Herregård Dronnigen is a manor I’d visited many times before as a child. It was where my paternal cousin Bernhand lived with his wife of the family Lund, nestled right on the edge of Lund Helle, its back fortified by the wall of stone, dirt pathways leading to the sea. I’d enjoyed the sticky mango tarts and the flowers of the gardens and the shallows of the beach, where I would pick up sea urchins with their spiny needles and starfish, feeling their tentacles tickle the palms of my hands. As a child, I never questioned why so many people with brown skin, brown like my own, worked the fields of the plantations; why my nursing maid, and all the cooks and servers and guardsmen, were islanders. I only wondered why the Fjern with their pale skin wouldn’t smile my way as they would with the other little girls in their dresses of lace, why they refused to speak to my mother if ever we passed one another in the streets of other islands of Hans Lollik.
My mother wouldn’t take me or my sisters or brother away from Rose Helle often. I think she wanted to protect us from the hatred she knew we would face—the same hatred she bore every day from the Fjern—but she couldn’t keep us trapped on our little island, in the pdise she had built for us. Inga was left behind in the manor of Rose Helle while my mother brought me, Ellinor, and our older brother, Claus, to Solberg Helle. She had business, I don’t know what. She held my hand on one side and Ellinor’s hand on the other, while Claus walked behind. We had no guards. This I remember. I don’t know why—perhaps my mother wanted to show everyone that she wasn’t afraid of the Fjern. Whatever her reason, it was foolish. She brought us to the main town of Solberg Helle, streets cobblestoned and air salted by the docks. There was a market, dozens of stalls selling stewed mango with cinnamon and stalks of sugarcane. Even I, who would normally stare only at the sweets, was distracted by the gazes that followed us; the Fjern, who stared at my mother with her dark skin, wearing her finery, and at her brown-skinned children, also dressed in lace and pearls. She went into a house, spoke briefly with a Fjernman and exchanged our island’s rose-mallow coin for papers, I don’t know the contents, and I suppose it doesn’t matter—and just as quickly as we’d gone inside, we were out again. But this time, the Fjern who had stood behind their stalls now had words for my mother. They asked why she walked with no master. A Fjernman stood in front of her and demanded to know which family she belonged to. Another suggested he might take me, Ellinor, and Claus away from her, to be sold on the docks of Niklasson Helle. More Fjernmen came, surrounding us. They followed her. They shouted at her. They spat at her feet. Claus grew pale, Ellinor cried, and fear was heavy in my gut. I hadn’t been afraid often as a child—I didn’t know I’d had anything to fear—but I was afraid that day. And through it all, my mother only walked forward, her chin raised, as though she were taking a stroll with us down the shoreline, with nothing before us but the sea.
My mother was usually kind and gentle, but once we returned to the ship that would bring us to Rose Helle, she slapped Ellinor for crying. She told us never to let the Fjern see our fear again.
“This is what they want to see,” she told us. “Don’t ever give them what they want.”
Dronnigen shines, stones painted white faded by the everlasting sun. I jump from my horse, rocks crunching beneath my sandals, and hand the reins to Friedrich before I step into the hall. Paintings of the deceased Lund and Rose families line the walls, portraits that Bernhand Lund had installed out of respect before his own death. There’s my father, dead shortly after my birth—I was too young to have any memories of him now—along with my mother and two sisters and one brother. My mother was beautiful, with black hair curling atop her head, skin as dark as the purples of the night sky, brown eyes lined by lashes so thick it’s as though she wore kohl, and a proud, wide nose sitting above an even wider mouth. I remember that she had scars lining her arms and back, and one thick scar from her ear and across her neck, but the scars aren’t in her portrait. I look more like her painting every day.
She was born of slavery, given freedom and married to my father when she was fifteen. When I ask, my personal servant Marieke tells me that my mother and father never had a loving relationship. He liked to keep my mother by his side to show off her beauty like a trophy, but nothing more. He would take my mother into his bed as often as he could, hoping for an heir worthy of the Rose title and inheritance. Claus had always been a weak child, and Koen Rose wanted a son who didn’t seem like he would die from a single storm-season sickness. He was unlucky in this. I try to imagine my mother standing beside my father, slapped and beaten if she ever misspoke; the years she must have waited, patiently watching and observing and learning everything she could, so that the moment my father died, she could inherit and control the title of the Rose. Sometimes I wonder if my mother had a hand in Koen Rose’s death, but there’s no way to know something like this now.
