Sarah Beth Durst

Excerpt from The Reluctant Queen
Book Two of The Queens of Renthia

(Beware, if you haven't read The Queen of Blood, the following contains some spoilers.)

Chapter One

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .

And those spirits want to kill you.

It's the first lesson that every Renthian learns.

At age five, Daleina saw her uncle torn apart by a tree spirit for plucking an apple from his own orchard. At age ten, she witnessed the destruction of her home village by rogue spirits. At age fifteen, she entered the renowned Northeast Academy, and at age nineteen, she was chosen by a champion to train as his candidate. She became heir that same year and was crowned shortly after, Queen Daleina of the Forests of Aratay, the sole survivor of the Coronation Massacre. She'd heard at least a half dozen songs about her history, each more earsplitting than the last. She particularly hated the shrill ballads about her coronation, a day she wished she could forget. Instead she had it hammered into her skull by a soprano with overly enthusiastic lungs.

Six months after her coronation, now that the funerals -- and so many of her friends' graves -- weren't so fresh, all of Aratay wanted to celebrate their new queen, and she was swept along with them. For her part, she planned to demonstrate her sovereignty by healing one of the barren patches created during the massacre and replacing it with a new village tree.

It is, she thought, one of the worst ideas I've had in weeks.

At dawn, Daleina lay awake in bed and wished she'd chosen to celebrate with a parade instead. Parades were nice. Everybody liked parades. Or she could have simply declared today a holiday and sent everyone back to bed. But no, I had to be dramatic and queenly.

She wrapped her silk robe around her bare shoulders and walked toward the balcony. She'd chosen chambers within the branches of one of the eastern trees, rather than occupying the former queen's rooms. It felt wrong to sleep in a bed owned by the woman she'd helped kill.

Leaning against the smooth wood of the archway, she peeked out. Her loose hair, with its streaks of red, gold, orange, and brown, fell into her face, and she shoved it back. Outside, the lemon-yellow sunlight poked between the leaves, and the bark glowed warm where the light touched it. She saw hints of sky, pale morning blue, but only when the wind blew hard enough to disturb the canopy of leaves overhead. The trees were thick in this part of the forest, with branches that curled around one another and leaves that blocked most of the sky above and all of the earth below. People were already perched in the branches, camped out early for the best view. Of her. Sighing, she retreated. You knew you'd have an audience, she told herself. Stop acting so surprised.

An amused voice behind her said, "They're no longer calling you the Queen of Blood. Now they call you Queen Daleina the Fearless."

Daleina snorted. "The only fearless people I've ever met were frightfully stupid." Turning, she faced Captain Alet, her devoted guard and friend. Alet always seemed to have an unnatural sense of when Daleina was awake. She'd entered soundlessly and now stood in front of the ornate door. She wore her leather armor and had knives strapped to her arms and legs. Her thick black hair with the white stripe was wound up and pinned in place, and she'd tucked at least two more knives into her curls.

"It's supposed to be a compliment, milady, but if you'd like me to discourage it, I could always stab a few of the worst offenders."

"You're too kind. Bloodthirsty, but kind." Squaring her shoulders, Daleina crossed to her wardrobe. She opened the doors to reveal her celebration dress, a confection of lace that shimmered in the morning light. She touched the fabric lightly. Seventeen seamstresses had worked on it, painstakingly adding hundreds of glass beads so she would look as if she'd been sprayed with sparkling dew. The dress would catch the light even in near darkness. It was far and away the loveliest -- and most impractical -- thing she'd ever seen.

"You'll have many more songs written about you after today," Alet said.

"Especially if I die."

"Especially then," Alet agreed.

Daleina arched her eyebrows. "You're supposed to say that of course I will succeed. That I'm the finest queen that Aratay has ever seen, the best of the best, the jewel of the forest, the scourge of the spirits that spill our blood, and so forth." All the courtiers were fond of those phrases, and Daleina was certain they were recycling them from when they'd used them for her predecessor, Queen Fara. Daleina knew full well she'd never been the best of the best.

She'd merely been the only one left.

Alet was silent, and then she said, "You can still call it off." Her expression was blank, hiding her thoughts expertly. Daleina had practiced that expression in the mirror, but it never quite worked for her. A twitch of her lips or her eyebrows always gave her away.

