Four Dead Queens – Astrid Scholte

The morning sun caught the palace’s golden dome, flooding the Concord with light. While everyone halted their business and glanced up—as though it were a sign from the four queens themselves—we perched overhead like sea vultures, ready to swoop in and pick them apart. “Who shall we choose today?” Mackiel asked. He was leaning against a large screen atop a building that displayed the latest Queenly Reports. He looked like a charming, well-dressed young man from Toria. At least, that was what he looked like. “Choices, choices,” I said with a grin. He moved to drape his arm heavily around my shoulder. “Who do you feel like being today? A sweet young girl? A damsel in distress? A reluctant seductress?” He puckered his lips at me. I laughed and pushed him away. “I’ll be whatever makes us the most money.” I usually picked my targets, but Mackiel had been in a good mood this morning, and I didn’t want to tip the boat. He submerged easily into darkness these days, and I’d have done anything to keep him in the light. I shrugged. “You choose.

” He raised his dark eyebrows before tilting his bowler hat to further survey the crowd. The line of kohl around his lids made his deep-set blue eyes stand out all the more. Nothing escaped his scrutiny. A familiar smirk played at his lips. The crisp Concord air was clean, unlike the acrid tang of seaweed, fish and rotted wood that pervaded our home down on Toria’s harbor. It was Quadara’s capital and the most expensive city to live in, as it shared boundaries with Toria, Eonia and Ludia. Archia was the only region separated from the mainland. The stores on the ground level sold a variety of approved goods, including Eonist medicines, the latest Ludist fashions and toys, and fresh Archian produce and cured meat —all collated and distributed by Torian traders. Squeals of children, the murmur of business and sighs of queenly gossip bounced between the glass storefronts. Behind the buildings rose an opaque golden dome, encapsulating the palace and concealing the confidential dealings within.

The palace entrance was an old stone building called the House of Concord. As Mackiel searched for a target, he held his middle finger to his lips—an insult to the queens hiding inside their golden dome. When he caught my eye, he tapped his lip and grinned. “Him,” he said, his gaze landing on the back of a dark figure who descended the stairs from the House of Concord into the crowded main square. “Get me his comm case.” The target was clearly Eonist. While we Torians were bundled up in layers to ward off the biting chill, he wore a tight-fitting black dermasuit over his skin, an Eonist fabric made of millions of microorganisms that maintained body temperature with their secretions. Gross, but handy in the depths of winter. “A messenger?” I flashed Mackiel a hard look. The delivery would be of high importance if the messenger was coming from the House of Concord, the only place where Torians, Eonists, Archians and Ludists conducted business together.

Mackiel scratched at his neck with ring-covered fingers, a nervous habit. “Not up for the challenge?” I scoffed. “Of course I am.” I was his best dipper, slipping in and out of pockets with a feather-light touch. “And remember—” “Get in quick. Get out quicker.” He grabbed my arm before I could slip off the roof. His eyes were serious; it had been months since he’d looked at me that way—as though he cared. I almost laughed, but it lodged somewhere between my chest and throat. “Don’t get caught,” he said.

I grinned at his concern. “When have I ever?” I climbed down from the rooftop and into the crowd. I hadn’t gotten far when an old man stopped abruptly in front of me and raised his hand to press four fingers to his lips in respect for the queens—the proper greeting, as opposed to Mackiel’s middle-fingered version. I dug in my heels. My spiked soles gripped the well-worn cobblestones. I halted in time, my cheek brushing the back of his shoulders. Dammit! What was it about the palace that inspired such slack-jawed stupidity? It wasn’t like you could see anything through the golden glass. And even if you could, so what? The queens didn’t care about us. And certainly not someone like me. I slapped the cane from the old man’s hand.

He stumbled to the side. He turned, his face pinched in annoyance. “Sorry!” I said. I fluttered my lashes at him from under my large-brimmed hat. “The crowd pushed in on me.” His expression softened. “No worries, my dear.” He tipped his head. “Enjoy your day.” I gave him an innocent smile before slipping his silver pocket watch into a fold in my skirt.

That would teach him. I stood on my toes to find my target. There. He didn’t look much older than me— eighteen, perhaps. His suit clung like a second skin—from his fingertips to his neck, covering his torso, legs and even his feet. While I wrestled with corsets and stiff skirts each and every day, I couldn’t imagine his outfit would be any easier to dress in. Still, I envied the material and the freedom of movement it allowed. Like him, my muscles were defined from constantly running, jumping and climbing. While it was not unusual for a Torian to be fit and trim, my muscles weren’t from sailing back and forth to Archia, or from unloading heavy goods at the docks. I’d long been entangled within the darker side of Toria.

Hidden beneath my modest layers and pinching corsets, no one knew of my wickedness. My work. The messenger hesitated at the bottom of the House of Concord stairs, rearranging something in his bag. Now was my chance. That old man had given me inspiration. I dashed toward the polished slate stairs, fixing my eyes on the palace with my best imitation of awe—or rather slack-jawed stupidity—on my face, my four fingers nearing my lips. Approaching the messenger, I snagged my toe in a gap between two tiles and pitched forward like a rag doll. Inelegant, but it would do the job. I’d learned the hard way that any pretense could easily be spotted. And I was nothing if not committed.

