FIRST ROLL OF THE DIE
"Wait for me!" Averrine ran round the battlement, hair falling into her eyes, but stopped to catch her breath. Simon had hidden and it wasn’t fair.
"Slow snake!" His words echoed around the red-stone courtyard, the walls bloody where struck by the low sunlight of the dying day.
She straightened, each breath burning her chest, and cast her eyes over the courtyard. She wished there was someone else to play with. The pilots’ kids, over by Bendau’s space port, had let her join their shoot-‘em-ups until Mama had found out and stopped the game, claiming the children were Space Roamers and dirty, and odd. She stamped her foot; for now, she was stuck with Simon. “Where are you?”
"Got to find me!"
He wasn't being nice. She was only six to his eight. Her fists bunched; when she found him, she'd tell him she was never going to play again. Better to play on her own than this.
A soft clicking made her spin round and he was there, his new rifle pointed at her, its dart already loaded. That wasn’t fair either; they were supposed to be playing chaseys.
"You're my prisoner. I’m taking you to the cells." He jerked the rifle so it was pointed at her face, and she froze, scared for the first time. It wasn’t full size and the bolts weren’t designed to do any real damage, but they still hurt. And he wasn’t allowed to aim at people’s faces – that could do damage.
She backed away. "No, Simon."
"Don’t be such a girl." He kept coming, his smile crooked like Papa's. He pulled back the bolt’s casing, priming the rifle.
Her eyes went hot but she wiped them, angry. Papa said no Pettina cried. “Go away!” She looked into the courtyard below, hoping to see a servant crossing to the main castle, or one of the security team operating the plasma-turrets noticing her, but it was late in the day and the busyness of the morning was long past. Most of the palace would be barely waking from their afternoon rest. Even Mama wouldn’t have checked on her and Simon and realised they were gone from their beds again.
"Scaredy," said Simon. "Good thing I'm going to take the family name and not you." He puffed out his chest, and called out like an announcer at one of Papa’s formal dinners. “I give you Emperor Simon Pettina, the Second!” His mouth curled into a sneer. "You're going to have babies. That’s what the girls do."
She wasn't. Just because everyone said she had to didn’t mean she would. She took a step back and her foot hovered over empty air. Panic climbed and she flung out her arms, hoping to grasp the side of the parapet, but there was nothing. She teetered, scrabbling, but fell back, yelling as she tumbled down the stone stairs.
"Averrine!" Simon's sneer had gone, pure fear in its place. “Tuck your head in!”
Too late. Her head bounced off a step. Her knee banged off the next and twisted, making her yell out. She somersaulted and landed on the hard ground, her breath whooshing out of her.
“Are you okay?” Simon was at the top of the stairs, looking down, spinning slowly in front of her. The whole courtyard was spinning.
It was his fault. She tried to move but her knee hurt too much. Her brother started down the stairs, silhouetted against the still-blue sky, rifle cradled against him. “Averrine, are you all right?”
It really hurt, big jarring spasms twisting in her leg. "Go away!" She put her head down, hiding the tears that smarted, and tried to see if her knee was bleeding.
"Stay still.” His command sounded like their papa. “I’m coming.”
He was ignoring her as usual. She propped herself up on her elbow. “I said go away!” She put every bit of her strength into her words and something pushed from her to him – a thought, a part of her will, she couldn’t tell which. She curled her face against the feeling; it was horrid, a clicking in the centre of her head.
Simon tumbled over the bannister, head first, feet following, as if flipped over. He let out a single yell, ended with a soft thud.
“Simon!” He lay on the paving in front of her. The stones under his head were dark, stained with red. The blood spread, getting closer and closer to her.
Someone screamed and she realised it was her. “Help!” She held her knee, trying to ignore the pain, and got onto one leg, hopping towards the palace. “Mama!”
Boots clattered, and two soldiers rounded the corner. They stopped, staring at Simon and he stared back, eyes not blinking. One of the soldiers swore and ran to him. The other crossed to her, lifting her up.
He carried her to the palace, past Papa’s flagship, and a wave of relief ran through her; Papa was home. Everything would be okay. Except Simon hadn’t moved, and nothing was okay, because something had clicked in her mind and she’d killed him. Sick realisation filled her; a combination of horrified knowledge and buried excitement.
She had Papa’s power. Simon never had; he’d been tested and tested. Yet, she had it. Simon’s eyes stared, accusing her: there would be no Simon the Second.
She heard her Mama scream, the thud of feet on the stairway, and buried her face. Slowly she sought the place in her mind that had clicked and felt around it. She was what Papa desired – an heir with the strength to hold the throne of Abendau. No matter that she was a girl, and not what he expected, she was still the right person to inherit. Not Simon. Not anyone else. Just her.