Excerpt for House of Artifice by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






HOUSE OF ARTIFICE


POISONED HOUSES

BOOK 2







LYN FORESTER




COVEY PUBLISHING

HOUSE OF ARTIFICE: POISONED HOUSES BOOK 2



COVEY PUBLISHING, LLC

Published by Covey Publishing, LLC

PO Box 550219, Gastonia, NC 28055-0219



Copyright © 2018 by Lyn Forester



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the writer, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.



Cover Design Copyright © 2018 Covey Publishing, LLC

Book Design by Covey Publishing, LLC, www.coveypublishing.com



Copy Editing by Covey Publishing, LLC

Printed in the United States of America.



First Printing, 2018

ALSO BY LYN FORESTER



Poison World Universe


Poison World

Beneath a Holo-Sky

Ash in the Blood

A Darker Shade of Gray (Coming Soon)


Poisoned Houses

House of Glass

House of Artifice



Tails x Horns Universe

You to Me

Just Not You (Coming Soon)



Thread Reader

Bound to Be

Tied by Fate

In the Loop (Coming Soon)






Thank you to my wonder, patient readers! This book has been a long time coming.

Table of Contents

Spit it Out

No Time

Resist Assimilation

Lonette Manor

Yes

Burdens

Choices

Clean Slate

Play the Part

Small Dreams

Gauntlets over Breakfast

Blue Fall, Blue Rise

A House at Odds

Saving the Princess

Not Love

The Hope of Bloom

Who Needs Cake?

Breaking the Mold

Venom and Poison

About the Author





Spring-Cycle


Location: Leton

Season: Spring-Cycle: Day 28

Year: 895 PL (Post Landing)


SPIT IT OUT



“Hurry.” Declan juggles four jars of water in his arms, the plastic seals on top the only reason he doesn’t soak the front of his shirt when he twists to stare at the dorm’s entrance. The sound of other students arriving drifts back to the snack room. “The Entertainment Hall’s going to be crowded before we get there.”

Crouched in front of the open icebox, I push aside white cartons of protein shakes.

“Search faster, Sprinkles.” Felix’s knee nudges me between the shoulder blades as he hunts through the cupboard over my head for veggie chips.

“Felix, I’m telling you. Your choices are strawberries or carrots. The kitchen doesn’t keep jam in here.”

“Are you sure?” Paper crinkles, and he squats behind me, long legs bracketing my body as he peers over my shoulder. “Why are they so stingy?”

“Because people like you would just eat it with a spoon,” his twin, Connor, points out from the back wall of cupboards. “They have rice balls. Anyone interested?”

“What flavor?” Glass clinks together as Declan shifts his load around to free up one hand. “Any sweet bean?”

Behind me, Felix perks up, one hand resting on my hip as he straightens in excitement. The bag in his other hand presses against my side, and I check out what he found. Roasted beans. Guess they still aren’t giving students veggie chips.

“Vegetable protein paste.” Mild disgust fills Connor’s voice. I glance up as he tosses the rice ball into the hole in the back wall that shoots down to the incinerator. He scrubs a hand across his mouth as if to wipe away the taste.

“Sparks, just grab some protein shakes, and let’s get going.” Impatient, Declan taps his foot against the dark wooden floor.

“Eww.” Felix makes a gagging noise. “None for me.”

Declan walks into the room, crowding the small space even further. “You need to eat more protein.”

“Then they should give us real meat,” Felix argues.

“We had mesuki at lunch today,” I remind him. The greasy meat left a nutty taste in my mouth no amount of water could wash away.

“I’m not sure mesuki counts. I can’t believe they’re serving us that here.” Despite Declan’s grumbles, he had no issue scarfing down the thin slices of grilled meat earlier. Of course, he eats the protein cubes at breakfast and dinner with equal determination.

“There’s nothing wrong with mesuki.” Connor abandons his search to join Felix and me at the icebox.

“It’s disgusting,” Felix and I say at the same time.

“Aww, look at us, totally in sync with each other.” Cold air wafts out of the ice box, and I shiver. Felix’s chin rests on my shoulder, his hand moving to rub my thigh. “Are you cold, Sprinkles?”

“That’s the point of the icebox, right?” I keep my tone level as another shiver flows up my spine, this one not caused by the chill emanating from in front of me.

His hand, hot against the cold of my school uniform slacks, leaves tingles in its wake. In the last two weeks, I’ve gotten used to his casual clinginess. It’s just part of who Felix is. He hangs on all of us with equal disregard. But in moments like this, his touch leaves imprints on my body that burn for hours after he leaves.

Felix’s nose nudges through the red curls of hair over my ear. “Do you want me to warm you up?”

I lick my lips, gaze focused on the white containers on the shelf in front of me. “I want you to choose what you want.”

His hand tightens on my thigh. “I already did that.”

My heart trips, a warm flush spreading across my chest and up my neck. “That’s not what I meant.”

Two weeks ago, I took a huge risk when I agreed to try being in a relationship with all three of them. My acceptance, though, had the opposite result of what I expected. Instead of charging forward, the three men backed off, patient while they let me get used to all the casual touching.

Now, it feels like they wait for me to make the first move, to give them some sign. Inexperienced in social interactions, I hesitate on how best to progress forward. Their restraint leaves us in limbo, our relationship moving at a crawl.

