Welcome to the Peppermint Palace
When we arrive, the Peppermint Palace looks as large as the world.
It’s an extensive monument made of blocks and pillars of peppermint, and decorated with sugar-glass windows reflecting the moonlight. Leo and I pull into its mighty shadow, following Queen Plum’s lead as we pass through the Candy Cane Gates. Flocks of soldiers line our way to the grand gingerbread doors lying in wait at the top of the spearmint steps.
I can’t help but feel how old this place is, even as Queen Plum so naturally approaches it. This place was carved out centuries ago, back when the Sugar Plum Fairy first created Candyland. As my eyes roam across the massive floors rising higher and higher towards the starmoon, every piece of this place seems to declare that this is the palace of the plums.
The sugar-glass wings surrounding each window, the peppermint-carved starmoon above the gingerbread doors, and even the royal frosting painted a rich, deep purple—they all whisper a reminder that I am not worthy to be here.
I frown up at the shine of the starmoon across the judgmental windows. Well, here’s a fun fact, Peppermint Palace: I know I don’t belong here. And I don’t expect to. I’m just here to pass off as a Warrior Queen so Queen Plum doesn’t decide to get the rainbow shard back into royal hands another way. Namely by ripping it back out of my heart.
Our party ascends the spearmint steps. Queen Plum pauses as a troupe of guards pull apart the gingerbread doors for us to enter.
“Air.” Leo nudges my hand with the back of his. “Are you still planning on running?”
He knows me so well. I glance at him out of the corner of my eye and whisper, “Not yet. She wants the rainbow shard back into the hands of the royal family. I can’t risk her trying to kill us to get it back. For now, we place nice.”
He nods, but his eyebrows lower. Strange. Leo’s never shown a dislike for the queen, but the moment we enter the palace with her, a hardness enters his face. It’s a tenseness around his mouth I’ve never seen before.
The doors shut behind us with a boom. I jump and swivel around, hands up. General Rose places a lock over the doors and turns to me, a scarred eyebrow raised.
“At least you have some sense of survival instinct,” she says and marches past me. I scowl at her back. “Queen Plum, unless you have orders to the contrary, I will escort the Warrior Queen and the Guardian to their respective rooms.”
Queen Plum smiles. “As you have planned, so let it be.”
My stomach wads up in my stomach as Rose signals some guards standing by the nearest archways. They move towards Leo. He tenses, and I dive to grab his arm.
Rose intercepts and grips my wrist. I jerk back, but her metal fingers dig into the skin and press into my bones. I wrench back, rearing, and Leo’s eyes spark as he lunges to grab me.
“Stop!” A burst of wind stops the altercation before it can accelerate.
The three of us turn to Queen Plum, Rose still holding me by the wrist. Plum’s warm eyes have turned tired and cold, and her hand remains up, ready to deal out another peel of wind.
“My Warrior Queen,” she says, and her gaze softens. “Please explain your reaction?”
Wow. I’ve never had someone ask me to give my reactions words before. Um. Weird. I run words through my brain until I find ones that match.
“Leo and I have shared a room for the past two years,” I say. “Don’t take him away from me.”
Leo gives a sharp, single nod to confirm. Rose’s grip tightens.
I rear my head up to meet her dark eyes. “And I don’t appreciate being man-handled by some scarred armor-junkie with a god complex!”
Rose’s nostrils flare. I stretch up to bare my teeth at her in return. Another shock of wind makes us both stumble.
“General Rose, please unhand my Warrior Queen.” Queen Plum takes two meaningful steps towards us.
Rose’s fingers let go one at a time, her glare on me for each agonizingly long moment. But finally, she steps back, arms at her side.
“If I may,” she says, to Queen Plum I think, though her glare is still on me. “The Warrior Queen is too young to have full command of her power and authority. She is also untrained, both as a warrior and as royalty. She does not yet know it is inappropriate, unwise, and in fact pathetic to share a room with her Guardian.”
I could have taken most of that easily, but the word pathetic embeds itself in my chest like a red hot.
I open my mouth to argue.
“You are correct, General Rose,” Queen Plum says.
I shut my mouth. Leo’s eyes narrow, his jaw set.
“Air,” she says and turns to me. Her hands reach for mine. Although I want to resist, I know it’s wiser to stay on her good side, so I place mine in hers. “General Rose’s family has served mine for generations. Her mother trained the last Warrior Queen, before the rise of Eater. She knows well the path you should take, and she will help you reach it. I have placed her as your mentor. She will be your closest attendant, and Leolani of the Taffy Mountains your second closest until you are of age. Please trust me when I say this is necessary for not only you but also for Candyland.”
I try not to let my hands stiffen in hers, where she can feel it. But it’s really freaking hard when she’s basically telling me to just let this jerk-face take Leo away from me and sideline him.
I press my lips hard together. Queen Plum’s eyes are soft, but after a quick scan, I can also tell they are unmoving. She has decided. And though she asks me to trust her, I know I have no other option.
I’m lucky she didn’t kill me. If I want to stay alive, I must be her Warrior Queen. And with Leolani in this palace’s clutches, I’ll have to play my cards right if I want him to stay safe as well.
“Alright,” I mutter, tightly. “Fine.”
Queen Plum smiles and lets me take back my hands. “Thank you, Air War-bringer.”
General Rose strides past me. “Follow me then, your ruthlessness. I will take you to your quarters while the captain of the guard will station Leolani with the other soldiers.”
