Sarah Beth Durst

Excerpt from The Queen of Blood
Book One of The Queens of Renthia

Chapter One

Don't trust the fire, for it will burn you.
Don't trust the ice, for it will freeze you.
Don't trust the water, for it will drown you.
Don't trust the air, for it will choke you.
Don't trust the earth, for it will bury you.
Don't trust the trees, for they will rip you, rend you, tear you, kill you dead.

It's a child's chant. You jump over a rope, faster and faster, as you name the spirits. Trip on the rope, and that is the spirit that someday will kill you. Fire, ice, water, air, earth, or wood.

Clutching her rope, six-year-old Daleina slipped out her window and ran along the branches toward the grove, drawn to the torchlight. Her parents had said no, absolutely not, go to bed and stay there, but even then, even when she was still so young and eager to please, Daleina would not be kept from her fate. She'd run toward it, arms open, and kick fate in the face.

All the other children were already gathered on the forest floor, under the watch of the local hedgewitch. Dropping from the branches onto the moss, Daleina joined them. Her cheeks pink from her run and her hair wild from the wind, she swung her rope and began the chant. "Don't trust the fire..."

Ribbons fluttered around them, bright colors to represent each of the six spirits. Buried beneath the ribbon poles and dangling around them and between the torches were charms. The children's chant and the ribbons would tempt the spirits, but the charms would repel them. It was as safe as the hedgewitch knew how to make it, and she smiled at the children as she circled counterclockwise and spoke the words of protection as she'd been taught.

The children jumped faster, repeating the chant. At least two dozen girls and boys, the youngest six years old and the oldest twelve, had come to the grove to prophesy their future. Some were dressed in their finest, with lace in their hair and starch in their shirts, blessed with their parents' approval. Others, like Daleina, wore their nightshirts and dresses and had uncombed hair and bare feet.

As she skipped, Daleina saw the first tree spirit poke its sharp nose between the leaves. It scurried over the branches and hung upside down to watch them, its shadow large in the torchlight. "Don't trust the water..." Another wood spirit separated from the trunk of a tree, its bulbous body covered in a thick mat of moss and leaves. Teasing the edges of the charms, an earth spirit, hairless and brown, bared its rocklike teeth. "Don't trust the air..."

One child faltered.

Another fell.

Like Daleina, they'd seen the spirits emerge from the dark forest and encircle the grove. "Don't trust the earth..." Her bare feet squished on the soft ground. It had rained a few hours before, and mud stained her toes. She imagined an earth spirit reaching up through the muck to grab her ankle, and an air spirit swooping her into the air and dropping her from high above. Squeezing her eyes shut, she kept jumping. "Don't trust the trees..."

Because her eyes were closed, she didn't see when the tiny tree spirit launched itself off its branch and over the charms, or when the other children stumbled and fell, every one of them, tripping on their ropes. "... rip you, rend you, tear you..."

Hers was the only voice, until the screaming began.

She opened her eyes as the hedgewitch shouted and the children shrieked. Blood stained the woman's bodice, and the gnarled, leaf-coated creature clung to her shoulder. Daleina's foot stuck in the mud and she forgot to jump as the rope swung down.

Her parents ran toward her--her mother first, with a knife--and sliced the rope as it swung toward Daleina's motionless feet. The two halves of the rope fell on either side of her.

Other villagers poured into the grove. Swarming past Daleina and her parents, the others scooped up their own children. Several hurried to help the hedgewitch. Still clutching the ends of the limp rope, Daleina saw the spirit, blood on its shriveled, leafy face, flee up the trunk of an oak and then disappear into the night.

"Wood will not take you," her mother murmured into her hair. "Nor fire, nor ice, nor water, nor earth, nor air. You will live, my child. You must live."

"I'm fine, Mama," Daleina said.

"You were stupid." Lifting Daleina's chin, Mama forced her to meet her eyes. "Just because something is a tradition doesn't mean it's smart to do, or necessary. Promise me you won't ever endanger yourself again."

"I'll try," Daleina said, her cherubic face solemn, "but Mama, I can't promise."

*     *     *

Daleina was ten years old when the children's prophecies came true. She'd grown into a miniature of her mother: hair streaked with autumn-leaf colors--oranges, golds, reds, and browns--and calloused hands tan from the sun and roughened from days spent climbing through the village. She'd been charged with taking care of her younger sister, Arin, who was four.

On that afternoon, Daleina was leading her sister home from school. The sun filtered through the leaves and laid a patchwork of green and yellow shadows across the tree trunks and the huts and over Daleina's bare arms and legs as she clambered up the branches.

"Come on, Arin, keep up!" she called.

"When I'm older than you, I'm going to tell you what to do." Arin hooked her harness clips over a branch and scrambled her pudgy legs on top of it. Her cheeks puffed with the effort.

"You can't be older than me."

"Can too. Got a birthday and then another and another, and I'm going to catch up. And then I'll be bigger than you, Mama said so, because I eat my oatmeal."

Reaching down, Daleina helped her sister hook onto the next branch. All of the routes through the village were marked with anchors and hooks, to help the very young and the elderly travel between the trees. "You might get bigger, but I'll still be older. I'll always be older. That's how it works." She thought she sounded very reasonable.

"Not fair!"

Oh no, she thought, tantrum coming. Mama said that Arin had honed her tantrums to artistic perfection: First, she'd twist her lips into a perfect rainbowlike frown, then she'd pool tears on her lashes. Her face would flush pink, with darker rose staining her plump cheeks. As the pink deepened, she'd begin on the whimpers. She wouldn't scream, not outside--it wasn't safe--but she'd bleat, like a beaten lamb, until whatever neighbor was closest came out to see who was torturing the poor, innocent, angelic Arin. "If you cry, I'll feed you to the wood spirits," Daleina told her. It was the most terrible threat she could think of.

