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Authors: Sarah Beth Durst

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BOOK: The Queen of Blood
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It would be lovely,
she thought,
if the “urgent message” brought happy news
. A new grandbaby. A full harvest. Another peace treaty with one of the other queens. Hanna climbed into the amber light and then entered her office.

The message was on her desk, a piece of parchment that had been tied to the leg of a falcon. One of the caretakers had cut it off and taken the falcon to be fed. Sitting at her desk, Headmistress Hanna looked at the parchment without touching it.

At last, she picked it up, broke the wax seal, and opened it.

It held the name of a village, Birchen. Below the name were two words in the queen's distinctive curled handwriting: “Tell him.”

Setting the note down, Hanna put her face in her hands.

She breathed in and out and counted slowly in her head, forcing down the fear that rose like a threatening tide inside her. She still had time, didn't she? The message had just arrived.

Rolling the message back into a scroll, she sealed it with shaking hands, then tied it with a ribbon that bore her own mark. Her bones creaking even more than when she'd been climbing, Hanna pushed herself off the chair and crossed to a window. She opened it, closed her eyes, and called to an air spirit.

One came easily, as always—her best affinity had always been air. Opening her eyes, Hanna held out her hand, and the spirit alighted on her finger. It was shaped like a miniature child with translucent butterfly wings and a tail of feathers.

Hanna gave the message to the spirit, who tucked it beneath its spindly arm. “Find the disgraced champion.” Lifting her hand, Hanna raised the spirit higher. Wings outstretched, it dove from her palm and pierced the air between the branches below. Hanna watched it until it disappeared and prayed she'd done enough.

CHAPTER 6

S
ummoning classes, according to Mari (their expert on all things academy), were always in the practice ring. At dawn, after the bells exploded in a flurry of chimes, Daleina and the other students piled out of their bedrooms, into the bathing rooms for a frenzy of tooth and hair brushing, and then down the spiral staircase. The first thing they noticed was that all the trees were gone. Manicured bushes, gone. Rocks and flowers, gone. Waterfall spilling into a pool, gone. The practice ring was a wide circle of dirt.

“What's going on?” Daleina whispered to Mari.

“You'll see.”

“She doesn't know,” Merecot said.

“Do too.”

“Ugh, can we not argue this early?” Revi said. She still had sleep crusted in the corner of one eye and looked like a bear woken from hibernation. “Some of us actually worked on our papers last night.”

Daleina hadn't even tried. She'd collapsed onto her cot within seconds of the night bell. Her dreams had been thick with wolves and her family and the dark corners of the maze. She woke with her sheets sticking to her sweat.

Six teachers waited for them in the practice ring, one for each kind of spirit, each wearing a ribbon around her waist to denote
her specialty: air, earth, water, fire, ice, or wood. A few of them had been judges at the entrance exam; the others Daleina didn't recognize. All the students lined up in front of the masters. Daleina felt as if she were back in front of the maze, about to be tested again. And of course that's exactly what was going to happen . . . again and again and again.
I'll pass every one,
she promised herself.
Whatever they throw at me, I will catch. Or dodge. Or whatever I'm supposed to do this time
.

The master with the green ribbon spoke. “The primary purpose of this academy is to identify and train those girls who possess the necessary abilities to be queen. At the end of your time here, several of you will be chosen by champions as heir candidates. Those candidates will receive specialized training and undergo the trials, and the best will be selected to be heirs and prepared for the coronation ceremony, in the event of the current queen's death, may she live long and never falter.”

All the students were silent; even their breathing felt hushed. None of the master's words were new to them—all Renthians knew this—but somehow hearing it here felt weightier, as if this were a ritual rather than a lesson.

“At the coronation ceremony, the spirits will select the queen from the pool of heirs, choosing the strongest and best. It is our job here to see that you are prepared for what Aratay—and indeed all of Renthia—will demand of you.”

“We ask much of our queens,” the next teacher said, “and your classes here will provide you with a valuable knowledge base to draw on, if and when you are called upon to serve our people.”

Another took up the speech. Daleina wondered how many students they'd said this to over the years, and how many had lasted to become heirs. “Make no mistake, it is service. It is not glory. The queen exists to protect us. She must be selfless, determined, brave, intelligent, compassionate, and wise, as well as strong in will and power.”

“It is the last that this class is designed to address,” the fourth said. “In this class, you will learn to summon and control spirits, singly and in groups, in close proximity and at a distance. You will learn to sense the presence of spirits and determine their
level of hostility and ability to cause harm. By your final year here, this class will dominate your days.”

The fifth: “All of you have shown an affinity for one or more spirits. By your final year, you will show mastery of all six, or you will be asked to leave.”

