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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: The Seeking by Marlena Frank




Beware the Gray People


Each Seeking, the magic that protects the town of Carra must be renewed, which means the children of the Exalted Family must go into hiding. Whether through disguise or bribe, through trusted friends or perfect hiding places, every child of the Priest family must avoid capture for the full day of The Seeking.


When things go wrong with the renewal, it’s up to seventeen-year-old Dahlia, the middle child of the Priest family, and her girlfriend, Bisa, to escape Carra and find the magical beings responsible for the protection. They must learn who would require such a cruel game every year and if the protection of the Gray People is really worth such a price.


What they will discover is far worse.


Follow Dahlia and Bisa on their journey through entrenched mysteries and fraught adventures in author Marlena Frank’s upcoming novel, THE SEEKING—out TUESDAY!


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CHAPTER ONE

THE EXALTED


The scent of freshly baked apple pie filled the cold morning air... I hated it. It was a tradition of Carra, baked throughout the town at the end of October every year. Most thought it was a lovely treat, a warm and sweet way to step into fall, but it made my stomach clench.


It was a holiday favorite for The Seeking, and today almost every home in town had a pie.


I took a deep breath, allowing the scent to flow through me, allowing my hands to tremble before willing them to be still. It was only morning, I reminded myself. There were many hours before the clock struck midnight and The Seeking began. The hunt wasn’t on yet; besides, I still had people to see.


Wrapping my scarf tighter around my neck, I headed down the hill, away from the Exalted House. The dirt path felt solid under my feet even as my heart fluttered like a hummingbird in flight.


While the sun had only just peeked over the horizon, all of Carra was bustling. They were celebrating, of course; the Great Feast would take place tonight, where they would make sure the hunters and dogs were well fed. I felt their eyes on me as I walked down the street, faces turning toward me, eyes peering out through windows. If I wasn't careful tonight, any of them might catch me.


A blast of wind scattered a pile of leaves and I started, clutching my hat as my boots sank slightly into a muddy patch on the dirt road.


Whenever they caught me looking at them, their intense gazes would turn into cheerful smiles.


All of them were deceivers.


There was no polite, understood rivalry this year. No, this year, there was outright anger towards me and my family. I could feel it in the air but couldn't pinpoint it exactly. Was it because we had been in power for so long? Five years didn't seem that long, but I couldn't deny how the resentment had grown over time.


A young woman, who had auburn hair and looked to be a few years older than me, walked towards me on the path. She was smiling, but when she glanced up and saw me, her smile hardened, and she turned quickly down a side road. She was hardly an exception to the rule.


Every year I watched their pleasantries grow thin. As the months passed, I noticed how they stared up at the Exalted House with undeniable envy in their eyes as their bitterness grew. Many were biding their time until tonight, when they had the power to make a change.


At midnight the bell tower would toll and The Seeking would begin. Their smiles would no longer need to be masked. At midnight their true hatred would come out to play.


"Good morning, Dahlia," a frail old woman with wispy white hair and watery eyes said as she folded linens and dropped them into a basket.


I nodded, returning her smile even though I hadn’t the slightest idea who she was.


That was the problem with being part of the Exalted. Everybody knew who I was even if I didn't know them. Some I got to know if I had to work a court case or investigate a situation, but generally they were unknown faces with unknown names. At least I was used to going through the pleasantries without even thinking about it.


Another cold wind blew past me and already I could tell it would be a rough night. I picked up the pace, wanting to be away from so many prying eyes. I wanted this Seeking to be over, for the hunt and the cruelty and the hatred to be done with. But I had to follow the rules of Carra. We all had to, even if The Seeking brought out the worst in people.


"Running about causing trouble, Little Mouse?" Mr. Broskow asked, his booming voice sending a cold chill down my spine. I was hoping I was out early enough to avoid him, but he, too, was up early this morning.


I turned to see him lingering in the doorway of his shop; a bloody axe at his feet as he tied the legs of a pig carcass to a hook, the blood pouring down into a bucket below. I wondered if he had waited for me to walk by just so he could try to intimidate me by bleeding out a pig. That was the sort of tactic he liked to use - brutal viciousness to throw me off guard.


