Authors: Adalyn Grace
The room looks massive from here. There are no stars from this angle, nor any windows to overlook the island. It’s just me and a stretch of empty space that feels too large.
“One day, when the gods take my soul or the island no longer sees me fit to rule, this is where you’ll sit. You will rule this kingdom, as the gods created you to do.” Father’s voice is distant; my thunderous heartbeat pounds in my ears, louder than his words. “I know your magic, your control, and your strength. For these past eighteen years I have watched it grow within you every day, and I could not be prouder. The power of Arida is strong within your blood, and yet you’ve conquered it. Now it’s time you prove that to our people. Show them that
when my time ends, they may put their trust in you.” Father reaches behind him, drawing two elegantly vicious epaulettes from the table.
The ornamental shoulder pieces are alarmingly tall, encrusted with thick gemstones to represent the various islands of Visidia, and form jagged and dangerous spikes that will surely slice my own cheek if I turn too quickly.
Desire swells, nearly choking me. I never realized how cold or how light my shoulders were until this moment.
“Amora, do you swear to accept this position the gods have offered you by wielding your magic with honesty and fair judgment?” he asks as he hooks the first one on.
“I do.” I grip the arms of the chair to steady myself.
“Do you swear to uphold the laws of soul magic, knowing that every time you wield it, it must be with finality?” Father hooks the second epaulette.
He draws a step back to look me over. “And, most important, do you swear your dedication to protect the people of Visidia by upholding this magic for the duration of your life? Even knowing the consequences?”
I look at Father firmly, my chin high. “I do.”
His eyes beam as the torchlight catches them. “Then may your training end here, and may you be Animancer by sunrise. You have my blessing.”
The gemstones graze my neck and ears, forcing goose bumps across my skin. When I shiver, Mother presses a hand to my arm, her presence steadying me.
“Happy birthday, my love. We’re proud of you.” Mother’s beautiful brown skin glows as radiant as the seaside cliffs at sunrise, the warm amber shade nearly a perfect match of my own. Her brushed-out auburn curls are voluminous beneath
her elegant crown—a series of brilliant shells and coral, with several dried starfish woven in and inlaid with dainty sapphire gemstones. It matches her royal-blue gown, loose and seemingly understated, but woven with rich detail. Ruby-red threading lines her cape and marks her as someone originally from Valuka, and a smattering of tiny diamonds are dusted along her bodice. Her jewelry is what truly shines—fat pearl-and-diamond earrings, sparkling rubies and sapphires that adorn her dress’s collar as it fans out around her neck, and thin rings that make her fingers shimmer as she moves.
Something in her other hand catches the light and gleams. When she notices me staring, she smiles and opens her palm.
“This belonged to your grandmother,” she says, dangling a necklace from her fingertips. The chain is solid gold. It winds around a heavy sapphire that hangs in the middle, teardrops of diamonds dangling beneath it. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. “She entrusted it to me when you were a child. These jewels are worthy of the future Queen of Visidia.”
Before I know what’s happening, the necklace is hooked around my neck. Mother kisses my temple, but my parents aren’t finished yet.
When Father draws a crown from behind the throne, all the breath in my body escapes.
The giant headpiece has been constructed from whalebone and plated in ivory. Sixteen pillars of bone spike from the base and spiral at least a foot and a half into the air. They’re sharp as icicles, ready to impale, and are softened only by the indulgent white and blue flowers Mother tucks behind my ear and weaves through the bones.
If there’s one thing I know for certain about this night, it’s that I am meant to wear this crown.
When I present myself tonight, there will be no question of whether I’m the one meant to be Visidia’s future High Animancer, once Father’s time has passed. When my people see me tonight, they will know, just as I do.
I stand and hug Mother first, then Father. Both hold me tight, but are careful not to knock the crown or cut their cheeks on my sharp epaulettes.
“Put on a terrific performance out there.” Mother adjusts the flowers in my hair, giving me one final look-over before smiling her approval.
“Show our people the power of the Montaras is strong,” Father says.
“I’ll do more than that.” I trace my finger along my crown, my breathing easier and my muscles relaxing with each passing second. “I’ll show them
With the comfortable weight of the satchel on my hips, I’m ready.
