An Lan wrapped her cloak tighter around herself, but still shivered as she sat on a log and watched Li Feng build a fire. She had been a servant in the Warlord’s palace since childhood; living out in the wilderness was a foreign thing to her, yet the commander and the princess, and the Warlord, the Lady, and the concubine, had all agreed An Lan shouldn’t travel in a procession. It would be disastrous if the Warlord intending on invading their region caught her.
But An Lan couldn’t disagree. She had no desire to be a pawn in the Warlords’ games. She didn’t even want to be a Queen. The Thrones chose whomever they pleased, though, whether royalty or peasant. She’d heard the Southern Queen had just been a village girl, and there were rumors she hadn’t even been born a girl. The Western Queen had been just a girl at thirteen when the Western Throne had summoned her, and the late Eastern Queen had been a grandmother.
She shivered again as Li Feng took a seat opposite her so the fire’s flames leapt between them. He was a silent companion, always scanning for danger, one hand holding the reins of his horse and the other never far from his sword. She was glad he took his duty to her seriously, but it was also a foreign concept that a great commander like him would so carefully guard a servant like her.
Nearby, one of the horses stirred, stomping on the ground. It made her heart jump into her throat, but Li Feng just turned his head and quietly silenced the horse before he turned back to the sack he was rummaging through.
An Lan stared into the fire. She had to admit this was better than a procession all the way to Meridian. That would have required stopping all over the Eastern Kingdom and having people bowing down to her and attending to every need. This way it was just her and the commander, with no one to make a former maid learn how to act a lady over night.
That had been a point of contention between the Warlord and his daughter. An Lan smiled faintly as she remembered how stubborn her princess had been. The Warlord had been scandalized that the Eastern Queen would travel without even a maid, but the princess was wise. The princess knew An Lan was a modest girl raised to serve the family. Suddenly being pushed into the role of a Queen would take some getting used to.
A wolf howled in the distance as the fire crackled. She shut her eyes tightly and tightened her arms around herself. She hadn’t been outside of the palace walls since she’d arrived as a young girl from a nearby village
“I won’t let anything hurt you.”
An Lan’s eyes flew open and she looked up at Li Feng. He was standing over her, one hand still on his sword. The other was offering her a small sack.
“It’s not much,” he continued, but we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare to leave. We need the Eastern Queen on her Throne as quickly as possible.”
With trembling hands, An Lan reached up to take the tied handkerchief from him. She untied it as he went back to his seat. There was a steamed bun and some shredded meat cooked with an egg. It was cold, but she was hungry.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
Li Feng inclined his head. “I’m just doing my duty as your protector, my Queen.”
An Lan bit her lip, her fingers stilling around the bun. “I don’t feel like a Queen.”
“A procession was impossible.”
“I don’t,” she started before breaking off and closing her eyes. “I mean, I’m just a servant. I’ve served the princess and the Warlord since I was a child. I’m at the bottom of the ladder. How can I be a Queen?”
Li Feng was quiet as he threw a stick into the fire. “The last Eastern Queen was an old woman,” he said quietly. “She was a widow from a small village near the Lu River. I served her during her last year of life. She never quite felt like she was a Queen, too. But she was remarkable. The Eastern Kingdom flourished, because she cared about the people. She used the magic of Meridian to care for the land, not for the Warlords. No princess or lady has ever been chosen by the Eastern Throne. There’s a reason for that, An Lan.”
“But not all Thrones are like that,” An Lan said softly.
“No. The Northern Throne only chooses from noble lines.”
“And I’ll have to live with these women.”
“You’ll have your own wing.”
An Lan swallowed hard, the piece of bun she’d just put in her mouth suddenly sticking in her throat. “Alone?”
“You’ll have me, and you’ll have servants.” He eyed her over the fire. “It’s just been a couple of days. Think about it when we get closer to Meridian.”
Mutely, An Lan nodded, even as she flinched when a rabbit hopped out from a nearby bush.
The Warlord’s palace was bustling, and An Lan was hurrying with the rest of the servants, her heart in her throat. It had been years since the city had last been attacked, years since their Warlord had reached a tenuous peace with the others in the Eastern Kingdom. But, with the Eastern Throne still vacant after three years, peace and harmony could not be maintained.
An Lan nearly tripped over the hem of her pale pink skirt, her heart jumping out of her throat because a tear in the linen would mean a beating later on. She gasped and flung her arms out to her sides, thankful she wasn’t carrying a tea service on her tray any more.
“Careful,” a sharp voice barked as a strong hand gripped her elbow. “There is enough chaos today. Do not create more.”
An Lan didn’t dare look up as she bowed, her tray clasped at her middle. She knew the voice of the Warlord’s most trusted commander, Li Feng. Everyone knew his sharp voice, and most with any sense ran from it. He wasn’t a mean man, but he was demanding and tolerated very little.
