No one has ever rebuilt the overgrown Old Quarter, where the stink of magic lingers in the destroyed buildings. The children dare one another to touch those still-crackling buildings for the shock. That shock was Kestrel’s first memory.
She wasn’t Kestrel then, but the name her parents gave her is classified.
Kestrel knew about the war, though she hadn’t been born yet, and she knew about the Storm Queen, who lived far away in Mont Lille. She knew never to bother the border guards, who the locals called blancorojos. She learned the rolling, throaty language of Mont Lille alongside her family’s dialect. She saluted the queen’s flag every morning at school. Every child had to take the queen’s aptitude tests; teachers and parents drilled them in mathematics, languages and geography for weeks preceding the test. Taxes were light on families whose children were chosen.
At six years of age, Kestrel took the first battery of tests: analogies, number series, mirroring patterns of blocks and solving puzzles. She did well. She loved the smell of pencil shavings and her examiner’s smart white lab coat trimmed with red. She loved how numbers fell into neat patterns, and she spoke Lilliaise with an adorable accent.
For the last test, the examiner placed a combination of black and white boxes before her with a candy under one. Kestrel’s task was to guess if it was under a black or a white box. At first, there were nine white boxes and one black box. She picked white and collected her candy. The next round, there were seven black boxes and three white ones. She picked black and earned more candy. Her cheeks were stuffed with candies after a few rounds of disproportionate numbers of one color box, then: betrayal. There were six white boxes, but the candy was under one of the four black ones.
Kestrel had never before doubted herself.
The examiner set out the boxes again: five of each.
“Choose,” she said.
“Don’t you want the candy?”
“I don’t know where it is.”
“The test requires you to choose.”
The examiner bent double so that she’d be at eye level with the little girl. Her voice was kind. “There is no punishment for guessing wrong, and a candy if you guess right. You must choose.”
“The queen requires you to choose.”
“Very well.” The examiner straightened and produced a stick the length of her arm. “If you do not choose, you will be struck on your palms.”
Kestrel looked straight ahead with her palms up while the stick smacked into them, remembering the surprising pain of the magic shock she’d given herself in the Old Quarter, how it had lessened into mild tingling after a time. The stick did not hurt that much.
She did not cry, and she did not choose.
The next day, two blancorojos came to her home. Kestrel escaped out the back and climbed a walnut tree, armed with a slingshot and enough underripe ammo to make a grand nuisance should her father seek to punish her for failing the test of the boxes. Instead, her parents coaxed her down with tears and kisses, for she had been called to continue her education in Mont Lille. Her parents had one hour to say goodbye.
To be continued…