“Lady Saint Claire, can I speak to you for a moment?” Lady Beatrice Cave shouts from the steps of the history building.
I wrongfully assumed that everyone was too preoccupied with gathering up their belongings and making dinner plans to bother speaking to me. My heart sinks at the determination that fills her gait. Lady Beatrice Cave is a noblewoman whose father is the Baron of Willington, the land where the academy lies. I’m luckless enough to find myself in this particular barony. Beatrice feels entitled to everything because of who her father is. If she wants my time, I should feel inclined to hand it over as if it were nothing but paper. But my time is very valuable. I can’t spare a single minute getting sucked into a conversation with her. But she does have authority over me, which means that I can’t ignore her.
“What do you need, Lady Cave?” I find it easier to accommodate her by meeting her halfway to the steps. My thick-soled boots make walking on the ice-covered sidewalk bearable, but even so, I find myself slipping a few times.
“You should RSVP for my party soon. Space is running out,” she announces as she comes to a stop in front of me, putting her back to the history building. She’s around my height, with chocolate-brown skin, short, curly hair, and large brown eyes. She wears the academy-issued uniform: a black sweater, and thick dress pants. But unlike me, she wears gold teardrop earrings and an obscenely large diamond necklace over her key-shaped pendant.
“Oh, I’ll do that,” I force out. I hadn’t planned on attending her birthday party. It coincides with one of the times that I’ve set aside to spend with Jonah. But I can’t tell her that. My brother’s one of the forbidden topics that no one would dare discuss. And I hate that it has to be that way. But drawing attention to him could be dangerous.
“Good. I have three dresses for the event. I’m not going to show any of my guests. I want my dress choice to be a surprise. But I would make an exception for you, my lady.” I try not to cringe at being called my lady. I have no noble blood. But that doesn’t matter to Lady Cave. Beatrice looks hopeful, as if I would follow her to her living quarters and marvel over her grand ballgowns. I only have five minutes to make it to the meeting point. And she’s holding me up.
Before I can explain that I have plans, a door opens behind the noblewoman and voices travel to us. I inwardly groan; now I have to be more cautious. Around this time, students are usually flocking to their rooms in search of a reprieve before dinner. I was hoping to be inconspicuous. But it would seem that fate had something else in mind.
“I have no idea,” a familiar voice says. Lady Marigold Flay descends the steps of the history building, speaking to Sarah Brown, one of the noblewoman’s closest confidants. I don’t know much about Sarah. She’s a commoner, poor, and has little social standing. Marigold is the daughter of the Baron of Trout, a minuscule parcel of land about five hours’ drive from the academy.
Beatrice stiffens when she spots Lady Flay.
“My parents insisted that I invite Marigold. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered.” After making that statement, Beatrice promptly walks over to Marigold and Sarah and herds them back into the history building. Good, the coast is clear.
The academy has an efficient layout. The plot of land is a perfect square. The academic buildings line the perimeter. Then the various dormitories fill in each quadrant. And in the center of it all lies the dining hall. My living quarters and the history building are both located near Dormitory 4. My goal is to travel over to Dormitory 1, which is on the other side of the campus.
By the time I make it across the campus, the sun has been eclipsed by a blanket of thick, gray clouds. The wind beats against my coat, and snow flurries begin adding to the mountain of snow already on the ground. One mercy is that the walkways in this quadrant are all plowed, which diminishes my likelihood of falling.
As soon as I arrive at the dormitory, I walk around the building and spot the slightly opened door. I enter, but get little relief from the cold. This is a long-forgotten stairwell, which means that it isn’t properly heated or insulated. I stomp my feet on the threadbare rug that rests by the door and take in a deep breath and then climb the stairs.
When I arrive on the third floor, I breathe a sigh of relief. The closet door is slightly ajar. I enter and shut the door, which engulfs me in momentary darkness. A flashlight clicks on, and I see him.
Jonah leans against the cobweb-covered wall, his big, brown eyes smiling. His cheeks are hollow, and his clothes are torn in places. But he does have a thick black coat, and a pair of black worn boots. That’s a mercy that his owner has afforded him. Owners don’t bother giving illegitimates coats and boots, which results in people getting frostbite.
“Enly, how are you?” Jonah holds out one of his heavily scarred hands as he asks the question. He’s eager for sustenance. I pull a bundle out of my pocket and hand it to him. It’s fortunate that my coat has deep pockets. He unwraps a turkey and cheese sandwich and savagely bites into it. My heart breaks at seeing him so eager to eat something as basic as a sandwich; as if it were a commodity that would be stolen if it wasn’t consumed. This was never supposed to happen.
