Queen of Ruin – Tracy Banghart

WITH EVERY BREATH , Serina Tessaro’s broken rib flamed. The half-healed slash on her arm burned, the bullet wound in her shoulder ached, and her bruises from Commander Ricci’s punishing fists screamed. In truth, finding a place where her hurts didn’t lick at her, hungry and hot, was a difficult job. But it was the memory of Jacana’s small lifeless body, Oracle’s sightless eyes, the rows upon rows of brave dead women that caused her the most agony. She should have known that here on Mount Ruin, survival would mean pain. Since the first moment she’d stepped on this island, condemned for reading—her sister’s crime, not her own—she’d been surrounded by it. The pain of the shackles, of her fellow prisoners’ sobs. The pain of being stripped down and inspected by Commander Ricci. And then there was the agony of the fights themselves, watching women kill each other for rations. Watching her own friend Petrel die. When it had been Serina’s time to fight, she’d found she couldn’t do it. She’d submitted rather than kill Anika, a girl from Hotel Misery. And she’d paid for that decision with pain as well. Banishment, attacks, and then, last night, Commander Ricci’s revenge. He’d captured her and put her onstage, and told her to choose which woman she would fight.

When Serina had stood up to him and refused to fight another woman, when she’d invited him as her adversary instead, she’d assumed she would die. She hadn’t expected a rebellion. But Slash and the Hotel Misery crew had attacked the guards; Oracle and Ember had attacked Commander Ricci; and Serina, unlike so many others, had somehow lived to see the morning. Every painful breath was a gift, one given by Oracle and Slash and all the women who’d chosen to fight the guards instead of one another. Serina swore to herself, as she helped scrub away their blood from the floor of the amphitheater, that she would not let those women’s deaths be in vain. She wouldn’t let down the ones who lived either. Dawn danced across the island like a Grace in a golden dress, lining each leaf and harsh volcanic rock with lacy filigrees of light, even as Serina and the others worked to erase the carnage of the night before. All the bodies were gone—the slain women committed to the volcano’s red glow and the guards to the sea’s cold depths. Soon, every trace of blood was gone too. Biting back a groan, Serina carefully pulled herself to her feet.

Sunlight warmed her face. Beside her, Cliff hauled up a bucket of bloody water. Her broad, sun-weathered forehead furrowed in concentration, or maybe exhaustion. The older woman had been in charge of the Cave crew’s freshies and was one of the first women Serina had encountered on the island, along with Oracle. Serina’s breath hitched. She still remembered that night so clearly—how terrified she’d been, even before the fight had started, even before she knew women were about to start killing one another. How alone she’d felt, and how much she’d missed her sister. That hadn’t changed. Serina’s separation from Nomi hurt more keenly—and more deeply—than her broken ribs and bullet wound. Cliff carried the bucket to the edge of the cracked stone amphitheater, where Mount Ruin’s hardy yellow grass waved in the breeze.

Another woman, bent and weary from the night’s work, gathered the dirty scraps of cloth they’d used to scrub the stone. Serina wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. Nomi. Serina needed to come up with a plan. Nomi was trapped in Bellaqua, one of three Graces for the Superior’s Heir. Not that long ago, Serina had wanted exactly what Nomi had—a life of luxury and beauty on the arm of the most powerful man in Viridia—but to her sister, that life was a prison as real as Mount Ruin. And Serina was determined to liberate her. Anika and Val appeared at the top of the amphitheater with a rusty cart laden with large burlap bags—the rations Commander Ricci had hoarded. As they pushed the bounty down the aisle toward Serina, a line of women gathered behind them, spreading out along the swaths of volcanic rock that had poured over one section of stone benches. More filed in from the base of the theater, where a handful of women had been resting against the wall of the observation tower.

All told, Serina guessed there were a hundred and fifty women still here, still alive, give or take a dozen. Most of them stared hungrily at the cart of burlap bags. Val and Anika stopped when they reached the dais at the bottom of the amphitheater. Val’s unruly brown hair curled in every direction around his tan face. His jaw was bruised, his neck streaked with dirt. Serina smiled at him a little giddily. He’d had the chance to escape, to leave her behind. But he hadn’t. He’d stayed and helped them. He noticed her expression, and his own face relaxed into a grin.

