Pri P incee Ezri E ck and d the Morpheä M äs Cursse
Jordan n McM Makin
T Copyright © 2011 by Jordaan McMakin Text All rights reserved.. No part of thiss book may be m or by any mean ns, reproduuced or transmittted in any form electronicc or mechanical, including photo ocopying, recordding, or by an n information sto orage and retrievval system witho out written perrmission from th he publisher. Fo or information co ontact Ch harmalot Chron nicles at email@example.com
The sharp clap of hooves echoed through the Dungeons below the Castle of Urkeneye. Ezrick tightened his grip on Argo’s reins and threw a glance at the rider behind him. Blast. She was catching up. “Hey, Mad — you ride like a girl!” he shouted. “Well you’re the princess! You would know!” Ezrick turned back around grinning. Dim passageways and winged shadows streaked past as they rode deeper and deeper underground. He leaned forward, seized with excitement. They were almost there. Suddenly, out of the darkness loomed a door. It was twice a man’s height, flanked by burning torches, and rose like a gravestone, black and arched. He and Maddie were flying towards it a perilous speed.
Ezrick yanked Argo’s reins in alarm. The horse cried out, his hooves scraping against stone. Maddie flew past. “Maddie, look out!” She screamed as her horse lost control and knocked into the wall. She fought desperately to steady him, and they skidded to a halt inches from the door. Ezrick jumped off Argo before the horse had even stopped. “Are you alright?” he gasped, shaking as he helped Maddie down. She was a thin creature, with dirty blonde hair cut level with her jaw. She brushed him off and dismounted on her own, her bare feet slapping against the cobbles. “Yes, I’m fine! It’s the eggs I’m worried about. We’re gonna break ’em before we get there!” She threw open her horse’s saddlebag — the side which had smashed into the wall — and retrieved a large red box. “Well, looks alright,” she said, her voice slightly trembly. She gave the box a shake. “An’ nothin’ sounds broken. Just our luck havin’ a couple Uglies on the loose. Ezrick?” But Ezrick hadn’t heard her. He was staring at the door. “Oh.” Maddie covered her mouth and turned to him, looking anxious and concerned. “I’m fine,” Ezrick lied, when he’d managed to tear his gaze away. “I . . . forgot we’d pass the Vault. Just took me by surprise is all.” He saw Maddie’s worried stare. “I’m fine.” She didn’t look convinced, but finally sighed. “Let’s tie up the horses. It’s not much farther, anyway.”
Shifting the box under her arm, she took a torch from its bracket, grabbed her horse’s reins, and started down the left-hand corridor. “Curious the Glooms haven’t found you yet.” “If we’re any louder they will,” Ezrick muttered, peering down the dark corridor opposite before starting after her. Glooms were Castle Knights. “Personally, I think you should hunt them for a change. I’d hate bein’ stalked like some animal.” “Easy for you to say. My stepmother hates me. The Glooms are under her orders.” They left their steeds in a horse stall, then hurried down a spiraling staircase crumbling in disrepair before finally reaching the Old Cellar. It was a musty chamber, neglected and forgotten — and for their purposes, perfect. Judging how the door hinges groaned, no one had been inside for years. After barricading the door with moldy barrels of grain, Ezrick and Maddie hastened to the well in the corner. Maddie set down the box. Its shape was most peculiar. When Ezrick first saw it, he wasn’t even sure what it was. The box had many faces, like a gemstone, more round than square. It wasn’t made of wood, either, but tough scaly skin. A golden tree was embossed on the front. The naked boughs snaked upward while the roots writhed below, encircling an ornate lock.
