by Lexi Nolletti (@LNolletti)
Editor: Carly Bornstein-Hayward (@FromCarly)
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Seventeen-year-old Jansen didn’t plan on being a spy. He also didn’t plan on shattering the Kingdom of Fire’s enchanted borders or doing so with magic normally confined to royal bloodlines. Though Jansen should be killed for his crime, Fire’s royal family offers a deal: spy on the enemy Queen of Iron, and his death sentence will be waived.
Thalia has only held the Iron Throne for two years, but with eternal darkness suffocating her domain, the end of her reign is imminent. When Jansen’s crime and exile are announced, Thalia offers him asylum and a place in her court, hopeful that his newfound magic can cure the perpetual night before it smothers her legacy.
Jansen quickly finds himself tangled in a web of half-truths and powerful courtiers, where his operation threatens to cave under the Iron court’s scrutiny. If he can’t maintain both royal allegiances, Thalia will lose her throne—and her life—and Jansen risks losing the found family the Iron Court provides, as well as the one he had to leave behind.
ALL THE CARDS ARE PLAYED is a 98,000-word YA fantasy that features a diverse cast of characters and an #ownvoices asexual (but not aromantic) protagonist. Told from dual points of view, this story combines Crimson Bound’s threat of eternal darkness with 1930s technology and the high stakes of Sarah J. Maas.
Beyond writing, I attend the University of Kentucky where I am a Neuroscience student and a member of the Work in Progress Society. I also enjoy hiking, swing dancing, and teaching public speaking. The rest of my manuscript is available upon request.
(CONTENT WARNING: Occasional violence, character death, death of family members, and alcohol consumption. Brief mention of sexual assault and brief reflection on off-page suicidal thoughts; both occur after showcase pages).
Thank you for your consideration,
First Five Pages
Chapter One: Jansen
Vince’s ragged breaths were loud enough to wake the entire kingdom. The sound made every muscle in Jansen’s curfew-breaking body tense.
“Relax,” Jansen commanded. For now, only the insects buzzing in the corn and soybean fields announced that anything was awake, but he knew at this time of night soldiers would be patrolling the streets they crept along. “I know the routes. No one is going to catch us.”
Vince inhaled deeply and lengthened each breath that followed, but not without a jab back at his friend. “You’re huffing like an engine, too.”
“Oh, shut up.” He was right, of course. Jansen’s gasps filled the silence between Vince’s as if there wasn’t enough oxygen in the world for them both.
Though the lumberyards where they worked had been closed for weeks, the September air still carried the scent of aspen and sawdust. Spices and lavender gradually mingled with the lumberyard scents as they wafted onto the street from the open windows overhead.
Shops and cafes lined both sides of Crown Street, Ora’s main thoroughfare. Mums and asters grew in planters before the larger storefronts. And more importantly, there were more streetlights here than at the outskirts of town—a greater possibility of being spotted.
“The soldiers patrol in pairs,” Jansen continued. Vince nodded, the tension easing from his posture. Saying the words aloud did good for Jansen’s pounding heart too. “Each pair is assigned to a quadrant three blocks by three blocks.”
“How recent is this information?”
“I haven’t snuck out in a few days—no odd jobs this week. But the rotation has been the same for a month.”
At sundown each day, Ora’s soldiers came out and the rest of town was expected to stay inside. Since the curfew began, however, Jansen was Ora’s unofficial nighttime errand boy. He sprinted between the shadows, delivering telegrams and prescriptions. Gin and nails and mail that didn’t reach their destinations during the suddenly shorter day.
The curfew began when artificial darkness first filtered into Ora through the border with the Kingdom of Iron. Small clouds of that dark skimmed over Jansen’s skin, sending ripples of cold down his spine.
Since taking on the unofficial job, he had mastered the art of slipping by unnoticed. He listened for footfalls. Hid between houses. But tonight was far more important than a normal delivery run.
The pressure robbed him of all his stealth. Now all Jansen could hear was the threat of what would happen if he and Vince didn’t get to Dr. Corso in time. They shouldn’t have been talking; silence was safest, but Jansen couldn’t stop the words from tumbling out as he stepped out of the shadows. “They start in the northeast corner of the quadrants and take about fifteen minutes to walk the perimeter.”
“Jansen—” Vince yanked on the hood of his jacket.