Arin's eyes grew round, her mouth dropped open, and her lower lip quivered.

Wonderful. I made it worse.

"I won't," Daleina said quickly. "I didn't mean it. But please don't cry, Arin."

She spotted the wood spirit then, above Arin, a few trees over. It was a small one, with pale leaves poking out of its skin and berries ripening in its hair. Its eyes looked like walnuts, and its long, twiglike fingers curled around the branch it perched upon. It was watching them.

"Come on, let's get home." She eyed the spirit--it didn't seem to be moving any closer, but she didn't like that it had noticed them. Mama always said to be careful never to catch their attention. When Daleina was five, her uncle had caught the eye of an unstable spirit and been torn apart in his own orchard. The rogue spirit had been caught and sent to the queen for punishment, but that didn't mean other spirits were to be trusted. This far from the capital, a lot of spirits liked to test the strength of the queen's do-no-harm command, or so people said whenever someone died unexpectedly. "I'll stay with you, but you have to try to climb a little faster, okay?"

She helped her sister shimmy up the trunk of a thick oak, boosting her so that she could wiggle onto the bridge. Backpack bouncing, Arin flopped onto it, and Daleina crawled up after her and stood. Almost home. Inhaling deeply, she breathed in the smell of pine, of mildewed leaves, of fresh laundry, and... ah, there it was: gingerbread! Mama had baked today, as she'd promised.

The laundry smell was from their neighbor. Near the base of the village tree, old Mistress Hamby straddled two branches as she hung out her wash. Her husband was on their roof, tucking new charms in between the shingles. He waved as Daleina and Arin passed. Daleina waved back, and Arin inexplicably wiggled her elbows.

"Don't be rude," Daleina told her.

"Don't be boring," Arin shot back.

Higher up in the tree, a few of Daleina's friends called to her to come play--Juju, Sarbin, and Mina. She waved at them and pointed toward her sister. She'd have to play later, after Arin was delivered safely home. Using the rope ladders, Daleina and Arin climbed up past Mr. Yillit, who was pounding nuts to make nut flour. The fine dust coated his arms and clung to his arm hairs. He smiled and nodded at them. Arin did wave back at him. Daleina knew her sister liked Mr. Yillit because he was missing a front tooth, like Arin herself. Higher and to the left, they saw their second cousin Rosasi, who was stretched out in the crook of a branch, her bare feet stuck in a patch of sunlight, high above their house. She had a pile of knitting on her lap, though she wasn't working on it. Mama often said that Rosasi was allergic to work. But she told excellent stories, about queens and heirs and their champions. When she tucked Arin in at night, as she did sometimes when Mama had late-night whittling to do, Daleina liked to listen in from her bed in the loft.

Like the other village houses, Daleina and Arin's house was woven into the branches. Its floors and walls were living parts of the tree itself. Village history said that two generations ago, a queen had commanded the spirits to grow their village from a handful of acorns. Daleina wished she could have seen that. The only power she'd ever seen up close was the local hedgewitch, and her skill was mostly with charms, not commands. To make a tree like theirs... Their tree housed twenty families, in homes that budded from thick branches above and below Daleina's family's, spiraling up the massive trunk. Ladders, pulleys, and bridges connected them. In the day, it was swarmed with people, going about their business and living their lives, and at night, jars full of firemoss were lit everywhere, making the tree look like it were covered in lightning bugs. Mama liked to say there was something to love about their tree during the day and night, as well as every season. In fall, the leaves changed to red and gold, and in winter, it was laced in ice. In spring, the villagers coaxed flowers to grow in buckets and troughs of earth, spilling out of every window and covering every roof. And in summer, now, it was fat and green and heavy with swelling, unripe fruit. Mama said there were hundreds of trees like theirs in the forests of Aratay, but Daleina had never left their village. Someday, she promised herself, I'll leave and see other villages, maybe a city, maybe the capital, maybe even beyond. Up north, near the mountains of Semo, the trees were said to stand like sentinels, with white limbs that stretched straight like raised arms. And in the west, where the forest touched the untamed lands, it was said that the trees were a wild tangle so thick that nothing grew on the floor below. There were even areas of Aratay that had been abandoned to the wolves, bears, and spirits, and were full of sights that no one had seen and sounds that no one had heard for years.

I want to see it all!

Mama waited for them on their front porch. Seeing her, Arin sped across the bridge and scurried up the ladder without any help at all. Daleina followed behind.

"Any trouble?" Mama asked.

Daleina glanced back, but she didn't see the small tree spirit, only the thick mat of leaves and the west bridge. "None, except Arin's teacher said that Arin didn't eat her lunch."

"Tattler." Arin stuck out her tongue at Daleina.

"Arin, that's not polite. Also, you'll catch flies on that if you stick it out too long." Mama wiggled a finger, flylike, toward Arin's tongue, and Arin quickly pulled it in. "I packed your favorite lunch. Why didn't you--"

A drop of red splatted on Arin's cheek. Her fingers touched it, and she pulled her hand away and stared at her bloodstained fingertips.

For a split second, all three of them stared at it, and then Mama said, "Inside. Now."

"Mama, I'm bleeding! I'm hurt! Mama!"

She wasn't. It wasn't her blood. It was from above. The tree was raining blood. Daleina ran for the house as Mama caught Arin in her arms and ran inside. "Where's Daddy?"