Maddie drew a tarnished key out of her pocket. It glinted in the torchlight. Then her indigo eyes met Ezrick’s. He felt flushed. “Open it.” The box unlocked with a raspy crick, and slowly the lid creaked open. Ezrick and Maddie gaped, their worries swiftly replaced with wonder. Nestled in a bed of moss and leaves were two glittering eggs, one gold, the other pale blue. Their shells shimmered iridescently. Gold and blue . . . the royal colors of Urkeneye, Ezrick marveled. Carefully he took up the gold egg. It was rough and warm, about the size of the pigskin he kicked around the Gardens. Though, if he were to kick this thing, he’d likely break a toe. It was heavy as a stone. “They’re beautiful,” Ezrick whispered. “How do we hatch them? Maddie?” Maddie blinked out of her reverie. “Dunno. I was goin’ to ask you the same thing.” “But . . . you don’t know?” “How should I know? You’re the one who bloody sent for these things.” “It was your idea!” “It’s not my fault you wanted one, too!” Ezrick opened his mouth to argue, then promptly shut it again, knowing it would do no good. He put the egg back. “Fine. Maybe there’s instructions.” But there was nothing written on the box to
explain how one hatched an Ugly. On a whim, Ezrick ran his hand along the inside of the lid. His heart leapt. “There’s something here!” He pulled free a folded piece of parchment, glanced over it, then passed it to Maddie. “Here, practice.” Maddie fixed him with a glare, shoved her egg back in the nest, and grabbed the paper. But one look at the first line and: “Forget it.” “Oh, come on. Just try.” This incited a stream of Maddie’s more colorful cursing, but Ezrick didn’t budge. So, with a furious exhale, she took up the parchment. “H-hat . . . chin . . . guh. Sp . . . sponge . . . spongy . . . Blast it. Your bloody readin’ lessons don’t work, okay? I can’t do it! There’s too many of those . . . those . . . ugh, you know!” “You were doing great!” “Shut up — I was awful! Who’s got time to read all those things anyway?” “Words?” “Yes. Words. Stupid,” she muttered. “You can read ’em yourself since you think they’re so great. I got better things to do.” She flung the parchment at him and knotted her arms. “You’re twelve,” Ezrick replied, and got punched in the arm. Ignoring her, he took up the parchment and read.
“Congratulations! And thank you for your illegal purchase! Our Spungeon-Ugly eggs come fresh from Spungeon Swamp and are thoroughly inspected for cracks, discoloration, and other imperfections before delivery. Please follow the instructions carefully before egghatching to prevent physical and/or magical injury. Spungeon-Uglies make wonderful pets. We hope you enjoy your lifelong bond. Hatching Spungeon-Uglies from Spungeon Swamp x Keep your egg dry until you’re ready to begin the hatching. Once the egg is placed in water it will begin to hatch. x After your Spungeon-Ugly has hatched, it will mark your spirit to form the bond. Keep well away from others present to avoid complications (injuries can be nasty). x Warm climates cause disagreeable tempers, increased appetite, and a rude habit of belching at inopportune times. Also, contact with water strengthens an Ugly’s wilder instincts and weakens your bond. x Spungeon-Uglies show great aptitude in breathing fire, cutting glass, delivering messages, and swimming — but can be taught many other things, too! Like playing chess and baking biscuits, to forging metals and sewing. Of course, each Ugly has its own unique ability, which will be discovered in time. x All-natural diets prevent scale rust.
x Transferring your Spungeon-Ugly to another person is possible if they are both underwater. x Finally, as it is illegal to raise Spungeon-Uglies and keep them as pets, you should be arrested. Best of luck!” Ezrick finished in a rush of excitement. “Let’s hatch them in the bucket!” He and Maddie hurried to the well. The smell rising up surpassed words; it was like frog’s breath, a green murky stink. Maddie gagged, as did her reflection rippling twenty feet below. “Sbells like supthin’ died down there,” she said, holding her nose. Ezrick agreed; the stench nearly knocked him flat. Grunting with effort, he hauled up the bucket. Water sloshed down his front as he set it on the ground. “What’s all that?” Maddie pointed to pieces of red glittering rock at the bottom of the bucket. Ezrick squinted at them and shrugged. “Don’t know. Come on, let’s hatch the Uglies before we’re caught.” They slid the eggs underwater where they began to shimmer more brightly, like giant jewels. After several moments the water began to bubble, like a pot coming to boil, and the eggs started to shiver. Soon cracks were streaking up them, and they split apart like toffee brittle. A pair of claws emerged, and another, followed by two snouts, two pairs of eyes, and two dragon-like heads.
