The Impostor Queen - Sarah Fine


She didn’t know which hurt more—the ice or the fire. At this point, she couldn’t even tell the difference between them; both burned in her veins and chest and limbs, each moment more agonizing than the last.

Elder Kauko hunched over her splayed arm, trying to bleed the excess. The pat-pat-pat of her blood in the bowl was the only sound in the room apart from her barely stifled moans. If she’d had the strength, she would have told the elder all his efforts were wasted. The darkness was a shadow in the corner of her chamber, creeping closer no matter how fiercely she willed it away.

The magic was killing her.

And yet she still loved it, as much as she loved any other part of herself. It had been her constant companion for nearly ten years, and each day she had tried to use the gift wisely, in service of the Kupari people. Always for them. Only for them. She had wished for infinite time, so she could be their queen forever and protect them always.

But in the end, she had become just like all the Valtias before her, bright-burning, quickly snuffed out. She was too weak to contain a power this great, or perhaps too selfish to use it perfectly, as the magic required. She had thought she was doing right, though. All she had wanted was to reach out to her people beyond the walls, to protect them from the raiders who had so recently come to their shores, to show the outlanders that her grace extended beyond the city. Surely they weren’t all thieves and murderers. Surely some of them could be redeemed, even though the elders and priests had scoffed at that foolish notion.

Just as they had scoffed at her idea to travel through the outlands, to be seen by her subjects and win their confidence. But when she insisted, the elders had acquiesced—she was, after all, the queen. They had even tried to help her keep the balance between the two elements nestled within her, afraid that such strain would disrupt the precise equality of ice and fire. Even now, Kauko was still trying, despite their past arguments, despite her defiance.

She turned her head, the movement sending shocks of blazing heat up her backbone while her fingers stiffened with cold. Elder Kauko was watching her blood flow with unwavering focus. Then he slid his fingertip along the flat of the tiny blade he had used to make the cut, capturing a drop, and turned away for a moment. When he looked back, his dark eyes seemed brighter, but his smile was tinged with sadness. “Rest, my Valtia,” he said softly. “Close your eyes and rest.”

I don’t want to close my eyes. I don’t want to go. Even as the thought came, a wave of darkness rolled over her, the kind of swell that heralded a storm.

Elder Kauko took her chilled fingers in his. “You have served well, my Valtia.”

Kaarin. I was Kaarin once. That was before she became the Valtia. But she could still remember the way that name had sounded as her mother had shouted it over the cheers of the crowd, as the elders escorted Kaarin to the Temple on the Rock, a six-year-old girl carrying the hopes of an entire people. Kaarin, don’t forget me. Kaarin, I love you.

That had been the last time she’d ever seen her mother. Perhaps I’ll see her again soon.

It should have been comforting, but all she could think was, No. Not yet.

“Is she asleep?” The voice was Elder Aleksi’s. She could hear the swish of black robes nearby.

“Hard to say,” murmured Kauko.

“Should you bleed her again?”

“More would be dangerous.”

To whom? she wanted to ask. I’m already dying. Aleksi, though, seemed to know. He remained silent.

Kauko sighed. “It won’t be long now. Tell Leevi to take the Saadella to the catacombs and prepare her.”

No, I’m not ready. But she couldn’t move. Her limbs were locked as ice and fire churned inside her, impatient and ready to break free. Please don’t leave. I have so many things left to do.

It was a selfish thought. Sofia would probably be a better Valtia than Kaarin had ever been. She was gentle and always thought of others. Purer, perhaps. Certainly more patient. We won’t have another harvest ceremony together, my darling. How I would love to see your face one more time. Soon the girl would be kneeling on the flat stone of the circular chamber in the catacombs, waiting. They were all