👑👑👑 We can’t wait for you to read the first three chapters from THREE DARK CROWNS by Kendare Blake! It’s a new, dark fantasy about three sisters—triplets—each with her own magic, who were separated when young but will meet again on their 16th birthday when they will fight to the death to be Queen.
Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
Who lives? Who dies? Who wins this battle for the throne? Start reading the first three chapters of THREE DARK CROWNS now!
Three dark queens
are born in a glen,
sweet little triplets
will never be friends
Three dark sisters
all fair to be seen,
two to devour
and one to be Queen
The Queens’ Sixteenth Birthday
Four months until Beltane
A young queen stands barefoot on a wooden block with her arms outstretched. She has only her scant underclothes and the long, black hair that hangs down her back to fend off the drafts. Every ounce of strength in her slight frame is needed to keep her chin high and her shoulders square.
Two tall women circle the wooden block. Their fingertips drum against crossed arms, and their footsteps echo across the cold hardwood floor.
“She is thin to the ribs,” Genevieve says, and smacks them lightly, as if it might scare the bones farther under the skin. “And still so small. Small queens do not inspire much confidence. The others on the council cannot stop whispering about it.”
She studies the queen with distaste, her eyes dragging across every imperfection: her hollow cheeks, her pallid skin. The scabs from a rubbing of poison oak that still mar her right hand. But no scars. They are always careful about that.
“Put your arms down,” Genevieve says, and turns on her heel.
Queen Katharine glances at Natalia, the taller and elder of the two Arron sisters, before she does. Natalia nods, and the blood rushes back to Katharine’s fingertips.
“She will have to wear gloves tonight,” Genevieve says. Her tone is unmistakably critical. But it is Natalia who determines the queen’s training, and if Natalia wants to rub Katharine’s hands with poison oak one week before her birthday, then she will.
Genevieve lifts a lock of Katharine’s hair. Then she pulls it hard.
Katharine blinks. She has been prodded back and forth by Genevieve’s hands since she stepped onto the block. Jerked so roughly at times that it seems Genevieve wants her to fall so she can scold her for the bruises.
Genevieve pulls her hair again.
“At least it is not falling out. But how can black hair be so dull? And she is still so, so small.”
“She is the smallest and the youngest of the triplets,” Natalia says in her deep, calm voice. “Some things, Sister, you cannot change.”
When Natalia steps forward, it is difficult for Katharine to keep her eyes from following her. Natalia Arron is as close to a mother as she will ever know. It was her silk skirt that Katharine burrowed in at the age of six, all that long way from the Black Cottage to her new home at Greavesdrake Manor, sobbing after being parted from her sisters. There was nothing queenly about Katharine that day. But Natalia indulged her. She let Katharine weep and ruin her dress. She stroked her hair. It is Katharine’s earliest memory. The one and only time Natalia ever allowed her to act like a child.
In the slanting, indirect light of the parlor, Natalia’s ice-blond bun appears almost silver. But she is not old. Natalia will never be old. She has far too much work and far too many responsibilities to allow it. She is the head of the Arron family of poisoners, and the strongest member of the Black Council. She is raising their new queen.
Genevieve grasps Katharine’s poisoned hand. Her thumb traces the pattern of scabs until she finds a large one and picks it until it bleeds.
“Genevieve,” Natalia cautions. “That is enough.”
“Gloves are fine, I suppose,” Genevieve says, though she still seems cross. “Gloves over the elbows will give shape to her arms.”
She releases Katharine’s hand, and it bounces against her hip. Katharine has been on the block for over an hour, and there is much day still ahead. All the way to nightfall, her party, and the Gave Noir. The poisoner’s feast. Just thinking of it makes her stomach clench, and she winces slightly.
“You have been resting?” she asks.
“Yes, Natalia,” says Katharine.
“Nothing but water and thinned porridge?”
Nothing to eat but that for days, and it may still not be enough. The poison she will have to consume, the sheer amounts of it, may still overcome Natalia’s training. Of course, it would be nothing at all if Katharine’s poisoner gift were strong.
Standing on the block, the walls of the darkened parlor feel heavy. They press in, given weight by the sheer number of Arrons inside. They have come from all across the island for this. The queens’ sixteenth birthday. Greavesdrake usually feels like a great, silent cavern, empty save for Natalia and the servants; her siblings, Genevieve and Antonin; and Natalia’s cousins Lucian and Allegra when they are not at their houses in town. Today it is busy and decked with finery. It is packed to purpose with poisons and poisoners. If a house could smile, Greavesdrake would be grinning.
“She has to be ready,” Genevieve says. “Every corner of the island will hear about what happens tonight.”
Natalia cocks her head at her sister. The gesture manages to convey at once how sympathetic Natalia is to Genevieve’s worries and how tired she is of hearing about them.
Natalia turns to look out the window, down the hills to the capital city of Indrid Down. The twin black spires of the Volroy, the palace where the queen resides during her reign, and where the Black Council resides permanently, rises above the chimney smoke.
“Genevieve. You are too nervous.”
“Too nervous?” Genevieve asks. “We are entering the Ascension Year with a weak queen. If we lose . . . I will not go back to Prynn!”
Her sister’s voice is so shrill that Natalia chuckles. Prynn. It was once the poisoners’ city but now only the weakest reside there. The entire capital of Indrid Down is theirs now. It has been for over a hundred years.
“Genevieve, you have never even been to Prynn.”
“Do not laugh at me.”
“Then do not be funny. I do not know what you are about sometimes.”
She looks again out the window, toward the Volroy’s black spires. Five Arrons sit on the Black Council. No less than five have sat on it for three generations, placed there by the ruling poisoner queen.
“I am only telling you what you may have missed, being so often away from council business, coaching and coddling our queen.”
“I do not miss anything,” says Natalia, and Genevieve lowers her eyes.
“Of course. I am sorry, Sister. It is only that the council grows wary, with the temple openly backing the elemental.”
“The temple is for festival days and for praying over sick children.” Natalia turns and taps Katharine beneath the chin. “For everything else, the people look to the council.
“Why do you not go out to the stables and ride, Genevieve?” she suggests. “It will settle your nerves. Or return to the Volroy. Some business there is sure to require attention.”
Genevieve closes her mouth. For a moment, it seems that she might disobey or reach up toward the block and slap Katharine across the face, just to relieve her tension.
“That is a good idea,” Genevieve says. “I will see you tonight, then, Sister.”
After Genevieve has gone, Natalia nods to Katharine. “You may get down.”
The skinny girl’s knees shake as she climbs off the block, careful not to stumble.
“Go to your rooms,” Natalia says, and turns away to study a sheaf of papers on a table. “I will send Giselle with a bowl of porridge. Then nothing else besides a few sips of water.”
Katharine bows her head and drops half a curtsy for Natalia to catch from the corner of her eye. But she lingers.
“Is it . . . ?” Katharine asks. “Is it really as bad as Genevieve says?”
Natalia regards her a moment, as though deciding whether she will bother to answer.
“Genevieve worries,” she says finally. “She has been that way since we were children. No, Kat. It is not so bad as all that.” She reaches out to tuck some strands of hair behind the girl’s ear. Natalia often does that when she is pleased. “Poisoner queens have sat the throne since long before I was born. They will sit it long after you and I are both dead.” She rests her hands on Katharine’s shoulders. Tall, coldly beautiful Natalia. The words from her mouth leave no room for arguments, no space for doubt. If Katharine were more like her, the Arrons would have nothing to fear.
“Tonight is a party,” says Natalia. “For you, on your birthday. Enjoy it, Queen Katharine. And let me worry about the rest.”
Seated before her dressing mirror, Queen Katharine studies her reflection as Giselle brushes out her black hair in long, even strokes. Katharine is still in her robe and underclothes and is still cold. Greavesdrake is a drafty place that clings to its shadows. Sometimes, it seems that she has spent most of her life in the dark and chilled to the bone.
On the right side of her tableau is a glass-sided cage. In it, her coral snake rests, fat with crickets. Katharine has had her since she was a hatchling, and she is the only venomed creature Katharine does not fear. She knows the vibrations of Katharine’s voice and the scent of her skin. She has never bitten her, even once.
Katharine will wear her to the party tonight, coiled around her wrist like a warm, muscular bracelet. Natalia will wear a black mamba. A small snake bracelet is not as fancy as one draped across one’s shoulders, but Katharine prefers her little adornment. She is prettier; red and yellow and black. Toxic colors, they say. The perfect accessory for a poisoner queen.