The Spungeon-Uglies swam from the glittering ruins and out of the bucket with a splash!, perching themselves on the brim. They had small, glinting horns, dragonish wings, and their eyes, as they looked about, twinkled like gems. Their scales matched the color of their eggs. “They . . . look a bit like crickodiles, don’t you think?” Maddie stammered. Ezrick could only stare in astonishment, jumping back as an Ugly snapped at him. “Er, can we read the instructions again? That bit on how they mark your spirit?” Maddie asked, paling. “Yeah. Right.” Ezrick scrabbled around for the parchment. “After your Spungeon-Ugly has hatched, it will mark your spirit to form the bond. Keep well away from others present to avoid complications (injuries can be nasty).” He didn’t want to think what those injuries might be. Maddie just nodded, wiped the sweat from her face, and picked up the blue Ugly. A black forked tongue flicked past its teeth. “Hang on — maybe we shouldn’t stand next to each other. I’ll go over here,” Ezrick said. He grabbed the torch and hurried to the well, craning his neck to see what was happening, but Maddie and the Ugly were lost in shadow. For a moment nothing seemed to exist in the chamber but the sound of anxious breathing. Then the Ugly made a strange chirping noise, there was a flash of movement, and Maddie screamed.
“Maddie!” Ezrick dropped the torch and rushed forward, only just leaping over the blue Ugly as it scuttled towards him on little hind legs and made straight for the bucket. Maddie was on the ground, shaking and clutching her neck. Ezrick grabbed her. “Maddie? What happened? Are you alright?” She moaned. “I don’t know . . . it bit me . . . it hurts . . .” She slumped back, her eyes rolling into her head. “Mad!” Ezrick screamed, his heart pounding wildly. Her eyes snapped open and she gasped. It was too dark here. “Don’t worry, I’m here . . . I’ve got you . . . Let’s go to the light.” He helped her to the well and propped her against it, steeling himself for the horror, the horror of what the Ugly had done. “It bit me, Ezrick . . . .” “It’s okay, Maddie, it’s okay,” he breathed, shaking as he moved her hand from her neck. “There . . . don’t move . . . don’t —” He stopped, struck by the sight of no blood. There wasn’t a bite, not even a scratch. “Nothing,” he whispered in disbelief. Only firelight flickering up her throat. Maddie’s hands flew to her neck. “But I felt teeth!” “There’s nothing there! I swear!” She stared at her hand, no dirtier than usual. She looked at Ezrick. “Weird!” “Does it still hurt?”
“What? Oh.” She considered, then said with a sense of wonder, “No . . . it doesn’t. I feel . . . I feel good, actually.” She was shaky but grinning. “Your turn.” “W-what?” He meant to say, You’ve got to be mad, but his nerves were a mess and he couldn’t seem to speak properly. Maddie’s reaction to the Ugly bite had terrified him; her scream was still ringing in his ears. Ezrick stared at the creatures splashing merrily in the bucket and felt his legs go wobbly. He became suddenly aware of their pointy, pointy teeth, those unnerving, jewel-like eyes, and — were their nostrils smoking? “Oh, go on, Ezrick. It only hurts for a second, honest!” Maddie shoved him forward. Ezrick pulled at his shirt, which was now stuck to his back with sweat. “Er . . . okay.” The gold Ugly cocked its head, watching him intently. Its eyes were like mirrors. Stomach lurching, he picked the creature up, holding it at a distance. He had to admit, it was kind of cute. In a dangerous . . . feral way. The Ugly seemed to sense his thought and smiled. Ezrick smiled back in surprise. That’s when the Ugly attacked. Its teeth sank into his heart — ripped it beating from his chest, swallowing it whole. Ezrick screamed. Pain — it was everywhere. Tears sprang to his eyes. He was on the floor. Around him the chamber wavered, blurred, went dark. He clutched his neck, struggling to breathe . . . . Breathe . . . he couldn’t breathe . . . .
Couldn’t brea . . . . Ezrick didn’t know he’d passed out until he came to in Maddie’s arms. Her face flickered in the firelight. She looked excited. “Ezrick! You did it!” He moaned. But even as he spoke the pain was ebbing away, melting into a warm, golden calm. He searched his body for blood, for a wound, but knew he would find none. He was alive. And — thank the king — his heart was still in his chest. “Ezrick, we did it!” Maddie hugged him, then both Uglies fluttered onto her shoulders and smiled. The gold one gave a little wave. *** The idea to hatch Spungeon-Uglies started earlier that summer. Ezrick and Maddie were down in the village, browsing advertisements in shop windows. Maddie’s mother, Mrs. Baker the Castle Cook, needed a messenger bird and had sent her daughter to find one. Ezrick was tagging along in his common clothes so he wouldn’t be recognized. They paused outside the butcher’s window, where a flock of quail was on display playing follow the leader. “How about a pigeon? They’re reliable,” Ezrick said. “I s’ppose,” Maddie sighed. “Though Mam gets pigeons from the market all the time. She’d likely cook it for supper on accident.” They considered this until one quail ran smack into the glass. Ezrick winced. “You’re probably right.” And they moved on.
