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By Shaila Patel
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They're calling this a test?
Not even a ping grazed my mind as the five Elders tried to slip past my mental blocks and into my emotions. A sheen of sweat over William's lip proved he wasn't faring as well. Of all the cousins now come of age, William and I were the last to be sitting before the Elders. I'd have felt guilty for his not doing so well had he ever shown an interest in leading the family. But, we all knew he'd rather have his head in a library. Now his heart was with his wife Colleen. He at least seemed to have a choice about his fate.
I sighed. Not so for me.
"Are we boring you, Prince Liam?" I snapped my eyes up to Elder Adebayo. He wore his trademark bow tie with a traditional fila atop his head. In the fraction of a second it took me to untangle the meaning from his heavy Nigerian accent, I'd blanked my expression and sat upright. The Elders sat along one side of an antique conference table, facing William and myself. The manor staff had rearranged the study to hold both the testing and signing-over ceremonies. Gone were the leather club chairs and stained glass lamps normally dotting the large space, giving it the air of a posh library. Now it seemed more an election-night headquarters, like the sort you saw on the telly, with bright lights and a gathering of family strewn about, waiting for the results. A photographer hung about in one corner, camera in hand. Not far from him stood a team of solicitors guarding rolling briefcases that were no doubt stuffed with legal documents for the victor to sign.
My throat-clearing echoed in the now silent room, and my cheeks warmed. "No, sir, not at all. Although, uh ... I'd like to know when it is you'll begin with me." I pasted on an oh-so-innocent smirk and watched William shake his head and smother a grin. I shrugged at him, hoping to lighten the mood.
Four of the Elders cocked an eyebrow — all except for Elder Claire Brennan, our lone Irish representative. She leaned ever so slightly forward from where she sat at the center of the group.
So much for having a bit of craic.
The familiar knocking on my brain — like the distant sound of drums — told me someone had got past my first line of defenses with their probe. The rest of my mental blocks held up though. The corner of Brennan's lip stretched upward. Toying with me, was she? I leaned back with a matching smile and loosened my tie. Mum and I were the only ones in the family who'd mastered the skill of probing and manipulation. A handy skill that, especially when the burden of the entire clan's financial success might well be resting on my shoulders.
As if sensing the end of the ritual, Mum whispered to the house staff and pointed toward the main doors, directing them to begin preparations, most likely. She turned and nearly ran into a Mediterranean-looking man with a grotesque mole on his left cheek. He wasn't a relation or a solicitor, so I assumed he was a council minister. Their stances were stiff, and despite being too far for me to hear, Mum's replies seemed short and clipped. He moved around her, and on his way out, his eyes met mine. He lifted his lips in a smirk.
My attention darted to Mum. She was smoothing out the front of her dress, and her shoulders heaved a time or two before she turned back to face the room. I mentally sent her my curiosity, but she ignored me with a smile. She did at least send me her love before she weaved herself into the crowd.
Within a few minutes, Elder Brennan squared her shoulders and opened the portfolio in front of her. The rest of the Elders relaxed back in their seats and passed her folded slips of paper.
Jaysus Christ. Thank you. This bleedin' muck-up was about done.
After tallying the results, she stood with the help of a finely carved cane. Rumors about her age had always been entertaining — the last one I'd heard was that Claire Brennan was well over 140 years old. Apparently, documents as to her history had disappeared. Her regal manner and piercing blue eyes — the sort that'd make a gutless gobshite piss his pants — set her apart from the rest of the Elders. She now set those sights on me.
"Prince Liam, please stand. It is our unanimous decision that the Royal Empath House of O'Connor will now be led by you, Prince Liam Joseph O'Connor-Whelan, on this day, the sixth of June, in the year 2015." Flashes from the camera punctuated every other word, and spots began to form in front of my eyes. "You have proven your worth to lead your clan by exhibiting the strength of your empath skills to the satisfaction of the presiding group and by extension, the Council of Ministers."
Brennan rattled on about allegiances and legal mandates, all of which bore down on me like the weight of history, dry and inescapable, yet ... a bit liberating. Now we could stop our search and stay in Ireland — better of two evils and all that. I could make that happen now.
An explosion of clapping hands, and thumps on my back from a relieved-looking William, forced me to plaster a smile on my face.
Mum hurried over with open arms. "Darling! We're so happy for you." Da and my older brother Ciarán, a nonempath, followed, both decked out in a suit and tie. After her hug and kiss and Da's pat on my back, they congratulated William on his effort and made room for the Elders to come around with their well-wishing. Ciarán smirked and punched my shoulder. The strobe-light effect of the flashes had me squinting.
