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Barnhill inverts common fairy-tale notions...[and creates] the most inventive rendition of architecture since J.K. Rowling conjured Hogwarts....Poetic."—The New York Times Book Review
"A splendid fantasy...layered and complex, Barnhill's story brings a modern feel to age-old fairy tale tropes."—Publishers Weekly
"Storytelling plays a key role in the book, intriguingly blurring the line between what is real and what is imaginary....Triumphant."—The Horn Book
"Wonderful read-aloud potential...with a likable hero and heroine, a well-paced plot, and a daunting villain."—Booklist
"[Violet] is a princess for our century."—VOYA
The end of my world began with a story. It also began with a birth.
Princess Violet, last of that name—indeed the last princess at all to be born in the Andulan Realms—was not a pretty child. When she was born, her hair grew in tufted clumps around her pink-and-yellow head, and her mouth puckered to the side whenever anyone peeked into her cradle. Her gaze was sharp, intelligent, and intense, leaving the visitor with the uncanny feeling that the royal infant was sizing him up, assessing his worth—and finding him wanting. She was the type of child whom a person wanted to impress.
Interesting, yes. Intelligent, most certainly. But not a pretty child.
When she was five days old, her round face broke out in a rash that lasted for weeks.
When she was twelve weeks old, the last of her feathery black hair drifted away, leaving her skull quite bald, with a lopsided sheen. Her hair grew back much later as a coarse, crinkly, auburn mass, resistant to braids and ribbons and almost impossible to comb.
When she was one year old, it became clear that her left eye was visibly larger than her right. Not only that, it was a different color, too. While the right eye was as blue as the Western Ocean in the earliest morning, the left was gray—like the smoke offered to the dying sky each evening by the magicians of the eastern wall.
Her nose pugged, her forehead was too tall, and even when she was just a baby, her skin was freckled and blotched, and no number of milk baths or lemon rubs could unmark her.
People remarked about her lack of beauty, but it couldn’t be helped. She was a princess all the same. Our Princess. And we loved her.
On the morning in which the infant Violet was officially presented to her waiting and hopeful people, it was dark, windy, and bitter cold. Even in the Great Hall, where there were abundant fires and bodies to cheer us, our breath clouded about our mouths and hung like ghosts, before wisping away. The King and Queen entered quietly, without announcement or trumpets or pomp, and stood before us. The shivering crowd grew silent. In the months following Violet’s birth, both mother and child recuperated in seclusion, as the birth itself had been treacherous and terrifying, and we very nearly lost both of them to the careless shrug of Chance.
The Queen wore a red wool gown under a heavy green cloak. She gazed over the Great Hall and smiled. She was, without a doubt, a beautiful queen—black hair, black eyes, skin as luminous as amber, and a narrow gap between her straight, white teeth, which we all knew was a sign of an open and honest heart.
“My beloved,” she said. Her voice was weak from her long months in bed, but we hung on to it desperately, every breathing soul among us.
“The snow has drifted heavily upon the northern wall of the castle, and despite our best efforts, a bitter wind probes its fingers into the cracks, scratching at the hearts of the best and bravest among us.”
We nodded. It had been a miserable winter, the most miserable in memory. And heartbreakingly long. We were well past the month in which the ice should have begun to recede and the world to thaw. People came in droves to the castle seeking warmth, food, and shelter. As was the custom of our kingdom, none was ever turned away, and as a result, we all contented ourselves with less.
“Rest assured, my beloved people, that though the cold has crusted and iced, though the winds still blow bitterly and without mercy, here, in the darkest winter, a Violet blooms in the snow.”
And with that, she undid the top clasp of her heavy cloak and allowed it to fall to the ground. Underneath, a tiny creature was bound to her body with a measure of silk and a series of skillful knots. We saw the downy tufts of hair on the head of the new Princess and those large, mismatched, intelligent eyes.
As I said, not a particularly pretty child.
But a wonderful child, who, despite the multitudes present in the room, fixed her eyes on me. And on those tiny lips—a flicker of a smile.
Though both King Randall and Queen Rose longed for a large brood of happy children, alas, their hopes had been dashed. Each time the Queen’s womb swelled with joy and expectation, it ended in pain and sorrow. Violet was her only child who lived.
Indeed, Violet’s very existence was something of a miracle.
“A miracle!” shouted the citizens of the Andulan Realms on the yearly holiday commemorating the Princess’s birth.
“A miracle,” glumly proclaimed the advisers and rulers of the Northern Mountains, the Southern Plains, the Eastern Deserts, and the Island Nations to the west, all of whom had harbored hopes that the King and Queen of the Andulan Realms would fail to produce an heir. They stared at map after map, imagining their borders with our country erased, imagining themselves able to reach into the great resources of our prosperous nation and pick plum after plum for their own.
