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The Madness Project — Chapter 1

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Prince Tarik — Age 5

I’d never ridden a train before, and I’d never seen the sea. In the summer when I was five, the great steam beast carried Mother and Father and me to the port city of Ridgemark to see the newest ship in Father’s fleet. All around us, sailors and officers in great big hats and brass studded coats swarmed the docks, their shouts carrying over the creak of ropes and the cry of gulls. The wood planks stank of salt and fish, and men with mops and brooms scrubbed and scrubbed, but they couldn’t drive away the smell.

My nanny sniffed, pressing a lace kerchief to her nose until she saw that my mother didn’t bother. We stood side by side watching the endless blue sea, dazzling under a warmer sun than we ever saw in Brinmark. I fidgeted and craned my neck, trying to see the little tug boats and the seabirds that swooped at the trawlers’ decks. Finally Nana relented and led me along the quay wall. I wanted to walk on top of the low stones, but my guard Zagger would never let me—or even if he did, Nana would surely kill him. He stayed a few steps behind me, tall and silent in his long black trencher, grumbling every time I stepped too close to the wall.

“Do you see that, Your Highness?” Nana asked, nodding toward the dock. “That’s the new steamship.”

I frowned up at the huge ship looming in its berth, a floating blue and white fortress so big it made its own clouds.

“What are those red tubes for?” I asked, and counted them off, one to five.

“Those are called funnels. It’s how the steam gets out of the engines.”

The cool wind sent the steam coiling toward us, smelling of burnt coal and paint. As we walked toward the huge ship, I watched the sailors hurrying around the wharf, some in loose green shirts and billowing pants, some in smart white Naval uniforms. I thought I looked just like the Navy sailors, in my crisp white shorts and shirt and blue-striped tie. A knot of them moved aside as we passed, tipping their hats to me. I tipped mine back until Nana rebuked me.

“A prince doesn’t tip his hat to the ratings,” she said.

“I think they’re swell.”

She clucked. “Delightful. Or possibly admirable. Not swell, Your Highness. That’s a vulgar word.”

“Admirable,” I mumbled, and thought it an ugly word.

I glanced back at Zagger and made a face. He grinned, until Nana turned and he blushed.  He towered over her, and I thought he must be as strong as twenty other men, but my nanny could make any man blush when she glared.

“Will they sail the ship?” I asked Nana.

I tried to tug out of her grip again, but her hand was a vice on my arm, the lace of her glove scratching my bare skin.

“Not today,” she said. Her mouth puckered in a little frown. “There’s a bad wind blowing.”

“What’s a bad wind? I thought the steamship didn’t need the wind,” I said, proud to remember what my best friend Griff’s father had told me. Griff’s father was the Defense Minister. That wasn’t as important as being the King, but I never told Griff that.

“They won’t sail in this wind, no matter what.” Nana let go of my hand to settle her little round hat on her head, because the naughty wind had nearly blown it off. “It’s not natural.”

With my hand free, I took my chance and bolted to the wall. Zagger swore and Nana whacked him with her parasol and sent him running after me.

“Your Highness, please come down off that wall!” he called. “Don’t make me pull you down.”

I laughed and skipped away from him, watching the foam of the waves slap the slimy stones far down below. The wind picked up, and I stood still. All around me the air twisted and moved, creeping about like a living thing. It snaked around my ankles, and circled round my neck. Fingers of wind tangled my hair, pushing my head. Pushing me forward…

“Zagger!” I shrieked.

The wind unleashed against me and I stumbled, and Zagger’s arms flashed around me, pulling me away from the wall, away from the wind. I clung to him. He didn’t set me down but brought me back to Nana, who tsked and scolded, her words blurred with tears.  I twisted about in Zagger’s arms, wild for a glimpse of Mother and Father, desperate to see they hadn’t been stolen away by the wind. Some of the guards had drawn in close around them, keeping Mother from running to me. But Father didn’t seem to care about the weather. He was a great tall man, fine in his naval uniform with its row upon row of ribbons and medals, scowling a scowl that could silence the strongest winds. Nothing could scare him. I lifted my chin, because I could be just as brave.

I squirmed and Zagger set me down, but he didn’t let go of my shoulder till he’d looked me long and hard in the eye. I edged a bit further inland under that stare, shying away from the wall.

“Is the wind magic?” I whispered.

“What do you know of magic?” Nana asked, sharp.

“Griff told me all about the Jixies.” I bit my tongue when I almost told her about Griff’s friend, because Griff had said it was supposed to be a secret. I would never tell a secret, not like Griff. Instead I tossed my head, saying, “He told me some of them can change the winds.”

She drew herself up. I imagined horns and wings sprouting all over her, and fire coming from her nose.

“That’s quite enough talk of Jixies, Your Highness! Magic is not a topic of polite conversation, and you’d do well to remind young Master Farro of that. And Miss Von. I know how the three of you go on.”

“But Samyr doesn’t—”

She tutted and held up a finger. “No buts, Your Highness. It’s not becoming.”

My father beckoned to us then, so I didn’t get to argue with her any more. We joined him and Mother just as the biggest man I’d ever seen marched up to meet us.

“Captain,” my father’s chief guard said. “What’s your report?”

