A Stake in Secrets

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Chapter 4 - Finn

“The more you have, the better.”

That was my mantra as a kid, and that was the reason why Huguer caught me shoplifting at the flea market, at the apothecary, and unfortunately at my mom’s night dresser.

It was never about greed.

I mostly took the cheapest items I could find—bananas, tea leaves, you name it. I did it for the satisfaction of doing something bad and getting away with it.

Most of all, my unruliness was contagious. I got myself a fan club, a group of boys—sons of court officials, palace guards, farmers, scribes, and more.

I educated them in creating inconvenience: how to get over the palace wall using just a hemp rope, how to get bugs to crawl into the pant legs of those stiff, unmoving palace guards, how to substitute their mothers’ face powder with baking soda, how to steal the scribes’ permanent ink and use it to write curses on the palace walls, and how to debauch the most innocent, virtuous girls with a few lines of foreplay.

In our world, the number of items pickpocketed, the number of good things destroyed, and the number of girls you attracted determined your prowess.

The world was full of people trying to protect their things from getting broken or stolen, and I was having the time of my life ensuring that they would have the hardest time doing so.

One of my most expensive pursuits, in terms of value and strategic planning, came down to a game of tug-of-war between my mom and me. The object we were tugging at was her favorite diamond necklace.

The end result—six palace guards following me at all times for a month. I did manage to escape through the bathroom stall one time during the detainment period, but again, that’s a different story.

My mom wasn’t the queenly type. She didn’t sit still on a throne and dress up in lavish dresses. She didn’t spend her time greeting court officials or sipping tea.

Instead, she spent her time exploring.

She snuck out of the palace to go to festivals in the Common Square when my father was busy placating the Board of Premiers because the palace was one huge bore to her.

When my father told Huguer to keep an eye on her, she explored the different worlds in books.

She dressed in denim, the material of laborers and farmers, and kept her wavy chestnut hair wild and free like those young girls in the country who haven’t quite learned the discipline of an adult.

Like a kid, she fought with me, and fought we did. Most arguments went down like a pendulum.

I would pout, “You never let me go to the Annual Jamboree! I never get any fun! All the other kids are going!”

My mom would cross her arms and holler, “You’re a Prince! Why would you want to go to something so rowdy and dangerous?”

I would use wild hand gestures and scream back, “You go to festivals all the time, and you’re the Queen!”

In the end, I was always allowed to go, with Huguer evidently, because my mom didn’t want to look like the biggest hypocrite.

While I had more of my mom in me, Benedict had more of my father.

My father was a stern man. He rarely smiled and laughed. He scrunched his eyebrows so much that he had creases in the intersection between the bridge of his nose, his tired eyes, and eyebrows. I called those creases the Rolling Hills. I told him about that once. When he raised his eyebrows, the Rolling Hills migrated to his forehead instead.

In hindsight, my predilection for trouble may have been a partial cause for those Hills.

Fortunately, my older brother was always there to give my father some relief.

Benedict was the perfect one—in body, spirit, and mind. He never spoke bad of others, coaxed my father not to yell at me for my stupidity, and treated women and our instructors with the utmost respect.

Under my father’s demands, Benedict and I had an instructor come in everyday to teach us a few hours of the classics, politics, geography, and geology.

When I was young, I hated it and thought of every possible way to eject those instructors.

If the instructor was a woman, I would cultivate my most innocent twelve-year-old voice and ask her about the dry ends of her hair and the amount of makeup she wore.

I would estimate her age, making sure the number I gave was high enough so that she would turn rouge with anger, embarrassment, self-doubt, or maybe all three.

If the instructor was a man, I would pick on his bodily size and his competence on a particular subject. I would ask questions that challenged his political bias.

If he supported a union of laborers, I asked him who would be responsible for the wage increases.

I would mischievously assert that it would be best if the people who supported the union, like the instructor himself, paid for it, since I and the rest of the non-supporters had better uses for our money.

