The door was made of ice—glowing blue, crystalized ice. And behind that door was my…I guess I should say destiny, even though it sounded absurd. Meeting a boy who might be my husband one day should not qualify as destiny. Yet here I stood with my parents in a gaping black mouth of an entryway, with columns that jutted out like fangs to a blue-stoned palace so massive I had to turn my head side to side to take it all in. The last beams of dusk caught the glassy surface and danced. I glanced at my parents, both of them unconcerned. I guess we weren’t going to talk about how strange it was to make a door using only white magic. Had that been in their lectures? And, Adraa, don’t mention the creepy door situation. My father lifted a fist to knock and I lurched forward, tugging his arm down. But it was my mother’s words that stilled us both. “Maybe…maybe we should wait.” Snow flurries whirled. The winter wind howled. Then Father gave us both the look. “We’ve been talking about this for years, Ira.
” I hadn’t been involved in these annual discussions, obviously. I was eight. My parents had been considering my arranged marriage since forever. “And after all those steps,” Father huffed. I didn’t even want to glance behind me at the slope of stairs we had climbed. My legs ached, quivering in confusion as to why we hadn’t flown here on skygliders like sensible witches and wizards. By stair twenty I had begun imagining the Maharaja of Naupure made us walk up here, not to fulfill tradition as everyone had told me, but to weaken me. By stair sixty-two, a nagging thought crept in like the cold—I approached a prison, not a palace. I could see from the crinkle of my mother’s crooked nose that she was about to laugh. And my one opportunity in this nightmare of steps and cold and weird doors was about to slip away.
“I’m with Mom. This is a bad idea!” I said. Both pairs of eyes shot to me. Father immediately bent down and clasped my shoulders. “Just think of this as meeting a new friend, Adraa.” “But, but he’s—a boy.” A boy I would one day be expected to…kiss. I knew marriage also meant living with someone in the same dwelling, but it was the idea of kissing that rattled me. I would be expected to do that regularly and supposedly like it? I tugged Father’s arm again. With Mother’s help this could be over, forgotten.
We could turn back from this mountain, board our skygliders, and return to our own palace and the coast, where winter didn’t try to freeze you to death. But I had said the wrong thing. My father laughed and even my mother shook her head and covered her mouth with a gloved hand to conceal a smile. Sometimes I think they only had me for my unexpected one-liners. “Yes.” Father chuckled, the warmth of his breath marking the frigid air. “Yes, he is a boy. And so am I, and you like me well enough, right?” I didn’t like this logic. I had missed something stark and obvious, or my father had. My potential betrothed in all his boyishness meant something completely different from my father’s broad frame and comforting arms.
The question was a trap, so I answered the only way possible: “Yeah.” Father laughed, tilted his head to Mother and repeated “yeah” to try to make her smile again. Then his green eyes thawed. “I know this must be scary.” “I’m not scared,” I rushed out, but I couldn’t tell if I was lying. Naupure’s winter stung and I shook with it. Rising behind the palace, Mount Gandhak pierced the sky and the last beams of daylight bled onto the rocks in a yellow-orange paint. In the far distance, from my bedroom window, the volcano appeared as dormant as ever. Up close? The light mimicked lava. Father peered at Mother and held her gaze.
“It’s just a first meeting. Nothing will be written in blood. Tonight, it’s just a meeting,” he repeated. And before I could say anything more, even protest one last time, Father finally knocked. Nothing happened. I was saved. “No one’s home! Let’s go!” I shouted. “Adraa,” Mother snapped. She opened her mouth to say more, but the ice groaned. Cracks splintered out in branchlike streaks.
I stumbled back, listening as each glacial shard shattered and fell. And when the door was done pulling itself apart, only darkness greeted us. No flesh had touched that marbled ice. Wisps of blue smoke fluttered in the periphery of my vision. I spun to catch its potency. Magic! The dim entryway awoke with light as candles pop, pop, popped to life, illuminating a wide staircase and an elaborately dressed man descending toward us. “Greetings!” the man bellowed. This had to be Maharaja Naupure. But he was… skinny and short, which was unexpected. You don’t go imagining the most powerful wizard of our neighboring country as skinny or short.
Both? This couldn’t be the man. But on his chest, he wore the Naupure emblem, a mountain embedded in blue wind. He strolled toward us, and he and Father pressed their forearms together before hugging. Father laughed and said, “It’s been too long.” Mother placed her fingers to her throat and bowed in dignified honor. Words garbled together and I retreated, the wind biting into my back. Forget skinny and short. Forget first impressions. I had been utterly wrong. My parents knew this wizard well.
