“We should wait until night,” Jamie says, biting his lip. They’re lying on their stomachs on the roof of the library, leaning over the edge. It’s one of the highest points in the city of Lunanoff and everything stretches out before them, cream and clean and sparkling in the sunlight. Jack grins at him and bumps their shoulders together.
“There’s no such thing as night, Jamie,” he says, doing a rather good impression of Mr Garrett, their least favourite teacher. “Lunanoff’s position near the north pole of the moon means that it does not have night, rather-”
“You know what I mean,” Jamie says, rolling his eyes. “We should wait for dark. We’re going to get caught again.”
“I’m a prince, Jamie, what are they going to do to me?”
“You’re a prince but what about me?”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Jack, I can’t get in trouble again. I’m supposed to be starting work with Councillor Marek next month.”
Jack frowns over at him; Jamie’s not usually the type to worry about a little telling off. He should know that Jack would never let anything happen to him. They’re best friends, and though Jack might get him in trouble he always gets him out of it too.
Maybe he’s just nervous; maybe he just needs a nudge.
Jack stands, shielding his eyes against the sun and after taking a deep breath, starts to run, getting up enough speed to leap onto the roof of the next building over, the city hall. He makes it easily, grinning as he hears a gasp below as someone spots him: they already have an audience. Turning, he sees Jamie pause and then get to his feet. He’s not as graceful as Jack but he’s capable, and he lands heavily by Jack’s side.
He looks at Jack, uncertainty flashing in his eyes. “If we get caught you have to stick up for me.”
“Of course,” Jack says with a laugh and walks to the edge of the roof, where it pushes up against the dome. Mr Garrett has given them many a lecture on the Dome; that it was built centuries ago, back before the Great War, when the city on the moon was just a summer retreat. He has told them who built it, with many complex spells that make it possible for them to live here, regulating air and a hundred other things that Jack never pays attention to.
The important thing for Jack’s plan is that the magic of the dome interacts with a person’s magical aura, creating a lightshow for all the city to see. As Jack steps closer it starts to flicker white and blue. Each step makes the colours brighter, bigger, and when he touches it they leap up, stretching toward the top of the dome. More cries from the streets below, a smattering of applause for the show they know is about to happen.
Jamie takes his place beside Jack, putting a hand to the Dome. While his own aura is nowhere near as strong as Jack’s, the purples and golds of his magic flicker brightly.
“Let’s go,” Jack says, and leads the way, running along the roof and leaping onto the next one. The light of their magic streams behind them and he can hear the yells and cries – mostly of appreciation – as the crowd gathers below. They have to leave the roof at one point when the distance is too far to jump, but they’ve done this before. Slide down one column, race up the hand-and-footholds provided by the decorative brickwork of the next building, and they’re back on the roof before the colours have even faded.
As they run Jack feels light, buoyed by the laughter and applause from below. Jamie laughs too and Jack looks over his shoulder to grin at him. There’s nothing better than this, having fun with his best friend and giving the people of Lunanoff something to smile at – this is what life is all about, not classes and endless lectures about etiquette.
And then there’s an explosion of sparks in front of him, green and yellow, as something hits the Dome. They skid to a stop. Only one person has magic the colour of springtime and it means their fun is over.
“Go,” Jack whispers to Jamie, who nods and runs to the edge of the roof and clambers over the side. Jack pauses before turning to greet the owner of the spring magic. It’s lucky, really – Bunny is Jack’s brother, nearest to him in age. However irascible he can be, he’s not the type to go ballistic about things unless they affect him personally.
Just as well he caught us before we got to the hydroponic gardens, Jack thinks, biting down on the smile that wants to dance over his lips.
He turns to grin a greeting at Bunny, but the words die on his lips when he sees that Bunny is dressed formally, his green overcoat marking his position as head botanist, gleaming brass buttons and epaulettes making him look very grand. Jack can’t even remember the last time he saw Bunny so formal. What’s this about?
