“Have you seen Cassian?” I ask.

Az arches an elegant eyebrow. “Since when are you keeping tabs on him?”

“Since he’s the one who found us and brought us back.”

Cassian tracked you down? That’s where he’s been all this time? The word going around was that he took his tour.” She chuckles lightly. “Man, oh, man, he’s still got it bad for you.”

“Not me,” I quickly correct. “He hasn’t got it bad for me. If he ever even wanted me—”


I glare at her and continue, “If he even wants me it’s only because I’m the pride’s fire-breather.” A commodity, the pride’s great weapon.

But then, not anymore. That’s changed. Now there’s Tamra. Tamra, who has always pined for Cassian. Maybe he’ll finally return those feelings. Hope swells in my chest at the possibility. And some other emotion. Something I can’t identify. Something I’ve never felt before.

“Whatever the reason, every girl in this pride would kill to have Cassian look at her the way he looks at you.” She pulls a face and flips onto her back on my bed. “Maybe even me.”

“You?” I blink.

“Yeah. Don’t worry. This isn’t a guilt trip. I never really thought I had a shot. No one did.” She winks at me. “Not with you around.”

I groan. She sounds too much like Tam. The old Tamra. The one who longed for Cassian’s attention and the pride’s acceptance. The one who watched from the sidelines as I got both. Until we moved to Chaparral and she found a new life there. Which I took from her the night I dived off a cliff after a draki hunter.

Az glances around as if she’d heard my thoughts. “Where’s Tamra?”

“You mean you haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

“She’s with Nidia.” My lips twist into a smile even as my stomach gives a sickening lurch at the upheaval sure to come now that my sister’s on her way to becoming the pride’s next shader. “Recuperating.”

“Recuperating from what?”

“Tamra manifested. She’s a shader.”

Az’s eyes round. “No way!” She whistles through her teeth and tugs on her lip. “Guess you’re not the only prize around here anymore then.”

“Guess not,” I murmur, suddenly not sure whether this is a good thing or bad. I used to want to be a typical draki. Nothing extraordinary. Not the pride’s great fire-breather under constant scrutiny and pressure. Now I appreciate that my uniqueness might be the only thing keeping me safe. But I also know Tamra’s newfound talent means the pride will clutch both of us all the more tightly.

Az continues, “Wonder whether Cassian will give her a second glance now.”

The floor creaks, alerting me to someone else’s presence. I look up, my face growing hot that Mom may have overheard our conversation.

Only it’s not Mom. It’s worse.

The heat descends to my neck. “How’d you get in here?” I demand, knowing Mom wouldn’t have let him waltz into my room. At least not without warning me.

Cassian looks at me intently, his eyes more black than purple right then. The purple only shows itself when he’s feeling emotion. A rarity it seems.

“How did you get in here?” I repeat. And then I realize it’s a dumb question. He’s one of them. One of my captors. The future leader of this pride, the prince can come and go as he pleases. “Where’s my mom?” I ask, straining for a glimpse beyond his large frame.

“Talking to my father.”

My skin shivers at this. Severin and my mom were never a good mix. I fight the urge to rush from the room, to find Mom and shield her. It’s laughable really. Mom’s the great protector — always looking out for me. Even when I don’t want her to.

So I stay put, eager to hear whatever Cassian has come to say. At least I hope he’ll tell me what’s going on. What’s going to happen to me. I’d rather hear it from him than Severin. Since Big Rock, we’re in this together. I have to believe that.

He looks at Az pointedly, like he expects her to leave. So I can be alone with him? No thanks. I slide closer to her on the bed. His gaze narrows. Message received.

“Well? You talked with your dad. What’s the verdict?” I draw a deep breath, ready to end the agony and find out whether or not I have to endure a wing clipping. Does Severin know that I revealed myself to hunters? Did Cassian tell him that? My skin goes prickly hot at the very idea. No way Mom would volunteer that information.

“It’s going to be okay, Jacinda.”

I angle my head. “So I won’t be punished?”

“I convinced them that you wanted to return. I told them you’re eager to fall back into pride life. That you’ll behave yourself and be more compliant.” His top lip curls faintly, and I remember what he told me back in Chaparral when he found me, that he liked me because I was different from everyone else here. Now he wants me to be the same.

I inhale sharply through my nose. Compliant. Submissive. Meek. Biddable. Do I even have it in me?

“Compliant? Jacinda?” Az giggles, unaware of the tension. “They bought that?”

Cassian flicks her a hard glance, then looks back to me. Waiting. What? Does he expect to hear my agreement?

“Oh.” Az sobers, looking between our two serious expressions. “Well, of course. I’m sure Jacinda will be more… I mean, I’m sure she realizes she belongs here. Your dad has to see that. Why would she want to stay out there — in a world she can never fit in?”

At my silence, Az swings me a questioning look. I wish I could explain to her that I might have found a reason to live out there among humans. It will take some convincing for Az to understand how I could have fallen for Will, and for whatever reason, I don’t want to talk about it in front of Cassian.

The way Cassian’s nostrils flare, it’s not far from his thoughts anyway. Beneath the swarthy skin of his face, charcoal flashes — like a creature swimming beneath the water’s surface. A beast I must placate.

I’m reminded of his animal strength, of his large frame colliding with Will on top of Big Rock. The unchecked violence as the two rolled in a twisting, tangled pile off the edge of that cliff — I shiver and press a hand to my stomach, a little sick at the memory. They wanted to kill each other. They almost did.

“You’ll stay here with your mom,” Cassian announces when it becomes clear I’m not going to give him the agreement he seeks to be a meek and compliant little draki. It’s not that I don’t want to say the words. I’m simply afraid of promising something I can’t do. “You can start attending school again. And work. School, work, and home. Your sister will stay with Nidia.”

This gives me a start. I didn’t think the separation would be permanent. I can’t remember a time when Tam and I ever slept more than one room apart from each other. As much as this disturbs me, I guess it makes sense. Nidia will take care of Tamra. Give her the support and guidance she needs right now. Everything that Mom and I can’t give her.

I tell myself that’s all that’s happening. The pride isn’t trying to separate us.

“Tamra, a shader.” Az shakes her head, marveling. “Wait until I tell everyone. This is awesome.” My friend squeezes my arm with happy enthusiasm. “Hey, I gotta go.”

She hops from my bed, evidently eager to start spreading the news that our pride’s future is assured. That we have a new shader who can take Nidia’s place someday.

As long as Tamra doesn’t mind being bound to the pride for the rest of her life. And why should she? Once she has time to deal with the change, she’s going to realize she’s no longer invisible among the pride — and that she has a shot with Cassian.

Leaping through the door, Az calls over her shoulder, “Be back later.”

And I’m alone with Cassian, after all. Thanks, Az.

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