Even before my father’s death, my mother had been so dearly loved. She only ever spoke to islanders with respect and kindness, even though she had been handed the power to consider them beneath her. She would walk the plantations of Lund Helle with baskets of mango, sugar apple, squash, and banana bread, handing out the food to anyone who worked the fields. Marieke told me, once, that my mother had heard of a slave’s whipping at the hand of my cousin Bernhand Lund and went to the shack where the islander lay. She rubbed aloe on the man’s back with her own two hands. It’s difficult to know if any islander would’ve done the same if in her position. I’m in her position now, and this is something I’ve never done myself. Perhaps this is why the islanders loved my mother yet have such hatred for me. Before she was murdered and after my father had been beneath the sea for many years, she’d promised freedom to each and every slave of her household and of Lund Helle following Bernhand Lund’s death. It’s a promise I can still feel burning in the slaves’ hearts. The chance to escape these islands without the fear of being hunted down and killed.
But my mother is dead, and this is a promise I can’t keep. I need the slaves around me. My mother had the respect of the regent, the power of the Rose and Lund families; I have nothing. Nothing, but the coin of the Lund inheritance, which will only get me so far. To release my slaves would be to release the last of the power I have, and if I’m going to succeed in my plans, I’ll need them. Disgust radiates from the slaves of Herregård Dronnigen whenever I cross their paths. Most of the slaves I’d known as a child died in the Massacre of Rose Helle, but the slaves of Dronnigen still remember me from the visits I would make when I was young. It must be only out of respect for my mother’s memory that none creep into my room at night to cut my neck. I make it a habit to avoid my slaves whenever I can, to keep a barrier between me and their thoughts. I hold enough self-hatred. I don’t need to expend the energy to use my kraft and read their minds, confirming the thoughts I already have for myself.
The shade of the hall is a relief from the sun, but not from the heat, which is so thick it’s something I must move through, something I must breathe. The heat swarms my skin, filling my veins, and I can see the girl standing before me, crying; hear her mother’s screams. The screams grow louder when I close my eyes.
Friedrich’s voice startles me. “Are you well?” he asks, walking into the hall behind me. I can’t be sure if he asks out of genuine concern or if he asks because I’m his Elskerinde. I don’t think he knows the answer himself. When I turn to face him, his eyes scan my own, perhaps searching for a humanity I’m not sure I have.
I need a distraction. Friedrich is a good distraction. I ask him to my chambers, and though he doesn’t speak on it, I can feel his hesitation. His fear. But he doesn’t argue. He can’t argue, I remind myself. My self-hatred rises, but I push it down again, allowing myself to pretend for a moment that I’m not Elskerinde Lund, and that Friedrich is not my slave, and that we are two islanders who have escaped Hans Lollik, living in the north, in freedom and in love. It’s the only lie that allows me peace whenever the boy shares my bed.
Friedrich follows me up the winding stairs, closes the door behind him, and allows me to kiss him without complaint, lets me press myself against his body, wrapping my arms around the back of his neck.
“Elskerinde Lund,” he says, “perhaps this isn’t the right time…”
I raise a brow and let my hands fall over his shoulders, the buttons of his shirt. “But you’re always so eager to please me, Friedrich.”
He steps away from me now, a flicker of hurt crossing his face, pinching through my chest. He wants me to respect him, to think of him as someone who is strong, intelligent, could easily become captain of my guard. He spends much of his time trying to make others laugh. He goes to the kitchens, flirting with the cooks and tasting their guavaberry tart. He drinks rum with the guards by the stables, telling stories of how he’d get himself in trouble with the head of his guard when he was a child, running away from his beatings. He wants to make others laugh, but he doesn’t like it when others laugh at him. This is the worst thing that I could do.
