The Princess Lottery by Stacey Lehane

Chapter one

The Mission


The plant is dying.

Its fuzzy leaves are curled in on themselves, chalky blue colouring giving way to dark brown blotches. When Clea cups her hands around one of the less sun-damaged leaves, there’s only the slightest glow – its iridescent markings are almost completely burnt out.

Clea frowns and looks up. The sun is high and bright, midday looming with its customary severity. The back of Clea’s neck is already feeling it but it’s not enough to have inflicted the damage to the plant. The Hazavana species is particularly sun hardy. Clea should know, she bred it that way.

Shading her eyes, Clea tracks the path the sun will take across the sky until she reaches the shade sails. Or rather, where the shade sails ought to be.

Damn. Last fortnight’s sandstorm must have knocked them loose.

Sitting back on her heels, Clea takes in the dying plant. It’s the last of an experimental crop, the final hope for the viability of the hybrid. She’s hesitant to move it in its current state – the stress might be enough to snuff out the warmth she can still feel at its stem. But repairing the shade sails will take a day or two, time the plant doesn’t have.

Clea scans the courtyard as she thinks, thoughts automatically cataloguing the maintenance tasks ahead of her. The Willowbank bed will need water soon – last week’s rain was too little to have done the Blushing Lettuce any good. She needs to repair the drip feed over the Dayboro bed. The Hallen bed seedlings are almost ready for distribution and the-

Actually.

Clea gets to her feet. It’s the work of ingrained habit to stop and perch herself on the sandstone divider, carefully brushing the sandy soil from her bare feet and knees back into the garden bed. The requisite count to sixty drags particularly long as her thoughts turn to her potential solution.

If this works- No. Better to test her theory before indulging her excitement.

Soil-free, she climbs up onto the divide. The sandstone is pleasantly hot, warming the soles of her feet as she winds her way across the garden toward the eastern border. The soil beds to either side of her step from dark sand to lighter loam to warmer ochre as she nears the centre of the garden. The saplings grow leafier, squat rosettes giving way to longer aloes and flat-leafed lettuce plants. The Yellow Jade is already fruiting – her latest successful hybrid. It’ll let the Ravensbourne borough harvest three times the crops they did last year.

The water pump at the centre of her garden juts above the foliage much the way the Castle tower does in the centre of Pyre. It lends her scaled map of soil beds an air of deliberate artistry even if the design was born of necessity. Clea pauses to check the growth of the Yellow Jade fruit, signing her respect to the wooden Dragon perched above the pump handle. Ava’s idea of a joke.

As she makes her way to the opposite end of the garden, weaving between segmented beds on the sandstone dividers, the greenery thins out once more. Leaves become thicker, growth patterns wider. Ava still calls them succulents even if Clea’s hybridisation efforts have left the old terminology behind.

Lot three is a riot of red, yellow, and pale green – a crop of Wolf Flower almost ready for distribution. The black sandy soil is almost entirely obscured by flat, angular leaves, arranged outward from the plants’ stems in a fan-like pattern. Clea remembers noticing how similar the leaf structure was to the Castle’s shade sails when the phenotype presented. Now she’s hoping that similarity can be put to some use.

She double-checks the tag at the corner of the soil bed just to be sure. The outer beds are designed to match the soil consistency in the boroughs butting up against the city limits. The black sand is particularly insidious there, penetrating the finest cracks in the city walls to deaden the soil. It takes a very special plant to survive the black sand’s influence and still be edible.

Clea selects a tall Wolf Flower seedling, avoiding the sticky red flowers that scent her as she comes close. She made the mistake of touching them when they first bloomed and learned the hard way that edible plants can still bite back.

Selecting a fine brush from her belt, she carefully removes as much soil as possible from the roots. The difference in soil makeup is very small between the outer beds but the transfer still galls her. There’s little to be done, though. Without afternoon shade the Hazavana plant will die and the Wivenhoe borough is already subsisting on borrowed harvest. If they don’t find a way to self-sustain soon-

No. They will. Clea will make sure they will.

It’s the work of a few minutes to decontaminate herself once more and make her way back to the struggling Hazavana. The Wolf Flower in her hand nips at her sleeve as she digs a careful hole next to the Hazavana to plant it. When she’s done, the sail-like leaves of the Wolf Flower only cast a thin shadow in the midday sun but the angles are right. If the Wolf Flower survives the transfer, it should shade the Hazavana from the worst of the afternoon heat.

And, once the Hazavana is recovered, the insects attracted by its glowing leaves in the evening should make for a consistent food source for the Wolf Flower.

Clea’s heart warms with her potential success and she flattens her palms to the soil around the Hazavana, grounding the energy in the soil for good measure.

“Clea!”

Clea looks up. Ava’s bouncing on her toes at the edge of the garden, all but vibrating with whatever news has brought her so quickly from the kitchens. She’s still wearing her apron, even. Clea’s heart warms further and when she looks down the Hazavana has already plumped up, the spark at its stem now a flickering flame warming Clea’s hands.

Dusting her hands off, Clea signs over to Ava, “Coming!”

Ava doesn’t even wait for her to make it to the sandstone divider, already talking a yard a minute as she vibrates at the edge of the garden like a child before a festival spread. Her curly mass of hair is tied in a haphazard bun at the top of her head, stray curls escaping as she wrings her hands in her apron. 

