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Between Shadow and Flame Preview

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

Chapter 1


My childhood was a fairytale. I lived in a literal castle with a mother, father, and brother. Mom bolted when I was seven, taking me with her. I remember only snippets of that night, my confusion, her sobbing in a car. That was the end of the fairytale. She never told me why we left. She refuses to speak of it at all.

We never stopped running. The list of schools I’ve attended is longer than the average Spotify playlist. But I still haven’t seen my Dad or brother since. Well, not in person, anyway.

Mom stashed some photos in a secret scrapbook. She doesn’t know I’m aware of it, and I’m careful not to enlighten her. The first day we settle into a rental, she hides it, and I find it again the first chance I get. It’s a fun game she has no idea we’re playing. We’ve resided at this cottage for almost a month, and my first opportunity has finally appeared. Mom scheduled an interview marked ‘all day.’

I dip from school early. Mom’s hiding spot is uninspired (back of the closet, so clichè), and I find it immediately. I sprawl on the floor and flip to the correct page to claim my reward.

There are only a handful of pictures. There are some of those photo strips you get from amusement parks and some pictures with Dad and me, or all three of us. This is it; the only evidence I have that the family I remember even exists. There’s nothing else, nothing on her phone, not even her wedding ring.

None of the pictures depict the castle or my brother. Sometimes, I wonder if I just dreamt up a brother so I’d feel like I had a true friend out there somewhere.

I search the photos for bits of myself in my parents’ features. Dad’s got these deep-set, upturned eyes; mine are the same shape, just more rounded, like Mom’s eyes. I have his straight, greek nose… well, except for the tip. It’s got a little bump at the end; I blame Mom’s button nose. Dad’s got these intense cheekbones and a strong jawline, in contrast to Mom’s round-cheeked, heart-shaped face. I hope I inherit more of Dad’s face shape as I grow older. I’ve definitely got his intense eyebrows. Even my pigmentation is a blend. Hair lighter than Dad’s black, darker than Mom’s blond. Dad’s got black eyes, Mom’s are sky blue, and mine? They’re the color of a deep, deep ocean.

Yes, I’m obsessing over a million little details. But memorizing and noticing it all in private means that later, I can look in a mirror and see a shadow of Dad reflected back.

I hear the front door open and the sound of jangling keys. I glance at my phone. All day my ass, it’s barely after lunch! I shut the book so softly that the sound’s muffled by my exhaling breath and slip it back into its hiding place. My heart’s beating as loud as the approaching clopping of her heels. Still, I take the time to move several papers, trying to set it precisely how I found it. If I’m discovered, she might throw out the scrapbook, too. Then I’d have nothing left.

There’s only one door to her room. I hold my breath. Her footsteps pause in the kitchen, and I don’t waste the opportunity. I dart to the window and squirm out in a flash.

I land as quietly as I can and crouch, tensed. I don’t hear anything. I grab my backpack and edge forward, still crouched, to peer around the corner.

I see Mom through the living room window. She’s holding the mail, staring at one letter in particular, uncharacteristically still. The address is turned towards her and away from me, not that I could read it from this distance. But it’s sealed with a red wax stamp. Mom sinks into the seat, still staring at the letter. I’m torn between curiosity and caution. As usual, curiosity wins.

I burst into the front door without knocking.

“David!” Mom starts, scattering the mail across the floor. She curses softly and scrambles to scoop them up. I’m almost as alarmed as her; I can’t remember seeing Mom react like that to anything.

“Sorry,” I help retrieve the mail. Yeah, it worked out for me, but I wasn’t trying to scare her. “Are you okay?”

“Fine, I was just lost in thought.” Mom smiles. Something’s wrong. Mom’s got dimples when she smiles and means it; there’s no sign of them now.

The texture of one of the envelopes draws my attention. It’s is a rich toothy velvet, and it’s heavier than the others. I look at it. It’s the envelope I saw Mom staring at through the window. Up close, I can see an emblem sealed into the wax, a hydra, some mouths roaring, some holding objects. I flip it over, and Mom snatches it from my hands before I can read the address.

“Thank you, David,” Mom says with an air of dismissal rather than gratitude.