“Bit dressed up for stopping mischief, Bunny.”
“It’s not about that,” Bunny says softly. He meets Jack’s eyes for a moment but then looks away. This isn’t like Bunny at all and Jack frowns.
“Then what is it about?”
“Father will tell you that himself.”
“Father…?” Now Jack is even more confused. Their father has little to do with his children – little to do with anyone. He stays in his private rooms, distant and aloof when he emerges. Things were different before the queen died, it is said, but Jack wouldn’t know; she died giving birth to him, something his father always manages to mention on the rare occasions they see each other. Jack’s good mood evaporates.
With a tap of his foot, Bunny creates a portal and gestures Jack through it. Jack gazes at it for a moment, then back at Bunny. He opens his mouth to ask another question then sighs. Bunny is one of the most stubborn people Jack knows and if he’s decided he’s not going to talk then there is no point in badgering him about it. Giving him one last frown, Jack steps into the portal. The journey through it is a twisting-turning slide of pure green, and it whisks away some of his annoyance.
On the other side Jack finds himself in the palace, somewhere in the East Wing. He looks around curiously. Long years have passed since Jack explored this part of the palace. The rooms of governance are here, which sound intriguing and political but are deadly dull, as are the men of his father’s council. Old and dusty, every one of them.
Deeper in the wing are his father’s personal quarters, and the ghost of Jack’s mother is everywhere. It has become a shrine to her, statues in every nook and portraits on every wall. Jack hates it. Grief fills the air, stagnant and choking, and Jack always feels the crushing weight of guilt and blame most keenly there.
Thankfully they don’t head that far. They stop outside an elegantly carved set of double doors, and Jack’s interest is piqued. The War Room. The one place he has never managed to break into. Protected by centuries of spells and guarded day and night, it is the most impenetrable place in the palace, probably in the whole city. Behind his interest is confusion; why has he been brought here?
“Don't ask, Jack. Father will explain everything.” He pauses and then reaches over, squeezing Jack's shoulder. His eyes are sad and Jack stares, confused and frustrated at being told nothing, and a little fear is starting to seep in as well.
Bunny steps forward to put his hands on the doors, and the guards standing before them step aside, spears standing to attention. He swings open the doors and gestures for Jack to enter; after a moment of hesitation, Jack does.
His father sits behind a large desk, fingers steepled. He watches Jack with pale eyes but doesn't speak. By his side is Benard, his chief councillor. Jack is surprised to see that Ben is dressed formally as well, his military uniform adorned with medals. Ben has always been a part of Jack's life, he's like family, and not once before has he seen Ben dressed like this. Comfortable robes and tunics are his usual garb, and it is strange to see the transformation. He stands straighter, seems bigger and stronger; it’s as if possessed by the shade of his younger self.
But then he smiles, Ben's usual friendly smile, and the illusion is shattered.
“Jack! Come in. Take a seat.”
Jack steps forward and the doors close behind him; Bunny doesn't follow him in. He glances around the room, curiosity warring with wariness. Everywhere are remnants of the world as it was centuries ago, before the Great War. One wall is covered in a map of the old world, each country marked out in a different metal. There is a model of their palace down on the planet that Jack recognises only from history books. It’s huge compared to the one on the moon but it must be dust now, Jack thinks, destroyed by war and time.
“Sit, sit,” Ben says with a thread of impatience in his voice, coming over to Jack and guiding him to a chair.
Jack sits and looks up at Ben, at his father. “So is someone going to tell me what's going on?”
“Jackson,” his father says softly, frowning at Jack as though he barely recognises him. “Look at you. All grown up. You look so like your mother.”
Vicious words leap to Jack's tongue and he clenches his jaw before they can escape. It does no good to bait his father with anger - it only makes him retreat further. Instead he sits perfectly still, unresponsive, waiting for someone to explain things.
