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The Fourth Door





J.D. Morganne











The Fourth Door

Book One

Copyright © 2017 by J.D. Morganne



All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.



No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the author.



The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or otherwise, is coincidental and not intended by the author.











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The Fourth Door

















PART ONE



Chapter One

Rumors of Volcanos



“I heard a volcano killed everybody,” Niko said, her chin pointed confidently. “Like that story mama told us about the Yellowstone Caldera.”

Kenner rolled his eyes and pushed her with his shoulder. “Then why didn’t it leak into our door, stupid?” His eyebrows were permanently drawn down, giving the impression that he was always angry. At twelve-years-old, Jaxon didn’t have a clue what the young prince had to be angry about.

Every year was the same. Princess Niko would swear she knew exactly what had happened to the people of Door Four and Prince Kenner would swear she was wrong. The argument resurrected itself each year, in different forms, always with newer rumors. It resulted in them chasing after each other to ask their parents, but not even they knew the answer. The truth was that no one knew what had happened to Door Four. All they knew was that it had opened one day and had never closed.

No one was allowed in and nothing had ever come out. Jaxon heard that getting within three feet of the door could suck one into oblivion. He had never been too stupid to try. Plus, it was guarded now by the best anti-break glass in Obedience. Hell, it didn’t bother him either way. The opening of Door Four was before his time.

“Because of a force field!” Kenner said, excitedly, making an air frame with his fingers. “Anything that touches it turns to stone and then explodes into dust.”

Niko laughed out loud, obviously trying to irritate him. “That is so dumb.”

Kenner’s visible agitation made Jaxon laugh inwardly. He had been appointed to guard them at a young age and when they were both younger. Watching them grow had both its perks and disadvantages. He had enjoyed watching Kenner become a handsome young man, but couldn’t stand how manipulative and sneaky Princess Niko had become.

“And it’s never happened! Did that happen, D03?”

She was referring to Jaxon. As a soldier, D03 had become more common than his actual name. “I’m afraid I don’t know, Princess.”

“Well find out by tonight, okay? That’ll be one more thing to call Kenner a liar over.”

Jaxon agreed with a nod. “Very well.” This was normal.

He lived within the door of Obedience and Fire, known now as simply Obedience or Door Three. His life was composed of routines and rules. And, frankly, he hadn’t become a soldier by disobeying them.

They turned down the wide corridor and headed in the direction of the dining room. His orders had been to get the princess and prince to dinner and then to patrol Obedience. He came to find that he better enjoyed his time in the palace. The streets of Obedience were quiet and eventless. There was literally nothing to do, but walk around for hours until he was allowed to go home. He said his goodbyes at the double doors. He could hear King Dasher’s too-heavy voice creep into the hall. He wasn’t allowed to touch the prince and princess, but he imagined leaving them with a hug every time they separated.

“Bye, Jaxon!” Kenner gave a quick wave and the gentle smile Jaxon had come to love, before dipping into the room. The tall doors were too big for him to push, so he squeezed through the crack.

“You’ll remember, won’t you, Jax?”

Remember? He had already forgotten.

“The stuff about Door Four?”

What she had asked him to do came back to him at once and he smiled and gave her an assuring nod. “I will. Why don’t you give your brother a break?”

She shrugged, giggling. “Aren’t big sisters supposed to act like this to their brothers? Bye!”

“Princess.” He bowed as she disappeared into the room and then turned to go in the other direction. He was stopped by a taller version of the little princess, her brunette hair hanging in spirals on her neck. Her white gown covered her feet, flowed around her like melting marshmallows. She had a silver hairpiece over her head, dropping down onto her forehead. Silver henna flowers rested on the backs of her hands, with intricate designs crossing onto her fingers and wrists.

“Am I not to be delivered as well?” She batted her long eyelashes, blinked her big toffee eyes and smiled so intimately that it made Jaxon wonder if he was doing something wrong by just standing there.

“Princess.” He bowed to the woman, a year younger than him.

“Stop that.”

He stood straight.

“You didn’t answer my question, D03.”

There was a time when he was intimidated by her beauty, but he had to remind himself that he had seen her grow, too. He had seen her awkward teenage years, as he had gone through his own. “I was summoned to escort Princess Niko and Prince Kenner only, Your Highness.”

“I see. I must be the evil step-sister.”

“I beg your pardon?” He couldn’t look her in her eyes.

“Cinderella? No?”

Cinderella? He had never even heard of it. Was it one of the books she secretly read and then burned as soon as she was finished? He had caught her doing it once. He didn’t know where in the world she had gotten the books, but she had been in the midst of burning it when he caught her. He hadn’t muttered a word to King Dasher or the queen. Jaxon supposed she was grateful for it, since she had gone immediately to acting like they were good friends afterward. “No.”

“Shoot! This changes things, D03.”

He grinned. “Does it?” That was funny, considering reading books was illegal and she had read many.

“I mean”—she turned her head slightly and he caught a glimpse of the henna lines and designs going down her neck onto her back— “I’m not sure I can trust a man who hasn’t read Aschenputtel.”

“Is that your fancy way of saying you don’t trust any man?”

When she turned back to him, she was grinning. “Will you be in the palace tonight?”

“I’m on patrol in Obedience.”

“I’ll come to you.”

“You most certainly will not.”

“I’m the princess. You can’t tell me what to do.”

He shook his head. Yes, she was a princess, a stubborn one. “I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt, Your Highness.”

“Maybe you won’t see it.” She pouted, adorably. “You’ve seen where I lay my head. Why can’t I see yo”—

“Naomi?” Queen Farah’s voice rose behind Jaxon.

He stiffened at the sound of it, but turned quickly to bow. She ignored him as she approached her stepdaughter.

“Do you want us to wait the entire dinner service for you to continue talking with the guards?”

