Princess Severna, in her personal preparations for the Kingmaker Hunt, discovered the pleasures of raw meat. First gobbets of beef from the kitchens, barely seared over flames; then larger hunks, carefully cut, raw and dripping. Soon she grew used to blood’s heavy, coppery tang, and she would run to the returning hunters, greedy for their latest kill, heedless of the mud that gathered on her slippers.
She’d even tried offal. Smooth, creamy livers were her favorite. Hearts tended to be tough and chewy, and tripe’s rubbery texture didn’t so much disgust as it did underwhelm her. Entrails had to be cleaned and seared before they were edible–but when they were, how delicious they tasted, fatty and silky on the tongue. A shame the Kingmaker Hunt didn’t allow time to properly dress the kill, much less a fire to cook the beast’s flesh. However, according to rites, eating the meat raw would grant the new king a long and prosperous rule.
A shame indeed, but Severna decided that upon her return, with the taste of blood still fresh in her mouth, she would request entrails at her coronation banquet. It was a small pleasure, but one she looked forward to nonetheless.
She planned to succeed where her husband, Crown Prince Yorest, had failed, and it would be a well-deserved victory over that wretch. Unlike him, she would return from the hunt after sunrise, with the Kingmaker’s bones as her crown.
Once, when Yorest still dazzled her like a newborn star, he’d called her “sweet, dutiful Severna”. She’d blushed with pleasure whenever she heard it. Being sweet and dutiful was the ideal to which all wives aspired, even princesses, and it had made her happy to know she pleased her husband.
Unfortunately, being sweet and dutiful to Yorest meant serving as an ornament. At first, it started so subtle she hadn’t noticed: Yorest’s occasional mutterings about how sometimes they would need individual time alone were easy to ignore. But when Severna came to him concerned about eleventh hour cancellations for their cherished garden walks, or his sudden departures at banquets, he chided her for assuming the worst. His love for her, he claimed, stretched limitless as the sky. But as the months gave way to years, she came to understand that in reality, he saw her at best as a clever pet, and at worst, as an old pair of boots to be carelessly cast aside. In hindsight, Severna had only ever been a plaything, instead of a living, breathing human with a heart and soul of her own.
Sometimes, the memory of how Yorest had casually told her that he had once been lovers with Liselle, one of her ladies-in-waiting, rose up in her mind like throat-burning bile. (He’d waited a year to tell her this. It hurt, in the final months, to hear of Liselle at Yorest’s dinners or picnics, while Severna was often directed to take her evening meals alone.)
As she loaded her crossbow for another round of target practice on the very edge of the palace grounds, it also occurred to her that Yorest had never cared about what she liked. The gifts she’d received from him on holidays were cheap trinkets, or worse, were completely thoughtless with respect to her tastes, compared to the carefully selected items for his lord, or even Liselle, based on their personal tastes and hobbies. He’d never cared to discover Severna, the wife he claimed to love, to find her heart, strange and beautiful as coral, and as deeply hidden in the depths of her.
Such selfishness! It stoked the fires in Severna’s chest whenever she recalled his dismissals, stoked them so hot that she couldn’t breathe. Yorest had manipulated her completely, right until the day he’d cast her off. He’d often whispered in her ear, from the palace gardens to their marriage bed, how blessed he was to have met her, to have her for his wife. How she’d believed him, even when shortly after the wedding, he began turning her down when she’d asked to join him on hunts, picnics, or even the twilight walks in the castle gardens, with that phrase she grew to hate: “Oh, I’d rather be alone today, sweetling.” She always heard this phrase, after days of Yorest spending hunts, picnics, and banquets with the lords, as if he’d simply forgotten to parcel out some time for her, yet again. And when she’d revealed that she loved him and needed him to be the husband he’d promised he’d be, he made plans to exile her to some far-off convent, forever forgotten and alone.
To the best of everyone’s knowledge, poor Princess Severna would be making her holy vows by year’s end. The court pitied her, this sweet, dutiful princess, now cast aside. But nobody knew of the iron that ran through that heart of hers.
