There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not in my nature. Jane Austen’s poetic gem resonated with me. Which was why I was letting my friend, Genie Vertis, drag me into trouble once again. Although, she was doing it for me, so maybe we were both guilty. I say “friend” but she was more of a sister, really. And siblings had a way of getting each other into a whole lot of trouble. At least, that’s what I’d gathered from my mom and Uncle Finch’s epic gab sessions. They were the stuff of SDC legend, and both could wax nostalgic for hours. As for me, I didn’t have siblings to test the theory on. Only Genie. But she was all the sibling—and all the trouble—I’d ever need. “I’m sweating bullets, here!” I hissed to Genie. She waltzed beside me, not a care in the world, having picked the smaller pile of books to “carry back to the library”—the shaky story we’d decided to go with. In comparison, I looked like a juggler with a severe hand cramp, trying to keep the tomes from toppling.
I didn’t want to drop them. For one, they’d clatter and make everyone stare. For two, I hated books getting damaged, which was why I always glared at page-folders and spine-benders. Bookmark, anyone? Genie smirked. “I’d say you’ve got more of a glossy sheen. It suits you. Like I keep saying, you should come running with me. Cardio is good for the soul.” “Running is for psychopaths.” I swerved to keep my tower of books steady.
“Seriously, why aren’t you nervous right now? I’ve never seen anyone so calm about sneaking into the Bestia—” “Shh!” She put a finger to her lips. “First rule of sneak club, you don’t talk about sneak club. Besides, I have a naturally innocent face.” Her slate-gray eyes twinkled. Wherever there was mischief, my friend was never far behind. And neither was I, since I was never far from her. Wrong place, wrong time, all the time. Though she rarely got as much heat as me, even with an Atlantean dad. That was what happened when your parents were the Merlin-Crowleys—I always took the rap. “Like one of those Russian hamsters that look super cute but won’t hesitate to take a chunk out of your finger?” I peeked at her over my books, though my sardonic smile went to waste behind the leathery, musty blockade.
She stuck her head out to the side and puffed out her cheeks. “Hamster? I’m more like a duck.” “Everything rolls off your back?” I teased. “Nope, though I like the way your mind works.” She paused to shuffle her feet wildly, making me snort into the spine of Rare Purge Beasts of the Northern Seas. “Serene on the surface, paddling like heck underneath!” With laughter in my belly, the nerves ebbed, and we slunk farther up the main hallway of the SDC toward the Isadora Merlin Library. It had been renamed after a great-aunt I’d never met, though I felt as though I knew her from the stories I’d heard. Tales told by firelight lingered in the mind, conjuring unforgettable memories that seemed as real as my own. That branch of my family name had been a double-edged sword throughout my almost eighteen years on this earth. On the one hand, I absorbed the old stories like a sponge, desperate to learn everything and anything about the characters whose lives had enriched my ancestry.
On the other, you really couldn’t look anywhere in this coven without seeing the Merlin name somewhere, an ever-evolving fanfare of triumph and magical success—and a sharp contrast to my own shortcomings. It was a cosmic joke with me as the punchline: a Merlin with no magic. “Incoming!” Genie shoved me into the shadow of one of the imposing bronze dragons, the ever-dutiful sentinels of the SDC, standing guard with watchful gemstone eyes. I hoped they wouldn’t snitch on us. “Who is it? I’m flying blind here.” I nodded to the stack of books, the dust of them itching my nostrils. One sneeze, and the whole thing would tumble floorward. You poor babies… I’m going to take good care of you until we put you all back in alphabetical order. I tended to immerse myself in the vivid worlds of fiction and the escapism within their creamy pages, but non-fiction served its purpose. Yes, I might have associated nonfiction books with endless study sessions and weighted eyelids, and I might have cursed their names when the words wouldn’t stay in my skull, but that didn’t mean they deserved rough treatment.
It wasn’t their fault that I associated them with a bad time. “The Levi-Catemaco clan.” Genie ducked around a metal trunk of a dragon leg and peered into the corridor, putting on her best espionage performance. Genie Bond, license to cause mischief. I wished I’d gotten a look. Marius Levi-Catemaco, the eldest of Raffe and Santana’s four adopted kids at nineteen, had the sort of heaven-sent face that could’ve been torn out of GQ. Ruggedly Spanish, all dark and tan and good enough to nibble on, he set many hearts aflutter. And neither Genie nor I—otherwise sensible young women—were immune. “It’s like everything slows down when he walks,” Genie whispered dreamily. “He must have a personal fan with him.
