Every year at the height of the summer, the richest of the glittering people turn out to the Water Race Championships, obscenely eager for the blood and
gore the races bring. And every year, they get the carnage they so greedily await. Not a single water horse had retired to pasture yet. No, every water horse retired the same way; at the bottom of
the murky sea, their fearless jockeys alongside them.
I hated the Water Races, hated them to my very core, but not as much as I hated the Circle, because it was the Circle that forced us to race. So when the
man from the Circle appeared in the doorway of the barn, swathed in brightly colored silks, it was all I could do to keep my face blank.
“Flavia Domitilla,” the man said by way of greeting.
“Yes, my lord?” I replied, wondering what fresh hell he would bring today.
“There is to be a change this season.”
“A change, my lord?”
“Yes,” he replied. “We wish all of the fine citizens of our state to be able to witness the Championship races, and there is not enough room on the island
for that many visitors.”
I kept quiet, unsure of where he was going with this. The Championships had been held on the island for decades.
“So, for the first time since the beginning of the races, we are going to bring the horses to them! Bring the races to them!” he announced, far more
enthusiastically than the statement warranted.
“Bring the horses to them?” I repeated, for lack of anything better to say while my mind whirled furiously.
“Are you deaf as well as ugly, girl?” he snarled. “Bring the horses to the city. There will be hitching posts erected for the occasion. Every horse must
be on its best manners, so you had better make sure they behave, do you understand?”
I looked down so that he could not see the anger in my eyes, nor the disappointment in being called ugly. Before the explosion, I had been pretty. At
least that’s what everyone said. I had never really thought about it. But not one time since the explosion had I looked in the mirror. At the hospital, when the scars had been so fresh, I had been
too afraid. Later, on the island where I lived, there were no mirrors. I knew I was ugly now; I didn’t need to see it. It didn’t bother me, not really. The horses didn’t care what I looked like,
and so I didn’t, either. But being called ugly would sting any girl’s ego for at least a few seconds.
“Will they be transported by boat?” I asked politely. “If so, when? Is there a stable for them to sleep in? Hitching posts are fine, but they must have
somewhere to live. The Championship races last for several weeks.”
He frowned. “It’s not your place to ask such questions, girl. But because you need to know, the horses will swim to the city. That is, after all, what the
people are paying to watch.”
“They are paying to watch the races, not watch the horses swim to the races! The swim is too long! They’ll be exhausted after such a distance! We’ve
always transported them by boat before!” I protested, forgetting my station in life and finally looking into his eyes.
He rewarded me with a swift smack to my face, one of his favorite methods of punishment. My eyes watered and the scars on my face smarted. If I had not
been so afraid of what he could do, I would have fought back, but I had felt the lash of the whip enough times that I just lowered my eyes and stood there.
“Do not presume that it’s your place to protest,” he growled. “You may be the Master of Horses for the City of Gold, but you are still a slave. You will
have the horses on the mainland and ready to race by the third weekend of July!” With that, he turned around in a flutter of brilliant color and stalked off.
After he left, I collapsed on the ground, shaking, my legs as useful as jelly, my hand still cupping my smarting cheek.
I had not stood up to him that much since the first day I had met him, yet I had felt the bite of the whip many times. I had no idea what had kept him at
bay today, but I was grateful for it.
The horses were the only family I had left, and I would do anything to keep them safe, even question my masters, but in reality, slaves have little
I was raised on a horse; I lived and breathed them. They were a part of me, just like my arms and legs. Most believed it was our gypsy heritage that gave
my family our gift with the horses. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but my mother said it definitely gave me my dark brown, wild hair, green eyes, and olive complexion.
I shook my head to clear it of the memories of my family and slowly got up, my joints creaking from overexertion, my legs still shaking from adrenaline,
and I vowed to myself that I would not let a single horse die during these races. Not if there was anything I could do about it.
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