A Feast of Many Flavors




They put red crescents out just to tempt us. More specifically, to tempt me. Somehow, they must have discovered that the crisp pastries are my favorite food. But who would have told them? Mami? Luto? Unless that little tidbit was in my file when they conscripted me, they couldn’t have pulled it from my family. My mother and my brother are long dead.

Movement at my elbow catches my eye: Three reaching for the basket, her delicate fingers parting steam as she selects the pastry she wants. Gods, they are fresh from the ovens. I can practically taste the crust of buttery goodness on my tongue. First a crunch, then the tart sweetness of the red honey paste inside. My stomach grumbles.

Three takes the largest and bites into it, crumbs scattering down her standard issue blue uniform. She closes her eyes—lighter blue, like the waters of Lake Verala—as pure pleasure crosses her features.

Jealously, I watch her consume each bite, until a flick of her tongue captures the last crumb from her lips. My eyes leap up to her hairline as she swallows. Sure enough, it is already a shade lighter, closer to wheat than the dried grass brown it was at morning bell.

My envy turns to cold satisfaction in my gut. Three can eat the whole basket. She can turn back to her natural platinum-white; her longer, narrow-framed face; her wide mouth and gap teeth.

I glance behind her, to where the queen sits on her dais. Dark hair coils over her ears and shoulders, trailing down in long braids that almost drop into her bowl of plain oats. She pushes the bowl aside, already finished.

Ruthlessly, I do the same to mine.

Three will never be Valya Cara. Chosen. But it takes more than red crescents to stop me.

###

The twelve of us gather in the training yard after morning meal, same as always. Up ahead, the queen is in her dark green and black leathers, hair pulled up in a massive coil around her head. It looks too heavy for her, weighing her down. Even as I watch, her shoulders slump.

I imitate the movement, relaxing from my soldier’s stance. Just a bit more forward. I drop my forehead a fraction. There.

I am too far away to see her chest rise and fall, but if I could, I would match my breathing to hers. Perhaps at luncheon, if I am quick enough to table. The secret to being Valya Cara is all in the details. 

Good,” says Pol Arran, right in front of me. He almost startles me out of my stance. A slash of eyebrow—yes, one—governs his face, dominating over small, dark eyes and a sharp nose. Beyond his shoulders, his twin and fellow Council member Pola Rita hands a practice sword to the queen. “You will fight me today, Carita Nine.”

He hands me a practice sword identical to that which the queen holds up in front of us. More scarred on its edges, perhaps, where Pol Arran’s bit into it relentlessly over time. But the same weight, the same make. I lift it before me in synchronized movement with the two-handed stance of the queen.

A glint of approval swims through Pol Arran’s murky eyes. Then he springs at me. 

He adopts the heavy-footed style of our enemies, the forest-dwelling Rorkans. As a result, I crouch lower, putting my weight on my heels the way the queen favors. Despite this preparation, the clash as I bring the edge of my sword to meet his vibrates through my bones. A cross-body parry, then a backhanded twist as I block his thrust. His blade slides down mine with a harsh scrape until the hilt crushes my fingers. I manage to avoid the point by dodging left, but my hands go numb.

Ahead of me, I hear a scratch and a dull thud as Pola Rita’s sword does the same to the queen. I spare a glance in their direction as our fight continues. The queen stops to suck on her fingers, anger sparking in her bright blue eyes. Blue, like the waters of Lake Verala.

Warm pride curls through me. I matched the queen’s moves to the tiniest detail, just as I’ve been practicing for so long.

But Pol Arran bears down again. Thus is the way of the Rorkans, fast combat with heavy-armed swings, their brute strength their greatest asset. I assume that beyond us his twin does the same. I barely manage to hold off his thrust with my numb fingers, determination keeping the sword in my hands. He begins to circle me and I mirror him, just like the queen up ahead. When he feints, I’m ready.

A clang as he comes from the right. My arms vibrate like the timekeeping bell. Two more standard strikes with all the force of Pol Arran’s not-unsubstantial muscle weight behind them. I stumble back, a feeling of wrongness searing through me.

Up ahead, the queen holds her own.

