While the city of Mir slept, the Kinq and Queen sat in their bedroom, wide awake.
King William watched his wife, Queen Satine, quietly scan a scroll that a messenger from the people of Mir had presented her with. In the dark night, her weary face was illuminated by the faint glow of a candle, whose wax was melting and gathering in the candle bowl. The flicker of the flame cast dancing shadows on the wall but provided good light for the Queen, who had been reading messages all day long. There were faint wrinkles between her brows; a sure sign that the Queen had had too much stress in her life. After all, she was only around thirty years of age. Her beauty was still as dazzling and wonderful as it had been in the Queen’s youth, but now her eyes seemed tired and wise. They were the eyes of a hundred-year-old person, someone who had seen and done much more than most other people would ever dream of doing.
“Satine,” King William said softly, breaking the peaceful silence, “you must rest. The grand ball is tomorrow and you must look fresh-faced for the royalty of Reefs. You will be able to continue this task tomorrow, before the ball.”
“William, do not disturb me. I am close to completing the whole pile of messages – if I continue tomorrow, I will have forgotten most of the content, therefore making my previous reading efforts utterly useless.” Satine sighed and moved onto the next scroll. “Besides, balls are silly. All this dancing and dressing up and nonsense… There are more important things to do.”
“This ball was organised for a purpose much greater and more important than dancing. If we are successful in impressing the King of Reefs, he may notify the famed Council and they may help us in the creation of an art school,” William reasoned.
“Oh, we don’t need the Council to build a school,” Satine huffed irritatedly. “And what use will art be in a city like Mir?”
“Mir could produce lots of great paintings and sculptures and whatnot; tourists from the closest cities – Fiern, Reefs, Astewell – would flock here just to see the wonder of Mir’s best artists!” William said brightly. He could already imagine the crowds of admiring travellers queuing up to see the talent of some of Mir’s citizens.
“Astewell and Fiern are dead cities,” Satine reminded her husband flatly, tossing a scroll aside and picking up yet another. “The people of Reefs wouldn’t need to come here to see art. Their city is known for their art and science. Our citizens flock there to see the talent of Reefs’ citizens.”
William sighed. His wife was just so stubborn sometimes – though that was one of the things that made him fall in love with her in the first place.
He returned to his original point. “Please just come to bed, Satine. I do not think it wise to stay up so late.”
“Quiet, William. This is the final scroll,” Satine muttered distractedly. She traced her finger down the scroll and rolled up it up neatly when she finished. “There.”
“Now, are you ready to rest?”
“No,” Satine replied simply. “We must discuss the recent robberies.”
“What is there to discuss? They are thieves – we punish them,” William said, adjusting his robe around him.
“But they are not just normal thieves -” began Satine, but William interrupted her.
“Yes, they are!” William countered. “They are thieves like any other – they may have a few things we don’t, but they should still be punished in the same way as every other thief! You gave me a speech about it already. Just leave it, Satine.”
Satine sighed and put her head between her hands. Why did her husband have to be so stressful and argumentative? She already had to cope with the duties of being queen and the pressure of being perfect in her actions, appearance and speech.
“Listen to me, William,” Satine said in a defiant voice. She wouldn’t just let these thieves be punished normally. A month in jail? That was nothing. “It’s not just robbery – it’s what these Beings did after the robbery.”
“Beings?” William inquired curiously.
“It’s what all the villagers are calling them,” Satine explained patiently. “Any person with supernatural powers is a Being to them. But the definition is not important. As they have powers unlike any other human, they’re not just going to thieve as other humans do. William… Did you know – the Being who robbed Belinda’s Bakery…he left Belinda and several of her workers with an acute case of amnesia, not to mention escaping a horde of angry citizens in the area with Belinda’s best bread stock and the recipe to her secret bread. Nobody knows how he did it – but he did. And that’s what makes him so dangerous; because we don’t know why he’s dangerous.”
William had had absolutely no knowledge of this at all. No wonder his wife had been so keen to read all the scrolls; they were recordings of robberies or “Being” sightings.
“And – the other Being? There are two dangerous ones, right? But both of them rob a lot of stores?”
“The other Being is a well-known sorcerer who lives – or lived – near the Lonely Forests. His name’s Azad. Yes, there seem to be two Beings who continuously rob shops, but there must be hundreds of more Beings in the land. I think all of them are dangerous, but perhaps only two of them are bold enough to take the risk of being caught when they thieve,” Satine said seriously, lighting another candle. Its flame danced gracefully, flickering as Satine moved it through the air.