“Would you?” Naomi joked.

“Get inside now.”

Her smile stayed, but her jittery fingers disclosed just how irritated she was. “My queen beckons, D03. I must go.” She skipped away.

Jaxon was about to rise before he realized Queen Farah was still standing beside him. She moved so that she was in front of him and when she lifted his chin with a silk hand fan, a shiver of fear slid down his spine. She wasn’t the nicest of people.

“Watch yourself, Jaxon,” she said, simply and released his chin. “Your proximity is dangerous. I believe you know that. You won’t get another warning.”

“My Queen.” He waited until she was locked away in the dining room before he stood up straight and headed in the other direction. If it wasn’t for her, his time in the palace would be more enjoyable. She wasn’t the most pleasant of people, certainly nothing like Naomi’s mother, who had been a queen of high standards. She was the queen the people of Obedience had, however, and he would have to deal with her just like everyone else.







Chapter Two

Obedience is Peace



The doors rose into the sky like intricate sculptures. They might appear closer to someone watching from the sky, but Jaxon knew walking past all of them could take nearly forty-five minutes.

The door of Love and Air was the most ancient-looking of the four, with wood so deeply brown and ancestral it was kept under strict guard. Complex carvings of animals worked through the wood. The second door of Wealth and Water was the simplest and most complicated door of them all. It was simple in the fact that it was pure silver, which glistened against the sun—sometimes it looked like it was burning within itself, inside out—complicated, because Jaxon was sure it was worth a load of money to whoever lived on the other side. He had been close enough to the doors before and had felt as tiny as a pebble against them, but he had never left Obedience.

Door three: the door of Obedience and Fire. It was a wooden door much like One, but carved into it were the commandments they had lived by for so many years.



One shall honor and uphold the law.

One shall hold no other law before the law of Obedience.

One shall not steal.

One shall not commit murder.

One shall honor one’s father and mother.

One shall not commit the sins of the three senses: skin-to-skin contact, tasting of illegal food provided from outside sources, wandering and suggestive eyeing.

We will maintain these commandments and hold them to be our only truths.

OBEDIENCE IS PEACE.



Jaxon stared up at the door. Thin, metal poles protruded vertically from the wood, making it look a lot like a gate. He glanced around at Obedience and couldn’t remember a time when the streets weren’t flooded by white garments and hidden hair, when the pavement wasn’t something like marble cobblestone or when soldiers, like him, didn’t roam the streets to keep the peace. The door had morphed into something else over the years. It shot into the sky, into the clouds, like it held something sacred, treasure that was never to be seen or touched. Jaxon was beginning to feel trapped by it.

The others were closed and locked, but many people were free to go and come as they pleased, though they usually didn’t. Four was always open. Because of some sort of protective barrier from the other side, it was impossible to see any world beyond it. Jaxon always found himself staring into a field of white, or black, or smoke or whatever illusion was there to protect it that day.

What was it that Niko had asked him? She had been arguing with her brother about something turning to stone and he was supposed to know if that was true. There were no answers when it came to Door Four. It was a mystery wrapped in black puzzle pieces. With his hands in his pockets, Jaxon strolled past the door. Four soldiers were on guard for it tonight, but none of them were paying it much attention. They had turned their attention on a chubby, short woman, whose blonde coils of hair peeked from her white scarf. She was saying something quietly, but flirtatiously. They whipped their hands toward her playfully, forbidden to touch her. The gesture enticed her, kept her standing exactly where she was. Attention was good. Attention was healthy. Attention was all they had.

Roaring violet flames sparked before the hand of the third guy, never touching his skin, and shot around the woman, forming a radiant floating circle of fire. It danced above her, shrinking, shrinking, shrinking still, until it was small and floating just above her head like a halo. She giggled, slapped her hand over the scarf where her mouth was. She kept her eyes intensely on the fire as he brought it back to his hands and allowed it to explode into a hundred purple sparks. Impressive. So impressive that Jaxon was just as mesmerized as the woman.

As a soldier, he was often allowed to use his gift of fire, but he rarely needed to. In his apartment, it was easier for him to spark up a flame. No one was watching. He could make a mistake, but not here. Not in the open. Not when there were eyes everywhere. He turned too late and collided with a woman rushing down the street with two paper bags of groceries. She crashed to the ground and her hood jumped from her head and exposed her pale curls and skin.

“I’m sorry!” He reached to help her, but pulled away as fast as she did.

She had spilled plastic packages of self-heating food and microwavable dinners across the ground.

“Here, let me help you.” Had he touched her? He hoped no cameras had seen him. That had been an accident. He hadn’t even seen her.

“No, thank you, sir.” She snatched away a package of self-heating green beans and stuffed them into her bag. Finding, there was a hole in the bag, her eyes watered. She created a pile in her arms.

“Please.” He picked up two packages of dried apples. “Where do you stay? Allow me to help you home.”

“I’m only five minutes that way. I can do it.”

She couldn’t even keep the things in her hand, let alone carry another bag. Jaxon shook his head. Many Obedience citizens were like her, especially the women. They were afraid of soldiers, or had been taught to be. They stayed away from them. King Dasher and Queen Farah ruled over Obedience, but on the streets the soldiers were the authority. It had been that way for years and him helping one little lady with her groceries wouldn’t change that. “You won’t be cited for this. It was my fault.”

“I got it,” she snapped. She stuffed the rest of her things in the bag that hadn’t torn and jumped to her feet. She didn’t bother covering her hair as she rushed off and didn’t look over her shoulder at him once.

Sighing, he headed in the direction of his own apartment. He hated that it was the way it was sometimes.







Chapter Three

Visits & Fairytales



His apartment building was one of the largest in the city. He pushed through the double glass doors and took the elevator to the sixteenth floor. Someone had scribbled holospray on his door that said simply, Obedience is Peace in transparent blue lettering. He swiped it away with his elbow, as he unlocked the door. The tiny blue pixels faded as they flew off. Jaxon pushed open the door and kicked it shut behind him.

