I take deep breaths in a futile effort to calm myself. You’re here—you’ve succeeded. Why are you scared, Juniper? The moon spirits won’t hurt you. You’re their slave. Calm down.
I rechannel my deep breath into a drawn-out sigh as I glance around for the millionth time. I’m shut in a box—or at least, it feels that way compared to my airy bedroom. This place is a small room made of all metal. I’m shackled to a chair in the eerily quiet space.
When I volunteered as a tribute, my dad protested. He’s the king, but he still can’t do anything because of the law the old king—King Klein, my great-grandfather—passed eighty years ago.
King Klein. GG, the man who had passed away just moments before the moon spirits sucked me to the, well, moon.
I feel like I’ve betrayed my gramps. I left him to die by taking away the magical sphere that had kept him alive long past his expiration date.
You had to, I tell myself. You need the orb so you can cancel out the moon spirits’ ones. Then, when all three are together, the moon spirits will lose their powers, and all of the slaves can be freed.
I’m feeling a bit better after reciting my plan, but still awful. Dad didn’t have time to pass a law—that the royal family can’t go as a slave no matter what—before the moon spirits arrived and took me.
Turns out, there’s one family of moon spirits: King Apollo; his wife, Queen Selene; and their two daughters, Luna and Celeste. They live in a castle like my old one, surrounded by elegant gardens. The other slaves and I work in the fields far from the castle.
Well, I will.
As soon as King Apollo arrived on Oacarro, took me, and teleported us both to the moon, he shut me in this freestanding room somewhere near the fields.
Now, I’m just waiting for my slavery to begin.
I’m tired. It’s been a long day. And I doubt I’ll get much rest and relaxation as a slave, so I guess I should catch some Zs.
The last thing that runs through my brain is, Goodnight, Juniper, before I start to drift off.
I groan in my half-asleep state and bat at something to my left, expecting to whap my annoying alarm clock like I do every morning.
Instead, my fingertips brush against fabric.
I then remember clocks don’t know English.
Today, my alarm clock is a human.
“Whaaat,” I moan, my eyes still shut.
“Time to get up. I carried you here once Apollo told me your name a while ago. You’ve been sleeping forever.”
“Go away, dad.”
“Get up, roommate.”
I bolt straight up, remembering where I am. The moon.
I scan my surroundings. I’m out of the box, thank god. I’m just in…a slightly larger box.
I’m lying on a thin cot pushed in the corner of a cabin. The cottage is maybe ten-by-ten feet, with a door on one side and no windows. Opposite from me, against the left wall, is another cot with blankets and a pillow that could pass for a sheet of paper. A thin rug covers the floor and an unlit fireplace is built into the wall between the cots. Directly in front of my bed is a dresser—and an identical one is in front of the other cot. A couple shelves are above the fireplace, stocked with some plates, bowls and silverware, as well as some food. Not modern, packaged food—stuff that looked like what people were eating hundreds of years ago. Instead of bags of chips and soups, there’s a small bowl of tomatoes, some ears of corn, a couple leaves of basil resting on a leaf, and…a large hunk of meat. I also see a stack of large, thin leaves on the shelf—paper towels, maybe?
“Are you done admiring your new home?”
I glance up at the girl in front of me. She looks my age—fourteen—with her light tan skin and pitch-black hair pulled up into a high ponytail. She has heterochromia iridium, with one blue eye and one amber one. She’s wearing a pale orange tank-top that falls past her waist and baggy brown pants. Even in her unattractive getup, she’s pretty…pretty.
“Who are you?” I say.
She laughs, but I don’t find anything funny. Her multicolored eyes study me as she suddenly gets quiet. “I’m Gwendolyn.”
“Can I call you Gwen?”
“I don’t know you yet, so no.”
We stare at each other, then she says, “And you are?”
“Juniper,” I say, “Juniper Klein.”
Her eyes widen and her mouth makes an ‘o’. “The princess?”
“Yup,” I say.
She shoots me a knowing look as her expression disappears off her face. “I was being sarcastic. I know who you are, and honestly, I don’t care much. You’re a princess, I was a normal, but now we’re both here.”
“On the moon,” I chime in.
Our eyes meet again and we both giggle.
“How long have you been here?” I whisper.
“A year. I was last year’s tribute, which is why you’re roommates with me. We’ll be stuck with each other for the rest of our lives—but, we’re immortal now, so literally all of enternity—so I suggest we be friends.”
I smile. “Yeah. Wait, why am I here?”
Gwendolyn gives me a funny look. “Youuu…live here now?”
“No, I mean—why didn’t King Apollo explain what I do?”
Gwen sits on my bed and grins. “That’s what I’m for!” She frowns. “Well, also to work for him, but whatever!” Her smile returns as she attempts to bounce on my hard cot.
“Will he ever come?” I say, trying to imagine being a slave without any attentive master. Sounded better than a guy with a whip watching me.
