It ends with chickens. (Took a turn, huh? Read the end of chapter 2.)

That night, I dream I’m tied to a chair, forced to watch my classmates reenact my Naming. Over and over again until I’m crying. Their faces wear mocking looks as they chant “Strife,” yell it into my ears. With my arms tied, I shake my head, back and forth, doing all that I can to block out their jeers. But they persist. Tears fill my eyes and everyone becomes a blurry image until all I hear is the sound of my own sobbing voice, pleading for them to stop.

The next morning, my eyes are puffy and wet. My body, exhausted. I feel groggy from my dream, and the last thing I want to do is show my face in class. Especially after looking like an idiot, running off in the middle of my story. But I trudge down to the kitchen and eat my breakfast in silence.

“What’s with you?” asks Colton with a plate piled high of bacon and eggs.

“Slept funny.”

“Slept funny? Huh. Which is why you have three croissants on your plate.” He gives me that look, cocked head, raised eyebrows. “Spill it, Bres.”

I peel off layers of the flakey dough and press the buttery sheet to the roof of my mouth with my tongue as I tell him what happened. Colton perks up.

“Don’t even worry about it. No one will remember it today.”

I stop peeling. “Why,” I say, suspiciously, looking at him. But he simply smiles and shovels a huge bite of eggs into his mouth.

We head to class, Colton winking at me as he slips off down the hallway to his age group. I have no idea what he’s got in mind, but I know for a fact that he’ll get in trouble for it. And with just four days now until the Naming, dad will not be forgiving. I almost follow him but see Victoria waving me over to the couch. My heart drops, and I feel a pink tinge creep up my neck as I feel everyone’s eyes on me.

“What happened to you yesterday?” asks Victoria, her blue eyes wide. “You never came back.”

“I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Was it because of the Naming? Because honestly, Breslin, we all know that story.”

“And I didn’t think I needed to tell it again,” I say. “Right?”

“But it’s a funny story!”

I sit there, seething that she’d even say something like that. Victoria. The queen of the obtuse. Daughter to dad’s beloved advisor. But like always, I listen and nod, keep my mouth closed. If I were to say anything to confront her, she’d get mad at me. It’s easier just to stay silent. I start thinking about what I need to do as she continues talking. When I see Colton slip up beside me.

“I doubt my sister wants you rehashing her own story. And it’s not funny. She’s just too nice to tell it to your face.”

“Colton!” I say, my mouth hanging open.

Victoria shoots daggers at him. Then at me and jumps off the couch and races away.

“Why’d you say that?” I round on him.

“It’s true! She’s always ragging on you, and you’re always taking it.”

“Colton, you can’t just say that,” I say, my voice raising. He infuriates me with his ability to say whatever he wants. And yet, fascinates me. I can’t help but envy his honesty. Regardless, Victoria’s off crying, and I have to take care of it.

“Sure you can. I just did. Besides, it’s almost time for it to happen.”

“What–”

But before I could ask him anything else, he disappears.

I don’t have time to guess what Colton might have cooked up; I have less time to think about Victoria and her crying. She’ll expect me to come. So I hurry after her, checking each restroom until I find her in the far left wing of the castle. She’s sitting on one of the chairs in the sitting room. Her face is flush, but she’s stopped crying. Except when she sees me, her body starts to shake again. I want to roll my eyes, but instead I sit next to her.

“My brother’s a loud mouth,” I say. She ignores me. “Honestly, I don’t know why he said that. I didn’t ask him to.”

She turns and looks at me, her eyes dry but her lips pursed. “He had no right to insinuate that I’m mean to you.”

“I know that,” I say.

“Because I’m not. I, I just tell you what I think. And I know you do the same, right?”

Her eyes stare into mine, and I know if I don’t agree she’ll pout all during class. I should be able to say what I think. I mean, she’s my self-declared best friend since the first grade. Honesty should be the first thing that comes to my mouth. But whenever I think about telling her what I truly think, I hear her crying in my head. Or see her pouting. Or think of a number of ways I would upset her. So I do what I always do. Nod and smile. And agree.

“Of course. Friends for life.”

Victoria smiles and hugs me. “You’re the best, Breslin.” And it’s in those few words and that gesture that pulls me back into her trap. Her friendship trap. It’s as if nothing was said. Or done. I’ve managed to get her to like me again. For reasons I don’t know, I’m committed to this cycle. And it’s not until we head back to class, with her doting on me like I saved her life, like I’m the best person in the world, that I slowly forget.

I almost forget about Colton’s last words to me too when I step back into the classroom area and realize no one’s there. Victoria and I exchange glances. Then we hear it, the roar of surprise followed by laughter. What did he do? 

“Come on,” I beckon to Victoria and hurry towards the sound. It’s coming from the Great Hall, and my heart sinks as I imagine the handful of stupid things Colton could have done. And how dad’s going to respond.

We enter the Great Hall, the grandest room in all of the castle. We’re talking ceremonies and royal gatherings happen here. Extremely formal and upright. And there, flying along several ropes someone rigged up, high in the ceiling, are a dozen skinned chicken bodies, moving back and forth as if hexed to float around the room, dropping low and bouncing off of the heads of laughing viewers.

It’s pretty funny, and I catch myself laughing at the ghostly looking chicken bodies, bouncing and dancing in the air. But the laughter dies in my throat when I hear a loud voice boom throughout the hall.

“Enough!”

I know it’s bad, but it’s not dad. I sneak a peek at Victoria, and her face has gone stone white. It’s her father, advisor to the king. Derek.

“Who is responsible for this?” he asks as he strolls down the center aisle, his presence causing the group to recoil like spilled boiling water. Black robes. Short silver hair. Sharp jawline. And his deep voice–a booming megaphone that echoes through the room. I know I have nothing to fear–I’m the king’s daughter. He’s simply my dad’s advisor. But I step back like the others. All I can think is Colton, run.

No one says anything. No one even points at anyone. Derek stands in the center, above the chickens. His eyes scan the ropes from end to end. The chickens continue to dance. Either Colton hasn’t heard him or he doesn’t care. My guess is the latter. Just as I suspected, a chicken bounces down onto Derek’s head before springing back up again. His face is livid. A low chuckle sounds from the crowd but is instantly silenced as he tosses his head around, piercing the audience for the culprit.

“I will not ask again! Who is responsible for this?”

“Hey, Derek!”

I cringe. I don’t look up like everyone else does. Because I know, sitting high up in the rafters is Colton.

“Get down here, sir,” says Derek, slightly less brusque, as he realizes who he’s speaking to. Even he can’t reprimand the prince. But he can tell the king and that’s where trouble begins.

Colton’s had his fun and finally descends to the inevitable punishment. Still, the look of sheer joy on his face gets me to laugh. He tugs on the strings where he had tied them up and like they were shot from the sky, every chicken falls to the ground. Thankfully, none of them land on Derek’s head–or anyone else’s. “I was just making sure the chickens were free-range chickens,” says Colton, which gets the group of us to laugh but turns Derek’s face icier than a glacier.

“Out,” he says. Colton makes to turn and bolt. “Not you. The rest of the group, out.” Slowly, we make our way outside. It’s like getting cattle to move. Huddled together, we shuffle back as one into the hall. I turn my head to catch a glimpse of Colton who’s being forced to collect the chickens in a basket. He wiggles his eyebrows at me and mouths, “Told you.” He’s right. All the students could talk about as they made their way back to class is Colton and those stupid chickens. Not once does someone mention my Naming. Victoria asks me what I plan on wearing to the ceremony, my story gone from her mind.

I owe Colton more than he knows.

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