Broskow was a man who lived for The Seeking. He relished the hunt and he saw me, one of the smallest of my family, as easy prey.


I stopped and grimaced as the scent of blood momentarily overwhelmed me, but then glared as I called out, "My family has the day off to prepare, as you well know."


He leaned against the doorway, the pig's carcass swinging slowly in the wind beside him. Its eyes were closed, its mouth open, likely from delivering its final scream – I held back a wince.


"Come here a moment."


Part of me wanted to ignore him. There was no law stating that I had to talk to people who heckled me, but I knew I was still being watched. I glanced around and could see several faces peering out through their shutters. How I handled Broskow might determine how many of them would decide to chase me down when the moon was high.


So, I gathered my strength and stepped towards him. "What is it?"


The first thing I noticed was that Broskow's gloves glinted in the morning light because they were wet. When he picked up his bloodied axe, I felt my heart skip a beat; he winked before hoisting it above his head. I gasped as he brought it down on one of the pig's legs, and shuddered as he dropped its pale limb with a thump into the bucket below.


I took a shaky step back, my body trembling as a crowd formed around us. He grinned, malice clear in his eyes as he stepped forward and dropped a hand on my shoulder; it smelled like old meat and I swallowed hard. His grip was painful, but I refused to wince. I had already shown weakness and could see how much he enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t do it again.


"Say hello to your parents for me," he said with eyes like a dead fish. "Tell them that I'll be the one to return you tonight." He gave me a little shake, probably just to show how much smaller than him I was for the audience that had gathered.


My hands fisted at my sides. "Strong words for someone who hasn't been able to catch any of us in four years."


Broskow’s eyes narrowed and his fingers tightened onmy shoulder, where pain started pulsing outward. "You had best hope that you do elude me this year, Little Mouse. When Pearl and I become the new Exalted, we'll send you out to test the Boundary Line every night for the rest of your short little life." He dragged a bloody finger across my cheek. "I don't think you would last a single night."


I grimaced. My family had been part of the Exalted for five years and my brothers and I had survived four Seekings, but I knew how organized Broskow's hunting parties could be and how vile his intimidation tactics were becoming.


He made my little brother cry last year as he poured blood over him on the street, in front of the town to witness. Come midnight, he would put together at least ten men with promises of high positions after their victory and round up his trusted troop of hunting dogs. This was just the precursor to the ruthlessness of tonight.


I pulled away from his grip. "We'll see about that."


He leaned down, his maddened grin fading. "Four years is a long time to elude me, Dahlia. I won't let you make it to five." His voice lowered, "You come from a bad seed. Your father cheated so he could live in the Exalted House, and his reign will not last much longer.” He paused, our eyes locking. “None of you deserve to be our leaders."


I stepped away from him. "My father didn't cheat; he followed the rules the same as everyone else!" By now several people had stopped to watch us. The old woman with the laundry basket wore a smirk. A middle-aged man passed us on the street before he stopped to lean against the building on the opposite end of the trail, laughing in a drunken haze.


Broskow adored it; he loved having an audience. He stood up straighter, easily towering over me, and spoke to the people around us. "Bribery is for cowards who are too weak to hunt their prey on their own." He pointed at me. "Her family does not deserve to be our Exalted. Who here will help me hunt down Dahlia Priest tonight and drag her to Town Hall?"


A small cheer erupted from the onlookers.


"Together, we'll make sure the Priests have seen their final dawn as the Exalted!"


I felt the blood drain from my face. This time the cheer was more heartfelt, and some of the people cheering –some of them I knew.


My wrist was grabbed in a claw-like grip and I jerked back to see the old woman with the laundry basket, her eyes watering with anger.


"Perhaps we ought to hold onto her now, and bring her when the bell tolls," she said with a cracked voice. "That would be easier."


"No, no," Broskow chided with a wide, toothy grin. "We must follow the rules. Carra would fall without her traditions.” Again, his eyes met mine. “Don't worry, she won't escape us tonight."


