Authors: Kiera Cass
Tags: #Young Adult, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction
To Jim and Jennie Cass.
For lots of reasons, but mostly for making Callaway.
COULD NOT HOLD MY
breath for seven minutes. I couldn’t even make it to one. I once tried to run a mile in seven minutes after hearing some athletes could do it in four but failed spectacularly when a side stitch crippled me about halfway in.
However, there was one thing I managed to do in seven minutes that most would say is quite impressive: I became queen.
By seven tiny minutes I beat my brother Ahren into the world, so the throne that ought to have been his was mine. Had I been born a generation earlier, it wouldn’t have mattered. Ahren was the male, so Ahren would have been the heir.
Alas, Mom and Dad couldn’t stand to watch their firstborn be stripped of a title by an unfortunate but rather lovely set of breasts. So they changed the law, and the people rejoiced,
and I was trained day by day to become the next ruler of Illéa.
What they didn’t understand was that their attempts to make my life fair seemed rather
I tried not to complain. After all, I knew how fortunate I was. But there were days, or sometimes months, when it felt like far too much was piled on me, too much for any one person, really.
I flipped through the newspaper and saw that there had been yet another riot, this time in Zuni. Twenty years ago, Dad’s first act as king was to dissolve the castes, and the old system had been phased out slowly over my lifetime. I still thought it was completely bizarre that once upon a time people lived with these limiting but arbitrary labels on their backs. Mom was a Five; Dad was a One. It made no sense, especially since there was no outward sign of the divisions. How was I supposed to know if I was walking next to a Six or a Three? And why did that even matter?
When Dad had first decreed that the castes were no more, people all over the country had been delighted. Dad had expected the changes he was making in Illéa to be comfortably in place over the course of a generation, meaning any day now everything should click.
That wasn’t happening—and this new riot was just the most recent in a string of unrest.
“Coffee, Your Highness,” Neena said, setting the drink on my table.
“Thank you. You can take the plates.”
I scanned the article. This time a restaurant was burned to the ground because its owner refused to promote a waiter to a position as a chef. The waiter claimed that a promotion had been promised but was never delivered, and he was sure it was because of his family’s past.
Looking at the charred remains of the building, I honestly didn’t know whose side I was on. The owner had the right to promote or fire anyone he wanted, and the waiter had the right not to be seen as something that, technically, didn’t exist anymore.
I pushed the paper away and picked up my drink. Dad was going to be upset. I was sure he was already running the scenario over and over in his head, trying to figure out how to set it right. The problem was, even if we could fix one issue, we couldn’t stop every instance of post-caste discrimination. It was too hard to monitor and happening far too often.
I set down my coffee and headed to my closet. It was time to start the day.
“Neena,” I called. “Do you know where that plum-colored dress is? The one with the sash?”
She squinted in concentration as she came over to help.
In the grand scheme of things, Neena was new to the palace. She’d only been working with me for six months, after my last maid fell ill for two weeks. Neena was acutely attuned to my needs and much more agreeable to be around, so I kept her on. I also admired her eye for fashion.
Neena stared into the massive space. “Maybe we should reorganize.”
“You can if you have the time. That’s not a project I’m interested in.”
“Not when I can hunt down your clothes for you,” she teased.
She took my humor in stride, laughing as she quickly sorted through gowns and pants.
“I like your hair today,” I commented.
“Thank you.” All the maids wore caps, but Neena was still creative with her hairdos. Sometimes a few thick, black curls would frame her face, and other times she twisted back strands until they were all tucked away. At the moment there were wide braids encircling her head, with the rest of her hair under her cap. I really enjoyed that she found ways to work with her uniform, to make it her own each day.
“Ah! It’s back here.” Neena pulled down the knee-length dress, fanning it out across the dark skin of her arm.
“Perfect! And do you know where my gray blazer is? The one with the three-quarter sleeves?”
She stared at me, her face deadpan. “I’m definitely rearranging.”
I giggled. “You search; I’ll dress.”
I pulled on my outfit and brushed out my hair, preparing for another day as the future face of the monarchy. The outfit was feminine enough to soften me but strong enough that I’d be taken seriously. It was a fine line to walk, but I did it every day.
Staring into the mirror, I talked to my reflection.
“You are Eadlyn Schreave. You are the next person in line
to run this country, and you will be the first girl to do it on your own. No one,” I said, “is as powerful as you.”
Dad was already in his office, brow furrowed as he took in the news. Other than my eyes, I didn’t look much like him. Or Mom, for that matter.
With my dark hair, oval-shaped face, and a hint of a tan that lingered year round, I looked more like my grandmother than anyone else. A painting of her on her coronation day hung in the fourth-floor hallway, and I used to study it when I was younger, trying to guess at how I would look as I grew. Her age in the portrait was near to mine now, and though we weren’t identical, I sometimes felt like her echo.
