranger. She could not make out the color of his eyes, though she felt his gaze on her face. “I followed the voices tonight. I needed to be sure I wasn’t going mad.”
Kai Sen was the other one, she realized.
“There were hundreds of shimmering shapes, flitting through the trees of the forest,” he said. “I thought it was a trick of the light, but the whispers sounded like words at times. I could understand them.”
“What did they say?”
“They were … needy. Hungry.” He paused. “You can hear them too?”
“Yes … ”
Kai Sen leaned toward her, but seemed to catch himself, then straightened. “But how?”
Because she could turn into a serpent demon. Because she was something of the underworld—like them. She shook her head, not able to lie to him out loud. “What about you?”
He bowed his head and his black hair fell across his brow. Skybright wanted to reach over and brush it back. “I wasn’t completely truthful with you when I spoke of my parents giving me away. I’ve had a … strong intuition since I could talk. The abbot calls it clairvoyance. My parents and the village folk thought I had been marked,” he touched his birthmark, “because of this.” He paused, and even in the near darkness, she could see his throat work. Without thinking, she put her hand on his arm, and she felt the tension seep from him, saw it in the way his stance softened. “I always saw lost spirits and didn’t realize no one else could until I talked too often about people who weren’t there. Until everyone I knew was afraid of me, including my own parents. And every misfortune that happened, every illness, every misplaced jar or broken bowl was blamed on me. I didn’t know. I was only six years.”
Her fingers glided down his arm and she slipped her hand into his, gripping it. “Kai Sen. I’m so sorry.”
“Skybright … ” He tugged her gently to him. “I never feel as if I can speak of my past with the other monks. Because of my birthmark. Because I’m different. But with you, I … ” He didn’t finish the thought, but instead leaned in and kissed her.
It was like a jolt, quickening her pulse. His mouth was full, firm against her own. He smelled of camphor wood and sweat. Of boy. His tongue flicked across her lips and instinctively she opened her mouth to him. She gasped when their tongues met. Warmth pooled in her stomach and spread, till her entire body was roused.
Lit.
His hands had wound around her waist, sneaked under her sleep tunic so she could feel his rough palms against her midriff. They met at the small of her back and slid upward, till his fingers caressed her shoulder blades, and they were crushed against each other.
They kissed until the blood roared in her ears and she felt drunk with desire. Then something ignited inside of her, that now familiar heat, writhing through and pulsing down her legs. Terrified, she shoved his shoulders hard, and he stumbled back, dazed.
Skybright clutched her head between tight fists, willing the blazing heat away. Willing herself not to change. No. Not now. Not in front of Kai Sen. Her body shook with the effort, still trembling from the kiss they had shared. Terror constricted her chest.
His thumb stroked her cheek, and she jerked away from him.
“What was that?” She tried to catch her breath, and the words came unevenly.
“I’ve always wondered what it was like, to kiss.” His voice sounded low and thick.
“So you decided to experiment on the first handmaid you came across?”
The first handmaid he came across naked in the forest.
Humiliation and anger wound tight within her, and she welcomed the emotions. Anything to smother the heat that threatened to rise below.
Kai Sen made a choking noise. “No. Of course not. I wanted to kiss you.” He lifted his hand to touch her again and she slapped it aside. “I like you,” he said quietly. “I’ve seen plenty of servant girls in town, wandering the markets. But you were the only I ever knew brave enough to climb a giant cypress to spy on monks.” He smiled. “You’re the only one I’ve felt I could share my past with–”
“You don’t even know me,” she said. And it felt as if her heart was shattering like brittle porcelain, because Kai Sen could never truly know her. Not ever. “Please go.”
He took a step back, and she hated him for obeying her. “Will you still meet me in the morning by the creek?” he asked.
She almost laughed. “Have you found something?”
“Come and I’ll tell you.” He climbed up the manor wall with ease, although she didn’t know how he was able to find any purchase. Crouching low at the top, his dark eyes sought hers, before he said, “Don’t be angry, Skybright.” Kai Sen dropped noiselessly down onto the other side of the wall. “I like you.” She heard him say again.
Then there was nothing more except for the soft murmurs of the evening.

About-the-Author

Cindy Pon

Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. The sequel to Silver Phoenix, titled Fury of the Phoenix, was released in April 2011. Serpentine, the first title in her next Xia duology, will be published by Month9Books in September 2015. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Visit her website at www.cindypon.com.

 

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CHAPTER REVEAL – Nameless

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Welcome to this week’s M9B Friday Reveal!

This week, we are revealing CHAPTER ONE of

Nameless by Jennifer Jenkins

presented byMonth9Books!

NAMELESS is in development for film by Benderspink! That’s the same company who optioned Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen and produced the
I AM NUMBER FOUR film!

Jennifer is also one of the co-founders of Teen Author Boot Camp, and works with amazing authors like James Dashner and Brandon Sanderson to help teens master the craft or writing.

New York Times bestselling author Jessica Day George read NAMELESS and loved it!:

“Jenkins brings edge-of-your-seat adventure to this intriguing new world. I can’t wait to read more!”

Be sure to enter the giveaway found at the end of the post!

