We were studying the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand when we saw the plume of dust.
Gregori spotted it first—in truth he spent a lot of time watching for it—and stood up so fast that his chair tipped over. It crashed to the flagstones of the orderly little classroom, loud as rifle fire. Long and careful training kept the rest of us from moving. Grego alone stood as if his muscles had all seized, with seven pairs of human eyes and a dozen kinds of sensors locked on him.
He was looking out the window.
So, naturally, I looked out the window.
It took me a moment to spot the mark on the horizon: a bit of dust, as might be kicked up by a small surface vehicle, or a rider on horseback. It looked as if someone had tried to erase a pencil mark from the sky.
Terror came to me the way it does in dreams—all encompassing, all at once. The air froze in my lungs. I felt my teeth click together.
But then, as I began to twist toward the window, I stopped. No, I would not make a spectacle of myself. I was Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. I was a seventh-generation hostage, and the future ruler of a superpower. Even if I was about to die—and the dust meant I probably was—even if I was about to die, I would not freeze and tremble. I would not gawp.
So. I put my hands one on top of the other and pushed them flat. I breathed in through my nose and blew out through my mouth as if blowing out a candle, which is a good way to cope with any kind of distress or pain. In short, I pulled myself back into being royalty. All around me I could sense everyone else doing the same. Only Grego was left standing, as if caught in a spotlight. That was clearly out of bounds—he’d be punished in a moment—but in my heart I did not blame him.
Someone was coming here. And no one came here, except to kill one of us.
At the front of the room, our teacher whirred and clicked. “Is something troubling you, Gregori?”
“I— No.” Grego broke himself from the window. His hair was the color of a cirrus cloud, and the sun caught the wiry sweep of it. The implanted cybernetic irises made his eyes look alien. “World War One,” he said, his accent sharpening the Ws almost to Vs. He looked down at his upturned chair as if he didn’t know what it was for.
Da-Xia glided to her feet. She bowed to Grego, and then righted his chair. Grego sat down and pushed at his face with both hands.
“Are you all right?” asked Da-Xia, pushing—as she ever did—the edge of what we were allowed.
“Of course. Žinoma, yes, of course.” Grego’s eyes flicked past her to look at the dust. “It is only the usual impending doom.” Grego is the son of one of the grand dukes of the Baltic Alliance, and his country, like mine, was on the brink of war.
But mine was closer to that brink than his.
On her way back to her seat, Da-Xia laid her hand on top of my arm. It rested lightly, momentarily, like a hummingbird on a branch. The rider wasn’t coming for Xie—her nation was nowhere close to a war—so her touch was pure gift. And then it was gone.
Da-Xia sank back into her seat. “The assassination of the archduke is a great poignancy, is it not? That the death of one minor royal figure could lead to so much loss of life? Imagine, a world war.”
“Imagine,” I echoed. My lips felt numb and stiff. I did not look at the dust. No one did. Beside me I could hear Sidney’s breath shudder. I could almost feel it, as if our bodies were pressed together.
“It’s only a world war if you don’t count Africa,” said Thandi, who is heir to one of the great thrones of Africa, and touchy about it. “Or central Asia. Or the southern Americas.”
The seven of us had been together for so long that in times of great stress we could have whole conversations that were assembled from everyone’s most typical reactions. This was one of them. Sidney (his voice cracking a little) said that it could be penguins versus polar bears and Thandi would still call it Eurocentric. Thandi answered sharply, while Han, who is bad with irony, noted that penguins and polar bears did not live on the same continent, and therefore had no recorded wars.
In this prefabricated way, we discussed history like good students—and kept our seats like good hostages. Grego stayed silent, his white hand knotted in his whiter hair. Little Han watched Grego as if puzzled. Da-Xia tucked her feet up under herself in a posture of formal serenity. Atta, who has not spoken aloud in two years, was alone in looking overtly out the window. His eyes were like the eyes of a dead dog.
Talk in the classroom was drying up. Trickling away.
There was a tiny noise at the desk beside mine: Sidney, tapping his fingertips on his notebook. He lifted them a millimeter, dropped them, lifted and dropped. There were pinpricks of sweat on his cheekbones and lips.
I pulled my eyes from him, and saw that the dust was much closer. At the base of the plume was the bump-bumping dot of a rider on horseback. I could see the rider’s wings.
It was certain, then. The rider was a Swan Rider.
The Swan Riders are humans in the employ of the United Nations. They are sent out to present official declarations of war—to present the declarations, and to kill the official hostages.
We are the hostages.
