What’s a girl to do while everyone else parties in the City of the Gods?
Every picture on my social media timeline was perfect. My former friends glowed in the dim lighting of the club. They held glasses of illegal wine, their Marks shining bright blue on the backs of their hands. Three chubby horseshoe Omega symbols for the Greek gods. Two stylized wolf heads for the Romans. Two Egyptian ankhs. And, surprisingly, a triquetra—three almond shapes overlapping in a triangle—for the Norse gods.
Above those irritatingly lovely Marks, their faces were smiling and laughing and happy. And behind them, the Unmarked, one or two guys from the suburbs, grinning like idiots.
My stomach dropped as I scrolled. ‘Wine’s delicious tonight!’ ‘So good to see old friends!’ ‘#MarkedLife!’
I could’ve been there. Should’ve been there. The unfairness made me gag. They weren’t smarter or more talented or better than anyone stuck in the outskirts of the city. The gods didn’t take intelligence or attitude into account when they Chose.
It was all luck.
Picture after picture of perfectly white teeth and perfectly clear skin (if I had magic, my pimples would be ancient history, too). All the most popular girls and guys. Their lives effortlessly awesome. Not a care in the world. A #magic life full of #blessings.
With a grimace, I tossed my phone aside as Mom stepped out of her walk-in closet. Doomscrolling wouldn’t improve the situation. Wouldn’t fill the years-old emptiness in my chest or make her agree to let me go.
Why them? Even worse, why not me?
I crossed my arms and glared at Mom through her vanity’s mirror. “All my friends are there. I haven’t seen them in ages. Not since they were Marked. Since they abandoned me in suburbia.”
“We’ve been over this, Rhiannon.” Her tone was patient as she waved me over, holding her date-night blue dress together at the nape of her neck.
I pulled the dress’s zipper up the last few inches. Black hair fell in sculpted waves to Mom’s shoulders. Her warm, olive-toned skin was smooth and even, though she hadn’t put on make-up yet. More unfairness. How’d I end up all pale and freckly? I flopped back onto the gray and yellow comforter in protest.
“They’re not your only friends,” she added. “Most of your class stayed here.”
“Yeah, to rot in the suburbs, stuck with Unmarked jobs. Teachers and firemen and retail, woohoo.”
Mom huffed through her nose as she sat. It wasn’t my first time making this argument. “It’s not as bad as all that. We have a perfectly good life here. It’s where we belong. You don’t need magic to be successful.”
Unless I wanted to be an engineer or a doctor. Anything to do with magic. Anything interesting.
Mom continued, clearly unable to read my mind. “Besides, sixteen-year-olds don’t belong in the Tower of Dionysus. He’s the god of wine and revelry. You’re underage, remember?”
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from snapping. There was still hope. “You’re missing the ‘revelry’ part. It’s not all about wine.”
An answering eyeroll meant I struck out. New tactic. Logic. “You’re always telling me I need to learn more about the gods. Dionysus may be the god of wine, but he’s still a god. Besides, they check IDs at the door. Underage people get massive X’s on their hands.” I avoided looking at my phone and the evidence that policy was being ignored. “There won’t be any drinking. We’ll hang out and learn more about him. Maybe the whole Greek pantheon.”
Mom shot me an unimpressed look. From across the room, her altar’s reflected light made her skin glisten. Though it wasn’t much of an altar. No central deity, only a circle of candles. “I meant you should visit the temples. Actually read the texts. The gods are to be respected. Feared, even. Not used as an excuse to drink with people you haven’t seen in years. It’s not happening.”
Her shoulders were tense as she split her hair into three chunks and began to weave them together. Despite my frustration, I moved to help. She didn’t need it, but it gave me something to focus on beyond the ache of jealousy in my too-tense jaw. Mom’s hands dropped, and I kept the pattern going. Over, under, in between. Familiar motions Mom taught me when I couldn’t stop fidgeting.
Tonight’s hangout could finally save me. Undo some of the social damage of being Unmarked, at least. “It’s not like we’re going to the Venus Rooms. It’s one night of listening to music and talking.”
My hands tripped over each other, forcing me to re-braid a section. Mom’s expression remained perfectly neutral. Her gentle ‘no’ face.
“The only reason you won’t let me is so you can go out with Nikolas and have a free babysitter.” The braid loosened and turned into a bumpy mess in my hands.
Mom reached for the plait as her unlined face fell, pulling it tight and smooth against the back of her head in seconds. “If that’s how you feel, Rhi, I won’t go tonight. You don’t need to watch your brother.”
“He’s not my brother.”
Mom flinched like she’d been hit. Guilt twisted in my chest. Still, her voice was frustratingly even as she wrapped a hair tie around the end of the now-perfect braid. “I know things have been hard on you since Lucas and Nikolas moved in. I never meant to treat you like your brother’s keeper.”
My stomach writhed into a tight knot. Lucas was alright, for a kid. And Nikolas was a good guy. He cracked terrible jokes, watched way too much tv, and constantly hounded me to spend time with him. But he meant well. He made Mom smile.
