It was like a heartbeat. The heartbeat of the world, Jia thought whimsically. She stood straighter, pulling her shoulders higher.
Most of the candidates were grumbling. They didn’t want to be here, in the hot sun, the dry sand under their bare feet warm enough to keep them continually shifting, while sweat trickled down their necks, the backs of their legs, under their ams.
The exam was a pointless formality, anyway.
No one ever passed.
Maybe once, a thousand years ago, the queen had accepted a candidate into her court. Maybe a thousand thousand years ago, her court had been built on the candidates. But today? The elders said it was a degenerate age. Modern candidates simply weren’t good enough. But Jia thought that was unfair. The queen granted immortality to her court and in a court of immortals, there could be no room for new blood, no matter how good the blood was, no matter how hard the candidate worked, how much they strove.
Still, the exam was an opportunity to get noticed. Not by the queen, of course. She would walk through the ranks of potentials with her eyes glazed over, her face expressionless, as if she too hated the sun and the heat and the sand. Not to mention the monotony of reviewing every adolescent in the kingdom of Thyria as if their lives held more meaning than those of mayflies. Which truly, they couldn’t possibly. Jia understood that and she didn’t hold it against her majesty. A human life lasted but a moment compared to those of the court.
However, her human life was the only one Jia had and she intended to make the most of it. The local officials accompanying the queen during the exam were the ones she wanted to impress. They held the power that mattered: spaces at the university, appointments to government positions, connections that could lead to job opportunities, even funding for scholarships.
For a moment, she let her imagination drift. Perhaps the mayor would spot her, the perfection of the creases in her tunic and leggings, the shine on her tambour, the straightness with which she held her head. He would think, hmm, there’s a likely candidate and ask her name. She would tell him, her voice a low and perfect tune, her name a simple song on her lips. He would blink in surprise, and then chuckle. “Music, is it?” he’d say. She’d trill a thrilled reply and he’d nod and suggest that perhaps she should be this year’s recipient of the Osego scholarship.
She pressed the corners of her lips together to hide her smile. And perhaps her grandmother would rise from her grave to bake her favorite dinner, too. No, it was a pleasant fantasy, but Jia didn’t need so much. Still, rumor had it that the lighting crew would have openings in the new year. She would love to get her name into their applicant pool.
Thump, thump, thump. The sounds were coming closer together now, louder, deeper. It would be soon.
The grumbling was coming to an end, the candidates falling into place in their neat lines.
“You look nice, Jia,” came a whispered voice from behind her. “New tunic?”
Jia smoothed a hand down the edge of the tunic. “Kari made it for me,” she whispered back. “She wove the fabric herself.” Her sister had been fortunate enough to find a position with the weavers. Jia was impossibly proud of her. It was not what she wanted for herself, but being able to provide your family with new clothing, never before worn, was nothing to scoff at.
“Too bad about that stain in the back.”
Stain? In the back? Jia’s heart froze. Had she sat on something? But she’d put her tunic on only moments before she left the family’s rooms and she’d walked straight to the arena. Could she have brushed against something? But what? As she craned her head to see over her shoulder, she racked her brain for how she could have dirtied herself. “What stain?”
“That stain!” The mocking reply came with the impact of something hitting her back and a splat as it broke under the pressure. A rotting dream fruit, its purple juices immediately soaking into the soft fabric.
Jia gasped in shock and outrage. “What—“
Her eyes lifted to meet the laughing gaze of Sheen, her former best friend and current sworn enemy. How could she not have recognized his voice? She hadn’t even thought about who was speaking to her, she’d been so pleased to have someone notice her new tunic.
“Places, places. Lines straight! Eyes front, candidates!” The mayor’s fussy voice barely penetrated Jia’s awareness as she glared at Sheon.
“What did you do that for?” she snapped at him.
He lifted a casual shoulder. “Do what?” he asked with mock innocence.
“Throw a dream fruit at me. Ruin my new tunic!” She couldn’t keep the hurt out of her tone. She’d been so excited for the day, so hopeful.
“You’re so uptight, Jia! Nobody ruined your tunic. You must have done it yourself. Maybe you leaned against the tree on your way here. When you were kissing Eos?”
Kissing Eos? Jia’s face flamed red. She’d kissed Eos once. One time. Just to see what it was like. Nothing more than anyone else did. Half the candidates in the arena would be announcing their marriages by the end of the day, merely waiting for the formality of the exam to commence their new lives as adults. Some might even have anticipated their wedding nights, despite the rumor that the queen would never select someone who had already coupled.
Well, what did it matter, after all? The queen never selected anyone anyway.
“I did not! Take that back!” Jia demanded.
“What are you going to do? Make me?” Sheon threw back his head and laughed. Ten years ago, she could have. When they’d been littles together, playing in the dirt, making mud castles, running around the marketplace, she’d been two inches taller than him and bossed him around mercilessly. But now he was taller than her, heavier, broader through the shoulders, more muscular…
“Yes!” spat Jia. Furious, she flung herself at him. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to do much damage, but if she could knock him down, she could muss up his formal examination clothing as much as he’d ruined hers. He had no nice new tunic, but she recognized what he wore as his best outfit.