But with the birth of the Princess, there would be no annexation without the bother of war. And, my dears, war is a terrible bother. So our neighbors seethed in secret. They spoke of miracles as they clenched their teeth and tasted acid on their tongues.
AH, hissed a voice, far away at the mirrored edge of the world. AN OPPORTUNITY. And that slithery, whispery voice slowly formulated a plan. It licked its yellow lips and widened its jaws into a grin.
By the time Violet was four years old, she had learned hundreds and hundreds of different ways to slip out of the reach of the watchful eyes that minded her—three sharp-faced nannies, a gaggle of pompous tutors, a quick-moving mother, and an easily distracted father. Each day she would go sprinting away through the twisting and complicated corridors of the castle until she reached my quarters, for the sole purpose of hearing another story. I was a storyteller—the storyteller, practitioner of a revered and respected occupation in my world, with a long and (mostly) glorious history.
Also, I don’t mind saying, I was rather good at it.
While there was, in theory, a requirement that any castle resident or visitor must capture the fugitive Princess and deliver her, posthaste, to one of her nannies for the swift application of disciplinary action, this rule was routinely ignored.
Indeed, as it was well known where she would go, the Queen felt it was far simpler to retrieve the child from her intended destination.
The Queen, incidentally, liked my stories, too.
By the time Violet was six years old, she began telling stories of her own. My dears, my heart was filled to bursting! How proud I was! How vain! How delighted that this wonderful child should seek to emulate me!
Pride, alas, is a terrible thing.
Violet’s stories, even at her very young age, went far beyond my own. She took stories—true stories, false stories, and those of questionable intention—and turned them on their heads, shook them up and down, making them new again. The child told stories with enthusiasm, verve, and wild abandon. And she was a wonder.
“There once was a dragon,” the young Violet said one night after dinner to a hushed, delighted crowd, her mismatched eyes glowing in the firelight, her untamable hair floating around her head like embers, “the largest and smartest and powerfulest dragon in all our mirrored world.” She spoke with a slight lisp, due to the slow loss of her childhood teeth, but it only added to the charm. “His fire was hottest, his flight was fastest, and even the Greater Sun was jealous of his beauty. But”—she held up one finger, wagging it slightly—“it had a problem. This dragon fell in love with a princess. A human princess.”
“Ah!” the assembled crowd cried out. “Poor dragon! Poor princess!” They pressed against one another, shoulder to shoulder, laughing all the while.
Violet raised her eyebrows and continued. “The princess lived in a faraway country, and they had never met. Dragons, you see, can spy halfway across the world if they choose to, and can fly from one end of the mirrored sky and back again in less than a day. But they usually don’t.” She pursed her lips. “Dragons are terribly lazy.”
The listeners chuckled and sighed. That child! they thought. That magic child!
“But this dragon,” Violet continued, “was not lazy at all. It was in love. It didn’t eat or sleep. It just sat on top of a mountain, its shiny tail curled around the peak, its black eyes searching the world for its love.”
“All the time?” I asked incredulously. “Surely it must have had other hobbies!”
“Well,” Violet allowed, “sometimes it enjoyed throwing snowballs at the head of the Mountain King.” The crowd laughed. She cocked her head conspiratorially and raised one eyebrow. “It had perfect aim. And when the dragon passed gas, it made sure to point its rump right toward the Mountain King’s gardens.” The crowd roared. Violet leaned in. “They say the stink can last for a hundred years!” she whispered.
“Tell us about the dragon’s lady love!” a young man said.
“Oh, she was an ugly thing,” the Princess assured us. “She had moles in the shape of horny toads across her cheeks, and a crooked nose, and even crookeder teeth. Her smile was too big, and her eyes were too small, and her feet were of differing sizes. But the dragon loved her anyway. It loved her and loved her and loved her some more. The dragon loved her crooked teeth and loved her hairy wrists and loved her frizzy, frizzy hair.”
No one laughed. An embarrassed silence pressed onto the crowd. They couldn’t look at Violet.
(Not a pretty child, they thought. And, alas, growing uglier by the day.)
Violet waited for the praise that didn’t come.
I tried to intervene. “Beloved Violet,” I said, my voice tumbling from my mouth in a rush. “You have made a beginner’s mistake! You have forgotten the beauty! A princess is never ugly. Everyone knows that a real princess is always beautiful.” Violet didn’t move. It was as though I had turned her to stone. Finally she fixed her large eyes on me. And oh! The hurt! The betrayal! I swallowed. “In a story, I mean,” I added hastily, but it was too late. “Of course I mean in a story. Stories have their own rules, their own… expectations. It’s the job of the teller to give the people what they want.”