William was silent for a moment. Then he told his wife: “I suppose you’re right. We can’t have this happening in Mir. What punishment shall we give them, if ever they are caught?”
It was obvious Satine had already thought of this, for she spoke at once.
“We shall keep them safe in jail, with special protection, and then we shall think of a separate punishment for each of the caught Beings, depending on what their powers are.”
“Are you saying that we should throw each Being into jail, regardless of whether or not they were breaking our law?” William asked with a crease in his brow.
“Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying,” Satine said. William liked how she was always straight to the point. “They might not be too dangerous at the moment, but who knows what devious plans they have made? If all of them united, they could crush our city and take over the surrounding land!”
“And they could take our crowns,” William pointed out.
“Exactly. That is why the Beings must be treated differently to other criminals.”
William looked at his wife, gave one simple nod and spoke the word that ruined the lives of hundreds. “Alright.”
Chapter One – The New Law
“Pandora!” Freya – Pandora’s old, fat toad of a boss – called out from the kitchen. “GET IN HERE!”
Pandora Cygnus sighed and muttered a quick apology to her customer before screaming in reply, “IN A SECOND!”
Her customer giggled softly and Pandora closed her eyes for a very long time. Her boss annoyed her so much – she was like a pest that wouldn’t go away, a pest that could order her around and make her do things. When Pandora opened her eyes, that cheeky customer of hers was gone, and all she could see was the counter in front of her and the stone steps that led down to a rough, gravel pathway. A little boy on a bike, no doubt a messenger, sped past and ungraciously chucked a scroll at the door of the bakery.
Pandora shook her head and walked out from behind the counter to get the message. She placed it on the counter, alongside delicious, mouth-watering bread and pastries and cookies of all types. The girl tried her best to ignore the enticing aroma of the bread that she had made herself and entered the kitchen behind the counter, bracing herself for an explosion.
“What is this I see?” Freya shrieked in a very unladylike way, holding a shiny plate as if it were a dirty rat she had found under her bed. “Is this a spot on this plate?”
Pandora took the time to take in the image of her ungraceful boss, Freya Baline. She was an old, greasy woman with yellow, chipped teeth, rivers of wrinkles and enough fat to fill a few sacks of flour. Her attire consisted of simply an old tunic and an apron; that was what she always wore. Pandora had never seen Fat Freya wear anything else. Pandora wore the apron, too, as it was part of the uniform at Bread Galore, though she managed to change her clothes underneath.
Freya was staring at Pandora with black, beetle-like eyes and holding up the plate expectantly. Pandora bent down, as Freya was so short, and cheekily put her nose up to the plate. She went cross-eyed and muttered, “Hmm.”
She pulled away and came back to her normal height. “Nope. I don’t see a thing; it’s spotless. Wait – oh dear! It’s a speck of dust!” Pandora cried, feigning horror.
“Don’t you be cheeky with me, young woman!” Freya snapped, putting the plate in its original place on the dishes rack. “You may only be sixteen, but I won’t hesitate to fire you if I must come to that.”
“If you wish. But then who would wash the dishes?” Pandora said slyly, beginning to clean yet another batch of plates.
“I could easily hire someone else,” Freya said stubbornly.
“Not if you don’t pay them. I’m the only person in the whole town, or perhaps in the whole of Mir, or perhaps in the whole world, who would wash your dishes for free,” Pandora told her boss, soaking a plate full of crumbs in water.
“Well, I just wish you’d try a little harder, even if you are not paid. It is your job, after all,” Freya said, sounding quite irritated.
Pandora rolled her eyes – luckily, both she and Freya had their backs to each other, meaning that Freya couldn’t see the constant eye-rolling of Pandora.
“You don’t put enough effort into your work.” Eye roll. “Later in life, you can’t keep doing that.” Eye roll. “Your next boss won’t care about firing you if you don’t a satisfactory performance when you work.” Eye roll.
“I don’t care if you fire me right now. Dishwashing is only my temporary, secondary job. I still have baking, my actual job,” Pandora informed Freya, shrugging.
Freya grumbled. “Yes, I suppose. You won’t be in this position for much longer. I’ll find a dishwasher soon and you can go back to baking.”
“Oh, thank the Lord,” Pandora said with a sigh of relief. “Dishwashing isn’t my thing. Oh, and will you pay whoever replaces me?”
