Kill the Queen – Jennifer Estep

The day of the royal massacre started out like any other. With me doing something completely, utterly useless. “Why do I have to make the pie?” I grumbled. I stared at the flour, sugar, and butter lined up on the table, along with measuring cups and spoons, a paring knife, a rolling pin, and bowls full of honey cranberries and bloodcrisp apples. Isobel waved her hand over everything. “It’s a sign of respect for a member of the royal family to make the traditional welcome pie for the Andvarian ambassador. Lord Hans requested cranberryapple for today’s luncheon.” “You’re the cook master, not me,” I grumbled again. “You should make the pie. Your magic will make it look and taste amazing.” Masters were those whose magic let them work with specific objects or elements, like metal, glass, and wood, to create astounding things. Isobel’s power helped her craft amazing desserts out of ordinary flour, sugar, and butter, which was why she’d been the head baker at Seven Spire palace for more than twenty years. She slapped her hands on her hips. “I might be a cook master, but the Andvarians have very finely tuned senses. They would know if I made the pie instead of you.

They can sniff out the intentions of every single person who handles their food, even if it’s only the servant who pours their wine. It’s one of the reasons why they can’t be poisoned.” I snorted. “That’s just an old fairy tale started by the Andvarians themselves to keep people from trying to poison them. They don’t have any better senses than anyone else. Only mutts like me have that sort of magic.” I tapped my nose. “I might have an enhanced sense of smell, but even I can’t always sniff out people’s intentions.” Isobel frowned. “You know I don’t like that word, especially when it’s applied to you.

” Unlike masters, who were sought after and lauded for their impressive skills, mutts were not, simply because our magic didn’t let us create anything. Most mutts only had a small spark of power, a tiny flicker that enhanced something about themselves, like my supersensitive nose. Something that barely qualified as magic, especially when compared to the airy meringues, spun-sugar cakes, and other delicacies that Isobel whipped up. When it came to magic, mutts were considered far weaker and far, far inferior to masters, magiers, and morphs. Hence the term mutts. I shrugged. “We both know that I am most definitely a mutt in every sense of the word.” Isobel winced, but she didn’t disagree. “Besides, Lord Hans has the constitution of a gargoyle. I’ve seen him eat pepper radishes like they were as sweet as those apples.

Why, I could pour him a tall, frosty glass of wormroot poison, and it wouldn’t give him much more than a stomachache. And a small one at that.” Isobel’s lips twitched, but she summoned up a stern look, trying to keep me in line. Always a losing battle. I was rather incorrigible that way. “Regardless, you need to make the pie, Lady Everleigh. You were the only one who was, ah, available.” “Oh, really?” I arched an eyebrow, and Isobel dropped her dark brown gaze from mine. Available? Well, that was a nice way of saying that it was once again time for me to earn my keep as Lady Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair. A mouthful of fancy names that meant very little in the grand scheme of things, but they, and the lineage that went along with them, were good enough for my cousin Queen Cordelia Alexandra Summer Blair to have me trotted out like a trained monkey whenever a socalled royal presence was required.

Like wasting a morning baking a pie for some foreign ambassador who probably wouldn’t eat a single bite of it. Isobel winced again, causing lines to groove into her bronze skin, then smoothed back her graying black hair, the way she always did whenever she had bad news. “I’m afraid that it’s not just one pie. Lord Hans requested thirteen of them. It’s his favorite dessert. The Andvarian king’s granddaughter loves it too. She’s also part of the ambassador’s contingent. I believe her name is Gemma.” I glanced at the stacks of pie tins half hidden behind the bowls of apples. Anger pricked my heart that I was always the one singled out for such tasks, but the sharp sting was quickly replaced by cold, numbing acceptance.

Such was life at Seven Spire. Such was my life at the palace anyway, ever since I’d first arrived here after my parents had been murdered fifteen years ago. I was expected to go where I was told, and do what I was ordered, all while wearing a sunny smile and spouting flowery platitudes about how grateful I was for everyone’s meager, miserly generosity. Orphans didn’t get to have choices, ambitions, or most especially opinions. I’d learned that long ago, but it was the one thing I could never quite accept, no matter how much meaningless protocol, empty niceties, and polite drudgery I was expected to reiterate, regurgitate, and perform on command. “I forgot the orange flakes.” Isobel’s voice was soft and sympathetic. “Let me get those, and then we’ll get started, Evie.” Besides my parents, Isobel was the only person who had ever called me Evie, although she only did it when no one else could hear. More silly protocol.