"You know I can't."

"You can," Alet corrected. "You won't."

Daleina studied her friend. Alet had a fresh scar above her eyebrow. It was puckered and red, but whoever had struck her had missed her eye. She'd chosen to wear her war armor today, instead of ceremonial. The leather still had the royal crest, but it was painted gold and green, rather than encrusted with ornaments that could snag on a branch or a weapon. Why had she--Suddenly, Daleina understood. "You can't follow me. I must do this alone. That's what's upsetting you."

Alet made a face. "You'll be vulnerable to arrows, spears, any kind of thrown implement. This isn't like the trials, where you're separated from the populace. You'll be exposed to everyone and, while all your people love you deeply, a few of them also want to kill you."

"Human enemies don't concern me," Daleina said. "The spirits will protect me."

"You know you can't trust them."

"In this, I can."

Alet shook her head. The knives in her hair did not move. One stray curl slipped out of its pins to touch her forehead, though. Daleina was surprised Alet allowed even that much out of her control. "The spirits want you dead," Alet said flatly.

"They want to kill me. Slight difference. If they allow a human archer to pierce my heart with his or her arrow, then they're denied the pleasure of skinning me alive." Daleina lifted the beautiful dress out of the wardrobe and carried it to her bed. "Help me change?"

Sighing, Alet left her post by the door and crossed to the bed. "You should call one of the palace caretakers to assist you. This ridiculous dress has at least a thousand buttons."

Daleina slid her robe off her shoulders, and it fell into a puddle of silk at her feet. "It has thirty-seven buttons, and I don't want any caretakers with me today. I want my friend."

She saw a muscle in Alet's cheek twitch, nearly a smile, and Daleina smiled back. She held up her arms, and Alet dropped the dress over Daleina's head. She felt as if she were wrapped in a cloud. The layers of skirts fluttered around her. Presenting her back to Alet, she faced the mirror while Alet buttoned her.

She'd need a touch of powder under her eyes to hide the signs of sleeplessness. She couldn't let anyone suspect that she was at less than her full strength. In that, Queen Fara had been correct: the people didn't want to think they had a weak queen. Perhaps add a bit of pink to her cheeks. She looked pale, sheathed in the shimmering white and gold. "Regal or sickly?" Daleina asked.

Stepping back, Alet surveyed her. "You look ethereal."

Daleina rolled her eyes. She'd never been described as "ethereal" in her life. "Just tell me if I need paint or powder."

"Neither. You're lovely, and the people should see your loveliness."

"You're in the oddest mood today, Alet." Daleina faced the mirror again and frowned. The sight of the queen on her first celebratory appearance should comfort the people and set the correct tone for the rest of the celebration. She shouldn't have allowed the dressmakers to add so many layers of skirt or to leave her arms bare. She felt both exposed and confined. Spinning in a slow circle, she watched herself in the mirror.

Quietly, Alet asked, "Have you blacked out again, Your Majesty, since the last time?"

She halted. Yes, she had, alone in her bath last night. "Not once," she lied. "It must have been a fluke. But Master Hamon will find answers. He has my complete confidence -- and six vials of my blood, which should be more than enough to run every test he can think of."

"You could postpone this until--"

"Enough, Alet. If you're trying to shake my confidence, you're doing a very good job of it." Leaving the mirror, Daleina crossed to her jewelry box. She selected a simple necklace, delicate leaves carved out of wood and strung on a ribbon of silk. It had been a gift from her family, after she'd been crowned. Her mother had whittled the leaves, and her sister had woven the ribbon. Coming behind her, Alet took the necklace.

Holding her hair up, Daleina let Alet clasp it around her throat. Alet then took a brush and brushed Daleina's hair until it cascaded smoothly over her shoulders and back. Neither of them spoke, until a bell chimed outside.

"Be strong, milady," Alet said. "Half your chancellors think you're foolish to interact with spirits without an heir ready. But then again, half your chancellors are too afraid to venture beyond their chambers."

"And the other half?"

"Already in the trees, ready to cheer your victory."

Daleina turned to face Alet. "And where will you be?"

