I LEAN AGAINST THE DUSTY ELEMENTIARY SHELF crammed with books and jars of animal bits, and stare at my father’s letter. His nearly indecipherable scratch strikes me with swift disappointment. Gods, the All Kingdoms’ Summit happens only every five years. It’s not as if Da hasn’t had time enough to arrange his schedule. The remainder of Da’s message is blocked by another letter. It’s sealed in my father’s wax and addressed to someone named AC.
My heartbeat slogs through my ears, muting the chatter of mismatched accents and clatter of carriage wheels outside the Elementiary. What a fool I am for thinking this time Da’s priorities would include something other than business. Having worked for my father for five years, I know better than to be hurt by this news. Just as I know, without reading further, Da needs me to deliver the letter to AC.
I suppose it also shouldn’t be surprising that there’s no note here for the littleuns or Eugenia, my stepmother and worrier extraordinaire. Overwhelmed by black-market trade and valuable secrets, Da tends to forget all else.
“Lirra, you done?” Orli’s clipped tone echoes from the other side of the shelf.
I fold Da’s letter, intending to finish it later, and squeeze my fingers along the parchment seam. One, two, three sharp slides.
“Almost,” I call out, and shove the now-empty box back into concealment behind a jar of rat tails. To maintain our family’s anonymity and safety, Da sends correspondences here for me to retrieve in secret. He trusts few people more than Astoria, the Elementiary owner and my former magic teacher.
“What’d he write?” Orli asks when I come into view.
My best friend is standing by the door, trapped in a stream of dusty light, right hand strangling the doorknob, the usual tawny tone leached from her knuckles. Despite her unease with Channeler magic, she’s accompanied me here every week since Da left.
“He won’t be returning for a while.” I pick at the broken seal.
“You mean he’ll miss the start of the tournament, right? He’ll return for the jubilee and the other summit festivities.”
I shake my head.
Raven brows shoot up. “He’s going to miss your jubilee performance?”
My nail wedges under the last bit of red wax and frees it from the parchment. “Aye.”
Astoria has one hand on her cane and the other clutching a pile of books, going about business as she usually does whenever I slip inside the Elementiary to pick up Da’s mail. She ambles out of the backroom to her desk, where she deposits the stack. I’m not entirely sure she’s noticed me until she lifts an age-spotted finger to shove her spectacles higher and then points to the letter in my hand. “Not what you were hoping?”
I slip it into my satchel and force a smile. “That’s the way it is with Da’s business.”
“Oh, dear girl.” She frowns. “And it’s your first year entering the jubilee.”
The sadness magnified in her watery blue eyes sours my mood.
My gaze drops to the ring of dirt darkening the hem of my day dress.
There’s a shuffle thump of steps on the wood floors, and then Astoria’s arms come around me, squeezing me to her wonderfully round body.
“Your da knows it’s important to you.” The love she radiates makes me feel like a cat basking in the sun. “He’d be there if he could.”
Astoria has been Da’s friend and closest confidant since before my birth. She offered us a safe place to hide at her home in Shaerdan after we escaped Malam’s Purge—the Channeler eradication that would have seen me killed for my magic ability. We have lived near her ever since. She understands Da better than anyone, but I don’t want to hear her talk him up right now.
“She knows,” Orli says. “All set to go, Lirra?” Her desperation to leave the Channeler school is as potent as the scent of lavender here.
“You don’t have to leave so soon.” Astoria returns to her desk. “Come away from that door and sit down.”
“We need to run by the docks. Getting through all the visitors’ carriages will take time.” Orli points to the blown-glass windows. Outside, a rainbow of fabric has assaulted Shaerdan’s capital city of Celize. Passersby wear their kingdoms’ colors like a shield. Usually, the northern edge of town, where the cliffs climb up from the docks, sees little traffic. Travelers have invaded all of my hometown, even the quiet roads stretching east into farmlands and forests. Scores of people from the four neighboring kingdoms have been arriving for days in anticipation of the All Kingdoms’ Summit and festivities—the Channeler Jubilee, the Tournament of Champions, and the Kingdoms’ Market.