Solitary. His apartment was technically a one-bedroom, but it felt smaller. He felt like he had purposely limited himself to one room and there were no exits. Once inside his bedroom, he kicked out of his shoes and tucked them neatly inside his closet. It was only big enough to hold two pairs of shoes and an old coat that he hadn’t worn in years. King Dasher had given it to him on his fifteenth birthday.

He plopped onto the bed. It had felt soft before when he had first moved in there and had felt accomplished to get from under his parents’ roof. Now, it just felt rigid, like it had taken on too much weight. He didn’t sleep on clouds anymore. After staring up at the ceiling for nearly ten minutes, he decided food was in his best interest. He couldn’t remember if he had eaten today. He went to his box of a kitchen, past his box of a refrigerator to his box of a cabinet. The refrigerator was only big enough to hold jugs of water. The microwave sat atop it. A lot of food was microwaveable, but most of it was self-heating. The little counter space he had, he didn’t need unless he was preparing himself a glass of water.

He ripped the seal on a self-heating broccoli pizza pack and watched the silver aluminum rise until it couldn’t anymore. It deflated once it was finished and formed around the soggy, tasteless pizza. Jaxon ate as much of the wet mush as he could, before tossing it in the bin. Then… he went to bed.

He was nearly asleep when a hard knock jolted him upright forty minutes later. He wasn’t physically tired. Lately, he had suffered from such overwhelming boredom that it put him to sleep for hours. Half of his day was spent sleeping. Guarding and sleeping. He had begun to sleep so much that when he wasn’t, he had to force himself to stay awake.

Who the hell would be knocking on his door three hours before curfew? Tucking his t-shirt into his pants—always the professional—he went to see who it was. He opened the door without asking. She was dressed in normal white clothes, covering all but her eyes. There was no mistaking Princess Naomi. With wide eyes, he motioned for her to get inside. If he was allowed to touch her he would have yanked her in himself. She playfully hopped over the threshold and pulled the scarf from her head before he could close the door.

Jaxon locked it quickly and faced her. “What’re you doing?”

“Relax.” She undressed from the loose cloth, leaving a more attractive blue gown in its place. White flats bedazzled by all colored gemstones covered her petite feet. Her henna tattoos were more vibrant than they had been earlier. “No one saw me.” In her hand was a hardcover book, so old that the pages were worn and yellow.

“Great Hephaestus.”

“Again, relax.”

“So, no, not only do you want them to kill me, but you thought, ‘Hey, why not get myself killed, too?’”

“Do you think this is a big deal?” She held up the book, waved it a couple times before tossing it up and catching it. “Hm? This old thing?”

“This isn’t funny.”

“I’m not laughing.” But she was smiling. Smiling deeply, like she was enjoying being a criminal.

“You left the palace and walked here with a book.”

“Not just any book. This is Grimm’s Fairytales.”

“Should I know what that is?”

“We’ve been friends for a long time. So, uh, yeah.”

Jaxon used the term friends loosely. He had grown up side-by-side with her, but it wasn’t by choice. He had been conditioned at a young age to put the royal family before himself, Naomi included. It wasn’t like they had shared clothes and combed each other’s hair. “What if you had dropped it?”

She snickered. “I did, actually.”

“Stop laughing. That’s not funny.”

“No one saw me, Jaxon, for Hephaestus’ sake. Loosen your corset.”

“You’re the princess, yet I have to remind you of the consequences of carrying around illegal stuff. Like books!” He went to snatch it from her, but she yanked it away and tucked it behind her back. “You know you’ll be executed if they find you with it.”

“By whom? The queen? My father?” Her eyebrows were drawn down when she shrugged, the most nonchalant gesture he had ever seen.

She wasn’t aware of consequences. She wasn’t aware of the world she lived in. It had always been clear to Jaxon that they saw it from different perspectives, but this was just silly.

“I highly doubt that. The worst that could happen is a slap on the hand.” When he huffed in defeat and walked away from her, she followed him into his bedroom. She tossed the book onto the bed. “Well, you said you never read Cinderella. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the real crime. It’s called Aschenputtel in the Grimm version.” She stopped when she realized where she was.

It occurred to Jaxon around the same time. He had the princess standing in his room. He witnessed her entire expression change as she stared around his small apartment. Definitely small compared to any room in the palace. He had no reason to feel self-conscious about it though. It was always clean because, when he wasn’t guarding Kenner, Niko or Obedience, or sleeping, he had nothing better to do. He would clean. His room was in plain blue and white. His bed was made neatly with a white sheet he hadn’t bothered to climb under when he was falling asleep. The curtains were closed and there was a small black lamp on a white, wooden nightstand. Nothing spectacular, but it was his.

Jaxon followed Naomi to the living room, but there was nothing special about it either. The golden-edged orange, red and blue floral-upholstered armchair had traveled ages through his family. It was so ancient that Jaxon didn’t even sit on it, but Naomi wasted no time. She plopped carelessly into it, ran her palms over the arms. She kicked her shoes off and massaged her toes into the carpet.

Jaxon shook his head, chuckling. “You’re just a big kid.”

“Wait a second.” She looked around her, searching the floor and behind the chair. “I’m missing something.”

“What?”

“Your point.” She hopped up and bent in front of a white, marble coffee table. “Not a speck of dust in sight. It’s like”—she turned her eyes to the kitchen— “like you clean every ten seconds.”

“Fifteen. Every fifteen seconds, if you don’t count bathroom breaks.”

She laughed. “Your sarcasm has improved.”

