Unbetrothed by Candice Pedraza Yamnitz

PROLOGUE

10 Years Earlier

ON MY SEVENTH BIRTHDAY, I stood at the center of the dais and held my breath, gaze fixed on the giant doors across the cavelike room. Papá drummed his fingers on the golden armrest of his throne. Mamá sat beside him, clasping my hand tightly. A half dozen servants waited on each side of us. Ever since I saw Mamá transform my first bloodied knee into smooth tan skin, I had eagerly waited for the day I’d receive my special gifting.

A servant boy dashed into the throne room from a side door and handed Papá a folded piece of paper. Papá opened the note.

“What is the message?” Mamá asked in hushed tones as I nuzzled her shoulder.

“The whyzer of the valley sent a boy in his stead.” Papá crumpled the paper into a tight wad. “This whyzer’s supposedly the most powerful bestower of magical gifts. Sending a boy? He ought to rot—”

“Ezer,” Mamá whispered. She gave Papá her you’re-in-trouble look.

Papá cupped my cheek. “Don’t worry, Beatriz. The boy can give you a magical touch too. And he brought you a gift. An unusual gift.”

Every person in the kingdoms around the Agata Sea received a magical power between their first and fifth birthday. When no whyzer arrived on my fifth birthday, Mamá assured me a whyzer would arrive the next year. And when he didn’t come on my sixth birthday, I cried myself to sleep. Now, on my seventh birthday, I would finally get my special gift.

The main door creaked open. Uncle stepped through wearing his royal green doublet. He escorted a young boy—no more than ten years old. I glanced at Mamá. She maintained a steady expression on her perfect face, but there was a tiny wrinkle between her brows.

Uncle and the boy drew near. Their footsteps echoed through the chamber. I could now see the boy’s sapphire eyes and something clutched in his left hand.

Uncle bowed his head, and dark strands of hair flopped over his forehead. “Your majesty.” He snuck a glance in my direction and offered a comforting wink. “The boy tells the truth.” Uncle’s deep voice rattled through my bones.

My knees bounced under my yellow dress. Legs, stay still.

“Check his story again,” Papá said.

Uncle grabbed the boy’s wrist and closed his eyes. “What did you bring?”

The boy smiled in return, completely unshaken by the gesture. “Naught but a loaf.”

“Is it poison?” The markings on Uncle’s palms shone like orange candlelight between the boy’s wrist and Uncle’s skin.

“No, but it is a special sort of bread,” the boy said.

The majordomo stood below the dais, staring at my uncle. The maids stepped closer. Mamá remained motionless. Laude, my playmate, held my governess’s dress skirt, stretching her neck to get a better look.

My stomach growled. I pressed my lips tight. The room remained so silent a crumb would have been heard falling to the floor. What if the boy lied?

Uncle nodded, bushy eyebrows scrunching together. “It is as he says. He’d like Princess Beatriz to eat.”

Papá waved a hand. A stout maid took the boy’s small loaf of bread, brown and ordinary, and placed it in my palms. Bubbles of joy danced through my stomach. I hadn’t expected needing to eat anything. Dozens of stares fell upon the simple offering, and I sank my teeth into the loaf.

The warm bread melted on my tongue—the best-tasting food I had ever eaten. I took another bite, chewed, and swallowed the piece. What was supposed to happen? I felt no different. I continued eating until the bread was gone and brushed the crumbs from my fingers.

Everyone—guards, servants, and family alike—edged closer, unblinking.

The boy beamed, drawing me into his gaze. He whispered through pressed lips, You shall come to the ruins in Valle de los Fantasmas. I’ll be waiting in the valley.

I frowned at Mamá. Did the boy just speak?

“What is her gifting?” Papá’s words sounded crisp.

The boy bowed his head and said in a small voice, “In due time.”

Those three words crushed my heart and wrung my insides into knots. Mamá hugged me, but even her warmth didn’t ease my pain. Why wasn’t I special enough to get a touch of magic?