An ambitious young woman with the power to control minds seeks vengeance against the royals who murdered her family, in a Caribbean-inspired fantasy world embattled by colonial oppression.
My mother kissed my forehead with a smile when I cried, upset that the party would carry on as I was sent away to sleep, and while I lay awake in my bed of lace, huddled beneath my covers and shivering in the cool trade-winds breeze, I heard when the tinkling piano stopped and when the laughter turned to screams. I slipped out of bed and went to my balcony of stone to see the garden below, streaks of yellow light falling from the windows and across the grass where my mother’s guests were ushered to the rose mallow by the men with their drawn machetes. I saw my sisters crying, my brother struggling, my mother pleading as they were forced to their knees. A hand covered my eyes, but I heard the moment their tangled screams were swallowed by silence.
Tante carried me away from the balcony, breathless, the front of my dress covered with red that was already turning to rust. My voice had been stolen away, but she still kept her calloused hand over my mouth as we ran down the shadowed hall, into an abandoned chamber, snapping a door shut behind us. Men shouted, their boots echoing on the marbled floor.
“Do exactly as I say,” Tante whispered to me, “or the Jannik guards will find you, and it doesn’t matter that you’re only a child—they’ll kill you, just as they killed your brother and sisters.”
Tante wouldn’t release my mouth until I nodded that I understood. She opened a closet, then fell to her knees to unlock a trapdoor. She told me to climb down the ladder and walk to the end of the tunnel until I reached the groves. There would be a saltwater river. I was to follow the river until I reached a cave. I was to wait, hidden, until a woman came to look for me. We both knew that woman would not be Tante, because Tante would stay behind in the manor, and she would be killed.
She saw the fear shining in my eyes. “Your mother would want you to survive. Do you hear me, Sigourney? Your mother would want you to live.”
I ran, salt drying on my cheeks and nose.
Guilt that I hadn’t done anything to save them tightening around my neck.
Most days I find that I still can’t breathe.
The invitation is a plain piece of yellowing parchment, folded shut—thin enough that I can see the red of my fingers shining through, as though the paper is a layer of skin in my hands. The paper itself hasn’t been perfumed with the scent of crushed flower petals, as most posts from the kongelig tend to be. Only the seal of white wax, with the sunburst insignia of Hans Lollik Helle, marks the letter in any way.
It’s an invitation I’ve been waiting to receive for nearly ten years: a symbol of all I’ve worked for, and everything still to come. I hold it in my hands, staring at the seal, my heartbeat drumming through my veins. Now that the moment has finally arrived, I can’t bring myself to read the words.
Marieke sweeps into my room with a woven basket of fresh sheets. She sees the letter in my hands, noting the tremble in my fingers before I have a chance to steady them.
“What’s that?” she asks briskly, even though she knows exactly what it is. She strips the sheets from my bed, and when I don’t answer she says, without sparing me another glance, “Aren’t you going to open it?”
I place the invitation atop the stand beside my bed.
Marieke watches me as she straightens my new sheets. Marieke has always valued patience, so it’s almost amusing when she sucks her teeth as she fluffs my pillows. She thinks I’m falling apart. She can’t blame me, she knows—the pressure I’ve put on myself with this goal of mine would be enough to break anyone. I’ve whispered to her at night that this plan is the only reason I’m still alive. Marieke believed me when I told her, and she thought it was sad, too, that a child should ever say that they want to die, but Marieke has known many children who’ve felt life wasn’t worth living.
There’s been another slave uprising, this time on a sugarcane planation in the fields to the east, so I ride with my twelve personal guardsmen across Lund Helle, through the groves of tangled brush and branches and thorns, weaving beneath the blessed shade of coconut and palm trees, crossing the fields of guinea grass shimmering in the breeze. Lund is the flattest of its sister islands, so the grass stretches on for miles, without any relief from the sun, which seems to reflect against everything here—the white of my dress, the blue of the sea forever shining in the corner of my eye, even the air itself. The heat is a living thing. It burns the corners of my eyes and lips, already cracking from the salt that’s carried from the ocean on the wind.
The ocean has always terrified me. It isn’t meant for the living. The water, burning my eyes and nose and throat, can so easily fill my lungs; the power of the tide can pull me beneath its waves. Most frightening of all are the spirits. My sister Ellinor would whisper to me that they walk the ocean floor, waiting for their chance at vengeance against the living; that their hands will pull you into the depths, so that your body, like theirs, can turn to salt and sand, and you can join them in waiting for a chance at revenge.
