Frost was glazed over the window, but from peering out of the glass she could make out the blurred figures of a couple walking down the cobblestone path to the front door of the school. It was always this time of year that Jacinta's parents returned for a visit.
They had left her at Meriweather's School for Girls years ago when she was just a little girl — it had been an abrupt enrollment. One day the Salazar household was calm, and the next it was thrown into chaos and they were shipping their daughter off to boarding school. Jacinta clearly recalls her mother's features contorted in panic as she cried to her father behind a closed door, neither of them realizing that Jacinta was peeking in through the office's glass.
Jacinta was never given an explanation why she had to leave for Meriweather's. She was simply handed her suitcases, dropped off, and given a kiss on the forehead before her parents walked away back into the snow, leaving the thirteen-year-old Jacinta to wonder what she did wrong.
The Salazars only returned three times a year during holiday breaks to visit Jacinta, leaving an endless rift between them and their daughter that could never be closed.
There was gossip in the school about her mother from the girls who would leave during the breaks to see their family.
"My uncle's a Peacekeeper. Maybe I should tip him off to arrest Marina Salazar," one of them taunted after returning from her visit during Ratmas.
"The rumors aren't true," Jacinta would argue back, but even she wasn't entirely sure. "People are just jealous of my mother's success."
But Marina Salazar was indeed not an honest success story. She had clawed her way to the top from the bottom of the gutter. Her wealth was earned through the struggle, through sacrifice — but not in the way that was considered honorable. Marina was a liar, a cheater, and most of all, a criminal.
"She married your father for the money —"
Many women would have married her father for his money. The Salazar line had passed down their wealth for generations; they were considered to be a prestigious family in the upper ranks of society. But her parents' love is real — isn't it?
When they returned, they wore stoic expressions on their faces, masks that Jacinta could not break apart. "We're taking you back home," they said.
"What? That's it? No hello, no 'sorry for barely speaking to you for four years'?"
Her mother looked at her with cold dark eyes that bore into her skin. "There are certain things that you don't understand, Jacinta. You will someday."
"No, you can't just — you can't just give me something cryptic like that! I barely know you anymore; you're hardly even my mother."
Marina was a harsh woman, molded into steel by years of being on the streets and fighting on behalf of her gang — the Serpents. She had tattoos on her arms, a pair of snakes twisted together with crossbones between their heads, that she covered up with satin jackets in public. Ripred forbid that the upper class families the Salazars associated knew about Marina's true profession — it was such a deep secret that Jacinta did not even know.
She folded her arms over her chest, and though Jacinta was detached from her parents, she recognized this stance. Marina's body grew rigid and her eyes livened with defiance, face freezing over with ice. She knew she was in trouble, now.
"You have no idea what you're talking about. We didn't put you in Meriweather for no reason."
Her father cut in, "It was for your own good, Cinta, truly."
Cinta — that was a nickname she hadn't heard since she was fourteen. Only her parents called her Cinta; her friends at school referred to her as Jaci if they were using a nickname.
"Then can you explain? Can you explain why you straight up ditched me?"
Her parents exchanged a look. "No," answered her mother. "But in time, yes."
"You're just — not ready for the answer, yet."
They had always been vague about anything serious, like it was valuable information that Jacinta was not allowed to know. Anything that ever caused her parents stress or panic was automatically shut out from her — and she began to wonder if some of the rumors about her mother were true. It would explain a lot, certainly.
But she knew better not to push it, and so she didn't. Instead, she stood up from her seat and walked up the stairs and down the corridor to begin packing her bags and saying her goodbyes.
Yes, the rumors were true, her father confirmed — but there was more than just that.
There were three kinds of Serpents, Jacinta learned, three branches of the same organization that dates back many years. There are the Pures, the Crossbones, and the Scarlets; her mother is a Crossbone, hence the tattoo on her arm. As legend has it, there were supposedly twenty-eight original families in District Seven. As more families arrived, they banded together and formed the Original Twenty-Eight, which started off as a simple organization — families who worked together to better each other in their careers. But then it became something else, something much darker than a simple organization.
