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Authors: Brandon Dorman

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“In that case, tell your people you ordered me to
cleanse
your kingdom of the magical children,” she suggested. “Say that in an effort to create a future without magic, you had the young rounded up and taken away. I’ve found that the more vulgar a declaration, the more humankind embraces it.”

“Still, this is a gamble for both of us! Having my permission doesn’t guarantee your protection. Aren’t you worried about your safety?”

“Your Majesty, I’ll remind you that I made the staff of an entire castle disappear into thin air, Tangerina controls a swarm of bees, and Skylene has enough water flowing through her body to flood a canyon. We can protect ourselves.”

Despite her testimony, the king appeared more fearful than convinced. Madame Weatherberry was so close to getting what she wanted—she had to extinguish Champion’s doubt before it overpowered him. Luckily, she still had one more weapon in her arsenal to gain his approval.

“Tangerina? Skylene? Would you please give the king and me a moment alone?” she asked.

It was evident Tangerina and Skylene didn’t want to miss any part of Madame Weatherberry’s conversation with the king, but they respected their chaperone’s wishes and waited in the hall. Once the door was shut behind them, Madame Weatherberry leaned toward Champion and looked deep into his eyes with a grave expression.

“Sir, are you aware of the
Northern Conflict
?” she asked.

If the king’s bulging eyes were any indication, Champion was much more than
aware
. Just the mention of the Northern Conflict had a paralyzing effect on him and he struggled to respond.

“How—how—how on earth do you know about that?” he inquired. “That is a classified matter!”

“The magical community may be small and divided, but word spreads quickly when one of us is… well,
causing a scene
.”


Causing a scene
? That’s what you people call it?!”

“Your Majesty, please keep your voice down,” she said, and then nodded to the door. “Bad news has an easy way of finding young ears. My girls would worry themselves sick if they knew about what we’re discussing.”

Champion could relate because he was starting to feel sick himself. Being reminded of the subject was like being reacquainted with a ghost—a ghost he thought had been put to rest.

“Why are you even mentioning such a horrible thing?” he asked.

“Because right now there is no guarantee the Northern Conflict won’t cross the border and arrive at your front door,” Madame Weatherberry warned him.

The king shook his head. “That won’t happen. King Nobleton assured me he took care of the situation. He gave us his word.”

“King Nobleton lied to you! He told the other sovereigns he has the conflict under control because he’s humiliated by how severe the situation has become! Over half the Northern Kingdom has perished! Three-quarters of his army are gone and what’s left shrinks daily! The king blames the loss on
famine
because he’s terrified he’d lose the throne if his people knew the truth!”

All the color faded from Champion’s face and he trembled in his seat. “Well? Can anything be done? Or am I just supposed to sit and wait to perish, myself?”

“Recently, there’s been hope,” Madame Weatherberry said. “Nobleton has appointed a new commander, General White, to lead the remaining defenses. So far, the general has sequestered the situation more successfully than his predecessors.”

“Well, that’s something,” the king said.

“I pray General White will resolve the matter, but you must be prepared if he fails,” she said. “And should the conflict cross into the Southern Kingdom, having an academy of trained fairies in your corner could be
very
beneficial to you.”

“You believe your
students
could stop the conflict?” he asked with desperate eyes.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said with complete confidence. “I believe my future students will accomplish many things the world considers impossible today. But first, they’ll need a place to learn and a teacher to guide them.”

Champion went very still as he thought the proposition over.

“Yes… yes, they could be
extremely
beneficial,” he said to himself. “Naturally, I’ll have to consult my Advisory Council of High Justices before giving you an answer.”

“Actually, sir,” Madame Weatherberry said, “I believe this is a matter we can settle without consulting the High Justices. They tend to be a rather old-fashioned group and I would hate for their stubborn tendencies to get in our way. Besides, there have been
discussions
circulating the country that you should be aware of. Many of your people are convinced the High Justices are the true rulers of the Southern Kingdom, and you are nothing but their puppet.”

“Why, that’s outrageous!” the king exclaimed. “I’m the sovereign—my will is law!”

“Indeed,” she said. “Any able-minded person knows that. However, the rumors remain. If I were you, I would start disproving those nasty theories by defying the High Justices every so often. And I can’t think of a better way to practice that than by signing the document before you.”

Champion nodded as he considered her warning, and eventually, her persuasion guided him to a decision.

“Very well,” the king said. “You may recruit
two students
from the Southern Kingdom for your school of magic—one boy and one girl—but that is all. And you must receive written permission from your pupils’ guardians or they are not allowed to attend your school.”

“I confess I was hoping for a better arrangement, but I will take what I can get,” Madame Weatherberry said. “You have a deal.”

The king retrieved a quill and ink from inside his desk and made his amendments to the golden document. Once he was finished with his corrections, Champion signed the agreement and authenticated it with a wax seal of his family’s royal crest. Madame Weatherberry jumped to her feet and clapped in celebration.

