A prince always comes home. Alfie’s mother had told him that when he’d boarded his ship three months ago, leaving San Cristóbal behind to be swallowed by the horizon. And now, as the same ship eased back into the port it had departed from, Alfie’s shadow gathered around his feet in a tight spiral of nerves. He was home. The rings of the capital city bloomed before him, from the slouching taverns that braced against the sea breeze in the Pinch to the stately haciendas with stained glass windows and sloped adobe roofs deeper inland in the Bow. Mountains swelled in the far distance. If he squinted, he could spot the surrounding sugarcane fields, swaying in the breeze, ripe for harvest. And, of course, rising against the horizon like a second sun was the palace. Alfie’s fingers curled tight around the railing of the ship, the flap of the scarlet sails quieting around him as the crew readied to dock. The shops and taverns of the port were lined with lanterns enchanted to burn all night long to welcome incoming sailors. Even after everything that had happened, the city was so strangely unchanged. But that was the trick of home, he supposed. It stayed the same even when you didn’t. Alfie wanted nothing more than to shout for the captain to head back to open sea. His pounding heart urged him to sail away and not let his feet touch the ground of this place.
“Prince Alfehr,” the captain said, pulling Alfie from his thoughts. “Your carriage has arrived.” Alfie took a deep breath, his eyes clinging to the clear blue sea. From the deck he could spot colorful fish darting about in schools, unbothered by the boat gliding over them. As soon as the ship had slid from the choppy foreign ocean into the soft embrace of the Suave, the waters of his homeland, Alfie’s stomach began to twist with anxiety. He’d known then that he was getting too close to home. Now there was no turning back. Like everyone else, he was born with an affinity for one of the four elements—his was water. He wasn’t the most skilled water charmer; like most nobles, he hadn’t focused much on elemental study, but he still wanted to whip his arms through the air and push waves against the boat, steering the ship far from here. Instead he said, “Thank you, Bastien, for your service.
” When the captain gave a bow and turned to leave, Alfie spoke again. “Espérate.” “Yes, Your Grace.” “Do I look . ” Alfie glanced at him furtively. “Do I look all right?” Bastien gave him a knowing glance. “You look just fine, Prince Alfie. And even if you did not, your family would be happy to see you. In any condition.” Alfie nodded gratefully as the captain left him to his thoughts.
For the last week he’d stopped his drinking and late-night reading of every text of illegal magic he could get his hands on, in hopes of getting rid of the dark circles under his eyes. During his time on board the ship, the drink left him too bold to hide how lost he felt, searching for meaning in his grief only to find anger. The crew knew it all too well, but he didn’t want his mother to see who he’d become during these months away. Still, the flask of tequila sat hidden at his hip, an anchor dragging him down into its numbing embrace. Alfie walked the shifting gangplank to the dock. As his feet touched solid ground it was strange to feel that terrible stillness again, as if hands had sprung out of the earth to hold him here in this place full of memories he’d tried to forget. With gritted teeth, he ground his heels to get his shadow to stop skittering back toward the ship. He was home now. He had an image to uphold. With his head held high, he strode toward the waiting carriage.
People working on the docks, citizens of the kingdom he would wrongfully inherit, began to gather in a wide ring about the carriage, whispering. “Is that really him?” “Crown Prince Alfie has returned!” Their words fell on his shoulders like slabs of stone. The title of crown prince belonged to his brother, Dezmin, not him. Alfie walked faster. A squadron of guards in red capes bearing the insignia of Castallan formed a barrier around the carriage. A man wearing a brimmed hat raised his son onto his shoulders to get a better look. “Mira, Mijo! It’s the prince!” Alfie couldn’t bear it. They all had such hope in their eyes. His heart beating in his throat, he finally reached the coach. But before he could step in, one voice rang out over the others, snapping against him like a whip.
“Your loss is our loss, Prince Alfehr! May Prince Dezmin rest in peace!” Alfie’s smile slipped and fell. The man’s condolences held a grain of truth—Dez’s absence truly was their loss. They’d been robbed of a real leader and were left with Alfie instead. But the man was wrong about one thing—Dez wasn’t dead. Alfie had returned home to find him. For these people who deserved a true king, he had returned. He would make things right. His throat burning with the effort of holding his grief at bay, he looked at the crowd and said, “Thank you.” His voice was wooden, hollow. But he supposed that was better than sounding broken.
As the carriage drew away from the port and the palace’s silver gates rose in the distance, a knot of dread twisted in his stomach. The ride had been too short. People spoke of how time sprinted during the best of moments, but it dashed just as quickly when something unwanted was on the horizon. The silver gates pulled open and the carriage rolled onto the lush royal grounds. Ahead, the palace sat at the center of a sprawling lake. Its domes, each a patchwork of colored glass, caught gleams of moonlight, reflecting rays of scarlet, azure, and jade. There was no strip of land to connect the palace to the surrounding grounds. At least not a permanent one. As the coach reached the water’s edge, the stone carvers stationed before the lake raised their arms in unison and a path of stone rose out of the water. As a child, Alfie would stick his head out the window and watch the stone bridge descend back into the lake as the carriage rolled forward.