Alet's expression didn't alter. "Right here, waiting for you to return."

Embracing her, Daleina pressed her cheek to Alet's cheek. The hilt of one of Alet's knives dug into her ribs, but Daleina ignored it. It felt good to have a friend again, as if the friends she'd lost -- Linna, Revi, Mari, Zie, Iondra -- were all still with her somehow, carried on by Alet. "If I were sentimental, I'd say you were sent to comfort me."

"If you were sentimental, I wouldn't like you half as much."

Releasing her, Daleina laughed.

"Go," Alet said. "Show them all what it truly means to be queen."

*     *     *

Queen Daleina of Aratay swept onto the balcony. Hidden in her hair were pins to help keep her crown firmly on her head, and hidden in her bodice was Champion Ven's knife to help keep her head firmly on her neck. As she emerged, she heard the cheers from her people, who filled every available branch in all directions. Their voices blended into the wind and blew into her. She felt as if she were breathing in their love, or at least their enthusiasm. Raising one hand, she smiled at them, and they cheered louder.

Very nice, she thought. Now, go away.

Carefully and deliberately, she blocked them out -- the sight of them, the sound of them -- and she breathed, filling her lungs and then emptying them completely. She narrowed her focus to only that, her breath. Swallowing the wind, she tasted the air, sharp with pine. And then she walked forward, three steps to the lip of the balcony.

Collectively, the crowd fell silent. She felt their silence as a change in the wind, a shift of breath. Grown from the tree itself, the balcony jutted out far above the forest floor. It had no rail, only a delicate braid of living vines to decorate the edge.

Catch me. She sent the order flying like an arrow out of her mind and into the world. The moment the words left her, she flinched, even though she'd braced herself. It felt as if a strip of skin had been ripped from her body. Before the coronation, she hadn't had the power to issue a command that broad and expect to be obeyed. She'd had to trick, redirect, and coax the spirits as if they were uncooperative toddlers, but now she was expected to use the power the spirits had given her. She didn't like it, but she wasn't about to let anyone see that.

She stepped onto the air.

The wind shrieked in her ears as she plummeted. She closed her eyes, stretched her arms wide, and focused on the feel of the air slapping her. Catch me! She put all the force of her mind into the command, devoid of doubt, of fear, of any emotion. She would be obeyed. Now!

Shrieking like the wind, the air spirits whipped around her. Opening her eyes, she saw their faces, translucent with empty eye sockets and pointed teeth. They reached for her with pale multi-jointed fingers, and they caught her dress, each layer spread out until she looked like a glittering cloud.

Lift me, she ordered.

She felt their hands on her back, rotating her until she stood upright on the backs of one of them. Rising up, she tilted her face toward the canopy of leaves above and did not think about how close to the forest floor she'd come. The people in the branches were cheering again, and the air spirits snarled and swiped at them.

Do not hurt them.

Hissing, the spirits retracted their claws. A few dug their claws into the fabric of her dress, and she felt the tips on her flesh, but they did not pierce her hard enough to bleed.

Higher.

The spirits drove her upward, through the branches. Leaves slapped her face. Tiny branches stung her arms. The white lace dress wore flecks of blood between the glass beads, but it still sparkled as she burst through the canopy of leaves into the sky above the forest.

Daleina filled her lungs with the air from above. It tasted as clean and sharp as water from a mountain stream. Few ever breathed this air. Below her lay the forests of Aratay, a vast sea of green that stretched from the true sea in the south to the mountains in the north and to the untamed lands in the west. Soaring, she stretched her hands out and felt the leaves brush against her palms. She felt like a bird, riding free on the wind, until one of the spirits leered at her, its teeth bared and its tongue darting in and out. Glancing down, she checked to be certain she was high enough, and then she changed from a command to a question: Play? She sent the question spiraling out across the clouds -- and she felt it answered.

Undulating through the clouds, an air spirit flew toward her. It had the sinewy body of an ermine and the wings of a bat. Flying beneath her, it lifted her higher in the sky. Race? she asked it. She pictured a map in her head, of the forests from above, and, with her mind, pinpointed the place she wanted to go.

