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|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
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THE EXTRAVAGANCE MADE MY TEETH HURT. Fractures of light bounced off diamonds set into tiaras and other baubles that were as impractical as the silk frocks and dress jackets swimming about the room. Champagne flutes and vodka shots flew by on trays lofted high by servants dressed in simple black bodysuits, casting the partygoers into even more ridiculous relief. This wasn’t an imperial ballroom in a great royal palace in Sweden—it was just modeled to look like one. The aim was to forget where we were and why. Everyone accomplished that beautifully. I retreated farther into a gilded archway I’d made my temporary home, shuddering to think about the cold vacuum of space that hung ominously beyond the confines of this cushy spaceship. A woman in an elaborately tiered and poofed ball gown waltzed past me as she let out a high-pitched laugh. Pain shot through my jaw. Unclench your teeth, Leo, I scolded myself. I glanced down at the name tag on my chest and felt everything go tight again. All the champagne and dancing in the world couldn’t erase the reason I was here, why I was hiding in the back corner of a ludicrous ballroom in the center of a ludicrous spaceship. Tonight was the start of the official Valg Season, a barbaric courtship ritual we engaged in every five years so the rich could avoid marrying their cousins. All the eligible girls and boys wore name tags to the opening ball so that we could better check out the specimens on offer. Mine read: Princess Leonie Kolburg, 19, Prinzessin Sofi. Title, name, age, ship of origin—all the relevant details. What it should have said: Princess of Nowhere because we’re in space, not on Earth; Leonie Kolburg, 19, from a ship rapidly falling apart, honestly a bit destitute, seeking a wealthy spouse by order of her father. But that would have been too wordy. Cornflower-blue taffeta silk spilled over my hips, the floor-length fabric whispering over the pointed toes of matching heels. My hair was twisted up into a braided crown, my face painted to simulate the flush of sun-kissed health. At least I had refused the tiara my sister had offered up. Despite what my father, my sister, Carina, and my name tag insisted, I was no princess. Old-World royal titles are meaningless in space. Or should be, I thought. The reality on board was different, and I knew I was a target for any boy looking for his ticket to the upper echelons of power. It made me sick to my stomach. I was a commodity in a pretty dress, on display for all to see. I drifted back into a shadowy alcove, hoping I could disappear. As if on cue, I caught the gaze of an absurdly attractive boy with short black hair and deep golden eyes. I stared a beat too long, and he smirked at me. Heat rushed to my cheeks, and I flicked my gaze away. And there was my father, grabbing another glass of champagne we couldn’t afford. I felt tension winding its way back up my spine. I’d crunched the budgets six ways to Sunday, and in no iteration could we afford to supply the party with champagne imported from the Versailles. But Father had insisted; it was a way of displaying our nonexistent wealth and would hopefully make me a more attractive candidate for marriage. I inched closer to where Father was sucking up to a count, trying to spin our circumstances in the right light. “Oh, we’ve grown bored of our ship, so we figured, why not give some commoners a thrill, rent it out for a few months?” He prattled on, his crown slipping forward on his temple. His clipped consonants, meant to emphasize his high-class accent, were dimmed somewhat by the way he slurred his s’s. He had to be at least six drinks in. “It’s the perfect excuse to visit our dear cousins here and enjoy the Valg Season in style! And a banner anniversary year, to boot! To our one hundred and seventieth!” One hundred and seventy years in space. The fleet, not us personally, though sometimes it felt as if I’d been up here that long. I allowed myself a fanciful moment, imagining vampires in space. Every day was just another one spent in an exquisitely appointed tin can, waiting for our planet to thaw. I grabbed a glass of champagne as a tray went past and took a gulp. The money was spent, so I might as well. “Leo, darling, why are you sulking on the sidelines?” My cousin Klara appeared before me like magic, a vision in sparkling white-and-silver brocade. The way her lips turned down slightly in rebuke felt familiar. Her hazel eyes always danced with a certain knowing, her lips most frequently quirked into a smile, complementing the perfect symmetry of her face. Only a few years older than I, twenty-one to my only-just nineteen, Klara presided over parties like the princess she was, cool and elegant, with a keen sense of a good time. “You should dance,” she said, nodding at the center of the dance floor. “There are plenty of eligible young men who would happily partner you.” “‘Eligible’ isn’t enough. Hasn’t father told you? I’m to be flung in the direction of money, above all else.” I took a bracing sip of champagne. Klara frowned again. “I’m certain several of them have more than enough digicoin to satisfy him. If you would only get to know some of them, you might find someone you like . . .” A sickening déjà vu came over me: Klara speaking with me in hushed tones at another extravagant party, defending my father’s wishes, convincing me I did not know my own heart. I