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Among the Beasts & Briars
Author: Ashley Poston

IT IS SAID that the first king of Aloriya was born with fire in his blood. It was a time when the cursed wood that bordered Aloriya snarled and snapped at the edges of the kingdom, the same cursed wood that had been plaguing the people of Aloriya for as long as anyone could remember, but he was not afraid. He razed a path through the cursed wood to the magical city of Voryn and struck a bargain with the Lady of the Wilds. What he asked for was simple—that Aloriya be protected from the monsters who lurked in the forest she commanded.

It is said the Lady took pity on the king, for he did brave her cursed wood, and gifted him a crown that would protect his people; but because she feared his magic, she made him promise that neither he nor any Aloriyan would ever return to her city. The forest on the edge of Aloriya would be forbidden to all its people. He agreed.

For three hundred years, Aloriya flourished. The crown was passed from father to son, from king to heir, and there were no monsters, no famines, no plagues, no wars.

And the city of Voryn, deep in the forbidden wood, fell to legend.

It is said that the Lady of the Wilds gifted King Sunder a glorious crown.

It is a lie.

1

The Village-In-The-Valley

Cerys

THE WILDWOOD CAME for us the day the king died.

At first it was only a few spots on an orchid, small black rotten dots that few would even notice. I didn’t think anything of it. It hadn’t looked like any disease I could remember; still, I simply bit my first finger until I could taste blood on my tongue, then pressed a droplet into the heart of the dying flower.

It bloomed once again, pale blue petals unfurling, growing to the size of my palm. I needed a bouquet to give Lady Ganara for that evening’s coronation, after all. A little blood never hurt anything, and no one was ever the wiser, anyway. I slid the bloom back into the vase, beside baby’s breath and a few sprigs of bluebells. Papa told me to only use my talent, for lack of a better word, sparingly. A gardener’s daughter with blood that could raise entire forests? Only the royal family had magic in their blood. What would Aloriya think if they knew I had a touch of magic, too? Even if my power was small, I was quite sure I would be the talk of the town. And not in the good way.

“Morning, Sprout!” Papa greeted me, coming in through the front of the shop. He knocked the dirt off his boots at the door and hung up his coat. “It’s a beautiful day for a coronation!”

“Don’t jinx it,” I replied, making a tag for the bouque—Lady Ganara, I wrote in my tight, neat cursive.

Papa belted a laugh. “What could go wrong? The sky’s bright, the sun’s out, and there’s spring in the air—I can taste it.”

“Mm-hmm. Watch it start raining the moment Wen says her vows. ‘Oh, I would be delighted to accept this crown . . . after the monsoon,’” I said in the princess—soon-to-be queen—of Aloriya’s crisp accent, grabbing the crown of daisies I’d made yesterday from the counter and placing it on my head. I mocked the royal wave to all the flowers in the shop. “Why, thank you for coming! I am delighted to ruin all your fine clothes this evening.”

Papa laughed louder as he escaped into the kitchen just off from the shop. He clanked around in the cabinets to find a cup and poured himself some coffee. He smelled like soil and freshly clipped flowers already, in dirty brown overalls and hard work boots, chewing on a stem of mint. His sun-browned skin was spotted with age, but his gray eyes were bright—like mine. “I got a feeling I won’t be comin’ back into the village today. It’s a riot up at the castle. The seneschal’s about to lose her head, she’s so stressed.”

“Poor Weiss. I feel for her.”

“I don’t,” Papa groused, coming back to lean on the kitchen doorframe, into the small flower shop at the front of the house. The shop itself was part of our house. Papa and I lived upstairs, but the kitchen was downstairs, and out the rear door were the gardens where we grew most of our flowers. “The old crone yelled at me again this morning.”

“Probably for trampling muddy boots all over the castle again.”

“That was one time, and it was an emergency.”

I snorted. What my father deemed an emergency was showing King Merrick four-leaf clovers, or roses I’d accidentally bled on that turned strange shades of purple. I highly doubted it was an actual emergency. The late king had been Papa’s best friend—one of the reasons that Princess Anwen was mine. He had been in the room when the king took his final breath two nights ago, and we barely had time to mourn his passing, as the kingdom was to be inherited by his children—

Child, I corrected myself. Because there were no longer two.

Papa seemed to be reminiscing about the same thing. “It feels like it didn’t happen. Like he’s still here. I keep forgetting.”

“I know,” I replied softly.