The crowd nodded. Violet said nothing. And oh, my dears! How I wanted to catch that child in my arms and tell her I didn’t mean it! But the damage was done.
Finally: “You are right, beloved Cassian,” she said quietly, tilting her eyes to the ground. “What was I thinking? The dragon, of course, was in love with a beautiful princess. The most beautiful in the world, with amber skin and tiny feet and eyes as green as spring grass and honeyed hair so thick it fell in great ropes down to her knees.”
It was a line she’d stolen from one of my stories. I let it slide. But as she continued and finished her tale, I could feel that her heart was elsewhere, and when she excused herself to go to bed, she left without saying good night.
After that, the princesses in her stories were always beautiful. Always.
When Violet was seven years old, she made her first friend. Indeed, her only friend.
Normally, the children of kings and queens were limited in their play to their siblings or their cousins or the children of courtiers. However, in Violet’s case, she had no siblings, and as both her father and mother were without siblings, she had no cousins. Additionally, while the courtiers certainly had children of their own, they were all either quite a bit older or quite a bit younger, and therefore unsuitable playmates for a vigorous girl.
Still, Violet needed a friend. And as it turned out, a friend was waiting for her.
This is how they met:
Violet, being a terribly bright girl, had been placed under the intellectual care of tutors since the age of three and a half. By seven, she could read, do sums, recite historical facts, analyze, and debate. And what’s more, she memorized everything she read, and most of the things that she heard, too. Unfortunately, the child detested her studies, so when she wasn’t hatching schemes to play tricks on the sour-faced men and women who taught her, she slipped away from her tutors whenever she could.
One day, when the mirrored sky was particularly brilliant and when both the Greater and Lesser Suns gleamed to their best effect, Violet decided that she had no interest in staying indoors. So, using her very best imitation of her mother’s handwriting, she wrote a note to her tutor that his advisory skills were needed in the throne room. Urgently. The old man flushed and tittered and told the child to work very hard on her translation until he returned. He left muttering, “At last, at last,” and shut the door behind him. Once he was safely away, Violet slipped out the window, shimmied down the drain, and skirted into the fields west of the castle.
The day was so fine that the child decided to run. And jump. And climb. And after she had climbed over six different fences and sprinted across five and a half different fields, she found herself standing right in the middle of a grazing meadow, exactly opposite a very large bull. Its coat was brown and white and shining. It rippled and bulged over the bull’s broad shoulders and back. The bull’s damp nostrils flared and snorted.
The bull stared at the child—her wild hair, her filthy cheeks, her red, red dress. It scraped one hoof against the ground and lowered its horns.
“Help,” Violet called, her voice a tight squeak. “Help me!”
The bull bellowed and lunged forward, the weight of it shaking the ground as it thundered toward the Princess. Violet turned on her heels and raced for the closest fence.
“Stop,” a voice said. Her own? Violet didn’t know. She looked up and, through her fear, she saw a figure launch itself over the fence and run straight toward her.
“No!” Violet said, panic making her vision go bright and jagged. “I can’t stop.” But just as she said this, her left foot hooked into a small hole. She pitched forward, fell head over knees, and sprawled onto the ground. She covered her head with her arms.
A boy leaped lightly over the cowering Princess and put his body between the bull and the girl. Violet shut her eyes, waiting to hear the boy’s bones splintering under the hooves of the great beast, waiting to feel her own body trampled into the dirt, leaving nothing behind.
Instead, she heard this: “Stop screaming, will you? You’re scaring him.”
Violet tried to say I’m not screaming, but her mouth was wide and round, a scream tearing unbidden from her chest. For a brief flash, embarrassment eclipsed her fear. She shut her jaw with a snap and pulled herself to her knees.
A boy with a mop of black, curly hair stood between her and the bull. He was shorter than Violet, and scrawny, but with lean, ropy muscles twisting from his neck into his shoulders and down his arms.
Is he going to wrestle it? Violet wondered.
The bull, on the other hand, stood still, its eyes on the black-haired boy.
His hands were raised, palms out, and he made a noise over and over—something midway between a mother’s cooing and a father’s shushing. A sweet, soft, whispery sort of sound. The beast was motionless, but its head remained lowered, its muscles bulged, and its eyes were bloodshot and angry and wild. They rolled and quivered as though about to burst. Still, Violet was incredulous.
“How could I scare him?” she asked. “He was the one—”
“Your dress,” the boy said quietly, without turning around. His voice was infuriatingly calm. “Your dress is scaring him. It’s not his fault. Stand up and walk slowly toward the fence. But walk backward. He needs to feel you watching him. You must not look away.”
