This day is made for sailing.
The ocean’s brine coats my tongue and I savor its grit. Late summer’s heat has beaten the sea into submission; it barely sways as I stand against the starboard ledge.
Turquoise water stretches into the distance, stuffed full of blue tangs and schools of yellowtail snapper that flounder away from our ship and conceal themselves beneath thin layers of sea foam. Through the morning haze sits an outline of cloud-shrouded mountains that shape the kingdom’s northernmost island, Mornute. It’s one of the six islands I’ve not yet seen but will one day rule.
“Where are we headed?” I ask. “To the volcanos of Valuka? The jungles of Suntosu?” The weather is gentle enough that my words carry to the bow where Father stands, overlooking the water.
Years at sea have wrinkled his tanned olive skin, making him appear older than his forty years. The wrinkles also make him look stern, which I like. Arida’s High Animancer, the King of Visidia, should always appear stern.
“The sea is a dangerous beast, Amora,” he says. “And you are too precious to lose. But prove your strength to our people tonight, and I’ll know you’re capable of braving it. For now, focus on earning the throne.” His deep brown eyes flicker to me, and he grins. “And on announcing your engagement.”
My throat thickens. Ferrick is a fine enough man, if one dreams of settling down with a childhood acquaintance. But I prefer my daily suitors, and their gifts.
Amabons, ginnada, and dresses from the finest fabrics, all to woo the impressionable princess they believe I am. Boys in the kingdom think they can buy my love and title, and I let them believe it. Nothing can compare to the lavish trinkets of hungry suitors, and I’m not keen on ending their generosity.
“Are you ready?” Father’s words are low but firm; something in his eyes shifts. He’s not talking about my impending engagement.
Instinctively, my hand goes to the leather satchel resting on my hip. The contents inside clatter as I touch their rigid edges.
“I am,” I say, though the words are bolder than I feel. Because even as the king’s only child, my people will not simply hand me the crown and let me lead out of birthright. Here, in the kingdom of Visidia, I must first prove myself to them if I’m to earn the title of heir. And I’m to do it by showing them a proper demonstration of Aridian magic; the magic shared only through the blood of the Montara family.
Tonight, I’ve only one chance to prove I’m fit to claim the title of Animancer—a master of souls. But my people won’t settle for a good performance. They demand excellence, and I’ll give them just that. By the end of the night, I’ll prove to them there will never be anyone better suited for the throne.
Sprawling mountains of ripe green and lush cliffsides stretch before us as the sea tugs our ship toward the docks of Arida, my home island. The cliffsides are thickly shrouded with bioluminescent flora, which, while beautiful in the daylight, will steal a person’s breath when they spread their brilliant purple and pink petals beneath the moon.
It’s magnificent, yet a thick knot of bitterness constricts my chest as we approach. I try to ignore it, but it sinks into my gut like an anchor.
I love Arida, but gods, what I wouldn’t give to turn this ship around and keep sailing.
Our sails bloat as wind hauls us toward the harbor, and Father readies himself to dock. I may be expected to run the kingdom one day, yet Father still refuses to teach me something as simple as sailing The Duchess. As I’m one of only two potential Montara heirs, he tells me travel is too dangerous. Despite my years spent begging, arguing that I should be able to set sail and see my kingdom, he hardly lets me touch the helm.
But that just means it’s time to try harder. Today is my birthday, after all.
I shoo my worries away with the seagulls that circle the main mast and join him. Father’s lips pucker as I smile; he knows exactly what I want.
“Please?” I rest my smooth hand beside his rough one on the helm, craving the sun-kissed glow and sea-roughened calluses he wears with pride—the telltale signs of a voyager.
There’s not much time left before we dock. The waters are growing shallow, beating angrily against the ship as we near Arida. A small crowd of servants and royal soldiers wait for us on the red sand, ready to whisk us away in preparation for tonight.
“No.” Father squares his shoulders to block me out.
I duck around him to claim his stare. “Yes. Just this once?”