She’d told me this when I was a girl child, so young I could barely walk anywhere on my own without clutching at my eldest sister’s skirts. I’d wanted to know if what Ellinor said was true, so I walked into the water—walked until I could no longer feel the sand beneath my feet. I took a deep breath and let myself sink beneath the surface and opened my eyes, stinging in the salt. There were no spirits standing in the sand, waiting for their revenge. All I could see was the coral, the schools of fish flashing silver in the light, the seaweed swaying beneath the waves. I decided Ellinor was a liar and turned to swim back to shore, but the tide was strong that day. I was pulled away from the shore. I would have kicked my legs, just as I’d been taught, but it was like I’d become stationary, unable to move. I swam, swallowing saltwater, unable to cry for help, but I was only pulled farther and farther, until I began to wonder if my sister had been right after all and if the spirits had grasped me by my legs, even if I couldn’t see them or feel their hands.
My limbs became weak and numb, and I sank, my lungs burning and my vision fading away. I should’ve drowned, but when I opened my eyes again, I was back on the sand, salt drying on my skin. No slaves were nearby to claim that they’d jumped into the water and rescued me; my family was still in the gardens, enjoying their tea. It was just me, alone on the shore. The spirits weren’t ready to take me yet.
I know that the path we take is dangerous. It leaves us too vulnerable, too much in the open. We’re practically inviting an ambush. This would’ve been a silly thought, once, on an island like Lund Helle. The island only has a few sugarcane plantations, with houses scattered in between, but there’ve been three slave uprisings in as many months. Before this, the last uprising was nearly twenty years ago, when Bernhand Lund was still alive and Herre of this island. All the masters of the plantation had been killed. Herre Lund ended the uprising swiftly. Every slave on the plantation, whether they claimed innocence or not—whether they were children or not—was executed, their bodies staked and hung from trees so that the other slaves of this island could see. No other islander has attempted an uprising since, not until now.
Friedrich rides beside me. “You didn’t have to come,” he says again for the second time this morning. “It’s a simple group of slaves that have now decided to call themselves rebels.”
“I’m capable of deciding where I need to be, Friedrich.”
He looks away, scathed. I feel that there’s regret in his gut, regret he hopes I won’t see, though he knows any emotion he has, any thought of his, belongs to me. If I will it, I can hear his thoughts the way I might think to myself; his emotions become my own. It requires effort, yes—energy, to make my mind become one with another’s—but after holding this kraft for so many years, it’s a skill that comes with the ease of racing across the fields of Lund Helle, or holding my breath beneath the sea. I know that Friedrich doesn’t want to kill his own people. Before these uprisings, Friedrich had never killed before, not once in his entire life. He’d been trained to—had learned how to stab and maim and disembowel straw-filled opponents, as have all fifty of the guards of Lund Helle—but he never expected to see his sword shining red. He was surprised how easy it was to take the life of another man. His sword had pressed against the skin of the slave rebel who had run at Friedrich with a machete, and then his sword sliced through that skin and into pink guts, and it stopped as though hitting a rock—the man’s bones, Friedrich later realized—and the man was still alive as Friedrich pulled back his sword, yanking at it with effort. The man looked as surprised as Friedrich felt before he fell to the dirt.
Friedrich killed three more men that day and, when the fighting was done, walked into the brush so that no one could see him or hear him vomit the cold oats and the juices of the sugarcane he’d swiped from the kitchens that morning. He prayed to the gods of the masters, asking for forgiveness, even though the masters don’t believe that taking the life of an islander is a sin, and so there would be nothing to forgive.
Friedrich had hoped he would never have to kill another man again. How disappointed he was to hear of another uprising. “The fight won’t last long,” he tells me. “They never do.”
My horse jerks back and forth beneath me. There’s a clopping of hooves against the rocks scattered across the dirt, kicking dust into the air, already heavy with heat. My cloak sticks to my skin, and my neck and shoulders ache beneath the blistering sun. It’s always hot on this island of mine, but the dry season has lasted a little too long. The crops are failing now, the plantations earning this island less coin every year. Bernhand Lund was put into his grave four years before, and since the title of Elskerinde was passed on to me, there have been nothing but droughts and uprisings. Proof, according to the Fjern of this island, that I shouldn’t have the power that I do.
