Evadne stood beneath the olive tree watching Maia climb with a knife clenched in her teeth. The sun was setting, but the breeze was warm, sighing from the west, where the Origenes Sea churned just beyond the grove. It would storm by evening; Evadne could sense it coming on the wind. And then tomorrow would arrive, the day her family had been anticipating for eight long years. One more sleep until I see her, Evadne thought, hardly remembering why she was standing in the grove until she heard Maia slip and catch herself on a limb. The tree shuddered in protest although Maia was the smallest of their family, hardly reaching Evadne’s shoulder in height. She had insisted she be the one to climb. “Can anyone see us?” Maia asked once she had regained her balance, her words blurred by the blade still held by her teeth. Evadne glanced around the grove. They were at the thick heart of it; the grass was spangled with light, and the branches rustled with the breeze. She could hear sounds of the villa—voices and laughter—echoing in the distance. Both of their fathers should be together, working at the oil press on the far side of the property. “We are alone, Maia.” Maia cut the branch and let it drop to the ground, right at Evadne’s feet. She cut another, her knife ticking against the bark.
“Do you think your father will know, Eva?” “That we cut from the god tree?” Evadne gathered the green-and-silver leaves, staring up as Maia balanced on the tree’s warped limbs. She imagined a god tumbling through such branches, breaking his wings, and said, “Well, if my father realizes it, I will simply tell him it was all for Halcyon, and what can he say to that?” Maia swiftly traded one worry for another. “Do you think Halcyon will recognize me tomorrow?” “You are her cousin. Of course she will recognize you.” But despite her confidence, Evadne had gnawed on this same worry for days. She had not seen Halcyon in eight years. Evadne remembered the morning Halcyon had departed, had traced it so many times in her memory that she often dreamt about it at night. Evadne, nine years old, propped on a crutch, her ankle bandaged as she stood in the courtyard. Halcyon, twelve years old, hair bound back in braids, her belongings packed in a satchel, waiting to ride with their father to the city of Abacus. “Don’t go, don’t go.
” Evadne had wept, clinging to her sister. But Halcyon had smiled and said, “I must, Eva. The gods will it.” “Do not tell her this,” Maia said, shifting to another branch, “but I was once jealous of your sister.” “So was I,” Evadne confessed and with a shock discovered that the flame was still there, burning within her. So am I, her mind amended. I am jealous of Halcyon, although I do not want to be. Maia stopped cutting to look at her, and for a moment, Evadne feared she had spoken her secret aloud. “Do not mistake me,” Maia rushed to say. “I was relieved someone in our family finally inherited something good.
Halcyon deserved to make a name for herself. But . I do wish you and I could have something, too.” “Yes,” Evadne agreed. She and Maia were like the other members in their family. Void of magic, all because of their ancestor, a disgraced god who had fallen into this very olive tree centuries ago to break his wings. Or so the legend stated. That was why Evadne’s father disliked anyone touching it, or climbing it, or harvesting from it. The tree had been the end of Kirkos, god of the wind. But it had also been a beginning.
The beginning of this grove, of their family. “Why would a god be so foolish?” Evadne had often ranted to her mother when they worked at the loom. “He had everything. Why give it all up?” Truly, her anger stemmed from the fact that she was magicless and common and bound to live the same dull life every day until she returned to the dust. All because of Kirkos’s choice to fall. And her mother would only smile, a gentle but shrewd smile. “One day you will understand, Eva.” Well, Evadne believed she already understood. The truth was Kirkos had flown over this piece of land, a grove that was called Isaura, and had seen a mortal woman harvesting olives. He had come to love her so ardently that he had surrendered his immortality and power to remain on Earth with her, living as a mortal man, to tend the grove at her side, to give her children, to be buried beside her when he died.
If any of his descendants aspired to ascend within their court, it would not be by inherited magic but by some other gift or strength. Which Halcyon had done. “Do you think we have gathered enough?” Maia’s inquiry brought Evadne back to the present. She glanced at her armload of olive clippings. “Yes, more than enough. We should get back. Our mothers will be wondering what has taken us so long.” “Perhaps they will think one of the gods flew over the grove and—literally—fell in love with us,” Maia said brightly as she dropped from the tree. It was a frequent quip of their family, but Evadne still laughed. “Lightning never strikes in the same place twice, Maia.
Sorry to disappoint you.” The cousins walked through the trees, finding the main path that wound up the hill to the villa. Most of the time, Evadne’s right ankle ached only in the cold seasons. But it ached today, despite the sultry weather of a storm about to break, and every step through the grove was unpleasant. And when she noticed Maia glancing at the hem of Evadne’s chiton, whisking over the grass and stained with dirt, she realized why Maia had volunteered to climb the tree. “Am I limping that much, Maia?” “No. I was just thinking about how hard it is going to be to get all that dirt washed out of your clothes.” Evadne shook her head but couldn’t resist a smile. Their chitons were simple, made from white linen and cut into sleeveless tunics that they wore long. The garments were fastened at the shoulders with brooches and cinched at the waist with woven leather belts.