Elder Santiago from Spain shook my hand. He sported a thick mustache and proudly wore his Catalonian flag pin on his lapel. He'd been wooing our clan for support in Catalonia's bid for secession from Spain. Ciarán had thought it a good cause to be getting behind — especially if we beat another royal clan from doing so first. We had several holdings in Barcelona, after all. Now that it was my call to be making, a hasty decision didn't seem wise. Santiago always had the look about him of a tapas dish drowning in olive oil.
He sidled closer. "Your strength is most impressive. And at the age of eighteen too. It is not hard to believe you will be the next soulmated empath, in truth. Some have doubts though, eh?"
He wants to discuss this now?
Da pointed to his own temple, stabbing at an unruly black curl. "No need for doubts. If I've seen it, it's as good as true."
I resisted rolling my eyes. Admitting I had my own doubts about Da's visions wouldn't be wise. "Time will tell, yeah?" No point kissing Elder arse.
The other Elders came one by one, congratulating me and posing for photos. Brennan was last. The crowd dispersed enough to give us a bubble of privacy. She tipped her head back and studied my face.
Without being able to read her blocked emotions, her body language was all I had to go on. A smile like before tugged at her lips.
I leaned in. "So were you toying with me earlier?" My bold question would either be living up to the liberties given to the heads of the four remaining Irish royal houses, or it'd be taken as the yipping of a whelp learning to growl. I hoped for the former and straightened up just in case.
"The test need only be as strong as the weakest candidate." She curved her gloved hand around the crook of my elbow and turned me to face the patio. "Come now. Walk me outside."
Leading an Elder outside for a private conversation wasn't as nerve-racking as I'd thought. With her hand resting on my arm, she exuded an unexpected grandmotherly warmth. The stone patio ran the length of the building on this side of our manor home. It overlooked the meadows of our property — now mine — and with the cloudless days we'd had of late, the scent of heated earth surrounded us. I inhaled deeply. Definitely better here than returning to the States.
The few who lingered outside turned and meandered back to the study once they spotted us. Elder Brennan patted my arm, then released it, flattening her palms upon the balustrade, her ever-present white gloves in sharp contrast to the weathered stone.
Her gaze floated over the view. "It seems you are to have a very interesting future ahead of you."
Her features relaxed with another one of her enigmatic smiles. "When will you be returning to America?"
"I'm thinking to stay here," I said.
A disapproving frown appeared, and she tapped a sole finger on the stone.
How the hell was this any of her bloody business? I forced my expression to remain neutral and unclenched the hands I'd not realized I'd fisted. If only Da had kept his mouth shut over the years.
"Choices are a funny thing, Prince Liam. We often treat them as black and white, but rarely are they."
I pocketed my hands. What was I meant to say? Yes, Zen Master Brennan.
A breeze picked up and coaxed a few strands of her silver hair across her cheek. She tilted her face into the wind and closed her eyes. "You should return to your search." She turned and pinned me with a stare.
"What? Why? Are you trying to boot me from Ireland? Away from the estate? Is something happening you're hiding from me?"
She held up her hand. "The demesne will be in capable hands. Go now. Enjoy your celebration. Congratulations and happy eighteenth birthday." With a nod, she summoned two of her gendarmes, who came to her side and escorted her down the patio.
Mum must have been watching because she rushed outside. "What did she want?" Her concerned gaze scanned my face as if to get a read on my emotions, but as usual, I had them blocked.
I rolled my shoulders and took a breath. "She wants us to go back to the States."
Her mouth opened and closed.
I knew that look. "Just say it, Mum."
"Your father had another vision during the night."
I snorted. "Where now? Alaska?"
"Liam, you used to believe —"
"Do you think we'll be seeing some actual igloos? We could even go to the North Pole and watch the ice cap melt —"
"What harm could one more year —?"
"Have you tried whale blubber, Mum? I hear it's a right treat."
An elderly couple came out onto the patio. With a huff, Mum crossed her arms and broadcast her emotions as clearly as any mother's scowl would convey. Waves of her irritation registered in my mind like seaweed washing in and wrapping around my toes. I moved a few steps away and leaned over the balustrade, resting my forearms on the sunbaked stone. A good fifty yards out, a hare popped up to scan its surroundings and then chased a second one into the shrubbery.
After a few moments, Mum joined me. "We know this isn't easy, Liam, but we're doing it for you. We've sacrificed so much. Please understand."
I ground my back teeth and straightened. So much for making it happen my way. "Fine. One more year."
I stormed back into the study so the signing could begin, passing by several girls in long glittering dresses, tittering behind their fingers. No doubt my pain-in-the-arse brother had arranged for them to be here.