Now he just stared straight ahead. The driver pulled the horses to a halt before the palace and Alfie stepped out, feeling small before his towering home. A servant stationed at the bottom of the stone stairs bowed as Alfie approached. “Welcome home, Your Highness,” he said. “The king and queen have requested—” “—that I wait for them in the library,” Alfie said, finishing the servant’s sentence. It was where his parents always went when there was something important to talk about. The servant nodded at him. “I’ll go straightaway. Gracias.” Alfie trudged up the stairs, his half cape flowing behind him in the night breeze.
As he approached the doors they swung inward and he was hit with the familiar scent of home—the cinnamon incense his mother loved to burn and the smell of freshly washed linen. His shoes clattered against the handpainted tiles of the palace floor, the sound echoing through the halls. Swaths of richly colored fabric were draped across the ceiling, bringing a touch of warmth to the looming corridors. The walls were tiled just as the floor was, forming mosaics of bright color—swirls of burnt orange, rosy red, and summer yellows. As he walked, servants stopped their work to bow, and Alfie inclined his head, his discomfort growing with each look of deference he received. Alfie hurried on to the library. If he and his parents were going to talk, he needed to get it over with quickly. Tonight, he had a game to attend and win. He turned into a sweeping corridor where a servant no older than twelve meticulously dusted the portraits of past kings and queens that lined the walls in their gilded frames. With a word of magic, the boy floated his feather duster up to clean a gargantuan painting of Alfie’s great-grandfather.
The servants were taught simple forms of spoken magic, as necessary for their jobs—spellwork to clean and organize. Alfie didn’t recognize the boy; he must’ve been new. He could see the glint of a silver earring in the boy’s right lobe. He certainly was new if the head of staff hadn’t caught him wearing that. Alfie made to hurry past him unnoticed, but the boy spotted him, his eyes wide. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly, like a fish on a hook. “Prince Alfehr!” He turned away from the wall of paintings and dropped into a low bow. With his concentration broken, the duster came careening down. Alfie outstretched his hand. “Parar!” With a word of magic the duster froze, hanging suspended just above the boy’s head.
A flush crept up the boy’s face as he sheepishly plucked it from the air. Alfie hurried on, leaving the boy to stare after him. He looked at him with too much hope, just like the people at the port. Alfie dashed down the hall and darted through the dark wood doors of the library. He let the silence of the room swaddle him. The library was cavernous, with a domed ceiling of colored glass. Wheeled ladders leaned against the shelves upon shelves of books that lined the walls. The sweeping room was outfitted with desks and plush armchairs to sink into with a good book. No matter how many talks of legacy and responsibility he’d endured here, there would always be something soothing about the library. Alfie walked to the nearest bookshelf, where a ladder scarcely taller than he was stood.
He looked up. The rows of books stretched all the way to the ceiling. Above, painted on the domed, stained glass ceiling was a mural of the history of the Castallan Kingdom rendered in a starburst of color. Alfie stepped onto the first rung of the ladder. “Alargar,” he said. The ladder stretched upward until it reached the top shelves. His shadow squirmed uncomfortably where it clung to the bookshelves before him. He must have been at least twenty men high. But he wasn’t much afraid. Any bruxo worth his salt knew the magic to slow a fall, soften a landing.
And being up this high was infinitely better than waiting on the ground to be lectured for turning his back on his responsibilities for three months. Alfie pushed away those thoughts and ran his hand over the books’ leather spines. He stood surrounded by tomes on all types of magic. Books on elemental magic, an art grounded in the inborn ability to manipulate one of the four elements via physical movement and instinct; books of written and spoken spellwork, both based on the careful study of the language of magic; there were even books on the least common branch of magic, propio—personal magical abilities that were unique to each bruxo. Those born with propio were considered blessed with a greater connection to the art of magic. Each form drew upon an energy within the bruxos who called upon it, the principle of balance and exchange between man and magic—man providing his body and energy to house and power the magic, and magic offering its wonders to man. But no matter how much he read on the subject, no book could describe how it felt to use magic, to interact with a living force so powerful that it overwhelmed and humbled you all at once. Magic could not speak, yet interacting with it felt like a conversation, a dance, a story shared with a friend with the ending left up to interpretation. To Alfie, magic was a bit like a stray dog. If you advanced on it with arrogance, it would snap at you.
If you approached it too desperately, it would skitter away. But if you came to it with an open heart and respect, it might let you stroke its fur and scratch behind its ears. He tilted his head back and looked up at the ceiling mural. Alfie concentrated, letting his mind fall quiet until he felt in tune with the magic flowing through the world, through him—a meditative focus that had taken years of study. When he reached this state, it was as if the magic threading through this world had a pulse, a heartbeat, and he could feel it thrumming through the air, slowing down or speeding up to match his own. As the currents of magic washed over him, Alfie spoke the word he needed: “Contar.” At his command the mural moved with life, swirling above his head in bursts of color. The magic poured life into the images, showing his people swathed in bright colors, prospering and using magic freely. Then the mural slowly darkened as Englassen conquerors appeared on the shores. They chained his people, and Alfie watched the enchanted chains glow as his people’s magic was drained from them and transferred to their Englassen masters so that they could perform more magic.