The ermine spirit trilled a challenge to the others. They bugled and chirped their answers, and then the race was on. Daleina wrapped her arms around the spirit's neck, squeezed with her thighs, and held on as it shot forward into the clouds. Droplets pelted her face, and then she burst out above the clouds into the sunlight. Other spirits zoomed alongside them, dipping and soaring between one another.

Slowing, the spirits dove toward an opening in the canopy. She heard their chittering laughter, like the sound of breaking glass, and she suppressed a shudder. Several feet from the bare ground, they halted and released her. She landed in a crouch and then stood.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw they weren't alone. Seven men and women stood shoulder to shoulder in a semicircle on the edge of the barren patch, but Daleina didn't acknowledge them yet. Instead, she bowed to the air spirits. "You have honored me with the beauty of your world. I thank you."

Momentarily, the air spirits quit snarling. One of them placed its hands together, its long fingers touching one another. She saw specks of red at the tips of its nails and wondered if that was her blood or another's. The spirit bowed to her, and then all the air spirits spiraled together up and up into the circle of blue sky above the grove. She wondered what the masters at the academy would think of her approach and then decided she didn't care, not today.

Straightening, Daleina turned to face the representatives of the local village. There were four women and three men, all dressed in ceremonial robes. In unison, they bowed low to her. She bit back a shout at them to go home. She didn't want or need an audience for this. The spirits were capricious, and she'd need to summon many for this task. But these women and men knew that and had come anyway. Spare me from curious fools, she thought but didn't say. It would be unqueenly behavior to insult the very people she'd come to help. And I'm the queen.

She had to keep reminding herself of that.

The eldest hobbled toward her. Her face was sunken in so many wrinkles that her eyes were barely visible. Her lips were cracked and pale, and she licked them before she spoke. "On behalf of all, we thank you."

Thank me when it's done, she wanted to say, but again bit her tongue. A queen didn't show doubt or weakness, and this ritual was as much about appearance as it was about results. In a formal voice that carried across the grove, she asked, "Do you have the seed?"

Trembling, the woman held out her hand, fingers curled shut. Daleina waited while the woman turned her fist over and then opened her fingers. An acorn lay on the palm of her hand.

Daleina cupped her own hands, and the woman poured the acorn onto them. "Thank you for this gift." The words of this ritual were simple, even if the action that followed was not. Dropping the formal tone, she pleaded, "Please, would you return to your village? For your own safety." Go, you trusting fools.

The woman shook her head. "We will stay, Your Majesty. You will keep us safe."

Daleina tried again. "I can't promise that. You should leave."

But the woman only smiled. "We trust your power. And we trust you." Behind her, all of them bobbed their heads. "You ended the Coronation Massacre."

She wanted to argue more, but she couldn't spare the time or the energy, and she most certainly didn't wish to talk about Coronation Day, a day that had gone from beautiful ritual to nightmare fodder when, rather than choosing whom to crown queen, the spirits had killed all the other heirs -- her friends -- and nearly killed her. She closed her eyes briefly to blink away that memory, and opened them up to look at the elders.

Pure trust shone from the villagers' eyes, the way babies gaze at their mothers. Telling herself to let their faith fuel her, Daleina knelt, laid the acorn on her lap, and dug her fingers into the soft earth. Come to me, she called. She felt the earth shift and rumble, as if it trembled from an earthquake. Gently, softly, come to me.

The earth buckled under her, and she saw the men and women topple to their knees. Idiots, she thought, and then she didn't spare them another thought. This required all her concentration. Gently, softly, come to me, she repeated.

A mud-covered hand burst out of the ground. Moss peeled away as if it were the peel of an orange, and a small manlike creature pulled himself halfway out of the ground. His voice was the crunch of rock, but she didn't understand the words. She guessed he was insulting her. She showed him the acorn. Prepare the earth, she told him.

His face stretched into a toothless smile. Several tongues flicked out. She followed his gaze and saw he was ogling the villagers. This was the most critical time: after a spirit was summoned, when its hatred of humans was freshest.

Again, she pushed her will firmly at him: Dig, now.

With a scowl, he dove back into the earth. She stood, knees braced, as the ground rolled beneath her like the sea. He and his kin would soften it beneath, prepare it for the roots that would come. Next, she needed tree spirits. Lots of them. Come, she called to the trees, the bushes, the grasses, the thorns, the flowers. Stepping back, she dropped the acorn into the hole that the earth spirit had left behind. Make it grow, tall and strong.