“I told her sh he should get an eagle. Theyy’re the fastest.” “True. Fatheer’s got severall,” Ezrick saidd. “But eagles are a too pricey..” “Oh. Right.”” They passedd the big fouuntain, cut accross a park of villagers haaving picnics, and a found thee row of letterr posts in the square. s “Look — th his ad’s got all a sorts of birrds. Chickenss, peacocks, ow wls . . . even sn nakes.”
He ripped th he rumpled, half-hidden h addvertisement off o the post. s then n suddenly seiized his arm Maddie looked at it over his shoulder, “ in the blazin’ kingdo om is that?” in a death grip. “What Ezrick was about a to ask what she wass talking abouut, when he w the picture, too. His mouuth fell open. saw
It was a Spungeon-Ugly. “Is that what I think it is?” Maddie gasped. He was still staring at the image. His heart skipped several beats. “No. It can’t be. They’re — ” “I know. But what if it is!” “It’s not! And either way, it doesn’t matter.” “But, Ezrick — they’re magical!” “They’re illegal! Against Urken law. Against every law in Norwin!” “Oh, please. You are the law.” “Mad, your mother can’t have a Spungeon-Ugly.” “Ezrick, you fool,” she hissed. “I didn’t mean Mam! I was thinkin’ more . . . I mean, might be fun if we — ” Ezrick speared the ad back on the nail before she could finish. “I need to go.” “Ugh, you’re such a bore. We would keep ’em a secret.” Ezrick had to crush down the wild temptation rising inside him before he could face her. “And what if we get caught, Mad? Do you know how much trouble I’m in already? For getting expelled?” As if on cue, the church bell rang. Ezrick looked up in misery. “Excellent. I’m late for lessons. I’m not even allowed in the village! This will cost me riding Argo for a month.” He turned to Maddie. “We’re not even supposed to be friends. Why would I give Vicursa actual grounds to behead me by hatching a Spungeon-Ugly?” “What, you said it yourself: you’re always in trouble. Trouble is all you are to her, Ezrick. Why not have fun makin’ it? But what do I
know? I never had a lesson in my life. ’Cept for your horrid readin’ ones. Which, okay . . . aren’t always horrid. The other day Mam got so proud I could read a recipe, she forgot to smack me when I lit her apron on fire.” Maddie sighed. “Anyway, suit yourself. I’m getting a Ugly. They can do all sorts o’ tricks. Make bloody good pets,” she said, walking away. Ezrick watched her go feeling frustrated and cross. The sun beat hot on his back. Trouble is all you are to her. Her words goaded him, but they were true — his stepmother had it in for him. No matter what Ezrick did, he was doomed at every turn. He could never win. Wavering, he pulled the ad off the post. Eggs . . . All variety . . . Write for information. This was trouble. Beyond trouble. But being in trouble, he realized, was a lot like jumping into a lake. Once you climbed out, you were still wet. He stuffed the ad in his pocket and started for the Castle. When they reconvened in Ezrick’s bedchamber, and he agreed to get one, too, the air began tingling with excitement. Maddie went on animatedly about how she’d train her Ugly to dust, mop, and do all her other chores, like heating Ezrick’s bath water (“I won’t have to burn my hand on the kettle no more. The Ugly can warm the tub in one breath o’ fire! Honest, I shoulda thought o’ this sooner.”).
Ezrick was at his writing desk only half-listening; his father’s messenger-eagle had just knocked over the inkpot and was tracking footprints everywhere. He hurriedly cleaned what he could, then grabbed a quill and went back to the ad, circling the SpungeonUgly and jotting a number two beside it. Next, he rolled up the parchment and tucked it in the eagle’s pouch, listing the Peasant’s Pub, in the village, as the return address; Mrs. Baker worked there sometimes and made Maddie help in the kitchen, so Mad could easily swipe the mail in case someone replied. And one month later, they did. Maddie burst into his room, ablaze with morning light, the longawaited envelope in her hand. “Ezrick! It’s here!” Ezrick was up at once, scrambling out of bed so fast he tripped on the sheets. Smiling breathlessly, Maddie handed him the mail. Ezrick ripped out the letter and read it quickly.