They grew into more of a gang rather than a business organization, as their influence began to spread and their power flourished. And so the Original Twenty-Eight was no more, and in their place, a gang called the Serpents. They didn't consider themselves a gang, however; they were non-violent. They called themselves a circle instead.
("No, we aren't a gang, Jacinta. It's not barbaric, or anything. Gangs are violent; they turn against each other and have shootouts. Shootouts, can you believe it? How ridiculous. No, I promise it isn't like that. It's just . . . a different form of business.")
As the Serpents became more powerful, they also became more divided. The three branches constantly conflict, her mother said, but quickly added, "But there's never violence! It's not a gang, remember that." The Pures were said to be "unmixed" with non-original families of District Seven. They are of only "original blood", and therefore are in charge of the Serpents. They are marked with the serpent tattoo, but instead of Crossbones like Jacinta's mother has, there is a silver shield between the snakes' heads. The Crossbones are descendants of the Pures who have mixed with non-original families; their job is to oversee the Serpent's workers and manage distribution of goods. (Jacinta had a good idea of what exactly these "goods" actually are.)
The lowest tier of the Serpent hierarchy is the Scarlets, marked by a red rose between the serpent heads on their arm. They are unrelated to the original families and act as the workers for the Serpents — in other words, they perform the dirty work.
After explaining the mess of a situation, her mother told her, "One day, you could — you could be a Serpent, you know, if you wanted. You could be a Crossbone and inherit my legacy."
But she didn't want that — Jacinta didn't want to be involved in a gang obsessed with blood purity that probably isn't even valid. What if the Original Twenty-Eight were just a myth, and these tensions and rules were for nothing? If she did inherit both her father's and her mother's legacies, there was a promise of riches and prosperity, but wouldn't she be fine with only inheriting her father's business? Surely a Salazar cousin could take over for Marina.
She did not want a tattoo on her arm or become obligated to fight against self-proclaimed aristocrats for the sake of money. But she knew she may not have a choice in the matter.
"So why did you leave me at Meriweather's? Was it — was there danger or something because of the Serpents?"
"I —" Marina's face turned stark white in the darkness of her father's office. "There was a powerful Pure who believed that I was gaining too much influence; we had been fighting over claims, and they threatened to hurt you if I didn't back down. Just to be sure, I had to send you away, Jacinta, you're my only daughter —"
"Here's a better solution," Jacinta snapped, "why don't you, I don't know, not be in a gang? Or, sorry, my bad — a shady 'organization.'"
"I knew you would not understand."
"No, I don't understand. I don't understand why you abandoned me for years all so you could go after a new business claim and earn even more money than you already have! Why aren't Dad and I enough for you?"
She knew the answer — because her mother, like her parents before her, was raised to be a power-hungry Serpent. Perhaps Marina did Jacinta a favor by sending her away, so she wouldn't end up like her.
Jacinta once recalled her life before Meriweather's School For Girls with joy and longing. She was raised a spoiled girl who was given anything she ever wanted. She was selfish and vain. Jacinta remembers satin, velvet, and chiffon dresses, polished white shoes, jewel necklaces, gossamer bows in her pigtails. If she had stayed at the Salazar house, perhaps she would have learned to fire a gun, would have been taught, when the time was right, that power was the root of success. But she never learned those things, and so she was not a Serpent at heart like her mother — and she never would be.
At Meriweather's she became more aware of everything she had been given, learned that gourmet meals were not a right, but a privilege. Not everyone at the Boarding School came from a wealthy background; not every girl there had gold pocket watches or crystal necklaces.
Perhaps she should be thanking her parents for abandoning her — but deep down she knows she can never forgive them for that cold feeling of loneliness that sat in her stomach like wet mud for years and years, can never forgive them for all the times she asked herself what she had done wrong to make her parents become to detached and distant.
Holding a grudge was always easier than forgiveness, she found.