A River of Royal Blood – Amanda Joy

ASIM HAD NEVER known a spell of Harkening to last this long. It was his tenth morning venturing to the spellwork chamber at dawn to collect a sheet of parchment slipped under the door. So far they had been unmarked, which meant his Sorceryn brethren still had not determined the magick inside the Princess. Every day after learning there was no news, he would climb to the top of the Temple and send up a plume of blue smoke, conveying the message to the city. Harkenings—the spells cast by Sorceryn to name the magick inside newborn human children— weren’t usually cause for such ceremony. But in Myre, nothing was so closely followed as the birth, and subsequent naming, of a Princess. Asim walked the dim halls of the Temple. Robed Sorceryn nodded grimly as he passed. They knew his task. He wondered if inside they were half holding their breath, as he was. Today he would likely find the parchment slashed with black ink for death. A Harkening spell that lasted longer than five days was dangerous, but once the spell had begun, it could not be broken. After ten days, the chances of survival were exceedingly slim. He rounded the last corner and stopped cold. The bronze doors of the Spellwork Chamber were thrown open and five Sorceryn stood in the hallway.

One held a small, wild-haired thing, howling and swaddled in bright poppy cloth—the Princess. They murmured the name of her magick in reverent voices, barely noticing his presence. He was, after all, just an apprentice. Asim spun on his heel and headed to the aviary. He should have gone straight to the Temple’s roof and lit the signal fire, but there was another task he must see to first. Head bowed, Asim moved through the halls quickly, lest anyone notice the delay. He crested the Temple’s central staircase but stopped before he reached the top. Instead he took a sharp left and emerged in the musty room where the messenger ravens were housed. Already Asim could hear the bells of the Ivory Tower ringing to announce the end of the spell, meaning the apprentice sent to bring word to the Queen’s Palace had already arrived. Asim was already minutes behind.

Myre’s capital, Ternain, would soon descend into celebration. It was as everyone had hoped: a girl child, a Rival Heir born to fight for her seat upon the throne. For Queens ruled in Myre and killed for the right to do so. Weeks ago the Auguries had predicted a Blood Moon, an omen of great change, would rise tonight. At sundown people would fill the streets—fey, bloodkin, and human alike— chanting as the Sorceryn had. Asim hastily affixed a message to a raven’s leg and reached below his collar, fingering the tattoo inked upon his shoulder. He whispered a location into the bird’s ear. Once he felt the magick take hold, he sent the raven gliding out of a nearby window. The raven flew north. Day turned to night as it followed the Red River up through the mountains beyond Myre, until finally it came to a valley ringed with sheer cliffs, like a mouth full of broken teeth.

The creature alighted on a black tent in the small camp assembled at the foot of the highest peak. Drawn by the familiar scrape of talons against canvas, a horned woman with silver hair and a smooth, unlined face emerged. Shielding her face against snowfall, she scanned the white-capped peaks that encircled the valley, the snow glistening beneath a bleeding moon, and removed the small, hollow bone strapped to the raven’s leg. It was about the size of a finger joint and sealed with blue wax; she tucked the message into the folds of her cotton skirt and returned to her tent. The woman lit a candle and carried it to her bedroll before easing the strip of parchment from its tight roll. There were just three words: Marrow and blood. She read the message three times, the words sinking into her skin like frost, and then held the paper to the flame. As it crumbled to ash, she began to plan the fall of a Queendom. – I – BLOOD MAGICK Magick of marrow and blood, a rare gift, held most notably by the first human Queen of Myre and continued through her line. It is also the most fearsome.

Despite a Court known to exalt the strength of its monarchs, the gruesome practices of this magick have made it a subject of whispers and, for its users, shame. This is unsurprising. Power has always inspired fear. —From Killeen: The Cobalt Dagger of Myre, by Kreshi Isomar CHAPTER 1 THE PASSAGE BENEATH my bedchamber was silent as a crypt, though as always, the Empress scorpions that nested in these forgotten tunnels started hissing disapproval the moment my feet touched the ground. I crouched and checked the circle of cinnamon sticks and dried lavender I’d laid to deter the wicked beasts, and then knotted the hem of my skirt. If left hanging, the chime and rattle of its beading would echo through the passages, and although I’d never crossed paths with anyone here, I couldn’t risk discovery. I adjusted the belt knife in its soft leather holster at the small of my back. Whenever I shifted, nicks in the wooden handle scratched my skin, but it couldn’t be helped. This knife was my only weapon plain enough to suit this disguise. In a floor-sweeping skirt and a top that bared my midriff but covered my arms and their tattoos, I could pass as a common human girl out for a night of revelry.