“I also brought you an apple and crackers,” I tell him. Jonah doesn’t finish his sandwich. He slips it into his pocket and smiles, revealing yellowed teeth.
“How are you, Enly?” he asks again, making me sigh.
“Don’t worry about me, Jonah. I’m fine,” I assure him.
“Do you have any friends, aside from Kip?”
“No.” There’s honestly no reason to draw attention to myself. My aloofness has kept people from discovering my meetings with Jonah. The kitchen maid that smuggles Jonah into the academy was employed by my father until she married a factory worker and had to relocate to be closer to his job. She and Kip are the only allies that I need. Kip is my in with the nobility, while my friendship with Mary endears me to the staff.
“Enly, you need to talk to people. You can’t shut them out. I want you to be happy,” Jonah pleads.
“I’ll be happy once you’re a free man,” I tell him. Jonah shakes his head.
“That could take a few years,” he warns me.
“Then I guess it will take that long for me to be happy. Now, eat up,” I demand as I hand him the rest of the food that I am able to hoard for him. Jonah slips the crackers into his pocket and eats the apple, which is strange. He can’t put aside food for later. If his owner finds it, he would assume that Jonah went out scavenging in a few pantries.
“Thank you for the meal, Enly. Now, tell me about your classes.”
“You didn’t eat all of it. Are you sick?” I ask, worried.
Jonah sucks in a deep breath and then straightens.
“There’s this new girl. I…um…I want to help her,” Jonah confesses.
“That’s too dangerous,” I hiss. “She’ll betray you.” My heart races as panic threatens to give me a coronary. How could my brother be so foolish?
“Enly, she won’t tell. I care about her, and she cares about me too. I…”
“Jonah, you are in no position to be in a relationship. They could kill you,” I cry.
“It’s worth the risk.” He’s so calm, as if being executed is no matter. I’m angry, afraid, and frustrated. After all I worked for, Jonah will throw it away for someone he barely knows. This can’t happen.
“Jonah, don’t be—”
“Enly, whatever you say, it isn’t going to change anything. I love her, Enly. Don’t you understand?” His dark eyes hold mine, but the joy filling his expression does not persuade me. This is a terrible idea.
“Just don’t get caught,” I plead.
“I won’t. Lord Michaels barely watches us. He’s too old. I promise I’ll be careful,” he assures me. Two quiet knocks from Mary announce that we’ve run out of time. I pull Jonah into a hug despite his stench. He holds me close. We tell each other that we love one another, and then he opens the door and leaves me in the dank closet.
I count to one hundred, and then I open the door. My bones are chilled. All I want is a nice hot bath. But my mind is overactive. If Jonah is caught having a relationship, he will be punished. If he impregnates the girl, he will be executed. Illegitimates have lost all rights, including the right to reproduce. The girl would live temporarily. Her baby would be automatically put up for adoption, then she would be executed. I can’t fathom why he would risk it. In a few years, he could be free to date whoever he wishes. Why can’t Jonah just wait? He’s only fifteen. That’s not proper courting age.
“Is everything well, my lady?” Mary asks as she tightens the strings on her blue apron. My inner turmoil has caused me to pause on the first landing. I force a smile, staring at the middle-aged, homely woman that I’ve known for all of my life.
“Yes,” I softly say, not daring to explain what troubles me. Mary looks around then gives me a stern look.
“You need to keep it together, my lady. No one can suspect what’s troubling you,” she warns, and then Mary turns her back and walks up the stairs, brushing past me. I force thoughts of my brother from my mind and exit the building. I am amazed that the flurries have now turned into heavy snow.
I run my hand over the seam where the window meets the sill. A thin strip of metal rests in that spot, ensuring that the window stays closed after curfew. I’m unsure of how it works. My guess is that the metal retracts into the sill when a computer tells it to. Honestly, I have no interest in technology. It seems that technological advancement has been stunted since before the biological wars. The only technology that the government is interested in is the type that maintains order or cures the sick. I once read of a time where people could play games and listen to music on handheld devices. It’s a pity that I don’t have access to such a contraption. It might shut out what constantly runs through my head.
