The day the rains finally came was like any other, with blistering air coating the canyon in a heavy stillness. By late afternoon, the only thing more suffocating than the air was the dust kicked up by our feet. We were as quiet as the dead, moving from rock to crevice, always watching the paths for a sign of movement. Not even a desert hare emerged from the shade. In a way, we were grateful to be left alone, but it was a haunting reminder of what waited for us in the valley below: a village of deserted streets, of wood and mud houses, and of the slow, creaking swing of the well’s empty pail.
I crouched beneath the cover of the jutting rocks, my legs aching with exhaustion and my chest as tight as dry leather. The dust was hot between my fingers, and my knees stung with all the jagged little rocks that dug into them. I was awful at this game—I was awful when I was a kid and still awful now, years later, when Henry had decided that the best way to watch his little brothers was to play go-seek-find.
Even with all of the hiding places the Sasinou Mountains had to offer, none ever seemed good enough to mask the red hair that grew out of my head in every which way. I wasn’t exactly an image of grace and lightness of foot, either, which made hiding more difficult.
Earlier that day, Mother had given us a disgusted face when Henry came to our house, begging me to join them in the mountains. For weeks, she had worn the strip of black cloth like armor, knotting it fiercely around her upper arm every morning in the dark since the news had reached Father by post.
“Out playing games—now, of all times? It’ll do nothing more than show the young ones how to be disrespectful,” she had said, working a slab of dough on the countertop. I gripped the silver pendant around my neck and held my tongue.
Mother and the others her age had grown up with the king. They remembered his early ascension to the throne, his many years of pushing Auster’s forces from our shores, and had admired him for his fair rule. Three years prior, when the king had married the young, beautiful Eglantine, the entire country celebrated the wedding. To everyone my age, he was only a face on a portrait. To our parents, he had been a hero.
“The king’s been buried for a month,” Henry said gently.
“A month and already forgotten,” she said. “Never thinking of what will become of us, now that the dear old man is gone. The queen is far too young to rule.”
Henry and I shared a look. All of the adults had uttered the same line at one point or another. My father had called a village meeting the night he had received the terrible news. Parents had filed into the great hall, where they remained all night, away from the prying ears of children. The queen was a sore subject with my parents. “Too young,” my mother said. “Too inexperienced,” my father added. “Her world is her wardrobe.”
All of this was true. Eglantine was only a few years older than I. She had married a man old enough to be her father and had earned only scorn from the people when she failed to produce an heir to the throne.
The next morning, our parents all emerged from the meeting with the same pale strained look. A pact had been made. We young people knew that that single letter announcing the king’s death had done more to shake the roots of our village than our ten-year drought.
At the time, Henry and I were sure that the adults were only worried about Queen Eglantine neglecting the western villages. The king had taken a special interest in our region and had offered the use of the Wizard Guard’s finest wizards to try to coax the rain out of the clouds. When that had proved futile, he set up a peaceful trade of water between Saldorra, an otherwise hostile country, and us, the town of Cliffton, in the country of Palmarta. Our yellow dirt, when mixed with water, could be fired into the hardest ceramics the world had ever seen. Our sand was the only currency we had.
My mother turned to Henry. “I know that you at least have better things to do with your time.”
“We’re done salvaging the corn,” Henry said. “There isn’t much to go around, but Father said it should last at least a month. I’ve finished my chores, and Father and I won’t leave to make the mud deliveries until tomorrow morning.”
My mother stopped kneading, her hands releasing the battered dough. She glanced up through the small window that overlooked our bit of land.
“Sydelle, did you start the rug for Mrs. Anders?”
I nodded, my eyes drifting back to the loom leaning against the wall. All Mrs. Anders wanted was a yellow rug to help hide the dust tracked into her rickety little home. I would be done in a day, maybe two.
“All right, but take the basket and bring back some dry root. I need to grind a new batch for your father after you ruined the last of it with your clumsy hands.”
Henry said, “We’ll find enough to last for the next few months, I promise.”
And then, amazingly, she let us go.
Three hours later, I was crouched down behind the rocks until my knees were shaking with pain. Just as I was about to launch myself forward, Henry appeared beside me, grinning like a kid. I let out a small, surprised squeak. He held a finger to his lips.
I thought, not for the first time that day, that something was a bit off. We hadn’t had this heavy a cloud cover in years, and Henry’s tan skin and brown hair were looking especially dulled in the unusual dimmed light. He faded easily back into the mountains, while my pale skin, burned pink by the sun, made my efforts to hide all the more difficult.
He crawled past me, sticking his head out to gauge whether his brothers were still around.