The Caged Queen – Kristen Ciccarelli

The Skyweaver’s Knife Once there lived a man named Sunder who loved everything about his life. He rose every day with the dawn and walked out into his fields. He marveled at the rain that nourished his crops and the sun that made them grow. He cherished the strength of his own two hands—hands that planted and threshed and built his house. Hands that rocked his child to sleep. He loved his life so much that when Death came for him, Sunder hid. Death searched Sunder’s house and did not find him. Death called out over his fields, but Sunder did not come. So, giving up, Death took someone else instead. When Sunder came out of his hiding place, he smiled at his own cleverness. He strode down the dirt roads toward home, whistling happily. But as he approached the door of his house, a sound made him pause. Someone was wailing. Sunder opened the door and found his wife kneeling on the kitchen floor, clutching their child to her breast. When Sunder fell to his knees beside her, he found his small daughter’s eyes lifeless.

Her body cold. Sunder cursed his cleverness. He wept and gnashed his teeth. After that day, Sunder no longer rose with the dawn. No longer marveled at the rain or the sun. And when he looked around the house he built, he saw only what he’d lost. He begged Death to give his daughter back. But Death could do no such thing. Her soul was with the Skyweaver. So Sunder set out to make it right.

He found the goddess of souls at her loom. Skyweaver’s warp was fashioned from the dreams of the living, her weft from the memories of the dead. At the sound of Sunder’s intrusion, her shuttle stopped. She put down her threads. Sunder fell at her feet and he begged. “There is a price for what you’re asking,” she said. “Whatever it is, I’ll pay it.” Skyweaver rose from her loom. “It’s your soul that is owed. Your death that was cheated.

” Sunder closed his eyes, thinking of the rain that nourished his crops and the sun that made them grow and the strength of his own two hands. “I can give back your daughter’s soul. I can restore her life.” Skyweaver picked up her weaving knife. “But only you can pay the price.” On his knees, Sunder looked up at the faceless god and said, “Take it, then.” So Skyweaver lifted her knife . and cut his soul loose from its mooring. One Her sister said it would take a year to raise an army, bring down a tyrant, and marry a king. Roa had done it in just three months.

And now here she sat, at the carved acacia table polished to a sheen, in the smallest pavilion of her father’s house. It smelled smoky-sweet from the heart-fire, and Essie perched on her shoulder, her talons clenching and unclenching, while Roa’s bare feet tapped the woven rug impatiently. Five days of negotiating peace terms was starting to get to the both of them. The ceremonial weapons of every man and woman present were piled in the middle of the table —long and short knives, elegantly carved maces, gleaming scythes—laid out of reach as a show of trust. Only three chairs sat empty. They belonged to representatives from the House of Sky, and they’d been empty all week—a fact no one was talking about. Least of all Roa. She stared at the empty chair on the left, imagining the young man who normally sat there. Strong shoulders. Wheat-gold eyes.

Dark-brown hair pulled back from his handsome face. Theo, heir to the House of Sky. Roa’s former betrothed. He’s always been stubborn. Essie’s thoughts flooded Roa’s mind as her claws dug into Roa’s skin. But never this stubborn. Roa traced the delicate wing bone of the white hawk on her shoulder. The bond they shared— something Essie called the hum—glowed bright and warm between them. I betrayed him, thought Roa. I won’t be surprised if he never speaks to me again.

Their silent conversation was suddenly interrupted by the sound of someone snoring. The new queen and her hawk looked sharply away from Theo’s chair to the young man seated beside her. The warm afternoon sunlight pooled in through the windows, alighting on his unruly brown curls. His elbow was propped on the table, his cheek rested on his fist, and those long black lashes fluttered softly against his cheeks. This was the dragon king. Asleep in an important treaty meeting. This . waste . was the person for whom Roa had given up everything. She bristled at the sound of his snores and glanced up to the dozen men and women gathered around the table, all of them representatives of Great Houses in the scrublands.

She prayed they didn’t notice the snoring. It was a useless prayer. Of course they noticed. Dax had been falling asleep in treaty meetings all week, revealing the truth to everyone: he didn’t care that his father’s sanctions hadn’t been lifted or that Roa’s people were still going hungry. These were not the kinds of things Dax cared about. Which was why Roa was here. She’d insisted on traveling across the sand sea and drawing up an official treaty document herself. With a signed treaty, Dax couldn’t continue to break his promises. Not without consequences. It was why they were all here, in Roa’s childhood home, with their heads bowed over a scroll.

