The fact was, she was temperamentally unsuited to the Protocol. It just couldn’t sink its hooks into her, no matter how hard she tried. And she had tried. As a small child, she’d wanted to be like everyone else, had been diligent in practicing her mental exercises. The latter had had some effect— she’d been able to pass for Silent, though she had always thought Faith suspected.
Faith! Red hair. Cardinal eyes. Her gifted cousin who had kept her secret.
Fifteen-year-old Sahara nodded hello at a passing human classmate when he waved to her from his bicycle. Such actions were permissible in order to maintain social harmony, but the truth was, Sahara enjoyed interacting with different types of people. It was why she’d chosen to attend a school that wasn’t specifically geared toward Psy, though when she’d made the request to the head of her family unit, she’d focused on the school’s world-class foreign-languages program.
She wasn’t the only Psy student, the school’s academic track a brilliant one, but they were a definite minority. It gave Sahara countless opportunities to mix with people who lived outside Silence. The girl she liked best in her class was a gifted human pianist. The music Magdalena could create carried a haunting passion that went beyond notes and keys.
Sahara also had a changeling classmate who could do things on the sports fields that should’ve been impossible. Though Sahara’s mind was scalpel sharp, her educational workload far more advanced than that of the rest of her class, her fingers couldn’t create music that made the soul soar, her body couldn’t move with the grace of a changeling’s. But that didn’t matter when she danced. It felt like flying.
That was who she was as she walked home from school that day—flawed, happy, smart enough to know that intelligence wasn’t everything—and who she was when she chose to turn off the road in favor of a path through a quiet park. No other students walked here, but there was birdsong in the air, sunshine in the sky. She felt no concern, was utterly confident of her safety, and excited.
* * *
SAHARA sat up in bed as the memory dissolved, leaving her with a single luminous piece of knowledge that tore apart her earlier doubts about her mental health. Her and Kaleb’s relationship might be a thing of darkness, but it hadn’t come into being because she was sick and damaged and struggling to survive.
She had met Kaleb before. A long time ago.
Every year on her birthday, he’d waited for her in a hidden curve of that pathway, and . . .
Her eyes went wide. Pushing off the blankets, she went to the right side of the bed, lifted up the mattress, and pulled out the small treasure she’d concealed there out of habit, she’d been protecting it for so long. She’d gone so psychotic when a guard tried to take it from her as a punishment that he’d been fired—because Sahara’s hysteria had left her useless to her captors for days.
She’d still been cooperating to a certain point at that stage, in the hope that she could lull them into a false sense of security. That plan had failed, but after the mania of her reaction, no one had ever again tried to take her treasure from her, even during the worst punishments—as if they were afraid of fatally breaking her. Still, she’d stopped wearing it, hiding it in knots she created in her clothing.
Now, it glittered in the lamplight, a charm bracelet of shining platinum.
“Thirteen,” she whispered and touched the key she knew was meant to represent the endless choices open to her.
“Fourteen.” An open book. That was the year her ability for languages had become apparent, French as easy for her to understand and use as Cantonese and Hungarian—as long as she was taught by a fluent speaker of the language, rather than using computronic aids. Intrigued teachers had theorized she had some type of unheard-of psychic ability that allowed her to unconsciously absorb languages from those around her, never realizing how close they skated to the perilous truth.
“Fifteen.” A tiny globe that represented her dream of seeing the world.
“Sixteen.” She touched wondering fingers to the dancer who leaped into the void with abandon, her arms raised above her head, pure joy in her expression.
Four, only four.
All from the man who now held her captive.
She sat on the edge of the bed, the bright metal warm in her palm, the charms of exquisite workmanship. It was the kind of gift that could be taken in many ways, the majority of them troubling, given Kaleb’s connection to Santano Enrique, as well as the six-year age gap between Kaleb and Sahara. It mattered nothing now that they were both adults, but at the start, Kaleb would’ve been nineteen to her thirteen.
Except . . . for her the bracelet was associated with hope and a rare, incandescent joy. There was no hint of a taint, none of the ugliness that might mean Kaleb had been grooming her as a future victim.
Even the idea made her stomach revolt, as if she’d done a terrible insult to something indescribably precious.
Kaleb would never hurt me.
Closing her fingers over the lovely present given to her by a familiar stranger wreathed in shadows, Sahara realized she had a choice to make: to trust in the emotions engendered by this bracelet—a bracelet she’d guarded and treasured for seven long, agonizingly lonely years, or to listen to the coldly rational part of her that reminded her Kaleb had walked hand in hand with a murderous monster since childhood.
* * *
I N spite of the late hour, he was working at his desk, his dark hair pristine, his steel gray shirt unwrinkled in the slightly yellow-tinged light from the table lamp that provided the only illumination in the room. Looking up when she came in, the roiling darkness she’d glimpsed in the bedroom yet visible in his eyes, he said, “Yes?”