5 1 e / 12 e / i
200 “It’s a meeting time! Summer’s first quarter moon — midnight — Lamppost number Seven.” He looked up, stunned. “We’re to bring two hundred crowns.”
At once they were off in search of coins, groping between seat cushions and looking under rugs, scouring the Castle until every last stash was picked clean. Then they dumped in Ezrick’s Birth Day money, Maddie’s laundry money, and all the luck money they’d won off bets with the village children, and when added up came to two hundred crowns barely, but they had it. They had enough. At last the night of the meeting came. As midnight approached, Ezrick and Maddie stole into the village. The Lampposts were few and far between, making the streets very dark. Above, the slivered moon gleamed in mischievous laughter. A dog barked in the distance. When they arrived at Lamppost Seven, there was no one there to meet them. Ezrick gripped his lantern and bag of money tighter, a chill running down his spine. It occurred to him, then, how stupid and dangerous this was. How, if something terrible were to happen him and Maddie, not a soul would know. But then the fluttering sounded above him, scattering all thought. They looked up and gasped. A brilliant, emerald-green Spungeon-Ugly had landed on the Lamppost. The Ugly peered down its snout at them. “We’re here for the eggs,” Ezrick spluttered. A dark, amused expression crossed the Ugly’s face. Its tail flicked, then its wings opened in an emerald flourish and the Ugly beckoned them to follow. Ezrick and Maddie exchanged glances. Maddie took his hand, and so Ezrick led them after the creature . . .
away from the village and into the Pines . . . where it stopped eventually before a great tree, at the base of which lay a peculiarlooking box. The Ugly alighted on top of the box and crossed its arms. “The money,” Maddie whispered. Nervously, Ezrick handed over the crowns. The Ugly handed over a key. Then the creature grinned, opened its wings, and took flight. *** And that’s how Ezrick and Maddie found themselves sitting against the well, shoulders touching, watching their Uglies fly around the Old Cellar. “I wonder why Uglies are illegal,” Ezrick said. “Dunno. I just want to know their special talents.” “What if mine could do schoolwork? Vicursa would have me hanged.” They laughed, then a noise sounded somewhere in the Dungeon and they froze. “Let’s go,” Ezrick whispered. What with meeting the emerald Ugly at midnight, followed by the trek back up to the Castle, it had to be two in the morning. Maddie nodded. Wordlessly they put the Uglies back in the bucket and lowered them down the well, to much fretful chirping. Ezrick felt a twinge of affection as the creatures stared up him, their gemstone eyes wobbly with tears. “Don’t cry!” Maddie whispered.
“We’ll be back soon,” Ezrick added. Then grabbing the torch, they left the Old Cellar. “Come to my chamber tomorrow, once you’ve been to the Kitchens,” Ezrick whispered as they climbed the stone staircase. “Vicursa’s been shutting herself up in Solar for hours lately, so anytime should be safe to come and feed the Uglies.” “An’ how am I s’pposed to sneak food from the pantry? Mam burns my fingers on the stove for pocketin’ grapes!” “Mad, if the Glooms didn’t hear us riding through the Dungeons on horseback, no one will notice a loaf of lost bread.” But Ezrick was wrong. The Glooms had heard. Three of them awaited him at the top of the stair. They wore rusty armor, and eerie helms with black holes for eyes, thin slits curled in frozen grins. Always smiling. Always waiting. By the time Ezrick and Maddie reached the top step and saw them, there was no hope of getting away.
Not that they didn’t try. Ezrick brandished the torch like a flaming sword, but to no avail, so he chucked it down the stair and dove through the Glooms’ legs instead, praying the darkness would conceal his escape. However, meetings with Glooms always came to blows; Ezrick felt a sharp knee to his ribs in seconds, and by the end of the scuffle he was bruised and in pain. Maddie was pummeling the Knights as best she could; Ezrick heard her scrambling up their armor and jabbing their eyes. But they only tossed her aside like a table scrap. She was a servant. She was nothing. “Alright, I’m going,” Ezrick snapped, dodging a shove. “Really, can’t she see me in the morning?” The irony that it was morning, albeit the wee hours, was not lost on him, and only made him feel worse.