“How do you want us to distribute the extra rations?” Anika asked. Long streaks of morning sun gilded her rich brown skin. One of her eyes had swollen shut and tufts of hair had pulled free of her tight braids, but she stood with the same confidence—the same defiance—she’d shown from the moment she’d arrived on the island. Serina had heard a rumor that the women of Hotel Misery had tried to name her Shade, but she’d refused to answer to anything but Anika, saying her name was the only thing her mother had given her that no one could take way. It was Anika whom Serina had submitted to, rather than killed, when it’d been their time to fight. That moment had started all of this, had put a target on Serina’s back. If Commander Ricci hadn’t tried to make her fight again, maybe there never would have been an uprising. “The food will be easier to share fairly if we all stay together in one camp,” Serina said. “Do you think Hotel Misery is big enough for all of us?” They’d already set up an infirmary of sorts in one of the old ballrooms on the first floor. Serina would be happy if she never had to sleep another night in the lava tube her crew had called home.

Oracle hadn’t seemed to care about the sulfuric winds off the caldera or how close it was to the living part of the volcano, but the rock had always felt like it was pressing down on Serina and she’d never been able to forget that rushing lava had carved out the space… and could pour down upon them at any moment. Anika glanced at the other women of her crew. In the hours after the fight, when their leader, Slash, had been killed, Anika had stepped in, shouting orders as she helped Val haul the seven surviving guards to the compound. She turned back to Serina and nodded. “We have room.” “How can we trust Hotel Misery?” someone asked. “They’ll kill us all in our beds.” Serina found the source of the voice in the crowd—a woman in her twenties with a sweep of white-blond hair and a pinched, angry pink face. “What’s your name?” Serina tensed her leg muscles to keep herself from swaying. She was so tired.

“Fox,” the woman spat. “I’m in charge of Jungle crew now that Venom is dead.” She turned her glare on Anika. “Thanks to her.” “Venom killed plenty of us,” another sharp voice replied. A rumble of voices built, insistent and angry as a wasps’ nest. “Hey!” Serina called, raising her hands for silence. “That violence was demanded by the Commander, remember? Anika didn’t kill Venom by choice. None of us killed by choice. We are not enemies.

We need each other. We’ll only survive if we work together, like we did last night.” “You think we’re going to survive?” Claw, a gnomish woman from Cave crew, cackled. “We’ve little food and no way of getting more. We’re all going to die here.” Serina crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the sharp pain that radiated through her torso. “No, we’re not. The next boat of prisoners is due in a week, maybe two. There will be rations on it. We can overpower the guards, take the food for ourselves.

We can use the ship to escape.…” Her voice faded. Except where would they go? And what about Nomi? Anika tilted her head. “Didn’t the guards have their own boats? Why can’t we use those? We can leave now, get off this rock, and go back to our families.” “My family sent me here!” someone shouted. “There are no boats.” Val raised his voice over the building din. “This island was punishment for the guards too. Even Commander Ricci. We all disappointed the Superior in some way—too ruthless, not ruthless enough.

He sent all his failed soldiers here. We weren’t allowed boats, not even for an emergency evacuation. The ships that arrive with prisoners are our only contact with the outside world.” He glanced at Serina, a question in his eyes. She knew what he was asking. Val had a boat, a secret he’d hidden for years. They’d planned to use it to escape, to go back to Bellaqua and try to rescue Nomi. With one discreet shake of her head, he would hold his tongue. The boat would remain a secret, and Serina’s best chance at reuniting with her sister. Yesterday, she’d been prepared to leave, but she’d found she couldn’t abandon Jacana, who’d been helping her look for a way off the island.