Which meant this was more than introductions and pleasantries. This was a decision, already decided. What about “It’s just a meeting, Adraa”? What about “It’s only a visit before Jatin goes away to school” as I sat and memorized what to say, word for word? Father turned. “Adraa.” I froze. Move me and I would break apart like the door. Father didn’t notice. He reached for my hand and pulled me forward, into the hall. Arches upon arches, adorned in paisley and gold, glimmered down at me. Candles burned.
The smell of crisp winter air mixed with bouquets of white frostlight blossoms. Yeah, it was pretty, but fear whispered that it was all a facade. “Come on in. Get out of the cold.” Naupure motioned as though to swat away the wind. With a quick spell, blue smoke gushed off his arms, ran straight for me, and then spilled into the night. I gaped as the ice shards picked themselves up and refroze in place. Frost crystals trailed over the wall’s marble veins, weaving across the door’s hinges and stopping only when they touched the bright-gold silks draped across the ceiling. I was so busy watching the show I didn’t notice the orange wisps of my father’s magic thawing me. Lingering snow on our cloaks sizzled into steam.
When I turned around again, everyone’s attention focused on me. “This must be Adraa.” Maharaja Naupure crouched, and now even I was taller than him. It didn’t help. “Pleasure, little miss.” Here, I was supposed to say “Pleasure” and maybe add a “thank you for inviting us.” Silence. I would give them silence. Mother frowned. Maharaja Naupure continued to stare.
“You are a pretty little thing, but I’m sure you know that, huh?” This man obviously only had a son. “Pretty”? Really? He knew how many stairs I had just climbed, right? Where was my compliment for surmounting his torture? I glanced at my mother. She bit her lip, probably scared of what might tumble from my mouth. My mind buzzed with all sorts of retorts. My parents had lied. So I accompanied a shrug with something special: “I know.” Mother took a quick, sucking breath as if preparing a spell, but Maharaja Naupure barked out a laugh. “That’s right. A pretty girl should know.” What? What kind of response is that? Maharaja Naupure swung toward the stairs and yelled, “Jatin! Don’t keep our guests waiting.
” A muffled thump echoed from upstairs. My throat dried, but my hands began to sweat. That thump was him, the boy, like a real monster in the depths trying to scare me. Naupure guided us to the open room on the right. A prayer table cloaked in red stood before us. Tapestries in various colors covered the nine-sided room, every paneled wall praising a different god or goddess. Mother grew up on Pire Island, where they have long given up the idea that the gods bestowed our magic. But even though her eyes lingered on the tapestries uncertainly, Father had taught me enough about each peering face. I knew it would be under those eyes that we would spill our blood. I quickstepped to my father and tugged his hand.
Please let him understand my concern. Please. He nodded. “Adraa’s a little nervous about meeting Jatin.” Betrayal. White-hot betrayal. I dropped his hand like it had scalded me. “Of course,” Naupure said, just as I cried out, “No I’m not!” Mother’s eyes seared into me. Our alliance, however short-lived, had fallen. “I’m sorry.
She’s normally not like this.” Mother pointed to the spot next to her. “Adraa, come here.” I obeyed in a fumble of pink-and-orange skirts that I tried to straighten as I sat down next to her. I didn’t know what to do anymore to get out of this. To rebel even further would mean punishment. Or maybe I was past that. Maybe whatever I did— “Have you come into your magic yet, Adraa?” Maharaja Naupure asked. And just like that, the anger died. “No, sir.
” “She will, of course. She is a year younger than Jatin, if you remember,” Mother said quickly. “Oh yes, I remember.” He peered at me, inspecting. “She has her Touch. Adraa, show him.” I automatically turned my left hand over, palm up, and placed it on the red cloth. The fabric was itchy, with little barblike tufts instead of nice velvet softness. Why would anyone buy an itchy tablecloth? The Naupures were monsters. I displayed my Touch, a small marking that had flourished upon my left wrist.
It was a reddish branchy swirl the size of a silver coin, darker than my brown skin. It held the only true indication that one day I would become a witch, and therefore was one of the only things that gave me hope as I crept closer to age nine. One day, if I was powerful enough, the design would spring up each arm, wrapping itself up to my shoulder like those of my parents, Maharaja Naupure, and half the country. Like a plant, I must nurture my Touch. I must study. “And your other arm?” Maharaja Naupure asked. Cautiously, I set my right arm on the table. My parents froze, because there was nothing there, only bare dark skin. The real concern, and the reason I feared I would be powerless, lay in this fact: my right arm was unnaturally naked. Everyone I had ever met reported their Touch appeared on both wrists simultaneously.
