Ellie Lindell's house was the only possible place to hold the graduation party. The Lindell family controlled the flow of exotic wines, the kind that let you see the future or change the past. Not all of them were legal, but what was the point of being part of High Society if you couldn't break the rules a little?
Laughter echoed off the bougainvillea-covered walls. Four hundred and sixty-three graduates this year, sorcerers and wizards of standing and renown, almost all of them able to touch their inner soul and use it to fuel their magic. Ember Li knew she didn't fit in, that the party wasn't for her. She was an Earth Witch, a dirt witch, a pig. Lesser, somehow. Able to see her inner fire but unable to touch it. If Grandfather Li hadn't taken care of a messy ghost problem at the Dean's home the summer before her freshman year, she would have gone to a Miami public school and graduated with a classic education in carjacking, drug dealing, and creative linguistic putdowns.
Entry into the upper echelons of Society had forced her to learn the classics from her neighbors living south of Little Havana. In school she'd learned English, math, science, and how to create potions that could change the world. Not that it mattered, she thought as she dipped her toes into the dark pool. Ellie's parents had closed off this wing, something about a bat problem, but Ember found her way through the dark. It was quiet here, and as cool as she could hope for on a balmy May evening in southern Florida.
Fireworks lit up the front lawn, brilliant blues and golds, a sign that the Seer Wines were being brought out. Everyone would sip, peek into the future, try to find some hint of what was to come.
Ember slipped into the pool. She didn't need wine. She was a Li, and seeing the future was simply a matter of finding the path of luck. Her path was splitting right now. It would have been a nightmare for someone else, absolute torture for some, but she knew how to handle splits like this. One path led to working in Grandpa's shop at the mall, peddling second-rate Korean trinkets to tourists. It was a good path. Respectability followed. Life, safety, perhaps even a tempered sort of love that was comfortable and soft as a worn blanket.
She dropped her dress at the poolside and dove into the cool water.
The other path felt like this – swirling warmth around bare skin with the promise of so much more – it was a risky path. Tulane University in New Orleans, a new kind of magic, a hazy future with brilliant colors and many risks. That path led to life too, but a much more vibrant one, something with more ups and downs.
Ember surfaced, the warm heat of the night kissing her skin. She didn't like risks. She liked choices, like walking away from the party and all the people she hated and coming up here to escape. It wasn't proper to leave before the party was over. The Lindells might be insulted, and the Li family which consisted of just Ember and her grandfather wasn't strong enough to withstand a war with the wine-growers. But she could choose to walk away and stay. No one downstairs would miss her.
She dove down again, hands skimming the deep bottom she could only half see, half sense. There was a mosaic hidden down there, hidden by the dark of night and the clouds flitting across the moon. Ember swam for the pool edge and climbed out, water dripping off her black hair as she tried to make out the pattern beneath the waves. What was it? A mermaid? A seahorse? Something swirly.
Lights turned on in the window-lined hall beside the pool. All too aware she was naked and dripping wet, Ember dropped back into the dark water.
Door hinges creaked in protest as the door opened and the words, "- not supposed to be up here," floated across the water.
Ember skimmed under the water, surfacing in the corner nearest the hall where she couldn't be seen from the door.
"Someone came up here," a voice protested. It sounded like David Entrees, youngest son of his family and all around bully. The first day of school he'd started oinking at Ember, he'd oinked when she crossed the stage at graduation too.
"Let's go back to the party. The pool's dirty." That was Ellie's voice. She was going to make someone a wonderful doormat of a wife some day.
Ember shivered. Darius Kendall, bane of her existence, scion of the powerful Kendall family and a top-rank sorcerer even at his young age. He was eighteen and might burn her for fun. Darius was the reason she'd cut her hair the second day of school and burned it for protection against bullies.
"What are you doing up here?"
Her gaze flashed to where her thin summer dress lay crumpled by the poolside. If Ellie saw that... her blood ran cold. There was nothing good that could come of this. Why'd David have to come up here? Why wouldn't they just... Her dress vanished.
She'd been staring at it, and now there was nothing by the pool. Thank all her mindful ancestors.
"My mom's had the pool closed all year because she had a dream about a body floating in it," Ellie said. "If she catches us up here, it'll be my body."
"I'm telling you, someone came down the hall," David insisted.
"Let's go," Darius said. "We don't want to get Ellie in trouble."
Their footsteps retreated and the door creaked shut. Ember waited in the water until the lights were turned off and then swam for the far side of the pool where she'd left her dress. She reached out of the water, patting the ground. It wasn't like it was an expensive dress, just a little cotton thing to throw over her bikini before the party, but going downstairs like this to where her bikini was drying after Trish Myrtle had "accidentally" dropped red velvet cake on her as she headed for the main pool was going to be tricky without a cover up.
A foot appeared in her line of view.
Darius Kendall, regal in black slacks and a button up shirt, bent down and picked up her dress.
Ember backed away, swimming further into the murky darkness. "What do you want?"
"Nothing. I'm giving everyone a present tonight for graduation. This is yours." He dropped her dress back on the ground. For a moment he seemed to be looking for her, but his gaze swept past her. The depths of the pool shimmered with an eerie glow, illuminating the bright mosaic. "It's a seahorse." The light snapped away at the beck and call of the sorcerer. Darius walked away.
When she was certain she was alone, Ember climbed out of the pool and grabbed her dress. The night was warm, and she dried quickly as she sat on the edge of a chair. A half hour later she felt ready to face the horde downstairs again. She shook her dress out and a necklace fell to the ground. Ember picked it up by the chain – a seahorse, a golden seahorse on a golden chain. Darius's gift.
She hung it around her neck, feeling the weight of it; he hadn't given her a cheap trinket. The Kendalls were a wealthy family, but her grandfather sold enough jewelry that she could guess the worth well enough. If he'd wasted this much money on her it was going to be fun to see what he'd bought everyone else.
She hurried down the hall, taking the steps two at a time, and then crept in through the back door past a caterer who gave her a disparaging look. Right, party guests stayed out front, servers in the back, and mixed-race Korean-Jamaican bastard babies weren't supposed to be here at all. Ember smiled hesitantly and stepped face to face with Ellie.
"Li! There you are. Darius was just handing out his presents to us. Well, to the rest of us." She smiled smuggled. "Isn't it divine?" She held up a blue orchid in a plastic pot.
Without even trying Ember could tell the plant was sick, a greenhouse knockoff anyone could buy at the corner store for a twenty. "Lovely."
"And, where's your flower?" Ellie crooned, eyes laughing.
Across the room Darius stilled. His blue eyes bored into her, daring Ember to say something. Daring her to share their secret with the world. But that couldn't happen. Darius was a rising power and if anyone knew what they kept locked behind walls of hate she'd be tied to him, and that path led to death. Hers. His. Everyone’s.
She shrugged. "He didn't give me one."
Snickers circled round the room. Everyone laughed at her as tears stung her eyes.
It was better this way.
She'd leave for Tulane, follow a path dangerous and bright, and maybe one day things would be different. Maybe one day she would be able to look at Darius and not see death. But not today.