She was also one of the few people who was kind to me not because she had to be, but because she simply wanted to be. When I was younger, I had spent countless hours in this kitchen, sitting in the corner, reading books, and watching her turn mounds of flour and pounds of sugar into dazzling displays of confectionary delights. Isobel fondly referred to me as her taste tester, since my enhanced sense of smell always let me tell how well a cake had turned out before I’d had a single bite, but that was just an excuse for her to sneak me treats. She was the closest thing to a mother that I’d had since my own had died, but she still had to do her duty. And today, that duty included making me make pies. Isobel placed a warm, comforting hand on my arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. Then she hurried over to one of the pantries full of syrups, spices, and other seasonings. Our pie-making station was in the back corner, away from the other preparation stations, as well as the competing warmth of the ovens and the frost of the metal chillers, which lined opposite walls. It was just after eight o’clock, and a dizzying array of people moved through the kitchen. Young pages delivering breakfast orders.

Teenage servers carrying trays. Cook masters cracking eggs and frying smoked sausages. Everyone wore black boots and leggings, along with long-sleeve scarlet tunics trimmed with gold thread, in keeping with Queen Cordelia’s colors. I wore the same thing, along with a black apron, and I blended in perfectly with the workers. Then again, I was one of them—in every way that truly mattered. Most of the kitchen staff ignored me. They had long ago realized that I was just another cog in the palace wheels, that I showed up, did my duty, and earned my keep, the same as them. Besides, they were much more interested in sharing the first gossip of the day, like who was sleeping in, who had asked for extra mochana to help their hangover, and who had been seen sneaking out of this or that married lord or lady’s room. Some of the newer workers eyed me, wondering if I might pitch a fit at being on pie patrol, but my expression remained blank. I never let my true emotions show, not so much as a flicker, not even here.

You never knew who might be watching or what they might do with the information. Life at the palace was cutthroat, with everyone always looking for an advantage over their friends and enemies alike. Business deals, political favors, arranged marriages, even something as small as who got to sit at the queen’s table during today’s luncheon. It was all a perpetual battlefield, with people rising and falling daily, as well as stabbing others in the back to further advance their own positions. From the kitchen to the throne room, the entire palace was one enormous arena, only everyone here fought with scathing words, poisonous rumors, and cold threats, instead of swords, shields, and daggers like real gladiators did. My position, magic, and wealth might be insignificant—more like nonexistent—compared to others, but I was still a Blair, still a member of the royal family, and I had been the target of more than one scheme. At least, until people realized that I had no power to help them in any way. Still, I couldn’t afford to show any weakness. Not trusting people, especially with my feelings, was a lesson I’d learned the hard way when I was twelve years old, during my first month at the palace. It was perhaps the one thing, the one useful skill, that I had completely mastered.

Still, the workers’ curious glances made that sharp, stinging anger rise up in me again. It threatened to break through my calm facade, so I curled my hands around the edge of the table and focused on the feel of the cool stone under my palms. Sturdy, solid granite, worn smooth by the wear and tear of kitchen life. Worn down, just like me. Isobel returned with a jar filled with what looked like crystalized orange snowflakes. Even though it was tightly stoppered, I could still smell the sweet tang of citrus inside. She placed the jar on the table with the other supplies. “Anytime you’re ready, Lady Everleigh.” That was Isobel’s soft, subtle way of letting me know that Evie was gone and that it was time for Everleigh to do her duty. More anger pricked my heart that I couldn’t have something as simple as a nickname from someone that I loved.

