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Authors: Sarah Beth Durst

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BOOK: The Queen of Blood
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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.

CHAPTER 3

T
he entrance exam to Northeast Academy was always conducted in front of an audience. Guards were arrayed around the bleachers to minimize the danger to onlookers, and the bleachers themselves kept the audience off the forest floor, but no one pretended it was safe, which was why Daleina did not like that her parents had brought her little sister, Arin, now nine years old, to watch. The three of them were squeezed into the back row—the wealthy parents had secured the better seats, in the center, with a thick layer of other viewers between them and the trees. In the back, Arin was popping bits of crumbled cookie into her mouth, and their mother had bundled her in three sweaters and two scarves.

As an applicant, Daleina wore a white tunic, only a thin layer between her skin and the cold. Goose bumps crowded her arms and legs, and she tried not to noticeably shiver. The other applicants didn't seem bothered by the almost-winter chill—white blossoms of frost had coated the glass windows in the morning and had made the fallen leaves crisp and shrivel. The others were chatting and laughing, clustered by the judges' table. There were about twenty girls, all approximately fifteen years old, like Daleina. Many of them seemed to know one another already. She tried to smile at a few of them, and a few smiled back before they returned to chatting with the others. Others returned much colder looks.

She was the outsider, she supposed—the only girl from the outer villages. For the last five years, she'd been the assistant to Mistress Baria, the local hedgewitch in the village her family had settled in, tasked with gathering herbs and mixing charms and keeping the shop clean, because the hedgewitch's joints bothered her. She was only allowed to practice commands once a week, while Mistress Baria monitored her attempts, in order to make sure she summoned only small, stupid spirits with weak wills, who could be easily dismissed with a few words and charms. Outside the academy, waiting with the other girls, Daleina was acutely aware that her training was, at best, minimal.

But that's why I'm here—to change that, to learn, to test myself. To be
more.

Looking up in the stands, Daleina met Arin's eyes. Bouncing in her seat, Arin waved with both arms. It was Arin who had convinced her she was ready. The hedgewitch said she wasn't, but Arin argued she just didn't want to lose her assistant. Daleina had been paid in lessons, a bargain for the hedgewitch.
She'll just have to dust her own cobwebs,
Arin had said,
or make friends with the spiders. You're supposed to be a student, not a servant. You have to do this!

And so Daleina had announced to her parents that she was ready, and here they all were.

Daleina couldn't help wondering if Mistress Baria was right. She didn't feel ready anymore. She studied the row of judges: five older women, all in black, with hair slicked away from their faces. One had a scar on her cheek. Another had tattoos across her neck, obscuring bunched tissue from old burns. The oldest woman only had one arm. The other empty sleeve was pinned to her blouse. Other teachers were lined up on the side—they'd be the ones to administer the exam. All of them sported scars too and wore uniforms that emphasized them: the ones with arm scars were sleeveless, one with a scar across her stomach wore an open tunic that exposed it, and another had painted her false leg a brilliant red, broadcasting how dangerous this life was.
Not very subtle,
Daleina thought, and looked instead at the other girls again. One with gleaming black hair and a brittle smile
stood out. She was at the center of the pack, and every time she spoke, the others rotated to listen to her, as if she were the sun and they were in orbit. Briefly, as if she felt Daleina looking at her, the black-haired girl met her eyes. Daleina tried a smile, but the girl focused instead on another applicant and laughed at words that Daleina couldn't hear.

High up in the trees, a bell rang. Several birds startled from the branches and fled upward, breaking the canopy above the academy. Daleina wondered what the academy looked like inside—it was supposed to be breathtakingly beautiful, as lovely as the palace itself. If she passed, she'd see it for herself before the end of the day. If not, she'd never know.

A woman walked out from a gap in the wall of trees. She wore a black gown edged with dark-green lace. Her white-gray hair was knotted on top of her head. She had no visible scars, but her dress fell to her ankles and the sleeves covered her hands. She carried a slim, unsheathed knife with a jeweled handle. “Applicants, I am Headmistress Hanna. Welcome to the entrance examination for Northeast Academy.”

