Over the Maze

In times of war, villagers from across the country travelled to hunker down in the safety of the palace’s fortified walls. It had a reputation for being impenetrable — except to those touched by the king’s express permission. To Amira’s surprise, it wasn’t the palace’s stone walls that kept unwanted visitors out, nor was it the lines of archers poised across its towers. In fact, encircling the palace was a vast, looming maze built entirely from plants.

For years, Amira had assumed the maze was simply another myth, but seeing it stretch for miles before her, she couldn’t believe how wrong she had been. Teeming with dense bushes, flickering leaves and a host of dangerous plants, it could take them weeks to wade through. But they only had days.

“Ready?” Ro asked. She tugged a coil of pink climbing roses from her bag and passed them to Amira. Attached to one end was a metal grappling hook. Ro was the strategist of their pair; smaller and weaker in every scenario except those that involved lugging around library books. The grunt work, the thievery, the danger? That was Amira’s forte, despite how often she tried to shirk that title.

With a little shrug that belied her fear, Amira wound her arm backwards and launched the grappling hook through the air. It landed on the other side of the maze with a dull thud.

She turned to Ro, eyes wide and disbelieving. “That did not just work on the first attempt.”

Ro appeared just as flummoxed as Amira felt. “Well, this is already more successful than when we tried to buy David Austin roses online,” she said. “Maybe the mission will actually go in our favour this time.”

Amira chuckled. “I very much doubt it. But enjoy this stretch of good luck while it lasts.”

She hooked her fingers through the bottom rung of rose stems and clambered up them like a ladder, Ro following closely behind. When they finally crested the top of the maze and dropped onto the other side, it was as though they had entered an entirely different world.

Seeing the Palace

Amira stood and glared at the palace on the horizon. The sight winded her like a punch to the gut. Like most of the children in her village, Amira had been raised on stories of the royal palace, of its towering buttresses and gleaming stone walls hewn from the mountainside. And the stories had crawled into her mind and taken root. For years, she had stoked the memories, letting them dance around her mind like the flickering flames of a campfire, rising to an inferno as she dreamed of running through the palace with a ball gown billowing around her. But the Seed Shortage had cast icy water over those dreams. Being forced to buy seeds online, scrambling for scraps of internet connection amongst the muck and dirt of the Hollows — it was certainly no way to live.

“Do you truly think we can do it?” Ro asked from beside her.

Amira scowled, running her fingers gently along a blade of grass. “The palace walls have never been breached before.”

Ro scoffed. “So what?” She shifted under the weight of the rose she’d strung across her back. It was the size of her forearm and bristly with thorns; a perfect imitation of the blood red roses the palace guards used as weapons. “We can’t keep living off those standard garden roses for sale in the Hollow markets. It’ll never be good enough, and you know it.”Amira nodded absentmindedly. When Xylia had first presented the idea for the heist, Amira had readily accepted. It was a chance to leave the Hollows, to see the world’s gardens beyond the brown soil walls that had encased her entire childhood. But now, squinting at the hulking fortress of the palace, she couldn’t help but wonder what kind of job this would be. Amira didn’t know anything about espionage, but why should stealing the seed compendium from the palace be any different to swiping handfuls of soil from market stalls? The most well-protected building in the world, she reminded herself. What she needed was a strong, specialised team, but all she had was Ro.