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Four clans have been at war for centuries: the Kodiak, the Raven, the Wolf and the Ram. Through brutal war tactics, the Ram have dominated the region, inflicting death and destruction on their neighbors.

Seventeen-year-old Zo is a Wolf and a Healer who volunteers to infiltrate the Ram as a spy on behalf of the allied clans. She offers herself as a Ram slave, joining the people who are called the “nameless.” Hers is a suicide mission – Zo’s despair after losing her parents in a Ram raid has left her seeking both revenge and an end to her own misery. But after her younger sister follows her into Rams Gate, Zo must find a way to survive her dangerous mission and keep her sister safe.

What she doesn’t expect to find is the friendship of a young Ram whose life she saves, the confusing feelings she develops for a Ram soldier, and an underground nameless insurrection. Zo learns that revenge, loyalty and love are more complicated than she ever imagined in the first installment of this two-book series.

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excerpt

Chapter 1

Zo couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t fear the Ram.
Even after the raid, when so much of her fear had turned
to hate, the fear still existed beneath. It was a foundation that
she came to rely upon. A constant.

Sleeping under a fir tree so close to Ram’s Gate went
against her very nature. While her body revolted, she couldn’t
think of a more appropriate place to be. Zo choked down the
beastly fear clawing its way up her throat and smiled like this
was just another assignment. “It’s time, Gabe.”

Her guard, Gabe, rested on soggy pine needles beside her.
His hands were tucked behind his shaggy blond head, eyes
closed in feigned sleep. He used to lay like that, with his arms
arrogantly thrown back and his chest puffed out like he owned
the world, when they were kids. The river would rush by
carrying rumors of starving clans and battles lost—heartache
that pulled tight strings of tension throughout Zo’s body—
while Gabe just laid back and chewed on a grass root.

Today, Gabe’s pretend-sleep didn’t fool Zo any more than
it ever had. They both knew he hadn’t slept soundly since
they’d left the Allied Camp a week ago. With eyes still closed,
Gabe frowned as Zo left the protection of his side to bundle her
bedroll. She crawled out from under the skirt of the enormous
fir tree. Its sweeping limbs that kissed the uneven ground had
kept them as safe as one could be in this godforsaken region.
Behind her, Gabe growled impatiently as he gathered his
things to follow.

“There’s no need to rush this.” He pushed the branch aside
and threw out his pack with more force than necessary. Zo
flinched, not used to seeing her childhood friend angry.

“You didn’t wake me for my watch again,” said Zo,
unsurprised. Ever since they’d left the Allies, Gabe had been
insanely overprotective.

“You need your sleep.”

“And you don’t?”

Gabe sighed and scooped a blob of mud from the newly
thawed earth. He frowned and smeared it along the curved
planes of Zo’s face and neck. The cool mud felt surprisingly
comforting, but it could have just been Gabe’s touch. His
capable hands shook while lines of worry deepened across his
brow.

“This won’t work.” He stopped and cupped his muddy
hand at the base of her neck, his blue eyes pleading. “You’re
too pretty. A little mud can’t change that.”

Zo yanked on the sleeve of her shirt until the seam split then
ripped and frayed the cuff of her pant legs. Young, unarmed
women just didn’t go on casual strolls through the perilous
hills of the Ram. Commander Laden said she needed to look
desperate if she wanted them to believe her story. Her lie.

As if looking desperate is hard, Zo thought.

Gabe stood a full head taller than Zo. Despite his large
frame, he could outrun a jackrabbit and his mind was just as
quick. A valuable weapon for the Allies. But with all of his
abilities, he was not the one walking into the lion’s den this
morning.

He untwisted the strap of Zo’s medical satchel and let out a
long breath before dropping his hands to his sides.

“I’ll miss you,” said Zo. Her voice carried the mechanical
cadence she’d adopted several years ago. A small part of her—
the part that wasn’t dead—hated disappointing Gabe. He’d
done so much for her and her little sister, Tess, since they’d
journeyed from the Valley of Wolves to live with Commander
Laden and the Allies.

Thinking of her wild, eight-year-old sister brought a
temporary smile to Zo’s muddied face. She couldn’t think of
Tess and not imagine her tromping through the forest trying
to catch squirrels and sneak up on rabbits. It was her second
favorite thing to do, next to following Zo around the Allied
Camp. The little tick wouldn’t take her absence well. Zo had
left a note and arranged for her care, but that didn’t mean the
kid wouldn’t be furious.

Gabe pressed his cold hands to Zo’s face and forced her to
look at him. “Come back with me, Zo. Let Commander Laden
send someone else. Someone with less to lose.”
“We’re not doing this again.” Zo pulled away. She had
begged for this mission, and she would see it through. No
matter what the cost. The Allies desperately needed information
that only she could provide, if they hoped to defeat the most
powerful military force in the region.

Gabe’s hands curled into fists. His voice rose to carry over
the wind that whipped his unruly hair. “Entering Ram’s Gate
is suicide! We don’t even know if you can get the information
Laden’s after.”

The truth was far worse than Gabe could possibly know.
He hadn’t heard what life would be like inside the Gate. They
would eventually discover her, and once they did, they’d kill
her. Plain and simple.