At sunrise, Severna rode from the castle to the Devil’s Needle, where the Kingmaker lurked. She reached the foot of the daunting peak that earned the mountain its name before midday. Woodsmoke from hunters hung in the cool autumn air, and a pang of sorrow rippled through her for a moment. Yorest had often smelled of woodsmoke when he’d returned from hunts. The scent reminded Severna of happier times, of the man she’d loved–a man that had never truly existed in the first place.
She lingered on the path for a few more moments, allowing herself to indulge in her sorrow, and then began her ascent. All would be well soon enough.
Her ascent took most of the day. The sun hovered low on the horizon by the time she reached the mountain’s summit. She rested for a while in a small grove of apple trees.
She managed to eat some bread with a little cheese and some salted pork for dinner. Then, she decided to take a chance and try one of the apples. The one she chose wasn’t quite ripe yet—sharp and tangy, with the skin slightly dusty on her teeth—and still the best apple she’d had in years. Yorest had given her apples before from his orchards: sweet, mealy, and bursting with sticky juice. She never felt quite clean after eating one, no matter how many times she washed her hands. This apple was like the ones she had enjoyed in her childhood, cutting away any sluggishness and helping her focus. Eating it made her feel like herself again in a way she hadn’t felt in years, remembering who she was before Yorest, and she felt lighter with every bite.
Severna took some time to enjoy the sun sinking away, watching it drop out of sight as the sky bloomed crimson and violet. She checked her things again to make sure she hadn’t forgotten any important items, from her dagger to the vial of her menstrual blood in a small leather pouch hanging from her waist.
A quiet excitement awakened in her as she awaited nightfall.
When the moon hung in the sky, silvery and pale, Severna took up her crossbow. She made her way along the dark path to the eerily silent wood waiting at its end. Here the Kingmaker—her prey—lurked. She felt an ancient magic humming everywhere from the trees to the cool night air, resonating down to the very marrow in her bones. It made her breath quicken with anticipation.
She slipped into the wood, searching for the summoning tree that would call the Kingmaker. All the previous rulers of her land had stood before its sprawling, gnarled roots, reciting the ancient words that would draw the beast out: O Kingmaker, feed me your flesh and crown me with your bones.
Severna had whispered them like a prayer before bed every night since Yorest had vanished. His disappearance had almost been a relief after their acrimonious parting. His threat still rang in her ears: “When I return, I’m sending you away to the abbey up north. I need to free myself from you.”
She had realized that Yorest had slowly been growing distant, his ardor cooling. But when she tried to tell him her worries, he would shake his head sadly and say, “But sweetling, I would never hurt you! Why would I do such a thing?” And Severna, now the villain, now the one who had caused pain, would immediately apologize, telling him, “No, darling, of course you’d never hurt me.”
So she’d let herself believe Yorest’s justifications; his burdens were heavy, with the death of his father earlier this spring and preparations to lead the kingdom in his stead. It was only natural that he hardly had time to spare for her. If Severna was patient, he’d return to the kind, affectionate man she’d married. Yorest’s final dismissal, along with laying the blame for their relationship’s demise at Severna’s feet, had been a memorable, if harsh, lesson. In his eyes, she was—and had been—the problem all along, for not being patient enough, not being understanding enough.
Severna pushed the painful memories away. She had a beast to take down, and she had to do so by sunrise.
Then she heard heavy breathing like that of a wolf. Footsteps followed, and the snapping of twigs.
She took shelter behind a thicket, peering out as far as she dared. Her breath caught in her throat. It couldn’t be the Kingmaker—it didn’t come unless summoned—and as far as she knew she was the only one in the wood.
Severna drew her dagger. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest as she tried to make out whether it was friend or foe.
A human shape staggered out of the moonlight, frantic and bedraggled. “Who goes there?” Severna cried, dagger at the ready. “Show yourself!”
