Kym sat on the sand beneath the inky-black sky, the gentle rush of water filling the air. The river may have been beautiful once, with clear water and vast banks. That is, before the Rulers built the wall to keep the death demons out. Now, the river flowed into the city through thick, iron grates, surrounded by those smooth, tall walls. Trash peppered the surface, collecting around the grate near Kym’s house. There, it became part of an ever-growing mess, unable to escape to the world beyond.
She sighed, watching the garbage slowly build around the grate. This forgotten stretch of riverbank had been Kym’s place ever since her friends abandoned her nine years before. The trash, which hadn’t been as bad back then, always gave her something to do when she’d sneak out for some air. And tonight was no exception.
Kym dove into the river, and the cool water stung her warm skin. She maneuvered easily around the familiar rocks and sand beds, reaching the grate in seconds. She held onto the rough bars, hoping to see the river disappear as it kissed the distant horizon. Was the world really so different out there beyond the wall? She wouldn’t know, thanks to the thick layer of trash in front of her face.
She shoved her hand into the muck, grabbing a handful of what used to be plastic bags. They ripped away from the bars, staying mostly intact but covering Kym’s hands in a layer of slime. Her skin tingling slightly, she continued to pull, removing handfuls of the slimy black gunk. Finally, when she couldn’t hold any more, Kym kicked herself to shore. She dumped her armfuls of garbage onto the sandy ground, shoved her wet hair from her face, and dove back in for more.
She concentrated on the biggest piece she could find, determined to free as much as she could from the grate. If she could clear enough of it away, maybe she’d get a glimpse of the outside. It took some time, but she finally pulled a large piece of plastic from the bars and dragged it, along with several smaller plastic chunks, bottles, and cans, back to shore. Kym sighed, smiling at her work as she threw this collection in with the rest.
A shiver ran down her spine that had nothing to do with her wet skin. She turned around, her damp hair whipping her in the face, sure someone was watching her. But no one was there. This stretch of riverbank was hardly ever patrolled since there hadn’t been a death demon attack here in years. Her spine still tingling, Kym dove back into the river.
She glided under the surface, feeling the current pull her toward the grate. She knew she had to leave soon, even though she’d rather be here than stuck in school. She surfaced, eager to look out at the world beyond the wall. Suddenly, extremely hot water surged past her, forcing her away from the grate. She tried to swim out of it, but the powerful current swept her beneath the surface.
She struggled, swallowing several mouthfuls of water as she tried to claw her way back to air. But the hot current pushed her still deeper under the water. Lights popped behind Kym’s eyes, and it was like every muscle in her body was being squeezed by a million tiny hands. Her throat opened and closed rapidly as her watery vision began to darken. The water holding her began to glow bright blue, emitting a faint, high-pitched hiss. Every part of her body relaxed as the ringing filled her ears. The glow faded like the embers of a fire, as did the temperature. Now free from the water’s grasp, she rose back to the surface.
Kym gasped, her heart pounding in her throat. Another shudder ran through her body, and she thrashed around, and sank like a rock. Spluttering, her body shaking, she splashed back to shore. She crawled onto the bank, slipping on the small rocks lining the sand. Had anyone seen her? She looked around, but the riverbank was still deserted. She shoved the garbage into the largest bag her shaking hands could pull from the pile, threw the bag over her shoulder, and sprinted away from the river.
Kym ran through the narrow streets. The thundering of her heart filled her ears, and the morning air caught like ice in her raw throat. She needed to get home. She could figure this out if she just made it there. How could this happen? Her parents said she was safe. She’d never shown any of the signs. They’d promised nothing would happen to her, especially after what happened to her aunt and uncle. But something had happened, and now, her world could implode around her.
“Home,” Kym ordered herself, an ache growing in her side. “Just get home.”
She made it home faster than she thought possible. The mere sight of the small house was enough to slow her breathing, but only slightly. She was safe. And anyway, getting sucked down the river by glowing water didn’t prove anything. No one saw her. She shouldn’t get herself worked up over a freak accident. Her hands still shaking, Kym dumped the bag of waterlogged trash in the bin and unlatched the old gate.