There were worse things a person could endure.

She’d do anything for the Cause.

“Goodbye, Gabe.” She kissed his frozen, whiskered cheek.

His hand clamped down on Zo’s wrist and he yanked her
into a fierce embrace. “I’ll be close, waiting to help you escape
the minute you send word.” He smoothed down her wild, dark
hair. “I’ll find a way to keep you safe, Zo. I swear it.”
Zo forced a hollow smile, for Gabe’s sake. “Look after
Tess. Tell her I’m doing this for her. Tell her I’m doing it for
our parents.”

She left Gabe standing frozen in the low light of morning.
After a hard climb, Zo reached the towering wall of Ram’s
Gate. The wall was comprised of redwood logs at least four
feet in diameter and fifty feet tall, bound together with heavy
rope and shaved to a point at the top. Black tar and broken
glass glimmered along the high rim of the wall to discourage
clans foolish enough to attack, and souls brave enough to dare
escape.

Zo looked right and left and saw no end to the wall through
the thick maze of aspen and evergreens. From her training with
Commander Laden, she knew the giant wall ran for miles in
each direction until it reached the cliffs that dropped off to the
freezing ocean below. Inside the wall were hundreds of acres
of farmlands, mountainous forests, and enough homes to house
thousands of Ram and the slaves they called “Nameless.”
Calmer than a sane person should be, Zo dropped to her
knees in the shadow of the ominous wall. Knowing these
might be the last free moments of her life, she allowed herself
to think about things that were normally buried deep within
her. The memory of her mother’s soft skin. The safety of her
father’s smile. Tess’ dimples and her eagerness to please,
despite her stubborn ways.

The moment was as sweet as it was brief. But it was hers.
Deep-voiced drums boomed and the enormous gate rose
inch by inch. Men shouted orders and whips cracked. Through
the gap of the slow-rising gate she saw at least forty men in
tattered animal hides with harnesses on their backs. They
slipped through mud while struggling to turn a giant wheel
connected to a thick chain to raise the gate.

The Nameless. The Ram had kept slaves for hundreds of
years, some were captured, others came willingly, while most
were born into the lowly title.

Instinct told her to run, but fear and determination kept her
frozen in place. She locked the people she loved back into the
cage that was her heart and prepared to face her enemy.
Zo pressed her nose into the icy mud in a show of
submission. The drums ceased and the silence echoed in her
chest like a painful heartbeat.

The metal of short swords clinked against armor as men
approached. She peeked up to sight of a bald leader walking
ahead of a wall of six soldiers. His cold eyes seemed too big
for his head, protuberant like those of a frog.

“Get up,” the leader commanded.

Zo climbed to her feet but kept her gaze focused on the
man’s fur-lined boots.

“State your name and clan,” he ordered.

“I am from the family Shaw of the Kodiak Clan,” Zo said,
hoping her accent would pass. The Ram had raided one of the
Kodiak settlements a few weeks earlier. Many of the women
and children whose husbands had died in the raid would
come to the Gate, choosing to offer themselves as slaves over
watching their children starve to death.

The leader circled her. “Age?”

“Seventeen.”

A few of the guards in the line exchanged words. One
laughed under his breath.

“You’re too thin to claim the Kodiak as your clan. Your
jaw is more square than round.”

The sound of a young girl’s scream saved Zo from having
to answer.

“Let me go! You’re hurting me!” the girl cried.

Zo froze. It couldn’t be …

A guard dressed in full armor carried the kicking child up
the muddy hill and dropped her at the bald leader’s feet.
Zo’s whole body went rigid as her eight-year-old sister,
Tess, scrambled up to hug her. “I’m so sorry,” Tess cried. She
must have secretly followed them from the Allies, though how
she survived the dangerous journey unnoticed was beyond Zo.

“Tess, I thought I’d lost you,” Zo stammered. She hoped
her shock registered as relief instead of panic. “Don’t say a
word,” Zo whispered in her ear as they embraced.

“Who is this child?” the frog-eyed leader asked.

“She is my sister, sir. We were separated. She found me.”

“Clearly.” He circled the girls once more then reached out
and grabbed Zo by the throat, forcing her to the ground on her
back. His lips brushed her cheek as he spoke. “How do I know
you’re not a stinking Wolf? That you’re not feeding me some
story?” His breath reeked of stale cabbage and rotten sausage.
Zo’s heels dug small trenches in the mud as she struggled
against the hand tightening around her throat. Black dots
invaded her vision.

The leader smiled and licked his lips as if she were his next
meal. “We don’t allow Wolves through the Gate.” A string of
spittle escaped his lips and landed on her cheek. “Ever.” He
released his grip and Zo gasped for air.

Tess rushed to Zo’s side, her eyes wet with tears.

“With all of the clans mixing, it’s getting harder and harder
to sort the wheat from the tares. I can’t take any chances …

” He shrugged and nodded to his guard. The men moved in,
pulling the sisters apart. Tess let out a shrill cry. A guard struck
her tiny cheek.

“Please!” Zo fought against firm hands digging into her
arms. “I come from three generations of healers. My sister is
learning too. We beg the mercy of the Ram, and pledge our
lives to your service!”

