The Contest Teaser
The wish came early like some wishes do.
The desperate ones.
The dying ones.
Those come the earliest.
This one arrived on the cusp of a plan just as it was being set in motion. A glimpse of the future, throbbing like a heartbeat in the old man’s palm. Though the night was calm and quiet, he could feel the panic of another. Fire licking up the stands. Smoke filling the air. Thunder and lightning and screaming all around as spectator trampled spectator in a desperate attempt to escape. The scene swept through him as if he were in the center of the chaos, as if he were the boy.
Standing on the dais, unmoving as the destruction unfolded, his eyes fastened on the girl.
Then the locket.
The boy wished for that destruction with every fiber of his being.
For only then could she be killed.
Magic was forbidden. Lena knew that as surely as she knew her mama baked the best beef pie on this side of the island. Flower petals weren’t supposed to dance in the sky, not without the wind to carry them. Even then, they didn’t choreograph themselves in a dazzling display of hearts and loop-de-loops.
Perhaps, if Lena’s friend had asked, Lena would have said no. They shouldn’t.
But Phoebe was not the sort of girl to ask.
So Lena watched—at once delighted and terrified. For if her parents had taught her anything in her eight years of life, it was the danger of this. Not just kid-dangerous either, but adult-dangerous. The kind that could topple governments. The kind that could sow anarchy. The kind that got people killed. Like the woman who used to live at the end of the lane. She had a niece like Phoebe. According to Lena’s parents, Magic had turned the girl strange. The woman died when Mama was swollen with pregnancy, two weeks before Lena would come writhing and screaming into the world. Her parents spared her the details of this gruesome death. All Lena knew was that it had been unnatural and though there was no proof that the woman’s niece had done it, everybody knew that she had and not a single soul objected when she was taken to the mainland and put in a home for troubled girls.
Still, Lena turned in a circle, her eyes wide as a multitude of white blossoms swirled in a waltz around her, dancing with the strands of dark hair that had come loose from her school day plait. She stood in a whirlwind of sweet perfume as sunlight dappled through the leaves overhead. If Mama saw—if Papa saw—they would forbid Lena from ever seeing Phoebe again. Lena knew this, too. Even without having ever seen, Lena’s parents already encouraged her to make friends with other girls. But compared to Phoebe, those girls were dull, rainy days after weeks of blue sky. And how could anyone catch them, all the way out here, so deep under the cover of the forest outside their obscure little village?
“People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” Phoebe liked to say. “According to my papa, that’s the danger. Not Magic. But the fear of it.”
Like most people, Lena didn’t understand Magic. She only knew that out of all the girls in their village, Phoebe had chosen her. She’d trusted Lena with the biggest secret in the whole world and Lena would not forsake her. She would take that secret to her grave.
Lifting her arms, she twirled with the petals as they spun faster and faster. An enchanting, feather-light cyclone. She laughed. Phoebe laughed too as the petals fell to the ground and she raced ahead. It took Lena a moment to catch her breath. Then she made chase, running deeper into the woods where the cover was so thick, the dappling sunlight disappeared altogether.
“W-wait!” Lena called, her cheeks flushed.
Phoebe stopped, peering up at a peculiar tree covered in something like silver veins.
“Wh-what is it?” Lena asked, approaching hesitantly as Phoebe walked around the thick trunk, eyes trained upward, fingertips grazing the bark.
“It’s a Vine Tree,” Phoebe finally said, her tone soaked in reverence. “They’re dead rare. Mama says almost all of ‘em got chopped during The Purge.”
Another reminder that Magic was dangerous.
Back then, a simple accusation was a death sentence.
And sympathizers were guilty, too.
“Why were they ch-chopped down?” Lena asked, wanting to touch the tree herself. She reached out tentatively, head cocked as she examined the thin veins that weren’t really veins at all, but vines. They reminded her of the ivy that grew up the north side of their schoolhouse, only these were silver without any foliage.
“People think they’re Magic.”
Lena pulled her hand back, capturing her bottom lip between her teeth.
“I wonder how old it is,” Phoebe said, walking around the tree a second time. Then she stopped, cleared her throat, and in a theatrical voice that had a bird taking flight, asked, “What is your age, Good Sir?”
Lena cupped her hand over her mouth to trap a giggle.
Phoebe pressed her ear against the bark. After a beat, her eyes rounded.
