CHAPTER ONE VALENCIA
Of all the things my father taught me, this is the one most likely to keep me alive tonight: Your hair, mija, can always hold more knives than you think.
I give my hair another twist and shove in two more of the tiny blades I’ve spent half my life learning to throw. Tonight I’ll be getting close enough to Adare’s borders to taste the salt in the air. Whenever you get close to Adare, you can never have too many knives.
I learned that the hard way.
My father told me not to go out there that night. Just like he’d probably tell me to stay at el palacio right now.
But my father had to know I’d follow him. He had to know that the best way to get me to do something was to forbid me to do it. And besides, he needed me. I’ve always been my father’s mano derecha, his right-hand boy or girl or whoever I am at the moment. Whoever I need to be to sneak around somewhere unnoticed or slip into a room I’m not supposed to be in. I can’t count how many times I’ve showed up in disguise before he even knew he needed me to go get a look at some dignitary’s correspondence or a visiting prince’s books.
And that night, I dressed the part. I put on the most spectacular outfit I had. A deep green gown refined enough to make me look older. A velvet cape stitched with so many leaves of gold, red, and amber fabric that I looked like I was wearing autumn. My best cane, ahuehuete wood set with fire opals. Hair pinned back exactly like the most elegant ladies. All the better to impersonate someone important enough to be at a negotiation between two enemy kingdoms.
The moment I got to the edge of the woods, I saw the Adare boy—boy? Man? I still don’t know. He didn’t see me, but I watched him. I watch everyone.
There was nothing all that notable about him. Dark hair, gray coat, brown trousers. He had a staff with him—a nice one; even from that distance I could see the heft and the metalwork—and I could tell from the way he was holding it that he used it to help his walking, similar to how I used my own bastón.
There was something about the way he was looking around. Not like he was looking for something, or someone. More like he was checking. Which instantly made me think he was supposed to be an inconspicuous guard. Someone I’d need to avoid as I went deeper in, where half our court and half of Adare’s had gathered.
I should have already had a knife out. I know that now. But I didn’t. I was looking into the trees to plan my route, how best I could casually swan into the proceedings like a fashionably late duquesa.
So I didn’t see him do it. But when that light came, flashing hard as sun off water, and blue as moonlight through ice, I looked back at him, and I saw.
He was holding that staff with both hands, driving it into the ground. As if he was putting all his weight and strength into keeping it there. He stared into the light like he was calling it by name. And I knew. I could tell he was the one doing this.
I reached to pull out a knife. Whatever he was doing, I knew that if I got a blade in his arm, I could probably throw his concentration enough to stop him.
But I hadn’t woven them into my hair that night. I’d rushed out with them tucked into my boots, but hadn’t taken the time to slip them into my braid.
If I had, I might have been fast enough.
The force following that light came hard as thunder after lightning. It went through me and knocked me to the ground. The leaves of cloth on my cape blew into a whirl. The force of that light was as hard as a current. Even with the help of my cane, I couldn’t get up, not until everything had settled and gone quiet.
By then, he was gone.
What that boy did to the woods that night took our king and queen. It took my father. And every night since then I’ve known what we all should have known: There’s no negotiating with Adare. All we can do is win.
I don’t blame the boy for everything. It’s almost certain that he was acting under orders.
Still, if I ever see him again, he’s dead.
I slip one more knife into my hair.
The mistake I made that night, I’ll never make it again.
I just couldn’t stay away from the edges that night. I hardly ever can.
Know where your lines are. See the maps in your mind, laid out over the castle, over the battlefield, over the land. Always. If you lose track of those lines, they’ll be in control, and not you.
My mother’s voice, my queen’s voice, as I’ve heard it my whole life, pulled me to the borders of our land. That night, it pulled me to her, to my father, to the Elianan ruling family and their advisors. Another negotiation. This time with its venue in the most disputed zone of the forest between Adare and Eliana.
I tried to spot one of our guards in the dark, or one of our horses. I’d have even settled for some of the Elianan contingent. Their bright colors made them stand out in moonlight. At first, all I could see were trees, and some vague movement between them.
A loud crack thundered under my feet and a burst of light brighter and bluer than sheet lightning blasted out from the forest, nearly knocking me down. I had to hold Faolan with both hands to keep steady. I felt him gripping the ground for me, keeping me upright like he does when I’m on the battlefield and about to lose my balance.
Whatever you do, don’t let them take you to the ground.
My mother again, teaching me to be a warrior like her. I searched for her in the burst of light, trying to spot her or anyone close to her. But it was far too bright and pushed at me with far too much force.
As I squinted against the light, I saw a swirl of movement in red and orange, waving like the flames of a bonfire.
I focused my gaze as closely as I could. I made out the form of a person crouching, holding a staff far more delicate and ornate than Faolan. The top of the staff glinted with what looked like small flames, and I was certain that what I thought was a bonfire was actually their cloak.
I’d seen enchanters at work before, but nothing like this. One hand extended to keep their balance. The other held the staff, driving it into the ground, making the flames at the top pulse even brighter.
I knew better than to trifle with enchanters and staffs. The staff my mother carried had been passed down from queen to queen for generations. Its power was unpredictable even to its wielder. It had surprised my mother more than once.
The light intensified again, like the roots of all the trees nearby were sending veins of lightning out under our feet.
The enchanter lifted their head, dark eyes wide and fixed on the center of the light. I could see her deep red lips and long tendrils of thick black hair escaping from a twist I recognized as one popular in the Elianan court.
I memorized her face that night. And I’ve been looking for it ever since.