Father’s sigh makes his broad chest quiver. He must sense how badly I want this, because for the first time in my life he steps aside and offers me the helm. My free hand grips the smooth wood without missing a second, and I suppress a shudder at how it feels between my palms.
Natural. Like my hands were built for this.
“You must go slowly,” Father says, but I’m only half listening. The ship feels every bit the beast I wanted it to, able to take on the sea’s promise of adventure and conquer anything in its path. It’s strong, fearless, but I sense its reluctance to listen to me. This ship is like my people; it demands only the most deserving captain, and will accept no less.
I scrape my nail gently against the wood and twist the helm, just an inch. The ship shudders in response, considering me. Father lingers close, his hands twitchy and ready to take over should something go awry. I won’t let it.
I am Amora Montara, Princess of Visidia and heir to the High Animancer’s throne. There is no ship I cannot sail. There is nothing I cannot master.
The wind shifts with a gust of air, disturbing the sails and pushing the vessel an inch or so to the left. It’s not a big shift, but the ship is challenging me, and I’m not one to lose. I adjust my grip on the helm to correct it.
I don’t need to look up to know we’re coming into shallow water. I can feel it in the ship’s behavior, in the way its steady back-and-forth lulling stiffens into something rigid and fierce.
“Tighten the grip of your left hand.” Father’s voice is distant, but I do as he says. The ship creaks in response.
I am Amora Montara. I dig my nail into The Duchess again when the ship quivers. The power of Arida is within me. You will obey.
The Duchess groans as we hit the sand, and the impact rattles my chest. I lose my footing and scramble to get a better grip, but the helm is slippery from the ocean’s mist, and my face slams into it. Jagged wood scuffs my cheek, causing the ship to laugh as it settles into the sand. I pull back, running a finger along my skin. It comes away dripping blood.
The ship has won, and she knows it. I can’t remember the last time anything made me bleed.
“Amora!” Father’s voice cracks in horror. Anger swells in my belly as I glare at the hands that have betrayed me.
Blasted ship. All it had to do was listen.
“By Cato’s blade, you’re bleeding.”
Tonight, I must be perfect. There’s no room for ugly injuries that signal weakness.
“It’s just a scratch.” I shoo him away. “Mira will be able to cover it.”
Father wears guilt in the wrinkles between his pinched brows. The sight of it makes anger rip through my veins like poison. It’s not his fault I’m bleeding. It’s not his fault I cannot command even a ship to listen to me.
I take Father’s arm before he can say anything else.
We descend the bridge of The Duchess, to where Mira waits upon sand the color of fresh blood, standing between several rigid men and women who sport light blazers with rose-gold trim. She wears loose black trousers and a matching top that billows from her small frame, fastened by tiny pearl shoulder straps that shimmer beneath her hair—a thick stream of waves as dark and sleek as a raven’s feather. The solid rose-gold trim along her outfit matches the royal emblem she wears proudly on her chest; it’s the same as the others wear—the skeleton of an eel wrapped around a crown of whalebone.
Though she’s hardly older than I am, Mira’s sharp face is prematurely wrinkled from constant anxiety. In her five years as my lady-in-waiting, she’s taken every moment possible to fuss over me, as protective as my parents. When she catches sight of my cheek, she gasps and draws me forward.
“Today of all days.” She fishes a handkerchief from her pocket and rubs it across my cheek. Fierce disapproval lingers in the backs of her squinted blue eyes, and as I await the verdict, she frowns. “The wound’s fresh, so we may be able to conceal it if we act quickly. Come, let’s get you ready.”
I glance back at Father, seeking his smile of encouragement. But it withers into a frown as the officials draw him in, whispering secrets not meant for unproven successors. I take a step toward him, silently begging him to turn and seek my counsel or invite me into the discussion, but Mira grabs hold of my hand.
“You know they won’t tell you anything.” Though her voice is soft, the words feel like claws. “Not until after your performance.”
I shake Mira’s hand away, letting the ship steal my attention. Its wood creaks with laughter as it settles onto the sand, mocking me.
The sound sinks into my bones, and I wonder: If I cannot rule one ship, then how am I ready to rule an entire kingdom?
