Sixteen-year-old genius Matty Ducayn has never fit in on The Hill, an ordered place seriously lacking a sense of humor. After his school’s headmaster expels him for a small act of mischief, Matty’s future looks grim until King Hadrian comes to his rescue with a challenge: answer a question for a master’s diploma.
More than a second chance, this means freedom. Masters can choose where they work, a rarity among Regents, and the question is simple.
What was January Black?
It’s a ship. Everyone knows that. Hadrian rejects that answer, though, and Matty becomes compelled by curiosity and pride to solve the puzzle. When his search for an answer turns up long-buried state secrets, Matty’s journey becomes a collision course with a deadly royal decree. He's been set up to fail, which forces him to choose. Run for his life with the challenge lost...or call the king’s bluff.
“Iris,” [Matty] called out to her.
She shifted her attention from the statue to him and began making her way through the library. As she arrived in the almost empty corner, she followed the steel cable of Hadrian’s swing with her eyes to where it was bolted to the ceiling and admired the canopy of a maple tree that was painted above their heads.
“I love that,” she said softly, before turning to him with confusion. “Why is there a swing in his library?”
“His mother missed the one she grew up with in Dartanyan, so he made one for her,” Matty told her. “Hop on.”
She gave him an awkward grin and took a step away. “Will it hold me?”
“The cable will hold a metric t—” The look she gave him was one frequently made by his mother when she wanted him to spare her whatever technical details he was spewing. “It’s incredible.”
Iris exhaled heavily, still staring at the swing with apprehension, but climbed onto the disk that hung from the ceiling and positioned the layers of her skirt around the cable. “Better than the books?” she asked, crossing her legs modestly at the ankle.
“Yes,” he admitted. “Swing.”
She kicked her foot on the ground to set the swing into motion. “It’s been a few years since I was on a swing.”
Matty pushed her shoulder as she swung close to him, setting her into a spin. She screamed out in surprise and giggled like a little girl. He recalled her story from earlier that night. Removed from school at age ten, apprenticed to a Widow Black Guild master gardener at twelve, working full-time at sixteen, and all the while, she was caring for her paranoid father. He felt sad at the thought of her having to grow up so fast.
As she continued to enjoy the swing in silence, Matty tapped a command on the tablet, and lights began shining on the walls and the bookshelves that surrounded the swing. “Look down.”
Iris tilted her head over her shoulder. The movement altered her spin, slowing it slightly. She gasped in delight at the illusion of a shimmering pool of water below her.
“Drag your foot.”
She did and laughed as her foot created a disturbance across the surface. She kicked her foot up, and the illusion responded by creating dozens of round ripples where “drops” had fallen.
Matty tapped the tablet, and this time, her foot left a mark through virtual sand. Iris dragged her foot a second time and a third. He changed a setting, and her foot cut through the long grasses of a glade. As he switched between dozens of scenes, she swung across daisies and wheat fields, over the tops of evergreen forests. She floated over clouds and stars.
Finally, Iris stopped the swing and looked down as she hovered thousands of feet over Aventine, gripping the steel cable tighter as if she felt she were really up that high. He tapped the tablet to call up the final theme, the one he really wanted to show her.
The high altitude view of Aventine bloomed into thousands of purple and yellow irises. She gaped in awe as the two-dimensional scene became a freestanding holograph growing out of the floor. He activated the setting for sound, and the room was filled with the babble of water. Another setting activated fans in wall vents, mimicking a cool breeze. He selected a third setting, and the fragrances of iris blooms, dirt, and country air blew past them. Her eyes widen more in amazement with every added detail.
Matty sat down on the floor and set the tablet down. Unlike the two-dimensional scenes, the holographic flowers didn’t respond correctly to movement or the presence of mass, the result of Hadrian walking away from the programming when his mother died.
“This is in the Ayame River valley, near my grandfather’s ranch in Dartanyan.” The rest really was Hadrian’s story to tell, Matty decided.
Iris twisted her foot on the ground to turn the swing. “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said softly, looking up at the glow on her face. “And I’m sorry about my father’s behavior at dinner. Mine as well.”
“I’m a Widow Black contractor, Matty. Dating his son. The commandant had to ask those questions.”
Matty didn’t think he could be so gracious in her place. “He shouldn’t have asked you at the dinner table.”
“Which is why he did,” she said.
He realized what she had said just before. “Wait. We’re dating?”
She asked nervously, “Aren’t we?”
He hoped the grin on his face wasn’t as grotesque as it felt. “I wasn’t sure.”
“Seriously, Matty! I’m the one who should be nervous.” He didn’t understand and looked at her sideways. “You’re rich. You’re cute. You know about my crazy—”
“Cute?” he squawked.
“Oh my God!” she scoffed. She stopped the swing so she could give him her full attention. “No one is this insecure.”
“And you must be a blind actress,” he said. She restarted the swing. “It is quite convenient that I find a printed Braille book and a girl who can actually read Braille at the same time.”
“Except I can’t read it.”
“You know what I mean.”
She glanced over her shoulder at him as the swing twisted and said, “You may ask anyone who knows me. The only acting skill I have is to make myself invisible.”
“That’s quite a trick,” Matty said. “I’d like to see that.”
She lowered her arm to pass her hand through the holographic irises. “I mean that I can pass unnoticed when I want.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t imagine looking in your direction and seeing anything but you.”
Refreshingly intelligent and loads of fun!
I lost a few hours as I read this book. It's a Young Adult novel that is refreshingly and astonishingly intelligent, and the love story is perfectly played out.
~Christine Ashworth, Amazon Review
The mystery was intriguing - I loved how Wendy Russo weaved in all her secrets throughout the book, how she incorporated just enough to keep you reading, while never actually divulging much of anything. I was guessing for most of it and that's pretty hard to make me do.
~Julie, Clean Teen Reads
Wendy Russo has created a masterpiece.
~Ivan Amberlake, Author
Author Wendy S. Russo
Wendy S. Russo got her start writing in the sixth grade. That story involved a talisman with crystals that had to be found and assembled before bad things happened, and dialog that read like classroom roll call. Since then, she’s majored in journalism (for one semester), published poetry, taken a course on short novels, and watched most everything ever filmed by Quentin Tarantino. A Wyoming native transplanted in Baton Rouge, Wendy works for Louisiana State University as an IT analyst. She’s a wife, a mom, a Tiger, a Who Dat, and she falls asleep on her couch at 8:30 on weeknights.
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