It was the turning into her fifth year, when Anushka would enter the next epoch of her childhood, the first learning years. Being a child whose family was of modest wealth, there were a few minor enchantments that were gifted to her. One was a book that could summon any one of a hundred different fairy tales within its pages with a simple chant. Another was a pair of boots that could lace themselves. And still another was a mysterious card placed within a vivid green envelope embossed with the golden letters of the giver’s initials.
I didn’t earn what happened to me. The curse that fell on me was meant for another. That’s what happens when petty warlocks are reckless with their magic.
When her auntie died, far sooner than she should have, Subira inherited three things from her. One was a blessing. One was a curse. The third was a quest. The curse is what killed her aunt. And the curse would kill Subira too unless she completed the quest before the number on the clock that her aunt gave her reached one thousand and six.
The swallow was a happy bird, but also somewhat superior. Nothing brought her joy the way flying did. Slicing through the clouds and flicking the air with the perfect points of her tail. She believed that birds were the supreme creatures of the world. Because they could fly. Some insects could fly as well, of course. But birds could fly higher, faster, and farther than any insect.
Lord Orgulous came to our province some time ago, and when he did, he inherited the rule of the province. As might be expected, he arrived with quite a flurry of rumor swirling about him, for he hailed from a distant land, and he was young and handsome and mysterious. Some said he left behind a fortune so grand that even the stars looked down upon its glittering magnificence with envy. Some said he was exiled for some preposterous boast that insulted a very powerful personage. And there are some among us—the romantics—who believe that he came to our land because he was fleeing from heartbreak.
They say he did it because he asked to sit by an innkeeper’s fire one night and was denied with a lie. The innkeeper said that there was “not enough fire” to warm the man who was dressed in rags and filth. He appeared to be a beggar, but he was not a beggar. He was a warlock. And he was none too pleased by the innkeeper’s response. It was no surprise that he should cast a curse. What was surprising was that he did not just cast the curse on the innkeeper himself, but on the innkeeper’s entire country.
“Wait until you are within the borders of the forest before you open the box, else you have failed before you have begun.”
With those words, the schoolmaster turned away and left Naji alone before the borders of the forest.
Naji entered the forest with no other possessions but that box, as the test required. He carried no water, no food, no clothing but what he already wore, no bedroll, nothing to trade or barter with.
But that is what he had chosen. A box.
I noticed the magician when he slipped in behind the last person to enter the golden-walled elevator, and I sucked in a breath. I held it, half-subconsciously, as if it would make me invisible to him. It did not. I started feeling thudding of my heart as soon as he started turning to people, one at a time, handing them scraps of paper, touching their hands. I exhaled when he turned to me and handed me a scrap of paper too. He grinned and told me what I was supposed to do the next time he called upon me.
When he turned away, my gaze began to dart around the tiny box in which we were all trapped, looking for a way, any way, out. I glanced up. I glanced at the large tall man whom I could easily hide behind, if he weren’t so far away. I saw no way out, and so I took a deep breath and braced myself for when the magician’s attention would once again return to me.
The whole thing started about eight months earlier, when Marcus handed Vinnie an ordinary-looking pair of headphones.
The king is the hound and the hound is the king.
The feasters come and eat, but they don’t suspect a thing.
It’s a feast like none they’ve seen, a spectacular repast.
They never e’er suspect that the meal will be their last.