“What d-did it say?” Lena asked, forgetting herself.
Trees didn’t talk.
“He said that he’s as old as the Well of Good Hope.”
The Well of Good Hope.
That was as old as time itself.
Lena looked up to its highest branch. It was a beautiful tree, but not the tallest. Nor the widest. There were bigger trees around them. It was hard to believe that this one could be so old. Before she could say so, Phoebe did something very silly. She gave the tree a hug, her arms only long enough to reach halfway around.
Lena’s trapped giggle escaped.
“C’mon,” Phoebe said.
Lena hesitated before joining her friend.
When she did, the two girls could spread their arms just far enough for their fingers to touch.
“What are we doing?” Lena asked, her cheek pressed up against the vines.
“Shh!” Phoebe shushed.
There was a still quiet, as if the forest held its breath.
Or maybe that was Lena.
“Can you hear it?” Phoebe whispered.
Lena strained, wanting to hear whatever it was Phoebe heard. But unless her friend was talking about the chirping of birds, Lena could hear nothing. “Hear what?” she finally whispered back.
“He wants us to make a pact.”
“To love and protect each other always. Like true sisters. Until the day we’re dead.”
The idea delighted Lena, for she had always wanted a sister, and despite any reservations her parents might have, she was positive there’d be none better than Phoebe.
“We’ve got to close our eyes and make a wish. That nothing will ever separate us.”
Lena scrunched up her face and wished to the Wish Keeper himself. “I wish it,” she said.
“Do you promise?”
“Me too,” Phoebe said back, giving Lena’s fingers a squeeze.
Then Phoebe let go. She crouched down and pulled out the small switchblade she kept tucked inside her left boot. When she stood, she addressed the tree with all the gravity of the High King taking a royal oath. “Do I have your permission, Good Sir?” she asked, holding the blade next to one of its vines. When the tree neither objected nor concurred, Phoebe cut off a length.
Lena gasped as the severed vine on the tree grew back into wholeness, reconnecting itself right before their eyes. “H-how did it d-do that?”
Phoebe didn’t answer. She took the vine in her hand, cut it in two, and held the pieces apart. They grew toward one another as if they weren’t meant to be separated. Phoebe placed one half of the vine against her forearm. Gently, almost tenderly, it wrapped itself around her wrist like a delicate bracelet made of silver. Phoebe held up the other half and touched the vine to Lena’s skin. It felt warm and smooth and a little tingly as it circled her wrist.
The two girls examined their new accessory.
“Friendship bracelets,” Lena said.
“Sister bracelets,” Phoebe corrected.
Lena smiled as a sound came from behind them. The girls turned, and there, north of the tree, was a rabbit caught in a snare.
“Trappers!” Phoebe exclaimed. “Blast those varmints!”
As she approached, the poor rabbit cowered in her shadow. At the sight of its broken, bleeding paw, a great sadness overtook Lena, the kind that filled up her entire chest and made her want to cry.
“It’s okay, little friend,” Phoebe said, her voice gentle and soft. The kind of voice she’d used with Lena the first time she caught her crying after Tucker Thompson and his buddies made fun of her stutter. It was not the voice she’d used with Tucker. “We’re going to get you out of there. But first, I need you to promise not to run away. Otherwise, your paw will get infected and you could get awful sick.”
Slowly, with her hands held in such a way so the animal could see every movement, Phoebe pried open the trap. The rabbit didn’t hop away. It stayed in place. Phoebe picked it up and cradled it in her arms. She kissed it softly on the head, closed her eyes, and began to sing. It was the softest, most beautiful song Lena had ever heard. The kind that turned all the sadness in her chest into something hopeful.
Overhead, the leaves began to rustle.
Branches began to sway.
A rush of warmth enveloped Lena, so noticeable she gasped. And when she looked down at her friend, she saw that the rabbit’s paw was no longer broken or bleeding. But completely healed.
Phoebe set it on the ground.
Its nose twitched.
A third time.
Then it hopped away, disappearing into a bush.
Phoebe stood and dusted off her hands. Her face was pale. Her eyes, cloudy. This was the first time Lena had seen Magic take any toll on her friend. But then, this was the first time she’d seen her friend do anything so powerful.
“A-a-are you okay?” Lena asked.