“Severna!” the shape cried, and Severna’s blood ran cold. That was Yorest’s voice and Yorest’s arms, reaching for her, sweeping her up into a tight embrace. She breathed in the scent of woodsmoke.
“Oh, Severna, sweetling,” Yorest bleated, tears soaking into her shoulder. “It’s so good to see you!”
Severna froze in shock, then stiffly pushed him back. “I wish I could say the same,” she growled.
Yorest laughed—laughed!—as if what had happened had been the pettiest of marital spats. “Are you still upset with me?” he asked.
“Why shouldn’t I be?” Severna growled. “You were going to banish me!”
“Dearest, you mustn’t take that to heart! I keep telling you that you assume the worst.”
Severna resisted the urge to flinch at that phrase, or box his ears. She hated how easily those words threw her into self-doubt, into wondering if perhaps Yorest was right, and she really did assume the worst, or really had remembered conversations incorrectly. What was he even doing here, alive and well? Severna’s mind raced, her thoughts whirring like a flock of crows. Everyone knew candidates who failed to capture the Kingmaker vanished with the dawn, never to be heard from again. How was it that he was still here? Was this even Yorest, or was it a ghoul wearing his face?
“What are you doing on this wretched mountaintop?” Yorest asked. “Were you trying to rescue me, sweetling?”
Severna returned his adoring gaze with a blank stare. At this very moment, it was just like the old days, when Yorest was nothing but lovely to her, a man who wanted to do anything to make her happy.
But, she reminded herself, what she’d seen then, and what she was seeing now, was only a well-crafted mask. “It’s been three months since you left, Yorest,” she said coolly. “When you didn’t return the next day, we assumed you had failed.”
Yorest’s face grew pale, his mouth gaping like that of a dying fish. “You—you mean it’s already been that long?” he cried. His hands twitched at his sides, as if he was trying to count the time that had passed. “That can’t be! It’s only been days!”
“Days?” Severna asked, trying to hide her astonishment. Everyone knew that those vying for the throne had to leave the wood by sunrise. How was it that Yorest had been here for months and not known any better?
“Yes, days!” Yorest snapped. “This damned wood! I can’t stand it!” His body shivered all over from the shock.
Severna pitied his predicament for a single, fleeting moment. “Surely you noticed the change in seasons during your time here,” she said warily.
“It doesn’t matter now,” he said, then suddenly leaned over, grabbing her by the waist and kissing her hungrily on the lips. “You’re here now, and we can get out of this damned place together. And once we’re home, we can try and put this all behind us.”
Severna scowled at the blatant lie of reconciliation, and she pushed him off, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “I have no intention of doing so,” she retorted.
“No? Then why are you here, my love?”
Severna gritted her teeth at the term of endearment. “None of your concern. I’ve important things to do, so why don’t you wait here?”
As she turned to leave, Yorest looped his arm through hers. It reminded her of the garden walks they used to take, early in their courtship. She could almost smell the perfume of springtime lilacs despite the crisp autumn. “Oh, but sweetling,” Yorest pleaded, “the wood is frightening, especially at night! I can’t bear to be alone.”
Severna twisted herself free with an irritated grunt. “Then go past the treeline and wait there,” she said, “under the moonlight.” The wood was not a prison. What had kept Yorest there for so long?
“Severna!” Yorest cried, wringing his hands. “You’re being cruel!”
“Not as cruel as you,” she shot back.
She kept walking. The moonlight that filtered through the branches overhead guided her, as she searched for the tree that would invoke the Kingmaker. The map she’d consulted prior to her journey showed it standing at the wood’s heart. No paths lay ahead to show her the way, nor had previous kings mentioned any landmarks.
“Now, see,” Yorest said, on her heels, “here you are again, upset with me. I do so hate when you’re upset!”
“Your comfort is not my concern,” Severna replied. “You’ve always chosen it over the truth, anyway.” To him, Severna’s heart was a mirror that reflected his beliefs and not her own. She kept her eyes open and pressed on, looking for gnarled roots and a faint luminescence.
