I sigh as I pluck my red sharpie from the magnetic holder stuck to my fridge. I bite the cap off and cross off today on my calendar.
My eyes wander a box over, twenty-four hours from today. It’s the day I turn fourteen. It’s also the day of the Choosings.
I have mixed feelings about my birthday. Not my birthday, exactly—I love my birthday. The thing I have mixed feelings about is the day it falls on—Mitzi 1st, the first day of the new year.
The day where there’s a new Chosen One.
I decide my feelings of the Choosings override my excitement of my birthday. I hate Mitzi 1st. It’s a day of suffering.
My gaze travels over my bedroom. I have a room, a giant bed, my own fridge, TV, trampoline…all the typical perks of being a princess. Another perk: being excused from the Choosings.
Eighty years ago, when my great-grandfather was crowned king of Oacarro on his twentieth birthday—the day his father died—it started. The Choosings. See, the moon spirits used to have no actual power, but eighty years ago, their celestial capabilities returned mysteriously. The young King Klein said that in order to appease them, every year, one person must be chosen to become a moon spirit slave.
One person may not seem like a lot, but Oacarro was a small planet. There was one tiny continent that contained the entire population of our planet—a thousand or so citizens. For the past eighty years, every Mitzi 1st, there was a lottery that everybody was forced to enter. The prize? Being sent the moon to be granted an immortal life—of slavery.
I dramatically flop on my bed. Ugh.
I don’t have anything to fear, even.
When my dad was younger, his sister was chosen to go to the moon. He was heartbroken and, afterwards, passed a law that the royal family didn’t have to enter.
Our people protested, but the king was mighty, so they didn’t do anything.
I’m the teen Princess Juniper, so I’m living rich, but I’m not happy. My only family is my dad, King Klein III, and my great-grandfather on his deathbed.
Also, while I don’t have to take place in the Choosings, I’m still affected. The guilt carries me everywhere that I’m excluded from an awful lottery. I obviously don’t want to be the Chosen One, but….
This may seem crazy, but I want to enter the lottery.
It’s so unfair that just because I’m royalty, I don’t have to enter. It’s unfair and also stupid and I’m sure most of the general population hates me for that privilege—even though they’ve never met me or ever seen me.
I’ve never been allowed to leave the castle or the Royal Gardens. I’m definitely not allowed to go to where the Choosings take place—which I hate. My dad treats me like some little kid, trying to protect me from the ‘harsh world’—ugh.
This year, I’m determined to go to the festival (yup, it’s called a festival. Actually, it is a festival—in honor of my birthday and the new year. Just, at this festival, people are picked to leave Oacarro forever).
I need to experience it. Feel the pain of these people. I can’t stay cooped up in my fancy-schmancy room forever—I have to act like a citizen so I can be a proper queen.
I’m smiling as I curl up in my bed. Tomorrow’s an awful day, and that day will continue annually for a long, long time.
But, I think as I stare at the moon hanging in the inky-black sky, when I’m queen, these moon spirits aren’t getting their new slaves anymore.
My eyes travel down to the village below my castle. Just twenty years, guys. Twenty years until my dad retires and I can rule you. I can rule you, and I can stop these Choosings.
I’m starting to drift off to sleep. Just twenty years….
I hurl my alarm clock to the floor and smile as I sink back into my pillow. I’m so warm, so cozy, and have such an annoying alarm clock….
Then I remember.
It’s that day.
I moan and roll out of bed, joining my clock on the floor. I spend two seconds ‘making’ my bed then scurry over to my closet. A moment later, I’m dressed and my dark brown hair is twisted into a braid.
I run back up to my bed and jump on it, pressing my face up against the window above the princess bed (my dad thought he was sooo funny when he made a new size called ‘princess’. It’s basically a king bed, just bigger).
The festival is already getting set up below me. It’s like a carnival, so everyone can have a good time before they see who’s the Chosen One.
The sun is beaming in the sky, so a layer of sunlight covers everything I can see. There’s sunlight, yeah, but there sure isn’t sunshine.
Go figure. The sun knows what’s up.
I groaned and burst out of my room, hitching a ride on the railing. When I was five, I learned that sliding down railings wasn’t just for princesses in movies—I learned how to do it, and now, the stairs are being dissed.
I smile as I enter our giant kitchen. Our cook, Lucillia, is already making—“Waffles and berries?”
The older woman chuckles at me as she finishes washing the blueberries and raspberries. “Yes. Don’t you like them, Juniper?”
“Yeah,” I breathe. “Thanks.”
When she finishes, I snarf up the food and race out of the kitchen, into the carpeted ‘lobby’ of the castle. A second later, my cowboy boots are snug on my feet, and I’m out the door.
The Royal Gardens surround the castle with acres of bright green grass, moist soil, and enough fresh followers to fill fifty flower floats.
I glance around as I start walking towards the gate. My heart is racing. I’ve been in the gardens plenty times before, but I’ve literally never—I repeat, never—left the castle walls.
My dad is stupid.
