The Last Name Born
I pack in a daze, throwing bits of clothes Granny Smith has knitted for me over the past couple years. Most are too big, and some are too small, but all of them are beautiful and feel far, far away.
Leo’s packing beside me. We’re using the bags we usually use to steal from farmers.
“Leo,” I whisper. “is this really happening?”
He glances out the window. Queen Plum stands just outside, speaking to a tall woman in armor with narrow, black eyes.
“Yup,” he says.
I tie the bag closed and turn around. Granny Smith’s blue eyes peer up at me. There’s surprise in them, but not nearly as much as there should be.
“Granny,” I start, but my throat knots.
She smiles. “I always had a feeling, you know. The way you two showed up so close after the fall of Eater.” Her shaky, white hands reach for us. Leo and I take on each and hold her fingers close.
Her eyes shine with moisture. “I’ll miss you two. Even your stealing and tomfoolery.”
I gape. “You knew we were stealing?”
She clucks her tongue. “Of course! Farmer Orange hates you—there’s no way he’d give you a job in exchange for his precious produce.”
I stare at her, and even though my guts feel like they’re trying to claw out of my stomach, I start laughing. I laugh and laugh, and she laughs, and then I’m hugging her, crying.
Leo watches us with distant, gold eyes.
I pull back after a little while, shaking and rubbing my eyes. Granny Smith holds one of my hands.
“You will be a wonderful Warrior Queen,” she says. “And remember—you’re welcome home any time.”
Home. I look around the cottage. This really is the closest thing I’ve had to a home since my parents died four years ago.
And now I’m leaving it behind, too.
Granny Smith turns to Leo, beckoning him. He kneels down in front of her so she can wrap her arms around him. His lean arms look bulky as they pull around her slim, aged stature.
She strokes the top of his head. “I know you will make a wonderful Guardian to the Warrior Queen, Leolani, my chocolate kiss.” Her hands shake through his voluminous waves. “Just. . . don’t let that drive you back into the darkness. Okay?”
His eyebrows knit together. So do mine. What does she mean by that?
Suddenly, hard, metallic steps crash down in the front door. I whirl around.
The woman Queen Plum was just speaking to now stands in the doorway, backlit by the sunshine. Only a flash of her face shows through the hard lighting. Just the left half—and the hard, awful scars running through it.
I take a step back with a double-chin.
She steps inside, and with better lighting the scars only get more obvious. Somewhere beneath them all I think she must have been beautiful, but the left side of her face leaves little to imagine. Especially since the most massive scar, a five-pointed star, mars the side of her lip, eyelid, and eyebrow before disappearing back into her short bob of brown hair.
“Warrior Queen,” she says with a razor tone.
I raise my hand. “Present.”
Leolani rolls his eyes in Granny Smith’s arms.
The woman turns her dark eyes down on him. “Leolani of Taffy Mountain.”
He frowns from his kneeling position. He really doesn’t seem to like people knowing where he’s from. Which, actually, I’m going to have to ask him about later. I mean, we’re best friends. Somewhere along the way we should have talked about that, right?
Granny Smith releases him, and he stands to full height. He’s shorter than the woman but lifts his chin to meet her eyes.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“General Rose of the Candylanian Guard,” she says, with more teeth than I think people are supposed to use when they talk. She turns hard eyes on me. “You two, we’re leaving now.”
I pout as she points us out the door. I give Granny one last kiss on the cheek before closing my eyes and rushing out of the house.
Like a bandage, I tell myself as I run outside. Just like when I left my childhood home. Quick. Moving ahead. Not looking back.
It’s the only thing that lessens the pain.
Leo follows with me. But he does turn and look back. And he waves.
“Wave, Air,” he says.
I shake my head and clasp my bag with both hands.
“Air,” he says again.
I squeeze my eyes shut and, over my shoulder, shout, “I love you!”
I won’t look. But I do savor the returning, “I love you too, sweet drop!” that follows.
When I open my eyes, Leo and I are standing in front of a carriage. Queen Plum sits inside. She smiles at us, her hair still drifting in a magical breeze.
“Thank you two for agreeing to come with me.” She gestures us inside. “General Rose will be in charge of our path to your new home. Please, join me inside the carriage. We will be traveling together.”
Leo and I exchange one last glance before piling inside.
Immediately, I feel uncomfortable. The seat is covered in the finest cotton candy I’ve ever seen. It’s so soft and so clean that I can only think about how my bare feet are still covered in chocolate.
But Queen Plum doesn’t seem to notice. She just glances from one of us to the other, and then back again.
“It’s a long journey home,” she says. “But I believe you will enjoy your new palace.”