Jonah is risking his freedom. I may not marry Brandon Wilks, the future regent, in time. Jonah’s budding romance may be the death of him. His optimism doesn’t make any sense. But I guess he doesn’t have much of a choice. Being afraid of consequences won’t improve his situation. Taking a longing glance out of the window, I glare at my abysmal view. I notice a small brick building that’s used as storage for the academy uniforms and decide that it isn’t worth staring at. I turn around, only to yelp in surprise.
“Going somewhere?” Kip asks as she plops down on my full-size bed. Kip Mason has been my best friend for as long as I can remember. But the friendship isn’t pure and effortless. It carries an undertone of convenience and necessity due to the fact that her mother is the queen’s cousin. That’s why I feel the need to keep secrets from her. She doesn’t know that I’m in contact with an illegitimate citizen. She doesn’t know that he trespasses on academy grounds so that I can sneak him food. Most importantly, she doesn’t know that on occasion, I harbor my brother, when his owner has left the region to conduct a business deal. Illegitimates are unauthorized to travel to other parts of the country.
“No,” I respond as I sit beside her. Kip is dressed in a long, thick, white academy-issued nightgown, while I’m still in my daywear.
“Why haven’t you changed? Why hasn’t Serena come in and helped you?” Every student in the academy is assigned an illegitimate to cater to their every need. Serena is my servant and will be a servant to students for the rest of her days. I have no idea why she has been given such a fate. But Jonah was the son of my father and stepmother, a radical who tried to have our king assassinated. My father and I barely survived the scandal, and after the woman was executed, the king demanded that Jonah be turned over to the labor union. At ten years old, he was forced to learn a trade and begin serving his country. When he’s twenty-five, his sentence will be revoked, if he lives that long. He can go back to living with my father if he chooses. But I imagine that he wouldn’t want to reside in the house where his mother once dwelled. Some of the servants may still have hard feelings.
“I don’t need anyone to help me change. I dismissed her,” I tell Kip, whose beautiful face turns down in disapproval. She doesn’t understand my aversion to having a maid. But every time I look at the servant, it reminds me that Jonah is also paying for someone else’s mistakes. At least my brother has an out, which was no doubt given to him because my father was able to bribe someone. What about Serena? How fair is it that she has to serve me when it hasn’t been her choice? I guess it’s easy for Kip to put all of that aside. She comes from a family that is closely linked to the royals. Good for her, but that isn’t my lot in life.
“Holy plague, darling, it’s your birthright. When you inherit your father’s fortune and his manor, aren’t you going to need someone to assist in its upkeep?” She knows that she has a point. Kip folds her hands in her lap, her silver bracelets jingling in the silence.
“I will hire my maids. I won’t take in any illegitimates!”
My declaration causes concern to ripple across Kip’s angelic face.
“Enly, you can’t possibly hire people when illegitimates need a place to work. Think about it, if you don’t hire one of them, a noble like Marigold will, and you know what will happen to them,” she reasons.
“They will live a life of misery,” I softly agree. We’ve had this discussion many times. It’s comical, how predictable the dialogue is. But this is the only subject that Kip disagrees with me on. I’m hesitant to push too hard. I’d have to be foolish to think that Kip doesn’t know about my half-brother, Jonah. Though his name was deleted from all of the records holding my family’s genealogy, information has its way of landing into the hands of the rich.
“You’re right,” I tell Kip before letting out a yawn.
“And yet you argue with me every time,” Kip notes before pressing the green button that rests above my headboard, summoning Serena. I want to argue with her, but there’s no point.
The timid woman rushes in, her blue eyes scanning the room as if to figure out what service I could possibly need her to perform. In the six months that she’s worked for me, I have only summoned her once. I eye the pendant that she wears around her neck. Like mine, it is shaped like a key, but unlike mine, it has a built-in buzzer that sounds every time I press the button.
“My lady?” she asks, her pale blonde brows arched. Cursed plague, if she calls me “my lady” one more time, I swear I’ll throw something at her. Protocol dictates that you address all your betters formally. Since my family isn’t titled, she’s supposed to call me Miss Saint Claire. But I can’t fault her when everyone else at this academy insists on referring to me as a lady. Instead of admonishing her, I sigh.
“I want to get ready for bed. Can you please bring me my nightly tea and draw my bath?”
The slave nods, curtsies, and rushes from the room.
“Ridiculous,” I hiss. Kip rests a pale, delicate hand on my shoulder.
