Read an Excerpt From S.K. Ali’s Fledgling

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Fledgling by S.K. Ali, the start of a new dystopian young adult duology—out from Kokila on October 8th.

Would you trade love for peace?

Raisa of Upper Earth has only lived a life of privilege and acquiescence. Ever dutiful, she accepts her father’s arrangement of her marriage to Lein, Crown Prince of the corrupt, volatile lands of Lower Earth. 

Though Lein is a stranger, Raisa knows the wedding will unite their vastly different worlds in a pact of peace: an infusion of Upper Earth technology will usher in the final age of enlightenment, ending war between humans forever. 

Or is justice more urgent?

Newly released from imprisonment, Nada of Lower Earth has found her own calling: disrupting the royal wedding. 

Convinced her cousin Lein’s alliance with Upper Earth will launch an invasive, terrifying form of tyranny, Nada sets out undercover to light the spark of revolution. 

When Raisa goes missing a week before the wedding, all eyes turn to the rebels, including Nayf, Nada’s twin brother, a fugitive on the run. 

In Nayf and Raisa meeting, the long-simmering animosity between their worlds slowly burns away into something unexpected.

But the Crown Prince wants his bride—and future—back. And he will go to the ends of the earths to reclaim them.

For the future of our world, he has to fall in love with me. But at the party Papa orchestrated for this to occur, Lein has yet to glance my way.

Lein didn’t even look at me when we were first introduced, pride swelling Papa’s voice. “My daughter, Raisa. Raisa, may I present to you Crown Prince Lein, soon to be a guardian representing Lower Earth.”

With his hand firmly clasped in my father’s, Lein merely nodded at Papa’s announcement and then moved on—to shake hands with the other men in the receiving line, to lift the hands of the other women to his bent forehead, ever a model of perfect Upper Earth customs despite his Lower Earth breeding.

For the rest of the evening, my eyes trail him. I can’t help it. Papa prepped me for this introduction for months: I read the dossiers on Lein transferred by Alet, Papa’s assistant; I practiced the scripts Alet composed, full of warmth and wit, in attempts to win Lein over, in attempts to overcome my supposed aloofness when meeting new people. The latter task was hard work, to be truthful.

For ALIGN’s sake, I even deigned to dress in his favorite color.

But I’m left nursing an unsipped drink, wearing what Dame Kizuwanda assured me was a gorgeous dark emerald dress, standing at the outskirts of the party alongside whoever makes their way to me, my eyes darting to find him again and again as he flits about the hall, laughing with some, speaking low and serious, head bent, with others.

I locate him easily whenever he pauses to scan the room before moving on with purposeful long strides to work another corner of the Visionaries Ballroom, built in the stuffy baroque style of centuries past.

Never, in any of those sweeping scans, does his gaze register my presence in the slightest.

“Raisa, you’re not listening.” Suzume tilts her head—I can’t tell if it’s to check the left side of my forehead, to see whether my link is activated, or if it’s in judgment. “It’s a scalplink-off event.”

“I’m not knitted.” I keep the unease from my voice—access to the information a scalplink provides would make this event easier to navigate. But our social events are increasingly scalplink-free to encourage stronger connections between us. I don’t bother to tilt my own head to prove to Suzume that my link is idle.

She holds back a laugh. “I was hardly suggesting you were.”

“You were talking about pomegranates.”

“Did you notice the lack? No trace of pom in our drinks, no pom molasses dip for the amuse-bouche. How can this be the status at the Autumn’s Eve Gala? All the guardians are here, and not just the Uppers.” She leans over to whisper, the long trails of tiny diamonds on her scalplink falling over one eye like shimmery bangs. “Even the new guardian of Lower Earth is here. If the council itself and their guests cannot be provided with offerings from the best of the harvest, what does that mean for the rest of us.” She ends in her typical way of speaking, a question uttered flatly, unquestioningly.