Violet’s mouth dropped open. “But—” She paused, gaping. No one had ever spoken to her in this way before. And despite her terror, she was mystified. “I am the Princess. You’re not supposed—”
“Do you want to be dead?” the boy asked. If he had any emotion at all, he certainly didn’t show it. He said this as casually as if he were asking the Princess if she wanted a spot of cream or a spoonful of sugar.
“No,” Violet admitted.
Violet sniffed but got to her feet all the same and started walking backward toward the fence, maintaining her gaze on the bull in the middle of the field. It grunted and wheezed and whined. And the great muscles on the beast’s shoulders and flanks trembled piteously. He really is frightened, Violet realized. And despite the terror twisting her insides into a knot, she felt a stab of compassion for the creature.
The boy kept pace with her, his hands still raised, his eyes on the bull, his mouth continuing its quieting sounds until both he and Violet were safely on the other side of the fence. Finally he slumped forward, rested his hands on his thighs, and sighed deeply.
Violet fidgeted, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “I—” she stammered. “Or, I mean to say—” She paused. “Thank you.”
The boy gave her a savage look. “What were you thinking?” he hissed, stepping aggressively forward. “Didn’t you see the signs?”
“No,” she said. “I was running.”
“Don’t you look on the other side of fences to see if it’s safe?”
“No,” Violet said, aghast. “I never have.”
“Well, you’re an idiot.” The boy stepped away, jamming his fingers into his curly hair and hanging on tight. He looked as if he had more to say. He bit his lower lip hard.
“You are not supposed—” Violet said hotly.
“That bull would have killed you,” the boy said. “And then they would have killed him, too, even though it was an accident and it was just because he was scared. So that would be two lives lost—for nothing. Just because you couldn’t bother yourself to look.” He kicked a loose stone on the ground. “Stupid.”
The boy’s eyes welled up. He turned his back toward her and quickly wiped his tears away. But it did him no good to hide it. Violet saw. She pressed her lips together and took a step closer. She was not used to talking to children her own age, and she wasn’t sure how to begin.
“What’s your name?” she said at last.
He wouldn’t look at her, and he wouldn’t answer.
“Please,” Violet whispered, putting her hand on the boy’s arm. “Tell me your name.”
“Demetrius,” he said at last. “Am I in trouble?”
Violet shook her head. “Of course not.” And for an awful moment, she could see how easy—how terribly easy—it would be to get him, or anyone, into trouble. A hint. An accusation. A moment of manufactured tears. She would never need any proof. The very thought—just the thought—made her sick inside. She shook it away. “How did you do that?” she said, changing the subject. “With the bull, I mean?”
He shrugged. “You probably could, too. If you ever learned. You just have to feel with them.” He wrinkled his eyebrows and thought a minute. “Or,” he clarified, “they just need to feel you caring about them. Lots of people can do it. If they bother to. It’s not hard.”
“Will you show me?”
So Demetrius took her to the stables. He pointed to his house right next door, where he lived with his father, the stable master—a man Violet had met many times. Her father often called on the stable master to assist in his research. The two men would have lengthy and, Violet thought, ponderous discussions on the history and biology and physiology of dragons—though neither man had ever laid eyes on one. No one had for a hundred years. But Violet never knew that the quiet, gentle man had a son. She did know, though, that he had no wife. Or that his wife had died a long time ago. Violet knew that the subject of dead mothers was likely not polite conversation, but she wondered about it all the same.
The stable master, upon seeing the child Violet engrossed in a lesson on the care of horses, which was interrupted every once in a while by a game that consisted of the two children running and screeching around the yard, sent a message with one of his apprentices that the Princess had been found and was safe, and where she could be fetched. Within the hour she was dragged back to the castle, protesting loudly, by her mother, two nannies, and a rather embarrassed tutor.
Still, in the midst of her howls and pleading and threats, she shot a look at the boy Demetrius, and the two shared a quick and meaningful grin.
I’ll be back in a bit, Violet’s grin said.
I’ll be waiting, Demetrius grinned back.
After that, Violet and Demetrius saw each other nearly every day. They found excuses and schemes to leave their studies and their chores behind, to slip away from the adults who minded them, and to set off on their own mad adventures.
They made an unorthodox pair, but the King and Queen were of a modern view.
“They are only children, after all,” the Queen said often.
“Why hamper them with the burdens of social class? They shall have to trouble themselves with such foolishness soon enough!” the King agreed.
The court advisers argued against the friendship, voicing worries about dangerous precedents and political implications and the prerequisites of propriety. Violet’s parents had the final say. “We simply don’t see the harm,” they said. And that was that.
