Read a sample from QUEEN OF THE CONQUERED by Kacen Callender


My guardsmen and I race across the fields of Lund Helle, cutting through valleys where goats graze on guinea grass and houses dot the horizon. We travel to a bay and its crescent alcove of white sand. A private ship is anchored at sea, the clear blue water reflecting the cloudless sky. Friedrich rows me out on a smaller boat, and we climb a ladder to the top deck, floorboards swollen with salt beneath my feet. The islands of Hans Lollik are grouped nearly in a circle while the royal island of Hans Lollik Helle rests in the center. It can take only hours to reach any of the neighboring islands, but to venture farther out to the other end of the circle, the journey can take days. Ludjivik Helle is one of the islands farthest away from all the rest. Malthe told me no ships that the executed slave girl had mentioned were found. It’s difficult to believe the Ludjivik family could truly have been behind the uprising.

Jannik Helle is only half a day away. Rose Helle is at our backs as we pass Niklasson Helle, then Solberg Helle, until finally the faded green of Jannik Helle is in the distance. Lund Helle is known for its farmland, its plantations and crops; Jannik Helle is known for its gambling dens, brothels, and rum. Jannik Helle had once thrived, providing the Fjern with entertainment, but when we arrive at the docks, it’s empty of sailors; the few anchored trade ships appear to be abandoned. Malthe leads me to an awaiting carriage, its arrival prepared in advance. Though Malthe is the captain, Friedrich is my bodyguard, trained to be at my side at all times; he follows me into the carriage, while my remaining guardsmen wait behind. It would be an affront if I brought them all to Elskerinde Jannik’s manor.

We ride for some time, out of the town of uneven streets that become dirt roads, the carriage clattering into the rocky countryside of Jannik Helle, until finally we arrive. Yellow elders of the Jannik insignia bloom on the path leading to the Jannik manor, Herregård Mønsted. The house is a pale blue, two stories tall, with a balcony that wraps around each floor, windows dark with their gauzy curtains. We step from the carriage and walk through the garden, blossoming with its fruit and flowers, bees and hummingbirds flitting through the air, flies surrounding the overripe mango and guava that hang from their branches and fall to the ground to rot.

Friedrich knocks on the door and announces us to the answering slave, who allows us into the manor. It’s not so different from my own. Dead family members, sitting in their portraits, line the opening hall here as well, and the wooden floors gleam in the dim light that manages to shine through the cracks in the curtains—yet there’s a smell here that’s sunken into the walls. The smell of decaying skin, yellowing teeth, of fruit rotting in the heat.

The slave is a woman with graying hair. She has one hand, warped with white scars. When I send myself into her mind, it’s only to know whether Elskerinde Jannik is awake and well enough to take visitors; instead, I’m overwhelmed with a memory that sits with this slave woman in the forefront of her mind, always lingering: She was a baby, barely able to stand on her own two feet, not yet sold to another island or Fjern family, when her mother—young, not any older than me—spilled hot tea on Elskerinde Freja Jannik’s hand. The woman’s pale skin blistered and stung. And so she had the young girl’s child—the woman who stands before me—taken to the kitchens, her hands forced into a pot of scalding-hot water. One hand had to be cut from the bone. The other is barely usable. The young mother was sold away, and the child remained here, serving Freja Jannik by sweeping and opening the door and carrying shaking trays of tea. She wonders about her mother sometimes, blames her for the loss of her hands. She doesn’t think to blame Freja Jannik.

The woman won’t meet my eye. She’s heard that I executed a little girl for having kraft, and she’s afraid I’ll somehow believe she has kraft as well. She believes that I’m evil, unworthy of the power I hold. Most of my people hold hatred for me, hatred that feels like water from the sea filling my lungs. I leave her mind so that I won’t have to see these thoughts.

“Herre Aksel Jannik is away,” she says.

“I’m not here for Herre Aksel Jannik.”

The woman stares at the ground beneath her feet. “The Elskerinde isn’t well enough for visitors.”

“The Elskerinde will never be well again,” I say, “which is why I must see her while I still can.”

She steps to the side and allows me into the shaded heat of the house. The smell of rot gets stronger as the slave leads us down the marbled halls. The windows are closed, the gauzy curtains attempting to block the sunlight. We turn corners and climb a flight of stairs until we stop outside the grandest door of all, the heavy mahogany wood even darker in the hall’s dim light.