The Glooms said nothing but hassled him through the Dungeon, up another staircase, and across the Entrance Hall, before finally dumping him outside the Solar. From one Dungeon to another, Ezrick thought grimly. He gritted his teeth and entered. It was like stepping into a dark, overgrown garden. Dusky stone walls, flowerpots, and topiaries surrounded him. From the ceiling hung a dimly-lit chandelier, like a dying sun. And in the corner lurked a spider . . . a tall, cold woman, sitting in a high back chair, her long hair and dressing gown black as Krayägoran wood. Vicursa did not look up from her reading as she spoke. “Ezrick Leary. Nearly three in the morning and up to no good.” Ezrick kept his back to the door, his shoulder blades digging into the wood. “I like to start early.” “Mm. I’ll remember that when I schedule next week’s lessons. Though . . . I wonder, Ezrick . . .” She still wasn’t looking at him, and spoke with an air of someone casually sharpening knives. “What were you doing in the Dungeon? The Dungeon is forbidden. A ruin. Terribly unsafe.” “I wasn’t doing anything.” “But there was a dreadful racket down there, like horses galloping. I sent Greta to see that you were safe in bed, but she said you weren’t there. And what with the King away, I began to worry, Ezrick. Thought maybe someone had broken in and there was an intruder about. I ordered the Knights to investigate, and you are what they found. Now tell me. What were you doing in the —”
“I said, nothing!” Her eyes fixed on his, silver and mercurial, ringed with darkness. “Nothing . . . yes . . . I suppose it’s no wonder why you were expelled, then. We are the difference between what we say and do, Ezrick. Really, I can’t decide whether the world will laugh or cry the day you’re crowned king.” The jewels in her crown seemed to watch him, every one of them black. And the difference between what we want and what we are? Ezrick wanted to ask. I don’t want to be king. What does that make me, stepmother? But instead he averted his eyes and didn’t speak. “Very well, your punishment for sneaking through the Dungeons out of bed: confined to your chamber for the day, no supper, and lessons here, this evening at seven o’ clock.” “Lessons? It’s the week’s end! You can’t give me lessons on the —” “Silence!” Vicursa rose and went to a tall cabinet against the wall, her black gown whispering as she walked. With a small key she unlocked its doors and removed a crown — Ezrick’s crown — from the shelf. “The Knights found this beneath the Willow,” she said, approaching him, then forced the crown into his chest. “Stay out of the Dungeon.” Their eyes met, and Ezrick felt, for the first time, a dim, quiet fear. He gripped the crown and left the room without a word.
He was grateful to walk the silent corridors, which helped calm his nerves. It was getting easier, these . . . exchanges of words. Before, meetings with Vicursa left him impulsive and reckless. But this time he hadn’t once cursed, slammed doors, or broken any valuables. And the Uglies were still a secret. Still safe in the Old Cellar. Everything was fine. He passed the Mirror Hall, his father’s Study, the Sick Ward, and the Library. He climbed enough stairs to rival the Krayägora Mountain Pass. At last he reached his bedchamber in the Tower. Ezrick locked the door behind him and took a deep breath, rubbing his chest. He was tired and his heart hurt. Kicking his crown under the bed, he flumped onto his mattress, remembering too late his sore ribs. But he welcomed the pain; it tempered his anger and made him feel less special. Less . . . like a prince. Sniff! The sound came from just outside his door. Ezrick swore. Levering to his feet he crossed the room and yelled at the doorknob. “I’M IN BED ALREADY!” There was a gasp, followed by the indignant rustle of a gown, then footsteps bustling down the stairs. “Slip on a step while you’re at it,” Ezrick added, though he knew Greta was too far away to have heard. Greta Crane was the scullery maid and Vicursa’s annoying spy. She often camped outside Ezrick’s bedchamber, ear to the door,
listening for stuff to get him in trouble. But she had the runniest nose in Norwin. The sniffling forever gave her away. Ezrick went back to the bed but stopped at the glint of gold. His crown. He retrieved it from the shadows, hesitating slightly before putting it on. His reflection stared back in the tall cracked mirror on the wall. He needed a haircut. Dark brown hair fell across his turquoise eyes. Because Ezrick didn’t look like his father, he liked to imagine he looked like his mother, Andromeda, whatever she’d looked like. He couldn’t really remember and there were no portraits. He took off the crown, which glittered brightly even in the dark, and traced a finger over the curve of gold, the rainbow of jewels. They looked so friendly, twinkling almost like candy. But these candies weren’t sweet. They were hard as diamonds. They hurt to swallow and left you broken inside. Ezrick noted every jewel was intact, unlike his childhood crowns which were missing some. Yawning, he hung the crown on his bedpost. His last thought before falling asleep was wanting nothing more than to be nothing, like Maddie Baker.