Over our heads, Declan and Connor continue to argue the finer points of forcing us to eat mid-level cuisine in order to better understand our citizens. They seem to disagree on whether or not eating the large rodent really teaches us anything.

Felix’s hand drifts higher, sweeping toward my inner thigh, and I slap it away. “Stop that.”

“Sorry.” The tip of his nose skims along my ear. “It’s just so nice to touch you.”

My eyes close against the sensation. It does weird things to me, making my stomach tight, and my breath unsteady. I wait for him to cuddle closer, but instead, he pulls away, fingers trailing along my hip. Surprised, I peer over my shoulder as he stands. Every time I expect one of them to push, they pull away, and it leaves me even more uncertain.

He turns away quickly and shuffles around Declan as he says, “Just grab the strawberries. They’re nice and sweet.”

“Protein shakes, too,” Declan commands as he follows Felix out of the room.

On my right, Connor crouches. Turning, his glasses flash as he watches them leave before he extends a small basket to me. “Here, put them in here. Some carrots, too.”

As I stack the items inside, I frown. “I’m not doing this right.”

Connor’s gaze drops to the basket, his brows knitting together. “Looks fine to me.”

With a huff, I take the basket from him. “No, I mean…this.”

He takes in the hand I circle through the air, and his confusion clears. Gaze serious, he cups my cheek. “There’s no right way to do this.”

Calm sweeps through me at his touch. Where his twin throws me into spirals of uncertainty, Connor quiets the storm. Being near him feels natural, and quiet contentment fills my chest.

“Come on before Declan starts tapping his foot again.” He reaches for my hand to lace our fingers together as he stands and pulls me to my feet. I kick the icebox door closed, and the sudden lack of cold causes my skin to prickle.

The intimate press of palm against palm, the slide of fingers weaving together, sets my imagination spinning toward how it would feel to press other parts of our bodies together.  My stomach flutters with equal parts fear and excitement.

If hand holding still feels this risqué, how can I bring myself to take the next step?


~


Other students had the same thought as us, the Entertainment Hall already filled with students ready for their weekend. In the open space of the front room, small clusters of upperclassmen circle the 8-Ball tables, the clack of balls striking together loud in the front room. Above them, and toward the back, plas-glass encloses a balcony where an empty ballroom waits for dancers.

We hurry to a soundproof theater down a hallway on the left. Dimly lit, the dark gray curtain covered walls cut off the noise from the other room. Plush couches, covered in dark blue on blue paisley, sit two deep in front of the large holo-screen. With the lights off, the room will be pitch black for a full immersion experience.

“Nice. We’re the first ones here.” Felix hustles to the front couch and tosses his bag of roasted beans onto the low wooden coffee table.

On a Friday night, we’re lucky to get the theater to ourselves. Even with skipping dinner in the dining hall, there was a high risk that other students would get here ahead of us. We hadn’t even taken the time to change out of our uniforms before we headed over.

Connor releases my hand, takes the basket from me, and joins his twin to add our bounty to the table. Purple carrots, a box of strawberries, and two protein shakes. Not the best snack options, but the Academia for Planetary Alliance, APA, restricts junk food during the week.

Carefully, Declan sets down his jars of water, then parks himself in the center of the cushions. He spreads his arms over the back of the couch, transforming a piece of furniture that should sit four into a lounge for one.

“Come on, Sparks. Take a seat.” He pats the space next to him as Connor turns on the holo-screen.

Eyes narrowed, I stare pointedly at the couches behind him, before switching my gaze back to him.  I fold my arms over my chest. “Scoot over.”

He waggles his eyebrows. “Don’t worry, I won’t bite.”

“But I will.” Felix’s arm loops around my waist as he plops onto the couch, into the spot beside Declan, pulling me down with him. I land half on his lap, his thigh hard against my butt. “We can all snuggle together.”

“Thanks, but I’ll pass.” Connor wedges himself into the corner on my other side and leans forward to stare around me. “Dec, move over.”

Declan’s golden-brown eyes narrow. “But I want to sit next to Sparks.”

“Then, you shouldn’t have said you don’t bite.” Felix bounces his knee, jostling me. “Sprinkles likes biting.”

“I do not.” Flushing, I shove his arm away and slide off his lap into the narrow gap between him and Connor.

Felix moves his arm behind my shoulders. “That’s not what I remember.”

My neck tingles with the memory of his teeth against my skin. The night we raided the school’s kitchen in an attempt to make cake lead to a lot of confusing events. I went from never having experienced a kiss to being kissed by both Declan and Felix in quick succession. Later, Felix tried to take it a step farther.

I glare at him. “Do you want me to throw things at you, again?”

He smirks. “Only if you’re throwing yourself.”

Annoyed, I brace my back against Connor’s shoulder and shove Felix. He flops across Declan’s lap.

The other man smiles down at him as he ruffles Felix’s already messy black hair. “If you wanted to cuddle, you just had to say so.”

He blinks grass green eyes up at him. “I want to cuddle.”

Connor and I sigh with relief as the other two scoot over, and the couch becomes less cramped.

News scrolls across the holo-screen, announcing produce levels and estimated rice distributions for next quarter. Boring.

“Are you sure we have the right channel?” Anxious, I check my purple dat-band for the time.

Connor leans forward to snag a purple carrot. “It won’t start for another half hour.”