She stood up just so she could bow, but Jaxon was serious again. She wasn’t supposed to be there. They would both be in trouble the longer she stayed. Yes, he did consider her friend outside the palace walls, inside when no one was looking, but this couldn’t happen. She couldn’t leave safe zones for their friendship. It wasn’t that easy for her. “Put your shoes on so we can get you home.”

“You won’t get brownie points for returning me to my father.”

“What about the queen? She handing any out?”

“Hardy-har. Very funny. That woman is”—

“Treason. Don’t say anything.”

“I hate her.”

“Naomi. Be quiet.”

Sighing, she did.

Jaxon wasn’t looking for brownie points, anyway. In fact, he wasn’t as concerned about her as he was himself. He was a soldier. If he was found harboring anything like books or a missing princess, he would be killed for sure.

Aschenputtel first and then I’ll go.”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Cross my heart.” She skipped past him back into his room.

Jaxon again followed, shaking his head. “Fine. Don’t know how you found this place anyway.”

“My brother is master at getting information when needed.”

“Should’ve known.”

“Oh, shut”—

Before she could finish her thought, a red laser popped on from the monitor across his bed. It flicked across the room, briefly. Naomi dropped to her knees and bowed her head quickly. Jaxon snatched the book and went to shove it under his bed, but there was no space for that. His low platform sat on the floor. So he shoved it under the mattress instead and dropped to his knees just before a man’s chubby face popped on the screen. It was King Dasher’s advisor. He grinned from ear-to-ear, even though the black spots beginning to form under his eyes suggested exhaustion. Jaxon ducked his head, too.

“Obedience is Peace.” The advisor announced the usual mantra, plainly.

“Obedience is Peace,” Jaxon and Naomi chanted after him.

There were a few seconds before the screen went black and the light disappeared. Jaxon rose cautiously, but Naomi stayed where she was. “I’m so sorry.” He dropped his hand in the space between the monitor and wall and flicked it off. It was after nine so he was allowed. He had gotten into the habit of cutting it off before he went to bed anyway, but it had slipped his mind tonight. “He didn’t see you.”

Naomi popped up. “No?”

“I don’t think he was even paying attention.”

She climbed to her knees and then to her feet. “Good.”

Aschenputtel can wait.”

“But I’ve come all this way.” She pouted.

“And curfew is soon. Your dad—the king, in case you forgot—will literally kill me if he finds you here.”

“What do you think of me really? Don’t you know I’d never let that happen?” She went to the living room where she had dropped all her things. “I can get back on my own,” she said, as she dressed.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been escaping for years like Princess Jasmine.”

“I don’t know who Princess Jasmine is, but be safe.”

“Of course.” She opened the door. “Cinderella next time.”

“Cinderella next time.”

She nodded and Jaxon watched her walk down the hall until she turned, out of view.



Chapter Four

All Sleeping Children



When Jaxon couldn’t stand to sit there alone anymore, he took the train for his parents’ house. His train rides were usually quick and painless, but there was something off about this one. The atmosphere was as if someone had lost a loved one. The train was quiet and sullen as everyone counted down the minutes until curfew. Because Jaxon was a soldier he didn’t have a curfew. He usually had peace on the train since people tended to stay away from soldiers. Sometimes he wished he could hide the red marks on his left wrist and hand. They were like fat rubber bands, constantly numbing him. Tonight, however, he didn’t get his peaceful train ride. Tonight, he got two teenagers whispering across from him.

“Excuse me,” one of the boys said, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. He took a moment to scan Jaxon from head-to-toe. “I don’t mean to disturb you.” He adjusted a white tunic as he shifted from his seat to the empty seat beside Jaxon. “May I ask you a question, sir?”

Jaxon shifted, nervously. He didn’t know what to think about this young boy, approaching him so carelessly. “Sure.”

“My father is sick. He has Irveng Syndrome. You know? It’s what you get when you haven’t used fire all your life, so it starts to burn away on the insides. He’s being burned, sir, from the inside out. He’s dying.”

Jaxon didn’t understand why he would divulge such personal information to a stranger.

“The doctors tell him they can’t help him. There’s no cure for IS, they say. But I think that all my father has to do is start to use his abilities. He refuses, of course, because… well… if he does, he’ll be executed… or sent to jail. He doesn’t want to die in prison.”

Jaxon listened quietly, nodding every few seconds. Already he didn’t know how to answer him and a question hadn’t even been posed yet.

“The doctors tell him they can’t help him even though he’s in agonizing pain. But he has to work… to provide for his children, my two sisters and me. My mother’s dead, you see.” He smirked, like he was about to tell a funny joke. “A dying man, in excruciating pain, being forced to work so that his family can eat. Doesn’t seem like the ideal life, you know?” He paused like he was waiting for an answer, but Jaxon didn’t have one. “So my best bet is to become a soldier. A pig, like you, so that, at least, I can give him a decent burial.”

Jaxon shifted, even more uncomfortable than he was before. He uncrossed his arms. He wanted to be prepared for anything this kid might try to do. “What’s your question?” He was offended. Genuinely. He had worked hard for his position. He didn’t think it was fair to call him a pig when he was protecting the citizens of Obedience every day of his life.

“Do you believe in a system like that? One that pins you against a wall—takes everything you have and then watches you die?”

Jaxon stared at this boy, who desperately wanted an answer to his question. His hands gripped the straps of a white backpack, his brown eyes burned into Jaxon’s like he could read his mind. He waited, patiently and quietly, his eyebrows turned down, his eyes watery. A vein in the middle of his forehead showed Jaxon just how frustrated he was.

The truth was that the kid was too young to understand. The system that they had was a system that worked. The world had ended before them, half of humanity had been killed because of people’s ignorance, stupidity and unwillingness to change. Obedience is Peace. It was the only thing that worked. Obedience is Peace. Obedience is Peace. There was nothing anyone could do about Irveng Syndrome. It was a result of old age and nothing more, nothing like what the kid had said. Jaxon didn’t have an answer for him.

