I shouldn’t have to be here. All week, I told Ma the same thing: I’d rather stick my face into a fire pit than go to the Waterday Festival. Yet here I am, weaving through the throng of people, my right hand latched onto the strap of Ma’s shoulder bag to avoid losing her in the crowd. The sweet scent of sugar dough mixes with the savory aroma of warm spices in the air, but my stomach is too busy churning to eat.
“This is a mess,” I mutter, shouldering past a guy pushing a honey-straw cart. A little girl holding an armful of overflowing water jugs skips past, and a few droplets slosh onto my sleeve. I wipe it off, but quickly slam my hand back to my pant leg so the passerby can’t glimpse the brands on my palm.
“It’s tradition,” Ma replies, giving me a half-smile. She takes a bite from a sweet roll and offers it to me, but I shake my head. “You can’t miss the celebration.”
She says it lightheartedly, but the undertone is there; I can’t miss the Waterday celebration, because it’s mandatory for every Trinnean to attend. No one’s allowed to leave the festival until the Leader gives his address. I have to scan my thumbprint again before I leave, so no one can say I skipped out early. I’m sure the city guards would love nothing more than an excuse to throw me in the stocks for a week.
“Besides,” Ma adds, “we can’t not get some of James’s
cactilixer—especially at the festival discount price. And we can’t miss the Leader’s address.”
I’d love to miss all of it. I hate the Leader’s address. They always bribe some poor little Blank kid from the wasteland or the bunks onto the stage in this humiliating water jug hat. The kid becomes the star of an awkward presentation about Trinnea’s history and the drought, in exchange for a little cash. I always feel so bad for whoever they get. Probably because for years, it could’ve easily been me.
Someone knocks into my side, way too rough to be an accident. I grimace, keeping my head down. The woman glares at me, daring me to confront her. Of course, I can’t—not unless I want a fist in my eye. “Just until the address,” I say. “Then I’m going home.”
Ma sighs. “Whatever you say, Zadie.”
I follow her down the closest aisle, lined with stands. My pulse hasn’t stopped ticking like a bomb since the second I got downtown. It’s like I’ve been holding my breath for the past twenty minutes, waiting to go home and let it all out.
The normally vacant Center Square is jam-packed with wooden stalls selling spiced breads, fried dough balls, and stinky cheeses spider-webbed with blue mold. Other booths carry various elixirs and remedies, their stalls covered with glass bottles filled with colorful liquids. Little kids swarm around game booths, using their telekinesis and levitation Skills to knock over all the pins and win prizes. Excitement brims in their eyes. The only emotion I can muster is indifference.
My half-sister, Chantry, patrols the next aisle with a fellow guard. Their silver uniforms parade their authority to everyone in Trinnea. They just started their cycles of mandatory guard duty all Skilled must complete. That’s something I’ll never get to do. Not that people with zero Skills would be very useful guarding anything. Chantry whispers something to the other guard with her—her friend Nina, who’s a total jerk. I duck lower, trying to stay out of their view.
“They’re not talking about you,” Ma whispers in my ear. Usually her super-hearing Skill is obnoxious, but sometimes it helps. “Chantry asked her friend about some attractive guy they met at the Tap Room. Don’t worry.”
“Thanks.” I’m sure she’s lying. Chantry isn’t interested in guys, attractive or not.
I scan the crowd, searching for Landon. He’s got to be here somewhere—he wouldn’t leave me alone for this. Plus, I doubt his admirers would let him miss this festival even if he legally could. I shoot him a message on my comm: Just got to the festival. You here?
I rotate the device in my hands, my heart fluttering like hummingbird wings. But the screen stays black and quiet.
Ma shoots me a knowing smile. “Is Landon here?”
“I don’t know.”
A yellow banner stretches across the aisle above our heads, proclaiming Happy Waterday: Celebrating 178 Years—Praise the Leader! I follow Ma, snaking between people, all the way to the front of the Square by the giant wooden stage. The stage is used for everything from ceremonies to supply drops to executions. Today, it’s decorated for the festival, covered in pink and yellow desert blossoms. Commissioned paintings on easels display pictures of noteworthy people and scenes of the old world before the drought. The largest portrait of the Great Leader himself hangs in the middle, old and wise and gazing down on us. I roll my eyes. If you ask me, he’s not worth celebrating. Too bad no one ever asks me anything.
I do a double take at the smallest portrait on the end. Someone painted a picture of Landon, my best friend, with a sultry look on his face. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see his face beaming down at me from the portraits of famous people, but still. He’s got his arms crossed and a dangerous glint in his eyes. The words All Hail Limitless Landon—Trinnea’s Hero are painted in swirly blue letters over his blond head. Those familiar butterflies churn to life in my stomach, and I look away.
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