The Reluctant QueenSarah Beth Durst
For my husband, Adam,
always and forever
About the Author
Also by Sarah Beth Durst
About the Publisher
Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .
And those spirits want to kill you.
It’s the first lesson that every Renthian learns.
At age five, Daleina saw her uncle torn apart by a tree spirit for plucking an apple from his own orchard. At age ten, she witnessed the destruction of her home village by rogue spirits. At age fifteen, she entered the renowned Northeast Academy, and at age nineteen, she was chosen by a champion to train as his candidate. She became heir that same year and was crowned shortly after, Queen Daleina of the Forests of Aratay, the sole survivor of the Coronation Massacre. She’d heard at least a half-dozen songs about her history, each more earsplitting than the last. She particularly hated the shrill ballads about her coronation, a day she wished she could forget. Instead she had it hammered into her skull by a soprano with overly enthusiastic lungs.
Six months after her coronation, now that the funerals—and so many of her friends’ graves—weren’t so fresh, all of Aratay wanted to celebrate their new queen, and she was swept along with them. For her part, she planned to demonstrate her sovereignty by healing one of the barren patches created during the massacre and replacing it with a new village tree.
It is, she thought, one of the worst ideas I’ve had in weeks.
At dawn, Daleina lay awake in bed and wished she’d chosen to celebrate with a parade instead. Parades were nice. Everybody liked parades. Or she could have simply declared today a holiday and sent everyone back to bed. But no, I had to be dramatic and queenly.
She wrapped her silk robe around her bare shoulders and walked toward the balcony. She’d chosen chambers within the branches of one of the eastern trees, rather than occupying the former queen’s rooms. It felt wrong to sleep in a bed owned by the woman she’d helped kill.
Leaning against the smooth wood of the archway, she peeked out. Her loose hair, with its streaks of red, gold, orange, and brown, fell into her face, and she shoved it back. Outside, the lemon-yellow sunlight poked between the leaves, and the bark glowed warm where the light touched it. She saw hints of sky, pale morning blue, but only when the wind blew hard enough to disturb the canopy of leaves overhead. The trees were thick in this part of the forest, with branches that curled around one another and leaves that blocked most of the sky above and all of the earth below. People were already perched in the branches, camped out early for the best view. Of her. Sighing, she retreated. You knew you’d have an audience, she told herself. Stop acting so surprised.
An amused voice behind her said, “They’re no longer calling you the Queen of Blood. Now they call you Queen Daleina the Fearless.”
Daleina snorted. “The only fearless people I’ve ever met were frightfully stupid.” Turning, she faced Captain Alet, her devoted guard and friend. Alet always seemed to have an unnatural sense of when Daleina was awake. She’d entered soundlessly and now stood in front of the ornate door. She wore her leather armor and had knives strapped to her arms and legs. Her thick black hair with the white stripe was wound up and pinned in place, and she’d tucked at least two more knives into her curls.
“It’s supposed to be a compliment, milady, but if you’d like me to discourage it, I could always stab a few of the worst offenders.”
“You’re too kind. Bloodthirsty, but kind.” Squaring her shoulders, Daleina crossed to her wardrobe. She opened the doors to reveal her celebration dress, a confection of lace that shimmered in the morning light. She touched the fabric lightly. Seventeen seamstresses had worked on it, painstakingly adding hundreds of glass beads so she would look as if she’d been sprayed with sparkling dew. The dress would catch the light even in near darkness. It was far and away the loveliest—and most impractical—thing she’d ever seen.
“You’ll have many more songs written about you after today,” Alet said.
“Especially if I die.”
“Especially then,” Alet agreed.
Daleina arched her eyebrows. “You’re supposed to say that of course I will succeed. That I’m the finest queen that Aratay has ever seen, the best of the best, the jewel of the forest, the scourge of the spirits that spill our blood, and so forth.” All the courtiers were fond of those phrases, and Daleina was certain they were recycling them from when they’d used them for her predecessor, Queen Fara. Daleina knew full well she’d never been the best of the best.
She’d merely been the only one left.
Alet was silent, and then she said, “You can still call it off.” Her expression was blank, hiding her thoughts expertly. Daleina had practiced that expression in the mirror, but it never quite worked for her. A twitch of her lips or her eyebrows always gave her away.
“You know I can’t.”
“You can,” Alet corrected. “You won’t.”
Daleina studied her friend. Alet had a fresh scar above her eyebrow. It was puckered and red, but whoever had struck her had missed her eye. She’d chosen to wear her war armor today, instead of ceremonial. The leather still had the royal crest, but it was painted gold and green, rather than encrusted with ornaments that could snag on a branch or a weapon. Why had she—Suddenly, Daleina understood. “You can’t follow me. I must do this alone. That’s what’s upsetting you.”