I walked across the room and kissed Dad’s cheek. “Morning.”
“Morning. Did you see the papers?” he asked.
“Yes. At least no one died this time.”
“Thank goodness for that.” Those were the worst, the ones where people were left dead in the street or went missing. It was terrible, reading the names of young men who’d been beaten simply for moving their families into a nicer neighborhood or women who were attacked for trying to get a job that in the past would not have been open to them.
Sometimes it took no time at all to find the motive and the person behind these crimes, but more often than not we were faced with a lot of finger-pointing and no real answers. It was exhausting for me to watch, and I knew it was worse for Dad.
“I don’t understand it.” He took off his reading glasses and
rubbed his eyes. “They didn’t want the castes anymore. We took our time, eliminated them slowly so everyone could adjust. Now they’re burning down buildings.”
“Is there a way to regulate this? Could we create a board to oversee grievances?” I looked at the photo again. In the corner, the young son of the restaurant owner wept over losing everything. In my heart I knew complaints would come in faster than anyone could address them, but I also knew Dad couldn’t bear doing nothing.
Dad looked at me. “Is that what you would do?”
I smiled. “No, I’d ask my father what he would do.”
He sighed. “That won’t always be an option for you, Eadlyn. You need to be strong, decisive. How would you fix this one particular incident?”
I considered. “I don’t think we can. There’s no way to prove the old castes were why the waiter was denied the promotion. The only thing we can do is launch an investigation into who set the fire. That family lost their livelihood today, and someone needs to be held responsible. Arson is not how you exact justice.”
He shook his head at the paper. “I think you’re right. I’d like to be able to help them. But, more than that, we need to figure out how to prevent this from happening again. It’s become rampant, Eadlyn, and it’s frightening.”
Dad tossed the paper into the trash, then stood and walked to the window. I could read the stress in his posture. Sometimes his role brought him so much joy, like visiting the schools he’d worked tirelessly to improve or seeing
communities flourish in the war-free era he’d ushered in. But those instances were becoming few and far between. Most days he was anxious about the state of the country, and he had to fake his smiles when reporters came by, hoping that his sense of calm would somehow spread to everyone else. Mom helped shoulder the burden, but at the end of the day the fate of the country was placed squarely on his back. One day it would be on mine.
Vain as it was, I worried I would go gray prematurely.
“Make a note for me, Eadlyn. Remind me to write Governor Harpen in Zuni. Oh, and put to write it to Joshua Harpen, not his father. I keep forgetting he was the one who ran in the last election.”
I wrote his instructions in my elegant cursive, thinking how pleased Dad would be when he looked at it later. He used to give me the worst time over my penmanship.
I was grinning to myself when I looked back at him, but my face fell almost immediately when I saw him rubbing his forehead, trying so desperately to think of a solution to these problems.
He turned and instinctively squared his shoulders, like he needed to act strong even in front of me.
“Why do you think this is happening? It wasn’t always like this.”
He raised his eyebrows. “It certainly wasn’t,” he said, almost to himself. “At first everyone seemed pleased. Every time we removed a new caste, people held parties. It’s only
been in the last few years, since all the labels have officially been erased, that it’s gone downhill.”
He stared back out the window. “The only thing I can think is that those who grew up with the castes are aware of how much better this is. Comparatively, it’s easier to marry or work. A family’s finances aren’t capped by a single profession. There are more choices when it comes to education. But those who are growing up without the castes and are still running into opposition . . . I guess they don’t know what else to do.”
He looked at me and shrugged. “I need time,” he muttered. “I need a way to put things on pause, set them right, and press play again.”
I noted the deep furrow in his brow. “Dad, I don’t think that’s possible.”
He chuckled. “We’ve done it before. I can remember. . . .”
The focus in his eyes changed. He watched me for a moment, seeming to ask me a question without words.
“Are you all right?”
He blinked a few times. “Yes, dear, quite all right. Why don’t you get to work on those budget cuts. We can go over your ideas this afternoon. I need to speak with your mother.”
“Sure.” Math wasn’t a skill that came to me naturally, so I had to work twice as long on any proposals for budget cuts or financial plans. But I absolutely refused to have one of Dad’s advisers come behind me with a calculator to clean
up my mess. Even if I had to stay up all night, I always made sure my work was accurate.
Of course, Ahren was naturally good at math, but he was never forced to sit through meetings about budgets or rezoning or health care. He got off scot-free by seven stupid minutes.
Dad patted me on the shoulder before dashing out of the room. It took me longer than usual to focus on the numbers. I couldn’t help but be distracted by the look on his face and the unmistakable certainty that it was tied to me.