The slave bows and leaves, and Friedrich waits in the hall beside me. “Would you like me to come inside with you?” he asks, even though I always have the same answer for him. It’s curiosity that makes Friedrich want to see the dying Elskerinde Jannik.

“No,” I say, ignoring the pinch of disappointment from him. “Wait outside. I’ll only be a moment.”

He opens the door and, after I step in, clicks it shut behind me.

The room is cluttered. The Elskerinde Jannik had been a collector when she was young, and bells of every possible color and shape sit atop their shelves, and painted dolls with pale skin and red lips brought from the Elskerinde’s homeland of Koninkrijk line the wall in their own private glass cases. The dolls are precious antiques. They aren’t made quite the same way anymore, and they’re worth thousands of coin in the northern empires—coin that could’ve helped to settle the debt of the Jannik family, if only the Elskerinde had not refused to part ways with the dolls. They bring memories to her, memories that are forever slipping away, however much she grasps at their edges.

She has memories of holding her mother’s hand as they walked the cobblestoned streets of Koninkrijk, clumps of ice falling from the pale-blue sky. They bought dolls with lace dresses that looked like her own. Freja was only six years old when her mother and father came to these islands to begin a new life. Freja didn’t understand why they’d had to leave Koninkrijk, but as she grew older, memories were like the pieces of a puzzle, snapping into place: the wealth their family had acquired so quickly; her father’s disappearance for what felt like years, but could only have been weeks, before he returned one night. He hurriedly whispered to Freja that they had to leave, and she could only choose her favorite possessions. Her mother helped her pack the dresses and the dolls, still in their cases. They left that very night for a ship that waited in the harbor, and the Jannik family escaped into exile to live in these islands. Freja Jannik had cried every night once they arrived. She missed her home in Koninkrijk, the manor she’d been raised in with its gardens, the cobblestoned streets. Even as she grew and became a woman, she always longed to return to the country she’d been born to, but she never could, for risk that she would have to pay for her father’s crimes.

Paintings cover the torn, yellowed wallpaper—portraits of the different landscapes of Koninkrijk, with the crowded towns and white mountains and endless forests. There are paintings, too, of Freja Jannik when she was younger, holding her baby boy in her lap. The largest painting is of her late husband, Herre Engel Jannik, which rests directly above her bed, watching her every move, even in death. He’d been a large man with a thick neck, brown hair that was stark against his pale skin, a heavy brow.

Elskerinde Freja Jannik lies beneath him. She’s still, and for a moment I think she has passed—but I can feel the life thrumming through her veins, and her chest moves, her eyes blinking as she turns her head toward me. Her pale skin looks yellow in places. The tips of her fingers are blue, as if she’d dipped them into icy water. Even when dying, she’s still had her slave put rouge blush onto her cheeks and painted her lips red, all with her one hand, so that Freja looks like one of the many dolls atop her shelves.

“Elskerinde Lund,” she says, her voice still as melodic and strong as if she were a young woman of twenty years. “It’s always so nice to see you.”

I work my kraft and sink into her thoughts, as I came here to do. The Elskerinde lies. I can feel it in her bones. The woman despises me. She’s disgusted, greeting a woman with skin as dark as mine, when I should be working the fields. Elskerinde Jannik has only known slaves since she came to these islands of Hans Lollik. There are people with brown and black skin in the nations to the north, but the town they lived in within Koninkrijk was far from these empires; it was only when she got on the ship that would bring her to these islands that she saw people with skin as dark as mine for the first time. It was easy to believe the lies she was told: that people with dark skin are closer to animals than she, that the gods have marked our skin to show that we are evil and must be shown the ways of the good through obedience to the Fjern. She thinks of this now as she watches me entering her room, as though I’m her equal. I’m not obedient. I watch her in defiance with my dark skin.

I sit at the chair aside her bed. A thin layer of dust covers the arms and cushion.

“How are you?” I ask, taking her hand, the disgust in the Elskerinde seeping into my skin. She wants to pull away, but she doesn’t want to risk offending me. She knows that she needs me. Her hand is cold, damp, but I force myself to grip her fingers, blue veins running like rivers over her wrist.

“The same,” she says. “I just won’t die, will I?” A shadow of fear passes over her.

