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Prologue

Reckless (The Powerless Trilogy, #2)

The halls are eerily empty at this hour.

Just as they are every year.

I take my time walking down them, stealing this sliver of peace for myself. Though stolen bliss is little more than smothered chaos.

I choose to ignore that thought as I turn down a dark hall, my footsteps soft atop the emerald carpet. A sleeping castle is comforting, solitude a rarity among royals.

Royal.

I almost allow myself to laugh at the title. I frequently forget what I was before what I became. A prince before the Enforcer. A boy before the monster.

But, today, I am no one. Today, I simply get to be with who should have been.

A soft light leaks from beneath the doors of the kitchen. I manage a slight smile at the sight.

Every year. She’s always here every year.

I gently push open the doors and step into the puddle of light cast by several flickering candles. The sweet smell of dough and cinnamon hangs in the air, swaddling me in warmth and memories.

“You’re up earlier every year.”

I meet Gail’s smile with a small one of my own. Her apron is dusted with cinnamon, her face streaked with flour. I lift myself onto the same counter I’ve sat atop since I was big enough to reach it—my palms flattened behind me, scars sticky from the countertop.

There’s comfort in the normalcy of it all.

I smile at the woman who all but raised me, a single shoulder lifted in a lazy shrug. “Every year I sleep less.”

When her hands find her hips, I know she’s fighting the urge to scold me. “You worry me, Kai.”

“When have I not?” I say lightly.

“I’m serious.” She wags a finger, gesturing to the whole of me. “You’re too young to be dealin’ with all this. It seems like only yesterday you were running around my kitchen, you and Kitt….”

She trails off at the mention of him, forcing me to resuscitate the dying conversation. “I actually came from Father’s”—I pause long enough to sigh through my nose—“Kitt’s study.”

Gail nods slowly. “He hasn’t left it since his coronation, has he?”

“No, he hasn’t. And I wasn’t in there long, either.” I run a hand through my disheveled hair. “He was just informing me of my first mission.”

She’s quiet for a long moment. “It’s her, isn’t it?”

I nod. “It’s her.”

“And are you—”

“Going to complete the mission? Do as I’m told?” I finish for her. “Of course. It’s my duty.”

Another long pause. “And did he remember what today is?”

I look up slowly, smiling sadly as I meet her gaze. “It’s not his job to remember.”

“Right,” she sighs. “Well, I only made one this year anyway. Figured he wouldn’t be able to join ya.”

She steps aside, revealing a glistening sticky bun beside the oven. I slide off the counter, smiling as I walk over to her. Only after I’ve kissed her on the cheek does she hand the plate to me.

“Now, go on,” she shoos. “Go spend some time with her.”

“Thank you, Gail,” I say softly. “For every year.”

“And the rest to follow.” She winks before shoving me toward the door.

I glance back at her, at this woman who was a mother to me when the queen could not be. She was warm hugs and affection, well-deserved scoldings and much-desired approval.

I fear where the Azer brothers would be without her.

“Kai?”

I’m halfway through the door when I stop to look back at her.

“We all loved her,” she says quietly.

“I know.” I nod. “She knew.”

And then my feet are carrying me out into the shadowed hallway beyond.

The sticky bun sitting atop the plate in my hand is tempting, smelling of cinnamon and sugar and simpler times. But instead I force myself to focus on walking the familiar path to the gardens, the same one I take this time each year from the kitchens.

It’s not long before I’m heading for the broad doors that separate me from the gardens beyond. I barely glance at the Imperials standing guard or the ones sleeping uselessly beside them. The few who are awake pretend not to notice the sticky bun I’m carrying into the darkness with me.

I follow the stone path between the rows of colorful flowers I can’t make out in the shadows. Statues covered in ivy litter the garden, several missing chunks of stone after taking one too many topples that certainly had nothing to do with me. The fountain ripples at the center of it all, reminding me of stifling days and understandable stupidity that had Kitt and me jumping into it.

But it’s what sits beyond the gardens that I’m here for.

I step out into the soft stretch of grass that was once layered with colorful rugs for the second Trial’s ball. Not allowing myself to reminisce any further on that night, I follow the moonlight that strokes its pale fingers over the outline of her.

The willow tree looks hauntingly alluring, her leaves rustling in the soft breeze. I run my eyes over each drooping branch. Over each root breaking through the dirt. Every inch is beautiful and strong.

I push through the curtain of leaves to step beneath the tree I visit as often as life will allow it—but always on this day with a sticky bun in hand. I run my fingers along the rough bark of the trunk, following its familiar grooves.

It’s not long before I take my familiar seat beneath the towering tree, draping an arm over my propped knee. Balancing the plate atop a particularly large root, I pull a small matchbox from my pocket.

“I couldn’t find a candle this year, sorry.” I strike the match, staring at the small flame now sputtering on the stick. “So this will have to do.”

I push the match into the center of the sticky bun, smiling slightly at the pathetic sight. I take a moment to watch it burn, watch it paint the massive tree in a flickering glow.

Then I look down beside me, running a hand over the soft grass there.

“Happy birthday, A.”

I blow out the makeshift candle, letting darkness swallow us whole.

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