She slipped through her bedroom window as quietly as she could. She tiptoed across the floor, praying it wouldn’t make a sound. The last time Kym’s parents caught her coming in this early, they had grounded her for a month. After a short struggle with her wet clothes, she tossed them into the hamper by the door before pulling on a ratty old shirt and shorts. She crawled gratefully into bed. The touch of her old, worn sheets made her worries fade away. Instantly, her eyes began to droop. Maybe she’d get a couple of hours’ sleep before she needed to go to school. She’d probably just overreacted about the wave in the river.
“Let’s get a move on,” a voice called through Kym’s door, sending her heart racing. “We’re leaving for Temple in thirty.”
“Thanks, Mom,” she breathed, trying to keep the panic from her voice.
How could she forget about Temple? They went at least once a week. Kym fell back on her pillow, her heart once again returning to a normal pace. For a split second, she’d thought her mom knew she’d been out all night. But she didn’t. She’d managed to get in without either of her parents noticing.
In the heat and steam of the small bathroom, Kym could smell the river on her skin. She washed her body three times, hoping to mask most of the smell. She dried herself off and ran a brush through her hair a few times before going back to her room. The small room, with only a bed, old dresser, and small table, was tidier than when she had left it. A pale-orange dress sat ready on her bed. Mom really didn’t understand Kym’s desire for privacy.
“Did you even try with your hair?” her mom sighed when Kym walked into the living room. “No one ever sees how blue your eyes are when you cover them like that.”
Her dad shepherded them out the door. They joined the already-formed crowd in the street; no one acknowledged them. They worked their way to the city center, where massive, shining buildings replaced the small houses of Kym’s neighborhood. The Temple, constructed of white stone, sat in the heart of the city, although Kym wouldn’t have called it white. The tall walls and pillars must have looked magnificent when it was new, but the passing centuries and lack of care had taken their toll. Cracks spread through the greying pillars and grooves, worn by countless worshipers, led the way up the steep steps.
Temple was never the highlight of Kym’s week. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in the gods, but bowing to giant statues always seemed a little pointless. What difference did it make, really, in the long run? No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t see the gods in her everyday life, not even with her father’s constant reminders that the gods always had a plan for her and for Princirum. So, was it part of the gods’ plan for her aunt and uncle to be killed?
The Temple’s main chamber was a massive, round room filled with benches that faced the large altar at the center. Six smaller altars were set into niches around the curved outer walls, while shafts of light filtered in from the many skylights in the domed ceiling. Kym followed the crowd to the center altar, where she thanked the Great Mother, Pheil, for the life she had created before moving on. She gave thanks for the earth, light, fire, air, and darkness the other gods provided, but her mind was blank. She’d gone through this so many times that she probably could have done it blindfolded.
Kym moved more and more slowly as she walked from altar to altar. As the high priest began to address the now-seated crowd, Kym finally ambled up to the final altar. The statue of a young woman with a kind face stared down at Kym from the center of a shallow pool. Reta; goddess of water and purification. Kym stared into the face of the goddess, and for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to move her feet.
There was something off about the statue’s eyes. It was like they were looking at, and even through, her. A jolt surged through Kym, but it wasn’t discomfort or even fear. It was the same sense of calm she’d felt once the water started to glow in the river. Kym stepped forward and, without thinking, placed her hand in the altar’s pool. It was hot; almost the same temperature as the wave.
“A plan, hm?” Kym sighed, stepping back from the altar, starting to lift her hand from the pool. “What a joke.”
A bright, blue, glowing spiral appeared on the back of her hand the moment she moved it. It looped around several times until it reached her wrist. From there, it wrapped around her arm until it reached her elbow, where it stopped. The spiral’s glow was just like the water in the river.
Kym couldn’t breathe. This couldn’t happen again, especially not inside the Temple. What if someone had seen her? She jerked her hand out of the water so quickly someone might have thought it hurt her. She stared at her trembling hand and watched the spiral begin to fade. A moment later, it was like it was never there.
But what just happened wouldn’t fade from Kym’s mind. She couldn’t convince herself nothing was going on. Something was happening to her, and it was only a matter of time before someone found out. But how could she keep it quiet? The priests, teachers, and city patrol were always looking for people showing the signs of magic, and Kym had shown two in the past few hours.