Laughing, the tree spirits separated themselves from the shadows of the forest. Tall, lithe, and translucent green, they danced through the grove. Flowers flowed from their hair. Moss flourished in their footprints. Daleina spread her arms wide, welcoming them. She pushed her mind toward them, sharing an image of the acorn, sprouting. The spirits flowed to her, pressed close, and then swirled around the hole.

Yes! That's right!

Her vision split, and she saw through their eyes as they poured their energy into the acorn. The nut split open, and a tendril of green burst from its brown shell. It unfurled. Still laughing, the tree spirits danced faster, a whirl around her. She felt the sprout thicken and grow. More leaves poked out of it, and she felt as if the leaves were poking out of her flesh. Below, the earth spirit softened the soil, and the acorn's roots shot through the ground, thickening and hardening. The tree shot toward the sky, higher and higher, growing thicker and thicker. Branches stabbed out from it.

Shape it, she ordered the spirits. She pictured the trunk opening wide to form houses within. The branches were to be stairs, rooms were to be formed and shaped as if carved out of the soft inner wood. She pressed this image out toward the spirits, and they howled -- they wanted the tree to be wild and free; she wanted it to be a new home for the villagers who lived on the forest floor, a safe home, above the dangers of the wolves and bears and countless creatures who hunted at night.

She pressed harder and harder, bearing down on the spirits, filling their minds, and they in turn forced the tree to grow in the shape she pictured. Grow higher, wider, like this . . . She added more rooms and more. This tree would house many. Above, the branches spread into a canopy, blotting out the sun.

And then, without warning, her mind went dark.

Sightless, she heard the spirits shrieking and then heard the men and women screaming -- for her, for themselves -- as she toppled onto the churned dirt.

 

Chapter Two

She woke to blood: on the dirt, on the trees, on her skin. It even seemed to stain the sky, until her mind woke enough to realize that she was seeing her white skirts, billowing in the wind, not the clouds overhead. Around her, she heard shrieking, shrill, mixed with laughter that was as wild as a tornado. The spirits were creating the wind as they swirled through the grove.

Suddenly, pain shot through her leg, sharp and fast, and she screamed, loud and high. Jerking forward, she clutched at her thigh, and a tree spirit skittered away from her on all fours. Leering, it wiped her blood from its mouth.

"No!" she shouted. "Stop!"

There was blood, as if it had been flung from a bucket, in every direction. Her mind took an extra second to understand what she was seeing: the spirits had torn the men and women to pieces and thrown their body parts around the grove. That, there -- it wasn't a root; it was a leg. And that was a torso, cracked open like a shellfish and then shredded. Daleina balled up every bit of her mind that wasn't screaming and threw it at the spirits. Stop! I am your queen, and I command you, stop now!

All stilled.

The spirits hung in the air. All of them stared at her with their blank, translucent eyes. One held the head of a woman. Blood pooled on the ground below and sank into the moss, staining it a deep russet red.

You will obey me.

One of them laughed, shrill, and then fell instantly silent as Daleina, forcing away the pain, pushed herself up to sitting and then slowly stood. She felt the blood run down her leg, warm and wet, and her knees shook. But she stayed upright. She reached with her mind toward the one who had laughed.

Burn, she commanded.

It twisted and writhed, screamed and cried, but she held her order firmly in her mind. The spirit began to fade, growing more and more faint, and she knew elsewhere in the forest, a great tree burned, wreathed in fire spirits. She'd learned this since she'd become queen: kill a wood spirit and a tree dies, but kill the right tree and a spirit dies. Reaching farther, she called to the water spirits.

Do not let the fire spread, she told them.

She watched the fading tree spirit. It continued to contort itself, its face now more childlike. It wept tears of polished amber. In only seconds, the spirit vanished, and all that remained was a pile of yellow jewels.

Across the forest, the fire died with the tree. Daleina half felt and half saw the water spirits douse the embers, seeing it distorted through their eyes. At last, the ashes were cold, and the spirits danced as if oblivious to the death of their kin.

