I’m manically busy at the moment. My next-next book winged its way to the RNA’s New Writer’s Scheme this week, I’ve written 21k words of the one to follow that since the start of the month, while simultaneously revising something from long ago which I hope might be the start of a series. This leaves me with precious little headspace to think up blog topics.
Which is a long meander to say I hope you’ll forgive me, readers, if I post up the start of a short story that will be going out to my newsletter subscribers at the end of the month.
If you want to read the rest of it, sign up to my Reader Group and you’ll be first to receive the whole thing at the end of the month.
Queen of Rubies
The candidates were playing queen of rubies as the men rode out to sue for peace with the Blood King.
The games room, bright with candlelight and the broad fire’s flames dancing against the pale walls, was a stark contrast to the scene outside. The twisting column of men and beasts crept beyond the city walls, crossing the valley like silent, inching ants. Magic swirled around the horses’ fetlocks, thicker than the mist that rolled down from the mountains, and they lifted their hooves high as they walked, as though they could step out of it. Pointless to try. This close to solstice it barely got light all day and the Blood King’s influence grew stronger with each step they took.
I found Jerd’s dark head at the front of the column, the pennant carried behind him flapping with angry twitches as though admonishing the mist that greyed the air around them. I wanted him to look back, but he didn’t. My breath misted the window’s glass. Jerd had never looked twice at me: orphaned, penniless Ernina, distant cousin of the castle’s lord and lady. He had greater ambitions for his future.
A crow of triumph in the room behind me jolted me from my self-pity. Alyssa was beating Guletta, her musical voice declaring each successful move as it happened. I kept my back to them, watching through the window until the pennants fluttered out of sight, indistinguishable from the grey path that wound through the valley to the mountains.
I kept watching even when Jerd was out of sight. He wanted to become prince of swords so badly, and I was sure the Blood King would choose him – courageous, determined, gods-fearing, he was a strong candidate. I wanted him to get his heart’s desire.
I just wished becoming prince of swords wasn’t his heart’s desire.
“Ha! I’ve taken the last of your soldiers. You can’t become queen of rubies without soldiers.” I turned, my back to the window that now showed nothing of interest. Alyssa’s excitement shone in her smiling face. As focussed as Jerd, she was determined to be queen of rubies for real this year. Beautiful, clever and well-born, she had as good a chance as Jerd as getting what she wanted.
My movement had been small, but it was enough to grab the attention of the players now they weren’t engrossed by the game.
“Perhaps Ernina wants a turn,” Guletta snapped, disappointment making her spiteful. “Maybe she’d like to be queen of rubies.”
“I can’t be queen of rubies.” I was too low-born to be eligible for the honour. Even if I wanted it.
“It’s only for fun,” Alyssa taunted me. Buoyed by success, she rose from her place as though to make room for me. “Play Guletta first, she’s easy to beat. You’re not ready for me yet.”
Alyssa lunged as though she’d grab my arm and force me to play. I shrank away, my back to the wall. I shouldn’t have come to the games room, but the best view of the valley outside the city walls was found here.
“I’ve no interest in becoming queen of rubies.”
Alyssa opened her mouth to argue, but Guletta spoke first. “No, you just want to dream about Jerd all day.”
Heat rose in my face. “I don’t.”
“Just as well,” Alyssa snapped. “Because he’s certainly not dreaming about you.”
She giggled at her wit, while Guletta folded her arms. “I’ve seen you, staring after him like a lovestruck fool.”
I shrugged, silently cursing my flaming face. “He’s handsome. We all like watching him. There’s nothing special in that.”
Impatient at not being the centre of attention, Alyssa plumped back onto her seat. “Never mind her. Play again, Guletta.”
“No. I’m bored of queen of rubies.”
Alyssa glared at her friend, then swept her hand across the board, sending the remaining pieces flying across the room. “No one can beat me, so there’s no point playing.”
“You haven’t been crowned yet,” Guletta pointed out.
Alyssa pouted. “It’s only a matter of time.” She shook back her long, thick hair, lifting her chin arrogantly. “I’m sure to be queen of rubies. The Blood King will like me best so why not get on with it?”
I looked down, captivated by a games piece that had rolled close to me.
Magic swirled around it, obscuring the wooden floor. It was a soldier, with a chip of ruby set in the hilt of its tiny, carved sword: one of the pieces that had brought Alyssa success. It rolled towards the worn toe of my shoe, close to the gap where the leather had worn through and my smallest toe could be seen. I shifted so the piece – and the magic – wouldn’t touch my skin.
Alyssa stared. Her eyes darted between me and the ruby soldier on the floor. I glanced up and our eyes met.
“Pick it up, then,” she ordered, half-cross, half-bemused that I hadn’t done so already. Guletta swooped down and snatched up another piece that had rolled beneath her seat, clattering it back onto the board.
I swallowed. I wanted to reach into the magic, to know how it felt, and at the same time I was terrified to do so.
“What are you waiting for? Pick it up.” Alyssa’s tone dripped scorn while her eyes sparkled, a predator sensing weakness.
I looked down at the ruby soldier that I could touch if I just moved my toe a fraction. The mist of magic swirled from it to me, slipping over my toe, cold and delicious. Magic swelled in the room, not visible like the substance rolling from the games piece, nor like I’d seen outside on the road to the Blood King’s palace, but there to be felt, charged like the air before a storm, waiting for me to touch it.
“Holding a soldier won’t make you queen of rubies, you do know that, don’t you?” Guletta snapped.
Both girls were looking at me now. I swooped down, reaching through the mist, fumbling for the soldier.
The mist grew thicker still. As my fingers closed around the small, cold games piece, I was swept out of the castle to the court of the Blood King.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Who becomes Queen of Rubies? What happens at the Blood King’s court? If you want to read more, sign up and I’ll send you the full story at the end of February.