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My feet slip into the chilled stream of limeade flowing through Granny Smith’s backyard, numbing away the aches from this morning’s run.
As I’d hoped, the acid lime starts scrubbing the top layer of skin away. I wiggle my toes. My bones hurt every which way I twist them, but after years of being—well, me—I’ve learned that there’s no way to escape pain.
This pain was worth it at least. I pat the bag of essentials I’d stolen from the market. Granny Smith would hate it if she knew I’d taken this stuff instead of “gotten paid from a small job” like I usually told her, but I have to do something for her. She’d never say so, but I know Leo and I are a drag on her finances. And no one in town will give Leo or me honest work give me work because of—well, again because I was me.
So I was going to do what I had to for her.
Suddenly, a slam breaks the calm morning. “Air!”
I hike my shoulders up to my ears, wince, and turn with an uncomfortable grin. “Leo?”
Leo’s marching out of Granny Smith’s backdoor, headed straight for me. I try one last attempt at hiding the bag of goods. Leo’s not super happy about me stealing either. Go figure. But after a moment, I register the flash of panic in his gold eyes, and the fear gritted between his sharp canines, and tug my feet out of the stream to meet him halfway across the garden.
“What’s wrong? You look—”
He grabs my shoulders before I can finish. “Air, the High Queen is here.”
I stiffen. The High Queen of Candyland, Queen Plum, in Citrus Gorge? We were practically the most back-lemonade, hidden-away distract of Candyland. A week’s travel from Peppermint Palace, at least. And we hadn’t had any royal messengers announcing her touring the lands or anything.
Slowly, I take his hands off my shoulders. “And you sound terrified of Queen Plum why?”
His thick hair falls over his eyes. I sigh and, after a stiff silence, push the coils out of his eyes. His bushy eyebrows pull together.
“Air, what if Mayor Marshmallow has told her about us?”
Oh. My heart grabs my ribs at the thought. I know the people of Citrus Gorge haven’t liked us since we came here, but we’ve never done anything so bad that the Mayor could have us arrested—
Or, we’ve never gotten caught doing anything that bad.
Leo’s eyes dart behind me. His shoulders slump. “Please tell me that bag isn’t full of gumdrops you stole from Farmer Orange’s stand.”
Dang it, I should have hidden it after all. “Well—I mean, it’s not filled with gumdrops.”
“Lemonheads?” He scowls.
I start waving my hands. “Eh, eh, details, details.” I grab him by the shoulders this time and turn him around, pushing him back towards the cottage. “The point is, Leo, there’s no way the High Queen of Candyland is coming here for us. I doubt she’s even coming her for Mayor Marshmallow.” I pop my head underneath his arm and joggle the dried orange peel knob. “She’s probably doing her ‘how’s everyone recovering from Eater’s reign’ annual checkup. Uh—four months early.”
Leo pulls away from me. “You realize how unconvincing you sound?”
I push open the backdoor and wave him in behind me. “You realize you’re trying to make me think before I’ve had breakfast?” I shake my head and move inside.
Leo sighs and shuts the door behind us. Granny Smith’s cottage is small, but it’s a gingerbread masterpiece. I like to think that’s partially mine and Leo’s doing. Since we came here, we’ve been trying to do little things to help with the upkeep. Like the royal icing crown molding, or the fresh layers of food coloring on the walls.
Okay, yes, we stole the materials.
But Granny Smith deserves something nice after taking us in. Especially since no one else would.
I finish admiring our latest work and take a tight turn into the kitchen. It’s empty. Granny must still be asleep. Good—I don’t want her to hear this conversation.
I crouch by a gingerbread cupboard and pull out a few bags of sugar. “Can you go grab my bag from outside, Leo?”
Leo leans on the licorice counter. “Air. This is serious.”
“I agree. There’s nothing more serious than breakfast.” I stand up with bags of powder sugar and brown sugar in my arms. “So, bag of stolen goods, please?”
His hair falls in his eyes again as he frowns. I sigh, put the bags down, and push his bangs out of his eyes again.
“We need to get you a haircut,” I say and turn a couple cups of brown sugar into a bowl.
Leo leans close. My side tingles as he lowers his mouth near my ear. “Air, come on.”
I pinch my lips together. “Okay, just keep your voice low.” I measure out a cup of powdered sugar. “I don’t want to wake up Granny. She worries about us too much already.”
He nods and moves to the other side of the counter, so we can hold eye contact. When he speaks, he speaks lower and smoother. My stomach tightens a little at the sound. It’s weird how quickly he’s grown into a fifteen-year-old’s voice. It seems like only yesterday his voice was still breaking.