For a mad, mad moment, I thought about ripping off my apron and storming out of the kitchen. But Auster, the captain of the queen’s guard, would track me down, give me a long, stern lecture about how my actions reflected poorly on Cordelia, and escort me back here. Which would be far more humiliating and time-consuming than making the bloody pies right now. I served at the whim of the queen, just like everyone else did. And today, the queen wanted me to make thirteen pies. “Dance, monkey, dance,” I muttered. Then I sighed and reached for a bowl to start mixing the ingredients together. * * * Two hours later, I poured the last of the cranberry-apple filling into the final pie crust, then reached for the orange flakes. “Whether you’re a cook master or not, the secret is not to overdo the orange,” Isobel instructed, the same way she had on the previous pies. “Most people shake the flakes on like they’re common salt.

But too much orange, and that’s all you’ll taste. So go around the pie once, gently tapping on the jar three times with your index finger. That’s the perfect amount.” I did as she said, watching the tiny, delicate granules melt into the fruit filling like perfumed snowflakes. Then I drew in a deep breath, letting the air roll in over my tongue and tasting all the scents in it. The buttery crust, the sugary fruit, the hint of orange that curled through it all. Delicious aromas that would bubble up and become even more pronounced, fragrant, and intense as this pie and the others baked. Despite my own condescending view of my mutt magic, my enhanced sense of smell was one of the reasons why I had always gravitated toward Isobel and the kitchen. All the sweet scents here made the bitter reality of my life a little easier to bear. “Perfect! That’s my girl.

” Isobel beamed at me, and I smiled back at her. She arranged a few strips of crust on top of the filling, creating a pretty lattice pattern, then slid the pie into the oven. Isobel had taken pity and had helped me make the pie crusts, although she had insisted on my preparing the cranberry-apple filling, orange flakes and all, claiming that it was the most important part. I often helped Isobel, as I enjoyed spending time with her, and the kitchen was a welcome refuge from other, less-friendly sections of the palace. She had slowly turned me into a decent cook, despite my not being a master. But after making so many pies in a row, I had all the ingredients, measurements, and motions memorized, and I felt like I could craft them in my sleep now. Just as I could bow, curtsy, dance, and make polite, inane chitchat in several languages. And those were just some of the many trivial skills that I’d learned as the unofficial royal stand-in. While Queen Cordelia and the rest of my Blair cousins were dealing with ambassadors and the like, I was attending all the functions they could not, due to their oh-so-important and exceedingly busy schedules. Breakfast recitals, charity luncheons, afternoon teas.

I went to all those and more every week, both here at the palace and out in the city. Most of the time, it wasn’t so bad. Usually, all I had to do was smile, nod, and shake hands, along with thanking people for their time, admiring their music, artwork, or goods, and giving short and exceptionally vague speeches about how disappointed Queen Cordelia was that she couldn’t attend herself. At the very least, I almost always got a free meal out of the proceedings. But even that could be fraught with danger. A few months ago, when the third cousin of the king of Vacuna had visited from the southern islands, I had taken part in a traditional feast—one that involved eating the raw liver of a freshly killed wild boar. Under the watchful eye and careful direction of the king’s cousin, I had slit open the boar’s side and rooted around through all sorts of slimy, squishy things better left to the imagination. The stench of blood and guts had almost knocked me over, but I’d found the liver, pulled it out, and eaten the smallest bite that was considered polite. Then, while the king’s cousin and the rest of his contingent were enthusiastically butchering and grilling the rest of the boar, I’d slipped away and thrown up in the potted, golden persimmon tree they’d brought the queen as a sign of friendship. It had been the closest container, and I’d shifted the dirt around inside the bucket to hide what I’d done.

The king’s cousin had been very disappointed that the tree had died a few days later, though. Given my magic, scents and memories were often tangled up together in my mind, and thinking about the liver made my nose twitch. Suddenly, the sweet, enticing smells of the baking pies turned sour and rotten. So I gathered up the dirty bowls, spoons, and measuring cups, dumped them in the closest sink, and stripped off my apron. “Here.” Isobel pushed a red paper bag into my hands. “Some plum tarts. For you and that old sourpuss down in the dungeon.” “Casting aspersions on Alvis’s character again?” She huffed. “They’re not aspersions if they’re true.