I glared at the familiar, bright yellow flowers on Mom’s nightstand that were always in bloom, no matter the season. “I know you don’t mean to.”
“And that’s not why I’m saying no.”
“I know.” I swallowed the frustrated lump in my throat. It was one night. One night of feeling special. “I wanted—I hoped I could see my friends.”
Mom turned to face me. “Honey, those kids aren’t your friends anymore. They left school. They haven’t talked to you in years. As soon as they were Marked, they became strangers. Are those the sort of people you want in your life?”
When they had the power of the gods, escaped to the best city on the planet, and studied magic at the Temenos Schole, of course I did. “Not all of them are terrible. Cass will be there.”
Mom bit her lips together around a hidden grin that always showed up when we talked about Cass. “Oh, is that why you’re so interested?”
I sat on the edge of the bed, cheeks burning. My fingers found the loose thread in the comforter that had been there since I was three. “No. Of course not. I mean, she’s my best friend. I see her all the time. It’s not like—like it’s anything special for us to hang out.”
“Of course not,” Mom said with an air of indulgence that made me squirm. “Nothing special about that at all.”
I opened my mouth to protest when an ear-shattering boom shook the ceiling. Mom twitched, knuckles turning white around a makeup brush she clutched like a weapon.
“Relax. It’s just Lucas. Probably blowing up the Faithless with hand grenades or machine guns or something. He always turns the volume up too high.”
Mom’s nostrils flared, and her spine straightened. “I wish Nikolas hadn’t bought that game for him. It’s not right.”
“It’s just a game, Mom. It’s not like he’s signing up for the Crusades. He’s blowing off steam before his Selection Ceremony next week.”
“Right. I forget that’s coming up.” She shook her head, though her tense posture lingered. “Well, I’ll call Nikolas and let him know date night’s off. We’ll order pizza and force the boys to binge watch chick flicks with us. There’s got to be some new rom-com we can torture them with.”
It would only be right for her to suffer for ruining my night. And my social life for the rest of eternity. No Tower of Dionysus. No first sip of wine. No reestablishing friendships with people who mattered.
But as fun as torturing the boys would be, Mom shouldn’t have to cancel. My stomach still ached from my dumb comment about Lucas.
I slumped. When I looked Mom’s way again, the muscle in her cheek was twitching against another smile. She’d won. And she knew it.
“You owe me,” I said firmly. “And I mean, like, really owe me. Not shopping-center-in-the-burbs owe me.”
Mom tried to be serious, but her warm brown eyes were too bright, giving her away. “Bartering? Really?”
“We’re talking something expensive. Sweet-sixteen levels of special.”
Mom cleared her throat with a sound suspiciously like a laugh. “That’s quite the gift for a single night of staying home with Lucas.”
“Wayland the Smith’s shop.”
Mom’s eyebrows raised. Got her. “Seriously?”
Without flinching, I nodded. It was a blacksmith’s shop in ancient whenever-the-Hel when people needed battle axes. Now, it was the finest handmade goods shop in Pantheon. They sold everything. Jewelry, furniture, status symbols of all sorts. Even weapons, though mostly to hang on rich people’s walls. They might even have something to lessen the sting of an unbearably dull future. “Wayland’s shop or it’s no deal.”
“You drive a hard bargain.”
She wouldn’t turn me down now. “Is it a deal?”
Mom sighed. “Well, I guess I owe you something special for your sixteenth birthday. But don’t think you’re getting away with this every time. And there will be a budget. I’m not made of money, Rhiannon.”
“Thanks! This will totally make the death of my social life worth it.” It wouldn’t, but it settled the argument for now and didn’t leave me empty handed. I jumped off the bed before she could change her mind.
Mom shook her head. “I miss the days when I could bribe you with shiny, cheap things. Or chocolate. You used to do anything for decent chocolate.”
With a half grin, half grimace, I headed for the door. “Just be glad I let you off the hook so easy.”
I’d remain a social pariah, but at least I’d get something out of the deal.
An hour later, Mom and Nikolas gone for the night, I stared at the twenty Mom’d left for dinner. Pizza might not fill the hole in my soul from being Unmarked, but it’d stop my stomach growling. Sighing, I grabbed the cash and headed upstairs. “Twerp!”
The rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire and a low rumble shook Lucas’s door.
“Twerp! It’s pizza time!”
I knocked. No answer. Grunting, I shoved the door open, battling a mountain of dirty clothes that may as well have been a lock.
The small room reeked of stale Doritos and gym socks. The bed was a mess of grey sheets and a navy comforter that nearly vanished against the dark blue wall. Shoes littered the floor, one of his sneakers lodged halfway under the door. I kicked it out. “Gods, this is disgusting.”
My little brother sat at his desk, a headset with a mic plopped on top of his head. His computer was lit up with the sights and sounds of battle, magic and bullets flying toward a faceless enemy. Blood spattered the screen. The Faithless were winning.
Lucas shook his controller violently. “Dude! You have to shoot with the heavy machine gun, not the regular one! Do you want to end up dead? This is how you end up dead!” His voice cracked. Frustration or puberty, who knew?