Spring-Cycle Races air today. Every disc-bike racer dreams of competing in the Level 11 Spring-Cycle Races. The prize includes instant Level 11 citizenship for the winner and three family members, plus an entertainer’s contract for life. Whoever wins this race will never have to worry again. With our favorites racing, we need to see who wins.

I glance around at the guys, Declan and Felix cuddled comfortably together on my left, and Connor, munching a carrot, on my right. We first met while pretending to be other people. I’d taken on the name Sparks to hide my identity as a High Councillor’s daughter in order to enter the lower-level disc-bike races. I’d planned to save enough credits to send myself to a halion run school to learn to become a mechanic and build my own disc-bikes.

Declan, who I knew back then as Blaze, showed up out of nowhere a year ago and became my toughest competitor on the racing circuit. The twins, too, going by their racer names, Vice and Rush, added their own kink to my winning streak.

Unknown to me at the time, we formed one of the Night Pirates’ most lucrative circuits. Well aware of our true identities, Pirate Captain Skittles charged us extra to compete, then sold holo-vids of our races on the black market for extra credits. A deadly crash in our last race ended it all when it alerted our parents to our secret lives as disc-bike racers.

When I met them again at APA and realized they were also peers of the highest ranking members of Leton society, I wanted to steer clear of them. I needed to pretend to be a dutiful daughter until I turned twenty and could legally escape my family. Refusing to accept my rejection, they wore me down until I realized I didn’t really want to spend the next two years alone.

Now, instead of being my competitors, we formed an official team, making a pact to be together and keep each other from turning into the political robots our families sent us here to become.

“You want some strawberries?” Connor wafts the plastic container under my nose, the sweet scent of the red fruit pulling me from my thoughts.

“Thanks.” When I take the container, his long fingers brush against mine, and he smiles.

“Me, too!” Felix pushes away from Declan to curl in close to my side. “Feed me, Sprinkles?”

I shove the container into his lap. “Feed yourself.”

“But it’s sweeter when you do it.” He opens his mouth expectantly.

Past experience says he’ll stay that way until I give in. I take a moment to find the largest berry in the container, then shove it into his mouth, stem and all.

As he chokes, I lift a brow. “How does it taste?”

“Ish gud,” he mumbles as he struggles to chew. His face scrunches up with distaste as his lips close around the green top.

“Hey, wait, you can’t eat the stem.” Concerned, I search for something he can spit it into.

His cheek bulges as he shoves the fruit to one side. “I eat what my girlfriend gives me.”

“You could get sick. Don’t you listen in agriculture class?” I shove the container’s lid under his mouth. “Spit it out.”

Instead, he swallows, the strong lines of his throat flexing with the motion.

I stare in horror. “Why would you do that? What if you get sick?”

Felix glances past me to Connor. “Bro, do you see how concerned my girlfriend is?”

“Very concerned, bro.” Connor pats my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Sparks. Troehan’s make sure all our fruits and vegetables are toxin free.”

Disgusted, I toss the lid back on the coffee table. I forgot about that. The halion race’s plant-crafters have mysterious methods that pull toxins from the soil harvested outside the city walls in order to grow food. For the elite, they go a step further to even remove a plant’s natural poisons so all parts of it are consumable. Needlessly expensive when food can be prepared properly to remove the inedible parts.

“Yeah. They can’t let anything happen to Leton’s future leaders.” Declan whacks the back of Felix’s head. “Even if they’re stupid.”

“Shut up.” Felix twists around to glare at him. “You know I’m a genius.”

“Haven’t seen evidence of it lately,” Declan scoffs.

“That’s because classes are boring.” Felix settles back on the couch and hunts for another strawberry, making sure to pinch off the stem this time before he pops it into his mouth. Around the fruit, he mumbles, “Give me a reason to participate.”

“No.” I flop back into my own spot to stare at the holo-screen. Last time we played that game, it led to the cake incident.

He nudges me with his elbow. “I bet Lightning Bug wins this race.”

My head whips around. “Not a chance.”

“Want to bet?”


NO TIME



“Go, Lightning Bug!” Felix jumps up from the couch as the yellow lightstream zooms into the lead. He points at the holo-screen. “That’s my man. I love you, Lightning Bug!”

“Sit down!” We yell from the couch behind him. Every time the yellow disc bike makes a lap, he leaps up and blocks our view.

When Felix doesn’t immediately move, Declan reaches up and grabs him by the belt. The dark haired man crashes back into the couch cushions, feet knocking against the low wooden table that holds our snack remnants. Their clear plastic containers, filled with the leftover stems of strawberries and purple carrots, jump with the impact.

Beside Felix, I sit forward as Purple Strike’s lightstream flickers across the screen, slowly closing the distance between herself and Storm Again’s green energy wheels.

Purple Strike has always been my favorite. She worked her way up through the circuit, one level at a time. She’s my hero. Through my shirt, I touch the energy coil I wear on a chain around my neck, all that remains of my disc-bike after Father destroyed it. Sometimes, I think I feel a buzz of residual energy.

“Give it up, Sparks.” Declan kicks his feet up onto the table, relaxed with his arms spread over the back of the couch. “Your girl’s not even going to place this race.”

I flip him off without taking my eyes from the screen. The gap between the purple and green lightstreams continues to close, but Purple Strike only has half a track to pass the bike in front of her and place third. If she doesn’t place, she’ll be bumped down to Level 8’s circuit and have to fight her way back up. It will take her another two years to win enough races to qualify for the Level 11 races again.