Mama didn't answer. She slammed the door behind them, drove the bolt across it, and then she ran to each of the windows and locked them. "Daleina, the charms, quick!"

Daleina hurried to each window, shoving charms into the crevices. She pushed them in so hard that her fingers hurt.

"Mama, where's Daddy?" Arin was crying, full out sobs.

"Hush," Mama ordered. "I don't know. He's fine. He's hiding. We have to stay inside too. Quietly." She dropped to her knees. "Please, baby, be a good, strong girl for me." Arin gulped, trying to swallow her sobs, but they burst out of her. Mama crushed her close to her breast, stroking her hair. "Shh, shh... Calm down, baby, calm down."

Daleina shoved charms under the door and into the fireplace, filling it, until she ran out of them, then she ran back to her mother, who wrapped her arm around Daleina too. The house began to rattle and shake.

"Your papa is hiding. Don't worry. It will all be fine," Mama said. "The spirits won't hurt us. They won't dare. The queen won't let them. 'Do no harm,' remember? It's her command. Her promise. Her duty. Trust in her. Believe in her." She rocked back and forth as Daleina and Arin clung to her. Arin sniffled against her blouse, and Daleina buried her face in her mother's hair. Outside, the screams sounded like the cries of a wounded hawk that Daleina had once heard, but louder and multiplied by a dozen. The leaves in the walls shook, and the wood in the floor cracked.

Mama held them tighter.

Daleina watched the cracks appear in the wood, chasing one another up the walls, fracturing like an eggshell as the house shuddered. The windows rattled, and Daleina saw shadows pass in front of them. Arin was shaking as hard as the walls, but she was too frightened to cry anymore.

Something pounded at the door, and Arin whimpered and burrowed deeper into their mother's lap, pushing Daleina out. She thought she heard her father's voice.

"Daddy?" Daleina whispered.

"Stay here," Mama commanded.

Daleina began to pull away. He was calling. Wasn't he? It was difficult to hear a single voice within the screams and the cries and the crashes and the thuds. Listening, she focused, trying to separate the strands of sounds--there, Daddy! She heard more pounding at the door. He was here, out there, trying to get in! Wrenching herself away from her mother, Daleina ran toward the door.

"Daleina, no!" Mama cried, her voice a rough whisper.

"It's Daddy!" She yanked at the bolt, pulling it back.

Behind her, she heard Mama push to her feet, but she was slowed by Arin, who stuck to her like a pricker bush. A weight on the door shoved it inward, and a shape fell inside, hard on his knees--Daddy!

A squirrel-size tree spirit clung to his shoulder, its teeth dug deep into his flesh. Daddy's face was slicked with streaks of red, and blood speckled his hair. He surged to his feet, and the spirit gripped him harder.

"Get off him!" Daleina screamed. She grabbed at the spirit's waist while Daddy pushed at its face. Its claws tore his shirt and chest. One claw sliced the back of Daleina's arm, and a thin bead of blood popped onto her skin. "Leave him alone!"

It hissed and spat.

And then Mama was there, a rolling pin in her hand. She bashed at the spirit's head and back. "Get out! Out of my house! Away from my home!"

It twisted its head and fixed its eyes beyond them.

Arin.

Releasing Daddy, it ran toward Arin, faster than any of them could grab it.

Scrambling underneath the kitchen table, Arin screamed, high and shrill.

No! Don't hurt my sister! Daleina felt as if her whole mind and body were screaming the words, as if they were ripped away from her and thrust outward. "Stop!"

And, amazingly, it did.

The spirit halted, mid-run. It pivoted its head to look directly at Daleina. Its eyes were red with veins that spread outward from its red pupil. It shifted from foot to thorny foot, hissing.

"Go away!" Daleina said. "Leave us alone."

"Again, Daleina," Mama said, her voice low, strangely calm. "It's listening to you."

"Leave us alone," she repeated.

"Again."

Leave us alone, leave us alone, leave us alone. "Leave!"

The spirit tore its gaze away to look again at Arin. Its spindly fingers reached toward her, but its feet didn't move, as if it were rooted to the wood of the floor.

"Leave us alone!" Daleina shouted, and she shoved every bit of fear and anger inside her into those three words, driving it all out through her body. She felt as if something were shattering inside her from the force of her shout.

As if the words were physically shoving it, the spirit ran, skittering and shaking out the door--and Daleina caught a glimpse of outside. The bridges were broken, swinging from the upper branches, and the nearest house had collapsed. A man in green raced from branch to branch, a sword in his hand. Before Daleina could ask what was happening and who he was, Daddy slammed the door shut, and Mama slid the bolt.

The house began to shake harder, and Daleina heard scraping at the roof, as if something were tearing the shingles and shredding the wood. Mama and Daddy dragged the cupboard in front of the door, and they upended the table and pushed it against a window.

"Command them," Mama ordered Daleina.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Daleina repeated, "Leave us alone, leave us alone, leave us alone." Thrusting the words out of her, Daleina sank to her knees. The cries outside drew back. Arin whimpered, and Mama and Daddy shushed her, and still Daleina kept chanting. The scraping on the roof stopped.

Outside, through the walls, she still heard terrible sounds, but they were more distant now.

At last--at very long last--it was quiet.

Daleina pried open her eyes. Her eyelids felt gummy, as if they'd been glued together. In the corner of the room, she saw her family. Her father was slumped against the wall, breathing heavily. Her mother was pressing a cloth hard on his arm. The cloth was soaked red. Arin was curled in a ball underneath one of the chairs. Tears had stained her cheeks so they looked slick. "Daddy?" Daleina asked.

