nonsense patterns. The triplets were born, in silence and in private, with only the queen, the king-consort, and the Midwife to bear witness. Three black witches, the mainland would say. Born to a descending queen. One would rise to become queen in her place. Perhaps the strongest of the three. Perhaps the cleverest. Or perhaps it would be the girl born under the best shield of luck. “It was an easy labor,” said the Midwife. “You were lucky, Queen Camille.” “Easy,” Camille said, and scoffed, “Easy for you to say, Willa.” But even though she hurt, and ached, and could barely keep her eyes open, she knew it could have gone worse. From the moment her pregnancy was known, her foster sister Genevieve Arron had filled her head with tales of births gone wrong. On Camille’s last day at the Volroy, just before she departed for the Black Cottage to give birth, Genevieve spoke of so much blood and screaming that Camille had nearly passed out. She had stopped short and stood frozen, as if standing still would somehow stop the triplets from coming.
She did not move until her eldest foster sister, Natalia, had taken her by the arm and walked her to the coach. “Do not let her frighten you, Camille,” Natalia had said. “Queens have birthed the triplets for thousands of years.” “But not all have survived,” Genevieve had continued to taunt. “I was only trying to prepare her, so that she might see the signs of it going wrong. So that she might fight for her life.” Genevieve. Younger than the queen and completely spoiled, and always as mean as the snakes they kept to adorn themselves with at parties. Camille lay back in the birthing bed, remembering her last days at the Volroy, as Willa pressed a cool cloth to her forehead. “Well,” said Willa, and brushed the queen’s black hair out of her eyes, “you are breathing, aren’t you?” Camille looked at the bassinets across the room, each with a sleeping queen inside.
The firstborn, Mirabella the elemental, had come in such a rush, with such electricity to her that Camille had shouted her gift before her name. Elemental Mirabella. Arsinoe the poisoner had arrived not long after; Willa had barely gotten Mirabella washed and settled into her blankets. But sweet little naturalist Katharine had given her a rest, taking so long that they feared her sisters would start to fuss. “I did it,” Camille said as her eyes began to close. “I survived. And now my reign is over.” When she woke, the three bassinets were gone, whisked away by Willa to the nursery down the hall. In their place was a chair, and slumped down on it, snoring softly, was her king-consort, Philippe. Sweet Philippe.
He had won her hand in the Hunt of the Stags, when she could not choose her favorite from the suitors that the Arrons approved of. Sometimes she thought it was the only bit of luck that the Goddess ever gave her. Though he had little power in the face of the Arrons, he had loved Camille well, and a life away from the island with him was all she had ever looked forward to. When her triplets came after only seven years of her rule, she was overjoyed. They would leave now, and trade the island for the world. Out there, she would be just a woman, free to make her own path. All she had to give up was her crown, and that she had already torn off her head and thrown during the births. Camille looked around the room. Willa had done a fine job of cleaning while she slept. The bloody cloths and trays of sharp knives were gone, the cloths burned and the knives returned to storage in case the next queen’s birth was not so lucky and the triplets needed to be cut out.
Mellow incense smoke cleared the stench of sweat and labor, and she had set a warm, crackling fire in the fireplace. Outside, the December night was dark—only the faintest hint of moonlight reflected across the snowdrifts. Camille gingerly swung her leg over the edge of the bed and winced. She took a moment to collect herself, held her sagging, empty belly with one arm and swung the other until she stood. Her vision wavered, and for a moment, she feared Philippe would wake to the sound of her collapsing on the floor. But the weakness passed. She slipped a blanket about her shoulders like a shawl, and walked out. “Where are you going, my love?” Philippe, more awake than she had thought, grasped her wrist softly as she passed. “You should be resting. We have a long journey tomorrow.
” His eyes lingered on her pale face, and then on the floor, and on the small trail of dripped blood she left behind. She patted him, and he let go. His heavily lidded eyes blinked shut. He was, even after years on the island, still a mainland man and trusted that she must know best about these women’s mysteries. “I am only going to look in on them.” “Shall I go with you?” She shook her head. Philippe was a strong consort, but he was too softhearted for this. If he saw the triplet queens, he might want to hold them. And if he held them, he might start to feel that they were his instead of Fennbirn’s. Queen Camille walked down the high-ceilinged hall of the Black Cottage, one hand out along the wall to steady her.