Alet made a face. “You’ll be vulnerable to arrows, spears, any kind of thrown implement. This isn’t like the trials, where you’re separated from the populace. You’ll be exposed to everyone and, while all your people love you deeply, a few of them also want to kill you.”
“Human enemies don’t concern me,” Daleina said. “The spirits will protect me.”
“You know you can’t trust them.”
“In this, I can.”
Alet shook her head. The knives in her hair did not move. One stray curl slipped out of its pins to touch her forehead, though. Daleina was surprised Alet allowed even that much out of her control. “The spirits want you dead,” Alet said flatly.
“They want to kill me. Slight difference. If they allow a human archer to pierce my heart with his or her arrow, then they’re denied the pleasure of skinning me alive.” Daleina lifted the beautiful dress out of the wardrobe and carried it to her bed. “Help me change?”
/> Sighing, Alet left her post by the door and crossed to the bed. “You should call one of the palace caretakers to assist you. This ridiculous dress has at least a thousand buttons.”
Daleina slid her robe off her shoulders, and it fell into a puddle of silk at her feet. “It has thirty-seven buttons, and I don’t want any caretakers with me today. I want my friend.”
She saw a muscle in Alet’s cheek twitch, nearly a smile, and Daleina smiled back. She held up her arms, and Alet dropped the dress over Daleina’s head. She felt as if she were wrapped in a cloud. The layers of skirts fluttered around her. Presenting her back to Alet, she faced the mirror while Alet buttoned her.
She’d need a touch of powder under her eyes to hide the signs of sleeplessness. She couldn’t let anyone suspect that she was at less than her full strength. In that, Queen Fara had been correct: the people didn’t want to think they had a weak queen. Perhaps add a bit of pink to her cheeks. She looked pale, sheathed in the shimmering white and gold. “Regal or sickly?” Daleina asked.
Stepping back, Alet surveyed her. “You look ethereal.”
Daleina rolled her eyes. She’d never been described as “ethereal” in her life. “Just tell me if I need paint or powder.”
“Neither. You’re lovely, and the people should see your loveliness.”
“You’re in the oddest mood today, Alet.” Daleina faced the mirror again and frowned. The sight of the queen on her first celebratory appearance should comfort the people and set the correct tone for the rest of the celebration. She shouldn’t have allowed the dressmakers to add so many layers of skirt or to leave her arms bare. She felt both exposed and confined. Spinning in a slow circle, she watched herself in the mirror.
Quietly, Alet asked, “Have you blacked out again, Your Majesty, since the last time?”
She halted. Yes, she had, alone in her bath last night. “Not once,” she lied. “It must have been a fluke. But Master Hamon will find answers. He has my complete confidence—and six vials of my blood, which should be more than enough to run every test he can think of.”
“You could postpone this until—”
“Enough, Alet. If you’re trying to shake my confidence, you’re doing a very good job of it.” Leaving the mirror, Daleina crossed to her jewelry box. She selected a simple necklace, delicate leaves carved out of wood and strung on a ribbon of silk. It had been a gift from her family, after she’d been crowned. Her mother had whittled the leaves, and her sister had woven the ribbon. Coming behind her, Alet took the necklace.
Holding her hair up, Daleina let Alet clasp it around her throat. Alet then took a brush and brushed Daleina’s hair until it cascaded smoothly over her shoulders and back. Neither of them spoke, until a bell chimed outside.
“Be strong, milady,” Alet said. “Half your chancellors think you’re foolish to interact with spirits without an heir ready. But then again, half your chancellors are too afraid to venture beyond their chambers.”
“And the other half?”
“Already in the trees, ready to cheer your victory.”
Daleina turned to face Alet. “And where will you be?”
Alet’s expression didn’t alter. “Right here, waiting for you to return.”
Embracing her, Daleina pressed her cheek to Alet’s cheek. The hilt of one of Alet’s knives dug into her ribs, but Daleina ignored it. It felt good to have a friend again, as if the friends she’d lost—Linna, Revi, Mari, Zie, Iondra—were all still with her somehow, carried on by Alet. “If I were sentimental, I’d say you were sent to comfort me.”
“If you were sentimental, I wouldn’t like you half as much.”
Releasing her, Daleina laughed.
“Go,” Alet said. “Show them all what it truly means to be queen.”
Queen Daleina of Aratay swept onto the balcony. Hidden in her hair were pins to help keep her crown firmly on her head, and hidden in her bodice was Champion Ven’s knife to help keep her head firmly on her neck. As she emerged, she heard the cheers from her people, who filled every available branch in all directions. Their voices blended into the wind and blew into her. She felt as if she were breathing in their love, or at least their enthusiasm. Raising one hand, she smiled at them, and they cheered louder.
Very nice, she thought. Now go away.
Carefully and deliberately, she blocked them out—the sight of them, the sound of them—and she breathed, filling her lungs and then emptying them completely. She narrowed her focus to only that, her breath. Swallowing the wind, she tasted the air, sharp with pine. And then she walked forward, three steps to the lip of the balcony.