His cloak swished as he continued on his way, his feet silent. An Lan waited a moment to let her heart settle back into her body, but the hustle of her fellow servants around her quickly prodded her back into movement. At these times, it wouldn’t do to be found standing still.
Her feet carried her over small bridges arching across serene streams and around the gardens that would be blooming in just a few short weeks. Spring was coming, and so was war. Everywhere she walked, she heard whispers. Some said it was the Warlord to the north who had decided to descend and attempt to expand to warmer waters. Others said it was from the west, the Warlord there seeking a sea route despite his lucrative land trade routes. But she didn’t care. All that mattered was serving well, and staying alive.
Her hands had stopped their trembling by the time she returned to the kitchens. There, it was madness as the servants there had begun to prepare for an influx of people from the city. Thousands of mouths would need food, and soon.
“Here,” the woman who led the kitchens said, thrusting a new tray into An Lan’s hands. “Take this to the Warlord’s daughter.”
An Lan bowed and quickly traded the trays. She liked the princess, who had been trying to convince her father to let An Lan serve her, but, with three other attendants already in her service, it was difficult, especially when An Lan was dutiful and easily ignored as she served the men and women the Warlord hosted.
She quickly crossed through gardens and over bridges, heading for the quieter north wing. Well, it had been quiet, but the princess was a skilled archer and would insist on manning the walls with the soldiers. Armorers were hurrying through, carrying armor and bows and arrows for the princess to look over. Other servants were carrying bundles of cloth and closed baskets.
An Lan followed the other servants to Faithfulness and Tranquility, where the princess lived. The doors were wide open as servants flowed in and out. Inside, she could hear the princess’s voice, clear and commanding, but never hurrying.
The wood floor creaked slightly under her feet, but, under the noise, it went unnoticed, though An Lan noted it would need to be repaired. She carefully wound her way around two men arguing over which arrows the princess should use, but they looked exactly the same to An Lan.
She found the princess sitting on a dais, conferring quietly with a matronly woman An Lan recognized as the Warlord’s wife. Just behind her was a slightly younger woman with worried eyes. The Warlord’s concubine was the princess’s true mother, but, as the only child, the princess had been taken to be raised by the Lady.
“An Lan,” the princess suddenly called out, turning her head slightly. “Is Li Feng here yet?”
An Lan bowed, the tray still clasped in her hands. “Yes, Princess. I just saw him not long ago.”
“Excellent. Have him come here and deal with those two men,” she said, waving a long, graceful hand. They’re giving me a headache.”
“Oh, darling,” the Lady cooed, reaching out a hand. “Really, your father and Li Feng will take care of everything. There is no need for you to endanger yourself.”
An Lan silently ghosted forward and set the tea tray on the table between the princess and Lady. A nod from the concubine quickly dismissed her to do as the princess asked.
“An Lan,” the princess called out, stilling the girl’s feet.
She turned and bowed her head, her empty hands now clasped at her waist. “Yes, Princess?”
“Am I better shot than half of my father’s archers?” the princess demanded.
An Lan bowed her head. “Yes, Princess. I have seen you best nearly all of them.”
“It’s too dangerous,” the Lady stressed. “Stay here where you will be safe.”
The princess rose. “I am a Warlord’s daughter, Mother. I have a duty, as do you. An Lan, please summon Li Feng.”
With a bow, An Lan quickly retreated from the hall, leaving the Lady and the princess to argue and the two men to raise their voices to shouts. More than anything she wanted to place her hands over her ears, but the rest of the palace was no better. The news must have worsened, because there was a state of panic in the way the servants moved and the quick clip of the soldiers’ steps. In the distance, she could hear the loud creak of the palace gates being pulled open.
Her heart quickened as she began her hunt across the palace grounds for the commander. If the people flooded in before she could find him, well, she wasn’t sure she would be able to fulfill the princess’s order.
“I said to be careful,” a voice snapped as she once again tripped on her hem and a strong hand gripped her elbow.
“Apologies, my Lord,” An Lan said breathlessly as she managed a proper bow to the commander. “The princess requests you attend to her.”
Li Feng muttered darkly under his breath, but An Lan didn’t dare peek up at him through her lashes. There were numerous drawings of the commander and his famous scowl, the one that darkened his handsome features and lowered his dark brows. His long dark hair would be tied up in a knot on top of his head so tightly the frown lines on his forehead wouldn’t even be visible.
“Smelling salts,” the commander snapped. “Do you carry them?”
“Yes, my Lord,” An Lan said with another bow.
“Good. Come with me. The Lady will probably need them.”
“The princess requests you deal with the men arguing about arrows.”
“I’ll deal with them, too. Hurry up, girl.”