“Lemme explain,” Gwen says. She gets up and opens the door. I follow her outside, where it pretty much looks like an uncivilized Oacarro—the sky’s blue, there’re birds, but there’re no people. A row of similar cabins to ours stretch in a long line in both directions, and fields galore occupy acres in front of it. Way off in the distance, maybe a mile or so, I see the moon castle—a huge white palace with winding torrents, a towering wall wrapping around it, and a beautiful flag flowing in the wind.
“Those”—she points to the cabins to the left and right—“are our neighbors. Emma and Crila live together, as do Jackson and Mark. Everyone has the same gender roommates—something is arranged if the most recent tribute is a different gender.”
I nod, and Gwendolyn turns around. She points to the space behind the cabins—rough terrain with no plants or animals. “The bathroom holes are back there.”
“Awesome,” I mutter.
Gwen points to the fields again. “From eight a.m. to eight p.m., we have to harvest and collect as much food as we can. We get a couple breaks, and it’s only nine a.m. to seven p.m. on weekends. Wednesdays we have off, as long as we’ve collected the crops. Right—we have to gather at least four hundred pounds of crops a week—two hundred pounds per person. Once we have, we can choose to work more if we want more food—and typically we do.”
“Okay. What time is it now?” I say.
Gwendolyn stares long and hard at where Oacarro is in the sky. “Six?” She shrugs. “You got here at noon or so, and you’ve been sleeping until a couple minutes ago. I have the day off so I can explain this to you.”
I nod and signal her to carry on.
“We’re allowed to take ten percent of what we gather as what we can eat—no more,” she says. “Once a week, King Apollo or Princess Celeste—dang, I hate that teenager, she creeps me out—will come down and make sure we’ve collected an appropriate amount. Like, the next check in’s in two days. If we’ve dilly-dallied in the fields or if we ate more than permitted, we’re punished.”
“How?” I squeak.
Gwen flips her hair. “I dunno. I’ve behaved.”
“How much do you hate it here?”
Gwendolyn glances up at me from her plate of wheat mush. “Huh?”
I spoon another bite from my own bowl into my mouth. For a late dinner, Gwen had boiled down some wheat and water into some sort of yucky oatmeal. I don’t even like the flavored instant kind Lucillia sometimes makes, much less this goop. “You’ve been here a year. How bad is it?”
Gwen sighs and sets down her plate. “Honestly, it’s both better and worse than I imagined. I mean, I thought it was going to be much more painful, kinda. Instead, we still work long hours, but we supervise ourselves. We can go at our own speed as long as we gather the right amount of food. We get fed okay, even if it’s not über-delicious.”
“And…the bad part.”
“I miss my family. A lot.”
I haven’t told her why I’m here yet. That I’m here to save everyone. I don’t know why, but I haven’t.
I’ll tell her when we really are friends.
That’ll be soon, at this rate.
That’ll be when I can call her ‘Gwen’.
I finally just open my eyes and get up. The cabin I share with Gwen has no windows, so our single lamp and keeping the door open are our only options for light.
Without my pesky alarm clock or the sun to get me up at my normal time, I don’t know when I’ve gotten up.
And, even though I’m on a different planet than my alarm clock, I still feel like it’ll go off in a moment until I kill the machinery for the millionth time.
The cabin’s dark. It could be noon, or it could be two a.m.—I seriously have no idea. Gwendolyn is still snoozing in her cot, but I don’t worry. Today’s our day off, as Gwen explained. She had already harvested her pounds of products, and I didn’t need to start right away. Tomorrow was the check-in, when I would start my slavery.
I push open the door and, careful not to wake Gwen, creep out.
The sky is dimly lit, and it’s quite humid. I slip behind our cabin to use the bathroom—aka, the hole dug in the ground. The grossest part? The pond where we got our water from is ten feet from the bathrooms.
Meaning, as I went, I could see our only fresh water.
Meaning, when I get water, I get to see my poop in a hole.
Well, isn’t that just delightful?
I finish doing my business and stride over to the door. My fingers dance along the doorknob but I pull them back as I plop down in front of my cabin.
I stare around in all directions. I’m on the moon as a slave. And yet, it doesn’t feel that different. I’m Princess Juniper as a slave on another planet, but it doesn’t feel that different.
I jump and hear the door shut. Gwendolyn sits down next to me. “Morning,” she says.
“Good morning,” I say.
I glance at her. Her eyes, a beautiful blue and amber mixture I’ve never seen on anybody before, are fixated on something in the distance.
“I wouldn’t call it good,” she says.
“We’re slaves on the moon,” she says, her voice a little hoarse. “It’s not all that good.”
“At least you have a roommate,” I say, trying to lighten up the mood.
“Yeah, thanks, Juniper,” she says, her gaze still somewhere far away.
I start to hug her but she quickly recoils. “Sorry,” escapes Gwen’s lips. “I’m not used to…people.”
“Please. Call me Gwen.” She smiles at me.
“So…we’re good friends now?”
“Yeah. You know”—she cocks her head at me—“I used to think you were a prissy little princess. I mean, you’re still a princess, but you’re not prissy.”
“I never was!” I protest.