“Shut it, Dec.” On my right, Connor hunches forward, his thigh warm against mine. “The last curve’s tight. Storm Again has lost speed there every lap.”

I bump my knee against his in thanks. Connor’s favorite, Blitzer, currently holds last place, a sad streak of pink light still on his fourth lap.

As the two racers come in fast on the last curve, Purple Strike pulls alongside Storm Again’s green energy wheels. The other racer edges in closer, and I reach out to grip Connor’s hand, the feel of his fingers threading through mine a comfort.

“She’s going in too fast,” Declan mutters, his feet hitting the floor as he, too, leans forward.

Storm Again pushes closer in an effort to force Purple Strike to back off, but she stays beside him as they go into the turn.

“Shoddy-mod! He’s going to cross their energy wheels,” I realize as the two lightstreams begin to blur together.

“That’s stupid,” Felix scoffs. “He’ll lose speed, too.”

“But he’s faster at reaching full power.” Connor squeezes my fingers in sympathy. “If he knocks her back now, he’ll keep third place.”

Knowing he’s right, my stomach tightens. As they reach the turn’s pinnacle, I wait for the inevitable. Instead, Purple Strike’s right energy wheel blinks out. My breath catches at the impossible. No one cuts their energy stream while in motion. The disc-bike loses balance without at least two wheels. Her remaining lightstream straightens into a perfect, vertical line as she hugs the wall and sweeps ahead.

Felix grabs my other hand. “Did she just take that turn sideways?”

I shake my head, unable to believe it myself.

As soon as Purple Strike hits the straightaway again, her right wheel surges back to life, brightening as it spins back up to full power, and she straightens her bike. My heart pounds with excitement as the gap between the two racers lengthens, and it becomes clear she’ll take third place.

“Brightstream,” Felix whispers in amazement. “I can’t wait to try that move out.”

I take my attention off the screen long enough to glare at him. “Don’t you dare.”

He blinks at me, green eyes wide beneath the fringe of his messy black hair. “You don’t think I can?”

Declan shakes his head. “You’ll pancake.”

Felix peers past me at his twin. “There’s no love in this room, bro.”

Connor’s glasses flash when he glances at his brother. “Shut it. The race is still going.”

“So mean.”

I squeeze Felix’s fingers. “Your racer’s about to win.”

His gaze snaps back to the screen as Lightning Bug’s yellow lightstream crosses the finish line. Felix surges to his feet, dragging me up by the hand. My fingers slip from Connor’s.

“That’s my man! Do you see that, Sprinkles?” He waves at the screen with his free arm. “That’s how a race is won.”

A second later, Declan’s favorite, Razor, zips across the line, followed by Purple Strike, and then Storm Again, with Blitzer in last place. Cheeks flushed, I grin. While my girl didn’t win, she’ll get another chance to compete in the Winter-Cycle Races. I turn to Felix, my arms shaky with the need to share the victory.

His hand drops mine, arm looping around my waist as his excited gaze locks on mine. His other hand threads through my red curls to cup the back of my head, and his face drops toward mine.

My hand shoots up between us to block him. “Now, wait just a minute.”

Hot lips press against my palm, his heated gaze peeking between my fingers. “Don’t you want to celebrate with a kiss?”

I should be used to his sneak attacks by now, but he still catches me off guard. While I agreed to try dating all of them, public displays of affection still make me uncomfortable. Private ones, too. Affection scares me.

Felix coaxes me closer. “Just a small kiss?”

Heat floods my face. My gaze drops to Declan, but the other man has his head turned as he leans past us to rehash the race with his best friend, Connor. The other two pay us no attention as they geek out over the technicalities.

I want to make this relationship thing work.  I want that feeling of excitement for myself. Hesitant, my hand drops to Felix’s chest. “Just one.”

“Got it.”

He swoops forward, and I stiffen my arm in panic. “Let me do it.”

A slow smile spreads across his face. “I’d be honored.”

My heart hammers, a quiet buzz flooding my ears as I reach up to curl my hands over his shoulders, rise on tiptoes, and press my mouth against his. The softness of his lips takes me by surprise, the warm texture so different from any other place on a body. The delicate skin hotter.

I brush my mouth against his, surprised by how my sensitive lips tingle, like a circuit looping energy from his body into mine. His eyes, locked with mine, widen in surprise. The breath I held escapes on a soft sigh as I drop back on my heels.

Felix’s tongue darts out to sweep across his lower lip. “I’ve never been kissed like that before.”

I remember the fast invasion of Declan’s tongue, and my heart sinks. “I’ll do better next time.”

“No!” He grabs my shoulders to yank me close, tucking my head under his chin. His lips press through the curls at my temple. “That was amazing. Perfect. It’s like I can feel this buzz between us.”

I frown against his chest because I feel it too, stronger now.

“Hey, why’s my bracelet doing this?”

We separate and turn to Declan, who scowls at the blinking light on his dat-band. Or, rather, the silver wristband beside it. More slender than our everyday dat-bands, the ones the school gave each of us normally spark with blue light along the surface. Now, those lights blink red.

I peer down at mine and realize the buzz I felt wasn’t entirely from our kiss.  It came from my wrist. Energy vibrates up my arm in a continuous stream to flood my body. A quick check confirms Felix’s does the same.