And he is the grumpiest man I’ve ever met.” I grinned. “And Alvis would call you that old sunny side up in the kitchen.” Isobel huffed again. “Better sunny than sour—” Whispers surged through the room, cutting her off. In the distance, heels clacked on the floor, like thunder signaling an oncoming storm. Everyone quit gossiping and focused on their work, concentrating like they had never concentrated before. All conversation ceased, and the kitchen went deathly quiet, except for the thwack-thwack-thwacks of knives cutting through food and the tick-tickticks of the timers counting down the minutes left on the baking pies. A forty-something woman appeared at the far end of the kitchen. She too wore a scarlet tunic, but hers featured Queen Cordelia’s rising sun crest stitched in gold thread over her heart.

Her tunic had also been tailored to fit her strong, slender form, along with her black leggings, and short black heels adorned her feet, instead of more sensible boots. Everything about her was sleek and sharp at the same time, from her smooth blond bun to her angular cheekbones to the point of her nose. She would have been quite beautiful, if not for the faint pucker of her lips, as though she were perpetually displeased by everyone around her. Maeven, the kitchen steward, surveyed the room, her gaze moving from one worker and cooking station to the next. After several seconds of silent scrutiny, she snapped her fingers at the three guards who were standing behind her, clutching wooden crates full of bottles. “Why are you just standing there? Put those down and go fetch the others from the wine cellar. I want the rest of the champagne for the luncheon brought up immediately.” The guards set the crates down and beat a hasty retreat. Maeven snapped her fingers at some of the teenage servers. “You three.

Go help them.” She didn’t raise her smooth, silky voice, but the three servers still flinched and dashed away, almost tripping over their own feet in their hurry. Maeven had been running the kitchen for more than a year now, since the previous steward had retired, and the workers had quickly learned that hers was an iron fist on its best, gentlest day. “The Andvarian ambassador is an important dignitary, and I want everything to be perfect for the luncheon,” Maeven called out. “Understood?” The workers ducked their heads, avoiding her gaze. Maeven nodded, satisfied that she had cowed everyone into continued obedience. She looked around the kitchen again, and she noticed me standing with Isobel. Her gaze cut back to the crates of champagne, but she plastered a smile on her face and walked over to us. “Incoming.” Isobel stepped back, grabbed a wet dishrag, and started wiping flour off the table, leaving me to face the kitchen steward alone.

“Coward,” I whispered. Isobel grinned and kept working. Maeven stopped in front of me. Up close, she was even more beautiful, especially her deep, dark, amethyst eyes. “Lady Everleigh. I didn’t realize that you were . visiting the kitchen.” Visiting? That was Maeven’s way of stating that this was her territory, not mine, and that while my presence was tolerated, it would never truly be welcomed. As if I needed another reminder of my lowly position. I pasted my usual bland, benign smile on my face, matching her supposed politeness.

“Yes, I had to make the pies for the Andvarian ambassador. It’s tradition.” “Oh, yes, the pies.” Maeven’s gaze swept over me, and her lips puckered again. Not a speck of flour, sugar, or anything else marred her tunic, but the same could not be said for me. Sugar granules clung to my fingers like sticky sand, while flour stains streaked my clothes like stripes of chalky paint. Plus, several tendrils of my black hair had escaped from its braid and hung down the sides of my face. I blew one of the strands out of the way, but of course it dropped right back down again. Maeven’s face cleared, as though some other, far more pleasing thought had distracted her from my unkempt appearance. She waved her hand at the crates.

“Can I interest you in some champagne? I would love to get a royal opinion on it. Besides, you’re always . tasting things for Isobel.” It might have sounded like an innocent request, but suspicion filled me. Maeven never asked me to taste test anything. Besides, what kind of lush did she think I was? It was barely ten o’clock. Even Cousin Horatio, the Blair family drunk, wouldn’t guzzle champagne at this hour. He’d wait until at least eleven. “You’re the expert. I’m sure that whatever champagne you’ve picked out will be fine.

But thank you ever so much for the offer.” Disappointment flashed in her eyes, but she smiled at me again. Well, as much as she ever smiled at anyone. “I’ll be sure to save you a glass.” “That sounds lovely.”


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