My hands smooth over his chest and down his arms, lined with thin white scars. Friedrich honestly believes he’s in love with me—the knight forever ready to protect his princess—but this isn’t love. It’s no more possible for Friedrich to love me than it is for me to love any of the Fjern, just as it wasn’t possible for my mother to love my father, her master. It’s simply a fairy tale that Friedrich has told himself—another lie to help make this life of his bearable. He was born to an enslaved family on Årud Helle. He only has a vague memory of his mother hanging a white sheet, ballooning in the breeze. He was sold to another Fjern family, at first to be an errand boy and then to be trained as a guardsman when Friedrich began to show talent with a wooden sword. I bought him myself, to join my guard under Malthe, five years before; bid on him from the docks of Niklasson Helle. His life, apparently, is worth six silver coins with the guinea-grass insignia of Lund Helle imprinted on the front.
I lean forward to kiss Friedrich’s clenched jaw, the corner of his lip. His lips loosen against mine. He lets me guide him to my bed and helps me pull my white dress over my head. Friedrich is young and clumsy, but he makes up for it all with his enthusiasm. He won’t stop until I find my pleasure. When we’re finished, we lie in my sheets, sticky with sweat. I stare at the invitation, still waiting atop my stand. Friedrich notices, and curiosity hovers over him. Friedrich can be annoying after he’s shared my bed, and I want him to leave, but I’m afraid of being alone now, too.
Friedrich lies on his stomach, propped up by his elbows. “Have you ever considered escaping the islands of Hans Lollik?”
He speaks to me as one slave might speak to another. Escape. I don’t have to escape, hidden away on a ship, praying to the Fjern gods that I’m not captured and hung by my neck. I’m free to leave anytime I please. “And go where?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Anywhere. Another island, another empire.” He dreams of seeing the lands to the north, where the pale-skinned Fjern of Koninkrijk and dozens of other empire nations have days and nights so cold that ice like frozen sand falls from the sky.
“Why would I?”
“You could do anything you wanted. You could become another person.”
His eyes are earnest, and because he’s risen through my guard so quickly, I sometimes forget that he’s young—eighteen, two years younger than me. This only reminds me that I’m young as well. “Do you think I should?” I ask him.
“I think you should be happy.”
“Do I seem so unhappy now?”
He hesitates, and in my impatience I push my way into his thoughts. His memory takes me to the afternoon sun, the screams of a woman, and what I’d looked away from but what Friedrich forced himself to watch: the white flash of the sword, the blinding red, the girl’s body crumpling into the dirt, her head with her eyes clenched shut rolling in the grass.
I sit up, dizzy in the heat. “You should leave.”
He kisses my bare shoulder, still watching me.
I ask him, “Do you really think you’re in love with me?”
His brows pull together. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I see it in your thoughts. You believe you’re in love with me, but your love for me is a child’s, before he even knows what love is. You tell yourself you love me, to stop yourself from hating me instead.”
“You always do this,” he tells me, voice low.
“And what is that?”
“Push me away. Try to hurt me. Why? So that you won’t feel weak? Because you might start to love me, too?”
“I don’t love you, Friedrich.”
He stands up, abandoning the sheets, and bends over to pick up his shirt and tug it on over his head. “I’m sorry. You’re right. Why would you love a slave?”
I’m silent as he buttons his shirt and pulls on his pants. “Even if you think you love me,” I say, “you shouldn’t waste it on me. Fall in love with a sweet island girl instead. One who’ll smile every time she sees you.”
He shakes his head. “What do you mean, I shouldn’t waste my love on you?”
I can feel his heart, thumping with anger, begin to soften—can feel the pity in him as he walks back to my bed and sits on the edge. “I’m not wasting my love on you.”
He truly believes he loves me, but this love isn’t real. It’s imagined, a story he tells himself, and while he sees me as the princess in the fairy tales we heard as children, I’m nothing more than the wicked queen. I’m not deserving of this false love, even as I take it and use it to comfort myself. I’m only deserving of his hatred. This I can sense also—embers of his hatred for me, burning beneath his skin. If he admitted his hatred of me, he might not be able to stand the sight of me, the woman he’s meant to protect. He might take the sword meant for killing rebels and cut my neck instead.