“Ah!” I cried as I crashed into the boy. The rotten part of me enjoyed the thwack as he hit the stones. I landed on top of him, my hands moving to his bag. The messenger recovered quickly, pushing me away, his right hand tightly twisted around the bag. Perhaps this wasn’t his first encounter with Mackiel’s dippers. I stopped myself from shooting Mackiel a glare, knowing he’d be watching eagerly from the rooftop. He was always watching. Changing tactics, I rolled, purposely skinning my knee on the stone ground. I whimpered like the innocent Torian girl I pretended to be. I lifted my head to show my face from under my hat to take him in.

He had that Eonist look, evenly spaced eyes, full lips, high defined cheekbones and a proud jaw. The look they were engineered for. Curls of black hair framed his tan face. His skin was delicate, but hardy. Not at all like my pale creamy skin, which flaked and chapped in the winter wind and burned in the blistering summer sun. His eyes were on me. They were light, almost colorless, not the standard Eonist brown, which guarded against the sun’s glare. Did it help him see in the dark? “Are you all right?” he asked, his face giving nothing away. Eonists’ expressions were generally frozen, like the majority of their quadrant. I nodded.

“I’m so, so sorry.” “That’s okay,” he said, but his hand was still at his bag; I wasn’t done with this charade just yet. He glanced at my black boot, which had scuffed where my toe had caught between the stones, then to my knee cradled in my hands. “You’re bleeding,” he said in surprise. He did indeed think this was a ploy for his belongings. I looked at my white skirt. A blotch of red had spread through my undergarments and was blooming across my knee. “Oh my!” I swooned a little. I looked up into the bright sun until tears prickled behind my eyes, then turned back to him. “Here.

” He grabbed a handkerchief from his bag and handed it to me. I bit my lip to hide a grin. “I wasn’t watching where I was going. I was distracted by the palace.” The messenger’s strange pale eyes flicked to the golden dome behind us. His face betrayed no emotion. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “The way the sun illuminates the dome, it’s as though it were alive.” I frowned. Eonists didn’t appreciate beauty.

It wasn’t something they valued, which was ironic, considering how generically attractive they all were. I bunched the hem of my skirt in my hands and began pulling it up over my knee. “What are you doing?” he asked. I swallowed down a laugh. “I was checking to see how bad it is.” I pretended I only then remembered where he was from. “Oh!” I rearranged my skirt to cover my legs. “How inappropriate of me.” Intimacy was as foreign as emotions in Eonia. “That’s all right.

” But he turned his face away. “Can you help me up?” I asked. “I think I’ve twisted my ankle.” He held out his hands awkwardly before deciding it was safer to grip my covered elbows. I leaned heavily against him, to ensure he didn’t feel any shift in weight as I slipped a hand inside his bag. My fingers grasped something cool and smooth, about the size of my palm. The comm case. I slid it out and into a hidden pocket in my skirt. As soon as he had me on my feet, he released me as though he’d touched a month-old fish. “Do you think you can walk?” he asked.

I nodded but swayed side to side. Novice dippers gave themselves away by dropping the act too soon after retrieving their prize. And my knee did hurt. “I don’t think so.” My voice was light and breathy. “Where can I take you?” “Over there.” I pointed to an empty chair and table in front of a café. He held on to my elbow as he guided me over, using his broad shoulders to navigate the crowd. I fell into the chair and pressed the handkerchief to my knee. “Thank you.

” I tipped my head down, hoping he’d leave. “Will you be okay?” he asked. “You’re not alone, are you?” I knew Mackiel would be watching from somewhere close by. “No, I’m not alone.” I put some indignation into my voice. “I’m with my father. He’s doing business over there.” I waved a hand vaguely at the surrounding shops. The messenger crouched to look under the brim of my hat. I flinched.

There was something unsettling about his eyes up close. Almost like mirrors. Yet, under his gaze, I felt like the girl I was pretending to be. A girl who spent her day at the Concord with her family to enjoy the spoils of the other quadrants. A girl whose family was whole. A girl who hadn’t shattered her happiness. That moment passed. Something flickered behind his expression. “Are you sure?” he asked. Was that real concern? The cool of the metal case pressed against my leg, and Mackiel’s hot gaze was on my back.

Get in quick. Get out quicker. I had to disengage. “I need to rest for a bit. I’ll be fine.” “Well, then,” he said, glancing behind him to the House of Concord, his hand on his bag. As a messenger, his tardiness wouldn’t be tolerated. “If you’ll be all right . ” He waited for me to refute him. I might have oversold my fragility.

“Yes. I’ll be fine here. Promise.” He gave me a stiff Eonist nod, then said, “May the queens forever rule the day. Together, yet apart.” The standard exchange of interquadrant goodwill. He turned to leave. “Together, yet apart,” I recited back to him. Before he had taken a step, I was up off the chair and among the crowd. I clutched the comm case in my hand as I ran.

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