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Averat Garlantine, raised in staid comfort as the youngest son of an old noble family, is sent with his sister to the capital Whitetower. She hopes to enter the druid’s school; he hopes to find a place away from the reach of his brothers. They find a glittering court, and at its center the heir to the throne, Lucalyn Raysarian. Avery is drawn to Lucalyn, but as attraction grows their responsibilities keep them apart. Around them the city is in tension between the castle on the hill and the slums along the river. When children start disappearing from the slums, Avery finds himself pulled deeper and deeper into the dark history of Whitetower, the secret’s of Lucalyn’s family, and the perilous magics that protect their world.
The first time he kissed the prince was at Sieffre’s feast. They had been sitting close, and it had felt almost natural when Lucalyn’s hand curled around his neck to lean forward. But when the slight touch of lips deepened, lengthened, Lucalyn had pulled back, his golden eyes wide and dark. A smile played at the corners of his lips.
“That was unexpected,” Lucalyn said, voice low. The darkened room, smoke curling around them scented and sweet, seemed to recede. Something between them had crumbled.
And then shot right back up.
“Lucalyn, Avery,” Dylia Arayvial called. She sat with the others on the other end of the bench. Had they been seen? But, no. There was no surprise in Dylia voice, just her usual direct tone. Lucalyn pulled away and Avery dropped his hand from the prince’s shoulder, still surprised it had been there. “Henrit claims there have been children disappearing from the Westside. But this cannot be true?”
Children? The Westside? Avery blinked. He wanted to take Lucalyn’s sleeve, go with him somewhere more private. But now the others were watching them, Dylia and Henrit, Marcal, Jyron, his own sister Ivy. It felt as though Lucalyn’s attention had been ripped from him, and he needed to catch the tattered pieces and stitch them back together before the pattern was lost.
Lucalyn said to Dylia, his voice unsettlingly normal, “How have you settled on this topic? We are young people at Sieffre’s feast, not our parents at a council meeting. But,” Lucalyn leaned forward, the soft light flicking along the plains of his face and Avery was taking a drink of honey wine to keep from staring, “We have heard children are missing, but we cannot be certain the numbers are escalating. It may just be the result of increased reporting. It is unfortunate, but the Westside has never been known for the stability of its families. We do what we can but a certain amount of delinquency is inevitable.”
The topic, strangely incongruous backed by faint music, scented smoke, and soft torchlight, was becoming familiar. Children. Disappearing. Yes, he had heard talk. The servants had been talking. He recalled one of the servants had a niece who had gone missing. “I don’t think it’s just increased reporting, Lucalyn. Children are going missing from stable families.”
Lucalyn turned to him, a muscle tightening in his jaw as he said, “You have further information, Garlantine?”
“Not, information, no.” They were still sitting close enough that Avery could see the flecks of silver in Lucalyn’s eyes, eyes in which Avery could imagine he saw a touch of frustration that might match his own. Or not. “I was talking to one of the maids. Her niece is missing. I think the girl was around ten years old, and happy, as far as that’s possible for a ten year old.”
“You have been talking to the maids, then?” Lucalyn said.
“Our Avery has always been like that,” Avery’s sister Ivy — no, she wanted him to call her Ivinal, here — said.
“It was because I found other company so tedious when we were children, Ivinal.” She would know he meant their brothers. Lucalyn’s lips flickered in a smile, and Avery thought he might speak, but instead the prince raised a cup.
“Shall we all pray to the Makers then, for the safety of wayward children?”
The conversation moved from the children, to the sorry state of the river, to the age of the oldstones ringing the inner cities. Avery held on through the twists and turns, offering occasional comments. He found himself hanging on to the prince’s words, waiting for him to speak so he could offer a reply. Not so unlike the girls who would follow Marcal Dusmalan from room to room after dinner. He wanted to laugh, or yell, his insides coiling, but he could only smile and drink his wine. The king, Lucalyn’s father, came by to laugh at them for talking of such serious things during a feast, then tell them to quiet down and watch the dancers. Mention of the dancers put an end to the talk.
This was Avery’s first Sieffre’s feast at Whitetower, and as he watched the dancers he felt some of his frustration funnel into fascination. They entered to the precise metric of drumbeats, like the thud of a heartbeat. Swirls of cloth accompanied their movements, giving glimpses of the bare skin beneath. Back home at Grandrel Gate, his father never would have allowed such dancers into the hall. At the Gate they had of course celebrated Sieffre’s feast, but on feast day Avery had played board-and-piece games with his brothers and sister, seen one dull play approved by his father, then snuck off to escape his brothers and talk with the players.
He shifted along the bench, the heat suddenly heavy and smoke oppressive. Beside him Lucalyn had grown quiet and was watching the dancers as though trying to find the answer to a difficult problem in the swirls of silk. The prince seemed to glow in the half-light; the firelight glinted off the gold threads in his collar and woven through his shirt, the golden chain around his neck the mark of his position, his status, the importance of his family. Avery looked for longer than he intended, and when Lucalyn turned to meet his eyes Avery did not look away.