Nobody’s hair moves like that without outside help.” “I’m about to need some outside help myself,” I huffed. The books were getting heavier by the moment. She winked back at me, her Atlantean face tattoos shining slightly. “We can’t go anywhere until the Osmonds have passed. Might as well enjoy the view.” When she went outside, the tattoos were hidden by an embedded magic, but she preferred to go au naturel inside the safe confines of the SDC. “How do you even know who the Osmonds are?” As far as I knew, Atlantean integration hadn’t covered the history of popular music. “Blame your uncle. He blasts that stuff from his car when he thinks no one’s around.
” She grinned from ear to ear. “But I’m always around. You should enlighten him about new music, to save his dignity. And get him to update his technology, too. He still uses CDs.” I smiled, thinking of my favorite uncle. My only uncle, but still my favorite. “I think that’d be like trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.” Fortunately, I hadn’t developed my musical tastes from him, but I owed him for my love of literature. He’d given me a pile of classics at age eleven or twelve, and I’d never looked back, devouring every novel the library held and beyond, like a regular Matilda.
Only, I couldn’t move things with Telekinesis. “Okay, the coast is clear. Tip some of those books onto mine.” Genie shuffled up to me and let me tip the top tome onto her stack, in a precarious exchange. Not much of a relief, but enough to keep me going. With the load a bit more even, she stepped out of the dragon shadows, dusting off her ripped band tee. I doubted she’d ever heard a single song by Prince and the Revolution. She just wore it to annoy her dad, who’d have preferred to see her in the adapted traditional attire that most integrated Atlanteans wore. “You know, it’s funny that he’s called Marius.” She flashed me the look that let me know a punchline was coming.
I humored her, the constant comedy enabler. “Why’s that?” “Because I wish he would.” She cackled, flipping her long silver braid over her shoulder. The white-gold feather barrette at the top of the braid glinted in the coven’s warm, atmospheric lighting. Her Esprit. I rolled my eyes. “How did I not see that one coming?” “You had to have known. You know me too well.” She gave me one of those looks that existed solely between lifelong friends—an expression of love that encompassed almost eighteen years. She’d been alive way longer than that, given the formerly extended lives of Atlanteans, but I’d known her all my life, from day one.
Before that, actually, as my mom liked to tell us. Genie had been there when my mom had found out about me, and our friendship had been sealed by the fates from that day forward. But her papers said she was nineteen, so that’s what she went with. We pressed on up the hallway, weaving in and out of dragon statues, and took a left, avoiding as many people as possible. Not easy in a packed coven, but Genie had surprising stealth and a good nose for suspicious glances. Everyone knew us here, and everyone knew our past endeavors: practical jokes and harmless tricks, mostly. “Are you playing a game, or something?” A voice brought us to a sudden halt. A boyish face appeared shortly afterward, poking around the side of a reptilian limb. Kestrel Merlin—my cousin. My uncle swore he’d named him purely after a bird, like he himself had been.
But I knew better. A Kestrel for a Knave was one of Uncle Finch’s favorite books—mine, too—and he’d traumatized me with the film when I was probably too young to see it. I still hadn’t gotten over that ending. “Kes! You scared the life out of us!” Genie sank against the wall with a dramatic sigh. He looked slightly abashed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to know what you were up to.” “Who says we’re up to anything?” I blurted out. Rookie mistake.
I sounded as guilty as I felt. He swept auburn curls out of his blue eyes. “I meant, I was just curious about what you were doing. It looked like you were playing a game.” He observed the dual stack of books that Genie and I had split between us. “Or doing some light reading?” I tried to shift the weight of the books and almost upended the entire stack. “Sorry, Kes. We’ve got to get these back to the library before we get a fine.” “Oh, well, let me help you. I don’t mind heading that way.
” He reached out for my books, but Genie wedged herself between us like a human barricade. He was a sweet kid, not a bad bone in his body. A relief for Uncle Finch and Auntie Ryann, considering the rotten eggs that had cropped up in the Shipton line, but we couldn’t have any witnesses to what we were actually doing. Especially when I’d been forbidden from doing exactly what we were about to do. “We appreciate the offer, but we wouldn’t want to dent our strong, independent woman image.” Genie cut in. He stepped back and raised his hands in understanding. “Of course, my bad. I keep forgetting when it’s appropriate to be chivalrous. Dad says I shouldn’t bother, but then Mom smacks him and tells me to ignore him, so it’s hard to know.