She turned then to the others, who held themselves still and silent.

Build.

She felt their relief and joy as they flew up toward the branches and wanted to rip that feeling from them. . . . No, I can't hurt them. Clamping down on her feelings, she let the spirits build, and the tree began to grow again, shaped into the village she had planned. She pivoted slowly, painfully, to face the bodies of the villagers who had come to watch.

They were all dead.

Except no, the old woman still breathed. She lay on the ground, unmarked except for a dark wet patch on her stomach. Daleina took a step toward her, and her leg crumpled under her. Gritting her teeth, she crawled the rest of the way. She lay beside the old woman.

The woman opened her tiny eyes.

"I'm sorry," Daleina said. It's my fault. They're dead, and it's my fault. I was supposed to protect them. They trusted me, and I failed. . . .

"Kill me," the woman whispered.

"I'll fetch healers . . ." She should have told Hamon to meet her here, or at least let Bayn join her. The wolf could have held some of the spirits off, or also been killed. I should have made them leave. I shouldn't have come at all.

"Won't heal." The woman moved her gnarled hand to shift the fabric of her shirt. The wound was through her stomach, her organs pierced. A fatal wound. She'd die slowly, painfully, inevitably, poisoned from within.

"I can't kill you," Daleina said, unable to take her eyes off the wound.

The woman made a sound that could have been a laugh or a cough. "You already have, Your Majesty. Show me the queen's mercy." Each word was a forced whisper.

Daleina held her gaze for a long moment, until the old woman closed her eyes. "I'm sorry," Daleina said again, but she knew the words weren't enough to make this right, and she didn't deserve forgiveness. Another massacre, and this time it's all my fault. Sorrow, guilt, hate, rage . . . all of those emotions rose into Daleina's throat, and she forced them down into a tight knot deep inside.

Drawing Ven's knife from her bodice, Daleina pressed it to the woman's throat. With one quick hard stroke, she severed her jugular. Bright arterial blood sprayed onto Daleina, covering her hand and arm.

She turned her head to look at the tree spirits. They'd done her bidding, built the tree village as tall and strong as she might have wished.

Go, she told them.

They fled into the forest.

She wanted to call them back, cause them all to burn, but she knew she shouldn't. If she destroyed every spirit for following its own nature, she'd destroy her home. The spirits were tied to the land, and the land to them. She could not have one without the other. Revenge against the spirits was pointless; it would hurt the land and not bring these people back. But it was so very, very difficult to hold that truth in her mind.

She pushed her thoughts toward the earth, summoning the earth spirits. Bury them. Obeying, the earth spirits widened the ground beneath the torn bodies of the villagers. She made herself watch, to feel the responsibility for these deaths, as the ground closed over them. When they finished, she sent the earth spirits back into the ground and called the spirits of water and air, together.

At her command, rain fell on what was once an open grove and was now a shaded grave. The blood ran into streams and into the earth, washed away. She let the rain fall on her, soaking through her bloody dress, washing her own wound. Pain throbbed in her leg. But she ignored it until the rain had done its work.

When the spirits were again gone, she tore one of the layers of her skirt and bound her thigh tightly. The tree spirit had merely begun to feast on her flesh. It hadn't sliced deeper, and for that, she was grateful. Still, she felt weak and dizzy, though she didn't know if that was from blood loss, shock, or whatever had caused her to black out so completely that her commands were broken.

This shouldn't have happened, she thought. She'd been crowned; the spirits shouldn't have been able to revert to wildness, even with her unconscious. This wasn't the way it worked. Revi, Linna, Zie . . . they'd lost their lives, but she'd been crowned and that should have kept everyone else safe. The deaths should have ended on that day. I'd promised myself: no more innocents will die. Six months into her reign, she'd broken her promise.

She looked around the former grove. At least when the other villagers came, they would not find their new home stained with blood. They could begin anew here. Minus their loved ones. Hobbling to the tree, she took out her knife again and carved seven lines, one for each death, so that the villagers would know their kin's fate.

Keeping a tight rein on her emotions, Daleina summoned the air spirits. Carry me home. They lifted her into the air and flew her fast over the top of the green. She focused on the horizon ahead, determined to not lose consciousness again. When they burst through the canopy, she heard the cheers of the people in the trees . . . only to hear the cheers die as they saw her, her dress limp and pink with the watery blood.