“It’s the emergency alert.” Connor surges to his feet. “We need to go back to the dorms.”

“Huh?” Felix glances up from poking at his to stare at his twin. “What are you talking about?”

Connor pushes his glasses up, green eyes exasperated. “Didn’t any of you read the manual?”

“No,” Felix and I say together.

Declan, unwilling to admit he slacked off, climbs to his feet. “We better hurry.”

When we leave the theater, we find the rest of the Entertainment Hall already empty, cue sticks abandoned on 8-Ball tables, and music still streaming from a sleek, black robot butler set on a table between two half-filled jars of water.

When we reach the outside stairs, we catch up to others who run toward the dorms, including second-year students still in their uniforms, their red slacks bright even in the soft glow of the stars. The dual suns set an hour ago, and I hug my elbows with a shiver at the cooler nighttime temp. Why the Weather Wardens decide to drop the temperature at night never made sense to me.

Declan’s warm palm rubs my back, spreading his body heat through me as we walk at a fast clip. Connor runs ahead a few paces to catch up to the second-years, his quiet voice unintelligible.

A moment later, he stops to wait for us to catch up. “They don’t know what’s going on either.”

The buzz in my body intensifies into painful tingles that race up my arm. “I think we should hurry.”

“Yeah.” Felix grabs my wrist as he lurches into a run, Declan’s hand on my back propelling me faster. Ahead, the second-year students break into a sprint, urged on with the same intensity.

When we reach the two-story, golden-brown brick building, we take the stairs up to Lonette Hall two at a time. Connor catches the dark wooden doors before they swing shut and holds them open. The minute we step inside the dorms, the buzz ceases.

Its absence leaves my body numb, and I stumble for a moment. Declan’s arm loops around my waist. “Whoa, there.”

“I’m good.” I lean against his side, suddenly warmed by the memory of our first official meeting.

Then, I was wobbly on unfamiliar heels Father’s stylist insisted I wear, and Declan caught me before I broke my neck on the administration building’s stairs.

I smile up into his golden-brown eyes. Later, we bonded over a similar goal, escape when we turn twenty, the legal age of maturity.

“Bro, they’re having a moment,” Felix whispers loudly.

“They don’t have time for a moment.” Connor nods toward the large holo-screen at the front of the dorm where the rest of the students already wait.

Comprised of children from the world’s upper echelon, our starting year is especially small with only twelve new students this year, eleven from Leton. Even so, the large front room stands shoulder-to-shoulder, thick with all of the classmen gathered at once.

“Caitlyn, what is going on?” Myrrine demands as she circles the crowd to join us. Her bodyguard, Bastian, glides behind her, graceful despite his large size as his crystalline eyes sweep the hall for danger. Blue swirls over his cheeks, a sure sign of unhappiness.

My roommate loops one pearlescent arm through mine, her skin cool to the touch. Another sign of unhappiness. Despite my limited knowledge when it comes to the halion race that we humans share the planet with, rooming with a pureblood of the Riellio clan has taught me a lot in our limited time together.

Felix nudges Declan aside to drape an arm around my shoulder. “We don’t know anything.”

“I am not surprised.” Myrrine’s cool tone could frost glass, and I glance up at her to find her pale blue eyes narrowed on Felix over the top of my head. She remains overly cautious of the twins, Felix in particular. With a toss of her pink braid, her attention returns to me. “Caitlyn, did you have fun watching the race? Did your Purple Strike win?”

“Yes and no.”

Her plump lips thin. “I am most sorry for your loss.”

“My racer took first place,” Felix boasts.

“I did not ask.”

Across my shoulders, his arm tenses. “Didn’t you want to know who won?”

“No.”

Felix huffs. “Your roommate’s rude, Sprinkles.”

She sniffs. “I am precise.”

“Precisely rude.”

“Stop it, both of you.” I pull away from them, afraid to be caught in the middle of their fight. Myrrine, as a halion, can flatten Felix without much effort if she wants to.

Her chin tips down, pink, feathery eyebrows pinched together as she looks at me. “Are you certain you wish this one to be part of your Mulnupti?”

“What’s a Malpity?” Felix stumbles over the foreign word as he twists to stare at his brother. “Is she calling me a bad word?”

Connor shrugs. “I don’t speak Halion.”

Felix turns back around. “Sprinkles, what’s that mean? Do I want to be part of your Malpity?”

“Mulnupti,” I correct, cheeks hot with embarrassment. No way do I want to get into a discussion of halion group marriage practices where others can hear. “I’ll explain it later. Maybe.”

Myrrine frowns, yellow and pink swirling into her cheeks. “You have not discussed this with your men?”

“Hush,” Declan breaks in as he points toward the holo-screen. He motions me back to his side, his arm a reassuring pressure against mine.

Dean Kauffman’s face appears on the screen, steel gray hair pulled back from her face in a severe bun, her cheekbones pointed blades within her thin face. Icy eyes sweep the room as if she can see the inhabitants.

“Thank you all for gathering.” Her sharp tone cuts through the students’ quiet whispers. “Tonight, there was a coupe within Black Corporation. The fifty-seventh Mr. Black is no longer in power.”

Shocked conversation sweeps through the room. Black Corporation governs the black market of Leton’s city structure. A change in leadership can become brutal as gangs loyal to the previous president are wiped out to make way for the new. The exportation of food between levels grinds to a halt, and the price on luxury goods skyrockets while new contracts are negotiated.

