Plucking the decorative gold sticks out of her hair, Kylin shook her dark blue locks down around her shoulders. It was the first thing she did everyday after finishing her study session with her tutor, Makena. She set the sticks on a random table on her way to the main staircase.
A flash of movement drew her eyes, and she stopped short. Baggy beige linen and bleached hair at just about Kaleb’s height disappeared through a doorway. Kylin followed. She burst through the door and looked both ways down the dim servants’ corridor. She just caught a glimpse of him turning a corner.
“Kaleb!” she called as she ran after him.
When she rounded the corner, he was still walking.
“What’s the rush?” she asked as she caught up to him.
“Just doing my chores.”
It was hard to keep pace with him, his legs were so much longer than hers. He stared straight ahead down the corridor, but Kylin could see that his left eye was ringed with all the shades of purple and blue. There were streaks of the same colors across his cheek, jawline, and forearms.
“I’m done with my studies for the day. Do you wanna meet me on the beach when you’re done with your chores?” she asked.
“I don’t have time to play today. Sorry.”
He still hadn’t looked at her. That alone told her something was wrong, but there was a coldness in his tone too. She stopped walking and watched him make his way to the end of the corridor without missing a stride. As he rounded a corner and disappeared from sight, she swallowed hard through the painful tension in her throat.
So he was mad at her. Sure, maybe she’d talked him into taking off his cuffs, and she had told him how to do the magic. But he could’ve refused. He could’ve put his foot down and said no. He wanted to learn magic just as much as she wanted to share it with him. He was really only mad because they’d gotten caught, and that wasn’t her fault.
With a huff, she spun around on the toe of her shoe and went back the way she’d come. Let him be mad; she didn’t care. She had plenty of other people to play with.
Days went by. When she saw Kaleb in passing, she straightened her backbone and lifted her head high, determined to show him that she didn’t miss his company. Slowly, it got harder and harder to maintain that attitude. Each time he greeted her formally, each time he left the room without looking back, each time he failed to come looking for her in the garden or on the beach, her outer shell of confidence began to crack and chip.
Why didn’t he miss her? They’d been more than playmates; they’d been best friends.
One night, Noah tucked her into bed like normal. “Sweet dreams, my little blossom,” he said as he pulled the quilt over her. He hugged her tight and kissed her forehead.
“You too.” Rolling onto her side, she tugged the quilt up to her chin and closed her eyes.
She knew Noah had put the lantern out when her eyelids went dark. Then she heard the click of the door shutting as he left. She laid there, still as stone, for a long time, giving everyone else a chance to get comfortable in bed, giving the house a chance to settle for the night.
Heart pounding, she threw the quilt back and crept across her bedchamber. A line of light seeped in under her door from the hallway outside. Slowly so it wouldn’t creak, she opened her door just a crack and peered out. Nothing but woven runners and teak wood spanned her limited view. She eased the door a little wider and stuck her head out. The sconces had been turned down to a dim glow, and the doors lining the hall were all closed.
Kylin slipped out and eased the door of her bedchamber shut. Her bare feet rushed silently over the runners and hardwood floors. She darted across the top of the main staircase and down another hallway. Near the end, she grasped a door handle and pushed it inward. Light splashed across a big bed, and Kaleb rolled toward her, rubbing at his eyes.
Pressing her back to the door, she pushed it shut again. “It’s just me,” she said.
“It’s the middle of the night. What do you want?” he asked as he rolled over and put his back to her again.
“Are you mad at me?”
“No. Why would I be?”
“Because Noah caught us and you got in trouble.”
“Go back to bed, Kylin.”
She took cautious steps toward him. “No, Kaleb. This is stupid! I wanna be friends again. Don’t you miss chasing me through the waves and chewing gum while you hunt for my hiding place in the garden?”
“I’m too old for children’s games. You’ll have to make due with the servants’ children from now on.”
She sat down on the edge of the mattress. “You weren’t too old for games a few weeks ago.”
“You don’t get it!” he snapped, sitting bolt upright. His face was scrunched up in an ugly glare that reminded her of their mother. “My life isn’t fun and games like yours is. I can’t risk getting in trouble again, or no woman will have me. It’s time for me to grow up and learn to work hard like Noah. It’s the only way I’ll be able to impress a rich woman at my Introduction Party.”
“What do you need some rich woman for? Mom—”
“Mom will sell me for the highest appraisal she can get, and if no one makes an offer, I’ll be worthless to her. She’ll toss me out. I’ll end up like the Rag Men, begging on the streets and selling sex to feed myself.”
“I’ll never let that happen to you—”
“Well I can’t marry you, Kylin, so tell me, exactly what are you gonna do about it? Huh?”
She swallowed hard.
“That’s what I thought,” he said, nodding. “This is the way it is, and there’s nothing you or anybody can do to change it, so just get out.” He flopped back down and rolled over, putting his back to her.
Why? She wanted to shout. Why did it have to be that way? Her heart was pounding, and her hands were shaking, and all she wanted to do was grab the nearest thing and throw it at the wall. She wanted to destroy the whole room and scream while she did it. She wanted answers and reasons, and not the crappy ones everyone recited to placate her. She wanted reasons that made sense.
As she opened the door of his bedchamber, the cool air in the hall turned her cheeks to ice. She reached up and wiped at the wet streaks, and slowly, she made her way back to her own bed.