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Authors: Brandon Dorman

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The Evergreen family lived in a spacious country home just a few miles east of the Chariot Hills town square. Brystal’s father was a well-known Justice in the Southern Kingdom court system, which granted the Evergreen family more wealth and respect than most families. Unfortunately, because their livelihood came from taxpayers, it was considered distasteful for the Evergreens to enjoy any “extravagances.” And since the Justice valued nothing more than his good reputation, he deprived his family of “extravagances” whenever and wherever possible.
All the Evergreens’ belongings, from their clothes to their furniture, were hand-me-downs from friends and neighbors. None of their drapes had the same pattern, their dishes and silverware came from different sets, and every chair had been made by a different carpenter. Even the wallpaper had been peeled off the walls of other houses and was a chaotic mix of different designs. Their property was large enough to employ a staff of twenty, but Justice Evergreen believed servants and farmhands were “the most extravagant of extravagances,” so Brystal and her mother were forced to complete all the yard work and household chores by themselves.

“Stir the porridge while I make the eggs,” Mrs. Evergreen ordered Brystal when she finally arrived in the kitchen. “But don’t overstir them this time—your father hates soggy oats!”

Brystal tied an apron over her school uniform and took the wooden spoon from her mother. She was at the stove for less than a minute when a panicked voice called to them from the next room.

“Moooother! Come quick! It’s an emergency!”

“What’s the matter, Barrie?”

“One of my buttons has popped off my robe!”

“Oh, for the king’s sake,” Mrs. Evergreen muttered under her breath. “Brystal, go help your brother with his button. And make it fast.”

Brystal retrieved a sewing kit and hurried into the sitting room beside the kitchen. To her surprise, she found her seventeen-year-old brother seated on the floor. His eyes were closed and he rocked back and forth while clutching a stack of notecards. Barrie Evergreen was a thin young man with messy brown hair and had been wide-eyed and nervous since the day he was born—but today, he was
exceptionally
nervous.

“Barrie?” Brystal addressed him softly. “Mother sent me to fix your button. Can you take a break from studying or should I come back later?”

“No, now is fine,” Barrie said. “I can practice while you sew.”

He got to his feet and handed his sister the detached button. Like all students at the Chariot Hills University of Law, Barrie wore a long gray robe and a square black hat. As Brystal threaded a needle and stitched the button back onto his collar, Barrie glanced down at the prompt on his first notecard. He fiddled with the other buttons of his uniform while he concentrated, and Brystal slapped his hand away before he caused more damage.

“The Purification Act of 342… the Purification Act of 342…,” Barrie read to himself. “That was when King Champion VIII charged the troll community with vulgarity and banished their species from the Southern Kingdom.”

Satisfied with his answer, Barrie flipped the first notecard over and read the correct answer written on the back. Unfortunately, he was wrong, and reacted with a long, defeated moan. Brystal couldn’t help but smile at her brother’s frustration—he reminded her of a puppy chasing its own tail.

“This isn’t funny, Brystal!” Barrie said. “I’m going to fail my examination!”

“Oh, Barrie, calm down.” She laughed. “You’re not going to fail. You’ve been studying the law your entire life!”

“That’s why it’ll be so humiliating! If I don’t pass the examination today, then I won’t graduate from the university! If I don’t graduate from the university, then I won’t become a Deputy Justice! If I don’t become a Deputy Justice, then I won’t become a Justice like Father! And if I don’t become a Justice, I’ll
never
become a High Justice!”

Like all the men in the Evergreen family before him, Barrie was studying to become a Justice in the Southern Kingdom’s court system. He had attended the Chariot Hills University of Law since he was six years old, and at ten o’clock that morning, he would take the grueling examination that would determine whether he would become a Deputy Justice. If he was accepted, Barrie would spend the next decade prosecuting and defending criminals on trial. Once his time as a Deputy Justice was over, Barrie would become an official Justice and preside over trials, like his father. And should his career as a Justice please the king, Barrie would be the very first Evergreen to become a High Justice on the King’s Advisory Council, where he would help the sovereign
create
the law.

