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White Crown Academy, The North Sky Hunt

        Chapter One - Bracing the Storm

Cleora dangled the timepiece over the floating island’s edge. The chain felt cold against her fingers. If she let go, the pocket watch would plummet dozens of leagues down where swirling storm clouds trailed webs of lightning in its wake. From there it would fall into the mysterious dark depths of the world where nothing returned. She could pretend she’d never received the silky package that held the timepiece. It had sat waiting for her when she’d arrived at the academy. The tip of her boot grazed the edge of the cliff. The pocket watch swayed, beautifully sinister as the late-morning sun glinted against the laced metalwork. Inlaid on its glossy cover was a grotesque crest, a bird’s skull atop a pile of feathers. The mark of pirates.

It deserved to fall forever.

She let the chain slip but caught the watch a moment before it fell. The timepiece rotated slowly, mockingly, as the metal reflected the academy’s towers behind her.

Around Cleora, the High-Island atmosphere was peaceful, unlike the swirling depths of the lower world. A lazy cloud, nearly close enough to touch, obscured a neighboring isle’s rocky underbelly. A sparrow flapped its wings in the nearby spruce.

She sighed, hating herself a little more as she returned the watch around her neck where it hung heavy and cold. It felt like a mark of the branding iron.

White Crown Academy was the catalyst she needed to claw her way out of her parent’s legacy. A legacy that should’ve died along with them three years ago. A legacy she had only escaped thanks to her brother. He’d saved her life and returned her to her grandparents on that fateful day. A day that haunted her dreams.

Yet here she was with the pocket watch around her neck.

The slam of a wooden door made Cleora jump back from the island’s edge. She touched her aether belt in assurance that even if she did slip, the belt’s safety feature would catch her. It might leave her stuck, floating a dozen yards down, but she wouldn’t plunge into the dark storm.

She could hear shouting behind the large misshapen evergreen tree, where the door to the academy stood. The private little island yard she’d been so pleased to find wasn’t so private anymore. But for the moment, she stayed hidden behind the tree.

An unfamiliar voice yelled. “You’re not going to let him get away with it are you, Theodore?”

Jeers erupted, encouraging Theodore, prodding for action.

If Cleora had learned anything while traveling with pirates, it was to keep her nose out of other people's business. She didn’t want a knife in her side. Still, she peeked through the needly branches.

A group of students targeted a single Low-islander with striking blond hair, certain to stick out in a school of black-haired High-islanders. Blood streamed from the Low-islander’s nose. Cleora felt instantly woozy. A physiological response. A wooziness that couldn’t be reasoned with, no matter how sensible Cleora believed herself to be.

She’d seen very few Low-islanders since she’d left the pirate ship. She knew tensions ran high between the two atmospheres; however, when she had lived with thieves and vagabonds, imperial politics didn’t matter so much. Relations between the High and Low-islanders were companionable—if such a thing exists between pirates. Here, at a high-end academy full of the descendants of political leaders and business tycoons, she was sensing a whole different hierarchy at play. It really was a different world.

The group of students circled the Low-islander, like vultures around a carcass, and herded him to the edge of the island, where the harrowing cliffs dropped toward the void below.

The group’s leader, presumably Theodore, stalked closer. “You’re dead meat,” Theodore sneered. His black buzzed hair and gray feathered coat completed his vulture-like appearance.

The Low-islander muttered a response that was lost to Cleora’s ears, but it triggered an outrage among the group.

Theodore grabbed the Low-islander’s shirt collar. “You cost us last year's win, you little . . .”

Cleora clenched her teeth. Her previous assumptions of White Crown students being a bunch of hoity-toity “Goody Two-shoes” were dashed.

The Low-islander struggled to free his shirt from Theodore’s fist, but Cleora’s attention was drawn to the tall, lanky Vulture who removed the Low-islander’s aether belt and then tossed it to his heckling group like a piece of meat to starving scavengers.

Cleora jerked back, instinctively grabbing her belt again. This couldn’t be happening. Not here. Not at White Crown—an Imperial Academy. The one truly safe place in the Wild North, or so she’d assumed.

Theodore growled into the Low-islander’s face, “We should send you back where you came from, Bottom-Feeder.” He pushed the Low-islander to the edge of the island, still gripping the shirt in his tight fist. The Low-islander’s worn leather shoes slid on the wet grass that sloped off the edge.

Cleora closed her eyes and remembered the indifferent words of the pirate lord. “Toss the traitors.” There were nights she still heard the screams of islanders falling. Into the storms. Into the void.

She forced her eyes open. She had to intervene. But if she did, would they just throw her off too? She was a witness, after all. And they all looked a year or two older.

