Chapter 1: Bound by Fate BOUND BY FATE
It was our birthday, and for the first time in a decade the Princess of Hollow invited me to celebrate it with her.
My mother told me not to go. That it would be a trap. That the princess would use any and every opportunity to get revenge, since I was the primary suspect in her father’s death. But my siblings Lyon and Gwen both knew what I would do before I admitted it.
From the very beginning of our lives we had been together. The Princess of Hollow and I had been born on the same day. She was early, while I was late. It had occurred on the last snowfall of the year when spring was in sight, coating the entire city in a heavy white blanket that had kept the midwives from reaching our mothers, forcing our fathers to birth us instead. Fate had decided to replicate that day, as I trudged through the snow toward my destination, wishing it wasn’t so far away. The merchants tried to maintain the roads in the city, but in the Upper Quarter it was the Royals’ responsibility to clear the snow, and ever since King Isaac’s death the castle had gone silent. It might as well have been a mausoleum, because no gossip, rumors, or whispers had come out of it since I had escaped my execution. No doubt the princess was determining whom she could trust and whom she had to dispose of.
According to stories I had heard in my youth, most considered our dual birth to be an omen of good things to come. There was only one other time in Hollow history that a Kingman-and-Hollow bonded pair had ever entered the world together, and it had been Montagne the Remembered and Yuri the Unneeded. They had created a golden age in Hollow together, and without meaning to… we had been born with the pressure on our shoulders to do the same. Even if we weren’t the heirs. And maybe that was why we became obsessed with our legacies and ancestors.
Because of this supposed destiny, our parents had never been surprised how close we became, even for a bonded pair. There were times that we could communicate without speaking, glances and smiles substituting instead. We were perfect together, inadvertently covering each other’s flaws and highlighting our strengths. The princess was intelligent and artistic but quiet and nervous in large crowds, while I was confident and talkative, drawing in people with what she had affectionately dubbed my poisonous tongue. She had also been the only person able to see through my lies—no matter how big or small… She always knew the truth. And now, with me being blamed for the king’s death, she was about to be my greatest enemy.
If I didn’t convince her quickly of my innocence, it was only a matter of time before whatever revenge she had planned came to fruition. My hope was this invitation would prove a chance for me to explain what had happened. So long as she could still see through my lies, she might believe what had happened with her father as the truth. But if this was a trap…
I stopped in front of the gates to the King’s Garden. The snow was higher here than it was in the rest of the city, with only a single-file line of footprints to follow inward. They were smaller than mine and whose feet they belonged to were clear. The princess had come to the gardens. And judging from the lack of other snow prints… it would just be the two of us.
I followed the trail the princess had left behind for me through the snow and slush and flurries around me. Her path led me to a circle of old birch trees, the leaves having been stripped away back when I was an immature brat who couldn’t remember anything about his life and thrived on basic things—anger, selfishness, and delusions of grandeur. But I wasn’t the same as I had been a month ago. I felt reborn, as if the weight on my shoulders had finally gone away.
Yet, the thing about consequences was that they always caught up eventually. The princess—never one to celebrate in vain—had left me a gift for my birthday. A grave and headstone, to be exact.
There was a large pit big enough to fit my body and then some, along with a crudely chiseled headstone of marble with the words Here Lies Michael Kingman carved into it. There were endless groups of four finger marks along the edges, along with dried blood flakes of frozen skin. In the middle of winter, with the ground as hard as diamonds, the princess had dug me a grave with her bare hands. The headstone had been her handiwork, too—bits of marble that hadn’t been turned into a fine powder littering the nearby ground. A bouquet of Moon’s Tears slightly coated with snow rested at the bottom of the pit. The flowers were pristine and bright, still giving off a faint white glow. They had been picked recently. A few hours ago at most.
I went to the headstone and sat on top of it after brushing off the snow that had accumulated on it. Taking a deep breath, I steadied my heartbeat until I was certain my voice would come out clear and calm. There was no point in shouting at the sky. The princess was around here somewhere. She wouldn’t miss the opportunity to watch me admire her threat and declaration of war. But if she wasn’t going to stand in front of me herself, I’d take the opportunity to speak uninterrupted.
“Thanks for the gift,” I began, running my fingers along the edges of the marble. “It must have taken a long time to do. It definitely makes up for not getting me anything the past ten years.” I exhaled and watched as my breath came out white and wispy. “I’m sorry I didn’t get you anything as good today. Gift giving has never been a strength of mine—except for Lucky. That gift I was proud of.”