Katharine touches the glass, and the snake lifts her rounded head. Katharine was instructed to never give her a name, told over and over that she was not a pet. But in Katharine’s head, she calls the snake “Sweetheart.”
“Don’t drink too much champagne,” Giselle says as she gathers Katharine’s hair into sections. “It is sure to be envenomed, or stained with poisoned juice. I heard talk in the kitchen of pink mistletoe berries.”
“I will have to drink some of it,” says Katharine. “They are toasting my birthday, after all.”
Her birthday and her sisters’ birthdays. All across the island the people are celebrating the sixteenth birthday of the newest generation of triplet queens.
“Wet your lips, then,” says Giselle. “Nothing more. It is not only the poison to be mindful of, but the drink itself. You are too slight to handle much without turning sloppy.”
Giselle weaves Katharine’s hair into braids, and twists them high upon the back of her head, wrapping them around and around into a bun. Her touch is gentle. She does not tug. She knows that the years of poisoning have weakened the scalp.
Katharine reaches for more makeup, but Giselle clucks her tongue. The queen is already powdered too white, an attempt to hide the bones that jut from her shoulders and to disguise the hollows in her cheeks. She has been poisoned thin. Nights of sweating and vomiting have made her skin fragile and translucent as wet paper.
“You are pretty enough already,” Giselle says, and smiles into the mirror. “With those big, dark doll’s eyes.”
Giselle is kind. Her favorite of Greavesdrake’s maids. But even the maid is more beautiful than the queen in many ways, with full hips, and color in her face, blond hair that shines even though she has to dye it to the ice blond that Natalia prefers.
“Doll’s eyes,” Katharine repeats.
Perhaps. But they are not lovely. They are big, black orbs in a sickly visage. Looking into the mirror, she imagines her body in pieces. Bones. Skin. Not enough blood. It would not take much to break her down to nothing, to strip away scant muscles and pull the organs out to dry in the sun. She wonders often whether her sisters would break down similarly. If underneath their skin they are all the same. Not one poisoner, one naturalist, and one elemental.
“Genevieve thinks that I will fail,” Katharine says. “She says I am too small and weak.”
“You are a poisoner queen,” says Giselle. “What else matters but that? Besides, you are not so small. Not so weak. I have seen both weaker and smaller.”
Natalia sweeps into the room in a tight black sheath. They should have heard her coming; heels clicking against the floors and ringing off the high ceilings. They were too distracted.
“Is she ready?” Natalia asks, and Katharine stands. Being dressed by the head of the Arron household is an honor, reserved for festival days. And the most important of birthdays.
Giselle fetches Katharine’s gown. It is black and full-skirted. Heavy. There are no sleeves, but black satin gloves to cover the poison-oak scabs have already been laid out.
Katharine steps into the gown, and Natalia begins to fasten it. Katharine’s stomach quivers. Sounds of the party assembling have begun to trickle up the stairs. Natalia and Giselle slide the gloves onto her hands. Giselle opens the snake’s cage. Katharine fishes out Sweetheart, and the snake coils obediently around her wrist.
“Is it drugged?” Natalia asks. “Perhaps it should be.”
“She will be fine,” Katharine says, and strokes Sweetheart’s scales. “She is well-mannered.”
“As you say.” Natalia turns Katharine to the mirror and places her hands on her shoulders.
Never before have three queens of the same gift ruled in succession. Sylvia, Nicola, and Camille were the last three. All were poisoners, raised by Arrons. One more, and perhaps it will become a dynasty; perhaps only the poisoner queen will be allowed to grow up and her sisters will be drowned at birth.
“There will be nothing too surprising in the Gave Noir,” Natalia says. “Nothing that you have not seen before. But just the same, do not eat too much. Use your tricks. Do as we practiced.”
“It would be a good omen,” Katharine says softly, “if my gift were to come tonight. On my birthday. Like Queen Hadly’s did.”
“You have been lingering in the library histories again.” Natalia sprays a bit of jasmine perfume onto Katharine’s neck and then touches the braids piled onto the back of her head. Natalia’s ice-blond hair is fashioned in a similar style, perhaps as a show of solidarity. “Queen Hadly was not a poisoner. She had the war gift. It is different.”
Katharine nods as she is turned left and right, less a person than a mannequin, rough clay upon which Natalia can work her poison craft.
“You are a little skinny,” Natalia says. “Camille was never skinny. She was almost plump. She looked forward to the Gave Noir as a child to a festival feast.”
Katharine’s ears prick at the mention of Queen Camille. Despite being raised as Camille’s foster sister, Natalia almost never talks about the previous queen. Katharine’s mother, though Katharine does not think of her that way. Temple doctrine decrees that queens have no mother or father. They are daughters of the Goddess only. Besides, Queen Camille departed the island with her king-consort as soon as she recovered from giving birth, as all queens do. The Goddess sent the new queens, and the old queen’s reign was ended.
Still, Katharine enjoys hearing stories about those who came before. The only story about Camille that Natalia tells is the story of how Camille took her crown. How she poisoned her sisters so slyly and quietly that it took them days to die. How when it was over they looked so peaceful that had it not been for the froth on their lips, you would have thought they had died in their sleep.
Natalia saw those peaceful, poisoned faces for herself. If Katharine is successful, she will see two more.
“You are like Camille, though, in other ways,” Natalia says, and sighs. “She loved those dusty books in the library too. And she always seemed so young. She was so young. She only ruled for sixteen years after she was crowned. The Goddess sent her triplets early.”
Queen Camille’s triplets were sent early because she was weak. That is what the people whisper. Katharine wonders sometimes how long she will have. How many years she will guide her people, before the Goddess sees fit to replace her. She supposes that the Arrons do not care. The Black Council rules the island in the interim, and as long as she is crowned, they will still control it.
“Camille was like a little sister to me, I suppose,” Natalia says.
“Does that make me your niece?”
Natalia grips her chin.
“Do not be so sentimental,” she says, and lets Katharine go. “For seeming so young, Camille killed her sisters with poise. She was always a very good poisoner. Her gift showed early.”
Katharine frowns. One of her own triplets had showed an early gift as well. Mirabella. The great elemental.
“I will kill my sisters just as easily, Natalia,” Katharine says. “I promise. Though perhaps when I am finished, they will not look like they are sleeping.”
The north ballroom is filled to the brim with poisoners. It seems that anyone with any claim to Arron blood, and many other poisoners from Prynn besides, has made the journey to Indrid Down. Katharine studies the party from the top of the main stairs. Everything is crystal and silver and gems, right down to glistening towers of purple belladonna berries wrapped in nets of spun sugar.
The guests are almost too refined; the women in black pearls and black diamond chokers, the men in their black silk ties. And they have too much flesh on their bones. Too much strength in their arms. They will judge her and find her lacking. They will laugh.
As she watches, a woman with dark red hair throws her head back. For a moment her molars—as well her throat, as if her jaw has come unhinged—are visible. In Katharine’s ears polite chatter turns to wails, and the ballroom is filled with glittering monsters.
“I cannot do this, Giselle,” she whispers, and the maid stops straightening the gown’s voluminous skirts and grasps her shoulders from behind.
“Yes you can,” she says.
“There are more stairs than there were before.”
“There are not,” Giselle says, and laughs. “Queen Katharine. You will be perfect.”
In the ballroom below, the music stops. Natalia has put up her hand.
“You’re ready,” Giselle says, and checks the fall of the dress one more time.
“Thank you all,” Natalia says to her guests in her deep, rolling voice, “for being with us tonight on such an important date. An important date in any year. But this year is more important than most. This year our Katharine is sixteen!” The guests applaud. “And when the spring comes, and it is the time for the Beltane Festival, it will be more than just a festival. It will be the beginning of the Year of Ascension. During Beltane, the island will see the strength of the poisoners during the Quickening Ceremony! And after Beltane is over, we will have the pleasure of watching our queen deliciously poison her sisters.”
Natalia gestures toward the stairs.
“This year’s festival to begin, and next year’s festival for the crown.” More applause. Laughter and shouts of agreement. They think it will be so easy. One year to poison two queens. A strong queen could do it in a month, but Katharine is not strong.
“For tonight, however,” Natalia says, “you simply get to enjoy her company.”
Natalia turns toward the steep, burgundy-carpeted stairs. A shining black runner has been added for the occasion. Or perhaps just to make Katharine slip.
“This dress is heavier than it looked in my closet,” Katharine says quietly, and Giselle chuckles.