A poor takeover causes riots in the lower levels, when rice and nutritional paste deliveries get held up at the Rim. Stockpiles, kept on every level for this eventuality, will come under attack the moment the announcement goes through.

Dean Kauffman waits a solid minute before she begins to speak once more. “While this transition takes place, the high council has demanded that students return to their family residences. Shuttles will arrive within the hour. Take only what is needed. If the negotiations between the new Mr. Black and the Halls of Justice extend beyond a reasonable period, the rest of your items will be shipped home at your family’s discretion.”

The screen turns black.

A quiet voice breaks the stunned silence. “What does that mean?”

Suddenly cold, I pull away from Declan’s warmth. “It means we’re going back to our families.”


RESIST ASSIMILATION



“Caitlyn, are you sure you will not take anything with you?” Myrrine perches on the edge of her bed, pale blue eyes focused on me with concern.

Bastian faces the closed door, a large duffle bag over one broad shoulder. From the hallway, shouts sound as our fellow students rush past in a frenzy to grab their things before their shuttles arrive to take them off level.

“Yeah, I only need my school stuff. Anything else will be replaced.” I wince as I zip up the heeled, golden boots, my toes already pinched by their narrow tips. Already, I miss my school-issued shoes. “How long is the flight to the Riellio colony?”

“Three hours.” She brushes the pink puff of her braid against her cheek, her brows furrowed. “Unless there are Storm Makers. It is not safe to travel at night.”

The giant, gelatinous beasts that reside in the clouds live off electricity. Airships are a favored food source when they can catch them. Their smaller, less harmful counterparts, sky skippers, squeeze through the city’s mesh curtains and wreak havoc with the power grids.

From the doorway, Bastian rumbles, “We will be safe as long as we can see the stars.”

“Can’t you wait until morning?” Slipping the strap of my school satchel over my head, I stand and wobble a moment while my ankles remember how to balance in the heeled boots.

“My family wishes my immediate departure from the city while the government is unstable.” She rises and crosses the short space between our beds in one long stride to slip pearlescent arms around my shoulders. “I will miss you, Caitlyn.”

“I’ll miss you, too.” I return the embrace, holding on longer than I should. Over the last few weeks, Myrrine and I bonded over late night talks in the darkness of our small room.

Myrrine’s nose presses into the curls next to my ear as she inhales deeply, and her arms tighten a fraction. “I would take you with me if it was permitted. I do not think I will sleep well without you near.”

“What?” I laugh into her shoulder and drop my arms to my sides. “You make it sound like I’m your favorite stuffed animal.”

Her nose moves to the top of my head, ruffling the curls there. “Am I not allowed to find comfort in your presence?”

I smile and pat her waist in reassurance. “You bring me comfort, too.”

As if committing my scent to memory, she sniffs me a moment longer before she releases me. I’m still unsure how exactly the whole scent thing works for halions—it has something to do with compatibility—but I’ve gotten used to Myrrine’s occasional sniffing. When I glance up at her, pink and yellow swirls in her cheeks, her eyes bright.

I walk toward the door before she can grab me again. “Are you excited to see your friends and family when you get back to the colony?”

Her voice comes out subdued as she follows behind. “There are many people I will reunite with.”

“That’s not the same.”

“No.”

Bastian holds up his hand as he opens the door and peers suspiciously into the hall, ever vigilant in his search for danger.

Myrrine clears her throat. “Are you excited to see your friends and family?”

I think of the long, empty halls of Lonette Manor, the silent servants and the ambient temperature kept three degrees too cool to be comfortable. I’m too old for tutors or nannies, now, and my private maid will have been reassigned the day I left. There will be no one for me to see.

“I’ll be excited to come back here.”

“On that, we will agree.”

“Bastian, please move aside. I need to get Caitlyn.” Connor’s calm voice comes from outside our door before his dark head appears around the frame, glasses glinting. “Caitlyn, come on. Dec’s shuttle is landing. Felix is with him, now.”

My heart trips with panic. Shuttles shouldn’t arrive for another twenty minutes. “Sorry, Myrrine, I need to go.”

She waves with a sad smile. “I will message you while we are apart.”

Connor’s long fingers curl around my arm as soon as I join him in the hall, and he hustles me toward the stairs. When I stumble, he glances down and frowns. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were wearing those shoes again.”

He slows at the stairs, hesitates for a moment, then bends to scoop an arm under my butt and lifts me. His shoulder digs against my stomach, and I stiffen my muscles to keep myself from pitching over his back.

“What are you doing?” I grab his shoulders, precarious as he hurries down the stairs. The steps blur past with a disconcerting sensation of moving backward.

He dodges around other students with heavy bags on their shoulders, the arm beneath by butt tightening as his other hand covers my lower back to keep me in place. “Last time you wore those things, you almost broke your neck.”

Heat creeps into my cheeks at the startled smiles we receive. “This is embarrassing.”

“It’s less embarrassing than falling down the stairs.” His arm loosens as he reaches the ground floor and runs for the front door. “Besides, we’re in a hurry.”

The stone stairs of Lonette Hall rush past, and Connor heads right on the circular pathway toward a break between the library and the building where we attend classes. Another path there leads to the administration building at the dome’s exit.

