This must be the thousandth time I’ve saddled my hippogriff, but today my hands tremble. Falena is an icy blue steed and her gold feathery tail fans out behind her. Picking up on my antsy energy, she chirps uneasily. Today, I’m going on a simple royal quest to pick up something from the dangerous Silver Thicket. It doesn’t sound too intimidating, but completing a royal quest is the only opportunity for children of craftsmen like me to ascend to nobility. If I fail, I might not get another chance for years, and I’ll be stuck in my parents’ district of the city for the rest of my life, fated to join them in their pottery workshop and labor monotonously until my old age. More importantly, I’ll be barred from—
The stable doors creak open. “Caeda, are you still getting ready?”
Securing the front cinch, I call, “I’m almost finished.” Upon turning around and seeing Saphielle, the most intelligent and well-dressed elf in all Whisperwind City, I can’t help but smile despite all the tension in my shoulders.
Striding to my side, Saphielle helps me bridle my mount. Then she tugs on my saddle. “Snug and perfect,” she says, then leans and plants a kiss on my lips, her pale soft hair tickling my cheek.
With alabaster skin, Saphielle is wearing an ice-blue dress with lace trimmings and silver floral patterns framing her white corset, an outfit fit for her social class. Her family are royal engineers, and her ancestors built the entire castle and half the city. Composed yet sociable, naturally she's popular in both the noble courts and among her peers, the other children of influential families. In the noble school located in the upper rung of the city, Saphielle had gotten many love letters from boys (and a couple girls). I can still hardly fathom I’m the one she’s dating. Well, sort of dating. It’s the kind of dating that involves finding excuses to be in the same place at the same time and knowing if our parents caught us together, it’d be the end of it.
Against my better reason I remain still for a split-second and let myself enjoy the kiss. Then I step back from Saphielle and retreat to the back of the stable to grab the rest of my equipment. "Someone will see. Other riders are coming in to fetch their mounts too."
Saphielle giggles. “Don’t be so worried. No one comes to the stables this early but you. The ceremony to kick off the quest doesn’t begin for another couple hours. Besides, once you complete the quest and become one of us, we’ll be allowed to date.”
"Then let's wait until if I pass, or we'll both be punished," I say.
"You're too cautious," Saphielle pouts.
"And you're too confident," I sigh. Commoners like me and nobles like her aren't supposed to be in relationships. In fact, just being friends is frowned upon. We live in separate parts of the city and attended different schools as children. Most nobles don't meet commoners in their daily lives unless they’re purchasing goods from them. Saphielle and I are the exception. Many years ago, we had an accidental encounter.
* * *
My parents drop me off in front of my school. Though fall has barely begun, today is frigid. I shiver in my parka, the tips of my pointy ears burning. I shift uncomfortably outside the school building, not used to being surrounded by almost 200 kids. My elementary school has only thirty kids per grade, but today kids from across the school district are gathered outside my school.
"Mom..." I whine for the tenth time this morning.
"I told you, Caeda, I’m not bring you home. Today’s your first day of riding lessons. You'll get to meet hippogriffs! Aren’t you excited?"
I pout. “No. Hippogriffs are scary.”
My father, in his rough but kind voice, says, "You should be grateful you’re being offered riding lessons in the first place—as a boy your age I could only ogle at the noble children riding their hippogriffs for the first time. Things are different for your generation."
I don’t quite understand what he means about his age or my generation, but not wanting to disappoint my parents too much, I quiet. Giving me a stern order to stay and not try to find my path home, my parents abandon me. Minutes later, an unfamiliar, stern man wrapped in mammoth fur emerges from the building to fetch us. “Good morning, young students!” he bellows. “I’m sure you’ll all excited for today’s lesson.”
All the kids but me cheer, “Yes!”
“Well, come along!”
Crossing the bridges of the floating islands upon which Whisperwind is built, the man leads us to one of the minor outlying islands. Through the mild fog that seems omnipresent on the mountains this season, I spot the silhouettes of children from the other school districts on different islands. I can tell which island belongs to which school district according to how fancy the stables sitting atop them are. While our stable is a simple wooden structure, the one belonging to the school of the nobles is colorful and decked out in fancy architecture.
The hippogriffs gather in the middle of our island. Noticing our approach, they lift their avian faces and flare their crest feathers in greeting. Their four legs are not like other birds, being covered in fur and ending in hooves instead. Their tails sweep out behind them, fanning out in magnificent colors, including blue and green mixed with brown or gold.