An Lan quickly followed after the commander, keeping her head down and her hands clasped at her waist. It was easy following him; his sheer presence forced the servants from their path, so there was no one for her to weave around.
If the princess’s hall had been quiet before, it was impossible for An Lan to say the same now. The two men were shouting and waving their arrows in each others’ faces and even the Lady and the princess could be heard practically yelling. It wouldn’t be dignified to truly be shouting, but their voices had risen to do battle with the mens’.
An Land watched through lowered eyes as Li Feng strode towards the two men and snatched the arrows from them. They both quickly bowed to the commander, finally growing quiet.
“What’s this about?” Li Feng demanded. “We’re about to be attacked and you’re arguing about arrows?”
“The princess will require the finest arrows we have,” one of the men said. “Mine is surely better than his.”
“The princess will use any arrow she sees fit. Leave them outside her hall. Now, go!”
With hasty bows, the men scurried off, the hats on their heads nearly falling off in their haste. But the commander didn’t pay them any mind; he merely gestured to An Lan before striding in to deal with the Lady and the princess.
An Lan scurried after the commander. Now that the two men had left, the Lady and the princess had quieted their voices, but they still argued even as Li Feng strode in, his cloak shifting behind him, one hand on the hilt of the sword at his side. She saw the princess standing on her own, the long, billowing sleeves of her robe swishing as she gestured towards the palace walls. On the other side, the Lady was supported by the concubine, who looked about ready to cry.
Li Feng offered a deep bow, drawing their attention.
“Commander,” the Lady called out, “please talk some sense into the princess.”
“Don’t you dare,” the princess snapped. “Li Feng knows as well as everyone else I’m a better archer than most. He’ll need me on the walls.”
“But you’re the princess,” the Lady said, her voice strained. “There’s no one else to take the Warlord’s place when he dies.”
“The princess is correct,” Li Feng said, smoothly cutting in. “We require her skills. But do not worry, my Lady. She will be well protected.”
“There,” the princess said as she crossed her arms, her voice triumphant, “you see? I’ll be perfectly fine.”
“But, my dear,” the Lady started.
An Lan didn’t hear the rest of the Lady’s sentence. Her attention had been drawn to a sudden warmth in her hands. Startled, she looked down at where they were tightly clasped at her waist and pulled them apart as a golden light suffused her skin. Her hands trembled, but it didn’t shake off the glow.
“The Eastern Queen,” someone breathed, even as An Lan shook her head and took a step back.
“You are,” the princess said as she grabbed An Lan by the arms and forced the servant to look up into her bright eyes. “You’re the fourth Queen. Quickly, we must get you to your throne. The Eastern Kingdom needs you there if we are to survive.”
“No, Princess,” An Lan said, shaking her head. “I can’t be. I’m just a servant.”
“The Thrones do not care,” the Lady said softly, her voice full of gravity. “They select who they wish. The Princess is correct. You must hurry.”
“I don’t,” An Lan began, her hands beginning to shake harder as the light refused to dim. “I’m not…”
She squeaked in surprise as Li Feng, the Warlord’s most trusted commander, went down on one knee before her and bowed his head. With her hands shaking so badly, she couldn’t clasp them again. So she took another step back, her eyes wide as she took in the kneeling commander, the princess with her glowing eyes, the solemn Lady, and the concubine who looked like she was ready to faint.
“Three years ago,” Li Feng said, “I made a vow upon the death of the last Eastern Queen. It will be my duty and honor to serve as your protector, to guide you to your throne, and protect you and your life thereafter.”
“But,” An Lan said, her eyes darting around, fear making her lips tremble and her voice quiver, “what about the attacking Warlord? Ours needs you.”
“Then quickly travel to your Throne,” the princess said, “and the land will know peace.”
Spring might have been on the horizon, but the deepest nights were still cold. But Adina, the Southern Queen, was certain it wasn’t the cold seeping through the thick walls of the castle and the twice-thickened material of her night shift that had woken her. Shivering slightly, Adina slid her long, lithe form out of the bed that was very different from the straw mattress she’d slept on even just four years before.
Four years a Queen, and three of them without peace in the land. Adina missed the late Eastern Queen with a vengeance. Since her death, she had received reports of warring tribes, brutal massacres, and children gone missing in the night. There were whispers it was the night monsters, terrifying beasts that feasted on the innocence of childhood and tender flesh.
A shiver passed over her again despite the fire she saw roaring in her fireplace. She missed her family’s hut, with the warm night air wafting through and the thin blanket that kept the bugs off her. Her castle chambers were comfortable enough, but they were big and drafty and she could barely see the spires in the distance marking the gateway between Meridian where she now ruled and the Southern Kingdom where she once grew up.
“My Lady?” a soft voice asked from the doorway of a smaller chamber adjacent to her bedchamber.
Adina turned, her fingers pulling at the braids that fell past her shoulders. It would be time to change her hairstyle again.
