I LEAN AGAINST THE DUSTY ELEMENTIARY SHELF crammed with books and jars of animal bits, and stare at my father’s letter. His nearly indecipherable scratch strikes me with swift disappointment. Gods, the All Kingdoms’ Summit happens only every five years. It’s not as if Da hasn’t had time enough to arrange his schedule. The remainder of Da’s message is blocked by another letter. It’s sealed in my father’s wax and addressed to someone named AC.
My heartbeat slogs through my ears, muting the chatter of mismatched accents and clatter of carriage wheels outside the Elementiary. What a fool I am for thinking this time Da’s priorities would include something other than business. Having worked for my father for five years, I know better than to be hurt by this news. Just as I know, without reading further, Da needs me to deliver the letter to AC.
I suppose it also shouldn’t be surprising that there’s no note here for the littleuns or Eugenia, my stepmother and worrier extraordinaire. Overwhelmed by black-market trade and valuable secrets, Da tends to forget all else.
“Lirra, you done?” Orli’s clipped tone echoes from the other side of the shelf.
I fold Da’s letter, intending to finish it later, and squeeze my fingers along the parchment seam. One, two, three sharp slides.
“Almost,” I call out, and shove the now-empty box back into concealment behind a jar of rat tails. To maintain our family’s anonymity and safety, Da sends correspondences here for me to retrieve in secret. He trusts few people more than Astoria, the Elementiary owner and my former magic teacher.
“What’d he write?” Orli asks when I come into view.
My best friend is standing by the door, trapped in a stream of dusty light, right hand strangling the doorknob, the usual tawny tone leached from her knuckles. Despite her unease with Channeler magic, she’s accompanied me here every week since Da left.
“He won’t be returning for a while.” I pick at the broken seal.
“You mean he’ll miss the start of the tournament, right? He’ll return for the jubilee and the other summit festivities.”
I shake my head.
Raven brows shoot up. “He’s going to miss your jubilee performance?”
My nail wedges under the last bit of red wax and frees it from the parchment. “Aye.”
Astoria has one hand on her cane and the other clutching a pile of books, going about business as she usually does whenever I slip inside the Elementiary to pick up Da’s mail. She ambles out of the backroom to her desk, where she deposits the stack. I’m not entirely sure she’s noticed me until she lifts an age-spotted finger to shove her spectacles higher and then points to the letter in my hand. “Not what you were hoping?”
I slip it into my satchel and force a smile. “That’s the way it is with Da’s business.”
“Oh, dear girl.” She frowns. “And it’s your first year entering the jubilee.”
The sadness magnified in her watery blue eyes sours my mood.
My gaze drops to the ring of dirt darkening the hem of my day dress.
There’s a shuffle thump of steps on the wood floors, and then Astoria’s arms come around me, squeezing me to her wonderfully round body.
“Your da knows it’s important to you.” The love she radiates makes me feel like a cat basking in the sun. “He’d be there if he could.”
Astoria has been Da’s friend and closest confidant since before my birth. She offered us a safe place to hide at her home in Shaerdan after we escaped Malam’s Purge—the Channeler eradication that would have seen me killed for my magic ability. We have lived near her ever since. She understands Da better than anyone, but I don’t want to hear her talk him up right now.
“She knows,” Orli says. “All set to go, Lirra?” Her desperation to leave the Channeler school is as potent as the scent of lavender here.
“You don’t have to leave so soon.” Astoria returns to her desk. “Come away from that door and sit down.”
“We need to run by the docks. Getting through all the visitors’ carriages will take time.” Orli points to the blown-glass windows. Outside, a rainbow of fabric has assaulted Shaerdan’s capital city of Celize. Passersby wear their kingdoms’ colors like a shield. Usually, the northern edge of town, where the cliffs climb up from the docks, sees little traffic. Travelers have invaded all of my hometown, even the quiet roads stretching east into farmlands and forests. Scores of people from the four neighboring kingdoms have been arriving for days in anticipation of the All Kingdoms’ Summit and festivities—the Channeler Jubilee, the Tournament of Champions, and the Kingdoms’ Market.
“Orli is right,” I say. “We need extra time to look at the crowds.” I have things to pick up for my jubilee exhibit that can’t wait until tomorrow.
Astoria fiddles with the wrist button of her dress sleeve. “See you next week?”
I nod, even though it’s uncertain if she’s referring to the jubilee showcase or my next mail visit. My head is stuck on a memory from five years ago. At the last jubilee, Da and I watched from the sidelines. Channelers from across the kingdoms showed displays of magic. Breathless and awed, I confessed my dream to perform at the next jubilee.
Next week’s jubilee.
Da said he wouldn’t miss it for all the world.
Silence is the sweetest sound in the Barrett home, and such a rare thing to be had. It’s alarming how loud the boards creak underfoot as Orli and I sneak inside the back door, both of us carrying packages from the dock market. Packages that could be easily snapped in half by my younger brothers’ grubby fingers.
“Where is everyone?” Orli mouths.
I shake my head. The kitchen is filled with the usual mess, minus my family. Dirty dishrags lie heaped in a pile on Grandmother’s table beside a discarded, half-finished drawing of a pig—or an owl. I cannot tell. A stale odor lingers in the air like a haunt of last night’s leek-and-carrot soup. And then there’s the crock of Eugenia’s morning pottage, still sitting on the sooty hearth.
“Eugenia?” Never one to miss a Monday service, my stepmother drags the littleuns to the cathedral on the cliff each week as penance for Da&rsquo...