“What’s that? It looks-”

“Shouldn’t you be in school?” Mom interrupts. Crap.

Mom reads my guilt before I can think of a defense and points to the door with a hand full of letters. “Room.”

“But-”

“Now, David. I need to call the school,” She says in that Angry Mom Voice. I retreat to my room. I know better than to argue with that tone.

Mom calls me back to the kitchen a short while later. She sits on one end of the table, hands curled around a teacup. Across from her at my usual spot is a steaming mug of hot chocolate. Oh no. She should be mad; why is she bribing me? It’s still bright out, but Mom set up a crackling fire.

“Have a seat.” She gives me a dimple-less smile.

I sit slowly, bracing myself for whatever doom she’s clearly about to announce. Mom doesn’t continue immediately, drumming her fingers against her teacup. “How much time do you have left in the semester?”

My stomach drops. “Why?” I ask. Mom opens her mouth as if looking for the right words, confirming my fears. “Mom, we just got here a month ago!”

“I know, sweetie; I’m sorry. I know this isn’t easy… you know, we can always set you up with homeschooling,” She offers, almost hopefully. It’s not the first time. I clench my fist.

The only friends, the only social life I have, exists because of school. That’s literally the only reason I go at all. I’ve tried socializing online, but I suck at social media, all of it. I have no problem making friends in person, but I’m miserable over text. “No,” I say. It’s all I can trust myself to say without involving things that shouldn’t be told to a parent.

“If you’re sure, I just think it would be easier for you. It would be consistent-”

“Still no. Where are we going?”

Mom hunches over her tea, averting her eyes. “I don’t know yet.”

“You don’t even know? Then why are we leaving?”

“Current story isn’t going to work out. You should get started on your homework.”

“What the hell is the point of doing my homework?” I demand. “What difference is that going to make if we’re going to leave… do you even know when?”

Instead of answering, Mom stands. “I’m sorry, David. You’re right, you can stay home. I need to wrap up a few things. Why don’t I order us some pizza?”

Another bribe.

I turn away from her to glare at the fire.

I should have gone today. I don’t want to go back, but if I’d known, I’d at least have said goodbye. It doesn’t matter. The whole class will forget me and the friendships we formed in a few months. They always do.

Red catches my eye. Wax bubbles at the heart of the fireplace, the exact color of the seal on the letter. The void in my stomach gapes further. I’m certain that that bit of wax is all that remains of the letter. And that letter might well involve why we left.

I pick up the hot chocolate and stalk to my room. If Mom isn’t going to tell me anything, Fine. I’ll just figure out why on my own.


I research dragons in heraldry and coats of arms. Apparently, they represent the conquest of a powerful enemy. Luckily for me, they are rare enough that the list of notable coats of arms with hydras takes up less than a page.

I hadn’t had a great look at the seal for obvious reasons. Still, the glimpse I saw matches the island country of Fyrnlendh. I know nothing about Fyrnlendh.

I scan Wikipedia, hoping to find something useful. Unfortunately, the article on Fyrnlendh is boring. It’s just a brief overview of geography, history, population, political system, and other useless statistics. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but discovering Fyrnlendh is the leading exporter of gold is not it.

I finish the article and drum my fingers. None of the random trivia will help me figure out why Mom freaked out. I’m going to need something else.

I switch things up and search for Fyrndlendh in the news. The first page includes articles on various topics; civil rights laws, sports, weather, and a museum exhibit. I scan each one diligently, desperate for anything relevant.

A startlingly familiar face stares at me from my screen. I click on the article the photo is attached to without reading the title, scrolling until I see the full-sized, uncropped image. Dark eyes glare out from a scowling face I’ve stared at too often to confuse with anyone else, though never with this expression. I see in it features I recognize in a mirror. It’s the face of my Dad.

I forget how to breathe. I can’t so much as twitch my fingers, can’t do anything but stare at the photograph. I gulp in air, but I can’t get enough, and my heart is pounding in my ears. And it’s him, it’s him. I have no doubt, not with how long I’ve spent memorizing him.

