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Authors: Sarah Beth Durst

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BOOK: The Queen of Blood
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Again, one by one, the others succeeded. One grew a three-inch
flower. Another sprouted a row of beans. Merecot, of course, exceeded them, causing a carrot to thicken until it was edible and then plucking it out of the earth while the spirit howled.

On Daleina's turn, she focused on one spirit and one seed.
she thought at it.
Make it grow
. Out loud, she said the words she'd been taught by the hedgewitch, “I
am the sun, I am the rain, I am the soft earth. You are the life, the need, the heart. Grow in light, grow in rain, grow in soft, soft earth.”
But the spirit continued to rail in its tiny, unintelligible voice, shaking its twiglike fist at all of them. Winking at it, Merecot bit into her carrot.

“Without the words,” the teacher said.

Daleina felt sweat pop onto her forehead. Without the words, it was difficult to concentrate. Around the practice ring, the other groups were working through their tests. To their left, she heard applause as water gushed out of the tree by the water-spirit teacher, and to their right, she saw the dance of flames in front of the students working with fire. Near another group, tiny earth spirits were tumbling across the dirt in every direction.

she ordered herself. She had the will. She simply had to harness it.
Grow, please
. Abandoning the chant, she tried to push the words out of her, from the inside, from her heart, and she felt as if her blood were burning. She gasped as the practice ring spun again.

Around her, everything blackened and blurred. She blinked, feeling her eyes fill with water. Her hands were shaking. She was shaking. She felt hands on her shoulders, and a voice saying, “Steady.” The voice sounded as if it were underwater. She tried to breathe deep, to steady herself, but the world tilted sideways.

“Stop!” a voice commanded. And cold water splashed in her face. Spitting and gasping, she fell backward and landed on her rear.

Then Merecot was helping her stand. “Hey, look, she did it!”

Daleina looked at the dirt, and one of the seeds had sprouted. Lying on its side rather than in the dirt, it had produced a tendril of green and a misshapen pink blossom.

The teacher grunted, “Good.”

As the students began to move to congregate in the middle of
the practice ring, Daleina stayed behind, staring at the sprout. “I don't think I did that,” she said softly.

“You didn't,” Merecot admitted, also quietly.

“Why?” Daleina asked. “Why help me?”

She shrugged and didn't meet Daleina's eyes. “The entire class, you were the only one who dared ask a question, the only one who cared more about learning than being their performing monkey and passing their stupid tests. Frankly, I need someone to talk to, and you're the only one who seems to have half a brain.”

Daleina studied her face.
She's lonely,
she thought. “Thank you.”

“Granted, given your lack of skill, your life will certainly be short, but I'll enjoy your company until you're torn to bits.”

Less gratefully, Daleina repeated, “Thank you,” as they joined the other students to hear who had passed and who had failed.


en hooked his knees over a branch and began sit-ups. He was at the top of the forest, and every time he swung his torso up, he had a view across the canopy. Sunrise streaked the sky in lemon and pale blue, and the autumn-gold leaves glowed where the light touched them. The canopy singers were heralding daybreak with a complex harmony. He couldn't see any of the singers, but he listened to them blend their music to the birdsong.

So close to the sky, it was peaceful. Not many lived this high. Dedicated singers. A few artists, hermits, and other loners. The weaker limbs were more dangerous, and it was a long way from the more abundant resources of the forest floor. Also, it was a very, very long way to fall. But Ven liked it. If he had to choose a place to live, he thought he'd pick the canopy. Fewer people was a definite bonus.

“Champion Ven?” a voice called—Healer Popol. “Much as I don't want to question your choice of camps, my apprentice and I would be much more comfortable if we could return to our customary paths.”

Ven crunched his torso faster, completing twelve more sit-ups before answering. “You hired me to keep you safe. You should trust my judgment.”

“We do! Of course we do! But . . .” The healer paused as if choosing his words carefully, and Ven smirked. The healer hadn't
been this deferential earlier. He supposed the change was due to the way Ven had caught dinner last night. He'd hit the squirrel mid-leap with his knife, a clean kill through the neck, and had it skinned and on the fire for dinner before Popol and his apprentice had finished laying out the bedrolls. Had to keep his skills fresh somehow. Plus the look on the pompous healer's face was priceless. “. . . your skill is unparalleled, so it seems to me that you could keep us just as safe on less . . . precarious terrain?”

Stopping the sit-ups, Ven caught the branch with his hands, flipped his legs over, and then landed on another branch a few feet below. Healer Popol and his apprentice, a young boy with green-gold eyes and black skin called Hamon, were huddled in the thin crook of the tree trunk. Ropes held their camp in place—they'd used their bedrolls like hammocks. Ven doubted either of them had slept much, though the boy hadn't complained. He rarely spoke at all, which Ven liked. Popol spoke enough for all three of them.