Collectively, the crowd fell silent. She felt their silence as a change in the wind, a shift of breath. Grown from the tree itself, the balcony jutted out far above the forest floor. It had no rail, only a delicate braid of living vines to decorate the edge.
Catch me. She sent the order flying like an arrow out of her mind and into the world. The moment the words left her, she flinched, even though she’d braced herself. It felt as if a strip of skin had been ripped from her body. Before the coronation, she hadn’t had the power to issue a command that broad and expect to be obeyed. She’d had to trick, redirect, and coax the spirits as if they were uncooperative toddlers, but now she was expected to use the power the spirits had given her. She didn’t like it, but she wasn’t about to let anyone see that.
She stepped onto the air.
The wind shrieked in her ears as she plummeted. She closed her eyes, stretched her arms wide, and focused on the feel of the air slapping her. Catch me! She put all the force of her mind into the command, devoid of doubt, of fear, of any emotion. She would be obeyed. Now!
Shrieking like the wind, the air spirits whipped around her. Opening her eyes, she saw their faces, translucent with empty eye sockets and pointed teeth. They reached for her with pale multi-jointed fingers, and they caught her dress, each layer spread out until she looked like a glittering cloud.
Lift me, she ordered.
She felt their hands on her back, rotating her until she stood upright on the backs of one of them. Rising up, she tilted her face toward the canopy of leaves above and did not think about how close to the forest floor she’d come. The people in the branches were cheering again, and the air spirits snarled and swiped at them.
Do not hurt them.
Hissing, the spirits retracted their claws. A few dug their claws into the fabric of her dress, and she felt the tips on her flesh, but they did not pierce her hard enough to bleed.
The spirits drove her upward, through the branches. Leaves slapped her face. Tiny branches stung her arms. The white lace dress wore flecks of blood between the glass beads, but it still sparkled as she burst through the canopy of leaves into the sky above the forest.
Daleina filled her lungs with the air from above. It tasted as clean and sharp as water from a mountain stream. Few ever breathed this air. Below her lay the forests of Aratay, a vast sea of green that stretched from the true sea in the south to the mountains in the north and to the untamed lands in the west. Soaring, she stretched her hands out and felt the leaves brush against her palms. She felt like a bird, riding free on the wind, until one of the spirits leered at her, its teeth bared and its tongue darting in and out. Glancing down, she checked to be certain she was high enough, and then she changed from a command to a question: Play? She sent the question spiraling out across the clouds—and she felt it answered.
Undulating through the clouds, an air spirit flew toward her. It had the sinewy body of an ermine and the wings of a bat. Flying beneath her, it lifted her higher in the sky. Race? she asked it. She pictured a map in her head, of the forests from above, and, with her mind, pinpointed the place she wanted to go.
The ermine spirit trilled a challenge to the others. They bugled and chirped their answers, and then the race was on. Daleina wrapped her arms around the spirit’s neck, squeezed with her thighs, and held on as it shot forward into the clouds. Dr
oplets pelted her face, and then she burst out above the clouds into the sunlight. Other spirits zoomed alongside them, dipping and soaring between one another.
Slowing, the spirits dove toward an opening in the canopy. She heard their chittering laughter, like the sound of breaking glass, and she suppressed a shudder. Several feet from the bare ground, they halted and released her. She landed in a crouch and then stood.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw they weren’t alone. Seven men and women stood shoulder to shoulder in a semicircle on the edge of the barren patch, but Daleina didn’t acknowledge them yet. Instead, she bowed to the air spirits. “You have honored me with the beauty of your world. I thank you.”
Momentarily, the air spirits quit snarling. One of them placed its hands together, its long fingers touching one another. She saw specks of red at the tips of its nails and wondered if that was her blood or another’s. The spirit bowed to her, and then all the air spirits spiraled together up and up into the circle of blue sky above the grove. She wondered what the masters at the academy would think of her approach and then decided she didn’t care, not today.
Straightening, Daleina turned to face the representatives of the local village. There were four women and three men, all dressed in ceremonial robes. In unison, they bowed low to her. She bit back a shout at them to go home. She didn’t want or need an audience for this. The spirits were capricious, and she’d need to summon many for this task. But these women and men knew that and had come anyway. Spare me from curious fools, she thought but didn’t say. It would be unqueenly behavior to insult the very people she’d come to help. And I’m the queen.
She had to keep reminding herself of that.
The eldest hobbled toward her. Her face was sunken in so many wrinkles that her eyes were barely visible. Her lips were cracked and pale, and she licked them before she spoke. “On behalf of all, we thank you.”
Thank me when it’s done, she wanted to say, but again bit her tongue. A queen didn’t show doubt or weakness, and this ritual was as much about appearance as it was about results. In a formal voice that carried across the grove, she asked, “Do you have the seed?”