Six days. I’ll have to relive everything in six days.
I press my heels into Finn and ride faster, past the castle’s lake, the courtyard, past my memories of my thirteenth birthday. The wind streaks through my hair, and I pick up speed. Soon, the tension in my muscles relax; the fresh air pushes away my emotional bog. I breathe deep. And I’m free.
Until the walls of the castle greet me, pulling me back. We trot along the barrier, just Finn and me. Like it’s been since I can remember. Riding him has been my security blanket, and even at seventeen, it soothes me. No matter what’s happened. My dad’s disapproving face suddenly flashes in my mind, and I lose my concentration slightly, slipping from my seat. I shift back, but the tension I left behind at the castle creeps its way back.
“You still like me, right boy?”
Finn answers me with a toss of his mane. I smile. At least his view of me didn’t change four years ago, when I turned thirteen. When, like every other thirteen-year-old, I celebrated my birthday with a Naming ceremony; stood in front of a Reader and read the meaning of my name, the meaning that would determine the rest of my life. It was meant to be wonderful. It was meant to mean a transformation.
Instead, it meant none of that.
We stay out for hours. The autumn sky turns a murky grey with a dusting of orange sunset. It’s sticky out. By now, my hair is clinging to the nape of my neck, and my clothes feel limp. But Finn trots on, so I succumb to his timeline and continue to follow the outer walls of the castle.
Six more days.
Six more long days until my brother’s Naming ceremony.
Up until now, I thought I only needed to show up and smile. After all, Colton’s the one turning thirteen this time, not me. But now that dad’s asked me to read an old passage at the ceremony, anxiety persists to ache in my chest like burning coals. Mom said I could choose not to read it, but dad asked, so I will. I must. His approval means everything to me. It means happiness.
I feel Finn pulling us back towards the stables. Dinner time. He never lets me forget it. I dismount. My nose twitches from the heavy smells of hay and animals, but I grab a brush and methodically make my way along his dark brown coat to his thick, black mane. Finn’s got his muzzle stuffed in a tin of oats when a worker appears and insists I leave. With one final brush, I head back towards the castle. Towards preparations. Towards memories.
I jump. There, standing at the foot of the stairs that lead towards my bedroom stands King Richard Black; his presence looms taller than his stature. Even with his crown off, his brown hair a curly mess, he appears formal. And his eyes, deep and green like mine, stare at me with concern.
Concern for me?
“Yes, dad?” I ask, holding my skirt up to quicken my steps to reach him.
“Where’s your brother? You said you’d be watching him.”
Like he’s eight and not about to turn thirteen. Not about to possibly take over the kingdom if his Naming goes well. “Sorry,” is all I manage to say. “I was out on Finn…” His eyes glance slightly upward, and I know he disapproves. “I can watch him now,” I add, quickly.
“Well, you’ll need to find him first,” he says, rubbing his hand over his short shaven beard. “He’s run off to one of his hiding spots, and no one knows where he is.”
I know right where he is. “I’ll find him,” I say, a bit of hope he was worried about me, gone. These days, he’s always looking for Colton.
He smiles and rests a hand on my shoulder. It’s all I need. I head off in the opposite direction, towards the stairwell leading down to the kitchen and book it past the busy workers, ducking enough so they don’t see me. I come to a long hallway with tapestries hanging along the walls and count the ones on my left. When I come to the eighth one–where a beautiful tapestry with an image of a phoenix hangs, I double check no one has followed me, lift it up, and knock our secret knock on a hidden door that looks like stone. A few seconds later the door opens inward, and I slip into the darkness, letting the tapestry once again conceal our hiding place. A candlewick burning brightly greets me. So does the face of my brother.
“Let me guess, dad sent you.”
“He doesn’t know where you are, don’t worry. I just said I’d find you,” I say and follow him as he makes his way through the rocky, damp tunnel.
I watch the back of his head and know he’s mad.
“Mad at me?”
“No,” he says after a long pause. By now, we’ve descended even further below the castle; it’s cool and a welcomed drop in temperature from the humidity outside. I fan my neck with my ponytail as we approach the spot we found as kids. I was only eight, Colton four. It’s been our secret place ever since. Whenever either of us feels like running away, we go here first. We agreed on it. Here first. Then either of us could talk the other out of actually running away.
“What do you think.”
“He just wants–”
Colton spins around, his eyes twinkling like liquid chocolate in the candlelight. Flecks of hot wax trickle down his hand, but he shows no sign of pain. “I don’t want to know what he wants. Not now, ok?”
I nod. “You missed our turn off.”
“What?” He turns back around, shining the light higher. Cobwebs flicker like silver string as he sweeps the wall with the candlelight.
“Come on,” he says retracing our steps then hands me the candle when he finds the spot, hoists himself up on a ledge and slips through, disappearing. I set the candle on the same ledge and wait for him to take it. When he does, I’m standing in the dark, with only the subtle glow of orange hovering from behind the barrier. The sounds of dripping water and scaly bodies scuttling over rocks fill my ears, reminding me we’re not the only creatures that walk these passageways. But before I can greet one of them deep below the castle surface, I pull myself up and follow my brother.
“So. Tell me why you’re hiding.”
We split a large blueberry scone he swiped from the kitchen and sit in silence for a bit, chewing.
He stares at me, his face looking older. His eyes hold more concern than before. He’s almost thirteen, I remind myself. Still, the dusting of freckles over his pixie-like nose and petite frame will forever keep him eight-years-old in my mind. I touch my own nose absentmindedly, wishing for the umpteenth time my rounded one pointed like his. “So?”
“You know why. It’s what you did six days before your Naming.”
I pop a blueberry in my mouth; feel the warm liquid cover my tongue. “It wasn’t so bad.”
“Breslin,” he says with a laugh. “You can fool everyone else with that but not me. I know you.”
I can’t help but smile. “Fine. You’re right. It sucked. But it’s done. It’s over. It’ll be the same for you. Besides,” I say, swiping the last piece that was rightfully mine from the napkin, “You’ll no doubt get a Naming dad’s been hoping for.” You have to. Or he’ll never let you forget it.
Colton doesn’t look convinced.
“Just, go for the fitting. Take it one day at a time, right?”
After a long pause, Colton finally nods.
“You too,” he says.
“Right.” Nerves flicker in my chest at the thought of my reading.
He eyes me, knowingly. “Six more days,” he says, picking the candle back up. And we slip back upstairs, leaving our secret place. For now.