I’m almost there. The gates are just ten yards away. Once I’m through them, I’m free to go to that sucky festival. Just five yards away. Just three. Just one—
I jump and crash into a bush. Ouch.
My eyes are still shut, but I feel myself being lifted from the shrubbery. When I’m back on my feet, I wince as my eyes blink open.
King Klein III is towering over me, his mouth twisted into something that I would call not just a frown, but a negative-grin. Yup, a -grin adorns his face.
“Dad…?” I squeak. “Um….”
I gulp and wilt a little under his shadow. “Why are you here?”
“Why are you here?”
“Uh…I’m taking a stroll in the garden.”
“No, you're trying to stealthily get to the festival.”
“I’m not saying I agree to that, but…how did you know I was here?”
“Lucillia told me you were sneaking out of the castle.”
“She told you I was going to the festival?!” Seriously, Lucillia?!
“No. You just did.”
Dang it. Why didn’t I just play it cool? “I’m going,” I say, my blue eyes flitting up to meet my father’s harsh gaze. “I need to.”
“What you need to do,” he rumbled, “is stay here.”
He purses his lips. “Juniper, you aren’t going.”
“No,” I repeat, a little louder. “Nope, I am G-O-I-N-G.”
I send him one more look and start to march to the doors. But since I’m still glaring over my shoulder, I walk smack into the hard sheet of wood.
“Ow,” I complain as I rub my head.
The next thing I know, my dad picks me up and starts strutting back towards the castle. I kick and scream like I’m being kidnapped, but nobody in the castle bats and eye as my dad carries me up to my room. I go limp in his arms—I literally can’t do anything.
Finally, I’m back in my room. My dad gives me a knowing look. “Juniper, you’re not going to the Choosings.”
I shake my head, and as he starts to leave, I shake it more furiously and yell, “I’M SHAKING MY HEAD TO SAY NO! ALSO, MY HEAD IS A MAGIC 8 BALL! AND YOU KNOW WHAT JUST POPPED UP?! ‘TRY AGAIN LATER’!”
I slam my door and collapse on my bed again. What I said is true—I’m definitely going to try again later. But I’ll bet ten bucks that dear ol’ dad stationed some guards outside the door so I can’t leave.
I groan for the second time this morning, open my door, and tromp down the hallway. Down the hall is my great-grandfather's room—he’s one-hundred years old and lies on his bed all day, a nurse sitting by his side.
I knock and a female voice called, “Come in!”
I press my weight against the door and it opens, revealing a large bed, an even bigger room, and King Klein (well, he isn’t king anymore) passed out on the bed. A young lady is monitoring something; everybody knows that the old king will die soon, so there’s always somebody here to watch over my GG.
“You can go,” I say politely to the girl.
She ducks a quick bow, says, “Of course, Princess”, and walls out of the room. The door clicks shut behind her.
“Hi, GG,” I say quietly as I approach the bed. I check on and meet with my great-grandfather at least a couple times a day. “Are you awake?”
I glance down at his resting figure. It’s like his wrinkles have wrinkles. “Okay, I’ll leave.”
“No,” he whispers. “Stay. Listen…”
Apparently, he’s awake, and he says—
“You want to have a conversation?” I blink. “Isn’t that what we normally do?”
“Yes,” his hoarse voice says, “but this is a very important conversation.”
He shifts in his bed and reaches over to his nightstand. I wonder what he’s doing as his shaky old hand opens the drawer. He pulls out an old-fashioned brass key.
He rolls over to the other side of the bed, where his other nightstand is. “Juniper, would you mind…could you pull this out from the wall?”
I nod and grasp the wooden piece of furniture, pulling it a foot from the wall. I watch GG in wonder as he pats the side of the table that’s been pressed up against the wall.
I notice a keyhole in the wood and guide my great-grandfather’s hand towards it. He smiles and slides his key in the slot.
Once the key is turned, a hatch pops open. In it, built into the nightstand, was a small hollow. It looks really, really old—spiderwebs are weaved into the nooks and crannies.
There’s one thing in the hatch.
A glowing green-blue ball.
My eyes are probably stretched as wide as they can go as King Klein reaches his hand in and slowly, very slowly, pulls out the ball. It’s around the size of a ping-pong ball, illuminated a neon-ocean color from the inside.
“What is that?”
GG smiles and presses it into my hand. It’s very dense but extremely light—it makes my head hurt just thinking about it. Also, the ball just felt like it was radiated power—a feeling I can’t quite describe. I examine the ball more. “Seriously…what is this?”
He frowns and takes it back. “Something that has caused awful things.”
I’m shocked to hear the change in his voice. Suddenly, my GG’s cringe whispers are replaced by a smooth, young voice. I think the ball is radiating power—and my gramps is being affected by it.
“Sit.” He pats the side of his bed. “I have a lot to explain.”
I do, and GG sighs and starts his story.
“When my father died, and I became king…people were angry. I was barely an adult and already ruling a nation of over a thousand people. The general population was bigger than it is now—it’s smaller today because of the Choosings. Because of what I did.
