The stench of rotting food and horse dung made Kira’s eyes water. Off in the distance, the White Palace shone on top of a manmade hill. Floating orbs of witch light illuminated every window of the building, casting a glow on the crystal gardens encircling the palace. Kira reckoned it smelled much nicer up there. Truth be told, anywhere probably smelled better than the slums of the Imperial City.
“Hey Ra-ra, why so sad? Be happy—it’s new year’s eve—we’ve survived another year!” A dark haired boy dropped down from the balcony of a nearby building, giving Kira a good-natured shove.
“Gods, Asher, I hate it when you sneak up on me like that.” Kira narrowed her eyes at the taller boy. “And you know I hate being called Ra-ra.”
Asher threw an arm around Kira’s shoulders. “Well, Ra-ra—ow—that punch was uncalled for!” He clutched his side and dropped onto the cobblestone street in mock hurt. Two seconds later, he popped back onto his feet and continued on as if nothing had happened. “Wipe that frown off your face—you look much nicer with a smile. This is going to be our best year yet, and I have the perfect way to start it off. Want to hear how?” He didn’t give Kira time to reply. “First, we’re going to attend the annual Eve’s Gala at the White Palace. Then we’ll dine at the royal banquet along with all the nobles and even the queen herself. After the eight-course dinner, we’ll go for a private boat ride down Crystal Canal to enjoy the firework display performed by the court’s spell casters. Finally, to bring in luck for the new year, I think a kiss from my favorite girl ought to do the trick. How does that sound?”
Kira rolled her eyes. “Asher, I’m the only girl who can stand your jabbering for more than a minute.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever you say.” He flashed her a mischievous grin. “So, want to give my plan a whirl?”
“Everything but the kiss.”
“Aw, shucks.” Asher motioned for Kira to follow, the watery light from the streetlamps reflecting the smudge of dirt on his cheek. “Watch your step—there’s a dead rat.”
They slipped through the winding streets with ease, both having grown up in the city. The air cleared as they neared the White Palace. Revelers staggered about the streets, laughing and belting out songs in an off key fashion. The scent of mouthwatering foods and alcohol mingled in the air as Kira and Asher threaded their way through the crowd.
“Happy new year!” A masked stranger jumped in front of them, tossing up a handful of glitter.
“Happy new year to you too!” Asher grinned and shook his hair, sending a spray of sparkles everywhere. He turned back to Kira and said, “Grab my hand—crowd’s getting beasty and we don’t want to be late for the Eve’s Gala.”
“Asher, are we seriously going to the White Palace?” Kira palmed a rice cake off an unsuspecting vendor; she had mastered the art of pickpocketing after many years of practice.
“Of course we are. I’m a man of my word. Hey, I hope you’re going to share some of that rice cake with me.”
Ducking to avoid a drunk’s flailing arm, Kira snapped the cake in half and tossed the larger portion towards Asher. He caught it with his mouth and nodded at another vendor hawking roasted chestnuts. “Want to slip me some of those as well?”
“Get it yourself, lazy pig.”
“But Ra-ra, I always get caught.” He shot her an imploring expression, hazel eyes wide and a slight pout to his lips. It was a look that could’ve convinced the Winter Queen to melt her precious crown of ice.
Unfortunately for Asher, Kira had become immune to his tactics. She arched an eyebrow. “Tough luck.”
The streets became less crowded the closer they approached the White Palace and the fragrance of snow flowers—the royal flower—grew stronger. A walkway made of marble bricks led them up to the gate where two soldiers stood guard.
Asher sauntered up to the guard on the right. “We’re here for the Eve’s Gala. I apologize for arriving late.”
The soldier peered down at him, taking in Asher’s frayed shirt and torn shoes. “Only guests with an invitation are allowed.”
Asher tapped a finger against his cheek. “Hm. The queen must’ve forgotten to send me one.”
“Doubtful. Scram, now.”
“The queen and I are on first name basis,” Asher persisted.
The guard sighed. “Son, I think you’ve had one too many drinks tonight.” He cast Kira a pointed look. “I’m giving you ten seconds to get him out of my sight.”
Asher ignored the guard’s warning and said, “Please inform the queen that Asher Grayson is requesting entry into the palace—”
“Asher,” Kira hissed. “Let’s go.”
“Hold on a second.” He held up a hand and turned to the guard, pinching a quarter-crown coin between his thumb and middle finger. “If it’s heads, you let us in. If it’s tails, I’ll leave. What do you say?”
The guard reached for the sword strapped to his hip.
Asher tossed the bronze coin into the air and darted away, shouting “happy new year!” over his shoulder.
Kira caught up with him, the swollen streets swallowing them up in a blink of an eye.
“Well, that didn’t go as planned,” Asher remarked.
“You think? C’mon, let’s go find Albert and Vinny.” Kira’s fingers deftly wove her hair into a side braid. “I bet they’re at Troll’s Tarven.”
“Not so fast. Plan A didn’t work, but luckily I have plan B.”
“Plan B better not be as idiotic as plan A.”
“I promise it’s not.”
Clang! Clang! Clang!
The timekeeper’s bell drowned out all sounds.
Clang! Clang! Clang!