If the instructor did not support a woman aborting a child, I would ask him what he would do if his wife slept with another man and became pregnant.

As you could guess, there were a lot of rouge and many departures.

The only one I couldn’t eject from the role of instructor was Ms. Waxen. She had the stickiness of a gnat, who bit and wouldn’t let go.

I tried every tactic to get rid of her.

“Ms. Waxen.” I would grin from ear to ear. “Could I ask you a question?”

“Yes, Mr. Carter.”

I hated how she called me that. She never called me “your grace” like the others. I asked her about it once, and she said she thought I deserved the title only when I was ready to rule the kingdom.

I complained to my father about it once, but he was busy dwelling in his own thoughts and mumbled something like “It’s fine.” I complained to my mom after, but she told me that Ms. Waxen was kind enough to call me Mr. Carter rather than Finnick. Hurrah to etiquette, am I right?

I couldn’t help my eyes from glistening with naughtiness. I had a plan. I was ready to reach this woman’s bottom line. “Why do you spend so much time with Benedict and me? Don’t you miss your grandchildren?” The woman looked the same age as my mom, but I couldn’t let her know that.

She didn’t even bat an eye. “I want you boys to learn more about the world so that you grow up aware of all the possibilities it has the offer. Life is about meeting mountains and climbing over them. The more mountains you see, the more ways you know how to get over them.”

She paused, as if in thought, then continued, “As for grandchildren, I have none. I’m not a mother, you see.”

Despite the fact that this woman actually answered my question and with an ease my previous instructors did not have, I was determined not to give up.

“Why don’t you have children?” I ask.

“My situation doesn’t allow me to.”

I wanted to probe further, but Benedict kept giving me looks, so I decided to end that line of discussion.

After ten minutes of studying the geographical layout of the Obsidian Clan, I soon thought of a new incursion. “Ms. Waxen. . .”

“Yes?”

“Could you tell us about the Forbidden City?”

I heard my brother hold his breath. I had asked the unthinkable, the unspeakable. The Forbidden City was not to be mentioned. It wasn’t treason, but it was a social transgression.

For a moment, the room was silent.

To my surprise, Ms. Waxen murmured, albeit carefully, “Yes.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw my brother sit up a bit straighter. He was intrigued, although he would never admit it to me.

With a glass rod, Ms. Waxen stirred her cup of lemon tea and spoke, “The Forbidden City is a place where we send the felons, exiles, and outcasts. Each individual is locked up forever there and is brought under the care of a Fluorite. The Fluorites then take. . .”

I cut her off. “What’s a Fluorite?”

“A Fluorite is a woman who dedicates her life to work within the Forbidden City. She chooses not to marry or have children and is often accompanied by an Umbra, or a man who swears on his life to protect her until the day she dies. Fluorites are in charge of watching over the criminals of the City, who are locked up in underground dungeons.”

I grimaced. “Why would anyone want to have such a miserable job?”

Ms. Waxen laughed. “No, they don’t plan to do that forever. There are hundreds of Fluorites, but they’re all in the Forbidden City because they want to become the select few who make it to the top. They want to become one of the Nine Lead Fluorites.

“The Nine Lead Fluorites have access to an immense amount of treasure. All the riches and antiques pillaged by the criminals in the City come under their possession. Not only are they materially superior, but they also have the most valuable asset in the world.”

I perked my ears. “What’s that?”

“Information. Tons of information. All four Clans—Obsidian, Gneiss, Limestone, and Copper—send their worst offenders to the Forbidden City. And you know, criminals would do anything to make their lives more comfortable there. So they offer the Lead Fluorites information in exchange for a cozier cell, better food, more privacy, and, if necessary, the act of looking the other way when they murder a cellmate.”

I crossed my arms and furrowed my brows. “What’s the use of having so much information?”

Ms. Waxen’s blond curls danced like buttercups on a windy spring day. Her sapphire eyes pierce mine as she says quietly, “They use it to control people.”

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