I fumble. The sword falls from my numb wrist. Pol Arran has me, the tip of his sword brushing against my throat as I swallow hard.

Not bad, Carita Nine,” he says, keeping the sword in place. Then he smiles, a long slash of white. “But not perfect.”

I step back and bow to him, my eyes dropping to the ground. “I thank you, pol.” But in my head I’m thinking: next time.

###

I make it to the third seat from the dais at luncheon. Like I’ve practiced, I match my breathing to the queen’s, watching the rise and fall of her slim shoulders with caution. She eats half her filet of tria fish and exactly four bites of steamed green sodlan, unsalted. So do I.

I’m chewing my last bite of sodlan as slowly as I dare—the queen sometimes swallows quickly—when the memory of the red crescents returns to me. Gods, how they smelled: sweet and yeasty, with the mellow richness of butter on top. My stomach growls again.

At either side of me, Four and Eight finish up their tria fish. Four poured some of the creamy white sauce onto hers—a mistake. She has a long way to go, not like Three, who was born with the advantage of the queen’s blue eyes. Four is like me, a brown-skinned river dweller from the low country, and her hair even curlier. She’s been a Carita for seven years, same as I—probably drafted after the same massacre. Probably lost her people the same way. And yet she remains square-jawed and wide shouldered, only a few shades lighter in skin. Weak-willed.

I swallow my sodlan. Up on the dais, the queen’s throat bobs at the same time.

A rush of rightness, like a spike of adrenaline through my veins.

I can’t wait to get in front of a mirror.

###

My chance comes after needlepoint, when we sit in two rows of six and match the queen stitch for stitch. She always pricks her finger about three minutes after her movements slow, and she grows weary sooner than usual today. Strange, how this concentration exhausts her, but wielding a sword is what our queen was born to do. Watching closely, I wait until she makes a clumsy stroke and prick my finger at the same time. The pain wakes me up, and I lick away my blood, just as she licks hers. It tastes salty.

She sets aside her needlework, raises a hand to her forehead, and stands. This time, she wobbles a bit on her short heels. My shoes have no heels—our uniforms are standard issue, to avoid unfair advantages—but I force myself to wobble upon rising just the same. It isn’t hard. I feel a bit dizzy, my pulse racing, as another rush of adrenaline surges through me.

The twins step forward, a matched pair. They take the queen by her elbows and help her right herself. I stand taller in pale imitation of the movement, but by then, she is already leaving the room.

A collective breath goes out of us when the door clicks shut behind her. For a moment, the silence swells, all of us standing like statues in our last positions. Then the spell breaks, and we dig in pockets and boots and breastbands for our mirrors.

Like all the others, mine is palm-sized and round, just large enough to show my head and shoulders. I hold my breath as I lift it into place, but I needn’t have worried. I’ve more than compensated for the slip-up against Pol Arran with my breathing tactics today.

My hair falls straight and heavy in one long braid. If I were to unwind it, it would be wavy not like it was when I lived in the river house and Mami brushed it at night, but wavy like the queen’s when she combs it before bed: something waiting to unkink. I achieved a sheen today, the bluish tint that shines from the queen’s braids when the sun catches them at just the right angle. It is the right shade of black, too, far darker than it once was.

My face is better too—pale cream, with the spots of warm blush that are often high on the queen’s cheeks of late. My chin comes to a point like hers, my dark hair peaking in a crown between my eyes. My nose is right—a slight point, small, the nostrils barely flaring as I breathe.

It is only my eyes that are wrong today.

Still a bit slanted, and muddy brown at their center. The blue is coming in—just a ring of it—but it blends into the color of riverwater during flood season as it reaches my pupils. The lashes, long and curled, are like the queen’s, so that’s something.

Relief and disappointment mingle as I put the mirror back in my pocket. We still have afternoon tea—three cups, black, not a bite of sandwich—when I might eek a bit more blue out of the day.

But it is not to be. Pola Rita finds us in the stitchery room five minutes later and tells us afternoon tea is cancelled.

The queen called a meeting with her Council,” she says, both her slender brows lowering in a severe frown. (Unlike her brother, she plucks.) “You will return to your quarters for the remainder of the day.”