Deka, her protector who had come from the same village as her, stood in the doorway, her hair cropped short and her dark skin glowing in the firelight. In one hand was her sword, unsheathed. She’d already pulled a jerkin over her own thick night shift. Or perhaps she slept in it. Adina couldn’t be sure. Deka was a fierce warrior, strong and well-built, once the pride of their village when she’d slain dozens of attacking tribesmen on her own, now sole protector to the Southern Queen. Oh, there were plenty of servants scurrying around the castle, serving the three in-residence Queens, but the only other person Adina trusted was Deka.
“I’m just cold,” Adina said softly, her hands rubbing at her arms.
Deka frowned and strode into the room. She pulled a thick robe from a hook beside Adina’s bed and helped the Queen into it.
“You must be careful,” Deka quietly admonished. “If you become ill and die, that’ll be two empty thrones and the world thrown further into chaos.”
Adina gave her a wry smile. “Don’t worry, Deka. I have no plans of dying any time soon. I’m only twenty-nine.”
But Deka still frowned.
“Come on,” Adina said briskly as she turned to leave her bedchamber.
“Adina, where are you going?” Deka demanded.
“I’m not sure,” Adina called back. “But I think I have to be somewhere right now.”
Behind her, Adina heard her protector swear, but her heavy footsteps reassured her Deka would be at her heels before long. She had been honest with Deka; she had no idea where she was going or why, but there was a tugging in her chest and she felt compelled to follow it.
They made their way out of the Southern Wing. The gray walls had been decorated to reflect her home, but they made her flinch sometimes. Of course she missed the Southern Kingdom, especially its warm weather, but she’d been an outcast since she was seven, when she had been growing up as a boy but liked to play with his sister’s dresses instead of the branches shoved into his hands for swordplay. Things hadn’t gotten better when he’d transitioned; it had been almost a relief when the Southern Throne selected her, and Deka had been smart enough to spirit them away in the middle of the night before the biologically female girls could vent their outrage.
Not that living in Meridian was much better. The Western Queen, Odalis, was a wealthy, spoiled child. Barely sixteen, she only knew how to eat from golden spoons and expected anyone, even Adina, to serve her as she pleased. She had her family parading in and out of the Western Wing whenever she wanted, making it so loud with laughter and demands for music and more food that Adina’s ears hurt just to pass by. But she was still better than the cold, calculating Northern Queen. Malin looked icy with her pale blue eyes and white blond hair, and she made no secret of wanting to rule on her own. If it weren’t for Meridian’s laws preventing the Queens from killing each other, Adina was certain she and Odalis would have been dead.
Her feet took her into the main hall of the castle, a towering three story section with balconies on the top two from which doors opened up. On the lowest level, the entrance hall was grandly decorated to reflect the four Kingdoms, a plush red rug quieting footsteps as visitors entered to seek counsel from the Queens. Individually, they each had offices in their own wings. When their collective presence was required, they gathered in the Throne Room, where the four Thrones stood.
It was there that Adina’s feet took her. As soon as they descended the stairs, she could see why.
The door was slightly ajar, when Adina knew it was always closed up tight every night. A soft golden glow haloed the double doors. Her breath caught in her throat as she practically tripped the entire way over, her feet unable to catch up with her need.
Gently, Adina pulled the door open and peeked in. A golden light suffused the room, emanating from the Eastern Throne. With a sharp intake, Adina leaned heavily against the doorframe, relief making her body weak.
“Deka,” she said hoarsely. “The Eastern Queen comes.”
“Is that what all that light means?” a sleepy voice asked.
Adina turned as a plump girl, her wild dark curls cascading around her face, walked over to her. Odalis yawned and peered around Adina, her eyes blinking rapidly against the light.
“Hmm,” Odalis said, planting one hand on a hip. “I suppose harmony will come over the lands soon.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” a low, dangerous voice said.
Adina and Odalis turned to behold Malin as she stepped towards the door, an icy blue robe around her shoulders and her pale hair hanging down her back like a waterfall. Unlike Adina, she was fully dressed and, unlike Odalis, she was wide awake, her protector, a dangerous woman called Teresia, trailing behind.
“What do you mean?” Adina demanded, because Odalis, having arrived just before the Eastern Queen died at only thirteen, didn’t care much for her duties unless it tipped the balance in her Kingdom’s favor.
“Four Queens will mean harmony. One Queen will mean sole rulership, and a world of the Queen’s making.”
Adina’s blood ran cold. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Don’t I?” Malin challenged. “You’re lucky I arrived only a year ago.”
With a savage smile, Malin turned and swept out of the hall, Teresia following close behind, her eyes glittering ice chips as she glanced at the other two Queens.