Father cuffs my shoulder gently, just once, and offers his hand to Mother.
Every head turns our way as Casem escorts me from the palace and into the thick of the celebration. Heavy vines tangled with glowing pink flowers hang from the cliffside, brushing my shoulders and attempting to snake around my crown as we scale the mountainside, upward to where I’ll perform my ceremony later this evening.
Casem leads me through a sea of people who part for us as we pass, not letting me linger in any one place for too long. As we walk, he breathes deeply through his nose and groans. “By Cato’s blood, I wish my birthdays smelled this good.”
Dozens of vendors are perched along the mountain’s path, offering everything I could have imagined and more—roasted pork, sticky-wet honey cakes, rich banana pudding and sweets from Ikae, raw fish and sugar-glazed mango slices, chicken, fruits,
There are even some who sell toy crowns, or sabers inlaid with bold sapphire stones.
Two Aridian women have situated themselves near the wine barrels, laughing boisterously as a royal guard tries to usher them away and to the food stands. One of the women shoos the guard’s hands away with another laugh that’s almost contagious. Behind them, pink and blue torches light the night, shimmering with Mornute’s enchantment magic. They illuminate the figures of both performers and civilians who dance and sing to the beat of the drums, joyous and carefree. Wine-coated laughter bubbles in the air and layers itself on top of the music. On the beach below, others are still arriving on their ships, grabbing food and greeting one another merrily before they begin their ascent.
“It’s the princess!” A Valukan girl’s sharp whisper draws my attention. She stares at my crown with a slack jaw, and those who surround her are no different. They gawk at my adornments before they remember themselves and bow.
Before them, I keep my neck tall despite the weight of my crown, and my shoulders back even when the epaulettes fight me. Though part of me wishes to wave away their formalities, the truth is I crave them. Seeing my people dipped in respectful bows sets my shoulders straighter as my chest swells with pride.
All my life I’ve trained to protect these people, and now they’ll finally see just how capable I am.
As I make my way through the crowd, most Visidians step nervously aside, side-eyeing my crown and epaulettes with awe, while others rush to greet me with offered handshakes. While I recognize the faces of some, hundreds of strangers have flocked to my home to watch their princess secure her title of Arida’s Animancer, heir to the throne. They wear the colors of their home islands, creating a sea of various hues and fashions.
Like Yuriel, citizens of Mornute are adorned in feathers—today’s current fashion trend. One woman has enchanted her gown to look like it’s a single swan feather, with a sparkling
gossamer top that billows out at the waist until it fluffs around her. The man beside her has vibrant blue makeup that wings out from the bottom of his matching eyes. He wears a peach cape with shoulder pads of feathers that flare from his neck. Every few steps he takes, the cape shimmers with the passing image of a flamingo flying over it.
Children of Valuka are dressed simpler, wearing loose shawls and beautiful skirts or linen pants—light clothing that frees their movements. They play around one of the torches, stealing its flame and tossing it back and forth. A little blond girl loses control of the flame and singes the edge of her ruby shawl. Her mother catches what’s happening and swats the girl’s hand. She shoos the children away from the flame and relights it with a wave of her palm.
Magic in amounts I’ve never before seen is happening all around me, and I crave it. A woman with rich violet-brown skin and a soft face framed by cloud-like curls dons a Suntosan emerald cape as she uses her magic to heal the fire-wielding Valukan child. Behind her, a Curmanan man in black robes floats two glasses of wine beside him and carries full plates of food for his family.
In the midst of these people, children and their parents flock to watch a puppet show, one of the dozens of various street performances happening tonight.
“Come, one!” a voice trills dramatically from behind the booth.
“Come, all!” a crowd of children respond automatically, watching with buggish eyes.
Only after their response does the narrator continue. “Come, gather to hear the story of the great Montaras—conquerors of magic, protectors of the kingdom!”
Parents pull children onto their laps, and I wonder if they think this display as wonderfully over the top as I do.
I take hold of Casem’s sleeve as the dark velvet curtains of the booth open for the start of a show, and pull him back into the shadows to watch.
“Really?” he asks, sighing as I hush him.