The moment she steps out from the shadow and onto the stairs, Katharine feels every pair of eyes. Poisoners are naturally severe and exacting. They can cut with a look as easily as with a knife. The people of Fennbirn Island grow in strength with the ruling queen. Naturalists become stronger under a naturalist. Elementals stronger under an elemental. After three poisoner queens, the poisoners are strong to the last, and the Arrons most of all.
Katharine does not know whether she ought to smile. She only knows not to tremble. Or stumble. She nearly forgets to breathe. She catches sight of Genevieve, standing behind and to the right of Natalia. Genevieve’s lilac eyes are like stones. She looks both furious and afraid, as if she is daring Katharine to make a mistake. As if she relishes the prospect of the feel of her hand across Katharine’s face.
When Katharine’s heel lands on the floor of the ballroom, glasses raise and white teeth flash. Katharine’s heart eases out of her throat. It will be all right, at least for now.
A servant offers a flute of champagne; she takes it and sniffs: the champagne smells a little like oak and slightly of apples. If it has been tainted, then it was not with pink mistletoe berries, as Giselle suspected. Still, she takes only a sip, barely enough to wet her lips.
With her entrance over, the music begins again, and chatter resumes. Poisoners in their best blacks flutter up to her like crows and flutter away just as quickly. There are so many, dropping polite bows and curtsies, dropping so many names, but the only name that matters is Arron. In minutes the anxiety begins to squeeze. Her dress suddenly feels tight, and the room suddenly hot. She searches for Natalia but cannot find her.
“Are you all right, Queen Katharine?”
Katharine blinks at the woman in front of her. She cannot remember what she had been saying.
“Yes,” she says. “Of course.”
“Well, what do you think? Are your sisters’ celebrations as glorious as this?”
“Why no!” Katharine says. “The naturalists will be roasting fish on sticks.” The poisoners laugh. “And Mirabella . . . Mirabella . . .”
“Is splashing around barefoot in rain puddles.”
Katharine turns. A handsome poisoner boy is smiling at her, with Natalia’s blue eyes and ice-blond hair. He holds his hand out.
“What else do elementals enjoy doing, after all?” he asks. “My queen. Will you dance?”
Katharine lets him lead her to the floor and pull her close. A beautiful blue-and-green Deathstalker scorpion is pinned to his right lapel. It is still slightly alive. Its legs writhe sluggishly, a grotesquely beautiful ornament. Katharine leans a bit away. Deathstalker venom is excruciating. She has been stung and healed seven times but still shows little resistance to its effects.
“You saved me,” she says. “One more moment of fumbling for words and I would have turned to run.”
His smile is attentive enough to make her blush. They turn around on the floor, and she studies his angular features.
“What is your name?” she asks. “You must be an Arron. You have their look. And their hair. Unless you have dyed it for the occasion.”
He laughs. “What? Like the servants do, you mean? Oh, Aunt Natalia and her appearances.”
“Aunt Natalia? So you are an Arron.”
“I am,” he says. “My name is Pietyr Renard. My mother was Paulina Renard. My father is Natalia’s brother, Christophe.” He spins her out. “You dance very well.”
His hand slides across her back, and she tenses when he ventures too close to her shoulder, where he might feel the roughness from a past poisoning that toughened her skin.
“It is a wonder,” she says, “given how heavy this gown is. It feels as though the straps are about to draw blood.”
“Well, you must not allow that. They say the strongest poisoner queens have poison blood. I would hate for any of these vultures to steal you away, looking for a taste.”
Poison blood. How disappointed they would be, then, if they tasted hers.
“‘Vultures’?” she says. “Are not many of the people here your family?”
Katharine laughs and stops only when her face drops too near the Deathstalker. Pietyr is tall, and taller than her by almost a head. She could easily dance looking the scorpion in the eyes.
“You have a very nice laugh,” says Pietyr. “But this is so strange. I expected you to be nervous.”
“I am nervous,” she says. “The Gave—”
“Not about the Gave. About this year. The Quickening at the Beltane Festival. The start of everything.”
“The start of everything,” she says softly.
Many times Natalia has told her to take things as they come. To keep from becoming overwhelmed. So far it has been easy enough. But then, Natalia makes it all sound so simple.
“I will face it, as I have to,” Katharine says, and Pietyr chuckles.
“So much dread in your voice. I hope you can muster a bit more enthusiasm when you meet your suitors.”
“It will not matter. Whichever king-consort I choose, he will love me when I am queen.”
“Would you not rather they loved you before then?” he asks. “I should think that is what anyone would wish—to be loved for themselves and not their position.”
She is about to spout the appropriate rhetoric: being queen is not a position. Not just anyone can be queen. Only her, or one of her sisters, is so linked to the Goddess. Only they can receive the next generation of triplets. But she understands what Pietyr means. It would be sweet to be cared for despite her faults, and to be wanted for her person rather than the power she comes with.
“And would you not rather that they all loved you,” he says, “instead of just one?”
“Pietyr Renard,” she says. “You must have come from far away if you have not heard the whispers. Everyone on the island knows where the suitors’ favors will go. They say my sister Mirabella is beautiful as starlight. No one has ever said anything half so flattering about me.”
“But perhaps that is all it is,” he says. “Flattery. And they also say that Mirabella is half mad. Prone to fits and rages. That she is a fanatic and a slave to the temple.”
“And that she is strong enough to shake down a building.”
He eyes the roof over their heads, and Katharine smiles. She had not meant Greavesdrake. Nothing in the world is strong enough to tear Greavesdrake from its foundation. Natalia would not allow it.
“And what about your sister Arsinoe, the naturalist?” Pietyr asks casually. They both laugh. No one says anything about Arsinoe.
Pietyr turns Katharine again around the dance floor. They have been dancing a long time. People have begun to notice.
The song ends. Their third, or perhaps their fourth. Pietyr stops dancing and kisses the tips of the queen’s gloved fingers.
“I hope to see you again, Queen Katharine,” he says.
Katharine nods. She does not notice how silent the ballroom has become until he is gone, and the chatter returns, bouncing off the south wall of mirrors and echoing until it reaches the carved tiles of the ceiling.
Natalia catches Katharine’s eye from the center of a cluster of black dresses. She ought to dance with someone else. But the long, black-clothed table is already surrounded by servants like so many ants, setting the silver trays for the feast.
The Gave Noir. Sometimes, it is called “the black glut.” It is a ritual feast of poison, performed by poisoner queens at nearly every high festival. And so, weak gift or not, Katharine must perform it as well. She must hold the poison down past the last bite, until she is shut safely in her rooms. None of the visiting poisoners can be allowed to see what comes after. The sweat and the seizures and the blood.
When the cellos begin, she almost runs to leave. It seems too soon. That she should have had more time.
Every poisoner who matters is in the ballroom tonight. Every Arron from the Black Council: Lucian and Genevieve, Allegra and Antonin. Natalia. She cannot bear to disappoint Natalia.
The guests move toward the set table. The crowd, for once, is a help, pressing close in a wave of black to push her forward.
Natalia instructs the servants to reveal the dishes from under their silver covers. Piles of glistening berries. Hens stuffed with hemlock dressing. Candied scorpions and sweet juice steeped with oleander. A savory stew winks red and black with rosary peas. The sight of it makes Katharine’s mouth run dry. Both the snake on her wrist, and her bodice, seem to squeeze.
“Are you hungry, Queen Katharine?” Natalia asks.
Katharine slides a finger along Sweetheart’s warm scales. She knows what she is supposed to say. It is all scripted. Practiced.
“I am ravenous.”
“What would be the death of others will nourish you,” Natalia continues. “The Goddess provides. Are you pleased?”
Katharine swallows hard.
“The offering is adequate.”
Tradition mandates that Natalia bow. When she does, it looks unnatural, as if she is a clay pot cracking.
Katharine sets her hands on the table. The rest of the feast is up to her: its progression, its duration and speed. She may sit or stand as she likes. She does not need to eat it all, but the more she eats, the more impressive it is. Natalia advised her to ignore the flatware and use her hands. To let the juices run down her chin. If she were as strong a poisoner as Mirabella is an elemental, she would devour the entire feast.
The food smells delicious. But Katharine’s stomach can no longer be fooled. It tries to twist itself shut and cramps painfully.
“The hen,” she says. A servant sets it before her. The room is heavy, and so full of eyes, as it waits. They will shove her face into it if they have to.
