The Carving out of Queens
When Rose said we’d spar in the morning, I didn’t think she meant six in the morning.
But she did.
The training room is on the first floor of the Peppermint Palace, located near the back. As she leads me there, I notice more and more guards appearing as we move deeper into this section of the palace. My heart speeds up, and I search the movements of armor and readiness.
But by the time we make it to the training room, I haven’t spotted Leo once.
So naturally, I’m frowning as Rose leads me inside the training room.
The floor is coated in a layer of gelatin. I prod it with my bare toes. It’s a nice mix of firm and springy, so it should perfect to practice on. But that’s honestly the least of my worries.
I look up with a frown. “Where’s Leo? Isn’t he supposed to be my Guardian or something?”
“He is, and to be a good Guardian, he must learn to know his place as a soldier first.” Rose turns around, flipping a spear upright in her hand. It gives a sharp slap against her hard palm. “His training will be very different from yours, so you won’t be training together.”
I scowl. This queen gig just keeps getting worse and worse.
With a sigh, I place a hand on my hip. “Okay, yeah, fine. So what’re we here for? You going to teach me how to kill terrifying beasts?” I wave my hands. “Oh wait—I’ve already done that!”
Rose twirls the spear, chin cocked. Her eyes roam up and down my form. Slowly, I put my hands down and frown harder at her. Her eyes remain still and quiet through every rotation of the spear. Somewhere after the third one, though, a flash moves beneath her eyelashes—a flash with a bite like licorice.
I take a careful step back. “What?”
She lunges forward.
The spear swings for my ear. I lurch back, and the tip scrapes the bridge of my nose. Heat swells there, but there’s no time to stop up the blood. The spear’s head veers for me again, and behind it all the power of Rose’s braced and armored shoulder. I leap left, press my hands to the ground, and launch off to get more distance between us.
I land a few feet away. “What—are—you—doing?” I raise both my forearms just in time to block the flat end of the spear.
Rose’s eyes glare down above the glinting nutmeg steel. “You’re sloppy.”
She shoves. I falter back, then twist to stabilize my legs. I turn to make an assault before she can, but she’s faster than I expected. The neck of the spear slams into my unprotected gut.
I stumble back, gasping for air, and the spear swings around to slam against my back. I fall forward onto the gelatin. My hands smash into its softness, my face inches from the mat. Blood drops fall from my nose onto the surface.
“You bested Eater by luck. Not prowess.” A boot catches my side.
Before the sharpness of the pain can register, I’m suddenly rolling, rolling, and then banging into the nearest wall. The impact reverberates through my teeth.
Rose marches towards me, the spear looming in her hands.
I clutch the gelatin mat, digging my fingers into it to crawl away. I have no breath—I can’t run. But I won’t just lie here waiting for her to do me in. She closes in. I speed up my crawling, my lungs spasming as they desperately struggle to bring in more oxygen.
Smart. I eye Rose, my crawling getting faster as her eyes narrow further. So Queen Plum brought me here to kill me after all—to steal the rainbow shard back for the royal family. Smart. She must have known I’d go with her to save my life.
Yes. The High Queen is smart.
But I’m not going to die without a fight. I gnash my teeth together and hunker down into the mat, holding position as Rose’s shadow crawls over me. She stands over me, her boots hitting the mat, and drops the spear butt near my hand.
“You’ve been running on instinct and terror,” she says. “And a drop of talent, I’m sure. But that’s not enough to be a Warrior Queen.”
I eye her, waiting. She lifts her chin. Her eyes narrow into dark *****. And my lungs finally loosen so I get a deep, driving breath of fresh air. Then, what I was waiting for—
Her fingers relax around the spear shaft. Just for a second.
I lunge forward, scoop the spear’s butt up in my hand, and send it sideways.
Rose stumbles backwards, on the defensive, to redirect the point from her face. I don’t bother grappling for the weapon—I don’t know how to use it. So I leap upwards and slam my foot sideways into the soft place where her breastplate and her girded hips don’t quite meet.
Her abs aren’t as soft as I’d hoped, but they’re not nutmeg steel, that’s for sure.
A puff of air goes out of her, and she stumbles back. But even for that, she doesn’t let go of the spear. I leap to the side of her and dash away, for the exit.