shook away the thought. “And what about you? You’re older than I am. Isn’t this your last Valg Season?” She visibly tensed at the reminder. I should have felt bad, but she’d kicked things off by rubbing salt in my own, similar wound. “I’m in no rush to marry, regardless of what my mother thinks. There’s time.” Klara’s voice was tight. “She is in good health, and we have no financial problems.” “What about your apprenticeship? I thought you said a strategic marriage was important. Surely there’s some faded prince or duke with political aspirations who might tempt you.” Klara’s mother was captain, and Klara had been learning the ropes from her for the past two years. Klara remained optimistic that if she worked hard enough, she could step into the role before she was twenty-five. Me, I assumed Klara would acquire the captainship at whatever age her mother finally shuffled off this mortal coil. From her cold, dead hands was a phrase that sprang to mind. “I see the same people all the time. Boys I grew up with bore me.” She picked at a perfectly manicured nail. “I should travel outside the Season, perhaps to the Lady Liberty or Nikkei, but I’ve heard of filthy rogues attacking people from ships like ours, stealing their credentials for travel visas.” “Nonsense,” I said. “The overcrowding can’t possibly be that bad. Sounds like a tale told to scare you out of traveling.” “It sounds believable to me.” “Why bother traveling later when everyone’s come here now? The pickings will get slim once the Season is over.” “Pickings are slim in the Season, too,” Klara countered. “Lots of man-children with big dreams of stepping over their future wife to grasp at power. I was as wise to it at sixteen as I am at twenty-one. I can’t believe my mother made me do it last time. Who marries that young?” “Carina plans on trying,” I said, indicating my baby sister, freshly sixteen and enjoying herself immensely. Her aim seemed to be to dance with every single boy here. She was on her sixth dance partner at least. “I’m surprised you’re letting her take part. Aren’t you worried she might steal your best prospects? This is your last-and-best chance, isn’t it?” I ignored the digs, both of them, and bitterly enjoyed the irony of Klara lecturing me on last chances when she was being so nonchalant about the Season. We both knew, despite her protests, that the captain—her mother—was going to make her pick someone to marry. This was how we sparred, though, cousins and friends but also often competitors. Captain Lind had the most annoying habit of praising me for my best traits whilst criticizing Klara for lacking them. And my father would, in turn, chastise me for not being as pretty, thin, and socially adept as my cousin. The reality was, we were both participating in the Season whether we liked it or not. And while neither of us seemed to like it much, we were each encouraging the other to chin up and try. How exhausting. We fell into companionable silence, watching the revelry on the dance floor as we kept court on the side. Carina moved on to her seventh dance partner. And then there was a sound to my left, like someone clearing his throat. I turned to find those deep golden eyes wickedly glinting and the boy attached to them performing a slight bow. “May I have the honor of a dance?” he asked. I made note of his British accent and his name tag. Daniel Turan, it read, and he was from the Empire. I looked to my left, to my right, and behind me. Surely he had meant to ask someone else? Finally, I looked across the way, catching a haughty brunette and a ginger boy smirking over at us, whispering to each other. Of course, a little prank—the model asking me to dance so that everyone could laugh at me when I said yes and he suddenly changed his mind. I wasn’t born yesterday. “No, thank you,” I said. “But my cousin Klara would love to!” I shoved her at him before either could protest, and I scurried off in the opposite direction. It was a shame, really, because I did love to dance. Well, screw it. I would dance by myself, far away from the end of the room where Klara was now awkwardly swaying with the British boy. They looked good together, though she towered over him in her heels. I found my own spot on the dance floor and got into the zone. Much like the rococo ballroom built smack-dab in the middle of a chrome-and-steel spaceship, the music was decidedly anachronistic. I’d seen plenty of movies about royalty and balls, the music supplied by an orchestra, couples perfecting a crisp waltz. But this party was on the Scandinavian, and it honored its most recent musical roots with a DJ who spun layered electronic beats with catchy melodies sung on top. I mouthed familiar words as I made my way into the throng of dancers. I lost myself to the music, swaying my hips and bobbing my head in time to the beat, working up a light sweat. “Princess Leonie!” a recognizable voice interrupted my trance-like focus. I had hoped a stonefaced expression and refusal to meet anyone’s eye would keep people from talking to me, but alas. I spun around to face him. “Lukas,” I said through clenched teeth and a forced smile, “you know I hate that name.” I meant both the royal moniker and my full name. Most people called me Leo. “Just showing my respect,” he simpered, grabbing my hand with clammy fingers and bowing into a kiss, which he planted across my knuckles. I tolerated it for a beat, then wrested my hand away. I wiped it surreptitiously on the back of my dress. “Will you dance with me?” he asked, unfazed. His eyes kept flicking between my face and my cleavage, so it wasn’t like he noticed the whereabouts of my hand, anyway. I hesitated, catching my father’s attention from the sidelines. Eyes with calculating focus bored into mine, his message clear: Say yes. Lukas was only a baron, but his family had plenty of digicoin, thanks to some smart business ventures. With a resigned sigh, I nodded, allowing him into my personal dance bubble. Then he grabbed me by the small of my back, pulling our bodies close, and I immediately regretted everything. I’d give him one song. I made it to the bridge. That’s when I caught sight of Carina entering the ballroom—when had she left?