Now Jacana was dead. Serina hadn’t been able to save her. There was nothing to keep her here, nothing to stop her from taking Val’s boat and going to save her sister. Nothing except for the women of Mount Ruin. Those dead, like Jacana and Oracle, whom she’d promised to avenge. And those living, whom she’d promised herself she’d try to save. Serina couldn’t sneak away in a secret boat and leave these women. Not even for Nomi. She would get her sister out of the Heir’s clutches, out from under the cold, watchful eye of the Superior. But not like this.

“There is one boat on the island,” she said, still meeting Val’s gaze. He nodded a little, but his brows drew together, sharing her sadness. “But it’s small, only big enough for two or three people. Still, it may be of use.” “And how do you know about this boat?” Anika asked, her eyes narrowing. “It’s mine,” Val said. “Hidden so well no guard or prisoner has found it. I snuck it onto the island to rescue my mother, who was being held here, but”—his voice caught—“she was gone by the time I arrived.” Anika’s suspicion eased slightly. She rocked back on her heels.

“But… but I don’t understand,” another voice, a smaller voice, said. Theodora, who went by Doll now, so named for her tall, loose-limbed body and perfectly oval golden-brown face. She’d been assigned to the Cave the same time Serina had. “What are we going to do when the prison boat comes? You said we’d escape. Where will we go?” Serina opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She didn’t have an answer. Val stepped up onto the dais next to Serina and turned to face the crowd of women filling the amphitheater. He cleared his throat. “There’s a country called Azura, to the east of Viridia across the Gallatian Sea,” Val said. “My father was a merchant and once did business there.

He told me that in Azura women work, own property, even handle their own money. They can read. Our borders are closed to Azura save an occasional delegation invited by the Superior, but it’s not so very far away. And their borders are not closed to us.” Val had told Serina about his father going to Azura. It’s what had inspired him to teach his wife to read and, in turn, the girls who came to their house to be taught in secret. It’s what had gotten him killed and Val’s mother sent to Mount Ruin. It explained a lot about Val too. “You want us to go there?” Fox asked, brushing her white-blond hair off her furrowed brow. “Why would they take us in?” Val shrugged.

“I can’t say for certain that they would. But it will be safer than staying here or going back to Viridia.” That’s when I’ll go , Serina thought. When we take the ship, when these women are safely on their way to Azura, when they don’t need me anymore, then I’ll take Val’s boat and save Nomi. And if Nomi didn’t want saving? Serina pursed her lips. There was a chance that her sister had taken to life in the palazzo, that she’d found her role as a Grace less abhorrent than she expected. But Serina didn’t think so. When she’d wanted to be a Grace, when she’d told Nomi that she was willing, Nomi had said it didn’t count when you weren’t allowed to say no. And she was right. It didn’t matter how luxurious Nomi’s life was now.

Serina was going to give her a choice. That’s all Nomi had ever wanted. The chance to decide her own fate. If it killed her, Serina was going to give that to her sister. “So we take the prison boat,” Serina said now, raising her voice over the skeptical murmuring of the crowd. “We go to Azura. We make new lives.” Anika’s shoulders slumped. Serina noted her reaction, wondering at the girl’s disappointment. Her gaze climbed to the women filling the amphitheater, some seated on the stone benches, some standing on the frozen wave of black volcanic rock that covered half the curved seating area.

There were so many gaunt faces, so many bruises, so many sunken eyes. Serina saw hunger staring back at her, and fear. Some of these women had been here for years, had watched countless fights, seen countless women die. “You all have been fighting for so long,” Serina said, the words catching in her throat. “It’s hard to believe it’s really over. It’s hard to imagine things getting better. But they will. For the next ten days, this is our island. Just like our names, just like our lives, we’ve earned this. We’ve earned our freedom.

No matter what happens when we get to Azura, this will always be true. We’re not prisoners anymore.” The energy of the crowd lightened. She saw hints of hope scattered throughout the exhaustion, in the glint of a smile here and there. Even the leaders of the other crews perked up a little. Twig’s steel-bar arms were relaxed at her sides. Among the Southern Cliffs contingent, a small smile flitted across their leader Blaze’s scarred face. But Anika wasn’t the only one who still looked troubled. “We’re not prisoners anymore,” Serina said again, as much to remind herself as the rest of them. Even for her, who’d been on the island for weeks, not years, this truth still felt like a dream.