The wind answered me, blowing against my face as I returned to my feet. I trudged over to a nearby tree that was just a little bigger than the others, hands still bundled into my pockets to fend off the cold. “But I was good at everyday things, wasn’t I? The big moments were always hard for me to get right. Too much pressure. Too many eyes on me. I felt as if everything I did was being watched… dissected.” I hesitated. “I remember that on your seventh birthday I got you a black leather-bound book that smelt of hidden secrets and bone dust. Everyone I asked for their opinions told me it was a proper gift for a Kingman to give their Royal. It was practical and showed I understood the nature of our bound relationship. That I was maturing and no longer overstepping into something beyond duty.”
I kicked at the base of the tree I was standing in front of and watched as snow fell from the branches to the ground. It landed with a soft plop. “It was a lousy gift. Too impersonal for what we were. Even when you smiled sweetly and said thanks through gritted teeth, I knew you hated it. We were best friends, and being a bounded pair was only a part of our relationship—not the base.” I took a deep breath. “I should have given you a heart-shaped glass necklace like I wanted to. That was the right gift back then. And although I never got the chance to give you your ninth birthday gift officially… better late than never, right?”
Words were carved haphazardly on the tree’s trunk in a childish scrawl. Michael and the Princess—bound by fate but chose each other anyway.
“That’s one birthday gift I missed. Forgive me if it’s childish. I was eight when I did it.” I returned to the edge of the pit, toes dangling over as if I were about to jump. “Nothing I say right now will make you forgive me or make you believe that I had nothing to do with your father’s death. So keep watching until you’re satisfied. You won’t find the monster you’re looking for. Just the foolish boy you once knew.”
A voice came from everywhere and nowhere. “I am going to kill you, Michael Kingman.”
Unlike my memories of Dawn that returned in a torrent all at once and nearly split my head open… my memories of the princess trickled back to me like an offbeat rhythm. It made me wonder if my memories of her had been manipulated or forgotten, or if I had simply pushed them to the back of my mind as a child to save myself from losing another loved one after my father.
I answered her threat with a smile as something in my mind turned open, her name returning to me after a long absence. “Come at me with everything you’ve got, Serena Hollow.” The scrawl on the tree changed. The princess morphed into “Serena.” “I promise you that I’m not going anywhere ever again.”
There was no response—not that I expected one. Serena had never been good at comebacks under pressure. Actions were her strength and words were mine, and if we were going to be enemies, this would be the last chance I’d have at being in a position of relative power or safety. Serena wasn’t careless. I’d have to be better than ever before if I was going to survive her war.
Under the shattered moon and scattered stars I began my walk back to Kingman Keep.
Serena haunted me as I walked through the city she would one day rule. When I passed sweetshops, I recalled how she used to hoard pastries filled with strawberry jam in her room to remind herself of summer. I heard her laugh in my mind whenever I passed Wanted posters of myself, knowing she would have made fun of how they depicted my nose jutting out like a bad wart. I smelt her favorite perfume—oranges and lemongrass—as Low Nobles shouted obscenities at me from the windows of homes in Justice Hill. And sometimes I saw her out of the corners of my eyes, close enough to feel her breath on the nape of my neck but gone by the time I turned around.
I was so lost in my thoughts… I almost didn’t notice something that hadn’t happened in more than two decades.
There were refugees at the gates of Hollow, begging to get in.
Everyone in the area was caught off guard as a horde of people staggered into the city. Most of them were groaning and fell to their knees clutching at the legs of Advocators. What initially seemed like a dozen or two soon became a few hundred and people were still coming. Some were bandaged, some bleeding, some had fresh red and flaking burns. Others were missing limbs. A few with red lines covering their bodies spontaneously caught fire the moment their feet touched the cobblestone streets. They died screaming for Celona’s mercy while those around them shouted that the Corruption had arrived in Hollow, that a Goldani curse turned magical infection was killing the refugees from the inside out with flames.
There was no indication where they had come from—another city, or a different country entirely. Hollow citizens who had initially stood back to let the refugees pass were suddenly shoving past the healthier ones to reach those more critically injured. All the order had vanished in a singular moment.
Wherever the prince and princess were within the city, they were probably more shocked than I was. It was one thing for King Isaac to deal with the rebellion, and now this—he had had decades of experience on the throne. The princess had a month.
What would she do? Would she let them stay? Would she kick them out?
Suddenly I doubted I was Serena’s top priority anymore.