I tear my gaze away from his, skimming the caption. “Lord Viktor Guthanderkaz,” it begins, and I can’t focus on the rest. Viktor. I’ve seen it before, in the album, scribbled on the back of a photo. I thought it might be his name, but I could never be sure, and I could never ask. Now I know. My Dad’s name is Viktor. Viktor… how do you even pronounce the surname?

It doesn’t matter. I copy paste the name in an email to myself, just in case. I can barely see the screen and realize that my eyes are blurry with unshed tears. I bite my lip, close my eyes, and press my hands against my face to push the tears away. I’m still shaking, still struggling to breathe normally.

And all the while, the thought repeats like a mantra. I found him. I found Dad. I have a Dad.

Was Dad the one Mom had been running away from? Did he know I was alive? Did he know I existed at all? Was he trying to find me?

I wish I could go back in time and grab the letter from Mom’s hand. I would have if I’d known. I wouldn’t have cared about the consequences. What punishment could she offer that’s worse than burning a letter from Dad?

I need air. I need sun. I need to breathe again. Away from Mom and the cottage, away from everything. I stand on shaky legs and stumble out the window. I don’t want Mom to see me like this; I don’t want questions. I retreat into the forest. I need music--I don’t care what. I shakily put on my earbuds and click at random. I just need to drown out my own thoughts.

An orchestra of strings rolls over me, cushioning me, shifting me one degree from reality. I let out a long slow breath, draw another in. I walk through the forest, watching leaves dance in the foliage above my head, almost in time with the song.

I find a large tree and lean against it, bark biting into my back. I need to find out more about him and then… then find a way to contact him. My legs lose their strength, and I slide to the ground. I pull my legs up, burying my head in them. What can I say? Hi, I’m your estranged son; oh, and by the way, do I have a brother or did I just imagine it?

What if he doesn’t want me?

My lungs fill with ice. This time I can’t hold back the tears. I rock back and forth, sobbing, hugging myself, submerged in my sorrow. I cry until there’s nothing left, and then I just lie there, trying to process everything I learned today in a single day.

If I’m going to find my Dad, I have to face my Mom first. I’m emotionally exhausted. I definitely won’t be able to handle it. I doubt I could even manage to explain why my eyes are swollen and red. Wouldn’t make a strong statement when facing Mom anyway.

***

Instead of confronting her, I do a search using Dad’s name.

Viktor Guthanderkaz, my Dad, is the head of some sort of royal family, which doesn’t make much sense considering Fyrnlendh is listed as a democracy. Maybe they’re just figureheads? Was the whole royalty thing why Mom left? Was she some sort of lost princess or something or trying to escape an arranged marriage?

But, no… they looked happy in the pictures. Hell, the fact that Mom kept them at all is telling. Why would she, if she hated him?

I return to the article, desperate for answers.

His wife is listed, and the name isn’t Mom’s. I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still stings. It mentions Dad having two children, but no names are listed. I hope one of them is my brother. I hope my brother still likes me.

There’s no mention of anyone else. No sign of Mom anywhere.

In fact, the article itself is ridiculously sparse. Apparently, the royal family keeps to themselves, and Fyrnlendh has extensive privacy laws. It’s even a rumored destination for celebrities who want anonymity. (Which can’t be confirmed because any confirmation not from the consenting subject is apparently illegal in Fyrnlendh. Talk about intense.)

Still, I have a name. That’s more than I had before.

***

I confront her over breakfast. I don’t ease into it; I don’t have the energy, and patience has never been a strong suit of mine. And I’ll never be able to eat until I do. “Why did you burn a letter from Dad?”

Mom’s fork clatters to the table. She stares, ashen-faced. “What?”

I struggle to keep my voice steady. “When were you going to tell me? Were you ever going to tell me?”

“David,” Mom breathes. She reaches her hand across the table towards mine. I jerk away, but hold eye contact, not about to back down. She lets her arm fall to her side, then presses one hand against her brow, leaning into it as if she has a headache. She starts again. “David, it’s not that simple.”

“Simplify it.”

Mom turns away from me, breaking eye contact first. She stands. “I need tea. Do you want any, or maybe some hot chocolate?”