The Gate Master held up a hand, and his men threw Zo to
the ground. His round, glassy eyes stayed fixed on her as he
grunted a soft command to one of his men. The soldier nodded,
bowed, and ran back through the Gate.

“A healer, you say?” The corner of his lip pulled up to
reveal rotting teeth as he smiled. “We’ll see about that.”

[about-author author=”Jennifer Jenkins”]

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CHAPTER REVEAL – Serpentine, Chapter 2

M9B-Friday-Reveal

 

Welcome to this week’s M9B Friday Reveal!

This week, we are revealing CHAPTER TWO of

Serpentine by Cindy Pon

presented byMonth9Books!

Have you entered the pre-order giveaway yet? With each pre-order of Serpentine, you will have the chance to select one of Cindy Pon’s pieces of brush art !
You can find out more details HERE!

Be sure to enter the giveaway found at the end of the post!

 

SerpentineEbook

 

SERPENTINE is a sweeping fantasy set in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology.

Lush with details from Chinese folklore, SERPENTINE tells the coming of age story of Skybright, a young girl who worries about her growing otherness. As she turns sixteen, Skybright notices troubling changes. By day, she is a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a very wealthy family. But nighttime brings with it a darkness that not even daybreak can quell.

When her plight can no longer be denied, Skybright learns that despite a dark destiny, she must struggle to retain her sense of self – even as she falls in love for the first time.

Vivid worldbuilding, incendiary romance, heart-pounding action, and characters that will win you over–I highly recommend Serpentine.Cinda Williams Chima, best-selling author of the Seven Realms and Heir Chronicles fantasy novels

Serpentine is unique and surprising, with a beautifully-drawn fantasy world that sucked me right in! I love Skybright’s transformative power, and how she learns to take charge of it.” ~Kristin Cashore, NYT Bestseller of the Graceling Realm Series

Serpentine’s world oozes with lush details and rich lore, and the characters crackle with life. This is one story that you’ll want to lose yourself in.” ~ Marie Lu, New York Times bestselling author of Legend and The Young Elites

 

add to goodreads

Title: Serpentine
Publication date: September 8, 2015
Publisher: Month9Books, LLC.
Author: Cindy Pon

Pre-order Links:

Amazon | B&N | BAM | Chapters | Indiebound | Kobo | TBD

 

excerpt

 

Chapter 2

Skybright cradled the woven basket to her side. She had left under the pretense of going into town to buy a new silk handkerchief and pears for Zhen Ni. In truth, she had her mistress’s bed sheet, hoping to wash it at the creek.

She and Zhen Ni had shared their morning meal of rice porridge and pickles in silence. When they spoke after, it was in hushed tones. She had fetched a medicinal tea to ease her mistress’s cramps, and told everyone in the household that Zhen Ni was suffering from a headache and needed quiet and rest.

The forest towered, seemed to lean forward in greeting. Soon, she was lost in its depths, making her way down a familiar yet barely marked path to the creek. It felt good to be outside the manor, today of all days. When she had asked, Zhen Ni had described the cramps feeling as if someone squeezed her womb in a tight fist, bringing waves of aching pain like she’d never experienced. Skybright remembered the heat she had suffered the night before in her fevered dreams, as if her lower half were fracturing then melding together again.

She placed the basket on a rock and shook out the sheet, picking up the chunk of square soap. Skybright sang as she worked, enjoying the feel of sunlight on her bare neck, where her hair had been wound into two tight buns low against her nape. She scrubbed the stain out and wondered how Zhen Ni was faring right now without her, wondered when she, too, would begin her own monthly letting. A lucid image of a serpentine coil flashed in her mind—a forked tongue darting—and she winced. Skybright scoured the sheet harder, until it was spotless, her arms sore from the task.

“It’s a nice morning for song,” a soft voice said behind her—a male voice—and Skybright leaped to her feet, turning to thrust the lathered soap in front of her like a weapon.

The young man smiled. “You’re quick.” He carried a wooden staff that was taller than he was, long enough that he could whack her in the head without taking a step.

She grimaced at her soap. “You frightened me.”

“I apologize.” He inclined his head.

He wasn’t more than seventeen years, dressed in a tan sleeveless tunic that revealed wiry arms. His slender eyes were near black in color. Skybright took a small step forward. He lifted his chin, as if in challenge, and she saw the angry red mark covering his neck, like a hand had seized him by the throat, burning an imprint into his flesh.

“You’re … him,” she said.

“And you are her. The girl spying in the tree.” He laughed, and it was warm and unguarded.

“I wasn’t—” She stuttered. “I was—”

“Chasing after a lost cat?” he offered.

She smiled despite herself. Skybright had never spoken to a boy so near her own age before, other than to haggle over the price of vegetables at the market.

“I’m Kai Sen.” He half bowed, gripping his staff with both hands so it was parallel to the ground.

“Skybright.” She nodded shyly.

He pointed at her washing. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. Do you mind if I rest here a few moments?”