In my heart, I knew he was right. Every year the hunting parties grew more and more determined and I had to push myself to be smarter and faster than every person in town.


I turned from them and ran.


I no longer cared what they thought.


"That's right, run!" Broskow’s laughter taunted me from behind. "Run, Little Mouse, back to hide in your hole! It won't save you!"


I pictured Bisa's face in my mind: her warm smile, her easy laugh, her mischievous eyes.


I wiped at my face, at the blood on my cheek. I hated the warm blood that was seeping into my leather tunic and growing colder by the second. I hated the way I smelled. I hated that I had let Broskow get to me, and I knew that word of what happened would spread quickly.


Why couldn’t I have just left him alone? Why did I always have to try and prove them wrong? If I just didn’t care, it would have been so much easier.


I took a few deep breaths as I turned down the next street. I didn't want Bisa to see how shaken I was. She would fret and want me to stay, but I had to be strong for tonight, didn't I?


Dappled morning sunlight streamed down through thepines. Leaves rustled and swirled past my feet, and in the distance a crow cawed. Earlier, before I ran into Broskow, I had felt like I had plenty of time, but now I felt like every minute before midnight was fleeting. Only mere hours of daylight were left before the terror of The Seeking began. All I wanted to do was to sink into Bisa's arms and forget all of it.


***


I stepped inside Mr. Eddington's restaurant and immediately appreciated the heat from the fireplace in the corner. The room was filled with pine tables and matching chairs on a well-worn wooden floor. Everything in Carra was made of pine because those were the only trees within the Boundary Line.


"We're closed!" Mr. Eddington called from behind the swinging doors of the kitchen. "Come back for lunch." When my boot squeaked against the floor, he stuck his head out with a suspicious look. He was a short man, bald on top save for a handful of wispy white hair that stuck out against his dark skin.


"I'm just heading up," I said, hoping for a quick exchange so he wouldn’t see the shape I was in.


His eyes went wide. "Dahlia! By the Grays, what happened to you?"


I shrugged. "Just Broskow being an asshole again. Nothing I can't handle."


His face clouded over with disgust as he approached, but I knew it wasn't aimed at me. "No matter what they say, remember they can't do a damn thing until midnight. This is your time, not theirs."


It was hard to look him in the eye as I nodded. Mr. Eddington had always had a piercing gaze, though I’d never seen him really angry. Even when the restaurant was packed with people, he was able to keep calm.


"They don't seem to care much about rules."


"You've had to run for too many years if you ask me." He pulled a white cloth from where it was tucked behind his belt, the same he normally used to wipe down the tables. "Here, hold still." He wiped the pig's blood off my cheek then did his best to wipe it off my shoulder.


I thought I had done a decent job of it myself, on my cheek at least, but the cloth came away with more blood than I realized. The leather tunic I wore was normally easy to clean, but some must have gotten into the seams. That could be a problem, as even the Exalted family only had so many outfits. Clothes in Carra were rarely replaced because materials were always scarce.


He sighed. "That's going to need a good washing to get out."


I thought back to the old woman with the watery eyes and her basket of laundry. "No, that's okay. I'll see if Bisa can work on it."


“Ah, that’s one of Bisa’s, isn’t it?”


“It’s from a few years back, but yeah. She insisted on making one herself since my last one fell part.” I gave a small smile and he nodded, stepping back. I was trying to lighten the mood, but his anger lingered.


"Bisa's upstairs. Remind her that she and her little brother are welcome to come down and enjoy some apple pie tonight. She may be my only tenant, but that doesn’t mean she needs to hole herself away all day.” He balled up the bloodstained cloth in his hands. “Tell her if she needs anything from me today...or tonight, let me know." His eyes gleamed as he said this, and I understood this offer was for more than just Bisa.


"Thanks, I'll let her know." I made to head upstairs, but Mr. Eddington lowered himself into a chair, and the tone of his voice told me that I wasn't yet permitted to leave.


"You're a strong girl, you know that?"


His bluntness took me off guard and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I turned toward him and watched as he dragged a hand over his head.


