Four Dead Queens

Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte




The morning sun caught the palace’s golden dome, flooding the Concord with light. While everyone halted their business and glanced up—as though it were a sign from the four queens themselves—we perched overhead like sea vultures, ready to swoop in and pick them apart.

“Who shall we choose today?” Mackiel asked. He was leaning against a large screen atop a building that displayed the latest Queenly Reports. He looked like a charming, well-dressed young man from Toria. At least, that was what he looked like.

“Choices, choices,” I said with a grin.

He moved to drape his arm heavily around my shoulder. “Who do you feel like being today? A sweet young girl? A damsel in distress? A reluctant seductress?” He puckered his lips at me.

I laughed and pushed him away. “I’ll be whatever makes us the most money.” I usually picked my targets, but Mackiel had been in a good mood this morning, and I didn’t want to tip the boat. He submerged easily into darkness these days, and I’d have done anything to keep him in the light.

I shrugged. “You choose.”

He raised his dark eyebrows before tilting his bowler hat to further survey the crowd. The line of kohl around his lids made his deep-set blue eyes stand out all the more. Nothing escaped his scrutiny. A familiar smirk played at his lips.

The crisp Concord air was clean, unlike the acrid tang of seaweed, fish and rotted wood that pervaded our home down on Toria’s harbor. It was Quadara’s capital and the most expensive city to live in, as it shared boundaries with Toria, Eonia and Ludia. Archia was the only region separated from the mainland.

The stores on the ground level sold a variety of approved goods, including Eonist medicines, the latest Ludist fashions and toys, and fresh Archian produce and cured meat—all collated and distributed by Torian traders. Squeals of children, the murmur of business and sighs of queenly gossip bounced between the glass storefronts.

Behind the buildings rose an opaque golden dome, encapsulating the palace and concealing the confidential dealings within. The palace entrance was an old stone building called the House of Concord.

As Mackiel searched for a target, he held his middle finger to his lips—an insult to the queens hiding inside their golden dome. When he caught my eye, he tapped his lip and grinned.

“Him,” he said, his gaze landing on the back of a dark figure who descended the stairs from the House of Concord into the crowded main square. “Get me his comm case.”

The target was clearly Eonist. While we Torians were bundled up in layers to ward off the biting chill, he wore a tight-fitting black dermasuit over his skin, an Eonist fabric made of millions of microorganisms that maintained body temperature with their secretions. Gross, but handy in the depths of winter.

“A messenger?” I flashed Mackiel a hard look. The delivery would be of high importance if the messenger was coming from the House of Concord, the only place where Torians, Eonists, Archians and Ludists conducted business together.

Mackiel scratched at his neck with ring-covered fingers, a nervous habit. “Not up for the challenge?”

I scoffed. “Of course I am.” I was his best dipper, slipping in and out of pockets with a feather-light touch.

“And remember—”

“Get in quick. Get out quicker.”

He grabbed my arm before I could slip off the roof. His eyes were serious; it had been months since he’d looked at me that way—as though he cared. I almost laughed, but it lodged somewhere between my chest and throat.

“Don’t get caught,” he said.

I grinned at his concern. “When have I ever?” I climbed down from the rooftop and into the crowd.

I hadn’t gotten far when an old man stopped abruptly in front of me and raised his hand to press four fingers to his lips in respect for the queens—the proper greeting, as opposed to Mackiel’s middle-fingered version. I dug in my heels. My spiked soles gripped the well-worn cobblestones. I halted in time, my cheek brushing the back of his shoulders.

Dammit! What was it about the palace that inspired such slack-jawed stupidity? It wasn’t like you could see anything through the golden glass. And even if you could, so what? The queens didn’t care about us. And certainly not someone like me.

I slapped the cane from the old man’s hand. He stumbled to the side.

He turned, his face pinched in annoyance.

“Sorry!” I said. I fluttered my lashes at him from under my large-brimmed hat. “The crowd pushed in on me.”

His expression softened. “No worries, my dear.” He tipped his head. “Enjoy your day.”

I gave him an innocent smile before slipping his silver pocket watch into a fold in my skirt. That would teach him.

I stood on my toes to find my target. There. He didn’t look much older than me—eighteen, perhaps. His suit clung like a second skin—from his fingertips to his neck, covering his torso, legs and even his feet. While I wrestled with corsets and stiff skirts each and every day, I couldn’t imagine his outfit would be any easier to dress in.

Still, I envied the material and the freedom of movement it allowed. Like him, my muscles were defined from constantly running, jumping and climbing. While it was not unusual for a Torian to be fit and trim, my muscles weren’t from sailing back and forth to Archia, or from unloading heavy goods at the docks. I’d long been entangled within the darker side of Toria. Hidden beneath my modest layers and pinching corsets, no one knew of my wickedness. My work.

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