Aini MacGregor and her father, Lewis, descended the rough stone stairs into Edinburgh’s most upscale and quirkiest venue, The Caves. Recessed bulbs dripped sparkling light over the short, fluffy layers of Aini’s silver dress.
The whole situation would’ve been uniquely lovely if it weren’t for the cages.
Thankfully, the hanging metal traps were empty of bodies, but one sign still swung from the closest cage. White paint spelled out SIXTH-SENSER ABOMINATION. Aini forced her panic down and touched her pocket. Beside her phone, her satin gloves—totally out-of-style but totally necessary to avoid such cages—sat folded and ready for shaking hands and formal dancing.
Father put a gentle hand on Aini’s back and eased her into the ballroom. “We’re going to have great success tonight.” He smoothed his black and white beard even though it didn’t need fixing. “We aren’t criminals. We don’t need to fear the king or the Campbells.”
Clan Campbell upheld the king’s rules in Scotland. A list of those rules glowed under a bright light on the far wall, beside a row of pink tables. Tax amounts. Marriage laws. The one that said only Campbells were permitted to wear family tartan. Rewards and punishments related to reporting sixth-sensers and rebel sympathizers. Except for reporting people—she’d never met another sixth-senser—Aini followed all the rules perfectly.
Well, not the rules she broke simply by existing.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and re-pinned her hair neatly. It never wanted to behave, but she bent it to her will like she did everything else.
As she curtseyed before the makeshift dais and ignored the buzz of her phone in her pocket, the king’s bloodshot eyes studied her.
“My favorite candy chemists,” he said to her and Father, his oiled curls glistening in the low light. “I hope you enjoy my party. I will cross my fingers the duchess approves of your creations. Without her approval, I don’t think your…interesting business would survive.”
Father said something, but the words disappeared under the ringing in Aini’s ears. Why was the king staring so intently? His gaze sliced her skin like a knife, like he could peel away the layers and see her secret hiding deep inside. Her heart beat so loudly, she barely heard Father when he said, “Come on,” into her ear and urged her away from the dais.
Hands shaking, she pulled out her phone.
“I wish you weren’t so afraid of him.” A frown perched inside Father’s beard. “But I suppose it’s a healthy fear,” he whispered as they made their way toward their candy display.
Shaking off the encounter, Aini checked her messages. There was one from Neve, the girl hoping to become Father’s candy apprentice. Aini planned to go over the girl’s resume after the king’s birthday celebration finally ended and the king was out of Edinburgh and back in London where he belonged. Not that she felt all cozy and fine with his head of security, Nathair Campbell, who was almost always in Edinburgh. His latest speeches on the king’s behalf showed he was well on his way to being as bad as the king himself. In school, a girl in history had speculated on the way the British Empire would’ve turned out if some queen could’ve held her throne. Maybe our king would never have been born, she’d said the day she was expelled and disgraced. There was no point in wondering why things were the way they were. They just had to deal with it as best they could.
Father pointed to the trays of their candy on the long buffet table in front of a row of new mirrors and raised a tidy, grayed eyebrow. “The king will either A) love the look of our candy display or B) hate the fact that his reflection is hidden for three hours.”
Aini rolled her eyes. “Definitely B.”
She gritted her teeth, wishing they didn’t have to be here. But they definitely did. Their boutique sweet company, Enliven, depended on the wealthy of Scotland and England. And what better place to catch new rich clients than the king’s party? Little did the monster know that a good chunk of their profits went to charities to help those hurt by his increasing taxes in Scotland—the poor, the homeless. It wasn’t against the rules, so it was all right. Plus the duchess was here and she controlled all commerce in Edinburgh. If she didn’t approve Enliven’s latest business plan, they’d have to shut down.
“There’s the duchess,” Father said over the string quartet and the DJ’s accompanying gentle bassline. “We must show her how wonderful our sweets are. You know we need her signature on this before the end of the night.” He reached into his tailored jacket and showed just the corner of a folded sheet of paper—their business plan. “Who knows when we’ll get a chance again? Are you still up for talking to her, squirrel?”
Father had used the nickname since her penchant for climbing trees became apparent at seven years old. She’d never had many trees to climb at their home in Edinburgh—only the one maple in front of the townhouse—but before Mother died, she’d climbed every oak, pine, and elm she came across in the New England colonies as they traveled with the dancing troupe. Sadness still pierced Aini and it always would, she supposed, when she thought of Mother. Life was good with Father here though. No arguments or moving around. It was much more settled.
Aini reached for a hard candy from the display. “I’m all in.” The scent of grapes and lavender filled the air as Aini’s to-do list filled her head.
Father’s grin made his trim beard stick out a little.
Aini squeezed his arm gently and left to find her target.
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