After surviving a crash course in espionage at the mysterious Academy Absconditi, November has only one purpose: finding her missing father. Along with fellow student (and heartthrob) Ash, November follows the clues that her father left, embarking on the deadliest treasure hunt of her life. The first clue is in her hometown, where old friends beckon and unexpected enemies lurk around every corner. The second clue is in Europe, where revelations about her family's history will plunge her into an international web of deception, lies, and intrigue. The third clue is deep in enemy territory, surrounded by the most skilled assassins and master strategists, and where everyone wants her and her father dead. Can one girl with limited training infiltrate a centuries-old organization that is powerful enough to topple empires? November only knows that she'll do whatever it takes to save her father . . . or die trying.
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When I was a little kid and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I gave them all sorts of wild answers. I told a teacher I wanted to be a couch potato so I could spend my days snuggled up under blankets in the living room. I told my best friend Emily’s mom I wanted to be a cookie taste-tester because that’s what Emily wanted to be. And I told my dad I wanted to be a knife so I could cut my grilled cheese sandwiches in two perfect triangles instead of the four dinky squares he always prepared. Of course this answer earned me raised eyebrows and an explanation about how a girl is a living, breathing thing that can be cut; and a knife is a sharp piece of steel that does the cutting. But now that I’ve discovered most of my childhood was a lie, I’m starting to think my younger self was onto something with the knife answer. Because in the past few weeks at Academy Absconditi, I’ve come as close to being a knife, or being stabbed by one, as anyone can get.
I shut the door to the infirmary behind me and head down an empty hall that’s lit by torches. I roll my sleeve down over the bandage on my forearm, where the nurse slathered my wound with some kind of strong poultice that smells of pine needles and clay. She kept telling me how lucky I was to have survived the fall from the tree in the courtyard, and with no broken bones. She tsked a lot and said, “You young people take everything for granted.” I doubt she would have used the word lucky, though, if she knew I was thrown from the tree because the Lion Family wanted me dead.
As I turn the corner into another silent hallway, I notice the torches have burned down, leaving the corridor ahead of me almost completely black. I slow to a stop, eyeing the dying embers on one torch suspiciously. Shouldn’t someone have replaced them? And where are the Academy guards? There’s usually one posted in every hallway. I frown, wondering if I should head back to the infirmary, when I hear a faint gurgling noise.
I lean forward, reluctant to step into the unlit hallway, as if the dark might bite me. For a beat all is silent and I wonder if I only imagined the sound. Then a gasping cough breaks the quiet and my adrenaline spikes.
“November!” a strangled voice calls, and everything in me sinks. I recognize that voice.
“Ash?!” I shout, and my previous hesitation disappears; I sprint full-speed into the dark.
My boots click rhythmically against the stone and my breathing accelerates with my pace. I run with my hand along the wall to keep my footing as I chase Ash’s distressed voice.
Ahead of me on the left I can just make out a strip of light—the sliver of space under a closed door—and the choking sounds get louder as I near it. I grasp at the door latch in the dark, throwing my weight against the heavy wood. The hinges whine as it opens and I burst into the room, only to stop again so fast that I almost lose my balance.
My chest heaves as I fight to regain control over my runaway heartbeat. The room is enormous, with stone walls and a high arched ceiling. It’s oddly devoid of furniture—except for the far end, where there are a platform and a large lavish chair that resembles a throne. The walls are hung with fancy portraits and ornate tapestries. But what’s stopped me in my tracks isn’t the architecture or the decor. It’s the dead bodies.
My eyes sweep across the expansive floor and my hand flies to my mouth to keep from crying out. Most are people I’ve never seen, a sea of unknown faces, their features contorted in pain in their last moments. But then I spot him at the far end of the room: Ash, clawing at his throat as his mouth foams. Lying next to him is Layla, and beside her are Ines, Aarya, and Matteo. They’re splayed out, unmoving, their backs arched, bloody marks scratched across their throats. And standing in front of them all with his back to me is a tall man with silver hair. He starts to laugh, long and loud.
“Nonono . . . ,” I sputter in one fast breath, my pulse battering my temples as I frantically weave around bodies, panic fumbling my footing.
Layla’s delicate hand is still clutching at her throat as if she’s fighting to get air, but her eyes are closed and she’s perfectly still. A cry escapes my lips and I trip over someone’s arm, my hands skidding on the cold stone floor. I immediately right myself. Ash’s desperate eyes meet mine and he chokes again, reaching out for me.