3 The Lesson
A pounding noise woke him the next morning. Groggily, Ezrick stuffed his head under his pillow. More pounding. “Leave me a . . .” And he was asleep again. The mirror against the wall shuddered. “Blast this bloody, bloody door,” growled a voice. Then the mirror gave an awful groan and flew open like a door, revealing a shadowy passage out of which Maddie Baker tumbled, breathless and disheveled. “Huh . . . ?” Ezrick rubbed his eyes. “Oh . . . morning.” “The mirror’s been stickin’, you know. Took everythin’ in me to get out, an’ here you are, asleep. Well you can get up now. I got food for the Uglies. Swiped some when Mam left for the village.” Maddie dumped a pile of nuts, plums, and bread crusts onto his bed.
“Right. Listen, Mad.” Ezrick sat up and glanced at his bedchamber door. “Last night Vicursa worked out I’d been in the Dungeons. I’m shut in my room all day with no supper and lessons tonight.” “But it’s week’s end. You’ve had punishments all week!” “I know, but father’s gone so she can do whatever she wants.” Not that he’d care, Ezrick added inwardly. “But what about the Uglies?” “Shh!” He flung an arm at the door to remind her that Greta could be eavesdropping. “I can’t go. Vicursa warned me to stay out of the Dungeons. The way she said it, it made me nervous.” “We won’t be gone an hour.” “Mad, it’s a bad idea.” “It is, is it? An’ who made you the smart one? You can’t even get expelled properly,” Maddie said coolly. The words hit him like a blow to the stomach. Maddie threw the food back in the bag while shooting glares at the crown hanging from his bed post. “Fine. Tomorrow, then. We’ll meet at breakfast. I’ve got to go scrub your toilet, anyway,” she said, not looking at him. And with that, she slammed the mirror door behind her. Ezrick sat there, numb. Three months ago he’d been expelled from the most prestigious school in Norwin — Burleduke’s School of Nobility. Ezrick had attended Burleduke’s since he was six, the one thing he’d managed that made his father proud, as the King had attended himself. When Ezrick was expelled, his father didn’t
look at him for weeks. It was humiliating on many levels, especially as the Royal Urken Council was covering up the expulsion with lies of “homesickness.” Ezrick was nearly fourteen. Not once in his seven years at Burleduke’s had he ever missed life at the Castle. If anything, he missed living away from home. He’d loved school. But even more humiliating than the homesickness fiction, was the actual reason for Ezrick’s expulsion. He’d been expelled for answering a question wrong. It happened during Judgments when the Scholar asked: “What is one punishment for conspiring against the Crown? Yes, Prince Leary.” “Well, I once fooled my stepmother into putting salt in her tea instead of sugar, and had to drink a whole pot of salted tea as punishment.” The crowned heads in the room laughed, even the Scholar, and Ezrick had thought nothing more of it. But that evening he was summoned to the Headmistress. She’d been informed of his disruptiveness in class, and without meeting his eyes, said he must pack his things. He’d been . . . expelled. “What?” “I’m sorry, Ezri — Prince Leary. I have no choice. You must . . . Lord Grimmly is already on his way.” “But, Headmistress, I didn’t do anything wrong this time. I swear! Please, I don’t want to go —” “Prince Leary —” He refused to leave her study.