“I suppose I’ll have to, won’t I? Although I will be regretful when I replace you. You’re quite a good dishwasher, even if you miss some spots sometimes,” Freya said, jabbing the plate she had shown Pandora earlier with a stubby finger.
“Ah, thanks, Freya. I love it when people half-compliment me on my dishwashing skills,” Pandora joked, speed-drying the dishes with a towel. Her shift was almost done.
“You’d better watch that smart mouth of yours, girl, or I’ll have to keep you as our official dishwasher forever,” Freya warned.
“Speaking of ‘our’, where is that new kid, who is due to arrive…” Pandora looked at the clock. “Twenty minutes ago? Gale, or something?”
“Gabe Webber. I have no idea where he is, but I’m definitely not giving him the job if he doesn’t have a proper excuse for turning up late. It’s not good for only two women to run this shop,” Freya said, pulling a bun of bread out of the oven.
“I agree with you. My shift is over. Goodbye, Freya!” Pandora said happily, putting away her drying towel.
“Take care, Pandora. Thank you for washing the dishes,” Freya said sincerely, blowing fiercely on her bread.
“You’re very welcome,” Pandora replied, grinning, and bounded out of the kitchen. Freya was okay sometimes – Pandora enjoyed their childish exchanges.
Just before she left, she opened the scroll on the counter, addressed to Bread Galore, The Merry Meadows, Mir. Pandora had absolutely no idea why her section of the city was called Merry Meadows. There weren’t many meadows in sight – in fact, there weren’t any at all, and not a lot of people were merry in Merry Meadows. Merry Meadows was a place of hard work, low wages and mostly poor inhabitants.
She untied the scroll and read. It said:
All citizens of Mir are required to come to the City Square, next to Mir Palace, at six o’clock this evening. A new law has been created and it is mandatory for all citizens to be present when the new law is announced. All citizens who are not able to come, please ask another citizen to explain your reason of absence to the Royal Guards.
Pandora left the scroll on the counter, so that Freya would be able to see it later, and exited the shop. She was curious to know what the new law was, but it was only around four o’clock, meaning Pandora wouldn’t be able to see until much later.
She swung her legs over her bike and tied up her messy, red hair. The sun was boiling and Pandora was sweating already. It was the middle of July, not a good time for biking. But it was the only way Pandora could get home, so she put her apron in her bike basket and rode off in the sweltering heat, down the narrow, bumpy streets of Merry Meadows. She whizzed by busy shops, the wind flapping all the hair she hadn’t managed to get out of her face. The sun shone mercilessly overhead, rendering Pandora disgustingly smelly and sweaty.
She swerved left and right, dodging passers-by and the regular men who pushed around carts of cute and nifty little knick-knacks that everyone loved buying, as they were so cheap. When she turned left, she left behind the noisy streets where all the shops were in Merry Meadows and entered the section where all the houses and cottages were built. Each home looked different, because everyone in Merry Meadows loved being creative and unique. Some were short and wide, others tall and skinny, each with a strange combination of colours like yellow or orange or neon green. If Pandora could have chosen one word to some up the residential area of Merry Meadows, it would be: “colourful”.
The wealthiest people lived closer to their shops, but they weren’t really very rich. They had two-storey houses with fancy tiles for roofs; the slightly poorer people, like Pandora, lived in cozy, charming cottages with thatched roofs. Pandora’s cottage was painted light blue, with dusty diamond-shaped windows and an oak door.
Pandora got off her bike and dragged it inside her cottage. The interior was warm and gave a real feeling of homeliness. She set the bike down on her stony floor and immediately began doing her chores; dusting the surfaces, sweeping the floor, washing the clothes and dishes and more.
At a quarter past five o’clock, just when Pandora had finished her chores for the day (or the week, really), she gathered up her dark hooded cloak and threw it into her bike basket. Then she mounted the bike and set off yet again, this time for the City Square to her west. Because the day was ending, the air wis chilly and unforgiving, making little goosebumps pop up all over Pandora’s skin. She cut through the air, her hair whipping into her eyes and her teeth chattering. Her icy fingers gripped the handlebars and she swerved left and right, through the busy streets and pathways of Mir.
To her surprise, she arrived at the Square quite early. Not many people were gathered there and she was able to push through to the front of the small crowd after tying her bike to a pole and grabbing her cloak. She shimmied into the cloak and sighed with content when the thick fabric finally shielded her from the winds that grew steadily colder and colder.