“Cool!” a boy squeals and runs up to one.
The man picks up him by the scruff of his neck. “Before you can meet the hippogriffs loaned generously to us by the king, you must learn about these majestic beings. It’ll be quite long before you can pet them, let alone ride one.”
Many of the kids groan, but I only sigh in relief, thinking there couldn't be anything more dangerous than riding an animal through the sky beyond the safety of our floating city.
The man gives us a long and windy lecture. Despite the sun hanging overhead, I only feel colder and colder. Instinctively I rub my gloved hands together, trying not to seem cold.
When will this end? I simply wish to return to my regular school, reading books and writing essays. It’s what’s familiar to me, and what I’m good at.
Raising my hand and excusing myself to use the bathroom, I walk to an outhouse beside the stable. To my dismay though, it isn’t heated in here either. Leaving the outhouse, I make sure to tie up my parka as tight as I can—
"Hey! It's you!" a boy shouts. I turn around to see a stocky boy stamping to me.
"Ugh, what do you want, cheater?" I spit. Gormer was expelled from my school and had to move to another one last year, and I was the one who caught him cheating on a test and reported him to the principal.
"The question is what do you want, teacher's pet?"
I roll my eyes. "Is that supposed to be your comeback?"
I try to step past him to return to the rest of the group, but he pushes me back. I fall on the ground, almost right next to a pile of hippogriff dung! "Yuck! I'm reporting you!"
"No, you aren’t!" As I get up, the boy pushes me again. This time I skid back.
Then suddenly I hear a crack, and the earth splits beneath my feet.
I plunge the 900 feet to the valley below.
My eyes squeezed shut, my screams are lost to the wind slamming my face. I hit something, not like hard like the ground, but something… furry. In my confusion I open my eyes. I’m lying across the back of a hippogriff! A hippogriff that’s in the middle of the sky, far, far from any solid land!
Riding the beast is a girl my age! She turns around, her blonde hair whipping around her face wildly. “I caught you!” she exclaims. “Did you see that? The riding teacher told me I couldn’t ride a hippogriff. ‘You’re only in fifth grade. You still have much to learn.’ I told him to shut up! I ride my parents’ all the time, and I’m practically an expert, better than him if I’m being honest! To prove myself right, I jumped on this hippogriff and—”
Suddenly the hippogriff veers left to avoid hitting a giant tree. The girl slips from her saddle. I realize she isn’t strapped in unlike the knights I’ve seen patrolling the sky. I grab her hand, but I find myself sliding off the hippogriff’s back too!
Holding the girl’s hand I crash land right beside her.
“Ugh!” she groans.
“Ouch!” I wince.
Still hovering in the air, the hippogriff sneers at us, and realizing we’re no longer on its back, it turns around and flies off to return to its master.
The girl runs to the edge of the cliff and shouts, “Come back!” But it’s useless. The hippogriff is already getting smaller and smaller in the distance. So much for the girl being such an amazing rider. Really, how can someone be so daring? When she turns to me and says, “Well, I still rescued you,” my mouth falls open.
Assessing our surroundings, I announce, “We’re on some random island about 300 feet beneath our city. The hippogriff doesn’t look like it’s swinging back, and our teachers can’t hear us calling for help. It’ll be hours before anyone realizes we’re gone and comes looking for us!”
Plopping onto a mossy rock, the girl laughs. “It’s not going to be that long. My teachers will notice me missing.” She pats on the rock beside her, inviting me to sit. Sighing, I hesitantly plant myself beside her.
It’s only then that I notice the girl’s garments. She wears a shimmery silver dress. Gold adorns her ears, neck, and wrist. She’s a noble. It’s only this moment that I notice her garments, a shimmery silver dress, and the gold adorning her ears and neck and the gold bracelet of bluebells on her wrist. A noble girl. Commoners and nobles don’t usually interact in such a personal fashion, but she asked me to sit with her—which coming from a noble is basically like an order—so I must comply.
I sit up stiffly despite feeling like I'd rather crumple and have a cry, and in my best formal voice, I say, "Thank you for saving me. You rode magnificently while it lasted.” I suppose being stuck on an island is better than being dead.
The girl grins exuberantly. “Oh, I’m Saphielle. Saphielle Sangolor.” She places her hand on her chest.