I’m not here to fight Rose and defeat her. I can tell she’s more skilled than I am. She’s older, knows more moves. I have to find Leolani. I came here to protect myself and Leo, and that’s what I’ll run away for, too.
Just as I reach the doorway, a metallic snap runs through my shirt.
My hand never makes it to the doorknob. The moment I move forward, my shoulder sends me springing back.
I whirl around—or try to. But then I come face-to-face with Rose’s spear blocking my path.
It’s impaled through my shirt’s left shoulder. Jawbreakers, no! I’m not being done in by palace clothing. I grit my teeth and swing as much as the spear will allow—and spot Rose headed for me, just three feet away.
I duck and slide the shirt off. The cool air sends a chill through my bare chest, and I lunge again for the door—
“Tenacious, I’ll give you that.”
My fingers have just enough time to skim the peppermint doorknob before Rise’s captures me and sends me crashing to the floor.
“Agh!” I fall back onto her metal chest.
Her arms lock around my throat, her leg trapping my knees in place. It’s a chokehold of some sort, but no matter which way I wriggle or turn or hit, it’s inescapable. And I lose more and more air, once again, with every attempt at escape.
Finally, when I’m gasping, she lets go.
I flop over onto the mat, lungs heaving. Rose stands and dusts herself off.
“There,” she says. “Now stop running away. I’m not trying to hurt you.”
I stumble up, fists still high and swinging. “Oh yeah? Then what was that spear about, huh? Is that how people welcome queens into the fold here?”
“Yes,” she says, with no hint of humor. She takes up her spear from the ground and walks over to the weapons rack. “To know how to train the Warrior Queen, I have to see who you are as a warrior.” She places it in its holster.
Then, she turns and strides toward me. Her hands hang loose, but I keep mine high and ready.
“To know the warrior inside you,” she says, “I have to see your fear, taste your tenacity, and experience your strategy.” She quickens her steps. I force myself not to run for the door again. “You, Air War-Bringer, are terrified and paranoid. You are tenacious and suspicious. Your strategies are short-term and desperate.”
She stops in front of me. I lock my knees and raise my chin, so we’re looking dead-on into each other’s eyes.
The left corner of her mouth gives a sharp quirk. “In short, you are young and pathetic.”
The words slide in like a knife through my belly. I clutch my fingers into fists. I rear back, ready to shout, but she flicks out a knife and presses it to my lips.
I freeze. My insides shiver, but I’m smart enough not to move with a blade this close to my vitals.
“But every Warrior Queen starts out young and pathetic.” Rose is just a few breaths away, on the other side of the knife, eyes narrow. “You have good instincts. They are too strong and they don’t value the bigger picture, but as you tame them and become their master—you might have potential.”
I glare at her, waiting for my skin to warm the knife’s cold touch.
Slowly, she removes it and sheathes it at her side. My breathing evens out. When she doesn’t move, I measure her hard stare and take a couple steps back.
She tilts her head, and the strap of her helmet falls against her neck.
“Well that was a neat first day,” I say and clap my hands together. “So, what does it take to get you fired? Please tell me it’s as easy as filling out some restraining order paperwork in Queen Plum’s office.”
I didn’t think it was possible, but the edges of Rose’s eyes actually seem to crinkle with the slightest touch of humor. She shakes her head and strides back to the weapon rack.
“Today was your entrance exam, Queen Air. Tomorrow we will start your real first lesson.” She starts unloading bits and pieces off the rack behind her. “We will go over beginner move sets, basic and long-form stratagem, and start outfitting you with appropriate weaponry for your size and skill level.” She glances back at me. “In the meantime, you should probably go to the infirmary. Your face is still bleeding.”
I touch my nose and find it smeared with blood. Then I guffaw. “And whose fault is that?”
“Yours.” She turned back to the weapons, filtering through various sharp objects. “For not dodging fast enough.”
I cover my nose with my hand and sneer at her before heading for the door. Just before grabbing the knob, I stop and glance back at her, just in case she’s going to throw another something at me.
Her back is still turned to me. “Hurry up, Queen Air.” She turns so just her glinting eye spies me across the room. “You can’t afford to walk around looking weak.”
I frown and leave.