Skybright returned to wringing the sheet, and he sat near her by the creek’s bank. Feeling self-conscious, she was relieved that he was gazing at the water. The thick trees surrounding them made it seem as if they were the only people for several leagues. He closed his eyes and tilted his face toward the sky, seeming content. She submerged the sheet, splashing the water just to make some noise.

“So truthfully, were you spying?” Kai Sen asked, breaking the silence.

She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “My mistress talked me into it. She’s always full of wild notions.”

“Was it worth the climb?”

“I saw you.” She wrung the sheet, then realized her simple statement could be construed another way. She wasn’t normally so coy, but he truly was the most interesting thing she had seen during her tree-climbing escapade. Mortified, she considered putting the wet sheet over her head.

His dark brows lifted, then he laughed again. She liked his laugh—so full and unrestrained.

“I hope it was an easy climb then.” He grinned at her, his fingers searching for stones near the water’s edge. His hands were broad, darkened by the sun. She shook the sheet out, draped it over a rock, and sat down beside him, the staff resting across his lap a buffer between them.

“Why do you not look like the others?” she asked.

He cast a pebble into the water, and it bounced once before sinking. “You don’t mince words.”

How was she supposed to talk to a boy? Differently somehow? She hadn’t an inkling. All Skybright knew was that his nearness unsettled her in a way that she wasn’t able to explain. “My mistress says I’m too forthright.”

He flicked a glance at her, and she remembered how he had studied her from that great distance in the immense temple square, as if he could see within her. “There’s an openness in your face, yes.” The corners of his mouth quirked upwards as he pitched another stone into the creek. “I don’t look like the others because I’m not truly a monk.”

“Ah.” She furrowed her brows, but he didn’t look at her.

“I study and train at the monastery as a monk would. But officially, the abbot won’t allow me to take my vow because of this.” He lifted his chin. The birthmark was a deep red, like nothing she had ever seen, making the parts of his throat that were flesh-colored appear exposed and vulnerable.

“It’s only a birthmark,” she said.

His smile was rueful. “My parents gave me to the monastery when I was six years because of this birthmark. They were superstitious people from a rural village and believed I was dragged by the throat into this life by the hell lord himself.”

It seemed a cruel fate, to have had parents then to lose them because of something so superficial. For the briefest moment, she wondered about her own parents, where she had come from. “But what does the abbot think?”

“I don’t know.” His head dropped, and some of his hair escaped the twine and fell across his brow. “The abbot took me in, raised me for eleven years. I’ve never asked what he truly thought.”

They sat in silence for some time, listening to the rustle of the forest, the soft stir and hum of hidden birds and creatures. She found a stone and tried to bounce it off the water, but it plopped and sank. Kai Sen’s rock followed, skipping three times before vanishing below the surface.

“And you? You’re a tree-climbing handmaid spy?”

Skybright burst into laughter, sending a bird from a nearby tree spiraling into the clear sky. She’d never laughed like that with anyone except Zhen Ni. “Something like that.”

“To be truthful, I haven’t been able to stop wondering about you. Every time I meditated, I saw an image of you perched high in that cypress tree gaping down at us.” He chuckled. “It was the most unexpected and absurd thing I’d ever seen.”

“I wasn’t gaping,” she said, indignant.

“Oh, you were gaping. Fortunate thing, too, otherwise I would have thought some goddess or nymph had descended upon—”

“There you are! I wondered where you disappeared to.” A lanky boy the same age as Kai Sen ran up to them. “You’ll get me in trouble if we don’t head back now!” The boy’s head was shaved, and he was dressed in slate blue, like all the monks she had seen the other day.

Kai Sen stood, rolling the tall staff easily from one palm to the other. “I forgot the time, talking here with Skybright.”

She scrambled to her feet, embarrassed, and the new boy gawked at her as if he’d never seen a girl before. She picked up the sheet and shook it as a distraction, enjoying the crisp snapping sound.

“Close your mouth, Han,” Kai Sen prodded him in the chest with his staff.

Han clamped his mouth shut, then grinned boyishly. “Kai has the heart of a wandering monk,” he told Skybright. “I’m always herding him back to the monastery. First time I’ve found him with a girl, though.”

Skybright suppressed a smile as she folded the sheet.

“Brother, let’s go.” Kai Sen clasped the taller boy by the shoulder. “Before you embarrass me even more.” He turned and gave her a nod. “Maybe we’ll meet again? I’ll look for you in the trees?”

She laughed, shaking her head. “I don’t think I’ll do that again.”

“That’s a pity,” Kai Sen replied, and Han tugged him by the tunic edge to go. He grinned and waved once, before disappearing into the thicket.

 

 

 

 

Skybright had taken so long that she’d missed the midday meal. Surprised not to find Zhen Ni in her quarters, she wandered through the manor until she saw everyone gathered in the main hall. The two paneled doors had been folded open, letting in the summer breeze and light. Lilies in bright yellow and orange adorned each table, scenting the air with their strong musk. The red five-sided lanterns were already lit overhead. Lady Yuan sat with Zhen Ni beside her, chatting to another woman and girl across from them.

Someone had dressed Zhen Ni in a pale pink tunic and skirt. As with all her mistress’s clothes, they were intricately beaded, befitting the family’s status and wealth as successful merchants. Skybright noticed, with annoyance, that the jewels pinned in Zhen Ni’s hair didn’t match her outfit. It must have been her stand in, Rose’s, mistake.