Together, the children explored nearly every inch of the castle—or at least they thought they did. Every day the castle revealed new secrets, and every day it kept its most important secret cleverly hidden. Castles are tricky that way. The pair explored the castle grounds as well—its grazing fields and broad gardens and parks. They explored the twisting streets of the capital city and followed the wall that snaked around the city’s edge, hugging it tight, and their fingers grazed against the ancient stones. And later they ventured farther out into the fields and forests beyond the city, exiting through the four gates that opened in the four directions. Those gates let the world inside. Or kept it out. Gates sometimes have a mind of their own.
Violet learned how to care for the horses and the goats and the falcons and the dogs. Demetrius taught her how to search for illness, how to communicate calm, how to listen to the voice coming from the animal’s heart. Though he never, Violet noticed, taught her how to stop a raging bull, which, she felt, would have been a useful thing to know. (For his part, Demetrius assured her that it was a skill that could not be taught, and it was only in the moment when a person discovered whether he could or whether he was dead. Privately, the boy’s dreams screamed with pounding hooves and pointed horns and a pair of livid, bloodshot eyes.)
Inside the castle, when we gathered for our nightly songs and stories and dancing, Demetrius proved to be nearly as clever a storyteller as Violet herself. And neither alone was quite as remarkable as the two of them together.
Together, they were a marvel.
“Shall we play at stories?” Violet said one day as they once again used my quarters as a hideout from the watchful eyes of the adults in the castle. I indulged them. How could I not? After all, someone would be here soon enough to fetch them.
“All right,” I said, pouring steaming water from the kettle into the teapot and swirling the fragrant leaves in the water. There never was a story that didn’t go down better with tea. “Give me a story about the beginning of the world.”
“Which world?” Violet asked. “There are thousands of worlds in the multiverse.”
“More than thousands,” Demetrius said. “Millions.”
“Millions of thousands of millions,” Violet crowed, throwing her hands in the air. “They are endless.”
“Fine,” I said. “That is all very fine, but I, for one, am not impressed by the wonders of the other worlds in the multiverse. What care have I for wonders that I can neither see nor will ever visit? Tell me a story of our world, our twin suns, our mirrored sky. What use do I have for anything else?”
“Once, long ago, before the Old Gods formed the multiverse,” Demetrius began, ignoring my request, “before the multitudes of worlds and worlds and worlds bubbled and foamed like a sea, there was only one world, one universe. And it was a terrible place.”
(I might mention that the boy stole this story from me, but that would be terribly petty and small of me, so I shall let it pass.)
“The Old Gods breathed the same air and walked the same paths and bathed in the same rivers,” Violet continued. “They tried their hands at creation. They placed bets and held challenges and produced unlikely creatures and forms. But they were foolish. Their ideas piled on top of one another, thick and fast, and the One World became jumbled. There was chaos and misery for its creatures. Reality jittered.” She wiggled her fingers next to her face, and her mismatched eyes shone.
Demetrius jumped in. “Finally, one of the Old Gods went for a walk. He was a runty thing—stubby legs, stubby arms, and a merry smile—but he was agile and strong and low to the ground. He didn’t mind so much when the land buckled and bubbled under his feet. He leaped from boulder to boulder and dodged the things that wobbled from there to not there as though they were shadows.”
“The runty god is my favorite,” Violet said fervently.
“He’s everyone’s favorite,” Demetrius agreed.
“The runty god leaned down and took a handful of dirt from the trail and looked at it for a moment.” Violet held her fist in front of her face and imitated as best she could the god’s expression. “He had been walking a long way and was tired. And lonely. And cold. A chair, he thought. A friend, at the same time. A fire. All in one moment.” Violet held up her hands, fingers splayed, and made a sound like the roaring of a fire, followed by a terrific BOOM.
“Oh dear,” Demetrius said, laughing. “Oh dear, oh dear. A clump of dirt in the hand of a god can become… anything. But it cannot be three things at once. The fabric of the One World trembled. It buckled and split. And where there was one, there were now three—a world with a chair, and a world with a friend, and a world with a crackling fire. The runty god shook his head. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘The others aren’t going to like this one bit.’ ”
“That wasn’t our world,” I said. I could hear one of the nannies calling from down the hall.
“Close enough,” Demetrius said. “You can’t talk about a beginning unless you talk about before the beginning.”
“Impertinent boy,” I chided.
“But we’re missing part of the story, aren’t we? It’s incomplete,” Violet said.
The nannies were growing closer. I resigned myself to having those dear children shooed away once again, and thought it all the pity. If it were up to me, the children would spend all day telling stories with me and not be shunted off to suffer through arithmetic and translations and chores. But it was not up to me. “What do you mean, ‘incomplete’?” I said. “There’s no such thing as complete when it comes to stories. Stories are infinite. They are as infinite as worlds.”