” “I love chivalry, but we’re working on our biceps.” Genie offered him one of her most dazzling smiles. The shine reflected in his eyes, and a flush reddened his cheeks, bringing out his freckles. She had that effect on most of the opposite sex, even kids like Kes, without intending to. He chuckled awkwardly. “Well, you… uh… do that, then. I’ll just… uh… be on my way.” He gave a peculiar half-bow. “I hope you don’t get fined.” “Same here.
I could do without another lecture from my dad on how to be a responsible adult.” Genie laughed like she was joking, but I heard the truth in her words. These days, she always seemed to be at odds with her dad. I supposed that was part of growing up, but I knew it bothered her. She loved her dad. She didn’t want to fight with him, but she also felt like they were from different worlds. And she wasn’t entirely wrong. Kes waved before heading back down the hallway. He turned back once or twice, his expression bemused, but he didn’t try and investigate further. Where our family was concerned, sometimes it was better not to.
We carried on, my arms about ready to give out. With the strain tingling through my veins, rendering my hands numb, I began to doubt our cover story. We could’ve gone with something easier to carry. Essays, perhaps? Or a few folders that needed to be returned? It was too late for that now. “How are your arms?” Genie picked up on my ongoing struggles. “Arms? What arms? I can’t even feel them anymore.” “Then give me another book, and let’s hurry.” We made another wobbly exchange, and she pushed forward with renewed energy. I struggled to match her, lagging behind on the last stretch. But at least we were almost there.
After a few more minutes, we finally reached the library entrance—an elegant feat of architecture, with two pillars to either side, carved vines twisting up them to form a triangular archway. A frieze within the archway depicted stone intellectuals in elegant poses: reading books, strumming lyres, and scribbling on curved scrolls. And, at the triangle’s apex, a large version of the Merlin pendant stood in pride of place, gemstones glittering. An homage to the woman who’d once worn it: Isadora Merlin. “We need to be seen, right?” I checked in with my accomplice. We could’ve dumped the books on the side table by the entrance, but I wanted to make sure these books went back to their proper homes. Genie nodded. “We should head in, make sure we get seen by Mrs. Tibbs, and slip out again without her seeing.” “Okay.
” I sounded more confident than I felt. I knew I’d have to rally strength from somewhere. This was only phase one—the ruse. Phase two had yet to be put into motion. Genie led the way into the library—one of my favorite places in the whole coven. Wallto-wall worlds, each one brimming with adventure, romance, characters waiting to be fallen in love with, and villains a person could love to hate. I adored the smell more than anything, the musty, inexplicable scent of escapism. “Hi, Mrs. Tibbs.” Genie wriggled a hand free to wave at the sourpuss who sat at the reception desk a short distance ahead.
She didn’t wave back. She never did. “Ah, ever the chatterbox.” I stifled a giggle. “You’ll get us kicked out!” “That’d mean her having to get out of her chair. I think we’re good.” Genie hustled toward the returns cart and toppled the books onto it with an overly loud thud. I winced, certain it would draw attention to us. I waited for the cry of, “Girls! What are you doing?” but it didn’t come. Hurrying in case it was only a delayed reaction, I performed an awkward squat so the books wouldn’t get hurt.
I set the whole pile down with as much care as possible before flexing my aching arms. “That feels good.” Genie stepped forward to give my forearms a squeeze, massaging some life back into them. “You ready for phase two?” “I hope so,” I replied uncertainly. “You’ve got this, Persie. You’ve been waiting to speak to that monster for years. And I’m not going anywhere. I’m with you, all the way.” She smiled, and I felt a bit of courage stir inside me. Her pep talks never failed to make me feel braver.
I drew in a sigh. “Okay. Let’s do this.” “That’s my girl!” She dove in to give me a quick, necessary hug before dragging me into one of the stacks. “Now, I need you to hold very still. This is one of my grandpa’s tricks. I’ve been practicing like crazy so it’d be perfect for today, but my skills are still a bit glitchy.” “Glitchy how?” It always made me nervous when she said things like that. “Let’s just say, fifty percent of the time I’ve phased in and out.” My heart pounded harder, like a runaway horse.
“Phased in and out of what?” “Visibility. Relax, I’ve got backup tricks, and if we get caught, I’ll say it was all my idea.” She held my shoulders. “Now, remember to stay still. We’re going to have to be up close and personal until we reach the creature’s box.” “He has a name, you know.” A stiff chuckle puffed out of my nose. Genie raised a finger. “Ah, but when you name something, you give it power. If you keep thinking of it as just a creature, you won’t be so afraid.