Lund Helle has no cities, no towns, only isolated collections of houses, which form small plantations holding its slaves and are owned by the few Fjern who live here. An abandoned house we pass leans to its side, as though the wind blew a little too hard one night. A rotted body hangs from a lone mahogany tree, bones visible through the rags it still wears, flies like a layer of living skin. It’s always difficult to tell in death what color a body had once been in life.
I see the smoke of the plantation’s houses before we arrive. It gushes black into the bright blue sky and burns my eyes, even from such a distance. There are brown bodies of islanders in the green field, already swelling in the heat—but there’s no way to tell if these men, women, and children fought alongside the slave rebels, or if they were innocents killed in the clash. I see fallen Fjernmen as well, with their pink skin turning purple and blue. The masters of the plantation. I shouldn’t be so pleased, seeing their bodies on the ground.
I ride closer to the plantation houses, a circle of wooden shacks and lean-tos ablaze. Some bodies have already begun to attract flies. My horse snorts nervously as I throw a leg over and leap to the hard ground, Friedrich and my eleven other guardsmen following. It’s silent—the only sound is the crackling of the fire as it burns each house, splitting wood and stone, making it impossible to get too close as the heat sears the air. I can feel the heat on my skin, my eyes. We stop before a smoldering house that is already crumbling to the ground in embers. A fine layer of sweat and dust and ash covers me.
“Be careful. Some might have kraft,” says Malthe, the captain of my guard.
“You think everyone has kraft,” Friedrich mutters, smirking at me to share his joke.
Malthe has heard. “What was that?”
Friedrich hesitates. “Nothing, sir.”
“Do you think this is funny, Friedrich?”
Embarrassment, then resentment, pulses through Friedrich, but he hides his emotions well. “No, sir.”
It’d only been a joke—a joke born in discomfort, I know. It’s always uncomfortable, seeing the dead. The sight of corpses reminds people of the first time they witnessed death: for me, the guests of my mother’s manor, throats and stomachs cut, painting the flowers with their blood as my mother and sisters and brother were forced to their knees. Friedrich’s memory comes to him as well, I can see now: A child, a boy no older than Friedrich had been, hung upside down by his feet as the master of the plantation taught his son archery. Friedrich often thinks about how easily he could have been chosen instead as the living target. That boy haunts his dreams at night, sometimes even now. The child will watch Friedrich with the same empty stare, arrows riddling his body. What had been the difference between them? The boy wants to know.
Malthe orders the guards to search for survivors. I walk down the path of the desolated plantation. Bodies are sprawled across the floors and straw beds of the slaves’ quarters. In the distance, the fields of sugarcane are alight. Burning fields, charred houses, slaughtered people. This is my legacy.
Movement in the corner of my eye, a flare of rage—I spin and shout a warning, but too late. A man with a drawn machete has cut a guardsman’s neck, so deeply that his head nearly falls. The rebel, machete shining, swings at Friedrich, but I focus on the slave, his rage and fear of death, yes, he wants to live more than anything else, and his mind becomes my mind as he slices his own gut, mouth open in surprise. More islanders burst from behind blackened houses with yells and screams. Machetes and knives drawn, the rebels clash with the swords of my guards, but there aren’t many of them, and they have to know that they’ll die. I enter another rebel, overtaken for a moment by his hopelessness as I see myself through his eyes, the traitorous island woman in my dress of white, my eyes fluttering as my kraft works through my veins, and he turns on his friends, cutting his fellow rebels down. Each man falls dead to the ground until only the man I’ve used is left. He slices his own neck. Pain sears, blood flowing, weakness filling him as he falls. For a moment, I feel death—know what it is to die, just as I have felt a thousand times. The sudden jolt of a heart stopping in your chest, the shock as your own body betrays you. This is what my mother and sisters and brother must have felt.
Friedrich uses a handkerchief to wipe clean his sword before dropping the cloth to the dirt. He’s now killed his sixth man. He’s heard other guards, such as Malthe, say they’ll always remember the face of each man they’ve killed, but the faces of these slave rebels are already starting to blend together for Friedrich: the anger twisting their mouths, the surprise and pain in their eyes. How easily these men could’ve been Friedrich’s friends, family, Friedrich himself. They were driven to desperation, he thinks. He’d had a cruel master once. He knows what it’s like to wonder whether it might be better to fight, knowing he’ll likely die, if there’s a chance he might find a better life.
