Killing November

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From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to Hang a Witch comes a thriller set at a secretive boarding school where students are trained to carry on family legacies that have built–and toppled–empires.

November is as good as dead. She just doesn’t know it yet.

At the Academy Absconditi, there’s no electricity, no internet, and an archaic eye-for-an-eye punishment system. Classes range from knife throwing and poisons to the art of deception. And the students? Silver-spoon descendants of the world’s most elite strategists–all training to become asassins, spies, and master imporsonators.

One is a virtuoso of accents–and never to be trusted. Another is a vicious fighter determined to exploit November’s weaknesses. And then there’s the boy with the mesmerizing eyes and a secret agenda. November doesn’t know how an ordinary girl like her fits into the school’s complicated legacy. But when a student is murdered, she’ll need to separate her enemies from her allies before the crime gets pinned or her…or she becomes the killer’s next victim.


For my son, Haxtun Wolf Mather,

whom I call My Little,

but who lights up my entire world

MY NAME IS November Adley and I was born in August. The way my dad tells it, the Connecticut nights were unusually cool that summer, and the day I arrived our maple burst with color reminiscent of late fall—hence my name. He claims the leaves shone so brightly in the morning sun that it looked like our front lawn was on fire. Dad also says that's part of the reason I'm obsessed with the woods. I'm not sure there's any connection, but I enjoy the comfort of that story—a reminder of a time when the world was safe and so was my family.

The most disorienting thing about safety—my own in particular—is that it never crossed my mind before. My ex-CIA, now–financial manager dad often tells me I'm too trusting, all the while shaking his head like he's shocked that we're related. Which I, of course, remind him is one hundred percent his fault, since I've lived my entire life in the same small town with the same friendly people, who pose about as much threat as a basket of sleeping kittens. Dad argues that I want to believe people are good and that while that's admirable, it's also not realistic. To which I ask him how it helps anyone to believe that people are bad. He claims that having a healthy sense of suspicion prepares you for every possible danger. But until now, it was all just a theory. And if I'm being honest, even yesterday, with Dad insisting there was an imminent threat to our family, I still wasn't convinced. Nope, there was absolutely nothing indicative of danger in my life until a few minutes ago, when I woke up in this medieval-looking…parlor?

I frown. A man I'm assuming is a guard stands against the wall next to me. He's staring forward, blatantly ignoring me, as I consider the door. I push as hard as I can on the wrought-iron latch and even throw my shoulder into the dark wood, but it doesn't budge. I let out a huff from the effort and scan the room. There's a roaring fire in the fireplace and maroon velvet furniture that probably costs more than my entire house. But there are no windows and the door in front of me is the only exit.

"I know you hear me," I say to the guard, who so far hasn't answered a single one of my questions. He's dressed all in black, with a leather belt and leather armbands that put to shame the Roman gladiator costume I wore last year for Halloween. I toy with the idea of snapping my fingers in front of his face, but he's a good foot taller than me and his arms are more muscular than my legs.

He remains silent.

I try another angle. "You know I'm a minor, right? That you can't keep me locked up in this…Well, I'm assuming this is my new boarding school. But what kind of a school locks up their students?" Dad told me this place would be different, but I have a hard time believing he meant I'd be trapped in a windowless room.

Just then I hear a key slide into the door and it swings outward. My shoulders drop and my hands unclench. Another guard, dressed identically to the first, gestures for me to follow him. I don't waste a second. Unfortunately, the room guard comes, too, and walking between them, I feel almost as confined as I did in that room.

The guard in front pulls a lit torch off the gray stone wall and I take inventory of my surroundings—the lack of electricity, the arched ceilings, the heavy wooden doors that use latches instead of knobs. There's no way I'm still in the United States. This place looks like something out of a documentary I once streamed about medieval Irish castles. However, I find it nearly impossible to believe Dad would send me all the way to Europe, not to mention be able to pay for it. We almost never leave Pembrook, much less the state of Connecticut.

As we continue to walk, I notice impressive hanging tapestries depicting knights, royal courts, and bloody battles. It's also dead quiet, no sounds of people chatting or cars driving by.