“I want Dad.” I feel like a child saying it, but I don’t care.

I hear her pause, and then the clinking of her bustling about the kitchen resumes. “You don’t know your father, David.”

“I do too,” I say stubbornly, turning back to face her. “I remember him. I even remember what he looks like. It’s how I figured it out.” I don’t mention the photos. I don’t like the thought that I probably wouldn’t have recognized him without them. It feels like a betrayal to admit, even to myself.

Mom stares at me for a long moment. Her brows draw together, and she turns away. “I didn’t want this for you.” She says, so quiet I can barely hear it.

“What exactly is the ‘this?’ you didn’t want?” I demand. “Constantly moving and never having any real friends? Never knowing my family? My Dad? My brother.”

I sound more confident of my brother’s existence than I am, but the widening of her eyes confirms it. I do have a brother. The knowledge is immediately damped. “Half brother.”

For a second, I can’t seem to process the words. “Half? But…”

“You were too young for us to explain it at the time. And we… we wanted you to be able to bond. Which clearly you did.” Another false smile. I don’t match it.

“So what happened?” I demand. Half brother… Did Dad cheat on her…? Is that what this is about?

“It wasn’t safe,” Mom says inscrutably. “For you… ..for any of us.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?!”

“That those with power are rarely kind. And your paternal great-grandfather was a very powerful man.” Mom speaks with a venom I’ve never heard from her before. She isn’t looking at me anymore. Her eyes are distant, haunted.

I hesitate. Mom’s clearly distressed, but… But I need to know. “So why isn’t the rest of our family with us? Why isn’t Dad? Or Basil.”

Mom refocuses on me. “...you remember his name?”

I hadn’t until I spoke it, but I disguise my surprise with a glare. I don’t want to give her any ammunition to claim that whatever connection I have isn’t good enough. “He’s my brother.” And the only genuine friend I’ve ever had.

“Half-” Mom starts, then sighs. “It doesn’t matter. They… couldn’t get out. Only we could. But it’s what your father wanted too.”

“Then what about the letter?! You didn’t even read it.”

Mom shakes her head, and her eyes are distant once more. “You don’t understand. He didn’t send that letter. He wouldn’t have.”

“You can’t know that! You didn’t even read it!”

“I don’t have to,” Mom says firmly and places two cups, one in front of herself and one in front of me. “Either way, it’s not worth the risk.”

“What risk?”

“You don’t need to know the details because they will never find us.”

“That isn’t your choice to make!” I slam my hand against the table so hard tea bounces out of the cups, and I don’t even care. “I have a right to know my family!”

“You don’t know what you’re asking. Your father and I made this decision together.” Mom’s voice doesn’t rise to meet mine. She remains frustratingly calm as she wipes up some spilled tea with a napkin.

“You don’t even know the one you’re running from is still alive,” I snap. “That was ten years ago, and if he’s my great-grandfather, he has to be ancient.”

Tears burn behind my eyes. “... you’re never going to tell me, are you? You’ve been lying to me this entire time! The article wasn’t canceled, was it? This isn’t about finances; this is about running away.”

“No.” Mom takes my hands, staring intently into my eyes. “It’s about protecting you.”

I yank my hands away, jerking away from the table. Even now, even confronted, she wasn’t telling me anything. She’d never tell me anything or do anything.

Mom rubs at her forehead. “David… there’s a lot about this you don’t know and don’t understand.”

“Then fill me in. I’m not a kid anymore; I’m seventeen-” Mom gives me that infuriating look that tells me she absolutely considers seventeen to be a child, which just makes me angrier. I pretend not to notice and continue “-and for all you know, Dad changed his mind! Doesn’t he have a right to?”

“He wouldn’t,” Mom says firmly, stabbing a piece of bacon with her fork.

“You don’t know that! It’s been ten years!”

“Eat your food, David,” Mom says cooly. I glare at her, but shove some scrambled eggs into my mouth, mainly to avoid distracting the important argument with a stupid one about food. She continues as I eat, “It’s my job to keep you safe. It hasn’t been an easy task. Look at where we are.” She lifted her hands to gesture, one still holding her fork, “and they still found us. This isn’t the first time.”