“You know what I think, soldier?”

He waited.

“I think it might be time for some changes.” He stood before Jaxon could tell him to keep his place and remember who he was talking to. He did a swift salute and motioned for his buddy to join him. The bottom flap on his backpack was unzipped, holding two canisters. The train jolted to a halt. One of the canisters dropped from the backpack and thumped against the floor. From where Jaxon sat, he could see that it was a canister of holospray. He wondered if one of those boys had been the one to spray his door. The boy retrieved it, shooting a sinister grin in Jaxon’s direction, and then departed the train.

He should have cited him, reported him directly to King Dasher, but Jaxon wanted a peaceful night. He wanted to visit his mother, maybe say hello to his father. He would put the incident out of his head.



● ● ●



His mother stayed on a hill in Moregrad, a small city in Obedience. Her house was small and quaint with a garden of artificial lilies she had planted when Jaxon was younger. There was no need to tend to them, since they took care of themselves, but she tended to them every morning. When Jaxon stepped up, she was on her hands and knees with gardening gloves, like the ones she had used to carry him as a child. The soil was grimy and filled with yellow seeds, packed around bundles of red and yellow lilies, soft to the touch. The metal stems sparkled even without sunlight. They sent LED signals through the stem to alert when water was running low.

“Mom?”

She spun. A scarf covered auburn hair. Her determined eyes softened when she saw him. Smiling, she placed both her hands flat on the ground and pulled herself up with a grunt. Jaxon reached to help her, but snatched his hands swiftly away. He didn’t know who was watching. It had always been a natural reaction to reach out to his mother whenever she stumbled. Quietly, they went into the house.

It had changed from what he remembered, but it still felt like home. He hadn’t been there in an entire year, had hardly called. For his first visit back, he thought he should be paying less attention to the décor and more to his mother, but the entire house looked different. Was his room the same? He followed his mother through the foyer, straight back into the kitchen.

“Are you hungry, darling? I’ll make you something to eat.” She went to the sink and removed her gloves. A silver bowl and cup were the only thing in the sink, but she started to wash them anyway.

She had always been like that, even when he was younger, immaculate beyond words. It had annoyed him before, but now he understood. She had to find ways to busy herself with his father not around.

“I’m fine, mom, thanks. Where’s dad?”

“Working. He had to pick up more hours. They limited the grocery supply to one person per household.”

She had the kind of voice that massaged Jaxon’s mind, made him want to lie in his bed and watch the train lights move on his ceiling. When he was little, and his mother had brought the lamp home, he had turned the thing on every night. His father had taken it away when Jaxon was at school, said he was too old for it.

“Hm. How’ve you been?”

She cut the water off, grabbed a towel and dried her hands. When she turned to him, she had an eyebrow raised, which she instantly accompanied with a hand on her hips. “You came all this way and you think we’re going to talk about me?” She waved the dish towel at him. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She was getting older. Her features were changing, deepening, darkening, but she still managed to wear a smile. The lines at the corners of her eyes stretched further each year. “How was your day?”

Jaxon frowned, not knowing what to say. He just wanted to stare at her, swim in the nostalgia. “I rode the train here.”

“You did?”

He always rode the train. “There was a boy.”

“You made a friend?”

“Just a kid.”

You’re just a kid.” She chuckled, like someone had rubbed a feather under her nose.

“He was going on and on about Irveng Syndrome.”

His mother frowned. “Yes. It’s sad. Your father’s getting to that age where he’ll need to be tested. Scares me.”

“Dad’s not susceptible. I mean… it just comes with old age. He’s not even fifty yet.”

“Yeah, but the last time he used his fire, he was a boy. You know that plays a big part.”

The front door thudded shut. They had talked his father up. Jaxon sat up straight in his chair, a natural reaction to being around his father. Outside, an automated voice announced the curfew through street speakers. The monitor in the kitchen wall cast a red beam across the room just as Jaxon’s father walked inside. Collectively, they all dropped to their knees.

“This is a public announcement,” King Dasher’s advisor said.

And Jaxon knew it was impossible for him to see in all houses at once, but he still feared that one mistake, one out-of-line comment would get them hurt.

“There have been incidents of holospray reported on public buildings. Defacing public property is against the law and punishable by up to five years in prison. Holospray will be discontinued in all major retailers, effective immediately. Please be reminded of curfew hours. If you are caught outdoors without a passing band, you will be cited. Have a beautiful night, citizens. Obedience is Peace.”

“Obedience is Peace,” Jaxon and his parents chanted back. They waited until the monitor was black again before they stood.

“Well”—Jaxon’s father brushed his hands over his knees. He walked around Jaxon like he wasn’t there and went straight to the cabinet. He reached to grab a glass.

“I’ll get that, honey. You had a long day at work. Sit down. I’ll warm up dinner. We’ll all eat. Like a family.” She smiled and turned to wash her hands.

Quietly, Jaxon’s father sat at the table across from him. If Jaxon didn’t know the truth, he might not have thought this man was his father at all. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be denied. He had his face, from his eyes down to the freckles on his nose. Jaxon dropped his head. He felt silly, being an adult, wanting nothing more than his father’s approval, knowing he would never have it. The only time he had seen his father smile at him was when he was five years old. He had gotten all As that year.

“Hi, dad,” he muttered.

“Can you hand me that tablet behind you?” His dad removed his jacket and hung it over his chair.

Jaxon watched his mother move naturally about the kitchen, humming to herself, as she pulled things from the refrigerator and set them in order on the counter. He reached behind him on a black shelf, shoved in a corner. He grabbed the glass tablet from the middle shelf and handed it to his father. The black bumper was its saving grace when it slipped and slapped against the table.