The academy door swung open.

Another student, a high-islander with jet-black hair, stepped outside.

“Theodore!” the newcomer said. He looked to be a first-year like Cleora. “The opening ceremony is starting, are you coming. . . ?” The last word of his sentence dwindled as he rocked back from the scene in front of him.

“Elias.” Theodore greeted in monotone and released his victim. The Low-islander slipped. He fell. A shout caught at the top of Cleora’s throat and her hand instinctively reached out as if she could catch him.

He caught the cliff’s edge with hands and elbows and began to claw his way back onto the island. Fistfuls of grass and earth loosened and tumbled down into the bottomless sky. The whole group watched with round eyes and breathless silence. Except Theodore, who was still caught up in his own performance. A leader who had to prove himself to his group wasn’t the real leader. In that case . . . Cleora looked to the tall, thin Vuture who’d removed the belt. He had the hungriest eyes she’d ever seen.

The Low-islander scrambled up onto the island. Away from certain death. Cleora sagged with relief.

Elias, as Theodore had called the student who’d interrupted their attempted murder, ran a hand through his loose curls. “What is going on?” he asked hesitantly.

The scrawny Vulture with skin as dark as Cleora’s deep brown hid the Low-islander’s aether belt behind his back.

“Don’t worry about it,” Theodore told Elias. “Why don’t you run off to the ceremony. It’s only for first-years and the teams pathetic enough who need to recruit them.”

If the ceremony was starting soon, then Cleora had certainly lost track of time exploring the academy’s courtyards and groves.

“Come now, Theodore,” Elias reasoned with a shrug, palms open, and a hint of a smile as if this were all some game. “You can show me the way, at the very least.” He let slip his concern by glancing at the Low-islander, who’d started toward the door. The Vultures immediately blocked the Low-islander’s path.

“Trash isn’t allowed inside.” The thin Vulture smirked.

“That’s hardly necessary,” Elias said in defense of the Low-islander.

“Mind your own,” the scrawny Vulture spat, lip curling.

Theodore held up a staying hand. “We’ll show Elias the way to the great hall.”

Elias smiled thinly and gestured to the door. The Vultures followed him inside, the scrawny kid swinging the Low-islander’s belt mockingly.

Theodore stopped and turned at the threshold. He smiled wickedly at the Low-islander and shut the door. The dull sound of a lock clicked into place. Then silence.

After a moment's hesitation, the Low-islander tried the door.

He was locked out.

It took Cleora a moment to realize she was locked out too.

She sucked in a breath, the scent of pine filled her lungs as she backed away from the misshapen spruce. No one died, she repeated in her mind. However, that door was the only way back inside from this yard.

She looked up at the imposing wall of stone. The academy felt too big for this small islet, like a castle foothold where bridges and buttresses arched off to the next island. What had felt like a quaint, quiet courtyard suddenly felt like the thin strip of land that it was. Too exposed to the elements.

The Low-islander startled her as he stepped into view from behind the tree. He jolted to a halt when he saw her.

They stared at each other, eyes wide. He was taller than he seemed before, with a narrow face, sharp jawline, and peculiar eyes. Not a typical blue or green or hazel, all of which would be unique enough among high-islanders, but a pale gray.

He flattened his lips and strode past her before she could string together an explanation on why she was hiding, watching him being terrorized. She lost sight of him as he passed another shabby-looking spruce, turning the corner of the castle wall.

Did he think she was part of the Vulture group? Or an unsympathetic spectator, hiding behind a tree to watch him?

What was she to have done? She couldn't fight them. Not all of them. And her persuasion skills were nothing. Zero. Her brother got all the charisma in the family, and that wasn’t saying much. What had the Low-islander done to provoke those Vultures anyway?

A frosty wind sent chills over her. She tugged on her short tweed jacket that didn’t close in the front. And her fashionable buckled corset, worn as an outer garment, didn’t protect from the cold. Of course, the one time she’d choose popular style over practicality this would happen.

She followed the academy wall, looking for a way off the island. There were no windows. No bridges or lines connected this island to another. Only three stone benches and a bolted-down table.

Where had the Low-islander gone?

As she retraced her steps, she noticed him sitting in an alcove between old pillars. He held a blood-stained handkerchief to his nose.

“You all right?” she asked. It was a dumb question.

He looked at her with those strange pale eyes and an expression that was suspicious and as cold as the nip in the air. Cleora wasn’t put off. He reminded her of the goldfinch with the injured wing she’d found last summer.

“Go away,” he said sharply.

She stepped closer. “They took your belt.”

“I said go away.”

