Burning Kingdoms 1
When the world was formed, the people soon followed. It has been a balancing act of life and death from that day on. It is not the place of any man to question it.
—The Text of All Things, Chapter 1
Snow. That’s the word the people of the ground have for this wonder.
“Goddamn snow,” our driver mumbles for the second time, as mechanical arms sweep the dusting from the window.
It’s like a stab to the heart hearing a god referred to so unkindly. I wonder which god he means. I’d think the god of the ground would be less forgiving than the one in the sky. Vengeful. It would make sense, the god of the ground having interned us to the sky for being too selfish.
But I don’t ask. I haven’t spoken a word since I told Pen that it would be all right.
All the whiteness is blinding, and despite the blustery cold, the inside of this vehicle is so hot that beads of sweat are forming at the back of my neck. There’s a metallic taste to this air.
I have a thought that my parents will be worried, before I remember that they’re gone. Not at home. They’re colors in the tributary now, a place that can’t be seen by the living.
I squeeze Basil’s hand. And on the other side of me, Princess Celeste has her hands to the glass as she stares through the window. A city has begun to materialize through the snow. It’s all boxy shadows at first, and then ribbons of color shoot through the sky, squares of light wink from the buildings.
My brother is in one of the surrounding vehicles. When we left the metal bird that brought us down from Internment, the men in heavy black coats split us up as they saw fit. They pushed us into the seats. They said they’d take us somewhere warm and safe. They don’t seem to realize that we were banished from this place, hundreds of years ago.
The driver raises his eyes to us in the mirror. “It was swell luck that you came down before the blizzard.”
I don’t know what that means. “Blizzard” is a new word, and it bounces on my tongue, begging to be said.
Basil is looking up into the sky as though to chart a way back home, but the whiteness that falls from the clouds is his only answer. Now would be an apt time for him to regret following me here—regret our betrothal. Maybe the decision makers were wrong to bond us to each other for the rest of our lives; we’ve always cared for each other, but he’s logical while I’m a dreamer. He’s patient while I’m careless. And now he’ll never see his parents or his little brother again because of me.
I want to say his name so that he’ll look at me, but I’m afraid of what speaking might do to this odd balance between the driver and the three of us.
Our driver’s coat appears to be some kind of uniform. He’s a patrolman perhaps—or whatever they have on the ground. Maybe they don’t keep order down here at all.
Princess Celeste elbows me. And now that she has my attention, she nods to her window. Outside, a large machine is set some distance from the buildings. It’s like a giant metal bug, its legs suspended in the air. Each leg is painted a different color, and at the tips are what appear to be clouds.
I can’t tell if the princess is attempting to smile. Her eyes still have their sparkle, but she is, for once, subdued.
Our vehicle rolls to a stop. I look out the window on Basil’s side and I see the other vehicles stopping alongside us. I want to run out and join my brother and Alice, and Pen, who was fighting tears the last time I saw her.
But I don’t move. Basil puts his other hand on my arm as though to protect me.
The driver steps out into the snow, and the cold air cuts right through my skin before he closes the door again.
The princess speaks first. “This is it? There isn’t a soul in sight out there. This is what we’ve been banished from?”
Doors open in the other vehicles. I see Alice first. A man is trying to escort her toward the building where we’ve parked, but she dodges him and reaches into the car to help Lex.
The sight of my brother, pale as the snow, causes me to abandon reason. I open the door.
“Wait,” Basil says.
“I have to let him know I’m okay,” I say.
Basil understands. He climbs out first and keeps hold of my hand. “Lex,” I call.
My brother’s head immediately rises from its weary drooping. “Morgan?” His voice is panicked and relieved. “Sister?”
“I’m here,” I say. “I’m right here.” The words are heavy on my tongue. This cold is freezing me to the bone. I try to reach for my brother, but one of the uniformed men is steering Basil and me toward that building. Even before the door has opened, I can smell the strange and unfamiliar foods cooking inside.
I bite my lip and take one last look over my shoulder before I’m guided inside. I can see Lex and Alice, and behind them, just a flicker of Pen’s blond curls for an instant, a flash, a thought I can’t catch.
I hold on to Basil’s hand as though my life depends on it. It might.
They bring us to a row of metal chairs, and we’re each given tea.
It looks strange in its cup. Weak. They probably have different herbs on the ground. A different ecosystem, too.
I don’t drink the tea. I don’t trust it. But I still appreciate its warmth against my palms. Though we’ve come in from the snow, we’re all shivering. What a sight we must be for these uniformed men: people who fell from the sky in a metal bird, sitting in a row, not a word uttered among the lot of us.
The professor is the only one of us who’s missing. I heard one of the uniformed men say that he refuses to leave the aircraft.
“Aircraft” is a new word also.
A different uniformed man is sitting behind a desk, staring at us. He glances between us and an open ledger on his desk. “None of you are going to talk, are you?” he says.