“Orli is right,” I say. “We need extra time to look at the crowds.” I have things to pick up for my jubilee exhibit that can’t wait until tomorrow.
Astoria fiddles with the wrist button of her dress sleeve. “See you next week?”
I nod, even though it’s uncertain if she’s referring to the jubilee showcase or my next mail visit. My head is stuck on a memory from five years ago. At the last jubilee, Da and I watched from the sidelines. Channelers from across the kingdoms showed displays of magic. Breathless and awed, I confessed my dream to perform at the next jubilee.
Next week’s jubilee.
Da said he wouldn’t miss it for all the world.
Silence is the sweetest sound in the Barrett home, and such a rare thing to be had. It’s alarming how loud the boards creak underfoot as Orli and I sneak inside the back door, both of us carrying packages from the dock market. Packages that could be easily snapped in half by my younger brothers’ grubby fingers.
“Where is everyone?” Orli mouths.
I shake my head. The kitchen is filled with the usual mess, minus my family. Dirty dishrags lie heaped in a pile on Grandmother’s table beside a discarded, half-finished drawing of a pig—or an owl. I cannot tell. A stale odor lingers in the air like a haunt of last night’s leek-and-carrot soup. And then there’s the crock of Eugenia’s morning pottage, still sitting on the sooty hearth.
“Eugenia?” Never one to miss a Monday service, my stepmother drags the littleuns to the cathedral on the cliff each week as penance for Da’s profession.
No one answers.
I abandon my protective crouch around the wrapped wooden dowels. “The carriages on the road must’ve slowed her travel.”
“Do you think it’s odd that Eugenia will make peace over Millner’s sins and then spend his earnings the next day?” Orli asks as we head down the hall toward the attic ladder that hangs in a permanent lowered position.
“When you talk about my da’s business like that, it sounds wicked.”
“It’s not exactly saintly. Your father sells secrets to the highest bidder. Not produce or pelts.”
“He’s an information trader.” I shrug off her comment, not eager to discuss my father.
Orli’s head falls back, and she explodes with laughter. “That’s a new one. Though a bit much for Millner Barrett. Maybe something like high ruler of the black market would be more accurate.”
I laugh. At least she didn’t call him Archtraitor, the infamous title he earned for defying the Malamian regent, evading capture, and building a secretive life in Shaerdan. It gets under my skin.
“My point is, she repents one day and spends his money the next.” Orli follows me up to the attic room. She flops on my bed while I sit on the floor and arrange the dowels from largest to smallest. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Was that a note of irritation? I leave the packages lined up like soldiers before their captain. “What’s this about?”
Gone is the easy smile she wore after leaving the Elementiary. Was today too much for her? Were the crowds overwhelming?
“I know what you’re thinking, and that’s not it.” Orli slides her dark braids out of her face. “It’s nothing. Forget I said anything.”
“Nothing is nothing.”
“That makes no sense.”
I pinch her toe. “It means if something’s important to you, it’s important to me. No secrets.”
She points to the packages. “Don’t you want to finish unwrapping those before your brothers get home?”
I don’t even glance down. “Subject change? Beginner’s move. You know I have more self-control than that.”
She guffaws. “A fox in a henhouse has more self-control than you.”
“Is it?” A little light brightens her stormy eyes. “I’m sore over Eugenia’s soil order, is all. Satisfied?”
“The one for cabbage?” Wasn’t that weeks ago?
“You know how the growing season is. Mum hasn’t been able to enhance the soil.” Late spring to summer means increased hours on Orli’s family farm. Especially for her mum, who earns extra money by selling magic-infused soil for growing vibrant, pest-resistant plants. Altering the soil drains her energy, a cost all Channelers pay, which slows production.
“Has Eugenia been pestering her?” Even though Eugenia isn’t a Channeler, she knows Channelers need time to restore energy.