Cleora sighed and stepped back. She could’ve come up with a hundred excuses not to help him. Maybe it was guilt that drove her next action, or maybe it was the need to prove to him that she wasn’t like the Vultures. Wasn’t like her parents.

She began unbuckling her aether belt.

His brow furrowed in confusion, and when she pulled the belt loose, he stared in disbelief. She felt a twinge of self-consciousness at removing a piece of clothing in front of a boy, even though the aether belt was no more than a safety apparatus.

She held the belt out to him. An offering.

A visible line of amber aether ran between the leather and metal strap. While she was shaken by what she’d witnessed, she couldn’t imagine nearly being pushed off the island and left beltless. What if those students, those Vultures, came back?

He shook his head. “I’m not taking your belt.”

“It’s a standard unisex—”

“It’s not a matter of vanity. You could . . . fall.” His tone dropped so low she barely heard the last word. He tucked the bloody handkerchief into his fist.

“No one is about to shove me off an island . . . hopefully,” she said. “Please, take it.”

He didn’t.

Of course, whenever she tried to do the right thing, it would turn into an awkward event. Is that why she hadn't helped him earlier? Was it fear? Or was it in her nature? Maybe both. She could change. Maybe. She was here at White Crown, which was a good first step. Helping him now could be her second.

She dropped the aether belt into his lap. He caught it.

“I’ll recheck the doors,” she said. “Maybe someone noticed it was locked.” It was a slim chance, but she figured she could knock. As she walked, her fingers touched the space where her aether belt had been. She felt vulnerable, almost as if she had forgotten to put on her underclothing.

The doorknob wouldn’t turn. Locked, of course. She knocked on the solid oak and the bitter wind blew her black curls forward as she waited.

“What’s the time?”

The Low-islander’s voice startled her from behind and she turned to face him. Without the four Vultures ganging up on him, he appeared much sturdier and had a stern sort of stature, though he couldn’t be more than a year older than her. She wondered how quickly the Vultures would’ve taken her down had she intervened.

“The time, please,” he repeated.

She shuffled for her pocket watch. A gong sounded from the North clock tower. Sparrows and warblers erupted from the nearby evergreen, taking flight. The South clock tower chimed next, mingling with the sound of the continuing gong. A warning.

Oh no.

As if they shared a mind, she and the Low-islander turned and pounded on the thick locked door. Thick for a reason, she realized. They were on the wrong side of the island. She glanced back at the disfigured shrubs. Scraggly and haggard. And there were no windows. Of course there wouldn’t be windows. Not on this side of the academy. They would be destroyed in seconds.

“It will hit us straight on,” the Low-islander whispered, his voice strangled.

An eerie quiet fell around them. The birds had flown to safety. Prepared for what was to come.

She didn’t have an aether belt! Even as she thought it, the Low-islander held out her belt. He hadn’t even put it on.

Cleora reached for it before stopping herself. To take it would be to kill him. Yet he offered it without question. His action felt bizarre—who wouldn’t save themselves over a stranger?

They locked eyes, caught in a stalemate. Seconds ticking down.

“Listen—” he started, but she interrupted.

“Can we hide there?” She pointed to a large pillar jutting from the wall. A proud gryphon had been carved into the old stone. Still, it was meager protection and the drop-off was only six strides away.

“That isn’t enough,” he said. “We’ll be swept off the island.”

Unnatural silence pressed down on them.

With no better option, they went to the pillar. His eyes frantically searched her. “I can secure us together, the aether belt to your corset.”

“What? My corset?”

He threaded the belt around his waist, and the next thing she knew, his body was flat against her. Facing her, he nimbly looped the belt through the lowest buckle on the front of her leather corset. Tightening it.

Bloody abyss! When had she ever been this close to a person? Her grandparents preferred formal handshakes over hugs, and her parents . . . well it was laughable to think of her parents showing any such affection.

“Hold on!” said the Low-islander.

The screeching gale—the daily wind—slammed into them like a wall of ice. Cleora reeled back, snapping her eyes shut as the wind whipped away their moisture. The roar shrieked, engulfing her. She imagined the screams of everyone ever caught in it.

The winds strangled her inhale and she managed only shallow gasps. Her jacket flopped down her shoulders, utterly useless against the sharp cold. Her hair slapped her face, violently twisting and dancing and blurring her vision as the wind churned around her.

She took a step back to keep her balance, forcing the Low-islander to do the same. His hip collided with hers and he grabbed her waist as they teetered on their feet. The edge was right behind her. It had to be.

A children’s chant echoed through her memory.

Beware a misstep, big or small

Or else face the eternal fall

He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her forward—toward him and against the wind, away from the edge. He overcorrected. They both lost their balance and dropped. The rough stone wall snagged her arm, grating exposed skin, flaring burning pain.