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I nod, keeping my opinions to myself. Suzume is my closest companion—I would never say confidante—and she knows better than to ask such questions with any note of inquiry.

She knows that as I’m the chief guardian’s daughter, I likely know the reasons behind every decision made for this gathering, or any others organized by the guardians. Perhaps she’s waiting for me to slip and reveal a small kernel of truth. But I only reveal what my father tells me to, intentionally planted seeds of information—or misinformation—that strategically spread from Suzume through the upper echelons of our society. I absolutely know that our carefully managed Upper Earth existence will only last at the most twenty more years, that the future of the Bridge, the land mass on Lower Earth that we’re connected to, is projected to be even shorter—perhaps another decade. That all the years of working to establish peace and safety on the remnants of our planet after the Great Catastrophe are being undone by this latest agitation by the brutes of Lower Earth, growing in severity and violence in the last ten years.

Our food security is under the greatest threat at the moment as the brutes double their efforts to disrupt the flow of goods from Lower Earth farms to the Bridge processing plants and launch sites, gleefully seizing on this horrendous way to hurt us.

Crown Prince Lein’s father, Amir Gauis, not at the gala, governs Lower Earth but with increasing ineffectiveness. After a short period of iron-fisted rule when the agricultural and mining operations were in full swing, he gradually lost hold of the small towns and villages of Lower Earth. Forget about the mission to track and control the brutes—that fell to us in Upper Earth and the Bridge, to our commissaries, our experts, our spies. A drunkard and womanizer, the dossier on the palace revealed, Amir Gauis lives in a constant state of stupor, only revived by the periodic smuggling of new women into the palace or his excursions to visit the bride markets. His rulership, once seen as a hopeful replacement of the previous leader, is now a security threat to ALIGN. Resources and support must be shifted to his son Lein, who, by all accounts, is more sophisticated in both lifestyle choices and world views.

The sophisticated Lein is now laughing at something Moineau just shared, her porcelain-smooth face upturned to his own olive-tinted one. He appears taken by her, which isn’t surprising.

She’s a tiny thing, aptly named sparrow in French, one of the three languages of Upper Earth. She tells everyone she meets everything in her brain, which are often quite fanciful observations connecting the happenings around her with something she just read. She reads a lot. I wonder if her scalplink, dressed up tonight via stems of gold reaching to the center of her forehead, is idle now, or whether it’s offering facts to share with a rapt-faced Lein.

I recall what I read this morning: Lein has great respect for the accruement of knowledge. He believes in access to information for all. He is committed to the importance of knitting the population of Lower Earth into the streams of civilizational scholarship ALIGN has preserved. He believes in the immediate implementation of the Enlightenment Project.

“He doesn’t appear to have Lower Earth ways, that’s certain.” Suzume is also observing Lein now, as he continues to bestow Moineau with amused attention. “I would have sworn he grew up here with us. His manners are beyond reproach.”

We watch Lein’s face—dark eyes under dark groomed eyebrows, a straight nose, and a wide mouth, one that bursts into smiles just as easily as it closes into a thoughtful line, framed by an impeccable jawline and a high brow—transform as he leans closer to Moineau. She puts a hand on his arm and says something into his ear earnestly, at which he draws away to indulge her in a beautiful smile. Even from across the room, I can read what his lips say in response. “I’ll keep your secret, not to worry.”

Moineau is also wearing green; but hers is a short, sleeveless, simple sheath that emphasizes her ingenuousness. It’s not like the long fulsome gown I wear on my tall frame. The dossier suggested Lower Earth men prefer outward modesty.

Moineau may beg to differ with the dossier.

I suddenly feel stuffy. The gown I’m wearing at first felt elegant and now feels overdone.

A gaudy ornament hung among refined jewels.

The familiar fear washes over me again: I am a pretender in this world.