Phoebe smiled a tired smile, and together, the two girls left the forest, the pact of their sisterhood wrapped around their wrists, a resoluteness solidifying in Lena’s eight-year old heart. She wasn’t sure about Magic. But she was sure about Phoebe. Her friend wasn’t dangerous. No matter what her parents said, no matter what anyone would ever say, she knew this to be true. Phoebe was too good—too filled with light and happiness—to be anything other than perfectly safe.
“I hate them.”
The words escaped between clenched teeth in a cloud of hazy white. They belonged to one Briar Bishop, a golden-eyed, raven-haired, seventeen-year-old girl who hated a great many things. Parox, for starters, and the devastation the illness wrought on innocent lives. The commonwealth’s nobility, and the blind eye it turned to so much suffering. Guillotine Square, and the executions that took place there every Red Moon. Magic, and the havoc it brought upon her family. And the Illustrians. The nauseating Illustrians, to whom her hatred was currently directed. She watched with slitted eyes as a group of them made their way through The Skid—finely-dressed as always, sticking out like peacocks in a flock of sparrows.
They came on any day of the week, but Nuach seemed to be the most popular. Extra aggravating as that particular day was already overcrowded, which was probably why the Illustrians preferred visiting on Nuach. The Skid’s inhabitants weren’t scattered throughout the capital city of Antis working laboriously, but condensed and on full display—hanging laundry out to dry, bargaining for food with the peddlers who sold vegetables and dried fish and butchered meat, hauling bags of water from a well north of the railroad tracks—while the Illustrians filtered through in tightly-knit groups, led by a tour guide, flanked by a constable. They gawked and they gaped and they pointed, capturing bits and pieces with their sleek technology like sightseers at a menagerie, wrinkling their noses anytime a breeze swept up the slum’s main artery and stirred up the trademark scent of raw sewage. It was a scent Briar no longer noticed. The Illustrians, however? She never failed to notice them, no matter how commonplace they had become.
“I wouldn’t mind being one of them,” Lyric said.
This was Briar’s brother. At thirteen, Lyric was growing like pulled taffy with never enough food to feed him. Like his sister, he had black hair and golden eyes. Unlike his sister, he didn’t hate the Illustrians; he envied them. Sometimes Briar suspected he admired them. A fact that made her stomach twist into a knot. There was so much Lyric didn’t understand. And a significant amount he didn’t know.
Overhead and to the east, the morning sun stretched across the rooftops of shanties so squished together that from above, they resembled a patchwork quilt of rusty browns. The light extended to meet the very edge of one rooftop in particular—Rosco’s booth.
Briar hated Rosco’s booth.
At the moment, Briar also needed Rosco’s booth.
A moral quandary she had faced too many times in her young life. A moral quandary that had her wrinkling her nose more aggressively than the despicable Illustrians.
The breeze returned, tugging a strand of hair from her braid. It caught in the corner of her mouth. She pulled it away and tucked it behind her ear with the hand she hid inside a black, fingerless glove. Two men on a motorized scooter zoomed past—calling out a curse as they went—swerving so close they practically ran over Lyric’s boots. Briar grabbed her brother by the elbow and yanked him back, nearly tumbling over the vendor behind them.
“Oi!” the proprietor shouted. “Watch where you’re going, would you?”
She steadied herself, straightened her well-worn parka, and with a lift of her chin, wove her way through the crowded thoroughfare toward the booth she hated. An outbreak of Parox was spreading through The Skid like wildfire, polluting the nights with a violent chorus of wheezing and hacking that left without treatment, almost always concluded in death by asphyxiation. Their neighbor—Mrs. Simmons, a woman who had been like a grandmother to them these past couple years had fallen victim. Recently, she’d grown so weak she couldn’t go into work—a death sentence in and of itself. The herbal remedies found at local apothecary stalls would no longer do. Mrs. Simmons needed an antibiotic. Those were not sold in places like The Skid. Nobody could afford them.
It was Lyric’s unless, spoken with raised eyebrows as he wiggled the rolled-up parchment in the air. Last month, Rosco had given her brother the parchment, as well as a set of oils, and ever since, a pile of bright paintings had been accumulating on their rickety-table-for-two, as out of place as the Illustrians.
A generous gift, Lyric had said.
More like a strategic temptation, Briar had thought.