The Englassen regime destroyed all the tomes of their language, forcing them to forget the tongue that connected them to their heritage—to their magic. Then came the rebellion, with the enslaved breaking free of their shackles and rising against the conquerors and rediscovering their language. The story finished with a great bird shattering the chains attached to its claws and stretching its wings victoriously, the very image on the Castallan flag. Just below the bird were the words of Castallan: Magia Para Todos. Magic for all. Alfie dropped his hand and the mural became static once more. He’d tried that spellwork long before he’d left home, and he hadn’t been able to perform it. Now he couldn’t help but shout “Wépa!” in excitement, his voice echoing throughout the library. At the sound of his lone echo, Alfie’s smile fell. When he was little, Alfie and Dez used to sneak into the library to stage grand duels with their blunt practice swords.
When he’d asked Dez why they always play fought in the library, Dez had shrugged and said, “It’s big and dramatic. In the books you always have to have a sword fight in a big, dramatic place. And when you shout the whole room echoes.” At that, Dez gave a loud holler, his voice ricocheting off the cavernous ceiling. Alfie followed his lead, his own shout sounding like a chirp in comparison. “See,” Dez had said, smiling. “You always need a good echo.” Alfie pressed his forehead to a rung of the ladder. The whole palace whispered of Dez. There wasn’t a single room where he could be free of his fear that he wouldn’t be able to find his brother after all.
That he truly was dead, like everyone said. “Alfehr,” a voice sounded from below, shattering the silence. It was a voice that spoke of the rumble of thunder before a flash of lightning. It was the voice of a king. Alfie started, gripping the ladder with both hands. King Bolívar and Queen Amada stood beside the ladder, staring up at him, their expressions inscrutable from so high up. Where Alfie was tall and lanky, his father was broadly built. Dez had looked much more like him. Alfie took after his mother, with more delicate features. “Ven acá.
” Her voice shook with emotion—though whether it was anger or relief, Alfie didn’t know. “Sí, Mother,” Alfie called down. He took a deep breath and said, “Acortar.” The ladder shrank down slowly until Alfie was just hovering above the ground. He stepped off and turned to his parents. His mother’s hands were bunched in her ruffled, violet gown. Her dark eyes were wide, as if she wasn’t certain that he was actually standing before her. He looked down, avoiding their gazes for a long moment. “I’m sorry I took so long to—” Before Alfie could finish, the queen stepped forward and pulled him into a fierce embrace. The king wrapped his arms around both of them with a gentleness Alfie seldom saw from his father.
Alfie’s back stiffened in shock. “Mijo,” the king said, his voice soft. Alfie’s eyes stung. “I came back.” Queen Amada pulled away from the embrace, her gaze tender as she placed a hand on Alfie’s cheek. “No, you came home. You have been missed.” Guilt wormed its way through Alfie. He wouldn’t even be here if not for the game tonight. But they’d been waiting for him since the moment he’d left.
And now they were looking at him with faith in their eyes, faith that Alfie hardly deserved. But it would be worth it if there was even the smallest chance that what he found at the game tonight could help him find Dez. “I shouldn’t have stayed away for so long,” Alfie said, his voice thick. “It’s all right, my son,” the king said, moving toward a quartet of plush armchairs. He sat, motioning for Alfie and his mother to do so as well. “All men grieve in different ways. The important thing is that you’re home.” While away, Alfie had worried that Dez had been the glue that held his father and him together. That with Dez gone, whatever was between them would crumble to nothing but filial duty. But he’d been wrong.
The love he’d felt in his father’s embrace was just as true as he’d remembered and so much more painful without Dez here to share in it. When they sat, the queen looked over Alfie’s shoulder toward the library doors, her eyes beseeching. “Luka, please. Don’t you want to say hello?” At the mention of his cousin and best friend, Alfie jumped out of his seat. They’d been raised in the palace together and only ever referred to each other as brother. His childhood was colored with memories of Luka, himself, and Dez leaving a trail of mayhem in the palace corridors. He hadn’t noticed Luka standing at the library doors, but now his presence was unmistakable, and uncharacteristically cold. Luka leaned against the doors, his arms crossed and his eyes hard. Alfie’s stomach tightened. To see Luka without a smile on his face was rare enough, but to see him looking so angry didn’t feel right.
“Alfie,” Luka said, his voice curt. He turned his gaze back to the queen. “I’ve acknowledged him. May I be excused now?” The queen extended a hand toward him. “Luka . ” Luka narrowed his eyes. “Why should I say hello when he didn’t bother to say goodbye?” Alfie flinched and stepped forward, but Luka raised his chin as if daring him to come any closer. The king rose and squeezed Alfie’s shoulder, giving him a stern look that said, Leave it. “Luka, you may be excused.”