Walking up the stairs backward was harder than it looked. Luke didn’t normally take the stairs the wrong way, but with his light hand hidden in his pocket, the only way to keep from creaking was to use his other hand on the railing.Almost there. If Grandpa kept the old plaster in his bedroom, the cast could be done before his mother even knew he was home.Luke backed into something soft, smelling of window cleaner.“Are you bored? Because I have plenty of chores you could be doing.”Luke spun around, trying to keep his expression natural. “Hi Mom, I needed to tell Grandpa something.”She thrust a roll of paper towels and a bottle of blue liquid into his chest. “Perfect, Grandpa’s is the last room left to do.”Clutching at the spray bottle with his free hand, Luke struggled to balance the towels on top.“Will you quit playing around and take-” Luke’s mother pulled his hand out of his pocket and screamed. The cleaning supplies clattered down the stairs in a bouncing race to the bottom.“What were you thinking?! You’re turquoise!”Luke stared at his glowing hand in mock surprise. His mother wasn’t fooled.“I’ve told you a thousand times to stay away from the others.”“What’s the big deal?”“You’re graduating in two days! Couldn’t you at least have waited until after classification?”“It’s just a little greenish tint--you barely notice it.”Mrs. Zinnershine began to cry. Luke hated when she cried. Her nose got red and snotty and she’d never wipe it, as if determined to make herself as pitiful as possible and instill the maximum amount of guilt in her offender.“I’d always hoped you’d be a doctor like your father and grandfather. With that color you’ll be lucky to get classified as a politician.” She held up her hand, exposing the pale blue circle in her own palm. “Do you know how hard we’ve worked for this? The least you can do is tell me why you’re throwing your future away.”Luke took a breath. “On my way to school I saw a little Cyan boy trying to dig out his fire with the sharp end of a ruler.” Mrs. Zinnershine covered her mouth. “I guess a Green bully had tricked him into reacting with him.”“Well that’s how stupid people learn to protect themselves. It has nothing to do with us.”“His dad told him if he reacted again he’d send him to live in Red Town.”“That’s ridiculous.”“That’s what I told him. But you know how little kids are. He wouldn’t stop digging until I promised to react with him. He figured since he was Cyan to begin with, a blue would balance the green and he’d be more or less back to normal.”His mother shook her head in disgust. “And they let you into Blue Class like that?” Luke touched his turquoise palm. “For a couple hours, until the reaction completed. Then they kicked me out. Said I’d have to finish the semester in the Mixed Academy.”Mrs. Zinnershine once again burst into sobs and Luke quickly went to retrieve the glass cleaner. He’d wash windows all day if it meant he didn’t have to watch any more snot streams.#Mixed Academy turned out not so bad. In general students seemed less concerned with colors, and it was nice seeing the occasional violet and yellow instead of the same old blue. The whole school consisted of forty-five students of various ages who all met together. At lunch the second day, Luke spotted the bloody-ruler boy. “I see your fire tempered nicely,” Luke said as he set down his tray of undercooked fish sticks. The boy looked up, his startled expression softening when he saw Luke. “Do I ever owe you,” he said. “How much trouble did you get in?”Luke shrugged as if he reacted all the time. “What about you. Did your Dad notice?”“He gave me a funny look when he saw it at dinner--I think because it’s brighter than before--but he didn’t say anything.”Luke bit into a soggy fish stick and spit it back onto his plate.The boy made a face at Luke’s regurgitation. “I’m Kellan by the way.”“Are you going to eat that?”Kellan and Luke both turned to see a tiny girl with black hair staring at them. Her palm glowed orange.“You can have it,” Luke said, pushing his tray over. “Didn’t you get lunch?”The girl crammed three fish sticks into her mouth and shook her head. “Too much money.”Luke stared at her. “A dollar fifty?”“We get the blue discount,” Kellan whispered. “Red and Green mixes pay more. They probably charge her five bucks with that much red.”Luke flinched as the girl ate the piece he’d spit out. She really must have been hungry. Luke knew the grocers favored blues, but he had no idea the school discriminated too.Suddenly Luke got a crazy idea and his heart began thumping against his ribs.