“When will that brother of yours quit breaking his back at the Docks and join me here?” It was the same question Rosco had been asking ever since he caught Lyric spray-painting the side of a broken-down taxi van with his friend, Jet. And while it was true—her brother did have a gift—he would not be an apprentice to a drunkard. Nor would he build his livelihood on the very people so happy to exploit them. This was the bigger issue in Briar’s mind. The one she couldn’t stomach. Every day, Rosco laughed with the Illustrians. Rosco posed for their insulting pictures. Then he took their money with his greasy hands, encouraging the exploitation, for the Illustrians could leave The Skid pleased with themselves for supporting local business.
More like lining the pockets of a local sot.
And yet here Briar was, stepping inside Rosco’s booth, ready to hand over one of Lyric’s paintings. She could smell the alcohol on Rosco even now, well before noon. Not only did he accept money from the Illustrians, he proved to each one that their tightly held prejudices were true. People like them—ciphers all throughout the commonwealth of Korah—were depraved degenerates. Any destitution they faced lay on their shoulders and their shoulders alone. That one whiff of alcohol negated centuries’ worth of injustice and oppression.
As soon as Rosco turned around and saw them standing there with the painting in hand, his jaundiced eyes went bright. “Are my sights deceiving me?”
Lyric smiled his lopsided smile. “We finally broke her down, Rosc.”
Briar shot him a dark look. He might be half a foot taller, but she was and would always be four years older, and for all intents and purposes, more of a mother than a sister, given the fact that she’d raised him these past ten years. “It’s one painting, Lyric. Just one. For Mrs. Simmons.”
“I hear she’s sick with the cough.” Rosco took the painting. This one, a dreamlike cottage nestled in the woods with beams of ethereal sunlight dappling through the trees. It was a scene Lyric had never laid his eyes upon. A creation in his mind, inspired from the stories he charmed Briar into telling. Stories she hardly remembered herself. And yet somehow, her little brother brought the vague memories to life with such astounding clarity, she had a hard time looking at them. Rosco held the parchment flat between his outstretched hands. “If it’s medicine you’re wanting, this will more than get it for her.”
“How soon do you think it will sell?” Lyric asked, an unmistakable note of excitement in his voice.
“If I was a betting man, and I am—” He shot them a wink. “Before the end of the day, I’d wager.”
Lyric went taller, prouder beside her.
Briar nodded matter-of-factly. “We’ll be back later, then.”
“He’s welcome to stay if he’d like.”
“And pose for pictures with the Illustrians? No thank you.” She took Lyric by the arm and pulled him from the booth, out into the crowd.
“Why can’t I stay?” he protested as she drew him along.
“Why do you think Rosco fills his belly with rotgut every night after he closes?”
“It’s a cheap way to fill his belly?”
“To dull his conscience. He knows what he’s doing is wrong.”
“Wrong? According to who—Briar the Judge?”
Briar rounded on him. “I’m no judge, Lyric.” She slid a glance at the constable on the corner, then stepped closer and lowered her voice. “It’s called having standards. And dignity. Rosco has neither.”
“Rosco is harmless.”
Briar closed her eyes. Rosco wasn’t harmless. Rosco was part of the problem. And now, so were they. Just like they’d been before. And yet, Mrs. Simmons needed that antibiotic. With a sigh, she gave her shoulders a weary lift. She was in no mood for a debate. “I’ll go back before sundown. If Rosco is right, then I might be able to get the medicine before curfew.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence, Lyric brooding, Briar lost in thought. So much so that when she pushed through the corrugated metal door of their shanty, she didn’t notice the strange and mysterious envelope on the dirt floor. Lyric tromped over the threshold, the sole of his boot leaving a dusty print on its gold lettering. He plopped down on their tattered sofa, its springs squeaking in protest, and began fiddling with their crank receiver—turning the lever, fiddling with the wires—until the fuzzy squawks gave way to a program with decent reception. On the table, the oils and parchment sat beside a pile of artwork so vivid and beautiful, it pinched at something deep inside Briar’s chest. Her brother was a talented artist. There was no denying it. But what was the point of such a gift here, in this place that demanded practicality?
“This becomes the latest in a string of death defying stunts, leaving the world to wonder—is this a cry for help, or is Prince Leo simply sowing his wild oats?”
Briar’s ears perked.