Whispers break out as soon as she leaves us. It has been months since we’ve skipped tea, dancing lessons, dinner. Then, it was because the Rorkans lured our ships to a devastating defeat near the Freedian Islands.

Ten speculates as we move through the halls to our barracks. “I heard they made it to the Violet Hills.”

Heard from whom?” asks Eleven, a sarcastic bite to her voice. A fair question. We are kept separate from the others in the palace, only allowed in our barracks, the training yard, and rooms where the queen is about her day. There are rumors that a few girls break that rule to sneak out and fraternize with the groundskeepers.

As Ten blushes and says, “I can’t remember,” I look at her with new eyes. Her hair had been turning brassy of late, despite her not unskilled efforts of matching the queen during the day. A secret liaison could be the reason. Who knows what she does to her precious body at night? True, our time apart from the queen doesn’t affect us as much as our mistakes in her presence. But the tangling and thrusting of sweaty bodies in the hay is drastic enough to add that red back into her braid.

Doesn’t matter,” says Seven, bringing me back to the discussion. “It’s impossible. The Rorkans would never make it so far north.”

The Violet Hills are just a day’s march south of the palace. A few girls exchange worried looks, the fear in their eyes matching that uncoiling in my gut. Many nights, I close my eyes and see the river running red. We fight a brutal enemy.

But the queen gives her people hope. The Rorkans’ Lo-Suriel, spirit-speakers, have nothing on our spellworkers, who gift the queen with immortality. Or so the queendom thinks.

The realization hits me hard as we turn the corner to our barracks. The queen’s ever-lessening bites of food. The way she holds her trembling hand to her head at embroidery, a bead of blood on her fingertip. The twins’ hands at her elbows, helping her stand.

The queen is dying.

###

I was ten when they found me in the river behind our house, washing Rorkan blood off my arms. I remember the way the brown surface of the water rippled and changed, and suddenly I saw not only myself, but another: a tall pol with hair like fire and lines in his freckled skin. If he ever told me his name, it’s lost now. Buried deep, like my own.

The fiery pol must have searched our house before he found me. Either way, he didn’t ask about my brother, curled around a pike inside, or my mother, hair dragging in the ashpile where she fell. Instead, he looked at me closely in my bath of blood and riverwater and said, “I have a place for you.” Little did I dream that place might be the throne of the queendom.

But they didn’t give us that detail, not at first. They had to weed out the twelve of us from the other war orphans. Some of them were pale northerners, fathers lost at sea, mothers lost to the promise of soldiers’ coins. They favored those, except when they started marching us toward the palace. Then they saw how the cold-weather ones couldn’t last.

We were called by the villages where we were found. This made it easier on the march for us to band together with our closest neighbors. Other river rats made the best nighttime companions, because they would sing the same hushed stories that Mami used to keen into my ears at night. But when we made it to the Amari Fields outside the palace walls, they gave us wooden swords as heavy as our arms and twice as long and made us knock each other down.

The other river girls fought like the wild creatures we were, nails biting hollow cheeks, toes jabbing into shins, fists around curls. But none of them had ever washed blood from their arms. I was left with a scar that has long since disappeared, straight like a reed across my chest. The fiery pol wasn’t happy about that, but I’d still won.

They waited until the moons had risen and took twelve of us, the victors, up a dark tunnel into the back of the palace. One from each province, they said. It was fair that way.

When we were lined up in a squat, dark room, they turned their backs and told us to strip. I thought we would be killed, some kind of ritual sacrifice for the spellworkers to gain power. Mami used to whisper about them, after Luto was asleep. She said if you angered them, they would put a bad-luck mark on your soul.

But it was good luck for us that day: instead of death, they brought us blue uniforms. Each one was the same size, so the sleeves hung over some of the girls’ hands. My sleeves were an inch too short, the tunic tight around my hips.

When that was over, they lit the lanterns in a ring, and we saw that we stood before a black stone altar. Behind it was a woman who had been in shadow before—who perhaps appeared from shadow, coalesced, while we weren’t paying attention. I remember her eyes, the same dark flecked with gold as the silt beneath the river. She smiled, and a part of me grew rapt.

Daughters,” she said. “You have been alone. You have struggled. You have been brave.”

