“Don’t give up until you find your Destiny.” For the first ten years of my life, my parents took pride in quoting those words to explain the happiness they found with each other. Then, an accident stole them away. At least, the drunk driver responsible for the car crash survived to tell a remorseful tale to high schools across the country. The only downside: high-schoolers don’t listen to lectures.
“Huh?” I answered.
The kind and open face of my English teacher lifted me out of my thoughts and into the mire of reality. “The bell rang,” she told me with a grin, hoisting a pile of papers and folders to her hip. “I suppose you could stay if you wanted.”
“Oh, it’s okay. I have lunch next.”
She was so young that I had to fight the urge to consider her a friend and not a teacher. So far, in this school, she was the most accepting person I had come across. Perhaps I was getting a tad desperate.
“See you tomorrow, Avi.” She bestowed a warm smile on me before bustling out of the room. I was alone in the rectangular, white room: just as I’d always been alone, especially as the only 17-year-old sophmore.
After a short walk to the lunchroom, I found the line longer than usual and within moments, growing longer as I stood there. I’d always fantasized about bashing the heads of the line cutters with a good, old cafeteria tray, but I never had the guts.Ten minutes passed before I got a paper plateful of food from the grim-faced lunch lady behind the metal serving counter.
The furniture of the cafeteria consisted of straight rows of long plastic tables. A few jocks, identified by their school-colors blazers, sat at the table next to the end of the lunch line. So close to the end, they could trip hapless students. Meanwhile, the school overlooked the occasional falls as the fault of the slippery tiling. The jokesters varied both who fell and the frequency of tripping to avoid suspicion of bullying. They had never even looked in my direction. Then again, few did.
I hadn’t made a single friend here. Everyone had grown up together, so they knew the others in their year. They were also wary of a girl who had been held back a couple of grades; no doubt rumors that I was dangerous or unstable had already done some damage. The true reason, however, was not scandalous in the least.
I had been a day-dreamer, who didn’t play with the other children or complete her school assignments. The world outside school had been much more intriguing, especially when my parents, both zoologists, brought their work home. With them, I felt safer than with the boisterous children at school. They also had much more interesting things to show me than any of the kids could offer. My parents were all I had. Now with my childhood over and my parents gone, I realized that I had missed something important. Still, I couldn’t define this gaping hole in my humanity.
Eyes unfocused, head down, I made my way to an empty table. It was the one furthest from the jocks, the popular seniors, the Goths, the juniors, the Asians, the tough guys—from just about everyone crammed into the room. At a corner of the empty table that usually attracted bookish types, I sat down and pinched off a piece of the chicken nugget on my plate. Then I dropped it. The morsels of slightly over-damp chicken in front of me had red halos. The light came from every cafeteria table, and the sight made my stomach clench.
One carton of milk later, with my plate still lit up like a stop light, I abandoned my seat and walked to the cafeteria office beside the shrinking lunch line.
“Can I help you?” At my sudden appearance in the doorway, the lady who ran the Board of School Nutrition raised her eyebrows. She was seated at a mud-brown metal desk, leaning back in her swivel chair with an obvious air of boredom.
“There is something wrong with the chicken,” I said.
For all the trouble I went through to warn them, the lady told me to head over to the principal’s office as she made a call to Principal Dontell. The hallways were empty, and the teachers who were lingering in the corridors seemed to look through me as I passed.
Inside the main school office, at the front desk, I filled out a form at the secretary’s insistence before she sent me into the room behind her. There, I sat in a leather chair and waited for news that would decide whether I was either crazy or correct. After an hour’s wait, the principal entered.
Dontell, in truth, looked like a Mafia boss with his black hair, straitlaced suit and severe visage. Today, he seemed even more Mob-esque with a grim look on his face. “There was a toxic amount of lead in the chicken,” he told me.
At my blank look, he repeated, “The cafeteria meat was contaminated.” Principal Dontell took a seat on his desk. “This could mean a great deal of trouble. How did you figure it out…” He consulted a folded paper in his hand. “Avi?”
I couldn’t tell him about glowing chicken, could I? “I just knew,” I stated.
“Was it planned?” My principal had just accused me of trying to kill the entire school…or at least the people in fifth period lunch. “Why don’t you sit here until this is settled?” he suggested before walking out of his office with a distracted air. For a man with so many framed awards and honors on his wall, he was at a loss.
I sank back into the leather seat with a sigh that no one heard. Had I made a mess of things? I didn’t really want to be here. As I shut my eyes to block out the office around me, soft, invisible fingers sealed them in place. Then the solid support beneath me dropped away, and my body twitched in alarm. It was as if a giant had tossed me into the air, and now the air was sucking me up, higher and higher to…to where, I had no idea.
