Seven-year-old Cyrus Sole picked up the white swan feather, twirling it. This week was going to be a bad week, she could tell. Her stomach always got uneasy when something unpleasant was about to happen.
“Don’t mess with my feather collection.”
Cyrus put the feather down, picked up the brush instead and combed it down her older sister’s auburn hair. Heily sat admiring herself in the metallic mirror, and adjusted a clip once Cyrus finished.
“Your hair’s so pretty, long n’ soft. Wish mine was, too,” said Cyrus.
Thirteen-year-old Heily chuckled. “It is rather nice, isn’t it? All the boys compliment me daily,” she said with a pleased blush.
When Cyrus’s downcast face reflected in the mirror, Heily turned on her rotating chair. “Don’t go getting all depressed, Miss Cry-a-lot. Not everybody is meant to have hair like mine.”
Cyrus glanced away, scanning Heily’s modern room, which had all the latest fashion and tech that Elvenstone Town could offer. “I know,” she replied. “I just wish I was pretty—a little pretty. Anything besides this.” She gestured to her short, bright-as-cherries hair and simple face. “So kids won’t say I look like a boy, all the time,” Cyrus added, and grimaced down at the floor, her small feet shuffling.
“Well,” Heily thought for a moment. “Growing your hair out sure didn’t work.” A giggle slipped free as she recalled Cyrus’s hair poofing like a deformed tomato. “Ahem. Sorry, but it really was the funniest thing I ever saw. Your hair grew out instead of down.”
Seeing the pout on her step-sibling’s face, Heily calmed her mirth. “You’re just a child, Cyrus. I’m sure your hair will change once you hit puberty. But it’d help if you dressed up more nicely: a touch of lipstick, a cute dress, and not to mention if you behaved more like a girl, instead of frolicking about in the dirt. What do they call that game? Longball—ugh!” She sniffed. “Only rowdy boys play such games. Seriously, act more like a girl. Not some tomboy.”
“You’re saying I shouldn’t be me anymore?” Cyrus folded her arms.
Heily shrugged. “I’m just trying to help. Do you like kids making fun of you and calling you Cherry-top and Tomato Boy?”
Cyrus stuck out her lower lip. Some other humans had red hair, and they weren’t teased. But she knew her hair wasn’t the real reason kids teased her.
“You wanted advice, and I gave it. Now go do what you want,” Heily said and stood, stretching her arms and smoothing her skirt before heading out the door. “Don’t forget to wash the dishes! It’s your turn, and it’s starting to stink in the kitchen.”
Cyrus watched Heily go, eyeing the tight waist of her dress, wondering how a person could breathe in such tight clothing. Were some girls born without lungs?
Cyrus chewed her lip. She liked games, liked being outdoors. It was fun. She didn’t want to wear dresses and makeup every stinking day. Maybe once in a while, but not like Heily did.
Sigh. But how nice it would be to get the positive attention perfect Heily constantly got? Endless compliments about what a “wonderful young lady Heily was growing up to become.” Then those same people would turn and see Cyrus and then quickly pretend they hadn’t—because she was a half-blood.
Dad never said it out loud, but it was clear he loved Heily more. And Step-mom Narcissa made no effort to hide her favoritism—Heily was her real daughter, after all. A bitterness hung unspoken between the woman and Cyrus, and for more reasons than just that she wasn’t biologically related.
No one liked Cyrus because her real mother had been a vempar—the race humans hated, the enemy they’d spent hundreds of years fighting. Vempars were strong, and they preyed on humans and other races in order to quell their hunger.
Elvenstone was a risky town to live in, up here in the northern most reaches of the Human Republic, the closest town to the border that met the Vemparic Kingdom. Elvenstone was a human outpost, in a way, to monitor the vempars’ movements and make sure borders weren’t crossed.
Most people in town wanted nothing to do with Cyrus, even though she had taken after her dad’s human genes. To look at, she was practically human—no fangs, no bat ridges in her ears, no Healing capability. But the blood of Mother flowed somewhere in her veins, and that was enough for the townspeople to shun her.
Mother… Cyrus could barely remember her, except that she’d had beautiful long, wavy hair the shade of scarlet roses, and that she’d loved Cyrus very, very much. Much more than anyone had since.
Mother had died when she was two years old, found murdered. They suspected it to be the work of other vempars, but in a world where people disappeared often, nobody bothered to investigate. It left Cyrus feeling only half of a self, the vempar half of her an unknown and foreign gray area.
