(The Aquarathi #1)
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
THE DEEP CAN BE DEADLY…BUT LOVE CAN BE DEADLIER
Nerissa Marin is far from home. Though she lives an anonymous life on land during her cycle of human study, she is Aquarathi royalty by birth—and the future monarch of a hidden, undersea kingdom. But when her father is murdered, the human world becomes her only refuge.
Adrift and indifferent, Riss indulges her every whim, including her feelings for the new surf king of Dover Prep, Lokeane Seavon. But as the day she comes of age looms closer, old enemies appear and challenges are issued: If she forsakes her throne, her people will suffer for it.
To win her crown, she must become the queen she was born to be.
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“So my best friend is an alien sea princess,” Jenna says after a beat, “who transforms into human form but can’t go back home just yet.” I recognize the sound of when she’s in hyper-focused, game-face mode, and I blow out a soft breath. That’s a positive sign, at least. “Where is home exactly?”
“Ever heard of the Mariana Trench?” I ask her, and she nods. Of course she has. She’s Jenna, Jeopardy! champion of the world. “It’s the deepest part of your oceans. We make our home there…where we’re safe and hidden from humans.”
“Unless you come on land to learn about us if you’re the heir? Like you have.”
“Yes,” I say. “To not repeat history. We need to safeguard the waters of our home, too.”
“And now you’re stuck here because your father was killed,” Jenna says.
“Will you go back?”
“I don’t know,” I answer honestly. “It’s complicated. There are others there who want us dead. Speio and his family most of all, because of their loyalty to me.”
Jenna gulps, glancing at him, but he’s staring at the water, lost in his own thoughts. She moves to sit again next to me at the pool’s edge, tucking her legs beneath her. Her eyes narrow as she studies my face, fascinated.
Belatedly, I remember that the protective film is no longer over my own alien eyes, so I blink to engage it. It’s similar to the nictitating membrane of a shark that goes over its eyes when it’s in attack mode, only ours is more of a defense mechanism to protect us from discovery.
“No,” she says. “Leave them the way they are. Please.”
I comply with some reluctance. I know what she’s seeing—the pale gold sclera, normally the white part of the human eye, surrounding large multicolored irises rimmed by electric gold rings. They scream alien in every way.
A part of me recoils at her scrutiny. Does she want to remind herself that she’s not talking to something human? Will she look at me differently now that she knows what I am?
“They’re so beautiful,” she murmurs after a while. “But definitely not human. Anyone could see that. Other than your eyes, you look so normal otherwise.” Her gaze drifts down my arms, torso, and legs. “I’ve seen you in the locker room after hockey games. You look like everyone else.”
“We mimic,” I say. “To blend in.”
“I can manipulate the water in my body into any form I wish, for short periods.”
Her eyes narrow. “Any form?”
“Yes, but human is preferred.”
Jenna tips her head to one side, chewing on her lip as if scared to ask the question lurking on her lips, but eventually she does. “So what do you really look like?”
“Are you sure you’re ready to see that?” Speio’s voice is cool. He doesn’t trust that Jenna won’t go screaming to the rooftops and out us all. But he doesn’t know her like I do—Jenna is loyal to the bone. Every drop of water in me knows that I can trust her.
“She’s ready,” I say, meeting Speio’s eyes.
He sucks air through his teeth, a disrespectful sound that I ignore, and stalks back into the house. But it will be better without him. I level Jenna with an unblinking, almost reptilian stare, and she holds my predator’s gaze without cringing. Her courage in the face of everything is heartening. I stare at her for a long time before I decide both our fates—hers for knowing, mine for telling. But she deserves to know.
“Speio doesn’t like that you told me, does he?” she asks, and I shake my head.
“He’ll get over it,” I whisper. “Do you trust me, Jenna?”
She nods. “With my life.”
“Then whatever you do, don’t run.”
The color drains from her face as I slip into the pool, feeling the flimsy weight of human bones inside of me start to dissolve. Almost immediately, they elongate into the delicate skeleton that shapes my Aquarathi form. Our spinal column is similar to humans, but that’s where the similarity ends. The rest of our bones expand outward like webs of coral, hard but malleable at the same time.
My frame lengthens and strengthens, cracking into place under skin that’s transforming into something rough and brilliant. My neck distends like a swan’s, the curvature of my jaw thrusting outward and filling with razor-sharp rows of teeth. The pain is fleeting over the pleasure of the change as my limbs fold inward, my diamond-hard, dragon-scaled hide drawing and tightening over sleek, coiled muscle, until at last, I shimmer into reptilian, monstrous existence.