Odalis frowned and crossed her arms. She had a thoughtful look on her face, but didn’t share any of them with Adina before she, too, left. Adina traded an uneasy glance with Deka. Holding on to the peace they currently had wasn’t going to be easy. She hoped the Eastern Queen arrived soon.
Odalis paced the courtyard in the Western Wing. Spring was struggling to arrive this year, so very little was in bloom. But she wasn’t there to admire the flowers and trees that had been planted generations ago to offer a piece of home to the Western Queen.
The heavy white cape around her shoulders swirled around her legs as she turned around and paced back the other day. Waiting patiently was Leandro, her older brother and protector. He stood like a statue, his dark hair cut close to his scalp, making her wonder if she was cruel for making him stand out here like this. His own winter cloak should be keeping his body warm, but he had the hood down around his shoulders as he waited for her.
Odalis huffed and stopped in front of him, a full head shorter, and crossed her arms. “Looking at you is making me cold.”
He didn’t look at her, his eyes instead constantly scanning the courtyard for any signs of danger.
“It’s starting to warm up,” was all he said.
“To whom?” she demanded.
He didn’t answer. Leandro, when he’d just been her older brother, had always been short on words. The story went that their parents had been so afraid he was mute that they had hired a dozen teachers and tutors just to teach him to speak. But she was the youngest of nine and Leandro number three, so it was just a story passed down to her from her older siblings. Despite having bound himself to her as her protector, he was still short on words.
Odalis narrowed her eyes at him. With a childish swish of her cape, she resumed her pacing and thinking.
“Letting the Eastern Queen take her throne will ruin our family,” Odalis said, biting her lower lip. “We can’t let her reach Meridian.”
“I have men I can dispatch to kill her en route, but she will have her own protector with her,” Leandro said.
Odalis huffed and stomped a foot. “Those wretched Eastern men! Warriors, every one of them if the stories are true.” She whirled to face her brother. “But our family’s wealth and power will dwindle if she makes it here. We can’t let that happen, can’t let everything they’ve worked and fought for to just be redistributed to the masses. The Thrones have been getting wiser and selecting younger girls. It’ll be ages before our family could even begin to rebuild everything we have.”
“We don’t yet know who the Eastern Queen is,” Leandro pointed out.
Odalis slashed a hand through the air as she came at him, standing on her toes to get her face as near to his as she could. “Adina is nearly thirty. She’s the oldest of us. I was thirteen when I was chosen, and Malin was barely eighteen. Do you really think the Eastern Throne will select a ninety year old woman?”
Leandro didn’t answer. She made a sound of disgust and went back to her pacing.
“Fine,” she said, waving a hand in the air. “Dispatch your men. See if they are a match for the Eastern protector. But I want you to make sure one of them makes it back to tell us about the new Queen. Go on.”
Odalis heard more than she saw Leandro’s bow. His footsteps echoed as he left the courtyard. She turned her head up to the cloudy sky, the sun struggling to show her face that morning. It would be cold again, today.
She scowled up at it. Her family, as large and expansive as it was, stretching to essentially rule over the Solana Region of the Western Kingdom, had enjoyed almost unrestricted growth for the past three years. They’d always been wealthy and influential, but, after the last Eastern Queen died, they’d really taken advantage. All of that would vanish the moment the new Queen sat upon her Throne.
Odlis couldn’t let that happen. She turned to look in the direction her brother had vanished in. He was long gone, and she hoped his men would do their job. Their family was counting on it.
She stiffened at the sound of Adina’s voice. With her back still turned, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. After clenching and unclenching her hands, she turned with a smile painted on her youthful face.
“Adina,” she greeted, as warmly as she could. “Wine?”
The other Queen frowned. “It’s a little early for wine.”
“Nonsense,” Odalis said as she snapped her fingers.
“Aren’t you a little young?”
Odalis snorted as a servant placed a golden goblet of red wine in her waiting hand. “I’m a Queen, Adina. I can do as I please at whatever age I happen to be.”
“I’ve been a Queen since thirteen.”
“Why the Throne…” Adina muttered, her voice trailing off as she looked away in disgust.
“What do you want?” Odalis asked before taking a sip. She wasn’t being mean with her clipped voice, but she and Adina had never really seen eye to eye. The Southern Queen wanted peace and Odalis only wanted wealth and power. Two mutually exclusive things, as far as she was aware.
Adina’s eyes burned into her. “The Eastern Queen is coming. I’ll be keeping a close eye on her.”
Odalis waved a hand and looked away. “She is not Queen until she sits on the Eastern Throne. Anything could happen to her while she travels through those Eastern wilds.”
“But nothing will happen to her,” Adina said forcefully. “I warn you, Odalis, the Thrones have deemed it time for a fourth Queen.”
Odalis turned and threw her goblet to the ground. It clattered against the cobblestones and the wine stained them red. Whisper soft footsteps indicated servants had rushed to clean it up, as did the sudden shift in where Adina looked, but she didn’t care. They were just servants doing their jobs.