We waited. The girl nearest me, from the province beside mine, shifted on her feet. I wanted to grip her shoulders and hold her still.

Not in vain,” said the shadow woman. She lifted her arms and smiled again, and I saw that they were twined with the thin gold wires of a spellworker’s sleeves. “Today you will be consecrated as Caritas, and we will entrust you with the secret of our land.”

We gasped as one, as if the ceremony had already been completed and we were tied inexorably to the same body. But then whispers broke out across our ranks, like bubbles in water, and the spellworker waited for them to quieten before she explained: the queen was not immortal as we believed. She was a body reborn from her own people, from hardship and trials, and we twelve would compete to become her. The ceremony performed that day would tie our bodies to hers, and each move she made that we matched would transform us into her, the spellworking trick that kept our people in belief for a millennium. One of us would become the perfect match. We would be tried, and should we fail, the shame of our defeat would stop our tongues. Forever.

A few of the girls traded looks at that, an expression that I well remembered: wide eyes, tight lips. Fear. But something else awakened in me, something fierce as the girl who had washed in the river.

Determination.

###

Once in the barracks, we strip off the blue uniforms—larger now than they were seven years before—and wash ourselves in the basins beside our beds. Some Caritas work quickly, modesty urging them into the black clothes we sleep in, but I don’t bother with that any more. Instead, I trace my wet rag over each rib, checking for the deeper hollows that I should have by now. I swoop the cloth across my flat chest and concave stomach. Close.

There’s something I don’t understand,” says Seven, already dressed, head propped on her hands as she lies in bed.

What?” Eight turns to her, still naked. Her ribs only show when she sucks in a long, deep breath.

If we’re supposed to become her—” Seven lets the doubt creep into her voice “—why aren’t we at those meetings? The war councils?”

Eight snorts. “You think they want to risk her top advisors finding out about us? We’re secret. That’s the point.”

But we never have any sort of lessons,” says Ten, sitting beside Seven. They looked like sisters with a couple of years between them. “Not even the twelve of us, alone.”

I heard Pol Arran talking about it,” says Eleven, lowering her voice. She needn’t—the room is empty, save for us—but we all gather closer anyway. A drip of cold water slides down my naked legs. “He said he doesn’t want to waste resources on any old Carita. You have to win. Then you learn.”

When did he say that?”

Last month. To Pola Rita. She was asking if we should be training on archery, too.”

Four’s brow furrows in a frown. “Does that mean the queen is doing it? Surely, if she is, so should we?”

No.” All eleven of them turn to face me when I speak. It’s like looking in a fractured mirror. “Haven’t you noticed? She’s too tired."

They all fall silent, the implication of my words hitting them. Perhaps I’m wrong to reveal my hand. But there is no harm in letting them know. They will lose anyway. I swore it to myself, to that girl in the river who has forgotten her name.

Three breaks the silence when she sighs. “I guess I should’ve skipped the crescents.”

###

There are more of them at breakfast the next morning. My head aches just smelling their sweetness, but I grit my teeth and imagine my oats taste as sweet as Mami’s recipe. It is a trick I used with Luto, when rations were low before the end. He always complained that it didn’t work. Now that I can see how right he was, my lips quirk at the thought of telling him so. A moment later, I realize my mistake. Up on her dais, the queen is pale-faced and stoic.

I force my expression to behave. Perhaps a bit of brown has already leaked back into my eyes. Storm and blast. I will have to be more careful, especially if my suspicions are correct and one of us will soon be Valya Cara.

Pol Arran doesn’t choose to fight me. He chooses Ten, despite the hint of red in her hair. She’s good, stumbling more than usual, as the queen does, and I taste jealousy instead of the emptiness in my stomach. It fuels me. By the time stitchery comes, I’m ready.

The tiredness rises faster this time. Not just a prick, but a hard jab. I suck the blood up from my finger like sweet wine. The twins, dressed in the green robes of Council, carry the queen out.

Another mirror check. The rusty flavor of my blood still lingers on my tongue. I smile, and my teeth are red from it. But the rest of me is almost perfect.