The program host was talking about the High Prince. She’d seen footage of him yesterday, projected on a holographic simulcast near Guillotine Square on her commute home from the Docks. She could still picture him—tall and broad, dark-haired and blue-eyed, arms spread wide as he soared like an eagle in full dive down the face of a cliff with a wing-like contraption strapped to his back. Briar’s stomach had swooped at the sight.
“That’s right, Ed. Old wounds are hard to heal. Which leads to another question on everyone’s mind. Will the High Prince be in attendance at today’s executions? He hasn’t set foot inside the Square since his mother’s murderer was brought to swift justice ten years ago—”
“Turn it off.” Briar’s voice whipped across the room like a snapped bowstring.
“But it’s the prince,” Lyric said. “You looove the prince. Or you hate him. I can never tell.”
She marched over, grabbed the receiver, and twisted the dial herself, Lyric’s teasing words echoing in the sudden silence.
“What’d you do that for?” he asked.
Briar didn’t answer. Her voice was stuck in her throat, trapped behind a rising tide of memories every bit as confusing now as they ever were.
A darkening sky.
Papa yelling at her to run.
She opened her eyes, unsure when she’d closed them.
Lyric stood in front of her, his hand on her shoulder, concern tugging down the corners of his mouth. “You okay?”
“I’m fine, I just …” She blinked several times, her gloved hand curling around the locket resting in the dip of her clavicle. At times, she wanted to rip it off. Throw it away. But it was the last thing she had of her parents and taking it off might mean forgetting. And if she forgot, the monster that got her mother might get her, too. Briar couldn’t let that happen. She turned to the sink—a metal basin perched on top of a wooden barrel. “People’s heads are being loped off on national simulcast and this is what the media cares about—whether or not the High Prince will be in attendance?”
She poured lukewarm water from a large pitcher into the basin and began scrubbing a tin cup with hands that trembled. “Excuse me for not having the stomach for it.”
What she said was true enough.
“What’s this?” Lyric asked, moving to the entryway. He scooped something up from the ground—the strange and mysterious envelope. Sunlight from one of their small windows reflected off the gold, looping cursive beneath the dust of Lyric’s boot print. To Miss Briar Bishop. “I didn’t think couriers came to The Skid.”
“They don’t,” Briar said, taking the odd delivery from her brother.
She turned it over to a wax seal stamped with the letter W. She sliced it open and pulled out the most peculiar parchment she had ever seen. Stiff, like a hardy card stock, but smoother than silk against her fingertips, and iridescent, like it couldn’t decide on one color and so chose to display a dazzling array of them. There were words in the same looping cursive as her name. The same color, too, as if they’d been stitched with golden thread.
The Honor of Your Presence is Requested
In the Capital City of Antis
On the Fifteenth Day of the Third Month.
Please Arrive Ten Minutes Before the Bell Tolls Midnight
Outside the Gates of the Squire Estate.
“The Squire Estate?” Lyric said, reading the words over her shoulder.
Lyric never had a formal education. Ciphers typically didn’t. But Briar’s father taught her to read when she was very young. She had done her best to pass that knowledge along. She and her brother saw the Squire Estate every day when they worked at the Docks. It had been boarded up and closed to the public for longer than she’d been alive. Curious, she turned the invitation over and found three lines, followed by a signature so absurd, she laughed.
There is something you want.
A wish you would die for.
Come and see how it might be granted.
“Sincerely, the Wish Keeper,” Lyric read, his voice brimming with the same excitement he’d used inside Rosco’s booth.
Briar rolled her eyes. “This isn’t real.”
“How do you know?”
“Because the Wish Keeper doesn’t exist.” It was nothing more than legend. There wasn’t actually a person out there somewhere in Korah, collecting and granting wishes. The whole thing was made-up, a story passed from parents to children, one she foolishly believed once upon a time. One that was as harmless as Rosco, only instead of perpetuating stereotypes and feeding oppression, it spread false hope and disillusionment.
“Lots of people believe otherwise.”
“Just because lots of people believe in something doesn’t make it true.” She tossed the invitation on the table next to Lyric’s paintings.
“You have to go,” he said.
“No, I don’t.”
Her brother looked incredulous.
“I’m sure it’s a prank, Lyric.”
“Who would play a prank on us?”
“I don’t know—Jet?”