Daleina straightened. This was the headmistress! The woman who had trained Queen Fara before she was chosen. The woman who had predicted and survived the Massacre of the Oaks. The woman who had presided over three coronation ceremonies and witnessed the deaths of two queens. She'd had songs written about her. Daleina wondered if it was wonderful or tedious to listen to songs about yourself.

I suppose it depends on how well they're sung
.

Pacing in front of the girls, the headmistress studied each of them in turn. Daleina told herself not to flinch as Headmistress Hanna's eyes landed on her, then passed on. “You are here to begin on the path to a glorious destiny, but not all of you will walk that path. Be full of courage, full of strength, full of cleverness, and full of compassion, and you will thrive.”

Daleina let the words roll over her and fill her. She would be fearless! She would be strong! She wouldn't fail! And yet even as she thought that, she couldn't help but hope her mother didn't embroider the headmistress's words on a pillow. Mama liked to
embroider, especially after she finished a difficult whittling job. Their house was filled with platitudes, embellished with tiny roses and stars. Words comforted her, she said, when wood failed to.

Headmistress Hanna was still talking.
Pay attention,
Daleina scolded herself. She shot another look at her parents and sister. Part of her wished she were still home in bed, surrounded by Mama's embroidered pillows. “. . . begin your path, you must
find
your path,” Headmistress Hanna was saying. “Your exam is simple: find your way through the maze.” As the onlookers gasped, the headmistress plunged her blade into the nearest tree. It sank in, and sap oozed. Above, an unseen spirit shrieked, and a crack spread below and above the knife blade.

With an echoing snap, the tree split apart, and the crack yawned open. The knife clattered to the ground at the base of the gap. Whispering to one another, the girls clustered together and inched forward.

The gap was only wide enough to fit one at a time, and through it was darkness. Daleina looked up. She couldn't see beyond the thick weave of branches to tell what was on the other side of the gap: open sunlight or suffocating shadows, towering trees or a snarl of brambles.

“Who will enter first?” Headmistress Hanna asked.

Daleina squared her shoulders, took three deep breaths, tried not to look back at her family, and prepared to take a step forward—but the black-haired girl was already striding through the clump of applicants, elbowing the others out of her way. She stopped in front of the headmistress. “My name is Merecot,” the girl said, “and I will conquer your maze.”

“That's excellent,” the headmistress said, “but I don't care who you are until you come out the other side. Leave any weapons behind. You go in with only your mind, heart, and soul.”

The black-haired girl, Merecot, pulled a knife out of her waistband, then bent down and removed a dagger that had been secured to her ankle. Raising her tunic, she unstrapped another from her thigh. Her eyes fixed on the headmistress, she also extracted a needle-thin blade from within her hair and then removed a coil of metal from around her upper arm. She
dropped it all in a pile her feet. Daleina had only one knife. She again felt unprepared.

“One other thing: you will be timed,” the headmistress said. “Go now.”

Merecot pivoted and ran into the maze.

Another followed her, leaving a sword behind, and then another.

And then all the remaining girls pressed forward, pushing to be next into the maze, and Daleina was elbowed back. She entered third to last.

As soon as she crossed the threshold, she was in darkness. Shadows enveloped her, and she faced a wall.
Right or left?
She listened for sounds of the others—there was a scream to the right, thin and sharp. She went left instead.

Hand on the wall, she half walked, half jogged down the left path. Leaves crunched under her feet. The ground was uneven, full of roots and rocks. She slowed as the last tendril of light from the entrance faded behind her. Feeling her way forward, she found a turn in the maze and took it. If she kept her hand on the wall, she could at least feel the shape of this place.

Ahead, she saw a sliver of amber light.
Aha, daylight!

She hurried toward it and then plowed directly into another girl. The other girl scrambled past her, a tangle of arms, knocking Daleina down, and then the girl continued running in the opposite direction without a word.

Getting to her feet, Daleina didn't move. She held still and listened.

Ahead she heard a
whoosh, whoosh,
like a breath of wind, but rhythmic. The amber sliver of light bobbed up and down.