I tell Friedrich that Marieke will come by any moment, and I can feel his frustration, but he nods his understanding and kisses me again before leaving my chambers, boots in his hands. I sit in my bed, knees curled to my chest. My room is usually a welcomed sanctuary—a slight reprieve from the island and its responsibilities, though not from my own thoughts, my own ambitions. That’s never something I’ll be able to escape, maybe not even when I’m dead and in my grave of the sea. But today, I look again to the table beside my bed and the awaiting letter I haven’t had the courage to open or read. I already know what it’ll say—have waited for its arrival for nearly half my life.
The marbled floor of my chamber shines yellow in the bright sunlight that spills from the open balcony windows, lace curtains leaving intricate patterns on the walls. It’s a clear day, and I can see three of the other dozens of islands under the rule of Hans Lollik in the distance: Solberg Helle is farthest, green hills faded in the distance; Niklasson Helle is a jagged rock that reaches for the sky. Rose Helle is closest. I can see the browning of the trees, the bald spots where fires spread so many years before. My mother’s island had been beautiful, once. It was the smallest of the islands of Hans Lollik, with no plantations and only a scattering of houses. I would run through the groves with Ellinor and hold Inga’s hand as she took me to the shores. Claus had been the quietest of us, the shyest. He would spend his days in the library, reading his books on the histories of Hans Lollik Helle and the northern empires. Ellinor had only been interested in the fairy tales. She would beg Inga and our mother to read them to her, no matter the time of morning or night. But I would come to Claus. He was fourteen. He had the lightest skin of us all and curly brown hair that showed the blood of the Fjern ancestor who lived so many eras before. Claus was lighter-skinned than even the Fjern who worked long days under the hot sun. The Fjern didn’t like Claus and the color of his skin. It was too strong a reminder of how close the islanders and the Fjern truly were, despite the Fjern’s claims to higher intelligence, and their divine purpose in oppressing the dark-skinned islanders. It was their justification: The Koninkrijk Empire claimed that the Fjern must spread their rule over the lesser savages of this world.
Claus didn’t lie to himself. He knew that the color of his skin wouldn’t make the Fjern accept him, knew that the Fjern would hate him more than any of us. Our father had taken Claus with him on all of his meetings across the islands. He showed Claus and his son’s lighter skin with pride. Claus had hated our father. He told me this, plainly, when I asked my older brother to tell me about the man who had given us our name and our freedom. He said that our father lovingly kissed the feet of the Fjern, who would kick him in the mouth. Koen Rose didn’t want to be seen as a threat. He was happy to be treated like a dog if it meant he could continue his family’s legacy in the sugarcane business.
My father, though an islander, wasn’t a kind master. He would have the slaves beaten, just like any of the other Fjern, and though he wouldn’t torture the slaves as some might, Claus knew it was because he saw each slave as an investment and a profit. It didn’t matter that their skin was as dark as his own. My father had no feeling for them and did whatever he could in the eyes of the kongelig to distance himself from them—to make it clear that, though he looked like an islander, he’d still had an ancestor of the Fjern generations before. He had tried to marry into any of the Fjern families, but none would have him, so he decided on my mother, the most beautiful islander he had seen, even with her scars.
Claus didn’t want to inherit the sugarcane business or the island of Rose Helle if it meant he had to pretend to hold love for the Fjern. Claus would tell me the histories he learned, since I was still too young to read about the north myself. There are seven nations to the north, three more to the east, and two to the west; only our islands cross the sea. Claus explained to me that the Fjern came from their empire of Koninkrijk, which was the farthest north and by far the coldest of them all. The northern empire is oppressive, with little mercy for those who disobey the laws of the land, which they believe come as direct orders from the gods above. Claus had laughed when I asked if the Fjern envied the heat of our islands—if this is why they took the land from us.
My bedroom door opens without a knock, and Marieke strides in as she always does, a pan of water in her hands. “The girls are gossiping about how your guard was seen walking barefoot down this hall,” she says. “You need to be more careful. You don’t want these rumors spreading to your betrothed, do you?”
“Good day to you, too, Marieke.”
She sucks her teeth when she sees my clothes strewn across the floor, white dress stained yellow and brown from the island, ash from the fires. “It’s not too hard to pick up and fold your own clothes, is it?”
She walks into the adjoining room, and I hear her pour water into the tub. I stand, naked, and walk across the marble to join her.
“Why do you feel the need to mess with that boy?” she asks me.