The man with the silver hair looks down at Ash as he struggles.
“What did you do to them?” I shriek, my words fighting their way past the lump in my throat.
He bends down toward Ash, a small blue bottle in his hand. Poison, I think, and I yell for him to stop, but my words don’t come out right, twisting into a sob.
“You mean, what did we do, November,” the old man says without turning around. His voice is like the purr of a big cat.
He holds the bottle to Ash’s mouth, but Ash isn’t looking at him. He’s staring at my hand in horror. I follow his gaze, and there in my palm is a small matching blue bottle.
The old man pours the liquid from his bottle into Ash’s mouth and I scream.
I shoot straight up, my arms flying out to steady myself, and I end up grabbing a handful of gray velvet cushion. The end of a scream escapes my lips, muted and unsure.
Ash grips my shoulders, steadying me.
“I didn’t—” I say, and stop short, disoriented and tense, my heart still racing like I was running in that room.
“Look around you, November. Breathe,” Ash says calmly, and I cling to his voice.
I do a fast scan of my surroundings to find a lit fireplace, a breakfast table by the window, maroon blackout curtains, and Ash—alive and sitting next to me on the couch in the common room I share with Layla. Everything looks normal, but the feeling of dread is still there. And even though I’m not sure how, the one thing I know—the one thing I’m certain of—is that whatever happened in that dream was my fault.
“You were . . . ,” I start, my tone unsettled, my voice shaky. “And it was my . . .” But I trail off there, not able to put words to the awfulness I just witnessed. It felt so real, so very real.
Ash gives me a sympathetic look, like he knows all too well the type of thing I might be dreaming about. I take a breath, my shoulders dropping an inch. It was a nightmare. Just a nightmare. No one is dead, I reassure myself, but my unease lingers like a bad taste.
“I don’t remember falling asleep,” I say, and rub at my face, only to discover that I’m sweating.
Ash studies me, letting go of my shoulders but remaining close. His straight black hair falls perfectly around his temples and his eyes are insistent under his long eyelashes. Even though he’s got his fair share of cuts and bruises from being attacked yesterday, he looks more poised and elegant than I do on my best days. The longer I look at him, the guiltier I feel. Maybe the dream wasn’t real, but what is real is that Ash and I narrowly escaped with our lives—and it was all because of me.
“I was reluctant to wake you, or I would have moved you over to your bed,” he says, but he doesn’t ask me about my nightmare. Strangely enough, I get the sense that he doesn’t want to pry. I’ve come to understand why Strategia guard their Family secrets, but the way they guard themselves and their emotions is something I’m still not used to. If my best friend, Emily, had seen me wake up in a panic like I did just now, she would not only have insisted I tell her every detail, but would have analyzed the dream with me until the meaning was nothing more than the prediction of a bad hair day.
I glance at Layla’s closed bedroom door.
“She went to bed an hour ago,” Ash says in response to my unasked question.
I look back at him, taking in his concerned expression. “But you stayed,” I say, relieved that he did. Despite our rocky start when I first came to Academy Absconditi and all the suspicion between us, I’ve grown to truly rely on Ash.
“I was lost in thought,” he replies with a small smile, and while I’m sure it’s true, I’m also certain it’s not the only reason he’s next to me on my couch late at night. If he were any other guy and I hadn’t just had the most gruesome nightmare of my life, I would tease him about how much he obviously wanted to be near me. But knowing Ash, he had a less romantic reason, such as trying to ensure no one stabbed me while I slept.
“Lost in thought about what?” I ask.
“I was just thinking that we can’t be sure who knows about your father,” Ash says, directing the conversation right back to my family’s conflict and squashing the small amount of comfort I was starting to feel, which I suppose I should be used to by now—comfort isn’t an Academy trademark. This school is more about survival than academics, more about carefully planned alliances than friendships, attributes I learned the hard way when I discovered that the most powerful Strategia Family had a vendetta against my dad. And it turns out several of the kids—as well as a professor who happened to be my dad’s brother—were prepared to kill me to show their allegiance to that Family. “Obviously Dr. Conner knew something,” Ash continues, “but what about the Lion Family in general? I think we have to assume they are hunting your family for a specific reason, one we will need to uncover if we have any hope of finding your father.”