The sharp edge of the paper sliced into my thumb and I sat up with a jerk. “Fak!”
Blood blossomed from the cut and I tossed my book to the ground, shoving my thumb in my mouth and sucking on it to make the bleeding stop. I should have known that I’d give myself a paper cut. I’d just picked up the book from the book binder this morning, so its pages were still crisp, not well worn like those in the books that lined the shelves of my bedroom.
“What would your mother say if she heard you cursing like that, Kaya?” As he ducked under the moss that was draping from the tree branches above and made his way along the water’s edge, my father smiled at me. In his left hand was a net full of freshly caught fish. He held it up proudly. “Dinner. I hope I didn’t scare you.”
Shaking my head at his subtle attempt at humor—he’d always been able to sneak up on me without much effort, ever since I could remember—I brushed the grass from my leggings and stood, clutching the book in my hand. “Scare me? I actually heard you coming. First time for everything, I suppose.”
“I made certain you did. Walk back with me? I want to talk with you about tonight.” He didn’t wait for an answer. I knew he wouldn’t. My father was a take-charge kind of person. Not cruel or demanding, but a natural leader. When he said something, people were meant to listen, and they did, for the most part. Maybe it was because he was a Barron, and people—even the Unskilled people of Kessler who had no idea what Barrons even were—just sensed that they were supposed to follow his lead. My mother was a Barron as well. Sometimes I wished that I was like them, but then I’d push that wish away. After all, there was no sense in wishing for what one could never possibly have. My parents had been born Barrons, and I . . . well . . . I had not.
The walk back to our cabin was filled with light breezes, birdsong, and the occasional animal darting into the woods as my father and I navigated our way down the riverbank. Wet sounds of water lapping against river rock distracted me some from the conversation I knew was coming, but not even nature’s song was enough to drown out the usual argument. My father slowed his steps so that I could keep pace with him, and looked at me from the corner of his eye. I always knew when he was looking at me—especially when he was doing so in that oppressive parenting kind of way. “Kaya,” he began, his tone ever so calm, “you know your mother and I trust you completely.”
Sighing heavily, I rolled my eyes. “I’m not going to be out late. Besides, I’ll be with Avery. You love Avery.”
The corner of his mouth lifted in a small smile. “I wouldn’t be doing my job as your father if I didn’t lecture you at least a little before such a big night.”
He pulled a large, leafy branch to the side and I stepped through, spotting our cabin right in front of me. My father had built this place when my mother was pregnant with me. They slept under the stars until it was time for me to enter the world. The night my mother went into labor was their—our—first night in the cabin. It was small (sometimes too small) and damp (sometimes too damp), but it was home, and I always felt a wave of comfort wash over me at the sight of it. “It’s not like I’ve spent every Harvest Festival out wreaking havoc. It’s the same thing every year. Avery and I will wander the festival grounds for a few hours, eating everything in sight and playing some of the games of chance. Then Avery will fall madly in love with some boy and we’ll end up stalking him the rest of the night, until I stumble into our cabin the next morning, bored and exhausted.”
“Sounds like a good time.” My mother peeked out from behind one of the wet sheets that was hanging on the clothesline beside our cabin. She was smiling, which told me that the usual events had transpired. Father had told her he was going to talk to me about how to behave at Harvest Festival, and mother told him not to bother, I’d be fine. By the look in Father’s eyes, he knew that Mother was right, but he still worried, as fathers tend to do. He also knew he’d been defeated.
He shook his head at both of us and wagged a finger in my direction. “No boys.”
Groaning, I said, “I’m not the one stalking boys. It’s Avery.”
But my father was not to be deterred. “No boys.”
I shot my mother a look. “Does he ever listen to anyone?”
“Not since I can remember.” My mother chuckled.
As she moved through the cabin’s back door, she threw a glance at me over her left shoulder. “Avery stopped by a while ago to let us know the festival grounds are all set up. She says it’s even bigger than last year, which is believable, considering how many funds the trade brought in over the summer. The farmer’s market is open now, so you girls could head over anytime.”
I waited for her to say what she always said to me on the day of the Harvest Festival—she and my father were so predictable. When she didn’t continue, I couldn’t help but be surprised. Maybe this year was different. Maybe this year, she’d finally learned to trust that I wouldn’t do something incredibly stupid and risk exposing Barrons and Healers everywhere to the Unskilled.