The silence stretches out and with each passing second, the tension in the room grows thicker. Finally, Ben speaks.
“Your father is right, Jack. You're grown up now. Just look at you.”
“You saw me yesterday, Ben. Pretty sure I've not grown since then.”
Ben gives a soft laugh and nods. “Quite right. Well. I know you must be wondering why you're here.”
“You could say that.”
“It's why we remark on you being grown up,” his father says, voice cool and distant. “It's time for you to do your duty as a prince. To put away your childish games and diversions.”
“You know we are at war with Umbra,” Ben says before Jack can speak his annoyance with his father's attitude.
“Of course,” Jack says, as Ben goes over to the map and taps on Umbra, the country marked out in a dark metal. “But they're on the planet, we're up here on the moon. They don't have mages like ours so they can't get to us. It's not really a war.”
“They can't get up here, but we need to go down to the planet,” Ben says. “And if we are at war with Umbra that makes things difficult.”
“Why do we need to go down to the planet?”
“Because of the water, Jack. We don't have any.”
Jack frowns. “I don't understand - we've had the processing factory for years-”
Ben sighs and sits down heavily opposite Jack. “It's a ruse. A little white lie to keep the people feeling safe. The only water is down on the planet, and there's little enough there that isn't tainted. It's a precious resource, and we need something equally precious to trade for it. That's where you come in.”
Ben pauses, walks to the other side of the room, drumming his fingers on his round belly. “The Great Council has been deliberating for months: what do we have that King Pitch might want? We have few resources, nothing that he couldn't get down on the planet. But we have you.”
“I'm not following.” Suspicion creeps over Jack but he's sure he must be wrong, Ben can't possibly be suggesting what it sounds like he's suggesting.
“Well, the king will want a wife, of course, to give him heirs, so marriage is out of the question. Not to mention that it would be a grievous insult to offer the youngest child in any case-”
“Hey!” The indignant response is automatic. The rest of him is slowly realising that the more Ben speaks, the more it sounds like Jack's ridiculous suspicions might not be so ridiculous.
“But to give a prince as a courtesan - that would be a great offering.”
And there it is, out in the open, stated clearly. Even so, Jack cannot believe it. They can't be seriously suggesting that they want to offer him to the Nightmare King as a courtesan. There must be a misunderstanding, or-
“You are a virgin, of course?”
Jack gets to his feet, outraged and horrified, the truth of his situation hitting him like a punch to the face. “You can't do this,” he whispers, then looks over at his father, pleading. “I'm your son.”
“You are my son,” his father says quietly. “You are a prince, and it is your duty to protect the people of Lunanoff. If we go to the planet, Umbra's armies will attack - and we must go to the planet.”
“Part of the treaty guarantees the water that we need to survive, Jack. No more dangerous trips planetside! Because of your sacrifice, Lunanoff will be safe.”
“I don't want to be sacrificed-”
“When we first suggested it to Pitch, he was wary at first - but then we showed him your portrait he agreed quickly enough after that,” Ben says with a chuckle, and Jack can only stare at him. He is suggesting that Jack give up his freedom and work in Pitch's pleasure houses in much the same tone that he would plan a feast.
Jack steps back, the unreality of the moment crashing into his growing realisation that this is truly happening. “You can't do this!”
“It’s for the good of the people. It is your duty as a prince,” his father says. “Think of the lives you'll save!”
“If it's my duty as a prince,” Jack says, glaring up at him. “I'm not the only prince. Why me?”
His father barely pauses before answering. “Because you are the least important.”
Jack stares up at him. That much is obvious from the way he has been treated all of his life, but to hear it stated so boldly... He feels tears well in his eyes and clenches his jaw. He will not cry.
“Take him to the priests,” his father says, turning away and going back to his seat. “The mages say that the best time for the bridge will be tomorrow, in the early evening. He must be cleansed and prepared by then.”