The hall has a distinct chill, and I pull the sleeves of my sweater down over my fingers for warmth. I have no idea what happened to the coat, gloves, and scarf I wore onto the plane; they weren't in the room with me when I woke up. We pass under an archway and ascend a staircase with worn, uneven stone steps. I count two landings and three flights before we come to a stop in front of a door patterned with iron rivets. The lead guard unlatches it and warm air billows out.

The antiquated office reminds me of a somber scene in a movie about Mary, Queen of Scots. The only light in the room comes from an abundance of candles set in silver candelabras and in sconces on the stone walls. The windows are covered with heavy curtains and a fire blazes inside the fireplace, filling the air with the scent of woodsmoke.

A tall, thin woman stands behind a seemingly ancient desk. Her brown hair is pulled into a high bun so tight that it gives me a headache just looking at it. She's probably around Dad's age, but her severity makes her seem older.

She does a poor impression of a smile. "Welcome to Academy Absconditi. I'm Headmaster Blackwood. I trust your trip was agreeable?" Her voice and demeanor command obedience.

"I don't remember my trip," I say, feeling uneasy under her gaze as I pull a piece of fuzz off my jeans. The rant I was working up downstairs feels inappropriate in this formal setting. "I passed out on the plane and woke up on a couch in the…To be honest, I'm confused how—"

"Teachers' lounge," she says, and gestures for me to sit in an armchair in front of her desk. The frills of a white blouse spill out from the edges of her black blazer. The contradiction makes me wonder which one she is—uptight and trying to appear approachable, or soft and trying to look stern. "You were out for some time."

"I was locked up down there," I say, expecting shock, but it doesn't come. I turn and look behind me. Both guards are still with us, one on either side of the now-closed door. Whether they're protecting her or preventing me from leaving is unclear. Maybe both.

Blackwood nods as though she understands my unspoken question. "Guards aren't permitted to speak to students; they only speak to faculty and staff. Now, considering the lateness of the hour, I think we should dispense with the small talk, don't you?" She glances at a dark metal clock on the wall that resembles a small Gothic tower with exposed gears.

It reads 1:30, and judging by her "lateness of the hour" comment and the empty hallways, I'm guessing it's a.m., not p.m. "Hang on…that can't be right." I look between her and the clock like someone is playing a joke on me. It was after midnight when Dad dropped me at the airport. And about two hours after that when I fell asleep. "Have I been out for a full day? How is that possible? And why didn't I wake up when I was being brought in here? Or when the plane landed?"

"I understand that you're disoriented, an unfortunate side effect of getting you here smoothly—"

"Side effect?" My stomach knots up as I narrow the possibilities as to why I was asleep for twenty-four hours. "Did…did someone drug me?" My voice has risen in pitch, and I fight off a sense of panic.

I file back through the sequence of events before I passed out. The last thing I clearly remember was having a lemonade on the plane. Dad must have told me a million times not to eat or drink anything that wasn't given to me by someone I trust, but refusing a drink from a flight attendant is like refusing something I ordered in a restaurant.

I look up at Blackwood for some indication of what's going on, but her expression is blank. She definitely isn't acting like the suggestion of a possible drugging is outrageous.

I stand up. My instinct is to run. Except I don't have a clue where I am, other than a vague sense that I'm in a rural area, judging by the lack of noise. "Ms. Blackwood, can I use the phone? I'm not sure this is…I just need it for a minute." I scan her desk, but there doesn't seem to be one.

"Unfortunately, no, you may not."

"I'm sure this is a great school, but—"

She puts up her hand to stop me, like she understands me perfectly but is unwilling to indulge my concerns at present. "Before you leave this office or communicate with anyone, you must understand and agree to the rules." She pauses. "Also, I'll ask that you call me Headmaster Blackwood. We pride ourselves on tradition here."

I stare at her, at a loss for words, something my best friend, Emily, will verify has only happened once before.

Blackwood gestures for me to sit down. "Now, I suggest you relax and pay close attention. Some of what you want to know, I'm about to explain to you."

I reluctantly sit. Dad told me this school would challenge me in strange ways, and even though I find it all wicked suspicious, I trust him. He wouldn't put me in danger. In fact, that's the whole reason I'm here—to keep me out of it. I lean back in the worn leather armchair, tucking one of my feet under me.

Blackwood raises an eyebrow as she takes note of my slouched posture. She stares down at me and lifts her chin almost like she would lift me up if she could will it through her thoughts. "Your sudden arrival was unforeseen. It's not our policy to admit new students midyear—midsemester, no less." She looks at me expectantly.