“We're expected in Ogdare by midmorning,” Popol said. “Given how long it took us to reach this height, we will need to send word that we'll be late. I dislike being late. People expect their healers to be punctual.” He switched his words to lecture his apprentice. “You must appear to be in control of the uncontrollable when you're a healer, or else people will worry and make your job that much harder. Appearance matters, my boy. You must be clean, neat, well dressed, calm, and in control of your temper at all times, even when your patients are being idiots. It can be challenging. People in pain are often idiots.”

Ven would have broadened that to say people in general were often idiots. He'd seen so many forget the most commonsense basic security measures, such as refreshing their charms or reinforcing the walls and doors of their homes.

Or ignoring the advice of a trained champion.

he thought with just a touch of bitterness.

Or more than a touch.

As Popol talked, the boy Hamon was packing up the camp, efficiently rolling the bedrolls into their packs. He left the spiderweb of ropes in place, to hold his master's weight, but he wasn't
relying on them himself, Ven noticed. Very sensible.

Popol switched back to addressing Ven. “When we reach Ogdare, I expect you to take full responsibility for our tardiness. Explain it was your excessive concern for our welfare. It may turn out for the best, if they think our skills are so valued that we are in danger of being targets.”

“Your skills
valued, Master,” the apprentice said.

Accepting one of the packs, the lightest one, Popol waved his hand to dismiss the boy's words. “Of course they are. Perception, my lad. It's a tool just like the surgical knife. Belief in the healer can help a patient heal as much as the right herb.”

“But isn't it better to actually heal them?” the boy Hamon asked.

“Both is best. Then the healthy heed your advice and don't need future healing.”

Taking a rope from Hamon, Ven looped it around a branch. “We won't be late to Ogdare.”

“I don't see how that's possible,” Popol said. “It was a three-hour climb up.”

Ven smiled and knew it was
a nice smile. “Down is much faster.” Taking the remaining pack, he hooked a harness around Popol. The boy Hamon, quicker on the uptake than his master, secured himself to a rope as well. And then Ven released the knot that was holding their camp in place. They plummeted.

Ignoring Popol's screams, Ven watched the branches flash by, the autumn leaves blurring into golden streaks. At midforest, he caught the rope. It yanked and would have burned his skin if he hadn't worn thick leather gloves, which he always did—he'd learned that lesson the hard way, after an accident with a pricker bush when he was eight. His mother had left the prickers in him so he'd learn from his mistake. He still had a few scars from that. He tightened his muscles, and their plunge jerked to a stop, knocking off a spray of crinkled red leaves.

Popol gasped in air. “You are trying to cause a heart attack.”

“Good thing we have a healer here to stop it.” Ven lowered them slowly onto a bridge and then flicked the rope so that it
came tumbling down after them. It collapsed into a pile at his feet, and he wound it back into a coil.

“I am never hiring you again,” Popol said.

Inwardly, Ven sighed. He should really try not to antagonize his clients. It was just so very difficult to resist. It was the only amusement he got these days.

“He has kept us safe,” Hamon pointed out. “And we've covered more territory—”

“I know, I know.” Popol waved his hands like bird wings again. “But every—”

Ven heard a breath of wind in the trees. “Shh.” Holding up one hand, he listened. The wind was above them, southeast, a tiny disturbance in the leaves, too localized to be true wind.

Both healer and apprentice fell silent and scanned the trees with him.

Hamon spotted the spirit first. He pointed wordlessly toward a translucent shape that watched them from a few branches up, perched on a patch of mottled bark. It was a child-size spirit with translucent butterfly wings. It held a bulge under one of its arms.

Ven put his hand on the hilt of his knife.

Up in the canopy, the tree spirits had largely ignored them, but now that they were back on the path, more would be watching them. The spirits didn't like it when humans traveled through the woods. Sometimes they showed their dislike in malicious ways. While they didn't dare defy the queen enough to directly harm a human, they could make travel difficult: weakening a bridge, cutting a rope, causing an animal to attack . . . little acts that couldn't be proven to be their fault.

For all that, though, it was unusual for one to show itself like this. “Stay in the center of the bridge,” Ven said in a low voice. He'd take the rear, since the spirit was behind them. Drawing his knife, he herded the healer and apprentice forward.

The spirit flitted between the trees, pacing them.

“What's it want?” Popol asked, in what for him was a hushed voice. It still grated on Ven's ears. The man had no idea how to preserve himself in the forest. City-bred idiot.

He didn't dignify the question with an answer, and neither
did the apprentice. All spirits wanted the same thing: the eradication of humans. Short-term, though? There was no way to know. Spirits didn't think like people or like animals. Their intelligence level varied dramatically within their own kind as well. Some were capable of a measure of reason; most weren't. It could be this spirit was curious. Or it could be judging them, seeing if they made easy targets. Ven scanned the other trees, to determine if it was alone, a scout, or, worse, acting as a distraction for others. He'd known that to happen: one spirit would draw attention while others would attack. It was one of their more clever maneuvers. It required a spirit that could plan, rather than one that acted on pure instinct, but there were such spirits, contrary to what people safe and snug in the cities liked to think.