“Come, Jack,” Ben says, pulling on his arm. “Let us get out of here.”
As he is led to the temple, Jack considers running, but where would he go? Besides, he feels heavy, so heavy, and it is difficult to pick up his feet and follow Ben. He tries to think things through but his thoughts are as sluggish as his steps. Whenever he tries to think things through, his mind hits a wall of disbelief.
All he can think is that his father chose to do this to him - we suggested this to Pitch, Ben said. Not that Pitch asked for Jack – his father offered Jack as a sacrifice. That is so much worse that Jack’s mind can barely grasp it, shying away from the horrific truth.
The temple is one of the grandest buildings in Lunanoff, second only to the palace. Gold leaf and ornate paintings cover every wall and the windows are so covered in coloured glass that the outside can barely be seen and the interior is a wash of colours.
One of the aides steps forward, covered in a long, embroidered robe from head to toe. Only their eyes are showing, pale blue with long lashes. They reach out a hand to take Jack’s, and lead him to a door that Jack has never been through before.
“What’s happening?” Jack asks, and tries to pull his hand away, but the aide is strong. “What are going to do to me?”
The aide doesn’t answer; they are forbidden to speak other than during rites. Jack turns to Ben, to put the question to him, but when he sees Ben smiling at him like a proud parent he can only stare. Can he not see how afraid Jack is? Does he not care? The aide clears their throat to get Jack’s attention, tugging on his hand.
He lets himself be pulled through to the inner sanctum, where the walls are so densely packed with painted icons that Jack feels dizzy, or perhaps that’s the incense that seems to cloud his mind and blur his thoughts. It does nothing to numb the fear and confusion, but his thoughts are slow and his body feels so heavy; he couldn’t run even if he wanted to.
Two more aides step into the room and undress him, and other than a muffled Hey, Jack can do nothing to stop them. He feels embarrassed and vulnerable in his nakedness, especially when more aides step into the room, seven of them all together, and start to circle him, chanting low and resonant.
There are more rituals: he is dragged naked to the next room where oil is poured over him and sand rubbed into his skin, to the next where he is given a bitter brew that makes him dizzy, and finally he is forced to his knees as a circle of candles are lit around him.
“Help me,” he whispers - to the aides, to the gods, to anyone, but no-one answers. This room too is thick with the sweet smoke, and he can do nothing to help himself. The incense does strange things to time and it feels like he is there for moments, for hours, both and neither. And then he is being dragged to his feet, washed with cold water that does a little to wake him from the drug-induced stupor – for that is what the incense is, he’s sure of it – but not enough for him to run.
And then he is pushed into a room so small that he cannot stand, that he has to get onto his knees. The heavy door is locked behind him with an ominous thud.
This can't be happening, he thinks again, but he knows it is. He tries to consider it as Ben said - he'll be bringing about peace, saving lives.
But all he can think of is his father's courtesans, beautiful women who never smile, who open their legs on his father's command. Perhaps it is not a bad life - they live in luxury, they want for nothing. It is a religious calling and they see it as serving the gods, but they chose that life.
Jack has no such choice.
And though he never answered Ben's question, he is a virgin. He's never done anything more than pleasure Jamie with his hand. What does he know about being a courtesan?
And then there is Pitch's nickname, the Nightmare King - he is said to be cruel, a tyrant and a torturer.
Think of the lives you'll save, Jack tries to say to himself.
“But what about my life?”
At last, Jack allows himself to cry.
The next morning Jack is pulled out of the room after a night of broken sleep. He is exhausted and every limb is stiff, but he is given no time to recover. He is wrapped in a simple white robe and dragged across the city by the aides and a contingent of temple guards, leaving a whispering crowd in his wake.
He is taken to the dressing rooms of the palace, usually bustling with men and women wanting to be made beautiful, but today the place is deserted.
Jack sits without moving as he is dressed and made-up, as needles are pushed through his ears and lips so that he can be adorned with jewellery.