“Oh, I know,” Violet said. “But there was one book that said in the One World there were thirteen Old Gods. But in the stories we tell, there are only twelve.” She counted them off on her fingers. “There’s the runty god, the goddess made of wheat, the god with the fish’s tail, the blue goddess, the goddess of beauty, the god of giants, the Dark Lady, the god with wings, the stone goddess, the god of fire, the Great Ox, and the god who was a spider. Whatever happened to the thirteenth god? Did he vanish?”
I thought: We don’t ask about that.
“Did he do something bad?” she pressed.
I thought: No questions! There are things we do not question and things that we dare not know!
Instead, I said, “I don’t think I have ever heard of a thirteenth god. Perhaps the book you read was in error.” I couldn’t look at her. My breath rattled in my chest. My hands shook.
Which book? I thought desperately. It must be found and destroyed. I’ll destroy all the books if I have to.
Demetrius’s black eyes twinkled at the edges. His burnished cheeks swelled with a knowing grin. “You have,” he said. “You’ve seen it and read it, or you learned about it along the way, but you don’t want to tell us. I can see it in your hands.”
I harrumphed. “You can see no such thing,” I sputtered, hastily sliding my hands under my knees.
“Why does he not want to tell us?” Violet faced her friend and raised her eyebrows.
“It’s a mystery,” Demetrius said. And they both turned and stared at me.
My teeth chattered. “There is nothing,” I stammered. “Nothing to tell. The Old Gods were twelve in number, but it was so very long ago that whether there were twelve gods or twelve thousand or none at all is irrelevant. We live in this world and this time and nothing else matters.” I took a deep breath. “And that’s that.”
The children were quiet for a long, long moment.
“Beloved Cassian,” Violet said as she folded her arms across her chest. “I do believe you are lying and hiding things from me. How dreadfully sneaky of you.”
“Never, Princess!” I cried. “Never would I lie to you!” I lie to protect, I shouted in my heart, and I believed it. Mostly. Violet and Demetrius faced each other, their mouths mirrored in a thin, grim line.
But before Violet could question me further, three nannies burst in and shooed her back to her classroom.
“Until next time, dear child!” I called, and then collapsed in my chair, covering my face with my hands and expelling a sigh of relief through my fingers.
When I finally removed my hands, I discovered that Demetrius had remained behind. His black eyes peered mercilessly through the fringe of black hair hanging over his brow, and his mouth puckered to one side in a half-smile. Was I only worth half a smile? My heart shivered in my chest.
“Do you have something to say, young man?” I snapped.
“Nope,” Demetrius said. He was infuriatingly unrattled. His large black eyes were as implacable as two polished stones.
“Well then,” I said, doing my best to affect a grown-uppish look of dignity. “Off you go. Your chores and such.” My hands trembled. My voice caught. Did he notice?
Very slowly, the boy’s half-smile began to fade. He shook his head and left without a word.
The children ignored me for a long time after that. It nearly broke my heart to pieces, not that they cared. Neither Violet nor Demetrius gave two figs for my heart—broken, unbroken, or missing altogether. There was a castle to explore. And both boy and girl were keen to do so.
Indeed, ever since my little outburst, they were keener than ever.
I suspect that you have not had the opportunity to spend a substantial amount of time in a castle, so you wouldn’t know what it was like to be a child maneuvering through those endless cracks, crannies, and corridors. There were secret rooms, and forgotten rooms, and hallways that wavered between being and nonbeing. A castle, you see, needs more than stones to keep it standing. Magic is also required, as are mysteries, secrets, revelry, schemes, passion, mischief, and love. In fact, if one were to make a list of the multitude of things that a castle is, it would likely outstrip the list of things that a castle is not.
There was, for example, the abandoned workshop of an ancient chocolatier, which Violet and Demetrius were able to find only four separate times in their young lives, each time during the waning moon, and each time in the four farthest corners of the castle, starting in the west.
Also, there was a hallway that bent in one direction in the morning and quite another in the afternoon. The cause of this was unknown, but it was generally believed that the hallway itself was terribly vain and wanted nothing more than to display itself to its best advantage, depending on the light.
A castle, you see, is more than the sum of its stones.
It lives, my dears. It breathes.
So just as we could not expect your face to remain static and unchanging over time, nor could we expect your body to never grow, so too would it be ludicrous to assume that a castle remain fixed forever.
Imagine, then, young Violet and Demetrius set loose among those breathing stones. It is my belief that, even as children, they learned more about the castle than anyone in the history of the kingdom—and still, that knowledge comprised a mere fraction of the castle’s secrets.
One particular discovery was a secret passage that led into a network of tiny corridors, its entrance in the farthest cupboard of the pantry—the one so far back that it was never used. Once inside, they had to lean against the panel until it quietly clicked open.
