The Impostor Queen
The heart lies before me, still, colorful, and more mysterious than I want it to be. I lean over the diagram etched onto the scroll, trying to memorize it all at once. The main vessel that carries the blood to the rest of the body is marked in red ink, and I slide my fingertip across the label. Valtimo. I like the word. It’s vital and meaty. “Elder Kauko, are the vessels in a loop, somehow? How does the blood know when it is time to return to the heart?”
Elder Kauko, seated next to me at this sturdy table laden with scrolls depicting livers, brains, all the bones of the hand and fingers, and so many other fascinating things, adjusts his robe over his round belly. “You are so clever, Elli. Yes, it is like a loop. The blood never leaves the vessels, merely travels through the tunnels until it passes through the heart again.”
I frown. “Why, though? Why is it so important, if all it does is flow through our veins? What does it do?”
He smiles. When I was little, his lips used to fascinate me; they stick out like two grubs pasted to his pale face. “The blood is life itself. It carries warmth to the limbs and strength to the muscles.”
My fingers trace the path of the blood into the lungs. “And what about magic? Does the blood carry magic throughout the body too?”
The elder lets out a breath as if I’ve elbowed him, then starts to chuckle. “Magic is more complicated than that.”
I blow a strand of my hair off my forehead, frustration warming my skin. “I know it’s not simple, but if the blood is life . . .” I glance at the elder, who waits patiently for my thought to form. “When magic leaves a Valtia, she dies. So it seems as if magic is life too. And if that’s true, then—”
He puts up his hands, as if in surrender. “My dear Saadella, magic infuses the wielder. It is everywhere within her.”
I tap the diagram. “Including the blood?”
“Yes, yes. Including the blood. But—”
“Can you distill the magic from the blood, then? Will it separate like oil from water if it sits out overnight? Have you ever—”
The elder starts to laugh, his belly wobbling. “Darling child, do you ever stop? Some things simply are, and it is best to be at peace with that.”
“And magic is one of them,” I say slowly. How many times have I heard that from my tutors? “But where does it come from, Elder? I know the Valtia’s magic passes to the Saadella, but what about the other wielders?”
Elder Kauko nudges my hand, which has now curled around the edge of the scroll, and in my eagerness, crumpled the paper. “We never know how it chooses a wielder.” He taps the tip of my nose with his index finger. “We only know it chooses wisely.”
I smooth my fingers over the wrinkled paper. “But when I had my geography lesson with priest Eljas the other day, he told me the Kupari are the only people in the world with magic. So why did it choose us?”
“Why did it choose us?” He gestures toward the corridor that leads to the grand domed chamber of our temple. “Because we serve it and keep it well, and . . .” He bows his head and lets out a huff of quiet laughter. “It just did, my Saadella. But I, for one, am not surprised. There is no better people than the Kupari, none stronger or purer of heart.”
Like I so often do in my lessons, I feel as if I am banging against a closed door, begging entrance. “But if that’s true, and we should all be at peace that the magic chose us, then why do all the priests spend their days studying it? What are they trying to figure out?” I point to the deep shelves of scrolls in Kauko’s personal library. He is the physician, but he is also an elder, one of the more powerful magic wielders in this temple. “I know these texts aren’t only about anatomy. When will you teach me about the actual magic?”
He sweeps his hand over the open scroll. “We teach you things every day, child!”
I bite my lip. “I thought when I turned sixteen, my lessons might include more than teachings on the natural world. I hoped I could spend more time with the Valtia and learn how she rules.”
Kauko begins to roll up the scroll, and that mysterious heart disappears into a spiral of brown paper. “The Valtia must keep her focus on her magic, and using it to serve the people. I know you mean well, but she cannot be distracted from that.” His thick lips quirk up in a sheepish smile. “And I know a horde of old priests are not equal to her company, but please believe we are dedicated to preparing you for the throne.”
I look away from him, feeling ashamed of my selfishness. “I do,” I murmur. But I can’t help the way my heart yearns for my Valtia—nor my desire to learn from her.
Elder Kauko gathers the scrolls into a pile. “You will have all the knowledge you need when the time comes, Elli,” he says, his voice gentle.
“You don’t know when the time will come,” I say as urgency coils in my gut.
His smile becomes wistful as he gives my arm a tender pat. “The other elders and I will guide you in the magic once it is inside you.” His dark eyes twinkle with a teasing mischief. “Besides, you cannot possibly know what you most want to ask until you have experienced the magic for yourself, hmm? Then you can bombard us with your questions!” He takes me by the elbow. “Come. I think it is time for your afternoon rest.”
The only person in this temple who doesn’t treat me like a child is Mim. I almost say it, but my words clog in my throat as he turns me to face him.
“We all know how devoted you are to your duty.” His expression is full of pride, and it makes me stand a little straighter. “We prize that in you. My dearest hope is that you come to understand how devoted we are to you.”
