Fireblood

By: Trisha Wolfe

ONE





Basket hooked on one arm, I browse the fruit display of a vendor’s stand in Town Square, trying to ignore the white towers of Castle Karm just past the rolling hills of the gated royal village. It’s become a constant presence in my weekly errands. An affecting reminder, a monstrosity to be feared and obeyed, even more so than the knights of the Force patrolling the cobbled roadways.

The day is overcast, and the faint blue lines of the sky are distinct, contrasting against the dark clouds. The grid veils the market in a blue-gray hue. The rows of apples are a sea of bright blue stars, their glassy skins reflecting the dome’s gleam.

A chill prickles my skin, and the hairs on the back of my neck lift up.

I’m being watched.

“Pick one and let’s move on, Zara,” Hadley says, talking over the creaking wheels of carriages and shouts from bidding customers. She wipes the moisture of the humid day from her forehead, her dark skin strikingly beautiful against her olive tunic. “We don’t have time for your daydreaming today. You may care nothing for the king’s transmission, but I’d like to be home in time for this one.”

Nodding to the fruit vendor, I smile and move past the stand. When we’re a distance away from the crowded shops lining the main street, I glance over my shoulder. Two members of the Force linger near the vendor. Fear needles my chest.

“I don’t have a monitor to watch the transmission,” I remind Hadley.

She nods once, and her dark braid bobs along her shoulder. She points to the screen hanging above the podium in the middle of Town Square. “We can stay longer and watch it here.” A knowing smile tugs up her lips.

“You know I can’t.” Defeated, I move closer to her ear, while peeking at the knights in crimson and black. “And you shouldn’t care for the transmission either, Hadley.”

“Aha,” she says. “I knew it had nothing to do with your father’s reluctance to watch them. You simply don’t want to get your expectations up.”

Pressing my lips together, I take in her hopeful expression, and say cautiously, “I don’t think you’ve truly considered what it would mean to become a member of the royal family.”

Her brown eyes widen, and her thin mouth parts. “Careful with your words.” She glances around before the excitement returns to her voice. “Honestly, Zara. You cannot tell me you don’t wish for Prince Sebastian to choose you.” Her eyebrows arch. “Every maiden in Karm is vying to become his betrothed. Your humble act doesn’t fool me.”

The feeling of being watched bears down on me, and I pick up my pace, edging Hadley away from the market. “I’ve never once thought about it.” Truly, I haven’t. Not the way she means, as in becoming a princess. My father warns me all too often of the wrongness and dangers of Karm under the king’s rule, and that fear has been as present in my life as the castle looming over me now.

I would never mention my father’s beliefs to Hadley, though. I wouldn’t risk involving her or her family in his theories, which have gotten worse with his illness. But having grown up with his rants, the last thing I’d desire for myself would be to marry the king’s son and live locked behind the walls of the castle. I look up again at the blue pointed rooftops piercing the sky and shiver.

“I don’t believe you,” Hadley says. She shakes her head and loops her arm through mine before I can respond, steering us under the low eaves of the apothecary shop. “Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten why we made this heinous trip.” She smiles.

“Thank you,” I say. “And it’s not that heinous. We make the walk every week just so you can lustfully gaze upon the prince’s posters.”

Her eyes take on a faraway look as we pass by a painted parchment of a smiling Prince Sebastian. Scrawled beneath is the message: Seeking his princess. I don’t remark on the impossibility that one of us could ever be chosen. The court has been aflutter with balls and dances—events we’re not permitted to attend—with the ladies of age competing for the prince’s affections. Although it’s my least concern, I don’t want to ruin Hadley’s enjoyment.

After she’s taken in the charming portrait of the prince, Hadley sighs and motions to the door of the apothecary. “Let’s get your father’s prescriptions, and then you’ll be in better spirits to humor my daydreams.”

I look behind us one last time and release a pent-up breath. The two knights are no longer lurking. “Let’s hurry,” I tell her, then force a wide smile. “And afterward, I’ll watch the announcement with you.”

She laughs, a high, squealing sound that tickles my ears. “I knew you secretly wished it. Oh, the prince is much more handsome in person. Just wait, you’ll see.” She bounces as she opens the door. “Your first transmission. Your first glimpse of the royalty we only dream of—”

“Hadley, please—” I cut her outburst short. “You can’t tell my father. He wouldn’t approve.”

She waves away my worry as she ushers me inside the shop. “He’ll never know.”

While the apothecary retrieves my father’s prescriptions, I peruse the shelves, aimlessly reading labels while my mind revisits the transmission I witnessed in person when I was ten.

The snap of a man’s neck breaking as he was hung echoes through my memories and I squeeze my eyes shut.

Today’s transmission will be different, I tell myself, forcing my breathing to calm. The prince’s announcement of his chosen princess will be extremely different from the transmitted punishments. All of Karm will celebrate.

I blink my eyes open and find Hadley watching me, her brows pinched in thought. I never told her about what I saw that day for fear just talking about it would make it real, and my young mind wanted it to be a nightmare. So, I’m not lying when I say I’ve never seen a transmission. I haven’t. Not on a monitor.

After I pay for the medicines, I wrap the glass vials in a brown rag and bury them under the fruit in my basket. Luckily the apothecary, Mr. Levine, is a close friend of my father’s, and even if he suspects my father of having the Virus, I know he’d never report him.

I thank Mr. Levine, then turn to meet Hadley at the door.

“Miss Zara,” he calls out.

Pausing in the doorway, I glance at Hadley and say under my breath, “I probably counted my payment wrong.” I step back to the counter. “Yes?”