In a matter of breaths, I no longer resemble anything human.
AMALIE HOWARD is the award-winning author of several young adult novels critically acclaimed by Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, VOYA, School Library Journal, and Booklist, including Waterfell, The Almost Girl, and Alpha Goddess, a Kid’s INDIE NEXT selection. Her debut novel, Bloodspell, was a #1 bestseller in gothic fiction, and the sequel, Bloodcraft, was a national IPPY silver medalist and Children’s Moonbeam Award winner. She is also the co-author of the #1 bestseller in Regency Romance, My Rogue, My Ruin, in the Lords of Essex historical romance series. She currently resides in Colorado with her husband and three children. Visit her at http://www.amaliehoward.com.
“So you surf and scuba. What else do you do?” Jenna asks, unaware of my slip-up as I maneuver the boat around La Jolla point to the adjoining cove.
“Those are my two favorite things,” Lo says. “I love the ocean, always have. My foster dad and I ran a marine wildlife support organization back home. We once took care of a baby dolphin for a whole year. I don’t know why I feel more comfortable with fish than people but I just do. Go figure, right?”
“Really?” I tease, trying to erase the sad look in his eyes. “I mean, weren’t you terrified of a leopard shark surfing the other day?”
“One, I wasn’t terrified. And two, it’s a shark. They eat people.”
“Not leopards,” I toss back with a grin.
“Well, I’m not taking any chances with the rulers of the ocean. They have long memories, sharks,” Lo says in a confident tone.
“Where’d you learn that?” Jenna asks.
Jenna snorts again and, this time, I can’t hide my own mirth. Grinning, she heads back to the stern to get the ropes ready for docking, but Lo remains with me. His face is flushed from the wind and fresh air, and he looks happy. It’s obvious he enjoys being on the water and hanging out with the two of us. Maybe Jenna’s right. I haven’t really been all that fair to him.
After all, he’s funny and sociable when he chooses to be, and anyone who loves the water as much as he obviously does can’t be that bad. I’m so caught up in my intense scrutiny of him and subsequent self-assessment that I don’t realize that Lo is talking to me.
“Like what you see?” he asks.
“What? No. I was looking through you,” I retort, mortified that he’d caught me mooning at him.
“Sure you were.”
I want to growl.
This is why we can’t be friends.
God, I want to punch that taunting, sexy smirk off his lips. Punch it or kiss it. Traitorous heat climbs into my cheeks and my warring desires make my words far sharper than they should be, demolishing all my previous good intentions.
“For your information, not everything is all about you. Can’t you take the hint? Some people just don’t like you.”
“Especially me,” I lie.
Lo just stands there, silent, watching me. I don’t know why I let him get me so riled up, but it’s like I can’t control myself. A part of me wants to apologize, to take back my throwaway comments, but instead I keep my eyes averted, feeling slightly ashamed but mostly furious with myself as I steer the boat back to the dock.
Eventually, as if he, too, wants to get as far away from me as possible, Lo follows Jenna to the rear of the boat, where she points out some of the landmarks on our way back. I don’t blame his retreat, but I feel the loss of his presence like something tangible. Lo looks back once in my direction, his lower lip trapped between his teeth, something thoughtful flitting across his face before he turns his attention to Jenna.
I stare blindly at the ocean, enumerating all the reasons that I don’t like him, gathering them like armor. I hate the way he looks at me as if he knows me, when he knows nothing about me at all. I hate the way he talks, and the way he struts, and the fact that everyone—including my own best friends—seems to adore him. I hate the way he smiles so easily at anything Jenna or Cara says, when all he can do is snap mocking comments at me.
I hate the way he makes me feel with one glance as if all the water in my body is electrified and I can’t breathe. I hate how he surfs, and how his lips curve into a grin of true happiness when he’s gliding down the face of a wave. I hate everything about him, especially his stupid lips.
Ignoring the tiny shiver coursing through me, I sigh and swallow past the knot in my throat, watching him laugh easily at something Jenna says. Jealousy slices through me like a fine-edged blade. I’m envious. Deeply, horribly, acutely envious because, deep down, I want him to be that way with me.
Effortless. Easy. Happy.
And then the truth hits me like a curling wave: I don’t hate him at all.