I walk to the body of my fallen guardsman. I don’t even know his name. He was young—probably no older than twenty. His neck is cut, showing the red muscle beneath, the white of bone. Though his body lies on its front, his head is twisted, eyes stuck open. Some would say this was a good way for the boy to die. He stares at the gods and so will know which direction to turn in death. The gods were brought to these islands by the Fjern many eras ago; gods to be worshipped instead of the spirits of our ancestors, as our people had done since the islands themselves rose from the waters. Islanders are no longer allowed to pray to the spirits. If we do, we are hung, and so we learned the way of the Fjern gods. My enslaved people are told that if they worship the gods, they will be granted freedom after death. Most would rather pray to the Fjern gods, hoping for freedom, than fight for their freedom in life. In a way, I admire the dead rebels at my feet.
“His mother and father are on Solberg Helle,” Malthe tells me of the dead guard, “working for a Fjern merchant family.” Working. This is easier than saying his parents are slaves.
My eyes are still on the boy’s face and the blood seeping from his neck and into the weeds. “Have his body returned to them.” I should simply have his body sent to the sea, I know; it’s easier, less work for everyone involved, but I can’t help but think that the boy’s parents would like to bury him themselves.
Blood has sunk into the dirt. The smells of iron searing under the heat of the sun, of the smoking wood and the charred stone, overwhelm me. My guardsmen sheathe their blades and walk into whichever remaining homes are still untouched by the flames to check for survivors and conspirators, kicking over the fresh bodies that lie at their feet. I watch their work as I walk, Friedrich beside me. There’ve been rebellions before, but this has been a particularly devastating uprising; it seems nearly one hundred have died, and the damage to the property and crop won’t please the regent of Hans Lollik Helle.
The Fjern of Lund Helle have used the slave rebellions as an excuse to call for me to step down as their Elskerinde. To them, the rebellions prove that I don’t have the necessary intelligence to control my own people. I’m an islander, after all, who should be a slave along with my brown-skinned people—not ruling over them and this island. Flower-scented letters are sent to me with open threats: Elskerinde Sigourney Lund might soon find her own throat cut one night.
“You don’t feel any guilt,” Friedrich says as he bends over to check the pockets of one of the fallen rebels. There’s no question in his voice, just as there isn’t any question for the guilt he feels. Friedrich worked hard for his position in my guard—he wasn’t handed his title—but this doesn’t take away from the comforts he knows he has over the other slaves of Lund Helle and all his people in these islands. He lives in the barracks, which have beds, not the overcrowded slaves’ quarters, where his people sleep on dirt floors. He receives a meal of oats and banana in the morning and goat stew at night. He’s even allowed to drink guavaberry rum, when he isn’t escorting me across the islands. He isn’t beaten, except while in training with the other guards as they practice their skirmishes; he isn’t whipped for his mistakes. The scars he bears are fine, thin lines in comparison to the thick scars that cover the backs of the slaves who work the fields. It isn’t easy for him, knowing his people suffer while he lives in comfort—knowing it was simple luck that allowed him to be sold into training for the guard. He could just as easily be trapped in the fields, whipped and scarred; just as easily have been hung upside down by his feet while his master’s son practiced archery.
Friedrich stands from the body, mouthing a quick prayer to the gods. The gods don’t bring him peace. He knows that these are the gods of the Fjern, and that these gods only care for people whose skin is paler than his own. Still, he prays to them. This, like most of our people, is all he knows.
“Do you think I should feel guilt?” I ask.
He glances at me, my mouth, my neck. “It’s not my place to tell you how to feel.”
“That is true,” I say, and though he’d suggested the fact himself, shame still flourishes in his chest. “But I still want to know what you think.”
Friedrich doesn’t answer, not at first, and so I sink my consciousness into his, feel the pulse of his veins in my own. A jungle of voices echo in my mind: He wonders if I’m using my kraft on him and hopes that I don’t; he fears, as he always does, that I might decide I don’t want or need him anymore—fears that, though I would have no reason to, I might take control of his body in the same way I’ve taken control of so many others and force him to stab his knife into his own stomach. He thinks that the stomach is always the slowest, most painful way to die. Death should always be quick and clean. Ever since the first man he killed, Friedrich is careful to give merciful deaths to the slave rebels he fights.