If the Elders knew about our search, so did the rest of the empath community. Speculation would be flowing like whiskey tonight, but it didn't change the fact we'd not be finding our target in Ireland.CHAPTER 2
The longer I stared at the words, the faster my ability to read left me. With my mom and Mrs. Beacham staring at me, I was in the Indian-American version of hell.
I slid the Wake County Public High School Planning Guide back to the guidance counselor, a rush of air escaping my lips. School started on Monday, and Mrs. Beacham's desk was as clutter-free as I'd ever seen it. Her letter trays didn't look like our pot-bellied principal yet, and a green ficus tree, still sporting a dangling how-to-care-for-me label, had replaced the wilted brown one from the end of my sophomore year. With the halls devoid of students, the only sound came from the generic school clock ticking away. There wasn't even a window I could make a visual escape through.
I clenched my hands together in my lap.
Mrs. Beacham gave me a tight-lipped smile. Mom flicked her long braid over her shoulder and leaned forward in the chair beside me. Her face could've been one of those I Gave You Life and I Can Take It Away memes.
How could this be happening? I blinked back tears.
"If you're set on this course of action, Mrs. Kapadia, Laxshmi will have quite a bit of testing to show curricular competency before next June. But she'll also miss out on the social aspect of having a senior year."
"That is not important." Mom raised her chin. "This is what she needs to do."
"She could still finish out her last two years in high school and apply before her senior year," Mrs. Beacham said. "She seems to want —"
"Laxshmi will do what is expected of her."
Gee. Play the culture card, why don't you?
Mrs. Beacham gave me a what-else-can-I-do look with a tiny shrug.
"What do we need to do to start?" With Mom's accent, all her w's became v's. Most of those sitcom caricatures of Indian people weren't too far off. Was it terrible to think that? Maybe I was too Americanized, just like Mom had always said.
Mrs. Beacham told us about the letter Mom would have to write to declare her intent — one I'd have to draft and type up for her to sign, of course. She could speak English and read it well enough, but having to write anything more complicated than a grocery list was a chore for her. Mrs. Beacham pulled out what had to be the manila folder version of my life from her squeaky filing cabinet and began making a timeline of what I'd have to do to graduate early.
I ducked my head toward Mom and lowered my voice. "I don't want to do this, Mom. Please."
She stared at whatever Mrs. Beacham was writing, acting like I hadn't even uttered a word.
* * *
The air-conditioning in Mom's Camry had stopped working long ago. With the windows open, the wind had been whipping the loose end of the soft fabric headliner against my head — until I slammed my hand up to pin it in place. Mom spared a glance in my direction, but kept humming along with a stupid Bollywood movie tune as if she'd done me the world's biggest favor.
I sighed. "I don't want to miss my senior year. Why can't you understand that?"
"If you don't do this, then you will have to get married."
"God, Mom! What kind of choices are those? I'm only —"
"Choop. Quiet. Be thanking God, hunh? You won't have to worry about money every day like your mummy."
The culture card and now the money card. Lovely.
She hooked a right into our gravel driveway, and I looked past her to see a moving truck two doors down. As we pulled farther in, our house blocked my view. I dashed out and climbed the front porch steps, hoping to spot our new neighbors, but despite the truck, the house looked as abandoned as when it had stood empty all summer. They must be inside. Mom all but pushed me into the house.
She dropped her purse and keys on the dining table.
"Did you make the batata nu shaak?"
"Yeah, but I didn't use all the potatoes." I stomped up the stairs.
"Then come back down and make the rotlis for lunch."
"Can't. Have to finish my summer reading," I called back down with my lie. She mumbled something in Gujarati while I climbed the pull-down stairs to my attic bedroom and yanked them back up like they were a shield protecting me from all evil. My butt hit the carpet hard enough for a shudder to reverberate through the floor and furniture.
Mom's voice echoed in my head. "What good Indian girl would study dance in the college? You will make no money. You are too smart to do dancing." With a flick of a tear, I dragged myself up to my window seat and dropped my head back against one of the bookcases that created my nook.
Four burly movers were unloading the truck on the other side of Mrs. Robertson's house. The faint sound of them hollering instructions at each other reached my ears. From my third-floor perch, the chance our new neighbors would see me spying on them was slim, which I liked just fine.
A man with a mop of curly, salt-and-pepper hair directed the team. Dressed in a blue sweater vest and white T-shirt over gray Bermuda shorts, he kept clapping his hands and rubbing them together. He completed his ensemble with white tube socks and some sort of brown sandals. I smiled for the first time today.
Excerpted from Soulmated by Shaila Patel. Copyright © 2017 Shaila Patel. Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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