My stomach rolls, unsettled by the backward movement. I grip Connor’s shoulder tighter. “I could piggyback like Felix does.”

“In a dress?” Connor’s hand drops to my hip, and he squeezes the pale blue material. “As interesting as it is to see you dressed like a girl, this outfit has restrictions.”

I forgot about the skirt and blush with embarrassment, glad he refused. Even though I wear stockings, the idea of wrapping my legs around Connor while in a dress feels far more indecent than if I were in my school issued slacks.

But still, being carried like this is not okay. “Let me down. I’ll keep up.”

Connor stops in an instant, lowering me to the ground. Surprised, I glance up at him, his dark hair blending with the night sky overhead. He lifts his eyebrow. “What, you thought I’d refuse?”

“No, I guess not.” Of the three, Connor pushes me the least, allowing me to set the pace.

“I’m not my brother, Sparks.” His fingertips touch my cheek. “And I’m not Declan. If you don’t like something, all you have to do is say the word, and I’ll stop.”

My pulse flutters, and I lick my lips. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” His fingers drift down to my chin as he gives me a wry smile. “I thought I’d have more time to woo you.”

“Woo me?” I sway toward him.

“If we had more time, we’d dance under the stars.” He leans closer, and my breath catches, sure this is the moment he’ll kiss me and uncertain if it’s what I want. But then his fingers lace with mine, and he tugs me back into motion. “We need to hurry.”

The moment vanishes as I concentrate on not tripping while we run for the administration building. When we make it out the other side, dark sedans hover in the circular drive, waiting to pick up their charges.

I spot Declan and Felix near the front of the line. Declan has an arm around Felix, the other man hunched with his arms folded over his chest, his dark head down. Declan whispers into his ear, and Felix shakes his head.

When we near, the two pull apart. Felix steps to the side, and Declan grabs me in a fierce hug. “Sparks, you made it.”

As his spicy scent envelops me, I realize why Myrrine sniffed me so much. No one else smells like Declan, this unique blend of cologne and warm, natural body. The need to commit it to memory rushes through me as I hug him back.

His lips touch my ear. “Remember our pact.”

“Resist assimilation.” I pull away from him, swallowing the lump in my throat.

“Hey, there’s no need to be so sad.” Connor grips Declan’s arm with forced cheerfulness. “We’ll see each other soon. Not like we don’t all live on Level 12.”

Despite the words, three pairs of doubtful eyes focus on me. We went eighteen years and, despite the small population, never met on the level we resided on. But now that I know who they are, I can seek them out myself. I won’t be under house arrest anymore.

Dread creeps down my spine.

At least, I shouldn’t be under house arrest. There’s no reason for Father to lock me in the manor now that I’ve given in to attending APA.

“You have my contact in your palm-ports, right?” I dig mine out to double check, even though logic tells me they won’t have disappeared since the last time we exchanged messages.

“Mr. Arrington, your shuttle is waiting,” the chauffeur calls the gentle reminder from his place next to the rear passenger door. “We need to clear the landing pad.”

Declan backs toward the waiting vehicle. “I’ll message when I land.”

“Have a safe flight, Dec.” Connor nudges his twin, who stands off to the side, unhappiness clear in his hunched shoulders.

Declan stares at Felix for a long moment. “Be good, Vice.”

“Get bent.” He raises a hand to flip off his former racing lead. “I’ll be what I want to be.”

“Don’t be like that.” Connor grabs his twin and shoves him toward the car as Declan climbs in. “Dec doesn’t have any more of a choice in leaving than we do. Stop being an ass.”

Felix shoves him back, but then goes to the hovering vehicle and ducks his head inside.

I move closer to Connor, worried. “Why’s Felix so upset? Don’t you guys see each other a lot when you’re home?”

Connor shoves his hands into his slacks pockets. “Not as much in the last year, outside of the races. We were actually happy to come here, just to be back in school together.”

I glance up at him in surprise. “Weren’t you in boarding school together?”

“Declan’s family is…strict.” The muscle in Connor’s jaw ticks as he clenches and unclenches his teeth. “They pulled him out for tutoring in the final year. He only attended exams at school.”

Surprised confusion washes through me, followed by self-recrimination. What have we been talking about in these last few weeks that I wouldn’t know this about Declan? Then, I think of what I’ve told them of my own family life and realize we’ve all kept secrets. We’ve spent so much time looking forward that no one bothered to speak of the past outside of racing.

Felix straightens away from the car and shuts the door, giving the roof two solid thumps before he strides away. His steps bounce, his face relaxed back into his easy smile. Whatever passed between him and Declan wiped away his previous unhappiness. Declan’s vehicle pulls away with a quiet hum of propulsion, and the next car slides into its place at the front.

As Felix walks over to us, he rubs his hands together, grass green eyes focused on me. “Okay, Sprinkles. Let’s talk about house visits. What kind of security are we talking about at Lonette Manor?”

I smile, glad he’s back to normal. “I have a front door, you know.”

He waves a hand in dismissal. “Front doors are for the weak. Is the fence electrified?”

“Of course.”

“Back up battery in case of sky skipper infestation?”

I fold my arms under my breasts. “Is there any other method?”

“Security guards?”

“Drone and organic.”

Felix cuts a glance to his twin. “Bro?”

“Bro,” Connor confirms.

Caught up in the absurdity, I laugh. “You guys can’t be serious.”