Katharine rolls her shoulders back. Seven of the nine council members stand close at the front of the crowd. The five who are Arrons, of course, as well as Lucian Marlowe and Paola Vend. The two remaining members have been dispatched as a courtesy to her sisters’ celebrations.
There are only three priestesses in attendance, but Natalia says that priestesses do not matter. High Priestess Luca has forever been in Mirabella’s pocket, abandoning temple neutrality in favor of believing Mirabella to be the fist that will wrest power away from the Black Council. But the Black Council is what counts on the island now, and priestesses are nothing but relics and nursemaids.
Katharine tears white meat from the plumpest part of the breast, the meat that is farthest from the toxic stuffing. She pushes it through her lips and chews. For a moment, she is afraid she will be unable to swallow. But the bite goes down, and the crowd relaxes.
She calls for the candied scorpions next. Those are easy. Pretty, sparkling sweets in golden sugar coffins. All the venom is in the tail. Katharine eats four sets of pincers and then calls for the venison stew with rosary peas.
She should have saved the stew for last. She cannot get around its poison. The rosary peas have seeped into everything. Every sliver of meat and drop of gravy.
Katharine’s heart begins to pound. Somewhere in the ballroom, Genevieve is cursing her for a fool. But there is nothing to be done. She has to take a bite, and even lick her fingers. She sips the tainted juice and then cleanses her palate with cold, clear water. Her head begins to ache, and her vision changes as her pupils dilate.
She does not have long before she sickens. Before she fails. She feels the weight of so many eyes. And the weight of their expectations. They demand that she finish. Their will is so strong that she can nearly hear it.
The pie of wild mushrooms is next, and she eats through it quickly. Her pulse is already uneven, but she is unsure whether that is from the poison or just nerves. The speed at which she eats does a good impression of enthusiasm, and the Arrons clap. They cheer her on. They make her careless, and she swallows more mushrooms than she intends. One of the last chunks tastes like a Russula, but that should not be. They are too dangerous. Her stomach seizes. The toxin is fast and violent.
She pops two into her mouth and cheeks them and then reaches for tainted wine. Most of it she lets leak down her neck and onto the front of her gown, but it does not matter. The Gave Noir is over. She slams both hands down onto the table.
The poisoners roar.
“This is but a taste,” Natalia declares. “The Gave Noir for the Quickening will be something of legend.”
“Natalia, I need to go,” she says, and grasps Natalia’s sleeve.
The crowd quiets. Natalia discreetly tugs loose.
“What?” she asks.
“I need to leave!” Katharine shouts, but it is too late.
Her stomach lurches. It happens so fast, there is no time even to turn away. She bends at the waist and vomits the contents of the Gave down onto the tablecloth.
“I will be all right,” she says, fighting the nausea. “I must be ill.”
Her stomach gurgles again. But even louder are the gasps of disgust. The rustling of gowns as the poisoners back away from the mess.
Katharine sees their scowls through eyes that are bloodshot and full of water. Her disgrace is reflected in every expression.
“Will someone please,” Katharine says, and gasps at the pain, “take me to my rooms.”
No one comes. Her knees strike hard against the marble floor. It is not an easy sickness. She is wet with sweat. The blood vessels have burst in her cheeks.
“Natalia,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
Natalia says nothing. All Katharine can see are Natalia’s clenched fists, and the movement of her arms as she silently and furiously directs guests to leave the ballroom. Throughout the space, feet shuffle in a hurry to leave, to get as far from Katharine as they can. She sickens again and pulls on the tablecloth to cover herself.
The ballroom darkens. Servants begin to clear the tables as another twisting cramp tears through her small body.
Disgraced as she is, not even they will move to help her.
Camden is stalking a mouse through the snow. A little brown mouse has found itself in the middle of a clearing, and no matter how quickly it skitters across the surface, Camden’s large paws cover more ground, even when she’s sunk up to her knees.
Jules watches the macabre game with amusement. The mouse is terrified but determined. And Camden looms over it, as excited as if it were a deer or a large chunk of lamb instead of less than a mouthful. Camden is a mountain cat, and at three years old, has reached her full, massive size. She is a far cry from the milky-eyed cub who followed Jules home from the woods, young enough then to still have her spots, and with more fuzz than fur. Now, she is sleek and honey gold, and the only black left is on her points: ears, toes, and the tip of her tail.
Snow flies in twin shoots from her paws as she pounces, and the mouse scurries faster for the cover of the bare brush. Despite their familiar-bond, Jules does not know whether the mouse will be spared or eaten. Either way she hopes that it is over soon. The poor mouse still has a long way to run before it reaches cover, and the chase has begun to look like torture.
“Jules. This isn’t working.”
Queen Arsinoe stands in the center of the clearing, dressed all in black as the queens do, looking like an inkblot in the snow. She has been trying to bloom a rose from a rosebud, but in the palm of her hand, the bud remains green, and firmly closed.
“Pray,” Jules says.
They have sung this same song a thousand times over the years. And Jules knows what comes next.
Arsinoe holds out her hand.
“Why don’t you help?”
To Jules, the rosebud looks like energy and possibilities. She can smell every drop of perfume tucked away inside. She knows what shade of red it will be.
Such a task should be easy for any naturalist. It should be especially easy for a queen. Arsinoe ought to be able to bloom entire bushes and ripen whole fields. But her gift has not come. Because of that weakness, no one expects Arsinoe to survive the Ascension Year. But Jules will not give up. Not even if it is the queens’ sixteenth birthday, and Beltane is in four months’ time, falling like a shadow.
Arsinoe wiggles her fingers, and the bud rolls from side to side.
“Just a little push,” she says. “To get me started.”
Jules sighs. She is tempted to say no. She should say no. But the unbloomed bud is like an itch that needs scratching. The poor thing is dead, anyway, cut off from its parent plant in the hothouse. She cannot let it wither and wrinkle still green.
“Focus,” she says. “Join me.”
“Mm-hmm.” Arsinoe nods.
It does not take much. Hardly a thought. A whisper. The rosebud pops like a bean skin in hot oil, and a fat, fancy-petaled red rose uncurls in Arsinoe’s hand. It is bright as blood, and smells of summer.
“Done,” Arsinoe declares, and sets the rose on top of the snow. “And not bad, either. I think I did most of those petals at the center.”
“Let’s do another,” says Jules, fairly certain that she did it all. Perhaps they should try something else. She heard starlings while on the path up from the house. They could call them until they filled the bare branches around the clearing. Thousands of them, until not a single starling remained anywhere else in Wolf Spring, and the trees seethed with black, speckled bodies.
Arsinoe’s snowball hits Camden in the face, but Jules feels it as well: the surprise and a flicker of irritation as the cat shakes the flakes from her fur. The second ball hits Jules on the shoulder, just high enough for the exploding snow to find its way into the warm neck of her coat. Arsinoe laughs.
“You are such a child!” Jules shouts angrily, and Camden snarls and jumps.
Arsinoe barely dodges the attack. She covers her face with her arm and ducks, and the cougar’s claws sail over her back.
Camden backs off and slinks away, ashamed. But it is not her fault. She feels what Jules feels. Her actions are Jules’s actions.
Jules rushes to the queen and inspects her quickly. There is no blood. No claw marks or tears in Arsinoe’s coat.
“It’s all right, Jules.” Arsinoe rests a steadying hand on Jules’s forearm, but her fingers tremble. “It was nothing. How many times did we push each other out of trees as children?”
“That is not the same. Those were games.” Jules looks at her cougar regretfully. “Cam is not a cub anymore. Her claws and teeth are sharp, and fast. I have to be more careful from now on. I will be.” Her eyes widen. “Is that blood on your ear?”
Arsinoe takes off her black cap and pulls back her short, shaggy black hair. “No. See? She didn’t come close. I know you would never hurt me, Jules. Neither of you.”
She holds her hand out, and Cam slides under it. Her big, deep purr is the cougar’s apology.
“I really didn’t mean to,” says Jules.
“I know. We are all under strain. Don’t think on it.” Arsinoe slips her black cap back on. “And don’t tell Grandma Cait. She has enough to worry about.”
Jules nods. She does not need to tell Grandma Cait to know what she would say. Or to imagine the disappointment and worry on her face.
After leaving the clearing, Jules and Arsinoe walk down past the docks, through the square toward the winter market. As they pass the cove, Jules raises her arm to Shad Millner standing in the back of his boat, just returned from a run. He nods hello and shows off a fat brown sole. His familiar, a seagull, flaps its wings with pride, though she doubts that the bird was the one who caught the fish.