I tear the packaging off the dowels to feel their notched ends, all sanded to a silken texture. The largest dowel, balanced on my open palm, is impossibly light. Almost weightless. The wood’s scent is balsa and musk. A humid summer day and freedom.
“It’s my mum.” Orli’s tiptoe-quiet response brings me back to the room. “She wants me to fill Eugenia’s order. She thinks I’m ready.”
“What do you think?”
She doesn’t answer. A year ago, Orli was kidnapped as part of an attempted coup in Malam. The former regent was intent on siphoning magic from Channelers and combining the stolen energy into the ultimate weapon to use against the young king. I was part of the effort to rescue her, and ever since, Orli has been plagued with nightmarish memories and constant fears. It took months before she was able to leave her farm and venture into public. But she has yet to use her Channeler magic.
“I would help, but all I’m good for is blowing dirt around your farm.” I nudge her knee.
Channelers have influence over one energy—land, air, fire, water, or spirit. Orli and her mother have the ability to manipulate the land, while I can harness the wind.
“That’s all you’re good for?” Orli rolls her eyes.
“It’d have to be a small pile. Dirt’s heavy.”
“You’re full of hot air, you know that?”
“Better than dirt in the ears.”
We both laugh, never too old for Channeler puns.
“Truthfully,” Orli says, more serious. “All you’ve done this year is impressive.”
Does she realize she’s come far this year too? I open my mouth to tell her as much, but she cuts me off. “Don’t be modest. I wasn’t even referring to what you did for me.” Her voice cracks with emotion.
My throat burns too. Dammit.
“I’d do it again,” I whisper, knowing exactly how hard it was to find her. To free her.
Orli rubs her eyes, and then shoves me in the leg and adds an annoyed look. “Don’t make me teary. I’d do the same for you, fool.”
I know she would.
She scoots off the bed and sits cross-legged on the floor. “What I’m trying to say is what you’ve done with your gliders is a big deal. You use your magic in a different way than we grew up learning. Everything we created was from our energy. Like my mum and the soil. She has to sacrifice herself for every batch of stupid dirt. But your gliders are different.”
“I use my magic to make them,” I say, confused.
“No, you use magic to test them. To see if they’ll fly.”
This much is true. I wanted to build a contraption that would allow my brothers to glide in the sky without me having to conjure wind.
“Anyone, Channeler or giftless, can follow your pattern and make their own glider. You’re going to show people a new way of looking at Channelers. Maybe they’ll even see that we shouldn’t be feared.”
She’s exaggerating. But . . .
“Maybe, hopefully, it’ll inspire a few people,” I say, though the possibility makes me feel like I’ve ingested a swarm of lightning bugs.
A door slams in the house, and a herd of elk rumbles through the hallway below. Eugenia shouts, “Not inside!”
“Sorry, Mum!” I hear my brothers say before the stampede alters course.
I rush to rewrap the dowels and hide them under my bed. “Do you want me to talk to her about the soil? Or are you ready?” I hate pressuring Orli, but she has to use her magic again one day. May as well be helping her mum and Eugenia.
“I’ll figure something out. I’ll be fine.” Her expression shutters closed.
She thinks my winged inventions will change how people see Channelers. Maybe she’s right. But what will it take to inspire her? To prove that her magic isn’t to be feared?
I go downstairs to greet Eugenia in the kitchen and find her plucking dirty rags off the table.
“Any word from your da?” she asks.
“No.” It’s better not to mention he wrote me about business. When Da is working, Eugenia likes to pretend he’s just taking a trip to visit friends. She won’t acknowledge his methods of collecting and profiting off secrets if she can help it.
“Do you think he’s all right?”
“He’s been gone for longer stretches, and he always returns safely.” I’ve become adept at managing Eugenia’s worry.
Her hands knot in a dishrag. “Right. Of course. I’m sure he’ll return for the festiv—”
The rear door smacks against the wall, startling us both. The twins race inside, skidding into their mother’s feet.