The neck of Jansen’s sweatshirt cut into his throat as he stumbled backwards, into Vince. “What the hell?”
Vince pointed to where a lone soldier patrolled the street ahead. Jansen stilled as the soldier flicked his flashlight in each direction, but they were far enough away that the night’s shadows hid them from view.
“The rotations must be monthly,” Jansen murmured. Vince shook his head, swearing softly. “This is a new route. And he shouldn’t be alone.”
Jansen, however, should’ve been alone. There were far too many risks in bringing Vince along tonight. And if they got caught— Jansen had a knack for putting on a smile and slipping away. Vince had no such charm.
“You’re sure Corso will be home?” Jansen asked.
Vince glanced in each direction before crossing Second Street. “I called twice. No answer.”
“And if he’s not home?”
“We’ll stand there and wait.”
With the patrols constantly on the move, staying in place was asking for trouble. “How sick is Helen, really?”
Though Vince was cast in shadow and his jaw shaded with stubble, his features darkened further. Helen was Vince’s ten-year-old sister and meant the world to him. She was like family to Jansen too, but there was nothing Vince wouldn’t do to keep her healthy and safe. “She was okay when Dr. Corso saw her this morning. Now—I just—we’re all afraid she won’t make it through the night.”
Jansen shook his head. “We’ll figure it out. I promise.”
Then the steel toe of Jansen’s boot clanged against something metal. He’d tripped. He never tripped.
“Who’s there?” a voice called.
A stern, military voice.
Vince shoved Jansen into an alley, the force nearly knocking him off his feet. Old cookie-cutter houses packed each side of the alley and a fifteen-foot fence cut them off from the cornfield beyond.
A dead end.
Footsteps crashed after them. Jansen scanned their options again—houses—cornfield—fence—then climbed atop an unsteady pile of garbage and braced his hands to boost Vince up. “Over the fence.”
Vince glanced back at the pair of soldiers sprinting towards them. “You better not do any self-sacrificing shit, okay?”
One corner of Jansen’s mouth curved upward. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
The soldiers lit a second flashlight as Vince stepped into Jansen’s cupped hands. Jansen hoisted him up, but Vince stumbled, and they both toppled onto the garbage heap.
“What the hell are you doing out here?” one of the soldiers asked. “It’s almost midnight.”
In a town as small as Ora, they should have recognized the soldiers, but these were unfamiliar faces. Imports from the capital, then, and only a few years older than Jansen and Vince. Jansen stood and backed towards the fence, raising his hands to show he wasn’t armed. Vince climbed back to his feet as well, but just gnawed on his lower lip. His hands twitched at his sides.
“We need to see Dr. Corso—” Jansen locked eyes with each soldier as panic flared in his chest. Vince was seconds from doing something stupid, but the soldiers’ bright red jackets and still shiny boots suggested this was their first night on the job. Maybe they were still human beneath their military garb. “His sister is sick and we’re not sure—”
“You can see the doc in the morning. I need identification.”
Jansen swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
When Vince and Jansen finished school a few months earlier, they considered enlisting like most of their classmates but decided they were better built for chopping wood, not toting guns and marching around in shiny shoes. Now, however, with the lumberyards shut down, Jansen’s parents were asking him to reconsider. There was always work in the army. And at seventeen, Jansen and Vince were the perfect recruits.
Though Vince stiffened beside him, Jansen was sure he saw the soldiers as he did— who they could have been. Vince reached for his wallet, muttering something too low for Jansen to hear, then offered his state ID to the closer guard. The plastic glinted in the dim glow of the streetlights.
“Vincent Luther,” the guard murmured. He pulled out a notepad and jotted down the details on Vince’s card. “You should know better than to break curfew. Maybe they’ll be nice and give you a fine instead of locking you up.”
He returned Vince’s ID and reached for Jansen’s, only for Vince to smash his elbow into the guard’s nose.
“You’re an idiot,” Jansen groaned. But he punched the other guard and shoved his ID away. “You better have a plan!”
Both soldiers wiped away the blood trickling down their faces and reached for the clubs beside their guns. Vince grabbed a two-by-four from the trash heap and shoved it into Jansen’s hand. “Knock him out.” Reaching for another, Vince smacked his opponent in the back of the head. The man crumpled like a doll.
At the same time, the other soldier drilled his club into Jansen’s gut. He hit the ground hard. All the air rushed out of his lungs.