“Do not speak to me like a child, Adina. I have been a Queen nearly as long as you have. I don’t care what happens to the Eastern Queen, but letting her die in the wilds will save my family from a plunge into poverty.”
Adina snorted and looked away before turning disbelieving eyes back on the younger Queen. “All that she will bring is harmony to the Kingdoms. Too many of them are constantly at war and the rest live in constant fear of not having enough to eat. You are a Queen. You are supposed to care about all the people.
“I only care about my Kingdom. I am the Western Queen. Only the West interests me. If you have no other threats to make, Adina, then return to your own wing. I don’t want to see you here again.”
Adina pursed her lips, but she turned to leave, the skirt of her simple white dress swirling around her legs. Odalis turned in the opposite direction, having fulfilled her goal of becoming so cold she nearly felt frozen. It was time to seek out warmer company and even warmer blankets. The summer could not come soon enough.
The snow was beginning to melt on the mountains just north of Meridian. It would be some time before the snow on the other side, in the Northern Kingdom, likewise melted. Or perhaps never this year, if the long winter was any indication.
Malin smiled to herself as she gazed out the window. Unlike the other two Queens, she wore a loose blouse with the sleeves tied off before her elbows and soft, tight pants that were tucked into heeled boots, all of white as was demanded of a Queen. A cold breeze blew loose strands of hair around her face, but she didn’t mind; only closed her eyes as though she could smell that sweet, brisk air from her home Kingdom.
“Soon, Mother,” she whispered, opening her eyes. “Soon I will put our plans into motion. Everything is nearly ready, and a fourth Queen on the way won’t put everything in danger.” She smiled. “The Western Queen will deal with her for me.”
The creak of her door had her turning her head slightly. An older woman, mid-thirties or so, strode in, her full armor clanking and her sky blue cape swirling behind her as another breeze blew in. Her pale hair was cut short and matted to her head, her helmet clasped under one arm.
Quickly, Teresia bowed to her Queen, who beckoned her forward.
“Report,” Malin said as she turned to look out the window again.
“There are reports the Eastern Queen is on her way, but no sightings of her.”
Malin snorted. “How can they possibly know that? We don’t even know which Warlord region she’s coming from.”
“There are rumors of a young girl and an older man leaving a farmstead in the western region, two women of about the same age setting out from the northern region, and a girl and an old woman from the southern region.”
Malin closed her eyes and pressed two fingers to her forehead. “I doubt any of it is credible. What have your spies gleaned?”
Teresia bowed again. “Those reports are from my spies.”
Malin whirled around, anger written across her face. Teresia quickly held up a placating hand.
“I have replaced the spies.”
Her lips tight, Maline only gave a curt nod. “What else?”
“Odalis has given permission to Leandro to kill the Eastern Queen while she is enroute.”
Malin laughed softly. “Of course she has. Silly girl. No one even knows what the Eastern Queen looks like or where she’s coming from. For all we know she’s an ambassador to Odalis’s own Western Kingdom right now. Foolish child!”
“My Queen, she would deal with this new problem for us.”
Malin crossed her arms. “If she is competent, certainly. But she just sent her brother out on a fool’s errand. We don’t know anything about this Queen. How can Odalis possibly hope to catch her before she arrives?”
“Eventually, there will be celebrations in the Eastern Kingdom.”
Malin sighed. “If we are lucky, they will give her away for us and Odalis can deal with her.” She looked down at her hands. “It would certainly be less blood on our hands. Unfortunately, it would also mean we have to wait for her to act before we can.”
“The poisons are ready.”
“They’re too fast-acting. Is Leandro still in Meridian.”
“As of right now, yes. He’s given orders to his men to kill the Eastern Queen. I do not know yet if he is going with them or staying with Odalis.”
Malin pulled her hands into fists. “I’ll find other ways of breaking Odalis and Adina, but, if the opportunity comes knocking, I won’t turn it down. What of Adina?”
“As you expect, she is seeking peace. She was seen speaking with Odalis this morning, but it did not appear to go well.”
“Adina is even more naive than Odalis, for all that she is nearly thirty.” Malin turned back to the window and rested her hands on the stone sill. “One Queen wants to protect the fourth Throne. One Queen wants to keep the fourth Throne empty.” She smiled. “And I intend on being Empress over all. Teresia, please invite Adina to the Northern Wing for tea.”
“I have plans, Teresia.”
“Of course, my Queen. I’ll dispatch a servant right away.”
“And have the kitchens prepare some Southern delicacies for my fellow Queen.”
