Three Dark Crowns (Three Dark Crowns #1)


by Kendare Blake

December 21

Four months until Beltane

GREAVESDRAKE MANOR

A young queen stands barefoot on a wooden block with her arms outstretched. She has only her scant underclothes and the long, black hair that hangs down her back to fend off the drafts. Every ounce of strength in her slight frame is needed to keep her chin high and her shoulders square.

Two tall women circle the wooden block. Their fingertips drum against crossed arms, and their footsteps echo across the cold hardwood floor.

“She is thin to the ribs,” Genevieve says, and smacks them lightly, as if it might scare the bones farther under the skin. “And still so small. Small queens do not inspire much confidence. The others on the council cannot stop whispering about it.”

She studies the queen with distaste, her eyes dragging across every imperfection: her hollow cheeks, her pallid skin. The scabs from a rubbing of poison oak that still mar her right hand. But no scars. They are always careful about that.

“Put your arms down,” Genevieve says, and turns on her heel.

Queen Katharine glances at Natalia, the taller and elder of the two Arron sisters, before she does. Natalia nods, and the blood rushes back to Katharine’s fingertips.

“She will have to wear gloves tonight,” Genevieve says. Her tone is unmistakably critical. But it is Natalia who determines the queen’s training, and if Natalia wants to rub Katharine’s hands with poison oak one week before her birthday, then she will.

Genevieve lifts a lock of Katharine’s hair. Then she pulls it hard.

Katharine blinks. She has been prodded back and forth by Genevieve’s hands since she stepped onto the block. Jerked so roughly at times that it seems Genevieve wants her to fall so she can scold her for the bruises.

Genevieve pulls her hair again.

“At least it is not falling out. But how can black hair be so dull? And she is still so, so small.”

“She is the smallest and the youngest of the triplets,” Natalia says in her deep, calm voice. “Some things, Sister, you cannot change.”

When Natalia steps forward, it is difficult for Katharine to keep her eyes from following her. Natalia Arron is as close to a mother as she will ever know. It was her silk skirt that Katharine burrowed in at the age of six, all that long way from the Black Cottage to her new home at Greavesdrake Manor, sobbing after being parted from her sisters. There was nothing queenly about Katharine that day. But Natalia indulged her. She let Katharine weep and ruin her dress. She stroked her hair. It is Katharine’s earliest memory. The one and only time Natalia ever allowed her to act like a child.

In the slanting, indirect light of the parlor, Natalia’s ice-blond bun appears almost silver. But she is not old. Natalia will never be old. She has far too much work and far too many responsibilities to allow it. She is the head of the Arron family of poisoners, and the strongest member of the Black Council. She is raising their new queen.

Genevieve grasps Katharine’s poisoned hand. Her thumb traces the pattern of scabs until she finds a large one and picks it until it bleeds.

“Genevieve,” Natalia cautions. “That is enough.”

“Gloves are fine, I suppose,” Genevieve says, though she still seems cross. “Gloves over the elbows will give shape to her arms.”

She releases Katharine’s hand, and it bounces against her hip. Katharine has been on the block for over an hour, and there is much day still ahead. All the way to nightfall, her party, and the Gave Noir. The poisoner’s feast. Just thinking of it makes her stomach clench, and she winces slightly.

Natalia frowns.

“You have been resting?” she asks.

“Yes, Natalia,” says Katharine.

“Nothing but water and thinned porridge?”

“Nothing.”

Nothing to eat but that for days, and it may still not be enough. The poison she will have to consume, the sheer amounts of it, may still overcome Natalia’s training. Of course, it would be nothing at all if Katharine’s poisoner gift were strong.

Standing on the block, the walls of the darkened parlor feel heavy. They press in, given weight by the sheer number of Arrons inside. They have come from all across the island for this. The queens’ sixteenth birthday. Greavesdrake usually feels like a great, silent cavern, empty save for Natalia and the servants; her siblings, Genevieve and Antonin; and Natalia’s cousins Lucian and Allegra when they are not at their houses in town. Today it is busy and decked with finery. It is packed to purpose with poisons and poisoners. If a house could smile, Greavesdrake would be grinning.

“She has to be ready,” Genevieve says. “Every corner of the island will hear about what happens tonight.”

Natalia cocks her head at her sister. The gesture manages to convey at once how sympathetic Natalia is to Genevieve’s worries and how tired she is of hearing about them.

Natalia turns to look out the window, down the hills to the capital city of Indrid Down. The twin black spires of the Volroy, the palace where the queen resides during her reign, and where the Black Council resides permanently, rises above the chimney smoke.

“Genevieve. You are too nervous.”

“Too nervous?” Genevieve asks. “We are entering the Ascension Year with a weak queen. If we lose . . . I will not go back to Prynn!”

Her sister’s voice is so shrill that Natalia chuckles. Prynn. It was once the poisoners’ city but now only the weakest reside there. The entire capital of Indrid Down is theirs now. It has been for over a hundred years.

“Genevieve, you have never even been to Prynn.”

“Do not laugh at me.”

“Then do not be funny. I do not know what you are about sometimes.”

She looks again out the window, toward the Volroy’s black spires. Five Arrons sit on the Black Council. No less than five have sat on it for three generations, placed there by the ruling poisoner queen.

“I am only telling you what you may have missed, being so often away from council business, coaching and coddling our queen.”

“I do not miss anything,” says Natalia, and Genevieve lowers her eyes.

“Of course. I am sorry, Sister. It is only that the council grows wary, with the temple openly backing the elemental.”

“The temple is for festival days and for praying over sick children.” Natalia turns and taps Katharine beneath the chin. “For everything else, the people look to the council.

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