I walk with her but look back at Leo. He’s staring hard at the High Queen’s back as she disappears down a separate corridor—before turning softer eyes on me. I wave back at him as I follow Rose up the stairs. His thick eyebrows pull together. He gives me a single wave before we turn out of sight.
I ball my hands up into fists as Rose leads on in silence. Besides Granny Smith, Leo has been the only thing that’s made the past two years bearable. I can’t believe they’re making him sleep in an entirely different part of the castle.
I glare at the back of Rose’s armored helmet. “So, where’d you get those scars?”
She gives me a single glance over her shoulder. The movement flashes the star-shaped scar again. “None of your business.”
“Well seeing as you’re apparently my new babysitter, you should get used to me prying into your business,” I say. “So what was it? Were you at the wrong end of a meteor? Did you tease a vampire?”
I’ve never even seen a vampire—most magical races avoid Citrus Gorge since the high level of acidity is harder for them to bear than humans—but I’ve heard lots of stories about them. And most of them are about stupid people picking a fight with them and ending up on the wrong end of a bite.
Rose continues touting me up the staircase. “Once,” she says.
I start a bit. “Wait, really? You’ve seen a vampire?”
“Fought one,” she says. “More than one, actually. Especially in the Last Great Battle.”
I pause on the steps. Rose keeps climbing.
The Last Great Battle—even the name sends my mind vaulting back through the clamor of a thousand deaths, of sword slicing bone and marrow, of Leo and my screams filling the void of Eater’s domain.
Rose stops when she notices I haven’t moved. “What?” Her eyes scan me. “Is the Warrior Queen afraid?”
The question shakes me back to the present. I puff out my chest and march up after her. “More like surprised that you were ever slapdash enough to let a vampire scar your face.”
“It wasn’t a vampire that gave me this scar,” she says and traces the bottom point of the star on her chin. I stop a step beneath her. “The vampire scars are on my back.”
She turns and leads the way. I stare at her armored back, suddenly wondering what vampire scars look like.
Finally, after about five million steps, we reach the floor Rose was apparently aiming for. She takes a sharp turn into a long, high-vaulted corridor, and I have to adjust to a brisker pace to keep up with her. Polished, white mint walls reflect the starmoon’s light from every large window, so it feels as if we’re passing through an ethereal world made of chilly, blue crystal.
“So are you going to tell me what did engrave a star on your face?” I ask. “Hah! If I squint, it kind of looks like the starmoon—”
“This is your room.”
We stop at the end of the hall, in front of the biggest doors I’ve seen so far, second only to the grand entrance. I gape up at the gingerbread’s massive height, the royal icing filigree decorating its width. It’s the finest craftsmanship I’ve ever seen. Which again, isn’t saying much, but still.
“This is my room?” I ask.
She shoves the doors apart. “I’m not repeating myself.”
I barely have time to frown before the room opens up before us, and I find myself drawn helplessly inside.
Two of Granny Smith’s cottages could fit inside this room alone. The place has polished peppermint floor with a beeswax layer to keep it shiny. Someone must have cleaned in in preparation for our arrival, too, because a hint of lemon cleaner carries through the room. At least I know the place is sanitized. A few doors, closed right now, lead off to who knows where.
Various pieces of heavy, hand-carved gingerbread furniture help fill the huge expanse. The bed stands at the centerpiece. It’s a huge circle covered in thick, cotton-candy covers and taffy-knitted quilts stacked on the end. I draw close to it and brush a hand over it. My hands feel calloused in comparison to the finery.
My heart grows quiet. Rose’s sharp footsteps stop behind me.
“Queen Air?” she asks.
There might be the first hint of softness in that question, but it’s hard to tell.
Suddenly, the vastness of the room just makes me feel small. I pull my calloused, grainy hands back from the smooth bedding.
“Not everyone has a bed this big, huh?” I ask.
“No, your ruthlessness.”
I let my arms hang. “Where’d you put Leolani?”
“I’m not going to tell you that.”
I whirl around. “He’s not getting a bed like this, is he?”
If there had been anything softer in her face before, it’s definitely gone now. Her eyes are about as friendly as the cookie dough caverns. Which, I guess might sound confusing since cookies are kind of delicious, but to clarify, no, the cookie dough caverns are not friendly.
“No,” she says, “He’s not. Neither will any of the soldiers, or the captains, or I as general. These things are reserved for the Warrior Queen and the High Queen. To honor what you do for Candyland.”
I grip my hands into fists. “I—I didn’t—I didn’t—”
She raises an eyebrow, and I can’t finish.
I don’t know how to dare say aloud that I didn’t kill Eater for Candyland.
I did it for me. For revenge.
Rose simply turns away. “We’ll work on your speech beginning tomorrow, after your first sparring lesson.”
I straighten as she heads for the door. “Wait, sparring? Tomorrow? I don’t get an adjustment day or anything?”
“It should be no surprise to you, Warrior Queen, but the enemies of Candyland do not sleep,” she says. “They wait. And if you think it’s happenstance that High Queen Plum has asked for a Warrior Queen to join her at this time, let me assure you—it is no mere coincidence.”
She shuts the door. And I’m left in the isolation of my new queenly quarters, surrounded with the aftermath of her sinister warning.
Ever heard of the Peculiar Purple Pie Man of Porcupine Peak?