The captain saluted smartly to my father, brass buttons glinting. A hundred wrinkles lined his face and a bushy red mustachio, stiff with wax, blanketed his lips. He didn’t wear a naval uniform like my father, because he captained a passenger ship that carried people all around the world.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “please accept my deepest apologies, but I’m afraid we’re not going to put to sea this morning. The maiden voyage will have to be postponed. The wind…the wind’s not behaving.” His mustache twitched, and his eyes shifted down to me. “You’ll understand why I say no more. The Ridgemark police are searching the area.”

I glanced at Nana and thought she looked rather smug to be proved right. My father held up his hand and the captain saluted and retreated, while the guards closed in around us.

It had to be magic. The silly captain couldn’t really think I wouldn’t figure it out. I tugged free from Nana and ran to my mother.

“Are there Jixies here?” I whispered. “Jixy Winds?”

“Nonsense, Tarik. What a thing to suggest! Come along.”

She took my hand and I jumped, because when she touched me, a little fuzzy prickle chased up my arm. She froze, her face turning terribly pale.

“What’s wrong, darling?” she asked, crouching beside me, her sea-green hat shading my eyes from the sun. “Are you well?”

Nana stopped at my shoulder, but Mother shot her and Zagger a stern glance, sending them away where they couldn’t hear us.

“What’s wrong with the child?” my father asked.

“It’s nothing, love,” she said. “Leave him to me.”

“When you touched my hand, it felt so odd,” I said after Father had left with his guards. I rubbed my palms. “Like little ants crawling around inside.”

I’d never seen sadness like the sadness that filled her eyes. But she simply kissed my head and took my hand, and together we returned to the train. My father waited for us outside the passenger car with his chief guard close by his shoulder.

“There must be more than just one out there,” the guard told him as we arrived.

“The boy doesn’t need to hear this nonsense. Carry on.” The guard withdrew and my father smiled down at me, ruffling my hair. “Did you like the steamship?”

“It was enormous!” I said. “And it smelled. I loved it.”

He laughed and stepped onto the train, and we all followed him aboard. The engineer didn’t make us wait. I suppose my father’s guards told him to drive the train home that very minute, because as soon as we were on, the doors shut and the whistle blew, and the floor shifted and swayed beneath my feet. The train station crept away, and the seaside swept away, and we came into the rolling hills and the inland rain.

We had the whole passenger car to ourselves. Mother and Father sat in the plush velvet seats to one side, a heavy curtain falling across half the door of the booth. Nana knitted stockings in the rear of the car, and Zagger sat with Father’s guard detail at a table across from her. Father’s guards were all so much older and crosser than Zagger, but I knew he felt important to sit with them, so I didn’t mind even if it left me all alone.

I took out the wooden steamship Griff’s father had given me and lay on my belly under the window bench, setting the boat to sail on the vast waters of the plush carpet. I imagined I was a ship’s captain, with a big black mustachio and a fearsome scar skipping right over my eye.

My face tingled.

I leaned my head on my arm and whistled like the wind as my boat crested massive waves.  A mirror-like band of steel along the bottom of the cabin wall reflected my ship, so I sent the steamer on a collision course with the enemy boat…

…And saw my own face.

I had a big black mustachio, and a fearsome scar skipping right over my eye.

My teeth chattered. I peered closer, and the mustachioed face peered closer. I pulled away, and the scarred face pulled away. With one hand I clutched my steamship, and with the other I tugged on the ends of the black whiskers. They were real. I had real whiskers, just like a grownup man.

“Mummy,” I whispered, and backed out from under the bench. I scampered across the aisle and ducked past the red velvet curtain. “Papa, look! I’m a man!”

Mother clapped a hand over her mouth, turning terribly pale.

“What the devil!” Father hissed, squinting at me through a scowl black as thunder. His hand gripped my shoulder and he pulled me toward him, taking my chin in his other hand. “What the devil! What is this trickery?”

“I did it,” I said, confused. Why was he so angry?

He released my chin. I breathed out, but too soon. All at once, his hand flashed out and struck me in the face. I stumbled, falling against my mother’s legs. The world blurred and rocked, and my face stung like a nest of bees. He’d never hit me before. Never. My father wouldn’t do that.

Mother pulled me into her lap, covering my face.

“Trabin.”

She said it so quietly I barely heard her. I peeked at my father, but the anger twisting his face terrified me. He said nothing, only stared at Mother, while Mother stared at him, hardly breathing. Her hands turned to ice.

“Trabin. Don’t hurt the child. Don’t blame him.”

“You.” His breath snaked out. “You lied to me, Elanar…” The anger faded, and turned to stone. “Why?”

“Why are you mad at Mummy?” I asked, gulping through my tears. “She didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t be angry with her! I didn’t mean to make you angry.”

I buried my head in my hands and felt the whiskers disappear, leaving my own face just the way it belonged. Father leaned toward us and gripped my arm, so hard I gasped.

“Don’t ever do that again,” he said, his voice a terrible growl. “Don’t speak of it to anyone. Not to your nanny, not to Zagger, not to any of your friends. No one. Do you understand me?”

His fingers flexed, and I flinched, sobbing, “I understand.”

He released me and fixed his stare on Mother. “You and I will talk later.”

I couldn’t stop shaking. I felt Mother’s tears coming before they fell, and threw my arms around her neck.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Why did my face do that? What’s wrong with me?”

She pulled me close, her hand on my head, kisses in my hair. I didn’t want to look at my Father again, but I couldn’t help peeking at him through my fingers. For endless long moments he watched us, cold and quiet. Then he got up and pulled out a cigar, and strolled from the booth.

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