“Be careful!” His father grumbled and held it more firmly.

“Thirsty, honey?” his mother asked.

“Sure.”

Jaxon would have been fine with visiting just her, but since his father was there he had to make peace with him. The problem was that he didn’t know what he had done wrong. He didn’t know when his father had stopped loving him.

“How was work, dad?”

He grunted. “It was work.”

Jaxon nodded. There was no point in continuing a dead-end conversation.

“Jacky, finish telling me about the boy on the train.”

He sighed in relief, always thankful for her. “Yeah. After he told me the stuff about Irveng Syndrome, he asked me if I had any belief in our system.”

His dad looked up, like something Jaxon had said piqued his interest. He laid the tablet flat on the table. “What does that mean?”

“He said his father was dying from IS and that the doctors wouldn’t help and if I believed in a system that allowed people to die.” Jaxon shrugged. “I don’t even know what he was talking about.”

“My dad used to say, ‘We’re all sleeping children.’” His mother laughed, still preparing his father’s meal.

Jaxon’s dad snorted. “Did you cite the boy?”

“For what?” Jaxon had thought about it then, but as it replayed in his head now, all he saw was a scared child, wanting someone to help his sick father.

“It’s people like him who make it hard for people like us, people like your mother and me, just trying to live in this world.”

Just trying to live? Like that was all people were meant to do. Just live. If that was true, then the kid had been right. They were living to die. Was his father living to die? Was that the reason he was so nonchalant about everything, the reason why he didn’t even look at Jaxon when he talked? “His father’s dying. I didn’t want”—

“It’s not at all about what you want. I thought when you became a soldier, you would get that. Obviously, you’re still living in your childhood fantasies, always playing games of princes and warriors and people who save the world. You’re the soldier, the authority. You got your wish, now save us from people who seek to destroy the system we’ve created.”

Jaxon frowned. His father’s words cut deeper now than they had when he was younger. “He was a kid.”

“He was dangerous. His way of thinking was dangerous. It’s your job to alleviate those kinds of issues before they become bigger ones.”

“My job is to protect the people of”—

“You’re as stupid as you’ve always been.”

“Honey,” his mother interjected, but his father put his hand up to quiet her.

“I raised you to be strong and to follow the rules. So far you’ve done neither of those things.”

Jaxon wanted to remind him that he didn’t raise him. When he was around, he was yelling and trying to engrain his rules into Jaxon’s head. When he wasn’t around, Jaxon had his mother. She was the one who had raised him. “I’m sorry you see it that way.”

“We haven’t seen you since you moved out and now you come all this way… for-for what? To disappoint me even more?” He picked up his tablet and turned his eyes to the screen. “I don’t understand it.”

Jaxon watched his father’s eyes dart from side to side as he watched the news and followed the words on the bottom of the screen, recapping the events of the day. “Nothing eventful,” Jaxon said, rising. “As usual. It was good seeing you, mom.”

“Oh honey, please stay,” she approached him.

“I’ll call tomorrow.”

“Please stay. Get down, pray with me.”

“Not now, mom, forgive me. I’ll call tomorrow, I promise.”

She followed him to the door. “Call as soon as you get home! Let me know if you made it home safely.”

He waved his goodbyes and walked away. He could feel her eyes on the back of his head as he walked away from her. His urge to melt onto her was always that, an urge. He couldn’t let her hold him and vent his frustrations. He couldn’t punch his father in his teeth. He couldn’t do any of the things he wanted. And he wasn’t following rules? No, all he had ever done was follow the rules.



Chapter Five

Unforgivable Kiss



The next morning, Jaxon was awakened by the chime of his monitor demanding to be turned on. Grunting, he mechanically climbed out of bed and crawled to it. Yawning, he clicked it on. The advisor’s usual tired face was on his screen.

“Obedience is Peace,” he recited.

“Obedience is Peace.” Jaxon was still waking from his slumber. It hadn’t been long enough. It was never long enough. He slept and woke to the mantra that obedience was “peace” and then rose to start his day. He started it the same as he always did, with a shower. Then he would dress in his uniform: a black on black suit with a shiny silver badge that stated he worked directly for King Dasher. The silver engraved lion frowned at him in the mirror every morning. He would brush his hair back and try to get it as symmetrical as he could, but strands of it would pop free anyway. Then breakfast. Today, instead of a self-rising bagel, he would eat a self-heating donut. It never cooked properly on the inside and always turned into a gooey mess, but he was out of anything else that resembled breakfast. He would next say his prayers. He imagined people all over Obedience were doing the same thing at that very moment. When breakfast was over, he would walk the twenty minutes through town to the palace, where he would be greeted by security guards, soldiers like him, at the front gates. They would know his name and greet him with the usual mantra everyone did and let him pass. He would then guard the palace for the majority of the day until he was sent to guard the city.

That was always his morning, but there was a slight change to this one. In this one, his father’s words resonated within him, like a sour taste in his mouth.

He yawned, thinking about it. He yawned as he roamed the well-furnished hall of the palace. There was something medieval, yet modern about it, from the hard wooden floors to the stoned walls and old portraits hanging on them. He kept his hands in his pockets and pretended like he didn’t know he was being tailed by two of the best kids he had ever known. Niko and Kenner had gotten into a ritual of sneaking up behind him and trying to scare them, but he was used to it by now. He whistled quietly to himself and walked on. Their snickers were loud enough to echo through the nearly empty hall, but they were having too much fun to care. Princess Niko jumped out first. Kenner followed immediately after. Jaxon jumped away from them, feigning fear.

“Goodness!” He laughed. “You can’t just sneak up on a man like that!”

“Did we get you?” Kenner strode beside him and shoved his hands in his pockets. He imitated him often, but Kenner’s clothes were much finer than Jaxon’s. It was impossible for him to ever completely look like him.