My stomach twists. I don’t know if I’m okay with “my” and “palace” being together in the same sentence. But it’s better than “my” and “execution,” which would be the alternative, so I keep my silence.
General Rose sticks her head in the carriage. “Everyone be on your best behavior.” She glares at me meaningfully. I scowl back. “You are in the presence of the descendant of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
As if anyone needs reminding. Queen Plum looks exactly like the paintings of the founder of Candyland—just without the wings.
Queen Plum rests her ebony hands on her lap. “Rose, please. Air is now a queen of Candyland as well.”
Apparently Rose likes that idea about as much as I do, because her scarred lip curls back at the mention. I slump purposely to annoy her and cross my arms. Her lip gets more agitated.
Leo sighs. “This is going to be a long carriage ride, isn’t it?”
Rose’s eyes cut to him. “You would be more appropriately assigned to ride with me. As Guardian to the Warrior Queen, you will need to learn to breathe, drink, and sleep the path of a general, not the honor of royalty.”
Leo’s eyes sharpen with a flash. It’s a dangerous look I usually only see on him when we’re fighting for our lives.
I put my hand over his arm and glare at the woman. “He’s plenty general enough already, thanks.”
She scoffs, and the first hint of emotion hits her eyes. “Oh is he?”
I stab a finger at her. “Yeah!”
“And what are you, little girl?”
I puff up my chest. “Your new Warrior Queen, scar-face.”
Leo looks like he wants to die. Queen Plum straightens. General Rose’s face freezes somewhere between all the emotions in the world.
I’m instantly aware that was the worst thing I could have said.
Her eyes narrow. “Yes you are,” she whispers, and her voice sizzles like red hots. “And I will enjoy training you into being a half-worthwhile one.”
She slams the door shut. Queen Plum lets out a sigh through her nose.
“That was General Rose,” she says, and turns to us with a calm expression I suspect hides exasperation. “She will be in charge of both of your training.”
“So I just ****** off the woman who’s in charge of kicking my butt?” I ask.
Leolani sighs again and rests his head back on the seat. “Making enemies and you’ve only been the Warrior Queen for five minutes.”
I scowl. “I was trying to defend you.”
“Do me a favor and defend me less often.”
I huff and fold my arms. Queen Plum chuckles, and I suddenly remember she’s there. I drop my arms and fold my hands in my lap instead, awkward and stiff.
“I apologize… er, your majesty,” I mutter.
She leans forward and takes my hands in hers. I stiffen. Leolani scoots away, like he doesn’t want to accidentally touch her.
Her pink eyes meet mine. “Have you a last name, Air?”
A part of me wants to pull away from her, but the warmth in her eyes isn’t a lie like other politicians’ I’ve seen. They stare at me with engrossed attention, unwavering interest.
It’s uncomfortable because it’s so sincere.
“Once,” I say. “But not anymore.”
Her eyelids grow heavier. “Your parents passed away?”
I haven’t talked about it in so long, I don’t know how to confirm with words. So I nod instead.
She folds her hands over mine, as if she could hide them in a safe place. Her touch is warm.
“On this day, moments before we begin our journey to your new home, I give you a new name,” she says. “You are now Air War-Bringer, the Warrior Queen of all Candyland, Slayer of Eater, Savior of All.”
My cheeks flush in the silence that comes after.
“Was all of that my new last name, or….?” I ask.
Her face lights up with a laugh. “We’ll call everything after ‘War-bringer’ your title.”
I find myself smiling back.
She turns to Leo, then, and his face tightens at her approach. “And you, Leolani?”
“I had a last name,” he says.
I look at him. He’s never told me what it was. The same way I never told him mine.
She reaches for his hands. He pulls them back from her. I widen my eyes at him. Leo is a lot of things, but disrespectful of authority isn’t usually one of them.
But graciously, Queen Plum pulls back. “Would you like if I gave you a new name?”
His eyes turn downwards. “No,” he says. “I need the one I had. Even if I can’t have it anymore.”
I stare at him. Sometimes I think it’s unfair that you have to cast off your last name when your parents die untimely. It honors them, I know, and gives you a way to pay respect to them each time you introduce yourself—but still.
I miss my old last name. Because my parents gave it to me.
With Leo’s last comment, the carriage dissolves into silence. Somewhere in it, we start moving, and the rocking motion and horse hooves fill the discomfort with soothing reflection. My eyes start drifting closed, and I slide down onto Leo’s shoulder. He lets me rest there until—inevitably—I fall asleep.
Fun fact: Air is like me in one way—we can literally fall asleep anywhere.
+11 sleep skill points