She grins. “Yeah, okay. I’m just saying you’re different than I imagined you. I thought you would be this sniveling little baby, this slave who couldn’t suck anything up. I tho—”
“I get it! Geez!”
That gets a laugh out of Gwen. “Hey, how did you react when you got chosen for the lottery? I mean, I already know you’re tougher than I’d think, but how…” her voice trails off then tightens. “Wait. The royal family can’t enter the lottery.”
She turns to me. “Juniper?”
I bite my lip. “Um, yeah?”
“I’ve explained slavery to you. But you haven’t explained how you’re in slavery.”
I think about different ways to tell her. I volunteered to come here and had a plan to bust us out. “Well, let’s just say you might want to revise your impression of me again….”
“Nope, I’m serious.”
“That’s the thing. You’re usually not that serious. So I don’t really believe you.”
“Gwen!” I lightly punch her shoulder. “I’m going to sum this up for you, and you will listen.”
She flips her ponytail and gives me a knowing look. “Will I, now?”
“Yup. Again: I volunteered to be a slave. I’m here now, and I have the magical sphere. It’s like a replica of the real one my great-grandfather found a while ago. It has small powers, but more importantly, when all the orbs are placed together, they’ll cancel each other out and the moon spirits will never get their powers again.”
A moment of silence passed, then….
“Fine,” Gwen says. “I believe you.”
“You do?” I grin.
“Yeah,” she smirks back. “This sounds awesome—and I’d love to get off this moon and see my family—buuut, there’s one plot hole.”
The smile melts off my face. “What?”
“The only way we can get to Oacarro from the moon, and vice-versa, is by King Apollo or someone teleporting us. And if we rid them of their powers here, we can't…exactly…get back to our planet.”
I smack my head. “UGH! I’m so stupid!”
“No you’re not,” Gwen pats me on the head. “I mean, think whatever you wanna think, but this is still for the better. If the moon spirit’s powers go bye-bye, there’ll be no more tributes.”
“We’ll be stuck here, but no one else will be,” I say. “You’re right.”
“Yeah. I am. So…are we gonna do it?”
“Are we gonna?”
Gwen stood up and shook her head. “Not a chance! I’m not staying here forever; it just isn’t happening. We’re getting back to Oacarro. It will happen.”
I blink. “Okay, you have high hopes. Let’s just give up. We’ll still have done good.”
“NO! You’re crazy! You literally had the perfect life as a princess and you risked it to come here. You had a reason—this yearly tribute sucks. And that same reason is why we’re not only going to stop this nonsense, but we’re getting back home! Now, are you gonna quit, or are you going to help me do this thing?!”
I smile and stand up with her. “What’s the plan?”
There’s an awkward silence, then Gwen reminds me, “We don't have one, remember?”
“But,” I said, tapping my leg, “the moon spirits needed one. When they didn’t have their powers, they had to get to Oacarro to get the other sphere, remember? So they must have had a way to get to Oacarro with no powers.”
“Like a rocket,” Gwendolyn agrees. “But they don’t have one.”
I recall going to the bathroom (sorry, that’s a weird sentence). I grab Gwen’s hand and, before she can protest, lead us around the cabins. Sitting by the bathroom hole, the cabins are in front of us, ground stretches behind us, and way off to our left and a bit behind us—
“Rockets,” Gwen breaths, staring at the figures two or so miles away. “Really old rockets. Do you think they still work?”
“It’s our best bet,” I smile.
“Okay, are we going to do this? Take down King Apollo, Queen Selene, and their daughters once and for all?”
“Yes!” Gwen cheers.
“Hold on,” a voice calls.
Gwen pales and I madly glance around. “Hello?”
The back of our cabin shimmers and a tall, lean figure steps straight through the wood. She’s beautiful but it seems…unnatural. This girl looks maybe seventeen or eighteen, her white skin clear of any blemishes. She’s wearing a long, flowing maxi dress that’s also white, so her long, inky-black locks really make a statement. The bottom half of her hair is falling in an unbroken sheet to her waist, the top half twisted up. Also, she’s slightly glowing.
“Princess Celeste.” Gwen bows and so do I.
When we get back up, my friend and I share a nervous look. “How—how long were you standing here?” Celeste asks in a shaky voice. “The check in’s tomorrow. You're…early.”
“I am,” she agreed. “And…long enough.”
“Please don’t hurt us,” I beg.
“Oh, I won’t hurt you,” she laughs. “Actually, in a couple moments, y’all won’t be slaves anymore!”
“Really?” Gwen says, her multicolored eyes the size of dollar coins. “We’ll be free?”
I can’t believe it! Celeste heard us and admires us? She’s letting us go?
The princess steps forward. Gwen and I instinctively step back. “Princess Celeste?” I say. “We’ll…be free?”
She laughs again, but this time, much, much colder. She takes another step forward. “I’m afraid you’re misreading this situation. I won’t hurt you…no, not ‘hurt.’” She smiles wickedly and a second later, a glowing bow with an arrow already loaded into it is in her hand. “See, you won’t be free.”
She aims the arrow at us. “You’ll be dead.”