“I hope you’ll stay with us as long as you can.”

Her thinned white hair sticks to her cheek. Her own people have forgotten her and left her to die alone in this room. Not so long ago, Freja Jannik was practically the queen of these islands. Before Jannik Helle fell to its debt, the Jannik name had been the wealthiest in all of Hans Lollik. After Freja and her parents fled to Hans Lollik, they started a life on this island. They’d lived in town near the docks, where Freja had to wake to the smell of fish blood and guts every morning, when she’d been used to the fresh scent of pine and ice. The heat scalded and burned her pink skin, and the salt cracked her lips. Her mother passed only a year after they arrived. The woman had become ill during the storm season and died only days later. Freja became isolated, quiet. She could see how the other young Fjern ladies of her school laughed at her, but Freja had an ambition of her own. All of the girls clamored for the attention of Engel Jannik. He’d been like a prince to them, the handsome son of the owner of this island. There were garden parties, balls, and only the wealthiest and most respectable families of Hans Lollik were invited to attend.

Freja was neither of those things, but she’d been clever. She left her isolation. She showed only a joyous smile and complimented everyone around her, with never a nasty thing to say. She befriended the girls with her pretty smiles and easy charm, happy to make herself subservient to them, until finally she received invitations to follow along to these grand parties; and there, from afar, she could see Engel Jannik watching her. She feigned innocence, making sure the sunlight shined through the yellow in her hair. And when the handsome Jannik son invited her to the gardens, away from the crowds, Freja allowed him to slip a hand into her skirts so that he might know what he could have were he to marry her. She whispered sweetly in his ear that afternoon, and soon Freja found herself invited again and again to Engel Jannik’s manor and to his gardens; found that she no longer needed her friends, who were now her enemies writhing in jealousy.

Engel Jannik proposed a month later. His parents retired from their positions, and so Engel and Freja inherited the titles of Herre and Elskerinde Jannik. The two threw the grandest parties in all of Hans Lollik. The music, the drink, the glamour—it was like magic, these parties. Guests would come one night and leave days later, swirling with memories of drunken laughter, as though they’d been bewitched by someone with kraft. Even the regent of the islands had come once, leaving his island of Hans Lollik Helle, an honor that to this day has still not been shared with any of the other kongelig. This manor had once been filled with guests, music, laughter, the clink of glasses filled with sugarcane wine. Now no one visits Elskerinde Jannik but me, a descendant of islanders, a person who ought to be a slave—and how pathetic it is, she thinks, that she’s even begun to look forward to seeing me so that she won’t die alone.

When I begin, I close my eyes. The Elskerinde is no longer a dying woman but a girl child, sitting on her father’s lap, laughing at a joke she doesn’t understand but desperately wants to, her mother glowing in a dress of white; and the little girl stands on the sand of Jannik Helle, clutching her father’s hand, watching her mother’s body float away on a boat that’s been set afire. I clutch the Elskerinde’s hand as I peel the memory away, filling the images with darkness.

I open my eyes again, and Freja Jannik stares at the canopy of her bed. “Even my own mother won’t visit,” she says, slipping her hand from mine and clutching the sheets at her waist. My own hands shake as I rest them in my lap. It’s exhausting work, reading the thoughts and emotions of those around me, as though stretching my spirit between two bodies; it’s even more tiring to manipulate Freja Jannik’s mind as I do, taking away her memories.

“Do you miss your mother?” I ask, thinking on how much I miss my own. It might be a childish thought, but it’s one that comes to me every day. I miss my mother, and the years that I never got to have with her. Marieke was always there for me—supportive, able to offer her advice. But it was my mother that I needed: a woman who understood what it means to be an islander in Hans Lollik with her wealth and the respect as a member of the kongelig, never swaying under their hatred for her.

Freja Jannik has stopped listening. She’s lost in a memory again: her belly swollen and cramping, bruised from the fist that had hit her. Praying that the child is nothing like its father. She’d always known who Engel was, from the first moment she followed him into the gardens so many years before, when Engel Jannik had slipped a hand into her skirts and gripped her wrist with the other so tightly that she’d had to hide the bruise for days afterward. It was no surprise when he hit her in anger. It was a price Freja had thought she’d been willing to pay.

