Skye strafed her way through the dense crowd of nervous girls surrounding the choosing table where the silver tiles laid, each engraved with a name. The marriageable young men crowded in corners playing Yunnori and howling at the results, seeming to care little for the outcome of the Choosing, but the young ladies ran their fingers over their own names and gossipped about which girl the house mothers would choose for their sons in the ceremony. Skye closed one eye and targeted the smug first daughter of Tiger House, a pretty girl named Nari. Around one delicate wrist, Nari held the velvet leash of a drugged and declawed tiger that blinked with confusion at the guests.
“I hope you are chosen by a good house, Skye,” she said. “It would disrupt the tedium of these things if a house mother cooked up a surprise.” It was well known that a daughter of Tiger House was a wise diplomatic choice for Baron Silver. Tiger House had been at all-out war with Silver House that year; destroying much of the Silvers’ cavalry of mechs …
… but with Skye’s renovations …
A finger jabbing into her spine straightened Skye’s posture. Her mother had shadowed her all night, correcting with bruising pokes and hissed instructions. Skye plastered a disingenuous monster of a smile on her face and neglected to answer, choosing instead to hold Nari’s lazy gaze until the high-born girl looked away.
“I need air,” Skye said to no one in particular. She hid two honey pastries in the sleeve of her overcoat on her way outside to the dark balcony. In the far distance, down the great hill upon which the Silver House stood, past the outlying village, past the farmland and minion camps, the crystal mines glowed a calm, eerie blue in the night sky. She stuffed a pastry whole in her mouth.
“You smell of grease.”
Baron stepped close behind her, his words tickling the skin on her neck. He plucked the other pastry from her hand and popped it into his mouth. He wore the silver-embroidered robes of his house and his knuckles were crowded with silver rings. He wore his wealth as was fitting; after all, it was his great-grandfather’s mining that had unearthed the powerful crystal. Other houses had vied for it, battled for it and died for it, but Silver House had held it.
“You’re mistaken,” Skye said, crossing her arms in an act of defiance meant to calm her shaking. “It is the latest perfume. All the ladies are wearing it this season.”
“I do like your hair.”
“I plan on doing it up like this every morning from now on.”
Baron rested his forearms on the balcony wall. “It seems not so long ago that you and I were children together, playing while our fathers pored over maps, or planned jungle battles …”
“And soon your father’s battles will be yours.”
“It is absurd that so many have died for those glowing blue stones.”
Skye peered out at the mines in the distance. “What happens when the mine is depleted?”
“We will own nothing but a pile of empty crystals, their power drained long ago in our war machines. We will dig farther into the farmland, feeding fewer people every year.”
Skye could not look at his eyes. She stared instead at his hands, at the scars from fighting that crosshaired his knuckles. “My father is collecting information about powerful energy wells where crystals may be recharged,” she offered, but Baron shook his head.
“The wells are too far to be of use to us. There are times I wish that the mines would disappear. Then, we would have no need of mechs and tanks, nor the filthy minions, nor this ridiculous choosing ceremony.”
“The choice would be ours,” whispered Skye. She covered Baron’s hand with one of hers and jolted with the electricity of it.
“Yes.” Baron turned his hand under hers and opened it. In his palm, a shining silver tile nestled. Skye inhaled the honey from his breath as she drew her fingertips over the tile, over the deep groove of her own name on it. “One day, the army will be mine, and I will need you to be my general.” He curled his fingers around the tile, gripping it, as Skye shivered. “Sometimes, despite everything, a man must choose for himself.”
To be continued …