In the cold seasons, they traded linen for woolen chitons and cloaks the color of the earth: umbers and greens and grays. Colors that blended into nature and quietly proclaimed their status in society, which was the lowest in their court. How many times had Maia and Evadne and their mothers lamented over the stains that the grove gave their raiment on a daily basis? Laundry days were detested. But just once, Maia swore, most likely when she was an old woman and held no more fear of what other people thought, she would wear the esteemed purple, as if she were Queen Nerine herself. The girls walked the rest of the path in silence. Evadne was distracted by the ache in her stride, an ache sparked by the recent labor she and her family had undertaken, preparing for Halcyon’s return. The past two weeks, they all had been stricken with work, eager to make the villa shine like a new coin, a place worthy of a girl who had ascended in the Common Court. They had harvested the best of the fruit and gathered the first pressing of olives, oil so rich it was deemed sacred. They had aired the blankets so they would smell of summer winds and scrubbed the tiles and frescoes until they gleamed. They had filled all the lamps with oil and prepared their finest garments.
Halcyon’s name had been spoken frequently, reverently, like she was a goddess, and Evadne and her family had let the promise of her fill every corner and corridor of the villa. By sundown tomorrow, Halcyon of Isaura would be home. And what stories might she tell Evadne and Maia? Stories of the world outside the grove, one that glittered of the upper class and cities and chitons so fine they were iridescent in the light. It would be like opening a box of treasure, like a divine relic that Evadne could only admire, not touch and claim. She dreamt of ascending rank in her court, too. Of leaving the dirt-stained chitons and windblown hair and seasonal strain of a land steward. To no longer be looked down upon by others, simply because she worked in the grove. Evadne cast the ascension desire aside; it would never happen, so why did she keep entertaining it? She dwelled on her sister again and tried to imagine what it would be like to reunite with Halcyon, hugging her after all those years separated, and a jolting mix of joy and nerves shot through Evadne. Which would Halcyon sense more? The overflowing delight or the pinch of envy? The girls reached the courtyard of the villa, where a herald waited beyond the gates, ringing the bell for admittance. “What news could he possibly bring now?” Maia growled beneath her breath.
“A higher tax on oil for us to pay?” Indeed, that had been the most recent news—higher land and production taxes. The tax on a jar of second-pressed oil would soon be almost as much as its cost was, due to be paid at the end of the season. “Here,” Evadne said, dumping her olive clippings into her cousin’s arms. “Take these inside. I will see what he wants.” She walked across the warm flagstones and opened the gates. The herald sighed, annoyed. He brushed the dust from his tunic and said, “I have been ringing this bell for close to half an hour!” “Forgive us, herald. My family is preparing the villa for a visitor tomorrow.” Visitor, as if Halcyon were a stranger.
Evadne raised her brows, expectant. “What news do you bring us?” The herald withdrew a roll of papyrus, bound by a wax seal. It was crushed, a testament of its long journey from the royal city of Mithra. “A new decree, by order of Queen Nerine.” Once, the mere sound of the queen’s name had conjured wonder and hope in Evadne. Queen Nerine ruled Corisande with honor and equality and justice. Her profile had been etched upon the silver Akkia coins, and Evadne had often held that coin in her palm, trying to memorize the queen’s features, as if Evadne could become her someday. But that had been years ago. Before the laws and taxes had begun to creep heavier and heavier upon common people. She broke the seal and unrolled the papyrus, knowing the herald would not leave until he watched her read it.
By Order of Nerine, Queen of Corisande, Descendant of the Divine Acantha, Ruler of the Common Court and the Magical Court, Lady of the Origenes Sea: From this day forth, the seventeenth day of the Archer’s Moon, it is now recorded in the annals that any common person, should they come into the possession of a divine relic, is no longer considered a member of the Magical Court. A heavy fine will be imposed upon relic possessors who do not surrender their discoveries to the Mages’ Council at the School of Destry. Evadne rolled up the decree, her face guarded as the herald turned to mount his horse, and ride to the next village. She closed the gates with a clang, her mind consumed with thoughts of the gods and their relics. There were nine divines. Well, eight now, since Kirkos was no longer considered a deity with his fall. Magda, mother goddess of the sun; Irix, father god of the sky; and their seven divine offspring: Ari, goddess of the moon and dreams; Nikomides, god of war; Acantha, goddess of fate and knowledge; Euthymius, god of earth and beasts; Loris, goddess of water and sea; Pyrrhus, god of fire; and Kirkos, god of the wind. Centuries ago, when the kingdom of Corisande had just begun, the nine gods and goddesses came down to live among the mortals. They ate mortals’ food, drank their wine, slept in their beds. And so their magic had trickled into mortal blood, and magical children had been born.
