Chapter 1: Julian
Breaking the cardinal law of Rhine meant death. Julian just hoped it would be quick when it came.
He hoped, of course, that death would not come at all. He didn’t escape the city’s walls looking for an excuse to die—he escaped to make a name for himself. Sir Lawrence, they’d call him once he was knighted. The greatest botanist in Rhine.
First, he just had to make it back alive.
He had not travelled far. There had been a Silt mine not far from where he left Rhine behind to venture into the Gray. He’d been told that mining for Silt had been done mostly in the Loup Mountains, far from here, but perhaps this one was an outlier. Nevertheless, they’d all been closed down when Abdication came. The mine Julian was currently exploring had been abandoned long ago.
Standing where he was, he had never considered what the color of bone would like—at least, not outside of the illustrations he’d seen in books.
But now, looking at the skeleton before him, he had a rather vivid understanding.
In the waning light of the dingy lantern he’d found and managed to put match to, he could see it was the color of fresh parchment, diluted here and there with dirt from the floor of the abandoned mine he was standing in. It crunched delicately under his boots as he stumbled back and muffled a cry.
He was absolutely surrounded by bones, he could tell now. More than he could count—especially considering the fact that he’d been walking over them for some time now, only just realizing that they weren’t bits of shell and crockery from the nearby underground river, like he’d originally thought. They’d littered every step he’d taken on his way inside of the underground Silt repository.
As his heart decelerated, Julian swallowed the bubbling panic forming in his chest and forced himself to think rationally and not allow fear to turn him away from the challenge in front of him. It only took him a moment to gather that the nearest to whole skeleton in front of him was the corpse of an animal—most likely a cat, from the shape of the skull.
I should turn back now, he told himself sternly. Venturing forth and looking for an answer to these bones is splendidly stupid.
Julian bit the inside of his cheek and cast his eyes toward the obscure roof of the mine as the words Curiosity killed the cat echoed through his head and stepped over the long-dead feline, delving further into the mine—away from the safety of where he’d come from, within the fortified walls of Rhine.
It wasn’t a source for the bones that littered the mine that he wanted answers on, though. Julian had, after being taught for most of his life by his governess, Miss Sharp, began tutoring with one of the finest botanists in Rhine, Sir Dalton. He was renowned as the spearhead for finding a cure for any ailment. Once he’d taken Julian under his wing, at the age of 11, Sir Dalton had made it clear that the rest of his life’s work would be to try and find the one antidote no one else could: a cure for Silt.
Sir, Julian had said as he’d looked up from where he was stooped over a microscope, a cure for Silt is hardly a problem we need worry ourselves with. The Blighted had been sent out to die 85 years ago.
His tutor was old and quiet, with eyes the brown-and-green color of Icelandic moss. They stared so intently at Julian at times they made him feel almost as though he were trying to burn him from the inside out using nothing but his mind. Dalton was stern, but kind behind closed doors. He’d been more of a father figure to Julian than the uncle who’d raised him. The Blighted will be a worry, he’d told Julian in his quiet scratched tone, until there is a cure—no matter how high we build these walls.
Julian had rolled his eyes at the words before going back to his microscope, but the conversation had stuck with him long after. The monstrous, drug-addicted race of the Blighted was surely the thing of fairytale now. And Silt, the drug they were so addicted to, had stopped being mined as soon as they were sent out. Not only did Silt make their lifespans significantly shorter than those of the humans they once were, but also the Gray was not a place where people could survive in general. There was no civilization in the Gray, only chaos.
But his tutor’s zest for a cure was what had prompted him to leave the city in search of a plant that could help in the first place. He and Dalton had studied every flower, every bloody leaf within the confines of the city. Julian knew there would be no finding a cure for much with what limited flora they had within the walls.
