Jet never thought he’d miss the dry heat of Velodale, but this humidity is so much worse.
He’s sticky all over, sweating through his shirt, and he wants a shower like he’s never wanted anything else. Evie, for whatever reason, is fine, and steps off the bus, graceful, not a hair out of place.
“How can you stand this?” Jet asks, fanning his thin shirt over his chest.
“I was born here, you know. It’s not that bad—Velodale is hotter.”
The Crown City is the opposite of their desert ghost town; it’s shiny and new, coastal, with green trees and flowers blooming in the grass between busy streets. All of the cars on the road are recent models, things Jet has only seen on television. Bright, neon signs gleam on tall buildings, even in broad daylight, the occasional hologirl flicking in and out of existence to advertise products and offer directions.
Jet clicks his tongue. “You may have been born here but you’re a Velodale native, just like me.”
Evie points to the other side of the street where a mass of people stands, waiting to cross. “I’ve never seen so many people in one place. How close are we to the ocean? I bet the beaches are packed!”
“There are no beaches in the Crown City, sis. It’s all fishing out here. If you want to go sunbathing you’ll need to head south to Holiwreath.”
She frowns. “Isn’t that where mom is?”
He shakes his head. “Is, was, she could be on the moon by now. Who knows?”
They have one small backpack between them, their home in Velodale locked up tight, windows boarded shut. Everything they own is in the pack, now, and Jet feels like he’s dreaming as he looks around the bustling streets of the largest city in Gaelenheim. He shakes his head. “It’s a good thing our bus had that mechanic on it. If we’d been even a day late we would have missed the application deadline.”
The bus ride from Velodale had been long, and Jet is sore even down to his bones. It’s a relief to be on his feet again after countless hours, but the buzz of the Crown City rings in his ears, and there’s still so much to do.
“I’m just glad you’ve already got a job lined up,” Evie says. “At least we’ll be close together.”
The corners of Jet’s mouth tug upward. “I’m just loading shipments into the kitchens, sis. They aren’t even letting me wash the dishes.”
Evie stretches her arms above her head, and the last bit of stiffness cracks off of her body. “I still don’t know why you haven’t applied to join the Imperial Guard. You’d make a good soldier.”
He shakes his head. “There’s no way they would hire and train a kid from Velodale like me. Street tumbles and kicking Pell’s ass are different from an actual battle. I know my way around a fight, but that’s not enough.”
Evie points to a tall spire far in the distance, and as Jet turns to look, he thinks for a fleeting moment, it looks like a sword piercing the clouds. “Is that the palace? It’s massive!”
“Is it—the palace is in the Bastion District. We’re in South Cresthill right now.”
One of the shining blue hologirls dances her way straight through a mass of warm-bodied pedestrians and winks at Jet as she gets closer.
He coughs. “They don’t have these in Velodale. They’re weird.”
“Hungry for food made for a real man?” the hologirl asks, and a plate of steaming meat sparks to life in her hand. “Come on down to the Henhouse, sweetie—you’re sure to see a lot of chicks!”
Evie groans and Jet laughs through his nose. “What’s the fastest way to the palace, Blue?” his sister asks, and the no-nonsense tone of her voice gives him chills.
The hologirl is crestfallen, her lips draw into a pout, and she points to the other side of the massive crosswalk. “Take the 94 tram heading north. It’s a forty minute ride.” She brightens. “Are you applying for the queen selection, cutie?”
“What’s it to you?” Evie asks, suspicious.
Blue lifts her hand, and a plate of steaming meat materializes. “Come on down to the Henhouse! There’s plenty of roosters to go around.”
Evie shakes her head. “Come on, Jet. We’re catching the tram.”
“Something tells me she’s programmed to speak to men more than women,” Jet notes as they wait for the walk sign to alight.
The 94 tram is cramped and, Jet notes, unusually pretty. There must be a dozen other girls around Evie’s age, and he realizes with a start that they must be handing in last-minute applications, too.
The tower of the palace draws closer and closer as the tram heads up a long, well-paved hill. Jet can tell the moment they leave South Cresthill and enter North Cresthill. The flashy signs and the dancing Blues are gone, replaced by homes larger than he thought possible, green gardens he’s only seen in pictures. Once they pass North Cresthill, they enter the Bastion District, and the palace comes into full view.