There are the Touched and the Untouched. I’ve never heard of anything in between. “Interesting,” Maharaja Naupure said. “Have you seen this before?” Father asked. “I thought it was all myth and legend.” I knew it. I knew my parents were concerned, and I knew I had a reason to be too. “Well, according to legend, the gods are fighting over who should bless her.” I snatched my arms off the table and glanced around the room at the tapestries of the nine Gods: the blue God, Retaw, commanded a flood; green Goddess Htrae reigned over a field; yellow God Ria flew in a tornado; red Goddess Erif ruled a volcano; white God Dloc swirled within a blizzard; pink Goddess Laeh cured sickness; black God Wodahs concealed himself in a dark cloak; purple God Raw stood on a battlefield; and orange Goddess Renni was enveloped in muscles and strength. They looked ready to eat me before considering giving me power.
Could they really be arguing over me? “That’s more reassuring than…the alternative.” Mother sighed. I pressed my mark, hard. Without magic, without all nine types of magic, I was useless. No title. No ability to lead any country, let alone mine. When I glanced up to see Maharaja Naupure still inspecting me, the weekly lectures on politeness were completely forgotten. “Do you need to check my molars too?” I opened my mouth. “Adraa,” my mother spat. I closed my mouth quickly, but continued staring at him.
See the real me, Maharaja Naupure. See how unsuitable I would be as maharani of Naupure! And not because my right arm is bare. Maharaja Naupure again barked out a laugh, which seemed to be his only sound of amusement. “Oh my. You remind me of my Savi.” Before my parents could agree or Mother could shuffle out of the awkwardness of having to admit I was in fact her daughter, a boy, the boy, walked into the parlor. He had jet-black hair like my own, brown skin much lighter than mine, and shiny, glazed-over eyes. Jatin, my betro—I couldn’t even think it. Here I was, goose bumps radiating up my arms and down my legs, and he was calm. No, he looked…bored.
Not looking bored was rule one, right before being excessively polite. Which, when you think about it, is the same rule, because this calmness was all sorts of annoying. How could he be calm? “Jatin, there you are. Come meet everyone. This is the Maharaja and Maharani of Belwar.” Jatin nodded. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.” So I wasn’t the only one with regurgitated lines. Jatin bowed to my parents and then turned back to his father with a “what else must I do” expression. “And, Jatin, this is Adraa.
” Should I stand or something? Before I could make up my mind, Jatin turned to me and gave the most awkward smile ever crafted. Both of his canines were missing. “Hello,” we said simultaneously. “Jatin, why don’t you show Adraa your room,” Maharaja Naupure suggested. Jatin looked up at his father with calm obedience. No help for the cause there. Mother nudged me with an elbow. “Go on, Adraa. We need to talk with Maharaja Naupure in private.” I twisted around, ready to pout my way out of this, but then I saw my father’s eyes.
They weren’t crinkled in humor. They were always crinkled in humor. But not today. I had to let this boy show me his room. Jatin nodded for me to follow. Nodded! You would think this kid owned the whole country. Well, I guess he would one day. I trailed Jatin up more stone steps and through the labyrinth of the palace, staring at his back. Any time he even twitched to turn around and look at me, I pretended to be fascinated with the yellow and blue entanglement of colors on the archways. When we finally stopped, Jatin gestured to a wood door with his name etched in swirly lines.
“Here it is.” I crossed my arms. I could play this game all day. “It’s a very nice door.” Jatin stared at me, waiting, and then turned the handle and waited again. Nope. No way. I was not going in first. That was how I would get locked in a room and never be heard from again. My parents might trust this calm, polite boy, but I didn’t.
It was an act, for sure. “Ah, you can go in,” he said. “You first.” “But…you’re supposed to—” “Supposed to what?” Fall for your tricks? Think again, boy. “Never mind.” And with that, Jatin ambled into his room with me right behind. I expected massive, like everything here, and while the furniture appeared oversized, it was because the room in fact was not enormous. It could hold a single elephant instead of an entire herd. The clutter might have also had something to do with it. A library had exploded upon the desk.