Daleina glanced at the other students to see if this made them nervous too. All eyes were glued on the masters. A slight frown on her face, Revi was chewing her lower lip. She didn't look tired anymore. Linna's expression was close to worshipful. Mari looked terrified. Merecot somehow looked bored.

The sixth and last teacher: “Today we will assess your abilities as they currently stand. You will be divided into groups and will rotate between us.” She consulted a sheet. “When I call your name, please step forward. Iondra, Zie, Linna . . .”

Daleina didn't have much experience with summoning spirits. In the outer forest, the spirits were mostly something you avoided, and the hedgewitches worked to keep them away from villages, not invite them in. They safeguarded the woodcutters from tree spirits who resented the felling of trees, they monitored the drinking water for signs of a vengeful water spirit, they kept the fire spirits from stoking cooking fires into brushfires, they guarded the bridges and ladders against destructive air spirits, and so on. Moreover, a lot of their work was done through charms and ritualistic words rather than pure power.

“Merecot, Daleina, Cleeri, Tridonna . . .”

She scooted forward to join Merecot and two other students with the teacher in the red ribbon, a stern-faced woman with a burn scar beneath her left ear and clawlike scars on her arm. “I am Master Klii. You will follow me.”

Master Klii marched them to the center of the practice ring. “For fire spirits, it's best to summon them as far from structures as possible. Your clothes are flammable, which is unfortunate but unavoidable.” Reaching into her robe, she pulled out a jar of white goo and held it up. “This is burn ointment. Be generous with it while you are here, and sparing when you are away from a steady supply. The healers keep us well-stocked.” Dropping down to sit cross-legged in the dirt, she said, “Sit, and begin.”

There was zero other instruction. Daleina had expected another lecture, or a demonstration, or at least a hint of how exactly they were expected to summon a fire spirit.

The master pointed at one of the other students. “You first.”

Sitting cross-legged across from Master Klii, the girl closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Her lips formed a word: “Come.”

Watching her, Daleina tried to glean any hints. “Come” was a vague word. She had to be targeting a specific spirit, but how?

“Look,” another student breathed. She pointed to one of the lanterns that lit the spiral stairs. In morning, the candles within were unlit, but a bright shape danced behind the glass.

“Come,” the student whispered, beckoning with her fingers.

The dancing flame slipped between the panes of glass. It tumbled down the stairs in cartwheels and then rolled over the dirt. The student held out her hand, and the teacher quickly pulled a leather glove over the student's fingers as the flame leaped to land on her palm. It was a tiny spirit, its height rising and falling as it danced, spinning in circles. Its laugh sounded like the hiss and pop of a fire.

“You”—the master pointed at Merecot—“make it light the blue cloth but not the red. Take control of it.” She tossed two strips of cloth onto the dirt, one blue and one red.

Pressing her lips together, Merecot focused on the fire spirit. “You,” she said to the spirit, “will obey
me.”
It tensed and then twitched once and stiffened. Moving her finger, she guided the flame toward the blue. “Burn the blue, only the blue.”

The flame spirit pounced on the blue fabric. It smoldered, and then flames licked over the cloth, darkening and curling it. The spirit danced as the cloth blackened, and it crumbled beneath the spirit's feet.

Smugly, Merecot smiled at the teacher. Her smile faltered when Master Klii merely moved on to the next student.
She must be used to more praise,
Daleina guessed.

“Now the red,” the teacher said to the third student.

The third student began to speak in a singsong voice that at least was similar to what Daleina had witnessed hedgewitches doing. “Burn the red until it's dead, burn it deep before you sleep,
burn the red . . .” And the spirit engulfed the red cloth, spinning in the dirt with it until it disintegrated into ashes.

Master Klii sniffed. “We're training heirs here, not hedgewitches. Spoken word is unnecessary for our students. You”—the teacher turned to Daleina—“banish it, without the peasant chant.”

Daleina felt nearly dizzy with relief.
This I can do
. Sitting cross-legged, she focused on the fire spirit. “Leave,” she told it.

It danced, stomping on both the red and blue cloth.

She was aware of eyes on her, the other students and the teacher. Sweat prickled her armpits and the back of her neck. “Leave,” she repeated.

It ignored her.

She pretended the others weren't there, that she was home, that the only thing that mattered was convincing the fire spirit to
leave now
. Clenching her fists, she tried again, pouring all of her energy into the word.
“Leave!”

Startled, it met her eyes. Its pupils were tiny orange flames, and its lids were charred. For an instant, it was frozen mid-dance, and then it darted across the practice ring and back up to the lantern. It writhed on the wick, and Daleina imagined it was glaring at her.