“No one’s noticed who we are for two years,” he says. “But I think we might’ve let it slip last week. When we killed the licorice beast and saved Muffet?”
My hands pause in the bowl of sugars. So that’s what he’s worried about.
I bite my lip and force my fingers to keep moving. “She promised she wouldn’t say anything.”
“What if she did?” he asks. “You know we can’t trust anyone here. What if news got to the High Queen?”
Heat rises in my chest. I’ve been avoiding thinking about this since it happened. I didn’t want to save Muffet—it was selfish, but in sixteen years, I’ve never been happier than living with Granny Smith and Leo. I didn’t want to do anything that might clue someone in to who Leo and I are—to what we did two years ago.
But the licorice beast’s claws were so sharp. And Muffet was bleeding.
I hate blood.
I rip a bag of chocolate chips out of the drawer. “So what, you really think the citizens of Citrus Gorge figured out we’re the ones who killed Eater?”
Leo’s gold eyes glint. “No. I think High Queen Plum figured out you killed Eater.”
We both stop moving, eyes boiling across the counter. If that is true—and I’m not saying I believe it is—but if it is true, we only have one question left to consider:
How soon do we run?
A shuffle moves across the floor. We both ****** the nearest knives and whirl to face the sound.
Granny Smith’s fluffy, green eyebrows jump up her forehead. “Well, aren’t you two lively this morning.”
I laugh awkwardly and put the knife back down on the counter. Leo scratches the back of his head and casually drops his knife back into an inconspicuous drawer.
Granny keeps a single brow raised and shuffles into the kitchen. She scoots me aside and starts stirring the chocolate chips into my sugar mix.
“You two seem tenser than usual,” she says. Her voice has a friendly quaver, and I watch the top of her head bob with her stirring. “Is someone giving you a hard time in town again?”
She eyes Leolani first. His cheeks go a little pink. He has a harder time lying to her than I do, so I make throat-slitting motions over her head as motivation.
“Uh, no Granny,” he forces out. “We’re doing fine. Air was just nervous she couldn’t make your lemonhead brittle as well as you.”
Granny’s stirring grows more vigorous. “So that’s what this is!” she chuckles. “Well of course you can’t sweet drop, but you’re getting better. Now, where are the lemonheads?” She glances around the counters.
“I will go get them!” I flash a grin and run for the backdoor.
Leo glares at me. “I’ll come too.”
“Oh nonsense, Leolani dear.” Granny takes his wrist, and he stays for her sake. “Air can get them on her own. I could use your help getting this onto the stove. My hands aren’t as strong as they used to be…”
Granny’s voice trails as I turn out the backdoor once more. The smell of lemon floats high in the air as I cross the garden and ****** up my bag again. I pull the taffy fabric open and peer inside. The lemonheads are perfectly ripe—Farmer Orange really is great at what he does. It almost makes me feel bad for taking his stuff.
But then I remember that Muffet is his daughter, and I saved her life, so that should be payment enough.
Especially if Leolani is right about her giving us away.
My stomach clenches.
I rush back toward the cottage, swinging the bag in my hand. Then something rumbles. It’s a rhythmic rumbling that has each lemongrass strand quaking, and the loose chocolate soil Leolani and I just tilled yesterday shiver and crumble. I grab the side of the house, whipping my head around, but the licorice fence blocks any sign of what it could be.
I rush into the house. Leolani and Granny Smith have abandoned the kitchen for the front window, both staring out the sugarglass. I join them. Instantly, Leolani places a hand on my shoulder. We share a look over Granny’s head—and I know that whatever it is, it’s not good.
“Well now,” Granny whispers, and pushes on her taffy lace curtains. “It’s not time for her majesty’s annual visit, is it? My mind must be going…”
Over Granny Smith’s wispy green hair, I catch sight of rows and rows of shining, armored soldiers.
My stomach flips. I pull the curtains back across. “Let’s finish that breakfast brittle, Granny.”
“Oh no, sweet drop.” She avoids my ushering hand and heads for the front door. “When the High Queen of Candyland appears, all citizens must come to the town square. To do otherwise would be treason.” She smiles and takes the orange-peel knob in hand. “Leo, dear, can you turn off the stove?”
Leo’s brown skin grows a little pallid, but he does as she asks. I stand stiff in the small living room. Has the house always been this small? I swear it’s crushing inwards, each corner crawling closer and closer.
Leo stops beside me. We’re a wall, staring at Granny Smith.
Her happy, wrinkled eyes widen slowly. Her blue eyes blink at us.