Becoming a High Justice had been Barrie’s dream since he was a child, but his path to the King’s Advisory Council would end today if he didn’t pass the examination. So for the last six months, Barrie had studied his kingdom’s law and history every possible moment he could, to ensure a victory.

“How will I ever look Father in the eye again if I don’t pass?” Barrie worried. “I should just give up now and spare myself the embarrassment!”

“Stop catastrophizing,” Brystal said. “You know all this stuff. You’re just letting your nerves get to you.”

“I’m not nervous—I’m a
wreck
! I was up all night making these cards and I can barely read my own handwriting! Whatever the Purification Act of 342 was, it’s definitely not what I said!”

“Your answer was really close,” Brystal said. “But you’re thinking of the Declawing Act of 339—that was when Champion VIII banished trolls from the Southern Kingdom. Unfortunately, his army mistook the elves for trolls and kicked out the wrong species! So to validate the mix-up, Champion VIII introduced the Purification Act of 342 and banished
all
talking creatures besides humans from the kingdom! The trolls, elves, goblins, and ogres were rounded up and forced into the In-Between! Soon, it inspired the other kingdoms to do the same thing and led to the Great Cleansing of 345! Isn’t that terrible? And to think, the most violent period of history could have been avoided if Champion VIII had just apologized to the elves!”

Brystal could tell her brother was half thankful for the reminder and half embarrassed it came from his little sister.

“Oh, right…,” Barrie said. “Thanks, Brystal.”

“My pleasure,” she said. “It’s a real shame, too. Can you imagine how exciting it would be to see one of those creatures
in person
?”

Her brother did a double take. “Wait, how do
you
know all of this?”

Brystal glanced over her shoulder to make sure they were still alone.
“It was in one of the history books you gave me,”
she whispered.
“It was such a fascinating read! I must have read it four or five times! Do you want me to stay and help you study?”

“I wish you could,” Barrie said. “Mother will be suspicious if you don’t return to the kitchen. And she’ll be furious if she catches you helping me.”

Brystal’s eyes twinkled as a mischievous idea popped into her head. In one swift move, she yanked
all
the buttons off Barrie’s robe. Before he could react, Mrs. Evergreen charged into the sitting room, as if she sensed her daughter’s mischief in the air.

“How long does it take to sew
one button
?” she reprimanded. “I’ve got porridge in the pot, eggs in the pan, and rolls in the oven!”

Brystal shrugged innocently and showed her mother the handful of buttons she had plucked.

“Sorry, Mother,” she said. “It’s worse than we thought. He’s
really
nervous.”

Mrs. Evergreen threw her hands into the air and moaned at the ceiling.

“Barrie Evergreen, this house is not your personal tailor shop!” she scolded. “Keep your twitchy hands off your robe or I’ll tie your hands behind your back like when you were a child! Brystal, when you’re finished, go set the table in the dining room. We’re eating in ten minutes—
buttons or not
!”

Mrs. Evergreen stomped back into the kitchen, muttering slurs under her breath. Brystal and Barrie covered each other’s mouths as they laughed at their mother’s dramatics. It was the first time Brystal had seen her brother smile in weeks.

“I can’t believe you did that,” he said.

“Your examination is more important than breakfast,” Brystal said, and began sewing the rest of the buttons. “And you don’t need your cards—I’ve practically memorized all the old schoolbooks you’ve given me. Now, I’ll name a historical act and you tell me the history behind it. All right?”

“All right,” he agreed.

“Good. Let’s start with the Border Act of 274.”

“The Border Act of 274… the Border Act of 274…,” Barrie thought out loud. “Oh, I know! That was the decree that established the Protected Paths through the In-Between so the kingdoms could participate in safe trade.”

Brystal winced at his answer. “Almost, but no,” she said gently. “The Protected Paths were established with the Protected Paths Act of 296.”

Barrie groaned and pulled away from Brystal while she was in the middle of sewing. He paced around the sitting room and rubbed his face with his hands.

“This is pointless!” he grumbled. “I don’t know any of this! Why do there have to be so many numbers in history?!”