Sir Dalton had once taken an airship past Rhine’s sister city, Zagros, to find a type of sea kelp that all but cured migraines. It was the farthest anyone had ever travelled, and Dalton was regaled as a hero upon his return. You need to be willing to go the distance for what your heart wants, Dalton had told him when Julian had asked about it, but also pay mind to what your head is telling you as well.
Even though Julian wasn’t sure why a cure for Silt would be worthwhile, he knew he had to go the distance if he wanted to become anything more than what he was in the present—an eighteen-year-old botany enthusiast, the adopted son of the Chief of the Royal Guard. Neither were titles a gentleman should aspire to. He wanted to become a name for himself within the city, one day taking his own pupil beneath his wing.
And to do that, he’d have to keep walking further into the Silt mine he was in.
Turning back, Julian knew, is what Bartholomew would have told him to do. For as outlandish as his life-long friend had always been, as soon as Julian had discovered the hole along one of the many walls that kept their city secure, he had ardently refused to accompany Julian through it and into the edge of the wooded Gray.
Not that Julian could blame him. The Gray, he and Bart had both been repeatedly told growing up, was full of thieves, murderers, outlaws, and any variation that came between. And if that wasn’t enough to steer one clear of the forested land, the monstrous race of the Blighted would.
Of course, Julian had surmised that this was all a ruse. The Blighted may have once been an existent race of beings—may even have been what brought the wall up to encompass Rhine and throw the rest out to fend for themselves in the first place—but Julian had yet to even hear whispered rumors of anything nefarious happening outside of Rhine. And if he could so easily have gotten himself out of the city, surely someone could have just as easily found a way in.
And that would have been more than something talked about in hushed gossip. Bart, as part of the Royal Guard, would have told him as soon as he was able, had anything even remotely that exiting happened. The two had been thick as thieves for as long as Julian could remember, though the two had been separated for an entire year while Bart underwent training as soon as he was initiated into the Guard and Julian had begun tutoring with Sir Dalton.
Once they were reunited once more, however, it was as though nothing between them had changed.
Julian wondered, as he pressed further into the cavernous mine, what his friend was going to say once he was told about the skeletons that had been discovered without him. He also wondered what Bart would think of the long trail of odd-looking flora Julian had discovered before that, leading him this far into the cavern to begin with. He’d collected samples to bring back to Sir Dalton to inspect—surely something growing within a Silt mine would have something to do with a cure for Silt—but Bart had always laughed at Julian’s interest in plants.
Bart’s anticipated response passed through the back of Julian’s mind as he continued traveling further, the light from the lantern his only source of illumination. Risking your neck for a little white flower? You’ve gone bonkers, haven’t you? For shame. And I suppose you’ll expect me to be the one to break the news to ol’ Greg and rip his delicate heart in two, yeah?
As the head of the Royal Guard, Julian’s uncle Gregory was not only the reason that Bartholomew had been accepted into their elite ranks. He was also the only reason that Julian had not been cast out into the Gray when he was merely an orphaned child. With the death of his parents came a hard choice that the citizens of Rhine had to make: Let the people of the Gray have him, or let a citizen raise him as their own. There were no orphans in Rhine, one of the many reasons the city could remain as well maintained as it always had been.
However, the man who had so selflessly raised Julian—and Bartholomew by default—was no kindly old nobleman. He was burly, cold and calculating, with the body of a bull and the sharp facial features of a silver hawk. Voices were reduced to mere whispers when he entered a room. Julian had even, on multiple occasions, nonetheless, seen people on the streets of the city bow in his presence, too intimidated to know how to properly address Julian’s uncle.
Just beneath the imaginary jesting tones of his friend, the baritone voice of his uncle crept into his mind at the thought of him finding out that Julian had broken the only unbreakable law of Rhine.
And as Julian skidded to a halt at what the light of his lantern had fallen upon, hanging on the wall of the cave before him, Gregory’s voice shot to the front of his mind, clearer and sharper than even the lifeless figure dangling from chains in front of him.
You’re a fool, boy. It’s going to get you killed. Or worse.