“Why are you heading further in? We should leave!” Yorest asked, seizing her roughly by the arm. “Haven’t you heard what I said? It’s terrifying in there!”
“If you’re so frightened, go home by yourself,” snapped Severna. She tore away from him, breaking into a run. Her instincts nagged at her incessantly—why did he insist on staying by her side? He could leave the Devil’s Needle whenever he pleased.
Unless he couldn’t leave. Not on his own. That would explain him clinging to her when before, he pushed her away. Of course he wasn’t truly happy to see her. Once he’d gotten what he’d needed, she’d be the cast-off wife, headed to a convent, never to be heard from again.
No matter, Severna thought, ignoring Yorest’s cries. He was her responsibility no longer. He’d wanted to cast her aside, so she owed him nothing. She quickened her pace, hoping to put him far behind her.
Then she saw it: a faint golden glow, just out of the corner of her right eye; and then in her ears, a rustling like a babbling brook. Severna turned, running even faster, until the Kingmaker Tree greeted her, so stunning in its beauty that she wanted to weep with awe.
It towered over her, its leaves waving gently like dancing emerald fans. Its roots sprawled for yards, glowing like strings of pearls lit from within. Severna took a moment to savor its splendor, then walked toward it.
“Stop!” Yorest shouted.
Severna ignored him, nimbly climbing over the roots. If he wasn’t going to leave her alone, he could stand and watch her claim her victory.
But when Severna reached the trunk, Yorest wasn’t far behind, judging by the sound of his panting at her heels. She’d only managed to stand when he grabbed her by the arm, wrenching her backward so that she fell down. “What do you think you’re doing?” he barked. “This place is dangerous!”
Severna gritted her teeth and clutched her bruised shoulder. She rose to her feet again slowly, but steadily, and made her way back to the trunk, feeling the pouch at her waist and hoping its contents were still intact.
“Sweetling, why won’t you trust me? I’m not trying to be cruel to you,” Yorest pleaded, grabbing at her ankles. “Why do you always think that?”
“Because you are cruel!” Severna spat back. “I should never have trusted you! I’m not going to be fooled by you, not anymore!”
She took the glass vial from the pouch.
“What is that?” Yorest demanded.
“What do you think it is?” Severna shot back. The contents swirled darkly in the moonlight. “It’s my blood.” The tree only accepted blood from noble houses. Fortunately Severna’s had a history that reached back for centuries.
“Your blood?” Yorest shrank back, repulsed. “Why would you even need such a thing? Unless …” He looked at Severna, and his eyes widened in realization. “Severna, you can’t! You mustn’t—”
“Oh, yes,” said Severna, uncorking the stopper. “I’m going to be king.”
Yorest lunged at her. “You would steal my throne?” he shouted, snatching at the vial.
Severna spun deftly to her left, just out of Yorest’s reach, teeth bared in defiance. “I’m not stealing anything. You didn’t return, remember? Now the throne is for whoever takes it.”
Severna looked him in the eye as she smashed the vial. Dark blood spattered onto the tree’s pale gold roots. “O Kingmaker,” she recited, “feed me your flesh and crown me with your bones!”
Yorest let out a piercing howl. His spine arced back at an impossible angle. Severna recoiled, seeing his flesh undulating under his skin as he collapsed onto the ground. He gasped in agony as brown fur spread all over his chest.
Oh, that chest, and all the sweet memories she had of resting her head upon it, listening to his heart! How safe, how loved she’d felt in his arms then.
She could only watch as his legs swelled and burst from his breeches, reshaping themselves into the haunches of a wolf. A brief sadness pierced her, keen as ice, as she remembered tracing her fingers along the nacreous stretch marks that spread across his hips and thighs.
Antlers burst from his head, unfurling like the branches of a tree. His skull elongated and his eyes went pitch black. With a pained grunt, he rose to his feet. He glanced at Severna, and fled.