"Did they hurt you, Ingara?" Daddy asked, pausing between each word to suck in air. "Daleina? Arin?" He winced as he tried to sit, and he clutched his side.

"They're all right, and you aren't dead, and I want to keep us all that way. Tell me how badly you're hurt," Mama commanded.

"I'll be fine." He puffed.

"Liar."

Daleina rose shakily to her feet. She looked at the door. A crack ran, jagged, through it. Her legs felt as trembly as a newborn deer's as she walked toward the door. She pressed her face to the crack, trying to see through, and saw a sliver: sunlight and green but that was all.

She pressed her ear to the door, listening.

She didn't hear screaming anymore. Or anything. Just silence. Horrible silence that was somehow worse than all the noise. Stepping back, Daleina stared at the door.

Daddy's breathing was the loudest sound.

"You need a healer," Mama said to Daddy.

"Don't," he said.

"It's quiet," Mama said, standing. Daleina thought she'd never seen her mother look like that, so fierce and frightened at the same time, and in that instant, she decided she wanted to be exactly like Mama when she grew up. "Whatever the spirits were doing, they're done."

Grabbing her wrist, he stopped her. "Or they're waiting for us to feel safe."

Mama removed his hand. "I'll never feel safe again." She took a rolling pin in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other, the long knife that she always kept sharp enough for meat. "Open it, Daleina, slowly."

Taking a breath, Daleina slid the bolt and cracked the door open. She braced herself, ready to shove it shut with all the strength in her ten-year-old body, but nothing pushed against the door. She inched it open more and peeked outside.

What she saw didn't make sense.

Widening the door, she stared out and tried to understand. All she saw was trees, just the unclaimed forest, thick with trunks. No bridges. No houses. Leaning out, she looked up--all the higher branches had been shorn off the tree. Only their house was still attached. She looked down, down, straight down to the forest floor. A mass of broken boards lay tangled on the forest floor. She saw a chair and a table, upturned. Clothes were strewn between the branches, like ribbons leftover from a birthday party.

"Are they out there?" Arin asked, still under the table.

"No," Daleina said. Her mouth felt dry, as if she hadn't swallowed water in a very long time. "No one's out there."

"What do you mean 'no one's out there'?" Mama asked, nudging Daleina aside so she could fit in the doorway. Side by side, they looked out at the pristine forest, above the wreckage. Sunset was coming, and the shadows stretched long between the trees. The wind was still, and nothing moved. No spirits. No animals. No people.

Nothing.

"Fetch the healing kit."

Daleina didn't move.

"Now."

Hurrying, Daleina ran to the cabinet over the sink. She pulled out a basket filled with bandages, tonics, and dried roots and herbs. Sunlight slid through the cracks in the closed window over the sink, as if it were a beautiful, ordinary day outside. Daleina didn't want to open the window.

"Mama?" Arin asked. "What are we going to do?"

"First, we fix up your father." Returning to Daddy, Mama opened his vest and peeled his shirt away from blood-sticky skin. "And then we go out and see."

"See what?"

"If there's anyone left," Mama said.

Arin began to cry again.

Wordless, Daleina helped Mama, fetching water from the kitchen sink, as well as bandages and herbs as instructed. Mama washed out the wounds--there were many--on Daddy's neck, legs, arm. His thick clothes had blocked some of the bites, making them bruises instead of punctures, but there were still so many that his once-white shirt was speckled red all over. While Mama worked, Daleina listened for the sounds of their neighbors--surely, someone had seen Daddy rush in, injured--but no one came to check on them or help them. She thought of the man in green she'd seen, or imagined.

"Spirits aren't supposed to hurt people," Arin said, her eyes glued to the bandages and Daddy's shirt. "The queen won't let them."

"I know, baby," Mama said.

"Why did she let them?" Arin asked.

"Maybe she couldn't stop them this time," Daleina said. "Maybe she was sick or distracted. Maybe she didn't know what they were doing. Maybe the spirits decided we're too far from the capital for her to know." And maybe they're right, she thought.

"But she's the queen," Arin said. "She's supposed to keep us all safe."

"We aren't safe here," Daddy said. "We need to find the forest guards, before the spirits come back. Alert them to the danger. Tell them there may be villagers who need healers." The fact that Daddy was able to say so much without gasping for air made Daleina feel better. She had her parents, whole and safe, and they'd take care of her and Arin. Everything would be all right, and this would become one of those stories that Rosasi told at night.

After Mama bandaged Daddy up as well as she could, she rigged the basket on the pulley--the one they used to lift heavy supplies from the forest floor--and climbed in. "Everyone, in. We stay together. Daleina..." Mama hesitated. "The spirits listened to you. Can you make them listen again, if you have to?"

All three of them looked at Daleina, and she shrank back. No, their parents were supposed to take care of them, not the other way around! She'd just begun to feel safe. "I... I don't know." She didn't know how she'd done it, or why it had worked. She'd never been able to command spirits before, and no one in her family had ever shown any affinity for them. Maybe it was a fluke. Or a coincidence. Maybe it wasn't her at all.

"You can do it," Mama said. "You did it once; you can do it again."

Daddy smiled at her--a weak ghost of a smile, but Daleina saw it as she climbed into the basket, alongside Mama and Arin. "We always knew you were special," he said.

Arin stuck out her lower lip. "I'm special too."

"Of course, Arin." He smiled at her, a real one this time, as he climbed in with them, and then as Mama lowered the basket, his smile faded.