Thin face. More red in my cheeks, a contrast to their paleness. And eyes of blue, blue, blue like the river reflecting a summer sky. So close.

Pola Rita comes in again. “The queen is busy with her Strategists of War. You will return to your barracks for the afternoon.”

Though her sharp features betray no falsehood, a powerful lick of excitement heats my core. I stay in the center of our pack as we move through the halls, one body of twelve. A pair of clear eyes here, a jutting collarbone there. To my left, One’s perfect mole beside her nose, a twin to the queen’s; to my right, Eight’s spattering of freckles on her forearm. But also square jaws, wide shoulders, flaxen hair. None of us are perfect. But none are as close as I. 

###

The next morning, I’m late to breakfast. I haven’t slept well, plagued by the same old nightmare of dipping my hands in the river, watching the current carry away eddies of blood. It will be no easy task, being queen.

Because of my lateness, I overhear the twins as they whisper at the dining room doors. They can’t see me where I hide around the corner.

You’ve seen her. It has to be today.”

Please tell me you’re certain.”

I strain to hear the rest over the pounding of my heart. “—wait and see. Trust me,” says Pol Arran.

I retreat silently and come forward again with heavy footsteps. By the time I emerge from the corner, they stand straight and tall, their padded armor covering all. They keep their gazes ahead as I pass them, and I try to match their stoicism, burying my excitement down deep. I’m distracted as I take my seat—farthest from the dais—but I soon come back to the present when the queen never arrives at table.

The Caritas around me exchange looks of confusion. Some of them shrug and spoon oats into their bowls, adding blackspice and red honey, taking advantage of a meal when the queen isn’t in the room. But a meal apart still matters. No queen at breakfast means she likely isn’t eating. I push away my bowl.

An answering wash of energy makes my heart beat faster, blood rushing from my head.

The sense of rightness grows as we head out toward the training ground. Today is the day I will be selected. The certainty guides each step I take, each breath. I don’t need the queen before me anymore. I will become her.

###

Nine.” Pol Arran and Pola Rita stand before me, equal in height and build. Without the plucked eyebrows and Pola Rita’s longer hair, they would almost be identical. The pola hands me a practice sword. “You’ll be fighting us both today.”

A jarring note interrupts the song of adrenaline filling my veins. “But . . . my pol, my pola—”

Do it.” Pol Arran raises his sword, clearly indicating he isn’t planning to wait. He will strike, whether I defend or not.

This, then, is another test.

I fall into the queen’s stance: both hands firm but relaxed, sword raised. I don’t need her over his shoulder. I know what she would do.

He feints left while his twin comes from the right. I spin left and block him, putting her on his other side. Divide them—that is the way to defeat an enemy. Pitch them against themselves. Now they are in a line, Pola Rita out of my way, and Pol Arran’s eyes shine. What would the queen do next?

The pola is always teaching her to move her feet in time with her breathing. I match the two, my heartbeat dropping in as a third flavor to subtly alter the dish. Our swordplay becomes just another meal, when I let my will overcome my sense of self. Cease to exist. Become the queen instead.

Shoulders slump a little forward. Hands grow clammy on the hilt of the practice sword. I’ve seen the wood darkened by her sweat. I’ve seen the way she glares at the pola when things don’t go her way. She fights with a grudge, to hide her nervousness. I let my own creep forward, matching my hunched stance to hers.

The Pol’s eyes grow even brighter. He sees it. I fight off the pride—a distraction. I spin as he bears down and knock him back into his sister, who struggles to right herself and attack me again. It is almost clumsy, the way I batter forward, clumsy like an angry and sloppy fighter would be. Spunk, not style. Pola Rita swings her sword in a chopping motion toward my neck, and I duck beneath it, rolling in the dust. My own sword I use to chop off her ankles—metaphorically. She falls to the dirt.

I spring up, the tip of my sword at her throat. She has dirt on her face, a smear across the bridge of her nose. It makes her look like her brother, the way it fills in the space between her brows. I almost smile.

But the queen never would. My arm trembles a little from the effort, from my rapid breathing. Pola Rita opens her mouth—

--and I feel the point of a sword dig into my back. I leap aside to find Pol Arran wearing his slashed grin. “Well done, Carita Nine. You fight like a queen, and we need that now more than ever.”