She stood, breathless with shock. The faded remnants of her love for Yorest roiled with her hatred for him, along with the bracing new knowledge of what happened to those who failed in their hunt for the Kingmaker.
How often she’d mourned the man she’d thought he was! And then, taking a deep breath, she loaded her crossbow.
She was going to truly enjoy this hunt.
As Yorest ran, Severna snuck from tree to tree, making just enough noise to let him know he was being followed. She stopped behind a sturdy oak, aimed her crossbow, and fired.
The bolt clipped Yorest’s hind leg, sending him staggering. He whimpered, hobbling as he attempted to staunch the bleeding. Then he pressed forward, blood dripping on the ground after him.
Severna followed Yorest’s trail, slipping from behind tree to tree on quiet feet. He was slow, unaccustomed to his new form. She could hear his every step, every snapped twig, every shallow breath. She found all this noise deeply satisfying. It meant she could take him down without wasting too many bolts.
So a failed candidate would become the Kingmaker. That was why Yorest had tried to make her leave the forest. He hadn’t wanted her to invoke his new form.
Or worse yet, keep her until dawn so that she would take his place.
She smiled grimly as she took aim. She knew Yorest’s true character, unlike the fresh-faced bride that she had been years ago. How she’d brimmed with joy at their wedding! She’d had no knowledge of the pain in her future. In the end, she was only a toy, to be discarded when he got bored.
The bolt sailed smoothly through the air, right into Yorest’s flank. Severna grinned as he cried out. His pace slowed to a limp as he frantically looked around.
“Come out!” he bellowed. “Come out and show yourself, you wretch!”
No, Severna thought.
Yorest’s breathing grew more labored. He scanned the area over and over. Blood trickled from the wound in his leg, glittering in the moonlight that filtered down from the branches overhead. Severna watched him from her hiding place, waiting to make her next move. She’d give him some time to try and flee, while letting the pain grow.
Just a little time. Not too much, after all. She remembered Yorest talking about how his time was valuable, so valuable that she could only come when she was summoned and had to promptly leave when ordered to do so, as if she was a maidservant, and not the woman to whom he’d made sacred vows of love. Severna could understand needing time alone—she had a solitary nature herself—but to have only mere scraps of his time while he was much more generous with others, it was absolutely unacceptable. And yet he had tricked her into thinking she’d been the unreasonable one.
She had been worthy of so much more respect from him. She knew that now.
Yorest limped on, and Severna followed, cloaking herself in the trees and their shadows. Interesting how Yorest had always used time to control her, to ensure her good behavior. Now Severna was the one with the upper hand, while Yorest was terrified and bleeding. Where she’d used to give him all the time he wanted, now she was giving him only as much as she deemed necessary. Strange, she thought, how he’d been so eager in the beginning, pleading for only a few moments of her time, and often managing to charm her so much that she would give him hours, sometimes even half a day.
Perhaps she’d fire the next bolt into his back, to bring him down. Dawn would be here soon, and with it, Yorest’s bones as her crown.
The next bolt missed its target, but the one after that struck Yorest’s shoulder, sending him sprawling onto the ground. Severna hissed. Two bolts lost, now.
“Severna!” Yorest howled. “Why do you torture me like this?” He writhed in agony, the claws on his hind legs scratching deep grooves into the ground.
Severna refused to answer his pleas, though they gave her great satisfaction. Instead, she loaded one of her remaining bolts into her crossbow. Time to end this.
She fired, striking Yorest’s side, and he moaned. His antlers scratched the dirt. Blood seeped from the wound, turning his fur black.
“Now, now, don’t struggle. If only you’d stayed still, it wouldn’t have hurt you so badly. Why must you do this to yourself?” Severna chided, striding out into the clearing. She couldn’t help but smile in satisfaction as she approached Yorest, now brought low.
Yorest’s black eyes flashed with rage. “Heartless woman,” he rasped. “If only I’d known you were a murderer and a thief under that sweet mask of yours.”