Violet found this passageway at the age of six when she was nearly caught stealing sweets. It was particularly curious because of its small size (even as a very young child, Violet still had to duck and crawl, lest she smack her head on the polished ceiling) and its intricate fashioning. The marble floor had been covered with a thick rug of the softest wool, and the walls and ceiling had been inlaid with thousands of tiny interlocking lengths of wood that gleamed in the low light with a fresh application of oil and wax. The passage was always impeccably clean, never given to smells of dampness or must.
It was well known in our country that most homes had floor plans fitted with alternate walkways for the Hidden Folk—though, to my knowledge, no one had ever seen these rooms, nor had they been inside. No one save Violet and Demetrius.
Sometime in the months that followed the unpleasant conversation about the thirteenth god, Violet and Demetrius found themselves in an unfamiliar passage. It was far dustier here, as though the small residents who maintained the hidden corridors had simply run out of time or inclination. It happens.
But it was dingier, too, and in terrible disrepair. The wood was cracked and gray, and the swirling patterns on the marble floors were crumbling to bits.
“Is this passage getting smaller?” Demetrius asked, though he already knew it was. With each wriggle forward, the walls became closer, then touching, then tighter on his shoulders.
“It must be your imagination,” Violet said, though her voice wavered and caught in her throat. Both children had the same thought running through their heads: What if we get stuck? The thought was itchy and shivery and made them want to crawl out of their very skins. What if we get stuck? What then? They shook the thought away.
Fortunately for the pair of them, they did not get stuck. Eventually, the passage widened somewhat and then opened into a space not large enough to stand in but large enough to sit up comfortably. There were small chairs and small tables and small bookshelves covered and crammed with hundreds of very small books.
And it was dusty. Terribly dusty. Dust coated every surface. It heaped in corners, skittered across the floor in hazy puffs, and hung in the air like dull stars. Demetrius sneezed.
“I don’t know how long I can stay in here,” he said.
“It’s light in here,” Violet said. “Where is the light coming from?”
And indeed it was light. There were small round holes cut into the ceiling and the walls, each fitted tightly with a piece of glass, and the glass glowed and gleamed—though separately, and in its own way, no two shining with equal measure. “How does it work?”
“Mirrors, I’d suspect,” Demetrius said. “The light bounces off mirror after mirror until it comes in here. But don’t look too closely,” he added as Violet leaned in. “It’s too bright for your eyes.” He looked around. “How long since anyone’s been in here?” He coughed again. The dust pushed into his chest, making it hard to breathe.
“Who knows?” Violet coughed. “Tutor Rimi said that the Hidden Folk disappeared from our world at the same time as the dragons. But Father says that dragons still exist and that Tutor Rimi is a pompous old windbag.” She picked up a book. “It doesn’t look as though anyone has been here for a very long time.” A cloud of dust rose from the book as she opened it in her hands. Pages fell out and curled into strips as they hit the ground.
“What does it say?”
Violet gently turned page after page. “I don’t know. These letters… I’ve never seen anything like them.”
Demetrius coughed again. “I don’t think—” A fit of coughing ripped across his throat. He folded his body over his legs and coughed between his knees.
“Just a minute,” Violet said, running her fingers along the unfamiliar letters. “What language is this?” She didn’t know. Violet was familiar with the three major languages spoken in our mirrored world, as well as their ancient predecessors. She was only just learning, of course, but she knew them well enough to know that these books were something else entirely.
She picked up another book. This one was beautiful and, despite its age, was still pristine. “Look!” she marveled. It had symbols that looked unlike any lettering she had ever seen. In fact they were more like pictures—a triangle, a stack of bars, a circle with spikes coming out of its edges, a star, wavy lines, a hand, an eye, a bulbous form like ripe grain, and other strange markings. She had no idea what any of it could mean.
And yet. The book wanted her to know. She could feel it wanting.
The book also was heavily illustrated and illuminated with gold. There was a picture of a man kneeling in front of a painting, or perhaps it was a mirror. And another showing the same man receiving gifts that emerged from the mirror—a sword, a shield, a crown, and finally a woman with hair that spilled over the floor, snaked up the man’s legs, and wound around his throat.
“What is that book?” Demetrius asked. Though he didn’t know why, he found himself wanting to snatch the book out of Violet’s hands and throw it across the room. He’d never felt anything like it before. He shoved his fists into his pockets and tried to shrug the feeling away.
“I don’t know what these words mean,” Violet said, staring at the strange language. She thought she’d understand it if she just stared at it long enough. “But I want to know. I want it so very much.” Indeed, she wanted it more than she’d ever wanted anything in her life.
Demetrius felt sick. He coughed and coughed and sneezed and sneezed. “We need to leave this place,” he said. “I won’t be able to breathe soon.”
