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Authors: Brandon Dorman

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Until this moment, Brystal had never realized how much her brother’s pending graduation was going to affect
her
. Barrie would no doubt pass his examination with flying colors and be put to work as a Deputy Justice right away. For years to come, all his time and energy would be spent prosecuting or defending criminals at the courthouse. Supplying his little sister with books would be his last priority.

“That’s all right,” Brystal said through a forced smile. “I’ll find something to do in the meantime. Well, all your buttons are attached. I better set the table before Mother gets upset.”

Brystal hurried into the dining room before her brother noticed the anguish in her voice. When he said
weeks
, she knew it might be months or even a year before she had another book in her hands. So much time without a distraction from her mundane life would be torturous. If she wanted to keep her sanity, she would have to find something to read outside their home, and given the kingdom’s harsh punishments for female readers, Brystal would have to be clever—
very
clever—if she didn’t want to get caught.

“Breakfast is ready!” Mrs. Evergreen announced. “Come and eat! Your father’s carriage will be here in fifteen minutes!”

Brystal quickly set the dining room table before her family members arrived. Barrie brought his notecards to the table and flipped through them while they waited for the meal to begin. Brystal couldn’t tell if it was his freshly sewn buttons or his restored confidence, but Barrie was sitting much taller than when she found him on the floor. She took great pride in the physical and mental alterations she had provided.

Their older brother, Brooks, was the first to join Brystal and Barrie in the dining room. He was tall, muscular, had perfectly straight hair, and always looked like he had somewhere better to be—especially when he was with his family. Brooks had graduated from the university and gone into the Deputy Justice program two years earlier, and like all the other Deputies, he wore a gray-and-black-checkered robe and a slightly taller black hat than Barrie’s.

Instead of greeting his siblings, Brooks grunted and rolled his eyes when he saw Barrie flipping through his notecards.

“Are you
still
studying?” he sneered.

“Is there something wrong with studying?” Barrie shot back.

“Only the way you do it,” Brooks ridiculed him. “Really, brother, if it takes
this long
for information to sink in, perhaps you should pursue another profession? I hear the Fortworths are in the market for a new stable boy.”

Brooks took a seat across from his brother and put his feet on the table, inches away from Barrie’s notecards.

“How interesting. I heard the Fortworths are also in the market for a new
son-in-law
since their daughter declined your proposal,” Barrie replied. “
Twice
, the rumor goes.”

Brystal couldn’t stop a laugh from surfacing. Brooks mocked his sister’s laughter with a crude imitation and then squinted at Barrie while he plotted his next insult.

“In all honesty, I hope you pass your examination today,” he said.

“You do?” Brystal asked with suspicious eyes. “Well,
that’s
out of character.”

“Yes, I do,” Brooks snapped. “I look forward to going head-to-head with Barrie in a courtroom—I’m bored with humiliating him at home.”

Brooks and Barrie glared at each other with the complicated hatred only brothers could have. Fortunately, their exchange was interrupted before it became more heated.

Justice Evergreen entered the dining room with a stack of parchment under his arm and a quill between his fingers. He was an imposing man with a thick white beard. After a long career of judging others, several deep lines had formed across his forehead. Like all the Justices in the Southern Kingdom, Justice Evergreen wore a black robe that flowed from his shoulders to his toes and a tall black hat that forced him to duck through doorways. His eyes were the exact shade of blue as his daughter’s, and they even shared the same astigmatism—which was greatly beneficial to Brystal. Unbeknownst to her father, whenever the Justice discarded an old pair of reading glasses, his daughter got a new pair.

Upon his arrival, the Evergreen children rose and respectfully stood by their chairs. It was custom to rise for a Justice while attending the courthouse, but Justice Evergreen expected it from his family at all times.

“Good morning, Father,” the Evergreens said together.

“You may be seated,” Justice Evergreen permitted, without looking any of his children in the eye. He took his seat at the head of the table and immediately buried his nose in his paperwork, as if nothing else in the world existed.

Mrs. Evergreen appeared with a pot of porridge, a large bowl of scrambled eggs, and a hot tray of rolls. Brystal helped her mother serve breakfast, and once the men’s plates were full, the women filled their own and sat down.

“What’s this rubbish?” Brooks asked, and poked the food with a fork.

“Eggs and oats,” Mrs. Evergreen said. “It’s Barrie’s favorite.”

Brooks moaned as if he found the meal offensive. “I should have known,” he scoffed. “Barrie has the same taste as a sow.”

“Sorry it isn’t
your
favorite, Brooks,” Barrie said. “Perhaps Mother can make
cream of kitten
and
infant tears
for you tomorrow.”

“Dear Lord, these boys will be the death of me!” Mrs. Evergreen said, and looked to the ceiling in distress. “Would it kill either of you to take a day off from this nonsense? Especially on a morning as important as this? Once Barrie passes his examination, the two of you are going to be working together for a very long time. It would do you both some good if you learned to be civil.”

In many ways, Brystal was thankful she didn’t have the opportunity to become a Justice; it spared her from the nightmare of working with Brooks at the courthouse. He was very popular among the other Deputy Justices, and Brystal worried how Brooks would use his connections to sabotage Barrie. Ever since his younger brother was born, Brooks had seen Barrie as a threat of some kind, as if only one Evergreen son was allowed to succeed.

“I apologize, Mother,” Brooks said with a phony smile. “And you’re right—I should be helping Barrie get ready for his examination. Let me share some of the questions that nearly stumped me during
my
examination—questions I guarantee he won’t see coming. For example, what is the difference between the punishment for trespassing on private property and the punishment for trespassing on royal property?”

Barrie beamed with confidence. Clearly, he was much more prepared for his examination than Brooks had been for his own.