“Jet would play a prank on me, not you. And he wouldn’t have the patience to wait a month and a half to see if we’d fall for it. Besides, he doesn’t have anything so fancy to play a prank with. Nobody we know does.” Lyric ran his fingertips across the curious, and no doubt fancy parchment with such a sense of wonder, it made her chest pinch in the same way his paintings did. “You really don’t want to find out if it’s real?”
“If it’s real, it’s wrong.”
Lyric scoffed. “You’re telling me there’s nothing you want?”
“Of course there are things I want.” Almost more than the things she hated. “An ethical King, for starters. A better life for everyone stuck here in The Skid. Dignity for our people. Fair wages, equal access to education, affordable medicine—”
“Is that all?” he asked, quirking his eyebrow.
“I want those things, little brother of mine. But they’re never going to happen.” Certainly not from any wish she might make. Briar learned long ago that her wishes fell on deaf ears. She couldn’t change the world, but she could take care of Lyric. That was her duty.
“As long as people keep thinking that way, it never will.”
She turned back to the sink, away from her brother’s disappointment, her brother’s words—and the aching way they made her think of their father—while Mrs. Simmons’ hacking cough pierced the walls from next door.
Leo Davenbrook was tempted to jump. Strip naked and dive right off the cliff into the crashing sea below. Let the meddlesome media document that for the public. He knew they were out there, lurking in the distance with their cutting-edge equipment, eager to turn a profit on the images they captured. He could shake his bodyguards, but he could never shake them. They always managed to find him. As far back as Leo could remember. No matter the circumstance. No matter the situation. There they were, exploiting every piece of his life for the public’s eager consumption. As if he were nothing more than a collection of atoms that existed for the sole purpose of fetishizing, idolizing, critiquing. Sometimes, Leo believed it. Sometimes, he only remembered he was real when adrenaline coursed through his veins. This jump would make him feel real.
He leaned forward, staring down the cliff’s craggy face as the wind tousled his dark hair. He doubted anyone would live to boast about the thrill. Assuming the jumper could survive the sheer height, they would still have to contend with the rocks at the bottom. And there were plenty of those.
A chirp sounded behind him—an aggravation that tempted Leo all the more.
The royal stewards were summoning him via his cousin’s vox.
Leo had long since slipped his own off and tucked it away.
“You are so dead.” A thrill of excitement shaped Hawk’s words. Leo’s rebellion never ceased to amuse him. “So am I if I don’t answer.”
Death was inevitable, then. For him and his cousin. He’d rather meet it in a thrilling jump than at the hands of his father.
His name came like a croon poured softly into his ear. He turned and pulled back his chin, surprised by Sabrina’s presence beside him. Her face swam in his vision, doubling as her hair danced in the wind. His lips turned up at the corners—a lazy, inebriated grin. “Sweet, sanguine Sabrina.”
The s’s felt funny on his tongue. He found himself elongating them.
“Sanguine is a fancy word to use when you’re drunk. Now come on. Let’s get you away from here.”
“I could make it, you know. This jump.” He leaned forward, calculating the exact place he’d have to land.
“I’m sure you think you can.” Sabrina took his hand.
If the tabloids captured this, they’d love her more than they already did.
“I should marry you right now. Give the people what they want. I think even my dad would approve.” Which spoke highly of Sabrina’s likability. Leo’s dad never approved. At least not when it came to Leo.
“Your wife should be someone you can kiss.”
“Once, and I believe your exact words were ‘this feels incestuous’.”
Leo sighed. Unfortunately, it had. Perhaps because the two of them had been running around together in diapers, when her grandfather acted as senior chamberlain to his. His attention slid down her backside as she led him away from the drop. “Sightly, sublime Sabrina. Keeping me alive since we were kids.”
“It’s been a full time job. One nobody else is bothering to help me with.” She pointed her words at Hawk.
“He doesn’t care if I die,” Leo said.
“Of course he does.”
Leo snorted. If he died, Hawk would be that much closer to taking the throne. He’d just have to eliminate his own father and his older brother and he’d officially be next in line. While such a fate had become a millstone around Leo’s neck, it was a tasty morsel to Hawk, one that made him salivate. Sabrina sat Leo in the grass beside his cousin, a safe distance away from the drop. Hawk cradled a bottle in his lap.
His vox blinked in the dark and began chirping again.