"My boy Ray, I used to call him my little ray of sunshine. He was insightful for his age, just didn't know how to keep his tongue. He meant well but he wasn't strong like you.”


I cocked my head to the side, “I forgot you had a son.”


“Oh yeah, little Ray was a ball of energy.” A grin spread across Mr. Eddington’s face as he looked down to the bloody cloth in his hands.


For a moment I could imagine what he looked like ten years younger and dealing with backtalk from a gregarious son. Then the smile faded, and the years fell hard on his features again.


He twisted the bloody cloth into a tight rope. “His mouth, though. That’s what got him in trouble. One day he said the wrong things to the wrong people and, well, he didn't last long monitoring the Boundary Line."


"I'm so sorry," I whispered, my mind slowly wrapping around his words after the run-in with Broskow.


Mr. Eddington spread out the cloth, as if he only just realized it was stained completely with blood, and used the back of his arm to dab at his forehead. His expression softened again. "Your family are good people, Dahlia. Don't let anyone tell you differently. When Ray got killed out there, your mother and father were the first to visit. They did everything they could to help. I'm grateful for that." He cleared his throat and looked down to the worn boards beneath his feet. “I'll do anything to keep them as the Exalted."


I nodded, trying to understand. "But that's what the Exalted do; we help people."


"No, they don't," he said, slamming a fist down on the table and making me jump. "The Exalted was why my boy was out there to begin with. Your folks weren't part of them then. They were just concerned friends; people who understood the value of a life. That's what good, decent people do.”


“I don’t understand,” I admitted, stepping towards him. “I thought that was the whole point of the Exalted Family: to help people and lead them. If the children can keep their family safe, then The Seeking proves — ”


“The Seeking doesn’t prove a damn thing! All it does is lead to fewer children, which means more food and resources for the ones that survive it.”


I clamped my mouth shut. Never in my four years of being in the Exalted Family had I ever heard anyone talk like that. I didn’t even know what to say.


He pointed a finger at me. “Your family made the Exalted worth something. You all actually cared and didn’t send anyone out to monitor the Boundary Line. Before your parents came along, the Exalted were crooks. If you couldn't promise a week of free meals, or room and board for one of their brats, then you might be sent to the Boundary Line, too."


He nodded toward the door. "That's why there are so many out there hunting you every Seeking. They want that power. Some of them live for that chance. That's why whatever happens tonight, you and your brothers cannot be caught."


My mouth went dry as I stared at him, and it took me a moment to find the right words. "I thought they just wanted to be the Exalted."


He choked on a laugh. "Of course they do! They want it to get back at their enemies, to force people out on the streets, or to have some poor child be used as an example to the other families."


My wrist tingled, and I rubbed it, trying to dispel the memory of that woman’s grip. What would happen if any of them became the next Exalted? If I was sent to monitor the Boundary Line, how long would I last? Would my brothers be killed as an example, too?


For the first time, Mr. Eddington's support of my family made sense, and I felt like a fool for not talking to him sooner. I wanted to say as much, but the words wouldn't come. The most I could muster was a weak, “I’m sorry.”


He waved a hand indifferently then pushed himself up from his chair. I could hear the cracking in his knees. "Good luck tonight, Dahlia. To you and your family." He turned back to the kitchen and didn't give me a second glance.


I noticed the way he favored his right leg and the defeated set of his shoulders. He walked as though he was disappointed, as though his advice had once again fallen on deaf ears as it always had, though this was the first time he had ever really spoken to me outside of a kind greeting or asking if I wanted any food.


My father was the one who spoke highly of Mr. Eddington, who always mentioned how he put in a good word or supported their decisions during town discussions. I never knew why, though, until now. Why did it take me getting pig blood splashed on me to get me to talk to him? Laughter from outside the building pulled me back to my senses. It could have been Broskow’s laugh, but I couldn’t tell. Even if it wasn’t, I needed to see Bisa. She always helped me think straight.


I returned to the stairs and climbed the steps two at a time, wishing I had said more to Mr. Eddington, but unsure of what I could have said. All I knew was that my fear for tonight was even worse than before, and my mind was filled with a storm of questions.