Flint struck stone inches from my face, sparks dancing through inky darkness. I jumped, a curse on my lips, but my hand fell from my knife. “I’d appreciate some warning next time.” “Just keeping you sharp,” said the young man standing mere feet away. Falun, second-in-command of my guard and my closest friend, towered over me in the cramped passage. He was long-limbed and graceful, though still not quite grown into his wide shoulders. Like many of the fey, who originally came from the North, Falun was fair-skinned and fine-haired. Even in the scant torchlight, his skin gleamed like mother-of-pearl. All the fey had a certain sameness— luminous skin, oversize eyes, pointed ears, and vibrant coloring—but Falun was among the most beautiful. His hair was streaked with apple red and dark gold, and the sharp line of his jaw emphasized his full-lipped smile.

Two nights ago, Falun had gone to my room at dawn to propose a journey to the kitchens and found me missing, my bed pushed aside, trapdoor hanging open. He knew I became restless at night, and instead of sounding the alarm, he’d waited until I returned. In exchange for such a kindness, I’d decided to bring him tonight, though I’d been very light on the details. Falun held the torch to the passage wall, the dancing flames making his blue eyes flash silver as he inspected the words engraved on the stone. They were written in the khimaer language, the sinuous alphabet of the people who’d once ruled from this Palace. Nearly two hundred years ago, humans had wrested control of the Queendom from the khimaer, but signs of the previous rulers still lingered all over Myre. Falun’s eyebrows rose as he recognized the language. “How did you find this place?” “When I was seven, Isadore and I found the trapdoor after her earring rolled under my bed.” I didn’t add that we’d found a similar hatch beneath hers and spent a year sleeping very little as we explored every inch of these passages at night. I went to great lengths to avoid discussing my sister.

The tips of Falun’s tapered ears went pink. “Isadore knows about this place? Don’t you worry about seeing her?” I snorted. “Why would my sister come here? There is nothing about the Palace that would make her want to leave.” “True enough.” He swiped a hand across his face, but his grimace remained in place. “I’ll regret this, won’t I?” “You won’t, and you know it—why else would you have come?” He leaned forward as if sharing a secret. “Actually I came to keep you out of trouble.” “And that works just as well.” I grinned, even though I could protect myself. I snatched his torch and snuffed out the flames beneath my boot.

“Follow me.” We ran through darkness so thick the only sign of Falun beside me was his hand in mine. After months of sneaking out through these passages, finding my escape route—and avoiding the scorpion nests—had become second nature. When Isadore and I were children, we’d stuck to the passages around our quarters, but when I returned to the capital ten months ago and began exploring again, I soon realized they tunneled through the grounds around the Queen’s Palace, right up to its outer wall. The floors of the passages changed now from stone to tile to packed earth, a sure sign that we were close. After about a mile, we stopped at a steel ladder. Night air blew through an opening overhead. I climbed to the top and emerged in an orchard with rows of flowering trees, though they didn’t bloom during the scorching weeks of high summer, as it was now. Fresh air kissed my skin, heavy with damp heat. I breathed it in, my pulse a driving beat beneath my skin.

Almost, it hummed. Falun joined me, following my gaze to a carved expanse of white stone. The wall that marked my freedom. I wasn’t allowed outside it without a guard of at least twenty, per my mother’s stipulations. Compared to my home for the previous three years—at Fort Asrodei, an army base in the highlands, where my father still lived—the Palace was cramped and held little of interest. Every room crawled with courtiers, the very last people I wanted encounter. Aside from training at the sparring grounds and attending Court every morning, I rarely left my rooms. These nightly excursions were my only escape. We scaled the wall and dropped down into a vacant alley in the bloodkin sector. Four races dwelled in Myre—human, fey, bloodkin, and khimaer.