The smooth white stone sparkles as it catches the light, blinding Jet as they reach the apex of the hill and leave the homes behind. There are clear blue windows on each level, lined by a delicate seafoam trim. A matching, rounded roof decorates many of the smaller buildings connected by long, low halls, but the spire that could be seen from below is sharp, straight. Patterns of flowers and lace are etched into the stone, and they become clearer the closer the tram gets.
It’s then Jet catches sight of the gate. It’s constructed from the same seafoam metal that ices the palace, and it encloses the entire structure, vanishing farther up the hill into the dense trees.
The tram pulls to a stop outside of the gate. A man, garbed in the black fatigues of the Imperial Guard, stands to attention as they file out. He has an earpiece in, and tilts his head for a moment, then straightens out and speaks.
“All here for the application for the queen selection, you are required to present your current Gaelenheim identification, as well as your completed form, to me before you are granted access for additional screening.” He notices Jet then, but if he’s surprised, doesn’t show it at all. “No plus ones. If you are a friend of an applicant, please return home.”
Evie glances at Jet, and there isn’t an ounce of regret or fear in her eyes. “Keep in touch,” she whispers as the other girls line up at the gate.
Jet squeezes her shoulder. “I’ll be around.”
--- --- ---
Jet gets a small room in the basement that he shares with three other men. They all work in the kitchens, washing dishes, setting tables, sweeping floors. Jet works exclusively unloading shipments, and he learns fast that it puts him at the bottom of the pole.
He’s ignored, and the head chef, a celebrated woman with two decades of experience under her belt, talks to him when she wants him to do something, and nothing else. She yells most of the time, but Jet doesn’t mind—a job is a job, and he’s not here to get mad at his boss.
“Cho, there’s still a few crates of apples in the truck,” Chef barks, a long, thin hand on her popped hip. A pot filled with delicious smelling soup simmers on the range before her. “It’s hot outside—get those in here, stat!”
“Yes, Chef,” he answers, wiping an arm over his forehead to get some relief from the sweat.
He hasn’t seen Evie in four days, but he knows she’s still a candidate. The queen and king selection has never been televised, but there is a general list of applicants available to the public. It’s narrowed little by little, and then when the final candidates are selected, they are presented to the king for his consideration.
Jet just hopes the king is as shallow as he looks.
The wood crates of red and gold apples are easy to lift, and the two boys that work with the shipping service shoot him thankful glances as he smiles and takes a box from their hands.
“I can get it, kid,” Jet says kindly.
“Thanks,” says one of the boys. “You’re strong.”
The boy looks, for a single moment, like a younger Nikhil, and Jet feels a lump rise in his throat. “Lift enough of these crates and you’ll be as strong as me in no time, yeah?”
The cool kitchen is a welcome relief from the humidity, but it heats up again the closer Jet gets to the range. Chef chats with someone, a man dressed in long, black robes, a shiny silver crest pinned to the front of his chest. Chef catches Jet’s eye as he hauls the crate inside, and she motions him over.
“Cho, bring those apples here!” Chef’s smile is bright, and she nods to the man. “This is your lucky day, Cho; meet Corvus Nott, the captain of the Imperial Guard.”
Jet almost drops the apples.
He sees it now, the hilt of a blade hanging by Corvus’s hip, the royal insignia of the Imperial Guard shining in the silver crest. It’s a shield, pierced by many swords, and there isn’t a child in Gaelenheim that wouldn’t recognize it. Corvus is the silent presence in the shadows, the watchful eye protecting the palace and the Crown City.
He’s younger than Jet thought he would be, hovering somewhere in his late-thirties. Corvus has a kind smile, clear, green eyes, and sunkissed brown hair, swept back to keep it out of his face. Jet notes his nose is thin, and can’t help but stare at the fine point it comes to.
Corvus extends a gloved hand. “Your name is Cho?”
“Jet Cho,” he affirms, and takes the man’s hand.
“Welcome to the palace.”
Chef chimes in, with more affection than Jet’s ever heard from her. “Cho’s the strongest helper we’ve had here—when he first arrived, I thought he had been sent here instead of the barracks by mistake!”
“Is that so?” Corvus asks, and his clear eyes glance over Jet. “I wonder, could I borrow Cho for the afternoon? I’m short a few men, and he looks like he could handle himself.” Their eyes meet again. “Can’t you?”
Jet has to remind himself to smile, but thinking at all is hard when his childhood hero shakes his hand. “I’ll help however I can, sir.”
Corvus chuckles, and then, pulls away. “Wonderful. Come with me.”