“Hey,” he hissed, “you want to react?”The girl’s mouth dropped.Luke extended his right arm. After looking around to see who was watching, the girl slowly brought her fire toward him.They clasped hands. Luke could feel the silent hum of her fire next to his. The next instant his hand felt as if it had expanded to several times its normal size. Luke’s arm jerked back instinctively, but his fingers had frozen in place just as they had with Kellan. It was as if all his joints had fused together and would be forever intertwined with the other hand. Both their fires flared, sending a tingling sensation up his arm. All around them, students cried out in surprise.When Luke was able to move his hand again, he pried it free and hid it under his sweatshirt. “Awesome,” said Kellan.Several observing teachers weren’t quite as impressed. Luke and the girl spent the rest of the afternoon in the principal’s office being lectured about how reacting was serious business that should only be done with parental permission.“Have you two forgotten the Kings Requirement?” the principal asked.They shook their heads, but he recited it anyway. “If the throne thou dost desire, temper white your inner fire. Make the Crystal Scepter shine, then the kingdom will be thine.”Luke tried to appear interested. It wasn’t easy. The director had something in his mustache that looked suspiciously like a piece of soggy fish stick.“This mandate was given fifty years ago by our last king, just before he died. So far our current Steward has come closest to achieving a pure white light. Of course none of us will ever be king, but we still have a responsibility-”Mercifully, the final bell sounded.“Thanks Luke,” the girl said, as they escaped into the hall. “See you at Classifications.”A pang of panic hit as Luke remembered the ceremony. Had he really ruined his future?The girl turned back once more and waved. At that moment, Luke realized just how selfish he was being. There were people out there going hungry because they weren’t the right color, and he was worried his job might not be important enough?Not anymore.Luke didn’t go home to get ready for Classifications. Instead he walked to the park and reacted with an entire family of Greens just so the kids could get into a better college. By early evening Luke’s bluish-yellow fire burned so brightly it seemed his entire hand was aflame.Classification was only a few hours away. He’d have to hurry.For the first time in his life, Luke walked across the bridge into Red Town. As he passed a row of run-down apartments, he couldn’t tell if people stared because of his color or because his fire lit a two foot perimeter around him. An uneasy feeling crept over him, but he kept walking. If he’d already ruined his future he might as well help as many people as possible. He ignored the impulse to retreat. Instead he moved deeper into the slums, earning stares from half-naked kids in alleys and filthy women hanging laundry to dry on chicken-wire fences. Finally he came to the area he was looking for. The houses were little more than shacks and the children playing in the streets looked like miniature skeletons.Luke stopped in the middle of the street but before he could announce his intention, a toothless old man came at him with half a baseball bat. “You get out of here!” Luke took a step back. The man was moving slowly, but if the rest of the neighborhood decided to join in Luke would be in trouble.“I’m here to help you,” Luke said with a huge smile.The man kept shuffling toward him with a look of determined fury.From a window, a woman with sunken eyes yelled, “Whatever you’re selling we don’t want it.”Luke’s smile disappeared. “I just thought someone might want to react with me.”“Well, you thought wrong. We don’t need your Blue charity.”Luke stepped to the side as the old man made a feeble swing. Without a word, Luke pushed his light hand into his pocket and started back toward the river.He was a fool. Of course the Reds would be suspicious. No Blue in his right mind would cross the river, let alone offer to swap colors.Maybe he should’ve kept his hands to himself in the first place.“Excuse me, sir?”A red boy with long black hair stood at the entrance to an alley. From the budding facial hair, Luke figured he was in his early teens. The boy held the hand of a much younger dark-haired girl.“Will you react with my sister?”He made no move to come out of the alley. Did he expect Luke to leave the relative safety of the street just because he asked? It felt suspiciously like a trap.“Please,” the boy said. “If you’re serious about helping. I want her to have a chance.”Luke cleared his throat. He’d always wanted a younger sibling but the doctor told his mother she’d probably die if she got pregnant again.Seeing the Red’s protective stance over his sister made Luke sad and happy at the same time. Sad because he would never have the duties of an older brother, but happy because maybe he could help this boy fulfill his.Luke crossed over the ally and crouched in front of the girl.“What’s your name?”She looked up at her brother, then whispered, “Véronique.”