“People were getting out of hand. They weren’t respecting the royal power. I was young and stupid, but that doesn’t excuse what I did. See, I was traveling all around the continent, trying to calm down the people, when I stumbled upon a cave. And inside, I found this.” He pointed to the ball.
“The moon spirits have their powers because of a set of these balls. They had one, but one fell to Oacarro a long time ago. Their power was lost until I found the ball. With the matching set, they’d get their full power back.
“At the next full moon, I had a talk with a moon spirit. I promised them powers and offered them slaves, if only they agreed to do one thing. They did agree. I gave them the ball, and their powers returned. They gave me a copy of the ball, with one small power: something to slow down aging.
“They destroyed a continent. See, Oacarro used to have another continent—a long, long time ago. The moon spirits destroyed it, and the people of our nation grew so scared they listened to me. I was the solid in all the chaos, even though I caused the chaos. I was the good king, there to help his people—help them against what I caused. I said I could speak with the moon spirits—which I can, as anyone can during the full moon. They didn’t know and everybody listened.
“They agreed to the awful terms. Once a year, on Mitzi First, a tribute is chosen to become a slave for the moon spirits. In return, they don’t kill us all. I struck the deal, and it worked. But not the way I planned.
“Everyone was terrified and heartbroken. Tame, yes, but spirits broken. It caused me pain to see the suffering I had made happen. I can’t excuse my actions. I can’t rewind time. But that’s why I’m telling you this.”
I swallow as a glance at my great-grandfather. A lump of emotions is stuck in my throat. My GG, my beloved GG, did this. This family secret that I never knew about. Until now.
I want to be furious. And I partly am. But all that comes out is….
“Why?” I sob. “Why, GG, are you telling me this?”
He smiles. “I’m about to die, and I can’t keep this from you any longer. Not like your father has. I don’t want to die in regret. Please, Juniper, forgive me.”
I think for a moment. Again, I want to hate my great-grandfather, but I can’t. I can’t hold him up to a mistake he made eighty years ago. He can’t fix this, but I can. “Okay.”
He smiles again. “This magic sphere is the only thing keeping me alive. We need to stop this awful yearly tradition, Juniper. I can’t. But you can.”
He hands me the ball, his voice back to normal—slow and hoarse. “When you leave, I’ll die, as I should’ve ten years ago. This ball has some of the magic as the original set has—it could complete it, but it can also cancel it out if you put all three together. You know what you need to do, correct?”
I take a deep breath. “Yeah.”
“Go, Juniper. And remember—your father’s laws only take action after a month. Lastly, remember the exact wording of your father’s law….” he smiles for the millionth time. “Now go.”
“But…you’ll die,” I choke out.
The sides of his mouth raise even more. “I say, go.”
Tears stream down my face as I race out of the room. I glance at a clock as I dart down the hallway—at nine a.m. the Choosing will happen. Fifteen minutes to get to the festival to make things right.
My shoes are still on, and I wouldn’t have stopped anyway. I start to sprint to the festival, racing against time.
I look over my shoulder.
I’m racing against guards, too.
I’m running, sprinting, dashing—I need to get there in time.
My feet pound and carry me the mile there—
And finally, I’m at the festival.
I sprint past the guy who tells me to tell him my name—sorry, buddy, I’m not entering the lottery. I can’t, after all.
The games and booths are deserted and I jog past it all, to the courtyard square. Everybody in our town—the whole continent—is gathered in front of a stage.
There’s a lady, holding a large bowl. She’s about to pick.
“WAIT!” I yell.
Everybody freezes and I run around the crown and up to the stage. “Wait,” I repeat to the lady. “Don’t draw the unlucky winner yet.”
“Princess Juniper?” her eyes dart up to mine. She’s a plump woman dressed in a pink jumpsuit, with short brown hair.
“Yeah,” I say, breathing heavily from my run.
“Why are you here, Miss? You’re not allowed to enter.” She picks up a template resting on the stage and points to the bottom. There, my dad’s law is typed up: ɴᴏʙᴏᴅʏ ɪɴ ᴛʜᴇ ʀᴏʏᴀʟ ғᴀᴍɪʟʏ ɪs ᴘᴇʀᴍɪᴛᴛᴇᴅ ᴛᴏ ᴇɴᴛᴇʀ ᴛʜᴇ ʟᴏᴛᴛᴇʀʏ.
I smile, remembering what GG said: ‘Lastly, remember the exact wording of your father’s law…’ “I know. But there’s something else I can do.”
I plant my feet on the stage and glance over at the giant crowd. Everybody I’ll be queen of in twenty years. They all have petrified expressions—wondering what I’m doing but still terrified they’ll be picked.
I see the guards and my father arrived in the back of the crowd. They start to push through, but they’re too late.
I glance at the lady, then at the crowd, then all the guards.
I stare directly into my father’s dark brown eyes as I announce the hardest, but rightest decision I’ve ever made:
“I volunteer to serve the moon spirits.”