“Ezrick, I’m afraid you have to leave.” She touched his shoulder looking deeply sorry, then opened the chamber door, again not meeting his eyes as he passed. “These people are cracked,” Ezrick muttered, throwing his robes in his trunk. He was alone in the boys’ dormitory. He hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye to his friends. They were all at supper in the Banquet Hall. Then he sat in the rain, waiting for Mordecai Grimmly, his father’s Royal Advisor, to arrive in the rundown carriage and take him back to Urkeneye. They didn’t exchange a word the entire day-long trip. Now, sitting alone in the tower and thinking of his expulsion, Ezrick felt more cross and frustrated than ever. He remembered that two weeks before the salted-tea remark, he and some other boys had been jumping on the dormitory mattresses and broken three beds. Before that he’d accidentally broke the bath water pump (he should have asked a servant to help), and flooded the entire Bath Chamber. Why hadn’t he been expelled then? There had to be more the story. There had to be. Ezrick hoped his father would protest Burleduke’s decision, but King Leary did not. So now Ezrick was stuck at the Castle studying under Vicursa’s tutelage, and he wanted to die. No, he’d never been homesick a day in his life. Really he was sick of home.
The clock chimed seven as Ezrick crammed the rest of the chocolate bar in his mouth and ran from the Kitchens to the Solar. He tried the handle but the door was locked. Blast. He was late. He was about to knock when he heard the music; Vicursa was playing her harp. It was eerie, unearthly music, dreamlike and dark . . . almost familiar. Ezrick thought he’d heard the song before, a long time ago when he was young, or perhaps in a dream. Why was Vicursa playing it? The struggle to remember left him weak. He needed the wall to keep standing . . . he wanted the song to end . . . wanted to sleep . . . . “Ezrick.” Ezrick woke with a start. He was slumped on the floor, cheek pressed to the door and drooling slightly. He wiped his chin, mortified. Vicursa leered from the doorway. “You are late.” “Sorry.” Ezrick scrambled to his feet and stepped into the Solar. The air, when he passed her, was colder than the rest of the room, as though he’d walked past an open window on a wintry night. “Yes. I imagine you will be.” She closed the door. Ezrick was too shaken by the haunting melody to pay her any mind. He waited until Vicursa was unlocking the cabinet door with her back turned to ask, “What song were you playing?” Vicursa paused. “You know it?” “I’ve heard it before. I — I don’t remember where. Can you tell me what it’s —”
“Ah, here it is.” His stepmother shut the cabinet and turned around, a book trapped in her pale, spidery hands. “The song,” Ezrick repeated, more bravely this time. “I asked what it’s called.” “I know what you asked. But I’m afraid this isn’t a music lesson. And with your studies suffering as they’ve been, I think you’ve greater concerns than old songs you’d be wise to forget.” She gave him the book with a shove. Ezrick regarded her witheringly and went to the couch. Of course she wasn’t going to tell him. He’d been stupid to ask. “You’ll be reading aloud today,” Vicursa added, seating herself in the high back chair. Perhaps it was an effect of the music, or wishing he’d gone with Maddie to feed the Uglies after all, but Ezrick didn’t have the energy to argue. He went before Vicursa’s chair and flipped to page one. “Chapter One: The Royal Transformation — From Princess to Queen.” “Tell me, Ezrick. What is the book you’re reading?” Ezrick checked the title. “Secrets of the Prospering Queendom. Chapter One —” “And you may skip Chapter One. I have no need of it.” Ezrick bit his tongue and flipped past the first to “Chapter Two: Castles, Courts, and Medieval Forts — Managing the Household.” Chapter after chapter he read, from “Crowns and Towns: A Queen’s Guide to Public Relations,” to “Checkmate: Playing Real-
Life Chess with other Kingdoms . . . and Winning!” By the time he reached “Chapter Seven: The Joy of Torture — A Woman’s Touch,” Ezrick had quit paying attention to what he was reading and nearly dozed off to the drone of his own voice. At last, Vicursa stopped him at “Chapter Twelve: Keeping Current with the Currency (and Money Safe in the Safe).” “Mark the page. You are excused.” Blearily Ezrick obeyed, dropping the ribbon twice before successfully tucking it between the pages. The mantle clock read 11:42. He left the book on the couch, rubbed his eyes, and stumbled towards the door. “Your father returns to court tomorrow, Ezrick. You will attend supper with us to discuss his travels, so whatever you’re up to with that filthy servant-girl, I suggest you stop.” “We’re not up to anything. And she’s not filth. She’s my friend.” “Then she won’t mind taking beatings in your place, should you disobey my orders.” The words made Ezrick’s heart thud. He struggled to maintain his composure. Behind him, Vicursa watched his back intently. “Good night, Ezrick. I will see you at supper.”