“Oh, that’s a really interesting story, actually!” Brystal happily informed him. “The Southern Kingdom developed a calendar system when the very first King Champion was crowned! It was so efficient that the other kingdoms began using the same—
Oh, I’m sorry, Barrie!
That was a rhetorical question, wasn’t it?”

Her brother had dropped his arms and was staring at her in disbelief. He had meant it as a rhetorical question, but after hearing his sister’s explanation, he realized he was wrong about the invention of the calendar, too.

“I give up!” Barrie declared. “I’m going to quit the university and become a shopkeeper! I’m going to sell rocks and sticks to small children! I won’t make much money, but at least I’ll never run out of materials!”

Brystal was losing patience with her brother’s attitude. She grabbed his chin and held his head still so she could look him in the eye.

“Barrie, you need to snap out of it!” she said. “All your answers are coming from the right place, but you keep putting the cart before the horse. Remember, the law is history, and history is just another
story
. Each of these events had a prequel and a sequel—a cause and an effect. Before you answer, put all the facts you know on an imaginary timeline. Find the contradictions, focus on what’s missing, and then fill in the blanks the best you can.”

Barrie went quiet as he thought about his sister’s advice. Slowly but surely, the seed of positivity she had planted in him began to grow. Barrie gave Brystal a determined nod and took a deep breath like he was about to dive off a high cliff.

“You’re right,” he said. “I just need to relax and focus.”

Brystal released Barrie’s chin so she could continue repairing his wardrobe while she also repaired his self-confidence.

“Now, the Border Act of 274,” she said. “Give it another try.”

Barrie concentrated and didn’t make a sound until he was certain he had the right answer.

“After the Four Corners World War of 250, all four kingdoms agreed to stop fighting over land and their leaders signed the Border Act of 274. The treaty finalized the borders of each kingdom and established the In-Between zone between nations.”

“Very good!” Brystal cheered. “What about the In-Between Neutralization Act of 283?”

Barrie thought very carefully, and his eyes lit up when the answer came to him.

“The In-Between Neutralization Act of 283 was an international agreement to neutralize the In-Between zone so none of the kingdoms could claim it as their territory! As a result, the In-Between was left with no authority and became a very dangerous place. Which then led to the Protected Paths Act of 296—OUCH!”

Brystal was so proud of her brother she had accidentally poked him with her sewing needle.

“That’s correct!” she said. “See, you have all the information you need to pass the examination! You just have to believe in yourself as much as I do.”

Barrie blushed and color finally returned to his face.

“Thank you, Brystal,” he said. “I’d be lost in my own head if it weren’t for you. It’s really a shame you’re… well, you know…
a girl
. You would have made an incredible Justice.”

Brystal lowered her head and pretended she was still sewing the final button so he didn’t see the sadness in her eyes.

“Oh?” she said. “I’ve never really thought about it.”

On the contrary, it was something Brystal wanted more than her brother could ever imagine. Being a Justice would allow her to redeem and elevate people, it would provide a platform to spread hope and understanding, and it would give her the resources to make the world a better place for other girls like her. Sadly, it was highly unlikely a woman would have any role but wife and mother in the Southern Kingdom, so Brystal extinguished her ideas before they turned into hopes.

“Maybe when you’re a High Justice, you could convince the king to let women read,” she told her brother. “That would be a great start.”

“Maybe…,” Barrie said with a weak smile. “For now, at least you have my old books to keep you entertained. That reminds me, did you finish
The Tales of Tidbit Twitch
yet? I’m dying to talk to you about the ending but I don’t want to give anything away.”

“I only had seven pages left! But then Mother caught me this morning and confiscated all my books. Could you stop by the library and see if there are any old books they’re getting rid of? I’ve already thought of a new hiding spot to keep them in.”

“Certainly. The examination will last until late this afternoon, but I’ll stop by the library tomorrow and…” Barrie’s voice trailed off before he finished his thought. “Actually, I suppose it’ll be more difficult than it used to be. The library is next to my university, but if I get accepted into the Deputy Justice program, I’ll be working at the courthouse. It may be a week or two before I can sneak away.”

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