“I hope I don’t get one of those,” Arsinoe says, and nods at the gull. This morning, she called for her familiar. Like she has every morning since leaving the Black Cottage as a child. But nothing has come.
They continue through the square, Arsinoe kicking through slush puddles and Camden lollygagging behind, unhappy about leaving the powdery wild for the cold stone town. Winter ugliness holds Wolf Spring in a firm grip. Months of freezing and partial thaws have coated the cobblestones with grit. Fog covers the windows, and the snow is mottled brown after being walked through by so many mud-covered feet. With the clouds hanging heavy overhead, the entirety of the town looks as though it is being viewed through a dirty glass.
“Take care,” Jules mutters as they pass Martinson Sisters’ Grocery. She nods toward empty fruit crates. Three troublesome children are ducked down behind them. One is Polly Nichols, wearing her father’s old tweed cap. The two boys she does not know. But she knows what they are up to.
They each have a rock in their hands.
Camden comes to Jules’s side and growls loudly. The children hear. They look at Jules and duck lower. The two boys cower, but Polly Nichols narrows her eyes. She has done one naughty thing for every freckle on her face, and even her mother knows it.
“Do not throw that, Polly,” Arsinoe orders, but that seems to make it worse. Polly’s little lips draw together so tightly that they disappear. She jumps from behind the crates and throws the rock hard. Arsinoe blocks it with her palm, but the stone manages to skip off and strike the side of her head.
Arsinoe presses her hand to the spot where the stone struck. Jules clenches her fists and sends Camden snarling after the children, determined to plant Polly Nichols onto the cobblestones.
“I’m fine, call her back,” Arsinoe says. She wipes the line of blood away as it runs down to her jaw. “Little scamps.”
“Scamps? They are brats!” Jules hisses. “They should be whipped! Let Cam tear up Polly’s ridiculous hat, at least!”
But Jules calls Camden, and the cat stops at the street corner and hisses.
Jules and Arsinoe turn. It is Luke, owner and operator of Gillespie’s Bookshop, looking smart in a brown jacket, his yellow hair combed back from his handsome face.
“Small of stature but large of lion,” he says, and laughs. “Come inside for tea.”
As they enter the shop, Jules stretches up on her toes to quiet the brass bell above the door. She follows Luke and Arsinoe past the tall, blue-green bookshelves and up the stairs to the landing, where a table is set with sandwiches and a tray of buttery yellow cake slices.
“Sit,” Luke says, and goes to the kitchen for a teapot.
“How did you know we were coming?” Arsinoe asks.
“I have a good view of the hill. Mind the feathers. Hank’s molting.”
Hank is Luke’s familiar, a handsome black-and-green rooster. Arsinoe blows a feather off the table and reaches for a plate of small muffins. She picks one up and peers at it.
“Are those shiny black bits legs?” Jules asks her.
“And shells,” Arsinoe says. Beetle muffins, to help Hank grow new feathers. “Birds,” she remarks, and sets the muffin down.
“You used to want a crow, like Eva,” Jules reminds her.
Eva is Jules’s grandma Cait’s familiar. A large, beautiful black crow. Jules’s mother, Madrigal, has a crow as well. Her name is Aria. She is a more delicately boned bird than Eva, and more ill-tempered, much like Madrigal herself. For a long time, Jules thought she would have a crow too. She used to watch the nests, waiting for a fuzzy black chick to fall into her cupped hands. Secretly, though, she had wished for a dog, like her granddad Ellis’s white spaniel, Jake. Or her aunt Caragh’s pretty chocolate hound. Now, of course, she would not trade Camden for anything.
“I think I would like a fast jackrabbit,” Arsinoe says. “Or a clever, black-masked raccoon to help me steal fried clams from Madge.”
“You will have something far more grand than a rabbit or a raccoon,” Luke says. “You’re a queen.”
He and Arsinoe glance at Camden, so tall that her head and shoulders are visible over the tabletop. Queen’s familiar or not, nothing could be more grand than a mountain cat.
“Perhaps a wolf, like Queen Bernadine,” Luke says. He pours tea for Jules and adds cream and four lumps of sugar. Tea for a child, the way she likes it best but is not allowed to drink at home.
“Another wolf in Wolf Spring,” Arsinoe muses around a mouthful of cake. “At this rate, I’d be happy to have . . . one of the beetles in Hank’s muffins.”
“Don’t be pessimistic. My own father did not get his until he was twenty.”
“Luke,” Arsinoe says, and laughs. “Giftless queens don’t live until they’re twenty.”
She reaches across the table for a sandwich.
“Maybe that is why my familiar hasn’t bothered,” she says. “It knows I will be dead, anyway, in a year. Oh!”
She has dripped blood onto her plate. Polly’s thrown rock left a cut, hidden in her hair. Another drop falls onto Luke’s fancy tablecloth. Hank hops up and pecks at it.
“I had better go clean this up,” Arsinoe says. “I’m sorry, Luke. I’ll replace it.”
“Do not think of it,” Luke reassures her as she goes to the bathroom. He puts his chin in his hands sadly. “She’ll be the one crowned at next spring’s Beltane, Jules. You just wait and see.”
Jules stares into her tea, so full of cream that it is almost white.
“We have to get through this spring’s Beltane first,” she says.
Luke only smiles. He is so sure. But in the last three generations, stronger naturalist queens than Arsinoe have still been killed. The Arrons are too powerful. Their poison always gets through. And even if it does not, they have Mirabella to contend with. Every ship that sails to the northeast of the island returns telling tales of the fierce Shannon Storms besieging the city of Rolanth, where the elementals make their home.
“You only hope, you know,” Jules says. “Like I do. Because you don’t want Arsinoe to die. Because you love her.”
“Of course I love her,” says Luke. “But I also believe. I believe that Arsinoe is the chosen queen.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know. Why else would the Goddess put a naturalist as strong as you here to protect her?”
Arsinoe’s birthday celebration is held in the town square, beneath great black-and-white tents. Every year the tents heat up with food and too many bodies until the flaps have to be opened to allow the winter air in. Every year, most of the attendees are drunk before sundown.
As Arsinoe makes her way through, Jules and Camden follow closely. The mood is jovial, but it takes only a second for the whiskey to turn.
“It’s been a long winter,” Jules hears someone say. “But the madness has been mild. It’s a wonder more fishers haven’t been lost on their boats, taken a gaff to the side of the head.”
Jules presses Arsinoe past the conversation. There are many people to see before they can sit down to their own food.
“These are very well done,” Arsinoe says, and leans down to sniff a vase holding a tall spray of wildflowers. The arrangement is layered with the pinks and purples of hedge nettles and showy orchis. It is as pretty as a wedding cake, early bloomed by the naturalist gift. Each family has brought their own, and most brought extra, to decorate the tables of the giftless.
“Our Betty did them this year,” says the man nearest Arsinoe. He winks across the table and beams at a blushing girl of around eight, wearing a newly knit black sweater and a braided leather necklace.
“Did you, Betty? Well, they are the finest ones here, this year.” Arsinoe smiles, and Betty thanks her, and if anyone notes that a little girl can do such elegant blooms when the queen cannot open one rose, they do not let it show.
Betty’s eyes brighten at the sight of Camden, and the big cat walks close to let her pet and stroke her back. The girl’s father watches. He nods respectfully at Jules as they go by.
The Milones are the most prosperous naturalists in Wolf Spring. Their fields are rich and orchards bountiful. Their woods are full of game. And now they have Jules, the strongest naturalist in some sixty years, it is said. For these reasons and more, they were chosen to foster the naturalist queen and must take on all the responsibilities that go with it, including playing host to visiting members of the council. Something that does not come naturally.
Inside the main tent, Jules’s grandmother and grandfather sit on either side of the honored guest, Renata Hargrove, a member of the Black Council sent all the way from the capital city of Indrid Down. Madrigal ought to be there too, but her seat is empty. She has disappeared, as usual. Poor Cait and Ellis. Trapped in their chairs. Granddad Ellis’s cheeks will be sore later, from holding such a fake smile. On his lap, his little spaniel, Jake, grins a grin that looks less like friendliness and more like bared teeth.
“They only sent one representative this year,” Arsinoe says under her breath. “One out of nine. And the giftless one, at that. What do you think the council is trying to say?”
She chuckles and then pops an herb-roasted, buttered crab claw into her mouth. Arsinoe hides everything behind the same easygoing smirk. She makes eye contact with Renata, and Renata inclines her head. It is not much of an acknowledgment. Barely enough, and Jules’s hackles rise.