“Always do.”

“Did you find my answer?” Niko walked on the other side of him. She wore a crown of white poppies around her head.

Jaxon nodded. “I’m pretty certain, Your Highness, that a volcano did not kill everyone in Four.”

She pouted and looked authentically saddened by the news. “I wonder if everyone is dead, though.”

It saddened Jaxon that she was becoming more like her mother. Sometimes, it was like she shared the same mind. When she spoke sometimes, she even sounded like her. It was okay for her to wonder if people had died, but had she wanted them to? He kept a steady pace behind them. They came closer and closer to the throne room where Queen Farah spent her mornings punishing poor victims she had suspected of breaking the laws. Jaxon doubted, with her as queen, anyone actually broke laws anymore. She was just bored and found it funny to torture people.

He pushed open the doors and was about to step inside before Queen Farah’s voice echoed through the chamber. Across the marble floor she sat on her glass throne. Four giant spikes shot up from the back of the chair, the same as the crown atop her head. Two fiery lions were at the arms of the throne, their heads turned toward each other, roaring. Orange sparks spouted from their snouts. She silenced the lions with a hand. Then she went back to screaming at a girl no older than fourteen. She was the same age and size as Princess Niko. She was being accused of stealing jewelry, which meant she worked in the palace.

Jaxon had tucked the Grimm’s Fairytale book in his pants, hidden beneath his suit jacket. He wouldn’t walk in there with it, not in the company of the queen, who could rip his arms off at the sight of it. “Come on, children.” He tried to shoo them away, but Princess Niko ran around him and straight into the room, straight to her mother, who gave her one of the most loving grins Jaxon had ever seen from anyone. It was a smile that said she was proud that Niko wanted to see her work. She was proud that Niko took interest in her humiliating this young girl.

Prince Kenner cowered behind Jaxon, a choice he would no doubt be scolded for later. Jaxon didn’t know how to comfort him without using words and he was afraid to speak with Queen Farah’s attention authoritatively locked on the girl.

“I swear to the lords of fire! I haven’t a clue how the pearls got in there.” There was a bitter tone to her weakened words. She was trying to cover up whatever disdain she held for the queen.

Queen Farah’s hand was locked around a set of transparent glass beads. Fire swam inside of each one. “These are never to be touched by meager beings, like yourself, girl.” She basically spat the words at her. She used enough force behind them to frighten any thief who came behind the girl.

“I didn’t do it!”

“Hold your tongue!” She was on her feet now, pacing before the girl. Her crimson dress dragged behind her as she descended the stairs. The fiery lions stood on all fours, questioning her motives. What was she going to do? Why had she left her throne? They followed her with hollow stares. “You think me a fool?” She stopped in front of the girl, who sat on her knees, her palms against the marble floor. “I bring you into my home. Around my children. And this”—she held the pearls high above her head—“is the thanks I get for my generosity?” After a moment of waiting for an answer that never came, she slammed the pearls against the floor.

They shattered against it, releasing a storm of orange fire that was enough to make Jaxon cover his hand over his face. It was a windy tornado above them, whipping as it nearly touched the ceiling. Bollywood snakes of smoke squirmed from the chaotic giant nimbus. It was gone five seconds after she had released it.

“I can’t blame you, however.” She began to pace again. Red fabric followed her, like it was her own blood. “It was my own carelessness and sincere adoration for my kingdom that has caused this. I had believed that my people loved me as much as I love them. You have proven me wrong.

The girl opened her mouth to plead her case again, but Queen Farah silenced her with a swift backhand. The force of it echoed off the throne room walls. Even Jaxon felt it from where he stood. Prince Kenner trembled behind him. Niko’s eyebrows arched high above her eyes. Her mouth hung open in amusement. Her head darted from her mother back to the girl, begging the entertainment to continue.

“This is not a crime that will go unpunished.”

“But you broke them.” The girl’s voice was brave in all its meekness.

Queen Farah’s eyes widened the size of one of the glass beads she had just broken. “I beg your pardon?”

“How could they have been of any value to you if you broke them anyway?”

Jaxon couldn’t believe his ears or the girl’s courage to speak up. It both intrigued and baffled him. He found himself stepping further into the room.

“I believe you’ve overlooked the point, dear child.” With her chin raised high and smugness in the way her smile sat crookedly on her face, she glided back to her throne. She sat quietly and calmly, like she hadn’t lost her temper just a moment ago. “The point was that they were more important to me than you… and I broke them anyway. And they’re still more important than you.” She waited for the girl to respond.

Jaxon waited, too. The room was silent. The air was suffocating. He wanted the girl’s bravery to return. He wanted her to speak against the queen, to demand more explanations, to question her. He wanted her to say something. She didn’t. The tears in her eyes broke free and slid down her cheeks and chin. She dropped her head in defeat. It should have been enough. It was enough for Jaxon. Even if she had stolen the beads, broken and useless now, Queen Farah’s words were enough to break her.

“Kill her.”

Jaxon’s heart pumped double time in his chest. He felt immediately like he was being smothered by her, like she had turned her anger on him and was sucking every second of breath from his body. Why would she want to kill her? What evil deed had the girl done? The fiery lions stalked toward the girl. Their growls were like grinding teeth in Jaxon’s ears.

Prince Kenner’s feet pattered hard against the floor as he ran in the opposite direction. He kept his arm up over his eyes to block out whatever he thought he might see next. The last thing Jaxon saw before pulling the door shut was the lions descending on the young girl. The last thing he heard was Princess Niko’s laughter, mixed with the screeches of the tormented girl. He wanted to go after Kenner, but he was nowhere in sight. It was the kind of thing a child couldn’t forget. It would plague his mind forever. Jaxon had to find him and explain the situation, though there was nothing much to explain. It was pretty straight forward. Queen Farah had just made two lions of fire kill a teenager, but Jaxon didn’t want Kenner to see his mother in that light. She was someone he was supposed to play pretend with. She was supposed to be his hero. He turned into a wide hallway and jogged the rest of the way to Kenner’s room. The door was open, but when Jaxon peeked inside, it was empty.