"Thanks for making an exception…," I say, invoking my manners even though the words feel stiff in my mouth. I don't like the way she says admit, like this is a long-term thing. Dad told me it would only be for a few weeks, just until he could clear up the break-in at Aunt Jo's. Then I'd return to my house in sleepy Pembrook and everything would go back to the way it was.

Blackwood opens a black fabric journal marked with a satin ribbon and scans the page. "Before I tell you about Academy Absconditi and its student body, there are three rules that are absolutely nonnegotiable. They must be obeyed at all times and they apply not only to students, but to faculty as well." She folds her hands over her papers. "The first is that you do not speak, write, or in any other way communicate about your life outside these walls. Not what town you lived in, not who you're related to. Not your last name or the names of people you know. I understand that you're particularly gregarious, and I just want to make myself extra clear that if you break this rule, you not only put yourself in danger, but also put your family in danger."

I squint at her. "How would I put my family in danger here? This place is supposed to be the opposite of dange—"

"I also understand that you've been quite sheltered," Blackwood says, flat out ignoring my question and giving me a disapproving stare. "But time will correct that."

I don't respond because I'm not sure what she's referring to and I'm not sure I want to know. Maybe she's right about the disorientation, or maybe it's this conversation that makes me feel like I'm upside down.

"The second rule forbids you to leave the campus," Blackwood continues. "This institution is located deep in a forest that's rigged with traps. Going beyond the perimeter walls is not only unwise, but extremely perilous."

I sit up. Now, this is the kind of school perk Dad sold me on—tree obstacle courses, complex puzzles, knife-throwing tricks. If this place turns out to be as Robin Hood adventurous as it is creepy, I guess I can forgive him for the long-distance travel, and her for the possible drugging. "What kind of traps? Has anyone ever made it through them?"

"No. Never," she says as though she's answered this question countless times and it never stops being exhausting. My eyes drift momentarily above her head to the maroon-and-silver crest on the wall, under which I read the Latin phrase Historia Est Magistra Vitae. Before I can work out the meaning, Blackwood starts talking again.

"The third rule is that if you harm another student, we adhere to an eye-for-an-eye punishment system. All sparring must be confined to the classroom under faculty supervision."

The momentary excitement I had over the booby-trapped forest disappears, and I feel my expression drop into a frown. Dad said that sending me here was only a precaution, that he needed to be with Aunt Jo for a few weeks, that he couldn't watch us both at the same time. He told me to trust him. I just assumed he was being overly protective like usual. But if there's danger here, then the whole thing reeks. A tiny knot forms in my stomach, not the type that overwhelms you in the moment, but the type that lurks and grows in the dark, quiet moments when you're by yourself.

I look again from the blotted-out windows to the guarded door. "Isn't that a given…the no-hurting-people bit?"

"There have been an unusual number of fatalities here in recent years. So no, it's not a given," she says like it's nothing more important than Taco Tuesday in the cafeteria.

My throat suddenly goes dry. "What do you mean, fatalities? How intense are the classes here? What exactly are people dying from?"

Blackwood looks at me like I'm a lost puppy that she has no intention of petting. "We do not offer basic studies like other preparatory schools; what we offer is a great deal more. The Academy builds on your skill sets and on your individual strengths. For instance, knife throwing is not simply about precision. It is a skill that is practiced while in motion and under duress. And deception is honed so that you may both read it in others and deploy it as second nature. Instead of languages, we offer an accents class and a cultural norms elective to allow you to better move between countries without your origins giving you away. It's a privilege to attend this school, not a right. Our professors are of the highest caliber and our students are hand-picked from all over the world. There are eighteen professors in residence, and you, November, make our one hundredth student. Every spot in this school is coveted and every student here knows that." Her tone sounds like a warning, like I will be out on my butt if I make a wrong move. "You'll need to undergo a psychological and physical examination before we decide which classes will best suit you." She leans back in her chair, the candles in the candelabra on her desk casting shadows across her face.

Academy Absconditi—definitely Latin. My brain whirls into motion. Absconditi stems from absconditum, meaning "hidden" or "secret." So it's either Hidden Academy or Academy of the Hidden. I can feel my eyebrows scrunching up as I try to take it all in. I'm not sure if I'm excited or terrified to be in a secret school with a bunch of knife-throwing deception experts with accent control.