She fell into his lap where the belt connected them.

Her knees slipped on the slick wet grass and she felt the slope of the yard declining toward the edge—a death sentence. The belt would only counterbalance one person’s weight. Her corset would likely rip from the belt. She would fall.

Cleora grabbed the Low-islander, fiercely afraid, and buried her face in the crook of his neck. She gulped salty air, relieving the fire in her lungs.

Her front safely tucked against him was a stark contrast to the chaos beating against her unprotected side. The frigid cold was wet, and relentless. Her jacket flapped uselessly where it settled at her elbows, letting needles of cold sting the tender insides of her arms.

The wind felt malevolent, like a tendril of the stormy void below, striking them mercilessly. Why wasn’t it ending? How long had it been? Whenever she stood safe inside, the daily winds came and went, just like that. No more than a quick cup of tea and small talk before an islander could go about their day again.

She curled her fingers into the Low-islander’s shirt, protecting the little warmth between them. Her chest heaved against his, her heartbeat wild. She could feel his pulse where her lips touched his throat. He clutched her back as if he, too, knew her corset wouldn't save her, wouldn't keep her tethered to the belt. His arms kept her on safe ground. Protected.

The wind ceased in a blink of an eye as if they were ripped out of some alternate world of chaos back into the calm sunshine that had preceded the winds.

Cleora's breath came hard and painful as she sucked in air. She wasn't sure how long they both sat unmoving, but a faint metallic scent of aether lingered on the soft fabric of his shirt. She lifted her face from his shoulder. The bite of cold shocked her. Her right arm felt like a slab of ice, and she actually saw frost on her arm’s thin hairs.

She braced herself and pulled back so she could see the Low-islander properly. Frigid air enveloped her, viciously eating away her warmth. The cold had burned the Low-islander’s ears and arms a blotchy red. His thin eyebrows were raised as if he were surprised they’d survived.

Cleora suddenly realized their scandalous position, where she sat firm in his lap. She jumped up before remembering they were attached. The belt caught and she landed back on top of him. She’d never been more horrified in her life, and likely would never be again.

The Low-islander tensed. “Let’s get unhooked,” he said quickly.

“Yes.” Cleora reached for the belt, but his fingers were already there.

“I’ve got it,” he said.

“Right.” Cleora huffed. She reached for her hair as a distraction, her curls a nest of snarls. Rocs. She gathered it into a bun.

“The belt’s too tight,” he said. “Can you bring it closer?”

The buckles strained, pulling up to meet her corset. Eager to be free, Cleora thrust down. Perhaps too quickly.

The Low-islander sucked in a breath and held it, looking anywhere but at her. He wasn’t just pink; he’d gone red.

“Did I—Is that too much?” she said. Bloody abyss below.

“That’s, um, a bit close.” He grabbed the buckle, and with the dexterity of a drunk, fumbled twice before releasing the belt from the corset strap.

Cleora scrambled off him. She stood and backed up a few paces, pulling her jacket up over her shoulders. Her scraped skin burned in protest. Lowering the sleeve again, she examined the angry scratched skin, pinpricked with blood drops. She felt light headed.

The Low-islander adjusted his clothing where he sat. She achingly missed his warmth and debated whether to sit next to him. Stranger or not, she was freezing. But thinking her humiliation might kill her faster, she hugged herself and waited.

When he finally stood, he walked to the locked door. Cleora followed, pulling her jacket tighter and ignoring the pain. The frosty fabric seemed to make her colder. The Low-islander tried the doorknob, then knocked hard and loud. She stepped close to him, shivering. Her arm brushed his sleeve.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Cleora realized she was grimacing. The raw burned skin pulsed. “My arm. I scraped it when we fell.”

“Is it bad?”

Cleora carefully pulled down the sleeve revealing the grated skin.

“You’ll need to clean the wound,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “But it should heal fine. Here . . .” he pulled out a clean handkerchief. The other handkerchief—the one dotted with blood—fell out of his pocket and he stooped to pick it up. He pushed the clean handkerchief into her hand.

“Thanks.” Cleora rubbed the coarse white fabric between her fingers, wondering why he had two handkerchiefs. Maybe he was a finicky person—overprepared. The thought made her smile. She didn’t know many of those types, certainly none her age. To be fair, she didn’t know many people her age.

She pressed the handkerchief against the wound and then pulled her jacket up over her shoulder, securing it in place.

He knocked on the door again and they listened to the silence that followed.

“My name’s Cleora,” she offered.

“Jayven,” he responded.

Jayven, she thought. That’s a nice name.

The heavy door swung open.

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