He bet the apprentice Hamon was from one of the outer villages. He moved like he knew the danger. Popol moved like a blundering bear, woken too early from hibernation. Next time Ven picked someone to guard, he'd choose someone who was slightly less accustomed to safety.

The spirit flew between the trees, weaving to keep them in sight, veering closer and closer. They'd definitely caught the spirit's attention, for whatever reason. “If it attacks, drop and curl into a ball,” Ven told Popol. “Present the smallest possible target.”

“I'm not small,” Popol objected.

No kidding
. “I'll guard you.”

“You'd better.”

Ven resisted saying that's what his fee was for. If Ven had been able to act as a proper champion, he wouldn't have needed to sell his services this way. The crown would have continued his steady income, and Ven wouldn't have had to seek work like a common mercenary, but these days, Ven had to be practical. “Drop now.”

Obeying, Popol thudded down and curled his head against his chest. He wrapped his arms around his head.

“You too,” Ven told Hamon.

“I can help.” Hamon drew one of the surgical knives. It wasn't suited for fighting, but it was sharp. Ven didn't bother arguing with him, especially once he noted that Hamon was clever enough to position himself behind Ven—he'd be a second line of
defense for Popol, but he was smart enough not to try to be front line.

The spirit swooped onto the bridge. It landed lightly, like a leaf settling onto the ground. Without a word, it pulled a roll of parchment out from under its arm. It held it out toward Ven.

For an instant, Ven stared at the parchment and then at the spirit.
Someone had
Who? Queen Fara? Dare he hope . . . a pardon? An end to his exile? Perhaps after five years, she had realized the needs of Aratay were more important than the needs of the moment, or she'd realized the error of what she'd done and was ready to admit the truth and restore his reputation . . . Except that Fara never admitted errors.

Kneeling on one knee, he took the message from the spirit.

Without a word, the spirit darted back into the air and then disappeared between the trees.

Behind him, he heard Popol shift. “Is it gone? Did it go to fetch others? Is it coming back? Are we still in danger?”

Hands shaking, Ven untied the ribbon and unrolled the parchment. He saw his queen's handwriting. He touched the lettering as he read it.
Birchen. Tell him
. He checked the ribbon and recognized the mark on it: Hanna, headmistress of Northeast Academy, the school where Fara had trained many years ago.

It wasn't forgiveness.

It was . . . a warning? A plea?

A chance

He rose. “We'll send word to Ogdare. You will be late.”

Birchen might need.

Slow, and there might not be anyone left to heal.

He didn't know when the queen had sent the message to the headmistress, or how many days it had taken the air spirit to find him. The attack could have already taken place. Or he could be misreading the message, and there might not be an attack at all—it could be a surprise birthday party or a special sale on armor or . . . no, definitely carnage.
Tell him,
his queen had said, and the headmistress had decided that he, the Disgraced
Champion, was that “him,” which meant that whatever waited in Birchen would not be pleasant. He had to be prepared for anything from a rabid raccoon to a disaster like Greytree. Beside him, Healer Popol puffed and wheezed. His pack bounced on his back, and Ven reached over, grabbed it, and lifted it off, adding it to his own. Meanwhile, the boy didn't complain. Head down, lips pressed together, he was running along the bridge without a word. Popol didn't have breath left for words. Otherwise, Ven was certain he'd be hearing many.

He pictured Greytree, the destroyed village from five years earlier, the rubble on the ground, the family all alone amidst the debris, the bodies strewn around them. He never knew what had happened to that family. He should have checked on them, he supposed, listened to them thank him for coming when he did, or not thank him, since he'd come too late. Besides, hadn't they saved themselves? It was blurred with the memory of other fights, other disasters, other tragedies, perhaps none as broad and thorough as that—a whole village. Spirits picked off occasional travelers, hermit houses, herders, or other solitary woodsmen and woodswomen, but that kind of attack was, thankfully, rare.

Here, though, another village. A name. A warning. He hoped. His thoughts spurred him faster until Popol and the boy fell behind him.

There had to be a faster way!

Higher. He could go up.

Yes. “Do you trust me?” he asked, rounding on Popol and the boy.

“Of course. Hired you, didn't I?” wheezed Popol. “You might not be good enough for the capital anymore, but you're good enough for an old man. 'Course I trust you.”

It wasn't a rousing endorsement, but it was acceptable. “Get out the harnesses,” he ordered the boy.

“Wait, what do you have in mind?” Popol asked.

Ven didn't answer him. He scanned the trees for a reasonable path up. Hamon took the harnesses out of the packs and began strapping them around his master and himself. He then turned to Ven with the clips outstretched. Despite the circumstances,
Ven smiled.
Bright boy,
he thought. “There's a wire path above us. Canopy singers use it.”

BOOK: The Queen of Blood
4.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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