As I climbed the next flight of stairs, I kept seeing Broskow's grinning face and hearing the excited cries from his crowd of supporters. I suddenly had not only my life to consider tonight, but many others as well. If we lost the Exalted House, who would take our place? Someone like Broskow? He’d send me straight to the Boundary Line, and probably others with me. Bisa? My little brother, Dameon? My heart leapt into my throat; I couldn’t let that happen.


I shook my head, I couldn't think of everyone, even though I wanted to. I had to focus on myself today. Even Mr. Eddington knew that. He had promised his support for me, so I might be able to take some bread or other food with me later. Any sustenance I could find on The Seeking was a gift.


I reached the top of the stairs. It dead-ended into the attic’s simple wooden door, where Mr. Eddington had been kind enough to let Bisa stay. I caught the scent of pig’s blood still on my tunic as I knocked on the door. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the blood had marked me somehow.


Bisa pulled the door back, and any worries I had were forgotten. She had put her long hair up, highlighting her round cheeks. I loved that hairstyle on her, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she fixed it that way on purpose. She also wore one of her flattering dresses that accented her wide hips, trimmed with spare red fabric around her wrists and along the hem of her skirt. It was definitely on purpose, I decided. Her warm brown eyes lit up with excitement as soon as she sawme.


"Oh, you came!" She went to wrap her arms around me, but I stopped her by stepping out of reach. A frown pulled at the corners of her full lips.


"Broskow got pig’s blood all over me. You really don't want to hug me right now."


Her hurt melted into frustration. "He does know The Seeking doesn't start until tonight, right?"


She wrapped her warm hand in mine and pulled me inside before I could reply. I sighed and felt the remaining tension melt out of me just from being in her presence. She had that effect on me even after more than a year of dating. Bisa removed my scarf and dropped it into a basket by the door, examining the blood on my shoulder. "It smells awful!"


"He smelled worse," I retorted with a smirk. She laughed and met my eyes as my heart skipped a beat.


"Come on back and I'll draw you a bath." She took my hand again, and I followed.


Most of her small apartment was filled with scraps of fabric, spare wool, baskets of sewing supplies filled with notions, and half-finished garments hanging in each room. We passed by Marcus's room and I frowned. It was empty. I'm so used to seeing the six-year-old playing with his toys on the floor that I was confused.


"Where's Marcus?"


"At school. Already at that age. Dad would be so happy." Bisa didn't mention her mother; she hardly did anymore. I squeezed her hand and she gave me a brief smile.


We slipped through the tiny bathroom doorway and I couldn’t help myself – I reached down to grab her large rear. She squealed and laughed as she moved away.


"Not until you're cleaned up! Keep those exploring hands to yourself."


I obeyed with some reluctance and stripped, my eyes tracking her movements as Bisa not only drew me a hot bath and demanded I climb in, but also took my soiled tunic.


"What are you going to do with that?" I asked, settling down into the tepid water. At least it wasn’t cold. I winced, realizing I’d gotten spoiled by the hot baths at the Exalted House.


"Getting it cleaned for you." She held up a hand when I frowned. "Don't ask me how, I've got my ways. You just relax. Gather yourself. I need you to be ready tonight, sugar." For the first time her genuine smile faltered, and I could see the familiar panic that swam under the surface when The Seeking came around.


I rolled my head against the back of the tub and closed my eyes. There was moisture on my cheeks, but I couldn't tell if it was from the tub or my tears. "It's going to be so hard tonight, Bisa. Broskow is already riling people up and it's not even noon yet."


I heard her footsteps approach before I opened my eyes to see her sitting down on the edge of the tub. She reached out and rubbed my shoulder, as though trying to massage away any memory of Broskow.


"It'll be okay, you hear me? You have friends. We'll help you out."


I nodded, suddenly unable to speak and averted my eyes.


"No, don't you look away from me." She took my chin and I looked up to her, this time feeling the hot tears spill down my cheeks. "I love you and I refuse to lose you over this stupidity, do you hear me? If you let them beat you now, then you won't have a chance tonight. You have to be strong for me, Dahlia."