“Everyone knows her seat on the council was bought and paid for by her giftless family,” she growls. “She’d lick the poison off Natalia Arron’s shoes if she asked.”
Jules glances at the few priestesses from Wolf Spring Temple who have decided to attend. Sending one council member is an insult, but it is still better treatment than Arsinoe has received from the temple. High Priestess Luca has not come to her birthday even once. She went to Katharine’s, occasionally, in the early years. Now it is only Mirabella, Mirabella, Mirabella.
“Those priestesses should not show their faces,” Jules grumbles. “The temple should not choose sides.”
“Take it easy, Jules,” Arsinoe says. She pats Jules’s arm and changes the subject. “The sea catch is impressive.”
Jules turns to the head table, thoroughly stocked with fish and crabs. Her catch forms the centerpiece: an enormous black cod accompanied by two equally huge silver stripers. She called them from the depths early that morning, before Arsinoe had even gotten out of bed. Now they lie on piles of potatoes, onions, and pale winter cabbage. Most of their juicy fillets have already been picked clean.
“You shouldn’t brush it aside,” Jules warns. “It matters.”
“The disrespect?” Arsinoe asks, and snorts. “No, it doesn’t.” She eats another crab claw. “You know, if I make it through this Ascension Year, I would like a shark as my centerpiece.”
“A great white. Don’t be cheap when it comes to my crowning, Jules.”
Jules laughs. “When you make it through the Ascension, you can charm your own great white,” she says.
They grin. Except for her severe coloring, Arsinoe does not look much like a queen. Her hair is rough, and they cannot keep her from cutting it. Her black trousers are the same ones she wears every day, and so is her light black jacket. The only piece of finery they could get her into for the occasion was a new scarf that Madrigal found at Pearson’s, made from the wool of their fancy, flop-eared rabbits. But that is probably for the best. Wolf Spring is not a city of finery. It is of fishers and farmers and folk on the docks, and no one wears their fine blacks except on Beltane.
Arsinoe studies the tapestry hung behind the head table and frowns. Normally, it hangs in the town hall, but it is always dragged out for Arsinoe’s birthday. It depicts the crowning of the island’s last great naturalist queen. Bernadine, who weighed orchards heavy with fruit when she passed, and had an enormous gray wolf for a familiar. In the weaving, Bernadine stands below a tree sagging with apples, with the wolf beside her. In the wolf’s jaws is the torn-out throat of one of her sisters, whose body lies at Bernadine’s feet.
“I hate that thing,” Arsinoe says.
“Because it reminds me of what I’m not.”
Jules bumps the queen with her shoulder. “There is seed cake in the dessert tent,” she says. “And pumpkin cake. And white cake with strawberry icing. Let’s find Luke and go have some.”
On the way, Arsinoe pauses to chat with people and to pat their familiars. Most are dogs and birds, common naturalist guardians. Thomas Mintz, the island’s best fisher, gets his sea lion to offer Arsinoe an apple, balanced on its nose.
“Are you leaving?” Renata Hargrove asks.
Jules and Arsinoe turn, surprised Renata has bothered to come down from the head table.
“Only to the sweets tent,” Arsinoe says. “May we . . . bring something back for you?”
She glances at Jules awkwardly. No member of the Black Council has ever shown any interest in Arsinoe, despite being annual guests at her birthday. They eat, exchange pleasantries with the Milones, and depart, grumbling about the quality of the food and the size of the rooms at the Wolverton Inn. But Renata looks almost happy to see them.
“If you go, you will miss my announcement,” Renata says, and smiles.
“What announcement is that?” Jules asks.
“I am about to announce that Joseph Sandrin’s banishment is over. He is already set to return to the island and should arrive in two days.”
Sealhead Cove laps at the end of the long wooden dock. The weathered, gray boards creak in the brisk wind, and the rippling, moonlit sea mirrors the quiver of Jules’s breath.
Joseph Sandrin is coming home.
“Jules, wait.” Arsinoe’s footsteps rattle across the dock as she follows Jules to the point, with Camden trotting reluctantly alongside. The cat has never cared for the water, and a thin, bent wooden board does not seem to her the most trustworthy barrier.
“Are you all right?” Jules asks, out of habit.
“What are you asking me for?” Arsinoe asks. She tucks her neck down against the wind, deep into her scarf.
“I should not have left you.”
“Yes you should have,” Arsinoe says. “He’s coming back. After all this time.”
“Do you think it’s true?”
“To lie about this, at my birthday celebration, would take more nerve than even the Arrons have.”
They look across the darkening water, across the cove, past the submerged sandbar that protects it from the waves and out into the deeper currents.
It has been more than five years now since they tried to escape the island. Since Joseph stole one of his father’s daysailers and helped them try to run away.
Jules leans against Arsinoe’s shoulder. It is the same reassuring gesture they have done since they were children. No matter what their attempted escape has cost them, Jules has never regretted trying. She would try again, if there were any hope at all.
But there is none. Beneath the dock, the sea whispers, just like it did against the sides of their boat as it held them captive in the mists that surround the island. No matter how they set the sails, or worked the oars, it was impassible. They were found, cold and scared, and bobbing in the harbor. The fishers said they should have known better. That Jules and Joseph might have made it, to be lost at sea, or perhaps to find the mainland. But Arsinoe was a queen. And the island would never let her go.
“What do you think he is like, now?” Arsinoe wonders.
Probably not still small, with dirt on his jaw and under his fingernails. He will not be a child anymore. He will have grown up.
“I am afraid to see him,” says Jules.
“You are not afraid of anything.”
“What if he has changed?”
“What if he hasn’t?” Arsinoe reaches into her pocket and tries to skip a flat stone across the water, but there are too many waves.
“This feels right,” she says. “Him coming back. For this. Our last year. It feels like it was supposed to happen.”
“Like the Goddess has willed it?” Jules asks.
“I did not say that.”
Arsinoe looks down and smiles. She scratches Camden between the ears.
“Let’s go,” says Jules. “Catching a chest cold won’t improve the situation.”
“Certainly not, if your eyes get red and your nose swells.”
Jules shoves Arsinoe forward, back toward the marina and the long winding road up to the Milone house.
Camden trots ahead to bump against the backs of Arsinoe’s knees. Neither Jules nor the cat will sleep much tonight. Thanks to Renata Hargrove, every memory they have of Joseph is coursing through their heads.
As they pass the last dock, Camden slows, and her ears flicker back toward town. A few steps ahead, Arsinoe laments the lack of strawberry cake in her stomach. She does not hear. Jules does not either, but Camden’s yellow eyes tell her that something is wrong.
“What is it?” Arsinoe asks, catching on.
“I don’t know. A scuffle I think.”
“Some drunks left after my birthday, no doubt.”
They jog back toward the square. The closer they get, the faster the big cat moves. They pass Gillespie’s Bookshop, and Jules tells Arsinoe to knock and wait inside.
“But, Jules!” Arsinoe starts, except Jules and Cam are already gone, racing down the street, past the now-empty, flapping tents and toward the alley behind the kitchen of the Heath and Stone.
Jules does not recognize the voices. But she recognizes the sound of fists when they begin to swing.
“Stop!” she shouts, and jumps into the middle of the fray. “Stop it now!”
With Camden by her side, the people reel backward. Two men and a woman. Fighting over she does not care what. It will cease to matter in the morning, after the ale wears off.
“Milone,” one of the men sneers. “You’re a bully with that cougar. But you are not the law.”
“Aye, I’m not,” Jules says. “The Black Council is the law, and if you keep on, I’ll let them have you. Let them poison you out of your wits, or maybe even to death, in Indrid Down Square.”
“Jules,” Arsinoe says, and steps out of the shadow. “Is everything all right?”
“Fine,” says Jules. “Only a brawl.”
A brawl, but an escalating one. There is a small club in the drunk woman’s fist.
“Why don’t you look after the queen,” the woman says, “and get out of here.”
The woman raises the club and swings. Jules jumps back, but the end of it still catches her on the shoulder, striking painfully. Camden snarls, and Jules clenches her fists.
“Idiot!” Arsinoe shouts. She steps between Jules and the woman. “Do not push her. Do not push me.”
“You?” the drunk man asks, and laughs. “When the real queen comes, we’ll offer her your head on a pike.”
Jules bares her teeth and lunges. She gets him square in the jaw before Arsinoe can grab her arm.