He stood quietly for a moment longer and then blinked his wet eyes and cleared his throat. “Well! No use dawdling; we’ve got work to do.” He hooked his thumbs into the loops of his overalls and came around the front of the counter. He took a look at the bouquets ready to be picked up and paused on Lady Ganara’s. “Kingsteeth, those are some beautiful blue orchids.” Papa bent in to smell them—and winced.

While magic couldn’t be seen, it did have a distinct scent that lingered for a while where it had been worked. The smell was like that of the Wildwood—like a sunlit forest just after heavy rain. Orchids did not smell like that. He leveled a stern look at me. “Cerys . . .”

“I know. I doubt she’ll notice, though. Last night the flowers were fine, but this morning they were speckled with these weird black spots.”

“What kind of spots?”

“Rot, it looked like? It was strange—but I fixed them. I just used a drop. I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s just magic, like Wen and her family have.”

Papa’s lips thinned into a line, and he took my hands in his, turning them over to see the wound on my finger. “You need to be careful. Our town, our village, they love you so much. I’m not worried about how they’d react to you having magic. But there is magic . . . and then there are curses.”

“And mine’s a curse, I know.”

He squeezed my hands tightly. “The Wilds touched you, but they didn’t keep you.”

I glanced away.

Papa let go of my hand. “Maybe add a few more sprigs of baby’s breath to cover up the scent—and then close up shop at noon and bring the last half dozen rose bouquets with you to the castle when you come.”

“Don’t forget your garden keys,” I reminded him as he turned toward the front door.

He snapped his fingers and retreated back to get them from the hook in the kitchen. As he passed by the counter again, he planted a kiss on my forehead. “What would I do without you, Sprout?”

“Forget your head.”

He laughed. “I’ll see you in a bloom.”

“In a bloom,” I agreed, and watched him as he left through the front door and started out of the village on foot. He would catch a ride with one of the guards at the bottom of the Sundermount, and they would take him the rest of the way up the mountain to the castle.

The castle of Aloriya was perched at the edge of the wood, among the peaks of the Lavender Mountains. The spires stretched like shafts of broken bone toward the stars. It was much prettier at night, when all the windows were golden and warm, driving away the coldness that clung to it in the daytime, lit up like a body that had finally found its soul.

After Papa was well on his way to the castle, I slipped out of my apron, poured myself the last bit of coffee from the press, and stepped out back into the garden. It was a quarter to eight in the morning; the shop didn’t officially open until eight o’clock. My finger was still bleeding a little, so I ran it across the doorframe, and from it moss grew in a thick green patch, like a swipe of paint across the weathered wood.

I sat down on the stone bench outside the door and leaned back against the house.

The gardens were small, but what they lacked in space they made up for in colors—leaves of green and kaleidoscopes of flowers bloomed on stems and in the latticework creeping up the house, having taken decades to climb. Roses thrived in the side gardens, and strange star-shaped flowers clustered in the corners of the yard where my mother had planted some foreign Wildwood seeds. Papa and I didn’t sell those—they might have just been flowers, or they could have been cursed, and while we didn’t want to lose the memory of my mother, we also couldn’t risk any part of the Wildwood spreading.

The village knew my mother came from outside Aloriya—something that didn’t exactly help my dating prospects. There were only so many young people in the Village-in-the-Valley, and I’d gone to grade school with almost every single one of them; we all knew each other’s stories—where we came from, what we wanted to be someday, who we wanted to marry—but no one was as whispered about as I was, the girl whose mother had been an outsider. Then, later, the girl whose mother got lost in the wood. The pickings were slim to begin with, and I honestly didn’t have time for the ones who “could overlook my oddities.”

It also didn’t help that most of the village thought that my best friend was a stupid fox that wouldn’t stay away from me, no matter how many times I tried to shoo him off. I had rescued him from a hunter’s trap near the wood two years ago, and since then, he apparently thought we were inseparable.

“Can you stop nosing through the baker’s garbage?” I scolded the little jerk as he slunk out from underneath the bench, a hunk of some sort of pastry in his mouth. “One of these days Mrs. Cavenshire’s going to catch you.”

The fox didn’t seem to care. He never cared. He just kept going through the baker’s trash, then would hide in our garden, hoping that I’d keep away the hounds when they came sniffing around. Now the fox hopped up on the bench beside me and gave me an unreadable look.

“Fine,” I muttered, and scratched him behind the ears. He began to purr—which was probably the most charming thing about him. “Today’s the day, you know. Anwen’s getting the crown. She’ll be Queen Anwen Sunder.”

   
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