Connor pushes his glasses up. “I’ve always wanted to rescue a princess in distress.”

Felix bounces forward to sling an arm across my shoulders, his weight warm against my side. “Sprinkles, please say your room is in a tower.”

“Lonette Manor doesn’t have towers.” I lean against him. “And I’m not in distress.”

Felix gives a long-suffering sigh. “Bro, we gotta work on Sprinkles’ imagination.”

One side of Connor’s mouth tilts up. “She’ll be plenty distressed when she hears her security guards shot you.”

Felix’s eyes widen with affront. “Bro, no.”

As the two bicker good-naturedly, I glance at the new vehicle as the chauffeur gets out, and I vaguely recognize him as the one who brought me to school three weeks ago. Reality crashes back in.

It’s time to return to Lonette Manor.


LONETTE MANOR



“How was your flight, Ms. Lonette?” the chauffeur asks as he slides behind the wheel of the dark town car.

“It was uneventful.” I ease back in the plush leather seat, stifling a groan of relief to have the pressure taken off my sore feet.

Overhead, stars twinkle in the holo-sky. On any other level, we’d be in Lights-Out, but Level 12 never goes fully dark. Fatigue drags at my limbs, the desire to sleep almost overwhelming.

As we pull away from the landing strip at Level 12’s Central Plaza, I resist the urge to turn in my seat to stare out the back window.

Declan’s shuttle departed ahead of mine, while the twins were still awaiting theirs when I left. There’s no need to search the landing pads for their own dark vehicles, carting them away from me. As quickly as we came together, we’re reminded once again of how easily we can be separated.

I grip the converter coil through my dress. I’m no longer sure if I keep it as a reminder of my dreams or a symbol of how fast they can be destroyed.

The blue sparks on my school issued bracelet blink green, distracting me, and I dig my palm-port out my satchel. I took little with me when I left, unwilling to risk my few possessions being scrutinized. But the slender devices the school gave us should be safe enough from Father.

A matching green light blinks in the upper part of the screen, and I thumb it on to read the message. Do you miss me yet, Sprinkles?

I check the timestamp. Felix sent it an hour ago, right after the shuttle flew me away from Level 13. Warmth fills my chest, and my fingers hesitate over the keys, unsure how to respond. Do I simply admit that I do? Or maybe I should try for something flirty. What does flirty sound like?

“Here we are, Ms. Lonette.”

Surprised, my hand drops to my lap as I glance between the seats and out the windshield. A long driveway stretches out before us, vibrant, burnt-orange grass on either side. The latest fashion trend of dying the grass to match the house colors bewilders me almost as much as the useless grass itself. As leaders of Leton, we should use our land to grow edibles, not as a status symbol of how many resources we can afford to waste.

The driveway curves to the right to form a large loop in front of the manor house. A statue of Captain Lonette, our founding father, crouches in the middle of the circle, his cupped hands spilling clear water into a large pond.

I tuck my palm-port back into my satchel as the car glides to a stop, dipping slightly as it hovers in place. The driver gets out to hurry around the front and open my door, one white-gloved hand out to assist me.

“Thank you.” I swing my legs out and touch my fingertips to the center of his palm, a bare brush of nails against fabric. To do more would be to show weakness. With the ever-watchful eye of the servants around, I make sure to keep my fingers straight, the point of contact almost nonexistent as I stand.

Pain courses up my calves from the bottoms of my feet where it feels like spikes drive into my heels. My ankles wobble for a moment as I find my balance, once again trapped within unfamiliar heeled boots I dug out from under my bed. They match the gold cardigan and knee-length blue dress I wore when I left the manor three weeks ago. I resisted the temptation to return to Lonette Manor in my school uniform, the risk of angering my father not worth the comfort of slacks and a simple, button-up shirt.

Lucky for me, whoever designed our family house chose to frame the double wide doors with four-story, white pillars instead of a sweeping staircase. As I take small, steady steps toward the entrance, the doors swing inward, perfectly timed so I need not slow my pace to enter the house.

“Welcome home, Ms. Lonette.” The butler bows from his place beside the servant who holds the right door open. “Please, allow us to take your bag to your room.”

At the wave of his hand, a maid hurries forward and takes the satchel from me, disappearing through a servant’s door hidden behind one of the interior pillars. The color-changing paint on the large colonnade has been set to burnt-orange to match the lawn outside.

“If you will wait a moment, Councillor Lonette will be down shortly.” He takes a sharp step to the right and bows again.

“Thank you, Mr. Purnell.” My heels echo against the holo-floor as I move away from the entrance to take my place to his left.

The freshly polished hologram screens glow with the illusion of white marble, and I shift uncomfortably at the knowledge its reflective surface acts as a mirror. Keeping my knees tight together, my hands flatten against the front of my skirt to minimize the display. I much preferred the slate tiles of last season.

Quiet steps swoop down the staircase, one set clipped and the other tinging like metal against glass. I release the front of my skirt to fold my hands behind my back, shoulders straight as I turn to watch my father pause on the second-story landing, beneath the holo-portrait of Captain Lonette. His red hair, cut short enough to hide the curl, perfectly matches our ancestor’s, his broad shoulders a mirror image. Years of the Lonettes genetically engineering their offspring had finally resulted in an almost perfect copy of our founding father. Only the eyes differ, a pale hazel instead of the piercing blue of the captain’s.  


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