My throat is tight, but not with questions now. With emotion. “I know, Elder Kauko. I am so fortunate to have you. All of you.”
An echoing shout for Elder Kauko from down the corridor has us both turning toward the door again. “Coming!” he calls.
I follow him into the stone hallway that connects this rear wing to the grand chamber of the Temple on the Rock. The shouting is coming from there. Elder Kauko runs his hand over the dusky shadow on his bald head, his fingers steady and smooth. It’s a habit of his. “Elder Aleksi, is that you?”
Elder Aleksi rushes into the hallway, carrying the limp body of a boy who is bleeding from his head, his hands, his knees. My red skirt swishes around my ankles as I stop dead and stare. Aleksi, his heavy chin jiggling, gives the boy a concerned look. “He was hit by a horse cart,” Aleksi says as Kauko reaches him. Then he sees me hovering a few steps behind. “He was so eager to reach the temple that he wasn’t watching where he was going.”
He mutters something else that I don’t hear as he lays the boy, who can’t be more than ten and is skinny as a pole, on the tiles. “I fear we’re losing him.”
“No, he’ll be fine. I’ll do it right here,” says Kauko, leaning over the boy, his hands hovering over the child’s crimson-streaked sandy hair. He looks over his shoulder and gives me a faint smile. “Our Saadella can watch.”
My heart speeds as I take a step closer. Aleksi’s brows are low with warning, an expression I see every time I ask to watch the apprentices practice their wielding skills in the catacombs. “My Saadella, this is an ugly business, and—”
“But it will be something I can do when I have the magic inside me, correct?” I ask, edging along the marble floor. Only a few wielders can heal. To do it, they must have both ice and fire magic—a great deal, as I understand it—and the two opposing forces must be balanced. The Valtia’s magic is the most powerful, and it is also perfectly balanced, so this means—
“Of course, Saadella, should you ever wish to,” says Kauko briskly. “And it is sometimes an excellent gesture of goodwill toward the citizens, to do healings on ceremony days.”
“Then show me!” I say eagerly, and then gasp. As Kauko’s palms hover a few inches from the boy’s scalp, I can actually see the skin knitting together over a ragged wound. I open my mouth to ask how exactly Kauko manages it, but Aleksi puts his hand up.
“My Saadella,” he says quietly. “Healing takes complete concentration.”
Elder Kauko leans back after a few minutes, smiling and rubbing his hands together. I want to grasp them in my own—would they be burning to the touch? Icy cold? Both at once? “There. He is out of danger.” He meets Aleksi’s eyes. “Take him down to the catacombs and get him settled, and I will attend to the rest of his wounds after I have escorted the Saadella back to her chambers.”
“The catacombs?” I ask, peering at the boy more closely now. “Does that mean he’s a wielder?”
Aleksi nods. “His name is Niklas. He was apprenticed to a cobbler, who was kind enough to let us know he’d seen Niklas leave scorch marks on a piece of leather he was working. I thought it might be a false lead, but this boy clearly has fire. I knew it as soon as I was in the same room with him.”
Kauko shakes his head. “I’ve always admired your ability to sense such things.”
Aleksi grins at the compliment. “I don’t know how much magic is inside him yet, or whether he has any ice magic too, but we’ll test him once he’s well.”
I smile down at the boy, whose fingernails are black with grime, whose cheeks are hollow with deprivation. “Then he already knows how fortunate he is to have been found—it’s a shame that excitement got him hurt.” On impulse, I kneel next to him as his eyelids flutter. My fingers brush over his sharp cheekbone. “We’ll take good care of you, Niklas,” I murmur. “You have a wonderful life ahead of you.”
The boys eyes pop open, and they are dark blue, like the waters of the Motherlake in spring. He blinks up at me, then his eyes trace the white marble walls around him and go round as saucers. Just as his mouth drops open, Aleksi gathers the child in his arms, his plump fingers curling over lanky limbs and holding tight. “I’ll take him now,” Aleksi says as the boy starts to squirm and whimper, probably still dazed from his injury.
He stands up and strides down the corridor toward the entrance to the catacombs, the maze of tunnels and chambers beneath our temple where all the acolytes and apprentices train and live. Kauko turns to me. “Well, that’s enough excitement for the afternoon, eh?”
I look down at his hands, which are firm and strong-looking, unlike Aleksi’s. “But I would love to hear more about how—”
Kauko chuckles. “Perhaps another time, my Saadella. Our lesson is over for today, and I am sure Mim would be disappointed if you did not partake of the lemon scones she has acquired for your tea.”
My cheeks warm. Mim knows all my favorite things, and the sight of her smile as she gives them to me is loveliness itself. “Well then. I would never want to disappoint my handmaiden!”