“Oh, what a wonderful moment this is! Tangerina? Skylene? Come in! The king has granted our request!”

The apprentices hurried into the study and became giddy at the sight of the king’s signature. Tangerina rolled up the document and Skylene tied it with a silver ribbon.

“Thank you so much, Your Majesty,” Madame Weatherberry said, lowering her fascinator’s veil over her face. “I promise you won’t regret this!”

The king snorted skeptically and rubbed his tired eyes. “I pray you know what you’re doing, because if you don’t, I’ll tell the kingdom I was bewitched and bribed by a—”

Champion gasped when he looked up. Madame Weatherberry and her apprentices had vanished into thin air. The king hurried to the doorway to see if they had dashed into the hallway, but it was just as empty as before. Within moments of their departure, all the candles and all the torches throughout the castle were magically relit. Footsteps echoed down the halls as the servants and soldiers returned to their duties. The king went to a window and noticed that even the storm had disappeared, but Champion found little comfort in the clearing weather.

On the contrary, it was impossible for the king to feel anything but dread as he skimmed the northern skies, knowing that somewhere on the horizon, the true storm awaited.…

I
t was no mystery why all the monks in the Southern Kingdom’s capital were hard of hearing. Every morning at dawn, the city of Chariot Hills was subjected to ten minutes of uninterrupted, ear-piercing cathedral bells. Like the tremors of an earthquake, the clanking tones rattled the town square, then pulsated through the city streets and shook the surrounding villages. The monks purposely rang the bells in a manic and irregular manner to ensure every citizen was awake and participating in the Lord’s day, and once they finished waking all the sinners, the monks hurried back to bed.
Although not everyone in the area was affected by the cathedral bells. The monks would have been furious to learn a young woman in the countryside managed to sleep through their obnoxious ringing.

Fourteen-year-old Brystal Evergreen awoke the same way she did every morning—to the sound of banging on her bedroom door.

“Brystal, are you awake? Brystal?”

Her blue eyes fluttered open somewhere between the seventh and eighth time her mother pounded on the door. Brystal wasn’t a heavy sleeper, but mornings were a challenge because she was usually
exhausted
from staying up late the night before.

“Brystal? Answer me, child!”

Brystal sat up in bed as the cathedral bells played their final toll in the distance. She found an open copy of
The Tales of Tidbit Twitch
by Tomfree Taylor lying on her stomach and a pair of glasses dangling from the tip of her nose. Once again, Brystal had fallen asleep reading, and she quickly disposed of the evidence before she was caught. She stashed the book under her pillow, tucked her reading glasses into the pocket of her nightgown, and extinguished a candle on her nightstand that had been burning the whole night.

“Young lady, it’s ten past six! I’m coming in!”

Mrs. Evergreen pushed the door open and charged into her daughter’s bedroom like a bull released from a pen. She was a thin woman with a pale face and dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun on top of her head, and like the reins of a horse, it kept her alert and motivated throughout her daily chores.

“So you
are
awake,” she said with one eyebrow raised. “Is a simple acknowledgment too much to ask for?”

“Good morning, Mother,” Brystal said cheerfully. “I hope you slept well.”

“Not as well as you, apparently,” Mrs. Evergreen said. “Honestly, child, how do you sleep through those dreadful bells every morning? They’re loud enough to wake the dead.”

“Just lucky, I suppose,” she said through a large yawn.

Mrs. Evergreen laid a white dress at the foot of Brystal’s bed and shot her daughter a scornful look.

“You left your uniform on the clothesline again,” she said. “How many times do I have to remind you to pick up after yourself? I can barely manage the laundry for your father and brothers—I don’t have time to clean up after you, too.”

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Brystal apologized. “I was going to get it after I finished the dishes last night, but I guess I forgot.”

“You’ve got to stop being so careless! Daydreaming is the last quality men look for in a wife,” her mother warned. “Now hurry up and get dressed so you can help me with breakfast. It’s a big day for your brother so we’re making his favorite.”

Mrs. Evergreen headed for the door but paused when she noticed a strange scent lingering in the air.

“Do I smell
smoke
?” she asked.

“I just blew out my candle,” Brystal explained.

“And
why
was your candle burning so early in the morning?” Mrs. Evergreen said.

“I—I accidentally left it on during the night,” she confessed.

Mrs. Evergreen crossed her arms and glared at her daughter. “Brystal, you better not be doing what I
think
you’re doing,” she warned. “Because I worry what your father might do if he finds out you’ve been
reading
again.”

“No, I promise!” Brystal lied. “I just like sleeping with a lit candle. Sometimes I get scared in the dark.”

Unfortunately, Brystal was a terrible liar. Mrs. Evergreen saw through her daughter’s dishonesty like a window she had recently cleaned.