Not daylight,
she thought.
Fire spirit
.

Rather than staying to determine how large a fire spirit it was, Daleina backtracked to the last intersection. Switching to another wall, she headed into a different dark tunnel.
Of course there are spirits here
. This was supposed to be an aptitude test. All the judges must have seeded the maze with them and were watching to see how the applicants would react. It occurred to her that she hadn't displayed any power or bravery or brilliance
by running, but at least she'd showed common sense.
That's a valuable trait
.

Right?

Through the maze walls, she heard the footsteps of the other applicants. Occasional screams. A thud. And ahead, a trickle. Water spirit? There was more light here, streaming from a slit above, and she tried to keep her footsteps silent so that she could hear the direction of the drips.

The maze walls were smooth wood that stretched up to the canopy. No footholds, no hooks, no anchors, no ladders. The floor was a mass of roots. As she turned another corner, the roots felt squishier—moss. So maybe the trickle wasn't a spirit. Maybe it was water, and that's why there was moss. Listening, she didn't hear any of the other applicants near her. She seemed to be alone in this stretch of the maze. She wondered how large the maze was and if any of the others had found their way through yet, and she pictured her parents and Arin, out in the bleachers, worried. She'd better find her way through, fast.

She hurried forward, rounded a corner, and then halted. Suspended across the path was a cat-size translucent spider with a child's face. Its legs were braced against the walls of the maze, and tears poured from its eyes.

Definitely a water spirit.

Daleina froze, unsure what to do. She'd run from the fire spirit, but what if that wasn't the right choice? What if she was supposed to go through it? What if the only way through the maze was through the spirits? The more she thought about it, the more logical it seemed.

Carefully, the way the hedgewitch had taught her, she shaped a thought. One word was easiest, if you didn't know a specific chant for what you wanted. You had to hold the word in your mind, wrap it in your feelings, and then send it out. One word was an arrow she could aim.

Down,
she thought.

She sent the thought spinning out of her.

The spiderlike spirit scuttled its legs as if half of them wanted to crawl down and half wanted to reach toward her.

Down
.

It sank its head lower and opened its mouth. Water gushed out of its mouth and pooled on the moss below. Daleina walked forward.

Down
.

It hulked down, its legs still braced but twitching, and then slowly it began to inch down toward the ground. Holding its gaze, Daleina kept walking, though she wanted to turn and run the other way—as soon as she had that thought, her hold on the command word faltered, and the spirit straightened and scurried upward.

Down!

It dropped down onto the moss. Curling its legs into its torso, it huddled in a ball. Daleina kept to the wall and skirted around it. “Thank you,” she told it as she passed. Only when she reached the next corner did she dare turn her back on it, as she stepped around the corner and into mud.

Hands grasped her ankle.

Mud hands that rose disembodied out of the wet earth.

She bit back a scream.
Earth spirit!
Ahead, in the mud, she saw the shape of two girls, pinned by the mud to the earth. The closest one was trying to claw her way forward, her body stuck from the waist down. The farther one was trapped up to her neck. She'd tilted her head up and was muttering, “Free me, free me, free me,” but it was clear that she was panicking instead of concentrating.
Concentrate,
Daleina told herself, as the mud stretched up her calf to her thigh. It encased her leg as she pulled against it. She wished she had some charms. If the spirit would retract even a bit, she could think!
Stop,
she tried.
Down! Release!

“For spirits' sake, are you all idiots?” It was Merecot, the black-haired girl. As she ran past Daleina, she grabbed her arm and pulled. Daleina felt the mud hands tighten around her thighs, holding her in place. Spinning, Merecot commanded, “Water!”

Behind her, Daleina heard a trickle and then a rush. And then a torrent of knee-high water raced around the corner, ridden by the spiderlike water spirit. It swept through the mud, washing it
away. Free, Daleina ran to the other girls and helped pull them out of the diluted mud. They gasped for air and leaned against the walls as the earth spirit slunk back into the ground, the last of the mud burping behind it. Looking up to thank Merecot, Daleina watched the black-haired girl disappear at a run around the next corner.

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