We’re not supposed to be here, he thought, and the trueness of that statement rattled his bones. They needed to leave. They needed to leave now.
“Look,” Violet said. She crawled toward the far wall. Reluctantly, Demetrius followed, sneezing all the while.
The back corner of the room was in shadow, but there was a glint of… something. The children squinted, letting their eyes adjust to the low light. As they approached, the ceiling sloped upward, and they came to a place where they could not only stand but could wave their arms and stand on each other’s shoulders and still touch nothing. The ceiling towered above them, and the height of the space made its dimness seem cold and empty and bleak. Unconsciously, Demetrius shivered and rubbed his arms.
Leaning against the wall was a painting, delicately wrought and highly detailed, that stood almost as tall as the room itself, reaching a hand’s breadth below the edge of the ceiling. It was crowded with dragons—hundreds of them—each one utterly unique in body and color and jaw. Each one gesturing differently with its haunches and its shoulders and its neck and its claws. Two things were the same on each, however. First, each dragon was chained—around the base of the neck and at each hind leg. And their chains cruelly cut into their skin, which bulged and reddened with pain. Second, each dragon—despite the fierce curling of its lips, despite the baring of its glinting teeth—had curiously and utterly blank eyes. Indeed, instead of eyes, each dragon simply had a white, hollow space, and the emptiness pressed against the children’s very souls, almost taking their breath away. And though they wanted to, they couldn’t avert their gaze. Violet reached for Demetrius’s hand and held on tight.
At the bottom of the painting, heaped in the very middle, was a pile of hearts. Dragon hearts. The children had no idea why they were so convinced the things were dragon hearts, but they knew all the same. Below the dragon hearts was a series of symbols similar to those on the book that was still clutched in Violet’s left hand. A name, maybe? A title? There was no telling. And above, on top of the pile of dragon hearts, stood a figure.
“What is that?” Demetrius whispered.
“I don’t know,” Violet whispered back.
It had two arms, two legs, and a head, but it was not human—not at all. Its head was too narrow, its arms and its legs too long, its shoulders too sloped. And instead of hands and feet, it had four sharp points. It stood on the dragon hearts. And the dragons were under its control.
They knew this, and the knowing was heavy and sharp at the same time. The children held their breath.
Curiously, the figure in the painting was not painted at all. It had instead been cleverly cut out from a mirror and affixed somehow onto the canvas—a marvel, really, given the delicacy and narrowness of the arms and legs and the sheer height of the figure itself. Instead of any identifying marks, they only saw the reflections of their own grasped hands, their pressed shoulders, their blinking eyes.
“Look,” Violet said, pointing to the symbols at the bottom of the painting. “They’re changing.”
And they were.
Right before their eyes, the symbols wobbled and shuddered and deflated. They wriggled like snakes. They swapped places and re-formed. They became rounded, then angular, then looped, then tall. Violet and Demetrius stared at the changing script. They opened their mouths, but they could say nothing. And then—
“I know,” the Princess whispered.
“Is that…?” Demetrius asked.
“Yes,” Violet said.
“I don’t know,” Violet said.
The first symbol transmogrified into a letter they knew. And then another, and then another.
Excerpted from Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill Copyright © 2012 by Kelly Barnhill. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 22, 2012
Reviewed by Karen Pirnot for Readers Favorite
"Iron Hearted Violet" by Kelly Barnhill is a beautifully written story about a princess who lacks exterior beauty but has a heart of gold. Little Violet was born into a kingdom which was not as it appeared. Most of the residents of the Kingdom believe themselves to lead charmed lives but there is a long-hidden secret which threatens to destroy each and every person in the Kingdom. There is a wicked god about to be unleashed and the only way to save the Kingdom is to learn the secrets of the gods and then plot a means to destroy the seemingly indestructible creature. Violet teams up with her best friend Demetrius and together they discover the last dragon in existence. They believe the aging and damaged dragon to be the key to destroying the evil god but they lack the clues as to what part the dragon must play.
This is a tale which will keep the young reader guessing and plotting along with the heroes of the story. The plain and ordinary princess and the stable boy actually reverse roles for a while and this is something to add to the interest of the young reader. The major characters are real and believable and the reader will want to jump into the story and assist them on their way to making the Kingdom right and true. It is just a lovely story from start to finish.
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Posted May 2, 2014
Posted May 1, 2014
Oldest~ DewKit- large smoke grey tabby with green eyes.
Second~ SmokeKit- black tom flecked with grey and violet eyes.
Third~ AshKit- white tom with one grey ear and tailtip. Green eyes.
Forth- RainKit- black tabby with white a grey streaked fur and mismatched eyes. RPED
Runt- LittleKit- small grey tabby with a white belly and tailtip. Blind.
Posted February 6, 2014