The candles in the room flicker as though to emphasize Blackwood's long pause, and when she speaks I once again get the uncanny feeling that she's able to read my thoughts: "The Academy is true to its name. As far as the world's concerned, we don't exist. Not even your parents, who may or may not have been students here, know its location."

Well, at least Dad was telling the truth when he said he couldn't tell me exactly where I'd be going. Is it possible my mountain man of a father went to this school? It's suspicious that he didn't mention it, but he also never talks about his childhood, so it's not entirely impossible.

"As you may have noticed, there's no electricity here. There's also no Internet access and thus no communication with the outside world whatsoever," Blackwood continues. "Parental visits are organized through the school and approved at our discretion. Understood?"

I stare at her. That explains the lack of a phone and her refusal when I asked to make a call. But this extreme isolation makes me think one of two things is going on here. Either this is going to be the most intense survival training of my life or the threat to our family was significantly worse than the break-in Dad claimed it was and he wanted me far away while he dealt with whatever really happened. My heart beats a little faster at the thought; I don't want to believe he would keep something that important from me.

"Understood," I say cautiously.

"And you agree to the rules?"

"What choice do I—" I clear my throat. "I do."

"Very well," says Blackwood, and releases her breath like she's pleased to be moving on. "As I said, you've come to us late at seventeen. Most students start at fifteen, with the occasional admittance at sixteen. You'll have to make a concerted effort to acclimate quickly, although I've been assured you have the skills not only to keep up with the other students, but to excel here." Her look tells me she isn't sure she agrees. "Still, keep your head down. Watch and learn from the other students. Keep your socializing to a minimum. Be on time and be polite. And above all, do not disrupt."

I would laugh, except it's not funny. She just described the anti-me.

"You'll have meetings with our analyst, Dr. Conner," she continues, "who will help you assimilate. Now I think it best if you retire for the evening. Dr. Conner will begin your evaluation in the morning." She gestures toward the two guards. "These gentlemen will escort you to your room. Layla, your roommate, will act as your guide for your first week. She's been instructed to brief you on the basics, and I have full confidence that she will be thorough. She's one of our best students."

"How do you spell Layla?" I ask, my thoughts turning to one way I can get information without asking for it.

Blackwood hesitates and gives me an odd look. I would tell her that her own name in Old English means "black wood," but there's clearly no point.

"L-A-Y-L-A," Blackwood says, then closes the journal and stands up.

I stand up, too. I want to ask more questions, but it's obvious from her expression that she has no interest in continuing our conversation.

"Thanks, Headmaster Blackwood. Sleep well."

She gives a perfunctory nod and I head for the door. The guard with the torch lifts the latch and I follow him into the hallway. He towers over me, and I'm almost five foot nine. And once again, the guards orchestrate it so that I'm walking between them.

The only sound is my boots on the floor. Their footsteps are conspicuously quiet as we make our way down a flight of stairs and into a hallway lined with arched wooden doors marked by wrought-iron accents. There are no numbers or names to distinguish them. The guard in front of me stops and knocks on the third door on the left. Only a second passes before there's the muffled sound of a metal latch and the door swings open.

The girl behind it has long black hair to her waist, so straight and shiny that it reflects the torch flame. She has dark brown eyes and full red lips. She scans me head to toe and her eyebrows push together, reminiscent of Blackwood's sour pucker.

Even though she's in nothing more than a white nightgown, my boots, shabby and mud-stained from my usual outdoor antics, and my oversized cable-knit sweater suddenly make me feel underdressed.

"Layla, right?" I say, stepping in and breaking the silence with a smile. "I hear we're roommates. I'm November." I reach out my hand to shake hers, but she doesn't take it. Instead she does a quick curtsy. A surprised laugh escapes before I can consider it. Her gaze hardens and she latches the door behind me with a rough click.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh. Really. Your curtsy just caught me off guard. Can we start over?" I can hear my best friend, Emily, scolding me for my poorly timed laughs.

"It's forgotten," she says like she's being forced to be polite to me.