From the basket, it was clear that of the twenty homes that used to fill the village's tree, theirs was the only one left. All the others had been torn from their branches and then ripped apart and scattered on the forest floor. Kitchen tables, pantries, food, bowls, cups... beds, chests, toys, sheets, clothes... all the innards of two dozen homes were spilled below the trees and mixed together. Daleina saw the strand of laundry, clothes tangled in it, that belonged to old Mistress Hamby. And then she saw Mistress Hamby, her body twisted by what was once a door. Her eyes were open. She was missing her arm, and her chest... Daleina looked away. The basket jerked lower, and she saw more.

Legs. Arms. Faces. The faces were the worst.

"Don't look," Daddy said, but it was much too late.

Rosasi. Sweet, funny, work-averse Rosasi, who told such wonderful stories. Her throat looked like a red flower. Her hands still clutched her knitting.

She saw her friends: Juju, Sarbin... She didn't see Mina. Didn't want to. But she couldn't stop looking, her eyes roaming over the tangle of their torn village, until she stopped on the figure of a man in dark green, alive, walking toward them.

He was flanked by two men and a woman, one in white and two in black--a healer and two guards. The man in green held a sword. His eyes swept the branches above them while the others poked through the debris.

"Over here!" Daddy called and waved.

When the strangers reached them, the man in the white healer cloak darted directly for Daddy and began checking his wounds. The two guards flanked them in protective stances while the man in green considered them and their intact house. "Which of you has the affinity?" he asked.

Mama and Daddy both gestured at Daleina. "Our daughter, sir," Daddy said. "But we didn't know it until today."

The man in green looked at Daleina, and Daleina felt as if he were looking through her skin to study her bones. His eyes were pale water-blue, and his face was scarred beneath his black beard. He still held his sword, and Daleina saw it was thick with tree sap and specked with rustlike red. "She must be trained." Without waiting for a response, he said to the guards, "Take them with the other survivors."

"Oh, thank the queen, there are others!" Mama said.

The healer laid a hand on her arm. "Only a few, I'm afraid."

"Then we shouldn't say thank you," Arin said, clutching Daleina's hand. Her pudgy fingers were slick with sweat, but Daleina held onto them. "The queen didn't help us. We shouldn't thank her."

"Hush, Arin," Daddy said.

"Daleina should be queen," Arin said. "She kept us safe."

Mother clapped a hand over Arin's mouth. "Arin! Quiet! This is a champion!"

Daleina stared at the man in green--she'd never seen a champion before. There were only a few, charged with training the heirs and protecting the queen. She never imagined one would be in her village, or what was left of her village.

For a brief instant, she imagined him sweeping her away, taking her to the capital, and proclaiming her his chosen candidate. It happened that way in the tales: a champion would appear in a tiny village, test the children, and pluck one to be trained to become an heir, and the heirs became legends themselves, creating villages, securing the borders, and keeping the spirits in check, in conjunction with the queen. She imagined herself in the palace, a circle of golden leaves on her head, with her family beside her, safe because of her power. Never again huddling afraid in a hut in a tree.

Her story should have begun right then, in that moment. Fate had declared that her power would emerge in her village's tragedy, and chance had put the champion in the nearby trees at the moment the spirits attacked, too late to save the village but in time to meet Daleina. It should have been the beginning of a legend, the moment he recognized her potential and she embraced her future with both arms.

But it wasn't.

The champion looked away, across the ruined village and the broken bodies. "Only the best can become queen. And she is not the best." Daleina felt his words hit like slaps, and then he added the worst blow of all: "If she were, these people would still be alive."

 

Chapter Two

Champion Ven knelt in the ruins of the village. Sifting through the rubble, he lifted out a broken doll, its pink dress streaked with dirt and its pottery face cracked.

There was always a broken doll.

Why did there always have to be a damn doll?

Other stuff didn't bother him--the broken dishes, the bedsheets, the clothes, all the evidence of lives lived and then cut off--but the dolls got him every time. He used to collect them, in the wake of whatever tragedy had struck this time, take them to a toymaker to be cleaned, and then give them to kids in nearby villages. After a while, though, he decided that was too morbid.

He tossed the doll aside. There weren't many survivors. Two children. A handful of adults. They'd be taken to another village, given new homes and lives. The older girl would be trained and maybe become some village's hedgewitch someday. If she was lucky, she wouldn't see anything like this again. But she'd always have nightmares.

Ven knew the nightmares well. He hated sleep. A day like this, he wasn't fond of being awake either. Straightening, he admitted that he wasn't going to find any other survivors, and the spirits weren't going to come back to let him beat on them more.

He wished he could track the ones responsible, make them pay, or at least make them understand.... But they'd never understand that what they'd done was wrong, and destroying the spirits would only hurt the forest and leave more people homeless.

"Champion Ven?" It was one of the guards. He'd forgotten her name. She favored an ax and left her right side open for a half second too long when she fought. She was decent with throwing knives and slept lightly, waking often to check their camp. He'd traveled with her for five days. Still didn't remember her name. "The survivors want to bury the dead."

He shook his head. "The queen will take care of it." She'd have the earth spirits subsume the village and cleanse the entire area with water spirits.

The guard flipped a piece of wood with her toe. Underneath it was a hand, gray and bloodless, already stiffening. "Like she took care of them when they were alive?"

Ven raised both his eyebrows. He knew that look could quell most people. This guard, however, was made of sterner stuff, or else she too was unnerved by how thoroughly the spirits had decimated this village to care about his best fiery expression. This village--what had it been called? Greytree?--may be on the outskirts, but it was within Aratay's borders. It should have been safe.

The guard met Ven's eyes steadily. "Is she dead?"