But not every child born inherited the magical gift of the gods. It was a fickle thing, skipping a son or a daughter, and then skipping entire generations. Keeping track of a family’s lineage soon became an obsessive hobby for the upper class, who would arrange marriages and count generational gaps, trying in vain to predict when the next mage would be born in the family. When the gods and goddesses realized the clamor they had inspired, they left the mortal kingdom, returning to their villas in the sky to be worshipped at a distance. But they each left behind a possession, a relic of theirs that was infused with magic. The divines hid them throughout Corisande, hoping the relics would be claimed by common-blooded people, those who were magicless. So the era of relic hunters had begun. To find and possess a relic meant one could wield a tiny source of magic, no matter their common blood. They could join the prestigious Magical Court. Until now, Evadne thought with a frustrated sigh.
“What does it say?” Maia called, leaning out one of the villa windows. Evadne walked it to her cousin, watching Maia scowl as she read the edict. “How ridiculous! Why would the queen even decree this?” “It sounds as if the Magical Court is tired of common people joining their ranks,” Evadne said. “And they complained so much about it that the queen had no other choice but to cast it into law.” Maia crinkled it in her fingers. “My brother is going to be upset.” “As if he were ever going to discover a divine relic.” “True,” Maia said. “Lysander can hardly tell east from west. I wonder if Uncle Ozias ever found a relic, though.
” Ozias had left the grove when the girls were little to become a relic hunter, to both of their fathers’ great dismay and anger. There had been a falling-out among the three brothers, hinging on the fact that Kirkos’s relic was unaccounted for. Ozias had believed the fallen god’s necklace had been buried with him in the grove, and they should dig up the god’s bones to claim it. Gregor and Nico had refused to allow it, and Ozias had left, disowning his family. They did not expect to see Uncle Ozias again. “Unlikely,” Evadne said. “My father thinks Uncle Ozias ended up in the quarry at Mithra.” Maia scrunched her nose. “Gods, I hope Uncle Ozias is not there! That is where all the common murderers are sent.” “Relic hunters often kill to get what they want.
” “Such morbid thoughts, Eva. Come, forget about the decree and help me weave crowns for Halcyon.” The anxious butterflies returned to Evadne’s stomach as her family gathered in the common room to eat supper. Talk centered on the new edict at first—Lysander was, predictably, upset by it—but that conversation soon faded; there were far more important things to discuss. Like Halcyon. Evadne and Maia sat on the floor and wove their olive branches into crowns—one for every member of their family to wear tomorrow to honor Halcyon. The weaving motions gave Evadne purpose, a comfort, until Lysander sprawled on the floor near them, picking the leaves off the branches. “Lysander, stop!” Maia squawked. Lysander ignored his sister as he tore another leaf. He was still indignant about the new decree; everyone knew he wanted to chase after relics, with or without his parents’ blessing.
He wanted to be the first of their family to join the Magical Court. “I wonder how many scars Halcyon has now,” he said. The room fell silent. Evadne’s father, Gregor, froze on his bench, a piece of stew-drenched bread halfway to his mouth. And Evadne’s mother, Phaedra, who was mending a torn cloak, also went still, as if her hands had forgotten what to do with the needle and thread. Aunt Lydia, Maia and Lysander’s mother, had been lighting the oil lamps because the last of the sunlight had drifted out the open window, and she appeared shocked at her son’s words. But it was Uncle Nico who was the first to respond, his bearded face wrinkled from squinting hours in the sunlight, his curly hair limned with gray as he continued to mend a pair of sandals on his lap. “She will not have any, Lysander. You remember how swift Halcyon is. She was impossible to champion.
And should she have scars . well, they would be marks of achievement.” The pressure in the room eased as they began to reminisce about Halcyon. “Remember how she beat all the village boys in a race?” Aunt Lydia said, voice thick with pride as she finished lighting the lamps. The firelight flickered through the room, a dance of gold and shadows. “No one could best her,” Maia agreed. “There was that vile boy from Dree. Remember him, Eva? He thought he could beat her in a fighting match, but she proved him wrong twice. Laid him out cold on the ground in one punch. Glorious.
” Yes, Evadne thought, remembering. She spun two more crowns, and when the storm finally broke, she rose, ready to dismiss herself for bed. “But, Pupa!” her father cried. “We have not sung tonight! You cannot go to bed yet.” Her father would sing every night if he could convince Evadne to join him. He was also fond of nicknames. Long ago, he had dubbed both of his daughters: Halcyon was “Sprout,” and Evadne was “Pupa.” Pupa, as in insect larvae. When Evadne had learned what it meant, she’d been angry until he had told her it was the stage of transformation, when a butterfly was spinning her wings. Since then, they had made a game of finding cocoons in the grove.
“Sorry, Father,” Evadne said. “But I am too tired. Maia will sing with you tonight.” Maia ceased her weaving, mouth agape. “Who, me? I can’t sing!” Lysander huffed his agreement, only to earn a swat from Maia. “We shall all sing tonight,” Phaedra said, setting aside her mending. “Save for you, Eva. I know you need rest.”