“If she weren’t working for you, she would be stuck with someone else. And that mistress might not be so kind,” Kip reasons. Sometimes I wonder if she says those things because it’s what I want to hear, or because she really believes them. I study her face, her turquoise eyes, the set of her jaw, and I still can’t determine what her views really are.
“You’re right,” I say for the second time, and I wince. I’m only so agreeable because I’m tired. That’s what it is.
“Enly, I came here to tell you something.” Kip fidgets with one of my plump, decorative pillows. I frown at her, not knowing where this conversation is heading.
“What?” My question comes out high-pitched and panicked. Is she going to ask me about Jonah?
“I’m betrothed!” She announces this as if she’s telling me that money is raining down from the sky. I swallow, take a deep breath, and gather my thoughts. Kip is a year older than me. She’s scheduled to finish her courses this spring. I’ve always dreaded her leaving. But I figured with Jonah coming by, it wouldn’t be so horrible. But now an unknown suitor is added to the mix? How inconvenient.
“Who?” I choke out. This is the best news where Kip is concerned. Her goal is to settle down and raise children. That’s why she didn’t come to the academy with a specific area of study. Because I would be taking over the family business until Jonah becomes legitimate again, I focused my studies on trade, marketing, and negotiations. I will be on these hallowed grounds for another two years. And it terrifies me to think that Kip won’t be around. I’ll need to find a suitable replacement. It won’t do for me to interact with groups of students to learn about the happenings in court. Once you surround yourself with nobles, then every event in your life becomes a topic of discussion.
“Who?” I choke out.
“Thomas Fields,” Kip says. That is an amazing betrothal for Kip because Thomas Fields is going to be the next Regent of the Gulf Coast. The only position higher than regent is prince, who has to answer to the king. Kip will become a noble, just like she has always dreamed. I will be marrying Brandon Wilks, the future Regent of the Great Plains region. It works out fine, since I am from the Great Plains. I don’t even have to uproot at all. In fact, Willington Academy is located an hour’s ride from the regent’s dwelling, which is in a barony called Parnell.
“Maybe our husbands will conduct business with one another!” I say hopefully.
Kip smiles. “Maybe. At least we know that we’re probably going to see one another once a month.”
Which is true. Each month, all of the lord and lady regents of the reformed union of Stanti convene in whatever region the king is living in. As a rule, the king doesn’t have one castle. He is supposed to alternate between regions, never spending more than six months at a time in each one. Our sovereign hadn’t stepped foot in the Great Plains region in eight years. That’s why I don’t have any qualms about defying him. My brother is more important than a fat man who does nothing but eat pastries all day. Dad practically sold me to the Wilks family when I was four. I guess Brandon’s father, Jet, really wanted money. But I have my own agenda. Only a regent from the Great Plains region can reverse my brother’s illegitimacy. If Jonah isn’t free by the time I get married, then it will be done. I will demand it.
When Serena walks in carrying a tray, my stomach grumbles. Along with tea, she also brings in a pile of chocolate chip cookies. Kip frowns at the snack, but I don’t bother explaining. When I’m scheduled to meet Jonah, I don’t go down to the main dining hall for dinner. There is a social rule that if someone doesn’t attend dinner, it means they don’t want to be bothered. But Kip had to visit me to tell me the news. I guess it’s a good thing that I didn’t spent the night talking to Jonah or sneak him in. We would have been caught.
Kip stands, kisses me on the cheek, and rushes from the room. She probably has more friends to tell. Serena places the goodies on the desk and flips a switch on the door, activating the automatic lock.
“Let me draw your bath,” Serena says before walking into my private bathroom.
I can’t wait to luxuriate in the claw-footed bathtub. When Serena exits the bathroom, I take it as a sign to strip out of my uniform. I place each article of clothing on the bed, release my long, thick, black hair from the bun, and rush into the bathroom. Sitting in the tub, I bathe and wash my hair. I have some boundaries, and having someone bathe me is one of them. After finishing with my bath, I dry off and slide into the white nightgown that Serena left hanging on the towel rack. Then, I rush out into the room. My maid is standing by the desk, her eyes jumping around the room. I frown and decide that she’s acting a little funny. I haven’t known her for very long. My last maid, Lisa, was pardoned for her crimes and released from service. Before serving me, Serena worked in the kitchens. I have no idea if she viewed her reassignment as an improvement.