“Turn it off before I throw it into the sea!” Leo clamped his mouth shut and looked sideways at nobody in particular. He was fairly certain he slurred the words, which meant he’d gone too far—bypassing the pleasant buzz of tipsiness and plummeting into inebriated misery. According to Sabrina, he brooded when he was drunk.
“If the sightly, sublime Sabrina really wanted to keep you alive,” Hawk said, “she should have made sure you went to Guillotine Square.”
The alcohol in Leo’s gut soured.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t just go.”
The very idea of Guillotine Square slicked his palms with sweat, stirring up memories he didn’t want stirred. Dark, viscous sea monsters lurking in the deep. He grabbed Hawk’s bottle and took a long drink.
“There are far less tedious duties,” Hawk pressed. “At least the executions are somewhat entertaining. You should start picking your battles. Stop poking an angry bear over ciphers.”
His cousin’s callous words made Leo want to stand back up and sprint headlong off the cliff. Sometimes he didn’t understand how they were related. But then, Leo was related to his father. “My mother was a cipher.”
“Your mother was murdered by a cipher.”
Leo frowned. She was. But she’d been one, too. A long time ago. He stared at the horizon, beyond Jethro Bay where the Afrean Sea stretched from east to west. “She was born out there, you know.”
He could feel Sabrina looking at him.
Of course she knew.
So did Hawk.
His mother had been born on the Forbidden Isle formerly known as Cambria. The disaster had killed her parents and forced her to evacuate when she was seventeen. Somehow, the destruction of her homeland made her that much more unreachable. As if the chasm of death could be widened by his inability to visit the place that knew her first.
Sabrina sat beside him and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I heard there were—Are there really—” She pulled a face, like she wasn’t exactly sure how to ask the question. “Creatures there?”
“Radioactive mutants.” Hawk wiggled his fingers and widened his eyes. They sparkled deviously. “My brother used to tell me they were attracted to the scent of urine, and if I didn’t stop wetting the bed, they would swim across the sea and gobble me up in my sleep.”
Sabrina shuddered. “That’s horrible.”
“It worked, though. I never wet the bed again.”
“And never slept again, either.” Leo finished the remains inside Hawk’s bottle, then drew back his arm and whipped it into the great abyss.
“They can’t really just … swim across the sea, can they?”
Silly, solicitous Sabrina.
The Forbidden Isle was home to the Domed City, once a fortress city. A military city. With a wall surrounding it. The epicenter of the disaster. As soon as it was evacuated, first responders erected a dome to keep the contamination within. “If there are mutants, they’ll be stuck inside until they die.”
“If they die.”
Leo jabbed his cousin with his elbow as the sound of footsteps approached behind, falling in perfect unison. Leo swore under his breath. His father had used Hawk’s vox to track them down, and judging by the number of footsteps, he’d sent an entire detachment to apprehend him.
An hour later, Leo was home—his mood black, his head splitting.
The grand atrium was still and quiet, but not unoccupied. Uniformed guards stood at attention inside like they did everywhere throughout the palace—as still as statues with their eyes trained straight ahead. It was as if they weren’t real. It was as if they were him. A fresh throb of pain stopped him in his tracks. He winced. The problem with drinking was, the distraction never lasted. And he always paid for it later.
The soft sound of footfalls captured his ear.
He glanced over his shoulder at a young maidservant. She jerked to an awkward stop and fell into a curtsy, the gold shackle on her wrist shiny and new. A slave, just like every other servant inside the castle. Judging by the slightness of her build and the tremble in her shoulders, she was a young and terrified one.
Leo waited, curious if she’d speak.
Apparently, she needed some prompting.
“May I help you?”
The girl’s cheeks went from pink to pale. She started and stammered. Curtsied a second time. Then finally found her voice. “I apologize, Your Highness. I came to see how I might serve you.”
Her accent was born far away from the capital city of Antis, from the whole province of Mirum. By the way she rounded her vowels and shortened each R, she came from somewhere north. “You’re new.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“What is your name?”
She blinked at him, looking as though he’d just asked her to explain a complicated math equation.
“It’s not a trap. I’m simply inquiring after your name.” It was, of course, a misleading statement. There was nothing simple about inquiring after a slave’s name. As soon as they sold themselves, they were stripped of their names, stripped of their identities, stripped of their fealties. As if doing so would also strip them of their ability to think for themselves, and thus eliminate any threat that might otherwise gather in secret. Like it had once before. A fact Leo would be wise to remember.