He feels numb and repeats his father’s words over and over in his mind:
It’s for the good of the people.
It’s your duty as a prince.
Think of all the lives you’ll save.
And then scrabbing-screaming thoughts break into his numbness, but I’ll be a slave, a courtesan, to the Nightmare King-
It’s for the good of the people.
It’s your duty as a prince.
Think of all the lives you’ll save.
Finally the dressers finish, and they pull him to his feet. The clothes feel strange, nothing like he would normally wear; heavy layers of embroidered fabrics, thick with gold thread and beads. Ornate yet easy to remove. Not made for racing across rooftops or climbing buildings, but -
Jack stops himself, taking a shaky breath and clenching his fists.
The dressers lead him to the door, sighing over how lovely he looks, and with every move his new outfit is a chorus of mocking chimes from the jewellery, cruel whispers of his robe brushing against the floor.
Outside wait six guards, spears in their hands and swords at their sides. An honour guard, supposedly, here to protect the Moon Kingdom’s youngest prince, but Jack knows that their real purpose is to stop him escaping.
They surround him and they begin their journey to the dock. Jack is blind to the grandeur of the palace. This may be the last time he sees his home but he can’t seem to lift his head. All he can do is look down at the marble floor and the knotted leather of his sandals. The effort of pushing down the choking despair weighs heavily on his shoulders.
He blinks as they step outside into the eternal sunshine, and looks out onto the plaza in front of the palace. The king’s court has gathered to watch the procession, and they whisper behind fans as Jack is nudged down the steps. As he passes them, almost-strangers and supposed-friends alike, no-one makes a move to help him. One woman, a friend of Bunny’s, throws a flower to him. It is deftly caught by one of the guards, crushed in his huge hand, and whatever words were on the woman’s lips wither and die.
The rest of the journey continues without mishap and they arrive at the dock in less than an hour.
It is normally used to send warriors down to the planet below, and Jack has only been here once or twice, always finding it grand but boring. Now he looks at it with wide eyes. The fear is growing in him, eating away at his insides, wrapping around his throat like vines.
The guards bring him to the platform that dominates the space. A canvas cabana stands at one side and a magic circle covers the other, surrounded by chanting mages.
His family stands beside the cabana. Each of them is dressed formally and they act formally, nodding and shaking his hand. Jack can see the doubt in Bunny’s eyes, in North’s, but neither of them act.
When he reaches Tooth, his calm breaks, shatters into jagged pieces.
“Help me,” he begs, grabbing her hands. “Please, Tooth, don’t let them do this, don’t let them send me-”
But he is pulled roughly away from his sister and though she reaches for him, her hands quickly drop to her sides. She clenches her jaw, as stoic as their brothers.
“Now, Jack, don’t cry,” a familiar voice says, and Jack looks to see Ben approach. He gives Jack a smile and dabs at his cheeks with a piece of silk. “You’ll ruin your make-up.”
Jack can only stare. This man is like an uncle to him, yet when Jack is to be given as a slave to the Nightmare King, all he can worry about is Jack’s make-up?
And then Jack’s father steps out of the cabana. The rush of hatred that wells up startles Jack in its intensity, but then, why shouldn’t Jack hate him? Yes, the king is his father, but what kind of father gives away his child to his enemy?
It’s your duty as a prince, Jack thinks, and snarls, shaking as anger and fear collide in him.
The king doesn’t notice; he refuses to look at Jack. He gives a short, rehearsed speech full of flowery words and gratitude to Jack for making this sacrifice, and then steps back into the cabana.
Jack is pushed towards the circle of mages who will send him down to the planet, and as they start to chant, low and ominous, Jack turns to his siblings, another cry for help rising in him-
They are not even looking at him.
No-one will save him.
The silvery light of the bridge that connects the moon to the planet grows stronger. When it is almost blinding, Jack is pushed into it and he disappears into the liquid silver.