Parchment dripped to the floor. Orbs and bottles glowed with tiny balls of magic on every flat surface. I stared, captivated by the glowing swirls of color. In one row sat all nine types of magic, neatly arranged and gleaming like a rainbow. A small red fire, an orange mist, a yellow glimmer of air, a bundle of green mossy material, a blue wave, a purple spike, a pink ball, a black fuming shadow, and, finally, white frost crystals. Was all this his? It had to be. When first learning and trying to cast spells, young witches and wizards create each individual and godly color. Only at age sixteen is one’s forte determined. Then every spell filters through your particular blessed color. Which meant with the array of hues surrounding us, Jatin could already cast all nine! Jatin grabbed a white orb, whipping my attention back to him.
“Do you know magic yet?” he asked as he spun the translucent container. Snowflakes and frost crystals shimmered inside. His Touch swirled in an intricate design up the back of his right wrist. “I’ve been studying.” “No, I mean can you do it yet?” “Well…” I searched for something to distract him and found only orb after orb of colorful smoke. Is that all this boy did—study and spell? “You can’t!” His eyes bugged out in surprise and then shrank down into pride. They sure weren’t glazed over now. He looked at my hands. Cheeks flushing, I shifted my right arm behind my back slowly. This is why boys are the worst.
“What? Are these really yours?” I sputtered, but I already knew the answer. “Yeah. Wanna see?” He jerked the container up. “This was my first freeze spell.” He would open it in here? I knew this boy was dangerous. When one is first learning, magic either needed to be confined in an orb or cast in an open space. His room suddenly felt even smaller. “Don’t! You can’t.” He straightened. “Yeah I can! I’m a wizard.
” More like spoiled brat. “I’m a witch too. I just haven’t gotten my powers yet,” I said. He crossed his arms. At least the orb wasn’t about to be opened. I had saved myself by that much. “I bet you are not even a witch.” “Am too.” I reached for my left sleeve to show him my Touch, but his laughter stopped me. Heat flushed my cheeks, hot coals pounded in my chest.
“Take that back or else!” “But if you can’t—” I didn’t let him finish. I hurled myself toward him. I meant to just make him lose his balance and maybe his grip on his precious orb, but in my frustration my hand slapped his cheek—with force. Jatin stumbled backward, falling to the floor with a thud. He yelped and the crystal-filled orb tumbled across the room. Feet thumped up the stairs. I crouched, my anger wilting and blooming into fear as the footsteps approached. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it.” My throat constricted in regret. I really didn’t mean it.
Jatin held a hand to his cheek as he stared at me wide-eyed. At least he wasn’t crying. “Let me see?” I edged closer when he continued to peer at me like a lifeless statue. I peeled his hand from his face and sighed. Nothing. No mark. No nothing. Well, it had only been my open palm. “You hit me.” “I’m sorry.
” He was nowhere near crying, but I felt the hot press of emotion about to erupt in my own eyes. I had hit the future maharaja of Naupure. Even though it was an accident, I was as good as dead. And I guess a part of me deserved it. Jatin’s door was open, so our parents had no trouble hustling over the threshold. “What happened?” Father asked. “Is everyone okay?” Mother asked not a second after him. I scanned between Maharaja Naupure lumbering over us and Jatin sitting there, still shocked. “Adraa?” “I…I got mad and I didn’t mean to, but I—” “She didn’t do anything,” Jatin said. For one breathless moment, we all stared at him as he snapped out of his daze and got up off the floor.
Like they were going to believe that. “No, I…I hit him.” My parents glared, my father’s eyes in particular shooting green icicles. “You all right, Jatin?” Maharaja Naupure reached out one long arm to his son. Jatin didn’t meet anyone’s eyes as he nodded at the ground. “Sir, I cannot begin to apologize,” Mother said, turning to the maharaja. “Adraa,” Father snapped. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Why did you hit him, Adraa?” Father’s voice was firm, and filled with warning. “He…” I glanced at Jatin.
He finally unglued his eyes from the floor. And they were anything but calm. I dropped to my knees in front of Maharaja Naupure like my prayer position to the gods. “I’m sorry, Maharaja Naupure. It doesn’t matter what happened. I should not have hit Jatin.” After a terrifying still minute, I peeked through my hair, which had curtained around my face. Maharaja Naupure was shaking, and I trembled. We were going to die. I had hit Jatin and now, as payback, my parents and I were going to be killed.
An abrupt snort broke the tension. The maharaja was…laughing. Maharaja Naupure bent down and raised my chin so I met his gaze. He peered at me in a way that skewered me to the core. Then he smiled. “Strength is more than standing.” With my chin still in his hand, he looked up at my parents. “She is made to be a Naupure.”