The Square was a large, cleared area surrounded by small stone walls, about half a metre high, with openings for people to get through. The edges were lined with little stalls selling all types of things, like bananas and oranges or telescopes and sundials. Mir Palace towered over them, charming and beautiful. The royals’ home was painted white, with impossibly large gems outlining the windows and two front oak doors. Carvings of ivy and angels completely covered the palace. Pandora could tell that the carvers had taken great care with their art and really attempted to add amazing details.
She waited in the Square for a long period of time. As the sun began its path below the horizon, citizens of Mir began to fill up the space in the Square. When there was no more room, Pandora felt like she was suffocating, and latecomers stood in the surrounding streets. Everyone was looking up at expectantly at the castle.
Finally, after an eternity, the King and Queen emerged out onto a high balcony. Both were wearing robes of velvet purple and gold, along with their jewel-encrusted crowns. Everyone bowed at once.
“Rise,” boomed the voice of the King. Although he was loud, Pandora still wondered if the people in surrounding streets could hear well enough.
“We have an announcement that will apply to each and every one of you,” continued the King. Everyone hung onto his words; the King had such a way of speaking and playing with pauses that could capture an audience of millions. “A problem has come to our attention – this problem is the abhorrent robberies that have taken place in the last few months. Robberies by Beings.”
Whispers rose from the crowd at once.
“Silence! The Queen and I have decided to change our…attitude…towards Beings.”
The Queen took over. She held her head high, and her sharp cheekbones and analysing eyes gave the impression of someone not to be messed with. “From now on, all citizens accused of having the properties that define one as a Being will be taken into custody. From there, further punishment will be decided.”
More whispers broke out. But these whispers were frightened. Anxious. Worried.
“Furthermore, all citizens must hand over known Beings to the Royal Guards. Anyone not wishing to comply will endure punishment quite…severe,” the Queen said, wearing a grim expression.
Suddenly, the woman next to Pandora screamed out an uncomprehendable word and raised her arms as fast as lightning. Flames appeared out of thin air and travelled along the railings of the balcony. The girl’s brows were scrunched together in concentration as everyone screamed and watched on.
Two of the Royal Guards tackled the witch and fastened shackles to her wrists, and the fire on the balcony disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“WITCH!” roared one guard. “YOU ARE SENTENCED TO EXECUTION!”
A fraction of the crowd cheered in approval, while the rest stayed silent, afraid to express their opinions on the witch’s punishment.
The guards pulled the witch to her feet and began walking her out of the Square; citizens made a path for the two guards and their captive. But the witch wouldn’t come quietly.
“Let me go!” the witch shrieked, waving her hands frantically in the air and pulling at her shackles. Her face was contorted with fury and determination as she grunted, intent on escaping the hold of the two royal guards, who were struggling to keep the young witch under control.
“Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!” she screamed, crying tears purely out of anger. “Those damned royals deserve to die – and so do you! Let me go!“
“Stop resisting,” one of the masked guards snarled, brandishing a whip and grinning sadistically. He raised the whip, and –
The sound echoed through the Square. Onlookers weeped and protested while the cracks continued. The shackled witch fell to her knees, screaming with each hit, while the two guards laughed two identical, cruel laughs. Yet the witch didn’t stop flapping her arms in the air, hoping that the guards would lose their grip.
“Stop resisting,” the guard with the whip repeated, snickering. “You’ll only” – CRACK – “make” – CRACK – “things” – CRACK “worse!” This crack was the loudest and most painful of them all, and it made several people in the crowd of citizens scream. Her eyes blind with pain, the witch finally slumped to the ground, unconscious.
Pandora watched the guards give a few final kicks to the witch’s limp, red body. She was absolutely appalled – and frightened, too. She watched from under her hood as the guards picked up the young witch as if she were a rag doll and carried her towards a pair of horses Pandora hadn’t noticed.
Her breathing quickened when the guards mounted those two black, graceful horses with the most frightening red eyes Pandora had ever seen. Each time they made a sound, a small blue flame would fly out of their nostrils. She’d seen these horses in her dreams – although sometimes, the dreams seemed more like memories. Vague memories, prodding her brain in her sleep. She dreamed of similar black horses, making horrible spluttering noises and releasing larger jets of hot blue flame that caught on trees and wooden houses… and there were people, people screaming…
She shook her head to clear it as the horses trotted away. She needed to do something – fast.
She was in danger.
She could do magic, just like that witch, who probably wouldn’t make it until the morning. If anyone found out what she could do, she would die. Her head would be presented to the King and Queen. She wasn’t safe.
So she ran.