Roa looked past the sleeping king, past the pile of weapons, to find her father studying her. A man of almost fifty, his curly black hair was speckled with gray now, and he looked thinner and more tired than she remembered. Was that possible? In just the two months she’d been gone? He wore a cotton tunic, split at the throat, with the pattern of Song fading around the collar. It matched Roa’s own garment. A proper dragon queen would have worn a brightly colored kaftan, finely stitched slippers, and a gold circlet on her head. But Roa was a scrublander first and foremost. She wore an undyed linen dress sewn by her mother and a necklace of pale blue beryl beads. Her father’s eyes held Roa’s, then glanced to the young man snoring beside her. The look on his face was unmistakable. He pitied her.

Roa’s stomach tightened like a fist. She would not be pitied. Certainly not by her own father. Beneath the table Roa elbowed her new husband hard in the ribs. Surprised by the movement, Essie flexed her wings to stay balanced on her shoulder. Dax jolted awake, eyes widening as he let out a soft oof! But instead of sitting up and paying attention, instead of showing any sign of remorse, he yawned loudly, then stretched—drawing full attention to the fact that he’d fallen asleep. As if he wanted everyone to know how little he cared. More men and women around the table glanced at Roa. When she looked from one face to the next, each and every one of them averted their gaze. As if humiliated on Roa’s behalf.

These were the same people who’d put their trust in her when she asked for an army to help Dax dethrone his father. And here they were, watching her now with shame in their eyes. Daughter of Song, she could hear them all thinking, what have you done? Their stares scorched her. Roa’s fists clenched in her linen dress. She desperately wanted this meeting to be over. But the treaty scroll was still collecting signatures. Roa looked to Dax, who was yawning again. “Do we bore you, my king?” She didn’t even try to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “Not at all,” he drawled, his attention snagging on something across the table. “I didn’t sleep much last night.

” Essie shifted restlessly from claw to claw as Roa looked where Dax did: to the young woman who’d just entered the pavilion. It was Roa’s cousin, Sara, a tray balanced on her hip. Her brown curls were tucked in a bun and held in place with an ivory comb. On her wrists were three bracelets made of shiny white nerita shells. As Sara collected cups of cold tea from the table, she smiled brightly beneath the king’s gaze. Roa reluctantly remembered the night previous. After a round of drinking games with her brother and cousins, Dax had openly flirted with the women of her household, Sara among them. It was something she’d had to get used to: Dax’s flirting. Roa was pretty sure he’d flirt with a dragon if he were drunk enough. She looked away from the king and her cousin.

She didn’t want to see the smiles passing between them. Didn’t want to know how far the game had gone. But there were only two other places to look: the embarrassed faces of the house representatives or that empty chair. It was an unbearable choice. In the end, Roa chose the consequence of her broken promise. She stared at Theo’s chair as if he were in it, staring back at her. Sometimes she let herself wonder what her life would be like if she’d kept her promise to him. There would certainly be no king in her father’s house flirting with Roa’s cousins and humiliating her in front of the people she loved most. And there would be no one keeping the scrublands safe. Essie’s voice rang through her mind.

Those talons squeezed Roa’s shoulder affectionately. Dax’s father would have bled us dry. Essie was right, of course. You did what you needed to do, Essie told her, brushing the top of her feathered head against Roa’s cheek. They all know that. Truly, Roa had done it for every scrublander, Theo included. She would not allow another Firgaardian king to take whatever he wanted from them. He’d already taken enough. Roa looked to Dax as she stroked Essie’s soft feathers. When the scroll came to the king, he signed it, then took a pinch of sand from the bowl in front of them and sprinkled it across the wet ink.

After it dried, he blew off the sand, rolled up the scroll, and gave it to Roa. The relief in the room was palpable. The king was now bound to his promises. They would finally be free of Firgaard’s tyranny. Voices rose, talking and laughing easily now that it was done. When a jug of wine was brought in, Roa frowned. It had been years since her father served wine to his guests. Few people in the scrublands could afford it anymore. She wondered what her family would give up this month in order to compensate for the indulgence. Oblivious, Dax poured the wine into two red clay cups, then looped his arm lazily around the back of Roa’s chair.

Startled at his closeness, Essie flew off Roa’s shoulder. Roa, who was more used to the weight of her sister’s imprisoned form than the absence of it— whose shoulders bore eight years of tiny scars from Essie’s claws—went immediately cold at the loss of her. Dax bent toward Roa, holding out a full cup. “To peace,” he said softly, the peppermint smell of him enveloping her. Roa didn’t dare look at him. She knew the kinds of spells those warm brown eyes cast. The kinds of things that curve of a mouth promised. She’d seen enough girls fall for Dax’s charms to know she needed to protect herself against them. Staring at his throat instead, she watched the steady beat of his pulse. Taking the cup from him, she said, “To kings who keep their promises.

” Her gaze flickered to his. For the briefest of heartbeats, she thought she saw amusement in his eyes. But then it was gone, hidden behind a smooth smile. She hated that smile. Hated the effect it had on her. Roa set down the cup and quickly rose. “If we’re finished,” she said, catching her father’s gaze as she reached across the table toward the pile of earned weapons, “then you must excuse me. There’s somewhere I need to be.” Taking her scythe from the top of the pile, Roa didn’t wait for her father’s answer. Just turned away from the table, left through the open door, and didn’t look back.

Essie followed her out. Roa rode hard across the border of Song. Poppy’s hooves pummeled the hot, cracked earth, putting distance between her and her father’s house. Between her and the boy-king. It was as if the wide-open world Roa once knew—as open as the sunset sky above—had become a prison. She might have walked willingly into it, but her bonds still chafed. Halfway to her destination, Roa felt a familiar hum flare up inside her. Instinctively, she looked to find a white hawk soaring above. Essie. Even with so much distance between them, Roa could sense her sister’s uneasiness.

Where are you going? her sister called. You’ll miss the Gleaning. Poppy slowed to a trot as Roa leaned back in the saddle. She’d forgotten that tonight was the Gleaning. Once a week, the House of Song made dinner for those who were hardest hit by Firgaard’s sanctions. On Gleaning nights, it was normal for the house to be full to the brim. The very poorest would eat—and take home anything extra that could be spared. You should be there, said Essie, still trying to catch up. You give them hope, Roa. But going back to the House of Song meant facing Dax.

It meant watching him drink her father’s wine while he flirted with every girl in her home. Roa gritted her teeth. I sat obediently next to him for days now. Her thoughts burned into her twin’s mind. If I have to stand by his side one more moment, I’ll . Her grip tightened on the reins. I’ll take it all back. She could take it back. The marriage was unconsummated. Which meant it could still be annulled.

And who will protect us if you do? came Essie’s reply. That was just it. This was the decision she’d made. It was up to Roa to keep her people safe. She’d thought it would be easier, trading in her freedom for the protection of the scrublands. She hadn’t realized it would cost her so much more than freedom. Her sister’s voice had gone soft and quiet in her mind: You should be more careful. People are starting to notice your absences. Roa had been absent every night since they’d arrived home six days ago. Let them notice, she thought, urging Poppy into a gallop.

In the distance, the red-brown earth shifted into a smudge of green forest. Roa headed straight for the hidden path through the acacias. They were entering the shadow precinct, where the fifth Great House had once stood proud . and then fallen into ruin. A sharp jab of her sister’s frustration shot through her. Roa ignored it. Roa. Essie’s voice flickered into her mind as she struggled to keep up. Her elegant white wings fought with a wind that kept battering her back. You can’t just run away! I’m queen, she thought.

I can do as I wish. You’re not acting like a queen. Essie’s thoughts were getting fainter. You’re acting like a . scared . selfish . child. That stung. In answer, Roa sent a stab of cold at her sister’s hawk form. Essie sent her version of the same feeling back—only sharper.

Just before Poppy halted and stepped into the trees, the white hawk screeched. Roa felt a painful tug and stopped them both, frowning hard. She looked over her shoulder to see Essie—a speck of white in a carnelian sky—still battling the wind, trying to get to her. A second, sharper tug came. Roa sucked in a pained breath. She squeezed Poppy’s reins in her fists and sent her thoughts into her sister’s mind: If you’re trying to hurt me, it’s working. Essie didn’t respond. Roa had thought Essie would understand. Essie knew better than anyone what it was like to be trapped. But just like Roa’s friend, Lirabel, Essie seemed to side with Dax more and more these days.

As if his ridiculous charms were working on them, too. A little angrily, Roa turned away from her sister. She didn’t wait for Essie to catch up, just retreated into the trees without her. Essie would find her. She always did. The bond hummed between them, bright and strong, keeping them linked. Roa could always sense her sister—could feel the shape of her soul. Even if a desert lay between them. Jacarandas bloomed here. Their purple flowers carpeted the ground, more beautiful than any palace rug.

Roa breathed in the sweet smell of them as Poppy rode up to the entrance of the House of Shade. Corrupted, people called this place. A man had died here, a long time ago now, and his loved ones hadn’t performed the proper rites. They hadn’t broken the bonds between the living and the dead. So, on the Relinquishing—the longest night of the year—the man’s soul became corrupted and he slaughtered his entire household. Or so the story went. Corrupted spirits were dangerous things. It was why the rules for relinquishing needed to be upheld. But even if the story was true, the man’s spirit had long since moved on. After dismounting and tying Poppy to a branch outside, Roa stepped through the crumbled entrance of the ruined house.

As she walked through the roofless halls, Roa thought of that empty chair. It was an obvious insult. But Theo had been insulted first. Sky was the only Great House who voted against Roa helping Dax in the revolt. And in the scrublands, a unanimous vote was needed before anyone could march an army across the sand sea. Roa had broken scrublander law to do what she’d done. And then she’d broken Theo’s heart. Roa checked every room in the ruined house. All were empty. She checked them again.

He didn’t come, she thought, her heart sinking. Theo hadn’t wanted her to help Dax. He told her that if she left, she wouldn’t come back. You were wrong, she thought. I did come back. She was here now, wasn’t she? She’d been here in this ruin—their usual meeting place—waiting for him for five nights straight. And for five nights straight, he didn’t come. Because Roa married Dax. Because Roa was queen now. It was too late for her and Theo.

As the wind rattled the canopy above, she climbed up onto the windowsill of a half-crumbled wall. Leaning back against the cool and dusty stone, she pressed her face into her hands. You’re queen now, she told herself. Queens don’t cry. It was something Essie would say. If Essie were here. As she waited for her sister to arrive, Roa thought of the shame in her father’s eyes. In all their eyes. Maybe it was better this way. She wasn’t sure she could bear that same look on Theo’s face.

When a hundred-hundred heartbeats passed and Essie still hadn’t shown herself, Roa looked up to the canopy. To the patch of darkening sky beyond it. Instinctively, her gaze found Essie’s two favorite stars. Twin stars, Essie liked to call them. The stories Essie most loved were ones about the Skyweaver, a goddess who spun souls into stars and wove them into the sky. Roa thought of Skyweaver spinning Essie’s soul into a star, then putting it up there, all alone, without Roa. A cold feeling knotted her insides. What was taking her sister so long? Roa reached for that normally bright hum. Even before Essie’s accident, the hum had always been there, warm and glowing inside them both. This time when Roa reached for it, she found it dim and weak.

Like a too-quiet pulse. Essie? No answer came. Roa pushed herself down from the sill and walked back through the empty, ruined rooms. “Essie?” she called, her voice echoing. “Where are you?” Silence answered her. Roa’s pace quickened, thinking of the way her sister’s thoughts had flickered strangely. At how distant she’d felt earlier. Essie, if this is a joke, it isn’t funny. At the entrance, Roa untied Poppy and quickly mounted, nudging her back toward the tree line. When they got there, the sun was long gone and the sky was blue-black.

She couldn’t see any sign of a white bird in its depths. Roa cupped her hands and called her sister’s name. “Essie!” Her voice echoed and died. The wind rustled the leaves at her back. It was something the two sisters never spoke about, as if speaking it would make it come true: an uncrossed soul couldn’t exist forever in the world of the living. Eventually, the death call of the Relinquishing became too strong. Essie had been resisting her death call for eight years now. Looking up to the stars, Roa whispered, “Essie, where are you?”

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