Sighing, he continued on. He didn’t know where Kenner could have gone. He didn’t know what the boy did to calm himself after being traumatized or how many times he had been traumatized. He didn’t even know if he could save Queen Farah’s image in Kenner’s eyes anymore. What he did know was that he cared for the young prince. He wanted to make sure he was okay.

Jaxon had drifted to the first floor before he could realize where he was. He was close to entering a different wing of the palace before a familiar voice paused him.

“D03?”

He spun around to Naomi. Her white dress was long enough that he could barely see her toes beneath it. “Princess.” He bowed accordingly.

“Would you be so kind to help me in the kitchen with something?”

“Of course, Your Highness.” He followed her through the double doors. “What’re you even doing in here?” Even though the kitchen was smaller than every other room in the palace, it was an immaculate space of white. Jaxon was afraid that his black on black suit would set off the balance of it.

“Is that your way of saying princesses have no business in the kitchen?”

“You said it. Not me.”

“I know how to cook!” She had sliced tomatoes, carrots and avocados on a cutting board. Looked and smelled nothing like the packaged food the Obedience citizens were forced to scoff down. “I just wanted something edible. The cooks keep bringing up this bland food.” She had compiled small containers of different seasonings. They were categorized in groups.

Smirking, Jaxon nodded. “Sure.” He knew how much Naomi liked her spices. She had set aside pepper, cajun seasoning and red pepper. She was shaking a glass container of garlic salt. “Where does all this stuff come from?” Jaxon was more curious about the colorful food she was planning to cook than what Queen Farah had done just moments ago. He thought about the girl, surely dead now. Then he thought about Prince Kenner. He had been in the midst of looking for him before Naomi interjected.

“I don’t know. Most of it gets imported from Doors One and Two, I guess. Have you seen my dad?”

Jaxon tensed. There was a suppressed eagerness in her tone that scared him. “No. I just came back from Her Majesty ‘punishing’ some kid Niko’s age.”

Naomi rolled her eyes. She grabbed a tomato slice, sprinkled in oil, and stuffed it in her mouth. “That woman. If my mother”—

“Princess.”

“Yeah, I know!” She went back to chopping, mumbling quietly to herself.

“You said you needed my help with something?” If she didn’t need him, he wanted to get back to finding Kenner.

“Could you grab that chicken out of the cooler please?”

“Of course.” He stepped around her, careful not to let their shoulders brush. He went to the refrigerator, pulled it open and grabbed the boneless chicken breast. It was sitting between bunches of other things, packaged and organized nicely, marinating in a peppery mustard sauce. It could only be the work of Naomi. “No offense, Your Highness, but have you considered cooking lessons?”

She sighed, heavily. “I can cook!”

“Okay!” Laughing, Jaxon put his hands up in defeat. He loved that there was no need to be formal around her. They had been that way since they were kids. He could keep the charade up in front of the king and queen, but his guard could be down with Naomi.

“Just taste one of these then.”

“No, thank you.” He wasn’t allowed to do that. If Queen Farah had even suspected he had eaten food from the palace kitchens she would probably do the same thing to him that she had done to the girl.

Naomi shrugged and popped the slice into her mouth. “Don’t know what you’re missing.” She chewed hungrily. For a while, the only thing that could be read on her face was her eagerness to cook or eat something, but then she was sullen again. Her thoughts were far away. It was clear to Jaxon that she was simply using cooking as an excuse now.

“Prin—Naomi? What’s wrong?”

She shrugged. She ran the back of her hand over her forehead. “My dad’s meeting with the United Council. The emperor of One and president of Two are here.”

“I didn’t know the doors had been unlocked.”

“They’re open.”

Jaxon hadn’t paid attention to them on his way to work. If Doors One and Two were open, it meant something serious was wrong. If the leaders of those doors had left the comfort of their havens, then something had to definitely be wrong. “What’re they doing here?”

“Her Majesty finally convinced my father to do something about Four.”

“What do you mean do something?”

“He wants to bring in Aerials from One to close the door.”

Jaxon stilled. Aerials? He knew what they were. He knew that they manipulated air in the way some people of Obedience could manipulate fire, but he had never seen it done. They were reserved people, much like Obedience. So it surprised Jaxon that they were leaving their home to conduct a mission to close the fourth door. “Well... why?”

Naomi shrugged. “I didn’t get that far. Do you think Four poses a threat?”

“How would it? It’s empty, isn’t it?” He didn’t know that. No one knew that. He couldn’t see how King Dasher would know that. Not even he had ever ventured into Door Four.

“I don’t know. I just know that my dad looked pretty shaken when I saw him. I think everyone’s pretty much in agreement on closing the door. That’s what it sounded like.”

Jaxon couldn’t say he felt anything about the decision. He didn’t know what closing the door would mean. All the other doors were closed so he couldn’t see how closing another could do any harm to them. There was a long and awkward silence between them before Jaxon came to the conclusion that she had just needed someone to talk to. He wished it was that simple for them, that they could see and talk to each other whenever they wanted. He knew better, however, and Queen Farah had made herself quite clear when she told Jaxon not to get too close to Naomi.

“Did you need help with anything else, Your Highness?”

“Sure you won’t try one?” She held a sliced avocado out for him. When he didn’t budge to take it, she dangled it in front of his face.

Jaxon lifted his hand slowly and thoughtfully. Then he let it drop. “No. Thank you, though.”

“Then fine. I don’t need help with anything else.”

“Princess.” He bowed and was about to leave.

“Oh wait!”


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