“There you are, Skybright,” Lady Yuan exclaimed.

The guests half-turned to glance at her. Skybright bowed her head, but not before sneaking a long look. The girl was petite, with large eyes set beneath delicate eyebrows, and a round nose over a rosebud mouth. She was not dressed as resplendently as Zhen Ni, her outfit not even rivaling Skybright’s own. Her family obviously didn’t enjoy the same stature as the Yuans.

“Lady Fei and her daughter Lan have just arrived after a long journey. Oriole is fetching us some tea. Could you go to the kitchen and ask for the custard buns and nut cakes Cook made this morning?”

Skybright retreated, and hurried toward the kitchen, weaving past the fragrant honeysuckle and quiet pavilions in the courtyards. When she arrived, she helped Cook arrange the freshly made treats on a lacquered tray inlaid with pearl, before tucking a lotus from the pond among the desserts. It would please Zhen Ni. Her trip back was at a brisk, yet careful pace.

When Skybright set the beautiful display of desserts in front of the women, Zhen Ni caught her eye and smiled, having seen the blushing pink lotus. “It matches my dress perfectly,” she said.

“Thank you, Skybright,” Lady Yuan said. “You may go now.”

But Zhen Ni grabbed Skybright’s sleeve. “Do let her stay, Mama.” She flashed her most winning smile. “Skybright should get to know Lan as well.”

“Of course.” Lady Yuan indicated the carved stool in the corner. “Join us.” She passed the desserts on cerulean plates to the guests. “Zhen Ni and Skybright are almost sisters. The goddess left Skybright at our doorstep right before Zhen Ni was born, like a gift for our youngest daughter.”

“Mama, don’t speak of Skybright as if she were a pet Chow!”

Skybright managed to smother her smile, but Lan laughed, a surprisingly rich sound coming from such a small frame, and clapped a hand over her mouth like she had surprised herself.

Lady Yuan took a long sip of tea, her bejeweled fingers holding the porcelain cup just so, before setting it down with artful grace. “It’s my fault,” she said to Lady Fei, flashing a smile at Zhen Ni. “I’ve spoiled her, even Master Yuan says so—and then he does the same!” Master Yuan was a merchant and away traveling many months out of the year, but whenever he returned, his carriage was always piled high with heaps of gifts for Zhen Ni.

“You’re truly fortunate to have four children, and three already wed.” Lady Fei nibbled on a nut cake. Lan had inherited her mother’s small, full mouth. “We’re still searching for a suitable match for our Lan.”

Skybright and Zhen Ni pointedly avoided each other’s gaze. As the women discussed betrothal gifts and the best dates to wed for their daughters, Skybright’s mind wandered back to thoughts of the stream. Of the warmth of sunlight against her skin, and Kai Sen’s laughter. Of the way he had studied her with those dark brown eyes.

 

 

 

 

The next few days passed quickly as Lan settled into her new quarters, near Zhen Ni’s. She had not come accompanied by her own handmaid, so Lady Yuan assigned a girl of fourteen years called Pearl to help her. And all the while, Skybright and Zhen Ni were on edge, frightened that their secret would be discovered somehow. Skybright went to her mistress even earlier each morning, soon after the rooster’s crow. Zhen Ni was more pale than usual, and they took great care to add color to her cheeks before she greeted anyone.

Lan’s arrival proved to be a good distraction. Zhen Ni and Lan spent their mornings gossiping and embroidering before taking a midday meal, then scattering into the gardens to sip chilled honeyed tea. Lan was better at embroidering than Zhen Ni, but Skybright’s mistress proved to be the best with composing lyrics and playing the lute. Skybright couldn’t do either very well, but had the prettiest singing voice, and was often asked to accompany Zhen Ni as she plucked at the lute strings. Rose and Pearl stayed near, fanning their mistresses, as the summer days were becoming unbearably hot.

Skybright retired exhausted in the evenings, not having given further thought to her feverish dreams from the previous week. But tonight, a familiar tingling below her waist woke her. Terrified, she reared up and grabbed at her legs. They were still there, still the same. She gave a loud sigh of relief, but even before the full exhale, her flesh began to undulate and change beneath her fingers. Bones, ligaments, and joints warped and crackled, melted away, striking with that unbearable heat.

Smooth scales rippled over her human flesh, like dragonfly wings fluttering their way from her feet to cover her abdomen. She swept both hands across her torso, the clothes having evaporated from her, and gasped. Her snake tongue darted out, oppressing her voice, and she could taste the air with it; the whiff of smoke from the snuffed lantern, the bitterness of the gardenia musk Zhen Ni had rubbed into her wrists in the morning, all tinged by the scent of her own sweat and fear.

She fell out of bed, her long serpent body slapping the ground with a loud thwack. Crawling with her hands, she pulled herself up by the window ledge and lit the lantern. She saw the thick coil that began at her waist, just as the last time—but this was no nightmare. Skybright pinched the flesh of her upper arms, her cheeks, then where her hip should be, and the end of her tail flipped, like it had a mind of its own.