“The punishment for trespassing on private property is three years in prison and the punishment for trespassing on royal property is fifty,” Barrie said. “And the serving Justice decides whether hard labor should be added.”

“I’m afraid that’s
wrong
,” Brooks said. “It’s
five
years for private property and
sixty
years for royal property.”

For a moment Brystal thought she had misheard Brooks. She knew for a fact that Barrie’s answer was correct—she could even visualize the exact page of the law book where she had read it. Barrie looked just as confused as his sister. He turned to Justice Evergreen, hoping his father would correct his brother’s claim, but the Justice never glanced up from his paperwork.

“I’ll give you another one,” Brooks said. “In what year was the death penalty changed from drawing-and-quartering to beheading?”

“Good heavens, Brooks! Some of us are eating!” Mrs. Evergreen scolded.

“That was… that was…,” Barrie mumbled as he tried to recall. “That was the year 567!”

“Wroooong again,” Brooks sang. “The first public beheading wasn’t until 568. Oh dear, you’re not very good at this game.”

Barrie started second-guessing himself, and his confidence faded with his posture. Brystal cleared her throat to get Barrie’s attention, hoping to expose Brooks’s charade with a telling look, but Barrie didn’t hear her.

“Let’s try something simple,” Brooks said. “Can you name the four pieces of evidence a prosecutor needs to charge a suspect with murder?”

“That’s easy!” Barrie replied. “A body, a motive, a witness, and… and…”

Brooks was enjoying watching his brother struggle. “You’re already
way
off, so let’s try another one,” he said. “How many Justices does it take to appeal the ruling of another Justice?”

“What are you talking about?” Barrie asked. “Justices can’t appeal!”

“Once again,
wrong
.” Brooks screeched like a crow. “I can’t believe how unprepared you are—especially given the amount of time you’ve been studying. If I were you, I would pray the examiner is out sick.”

All the color drained from Barrie’s face, his eyes grew large, and he gripped his notecards so firmly they started to bend. He looked as hopeless and scared as he had when Brystal found him in the sitting room. Every brick of self-esteem she had laid was now being demolished for Brooks’s amusement. She couldn’t take another moment of his cruel game.

“Don’t listen to him, Barrie!” she shouted, and the room went silent. “Brooks is asking you trick questions on purpose! First, the punishment for trespassing on private property
is
three years in prison and the punishment for trespassing on royal property
is
fifty—it’s only five and sixty years if the property is damaged! Second, the first public beheading was in 568, but the law changed in 567, like you said! Third, there aren’t
four
elements needed to charge a suspect with murder, there are only
three
—and you named them all! And fourth, Justices
can’t
appeal the ruling of another Justice, only a High Justice can overturn a—”

“BRYSTAL LYNN EVERGREEN!”

For the first time all morning, Justice Evergreen found a reason to look up from his paperwork. His face turned bright red, veins bulged out of his neck, and he roared so loudly all the dishes on the table rattled.

“How dare you reprimand your brother! Who do you think you are?”

It took Brystal a few seconds to find her voice. “B-b-but, Father, Brooks isn’t telling the truth!” she stuttered. “I—I—I just don’t want Barrie to fail his—”

“I don’t care if Brooks said the sky was purple, it is
not
a young woman’s place to correct a man! If Barrie isn’t smart enough to know he’s being fooled, then he has no business being a Deputy Justice!”

Tears came to Brystal’s eyes and she trembled in her seat. She looked to her brothers for support, but they were just as frightened as she was.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Father—”

“You have no right knowing
any
of the information you just recited! If I find out you’ve been
reading
again, so help me God, I will throw you out on the street!”

Brystal turned to her mother, praying she wouldn’t mention the books she’d found in her bedroom earlier. Just like her sons, Mrs. Evergreen stayed silent and still, like a mouse in the presence of a hawk.

“N-n-no, I haven’t been reading—”

“Then where did you learn all that?”

“I—I—I suppose I just picked it up from Barrie and Brooks. They’re always talking about laws and the courthouse at the table—”

“Then perhaps you should eat outside until you learn to tune it out! No daughter of mine is going to defy the laws of this kingdom by being
precocious
!”

The Justice continued to shout about his disappointment in and disgust for his daughter. Brystal wasn’t a stranger to her father’s temper—in fact, she rarely communicated with him unless he was screaming at her—but nothing was worse than being on the receiving end of his fury. With every heartbeat, Brystal sank a little more into her chair, and she counted down the seconds until it was over. Usually if he didn’t stop yelling by the count of fifty, her father’s wrath would escalate into something physical.

“Is that the carriage I hear?” Mrs. Evergreen asked.

The family went silent as they tried to hear whatever Mrs. Evergreen heard. A few moments later the faint sounds of bells and galloping filled the house as the carriage approached outside. Brystal wondered if her mother had actually heard it, or if her interruption was just lucky timing.

“The three of you better hurry before it gets too late.”

Justice Evergreen and his sons gathered their things and met the carriage outside. Barrie took his time as he shut the front door behind him so he could wave good-bye to his sister.

“Thank you,”
he mouthed to her.

“Good luck today,”
she mouthed back.

Brystal stayed in her seat until she was certain her father and brothers were a good distance down the road. By the time she regained her senses, Mrs. Evergreen had already cleared the dining room table. Brystal went into the kitchen to see if her mother needed help with the dishes, but her mother wasn’t cleaning. Instead, Brystal found Mrs. Evergreen leaning on the sink, staring down at the dirty dishes with a heavy gaze, as if she were in a trance.

“Thank you for not mentioning the books to Father,” Brystal said.

“You shouldn’t have corrected your brother like that,” Mrs. Evergreen said quietly.

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