The girl’s attention slid to the nearest guard. “Nothing of significance, my Lord.”
“That’s a long sort of name, isn’t it?”
A blush rose in her cheeks.
“If I’m any connoisseur of accents, then I’d say you’re from …” He waffled between two options, then settled on the province further north. “Bahar?”
Her head came up quickly, her eyes bright with surprise.
He’d guessed correctly. Before he could say so, the far doors to the atrium swung open. His father entered sans his usual entourage. His staccato footsteps echoed in the large chamber, his face a mask of cold, contained fury.
The poor girl shoved her hand into the air. “Izar!” she choked.
His father frowned, then asked her to leave in a voice so low and ominous, she couldn’t scuttle away fast enough. When she was gone, the High King turned his ire upon his son. “Flirting with the slaves again, I see.”
“If flirting is being kind, then yes, Father. I guess I am.”
The king closed the gap between them in two long strides. He reached into the front pocket of Leo’s coat and yanked out the small circular band hidden inside. Leo’s vox. “So you do still own one.”
“I forgot to turn it on.”
“The public expected you at the executions today. Instead, they will no doubt see footage of you carousing on the cliffs with your foolish cousin.”
“We were still celebrating my birthday. I’m sure the public will understand.”
“The public will speculate.”
“Then let them speculate.”
Quicker than a viper, his father struck. He grabbed Leo by the collar of his coat and shoved him against the wall, his face thrust so close, Leo could see the vein throbbing in his temple. Only he did not yell. He never yelled. His voice came out eerily calm while rage swirled in his frosty blue eyes. “If the public thinks I cannot control my own son, then what is to stop them from thinking I cannot control them?”
Leo clenched his teeth, nose-to-nose with the man who was no longer taller.
“I have been more than indulgent. But here it ends. You’re eighteen now, which means playtime is over. You will be at the next execution, even if I have to drag you there myself. Is that understood?”
Leo held his tongue.
His father pulled him forward and slammed him against the wall. So hard, spots of light danced in the periphery of his vision. “I said is … that … understood?”
“Yes, my lord,” Leo replied, gritting the words between his teeth.
“Good. Now clean yourself up and meet me in the Chamber of Lords in one hour.” His father let go, returned the vox to Leo’s front pocket, and swept out of the room, leaving his son alone with the unmoving guards. Would they have stepped in if the king’s rage got the best of him? Or would they have stood there like statues watching while it happened?
Leo turned in the opposite direction and strode toward the east wing. When he reached his chambers, he flung open the doors and slammed them shut. He marched to his dressing table and in a surge of frustration, swept his arm across the surface, sending an array of items crashing to the floor. He spread his hands wide against the cool marble and looked at his reflection in the gilded mirror.
His hair was a windswept mess. Stubble shadowed his jaw. The thirty-six hour birthday binge had purpled the skin beneath his eyes, making the blue of his irises all the bluer. He’d reached his father’s height of six foot two. His shoulders and chest—once skinny in youth—had grown broad with muscle. He had—the public liked to say—the face and physique of a god.
He glared at the glass, searching for a trace of her.
But after ten years, her face was growing increasingly difficult to recall.
All Leo saw was him.
A cold and heartless king.
He yanked at the collar of his shirt, pulling it down to reveal the mark above his heart. The Davenbrook family crest—the national symbol of Korah—every bit as neat and distinct as it ever was. Even after eighteen years of growth, the scar remained unaltered. The law forbid Magic, and yet here it was. Etched on Leo’s chest. There was no stretching it. No distorting it. No changing it. A perfect picture of his destiny. The reason he was here and his mother was dead. This scar that trapped her. Trapped him. Bound his life to the throne. Anger swelled like waves. He dragged his hand down his face, then noticed something in the mirror’s reflection. Something that didn’t belong.
An envelope lay in front of his door.
He turned around. Mail wasn’t surreptitiously slipped under the doors of private chambers. Not official mail anyway. This certainly looked official. Moving closer, he found his name written in golden script sans his royal title. It said simply To Mr. Leopold Davenbrook. A traitorous act, if he cared. He slid his finger beneath the seal and broke it, then pulled out the card inside which shimmered as it caught the light.
There is something you want.
A wish you would die for.
Come and see how it might be granted.