The light from the lamps in the nursery cast warm yellow light, and inside, another bright fire crackled against the cold. Much like Camille’s king-consort, Willa slept upright in a chair. Though not, perhaps, as prettily. Willa’s mouth hung open, and her head fell over to the side. Her snore sounded like a pig searching excitedly for mushrooms. Camille crept past. The newborn queens in the bassinets were dressed in black and affixed with the colors of their gifts. Blue buttons for elemental Mirabella, and a purple patch for poisoner Arsinoe. Pretty green ribbons for tiny naturalist Katharine. Even the bassinets had been decorated with items associated with each gift: a cloud-shaped pillow, a mobile hung with snakes and spiders, and a quilt embroidered with flowers.
“Enjoy the colors, little queens,” Camille whispered. “Soon enough it will all be black, black, black.” She looked down on their sleeping faces—red and wrinkled, and angry-looking, even at birth. She did not blame them. Their lives would not be easy. And then two lives would be over. Camille was a poisoner, like Queen Nicola, and Queen Sylvia before her. Three generations of poisoner queens. Almost a dynasty. But instead of growing stronger, it seemed that the blood of the poisoner queens grew thinner.
The Arrons flourished in their power, as well as other poisoner families in Prynn and the capital, but Sylvia was stronger than Nicola, and Camille was the weakest of all. Over hundreds of years, the other gifts of the island had lessened: elementals lost their mastery over one or more elements, and the war-gifted lost the ability to guide their weapons with their minds. The naturalists’ familiars grew smaller and smaller. And the oracles . The true oracle gift was almost gone, thanks to generations of drowned oracle queens. Something was changing on the island and within the line of queens. As a queen, Camille could feel that. Not that anyone would believe her. The Arrons never listened when she spoke of queenly instinct. They never listened to her about anything.
They had been bullies her whole life, from the moment they claimed her from that very cottage. They shamed her when she failed. They did not let her rule. With each successive poisoner queen, the queen herself mattered less and less. The line of queens was not important, the Arrons said. It was the poisoners who the Goddess truly favored. In their bassinets, the new triplets hummed with an aura of the gift each carried, that energy—like a scent or a heartbeat—that linked them to the Goddess and called to the queensblood in Camille. It was that which told her what she had given birth to, when she announced it to Willa, and named them, as though in a trance. It was like a trance. On Arsinoe and Katharine, the auras that lingered were weak.
On Katharine it was barely a hint. But Mirabella still blazed with it. “What are you doing here, Queen Camille?” Camille flinched. Willa’s voice from behind her had sounded like Mistress Arron. “Nothing.” She straightened her shoulders as Willa rose from her chair and came slowly to join her. “Only looking in on them. The messengers have been dispatched?” Messengers, summoned to the Black Cottage upon her labor, to ferry word to Rolanth, Indrid Down, and Wolf Spring. The elemental, poisoner, and naturalist cities, respectively. “They have.
They rode out at dusk.” Camille sucked in her cheeks. A messenger to Indrid Down was hardly necessary anymore. The poisoners were so assured of their destiny. Camille nodded to the baby in the storm-blue blanket. “Her, there. Mirabella. She will be the next queen.” Willa, still a servant of her temple teachings though no longer a priestess, made a pious gesture, touching first her eyes and then her heart. “The Goddess decides,” Willa said.
“Only she decides who rules her island.” Camille took a deep breath. The walls of the cottage where the queens would spend their first six years, where she spent her own first six years, closed in, squeezing her out. Here they would play and have their hair braided. Here they would learn to walk and run, and if they were lucky, to not love one another too much. “She decides,” Camille said. “But the queen knows. And I was mistaken about those two.” She pointed to poisoner Arsinoe and naturalist Katharine. “Arsinoe is a naturalist.
Katharine . a poisoner.” She almost said war-gifted, to deny the Arrons a queen at all. But they would never believe it. They would investigate and look too closely. “Camille . ” Willa turned to her, and shook her head. Camille clenched her jaw. She was still bleeding, and exhausted. For all she knew, she was slowly dying.
But she willed herself to look strong. To look like the queen she was, for once. “Mirabella will be queen. I can see that. Feel that. And she will be a great one. These other two will not survive long. Katharine’s gift is so weak, it will never fully quicken. And Arsinoe . Another poisoner queen will not sit the throne.
