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Two Dark Reigns (Three Dark Crowns #3)
Author:Kendare Blake

Two Dark Reigns (Three Dark Crowns #3)

Kendare Blake




The labor, when it began, was hard and full of blood. Nothing less was to be expected from a war queen, especially one so battle-hardened as Queen Philomene.

The Midwife pressed a cool cloth to the queen’s forehead, but the queen shoved it away.

“The pain is nothing,” Queen Philomene said. “I welcome this last fight.”

“You think there will be no more war for you in Louis’s country?” the Midwife asked. “Even if your gift fades after you leave the island, I cannot imagine that.”

The queen looked toward the door, where Louis, her king-consort, could be glimpsed pacing back and forth. Her black eyes glittered from the excitement of the labor. Her black hair shone slick with sweat.

“He wants this to be over. He did not know what he was getting into when he got me.”

Nor did anyone. Queen Philomene’s entire reign was marked by battle. Under her, the capital city was overrun by warriors. She built long ships and plundered the coastal villages of every nation state except for that of her king-consort. But now, all that was over. Eight years of brutal, warrior rule. A short reign, even by war queen standards, but the island was exhausted by it nonetheless. War queens were glory and intimidation. Protection. It was not only her husband who was relieved when the Goddess sent the queen her triplets.

She strained as another pain struck her, and she turned her knee to see more blood darken the bedding.

“You are doing well,” the Midwife lied. But what did she really know? She was young and new in service at the Black Cottage. A poisoner by gift and therefore a clever healer, but though she had aided in many births, there was no true preparation for the birth of queens.

“I am,” Philomene agreed, and smiled. “It is like a war queen to bleed so much. But I still think I will die of this.”

The Midwife dipped the cloth back into the cool water and wrung it out, ready in case Philomene should let her use it. Perhaps she would. After all, who would see? To the island, a queen was effectively dead once her triplets were born. The horses to take her and Louis to their river barge and on to their ship were already saddled and waiting, and once gone, Philomene and Louis would never return. Even the doting little Midwife would forget her the moment the babies were out. She put on a show of caring, but her only aim was to keep Philomene alive long enough to bear the triplets.

Philomene glanced at the table of herbs and clean black cloths, jars of potions to dull the pain, all refused, of course. There were knives upon it as well. To cut the new queens free should the old one prove too weak. Philomene smiled. The Midwife was a small meek thing. Her trying to slice them out might be a feat worth watching.

The pain passed, and Philomene sighed.

“They are in a hurry,” she said. “As I was. In a hurry since I was born, to make my mark. Perhaps I knew I would have a short time to do it in. Or perhaps it was the strain of rushing that shortened my life. You came from the temple, did you not? Before serving in solitude here?”

“I trained there, my queen. At the temple in Prynn. But I never took the oaths.”

“Of course not. I can see that there are no bracelets marked into your arms. I am not blind.” She strained again, and more blood gushed forth. The pains were coming faster.

The Midwife grasped her by the chin and pulled her eyelids back.

“You are weakening.”

“I am not.” Philomene fell back on the bed. She placed her hands atop her great distended belly in a near-motherly gesture. But she would not ask about the baby queens. They were not hers to wonder about. All belonged to the Goddess and the Goddess alone.

Philomene struggled back up onto her elbows. A look of grim determination set on her face. She snapped her fingers for the Midwife to take her place between her knees.

“You are ready to push,” the Midwife said. “It will be all right; you are strong.”

“I thought you just said I was weakening,” Philomene grumbled.

The first queen born was born silent. Breathing, but she did not even cry when the Midwife slapped her across the back. She was small, and well-formed, and very pink for such a hard, messy birth. The Midwife held her up for Philomene to see, and for a moment, queens’ blood flowed between them through the connection of the cord.

“Leonine,” Philomene said, giving the little queen her name. “A naturalist.”

The Midwife repeated it aloud and took the baby away to be cleaned and placed in a bassinet, then covered in a blanket of bright green and embroidered with flowers. It was not long before the next baby came, screaming this time, and with tiny, clenched fists.

“Isadora,” the queen said, and the baby wailed and blinked her wide black eyes. “An oracle.”

“Isadora. An oracle,” the Midwife repeated. And she took her away to be wrapped in a blanket of pale gray and yellow, the colors of the seers.

The third queen born arrived in a rush of blood, as if on a wave. It was so much and so gruesome that Philomene’s mouth opened to announce a new war queen. But those were not the words that came out.

“Roxane. An elemental.”

The Midwife repeated the final name and turned away, cleaning the baby before wrapping her in blue and placing her in the last bassinet. Philomene breathed heavily in the birthing bed. She had been right. She could feel it. The birth had killed her. Strong as she was, she might survive long enough to be bound up and put into the saddle, but it would be a body that Louis sailed home with, to be entombed in his family crypt or perhaps pushed overboard into the sea. Her duty to the island was finished, and the island would have no more say in her fate.

“Midwife!” Philomene groaned as another pain tore through her.

“Yes, yes,” the Midwife replied soothingly. “It is only the afterbirth. It will pass.”

“It is not the afterbirth. It is not—”

She grimaced and bit her lip against one more push.

Another baby slipped out from the war queen’s womb. Easily and without fuss. She opened her black eyes and took an enormous breath. Another baby born. Another queen.

“A blue queen,” the Midwife murmured. “A fourth born.”

“Give her to me.”

The Midwife only stared.

“Give her to me now!”

She scooped the baby up, and Philomene snatched her from her hands.

“Illiann,” Philomene said. “An elemental.” Her exhausted, depleted face broke into a smile. Any disappointment of there being no new war queen vanished. For here was a great destiny. A blessing, for the entire island. And she, Philomene, had done it.

“Illiann,” the shocked Midwife repeated. “An elemental. The Blue Queen.”

Philomene laughed. She raised the child in her arms.

“Illiann!” she shouted. “The Blue Queen!”

The days spent waiting for someone to arrive at the Black Cottage were long. After the birth of the Blue Queen, the messengers raced back to their cities with the news. They had been at the Black Cottage, their horses saddled the moment the queen’s labor began.

A fourth born. It was such a rare occurrence that it was thought by some to be mere legend. At the Midwife’s announcement, none of the young messengers had known what to do. She had finally needed to screech at them.

“A Blue Queen!” she had shouted. “Blessed of the Goddess! All must come. All the families! And the High Priestess as well! Ride!”