Ikaeans have enchanted the torchlight, blanketing the crowded path beneath my balcony in dazzling shades of pinks, blues, and purples.
Hundreds of Visidians climb the steep cliffs from the beach’s shore up to where the celebration begins below the palace, some of them using paved pathways while those more adventurous weave in and out of rainbow eucalyptus and up the switchback, choking on jeers and quick breaths as they race one another. A group of Curmanan soldiers wait at the shore to help those who can’t or prefer not to make the climb. They lift children and families into the air and high up the northern cliffs to where the celebration awaits. They’re skilled enough with their levitation magic that it comes as easily as their breaths.
The steady thumping of the drums is more intense than it was earlier; every beat clatters my bones while the hollow rattling of percussion fills my chest. The air pulses with energy and laughter, warm with the scent of richly spiced pork and roasted honey plums.
Every person—young and old—is out tonight. When the time comes for my performance, there will be no hiding from the eyes of Visidia.
“Isn’t it magnificent?” Yuriel asks. “It’s better than the theater out there, with all those fashions and magics. We should get the kingdom together like this more often.” My cousin sits on the corner of my canopy bed, lounging against a duvet of goose feathers as he picks at a platter full of lavish desserts. Sitting there, he looks almost like a goose himself, careful to keep anything that resembles chocolate away from the dyed pink peacock feathers that make up his eccentric suit, but sipping deeply from a crystal glass of plum-red wine all the same. I keep finding myself distracted by the startling brightness of his lavender eyes and the beautiful fluorescent-pink makeup that wings out from them.
“When I rule, I’ll bring the kingdom together for plenty of celebrations.” I step away from the balcony and draw the velvet curtains shut behind me. Saying it aloud heats my blood, making my skin prickle with anticipation for tonight.
In just a few hours, everything I’ve spent eighteen years working for will finally be mine.
My title as heir to Visidia. The opportunity to set sail and see my kingdom. The right to not only learn its secrets, but to command it.
“I’m glad to see you’re confident,” Yuriel says between gooey bites of frosted fudge. “I’ll hold you to that.”
Though Yuriel and I are both Montaras, our similarities end at the blood in our veins. With a father who is pale as powdered snow, my cousin’s skin is several shades lighter than my own copper brown. And while my hair is a mass of dark curls, his, like all things in his hometown of Ikae, is extravagant. It’s the starkest shade of white, pure even at the roots. Where I’m tall and curved with muscle, he’s soft and delicate—a poster child for Ikae.
But our most distinctive difference is that despite his royal lineage, Yuriel cannot learn soul magic. He gave up that right when he was five years old and accidentally used enchantment magic to turn Aunt Kalea’s hair fluorescent green.
Though he was too young to be held responsible for this choice, it’s now a duty Aunt Kalea and I bear alone. If I’m not deemed a fit heir, then my people will move on to Aunt Kalea; the only remaining Montara left who has yet to claim a magic.
But that won’t happen. No one in my family has ever failed their performance, and I’ve dedicated too much of my life to be the first.
“Amora?” Mira appears from the connected parlor. Her irises are white and glazed over; the look of a Curmanan using mind speak. “Your parents are ready for you.” She blinks the blue back into her eyes. “When you’re ready, Casem will escort you to them.”
Yuriel wags his brows as I turn away to steal a final look at myself. The scratch on my cheek is hardly noticeable under layers of creams and powders. My crepe gown is made to be eye-catching—royal blue with a tight, structured top embroidered with thin gold whorls that accentuate my curves and illuminate the warmth of my copper skin. It’s tight in all the areas I can appreciate, and with my dark brown curls bundled loosely at the nape of my neck, the created effect is fierce.
Mira offers me a cloak that looks as though it’s been drenched in melted sapphires and dusted with starlight. She hooks it to my gown, just below the shoulders, and my breath catches. It glistens like the sun reflecting off dark water and stains my fingertips with shimmer as I brush them across the soft fabric.
“You’ve truly outdone yourself,” I tell her, catching the proud smile she tries to mask.
Copyright © 2020 by Adalyn Grace