Of the four, only bloodkin, fey, and humans were allowed to live freely in the capital, and the city was divided evenly among them. Humans lived in the southern sector, fey in the east, and bloodkin in the north. The Red River was west of the city, where its red-brown waters were clogged with river ships and water markets. Falun and I left the alley and emerged in a narrow avenue lined with abandoned flats and blood brothels. The men and women strolling beside us could’ve passed for human—the darkness hid the telling red tinge to their skin—but for the bloodletting knives at their belts, the scabbards marked with patterns to signify the wearer’s trade. When bloodkin reached maturity at seventeen, they sustained themselves by drinking the blood of the living. The narrow blades weren’t worn out of necessity— bloodkin largely used their fangs to feed—but were mandated by a law created so that humans who feared bloodkin could identify them at a distance. The northern sector was a warren of streets so cramped you could barely tell them from the alleys. Most shops were shuttered and didn’t look like they’d be reopening anytime soon. The Night Souk was buried within those tight streets.

Because it was a smugglers’ market, the peddlers set up their makeshift stalls at sunset and took them down by sunrise. When we arrived, business was still thriving, before fear of a visit from the City Guard sent many of the smugglers home early. “Ya, ya,” they cried. “Ho-chee-chee, ho-chee-chee! Best in Ternain!” We passed towers of stoneware stacked haphazardly, vats filled with powder dyes, and burlap sacks of beans and spice pods. I stopped to exchange two coppers for a handful of spell-worked beads that wound through my curls with little effort and would fall out whenever I bade them. Clothiers hawked silks, stretching out their arms to measure the yardage and show off the vivid colors. Gazes lingered on Falun as much as could be expected—he was, after all, lovely—and their eyes moved right over me, a plain human girl to all appearances. Exactly as I intended. My minimal disguise worked for two reasons. No one expected a Princess in these streets, and so no one truly saw me.

Knowing the young Princess was orange-eyed and wild-haired was different from connecting those features to a random girl in the market. My first nights outside the Queen’s Palace, I thought if I let my cloak slip even once, someone would recognize me. But in the bloodkin sector, most had never seen any of the royal family up close. And even if they had, I’d been away for three years, and since my return, I’d rarely left the Palace. Few outside of it knew my face. Still I was careful. I dropped my eyes to the ground whenever anyone met them, and kept my hands hidden unless haggling with a shop owner absolutely required it. If I had more ordinary magick, I wouldn’t have bothered to hide my tattoos. Every human in Myre had magick inked onto their skin, but the white and red symbols—for marrow and blood—on my arms drew the eye. Ahead of us, drums rolled like thunder.

We’d finally reached the Patch, where bloodred tiles had been used to mend the broken paving stones of the sector’s main thoroughfare. The tiles had taken on a different purpose soon after—a place to dance. Gripping Falun’s hand, I took off running toward the sound, coming to an abrupt stop as we reached the press of bodies around the Patch. Throngs of young fey glided through the street with flowers woven through lustrous hair and brass bells hanging from their wrists. Glamour, the fey ability to cast illusions over the world and themselves, made their glossy skin shine as bright as the moon. Beside them human girls in large groups held hands, swirls of silver paint on their tattooed arms glittering as they passed around tiny cups of ouitza, dark liquor made from the sugarcane that grew along the river. Three-story akelaes—Myrean homes built around a central courtyard—painted in bright jewel tones filled the street, bougainvillea climbing terraces filled with candles as tall as my waist. Food carts were set up beneath the eaves, selling liquor and paper sheaths full of roasted nuts and boiled shellfish. I collided with a bloodkin boy with flawless umber skin. He smiled, hands falling to my hips to steady me.

He opened his mouth, but Falun’s hand dropped onto my shoulder. The boy frowned, but when he looked at Falun, his gaze warmed. “Are you new to the Patch?” Falun’s cheeks reddened, mouth hanging open as he sought an answer. “We aren’t new,” I said, removing both of their hands. “See you on the tiles,” the boy called as I pushed farther into the crowd. Falun followed, glancing over his shoulder as the boy disappeared behind a group of human girls. One handed Falun two cups and ran her fingers through his hair. He smiled and the girl’s eyes went soft with wonder. She didn’t even blink as he plucked her hand away. The ouitza burned a path down my throat.