” “Huh. That actually makes a lot of sense.” She tapped the side of her head. “Not just a hat rack, my friend. Now, shush, I need to concentrate.” Neon-green Chaos sparked out of her body as she gripped me tight. It flowed from her chest to her arms, and into me, without so much as a twitch of her fingers, since she was a Sentient. The telltale sign of an Atlantean. I had no idea what sort of spell she was using, but her grandfather had been an infamous thief who’d never been caught. That called for a trick or two, and she’d certainly picked up a few family secrets.
Suddenly, the pain hit. A fierce heat that began at the point of contact and pulsed through the rest of me at lightning speed, as though someone had doused me in fire ants. Judging by the strained expression on her face, she felt it too. “Is it supposed to… feel like this?” I gasped, my throat burning. “I… think so,” she gasped back. “A few minutes… of pain, to get… answers. That’s got to be… worth it, right?” It hurt too much to reply. “I think we’re good… to go. Stay… close,” she instructed, after a few more agonizing seconds. Remind me never to get on your bad side.
Genie never failed to amaze me with her brilliance, but it could also be a little frightening at times. She literally had no fear whatsoever, and a whole box of tricks at her disposal, courtesy of her grandpa. A trait I envied and admired. Pulling me with both hands, she headed for the library door. Mrs. Tibbs would be our alibi, if anyone asked where we were. She’d seen us come in, but she wouldn’t see us go out. At least, that was the plan, providing nothing… glitched. At the door, my entire body tensed up against the pain and the fear of discovery. I glanced back at Mrs.
Tibbs, but her head stayed down, as she was evidently transfixed by something on her desk. If rumor was to be believed, she frequently enjoyed a bodiceripper while wiling away the hours in the library. And the smirk on her face suggested she’d delved into the kind of book that would’ve had my beloved Austen turning in her grave. Still holding on to each other, we bolted out the door after someone else entered. If we’d opened it ourselves, it would’ve sounded alarm bells. Not literally, of course, but Mrs. Tibbs had a renowned eagle eye. Our window of opportunity had opened. Sucking in a deep breath, I hurtled alongside my friend, grateful that the shield around us stopped anyone from seeing. My version of running wasn’t graceful.
Give me a set of pencils and a fresh page in a sketchbook, and I could toil away for hours without breaking a sweat. Give me a novel and I would demolish it, front to back, without pausing. But give me a sprint… and I looked like a frazzled crab trying to figure out how all its legs worked at once. Fortunately, our destination lay a short distance down the hallway, but that didn’t stop the nerves pounding in my chest, like a marching band had taken up residence between my ribs. I realized, with some disappointment, that I’d have made a terrible spy. I didn’t have the calm for it. Even familiar faces proved unsettling. I spotted two men wandering up the corridor toward us and grabbed Genie, pulling her back into a recess, the two of us pressing as flat as possible, even though we were hopefully still invisible. Dylan and Garrett! Two guys who might as well have been uncles! The sight of them had almost given me a coronary. “Don’t… worry.
They can’t… see us,” Genie wheezed through the pain. Both of us poked our heads out like meerkats, still connected. “If we wait a few… more seconds, they’ll… be gone.” “I’m starting to think this… was a bad idea,” I admitted. Genie tended to be the guts of our operations, while I provided the anxious hair-pulling. In fact, she’d been the one to suggest we do this. I’d spoken about a certain creature so many times, I’d finally broken the camel’s back. She’d all but insisted we take matters into our own hands and actually act on my curiosities instead of just speculating. “We’re so close, Persie. Leviathan… is within shouting… distance.
” At the sound of his name, a fresh wave of anxiety washed over me. “I think I’m going to… be sick. But that might… be the pain.” It simply wouldn’t let up. “Anyway, I thought… we weren’t using… his name?” “Argh… sorry, I forgot. This pain… is messing with my head.” Genie chuckled and gave me a nudge in the ribs. “It’s okay, I… promise. I know a thing or two about… sea beasts from my mom’s old journals. There’s nothing in there… that you can’t handle.
And Leviathan… is frozen in a box. He can’t hurt… you. This is your shot at getting answers, Persie. Or do you want to carry on, never… knowing what the deal with him is? If that’s the case, we can turn around.” Genie stared at me expectantly, the green-tinged forcefield swimming around us. She was right. I needed answers. But… What if he says something I don’t want to hear? I didn’t say it out loud.