She turned to Anika. “Can you organize the sleeping arrangements and help distribute this food? Val and I’ll check on the guards.” Anika straightened her shoulders and nodded. She pushed the squeaking cart up the aisle, calling out suggestions to the other crews: Take your injured to the old ballroom. If you’ve got rations or belongings in your camps, bring them with you. We’ve only got so many rooms. You’ll have to pair up. When Serina moved to follow, her legs wobbled. She paused to steady herself. She couldn’t afford to collapse now.

“I can check on the guards by myself,” Val offered, taking Serina’s arm. “Why don’t you rest?” Serina shook her head and limped up the steep aisle of the amphitheater, using his grip on her arm to help steady her balance. “Soon.” He didn’t argue, which was good, because she might not have had the energy to stand her ground. The truth was, Serina was afraid to slow down. She didn’t want to rest. Didn’t want to stop. If— when—she did, Jacana’s small, broken body would fill her mind. If Serina gave herself time to think, she’d drown in regret. And Jacana wouldn’t be the only one haunting her.

Every time Serina paused, every moment she wasn’t concentrating on the next task, she saw Oracle’s head snapping back when the bullet hit her forehead. She felt the weight of the woman’s body on her shoulder as they hiked to the summit of the volcano. She remembered Slash’s bloody corpse draped across the men she’d killed. “Serina?” Val asked. “I’m okay.” She realized she was leaning into him and forced her body to straighten. They hiked slowly along the path to Hotel Misery, so slowly that when they reached the cracked marble, Anika was already shouting orders and handing out food. They continued on toward the prison compound. The building was deceptive; when she’d first arrived, Serina had assumed that’s where she would be held, in a small cell like a princess in a grim tower. But the population of women sent to Mount Ruin had outgrown the building’s capacity long before her time; now the cells were used for the storage of weapons and rations, and as the guards’ own sleeping quarters.

The few guards who had survived the uprising had been locked in their “bedrooms,” the rooms reverted to their previous use. The irony hadn’t escaped her. The weight of the keys to their cells pressed against her thigh. She slipped her hand into her pocket and around the cold metal. “You told them about the boat,” Val said once they were away from the others. “What about Nomi?” “I’m going to go after her, but not yet. Not until everyone else is safely on their way to Azura.” She rubbed at the back of her neck, finding a sore spot. “Anika has family she’s anxious to return to, I think. Maybe others do too.

If I’m going back it wouldn’t be right to go alone, to keep the boat a secret.” Val scuffed his boot against the rough rock of the path. “It’s small, Serina. Anika could come with us, but no more.” “Us?” Her foot caught on a ragged edge of rock, and she stumbled. Val pulled her closer. “I go with you. Whenever. Wherever.” Serina’s heart turned over.

“Won’t they need you to navigate? To negotiate once they arrive in Azura?” She wanted him with her when she went to find Nomi. But she wanted every woman on this island to find safety too. She’d assumed Val would have to go to Azura with them. Maybe she and Nomi would follow, if they could. “Commander Ricci has maps. Some of these women come from boat families. Even if they can’t read a map, I can show them. They’ll know how to operate the ship.” He rubbed his hand down her back. “And as for negotiating, they won’t need a man for that.

They’ll want to speak for themselves.” Serina’s throat closed as emotions swirled through her. “Yes, of course,” she said, her voice thick. “They will want to speak for themselves.” For some time, they walked in silence. Eventually, the prison complex rose before them, gray and imposing. Serina could still sense echoes of the terror she’d felt when she’d hiked up the uneven trail from the pier for the first time, this iron-barred monstrosity looming over her. Her gaze shifted to the water, blue and sparkling, stretching out to the horizon. From here, she could just see the corner of the pier, and out beyond it— “Val.” She gasped, skidding to a stop.