I leave the cheery sounds of tinkling glasses being lifted from or set back on serving trays, lilting laughter, buoyant conversations, the full orchestra providing a symphonic background to it all, and find my way to the Hall of History, quiet and dead.

Unknitted, I feel the panic coming on: I’m failing at Papa’s assignment, failing at securing our future. Simply failing, like I always seem to do.

* * *

From my earliest memory, I knew I was different, and those differences were shortcomings on Upper Earth. Though I tried to mimic the other kids as much as possible, my efforts were to no avail.

I couldn’t ever achieve their sunny, even-keeled dispositions. I couldn’t ever accept the losses that came my way without throwing a tantrum, without bursting into tears and descending into depressive episodes, without acting out my frustrations. I cannot lie and say my peers rejected me; that wasn’t true. They loved me through my maladjustments—but not because they were saints, nor because I was lovable.

It was because of my mother. She was the first pre-centenarian term death recorded in Upper Earth files, having died at thirty-three, when I was nine years old. No one else here has had anyone die so early in their families.

I sit now on the sole bench, a round orange one, in the middle of the Hall of History and activate my scalplink with three rapid blinks. The bare gray walls come to life, and I flick my fingers in the air to find the beginnings of recent history. I zoom in on the part of Earth called the Bridge, the inhabitants of which joined an alliance with Upper Earth ten years ago.

When I was nine and my mother was thirty-three.

I watch the explosion with morbid and philosophical fascination—how can anyone extinguish human life without a second thought?

My mother was killed by the brutes who took the air carrier she was in hostage, as a way to disrupt the merger of the Bridge and Upper Earth, to prevent ALIGN from growing. I’d already gone up to Upper Earth with Papa, while my mother had stayed behind to help with the process of knitting Bridge residents into our systems. They blew her up on her way to join us.

My scalplink, attuned to my bewilderment on this topic, feeds me background by providing the brutes’ ethos: The brutes despise our way of life. They detest our freedoms. They fear the equality of men and women, and they reject the fraternity of all people. They despise ALIGN.

I wonder if this is where the seed of my disturbance was planted: in the story of my mother’s death. Papa said the brutes were angry because they believed my mother was a traitor: Since she was born into a family on Lower Earth, her work to increase the scope of ALIGN was a betrayal.

I also wonder if my temperament is because I’m not purely of Upper Earth, like Papa is, like most everyone around me is. Because I am of Lower Earth too.

Because working extra hard to show up with the “natural elegance” expected of me is exhausting, and sometimes I just can’t do it any longer.

But those wonderings are surface ones.

I turn off my scalplink and slide it off my head completely, feeling my jaw slacken as the probe loosens its connection to my left temple. Cradled in my hands, the green jewels Dame Kizuwanda clipped onto my link for the event sparkle in the recessed lights running along the edges of the ceiling.

The truth is something I can reflect on only with my scalplink off, in case Papa sees the extent of my anguish. He often checks in on my emotional state if I’m knitted.

He can’t know.

He might not trust me again with the tasks he assigns me, tasks that affirm his belief in me, that he doesn’t hold me responsible in any way for—

I’m a mess inside because my mother died because of me.

She was meant to stay longer, finish her mission on the Bridge, wait to board a heavily fortified carrier from the Council of Guardians, but because I’d cried every passing day, begging for her to join us in Upper Earth, which was then a strange new world for me, she left earlier.

She died in compliance of my yearning for her.

She no longer lives, because I couldn’t live without her.

* * *

But I must remember I still have Papa.

And Papa has a plan: Once Lein agrees to a strategic marriage with myself, Raisa, daughter of Aeon, the chief guardian of the Council of Guardians of ALIGN, a child of both Earths, we will tour Lower Earth to celebrate our wedding and to usher in Enlightenment, the process of transferring the knowledge streams into the inhabitants below via scalplinks.

The final hope for peace: the rest of humanity knitted into the ALIGN system willingly.