Malin didn’t turn as Teresia retreated from the tower room. Instead, her eyes were trained on the mountains. The people of Meridian called them the Dragon’s Teeth as it was said a dragon slept under the castle. The story went that four brave women from the four Kingdoms came together to tame the wild dragon wrecking havoc across the lands. They had cut the head from the body and the teeth remained above ground as they buried the body. Indeed, the mountains were jagged and nearly all were the same heights. With one line of mountains lying in Meridian and the other lying in the Northern Kingdom, they did look like two lines of teeth.
It was a silly story. The truth was that four girls had been sacrificed, one from each kingdom, all four held hostage in a small manor where all four kingdoms met. They had been terrified, but had told each other stories, built up a castle in the air. One year after their imprisonment, they were visited by people from all four kingdoms, only to find the girls had declared themselves Queens, and would only stay to hold the peace if they were revered as such.
Even then, Malin wasn’t completely sure that was the whole story. Once, there had been a single Queen, from which Kingdom no one was quite sure of anymore. She had ruled the Kingdoms with a firm, but just hand, bringing peace. Malin was determined to be a Queen just like her, just as her mother had always promised.
Still, there was a soft magic in the ground. Perhaps it came from this so-called dragon. But, when four Queens sat on the Thrones, it was like a wash of magic that made the land turn to peace and harmony. She’d experienced it a couple of times herself, knew it to be real, but she also knew the single Queen had been real, too.
She would follow in her great-great-great-great aunt’s footsteps.
Adina shivered as she approached the arched doorway leading to the Northern Wing. The wood was carved with snowflakes and winter flowers she had never actually seen or heard of. The Northern Queen had always kept to herself, whether it was Malin or her predecessor, so Adina knew very little of the Northern Kingdom beyond what she’d learned in school and incidentally as a Queen.
She reached one hand out to trace the nearest snowflake. The wood was warm under her finger, as though lit by an internal flame. She almost sighed with that bit of warmth; it seemed warmer weather would never come this year. Even after speaking with Odalis a few hours before, she’d kept her cloak on. Almost every fireplace in the Southern Wing was burning merrily, and she was still chilled.
Footsteps had her snatching her hand back and her eyes snapping forward. She had to remember she was stepping into the Northern Queen’s territory. Malin was an enigma to her. A dangerous one, if her reaction to the glowing Throne had been any indication. She would be wise to tread more carefully with her than she had with the late Northern Queen, who had been more reclusive than cunning.
A young woman dressed in a black servant’s dress stepped beyond the archway and curtsied to Adina. Behind her, Deka tensed. Neither of them had ever enjoyed the company of the Northern Queen, and had a particular distrust of Malin. But, other than her sword at her side, the protector was unarmed, as were all protectors within the walls of the castle.
“Be calm,” Adina murmured. “It’s merely tea with the Northern Queen.”
“I don’t trust her.”
“Neither do I, but are currently guests of the Northern Wing. Try to be at ease.”
“The Northern Queen bids you enter,” the servant said, stretching out an inviting arm. “Please follow me.”
Adina glanced over her shoulder as the girl turned to lead them down a candlelit hallway. Deka nodded and touched the pouch hanging at her waist. Adina’s eyes were troubled as she nodded back, but she turned anyway and followed the girl.
She didn’t actually think Malin would attempt to poison her so quickly, but the girl was power hungry and descended from the only Queen who had ruled as Empress. With the fourth Queen on her way, all of Malin’s visions of becoming the next Empress would be up in flames. Everyone would assume the surviving Queen killed the other three.
But, if Odalis kept the Eastern Queen from the Throne…
Adina mentally shook her head. She would just have to do everything in her power to both protect the Eastern Queen and keep herself alive. She hated the part of her that wanted to leave Malin and Odalis to kill each other, or themselves, but the land needed harmony. She had to preserve the four Thrones, and would have to put all of her trust into Deka to protect her.
The girl led them up a winding staircase. They were ascending a tower, one where the walls were white and cold and gray vines clung to the outer wall. Adina suppressed a shiver and pulled her cloak closer around her shoulders. Candles flickered in niches along the inner wall, their light reflecting against the glass windows set into the outer wall, most of them overtaken by the vines.
At the top, the girl knocked on the wooden door before opening it and ushering Adina and Deka in. It closed as soon as Deka cleared the doorway, and the protector let out a little snarl as it clipped her heel.
“Calm, Deka,” Adina murmured, holding one hand out slightly.
Before them was a table with a blue silk tablecloth. It was laid with delicate white china, a wisp of smoke escaping the spout of the teapot. There was a plate of golden cookies, a bowl of sliced papaya, and a sweet flatbread flavored with cardamom Adina hadn’t had since the day she’d left the Southern Kingdom. Malin had gone to a lot of trouble to put Adina at ease.
On the other side of the table, Malin stood in soft white pants and a long white coat that was divided below the waist to show off the pants and the raised white embroidery. The young woman herself had her white blond hair twisted up at the back of her head and secured with silver hair pins bent into flowers. There was a small smile on her lips, but Adina had already learned to not take the girl’s smiles at face value.