The air spirits delivered her to her balcony. She forced herself to stand, and she released the spirits. Spiraling upward, they fled. Leaves and branches shook in their wake.

Queen Daleina looked out at the trees, at her people. She pitched her voice so it would carry. "Seven are dead. But the tree is grown, and the village will thrive. It is done." She then pivoted and walked into her chambers without waiting to hear their response.

Out of sight of the crowd, she fell as her leg gave out. She was caught by familiar arms, and this time, when darkness came, she welcomed it.

*     *     *

When she opened her eyes, there was no blood. There were no bodies. Only Alet, who sat on one side of her, and Hamon, who sat on the other in his blue Royal Healer robes -- he must have been summoned when she collapsed in her room. Daleina lay in her own bed, swaddled in silken sheets and nestled among many pillows. Her wound was dressed in bandages, and she wore a nightgown. She wished she hadn't woken up, at least not yet, so she wouldn't have to remember why she lay there. It was too late now, though. Her leg throbbed, but her head was clear.

"Your Majesty?" Alet asked, a dozen questions in her voice.

Not ready to speak yet, Daleina gazed up at the colorful lace canopy above her, intricately embroidered with images of the forest at peace: deer drinking from a stream, bluebells blossoming between the trees, leaves dancing in the wind, and she wanted to tear the canopy apart. It lies. The forest is never at peace.

"Tell us what happened, Your Majesty," Hamon said, his voice deep and soothing. He'd practiced that voice, she knew. She also knew he wasn't as calm as he sounded. He didn't possess Alet's skill at looking expressionless. He always felt things so deeply that it bubbled up and overflowed -- it helped make him such a great healer. Besides, Daleina had known him since she was a candidate. She knew his face better than she knew her own -- his spring-green eyes, his midnight-black skin, his sharp chin, his soft mouth, and now the crease in his forehead between his eyebrows that said he was worried. Fleetingly, she wondered if he missed kissing her with those soft lips, and then she pushed that thought to the back of her mind, lumping it with all the guilt and anger and regret that she couldn't afford to feel right now.

"You already know," Daleina told him. Her voice came out as a croak. Alet pressed a cup of water into her hands, and with Hamon and Alet's help, she was propped up on pillows. She drank and then tried to speak again. "The world went dark, and I lost control of the spirits."

"They could have killed you," Hamon said flatly, and Daleina knew he was fighting back more than worry. There was fear in his eyes. For her? For their people? Both? He'd seen her bloody before. He'd been with her during her training, sewed her skin back together more than once, stanched her wounds, nursed her damaged eyes until they healed.

"Why didn't they?" Alet asked.

Daleina saw Hamon shoot her a dark look. But it was a valid question. "I don't know." The spirits might not think like humans, but they did think. Killing the queen would have set them all free, and the bloodbath would have spread beyond the grove to the entire forest. That was what the spirits had tried to achieve after the last queen had died, on Coronation Day, when they'd murdered all the other heirs. "Maybe they didn't kill me because I wasn't running away. Or they wanted to save me for dessert." Or maybe they didn't want to destroy Aratay. As much as the spirits hated having a queen, they needed one to keep them in balance. To keep them from tearing Aratay apart in their bloodlust.

"But if they'd killed you without an heir . . ." Alet began.

"I know," Daleina cut her off. She knew better than anyone. Closing her eyes, she wished she could stop picturing the blood on the moss and on the spirits' teeth. She wished she could stop seeing the broken bodies from Coronation Day, her friends with the light gone from their eyes and the breath ripped from their lungs.

"You shouldn't have taken the risk," Alet insisted.

"I had to. I had to buy time." She opened her eyes, wishing she could will them to understand, the way she could force her will on the spirits.

Alet was scowling. "Time for what?"

"Time to cure me." Daleina touched Alet's arm, knowing she didn't want to hear this, but it was pointless to hide it anymore, at least from her. The blackouts had started three weeks earlier and were becoming more frequent. "It's getting worse, Alet. The blackouts. I can't predict them. I can't control them. More will die if this sickness . . . or whatever is wrong with me . . . isn't stopped. I had to make a grand gesture while I still could." Shifting on her pillows, she fixed her gaze on Hamon. "You've had my blood for days now. Tell me what you have discovered."