This memory I strip away, too—not to ease her suffering but because it seems that the more memories I take, the faster she dies; and so I search, careful not to take so many that my visits would be suspicious and that Freja Jannik won’t look to be anything other than a woman dying of old age. I’ve come to Freja Jannik for the past two years now. At first it was only to speak with her—to see how I might become her ally. When it became clear that she would never be an ally by choice, I had to think of ways to convince her otherwise. I try to push away the guilt. I must remember who Elskerinde Freja Jannik is, and everything that she’s done.

As I look through the caverns of her mind, I see flashes of her life: Engel Jannik, broad-shouldered and young, standing to greet her—she’d thought he was so handsome then, and he’d been so in love with her, so attentive, even if he had never been very kind; men and women in outfits of white, their glasses of sugarcane wine gleaming; walks through the groves, as she watches my enslaved people; a little brown boy running past, the Elskerinde’s burning hatred for him.

And then there’s her son. He’s a squirming pink thing in her memory, wailing with a toothless mouth, pail of red water splashing onto the floor, pain unbearable—there had been complications and the boy had nearly strangled himself with the cord around his neck—but happiness, too, happiness that both she and the child survived.

I slip a thought into her mind: My son is the perfect match for Elskerinde Sigourney Lund.

“My son is the perfect match for you,” she says, eyes shining.

He may not love her—I hope he never will—but the Lund name is our only savior.

The Elskerinde smiles, smoothing her hand against the sheet, unwilling to share her true thoughts: The Jannik family is in ruin. Engel adopted an ugly habit of cards and rum, and the endless parties proved too expensive for the Jannik family. Failed businesses attracted the more sordid crowds of the Hans Lollik islands. Freja Jannik became pregnant three times, and three times the child died in her womb. Her husband had never been kind, but he became angrier at the smallest of offenses: not speaking loudly enough, walking too slowly, not wearing Engel’s favorite dress—suddenly, all were crimes deserving of his fist.

And, though Engel Jannik had no kraft to his name, Freja could see in his eyes that he blamed her not only for the deaths of their children but for the weak ability of their son as well. Freja Jannik has no control over the power of her son; it was only ill luck that Aksel was gifted with such a weak kraft by the gods—a weak kraft that has wrecked their chances before Konge Valdemar. Her family is lucky they’ve even remained members of the kongelig. There’ve been some who have called for the Jannik house to step down. The Ludjivik family has been most vocal, but there have even been members of kongelig families, Freja knows, who have whispered among themselves. “Pathetic,” the Jannik family has been called. It’s only out of pity, embarrassment, that they’ve been invited to Hans Lollik Helle over the years, invited to the garden parties and balls.

Freja Jannik hates me. She hates the darkness of my skin, the thickness of my eyelashes and hair, the wideness of my nose and lips. She hates that I was born of these islands, and she hates most of all that I am her family’s last hope. But she at least knows my blood is strong and that coin has never been an issue for the Lund family.

There’s a twist of unease that thrums through Freja and into me—her eyes widen, and she inhales a sharp breath. I can feel kraft steeping inside the Elskerinde, a tingle over the skin.

“Are you all right?” I ask, leaning closer. It’s perverse, the genuine concern I have for her, this connection I feel with Elskerinde Jannik after visiting for years, even as I aid in her death. I hold no love for the Elskerinde, but I do have understanding—knowing her story, feeling the pain she’s felt, keeping her thoughts as though they are my own.

The fear in her eyes subsides. “The whispers. They happen more now. They tell me I’ll die by the hands of someone I trust, but they won’t tell me who it is.”

I force a smile. “I can’t imagine who would want to betray you, Elskerinde Jannik.”

She laughs, but her laugh turns into coughs—her body, her bed, it seems even her entire room shakes with each one, until she takes another deep, wheezing breath. “I can think of a few,” she says. A memory appears in Elskerinde Jannik’s mind, images flashing through my own. A memory of my mother, standing before all the kongelig, dressed in white.

I wait for the storm ripping through my veins to subside. “May I ask you a question, Elskerinde Jannik?”

“Of course, Elskerinde Lund.”

I grasp my hands together. “What do you know of the Rose family?”

Her expression is still. I’ve seen these memories, too, when I sink into her mind—memories of sitting on sofas, sipping sugarcane wine, wishing she hadn’t been in the room when her husband discussed the plans with the other kongelig, agreeing on exactly how they would send in Jannik guards to slaughter every single man, woman, and child who happened to be in my family’s manor. How they’d clinked glasses, silently signing away the lives of people I knew, people I loved. My sisters, my brother, my mother.