“Once upon a time,” the narrator whispers, “a vicious monster sought to destroy Arida with its magic.” Lights flicker on in the booth as one of the performers jerks his hand up—it’s covered by a crudely made puppet of something meant to resemble a monster. “This beast was vicious and sought to corrupt those with multiple magics. Back then, you see, no one knew the dangers of it. They were exhausting their bodies, leading to slow, painful deaths as excess magic ate away at them.
“Magic has a way of making a person greedy,” he continues. “The more someone has, the more they tend to want. The beast preyed on this greed by offering others the chance to learn its magic—the most powerful magic the world had ever seen, it claimed. People jumped on the opportunity, never expecting what the monster really wanted from them: their souls!”
Gasps sound from the audience, and beside me, Casem stifles a laugh. I nudge my elbow into his side, stopping him before anyone notices.
For Casem and the onlookers, this is simply another ancient story of our history that we grew up with. For me, this is my blood. My ancestry.
“—the magic was a dangerous, wicked thing,” the narrator continues. “Today, we call it soul magic. It bound itself to soul after greedy soul of those who wielded multiple magics, killing them! But even with half of Arida’s population destroyed, the beast wasn’t content. As its hunger grew, it sought to spread its blight.” The beast chases a series of screaming puppets around the tiny stage before swallowing them. Casem presses his lips together tightly, forcing back a smirk. I let him have this one.
“When all hope seemed lost,” the story continues, “one person took a stand against the monster—Cato Montara!” A regal-looking puppet of my great ancestor jumps onto the stage, drawing applause from the children and adults alike. Many of them lift fake replicas of Cato’s skinning knife into the air and cheer.
“Cato hadn’t yet established the monarchy; he was but a humble, magicless man who sought to protect the people he loved. He made a deal with the beast—if he could convince everyone to be content with practicing only one magic forevermore, then the beast would have to give Cato its magic and leave Arida alone. The beast laughed in Cato’s face and agreed, for it believed people were too greedy for such terms. It didn’t expect Cato could ever convince others to stop practicing all but one of their magics—and yet he did.
“Cato then vanquished the beast with nothing more than a single skinning knife, and because of their agreement, its magic was forever bound to the Montara bloodline!” Children gasp in awe, looking at their toy knives.
The narrator’s voice rises dramatically. “But if we were to go back on our ways, the beast could one day return. So to protect our people from ever being tempted by multiple magics again, Cato ruled that people pick only one type of magic to practice, and go to live on the island that would now represent that magic. He stayed on Arida, with those he chose as his advisers from each island, and created the kingdom. King Cato made Visidia what it is now, but”—here, the narrator lowers his voice in warning—“we are not the only ones responsible for keeping the beast away. The Montaras protect us, keeping it locked away within their blood. Should it ever break free from the Montaras, it will seek vengeance on all of Visidia. It will destroy every one of our souls.”
The children start to shift with worry, and the narrator’s voice evens out again, perfectly timed. “But don’t fear; as long as we don’t break our vow to practice but one magic, and so long as we have a capable animancer who’s strong enough to maintain the beast’s power and master its magic, Visidia will forever remain safe.”
Pride warms my skin and peppers it with goose bumps. It’s an incredible show, designed perfectly to preface the performance I’m about to give. I’m so invested in it that I jump as a little boy shouts from the audience, “If the magic’s so dangerous, why do the Montaras still practice it?” He earns a sharp
from a woman I assume is his mother, though others offer a few quiet sniggers.
The narrator is prepared for the question. His voice is coy and smooth as molasses. “It’s not quite so simple. Magic is a strange thing, my boy; it’s not something that simply disappears when neglected. And Aridian magic is particularly dangerous, for the beast who gave the Montaras this magic is constantly fighting for control over its user’s soul. The magic must be used and exhausted, otherwise it will fester and grow until the beast becomes strong enough to take control.
“When King Cato locked it within the Montara bloodline,” the narrator continues, “he made it his family’s mission to master and contain the beast. Those who do are given the title of Animancer—a master of souls. That’s the reason we’ve gathered here tonight, to watch Princess Amora solidify her position as heir to Visidia by proving herself capable of becoming Animancer. May she one day rule as well as her father, King Audric.”
Nerves seize my chest. I take Casem’s arm to pull him away before anyone notices us, but a snort from the crowd halts me.