My blood sings. All those meals condensed into bites of focused attention, all those pricked fingers, all the bruises from Pol Arran’s sword. They’ve built me into this body, this queen, and proven I am the one to lead us to victory. A surge of energy fills me, like it did that day on the Amari Fields. But this time, I feel a shift, and I imagine my eyes rounding out, that blue shining through like a jewel from the queen’s crown. 

The other Caritas are restless behind me, trading a few whispers that I can’t catch. Nothing good, but it hardly matters now. I bow. “I thank you, my pol.”

He thwaps my hand, hard, so that I drop my practice sword. “Come with me,” he says.

I fight off the sting. My rush of pride helps. “Yes, my pol.”

Pola Rita stands up and follows us, but the slant of her brows means she isn’t happy about it. Eleven pairs of eyes trail after me, each a variation on Lake Verala blue.

###

Pol Arran takes me into a new wing of the palace, one I’ve never seen before. That’s how I know it’s time. The room where we stop only confirms it for me. On the far wall is a mirror as tall as two Rorkans and as wide as a creek. I can see the shape of my queen in it.

I realize a second later that I see myself.

Wait here,” says Pol Arran, sounding almost amused. Pola Rita follows him out, and I wait three breaths before creeping closer to the mirror. A few strands of hair have come loose from my braid, hair the blue-black of a raven’s wing. The dark tendrils frame a heart-shaped face, fevered red cheeks, bright blue eyes. Something I’ve never noticed before—a cluster of light freckles, almost invisible, across my nose. I turn my head side to side. A mole on my cheek.

I unbutton the top button of my uniform. My collarbone stands out like the rung of a ladder, broken only by a slight dip at the base of my throat. That was never so hollow before. Tears could drip down my cheeks and collect in it, I think. Only they won’t have to—not anymore.

A sound from the corner of the room draws my attention away from the woman in the mirror: the twins returning. Pol Arran holds a chalice, Pola Rita a small knife. My lungs constrict. “So it’s true,” I say.

They face me, side by side. “Yes,” says Pol Arran. “The queen is weak. The ceremony can wait no longer.”

And I’m . . .?”

Valya Cara,” says Pola Rita. Ever the inscrutable face, but there’s a hint of sadness in her tone. What will she do now? Recruit more orphans? Or does she mourn the loss of the other Caritas, if what the spellworker has cursed them with comes true? Regardless of her thoughts, she kneels before me, holding the knife across her palms. Pol Arran does the same, holding up the chalice. Their faces drop toward my feet.

I see my wavering reflection in the clear chalice water. “Where is the queen?”

In the next chamber,” says Pol Arran to the rich burgundy carpet. “Do you remember what to do?”

As if I could forget the ceremony I memorized my first day as Carita Nine. The ceremony that told me I might one day be someone other than a river rat, an orphan, a survivor.

As I had that day seven years prior, I lift the knife and kiss the blade. It’s warm against my lips, like the tender brush of Mami’s kiss goodnight. I squeeze the hilt in my hand with the same strength I used as I gutted the Rorkan who lied atop her. Back then, it was his blood that spilled across my arms. Now, as I lift the knife and dig it into my thumb, it’s mine.

The blood flows down my arm, dripping off my elbow into the waiting chalice. Pol Arran watches the waters turn pink before passing the chalice into my hands, heedless of the blood dropping in large pats onto the carpet. Perhaps that’s why it is burgundy, I think. After all, this ceremony has taken place here every few decades for a thousand years.

I hold my pointed chin high as I carry the chalice before me, through a set of gilded doors, into the room beyond, where my queen awaits.

She lies propped on a stack of pillows in a narrow bed at the center of the room. Dark hair spills over white silk, all framing her red-brushed features. Always that heated blush of life, the same pink as the chalice water. Beside her on a bedside table waits a great feast. I can see pots of jam and cold-sliced meat and steaming crescents. My stomach growls as I creep up to her. Not yet. I can eat when the spell is over and my bites don’t matter anymore. When I am queen.

She opens her eyes. Lake Verala blue.