“No,” she tried to say. But all that came out was a guttural rasp.

How could this be real?

To her horror, a rooster began to crow. Skybright scrambled on her hands and slid the door aside, hefting her long serpent body, which was at least four times the length of her legs, behind her. She shut the door, fighting panic. She must leave the manor. No one could see her like this—a monstrosity. What if she never changed back?

She crawled awkwardly, using her arms but beginning to push herself a little with her muscular coils. Fumbling too long with the key Zhen Ni had stolen for their escapades, Skybright thrust her way through a narrow side door used by servants and into a dark alley. She had enough wits about her to tie the string the key dangled from around her wrist. More than one rooster was now crying at the morning light in greeting, and some neighborhood dogs responded to the cacophony. In desperation, she tried to quicken her pace as she slithered toward the forest, propelling herself more and more with her serpent length. Her lungs felt as if they would burst from exertion and terror, and a sense of overwhelming grief. She sobbed, but what came out was a long hiss. The mutt that had been barking ferociously behind the neighbor’s wall quieted with a yip, then whimpered.

She had never liked that mean mutt.

The jagged line of trees was a familiar and welcome sight, and Skybright snaked toward it, unused to her lower vantage point. Her serpentine body met the ground where her hips used to be, although she found she could rise higher on her coil if she wanted to. Swallowed by darkness, she made her way between the trees, tasting the earthy tang of the forest on her tongue. The ground vibrated with life, telling her how many nocturnal creatures were still scampering to their nests, even as others were just rising for the day. No humans were nearby.

Skybright navigated with only her coils now. Each powerful thrust propelled her forward, and her speed increased as she pushed her way deeper and deeper, going further than she had ever strolled before with Zhen Ni in their explorations. It wasn’t until morning sunshine glimmered through the thick branches of the trees that she collapsed beneath one, exhausted, unable to shed the tears that weighed heavy against her heart. Why was this happening to her? Curling herself up, her serpent length wound in tight circles, the sight turning her stomach. She shut her eyes so she could no longer see it.

 

 

 

 

Skybright woke from the feel of a hand pressed against her upper arm, warm and reassuring. Groggy, she opened her eyes and squinted. Kai Sen’s concerned face filled her vision, and she bolted to a sitting position, clutching a tan tunic to herself. It was long sleeved, thank the goddess, and she tucked herself as small as she could beneath it.

He sat down across from her, allowing some distance, folding those lean arms over his knees. The tall staff he had carried before rested beside him. His chest was bare, as he had given her his tunic. “Are you all right?” he asked.

She blinked, feeling woozy. “What time is it?” Her voice sounded thick in her own ears, odd.

“A few gongs before the midday meal yet.” The gongs set the schedule at the monastery, and could often be heard as far as their manor, if she paused to listen for them.

Skybright thrust her face against her knees, which were pulled tight to her chest. Kai Sen’s tunic smelled faintly of camphor wood. The wind stirred, lifting a corner of the cloth, and she clutched her legs harder, acutely aware of her nakedness beneath. Although Skybright was glad to see Kai Sen, she wished he hadn’t discovered her, like some wild animal, naked and disoriented in the forest.

“What happened?” he asked in a quiet voice.

How could she explain this away? It was impossible. Zhen Ni would be hysterical with worry. She had never disappeared like that before. The entire staff would be out searching for her. Skybright took a deep breath that shuddered into a silent sob.

“I can’t say.” She raised her eyes and swallowed the sour taste in her mouth. “I must have wandered in my sleep.”

“I’ve sent Han back for a robe. He … didn’t see you.” Kai Sen’s gaze held steady, and she was grateful for it. “When I found you, I thought you were injured or—” he cleared his throat. “Has this happened before?”

“No,” she lied, hating the way her scalp tingled from it.

“We’re leagues from town.” He lowered his chin. “I’m only glad that I was the one to find you.”

His concern warmed her, even as she shivered beneath the thin fabric of his tunic.

“I wish I had more to offer.” He smiled, and Skybright realized with shock that she wanted to flick her tongue out, to taste the scent of him.

In that moment, someone shouted from beyond the trees, and Kai Sen leaped to his feet. “It’s Han.” He ran, faster than Skybright had seen anyone run, and disappeared among the thickets.

Skybright suddenly remembered the stories of serpent demons, always women, who would shape shift after luring victims with their beautiful faces. Zhen Ni’s sister, Min, had spoken of them. Skybright recalled how Min had widened her eyes and said in a hushed voice, “She acts the helpless maiden, but when she has you alone in the dark of night, that’s when she attacks!” Min had leaped at them, baring her teeth and hissing. “The beautiful woman changes into a giant serpent.” Min threw her arms out wide to emphasize her length. “She’ll sink her long fangs into your flesh to poison you, then swallow you whole. And the worst part? You’ll still be alive when she does it!” Min gnashed her teeth and smacked her lips. Skybright and Zhen Ni had clutched each other during the tale, squealing and giggling.

Was this what she was—a monster of folklore? How could it be possible? She tightened her arms around her knees.

Kai Sen returned with a wheat-colored monk’s robe. “It was the best Han could find,” he said apologetically. “Here.” He stuck his hand out and turned his face away to show he wasn’t looking.

