Page 10

“Of course, my queen,” Father said.

Niah took a deep breath and I was close enough to see the fear pass through her eyes. “A tale, one that some would call a legend, a child’s story. But it is true and it will come to pass.” Her posture changed as she sat up straight, and lifted her hands to the sky, the ground, to the fire in the east, and the water in the west. An intonation that all she would say was true.

“In the beginning, the mother goddess was lonely. She sought out company from the other gods, but they were too busy meddling in the affairs of men. And so she fell into the arms of her consort. Together, they had five children who would become the founders of the elemental families. Born in order, Earth Child, Fire Child, Air Child, Water Child and finally, a surprise to them both, Spirit Child. Each of their children went on to propagate their own families of elementals. With their immense abilities, they quickly began to conquer the world, taking their leave of their hidden lives, ruling as tyrants over the humans, causing mayhem and destruction on a level the world had never seen . . . and so, the mother goddess and her consort chose to remind them that they were not truly gods.

The mother goddess created bindings that would keep the elementals tied to certain parts of the world, and if they left those parts for too long, they would begin to waste away, until they lost all their powers and became . . . human.

Yet, even this did not deter their children who had grown fond of power and the life of ease.

So the mother goddess went to the five nations of man, fashioning for each, a ring. Five rings made to be held in times of need. Rings that would rule a portion of the elemental world, and keep the humans safe from the mother goddess’s children who’d gone astray. With those rings, the humans brought the world into balance, and finally, the elemental families were put to rest, and they made of themselves a help to the world, healing what they could. Occasionally still being destructive, but only when warranted and the humans needed to be reminded they were at the mercy of the earth and her guardians.

Avoiding all these battles was the Spirit Child, for she flitted between the four families, as the youngest of them, never truly settling down. Her heart was pure, and her love true, and she never believed the worst of her siblings, always wanting for them to make peace. The restrictions of the others were never placed on her, and when her siblings realized this, they started to quietly kill off her progeny.

Jealousy and the realization that Spirit’s children could manipulate elemental and human to do what they wanted caused a great deal of fear in them against her. Leaving her line nearly wiped clean except for a few who escaped the slaughter by hiding with the humans.”

Cassava lifted a hand, her eyes flashing with an anger I didn’t understand. “That is enough. We have had enough of your stories. This is a place for supplicants, not mad fools.”

“You will not be the queen for long,” Niah said and for the third time, the crowd went silent.

Cassava laughed, her teeth flashing. “I am, and will always be, the queen, fool. And any who would argue may find themselves banished, or worse.”

The threat was there despite her pleasant tone. I hope to the seven hells and the heaven’s above that Fern took the warning to heart. Because even if what I dreamed truly was just a dream, I would not put it past the queen to kill a rival who stood in her way.

“Larkspur”—Father put a hand on my bare shoulder, his hand squeezing ever so slightly—“take Niah to the kitchens and make sure she is fed. She was our friend once, and I would not like her to go away with nothing.”

I stood, curtsied to him, and then to Cassava, who stopped me with a lifted hand. “And stay there with her. We have no need of you here. This is a place for royals.”

I smiled up at her, the words slipping out of me before I could catch them. “Funny, I was thinking the same of you.”

A nervous titter escaped someone in the crowd, which took the heat off me as Cassava spun to see who would dare laugh. I turned while she was distracted, and took Niah by the hand. “Come on, let’s get some food into your belly.”

The walk to the kitchens was slow and Niah kept mumbling under her breath, but none of it made sense. Her words weren’t even strung together in coherent sentences; instead, they were placed in a random rhyming singsong that stuck in my head.

“Rings, sing, rings, sing, Ender, Ender, fight, fight, fight, Spear it, hear it, spear it, hear it.”

I held her lightly by the arm and turned to the silent kitchen. Everyone was in the great hall, leaving the vast room of pots and pans empty. “Here we go. Let me get you some food.” I got a plate ready for her, loading it with the fruits of my labors. Sweet potatoes, asparagus, spring greens lightly covered in olive oil and spices, a generous helping of goose left from dinner, no doubt, and a hunk of homemade cheese still soft and fresh. Topped off with a slice of bread warm from the ovens. I made myself a plate too, since I wasn’t invited to dinner and hadn’t had time to eat before I came. “Think you can finish all this?”

I sat next to her, pouring her a full glass of fresh pressed apple juice. I tucked into my food, my belly gurgling happily that I would finally feed it.

She took a few bites, and then twisted in her seat to face me. “I am not mad.”

A smile was all I could give her since my mouth was full. But even if it hadn’t been, I wasn’t really sure what I could say.

Swallowing what was in her mouth, she wiped her hands on her skirt and took my fingers, spreading my right hand on the table, palm up. “Madness is a place where I hide from those who would silence me.”

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