“Is something wrong, Serena?” I ask, and she jumps, her hand flailing. She accidentally knocks over a teacup, and it shatters into minuscule pieces. At least it hadn’t yet been filled with tea. I look down at the mess and then stare at her shaking hands doubtfully. If she cleans up this mess, she will hurt herself. Being mindful to avoid the area where the glass is, I slowly approach the maid. The closer I get, the more she flinches. I place a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“Sorry, my lady,” she says timidly.
“Serena, sit,” I order, gesturing to my bed. She complies, and I retrieve a broom and a dustpan and clean. I sweep, dump the remains of the beautiful teacup down the trash chute, and close the compartment. After returning the cleaning supplies to their rightful place, I glance at the maid. She looks utterly shocked. I need her to snap out of whatever she’s going through. I walk over to the desk, and thankfully, there are three more teacups. I lift the insulated teapot and pour her a cup and frown. I have no idea how she takes her tea.
“Sugar or no sugar?” I ask, but I don’t get an answer. I peer at Serena to see that she has her head in her hands. “Serena, how do you take your tea?”
“I’ve never had tea before,” she softly admits, and a pang of sorrow pierces my heart. How could she have never had something as wonderful as tea before? I decide on putting a cube of sugar in her tea and hand it to her. Her hands tremble, but she doesn’t spill any tea on herself. She tentatively takes a sip, and pleasure spreads across her face. I sit on the desk chair and prepare my own tea. It’s raspberry tea, my favorite. I take a sip and peer at the chocolate chip cookies. I won’t eat all of them. I grab a small plate and put a few on it and place them beside Serena.
“These are delicious!” I assure her. A tear falls down her cheek, and that just makes me uncomfortable, so I eat my cookies, drink my tea, brush my teeth, and go to bed.
I wake up to the dreadful sound of the morning alarm, which is broadcasted over the PA system. Today it’s the sound of wind chimes. I sit up in bed and see Serena going through my closet, trying to sort out today’s outfit, which is odd because everyone is required to wear the uniform on weekdays. I’m about to tell her that any uniform will do, when she pulls out a pale blue gown. It’s formal and the hem reaches my ankles. Last fall, Kip and I visited an exclusive dressmaker. She begged me to purchase the gown, saying that when the king’s court traveled to the Great Plains Region, I’d have something extravagant to wear. That idea was laughable. The king hasn’t set foot in this region for eight years. I shake my head and continue to stare at the dress. The material is heavy, and the long sleeves are practical for the winter weather. I frown as Serena places the gown beside me on the bed.
“It’s time for you to get up, Lady Saint Claire,” she tells me, stating the obvious.
“I’m supposed to wear that?” I ask, gesturing to the gown.
“Regent Wilks and his son are visiting.”
Cursed plague, she can’t be serious. My betrothed is visiting the academy, and I didn’t received proper notice? I frown down at the dress, and a bubble of unease fills my stomach. I haven’t yet met the famous Brandon Wilks, though his many exploits have been documented in the Daily Notice, which is an update that everyone receives—whether they want to or not. The magazine follows politicians and the royals and often reports any scandals that occur. Thankfully, Brandon isn’t the promiscuous type. Although all sexually transmitted diseases have been eradicated, people are still a bit squeamish about having random sexual partners. I share those qualms mainly because a genetically modified sexually transmitted disease was what wiped out three quarters of the population over four hundred years ago.
Brandon’s most famous scandal was the time that he got into a brawl with a baron four months ago. He had to sign a grievance for his crime. I wince when I consider what could have happened to the nobleman. In this country, crime of any kind isn’t tolerated. The justice system, in my opinion, is a bit warped. An undisclosed number of people are isolated from the population, living in an undisclosed location. They are forced to become jurors for the rest of their natural lives. Typically, unwanted babies are chosen to become jurors, because a baby can hardly hold biases about a certain group of people. Besides, being a juror is a much preferable fate than being an illegitimate, because a juror still has rights. They can own homes and raise families. They just have to reside on Justice Island.
If a citizen commits a crime, either the baron, regent, or a victim will file a grievance against them. The defendant will be blindfolded, brought to the jurors, and will be tried. Then the individual is drugged and returned to the region that they reside in. They are placed in a holding cell to await their fate, which is carried out by a minister of justice.
What’s difficult for me is the fact that a punishment can extend to the criminal’s blood offspring. It’s done as a deterrent. People will be less likely to commit crimes if they know that their families will be penalized. But what’s even worse is that a criminal could also be sent to the island of Serial. The island, located in the Pacific, is where the criminals dwell. I don’t know what occurs on the island, and it isn’t like there has been anyone that could tell me about it. No one escapes Serial.