“What’s wrong, you two?”
We’ve never told Granny about why we came here. We never told her why we were hiding, and she’s never asked. I was always grateful for that. Because if we told her, she’d be complicit with us.
“Nothing, Granny,” I whisper. My legs are shaking now, but I force myself to follow her. “Let’s go. We’ll go.”
Leo flashes me a look. I nod. We have to go with her, so she doesn’t suspect us, or more like no one can say that she suspected us. We’ll have to lose her in the crowd and run if things go south.
But I’m not too worried. Leo and I are great at running now.
Nope. Not worried at all.
My knees try to buckle as we exit the cottage.
The rumbling is louder out here. I cover my ears, nose wrinkling, as we follow Granny down the plain chocolate on the side of the road. It’s a bit sticky today after the lemonade rain last night, and my bare feet start collecting layers as we head toward the center of town.
Granny totters along, leading us along. Leo leans close as the town square comes into sight.
“North or south?” he asks.
He means our escape plan. When we first came here, we decided we had two routes. North could take us toward Berry County or the Taffy Mountains, but we’d have some cliffs to climb first. South would be easier, but it would take us closer to Mint Metropolis and the Peppermint Palace—which, if Leo’s right about the Queen, would be more dangerous.
I bite my lip. In this situation, neither is ideal.
“North,” I force out. We’ve planned a route up the cliffs, but it will be hard after a fresh rain.
Still, Leo nods. We enter the town square with Granny and merge into the growing crowd. Farmer Orange’s eyes find me through the shifting townspeople and narrow. I grin. His top lip curls back.
One thing about being an outside here, though, is that the crowd gives us a small berth. Just enough for Granny Smith not to get jostled and the air to be breathable.
The soldiers finish filing into the area, and the rumbling finally stops.
I let out a relieved sigh. Probably a bit too early.
A whiff of a strong, sweet scent carves through the sour air. I squint against it. Leo rubs his nose. He’s more sensitive to smells than I am, being a werewolf. His eyes even water.
I get on my tiptoes as the square falls silent.
High Queen Plum stands at the entrance of the square, separate from her army.
Even at a distance, I can tell it’s her. Her pink hair drifts in a breeze that isn’t really there, rolling and curling. Her black skin shines in the sunlight like a chocolate waterfall. They say her eyes are pink as her hair, but I’m too far away to tell if the stories are true.
But the rest they say about her—that she’s the very image of the Sugar Plum Fairy if she’d had no wings—is definitely true.
She steps forward on sugarglass heels. Each step sounds like whispering bells. Polite. Gentle. Unmistakable.
And she stops just ten feet from the crowd. There is something different about this visit than her last two annual ones. Then, she had gone about her political business in reverent quiet—meeting with the mayor, checking on industry, interviewing businesses and commerce and such. It was easy to stay out of her way.
Now, she looks into the crowd with purpose. Like she’s searching for something in particular. Or someone.
I lower myself off my tiptoes.
“I have come to this place for the one called Air.” Her voice rings over our heads.
My heart stops.
Leo grabs my hand. “We’ve got to go.”
We turn around immediately and start diving through the crowd.
“And the one called Leolani,” her voice continues.
We’re pushing through people now, slipping and dodging every which way we can. I orient myself by the northern most peak of the gorge and, head down, forge ahead.
“Bring them forward at once.”
It’s a bit dumb, but Leolani and I never took into consideration how the townspeople might react if we tried to escape. Yeah, we know they don’t like us. After two years we are well aware of that.
But we never thought they’d be eager to deliver us to our execution.
Immediately after Queen Plum’s announcement, burly hands latch around my arms. Old instincts I’ve tried to bury roar back up instantly, and I’m thrashing, biting, clawing. I draw blood on several different hands and arms. I hate blood. I turn from the sight and lose my orientation in the crowd. I can’t see Leo. I can’t see the northern peak. My breath comes sharp and fast, and everywhere I turn there are people trying to detain me. I grab cocoa dirt and throw it in their faces, using their surprise to dive under legs and run.
I run and run and run through surprised people’s taken-aback arms.
When I burst out of the crowd, I’m face-to-face with Queen Plum.
I freeze. No! I got disoriented and ran straight into the threat.
Up close, she’s even more beautiful than the stories say. Her eyes aren’t just the normal fairy shade of pink, either—they’re bright and warm, like cotton candy clouds at sunset.
Those eyes fall on me, and I’m a prisoner.
In just a few moments, I’m not alone. Four men thrust Leolani out of the crowd, and he stumbles into place next to me. Our hands find each other’s, though neither of us can seem to tear our gazes away from her majesty.