He flinched at the word, picturing the queen's body broken, like one of these villagers, but it was a fair question--after a queen's death, the spirits always went wild, until the heirs called for a coronation, suspending the spirits' power. "I heard no bells." Three tolls for the death of a queen, repeated across the forest. "Even if she were, she has many capable heirs." If Queen Fara died, they would undergo the coronation ceremony, and one of them would reaffirm the queen's commands. That was the entire point of heirs, and the purpose of champions. Champions found and trained potential heirs, to ensure that Aratay would always have a queen and that the spirits would always be controlled.

Except they hadn't been controlled here, Ven thought, echoing the guard's snark.

He swore under his breath, colorfully and thoroughly.

If he wanted to be sure this didn't happen again, he had to find out why it had happened here, why the spirits had defied the queen, and he wasn't going to find an explanation in the outer forest. He had to go back to the capital, talk to Fara, determine why her protections had failed. He was a champion. It was his responsibility. It was the only way to find the answers he needed, the answers that these people deserved. "I'll speak to the queen."

"She must be told," the guard agreed.

"She won't be pleased to see me. I'm not welcome at the palace." He winced, aware that sounded perilously close to a whine, which was not behavior becoming a champion, especially in the wake of a tragedy he'd been unable to prevent. Assuming a sterner voice, he said, "See to it that the survivors are settled safely and then resume patrols. I'll return as soon as I can."

"Just try not to break any heirlooms."

"It was an accident," he ground out.

"You broke her crown."

"I thought she was being attacked!"

"She's the queen," the guard said. "She could have defended herself against a vicious twig." The queen's crown was made of twisted living branches that grew flowers every spring and leaves every summer, despite being severed from the earth. He'd thought it was turning on its wearer. He wished that story hadn't spread. It made him look like an idiot. Just because he'd acted like an idiot, that didn't mean all of Renthia had to know.

"Send word if there are any more attacks," he said.

The guard sobered. "Run quickly, Champion Ven."

He nodded once and then he sprinted for the nearest trunk. Using the village's anchors, he climbed up, looking back only once to see the guard kneel in the wreckage and pick up the broken doll.

*     *     *

In the city of Mittriel, the capital of Aratay, in the heart of Renthia, the white limbs of the palace tree shone in the moonlight. The shadows seemed softer, and Ven felt as if he was coming home, even though he hated the place.

He'd traveled through midforest, watching for other signs of unrest among the spirits, but hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary. In every village and town, men and women went about their lives without fear--or at least with no more fear than usual. When you lived surrounded by mindless, powerful creatures whose primary instinct is to murder you, a little healthy fear is normal. Even champions weren't fearless. We just carry larger knives, Ven thought.

Crouching on a branch just outside the perimeter of the palace, Ven eyed the spirits who served the queen. Tonight there seemed to be more than usual, or maybe he was just sensitive to them. He'd never liked the way they flocked around the queen, as if they were loyal, as if they wouldn't gleefully rip her throat out if her control ever slipped. Above the north spire, two air spirits chased a banner around a pole, winding it then unwinding it, playing with the wind. On the spiral stairs, a fire spirit lit the candles, dancing within each flame. Below, earth spirits tended to the queen's rose garden, coaxing black roses to bloom for the night.

Maybe what happened in the village was an aberration. Maybe he'd report to Queen Fara, and she would reassert her will over the perpetrators, and that would be it. He hoped it wasn't a symptom of rot hidden beneath the veneer of beauty.

Rot beneath the veneer.

It sounded so poetic when he thought of it that way. Clearly, he'd spent too much time listening to the canopy singers and not enough time bashing things. After he had his audience with Queen Fara, he'd take a few hours in a practice ring and knock the melodrama out of his head.

"The queen wishes to know if you are lurking in her trees because you have turned assassin, or if you plan to come inside and present yourself." The voice crackled, sounding like wind between dried leaves, and Ven felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He twisted to see an air spirit dangling upside down from a leaf. Its translucent wings beat fast, like a hummingbird's, and its many-faceted eyes darted up, down, left, right. He hated when she sent the spirits to speak for her.

"Tell her I'm considering my options."

Its wings fluttered faster, and Ven smelled the sweetness of wisteria and also wine. "The queen does not have a sense of humor where you are concerned."

He sighed. "I'm aware of that. I'd like an audience with Queen Fara in the Blue Room. Please ask Her Majesty to keep her archers from skewering me."

"She will consider her options."

The air spirit shot upward, rustling the leaves in its wake. Ven climbed higher, to reach one of the spiderweb-thin unbreakable wires that stretched from the outer trees to the palace core. He attached a hook and hoped the spirit had obeyed. The queen's archers were vigilant and trigger-happy, a fact that he'd appreciated when he'd been in charge of defense. He wrapped a rope around the hook and around his wrists. Kicking off, he rode the line through the air. Wind raced past his ears. No arrows fired.

He landed with a thump, unclipped, and rolled free of the rope. He straightened to the sound of slow applause. Flanked by guards, the queen walked forward, clapping, until she was framed by moonlight. She looked flawless as always, all six feet of her, with curls that tumbled artfully onto her bare shoulders and a blue-white gown that looked woven from a moonbeam. A new tiara rested on her head, a delicate metal vine with a single pearl that hung in the center of her forehead. "You always did know how to make an entrance." He'd met her shortly after she'd been crowned. He'd been a new champion, but she had already had the regal bearing of a queen.

"As do you." He dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "Your Majesty."

"Oh, rise, silly. We're old friends. Or have you forgotten that?" She held out her arms, as if she expected him to hug her like a beloved cousin. Slit above her elbows, her sleeves fell back from her arms. Looking at her bare arms, he remembered how he used to hold her--there hadn't been anything cousinly about it. Her cheeks tinted pink, and he knew she was remembering also. Dangerous thoughts.