The suite of rooms she shows me only reinforces my initial impression that we're in an old castle somewhere in Europe. And now that I'm not locked in, I can better appreciate the medieval decor. The stone walls have candle sconces that look like they could be a thousand years old. There is a large fireplace, a light gray velvet couch and love seat, and a breakfast table in front of an arched window that's entirely covered by heavy maroon curtains. The gray and maroon remind me of the colors of the crest in Blackwood's office. "Daang," I whisper.

"Your bedroom's there," Layla says flatly, gesturing to my right. Her face shows no emotion whatsoever.

I follow her line of sight to a door that's a narrower version of the one I just came through.

Layla, I think. It's a name that became popular in medieval times, and had something to do with a seventh-century poem. I'm pretty sure it's Arabic in origin, and if Blackwood's spelling was right, it's most likely Egyptian. The tricky part is that each spelling signals a slight variance in meaning…."So, um, did you know your name means 'born at night'?" I turn back to her, but she's gone. I stare at the closed door opposite mine. A lock slides into place on the other side of the wood. I didn't even hear her walk away. She's no Emily, that's certain. Who I'm sure by now is at my house, demanding to know where her best friend is and why I'm not returning her texts. I wish Dad had given me time to explain things to her.

I push open my bedroom door—temporary bedroom door. A candle's lit on my bedside table next to a carafe and drinking glass, and there's a basin of water on my dresser that I presume is for washing up. A white nightgown identical to Layla's lies across the end of my bed—which has a canopy made of wood and an intricately carved headboard. Unfortunately, though, my luggage is nowhere to be seen, and I'm too exhausted to try to sort it out. I pull off my boots and my jeans, dropping them on the floor in a pile, and sit down on the bed. It's like sinking into a giant pillow.

I grab the bottom of my sweater to pull it over my head but change my mind and tuck my legs under the blankets. I blow out the bedside candle and fall backward into the mound of fluff. Only then does my chest tighten with homesickness.

I exhale and stare at the wooden canopy above me. I can make it a couple of weeks anywhere, I assure myself. I made it through soccer camp last summer in a field that stank of rotten cabbage—I'll make it through this.

I TUCK A white linen shirt into a pair of black leggings that I found mysteriously laid out for me when I returned from my bath. I stare at myself in my vanity mirror. The only thing I recognize is my long braid. The rest of me looks like I've dressed up as a pirate for the Renaissance Faire. If Emily saw me, she would laugh for a year. I just wish I had my phone to take a picture.

There's a knock on my bedroom door.

"Come in!" I say, and the door swings open.

Layla's dressed in the same clothes as me, only the pirate gear doesn't diminish her grace. Her hair is in a high sleek ponytail that reaches most of the way down her back. If anything, she looks more regal than she did last night. "We'll be late if we don't go soon. And I'm never late."

"I'm usually late," I say in a friendly tone. "Maybe you'll be a good influence on me."

She frowns.

"Do you know where these clothes came from?" I gesture toward my black-laced boots. "When I got back from the bathroom, they were on the trunk at the foot of my bed."

Her frown deepens. "The maid."

"The maid?" I pause. "You're kidding." Dad never even hired a housekeeper and now I have a maid? This school must have cost him his savings. The knot that formed in my stomach last night tightens. Something about my dad's decision and this entire situation feels off.

She stands a little straighter, which I didn't imagine was possible with her already perfect posture. "Not in the least."

Sheesh. She's stiffer than my ninety-year-old physics teacher. "Well, any chance you know what happened to my clothes?" I ask. "Also, the things I brought with me from"—I remember rule number one—"home. I can't find my luggage anywhere."

"Personal items are forbidden on campus. Headmaster Blackwood keeps them locked up."

"Even my toiletries and my—"


I grumble. I already miss my pillowcase covered in pine trees that was part of a bed set I lusted after for months. And the scarf Emily knitted last winter that has become a staple of my wardrobe even though it's lopsided—all the familiar little bits and pieces from my life are locked up somewhere I can't get them.

"About that—the forbidden part. What's the deal with all the secrecy?" I ask.

Layla looks at me suspiciously. "Why would you ask me that?"

I definitely wasn't expecting her to dish on all the inner workings of this place, considering the severity of Blackwood's rules, but I also wasn't expecting such a defensive answer. Now she's piqued my interest. I smile the disarming smile that's always worked well for me. "I was just hoping you could explain it to me."

On Sale
Feb 25, 2020
Page Count
416 pages