I hesitate. I’d needed a distraction from the memory of the girl, a memory that returns to me now. Marieke is the only person I can trust with the truth, but there are some truths even she won’t want to hear. Instead, I change the topic, telling her to prepare new clothes for a visit to Jannik Helle in the morning.
“You’re visiting Elskerinde Jannik again?” she says. She believes I’ve accomplished enough with the woman.
“It’s not really your place to question, is it?” I ask. I sink into the white clawfoot tub and withhold a contented sigh.
“I’ll question whatever the hell I want. This isn’t only your life you’re playing with, Sigourney, and I have no plans to follow you to the gallows.”
“Good. Maybe then I’ll have a break from your nagging.”
Marieke begins to scrub at my arms, my shoulders, my back.
I ask, my eyes still closed, “Why do you stay if you hate me so?” Marieke is the first and only slave of the Rose household whose freedom I have granted—and yet, over the years, she’s remained.
She doesn’t pause in her scrubbing. “You already know that I have nowhere else to go.”
I can’t help but smile. This is why I love Marieke—her honesty, perhaps knowing there’s no point in trying to keep the truth from me, is refreshing. She stands and pours more water into my tub, and I open my eyes now and look at the wrinkles of her brown skin, the thick curls escaping her bun. She’d been the woman who found me waiting by the bay so many years ago, the night that my family had been massacred and Tante whispered that my mother would’ve wanted me to live. I’d climbed down the ladder, falling the last few feet and twisting my ankle so that it swelled and throbbed. I limped through the brush, thorns catching my dress and hair and skin, tripping over roots and rocks. Every now and then, I would hear a crunch, and I would stop, trying hard not to cry, fearing the guards had found me; and when no one came with their machete, I would keep moving—following the salted river as Tante had told me to, straight to the bay. I found the cave and sat motionless, knees to my chest. The entire night had passed and the sun was starting to rise, and Marieke found me there, covered in dirt and scratches and salt from my tears. A safeguard, I realized as I got older—a slave of the Rose family who had never come within the manor walls, and who knew to come to the cave if anything ever happened.
Marieke brought me to Lund Helle. I didn’t yet have my kraft, but it was plain to see that my cousin Bernhand Lund was shocked to see me alive. He’d watched the fires of Rose Helle in the early morning and had heard word of the massacre. He’d been told my entire family, myself included, had been killed. Marieke asked for shelter, but Bernhand Lund didn’t think this wise. In retrospect, it’s possible that he didn’t want to be tangled up with my family’s deaths, didn’t want my assassins to come back for me and decide to take his life as well. I’d been numb in those days, and have little memory of the conversations between my cousin and Marieke, but I imagine now how terrified Marieke must have been; scared that my cousin might simply decide to make both of us his slaves and take the coin of Rose Helle for himself. It would’ve been easy. My mother was no longer alive to stop him, and I was supposed to be dead.
But he did not. To this day, I honestly can’t see why he didn’t. It wasn’t out of love. My Lund cousins didn’t love us, and were often embarrassed to depend on my family for the sugarcane business, and if Bernhand Lund was afraid of my assassins, he could’ve offered me to the kongelig in exchange for his life. Perhaps he’d already considered the fact that he had no heir, and as shaming as it would be for him, he would need me to continue the Lund legacy. Maybe he simply decided to do what was right. Whatever his reason, my cousin sent me away for my protection. He gave Marieke coin so that I could travel the northern empires, from villas to cottages to cities. We became the guests of Bernhand Lund’s acquaintances, spending months in the grandest of manors; we would travel to a city and spend just as much time in an inn that smelled of ale. We lied about my roots to anyone who asked, and allowed the rumors to spread. The bastard child of Bernhand Lund’s and a forgotten slave, perhaps, or an orphan of the northern empires that Bernhand saw in the streets and took pity on. I became known as Sigourney Lund.
The northern mass of land is carved up into its own septe empires. Koninkrijk—home of the Fjern—is the farthest north, and the smallest of the other empire nations. Perhaps it’s because of this that the Fjern have spread themselves across the world, starting wars and claiming more land for Koninkrijk on behalf of their gods. The Fjern give those lands to regents so that coin and trade can be sent back north. The regents rule without mercy, slaughtering anyone who attempts rebellion. The islands of Hans Lollik are far from being the only lands that have suffered under the hand of the Fjern.