“They always stick me with the weird ones,” he mumbles, more to his ledger than to us. “Last week, the caped vigilante, and this week, the party on an aircraft made of windows and doors.”
I suppose he’s referring to the metal bird. I got a fleeting glimpse of it as we were hustled away, for the first time seeing it in the daylight. This man’s description isn’t far from the truth.
“Is this them?” a man cries as the doors burst open. I flinch, and Basil grabs hold of my arm.
This man wears a long black coat that is dusted with snow, and yet his hair is pristinely combed and dry. He looks at us with the excitement of a child. “You are the ones who fell from the sky, yes?”
“They don’t talk,” the uniformed man says. “Don’t think they understand a word we’re saying.”
“We can understand you just fine, thank you,” the princess says. “It’s just that no one has offered us an introduction.” She daintily sets her cup on the ground, stands, and extends her hand to the man in the coat. She means for him to kiss her knuckles, but he shakes her hand instead, so roughly that her body jolts. But if the princess is surprised, she doesn’t show it, retaining the poise that has made her an icon for all the young girls of Internment.
“My apologies, then,” the man in the coat says. “I’m Jack Piper, the one and only adviser to King Ingram IV.”
Delight flashes in the princess’s eyes.
“I’m Celeste,” she says. “The one and only daughter to King Lican Furlow.” She pauses. “The first.”
Jack Piper laughs, and I can’t tell whether he finds her delusional or charming.
“You will have to tell me all about your father and his kingdom,” Jack Piper says. “But for now, I’ve arranged proper accommodations for all of you.”
The princess looks to me, her shoulders hunched with excitement.
She’s completely mad. She knows it, too. It’s her madness that made her the only one among us brave enough to speak. She means to remain a princess, no matter whose kingdom she may have fallen into.
We are whisked back into the vehicles. “Cars,” I hear someone call them. They’re all black with spare wheels fastened near the front doors. They emit dark clouds through pipes, and the seats rattle as we move. I try to find comparisons to the train cars back home, but there is no comparison. We have nothing like this. This is a different world.
“They won’t hurt us,” the princess says into my ear. “It wouldn’t be civilized.”
“I don’t know how you can be so certain,” I say.
“It’s standard diplomacy,” she says. “Papa says I have a real talent for it. He thinks I might even become a decision maker once I’m old enough. I’ll have to find something to do with my time once my brother is king.”
Decision making is one of the few professions that can’t be chosen. Decision makers are scouted and trained privately. They hold our society in their palms, deciding which queue applicants will have boys, which will have girls, and who should be betrothed to whom. And that’s only a small part of what they do. It’s as powerful a position as one could have. Next to being royalty, that is.
I shudder to think of Princess Celeste as a decision maker. We became acquainted after she and her brother shot Pen and me with tranquilizers and imprisoned us in the basement of the clock tower.
Not that any of that matters now.
The car stops before a building barely visible in the whiteness of the storm. I can see that it’s the color of sand and has curved edges, and it’s larger than any of the buildings on Internment. Again, we’re hustled from the cars and through the front doors.
Everything inside is red and gold.
Behind me, Alice is murmuring things into Lex’s ear. He can’t see any of this; I wonder if he senses the differences between the ground and home at all, aside from the ridiculous cold.
“Welcome, welcome to my humble home,” Jack Piper says. He sheds his coat, and one of the drivers is standing at the ready to collect it.
Pen and I exchange incredulous expressions. Home? This place is easily larger than our entire apartment building.
“Children,” Jack calls.
With the rumble of footsteps overhead, they emerge at the top of the steps, pushing and shoving one another and then, upon realizing their audience, straightening their clothes, smoothing their hair, and marching down the steps single file.
They assemble before us in order of height, all of them with Jack Piper’s light brown hair. The smallest is in ringlet ponytails, and the tallest is long and lean, with round lenses around his eyes. They appear to be magnifying glasses, though I can’t imagine why they’re on his face.
“This is my son,” Jack Piper says, gesturing to the boy with the lenses. “Jack Junior, though we all call him Nimble. Like the nursery rhyme. I don’t suppose you know how it goes. And this is Gertrude.” The second tallest lowers her eyes shyly. “And that’s Riles.” The third tallest, a boy, smirks at us. “And Marjorie. And that’s Annette.”
The littlest girl curtsies with all the petite grace of a dancer in a jewelry box. “A pleasure to meet you,” she says.
“Is it true you came from the floating island?” one of the children says.
“Riles, manners!” snaps another.
The boy with the lenses regards us wryly. “Welcome,” he says, “to the capital city of Havalais.”
I don’t understand that name he’s just said. Have-a-lace. He gestures theatrically to the letters etched into the wall behind him:
HAVALAIS: HOME OF THE FLOATING ISLAND