Eugenia drops the rag, and screeches. “Boys!”
Despite her runny emotions, she lunges for them as they try to scramble away. Loren bangs into the table and upends a chair. Kiefer hunkers beside the hutch.
“What has gotten into you two?”
“Sorry, Mum,” the boys chant.
“We don’t run in the home. Look at this dirt. I just swept the floor, and now I’ll have to do it again.”
Loren rubs his hip. “Wasn’t running, Mum. Just some quick moving.”
“Save your quick movement for outdoors. Hear me?”
“But what of Lirra?”
“What about me?” I ask.
Loren’s smile switches into something sly, like a youthful image of Da, all dimpled tanned cheeks, stocky frame, and windblown curls the color of wet driftwood. I’ve always longed to look more like them instead of a reminder of my mum, with nearly black hair so thick it could be roof thatching.
“Lirra does whatever she pleases.” Loren turns pathetic cow eyes on Eugenia. “She don’t follow rules.”
If only that were true.
“And I’ve seen her run in the house.”
Little toad. “You have not.”
I turn to Eugenia for support. Working for Da requires living by another set of rules, something Eugenia knows even if she doesn’t like it.
“You don’t go to church.” Loren points at me. “You sneak out at night. And sometimes you go around with mud on your face. Mum always makes us wash our faces. Doesn’t she, Kief?”
Kiefer, the more silent twin, peeks around the hutch. “I seen mud on Lirra.”
“Get back in your hiding spot,” I growl at him before spinning to face Loren. “Don’t pull me into this. You were foolish enough to get caught, so say you’re sorry already.”
He starts to complain, and Eugenia silences him with a look. The boys rush toward freedom in the shape of the back door. That’s when I notice the specks.
Specks coating their trousers.
Specks on Loren’s boots.
Specks that look an awful lot like wood shavings?
“Stop! Where have you two been?”
“Outside.” Loren smirks over his shoulder.
“Which. Shed.” My nostrils flare.
“Lirra, let them go,” Eugenia says.
My glider wings are in that shed. If the boys touched them . . . “Tell me. Or this week at the summit festivities, I’ll find the she-pirate, Song the Red, and pay her to sail you to Kolontia. The north is terribly cold. So cold that men and boys lose toes and feet and even legs. How fast will you run without legs, hmm, Loren? Tell me now—woodshed or my shed?”
“Yours,” Kiefer blurts. His cherry cheeks turn pale pear green. “We only wanted a peek.”
“We didn’t touch nothing, promise.” Loren presses his hands together in a prayer. “Spare me legs, Lir.”
I hold in a smile. “Keep your stubby limbs for now, Loren. But if you—”
Eugenia scoots them out the door. “Don’t be hard on them.”
“They need to keep their dirty hands off my things.”
“What do you expect, Lirra? They look up to you, and you run around breaking rules as if you’ve no responsibilities.”
“No responsibilities?” Anger twists through me faster than the twin tornados could destroy my stuff. “My responsibilities force me to break rules. My job for Da requires it.”
She yanks a pin out of her bun, and her hair topples like a bird’s nest breaking apart. “Don’t pretend to be dedicated to your da’s work when you spend all your time on gliders.”
I gape at her, wounded by the insinuation. My family matters most. If Da asked me to pay more attention to his business, I’d do it. But he doesn’t ask. He doesn’t include me in every deal. He doesn’t share all his secrets, as much as I’d like him to.
“What of your dedication?” I stomp to the window and point at the carriage parked inside the barrier of trees concealing our home. “Every week you visit the cathedral and make penance. Maybe instead of praying so much, you should notice how hard Da works for you. For the family.”
Eyes widen over a stone expression. “Nonsense. You’re angry because the boys were curious. I understand that, but you cannot blame them. Your contraptions look like children’s toys.”
Children’s toys? Will the jubilee organizers think my glider is child’s play too?
My fingernails dig crescents into my palms. “Was it curiosity when they broke your Plovian vase? The vase you insisted Da buy with his black-market money? Don’t be a hypocrite.” It comes out like spat venom.