Instead of embracing her, Ven stayed kneeling. "My queen, I bring grave news."

"And here I hoped you were visiting for old times' sake." Her voice sounded wistful, but Ven didn't trust it. She was a master at shielding her emotions. For all he knew, this pleasant greeting hid murderous rage. Or at least severe irritation. Last time he saw her, she'd been "irritated" enough to send a fire spirit after him. He'd ended up with scars on his arms from the burns, and she'd only recalled the spirit after he'd almost killed it.

"I've been on the outskirts, scouting the midforest villages--"

"Whatever for?" Queen Fara asked. "You already found me an heir. Lovely girl. Sana, is it? Sata? She trains incessantly. It's a bit insulting, frankly, as if she expects me to drop dead any moment. You should teach your candidates to have more faith in their queen."

"I train them to be ever-ready, and hope they never need it."

"Aw, now there's the charming Ven that I missed. Tell me, what did you find in those backwater villages? Lack of bathing routine? Unfamiliarity with how to cook edible food? I swear, if I had to eat one more boiled vegetable--"

"Death, Your Majesty. Your spirits betrayed you, and a village was slaughtered." He tried to keep his voice measured, reporting the news and not reliving it. He'd seen the aftermath of natural disasters before--forest fires, earthquakes, winter storms, leaving behind broken bodies and broken homes with broken dolls--but this... this was the largest instance of deliberate disaster he'd ever seen.

Queen Fara went still. "You wait until this late in the conversation to tell me?"

"There's no immediate danger. The survivors have been taken to safety, and the spirits have fled into the depths of the forest. The forest guards are watching the other villages, but so far, there haven't been any signs that the tragedy will be repeated. My concern is: why did it happen at all?"

"Indeed." She waved at her guards. "I will speak with Champion Ven in the Blue Room. You will see that we are not disturbed." Without waiting for a response--there was no need to wait; she was the queen--she swept through the hall toward the interior of the tree. Ven followed. A tiny fire spirit darted up and down the hallway, lighting the candles before her and then dousing them in her wake. It looked as if her shadow were extinguishing the flames. Nice effect, he thought.

Rushing ahead of her, the guards threw open the double doors to the Blue Room. Standing at attention, the guards flanked the doorway--knees bent, limbs loose, sword hilts an easy distance from their ready hands--as she and Ven entered. He felt the guards' eyes on him, cataloguing his weapons and calculating the distance between the queen, his sword, and theirs. As a champion, he was allowed to be armed in the presence of the queen. The guards didn't have to like it, though, and as someone committed to the queen's welfare, Ven approved of their mistrust.

The Blue Room was known, in whispers and in tales, as the "death-knell room"--you only requested it when you wished a private audience to speak of serious matters. Legend said that a long-ago queen learned of the death of her son in this room and ruled that from then on, the walls could only hear talk of deaths to come or deaths that have been. One version of the tale said he killed her. Another said the queen's son died here, in her arms, and her tears stained the walls blue. Clearly the last was untrue, as Ven knew the sap had been dyed blue as it bled from the walls and had hardened into a sheen that glistened and flickered in the candlelight. But who wanted practicality when a salacious rumor existed instead? He followed Queen Fara in.

A small octagon, the death-knell room had been carved into the center pulp of the tree. Sweeping the train of her dress so that it puddled at her feet, Queen Fara sat in the polished blue throne at one end of the chamber. "Leave us," she told the guards. Bowing, they shut the door behind them.

Ven was aware there were no windows in the room. If she sent a spirit after him, he'd have to fight, again. But it wasn't going to come to that. This wasn't a personal visit, and he had no desire to restart their old argument. He was merely a messenger.

He hoped.

"Tell me everything," she commanded.

He told her about how he'd been ten miles away from the village of Greytree when he noticed that the usual spirits were absent. More than that, the forest animals were hiding, and the birds were silent. He'd tracked the silence, but by the time he found the source, the slaughter was nearly over. The spirits had killed everyone they could find, right down to the babies, and torn the houses from their branches. He'd fought the spirits who remained and called for the forest guards for help. Two were nearby--he'd been traveling with them off and on for the prior week--as well as a healer. "Much of the credit belongs to them."

"You undervalue yourself," Queen Fara murmured. "You're a hero, drawn to defend the defenseless. It's admirable." But she didn't sound as if she were complimenting him, or even listening to him. She stared at the walls and pressed her lips together.

Ven waited while she thought. He used to believe he could tell what she was thinking; he didn't delude himself about that anymore.

"Have you told me everything?" she asked.

"One family of survivors saved themselves. The older daughter, who apparently never showed any affinity for spirits before, was able to keep their home intact. I advised she be trained."

"How old?"

"About nine." He thought back to the girl. She'd been as tall as her mother's shoulder, with still-round childlike cheeks. Fierce but afraid--and rightfully so. "Possibly ten."

"And just showing power for the first time? Then she wouldn't have spoken with them."

He assumed she meant the spirits. It took power and training to summon spirits who were sophisticated enough to speak, and more skill to coerce them to communicate if they didn't want to. "She wasn't able to protect anyone but her family. Her influence ended at her house. Someday, some village will be lucky to have her as a hedgewitch, though I doubt she'll ever say the way she found her power was 'lucky.'"

"Good. And now have you told me all?"

He reviewed the details in his head. "Yes, Your Majesty."

"Then I will send earth spirits to bury the village and will wipe its name from the maps." She sighed, and the word Ven thought of was "wistful," which was an odd way to feel after a massacre. Ven expected shock, outrage, or even disbelief. "I only wish I could wipe the memory from your mind as well. Believe me when I say I wish it had not been you."

