Firelight, p.22
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       Firelight, p.22

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
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Page 22

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  “Which one?” I whisper, opening my eyes, but already suspecting.

  She lifts the amber from the cozy nest of its brethren.

  Of course. My jaw tightens. I knew. Somehow I knew this was the one leaving me.

  I lean in, staring, memorizing, vowing to find it again. Silently, I communicate this, watch the amber pulse with light. Wink and glint as if it hears me and understands.

  I will reclaim you. Someday. When I’m no longer a prisoner of my mother’s whims. If I haven’t faded entirely by then. Wilted to nothing, turned into the phantom she wants me to be. I reach out to stroke its surface. Warm and throbbing. Life infuses me instantly.

  Like she knows it’s feeding me, Mom pulls back, holding the gem just out of reach.

  My skin weeps, contracts. I surge forward, hungry for its feel again.

  “You have to stop this. Let go of the old life. ” Mom’s gaze burns into me, and I’m reminded of the way she used to look. Alive, vibrant. Maybe the stones are still singing to some part of her, too. “There’s so much waiting for you here, if you’ll just open yourself to it. ”

  “Yeah,” I growl. “Maybe I’ll try out for cheerleading. ”

  She angles her head, looks at me sharply. “There’s nothing wrong with that. ”

  Yeah. She would love that. And I wish I could. It would almost be easier if I could do that. If I could be like Tamra.

  “I’m not Tamra, Mom! I’m a draki—”

  “No, you’re—”

  “It’s who I am. If you want to kill that part of me, then what you really want is to kill me. ” I inhale deeply. “Dad understood that. ”

  “And he’s dead. It got him killed. ”

  I blink. “What?”

  She turns away, slams the amber back into the lockbox, and I think she’s decided the conversation is over, but then she faces me again, and her face isn’t hers at all. A stranger stares at me, her eyes overly bright, darting wildly like an animal’s emerging from the cover of woods. “He thought he might find another pride to take us in. One that wouldn’t expect that we sacrifice our daughter—”

  “A rival pride?” I demand, hot denial sweeping over me. It’s forbidden to consort with other prides. Ever since the days of the Great War when we practically killed one another off. “Dad wouldn’t do that!” Did he think he could simply find a pride that wouldn’t slaughter him on sight?

  “For you? For us?” She laughs a broken sound. “Oh yes. He would. Your father would go to any length to protect you, Jacinda. ” Her eyes turn bleak. “He did. ”

  I shake my head, fighting her words. Dad did not die because of me. It can’t be.

  “It’s true,” she says, like she can read my mind, and I know it’s the truth. The terrible, sickening truth. I tremble, hurting so much I can barely breathe. I’m the reason Dad’s dead.

  I suck in air. “And you blame me for that. Why don’t you just say it?”

  Her eyes flash wide before narrowing. “Never. I blame the pride. ”

  I move my head side to side slowly, as if underwater. “I want to go back. ” I don’t even know anymore if I mean this. I just want to get away from her, from all she’s telling me. It’s too much. I almost tell her about Cassian right then. Something stops me though, keeps the words from tumbling out. “You and Tamra can stay here. Maybe I can visit—”

  She shakes her head fiercely. “Absolutely not. You’re my daughter. You belong with me. ”

  “I belong with the pride. With mountains and sky. ”

  “I’ll not have you bonded at sixteen!”

  Can’t she see? There’s only trouble, pain, and death, for anyone who tries to leave the pride? “They won’t do that. ” Cassian promised. “I won’t let—”

  She laughs then. The wild sound frightens me. “Oh, Jacinda. When are you going to get it? Do I need to spell it out for you?”

  I shake my head, confused, starting to feel like maybe I shouldn’t have believed Cassian so readily. That night outside Chubby’s suddenly feels long ago. Why is it I believed him again? “I already know they want me to bond with Cassian…sooner than—”

  “That’s not the half of it. ” She stalks forward, snatches hold of my arm. “Do you want to know what the pride planned for you?”

  Cold dread sweeps over me, deep and awful, but I nod.

  “If we hadn’t left when we did, they were going to clip your wings. ”

  I jerk my arm free and stumble back, shaking my head…just shaking. No, no, no. Our pride hasn’t performed the barbaric practice in generations. Wing clipping is an ancient form of corporal punishment for draki. To rob a draki of the ability to fly is the ultimate punishment…and extremely painful.

  “They wouldn’t do that to me,” my voice rasps.

  “You’re property, an object to them. A precious commodity for their future. They would do anything to keep you. ”

  I see Cassian’s face, remember his earnest expression. He couldn’t have been lying, couldn’t have known this was in store for me. He couldn’t have wanted me to return with him and face that. No way. I don’t believe it. “It’s not true. You would have told me before—”

  “I’m telling you now. They had very specific plans for you, Jacinda. They weren’t willing to take any chances with you. Not after that last stunt you pulled. ”

  Now the tears roll down my face, hissing on my steaming cheeks. “You’re just saying this so I won’t go back. ” My voice isn’t my own. Hot emotion clenches my throat so that I can hardly breathe.

  “Grow up, Jacinda. You’re not a little girl anymore. It’s the truth. Deep in your bones, you know it. Do you want to go back to that?”