There are signs I’ve never noticed before. After all, I’ve never been this close up. Thin lines of age ripple outward from those long-lashed lids. Her lips, too, are dry and cracking, not the full-budded kiuli blossoms they appeared from far away. She has a spot of brown—an age mark?—beneath her right ear. And then she smiles.

My own lips rise in answer.

Are you ready to bear this burden?” she asks, in a voice like dry grasses catching fire.

My queen,” I say, “I am.”

She nods to me. I lift the chalice and drink. It tastes fresh and sugary-sweet, like red crescents. I savor each drop as it slides down my throat. Then I hand the chalice to her. Her hands shake as she takes it from me, but no pink liquid spills over the side. She raises it with painstaking slowness to those dry lips and wets them, just barely, with its contents. Then she sets the chalice on the table beside her bed.

I can feel it beginning now. My blood stirs, heating within me. It courses through my veins with a rush of energy, relearning the pathways of this new, soon-to-be permanent form. Just as they told me it would. The queen reaches for me, her breath hitching, and I lace one of my hands through hers.

She gazes at our clasped fingers, her lashes hiding her eyes from me. Will she become the person she was before as she departs this flesh? I watch for signs, and for a moment, I think I see changes. Her skin begins to darken, the edges first, like shadows creeping up around her. Something pulls me to her jeweled eyes and I lean forward on my toes, searching deeper.

Her fingers tighten spasmodically around mine. My eyes feel dry, and for a flash of a moment, I blink.

It is after that blink that things begin to change. No longer pleasantly warm, my blood heats to searing fire. My guts writhe within me, nausea rising in my throat. Before my swimming vision, the queen begins to transform. Her age-spot disappears in a pool of creamy white. The lines beside her eyes flatten out, porcelain-smooth. Her red lips plump and stretch into a smile.

A smile? But she is dying. Something isn’t right.

One glance at our clasped hands tells me the real story, the lie the spellworkers protected all those years ago. My fingers grow dark as hers stretch long and pale. She grips me harder as if she can read the realization on my face. I am not becoming her.

She is consuming me.

I close my eyes. My body revolts against the theft, pain shuddering through each limb until it’s all I can do to stay upright. My muscles spasm. My lungs burn.

I remember Mami. I remember Luto. I remember my reflection in the murky river waters, sadness already washing away and leaving the cold, hard bed of survival in its place.

I will not die like this.

I open my eyes. The feast is the first thing I see. Without removing my hand from the queen’s—I can’t, her grip grows ever stronger—I lift up a crescent in my free hand. There’s no time to savor the smell, the texture as it crumbles between my fingers. I shove it into my mouth, eating it up in one bite. It tastes sweeter than honey, sweeter than blood, and it washes away the nausea in a wave of warmth and memory. The jam next. I dip my fingers into it and scoop out a large bite. The queen makes a sound of alarm as I lick it off. Next to the jam there are tiny bell fruits, and I pop them into my mouth, one by one. They burst with tart juice that tastes like joy. The queen’s fingers go slack, but I’m not finished. I lift the cold meat and lean back my head, lowering it into my mouth, sucking off the salt like the starving woman I am. It floods me with energy. It fills me with power.

The queen’s hand falls away.

When I look down, swallowing my last bite, she is pale and grey against the white sheets. Her hair is the color of river water, a murky sludge that straggles like water weeds. Her eyes flutter once, twice, and then close forever, but not before I glimpse the look in them.

It’s something like relief.

###

When I step out of the room, I enjoy the flashes of surprise that cross the pol and pola’s features. I savor them, like I savored each bite of food I just swallowed down. But they are not as sweet as the sight of myself in the long mirror. I turn and meet the eyes of a girl long forgotten, a river rat with hair that Mami’s comb could never tame. My square shoulders and wide hips strain against my too-tight uniform.

What—what happened?” asks Pol Arran, nonplussed. “The queen . . .?”

The queen is dead,” I say, turning to them. I can feel the scar I earned on the Amari Fields puckering against my tunic. Strength flows in my limbs. I meet their eyes.

They are the first to look away. After a long silence that roars in my ears, they speak in one voice, the voice of the Council. “Long live the queen,” they say.

And I determine that I will.






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