“Likewise,” Severna said acridly, kneeling and putting her boot on his throat. “Now, darling.” She drew her dagger from its sheath. “You can watch me eat your flesh, or I can slash your throat before I do so. I thought I would offer you this choice, as one final kindness.”
Yorest spat in her face. “I won’t be dead forever,” he gasped. “My spirit will remain in this wood until I can find someone else to take my place as Kingmaker.” His words hinted of triumph, but to Severna’s ears, it sounded more like consolation. Yorest always did love to pity himself.
She wiped her cheek with her sleeve. “So, you’ve made your decision.”
Severna thrust her dagger into Yorest’s chest. Blood gushed, warm and sticky on her hands as his screams filled her ears. He thrashed when Severna began to saw, the blade making soft wet noises as she cut.
“Don’t struggle so,” she admonished. “You’re making this more difficult than it has to be.”
Soon she had a ragged chunk of flesh the size of her palm, so warm it gave off steam in the cool autumn night. She smiled at Yorest as she brought the bleeding hunk of meat to her lips.
“Long live the king,” she whispered, and bit down.
Even with the hot iron taste of blood filling her mouth, his flesh was the best meat she’d ever had in her life. None of the raw meat she’d had in preparation for this moment could ever compare to the unctuous texture, or the rich, sweet taste, as if Kingmakers lived off fruits and honey.
She’d expected to feel wistful at this moment. Sad, even, remembering the lovelier days with Yorest. But all she felt was a rush of exhilaration and relief at her triumph, finally realized. Yorest would haunt her no longer.
She would be king alone.
Severna swallowed and wiped blood from her mouth. A quiet gray crept along the dark sky, and scattered birdsong emanated from the treetops. The sun would rise soon.
Yorest’s whimpers were strangled under her boot. “I should have poisoned you before I left for the Devil’s Needle,” he croaked. “You were always so troublesome. I knew you weren’t good for me from the start.”
“Now you’re the one in exile,” Severna said, laying her dagger against Yorest’s throat. “I think it’s best for both of us if I end your suffering now.”
She drew the blade quickly from ear to ear. Yorest gurgled as blood foamed from the fresh wound, his black eyes bulging for a few moments before his head flopped lifelessly on the ground.
“Rest well, dear,” Severna whispered.
When Princess Severna returned from the Devil’s Needle, she rode through the city streets crowned with the Kingmaker’s spine, the bloody bones gleaming like rubies and pearls on her brow. A trace of blood marred one corner of her smile, but otherwise she was pristine and perfect, glowing as if the sun shone on her and no one else.
She was crowned king later that autumn, when the crows sat in the trees’ naked branches, their hoarse caws echoing in the cold wind. In the cathedral, she was the dutiful, thoughtful woman everyone had known from the beginning; her voice mild but clear as she swore the oath. When the high priest placed the golden crown on her head, her expression was meek as that of the innocent maiden she had once been.
However, the banquet, while bountiful, was unusual: the centerpiece a freshly-killed boar, roasted for a very short time, its meat still bloody on the plate. Servants moved among the guests bearing platters with sliced raw liver dusted with salt and melted butter, and the apples that graced each table puckered mouths with their tart, vinegary bite.
The most memorable dish, however, wasn’t the boar itself, but its entrails, marinated in garlic, wine, and pepper, and grilled until brown, cut into bite-size pieces.
While the banquet guests eyed this dish warily, King Severna’s face lit up at the presentation of the offal to her table. She took one piece between finger and thumb, popping it into her mouth like a marzipan fruit, and her eyes rolled back with pleasure as she smacked her lips.
“Delicious,” she proclaimed, and soon enough the guests joined her, eating every morsel with unabashed relish.
Mina Li has been described as “fierce, with a touch of Midwestern niceness.” Her fiction has appeared in R.B. Lemberg’s An Alphabet of Embers, Kaleidotrope, and Merc Fenn Wolfmoor’s Robot Dinosaurs! She can be found at minasli.wordpress.com, which needs updating more often.