She sat quietly between her parents, trying to keep her face as normal as possible. Just like at the river, Kym was sure someone was watching her. Every cough and scrape of a bench sent fear coursing through her body. She needed to get back home. There, she’d be alone. There, she could figure this out.
Kym stood the moment the high priest finished speaking, but leaving Temple was a struggle. Even though it was one of the city’s largest buildings, the only exit was the main entrance. The tightly packed crowd moved so slowly that it took nearly ten minutes before Kym could get outside, and even then she couldn’t leave. Her parents, chatting quietly with the few people who’d still speak to them, didn’t realize Kym was already waiting for them at the bottom of the Temple steps.
Most days, Kym would have already been in school by this time. But since this was a Temple day, school didn’t start until half-past eight. She walked back home in silence, always staying a couple of paces behind her parents. Once inside, Kym shut herself in her room; she needed to be alone, and hopefully come up with some sort of plan. But her parents had different ideas. After only a few minutes of peace, her mom called her out to help with breakfast. They made scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, fried potatoes, and glasses of orange juice. Honestly, Kym just stirred things while her mom did the rest.
“Anything good in there?” Kym’s mom asked her dad. He’d opened his news projector, filling the room with a soft, orange light.
“Not really,” he murmured, his eyes darting quickly over the floating headlines. “Wait. There is something. A spokesperson for the Rulers released a statement saying the Rulers are refusing the mayors’ request to expand the four cities. According to them, ‘allowing the cities to develop past their originally intended sizes would upset the delicate balance of power we strive to maintain within Princirum.’"
There were four massive cities in Princirum, but Kym had never been outside of the City of Contellus. Every time she mentioned visiting the other cities, her parents told her not to worry about it. According to them, every city was the same, so there was no real point in leaving. But even if they were all the same, the thought of being beyond the walls of her city made Kym’s imagination soar.
“The Rulers know what’s best,” her mother said, sitting down at the table. “They’re the children of the gods. Who would know better than them?”
“I don’t know. I just wish they’d leave the palaces and visit the cities more often. I can’t even remember the last time they came and actually looked around.”
“I’m sure they’re very busy,” said Kym’s mom. “They’ve ruled Princirum for centuries, and I doubt they’ll ever change their ways.”
Kym’s dad gave a huff in reply as he dished some bacon onto her mom’s plate. Kym only saw the Rulers a couple of times a year. They’d come to her school to inspect the students, and they’d only speak when greeting them. She could never bring herself to look at the Rulers as they moved through the students, not after everything her family had gone through. Instead, she’d stare at a point above their heads until they moved on to the next student. Would that be the case now, with her showing signs of magic left and right?
“So, sweetheart,” Kym’s mother said gently, pulling her mind back to the table. “Did you enjoy Temple today?”
“It was fine,” she murmured. “Same as it is every week.”
“Really?” Kym’s dad asked slowly. “You took your time at Reta’s altar. Is everything all right?”
Kym opened her mouth, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. She couldn’t tell her parents what happened at Reta’s altar. If she did, she’d have to tell them about the river, and then they’d know exactly what was happening. She couldn’t do that to them, not after everything they’d already been through. They’d lost so much to magic, and now it could take Kym away from them. She’d never wanted to be part of that world, even after learning about all the incredible things people had done with magic. But showing magical signs meant her life could change forever if anyone found out. So Kym decided to lie.
“Everything’s fine,” she said, hoping her fake smile would convince them to drop the subject. “I just had a lot on my mind.”
“All right,” said her mother, a faint smile on her lips. “Oh, how was the river last night?”
At the word river, fear shot through Kym like an electric shock. Her mind froze, and she dropped her forkful of scrambled eggs onto her plate with a clatter. How could she know Kym had been out? She hadn’t made a sound when she sneaked back in. And if her mom knew that, what else did she know? The glowing wave? The spiral on Kym’s arm? She had felt like someone was watching her, after all.
“Or was it this morning. From the looks of things, you got in pretty late.”
“I took the garbage out before we left. I saw the junk you brought back. You also left your wet clothes in the hamper.”