Kauko grins and walks with me into the circular grand chamber, toward the eastern wing of the temple—the Saadella’s wing. My wing. As we reach it, heavy boot steps sound on the marble and the Valtia’s sedan chair is carried into the grand chamber from the white plaza outside. My heart squeezes with longing—I am only allowed to see my Valtia two days a year, at the planting ceremony and the harvest ceremony. She rarely leaves the temple, though, so I am frozen where I stand, gaping rudely. I narrow my eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of her face behind the gauzy material that covers the windows of the small wooden chamber where she sits. All I can see is the coppery glint of her hair, plaited and twisted and pinned into an exquisite coil atop her head.
Elder Leevi, lanky and stooped, walks next to the Valtia’s chair. “I was simply saying another trip beyond the city walls does not seem like a good—”
“You saw that homestead, Elder,” the Valtia replies. “I cannot in good conscience sit within this temple while our farmers live in fear. The raids are worse than ever, and the people might lose confidence if I did.”
“You are wise, my Valtia, but there is danger in the outlands. We could bring . . .” His voice fades from my hearing as the Valtia and her procession disappear down her corridor toward her chambers.
“What kind of danger is there in the outlands, that it could put the Valtia at risk?” I ask Kauko as he tugs on my sleeve, leading me to my own rooms. “I know the outlands are full of thieves and bandits, but the Valtia can defend herself against any threat, can’t she?”
“Of course, my Saadella,” says Kauko, quickening his pace. He is probably eager to get back to the boy, the newest magic wielder in our temple, but once again, my questions burn inside me. I place my hand on his arm.
“Is it the Soturi? Is it so bad that they have become stronger than us?” The raiders from the north have struck hard this year—or so Mim tells me. She sneaks information to me from the city whenever she can, even though the elders have admonished her for it twice already.
“The Soturi are no threat to the Valtia,” Kauko says slowly, as if he is thinking about every word. “But the strain and stress of the travel is wearying for any queen, and especially one who is a vessel for such powerful magic. Elder Leevi’s chief concern is our Valtia’s health.” He looks back at the doorway to my room, where Mim probably waits for me, laying out a blanket for my legs near my favorite chair by the fire. “A Valtia is all at once a magnificently strong and exquisitely fragile thing. For her to do her duty, she must be careful of what she demands of her body and mind. She must save her energy for when and where it is needed most.”
And trips to the outlands must be exhausting, riding for hours over the hilly, rough terrain, having to constantly be on guard for bandits or, stars forbid, the vicious and brutal northern warriors who stab at our shores, seeking plunder.
“She wants to help the farmers, though,” I say, my brow furrowing. How terrible she must feel, having to choose between her people and her health. Then I smile as an idea hits me. “Are we compensating the farmers for their losses?” I ask. “We have plenty of copper—I’ve seen the acolytes wheel it in. Surely we have enough, and it is more valuable than the bronze coins in the town. If she is concerned about the confidence of the people, maybe we could—”
Kauko makes a quiet sound of disapproval that silences me. “My dear, when you are on the throne, we will discuss all of this, but forgive me when I say that right now you are talking of things you do not understand.”
I flush with the reprimand, and Kauko’s frown softens. “I realize that all your ideas and questions sprout from the best intentions,” he says. “And I will speak with the Valtia about ways she can reduce the raids and bolster the confidence of the people while maintaining her health. I will also tell her you are concerned for her.” He winks. “And in a few days, you can tell her yourself!”
I nearly bounce on my heels as I think of the upcoming harvest ceremony. I haven’t spoken to my Valtia in months. “I certainly will. I want her to be with us for years to come.” Everyone knows that Valtias fade young, but Kauko makes it sound like it is possible to live longer if care is taken. And I want my Valtia to take care—not just because I love her, though I do, with every shred of my soul—because I fear I will never meet the standard she has set as our queen. “I—I feel as if I won’t be ready for a very long time,” I add quietly. “If I ever disappointed our people . . .” Even the thought puts a lump in my throat.
Kauko gives me the most kindly smile. “I am going to tell you something very important,” he says. “I was going to wait, but it seems like you need to hear it now.”
I stare at him, his smooth face and silly-looking lips, his merry eyes. “What is it?”
“All Valtias are powerful, but not all equally so. Some burn bright and fade quickly, while others are more steady, strong but muted. We never know what kind of Valtia we will have until the magic enters a Saadella. Except with you.”
I have the strange urge to claw at my stockings to peek at the red flame mark that paints my left calf with its numb scarlet tendrils, the one that appeared at the moment of the last Valtia’s death—when I was only four years old. “What do you mean?”
“There is a prophecy,” he says, glancing up and down the hall. “One made hundreds of years ago.”
“Yes?” I whisper.
His bald scalp is beaded with sparkles of sweat in the light of the torches that line the walls. “When we found you in that shabby little cottage by the city wall, too skinny for your own good, we made sure to check the town register for the day and season of your birth, and the exact position of the stars in the sky on that very day. It matches what was foretold precisely.” He grasps both my arms, giving me a little shake, as if to force this knowledge into me, to make sure I believe. “When the magic leaves our current queen and enters you, Elli, you will become the most powerful Valtia who has ever existed.”