✨ Chapter 11 ✨

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"Ahem."

Marian and Endrik flinched without letting go.

Dark eyes stared down at them. Sal tugged at her braid. Her foot tapping flattened the grass beneath her. "I was beginning to think you'd never notice me." She lifted her nose to the sky and looked away.

Marian gently tried to pull her hand from Endrik's grip, but he, just as gently, resisted. When he finally let go, he draped an arm around her. "I was trying to understand why Marian still seems tired," he said. "The call must have wiped her out."

"Oh, is that all?" Sal frowned. "Maybe she'd be refreshed if she hadn't been out late in the night—or, rather, early this morning. Or won't she tell you about that either?"

Endrik cast a severe glance in Marian's direction.

"We hadn't gotten to that topic," said Marian, avoiding his eyes.

"Why not?" Sal's cheeks pinched. "Were you too distracted?"

Marian shrugged free from Endrik's arm and stood so she was looking down at Sal. "Why can't you be happy for us? I'm not going to act coy and admire him from afar when he's right here," she said, pointing. "It's not fair to him, and I shouldn't have to ruin something amazing because you decided it wasn't best for our project."

"You asked her to do that, Sal?" The edge to his voice was a mixture of hurt and bewilderment.

Right as Marian was about to smile at Endrik's reaction—his confirmation of her perspective—he turned on her. "And you're keeping information from us that could affect your health?" He rose from the bench and joined the circle of tension. "We need you for this project, Mari. If you're not well, we all fail."

Sal harrumphed in agreement.

Marian stared at the boy whom, moments ago, she'd defended and chosen over the wishes of her best friend. She shook her head and backed away. The promise she'd made to Minx lay heavily on her chest. A promise to a ward. An unbreakable promise.

She spoke through clenched teeth, "You know what? Why don't you two find your own wards and experience the call? See what it feels like." She let her tears fall freely, not bothering to wipe them away. Not caring that they saw the hurt they'd caused. "Why does the assignment have to be focused on me?" she choked out, before turning to walk away.

***

Marian's hands shook. She fumbled while hand-drying the dishes her younger brother washed and laid out to drain.

When the drying towel slipped through her fingers a second time, he gave her a sideward glance. "I don't know whether I should dry these myself or ask you to start a load of laundry."

Sighing, Marian pulled the towel from the floor and flung it at a laundry basket in the adjoining room. She turned to the sink to find him crossing his arms. A fresh towel hung from his fist.

Marian suppressed a groan and opened her hand.

"No way," he said, pulling the towel out of her reach. At fifteen years old, he was two years younger than Marian, but he'd already grown a head taller than her. His violet-blue eyes challenged hers.

"Blaine, give me the towel."

"Nope." He flipped dark hair out of his eyes and stretched upward, feigning a yawn. "Don't you have homework to do?"

Marian's face crumpled. "I don't want to think about that right now."

Blaine tossed the towel at her and frowned. "You get one more chance, but only if you tell me what's wrong."

She reached for a dish. "Like I said, I don't want to talk about it."

"Don't want to talk about what?" called out a voice.

Marian and Blaine turned as Mrs. Spritz approached, peering over armfuls of groceries. "Ah, thank you for cleaning up in time for me to start dinner." She set the bags down. "What don't you want to talk about?"

"Her homework, apparently," Blaine volunteered, rolling his eyes. "That's what happens when you have to make up work you didn't complete during the regular session. Instead of helping Mom and Dad with chores all day, you get to do things like go to the park and practice Glistening."

Mrs. Spritz shot him a look of warning.

"It's not that," said Marian. Resolved to keep Minx's secret, she decided she should tell her family something. "It's the Last Chance project. I don't care so much about me. Sal absolutely cannot fail. She should have passed her core courses. The only reason she's in the summer session is because she was too tired from helping Mrs. Minikin and Maz take care of her younger brothers during the regular school year."

Blaine frowned. "We would miss you too, Mari." His cheeks pinked as an afterthought, that of a teen boy admitting to caring for his sister.

"Yeah, but you could get by. Her brothers—they can't. They're not like you. You're...stronger."

His eyes bugged out before looking away and returning his attention to the dishes.

"Your father and I suspect Mr. Minikin didn't leave on purpose," Mrs. Spritz said. "We don't think he was an embarrassment to the Glisten community or to his family. We think he was hunted."

Marian's mouth dropped open. "By a rabbit? Because he wasn't commissioned as a Glisten?"

Mrs. Spritz frowned. "A failed Glisten is considered weaker, easier prey."

No wonder Sal's so worried about failing, Marian thought. We're best friends, but it must bother her deeply if she hasn't mentioned all this to me. I wonder if she knows what really happened. She thought of how prickly Sal became about Maz's attention to Prillene, and also Endrik's attention to her. Without Maz, Endrik, and me, she'd feel more alone.

Marian sighed, torn between telling Sal andEndrik about her ward and keeping her promise to Minx.

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