But Skybright took the opportunity to do just that. His chest and torso were as muscular and lithe as his arms. She marveled at how different his body appeared compared to hers, all hard lines and angles. He was as tan as she was pale, letting her know that he often went shirtless in the sun. Kai Sen’s stance exposed his throat to her, and that strange birthmark, which seemed to have deepened to the color of plum wine this morning. Skybright resisted the urge to press her hand over it, to see if it was indeed in the exact shape of a palm. She reached for the robe instead and wrapped it around herself, tying it securely at the waist. The sleeves were too long, and the hem dragged against the ground, but she was relieved to feel the soft cotton against her skin.

“Thank you, truly. To you and Han both.”

He turned to assess her, unable to keep from grinning. “I’ve never seen a monk’s robe on someone so—” He stopped mid-sentence, and appeared flustered for the first time since they’d met. “Never on a girl before.” His smile turned lop-sided, and she wondered what he had been about to say.

“I should return to my mistress.” Skybright drew the robe tighter around herself. “She must be so worried.”

Kai Sen nodded. “Let me walk you back—”

“No, you’ve done more than enough, I couldn’t ask—”

“It would ease my own mind, Skybright. Please.”

Taking note of the unfamiliar surroundings, she said, “Then I would be grateful for your company.”

Kai Sen drew his own tunic on and tied the sash, smiling. “I promised Han I would return as soon as I took you back.”

He led the way through the trees with dexterity, knowing exactly which way to go. She followed, feeling the soft earth and pebbles beneath her bare feet. What must he think of her? The strange girl who climbed trees and wandered naked in the forest at night. Her ears burned at the thought, and she was glad he didn’t see. Some time later, he slowed and glanced her way. “You are certain you’re all right?” He paused. “Your mistress … she treats you well?”

Humiliated, she colored even more. “They’re so kind to me. Zhen Ni treats me like her own sister.”

“Good. I’m glad,” he said. “It’s just, I don’t often find beautiful girls sleeping naked in the forest.”

Her mouth dropped, then she burst into laughter when she saw the teasing slant of his gaze.

“Not that I’m complaining,” Kai Sen went on. “But the last time I was caught undressed in the forest, it was because Han had stolen my clothes from the river bank and I had to return to the monastery plastered in cypress leaves. They were prickly. And didn’t do the job well.” He cleared his throat and grinned at her.

She laughed harder. “Han didn’t!”

“Han did. Don’t worry, I got him back.” Kai Sen laughed with her, and it eased Skybright’s heart. His laughter made everything feel normal and right again. She reached overhead to grab a sprig of cypress, sweeping her palm across the needle-like leaves, trying to picture Kai Sen returning to the monastery covered in them, and chuckled again.

They strolled beneath the cool shadow of the majestic forest, and Skybright remembered how the earth vibrated and hummed with life the previous night, when it seemed she could detect every small movement and animal near her within leagues, smell and taste them on her tongue.

“Do you practice forms with the staff?” she asked.

“I do. We’re taught to use an array of weapons, but I’m most comfortable with the staff.” He spun it from one hand to the other, without thought, by reflex. He wielded it as if it were an extension of him.

“But I thought monks were against violence?”

“Fair point. The techniques and forms help strengthen us not only physically, but mentally and spiritually. And we’ve been known to take to arms and go to war to defend our kingdom in the past. Then, there are always the demons.” He said the last part with a mischievous wink, but she felt both arms prickling. “We must always be prepared.”

“Demons?” she whispered.

“From the ancient texts. The ones that roam the underworld, the ones that roam our own world.”

“Do they exist?” She shivered despite herself. Kai Sen noticed and drew closer, but she wasn’t shivering for the reasons he thought.

“I’ve not seen the like myself. But the abbot believes what the books say.”

They were now by the creek where they had met the first time, not too far from the Yuan manor. “You’ve read these books?” Skybright tried to keep her voice even.

“We study them, yes. Why?”

“I need to—” She rubbed at her throbbing temples in frustration. “Could you research something for me?”

He peered at her, his handsome face curious. “If I can. On what?”

“The serpent demon.”

Kai Sen’s eyebrows lifted.

“Do you know anything about them?” she asked.

“Not beyond the usual old wives’ tales of warning.”

They heard the distant gong from the monastery and Kai Sen whipped toward the sound, his stance as taut as a tiger about to leap. “Han’s going to kill me.”

“I can find my way back. I know where I am.”

“It’s my fault. I took my time on purpose.” He grinned. “I’ll see what I can find. When can I meet you again?”

“Back here, in three days’ time? In the morning.”

“I’ll look for you, Skybright.” Kai Sen jogged back in the direction of the still reverberating gong. “Keep safe until then.”

She waved, sorry to see him go. Skybright wasn’t certain that she could keep safe. She wasn’t certain about anything any longer.

About-the-Author

Cindy Pon

Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. The sequel to Silver Phoenix, titled Fury of the Phoenix, was released in April 2011. Serpentine, the first title in her next Xia duology, will be published by Month9Books in September 2015. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Visit her website at www.cindypon.com.

 

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