“Send him to Indrid Down!” Jules shouts. “He threatened you!”
“So let him,” Arsinoe says. She turns and shoves the man, who holds his bleeding jaw. Camden is hissing, and the other two back off. “Get out of here!” Arsinoe yells. “If you want your chance at me, you’ll have it! They all will, after Beltane is over.”
The pilgrims gather beneath the north dome of Rolanth Temple, their lips sticky from bites of caramel cake or sweet chicken skewered with lemons, their shoulders wrapped in billowing black cloaks.
Queen Mirabella stands at the altar of the Goddess. Sweating, but not from heat. Elementals are not bothered much by temperature, and if they were, no one inside could complain of being warm. Rolanth Temple is a weather queen’s temple, open to the east and west, the roof supported by beams and thick marble columns. Air moves through no matter the season, and no one shivers, except for the priestesses.
Mirabella has just filled the air with lightning. Gorgeous, bright bolts, crackling across the sky and crashing down in thick veins on all sides. Long, repeated strikes that brightened the interior like day. She feels elated. The lightning is her favorite. The lightning and the storms, the electricity coursing through her blood—it vibrates down to her bones.
But from the looks on the faces of her people, one would think she had done nothing at all. In the orange candlelight, their wide-eyed expectation is plain. They have heard the whispers, the rumors of what she can do. And they would see it all. The fire, the wind, the water. They would have her shake the earth until the pillars of the temple crack. Perhaps they even want her to shear off the entire black cliff and cast it into the sea so the temple can drift in the bay below.
Mirabella snorts. Someday perhaps. But just now it feels like a lot to ask.
She calls the wind. It blows out half the torches and sends orange sparks and embers flying from the braziers. Screams of delight fill her ears as the crowd pushes joyfully out of the way.
She does not even wait for the wind to die before raising the flames on the last of the torches, high enough to scorch the mural of Queen Elo, the fire breather, where she stands depicted on her gilded barge, burning an attacking fleet of mainland ships to the bottom of Bardon Harbor.
And still they would have more. Gathered together they have turned giddy as children. There are more in attendance than she has ever seen, packed into the temple and pressed into the courtyard outside. High Priestess Luca told her before the ceremony started that the road to the temple glowed with the candles of her supporters.
Not all who have come are elementals. Her gift has inspired other followers as well, naturalists and some who carry the rare war gift. Many who have no gift at all. They come desiring to see the rumors proved true, that Mirabella is the next queen of Fennbirn and that the long reign of the poisoners has come to an end.
Mirabella’s arms tremble. She has not pushed her gift this far in a very long time. Perhaps not since she first came to Rolanth and to the Westwoods, when she was parted from her sisters at six years old and tried to batter down the Westwood House with wind and lightning. She glances at the shallow reflector pool to her right, lit prettily with floating candles.
No. Not water. Water is her worst element. The most difficult to control. She ought to have done that first. She would have, had her mind not been so clouded by her nerves.
Mirabella looks across the crowd to the back, where High Priestess Luca huddles against the curve of the south wall, layered in thick robes. Mirabella nods to her from beneath her dripping brow, and the High Priestess understands.
Luca’s clear, authoritative voice cuts through the din.
The crowd is suggestible, and in moments murmurs of “one more” weave with cheers of encouragement.
One. Just one more element. One more display.
Mirabella reaches down deep, calling silently to the Goddess, giving thanks for her gift. But that is only temple teaching. Mirabella needs no prayers. Her elemental gift coils in her chest. She takes a breath and lets it go. A shockwave passes under their feet. It rattles the temple and everyone in it. Somewhere a vase falls over and shatters. People outside feel the reverberation and gasp.
Inside the temple, finally, the people roar.
She draws her sister’s blood with a pair of silver shears. What was meant to simply trim her hair has instead shorn off an ear.
“Is this a nursery rhyme, Sister?” her sister asks. “Is this a fairy story?”
“I have heard it before,” Mirabella says, and studies the crimson stain. She drops the ear into her sister’s lap and runs her fingertip along the shears’s sharp edge.
“Careful not to cut yourself. Our queenly skin is fragile. Besides, my birds will want you whole. Eyes in your head and ears attached. Do not drink. She has turned our wine to blood.”
“Who?” Mirabella asks, though she knows very well.
“Wine and blood and back again, inside our veins and into cups.”
Somewhere through the tower a little girl’s voice sings; it rises up the stairs and round and round like a noose tightening.
“She is not my sister.”
Her sister shrugs. Blood rolls down in a slow waterfall from the open hole on the side of her head.
“She is and I am. We are.”
The shears open and close. The other ear falls into her sister’s lap.
Mirabella wakes with her mouth tasting of blood. It was only a dream, but a vivid one. She almost expects to look down and see pieces of her sisters clenched in her fists.
Arsinoe’s ear landed so softly in her lap. Though it was not really Arsinoe. So many years have gone by that Mirabella does not even know what Arsinoe looks like. People tell her that Arsinoe is ugly, with short, straw-like hair and a plain face. But Mirabella does not believe it. That is only what they think she wants to hear.
Mirabella kicks her sheets aside and takes a long drink of water from the glass on her bedside table. The sprawling estate of Westwood House is quiet. She imagines that all of Rolanth is quiet, even though the sunlight tells her it is nearly noon. Her birthday celebration went long into the night.
“You are awake.”
Mirabella turns toward her open door and smiles weakly at the petite priestess who has stepped into her room. She is a small thing, and young. The black bracelets on her wrists are still real bracelets, not tattoos.
“Yes,” Mirabella says. “Just.”
The girl nods and comes inside to help her dress, along with a second initiate who had been hidden in her shadow.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Quite,” Mirabella lies. The dreams have gotten worse of late. Luca says that is to be expected. That it is the way of the queens, and after her sisters are dead, the dreams will stop.
Mirabella holds very still as the priestesses brush her hair and put her into a comfortable dress after the night’s revelry. Then finally, they step back into the shadows. They are always with her, the priestesses. Even in Westwood House. Ever since the High Priestess saw the strength of her gift, she has been under temple guard. Sometimes, she wishes they would disappear.
She passes Uncle Miles in the hallway that leads to the kitchen, pressing a cold compress to his forehead.
“Too much wine?” she asks.
“Too much of everything,” he says, and bows clumsily before going back toward his room.
“Where is Sara?”
“In the drawing room,” he answers over his shoulder. “She has not moved from there since breakfast.”
Sara Westwood. Her foster-matron. A kind, devout woman, if a bit prone to worrying. She has cared for Mirabella well, and is quite gifted, specializing in the element of water. When Mirabella settles into the sitting room for tea, Sara’s moans occasionally echo up the stairs from where she is likely reclined on the drawing room sofa. Overindulgence has its price.
But the night was a success. Luca said so. All the priestesses said so. People of Fennbirn will talk of it for years. They will say they were there when the new queen rose.
Mirabella puts her feet up on the green velvet chair opposite the couch and stretches out. She is spent. Her gift feels like rubber in her stomach, wobbly and uneasy. But it will come back.
“That was quite a show, my queen.”
Bree leans against the door and then lazily twirls inside. She flops down beside Mirabella on the long satin couch. Her shiny, chestnut-and-gold hair is loose from its usual braid, and though she too looks exhausted, it is only the best kind.
“I hate it when you call me that,” Mirabella says, and smiles. “Where have you been?”
“Fenn Wexton was showing me his mother’s stables.”
“Fenn Wexton.” Mirabella snorts. “He is a laughing fool.”
“But have you seen his arms?” Bree asks. “And he did not do so much laughing last night. Tilda and Annabeth were there for a while. We took a jug of honeyed wine and lay on his barn roof under the stars. Nearly fell through the rotted thing!”
Mirabella gazes up at the ceiling.
“Perhaps we could have smuggled you out,” Bree says, and Mirabella chuckles.
“Bree, they put bells on my ankles. Large, rattling bells, like I was a cat. Like they thought I was going to sneak off.”
“It is not like you have not disappeared before,” Bree says, and grins.
“Never for anything so important!” Mirabella protests. “I have always been dutiful, when it matters. But they always like to know where I am. What I am doing. What I am thinking.”
“They will come down on you even harder now that the Ascension Year approaches,” says Bree. “Rho and those priestess guards.” She rolls over onto her stomach. “Mira, will you ever be free?”
Mirabella looks at her slantways.
“Do not be so dramatic,” Mirabella says. “Now, you ought to go get cleaned up. We have a dress fitting this afternoon.”
