When Zara entered the throne room, Queen Chhaya was smiling. That was never a good sign.
But she wasn't smiling at Zara.
A soldier knelt before the throne, head lowered. Chhaya was speaking to him in a dangerously soft voice, that cruel, little grin playing across her lips. The thing about Chhaya was you could always feel her fury, even when she didn't show it.
Chhaya didn't pace back and forth like most of the generals did. She didn't wave her sword around and yell like Heidrich did. She didn't even stare you down with a death glare like Ivor did.
Instead, she would do what she was doing now: smile. Zara kept her distance; she'd learned that it was best not to interrupt. She moved toward one of the tall, white pillars soundlessly despite the slight limp. Ankle be damned, she hadn't earned her golden rank for nothing.
Chhaya leaned forward on her throne, nails tapping against the stone, her many rings clinking. Shadows nestled beneath her eyes. Zara knew these past few weeks hadn't been kind to Chhaya. It happened every summer around this time, right before the second harvest, when Chhaya would spend most nights strolling the grounds instead of sleeping in her living quarters. Once, Zara had caught her weeping in the heart of her garden when she'd thought nobody else was around. Of course, Zara never dared speak of it.
"There are rumors you've been conspiring against your queen," Chhaya said, raising her chin a little higher. Her skin was tattooed with gold vines, a symbol of her status. Although the markings wrapped around her entire body, they failed to cover the thick scars along her wrists that resembled those from shackles. Zara didn't know how Chhaya had gotten those scars--the queen never spoke of them.
Chhaya must've sensed Zara watching, because suddenly she shifted her position on the throne, hiding her wrists from view.
The man cowering before Chhaya shook his head. "No, my queen. I would never do such a thing." He trembled. "I've served in your army for years."
Zara recognized the man now. His voice was steady, despite the fear written across his features. There was stubble along his jaw, his nose crooked from having been broken a long time ago. A scar ran along his forehead down to the curve of his cheekbone. The first time she saw his face was in a sketch provided by one of Chhaya's lower-ranking spies. Zara had been tasked with tracking down the man and gathering more intel on his involvement with the resistance group.
Zara had seen the man conspiring with others against his queen, and she had reported it to Chhaya. Now, all the people he conspired with were dead. He was the last one, the root that had led Zara to all of the branches in his small network.
"Twelve years, to be exact, yet your loyalty is not to me," Chhaya said, tilting her head. "Please, enlighten me."
The man tried to plead his innocence, but Chhaya knew the truth. Talking himself out of this was futile. Still, Chhaya listened, her smile deepening.
Watching the now-familiar man, Zara was unexpectedly struck by thoughts of her mother. Was this how it had happened when her mother was brought in for the same crime eight years ago? Her parents hadn't agreed with the war against Bryne; it was just another one in which Chhaya could gain even more control. Zara's father had died in that war. Perished in her mother's arms.
And when her mother moved to Leodia, precious daughter beside her, she'd formed a resistance group with other Black Blades who blamed the queen responsible for the war that led to the Death Year.
Her heart ached at the memories. She trailed her fingers over the bootlaces around her forearms. How her mother would react if she saw where her daughter stood now.
Shame clawed at her. Although her mother had stood up for what she believed in, she had also made the choice to risk abandoning Zara if anything went wrong. And that was what had happened. When her mother wasn't there to take care of her anymore, Chhaya raised Zara as her own.
Blue flames sparked from Zara's fingertips, and she closed her hands into fists to stop the fire. The fyra magic was always harder to control when she felt troubled. In her mind, there was a perfect world where she didn't use her magic as a weapon, where she hadn't taken lives, where peace was her greatest pride.
But that was not this world.
If Chhaya knew what she was thinking now, she would laugh at Zara's foolishness. No amount of cleansing plants could wash the blood from her hands. Chhaya would always be the first to tell her that the past was a lesson. That Zara had been a weaker version of herself back then. Dwelling only prevented growth.
Chhaya's sharp voice cut through her thoughts. "Do not lie to me."
For the briefest moment, Zara feared Chhaya was speaking to her, but then she noticed the man still knelt before her. Zara raised an eyebrow. It was unusual that the perpetrator was still alive for this long in the queen's presence.
But it wouldn't last.
Zara knew to watch for it, and she saw it when it happened: the flash of black overtaking Chhaya's eyes. A shadowy mist crept from her fingertips, curling in the air. Hovering. Waiting. Restrained.
Once, Chhaya had lost control of her magic as Zara watched. A room full of disloyal soldiers, all dead in seconds. The mist had shot out at the soldiers, turning their veins black till the life was strangled from their bodies.
It was this magic that convinced people Chhaya was immortal, but Zara knew better. Chhaya was naturally an endelea, but her acquired magic was something much more sinister. That day, Chhaya had collapsed shortly afterward. She had almost died, having unleashed the full force of her magic and used too much of her energy. It had taken her weeks to recover. But she was stronger now.
Zara could still see the evidence from that day--the blackened stone floor around the throne, marring the beautiful tile work portraying the goddesses and gods. The goddess of hope, Tariro, had once worn a crown of flowers. Now her face was indistinguishable.
But tonight, the Chhaya that had lost control seemed like nothing but a dream compared to her icy, stone-like self waiting to unleash the darkness on the terrified man. The room grew colder, and Zara felt the spirits Chhaya had summoned. She could sense them standing around her, but she saw nothing—just an empty throne room and a soldier who had betrayed their queen.
The man recoiled. Zara held her breath, only barely hearing "Queen of the Damned" escape from his lips in a faint gasp.
Suddenly, the soldier jerked forward as if something had struck him. Zara guessed a spirit had trailed its cold hands over the back of his neck. It was one of Chhaya's favorite fear tactics.
As Chhaya stood, the soldier scrambled backward, unable to get up in his haste. But she was faster. Chhaya grabbed his throat and squeezed. The black tendrils from her fingertips burrowed beneath his skin. His eyes bulged as her grip tightened, and he pulled at her wrists, trying to pry away from her grasp. Desperate, helpless, useless actions. Shadows crept through his veins, turning his skin a sickly gray.
Chhaya released him, and he collapsed. One long, pained shriek, and then he was still. The veins beneath his skin's surface looked like old ink. The queen regarded the body as one would survey an unsatisfactory meal, her grin finally slipping. And then her eyes found Zara's.
If anyone else had just witnessed Chhaya's magic the way Zara had, they would've high-tailed it out of the castle--maybe even the domain--but Zara wasn't afraid of the magic. She was afraid of Chhaya and the things she could do without her magic.
Chhaya moved slowly toward Zara, prowling, her nails clinking against the hilt of her sword. "Back from your assignment, I see. Where should the riperas retrieve the body?"
Zara kept her shoulders squared, but she looked away. "There is no body."
YOU ARE READING
When Queens FallFantasy
Eighteen-year-old Kayden Branimir, princess of Freca, has trained as a warrior and assassin to protect herself from her kingdom's enemies. If her foes discover Kayden's rare form of magic, they will use her as a weapon to conquer kingdoms. But when...