My islands are well known in the north for their beauty. Some strangers Marieke and I met even knew of my mother, the woman who had been a slave but rose among the kongelig. It was possible that some were spies, sent from my family’s killers to murder me. Marieke insisted that if I was to truly hide, I should change my birth name as well, but even as a child, I refused. It was the name my mother had given me, the name she had whispered as she kissed my forehead at night.
I’ve met some who have wondered—thought on how there was once a little girl named Sigourney Rose, who might’ve been the same age as me if she hadn’t been killed nearly ten years before, found dead in a pretty little dress beside the rest of her family, but no one has stepped forward with such a claim. No one has attempted to kill me for being a daughter of the Rose.
I spent seven years traveling the north with Marieke. I was thirteen when I decided I would sacrifice my freedom to return to the islands and take the power from the kongelig. I studied each of the kongelig: the Niklasson, Nørup, Solberg, Årud, Larsen, and Jannik families. My plan required the inheritance of the title of Elskerinde. Bernhand Lund didn’t have any plans to retire his title, and I held no love for him, as he held no love for me. I asked Marieke to slip a drop of poison from oleander flowers purchased from the Solberg markets into my cousin’s tea, and over the months he became ill. He left me everything in his will when he died. I could sense at his deathbed that he was grateful to have a name to write down on his paper, embarrassed that he’d lived such a long life but hadn’t grown to love anyone but himself, ashamed that he had no choice but to ensure his legacy continue by placing his wealth and land into my hands. Now only Marieke knows with any certainty my true identity.
Marieke’s rough fingers make their way into my hair. “And I don’t hate you,” she says. “You already know that.”
There’s an unexpected warming in my chest. I’m tempted to slip into her mind to see if she really means what she says, but Marieke is the one person whose privacy I’ve always respected. Besides, she has a way of knowing when I’m reading her thoughts, and she always has harsh words for what she calls “evil’s trickery.” Any other kongelig would have her killed for slandering what they consider the divine gifts.
“If only more people were like you, Marieke,” I tell her.
She sucks her teeth again. “What’s this? The grand Sigourney Rose, worried about what people think?”
I don’t answer. She’s silent, waiting for me to speak my worries. “Someone with kraft was found at the uprising today.”
Marieke pauses for a brief moment before her hands continue to make their way through my hair. “Someone is always found with kraft.”
I try not to think of the others—dozens—who had been brought to me over the years since becoming Elskerinde Lund after my cousin Bernhand’s passing. I had to announce their rightful deaths and listen to their screams and cries, their pleas for mercy. They would’ve been honored, once. Before the Fjern came and declared these powers belonged to only them, an islander with such a gift would be considered blessed by our ancestors. They would devote their lives to using their abilities to help others. Now an islander with such an ability only becomes ash.
“It was a girl this time—young, couldn’t have been any older than thirteen.”
Marieke’s fingers are stiff. Disgust emanates from her. I was right. Marieke wouldn’t have wanted to hear about the death of a child. The death of a child by my own hand, no matter if I have a choice in declaring her execution or not.
Still, she tries to comfort me. “It was your responsibility as Elskerinde.”
“Yes, it’s my responsibility to kill my own people. How many will have to die because of me, while I kiss the feet of the Fjern who enslaved our people and killed my family?”
“What do you propose you do?” she asks. “You knew what was in store the day you decided to return to Lund Helle. This shouldn’t come as any surprise,” she tells me.
I raise my hands and stare at my wet palms as if I can see the blood that stains them. The next words I can’t speak aloud, so I risk slipping into Marieke’s mind, implanting a thought of my own: It isn’t easy to be so heartless.
“You’ve never cared before,” she says, her voice lowering. “Why start now? There’s no harm in keeping your goals in sight.” Marieke tips another pan of water slowly over my head, water cascading over my face. She likes to nag, but I know Marieke holds the same wishes as I do. Her family had been inside my mother’s manor that night, too.
“Focus only on yourself and your ambitions,” she says, “and soon you’ll find that you care not what a single person thinks. Not even your gods.”
Want to read more? Click to the next page for CHAPTER 3!