“That’s pretty.”Luke pulled his hand out of his pocket and showed Véronique. “Would you like your hand to look like this?”She shrugged.“It’s okay,” the boy said. “Give him your hand.”Véronique extended her tiny arm.Luke took her hand and held it until there was a flash. “See that didn’t hurt,” Luke said. “In a few hours your color will be even prettier.”Luke straightened and held his hand out to the brother.After they had reacted, the boy thanked him. His eyes glistened in the dim light.Luke nodded. “Take care of her.”Apparently other Reds had been watching because when Luke came out of the alley several people asked to shake hands with him.He reacted with eight more and then sprinted home to find his Grandpa.#Three hours later Luke stood in the school auditorium, his cast hidden behind his back. He watched aspiring bakers being presented with spoons, future architects given slide rulers. Finally, they got around to the Z’s. Luke was used to being last, but with the entire school watching he was having second thoughts about his plan. “Step up boy. Don’t dawdle,” the Steward said. He was an old man with ears that seemed to be sliding off his head and down his neck. His fire, while unusually faint, was the palest blue Luke had ever seen.“Your fire age?”Luke hesitated. “Twenty-two.”A collective gasp went up from the audience. The old man clucked his tongue in disapproval.“Do you see this?” the Steward said, displaying a withered palm. “This has come from a lifetime of self-discipline and solitude. I am a zero.”Zero? Luke had never heard of anyone lower than two. He must have made a confused face, because the Steward chuckled.“My parents died shortly after my birth and the parental bonding laws don’t apply to non-relative caretakers. Even my wife and I were always careful never to join our right hands, in order to temper our fires as pure as you see now.” The man lowered his arm and peered at Luke over crooked spectacles. “All right then, let’s take a look at your fire.”“Actually, I had an accident,” Luke said, revealing the cast. “So you can’t really see it. But at my last evaluation I was a medium shade Cerulean.”The Steward glanced down at some papers. “Yes, but last month you were also a two.” He produced a pair of hedge shears. “You aren’t the first to try something like this,” he said. “Unfortunately we do have to take a look. Fitting, that as a gardener, you’ll be using the same tool that uncovered your shame.”Gardening didn’t sound bad. At least he’d be outside.But as the Steward clipped away at the cast, Luke’s insides gnawed at his bones. The parents and future employers sat captivated, waiting to see what a twenty-two looked like. Was he the first ever to be so reckless with his fire? What color did Blue Green and Red make? Luke envisioned a Brownish Black muck. He’d have to wear gloves his whole life. Good thing he was going into a manual labor field.As the Steward cut through the last bit of cast and cracked it open, cries of astonishment filled the auditorium. Luke’s hand, which prior to the casting had been a yellowish-purple, was now a shining white fireball. Although his eyes burned from looking at it, Luke couldn’t tear away his gaze. How was so much light coming from his little hand? And it was so pure--not even a hint of any other color.The old man stumbled back and dropped the shears. Slowly he reached into his navy cloak and brought out the Crystal Scepter. Four feet tall and topped with an enormous diamond, it was the most beautiful thing Luke had ever seen. A soft bluish glow emanated along the staff a few inches on either side of the Steward’s grip. The crowd erupted into loud chatter. The old man hesitated, then slowly held the scepter out to Luke. The room fell silent. As if watching himself from far away, Luke reached out his fiery hand and clutched the rod. The effect was instantaneous. Blinding white light filled the scepter and shot out the top. A thousand sparkling colors danced around the room, across disbelieving faces, and illuminated Luke’s clothing.The Steward glanced around as if he didn’t know what to do. Finally with a look of resignation, he struggled to one knee and bowed his frail body toward Luke. “Long live the King.”One by one, as they overcame their shock, members of the audience lowered their heads and began chanting the Steward’s words.“Long live the King. Long live the king.”Luke saw his parents. His mother was crying as usual.“Go Luke!” Kellan cheered. “Youngest King ever!”Luke realized he didn’t know the first thing about ruling a country. He’d certainly need a lot of help. But maybe if he did a good job, they’d still let him do a little gardening on the side.Notes about light mixing: Unlike paint, the primary colors of light are Red, Blue, and Green. While any color can be derived from these, mixing the three together results in pure white light.
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