—her eyes searching the crowd until they locked with mine. Furrowed concentration was replaced with her usual easy smile. At least four boys turned to stare, two taking steps to ask her to dance, but she breezed past them, heading for me like a rocket toward its destination. “Leo, I need you!” she said breezily, throwing Lukas and his closeness to me a look before grabbing my arm and obligingly pulling me free. “The renters have arrived.” “Can’t you see to them?” I asked. Carina shook her head. “You’re the only one who knows how to use the bio-lock. I let the renters in but can’t figure it out.” My little sister batted her eyelashes at me, and, as always, I bent too easily. When my father acted like a child, I could fully resent him for it, but Carina’s age gave her an excuse for being clueless. Though, I reminded myself, at sixteen I’d been taking care of most of the family affairs for several years. Regardless, I was happy to take a break. We’d been here nearly three hours, and my feet hurt. “You’re the best, Leo!” Carina kissed me on the cheek and moved back into the throng to find a dance partner. I saw her pointedly reject Lukas and chuckled to myself as I made my way toward the exit. At the door, I turned one last time to check that she’d settled well with someone who wasn’t a creep. That’s when I saw him. My heart stuttered and stopped in my chest. Square spectacles half obscuring soft grayish-blue eyes; strong, regal nose; mouth set in a firm line, rendering his expression carefully neutral. He was always neutral until he let a smile light up his face, telling me I was brilliant and that he loved me. I blinked hard, sure I was imagining him. And when I looked up again, he was gone. I forced myself to take several deep breaths, then used the rhythmic click of my heels as I walked to reset my heart’s cadence to normal. Elliot wasn’t here. He wouldn’t come back. Would he? The security personnel guarding the ballroom doors nodded silently as I passed from the royal quarters to the Scandinavian’s public decks, making my way aft and up to where our family ship, the Prinzessin Sofi, was docked. We’d been here for years, living off the generous hospitality of our cousins—large ships in the fleet charged private vessels like ours docking fees as a matter of course, but we were family, and thus Captain Lind reluctantly waived them. Otherwise we’d be destitute and would likely have to give up the Sofi, our home. We were struggling to keep her up in repairs as it was. The Valg presented a unique opportunity to earn some extra digicoin. A week ago, I’d received a reply to my advertisement of a ship for rent from a Captain Orlov of the Saint Petersburg, traveling with his family and some friends. He hadn’t mentioned the Valg Season, and I didn’t pry for more details, happy for the money, though I was curious. If he had the title of captain, wasn’t he needed on his own ship? As I rounded the last corner, clipping through the familiar frosted white corridor to our decidedly dingier chrome door, a warm voice boomed. “You must be Miss Kolburg. Maxim Orlov.” A large hand engulfed mine in a firm-gripped handshake, while mirthful, pale eyes leveled with mine. He seemed short for a Russian—he was my height, an even five foot eleven. I’d heard they were a ship of giants, not unlike those on the Scandinavian. I was one of the shorter ladies. I took in his companions. One was a pretty woman who looked about midtwenties, and the other was an equally handsome dark-haired man the same age as the captain—early thirties? “Welcome, Captain Orlov,” I said, turning to the woman. “This must be your wife?” To my surprise, all three laughed as if I’d told the most hysterical joke. “Evgenia Orlova,” she said. “Maxim is my brother.” My cheeks heated furiously as I stammered out an apology. “An easy mistake,” the captain said. “And you may call me Max. This is Ewan Reid, my husband.” He indicated the other man. “Pleased to meet you,” Ewan said, a lilt to his tone that was clearly not Russian. He must have caught my puzzlement. “It’s Scottish.” “Are you from the Empire?” I asked. “The Islay, a private ship, not unlike your own, by way of the Saint Petersburg.” “Thank you for coming so quickly,” Captain Max said. “Your sister escorted us here from our transport, but you are apparently the keeper of the keys, so to speak.” I nodded. “I’ll get all your bio scans coded in so you can come and go as you please.” “Perfect,” Max said. “We’re just waiting for one more person. He slipped away to check out the party.” “Eager to mingle with the ladies,” Evgenia said with a laugh. “You judge me too harshly, Evy,” said a voice I recognized immediately. Soft and firm and infuriatingly calm. He rounded the corner, and my breath caught. I hadn’t imagined him at all. It was the boy whose heart I’d broken and for whom my heart still fluttered. It was Elliot.