And still, even with his fear of me, I can feel the emotion in him rising as though it’s my own: desire—for me, for my body, for my freedom, for my power. He thinks of me at night, dreams that he’s inside of me again even now. He doesn’t think the words, not consciously, but whenever he’s in my bed, he’s able to imagine for a moment that he’s not my slave. I’m not surprised. I know what Friedrich has convinced himself he feels: that he believes he, a knight in a Fjern fairy tale, has fallen in love with his mistress, his Elskerinde.
Friedrich glances at me again and swallows thickly, knowing that I’m in his head. He pauses beside another body, this time a pale-skinned Fjern—a woman, her face twisted in fear, her stomach cut open and spilling onto the ground. “I don’t think you should feel guilt.” He lies to himself, even he’s aware of this. “These men were rebels, murderers. They would’ve been executed eventually, even if they hadn’t died today.”
“Is that really what you think?”
It’s a cruel question. I know he’s too afraid to tell me the truth. The truth is traitorous, the words of rebels, punishable by beheading. But his feelings are clear: None of these men can be blamed for wanting, and fighting for, their freedom.
“They were driven to rebel and murder because they preferred to die rather than live as slaves to the Fjern,” I say. “I’m an islander. These are my people. I haven’t done enough to help them. At least, this is what those who hate me will say.”
Friedrich looks at me with pity. He thinks he knows me: his poor, misunderstood mistress.
He checks this woman’s pockets as well, then murmurs a prayer for her. Remarkable, watching a slave pray over the body of a slaver and to the very gods that oppress him. But I can’t judge Friedrich too harshly. These are my gods, too. I was never taught how to pray to my ancestors. Any thought of our ancestors, the spirits, was supposed to have died generations ago. I wait until Friedrich is finished, and we walk quietly for some time.
Friedrich says, “Only people who envy your power will hate you. The poor hate the rich. The slaves hate the kongelig. It’s only natural, isn’t it?”
I want to ask Friedrich if his envy of my freedom, my power, means he actually hates me as well, but the corners of his lips twitch into a smile, and he remembers an image, hoping that memory will become my own—a memory of only a few nights before, sneaking into my chambers, into my bed, beneath my sheets. I should be disgusted with myself. Ashamed. The boy is technically my property. Property, like the goats fenced in and awaiting slaughter. That is what the laws of these islands decree: Friedrich, and all other islanders, are not human. The color of their skin, the blood in their veins, make them undeserving of life. And so they must give their lives for the Fjern. There’s nothing beautiful in this, I know. In the same way there was nothing beautiful in the fact that my mother technically belonged to my father, before she was given her freedom; in the same way there was nothing beautiful in the fact that my father’s ancestors belonged to the Fjern, who took these islands. If I cared for Friedrich, I would give him his freedom, along with all the slaves of Lund Helle. I wouldn’t take Friedrich into my bed, pretending my company is something he wants, something he chooses, when he has no choice in a life he doesn’t own.
I refused him, at first. This is what I remind myself in consolation. I refused him and told him that he’s a child for thinking he wants me. But though I own my life, it’s not a good life I live, and Friedrich is a distraction I desperately need. He’s young and foolish in his ambition, cocky in his thoughts of surpassing his peers to follow Malthe and become captain of the Lund guard—but still handsome, with his dark skin and sculpted muscles and his smile, a smile that isn’t easy to find on these islands, and certainly not this island of mine. And even I can’t ignore that my body has its own needs, its own desires.
I tell Friedrich I’d like to make a trip to Jannik Helle, and I can sense his impatience. It’ll be my second trip this month alone. Still, he nods his understanding as he kneels beside the body of one of the slave rebels, machete still clenched in his hand where he fell. Checking the rebel’s pockets, Friedrich pauses with a frown and withdraws his hand, staring into his palm.
“What is it?” I ask him, though I see a flicker of his vision.
He offers his hand to me. He holds a rusted red coin. I pick it up and turn it over. The coin has the crest of a crude zinnia flower, the symbol belonging to the Ludjivik family.
Friedrich stands, brushing off his knees. “Do you think they were behind this?”