Why did Mother have to die? Where was she buried? There was no grave in Elvenstone, and no one she asked would talk about it.
Cyrus chewed her lip as she studied her reflection in the mirror.
Maybe tomorrow she should try doing what Heily suggested…
Next morning found Cyrus paused at the front door, the outside world of Elvenstone just beyond waiting to laugh at her.
She had on a cute blue dress; a touch of makeup colored her cheeks and lips, hair clips held down unruly curls. She felt ridiculous, like a ladybug trying to pretend it was a fairy! But if it could make people treat her better, then…
“If you keep standing there, you’ll be late for school,” Narcissa reprimanded from across the kitchen.
“Give her time, Mama. I dressed her up myself. And I must say, for a child, she almost looks pretty!” Heily wore a satisfied smile, as if she’d managed to create something from what had once been a mud pie. “Don’t be shy! Go out there, and do your best to act lady-like.”
Heily shoved Cyrus out the doorway and onto the white paved street.
Cyrus panicked, looking frantically about at a passing bicycle and the haze-trail from a cargo carrier’s engine. Heily followed her out, saying something about making sure Cyrus wouldn’t chicken out and run back home.
Heily’s friends arrived a few seconds later, all lip gloss and glittery fabrics. They giggled at the new sight of Cyrus for several torturous moments, before stealing Heily away and leaving Cyrus to follow in their wake. The older girls chatted, gossiped and giggled, fast forgetting about the tag-along child on the walk to school.
What were they always giggling about? Cyrus pouted, watching them disappear over the street’s slope. Alone, the air felt nicely quiet around her…until three teenagers zoomed past on rollerboards, sending up dust that made her nose wrinkle.
She followed the diamond pattern mosaics that ran along the sidewalk. There were mosaics everywhere in town—rimming streets, fountains, and the walls of structures.
Terraced hills rose to one side above the town rooftops as she walked, green and pleasant above the red, four-sided roofs and whitewashed walls. She wished she could wander up there among the crops instead of facing people at school today.
Her nervousness escalated when she finally reached the white columned school, making her feet drag slower than a snail. Kids all around were scrutinizing her new appearance as she passed by.
Reaching her desk, she sat on the edge of her seat. Children in the room snickered and began whispering to one another. Chins nodded her way, making it obvious who they were talking about. It wasn’t until recess, though, that she really wished invisibility was her superpower. Classmates circled her like beady-eyed vultures.
“What? It’s been a girl all this time? Who knew! Hahahaa!”
“Who could know, with that silly cherry-top head?”
“Bhahaa. Cherry-top! Cherry-top!”
They jeered and chanted, and she pouted back sourly.
“Can I have some whipcream with that?” one boy joked, scrubbing a hand through her hair and messing it up.
“Stop it!” She jerked away.
“Did you think changing your clothes and painting your face would make you one of us?”
“Teehee, as if!” laughed a smirking brunette.
“Cherry-top is just a girly boy who’s confused. Vempar blood does that to people, y’know,” tutted another, and they laughed harder.
Clenching both fists so hard they turned white, Cyrus marched away, past the ridicule and taunts, outdoors to the playground, to the farthest edge where it was muddy and smelly from last night’s rain and where she could hide among tall bushes in peace.
So much for that plan. She never should have listened to Heily! She kicked at the soggy grass.
She’d always be a half-blood, and always be ridiculed for it. “I wish I’d been born a boy. Then I’d be tougher than this, and wouldn’t cry anymore…”
She listened to the hum of the town’s single airship as it slowly rose, propellers whirring. If only somebody would accept her just the way she was…but some dreams were too much to dream.
“No,” came a voice behind her.
She squeaked and turned around, coming face to face with a pair of gleaming copper eyes…
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Blog Tour Schedule
Strayborn is Released! Tour Opening—E.E. Rawls
J.L. Mbewe—Spotlight and Interview
Kyle Shultz—Interview and Review
Book Excerpt—E.E. Rawls
Claire M. Banschbach—Review and Spotlight
Joy E. Rancatore—Interview
Deborah O’Carroll—Spotlight and Review
Hazel B. West—Spotlight
Jenelle Schmidt—Review and Spotlight
Meet the characters—E.E. Rawls
Victoria Grace Howell—Spotlight
Christine Smith—Instagram spotlight
Tour Conclusion—E.E. Rawls
FREE ebook Storm & Choice, a prequel story to Strayborn: