The Queen’s Secret – Melissa de la Cruz

HE CAN’T TAKE HİS EYES off her. The royal procession—newlywed king and queen on horseback, trailed by courtiers on their own steeds, marching guards, and a tootling band squeezed into a decorated wagon—is out for another jaunt into the countryside surrounding the capital of Mont. Cal has positioned his assassins throughout the procession, to stay alert to any threats from within as well as among the gaggles of farmers and villagers thronging the road. He’s sent Jander to ride at the front, along with the scouts and the royal crier. Cal will never get used to the lilting sound of the Montrice accent. Better the flat tones of Renovia, where everything—people and geography both—lacks pretension. There’s an ostentation to Montrice, and its court, that he doesn’t like. Even this procession is ostentatious—thirty courtiers and twice as many guards. The distant mountains are capped with snow above the tree line, but here in the lowlands it’s still autumn. Since their marriage several months ago, King Hansen and Queen Lilac have ridden out like this at least twice a week, to visit hamlets and villages, and to preside over harvest celebrations. Queen Lilac. His friend Shadow’s true identity, revealed to the world. It has taken some getting used to, even if he has accepted it, accepted her, for who she is. He watches her up ahead, a slim and graceful figure on her horse, cloak thrown over her shoulder because the day is so fine. Hansen, her husband, leans toward her and says something; Lilac laughs.

She lifts her face to the light, but Cal’s behind her and can’t read her expression. A spark of jealousy shoots through him, painful and sharp. The king is handsome in the bland, expected way of titled monarchs, but handsome nonetheless, sitting regally on his majestic steed, waving to the crowd. The Kingdoms of Montrice and Renovia are united: Look at the happy young king and queen—so beautiful, so well dressed—delighted to be meeting grubby country folk in their muddy villages. It’s all designed to dispel rumors that the marriage is one of mere political expedience. Lilac might be Hansen’s queen in public, but at night, in private, thanks to the secret room and passageway adjacent to her own, she is still his Shadow. Just this morning they were entwined in each other’s arms. But now she rides next to the king while Cal remains on the fringes, watching for danger. The fact that Cal shares the queen’s bed, while the king sleeps with his own rotating array of favorites, is nobody’s business but their respective royal Majesties. Hansen and Lilac are cordial, distant.

If the king is unnerved about his wife’s curiously close friendship with the royal assassin, he has made no indication of it. “Long live the king!” people shout from their perches on hedgerows, or from stations along stone walls and tumbling wooden fences. A few cheer for the queen as well, the local maidens and lasses the loudest in their admiration. Lilac is young, energetic, and vibrant—an equal to their handsome king—and her blood hails from the old and storied line of Avantine’s ancient rulers. Not only that: Everyone knows that she’s brought Renovian bounty to the Montrician coffers. There aren’t as many people out today, Cal observes, reining in his horse and falling farther back. It’s later in autumn now, and most of the harvest festivals and rituals are over. Lilac will miss the outings, Cal suspects, though she always complains afterward about being forced to ride alongside Hansen and pretend his conversation is sparkling. She finds him exceedingly dull, and Hansen has been chafing about having to visit villages rather than riding to hound out in the forest. Every cold day reminds the king that hunting season is underway, and he wants to get back to his usual pursuits.

A village looms, one of several the procession will pass this morning on its way to the town of Sancton. Cal gallops to the front, whipping a glance at Lilac as he passes. She’s smiling, but it looks strained. At least the village visit will cheer her up. During these autumn processions, in every hamlet and village, every tiny settlement and every town, Cal has seen lilac-colored ribbons tied to window latches and branches of trees. The people of Montrice are welcoming Lilac as their queen. In the towns, small girls present her with bouquets of autumn leaves and flowers. Hansen is asked to drink a symbolic draft from a horn of plenty, and he makes the same joke every time about wishing for ale rather than well water. Everyone laughs, he plants an awkward kiss on Lilac’s cheek, and then the entire royal procession moves on. Today should be no different, but Cal feels uneasy.

He rides up alongside Jander and nods at his slight, frowning apprentice. Some people are surprised that the Chief Assassin trusts and relies on a skinny boy, but they don’t know that Jander is more than just a humble stable hand, and older than everyone in the entire kingdom. “It’s quiet on the road,” Jander observes in his low, rasping voice. “Too quiet?” He gives the slightest of shrugs. But Cal trusts Jander’s instincts, and his own. Something isn’t right today. Perhaps the news from Stur has already reached this village. He had urged the king not to make this trip, but Hansen insisted. Behind Cal, a few people are cheering for the king, but with less gusto than usual. The country folk lined up to watch are craning to get a glimpse of Lilac, but they’re not smiling or cheering.

The village that lies ahead looks the same as so many others in this part of Montrice—while the capital city, Mont, is rich and dazzling, the countryside is full of thatched roofs, dauband-wattle walls, penned goats and sheep, water troughs, a makeshift shelter over the well where chickens peck around in the dirt, and a donkey or two tied to a post. Cal has seen dozens of these over the past few weeks. The only difference among them is the general dirtiness of the populace, and whether the tree of life grows in the middle of the road or in an overgrown village green. “Long live the king!” bellows the crier from Castle Mont, in his green-and-white livery, his beard as rusty as the leaves drifting from trees. “Long live the queen!” “Long live the children of Stur,” a voice in the crowd says. So they do know about Stur. The speaker is a young man, maybe, but when Cal tries to single him out, it’s impossible. There’s a sour look to the people assembled here; they seem discontent, which is understandable. In a moment the villagers have all taken up the cry. “Long live the children of Stur! Deia bless the children of Stur! May we never forget the children of Stur!” Cal looks around.

There are no lilac ribbons tied anywhere, not a single one. “Pray for the souls of the children of Stur!” shouts one old woman, her voice highpitched and cracking. “Deia damn the evil magic that killed them!” Cal trots back toward Lilac and Hansen, scrutinizing their expressions. Both have heard the shouts of the villagers. Hansen looks ill at ease, as though he’s ready to turn his horse and gallop home. Lilac appears serene and untroubled: That’s her aunts’ assassin training at work, Cal thinks. Give nothing away with your face or your body language. Make no rushed gestures. Let no enemy perceive you as nervous, startled, unprepared. Afraid.

“Deia damn the witch who killed them!” a man shouts, and Hansen’s horse rears a little, unnerved by the noise. Cal doesn’t like this. The witch—who do they mean? He glances around. They all seem to be looking in one place. At one person, anyway. The queen. The lilac-frosted ice. “Boo! Boo!” The sound is all around them, men’s and women’s voices, sour and angry. That’s it. Cal has to stop this, right now.

“Your Majesty,” he says, drawing his horse close to Hansen’s. “I believe we must return to the capital.” “What’s going on?” Hansen asks, bewildered. “They’re upsetting my horse.” “The terrible news from Stur has upset our people,” Lilac says in a loud, clear voice, no doubt aware that her words will carry. “That’s to be expected. We should have canceled this visit today as I suggested. It is . unseemly at such a sad time.” “I don’t know why they’re angry with us,” Hansen complains, frowning at Lilac.

“Hang this. We’re in the dark like everyone else, and news of Stur arrived just this morning. I saw no reason to change course. This is still my kingdom.” “Quite,” says Cal, keen to end the conversation. The booing intensifies, the crowd growing more brazen. He holds up an arm to summon the assassins, and they gallop up, circling the monarchs. “Rally to the king and queen,” he mutters. “Follow me.” “What on earth is going on here?” It’s the Duke of Auvigne, his face even ruddier than usual.

“What is all this to-do? These subjects need a good thrashing, if you ask me. I’ve never heard such disrespectful nonsense.” “We’re returning to the castle, Your Grace,” Cal tells him. “At once.” “Very well, but the guards should arrest some of these louts and make an example of them.” “That won’t be necessary.” Once again, Lilac sounds calm and firm, though Cal knows that she must be in turmoil. When he looks into her dark eyes, there’s no sparkle. “We should make haste.” At a nod from Cal, Jander takes off toward the back of the procession, to spread the word of an about-face.

In an instant, they’re on their way, retracing their progress along the road to Mont. The city is visible on its hilltop in the distance, and Cal wants to set a quicker pace than their journey out. The countryside isn’t a happy place anymore, and it’s not a safe place. Deia damn the witch who killed them. In the minds of the people of Montrice—so adoring last week—has everything changed so utterly? Is Lilac the “witch” they fear? Cal is troubled, but for now he needs to get Lilac back behind the city wall and into the castle, where she will be safe from her people.

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