I do the same. “Greetings. I am Caeda Eilthis.”
“Eilthis?” she says, tasting my family name on her tongue. She furrows her brows. “Never heard of it.”
“I’m a commoner,” I mumble softly.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize,” she replies as if I just told her how many day I’ve got left to live. Then her sky-blue eyes absorb my dull clothes and worn boots. I ready to hear her mock my shabby outfit, but she blurts out something completely unexpected, “The commoners around me are usually wearing a uniform, but you’re wearing daily clothes, even if they’re a bit dirty.”
“Oh, you mean your maids?” I say. They must be the only commoners she has contact with.
Saphielle says, “So, do you live in the lower city then?”
I nod. “My family make pottery.”
“Pottery!” she gasps. “My family keeps a collection of lavish vases! I must ask, how do you color the pottery?”
It’s a question nobody has ever thought to ask me. I describe the process, and Saphielle listens attentively as if I'm detailing something mystical. “It’s really a mundane process,” I mutter.
“No, it sounds fun,” Saphielle says.
“Fun?” I retort. “I kind of think pottery is the most boring thing in the world, and I’m supposed to like it.”
Saphielle shrugs. “I like art.” She gestures to her bracelet. Their stems wrapped around the gold circlet, a pair of bluebells hang. “I made this myself. Most of my lessons are boring, but in art class I can shape things to my liking. Isn’t the same with pottery?”
“Not really,” I reply. “If I don’t do things exactly right, it’ll come out looking like rubbish, then my parents will get mad at me for wasting their materials and angering their clients. Plus, most clients ask for the same thing—whatever’s in fashion. Even if I liked pottery, it’s boring to make the same thing five hundred times.”
“I suppose so,” Saphielle says. “Perhaps I’d like attending my lessons if they weren’t every single day. My school is in the morning, then in the evening I have etiquette classes.”
“Etiquette classes?” I say.
“Yup. We learn the right way to talk and eat and dress, and it’s really mind-numbing. On weekends there’s also private tutoring on top of regular schooling since I need to learn everything about my family’s craft. My family are royal architects-- The queen is pregnant again. She has given the honor of designing the nursery to my mother. My mother tells me if I do well in school, I can help pick the colors, but that’s about it. We don’t get to actually make anything ourselves though. We just design it, and commoners build it. Mother tells me we’re too busy for that kind of work, but I think it’d be fun to paint some tiles.”
I stare at her in shock. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a noble girl say it’d be fun to pick up a tool with her hands and actually do something other than ordering people around.
At the end of the hour, like Saphielle promised, her riding teacher soars through the sky on a hippogriff scanning the cliffs. Jumping, Saphielle flails her arms and shouts until he notices us and lands on our island, his expression irritated. But surprisingly he says nothing, just nodding for us to mount the second hippogriff that he’s leading.
Riding the hippogriff in front of me, Saphielle turns around and says, “I actually had fun being lost with you. I’ll see you again?”
“Commoners and nobles aren’t supposed to hang out,” I remind her.
Saphielle giggles. “Rules don’t stop me.” When the hippogriff lands, she gets off and joins the other students, winking at me. My mouth falls open. Saphielle is so unlike any of us.
The riding teacher returns me to my teacher, who lectures me about straying from my peers. I apologize a thousand times then promise to write a letter explaining why I made a mistake and how I’ll never do it again, and shame flares in me at the thought of not living up to my teachers’ expectations. But at the same time, I’ll never forget meeting that noble girl, Saphielle Sangolor.
* * *
Strapping in my pack containing a knife, a first-aid kit, a magical flare, rations, and other items, a sick feeling instantly settles in my stomach. I say aloud, “Not all participants who go on royal quests return.”
“You will,” my not-girlfriend says, reaching to brush a knot out of my long seashell-colored hair. “You’re a good rider.”
“They’ll be dozens of other good riders. Even if I don’t die, what if I don’t win?” The future Saphielle and I have dreamed of will never come into light. That prospect is almost more terrifying.
“I trust in you,” Saphielle says. Here, this is for you.” She unclasps the gold bluebell bracelet on her wrist and puts it around mine.
"But this is yours," I say. “What if I lose it?”
Saphielle smiles. "You'll bring it back." Stepping on a crate of feed, Saphielle stands on her tip-toes to kiss me again, despite my earlier warning. “Good luck.”