Her injured ankle screamed. Her stomach dropped. She couldn’t breathe. She pointed, her hand trembling. “Val, a boat.” TWO NOMI NOMI STOOD ON the boat’s heaving deck, her heavy golden gown streaked with blood, and cried as the dark shadow of Mount Ruin rose before her. This wasn’t the triumphant mission to save her sister that she’d envisioned. Nomi was heading for her own small cell, her own imprisonment. Asa had promised Nomi he’d reunite her with Serina, but she’d never imagined it would be like this. Not until she’d watched Asa slice his blade across his father’s throat.

Maris, Nomi’s fellow Grace, had seen it too, unfortunately. So Asa had sent them both away as prisoners, all so he could maintain the illusion that his older brother, the Heir, was the real murderer. A few feet in front of Nomi, Maris sagged against the gunwale, her straight black hair a snarl, her red dress soaked with sea spray. She slumped over the edge and stared into the water rushing by. Maybe she would have jumped overboard if her wrists hadn’t been shackled to the boat. She hadn’t said anything for a long time. Nomi opened her mouth to offer something—a reassurance, another apology—but the wind stole her breath. Maybe it knew all she had were empty words. They were close to Mount Ruin now, close enough to see the chipped concrete pier. Nomi swallowed a gulp of sea-soaked air.

The sailors moved to the bow of the boat, where Malachi lay. The Heir was a crumpled shadow on the deck, his burgundy velvet coat stained with his own blood and the blood of his father, the Superior. Asa had killed the Superior and tried to kill Malachi too. All because Nomi had trusted Asa, had believed he would make a better Heir, a better Superior. She’d been wrong. The sailors bent over Malachi’s still form. “Don’t touch him!” Nomi screamed hoarsely, as she’d screamed a dozen times during the crossing, praying with every shout that they’d listen, that they’d notice his chest rising and falling. Asa had ordered them to throw Malachi overboard when he stopped breathing. But he hadn’t stopped. “They said to throw him over when he died,” one of the sailors was saying, the deep rumble of his voice barely audible over the constant thrust of the steam engine.

“But he ain’t dead yet and we’re almost there.” “The prison don’t know about our orders.” The other sailor scratched his stubbled chin. “Less questions if we get rid of him now.” Nomi shouted again, but they ignored her. “It’s too late,” Maris said, her dead-white cheeks whipped by her hair and her dead-dark eyes burning. At some point, they’d both lost their masks from the masquerade ball. Nomi couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt the pinch of the stiff fabric across her nose. She couldn’t believe the Heir’s ball had been only hours ago. Only hours since she’d told her brother, Renzo, to run instead of help her frame Malachi.

She’d known by then that Asa wasn’t to be trusted, but she’d had no sense of what he was capable of. She did now. She hoped Renzo had listened. She was certain Asa would kill him if he found him. The sailors heaved the Heir to their shoulders. Malachi coughed weakly—“Can’t you see he’s still alive!” Nomi yelled—and his eyelids fluttered and opened, and he was awake and sputtering, and then he disappeared overboard. A sob ripped from Nomi’s chest. Her chains clanked as she yanked herself toward the sailors, straining against the shackles. The skin at her wrists tore and bled. “You killed him!” she screamed, over and over.

The sailors ignored her, and maybe they should have. She didn’t know if she was speaking to them or herself. You killed him. This was her fault. She’d trusted the wrong brother. Asa had promised freedom, for Nomi and her sister. He’d promised an end to the Graces, a change to the laws of Viridia. He’d said he would let women have rights, let them read… he’d told her exactly what she wanted to hear. And she’d fallen under his spell. It had been easy, too easy to believe Malachi was as cruel and volatile as his father… because Asa had convinced her.

But it had all been a lie. Asa was the cruel one. The murderous one. Malachi’s words haunted her. I’ve no desire for an unwilling Grace. I will force you no longer. It was one of the last things he had said to Nomi, releasing her from her obligation. He wouldn’t force her to be a Grace. And now he was dead. The boat hit the pier with

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