Last year the twins knocked over the vase. Eugenia was shattered. That same colorless devastation overtakes her expression now.
A baby’s cry peals from the hallway.
I bite my vindictive lip. “I—I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Julisa’s awake.” Eugenia gives me a look of defeat and leaves.
I return to where Orli is waiting for me in the attic, my chest stuffy and hot with frustration. And shame.
It’s not her fault that Da is gone. Or that he takes on too much work and doesn’t allow me to help manage the load. He has me deliver messages to informants, listen to private conversations, and track people’s habits, but he never asks for more. He tries to manage most of the work alone.
Loren and Kiefer are too young to help, and I doubt Eugenia would let them get involved in Da’s business even if they were older. I’m the only one he can lean on. It’s up to me to help him. Eugenia is right. I should be focusing on Da’s letter, not my gliders.
“Whoa, what happened?” Orli watches me climb the ladder. “You look ready to practice dagger throwing on a live target.”
I dig through my satchel for the letter. I peel it open and remove the letter to AC.
I’ll not be returning in time for the summit.
The rest of the page is blank.
“This cannot be all there is.” I flip it over. Da would never use this much parchment for so short a note, or ask me to deliver a letter with no instructions. His message must be here, hidden.
Orli peers over my shoulder and hums to herself.
I trace the blank page. “I wonder if he used a blood charm. Da’s never used one before. Blood charms are illegal, and even if they weren’t, they’re hard to come by,” I say, remembering what Astoria taught us. “But it would explain why there are no words.”
She releases a shuddery breath and taps the letter. “Right. And we are talking about Millner.”
“I guess there’s only one way to find out.” I pull a dagger from my boot.
Orli sits on the bed, trembling fingers sliding under her thighs. “Go on.”
I hate that magic makes her uncomfortable. But I have to know what Da wrote. I sink the blade’s tip into the fleshy pad of my finger. A crimson drop bubbles from my skin and drips onto the ivory parchment, fanning out as it seeps into the surface.
I’ll not be returning in time for the summit.
If you’re reading this, you figured out the blood charm. The following job must be completed immediately and privately. As you can tell, secrecy is of greatest importance.
To fulfill an agreement I’ve made with the king of Malam, you must deliver the enclosed letter to him. Don’t curse. I know this assignment will displease you, but it must be done.
The king’s letter has also been sealed with a blood charm. You’ll find nothing there if you attempt to peek. Please explain to King Aodren how these types of charms are activated. The man’s Channeler knowledge is in the budding stage.
Deliver the letter before the summit is underway. It cannot be late. Tell no one and go unseen.
Give my love to Eugenia, the boys, and Julisa.
I’m not displeased. I’m furious.
What deal has my father made? King Aodren cares nothing for Channelers. Hell, his kingdom has encouraged the hunting of Channelers for the last twenty years. This is why my father and I were forced to flee Malam and live in Shaerdan. King Aodren may have ended the Purge Proclamation, the horrific law that was responsible for the deaths of countless Channelers in Malam for the last twenty years, but he did so out of desperation. Last year, King Aodren needed the Channelers Guild, the governing women who oversee all Channelers in the five kingdoms, to save his life and help stop a plot to usurp the throne.
My efforts to save Orli caused my path to cross Aodren’s. I was the one who introduced him to the Guild, and I even saved his life in battle. But has he ever expressed his gratitude for either?
No. Not at all. Ungrateful lout of a king.
King Aodren cares only about himself.
Da has all sorts of unsavory business associates, and though I dislike it, it’s not so shocking to discover King Aodren is a new one. Royal coin is as good as commoner coin. What I don’t understand, however, is why the king of Malam needs help from Da, ruler of the underground.
I press my fist to the sudden bloom of ache in my belly. I want to forget this request and finish my glider. But Eugenia’s comment earlier nags me. Da needs me. And maybe this is the way to finally prove he can rely on me.