Surprise succeeded where strength would not have. As she jumped him, Sheon reeled backwards and fell to the ground, Jia landing on top of him. She grabbed a handful of sand and flung it in his face.
“Ow, Jia!” He put an arm up to defend himself but not before he’d gotten a mouthful. He turned his head to the side, spitting and hacking, and she bunched up her fist and drove it at his face. “Ah!” he yelped as she hit.
She wanted to do the same. Hitting hurt. But instead she swung again, trying to pound him while she had the chance. He pushed up, trying to throw her off, but she resisted, shoving him down, until they were rolling in the sand, feet nearby them moving out of their way or kicking weakly in their direction. People were yelling at them, voices calling, some laughing, some angry.
Thump, thump, thump.
And then the ground opened up beneath them, a slope forming deep into the earth that they rolled helplessly down until it flattened out and they came to a stop, Sheon half on top of Jia. It should have been dark, but the walls glowed with a warm golden light.
“What is this?” The question, innocuous, mild, was delivered in a voice of such incandescent purity that Jia felt shivers run down her spine, tears spring to her eyes. She’d never heard it before. In all the times she’d watched the exam — every two years since she was a little — she’d never heard that voice. But it could belong to only one person.
If the immortal queen of the world could be called a person.
“Your majesty. I… I so apologize.” That was the mayor, Jia knew his voice. Too high-pitched, a hint of a whine, and she could hear the nervous panic in it. “We have never had candidates behave so poorly. Their shame reflects on us all. We are… we shall… they shall be punished!” He was stuttering in his distress, but the thought of punishment was clearly a relief to him.
Jia wondered what it would be. No scholarship for her, that was for sure, and no job, either. If she got lucky, she’d be shunned. Would they ostracize her family, too? Would Kari lose her job?
Sheon was still half on top of her. His mouth formed a silent word, and then he pressed his lips together as if stopping anything else from coming out. She couldn’t tell what the word had been—an apology or an obscenity. But he scrambled to his feet and reached a hand down to her.
Jia closed her eyes, trying not to let the tears fall, but took his hand and let him pull her up.
“It’s my fault,” Sheon said. He bowed his head. “I accept all responsibility.”
“Do you?” It was music, that voice. Jia was ashamed that she had ever thought her own voice had potential. Nothing, no sound that had ever come out of her mouth, could ever come anywhere close to the song being shaped by the queen’s lips.
“It’s not his fault,” Jia said, staring at the ground. She couldn’t fight the tears anymore. They were falling, faster and faster, running down her face, dropping to the dirt beneath her feet. And she wished the ground would open up just a little more and swallow her a little faster. “It’s my fault. I attacked him.”
“Did you?” The queen sounded lightly curious.
Jia dared a glance at her face.
She was beautiful, of course, in an inhuman sort of way. But she also looked… not impassive. Not expressionless. One corner of her lips was slightly higher than the other, as if she were… could it be amused?
“Given the disparity in your relative size, that seems a risky proposition.” Each word was like a crystal drop of water, perfect and whole, edges rounded and smooth. “Did you have reason to believe you would succeed in your venture?”
Jia swallowed. Using both hands, she brushed the tears off of her face and lifted her head. “I knew I couldn’t win but I wasn’t measuring success that way. I wanted to make him dirty.” She gave Sheon a quick sidelong look. He was definitely dirty. Of course, she was, too.
“In that case, I believe you may have won.” That was definitely amusement. “Your name?”
“Jia, your majesty.” Jia wasn’t sure what she should do. Candidates were expected to stand still and straight while the queen passed by, but if she’d been a normal person—a new neighbor, a visiting trader—Jia would have met her eyes, clasped her hands, and offered a warm smile upon an introduction. She compromised by meeting the queen’s eyes, but tucking her dirty, tear-smudged hands behind her back. And her smile was wobbly at best.
The queen turned her attention to Sheon. “And your name?”
“Sheon, your majesty.” He bobbed his head, his smile his usual insouciant grin.
“You accepted responsibility for both of your actions, did you not?” she asked him.
“Yes, ma’am. Um, your majesty.” He bobbed his head again.
“And do you accept the consequences for both, as well?” She sounded sterner, grim.
“Yes, ma’am.” He raised his chin and looked at the mayor. “It’s my fault. You shouldn’t punish Jia. I started it.”
The mayor sniffed. “That is hardly relevant. It takes two to make trouble.” He pursed his lips.
Jia could read his intentions on his face. Sheon might say anything he liked but the mayor was barely bothering to hide his simmering fury. He’d have the town council on his side, and all the restless audience waiting outside the tunnel. No matter what, Jia’s future was ruined.
“True,” the queen said.
Startled, Jia flicked a glance in her direction. Had she been reading Jia’s mind? But no, her word had been in response to the mayor’s last statement.
There was a long moment of silence. Jia could feel her heart beating in her ears. This time it really was her heart, not the thumping noise of the queen’s underground cavalcade.
Finally the queen nodded. “Punishment is due. And someday I expect you will understand why this is a punishment. But perhaps not today.” She turned an open hand to the train behind her. “Candidate Jia, Candidate Sheon, welcome. You are both accepted as probationary members of the Court of Arerassi.”