Hamon shifted his eyes toward Alet, as if he wanted to ask her to leave.

Daleina felt her insides clench. It's bad. I know it. He wouldn't hesitate if it wasn't serious. She imagined building a wall around her heart. Whatever the news, it won't break me.

"You should rest first," Hamon said, "and then we'll talk."

Alet's fingers curled around Daleina's hand, but Daleina shook her away and straightened, sitting upright against the gold headboard. She would be strong on her own. "Don't worry about Alet, Hamon. Tell me. This is not a request."

He took Daleina's other hand and held it tight, so she would not pull away. "I have run every test twice. Some even more. Every answer has been the same. I'd run them a dozen more, if I thought it would change, if there was a shred of doubt--"

"Quit dithering, Hamon," Daleina cut him off. Her heart felt as if it were beating doubly loud, and she thought she heard a roaring in her ears. Placing her other hand on his, she pried his fingers off of hers. She laid both hands freely, calmly on her lap. She wouldn't let Hamon or Alet see what she felt. "I'm dying, aren't I?"

"No!" Alet wailed.

"Stop it, Alet," Daleina said, calm. "Hysterics won't help. And it isn't your style anyway. You're a fighter."

Kneeling on the side of the bed, Alet pledged, "Then I will fight this--"

"It can't be fought, not with knives or words or any tool or herb or potion known," Hamon said wearily. "You have the False Death."

Daleina nodded, as if she had expected it all along. Inside, she felt as if she were crumbling, but outwardly, she merely clasped her hands tightly together. It did explain what had happened in the grove. "That's why the spirits broke my command. And that's why they didn't kill me. They thought I was already dead."

"You were dead," he said. "For a moment."

That's what the False Death was: moments that mimicked death, gradually leading to a true death. Daleina swallowed, but her throat felt dry. "How long do I have?" She was surprised that her voice sounded so steady.

He reached out as if to take her hand again, and then stopped. "I have an herb, glory vine, that will help slow the symptoms. In the meantime, I will search for a cure. Simply because one doesn't exist yet doesn't mean--"

"How long, Hamon?"

He sighed. "Three months. Maybe more, but maybe less. And the false deaths will become more frequent and last for longer as time passes."

"Can we predict them, the false deaths?" If she could predict them, she could avoid the spirits at those times and avoid disasters like what happened at the new village tree. As long as no spirits witnessed her collapse and as long as she wasn't actively connected to any of them . . .

He shook his head. "In most cases, no. But there is evidence that suggests that using power may trigger a false death -- that is most likely what happened to you earlier. You should resist commanding the spirits as much as possible."

She could do that, couldn't she?

"But even if you avoid using your power entirely, that will only slow the disease. The false deaths will still come, and eventually . . ." He didn't finish his sentence. He didn't have to.

Daleina saw the grief in his face and in Alet's. She looked up at the lace canopy instead of into their eyes. She wanted to rage and cry and scream, shout that he had to be wrong, that this couldn't be happening, that it wasn't true. But she didn't, and she couldn't. Not yet. Hold it together. You're a queen. Behave like one. "Summon my champions."

"Now?" Alet said.

At the same time, Hamon said, "You should rest--"

"Call them quickly and quietly," Daleina ordered. "Do not alarm anyone in the palace." She fixed her gaze first on one, then the other. "We cannot afford a panic. Do you understand? What I have to tell the champions is for their ears alone. Alet, gather them now, as many as you can, and brook no argument. Hamon, fetch me a painkiller, one that will allow me to walk to the champions' chamber without anyone suspecting my wounds. I must be seen as strong, for as long as that is possible." She held out her arm so that he could help her stand. She swung her legs out of bed and placed both feet on the floor -- pain swept through her body, and she hissed. She forced herself to breathe evenly and straighten. I will not panic, she thought. I will not break.

"What will you tell the champions, Your Majesty?" Alet asked.

"The truth," Daleina said, her voice steady, even though she felt like screaming inside. "That they must find me an heir before I die."

 

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