And we knew which of our nations was likely to be at war. The Swan Rider was coming to kill Sidney, and to kill me.
Sidney Carlow, son of the governor of the Mississippi Delta Confederacy. He had no title, but still he had an ancient profile, a face you could have imagined on the sphinx, though his ears stuck out. His hands were big. And our two nations . . .
Sidney’s nation and mine were on the brink of war. It was complicated, but it was simple. His people were thirsty, and mine had water. They were desperate, and we were firm. And now, that dust. I was almost, almost sure—
“Children?” whirred Delta. “Must I remind you of our topic?”
“It’s war,” said Sidney.
I locked my eyes onto the map at the front of the room. I could feel my classmates try not to look at Sidney and me. I could feel them try not to pity.
None of us has ever wanted pity.
The silence grew tighter and tighter. It was possible to imagine the sound of hoofbeats.
Sidney spoke again, and it was like something breaking. “World War One is exactly the kind of stupid-ass war that would never happen today.” His voice, which normally is like peaches in syrup, was high and tight. “I mean, what if Czar, um—”
“Nicholas,” I supplied. “Nicholas the Second, Nicholas Romanov.”
“What if his kids had been held hostage somewhere? Is he really gonna go off and defend Italy—”
“France,” I said.
“Is he really going to go off and fight for a meaningless alliance if someone is going to shoot his kids in the head?”
We did not actually know what the Swan Riders did to us. When wars were declared, the hostage children of the warring parties went with the Rider to the grey room. They did not come back. A bullet to the brain was a reasonable and popular guess.
Shoot his kids . . . The idea hung there, shuddering in the air, like the after-ring of a great bell.
“I—” said Sidney. “I. Sorry. That’s what my dad would call a fucking unfortunate image.”
Brother Delta made a chiding tock. “I really don’t think, Mr. Carlow, that there is any cause for such profanity.” The old machine paused. “Though I realize this is a stressful situation.”
A laugh tore out of Sidney—and from outside the window came a flash.
The Rider was upon us. The sun struck off the mirrored parts of her wings.
Sidney grabbed my hand. I felt a surge of hot and cold, as if Sidney were electric, as if he had wired himself straight into my nerves.
It surely could not be that he had never touched me before. We had been sitting side by side for years. I knew the hollow at the nape of his neck; I knew the habitual curl of his hands. But it felt like a first touch.
I could feel my heartbeat pounding in the tips of my fingers.
The Rider came out of the apple orchard and into the vegetable gardens. She swung down from her horse and led it toward us, picking her way, careful of the lettuce. I counted breaths to calm myself. My fingers wove through Sidney’s, and his through mine, and we held on tight.
At the goat pen the Swan Rider looped the reins around the horse’s neck and pumped some water into the trough. The horse dipped its head and slopped at it. The Rider gave the horse a little pat, and for a moment paused, her head bowed. The sunlight rippled from the aluminum and the glossy feathers of her wings, as if she were shaking.
Then she straightened, turned, and walked toward the main doors of the hall, out of our view.
Our room hung in silence. Filled with a certain unfortunate image.
I took a deep breath and lifted my chin. I could do this. The Swan Rider would call my name, and I would go with her. I would walk out well.
Maybe—I found a scrap of doubt, not quite a wish—it wouldn’t be Sidney and me. There were other conflicts in the world. There was always Grego. The ethnic disputes in the Baltic were always close to boiling over, and Grego had spent a lifetime afraid. There was Grego, and there were littler children in the other classrooms, children from all over the world. It would be a terrible thing to hope for that, but—
We heard footsteps.
Sidney was crushing my knuckles. My hand throbbed, but I did not pull away.
The door slid open.
For a moment I could cling to my doubts, because it was only our Abbot, shuffling into the doorway. “Children,” he said, in his gentle, dusty voice. “I’m afraid there is bad news. It’s an intra-American conflict. The Mississippi Delta Confederacy has declared war on Tennessee and Kentucky.”
“What?” said Sidney. His hand ripped out of mine.
My heart leapt. I felt dizzy, blind, sick with joy. I was not going to die; only Sidney was. I was not going to die. Only Sidney.
He was on his feet. “What? Are you sure?”
“If I were not sure, Mr. Carlow, I would not bring you such news,” said the Abbot. He eased himself aside. Behind him stood the Swan Rider.
“But my father,” said Sidney.
It would have been his father who’d made the decision to declare war—and made it knowing that it would send a Swan Rider here.