Adina lifted her chin and eased the tension around her eyes. She was, after all, the elder here.
“Malin,” Adina greeted, her bearing regal, her voice velvety and low. “Thank you for the invitation to tea. I see you have gone to a great deal of trouble to make me comfortable.”
Malin bowed her head, but not before Adina caught a smirk on her face. “The Northern Wing humbly greets the Southern Queen.”
Adina pressed her lips together, her eyes narrowing slightly as the girl bowed. She quickly smoothed her face out as Malin rose and offered a shadow of a smile and a nod of respect. Then she spread her arms wide, letting the flowing sleeves of the robe she wore over her simple dress fly out to her sides so she wouldn’t sit on them.
Once Adina had settled herself on the stool, she gestured for Malin to have a seat. She didn’t miss the tightening around the girl’s lips, but the castle would know if the elder Queen was disrespected by the others. The magic of the castle wasn’t strong, but it had a way of making things uncomfortable.
“What did you wish to discuss?” Adina asked as Deka poured the tea.
Malin smiled sweetly. “Don’t think too hard on it, Adina. This is simply tea between two Queens.”
“I see, Adina murmured. “And Odalis?”
Malin reached for her tea cup and gently blew the steam. “Odalis is otherwise occupied.”
“Then I assume we will sit in silence and enjoy tea together,” Adina said, picking up her own cup with long fingers.
“Let us be casual with each other. After all, few know what we endure here.”
“Endure,” Adina said softly. “We do not endure, Malin. Our presence here ensures a measure of peace and harmony across the lands. It is our duty and responsibility to care for the land and the people.” She closed her eyes, letting the magic the castle lent to her as the Southern Queen flow forth and let her touch her mind with the land of her Kingdom. “I sense the far south of the Southern Kingdom has been suffering with torrential rains. The ground is soaked and villages are flooding.” She smiled softly. “I will reinforce the roots and ground to save the remaining villages.” Her eyes snapped open. “That is our duty. It is not something to be endured.”
Malin smiled and bowed her head. “Of course, Adina. I am, you must remember, new to being a Queen. Perhaps you can teach me.”
Adina slammed the teacup on the table, the dark tea sloshing onto the table, narrowly missing her fingers, and stood. “There is no teaching, Malin. The Throne chose you. It gave you the magic of the Northern Kingdom. Your only duty is to ensure your people are cared for. If you have been neglecting your duty, the Throne will know, and it will replace you.”
Malin stood, her smiles wiped off her face, but Adina was already turning away, Deka following close behind.
Their footsteps echoed as they wound back down to the bottom of the tower. Anger burned in Adina’s chest as they exited the Northern Wing as swiftly as possible. But, instead of heading for the Southern Wing, she stopped at the Throne Room and stepped inside.
“Adina?” Deka asked softly.
“Malin intends on killing us,” Adina said softly. “She didn’t drink her tea; merely picked up the cup in an attempt to coax me into thinking it was fine.”
“How do you know that?”
“Malin is a descendant of the last Empress. It makes sense that she would have the same ambition.”
“But that only happened because there was a great war when only two Queens sat on the Thrones for two years without the other Thrones choosing another Queen. The Western Queen was killed, leaving just the Northern Queen.”
Adina sighed. “Deka, the Eastern Queen is coming. Odalis doesn’t want her to arrive because it would mean a great fall for her family. If Odalis takes care of her, Malin only has to worry about me and Odalis. Odalis is young and naive. Malin will eliminate her as soon as the Eastern Queen is dead.”
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Deka said softly, fiercely.
Adina turned and rested a hand on her protector’s shoulder. “I know. That is your duty.”
“But how can you be sure Malin is trying to kill you?”
Adina turned to look at the Thrones. “For the past few months, refugees have been making their way into the Southern Kingdom, probably the other two as well. My ears tell me they’re from the Northern Kingdom, where winter has not given way to spring, where the ground is still frigid, where the clouds linger longer than they should.”
“Malin isn’t caring for the land.”
Adina dipped her head. “She’ll either kill us, or the Throne will depose her. I think she’ll want to do the former before the latter can happen.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I can’t. But Malin has never invited either Odalis or me to the Northern Wing. She has never wanted to be in our company if she could avoid it. Why invite me now, the day after the Eastern Throne has chosen a Queen? It’s suspicious to me, is all.”
“I’ll keep my eyes open,” Deka vowed.
“I know you will.” She turned back to Deka and smiled. “You’re the only one who ever has.”
Deka smiled and rested a hand on Adina’s shoulder. “Because you’re the only one who has ever cared about those who hated you. You are worthy of the Southern Throne, and I will ensure you remain on it.”