To Jim and Jennie Cass.
For lots of reasons, but mostly for making Callaway.
About the Author
Books by Kiera Cass
About the Publisher
I COULD NOT HOLD MY breath for seven minutes. I couldn’t even make it to one. I once tried to run a mile in seven minutes after hearing some athletes could do it in four but failed spectacularly when a side stitch crippled me about halfway in.
However, there was one thing I managed to do in seven minutes that most would say is quite impressive: I became queen.
By seven tiny minutes I beat my brother Ahren into the world, so the throne that ought to have been his was mine. Had I been born a generation earlier, it wouldn’t have mattered. Ahren was the male, so Ahren would have been the heir.
Alas, Mom and Dad couldn’t stand to watch their firstborn be stripped of a title by an unfortunate but rather lovely set of breasts. So they changed the law, and the people rejoiced, and I was trained day by day to become the next ruler of Illéa.
What they didn’t understand was that their attempts to make my life fair seemed rather unfair to me.
I tried not to complain. After all, I knew how fortunate I was. But there were days, or sometimes months, when it felt like far too much was piled on me, too much for any one person, really.
I flipped through the newspaper and saw that there had been yet another riot, this time in Zuni. Twenty years ago, Dad’s first act as king was to dissolve the castes, and the old system had been phased out slowly over my lifetime. I still thought it was completely bizarre that once upon a time people lived with these limiting but arbitrary labels on their backs. Mom was a Five; Dad was a One. It made no sense, especially since there was no outward sign of the divisions. How was I supposed to know if I was walking next to a Six or a Three? And why did that even matter?
When Dad had first decreed that the castes were no more, people all over the country had been delighted. Dad had expected the changes he was making in Illéa to be comfortably in place over the course of a generation, meaning any day now everything should click.
That wasn’t happening—and this new riot was just the most recent in a string of unrest.
“Coffee, Your Highness,” Neena said, setting the drink on my table.
“Thank you. You can take the plates.”
I scanned the article. This time a restaurant was burned to the ground because its owner refused to promote a waiter to a position as a chef. The waiter claimed that a promotion had been promised but was never delivered, and he was sure it was because of his family’s past.
Looking at the charred remains of the building, I honestly didn’t know whose side I was on. The owner had the right to promote or fire anyone he wanted, and the waiter had the right not to be seen as something that, technically, didn’t exist anymore.
I pushed the paper away and picked up my drink. Dad was going to be upset. I was sure he was already running the scenario over and over in his head, trying to figure out how to set it right. The problem was, even if we could fix one issue, we couldn’t stop every instance of post-caste discrimination. It was too hard to monitor and happening far too often.
I set down my coffee and headed to my closet. It was time to start the day.
“Neena,” I called. “Do you know where that plum-colored dress is? The one with the sash?”
She squinted in concentration as she came over to help.
In the grand scheme of things, Neena was new to the palace. She’d only been working with me for six months, after my last maid fell ill for two weeks. Neena was acutely attuned to my needs and much more agreeable to be around, so I kept her on. I also admired her eye for fashion.
Neena stared into the massive space. “Maybe we should reorganize.”
“You can if you have the time. That’s not a project I’m interested in.”
“Not when I can hunt down your clothes for you,” she teased.
She took my humor in stride, laughing as she quickly sorted through gowns and pants.
“I like your hair today,” I commented.
“Thank you.” All the maids wore caps, but Neena was still creative with her hairdos. Sometimes a few thick, black curls would frame her face, and other times she twisted back strands until they were all tucked away. At the moment there were wide braids encircling her head, with the rest of her hair under her cap. I really enjoyed that she found ways to work with her uniform, to make it her own each day.
“Ah! It’s back here.” Neena pulled down the knee-length dress, fanning it out across the dark skin of her arm.
“Perfect! And do you know where my gray blazer is? The one with the three-quarter sleeves?”
She stared at me, her face deadpan. “I’m definitely rearranging.”
I giggled. “You search; I’ll dress.”
I pulled on my outfit and brushed out my hair, preparing for another day as the future face of the monarchy. The outfit was feminine enough to soften me but strong enough that I’d be taken seriously. It was a fine line to walk, but I did it every day.
Staring into the mirror, I talked to my reflection.
“You are Eadlyn Schreave. You are the next person in line to run this country, and you will be the first girl to do it on your own. No one,” I said, “is as powerful as you.”
Dad was already in his office, brow furrowed as he took in the news. Other than my eyes, I didn’t look much like him. Or Mom, for that matter.
With my dark hair, oval-shaped face, and a hint of a tan that lingered year round, I looked more like my grandmother than anyone else. A painting of her on her coronation day hung in the fourth-floor hallway, and I used to study it when I was younger, trying to guess at how I would look as I grew. Her age in the portrait was near to mine now, and though we weren’t identical, I sometimes felt like her echo.
I walked across the room and kissed Dad’s cheek. “Morning.”
“Morning. Did you see the papers?” he asked.
“Yes. At least no one died this time.”
“Thank goodness for that.” Those were the worst, the ones where people were left dead in the street or went missing. It was terrible, reading the names of young men who’d been beaten simply for moving their families into a nicer neighborhood or women who were attacked for trying to get a job that in the past would not have been open to them.
Sometimes it took no time at all to find the motive and the person behind these crimes, but more often than not we were faced with a lot of finger-pointing and no real answers. It was exhausting for me to watch, and I knew it was worse for Dad.
“I don’t understand it.” He took off his reading glasses and rubbed his eyes. “They didn’t want the castes anymore. We took our time, eliminated them slowly so everyone could adjust. Now they’re burning down buildings.”