Unable to force my eyelids up, I struggled against the force levitating me. When nothing changed, I flailed harder. To outside eyes, I must have looked like a lunatic. Perhaps Principal Dontell would return and then send me to the hospital. Was this what a seizure felt like? Suddenly, fear-fueled adrenaline shot down to my toes as my body reversed direction and began to plummet. Opening my eyes, I saw nothing but pure, velvet-black space.
At last my fall came to an end with a splash. Sputtering in the lukewarm, bubbly water, I surfaced and screamed in the face of the guy lounging in the tub that I had just landed in. He examined me and my soggy T-shirt and jeans with the casual interest of someone finding a colorful bug on a leaf.
“Where did you come from?” he murmured, slicking back a length of tawny, wet hair from his classically handsome face.
I froze. Somewhere under the water and the ridiculous mountain of bubbles was this dude’s naked body. As far as I could tell, we weren’t touching. So, while he sighed, I took a quick glance at the bathroom around the tub. The tiles looked gilded with real gold and embedded with patterns of multi-colored jewels. Where the hell was this place? Had the glowing cafeteria chicken come with hallucinogenic milk?
“It’s not customary to ignore your prince,” the guy said.
“Sorry,” I apologized before standing and leaping out of the tub like a frantic, freshly caught fish. I had made a sudsy mess on the stone floor, but there were probably maids to clean a place like this. Wait, PRINCE? “Prince of what?”
“Of Haiathiel,” he replied with his rounded chin perched upon the ceramic edge of the tub.
“Hai…” My mouth gave up on pronouncing it. Instead, I wrung out my hair. The steamy room with a prince was quite the change from the air-conditioned office of the principal.
“Are you new to this world?” the prince asked. Well…I had just dropped in out of nowhere! He didn’t even look surprised.
“Not sure.” Hai-whatever was not on the world map as far as I knew. “Your Highness,” I added for good measure.
He laughed. It was a glorious laugh, as warm as the sun. I dared to sneak a peek at him. He was still very handsome. Suitable for a royal, I supposed. “Few address me by that title anymore.”
“Why not?” I braided my dark hair and sat on the floor. My jeans made an unpleasant, unattractive squelching sound.
“Most believe I don’t deserve it,” he answered with a wry smile that would have made the girls at my school swoon. I turned away.
Why say that to a complete stranger? When I looked back at him, the prince had gone back to lounging in the tub with his face turned to the ceiling. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Avi.” I almost asked his name in return when I realized this guy would probably expect everyone to know his name.
“You may call me Cal,” he told me. Then, the nervousness in my chest faded a little. No one at my school would ever be this friendly or casual in a bathtub. A proper prince would have screamed at me to get out.
“So, which continent is your country on?” I asked. More importantly, how could I understand his language?
“Like Europe? Asia?”
“Those names are unfamiliar to me,” Cal answered with a sharp glance. The sight of green eyes—in a shade more common to cats than humans—almost made my heart stop. Maybe they were tinted with brown, but I would have to go closer to look. And I wasn’t planning on getting any closer.
“Then where am I?”
“You are at the court of King Aelius Calpurnius,” the prince intoned, “in the bathing room of his son Letris Calpurnius: both of whom are rulers of the kingdom of Haiathiel.”
A cosplayer? I wondered. Maybe there was a show with a storyline involving the royalty of Haiathiel? “Where am I really?”
Cal then turned a seductive smile on me. I flinched away. If smiles could rape you…his would. “Are you a lost, fallen angel then? Though, you are a little darkly colored for an angel.”
My appearance from the sky must have given him that idea. “No worries. I’m human. Just from a different world…apparently.”
Cal pouted. “Oh. How boring.”
Boring? Was this man messing with me? “Do people from other worlds come here often?”
“My father says the magic of the land sometimes escapes,” Cal explained matter-of-factly while I choked on disbelief. “It does odd things.”
Magic? I must have fallen asleep in the principal’s office then. I pinched the skin on my wrist hard enough to leave a mark but didn’t wake up. When I groaned, the prince of Haiathiel said, “You’re trembling, love. Shall I call someone to find you some dry attire or would you prefer to join me until I’m done?”
My scandalized look triggered another lovely laugh. Then Cal bellowed, “Jim! Jim!”
A few moments later, an old man arrived with an armful of towels. He gasped at the sight of me, and I felt my face flush. I had never had so much attention before.
“My lord! What is this girl…”
Cal waved at him. “Bring the girl with you. Clean her up.”
After Jim placed the prince’s towels in a pile beside the tub, he gripped my damp arm. “You astound me!” the old man called back as he dragged me out of the bathroom. What did he believe the prince had done to me? Maybe the elderly man could offer a proper explanation as to how I had gotten here?
Cal’s response, laced with amusement and sheer suggestiveness, made me burn from head to toe. “I know, Jim, I know.”
That was how I—a near victim of school-wide lead poisoning—first became entangled in Haiathiel’s history.