CHAPTER THREE VALENCIA
I slip through the dark, Lila squawking behind me like I’m moving too slowly. She’s been doing this since she flew out of the tapestry. The only warning I had was the sheen of her embroidered wings coming to life, turning from thread to feathers, before she fluttered right into my face.
For a quetzal who’s lived a thousand years, half of it stone-still in a panel of cloth, she has no patience.
I move quickly enough that the heel of my bastón barely sinks into the night-damp ground. I may not get to use a cane where Lila’s leading me, but this one gives me the best chance. Carved from palo de rosa, it’s plain enough that it could belong to anyone. And when you do the kind of work I do, that’s worth more than a cane set with a thousand jewels.
I pass the light-gilded windows of el palacio’s main hall. Dozens of cortesanos gather under the rose-stone arches. There’s one drinking from a cup bearing his family’s insignia. There’s another admiring his own reflection in the glass fountains. Suitors, all moving in because their families think La Princesa Abryenda is a girl in need of guidance, and they each know just the man to help her rule.
They think Bryna’s weak. They think the king and queen and so many of our elders will never wake from El Encanto. They resent that we’re now a kingdom ruled by a teenage queen.
The palace feels different with them here. Usually, el palacio glows with candles and marigolds. The walls shine with purple tapestries, embroidered with our green quetzals and orange ocelotls. But right now the halls smell like the perfumed coats of twenty rich young men. Among the hummingbirds and coatis that usually roam the floating gardens are the blue lizards and snakes brought here as gifts (Ondina and I might have stolen them from the men who consider them nothing but shows of wealth). Instead of the air spiced with mole, the corridors are sickly sweet with the pan de piña and candied roses presented to Bryna (who’s going to tell them she prefers salt to sugar?).
I can see the men through the windows, raising their glasses. Arms clad in ornate sleeves lift glittering copas, and the rumble of their voices comes through the stone.
Lila’s next shriek sounds annoyed, her plumas brushing the outside wall.
“My thoughts exactly,” I say.
The richer the man, the more long-winded. I can walk, run, and fight just fine, but put me in a heavy dress and make me stand for the length of their speeches, and my back screams at me louder than Lila.
The moon flashes green-gold and teal off Lila’s feathers, then off the brush of the fox who’s out here waiting for me. I can see him, beyond the blossoming orange and lemon trees, beyond the fountains tiled in indigo and turquoise. A male, loose-limbed and swinging his tail around for balance. He’s as big as a horse, and light bristles across his fur and catches on the knives of his teeth. He waits as patiently as he would for prey.
I hold out a pair of my slippers, beaded gold. His eyes light on them, teeth glinting.
He crouches, letting me onto his back. With me holding on, he bounds past the marsh reeds that whisper from the floating gardens. They’re the pride of the palace grounds, half farmland, half ornament. The raised beds of earth, small islands in channels of gleaming water, hold vegetable patches and fruit trees for the palace kitchens. Marigolds, roses, and pink lavender border the vines. The best farmers and gardeners in Eliana are invited to become royal granjeros and jardineros, designing how the raised beds can be their most beautiful and fruitful.
The fox gets up to speed, the floating gardens a blur of color. I bury my hands in his fur, holding on like my father taught me. There are no weight cues like riding a horse. You don’t lead a luminous fox. If you’re given the honor of one taking you onto their back, they decide where you’re going.
But they’ll follow a quetzal like Lila, just as they’d follow one of the great cats. So we trace Lila’s path of flight. The yellow of my dress streams out behind me as we leave the gilded gardens and rose-stone fountains of el palacio. We’re cutting sharp in one direction, leaving familiar hills, stretches of wood, the guiding curves of rivers.
Lila is leading us into contested land, where the smell of palm and pine mix in the air. She’s leading us into the woods near Adare, or at least, where Adare considers our kingdom to end and theirs to begin.
I watch the sky, waiting for it to tell me something about what our soldiers face at dawn. Certain cuentos de viejas say that the night whispers the outcome of an impending battle, the moon taking on the look of blood or salt.
The sky is breathtakingly unhelpful. Just clouds against deep blue.
The fox slows and crouches, low enough that I can slip off his back. I thank him, handing him the slippers. He grips them in his teeth—those sharp, glinting teeth that make luminous foxes more beautiful nightmare than bedtime story—bows his head in farewell, and bounds off.
My blood beats in my forehead and ears, loud enough to dull the soreness in my arms and legs from holding on to the fox. I’m far enough into contested territory that the air holds that sharp smell of evergreen resin instead of the warmth of palmera fronds.
If I’m really going to do this, I’m going to need a disguise better than anything I packed in my bolsa. I’m going to need enemy armor.
I hate when I have to put on one disguise just to steal what I need for another.
I spill out my bolsa. I rip away layers of my dress until I’m down to my undergarments and skirt, my ivory bustier, my enagua. I dust my skin with paling powder and coat my hair in gold leaf. I unfold my false wings, the delicate fabric stretched over shaping wires. Once I tie their ribbons to the back laces of my bustier, I have enormous wings as shining as the surface of a fountain. Even if the corners poke me in the ribs, the ass, the hips, the back of the arms.
Last, I paint poison onto my lips. The color, deep as crushed berries, will help lure a young man into kissing me.
The poison will take care of the rest.
In daylight, I’d look ridiculous, my brown skin dusted with cream-light powder, my hair looking like gold coating that’s flaking off. But the aes sídhe of Adare’s stories, the sprites thought to roam the forest and the rockiest cliffs along the sea, are dreamed of in shades of white and gold, not brown.
Copyright © 2023 by Anna-Marie McLemore and Elliott McLemore.