"Your Majesty, it could be indicative of a larger problem--"

"There's no 'larger problem.'"

He wanted to let the matter drop at that--he'd informed his queen; his duty was done--but he thought of that broken doll, and the way the little sister spoke about the queen. "We need to know why the spirits disobeyed you--"

"The spirits did not disobey me, Ven." Queen Fara rose. On the dais with the throne, she towered over him, and her shadow stretched blue across the room. "They never disobey me, and you must never suggest that they do. It would weaken our people's faith and endanger us all."

He appreciated her confidence, but he'd seen the evidence with his own eyes. "But--"

"There were traitors in that village, several who plotted against Aratay, against us. It was a breeding ground for betrayal. I have eliminated the threat." She closed the gap between her and Ven, her gown swishing on the floor. Laying her hand on Ven's cheek, she said, "I am sorry you were a witness to it. But I am not sorry for doing what had to be done. A queen must make sacrifices for the greater good."

Ven shifted back so that her hand fell from his cheek. His skin felt burned where she had touched him, and he didn't believe her. She couldn't have caused that tragedy. She'd never have gone that far. "There were children. Elderly. Innocents. You can't tell me the entire village was guilty of treason."

"Enough were. It had to be done."

"There had to have been another way!"

"Don't get agitated, Ven--"

"I am very agitated!" Ven paced through the Blue Room. He didn't want to look into her eyes anymore, her beautiful, guiltless eyes. She hadn't been there. She didn't understand the horror the spirits could inflict... Except that she does understand, he thought, because she's queen. He knew how extensive her training had been. "You are supposed to protect your people, all your people, from the spirits. You aren't supposed to use the spirits against them! Ever. No matter the crime. No matter the danger."

"Oh, you are so tiresome, Ven. I did what I had to do. Do you think I don't feel guilt? Sorrow? Anger? I do! I hate that I must make these choices, but I don't run from them. Like you did, fleeing to the outer villages--don't try to pretend it was anything else. I stay and do what's best for all my people, not a few, not myself, not the ones that I like best. That's what it means to be queen."

"There must have been another way!" he repeated.

"It was the best way for all our people."

"How do you even know there were traitors--"

She cut him off again. "I have ways, Ven. Ears in places you can't imagine. Voices that whisper to me on the wind. There are no secrets that are safe from me."

He quit pacing and stared at her again. "You're using the spirits to spy on your people?" This was getting worse and worse. If people knew... "Why are you telling me this? You know I won't approve. Can't approve. What you did... it was outside of your promises to the Crown. You know I can't allow you to do this ever again. The council must be told, and they will rule--"

"You will not tell them," Queen Fara said.

"Fara, I'm sorry, but I must."

"You don't have the right to call me that anymore."

More softly, he said, "Your Majesty. Can't you see what you are doing is wrong? Using the spirits to spy on your own people? Using them as weapons against your own people?" Rot beneath the veneer, he thought.

She laughed, a brittle sound that was devoid of even a shred of humor. "You ask why I told you: I hoped you'd understand. Oh, Ven, I hoped you'd stand beside me, that we'd be as we once were. I hoped you'd see the need for silence."

No. Ven didn't believe her. It didn't make sense, and he believed strongly in things making sense. If that was her goal, she'd never have confessed to something she knew he'd find abhorrent. She'd never have told him she was responsible for all those deaths.... He thought of that family again, of the look in the littlest girl's eyes, and he couldn't imagine what Fara's game was or why she was trying to manipulate him. What he did know was that when he came bearing tales of death and horror, he expected a different response, especially since he did not believe either that the villagers were traitors or that she'd intentionally caused their deaths. "If you value what we were at all, don't lie to me."

Her false smile faded. "The truth then? I cannot allow you to speak to the council. What happened in Greytree was a tragedy--a random, isolated accident--and it must stay exactly that. It cannot be linked to me, and you must never suggest to anyone, much less the council, that my power is failing. It is not, and to bring a formal accusation... Raising such doubts about me would have catastrophic repercussions."

"I have a duty to Aratay, to the council, to the throne--"

"--To me!"

"To our people!"

"Then you give me no choice. I must discredit you. Champion Ven, you are hereby stripped of your seat on the Council of Champions. You are exiled from the palace, in full disgrace, with all rights to a private audience with the queen suspended."

He'd thought he'd seen enough of the world that he couldn't be shocked--he, Ven, one of the Queen's Champions, was supposed to be hard and experienced, or at least bitter and jaded--but he felt like a just-born chick caught in the talons of a hawk, too stunned to even squawk. He hadn't committed any crime. He'd never betrayed his queen, even when he disagreed with her, even now. She couldn't--

"I will tell the council that you became distraught and attacked me," she continued, "after I rejected your attempts to rekindle our romance. Any attempt you make to speak against me will be dismissed as the bitter rantings of an ex-lover. You will have no credibility with the other champions or anyone. Between what's known of our past history and the testimony of the guards who witnessed your violent attack on my royal person, everyone will believe me, and peace will be preserved."

"Violent attack...? I would never--"

She raised her voice. "Guards!"

From the lit candles, the fire spirits flew at him. Three of them, each tiny, their bodies made of flame, their eyes like coal, their claws like diamonds. He drew his sword, slowly, his muscles not believing that she was doing this. One of the spirits latched on to his arm, its claws digging into his muscle. He burst into motion: kicking and slicing at the spirits, as the door to the Blue Room burst open and the guards spilled in.

All the while, Queen Fara watched from the throne. He thought he saw sorrow in her eyes.

 

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