I swallow before I finish chewing. “Why burn the letter? Why not even let me see it?”

“It’s not safe,” Mom says again. She’s repeating herself so much it feels halfway like talking to a video game character, the same dialogue on loop.

“Not safe to read?” I challenge.

“Yes.” She says. I gawk at her. Mom is not usually like this; she’s usually much more reasonable. Mom clearly notices and adds. “Clearly, even seeing it was dangerous.”

I glower. “I thought you cared about the truth.”

She straightens, voice sharpening. “David Rose.”

“David Rose or David Guthanderkaz?” I challenge. I even pronounce it correctly, at least according to the pronunciation videos I found on youtube.

“Do not say that name!” This time her voice isn’t the usual Mom sharpness. She thunders at me like the voice of God echoing from the heavens, and I wilt back a bit, eyes widened. “Not in this house, not ever!”

“Why not?” I demand. “It’s the name of my family.”

“This is not up for discussion,” Mom says, voice infuriatingly calm, picking up her fork again. “We’re not going to contact them, and that’s final.”

“You don’t have the right to make that choice for me!” I snap.

“Of course I do. I’m your mother.” Mom says.

“You’re a terrible mother!” I snap. I regret it immediately. The look of pain Mom is too shocked to hide etches in my memory. I jerk away from the table and flee to my room, ignoring her calling my name. I slam and lock the door, heart pounding. I don’t want to hurt her, but she doesn’t understand.

I can’t remember the last time I cared this much about anything. I can’t give it up.

Mom knocks at my door later, but I just put my headphones in and focus on what I’m doing.

I don’t find a trace of Dad on social media. Not that I’d expect him to check his own messages if he did, he’d probably have a secretary or something for that.

Luckily, Fyrnlendh has an embassy. That’s the good news.

The bad news is it isn’t anywhere near here. I can’t exactly ask Mom for a ride, not after how she reacted. The cheapest way to get there involves two buses and a train, takes over 40 hours, and costs around $200.

I couldn’t pawn everything I own for $200; even if I could, Mom would notice. I’m not thrilled with the alternative.

Look, I’m not precisely the follow-the-rules sort. Rules are arbitrary and pointless, more about ego than ethics. But I still have morality. No amount of anguish or anger is going to make stealing from Mom feel right. I just don’t see another option.

Besides, if this works out, surely Dad will pay Mom back, right? Right.

I know where Mom keeps her emergency cash. And this is an emergency, at least for me. The longer I take, the longer Mom has to figure out or try to stop me. She’s already made it clear she’s not willing to negotiate.

I don’t emerge until the afternoon. The house is still as glass. There’s a note tucked under the daffodil-filled vase at the table. It’s brief.

“Leftovers are in the fridge. I also made you some lunch. Please remember to eat. We’ll talk more tonight.

I love you.

Mom.”

Another pang of guilt pulses in my guts, but I push it aside and slip into her room. I hesitate after pulling out the money. I try to reassure myself by focusing on how much more she has after I take what I need. It doesn’t help.

I pocket the money, but guilt still keeps me planted to the floor. I don’t want to do this. It feels like a betrayal; I don’t want to betray Mom. Why won’t she listen? Why won’t she talk about anything instead of saying I won’t understand again and again like I’m an idiot two-year-old.

I clench and unclench my fists twice, taking in a deep breath. Then I grab a nearby piece of paper and scrawl a quick note.

“Be back in a few days. Don’t try to find me.” I hesitate, eyeing it, and then add my own “I love you.”

I put it on her dresser instead of the kitchen table. I want her to find it, but not right away. Then I pick up my mostly packed backpack and stuff the leftovers inside. I’m just about to leave when another thought strikes me. I turn, return to Mom’s room, and dig out the secret album. I scan the contents before making a selection.

It’s a picture of my Dad holding me. I’m young in the photo, maybe three; I’ve never been good at judging kids’ age. Hopefully, old enough, a stranger can see the resemblance. With utmost care, I pull it out of its place and slip it into the back of my phone. It’s easier to alter a file than a photo. I hope the authenticity will help.



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