She threw me another glance before turning toward the stairs that led up to our sleeping quarters. “And Kaya . . . don’t say anything about you-know-what, okay? Even to Avery. All it takes is for one person to overhear a word they don’t understand to unravel everything we’ve worked for.”
I knew what she was talking about, of course. The fact that they were Barrons. The fact that a whole society of Barrons and Healers existed apart from what we called the Unskilled, or normal folks like the villagers of Kessler. We lived here, sure. But none of the villagers knew that my parents were Barrons, or that I was a Healer. And I knew that if I uttered the word Barron in public that I could undo eight centuries of keeping those worlds apart. I just didn’t like being reminded every time I stepped out our front door.
Plus, there was that other thing. The fact that my parents had coupled, and it was against the law for two Barrons to become romantically entangled. One Barron to one Healer—that was the law. And my parents had broken that law. I didn’t much see a problem with it, but apparently the Barron-run Zettai Council did. And they were in charge of just about everything.
“I’m not going to say anything. Do I ever say anything?” I could hear the distinct snap of sarcasm in my tone and immediately reeled my attitude back in. The last thing I wanted was to get grounded on the night of Harvest Festival.
My father was standing behind me at the sink, working the water pump. The metal squeaked as he pressed the handle down, and a moment later, fresh spring water splashed into the basin. I could hear him rinsing his canteen, and though I knew he wasn’t looking at me, I could also tell that he was very aware of my every move, like a hunter. Sometimes that aspect of both of my parents set my nerves on edge. They were fast, strong, and had heightened senses beyond anyone I knew. I’d gone hunting with him before, but only once.
I was just ten years old when my father had taken me deep into the woods to show me how to hunt. Nothing vicious, he’d sworn. Just a Raik or two, or maybe a Khaw. Raiks were easy to track, after all. Their furry bodies kept so low to the ground that a trail was simple to spot. And Squaws hardly ever flew away when people approached. Both were delicious, and besides, he wanted me to learn.
And learn I had. Just as we’d crested a hill, my father spotted a Khaw on a nearby branch. He unsheathed his katana and whipped the blade forward, beheading the creature with skill and precision. Its blood flew through the air, speckling my cheeks.
I’d cried the entire walk home, and my father had never taken me hunting again.
After that, we stuck to fishing.
His tone was far warmer than I’d expected it to be, considering how snotty I’d just been to my mother. “We just want to make sure you don’t forget, Kaya. You’re seventeen now, and a Healer, which means the Zettai Council’s likely been searching for you for five years. They don’t take Soulbound announcements lightly, even if your parents are fugitives. If they find you, you know what that means for our family.”
Of course I knew what it would mean. How could I ever forget something so horrible? “It means I’ll be shuffled off to some life I never wanted, and you and mom will be punished for your crime.”
“Killed, Kaya.” His eyes snapped to me then, and mine to his, his dark eyes burning with a sincerity that he needed to drive home. “Not just punished. We’ll be killed for falling in love. So you see how important it is that you never slip up and say anything to anyone about Barrons and Healers, yes?”
“Of course I do.” The word killed rang through my mind over and over again. I dropped my attention to a knot in the wood floor, worried that my father might not understand why I hated the pressure they put on me to keep their—our—secret. “I just don’t understand why you don’t trust me not to say anything.”
“We do trust you. Your mother just worries. Plus, she’s feeling a little out of sorts lately. Her seventeenth year was the year her Soulbound Healer was killed. I think your birthday has reminded her of what it felt like to experience that loss.” He’d dropped his tone to a near-whisper, perhaps not wanting my mother to overhear our conversation. I couldn’t blame him. My mother hardly spoke of her Soulbound Healer. I wasn’t even entirely sure if her Healer had been a man or a woman. “She was heartbroken. Soulbroken. Nothing can truly heal someone after a loss like that.”
Soulbroken—that sounded awful. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a part of yourself in that way. My parents had explained to me years before that I had a Soulbound Barron, but I couldn’t imagine it hurting to lose someone I’d never met before, and likely never would. “What about you? You lost your Healer in the Battle at Wood’s Cross, right? Don’t you miss her?”
Something in his eyes shifted then, revealing a haunted, broken man behind the usual strong facade. Seeing this weakness frightened me far more than the precision he’d used to kill during our hunting session when I was a child. My father never showed weakness. Largely because he didn’t contain any. I’d thought so, anyway, until now. “Deeply. I miss Sharyn deeply. But I know she’d be happy that your mother and I fell in love. She’d want this life for me. Minus the threat of the Zettai Council, that is.”