Since my mother’s death, this has become my primary fascination, the focus of my life: I want to finish my mother’s work for peace—the work I cut short with my cries for her.

The first step toward my goal is through Lein’s heart.

Birdsong floats from the Visionaries Ballroom, announcing dinner. Recorded birdsong, as, while many bird species survived the Great Catastrophe, there are none that could live so high on Upper Earth—though many attempts were and are still made to bring them up here. People buy them in cages from the Grand Market on Lower Earth, in hopes they’ll be the lucky ones to keep them alive.

But they all end up dying eventually. And our scientists have never been able to breed them in the atmosphere artificially engineered to sustain us and our other pets.

Birds flying free are the only things we miss in Upper Earth, and so everything avian is highly prized.

As the chirps from the ballroom die down, I slide my scalplink on and activate it, a momentary but necessary rebellion, and brace myself for the zing of conduction, the probe rejoining my mind. It always takes a few seconds to get used to the linking pressure, but as soon as it happens, my spirit lifts as it reconnects me to the world.

Back on, I quickly switch my scalplink to mirrormode and look at myself on the wall across from me in the Hall of History, while knitting into the palace dossier to prepare myself to be in Lein’s vicinity again at dinner.

Lein likes petite and fair women. His last love interest, Clure, had blond hair and blue eyes, a small nose, and a rosebud mouth. He would have made her his partner if it weren’t for the fact she was a castoff from one of his father’s bride-market purchases. He understands the peril this brings, to introduce instability into his bloodline, as his constituents in Lower Earth would see it. He is aware of the need for a propitious match.

My skin is brown; my mouth is full; my nose is long; my stature is tall and healthy. I look like my mother, and I won’t apologize for it. I straighten and blink thrice to flick my scalplink idle before making my way to dinner.

* * *

I sit across from the eldest Upper Earth guardian on the council, Wilfred, 120 years old. On the way in, I saw a switch had taken place—instead of my nameplate, the charming Moineau’s now sits across from Lein’s spot.

I can’t imagine poised Moineau doing such a thing—it must have been him, completely besotted by her—so I ponder taking a moment to turn my scalplink to thinkmode to record the failure to secure this evening’s goal. Perhaps if Papa knows the loss of this opportunity early, we can try some sort of intervention before dessert.

I glance to the head of the lengthy table, where Papa presides, with the head guardian of the Bridge at his right arm, and after him the other Bridge guardians are seated in order of importance. Papa’s hair whitened when my mother died, and now it hangs neatly combed back from his head, falling slightly wavy to his shoulder. His beard, similarly white, is trim and edged precisely. He sees me and smiles encouragingly, blue eyes crinkling at the edges like they always do the moment they land on me. I smile back but look away quickly, afraid to reveal too much in front of guests.

Maybe I should have saved my thoughts; the way I broke Papa’s gaze just now, he’s sure to check my thinkmode stream immediately to see what I’m upset about. He can’t stand to see me hurt. He often reminds me, Always record your feelings in thinkmode, so you can be helped to feel optimally at all times. We don’t need to waste time on unproductive emotions.

Lein is standing, tucking in his dining chair.

He makes his way behind the line of diners sitting, chatting, preparing themselves happily—flicking out napkins, straightening cutlery—for the arrival of the first course. I don’t care that I’m staring keenly. Maybe even shamelessly. I might make a bad spy, but I will never lose sight of someone I’m trailing.

He stops behind Wilfred’s chair. He bends and whispers a few words into the old man’s ears.

Wilfred gets up from his seat, holding his nameplate. Lein sets his nameplate down.

Across from mine.

Then he finally looks me right in the eyes. Smiles a smile I haven’t seen yet at this party.

“At long last, I get to have some time with you,” he says, his voice thrillingly low and smooth, superb, a tone it seems made only for me. “I’ve been waiting for this moment all night, Raisa.”

Excerpted from Fledgling, copyright © 2024 by S.K. Ali.

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