Kira counted eleven tolls. One more hour until the start of the new year.
“God damned bells,” Asher muttered five minutes later. “My ears are still ringing.”
“Just exactly where are we going?” Kira asked.
“Patience, my friend.” Asher swiped a packet of turnip chips and offered them to Kira.
Kira took them and popped a chip into her mouth, savoring the crunch and saltiness. A girl whirled in front of her path, clapping in time to a fiddler’s music. For a panicked moment, Kira feared that she had lost Asher, but then she spotted him dodging around the corner. She followed suit, relieved to find herself on a less packed street.
The sounds of celebration dwindled the further they drew away from the main avenue. Asher stopped in front of an out of business shop. He fiddled with the lock, then opened the door with a flourish. “After you, lady Kira.”
Kira resisted rolling her eyes and stepped over the threshold. Asher gently closed the door and lit a lantern. Mirrors of all shapes and sizes lined the perimeters of the otherwise empty shop. Asher lit five more lanterns, illuminating the entire room with a flickering glow. Then he reached behind a tall mirror tilted haphazardly on its stand and pulled out an antique music player. With exaggerated movement, he spun the dial into the “on” position and soft music poured forth.
Kira glanced around. A hundred reflections of a thin, pale girl stared back at her. “Asher, what is the meaning of this?”
In reply, he proffered a shallow bow and held out a hand. “I promised you a dance, and a dance you shall have.”
Kira couldn’t hold back the lighthearted laugh bubbling up within. She accepted the hand and Asher spun her around in a circle.
“Kira, can you see all the ladies and lords around us?” Asher whispered, waving his free hand about them. “Look at all the diamonds and rubies and pearls adorning their clothes. Can you hear the royal orchestra playing? Can you see the Winter Queen sitting on her throne? I do believe she just waved at us.”
They waltzed around the room, off beat from the music and making up moves to their whim. Eventually, the song ended and Asher blew out all but one lantern, which he picked up before gesturing for Kira to follow. He pushed aside a mirror, revealing a set of staircase leading up.
“Right, we have the eight-course banquet next.” Asher nimbly scaled the stairs.
A cloud of dust puffed up every time Kira’s foot hit the faded carpet and the wooden boards creaked with each step she took. The upstairs room was only half the size of the room below. Asher sat on a tattered blanket, patting the spot besides him. A dented tin pail balanced on his knee.
As soon as Kira seated herself, Asher reached into the pail and pulled out an assortment of foods. “Sweet rolls, meat pies, orange slices, chicken skewers, goat cheese, almonds, rosemary crackers and imported champagne—behold the royal dinner!”
He split the food onto two plates and measured out the champagne into two mismatched tumblers. A content silence filled the room as they ate. The rolls were slightly stale, the meat pies too salty and the champagne was so cheap it could’ve passed as grape juice.
“This,” Kira said, “is a feast fit for the king.”
Asher held up his drink. “A toast for a wonderful new year.”
They clinked glasses and polished off the rest of the meal. Glancing out the open window, Asher jumped to his feet and said, “Hurry! Time is running short and there’s still the boat ride down Crystal Canal.”
Laughing, Kira chased after Asher back onto the streets, headed for the docks. Gulls shrieked overhead, adding to the commotion. Burly sailors and light-footed messengers caroused through the night while entertainers—jugglers, flamethrowers, and knife swallowers—delighted both adults and children alike.
“Psst—this way, Kira.” Asher sprinted over to an unpainted rowboat and hooked the lantern onto its pole. “What do you think of this beauty? Seats up to three hundred people. Designed by the master ship builder himself, too. Took ten years to complete.”
“Only ten years?” Kira replied, hopping in and causing the entire boat to rock violently back and forth. “The workmanship of this ship begs to differ. Fifteen years seem more accurate.”
Asher grabbed an oar and pushed away from the dock. “Ah, but you see the Winter Queen decided to help out a bit. She visited the shipyard one day and used some magic to speed up progress.”
Another boat passed by, an open decked ferry gilded with gold. Partygoers dressed in rich silks and feathered masks swirled onboard. The ferry, at least twenty times longer than their borrowed rowboat and five times the width, left behind a wake so strong Asher almost lost his balance. He set down the oar and hollered, “And happy new year to you too!”
A young man on the ferry held up an air horn and released an earsplitting whooooop in response.
The brightly lit ferry faded out of sight. The reflection of the moon and stars glittered on the water’s surface, wavering in the ripples created by Asher’s oar strokes. Kira leaned back, the rough wooden bench rubbing against her shoulders, and observed the cloudless sky.
Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang!
Asher dropped the oar onto the bottom of the rowboat and settled besides Kira.
Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang!
A cool breeze blew across the canal, eliciting goosebumps up and down Kira’s bare arms.
Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang!
The twelfth peal reverberated the air, heralding the start of a new year. The sky lit up with a multitude of colors—violets and turquoise and crimsons painting the heavens.
“A display performed by the court’s spell caster, just for you, lady Kira.” Asher laced his hands behind his head. “What do you think? I think they’ve outdone themselves this year.”
Kira smiled. “I concur.”
Asher kicked his feet onto the stern of the boat. “Happy new year, Ra-ra. Good to see a grin on your face.”