My heart welled up so big that it felt like it was choking me. This was a side of my father that I had not seen. He’d mentioned his Healer before, but only in passing, and only in the lightest of tones. Stepping closer, I hugged him, and whispered the only words that came to mind. “I’m so sorry you lost her. It must have been awful.”
He squeezed me, just a little too tightly, and then held me at arm’s length and forced a smile. “It was. It still is, and always will be. But today isn’t a day for sadness and regret. It’s a day of gratitude for all that we have.”
A hard knock on the front door stole the moment away, and I was strangely grateful for it. It was unsettling to view my father as a person, with real feelings, real weaknesses. He was the glue that held my universe together. The last thing I needed was for that glue to come . . . well . . . unglued.
Her impatience getting the best of her, Avery opened the door and poked her head inside. “Kaya? Come on! We’re missing everything.”
By everything, I could only assume, based on past experience, that she was referring to the freshly baked waffle bowls filled with mounds of fresh berries and dusted with powdered sugar, and the promise of harmless flirtation with one of the Bowery boys, who happened to belong to the most gorgeous gene pool imaginable in all of Tril. As much as I was dreading witnessing yet another failed harvest romance on Avery’s part, I was certainly looking forward to a berry bowl or two, and the celebratory atmosphere that the Harvest Festival brought with it every year. I hurried out the door, a grin on my face, and echoing after me was my father’s stern reminder. “No boys, Kaya!”
Avery and I raced all the way to the crossroads, where traffic—both on foot and in wagons of various sizes and styles—had picked up considerably. My lungs burning, I steadied myself with my hand on Avery’s shoulder and slowed my breathing, watching the people as they poured into Kessler’s main street, which wasn’t a street so much as it was a wide, dirt road down the center of the village. I’d never thought much about how ill constructed our village was until my father had taken me to Howe, where the streets, while dirt, were smooth and even, the structures solid, the roofs freshly thatched. I was still proud to call Kessler my home after that, but traveling definitely helped to point out its flaws. Still, I loved it here.
Once we crested the small hill, to a full view of the Harvest Festival, I heard Avery suck in her breath. The dirt street was lined with tall, lit torches, which were wrapped in elaborate corn-husk bows. Lining the crowded street were carts filled with all manner of food and drink, and at the far end of the street, in what we referred to as the town center, were the various games of chance that had attracted people from three villages over. Avery’s favorite was always the axe-throwing booth. But not because she was particularly gifted at throwing axes.
Grinning and squinting into the setting sun, she tugged my sleeve, pulling me forward down the street. “He’s here.”
I rolled my eyes, but let myself be pulled toward the town center. Standing at the axe-throwing booth was a tall boy, lean and very tan. His disheveled blond hair stuck up this way and that, and when he saw us coming—or rather, when he saw Avery—his lips split into the happiest of grins. He waved, and Avery waved back with an enthusiasm that I envied. So far, no boy had ever made me that excited to see him. And every year since we were seven, Micah had come to work the Harvest Festival from the other side of the continent of Kokoro, and every time, he’d made Avery smile as if she were looking at the stars.
As we passed the food carts, my stomach rumbled, but it practically screamed when we were next to the cart with sugar-coated fried breadcake. I tried to tell Avery that I was going to stop and grab a bite, but she was so focused on Micah that she hurried ahead, leaving me to my own devices. Camra, who’d taught my mother how to sew when I was a baby and had since been a regular visitor to our cabin, was working the breadcake cart. I flashed her a smile and dug in my pocket for three trinks—my father had given me plenty of coins the night before—but Camra shook her head. “Your money’s no good here, Kaya girl.”
Louis Bowery whined from behind me, “What about my money, Camra?”
Camra handed me a large breadcake and shook her head at Louis. “Your money’s just fine. That’ll be three trinks, if you’re hungry.”
Camra didn’t much care for Louis—not many of the townsfolk did. He and his brothers were known to be troublemakers of the worst kind, the kind that wouldn’t confess to anything that they’d done, no matter how small. I didn’t much enjoy his or his brothers’ company either, but Avery had a mild crush on both Decker and Vadin Bowery, so I went along with her just to keep her from getting in too much trouble. With a nod of thanks and a polite shrug at Louis, I turned away from and corner and bit into the soft, warm breadcake and relished the sweetness as the sugar melted on my tongue. After my second bite, I sensed something in the revelry around me change. Then I heard it, high-pitched and in the distance. Someone was screaming.