The loose stair on the staircase creaks six times, and moments later, six tall priestesses file into the room. Bree makes a displeased face and stretches languorously.
“My queen,” says the nearest girl. “High Priestess Luca wishes to see you.”
“Very well.” Mirabella stands. She thought it would be some less-pleasant errand. But it is always good to visit Luca.
“Be sure to have her back for her fitting this afternoon,” Bree says, and waggles her fingers in a lazy good-bye.
Mirabella doubts she will see Bree for the rest of the day. Dress fitting or no, nothing much can keep Bree from doing exactly what she wants, and as the beloved only daughter of Sara Westwood, no one has ever much bothered to try. It would be easy to resent Bree for her freedom if Mirabella did not love her so dearly.
Outside, Mirabella keeps a brisk pace, her subtle jab at the priestesses who guard her so closely. Most of them are as hung-over from her birthday as Sara, and the jarring walk turns them slightly green.
But it is not terribly cruel. Westwood House is close to the temple. When Mirabella was younger, and more able to slip her guard, she would sometimes sneak out to visit Luca alone, or to run along the temple grounds out to the dark basalt cliffs of Shannon’s Blackway. She misses that space. That privacy. When she could walk with a slouch or kick stones aimed at trees. When she could be wild as an elemental queen is meant to be.
Now, she is surrounded by white robes. She has to crane her neck over the shoulder of the nearest just to catch a glimpse of the city below. Rolanth. The elementals’ city, a sprawling center of stone and water running fast from the evergreen hills. Channels run between buildings like arteries to ferry people and cargo inland from the sea through a system of locks. From this height, the buildings look proud and white. The channels nearly blue. She can easily imagine the way the city once shone, when it was rich and fortified. Before the poisoners took the throne and the council and refused to let go.
“It is a lovely day,” Mirabella says to break the monotony.
“It is, my queen,” says one of the priestesses. “The Goddess provides.”
They say no more. Mirabella knows not a one of her escorts by name. So many priestesses have come to Rolanth Temple of late that she cannot keep up with the new ones. Luca says that temples across the island are experiencing the same bounty. The strength of Mirabella’s gift has renewed the island’s faith. Sometimes, Mirabella wishes that Luca would attribute fewer things to the strength of her gift.
Luca meets her in the temple proper rather than upstairs in her rooms. The old woman opens her arms. She takes Mirabella from the priestesses and kisses her cheek.
“You do not look so very tired,” she says. “Perhaps I should have made you work the water last night, after all.”
“If you had, you would have seen nothing,” Mirabella replies. “Or I may have drenched someone by accident.”
“By accident,” Luca says wryly. When she first met Luca, Mirabella tried to drown her by summoning a water elemental out of Starfall Lake and sending it down the High Priestess’s throat. But that was a long time ago.
Luca slips her hands back beneath her layers of robes and fur. Mirabella does not know what gift Luca had before she became a priestess, but it was not the elemental gift. She is far too vulnerable to the cold.
A priestess passing by nearly stumbles, and Luca’s arm shoots out fast to steady her.
“Be careful, child,” Luca says, and the girl nods. “Those robes are too long. You are going to hurt yourself. Have someone hem them.”
“Yes, Luca,” she whispers.
The girl is only an initiate. She can still fail at serving the temple. She can still change her mind and go home.
The girl walks slower to the south wall, where three more have gathered to restore Queen Shannon’s mural. The original painter captured the queen exceptionally well. Her black eyes peer out of the wall, focused and intent despite the rain and storm that obscure the lower half of her face.
“She was always my favorite,” Mirabella says. “Queen Shannon and her storms.”
“One of the strongest. Until you. One day your face will eclipse hers on the wall.”
“We should hope not,” replies Mirabella. “None of these murals depict times of peace.”
Luca sighs. “Times are not so peaceful now, with decades of poisoners in the capital. And the Goddess would not have made you so strong if you were not going to need that strength.” Luca takes her by the arm and leads her around the southern dome.
“One day,” she says, “perhaps after you are crowned, I will take you to the War Queen’s Temple in Bastian City. They have not murals there but a statue of Emmeline—bloody spear above her head, and arrows—suspended from the ceiling.”
“Suspended from the ceiling?” Mirabella asks.
“A long time ago, when the war gift was strong, a war queen could move things through the air, just by the sheer force of her will.”
Mirabella’s eyes widen, and the High Priestess chuckles. “Or so they say.”
“Why have you asked to see me, High Priestess?”
“Because a task has arisen.” Luca turns from the mural and clasps her hands. She walks north, toward the Goddess’s altar, and Mirabella falls in beside her.
“I wanted to wait,” she continues. “I knew how tired you would be, the day after such a spectacle. But try as I may to keep you young, and to keep you here with me in this quiet place, I cannot. You have grown. You are a queen, and unless your gift has expanded to stop time, the Quickening is coming. We can no longer put off the things that need doing.”
She puts her soft hand on Mirabella’s cheek. “But if you are not ready, I will put them off anyway.”
Mirabella places her own hand over Luca’s. She would kiss the old woman’s head were the priestesses not there watching. No High Priestess has ever shown favor to one queen as Luca has to her. Or caused such scandal as to leave their chambers in Indrid Down Temple and install themselves closer to their favorite.
“I am ready,” Mirabella says. “I will happily do whatever you require.”
“Good,” Luca says, and pats her. “Good.”
The priestesses walk Mirabella far out beyond the temple grounds, through the evergreen forest and toward the basalt cliffs above the sea. Mirabella has always loved the salt air, and enjoys the light breeze, and kicking her legs out fully in her skirt.
When they came to claim her from the temple, they did not tell her what they wanted. Priestess Rho leads the escort, so Mirabella thinks that it is probably to go on a hunt. Rho always leads the hunts. Every initiate in the temple is fearful of her. She has been known to strike the ones who displease her. To be a priestess is to have no past, but Mirabella is certain that Rho possesses the war gift.
Today, though, Rho is grim and sober. The priestesses carry their hunting pikes but have brought no accompanying hounds. And all the good game runs are far behind them, deeper into the woods.
They reach the cliffs and continue on to the north, farther into the rock than Mirabella has ever gone before.
“Where are we going?” Mirabella asks.
“Not much farther, my queen,” says Rho. “Not much farther at all.” She taps the priestess to her left. “Go on ahead,” she says. “Make sure all is ready.”
The priestess nods and then runs up the path to disappear around a corner.
“Rho? What are we doing? What am I to do?”
“The Goddess’s bidding and the queen’s duty. Is there ever anything else?” She looks over her shoulder at Mirabella and smiles meanly, and her hair peeks out from under her hood, bloodred.
The fall of their boots is loud against the stone and gravel, but it is steady. None but the girl tapped to scout ahead will go any faster, no matter how Mirabella tries to change their pace. She quickly stops trying, feeling the fool, like a bird fluttering against a cage of robes.
Ahead, the trail turns, and they round the corner and move farther into the canyon of dark rock. Mirabella catches her first glimpse of whatever it is they have brought her for. It does not look like much of anything. A gathering of priestesses in black-and-white robes. A tall brazier, burning something hot that hardly smokes. And a barrel. When the group hears them coming, they turn and stand in a row.
None of them are initiates. Only two are novices. One of the novices is dressed strangely in a simple black shift, with a blanket across her shoulders. Her brown hair hangs loose, and despite the blanket, her skin looks cold and very pale. She stares at Mirabella with wide, grateful eyes, as if Mirabella has come to save her.
“You should have told me,” Mirabella says. “You should have told me, Rho!”
“Why?” Rho asks. “Would it have made any difference?” She nods for the girl to step forward, and she slips out from under the blanket and walks ahead barefoot and shivering.
“She makes this sacrifice for you,” Rho whispers. “Do not disgrace her.”
The young priestess kneels before Mirabella and looks up. Her eyes are clear. They have not even drugged her against the pain. She holds out her hand, and reluctantly, Mirabella takes it, and stands numb as the girl prays. When she is finished, the girl stands and walks to the cliff face.
It is all there. Water in the barrel. Fire in the brazier. The wind and the lightning, always at her fingertips. Or she could quake the rocks and bury her. Perhaps that would be painless, at least.
The girl who would become a sacrifice smiles at Mirabella and then closes her eyes, to make it easier. But it is not easier.
Impatient, Rho nods to a priestess beside the brazier, and she lights a torch.
“If you do not do it, my queen, then we will. And our way will be slower than yours.”
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