I sniffed and nodded. "Mr. Eddington thinks I'm strong enough, but I don't know if I am."


She returned to massaging my shoulder, my arm, and finally settled on rubbing the back of my neck. "I hate The Seeking," she said. "I hate that you have to deal with it year after year. It's barbaric.” She huffed. “I've never met a Gray Person mind you, but they must be monsters to require it."


"Don't say that," I said, my voice coming out weaker than I'd like. "They can hear you. The Gray People hear all, or so they say."


"I don't care if they do! They know we suffer, and they don't give a damn. Sometimes I wonder if their so-called protection is really worth it."


I was quiet. I knew where this conversation was going; I had heard it many times before. Bisa was thinking of her father, who died when Marcus was born.


"What's the point of their help if it comes at such a cruel cost? It's not even reliable either! My dad never went over that Boundary Line, but he was still killed. He was drunk, sure, but his son was just born. He had a good reason to celebrate. He stepped outside to get some fresh air and he never came back.” She took a shaky breath. “I still remember staring out that damn window, shivering in the cold, and waiting for him to return. There wasn't a single Gray Person around to help him. What’s the point of The Seeking if they choose not to help us? We're animals trapped in a cage," she growled, climbing to her feet. "We're making the best of it, but we all know that’s what it is."


"Don't think such dark thoughts. I need you to be strong, too."


She gave me a sad smile. "I know. It's just hard." I reached up and grabbed her hand with my wrinkled fingers, her dark skin just a few shades lighter than mine. "That's why we have each other. We’re stronger together, you and I."


She smiled then and kissed the top of my hand, her lips soft and cool. "You and Marcus are the only reasons I'll survive this ugly place." I frowned, unsure of what to say, but she let go and walked to the door. "I'll let you relax a bit then come check on you."


"I love you," I whispered not really wanting her to leave. I knew too well the long day ahead of me and how much I would miss her warmth, her smile, her presence. She kissed her fingers then held them up to me as she shut the door.



 


CHAPTER TWO

THE GRAY PEOPLE


I was a child again, curled up in the chilly bedroom of my youth. It used to be my big brother's room, but once he moved out, it became mine.


It always felt empty and barren, even with friends over. I didn't have enough to make the walls not echo: just my bed, a chest of drawers, and a small bookshelf. I was happy to not be sharing a room with my younger brother, Dameon, though, so I tried to make the most of it. I shivered despite the four blankets stacked on top of me. The shutters never closed right, always letting in the cold night air.


Through the crack in the shutters, I saw movement: a pale body amid the dark trees, gleaming in the light of a full moon. It was one of the Gray People. They were patrolling the Boundary Line, I told myself. They were making sure the monsters wouldn't get me.


The pale body appeared again through the crack in the shutters. I held my breath. It was watching me.


She was a woman with dark hair and eyes like pits. Her skin gleamed the grayish blue of her kind, the color of a birch tree in the light of a full moon. Fear crept into my veins, but then I thought of Grandma's dry laughter and reassurance.


"There's nothing to fear from them," she had said as her face crinkled into a smile. "They're our protectors. Anytime you see one, know that you're a little safer than you were before."


Still I couldn't deny the fear I felt as I stared into this Gray Person’s empty eyes, only for her to vanish when I blinked.


I don't know why, but I needed to see where she went.


I needed to see if she was still outside.


Climbing out of bed, I threw off all my blankets and shivered when my feet hit the cold wood of the floor. But still, I wrapped my arms around my stomach and padded over to the window.


The cold wind howled, whistling through the gap in the shutters. I looked around, but all I saw were the shadows of the forest in the distance. I decided to try closing the shutters once more and reached out for the latch that was hanging on the inside.


Something cold and gray touched my hand instead. I gasped and dropped to the floor, backing into the corner of the room near the window’s ledge.


The shutter pulled fully open, the hinges squeaking against the wind’s resistance, and the Gray Woman leaned her head inside.


Her neck was long, and her black hair hung around her face. Her hands clutched the windowsill like spider legs.