“My betrothed is coming here? Why wasn’t I given notice?” I inquire.
“Your betrothed is coming here with his father. The regent is presenting awards to some of the scholars. I was notified last night, but I was instructed not to tell you until this morning.”
I am furious. Why was Serena ordered not to notify me that Brandon Wilks had finally decided to spend some time with me? Maybe the headmistress knows that I’ve been sneaking Jonah on campus? The headmistress probably withheld the information to spite me. If she does know, she can’t punish me. I’m virtually untouchable in these walls. My father donated to this fine institution right before I enrolled. He promised the school board that he would do so again after I graduate.
Deciding that I need to hurry, I rush to the bathroom to wash my face and teeth. When I walk back into my room, Serena grabs a few bottles that are neatly organized on my dresser and deposits them on my desk. I know the drill. She spends fifteen minutes rubbing lotions and oils into my caramel-colored skin. Students aren’t allowed to take baths in the morning, so everyone usually coats their skin with heavily scented perfumes and lotions. Because I don’t want people to sneeze every time they walk past me, I use lily-scented lotions and don’t bother with much perfume.
After she’s cared for my skin, Serena helps me into the heavy gown. Thank goodness it isn’t form-fitting. It fits comfortably and flares out at the bottom. After Serena zips me into the dress, I sit on the chair and let her tend to my thick black hair. She spends an exorbitant amount of time on an intricate twist that requires an obscene amount of pins. When Serena’s finished, she rubs a solution in my skin that hides small blemishes that aren’t all that noticeable. Then, she lightly powders my face and puts something on my lashes to make them appear thicker than they are.
After that’s completed, the servant rushes to my closet and returns with my heels. They aren’t that bad, only elevated an inch. I hate the shoes. I prefer slippers or my boots. Despite my protest, Serena slides the shoes on my feet and I stand, feeling like I’m wearing two hundred pounds’ worth of fabric. To top it all off, she gives me an extremely thick cape to protect me from the cold. Since she’s my maid, Serena wears a blue plain gown that ends at her ankles. The fabric isn’t as thick as mine, and instead of wearing a cape, she wears a thick, long, black coat.
We walk into the wide hallway and can hear other students getting ready for the day. They are most likely as surprised by the regent’s appearance as I am. My guess is that security needs to be up to par. If the whereabouts of the Lord Regent and his only heir were common knowledge, assassins would be on standby. The regent isn’t beloved by his people. You can’t really expect undying loyalty when you only come to their region twice a year. Regent Wilks spends all of his time at court attending lavish balls.
“You will be taking your meal in the private dining room,” Serena tells me as we step outside. Despite my layers, the frigid temperature attacks my bones, and I shiver. It is a white campus. Seeing the light flurries falling makes me worry about Jonah. Did he find somewhere warm to sleep in his lord’s spacious holding? Lord Michaels doesn’t have designated sleeping quarters for the illegitimates that work for him. He’s the kind of owner who forces them to outdo one another for his favor. He’s also a diabolical monster who purchased Jonah just to spite my father after a business deal went wrong. Not that my father has even tried to have one of his friends help Jonah. He’s too embarrassed to ask one of his partners for charity. That’s the excuse that my father always gives me. When Father visits, I’ll ask him to swallow his pride and beg one of his friends to purchase Jonah. I won’t take no for an answer. My father has all but forgotten that Jonah exists, refusing to utter a word about his illegitimate son.
“Cold,” I mutter as we go down the path. I have to hold up my gown so it doesn’t trail on the ground. And that’s unfavorable because, despite the well-insulated stockings, my legs are exposed to the aggressive, cold wind. Couldn’t my betrothed have visited during spring?
The dining hall is in the center of campus. All of the buildings were built an equal distance from the domed building. It is a red building with white trim. When it’s nice out, people do their schoolwork in the adjacent rose garden. Now, however, the lush garden is covered with snow. The building has two floors: the first consists of the kitchens, a store that sells treats, and a formal sitting room that students can reserve to hold meetings. After we ascend the spiral staircase, we enter the large dining room which has rows of cloth-covered tables that seat six people each. A stack of menus are resting in the center of each table. The room is mostly empty. Only a few well-dressed students are in attendance. My maid must have wanted me to arrive at the dining hall before the chaotic breakfast rush.