“I wouldn’t put it past them,” I say. “An ill-fated attempt at supporting and supplying a slave rebellion against me.”
“Unless they meant to lose. What if this was meant as a distraction, or they hope to make you feel secure before attacking again?” They will take this island from you.
I toss the coin into the dirt. “It isn’t incriminating to find a coin. Maybe one of the slaves recently traveled to Ludjivik Helle and took it.”
Friedrich doesn’t look convinced. I don’t need to enter his mind to know his thoughts: There are those in the islands of Hans Lollik who want to see me dead, and if I’m not careful, eventually one will succeed.
Friedrich and I start the walk to our horses. The rest of my guardsmen will stay, searching for clues and valuables under Malthe’s watch, before starting the back-bending work of burying each of the slaves’ bodies at sea. The dead masters of the plantation will be returned to the Fjern for a ceremonial burial so that they will easily find the gods.
Before we get far, a guardsman hurries down the rocky path.
“Elskerinde Lund,” he says, breathless. He catches my eye, and when I look to his thoughts, a wave of his fear crashes into me, dread sinking into my bones. Fear that I’ll learn of all his secrets, of the extra goat stew he’s been stealing at night, and maybe even of the little boy he watched drown so many years ago—
“Spit it out,” Friedrich says.
The man hesitates. “We found survivors.” He doesn’t look at me as he continues to speak. “One of them has kraft.”
We follow the guard back up the path to the burning plantation houses with my nine other guardsmen, waiting in a circle and turning to watch my arrival. A line of the survivors stands in the center of the circle, all slaves. A man, middle-aged and frail—thinner than most, it’s clear that he holds a sickness in his lungs, perhaps caught from the last storm season, something he never managed to shake. A woman, her skin a maze of wrinkles, toothless so that her lips sink in like a skull. She watches me. She isn’t afraid. She’s already so close to death. What could I possibly do to make her afraid? There’s another woman as well, breathing heavily as she grips the hand of the girl beside her. The girl is young, perhaps no older than thirteen. She and her mother have the same eyes, the same mouths.
Though he’d been so willing to joke about kraft before, Friedrich takes the matter seriously now. “Do you think the one with kraft caused the uprising?” he asks me, eyes on the islanders.
That would depend on the power, and the strength, of the kraft itself. My chest burns. “Which one?” I ask Malthe.
He marches to the villagers and pushes the girl forward, forcing her to let go of her mother. The girl winces, struggling not to cry, shoulders shaking with the effort. My heart drops. She reminds me too much of my sister Inga, crying as she was forced to her knees.
My mouth is dry, words scratching my throat. “How do you know she has kraft?”
“She tried to use her power on us—confused us for a moment, made us forget who we were, what we were doing here, then tried to run with the others. When we captured them and threatened to kill them all if no one spoke the truth, she stepped forward.”
The man in the line of slaves speaks. “She’s just a girl. She was afraid, thought you were rebels. They were killing all of us, not just the masters—”
Malthe jams the hilt of his sword into the man’s nose. The slave falls with a shout of pain, blood streaming between his fingers as he clutches his face. If he thought he was safe, facing his own people with not a single Fjern in sight, he was mistaken.
“You’ll speak when we ask you a question,” Malthe says to all of them. “Is that clear?”
No one moves or makes a sound. The woman with her skin of wrinkles watches me.
“Were you fighting with the rebels?” I ask the girl.
She glances up, terrified, before looking at the ground again. She’s willing to tell us anything and everything if it means she’ll live. Even if she doesn’t own her life, she still wants it. “No—I wasn’t, I promise you. They weren’t of this plantation. No one recognized them. They came here and attacked us. Killed everyone. They weren’t from Lund Helle, they were speaking of returning to their ships.”
Friedrich gives me a pointed look. I ignore him, glancing Malthe’s way, and he nods. The ships will be found and searched.
I ask, “Where were the rebels from?”
The girl doesn’t know the answer. She’s frightened I won’t be pleased. “I—I think maybe Niklasson Helle.” She’s lying. There’s no reason for her to think the rebels came from Niklasson Helle.