  “Mom,” Tamra says from the doorway. She stares at me in concern. Her smooth brow creases in a way that reminds me of when we were little girls, both so protective of each other. We constantly snuck into each other’s bed at night…just to assure ourselves that the other one was okay.

  With that memory, I don’t feel so terribly alone. Just embarrassed. I dash a hand against my wet cheeks. Tears make me feel weak, small. Two things a draki shouldn’t be.

  Maybe I’m more human than I thought.

  Mom’s voice softens and I jerk as she touches my shoulder. “You can’t go back, Jacinda. Ever. You understand now?”

  Nodding, I lower my head. Let my hair fall into my eyes. So she won’t see the tears. The defeat. Because I know she’s not lying. Everything she said is the truth. I can’t go back to the pride.

  I’m trapped if I stay here. I’m trapped if I return to them. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I’ll never be free.

  The truth presses down on me. A brutal, cutting pain driving into my shoulder blades.

  I dart past my sister standing in the doorway, nearly tripping in my rush to escape. Numbly, I hear her whispering to Mom. For a second, I wonder if she knows about the wing clipping, too. If she’s known all along. Cassian had to know that his dad and the elders intended to cut my wings. How could he stare me in the face and lie with such sincerity? Did he care nothing for me? For the friendship we once shared?

  I feel foolish and lost…stupid. My certainty that they would never force me to bond too young is ridiculous knowing now that they were willing to cripple me in the worst possible way. They’re capable of anything.

  Hunching over, I clutch my midsection as I shove through the bathroom door. Lunging to the toilet, I empty my stomach, sobbing through the painful shudders, retching over and over again.

  Shaking, broken, I finally stop. Collapse back onto the floor. Weak. Listless. Leaning against the cool wall, I grip my quivering face with both hands and accept that everything I ever knew to be true, everything I ever believed in, doesn’t exist.

  I can never go home. I have no home.

  I don’t know how long I sit on the floor before a knock sounds at the door. From the painful needles pri
ckling my numb back and bottom, I’m guessing it’s been a while.

  “Go away,” I call.

  Exhausted from crying, I listen to the sound of my own breath sawing from my lips for several moments.

  Tamra’s voice floats through the wood, so soft and low it takes me a moment to process.

  “It’s not your fault, Jacinda. Don’t beat yourself up. Of course, you trusted them. ”

  My head snaps up, stares at the door.

  She knows? She cares?

  I guess I shouldn’t feel surprise. She’s my sister. As different as we are, I never felt she hated me or blamed me for fitting in with the pride when she couldn’t. At her core, she never blamed me for Cassian. For having him without trying. Now if I screwed things up for her here, in Chaparral, she would blame me for that.

  As if she can read my mind, she continues, “The way they treated you…like some kind of monument for the pride. Not real, not anyone they respected or cared about…it was wrong. Cassian was wrong. ” She sighs, and I wonder how it is she knows what I need to hear from her right now. “I just want you to know that. ” Pause. “I love you, Jacinda. ”

  I know, I almost say.

  The shadow of her feet beneath the door disappears. I bite my lip until the coppery tang of blood runs over my teeth. Slowly, I stand and leave the bathroom.

  21

  That night it rains for the first time since I’ve been here.

  I’d started to think that I might never again see it or taste it on my skin. That I had moved to some forgotten corner of the world without rain, without lush greens. Where the earth whispers no song.

  But tonight the sky breaks open—weeps copious tears. On the day Mom reveals the final ugly truth she hid from me. It’s appropriate. Fitting somehow that rain should fall.

  With droplets licking at the windows, I think about Will stuck with his awful family. A prisoner like me. I trace my chapped lips, feel him there with the brush of my parched fingertips.

  Idly, I wonder what it would have felt like if Cassian had kissed me. Another draki. Would my draki have responded to him? Would the kiss have held the same magic? Could he have kissed me and still lied to my face? Would he have stood by and watched as they clipped my wings?

  I roll onto my side. Listen hard. Listen like I’ve never heard rain before. My skin savors the thrumming sound. Its gentle beat on the pebbled path outside. Its pinging on the metallic roof of the garden shed.

  I smile a little. Feel hope in the soft, steady pattern that fills the silence of night. Exhilaration. Anticipation. The same way I felt when Will’s lips touched mine.

  Dad wouldn’t want me to blame myself for his death, and he wouldn’t want me to give up. I love my mother, but she’s wrong. My draki is too much a part of who I am. I can’t go back to the pride. And I can’t stay here, avoiding Will, waiting for Cassian to show up.

  There has to be another way.

  Dad would want me to fight, to find a way to keep my draki alive. He died trying to find another option for us. He made a choice. And it wasn’t to bury us within the mortal world. Even if he didn’t succeed, he believed it was possible.

  His voice floats through my head, almost as though he sits beside me: Find a new pride, Jacinda.

  My fingers curl, flex open, and shut against the edge of my comforter. That’s it—the answer. What I need to do.

  I may not know the exact location of any other prides, but I know someone who does. I can question Will. And I saw the map with my own eyes. If I could just study it a little longer, I could memorize the precise spots.

  It’s something. A start.

  Whether I can get the information out of Will and get into that room again without raising his suspicions is another matter. Clearly, I’ll have to spend more time with him….
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