No response. Something exploded onscreen, leaving behind a weird purple haze.
“What are you doing? They crashed our base! In the name of Hades, dude, come on!”
I picked my way across a floor scattered with dirty plates, crumpled paper, and, for some reason, a spatula, to rip the headset off his head. “Lucas. Pizza. What do you want?”
Lucas glared at me with all the indignation a thirteen-year-old could muster. “Hey, give that back!”
“I’m ordering pizza, idiot. Tell me what you want, or I’ll get anchovies.”
Lucas snatched the headset out of my hands. “I don’t care what’s on the freaking pizza, just leave me the Hel alone. I’ve got to practice for when I’m Marked!”
I stared at him incredulously. “You’re practicing for when you’re Marked by playing a video game.”
“Obviously.” Lucas reached for the computer mouse, but I blocked him.
“What exactly are you practicing?”
Lucas turned slowly. His eyes narrowed. The spy-movie-villain vibes were a lot stronger than he probably intended. “I’ll be Chosen on Monday by Ares. He’ll only take kids who know strategy.”
“So you’re rehearsing your machine gun and spell skills in Crusades 2: The Crusadening.”
His nose wrinkled. “That’s not what it’s called.”
I snorted. “It’s a game. There’s a cannon that shoots smaller cannons. It won’t change whether or not you’re Chosen. It’s luck. Same as it was for me.”
He pushed my arm out of the way to grab the mouse. “No. I won’t be like you. Or your mom. Ares will Choose me, you’ll see. I’m not getting stuck in the middle of nowhere for the rest of my life like some loser.”
On a normal day, I could’ve let the comment go. But it stung. Salt in a years-old wound. “You seriously think the god of war will Choose you because you beat some idiots in an online video game?”
Lucas jutted out his chin. “Why not? It’s more than you did for your Ceremony.”
My jaw twitched. “You have no idea what my Ceremony was like. Mom didn’t even know Nikolas then. And I’m not dumb. Your dad doesn’t have a Mark, either. That’s why he’s out here with the rest of us ‘losers’.”
Lucas launched out of the chair. “Shut up!”
I leaned into his space, and he flinched. He was still a good six inches shorter than me. “Why should I? It’s genetic, dumbass. Mom doesn’t have a Mark and neither do I. Your dad doesn’t have a Mark. Guess what that means for you? In a year, you’ll still be here, at the same boring school with the same useless friends playing the same pointless games. Another loser stuck in the ‘burbs. Facing the same future as the rest of us.”
Lucas shoved me toward the door. I nearly tripped over a stray pair of shorts. “You’re just jealous! I’m gonna get to learn from the god of war and you’ll never be anything important in your entire life!”
The yawning emptiness in my chest gaped a little wider. The last of my patience snapped like the spatula beneath my heel as I kicked my way to the hall.
When I pivoted toward Lucas, the screen behind him was bright red. “Oh, yeah, because the Greek god of war desperately wants a sniveling little kid who can’t even win a video game. I bet he’s dying to get you on board. Master of strategy, that’s you. Maybe I’m not Chosen, but at least I’m not delusional.”
Lucas glanced over his shoulder and deflated. His bottom lip trembled. It wasn’t the anger I expected. Instead, his eyes shined. “I hate you!” he screamed with a cracked voice.
The door slammed in my face.
My rage crumbled as I leaned against the wall. I wasn’t wrong. His dad wasn’t Chosen, so he wouldn’t be. It almost never happened any other way.
But it wasn’t fair to put that on him. He was just a kid desperately hoping to be special. I’d wanted the same thing. Still did. Why crush his dreams when the gods would do it for him in a few days?
Ugh. The last thing I needed was an attack of conscience.
I clomped downstairs to grab my phone and ordered his favorite. Pepperoni pizza with olives. Gross. I even threw in one of those lava cake things. It’d cost more than Mom left, but I could cover it. I owed it to him. Brat.
Thirty minutes later, pizza in hand, I headed back upstairs. The game’s music was loud enough to vibrate the floor, but there weren’t any explosions. They must’ve lost. Again. “Lucas?”
No answer. Not exactly a surprise.
“I know I said some crappy things, okay? I was being an ass. You didn’t deserve that. For all I know, Ares does want a twerp like you.”
Still no answer. With a sigh, I opened the box, hoping to tempt him out with the mouthwatering aroma of greasy cheese. “I ordered your favorite. Pepperoni. Olives. Even though I hate them. There’s chocolate cake downstairs.”
Normally, the promise of chocolate cake would have him bowling over anything between him and it.
“Lucas?” I knocked one more time, then pushed the door open.
The game was frozen on the main menu, music blasting from the speakers. Lucas’s cell lay innocently on top of the keyboard, lit up with a message notification.
His dirty clothes had been shoved into piles to create a walkway. The sneakers that blocked my way earlier were conspicuously missing.
My stomach plummeted, and my grip on the pizza box loosened until it threatened to fall.
A cold wind blew rain through the open window. The room was empty.
Lucas was gone.