I pause. I can feel their fear. Fear that they’ll all be killed for failing to protect their masters. Fear that I’ll decide they’re lying, and that they were all a part of the rebellion. Fear from all—except for the older woman. She stares at me, blue film over her eyes. She’s seen more hatred, more evil, than I ever have—probably more than I ever will. The Fjern, who gave me the power I hold, stalking through the plantations in the dead of night when she was a child. Raping her mother and her sister and herself, slicing open the bottoms of her feet and burning the palms of her hands and making her work the fields, threatening death if she stopped for even a breath, hanging her father for daring to meet his master’s eye, beating and whipping and tying up a little boy child and leaving him outside in the sun to be eaten away by the salt air, and all because he wouldn’t stop crying for his mother after she was sold away. Islanders, tying rocks around their ankles and walking into the sea to escape the hell of Hans Lollik.
To the slaves before me—to all the islanders—I’m the traitor to her own people. My skin might be brown, and my blood might belong to these islands, but I’m no better than the Fjern. My heart thumps harder. I close my eyes. Try to push their thoughts aside—their hatred for me, their fear of me—but I realize that the feelings are my own.
When I open my eyes, the man is still bleeding. The elderly woman still watches me. The girl’s mother clutches her hands together so tightly they shake. The girl tries so hard not to cry.
I have no more questions—no way of delaying what I know has to come. Malthe stares at me expectantly. I’d hoped he’d let this pass. No one need know we found a slave girl with kraft in the fields of Lund Helle.
When I speak, my voice doesn’t sound like it belongs to me. “The law of Hans Lollik is clear.”
The girl’s mother begins a low wail. This woman will inevitably feel a guilt I’m familiar with—guilt, that she didn’t do enough to save the person she loved. But the guilt will only simmer beneath the rage, the hatred, for me—the one who ordered her daughter’s death.
I don’t even know the girl’s name. “You stand accused of holding kraft, a power that belongs only to your sovereigns of Hans Lollik, gifted as a divine right by the gods that watch over us.”
The woman tries to step in front of her daughter, but the guardsmen pull her and the others aside. The girl shakes her head. Her face crumples as she heaves sobs, tears dripping from the end of her nose. I can’t save her. The Fjern made it clear when they claimed these islands over hundreds of years before: Only they, with their pale skin, are allowed to have kraft; any slave accused of having the power must be found and killed, no matter the innocence, no matter the age. The fact that the Fjern can’t own kraft is one that they despise. My people, descendants of the first islanders before the Fjern ever came, believe the abilities to have come from our ancestors. We whispered that those with kraft were blessed by the spirits. The Fjern disagreed. They don’t believe in the spirits of our ancestors; they declare that their gods pass the kraft on as divine gifts to only the worthy, and to the Fjern, my people are not worthy. I was born with my freedom, and so I’m allowed to keep my life, even with kraft simmering in my veins. This girl wasn’t born with her freedom, and so she’ll die. She’ll become a martyr. The hero in every story but my own.
I recite the words memorized, heavy on my tongue. “Anyone who isn’t of kongelig descent and dares possess kraft, which belongs only to their benevolent rulers as a divine right, must die by execution.”
The woman screams now, fighting against the guards that hold her. I nod at Malthe, and he moves forward dispassionately, pressing down on one of the girl’s shoulders so that she’ll fall to her knees. I look away when he swings his sword.
Silence, but for the crackling of the fires. The girl’s mother has fainted. My hands are shaking. I wipe them on the white of my dress as I turn away, but before I can take another step, the older woman comes forward. She spits at my feet. The metallic smell of blood burning in the heat sickens my stomach, and I feel faint. I don’t have the energy or the will to read this woman’s thoughts—to feel her hatred. But she wants me to know.
“You’re evil,” she tells me. “You might call yourself kongelig, and you might wear your pretty dress of white, but you’re just a dog taking scraps from your masters.”
I could have her executed, too, for being a slave who has shown disrespect to her Elskerinde. The guards, watching closely, will wonder why I don’t. I’m already weak, wavering on my feet, but I close my eyes, and I sink into her—feel myself in her veins as her face tightens, her arms and legs cramping. She steps forward, then lowers to her knees. The woman struggles, fights against me—leans forward to kiss my feet.
She watches only the ground as I walk past her.
I return to my horse, Friedrich following closely behind, and pause by the brush. Most days, I’m able to pretend I’m not caught in a horror of my own making. Easy to pretend I’m not the monster who deserves the hatred of her people. Friedrich looks away when I heave into the leaves.
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