“Sorry,” Kym apologized, staring at her lap. “I just wanted some me time. I shouldn’t have gone.”
“Don’t worry about it, Kym,” her dad said, turning off his news projector. “You’re not in trouble.”
“Really?” she asked, momentarily forgetting her fears.
“Really,” her mother answered. “We talked it over, and you’re too old for us to ground anymore. You’re sixteen-years-old now, and you have the right to make your own choices without fear of us disapproving. Besides, you’re just cleaning up garbage, and we can’t tell you to stop doing something like that.”
“But, what about the curfew?” she asked, remembering one of her more unpleasant times at the river. The city patrol caught her out at night and escorted her back home.
“Its never really enforced,” said Kym’s dad. “The city patrol has far more important things to do with their time. You’re a smart girl, and nothing ever happens to you when you go out there.”
Kym stood up so quickly she banged her knee on the bottom of the table. Her chair toppled backward, and the shaking table caused her full glass of orange juice to tip over. A bright orange stain spread through the old, faded tablecloth, but Kym hardly noticed. She couldn’t do this. She needed to get out of there.
“Nothing.” Kym needed to think of something semi-believable to say. “I’m just supposed to meet someone to work on a project before school.”
“Well, I’ll drive you on my way to work,” Kym’s mom said, already starting to stand.
“No. It’s fine,” Kym said. She dropped her dirty plate in the sink and grabbed her backpack from beside the door. “I can walk.”
Kym was out the front door before her parents could stop her. She walked as calmly as she could down the rickety front steps and onto the uneven walkway. She couldn’t keep what happened a secret for very long. No matter how hard she tried, sooner or later it was going to get out. Someone was going to find out. And if her parents hadn’t thought anything was wrong, they certainly did now.
Kym needed to be someplace where people wouldn’t notice her, a place where she could be invisible. So she turned left and started walking to school. No one there would notice her acting odd, since that would require people knowing how she usually acted. She’d had no real friends since she was seven, and she had the Rulers, the gods, and the priests to thank for that little bit of bad luck.
Years before, Kym’s aunt, Lydia, and her uncle, Herald, stopped going to Temple. They spoke publicly against the Rulers and the gods, and the priests arrested them for it. They refused to take back what they said, so the priest executed them before the Rulers could find out. And because of their relation to Lydia and Herald, Kym, at only seven years old, and her parents were shunned by everyone they knew. No one would go near her family after that, wanting to distance themselves from traitors to the gods.
Kym tried to make friends for the first few years, but even kids didn’t want to be near what her aunt and uncle had done. So, she gave up on having friends. Everyone would forget Kym as fast as they could. Even her teachers, some of whom had taught her for years, still called out her name like they’d never seen her before. School was the place where she felt her most invisible, which was precisely what she was looking for. She needed time alone to figure out what to do now that she was one of the Favored.
The Favored of Princirum were those who, like the Rulers, could control one of the seven elements. When the Rulers found a Favored, they’d take them from their homes to live at the Rulers’ palaces. As far as Kym knew, they never came back. They may get on her nerves at times, but Kym’s parents were all she had, and leaving them was the last thing she wanted, especially for magic.
What if she refused to go when the Rulers found her? Just stayed at home and ignored them when they came to collect her? What if she insisted they made a mistake? Even as she thought it, Kym knew it wouldn’t work. The Rulers never let a Favored out of their grasp, and there was nothing she could do to stop them. If they ever found her, they’d take her.
But that wouldn’t happen right away. The Rulers only came to her school two, maybe three times a year, and their last visit had been less than two months before. Kym felt herself relaxing as the thought set in. She had time to prepare, even if she wished she didn’t have to. She could tell her parents when she was ready. Her life wasn’t going to end right away.
But when she got to school, she stopped dead in her tracks. Parked alongside all of the teachers’ cars were six magnificent horse-drawn carriages. Every fiber of her body ordered her to scream, to run away and hide where no one could find her. But she couldn’t. The time she’d thought she had vanished. The small ray of hope she’d built for herself slipped hopelessly through her fingers. It was over. Her time was up. The Rulers were at Kym’s school.