“The Missions were just announced!” Ava says and ah, yes. That ought to do it. Clea’s surprised she’s not doing cartwheels. “I’m to travel to Coomera the day after tomorrow!”

Clea finishes her count dutifully, even if Ava’s infectious excitement makes her itch to shave off a few seconds. “That’s amazing!” she says, once her hands are free.

Ava throws her arms in the air and roars her excitement at the clouds as Clea grins at her. There’s a streak of flour under her ear, pale against her dark brown skin. It makes Clea’s newly cleaned hands itch.

“Finally!” Ava yells to the garden at large, startling the Wolf Flowers.

Ava is loud in everything she does, taking her emotions with both hands and wringing all she can out of them. Advisor Heran calls her exhausting but Clea finds her anything but. Ava just has a way of filling silence and Clea loves that about her. Maybe because Clea has a lot of it to fill.

When she reaches the edge of the garden, Ava practically sweeps her off her feet, pulling Clea into a celebratory spin beside the Hallen bed.

“Thank the Dragon!” Ava says, spinning away like stray pollen. “I was beginning to think they’d never assign me!”

Clea checks to make sure none of her tools have been lost to Ava’s enthusiasm, tightening the belt at her hips for good measure. “The Advisors are wise,” Clea says, walking backwards toward the garden shed. “Their reasoning must have been sound.”

Ava snorts, following her. “Yes, keep the translator in the kitchens so that she may commune with the bread.”

“Maybe the bread was lonely,” Clea signs and Ava’s laugh lights up the courtyard.

Clea ducks into the darkness of the squat shed, shifting a pile of Bob Moss out of the way to get to the extra piping.

“Well, it’ll just have to go lonely,” Ava says, with an air of triumph. “Maybe it can keep your plants company.” 

Clea signs a query over her shoulder as she shifts some larger piping with her foot. Where is-

“You’re on the Mission too.”

Clea spins back. Her query this time is particularly sharp, the dot all but stabbed at the end of the sign. She can’t help it, though. She doesn’t go on Missions. Her power best serves her people here. Everyone knows this. Everyone.

“Hey,” Ava says, stepping forward to pull Clea’s hands into her own. It’s enough to calm the racing of Clea’s heart and Ava knows it. “We’ll be fine. We’ll have each other.”

Like always, goes unspoken.

“Anyway,” Ava says, her smile turning teasing. “Their reasoning must be sound.”

Clea throws moss in her face.

“The reasoning isn’t sound,” Clea says, ignoring Ava’s snort.

Advisor Heran steeples his long, thin fingers under his long, thin chin and gives Clea a look that makes her feel five summers old all over again.

It’s an impression aided by the fact she’s sitting in the very same office Advisor Heran received her in when she first arrived at the Castle as a child. The towering bookshelves and ancient wood desk have become no less imposing over the years. Though, knowing the shelf over Advisor Heran’s left shoulder is dedicated to his loving collection of ancient Dragon illustrations helps some.

“I don’t understand why I can’t just send the seedlings,” Clea says, trying to keep the shake out of her hands as she signs. “The hybrid is sound, I just-”

“We have every faith in your magic,” Advisor Heran says, hands and mouth softening as he appeals to her. “But the last two plantings have failed. We need you there to ensure the third does not.”

Clea hears what he leaves unspoken. If a third planting fails, that puts the Coomera borough in as much danger of collapse as Wivenhoe. If both fall…

Clea looks away.

From her seat before the Advisor’s desk, Clea is treated to a breathtaking view of the sprawling cityscape of Pyre. The sandstone walls dividing each borough are magnificent, winding almost to the horizon like a large-scale labyrinth. It’s the spaces between the walls that fascinate Clea the most, though. The boroughs. Each one as unique as the specialised seedlings she grows for them.

The lamps over Rosewood markets are already lit, combating the encroaching dusk. The phosphorescent vertical gardens in Ravensbourne have almost entirely obscured the border wall between it and Dayboro.

Further afield, the outer boroughs lose their detail to distance, even as Clea’s teachings fill in the gaps. The Fortitude bar district’s reputation is so loud Clea’s often surprised she can’t hear the music from the Castle. West End’s coffee beans make leaving her bed of a morning halfway pleasant.

Coomera, she remembers, is known for its textiles, their black soil used to dye the cloth in ways unique to the area. Much of the borough’s infrastructure is based around their sprawling factories as a result. It’s let them survive on a knife’s edge for longer than anyone thought possible, trading their craft for the inner boroughs’ surplus crops.

But the laws are clear. If Coomera can’t self-sustain, it must be absorbed. It wouldn’t be such a daunting prospect if Wivenhoe weren’t also on the brink of the same fate.

The city’s infrastructure has never had to handle the loss of two boroughs in such quick succession. People will die. Her people.

Clea swallows hard and turns her attention back to Advisor Heran. His sharp face has grown sharper in recent years, every crack in the border walls seeming to chip similarly at his countenance. Clea can’t imagine what it must be like managing an entire city at the best of times, let alone one on the brink of extinction.

The Dragon help them. Clea lifts her hands.

“When do we leave?”

TBC


Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

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