We reach the back of the room and stop. Five guards are blocking the door to the private dining hall. They all stand to attention when they spot me.
“Lady Saint Claire!” Tommy, a senior officer, greets me, his wide grin doing nothing to comfort me.
I nod and smile at him.
“Can I see your pendant?” he asks.
Everyone wears a pendant shaped like a key. And only the owner of the pendant can remove it. Reaching back, I press my thumb to the clasp, and a click sounds as the clasp is disengaged. I hand the pendant to Tommy. He inserts the pendant in the lock, and the door opens. If I didn’t have clearance to go into the dining room, it wouldn’t have. He hands me back my pendant, and I put it around my neck and walk in.
“Holy plague! Lady Saint Claire, is that you?” a young man asks. He seems shocked. I study him and freeze. Lord Brandon Wilks stands beside a table adorned with the academy’s finest china. He wears a uniform that has gold buttons, thick black pants, and a matching cape, the ceremonial regent garb. My heart pounds. His father is pretty old. Did he retire? What does that mean for me? “My apologies, I skipped past the introductions. Lady Saint Claire, I’m Brandon Wilks, the soon-to-be Regent of the Great Plains.” As I eye Brandon Wilks, all I can feel is anticipation. He is now in a position to offer me power that I can wield to protect my family. But none of my features display this emotion; instead, I offer him a slight smile.
“I’m Enly Saint Claire,” I say, to cover all of my bases. I don’t want to appear rude, since he took the trouble to introduce himself. “Congratulations, Regent,” I say, giving him a curtsy. He smirks and pulls out a chair for me. I sit, and Serena leaves the room after Brandon shoos her away. That irks me. He has no right to dismiss my maid. But I don’t press the issue.
“You are the first person of importance to see me in my uniform. The notice of my father’s retirement has gone out this morning,” Brandon announces as he sits across from me. He’s handsome in a powerful way. His bones are chiseled, and his olive skin is overly smooth. His black hair is cropped short and neatly combed. I can’t imagine myself being incredibly happy with him. But that’s an unfair assessment, because I haven’t had a conversation with him yet.
“I’m honored,” I tell him as a male servant enters, pushing a cart that holds covered platters. He parks the cart and bows.
“Rise,” Brandon sharply commands, and the servant does what he is told. The man pours orange juice into tall glasses and places all of the platters in the middle of the table. He uncovers them, and the smell of eggs, bacon, sliced potatoes, and sausage links waft in the air. My stomach growls, and it takes everything for me not to dig in. But Brandon hasn’t blessed the food yet.
The servant rushes off, and the new regent doesn’t waste time blessing the food. When he’s finished, we both help ourselves. The food is delectable. It takes all of my control not to inhale it. But I don’t want my future husband to think that I will embarrass him when he has influential diplomats over for dinner, so I daintily eat.
“This is delicious!” I exclaim after minutes of stretched silence.
“The cooks have prepared my favorites,” he informs me before taking a bite of his eggs. “I like eggs not only because they taste good, but because there are so many ways to prepare eggs. They are easy to make as well. When my chef is short-handed at the public food kitchen, I will pop in from time to time to boil pots of eggs.”
“What other foods do you enjoy?” This conversation is going better than I’d hoped. Brandon seems decent enough. But I suppose that it doesn’t matter. I’d marry an old man if that means giving Jonah his freedom.
“I’m a fan of pork and beans. And I also indulge in some sauerkraut.” His other favorites make me wince. He has just listed every food that I despise. I can’t help but wrinkle my nose. Brandon chuckles. “You aren’t a fan of any of those things?”
“No. I like lamb chops, chicken, and rice,” I tell him. The regent pretends to pout for a moment, but then he shakes his head, as if associating like this isn’t on his agenda. He straightens and places his silverware on the table.
“Enly, I’m not the type to beat around the bush. I want to be honest with you. I didn’t come here to present people with pointless awards,” he admits, which makes my stomach roll. These “pointless” awards are going to be given to students who have worked for their whole academic careers to become respectable scholars. But I don’t dare tell him that.
“You can be honest with me, Regent,” I assure in a coaxing tone. I hold his eyes, and he appears as though he wants to escape my gaze.
“I need a wife. A regent has to marry within ninety days of his or her appointment. But you aren’t what I want. I have broken the betrothal with you. Papers will be delivered to your father by the end of the day.”
Just like that, my hopes and dreams are obliterated.