“The
world
is dark, Brystal,” she said. “You’re a fool if you let anything tell you otherwise. Now hand it over.”

“But, Mother, please! I only have a few pages left!”

“Brystal Evergreen, this is not up for discussion!” Mrs. Evergreen said. “You’re breaking the rules of this house
and
the laws of this kingdom! Now hand it over immediately or I will fetch your father!”

Brystal sighed and surrendered her copy of
The Tales of Tidbit Twitch
from under her pillow.

“And the others?” Mrs. Evergreen asked with an open palm.

“That’s the only one I have—”

“Young lady, I will not tolerate any more of your lies! Books in your bedroom are like mice in the garden—there’s never just
one
. Now give me the others or I will fetch your father.”

Brystal’s posture sank with her spirits. She stepped out of bed and led her mother to a loose floorboard in the corner of the bedroom where she kept a hidden collection. Mrs. Evergreen gasped when her daughter revealed over a dozen books in the floor. There were texts on history, religion, law, and economics, as well as fictional titles of adventure, mystery, and romance. And judging by the distressed covers and pages, Brystal had read each book multiple times.

“Oh, Brystal,” Mrs. Evergreen said with a heavy heart. “Of all the things for a girl your age to be interested in, why does it have to be
books
?”

Mrs. Evergreen said the word like she was describing a foul and dangerous substance. Brystal knew it was wrong to have books in her possession—the Southern Kingdom’s laws clearly stated that books were for
male eyes only
—but since nothing made Brystal happier than reading, she repeatedly risked the consequences.

One by one, Brystal kissed each book’s spine like she was saying good-bye to a small pet, then passed it to her mother. The books piled over Mrs. Evergreen’s head, but she was used to having her hands full and had no trouble finding her way to the door.

“I don’t know who is supplying you with these, but you need to cut ties with them immediately,” Mrs. Evergreen said. “Do you know what the punishment is for girls who get caught reading in public?
Three months in a workhouse!
And that’s
with
your father’s connections!”

“But, Mother,” Brystal asked, “
why
aren’t women allowed to read in this kingdom? The law says our minds are too delicate to be educated, but it isn’t true. So what’s the
real
reason they keep books from us?”

Mrs. Evergreen paused in the doorway and went silent. Brystal figured her mother was thinking about it, because she rarely paused for anything. Mrs. Evergreen looked back at her daughter with a long face, and for a brief moment, Brystal could have sworn she saw a rare spark of sympathy in her mother’s eyes—like she had been asking herself the same question all her life and still didn’t have an answer.

“If you ask me, women have enough to do as it is,” she said to bury the subject. “Now get dressed. Breakfast isn’t going to make itself.”

Mrs. Evergreen turned on her heel and left the room. Tears came to Brystal’s eyes as she watched her mother depart with her books. To Brystal, they weren’t just stacks of parchment bound by leather; her books were
friends
that offered her the only escape from the suppressive Southern Kingdom. She dried the corners of her eyes with the edge of her nightgown but her tears didn’t last very long. Brystal knew it was only a matter of time before she would rebuild her collection—her
supplier
was much closer than her mother realized.

She stood in front of her mirror as she applied all the layers and accessories of her ridiculous school uniform: the white dress, white leggings, lacy white gloves, a fuzzy white shoulder wrap, and white buckled heels, and to complete the transformation, Brystal tied a white ribbon in her long brown hair.

Brystal looked at her reflection and let out a prolonged sigh that came from the bottom of her soul. Like all the young women in her kingdom, Brystal was expected to resemble a living doll anytime she left her home—and Brystal
hated
dolls. In fact, anything that remotely influenced girls to want
motherhood
or
marriage
was instantly added to her list of things to resent—and given the Southern Kingdom’s stubborn views of women, Brystal had acquired a long list over time.

For as long as she could remember, Brystal had known she was destined for a life beyond the confinements of her kingdom.
Her
accomplishments would surpass acquiring a husband and children,
she
was going to have adventures and experiences that exceeded cooking and cleaning, and
she
was going to find undeniable happiness, like the characters in her books. Brystal couldn’t explain why she felt this way or how it would happen, but she felt it with her whole heart. But until the day arrived that proved her right, Brystal had no choice but to play the role society had assigned her.

In the meantime, Brystal found subtle and creative ways of coping. To make her school uniform bearable, Brystal put her reading glasses on the end of a gold chain, like a locket, and then tucked them into the top of her dress. It was doubtful she would get to read anything worthwhile at school—young women were only taught to read basic recipes and street signs—but knowing she was
prepared to read
made Brystal feel like she was armed with a secret weapon. And knowing she was rebelling, however slightly, gave her the energetic boost she needed to get through each day.

“Brystal! I meant breakfast TODAY! Get down here!”

“I’m coming!” she replied.

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