“But,” said Sidney. “But he’s my dad—”
The Rider took a step forward, and one of her wings bumped against the doorframe. They tipped sideways. She grabbed at the harness strap. Dust puffed out from wings and coat. “Children of Peace,” she said, and her voice cracked. Anger flashed through me. How dare she be clumsy, how dare she be tongue-tied? How dare she be anything less than perfect? She was supposed to be an angel, the immaculate hand of Talis, but she was just a girl, a white girl with a chickadee cap of black hair and sorrow-soft blue eyes. She swallowed before trying again. “Children of Peace, a war has been declared. By order of the United Nations, by the will of Talis, the lives of the children of the warring parties are declared forfeit.” And then: “Sidney James Carlow, come with me.”
Sidney stood unmoving.
Would he have to be dragged? We all lived in horror of it, that we would start screaming, that we would have to be dragged.
The Swan Rider lifted her eyebrows, startling eyebrows like heavy black slashes. Sidney was frozen. It was almost too late. The Swan Rider began to move—and then, hardly knowing what I did, I stepped forward. I touched Sidney’s wrist, where the skin was soft and folded. He jerked and his head snapped round. I could see the whites all around his eyes. “I’ll go with you,” I said.
Not to die, because it was not my turn.
Not to save him, because I couldn’t.
“No,” croaked Sidney. “No, I can do it. I can do it.”
He took one step forward. His hand slipped free of mine and struck his leg with a sound like a slab of meat hitting a counter. But he managed another step, and then another. The Swan Rider took his elbow, as if they were in a formal procession. They went out the door. It closed behind them.
Nothing and nothing and nothing. The silence was not an absence of sound, but an active thing. I could feel it turning and burrowing inside my ears.
The seven of us—or rather, the six of us—stood close together and stared at the door. There was something wrong with the way we did it, but I did not know if we should stand closer together or farther apart. We were trained to walk out, but we got no training for this.
At the front of the room, Brother Delta clicked. “Our topic was World War One, I believe,” he began.
“Never mind, Delta.” The Abbot tipped his facescreen downward and tinted it a soft grey. “There will be bells in a moment.”
The Abbot has been doing this longer than any of us, and he is kind. We stood and stood. Three minutes. Five. Ten. Cramps came into my insteps. Sidney—was he already dead? Probably. Whatever happened in the grey room happened fast. (I’m not a cruel man, Talis is recorded as saying. Only rarely is the next bit quoted: I mean, technically I’m not a man at all.)
High overhead, a bell tolled three times.
“It’s your rota for gardening, I think, my children,” said the Abbot. “Come, I can walk you as far as the transept.”
“No need,” said Da-Xia. She’d told me once about the Blue Tara, fiercest and most beloved goddess of her mountain country, known for destroying her enemies and spreading joy. I had never quite shaken the image. There were ten generations of royalty in Xie’s voice—but more than that, there were icy mountains, and a million people who thought she was a god.
The Abbot merely nodded. “As you like, Da-Xia.”
The others went out, huddling close together. I wanted to go with them—I felt the same desire for closeness, for a herd—but found myself staggering as I tried to walk. My knees were both stiff and shot with tremors, as if I had been carrying something heavy, and had only now set it down.
And so very nearly, me.
Xie’s hand slipped into mine. “Greta,” she said.
Xie and I have been roommates since I was five. How many times have I heard her say my name? In that moment she lifted it up for me and held it like a mirror. I saw myself, and I remembered myself. A hostage, yes. But a princess, a duchess. The daughter of a queen.
“Come on, Greta,” said Xie. “We’ll go together.”
So I made myself move. Da-Xia and I went slowly: two princesses, arm in arm. We walked out together, from the darkness into the summer sun.
The Scorpion Rules
Greta is a Duchess and a Crown Princess. She is also a Child of Peace, a hostage held by the de facto ruler of the world, the great Artificial Intelligence, Talis. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Start a war and your hostage dies.
The system has worked for centuries. Parents don’t want to see their children murdered.
Greta will be free if she can make it to her eighteenth birthday. Until then she is prepared to die with dignity, if necessary. But everything changes when Elian arrives at the Precepture. He’s a hostage from a new American alliance, and he defies the machines that control every part of their lives—and is severely punished for it. His rebellion opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the rules they live under, and to the subtle resistance of her companions. And Greta discovers her own quiet power.
Then Elian’s country declares war on Greta’s and invades the prefecture, taking the hostages hostage. Now the great Talis is furious, and coming himself to deliver punishment. Which surely means that Greta and Elian will be killed...unless Greta can think of a way to break all the rules.
- Margaret K. McElderry Books |
- 384 pages |
- ISBN 9781481442718 |
- September 2015 |
- Grades 9 and up