Queen Plum stops two feet away, so I’m in her sparkling shadow. My throat attempts to close.
“I have been looking for you,” she says, “for two years.”
Two years? My body erupts in sweat, and my back flashes hot and cold. That means she’s been looking for me since I killed Eater. I check our surroundings for escape, but the entire Candylanian Guard surrounds us. I don’t dare turn my back on the queen now. But Leo flips to press his back to mine, so we have a better vantage point together.
Queen Plum’s pink eyes dart to Leo’s head. My heart thrashes, and I step forward.
“Let him go,” I stumble out. “If you’re going to execute me, fine, but don’t hurt Leolani.”
Leo whirls around. “No! I wouldn’t let you—”
Queen Plum raises her hand. A gust of wind forces us silent.
**** fairy magic.
Leo and I slowly lower our defensive arms. In response, the High Queen smiles. “I’m not here to execute the savior Candyland.”
My heart stops. Leo stills beside me.
The Queen closes her eyes and flicks her wrist. With just the simple motion as signal, the entire Candylanian Guard falls to its knees in a wave of bows. I stiffen. And then I jump as the High Queen herself lowers herself into the steepest curtsey I’ve ever seen.
It’s the only curtsey I’ve ever seen, but still.
Her hands stretch out to us. “Air of Citrus Gorge and Leolani of the Taffy Mountains.”
We look at each other. How did she know where we’re originally from? Even the people here in Citrus Gorge didn’t know I was born here. And actually, I hadn’t even known that’s where Leo is from.
She lifts her head, and her hair continues to blow in a breeze that doesn’t exist.
“Air and Leolani. Together, you defeated the demon of greed who two years ago persecuted the nation of Candyland, and together, you freed us from his grasp when I could not.”
Beyond the circle of guards, murmuring grows among the townspeople. I can’t tell whether it sounds disbelieving or impressed. Either way, I’m just trying not to throw up.
With all the grace of sunrise, Queen Plum straightens to full height once again. The guards stay bowing.
She pins me with her pink gaze. “Air, I have come here to ask you to be my Warrior Queen.”
A clear gasp breaks through the town.
My jaw goes slack. Did she—say what?
She steps forward, her hand open. “You were the one who drove the killing blow through the demon’s heart, were you not?”
I nod a little, still gaping.
“Then it was you who received the emblem of the rainbow shard. Correct?”
There’s a beat of silence as that terrifying truth splinters open.
For two years, Leo and I have been afraid this moment would come: That someone would learn we killed Eater. That they would discover I received the rainbow shard of legend into my heart—the one Eater, the demon of greed, stole from the royal family when he rose to power.
The rainbow shard is meant to reside only with the royal family. It marks the queen’s right to rule.
And me having it—that is a crime worthy of death.
My hand shakes as I place a hand over my heart. I can still remember the sinking, sizzling pain of the moment when the rainbow shard slid from the demon’s heart into mine. I wonder, in a hopeless, heady moment, if that’s how it will feel when Queen Plum stabs me to take it back.
Leo leaps in front of me.
“You won’t take it from her,” he barks, spreading out his arms.
Sounds of sharp, clanking armor rises around us. The guards are standing, some grabbing their spears or weapons. I grab Leo’s arm, ready to put it down or drag him away into a run, I’m not sure—but Queen Plum lifts a hand, and the guards halt.
“I am not here to take it from her,” she says.
There’s a beat of silence where we just stare at her, dumbfounded.
“In slaying the beast, she has become the rightful bearer of the rainbow shard of legend,” she says. “It is hers and hers alone. That is why I have come to ask her to rule by my side.”
More silence. More of me gaping at her.
She extends her hand again. “Too long has Candyland been without its two queens. A High Queen needs her Warrior Queen. So tell me, Air of Citrus Gorge—will you answer my call to the throne?”
Leo steps shakily to the side. I grab his hand before he can step too far away, but my other can’t seem to rise to take the Queen’s offering.
She waits for me. The guard wait for me.
All of Candyland waits to see if I will defy its High Queen’s impossible, terrifying request.
Leo squeezes my hand. My mouth trembles as it opens, but at last words come:
“Yes,” I say. “I mean, I guess.”
Hi! This is KaylaCub, founder of Speculative Girls and. . . well, yeah, general nerd.
Thanks for tuning in to my first story here on Underlined. The Queen of Candyland updates every Friday. Please feel free to leave feedback! We’re excited to make friends here! (Does that make me sound like a My Little Pony fan? Well good. Because I am. Hah!)