But if the Arrons have a gifted poisoner, they will make her suffer. Training and belittling. Beating her when she gets it wrong. Like they did to me.” “And what would they do with Queen Katharine?” Willa asked. “What could they do with a giftless girl but leave her alone?” Camille swallowed hard. That was a lie. The Arrons could do plenty to a giftless girl. Everything they ever did to Camille, and worse. But at least they would fail.
At least they would have no winning queen. She looked down at little Katharine. The child was doomed already. “Change the queens’ gowns, Willa. So they are right.” Willa looked from Arsinoe to Katharine. “If Mirabella is the chosen queen, then it will not matter.” “It will not matter,” Camille agreed. She had known Willa since she was a girl. Willa had been a young woman then, deep in her midwife training, when she presided over the births of Camille and her sisters, and she was the one who raised them.
She showered them with sweets and games. And they were happy. “You cared for me so well, Willa,” said Camille. “You loved me.” “I loved you all.” “And you love me still.” Camille pressed her lips together. Through the nightmares, and the screaming fits, and the black blanket of depression that coiled round and round a queen’s neck as the birth neared. Through the days full of tremors, when Camille had tried to claw the babies out of her stomach. Willa was there.
She brewed her teas to calm her. She told her it was normal. That the bearing of queens was always haunted by the fallen ones who came before, and the Black Cottage was full of ghosts. Even Camille’s own poisoned sisters. It was the first time Willa had spoken of Camille’s sisters. After they were dead, fallen queens were never spoken of. They were forgotten, except by the families who had raised them, and the sister who survived. Camille had survived and become queen. Her sisters had not. The sisters of a true poisoner, they had died on the same day, in the same hour, writhing.
Spitting blood. “I love you still, and I will always, Camille,” said Willa. “But I cannot do this.” “I am doing it.” Camille lay her hand on her Midwife’s shoulder. “I know that I took my crown off and threw it at you. But I am still the queen.” In the morning, Queen Camille and her king-consort readied themselves to leave the island. It was a strange thing, to pack her own trunks and to dress her own sore body. But she would get used to it.
“Are you sure you are well?” Philippe asked. He glanced at the spots of blood on the floor, the pool of blood in her bed that had soaked through her clothes and cloth padding. “Our ship home can wait, if you need to rest longer. They won’t sail without us.” “We go today,” Camille said. She felt weaker this morning than she had in the night, looking down on the new queens. But her time on the island was over. And she had done what she could to ease their paths. It was not for them that you did it, her conscience amended. It was for you and for revenge.
“It was for the island,” she muttered. And it was not a terribly fulfilling revenge, anyway, when she would not be there to see it. “What did you say? Camille—” “I am fine, I said. The bleeding is normal.” She had begun to tremble slightly. The bleeding was a bit heavy, perhaps, but she was not sure. She had never birthed triplets before, after all. Philippe watched her, then sighed and nodded. How relieved he would be to return to the world. His world, where men ruled.
It gave her pause sometimes, wondering how he would change. He loved her on her island, but out there it might all be different. He might expect her to be something she had no idea how to be. “I’ll take these to the carriage,” he said, and picked up the last of her cases. Camille followed, but she lingered in the hall near the open door of the nursery, where inside, Willa rocked and cooed to the new queens. They said the old queen was glad to go. Glad to be done. That her queen-bearing, and her flight, was instinctual. But when Camille looked at the babies, for just a moment she wished she had jaws like her beloved snakes, so she could unhinge them and swallow the girls back down under her heart forever. “How can I go,” she whispered.
“You’ll forget,” Willa said gently. “The moment your feet cross the threshold. With every step you take across the island. When you set foot into the boat. You’ll forget.” “I . worry for them.” “Even though you know which one will be crowned?” Willa looked up; Camille looked away. Mirabella was the strongest child, true. And last night with the birthing blood rushing through her veins, she thought she had seen something in the little queen’s future.
Something chosen. But in the daylight she remembered that she was only a used-up vessel. She knew what the queens were, but their fates were their own. She was no oracle. “Will you change them back, after I am gone?” Camille asked, and then a pain tore through her, and she cried out. Willa left the babies to their bassinets and came to hold her by the elbows. “Your skin is cold,” she said. She looked at Camille’s face and embraced her suddenly, kissing her forehead. “I will do as my queen wishes.”