The kongelig hated my mother and the Rose family. They couldn’t understand why the regent of these islands would seem to hold my mother, an islander, in such grand esteem, or why he would invite her to Hans Lollik Helle for the storm season. Some feared that the king even planned to pass Mirjam Rose the title of the crown, and power over all of Hans Lollik; and so, the kongelig planned for her death.

The ghost of my mother haunts Freja Jannik at night. My mother never speaks. She simply comes to watch Freja. She watches with no judgment or hate—only a reminder of the sins Freja has committed before the gods. My mother has come to visit Freja Jannik so often that the Elskerinde has even started to question if, after all, the islanders had been right to believe that the spirits of the dead will always seek their revenge. The Elskerinde’s thoughts have whispered their regrets to me. Regrets that Freja hadn’t taken Engel’s hand and insisted that they find another way to convince Konge Valdemar of their own value. That killing the Rose family, and slaughtering everyone in the manor, was not worth their ambition.

Elskerinde Jannik has many regrets, yes. But her regrets won’t bring back my family. Her regrets mean nothing to me.

She finally speaks. “Why would you ask that?” she asks. “I’d rather not speak about such a tragedy.”

It’s what any member of the remaining six kongelig families of Hans Lollik say when asked. It’s what they agreed upon: to never speak on the atrocity they’ve committed, in the hopes that the gods will forget their sins. The kongelig don’t believe they’ve sinned in killing my family; they don’t consider islanders to be human, and so there’s no sin in taking our lives. But there’d been other Fjern that night: cousins of the Skov, longtime allies of the Lund family’s plantation business, and the Koch family, a poorer family of the Fjern but still Fjern regardless, perhaps excited for an invitation when normally ignored by the kongelig. Their families had been slaughtered as well.

I watch Freja Jannik in her bed, dying—and suddenly, even her death isn’t enough. “What happened to the Rose family, Elskerinde Jannik?”

“They were killed,” she says, and her frown deepens as she’s unsure why she’s speaking, why she’s answering me, why she’s unable to stop. “Murdered by guards.”

“Whose guards?”

She hesitates, then says her own family’s name.

She trembles, and tears threaten to fall from her eyes as she begins to breathe her apologies, but I give an unspoken order of silence, and she quiets in her bed. “Why did you have them killed?”

Freja shakes her head, but the words fall from her mouth. “Konge Valdemar had invited Mirjam Rose to join Hans Lollik Helle for the storm season, to join the kongelig. By the gods, I couldn’t fathom why he would invite a former slave, but the king had been ill, weak of mind. I feared he would consider passing his title to her family in his confused state.”

“And so you brought the idea to your husband?”

“It was my suggestion first, yes, but I only meant for Mirjam and the boy child, Claus, to die. The boys are so much more likely to become heir, and I thought the girls could be spared. I suggested killing both septely. Mirjam Rose, by poisoning so that it would seem she’d died naturally of an illness, and Claus Rose, by sending a guard to break his neck as he rode his horse, as he was known to do each morning on the shore, so that it’d seem he’d fallen. But Engel—he didn’t want to take the risk. He didn’t want anyone from the Rose family to survive. And so he waited until the annual ball thrown by Mirjam Rose in her late husband’s honor, and had our guards kill everyone. Every single—”

She gasps, and I think for a moment that her heart really has stopped, but no—it keeps beating, and she closes her eyes. “They didn’t all need to die. The Koch family. The Skov family. So many people. My husband’s guards had to set fire to the manor to burn the bodies, because there were too many to bury at sea.”

I’ve already seen Freja Jannik’s memories where she tried to spare me and my sisters. I know she would think her hope to save us from herself would mean she deserves my pity, my mercy. My hand, shaking, reaches for Freja Jannik’s cheek—slides to her neck, where my fingers tighten a grip around the woman’s throat. Her eyes widen, her mouth opens as she tries to suck in the air she can’t breathe, and I watch, my entire arm trembling with the effort. Her eyes become glazed, her mouth slackens.

Yes, she thinks. This is exactly how the gods described it.

I release her.

She chokes on air.

I can hear Marieke’s voice. Patience, child.