Falun sipped his, wrinkled his nose, and gave the rest to me. The gathering opened up and I caught sight of the Copper Steps, the fountain, where coins were dropped in nightly; by morning about half had been retrieved by those who desperately needed them. I explained the custom to Falun, and we kissed our coins, wishing blessings for whoever would find them. After we tossed the coins into the fountain, Falun leaned down to my ear, yelling over the sound of the drums. “You told me there would be dancing?” We inched around the lip of the fountain to the back, where the patch of crimson tiles began. We’d made it just in time for the next dance. The drumming was the call to the dance, a prelude of sorts. Already boys and girls were lined up across the tiles, arms held aloft, sweat coating their faces. Musicians sat across from them. There were five young men beating on makeshift drums, a willowy man with a fiddle, and the singer, a tall, imposing bloodkin woman with a hawkish nose and beaded braids hanging down her back.

I let go of Falun’s hand and stepped onto the tiles. “Watch first, and then join me.” There was only one dance done on these tiles at night: chatara, the dance of new lovers. It started in your feet and you started the dance alone. The drummers began with a simple beat, building it gradually. Our hips rocked side to side, keeping pace with the rhythm. We twirled, hips winding in figure eights until the singer began to howl. Gooseflesh prickled my arms as I swept them down and raised them back up to the night sky. I tossed my head, watching the moon as I moved through the steps—switching my hips and kicking my feet into the air. The singer’s magick swept through the crowd, carried by the sound of her voice.

Bloodkin called it the thrall, because with it, they could ensnare the mind until they controlled every emotion and sensation a person felt. This was partly the cause for the laws mandating bloodletting knives, so that no one could be enthralled unaware, so that people could guard their minds against attack. Even among bloodkin, the singer’s was a rare gift. Most believed bloodkin projected the thrall with their eyes, but some could also use their voices. I felt the magick heightening my emotions as I danced. The singer’s thrall turned all our emotions into a shared experience. As we danced, we became one in our wanting, and the awareness of our bodies sharpened until it was dizzying. I felt sweat slide down our spines and the scrape and glide of fabrics I wasn’t wearing. The smell of salty blood, orange blossoms, and incense filled the air—the scent of the singer’s magick. It pulsed through the air, pushing every movement farther.

Curls clung to sweat-dampened cheeks as I arched back, twining my arms above my head. Each movement carried echo and premonition, of the girl just a beat ahead of me, of the boy just behind. And when the singer’s voice broke, the sharp edge was like nails dragged slowly across my skin. We all crowed with her as partners joined us on the tiles. I didn’t expect Falun yet, so I jumped when warm hands circled my waist, soft and dry and hot against my skin. It was the bloodkin boy from earlier, smiling sweetly, springy coils of hair falling into dark brown eyes. “Your friend won’t join us?” He looked to where Falun stood at the edge of the tiles. His eyes were wide but unreadable. “Not yet.” Our limbs twined together as we moved in sync.

He caught my wrist and spun me around. I fell flush against him, warm from the ouitza and his touch. “Though I think he will join sooner with your convincing.” “You think so?” His warm breath touched my cheek. “I know so.” I smiled, beckoning Falun forward. He didn’t move. But there was naked wonder in his gaze—mine had been just as wide the first time I laid eyes on this place. The bloodkin boy, whose name I still hadn’t gotten and hoped never to, waved him over. Still Falun didn’t move.

I stopped dancing and held out my hand, wishing I had brought him here sooner. After a long moment Falun stepped onto the tile and gave my hand a squeeze. I left him with the bloodkin boy and found another partner. One who didn’t seem to see me at all, and only wanted to dance. Even out here, there were things I couldn’t allow myself. Princesses bound for death couldn’t have romantic entanglements. It would be too cruel, for them and for me. We reveled in the music, stopping only to drink, eat, and trade partners. An hour passed before Falun and I danced together; I coaxed his stiff limbs into rhythm and showed him how the deadly grace inside him was useful for more than swinging a sword. The bloodkin boy stuck fast to Falun and I tried to ignore the twinge of longing in my chest when they kissed.

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