“Good, all of you,” the teacher said. “Switch to the next spirit.”

Shakily, Daleina stood. She swayed as the practice ring tilted. She felt a pressure on her elbow, a hand, and looked to see Merecot beside her. “Deep breaths,” Merecot murmured. “You pass out, and that's all anyone will talk about. Seriously, was that hard for you? You had the easiest one.”

Concentrating on breathing evenly, Daleina went with the other students to the teacher with the blue ribbon, on one side of the practice ring. The teacher laid her hand on the smooth white trunk of the tree. “Your task here is to summon a waterfall from within the tree. Right now, three water spirits are blocking the water that would naturally spill out of the cracks. Convince them to release the water and re-create the fall that should be here.”

Three spirits at once? And where were the spirits? Behind the wood? She felt as if everyone else had been given lessons that she'd missed. Maybe this was Mistress Baria's fault. Daleina
hadn't had proper training.
Or maybe I'm not like the others
. Maybe her power wasn't as useful as she'd thought. Maybe the headmistress was right, and she was destined to be a hedgewitch or a guard.

“Each of you target one of the spirits.”

Daleina licked her lips, cleared her throat, and asked, “How?”

The teacher looked at her as if she'd violated a sacred law, then she sighed and tapped Daleina's forehead. “With this. Your mind. Picture it like a hand and reach out.”

She took a deep breath and tried. Carefully, she imagined her thoughts in the shape of a hand, reaching out toward the wall. She reached
through
it—and she felt a shiver shudder along her “arm.” A spirit! She'd heard that queens and heirs could sense spirits, but Mistress Baria had never been able to explain how it was done. Yet it was so simple!

“Visualize water pouring,” the teacher said. “Use the word ‘release.'”

Those were at least concrete instructions, but Daleina had never successfully commanded a water spirit before. Trying to push her self-doubt away, she focused on the word and on the spirit at the other end of her mental hand, through the wall. She felt as if she were fracturing—she couldn't hold both the word and the hand. “Release,” she said out loud. She heard the other girls as well: “Release, release, release.” She imagined the water spilling through the cracks in the wood. But she didn't feel the words burn inside her.

Water spilled from the cracks. It tumbled down the surface of the wood.

“Well done,” the teacher said.

Daleina felt Merecot looking at her. She met the other girl's eyes.
She knows I didn't do it
. She waited for the other girl to call her out, to tell the teacher that she'd failed—that one of the others had commanded her spirit, that Daleina might not have enough power after all—but Merecot didn't say anything.

They moved together to the next teacher, earth, to summon small mole-like spirits from within the dirt. Merecot succeeded in summoning a dozen. The other students summoned one each.
Daleina failed to summon any, but the earth-spirit teacher was kind. “Don't worry,” she told Daleina. “Some affinities manifest later than others.”

For air, Merecot forced a tiny air spirit to blow a dried leaf in figure-eight patterns in front of the teacher. Others were able to cyclone a few leaves. Daleina was only able to convince the spirit to blow the dried leaf into the air a few inches, which was, thankfully, enough to satisfy the teacher.

To Daleina's relief, everyone in their small group failed with the ice spirit. “In the mountains of Semo or on the glaciers of Elhim, this is an easier task,” the teacher comforted them. “Ice spirits are rare in Aratay. Rare or not, though, the principle is the same: the key to summoning any spirit of any kind is will. Your need for them to obey must be greater than their need to resist, and they are born with the need to resist. They are born hating us. You must replace that hatred with obedience. The images you choose, the words you use, are merely conduits to focus your will—that is why you will hear so many hedgewitches using chants or traditional words. But in truth, the words themselves aren't necessary—the
focus
is. We will teach you to choose the best conduits for your power.”

Last for Daleina's group was wood. She
should
be able to handle this. Wood spirits were the most prevalent spirit in Aratay, as evidenced by the mighty forests. The spirits and the land were linked. If she'd started the class with wood, she might have done well. But by the time her group migrated over to the teacher with the green ribbon, Daleina felt as if her insides had been scraped out with a spoon, mashed together, and then poured back in.

They knelt in a circle around a circle of seeds with one simple task: ask a wood spirit to grow the seeds into plants. Daleina had done this, helping the hedgewitch aid the forest farmers, casting charms to encourage the spirits to tend to the plants, and hurrying the growth of certain necessary herbs. Usually, they'd entreat the spirits and then leave the area, letting the spirits do their work in peace, but that wasn't an option here.
This isn't so different,
Daleina told herself.
You've done this. You can do it
.

BOOK: The Queen of Blood
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