“Right, because another lazy ruler is really what we need.”
My hold on Casem’s arm slips.
A frivolous soprano responds with a laugh. “Lazy? Please, you’re babbling like a clueless Kaven supporter. The islands are
island is thriving. But hardly anyone’s been visiting Valuka since the hot springs ran dry. Not to mention Kerost, which is barely keeping afloat.”
Several palace guards stand nearby, their eyes sparking with curiosity. They make no move to stop the slander.
From my position behind them, those watching the performance don’t notice me until I step forward to make myself known. “Excuse me?” Silence ensnares the conversations as one by one, faces turn to me in horror. The guards straighten at once. “Just what lazy ruler are you referring to?”
They stare at my crown. At the epaulettes. But their eyes are missing the same awe I noticed earlier. Fear sits in its place.
“We should get moving.” Casem takes hold of my arm and tugs me away from the audience. I let him.
“What was that woman talking about?” My blood burns, heating my ears and neck with annoyance. “Who’s Kaven? What did they mean about Kerost barely staying afloat?”
Casem waves me off with a flourish of his hand. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Clearly she has no idea what she’s talking about.”
“But it’s like they were afraid of me. And the palace guards just stood there!”
His forehead wrinkles. “Amora, you’re wearing a crown of bones, and knives for shoulder pads. Don’t misinterpret their respect as fear. And what would you expect the guards to do? Even fools may speak freely.”
But the words don’t settle me; there’s something more. “I should speak with my father.”
Casem’s lips press into a thin line. “You should be relaxing. If you get too worked up before the ceremony, you’re going to get your magic all riled—”
“This isn’t a debate,” I snap. “I need to speak with him. Don’t make me fight you, Casem.”
Casem’s eyes drop to my satchel, then to the dagger at my side. I’ve trained with Casem and his father, the weapons master for our soldiers, since I was a child. Mother and Father insisted I learn to protect myself, so Casem’s been my sparring partner for years. But he favors the bow, and I can count on one hand the times he’s bested me with a sword.
“Fine,” he huffs, tempering himself with a long breath. “But the king isn’t going to be happy.”
We find Father near the top of the mountain, lingering in a secluded area near the garden’s edge with advisers from all over Visidia flocked around him. Despite the drinks that several of the advisers hold, they’re anything but jovial. When I push past the guards, I see their bodies are taut and expressions serious.
Casem’s father, Olin Liley, is among them in a pristine sapphire blazer with golden trim. The royal Aridian adviser straightens as his son approaches, eyes narrowing in what I can only guess is a warning.
Casem was right—Father doesn’t look happy. But there’s a young man across from him who looks even angrier.
The adviser is younger than the others, in his early twenties at most. His garb is expensive—finely tailored breeches of a soft khaki, an unwrinkled linen shirt, and leather boots that nearly reach his knee. His frock coat is the bright shade of a ruby, and as his cuff links catch the light, I see that they’re embossed with the royal emblem. The trim that thinly lines the coat is a bright gold—he’s a royal representative from Valuka, then.
“We need to figure out a way to stop this,” he argues, face pinched as if thoroughly exasperated. “Please, just
would you? Everyone can believe what they want about Kerost, but Kaven won’t stop until he’s—”
“Kaven’s nothing more than talk.” Father’s harsh dismissal causes the Valukan to bristle. But before he can say anything more, Olin sets a hand on Father’s shoulder.
“We have company, Your Majesty.” He nods to me, and Father’s brows lift in surprise as he turns.
“Who is Kaven?” I demand. The advisers snap to attention as I step forward. Their focus shifts to Father, whose fierce expression is amplified tenfold beneath his crown. It’s not quite as tall as mine, but it’s incredible—an ivory-plated skeleton of a Valuna eel. It’s a deep-sea creature of legends; a ten-foot-long beast with rows of dagger-sharp teeth—each the size of my index finger—that our ancestors were rumored to have fought nearly a century ago. Its mouth is so large that Father’s face sits within it. The upper jaw curves around his head, and the bottom half sits beneath Father’s chin, as if eating him. The eel’s jewel-encrusted spine stretches down his back and curves upward at Father’s tailbone.