Keralie Corrington is a talented pickpocket in the kingdom of Quadara. But when a routine theft goes horribly wrong, Keralie discovers what she's stolen is actually a video of the four queens of Quadara being murdered. Hoping that discovering the intended recipient will reveal the culprit—valuable information that she can barter with—Keralie teams up with Varin Bollt, the messenger she stole from, to complete his delivery and uncover the murderer. But with Keralie and Varin each keeping secrets—and lives hanging in the balance—everything is at stake, and no one can be trusted.
Four Dead Queens is an enthralling fast-paced mystery where competing agendas collide with deadly consequences.
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Queen of Archia
Rule one: To protect the fertile lands of Archia, the queen must uphold the society’s humble but hardworking way of life.
Iris shifted uncomfortably on her throne, rearranging her stiff skirts. The midday sun streamed down from the domed ceiling, hitting the elevated golden dial beneath it. The nation of Quadara was engraved upon the face, with thick ridges representing the walls that divided the land. An amber globe sat in the center of the dial and fractured the sunlight into rays, highlighting hundreds of cursive words etched into the throne room’s marble walls. The words reminded each queen, and those who visited court, of the approved transactions between quadrants and the strict rules the queens must abide by. Queenly Law.
The four thrones, and their respective queens, sat in a circle around the dial. While the quadrants remained divided, the queens ruled from the same court.
Together, yet apart.
Each looked out upon her section of the circular room, a painted crest to signify where her quadrant began.
Iris’s next appointment stepped from around the partition that separated court visitors from the queens. She glanced at one of her sister queens, Marguerite, sitting beside her. Marguerite raised an eyebrow in amusement as the man bowed, his nose grazing the polished marble at his feet. He stood upon the Archian crest: a rural island bordered by branches, leaves and flowers with a stag atop a mountain, depicted in bold golden swirls.
Now thirty years old, Iris had not seen her homeland of Archia for twelve years. But for as long as she lived, she would never forget the crisp air, the lush forests and rolling hills.
When the man straightened, he still wouldn’t meet her eyes. A shame, for she had lovely eyes.
“My queen,” the man’s voice trembled.
Good. Iris cultivated fear. A time-consuming but worthwhile pursuit.
She knew Archia could easily be perceived as the least formidable of all the quadrants, as Archians mostly kept to themselves, rarely crossing the channel to the mainland due to their general distrust for machinery. They focused on physical work and living good, if somewhat modest, lives.
“Speak.” Iris waved a hand at the man before her. “I don’t have all day.”
A trickle of sweat ran down the man’s brow and onto the tip of his nose. He didn’t wipe it away. Iris twitched her nose in sympathy—the only sympathy he’d get.
“I have come here to ask you for power,” the man said. She scowled, and he quickly clarified, “Electricity—we need electricity.”
Iris had to remind herself he was the Archian governor, although the title held little authority in her eyes. The queens were the power. No one else.
Power was a game, and over the years, Iris had perfected it. “Need electricity?” Iris leaned forward. “No.”
While the other quadrants had electricity, Archia continued to use only what could be wielded by hand and heart—a traditional Archian proverb.
Finally, the governor brought a shaking hand to wipe his brow.
“Electricity would allow for machines,” the governor continued. “The workers are struggling to keep up with this year’s delivery schedule set by Toria. Please consider, my queen.”
She sat back and let out a breathy laugh. “You know better than to ask this of me.” It was true that Quadara’s population continued to grow, and no matter what they’d tried, all quadrants other than Archia remained barren.
Quadara’s divided nation was an ecosystem, each quadrant playing its part. Archia provided crops and natural resources; Eonia developed medicine and technology; Ludia provided art, fashion and entertainment; and Toria arranged imports and exports between the quadrants. And Queenly Law upheld the system.
Archia was the nation’s only hope. Which was why Iris needed to protect her homeland at all costs. She couldn’t risk overharvesting the land with the use of machines. If they destroyed Archia, Quadara would starve.
While some might still consider Archia primitive, it was not weak. Not while Iris ruled.
The governor’s bottom lip jerked outward. “I know we are not meant to take technology from other quadrants, but—”
“Then you bore me with this conversation because . . .?”
“Perhaps you should allow this?” Marguerite asked. At forty, she was the eldest and longest-reigning queen, and often the voice of reason. Even though her last appointment for the day had been canceled, she continued to watch court with interest. Like all Torians, her curiosity for other cultures could not be satiated.
An utter waste of Marguerite’s time, Iris thought. She snapped her gaze to her sister queen. “This doesn’t concern you, Marguerite.” Her tone was forgiving, though; meddling was in the Torian queen’s nature.
Marguerite tucked a graying curl of auburn hair behind her ear. “You’ll remember I asked Corra to have her doctors develop an inoculation to prevent the blood plague from spreading further. Sometimes we must bend the rules, but not break them.”
Iris tilted her head to see Corra’s braided black hair, tied up in the common Eonist way, her gold crown gleaming against her dark brown skin. But the twenty-five-year-old queen of Eonia did not glance back at the mention of her scientists. Stessa, however, the queen of Ludia, looked over and grimaced, as though Iris was annoying her. She probably was, for everything Iris said or did seemed to annoy the sixteen-year-old queen.
“An entirely different situation,” Iris said to Marguerite, ignoring Stessa’s glare. “The plague threatened to wipe out your people. The inoculation was a one-off intervention; it did not significantly alter your quadrant. Even if I allowed machinery for a short amount of time, how would we return to our old ways? I can’t risk it.”
Marguerite gave her an understanding, but amused, smile, as though she thought Iris was being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn.
“No,” Iris said, turning her attention back to the Archian governor. “Electricity is not from our quadrant; therefore, we shall never have it. We will not be aided by machines and their automatic witchery.”
Iris had seen what technology had done to Eonia, and she would not have the same happen to her quadrant. With their mostly frozen and inhospitable land in the far north of the nation, Eonia had no option but to focus solely on technological advancements, and even genetic alteration, to survive. In turn, they had lost a part of their humanity. Or so Iris thought. She couldn’t help but look at Corra once more.
Iris did not miss the governor’s glance to the string of electrical chandeliers hanging in the four passages that led to the central throne room. Iris knew it appeared as though she enjoyed the pleasures of all the quadrants, but the governor didn’t know that Iris still read by candlelight and bathed in the natural warm springs in her private garden rather than use the palace’s heated water system. She wasn’t about to discuss her hygiene regimen with him.
When he failed to respond, Iris raised a brow and asked, “Anything further?”
The governor shook his head.
“Good,” she replied. “And if anyone wishes to quarrel with my decision, then they know where to find me. The palace is always open to my people.”
With that, she stood and stepped down from the dais, leaving court to her sister queens.
IRIS DECIDED TO SPEND the remainder of the day in her cultivated palace garden. Growing up, she had enjoyed countless hours in the immaculate grounds that surrounded her childhood home. It was there where she had imagined her reign and how she would rule an entire quadrant. Iris had been a solitary child, and while she had thought she’d prepared herself to be queen, she had not expected anyone could be capable of influencing her reign.
Or her heart.
The garden was located in the Archian section of the palace, split in four as the nation itself. The garden sat outside the golden dome, perched on the cliff overlooking the channel toward the neighboring isle of Archia. Long ago, one of her ancestors had demanded access to nature—to life. Queenly Law decreed the queens were never to leave the palace—for their safety and to ensure they weren’t moved by external influences.
Iris would never set foot in her quadrant again, never soak in the beauty of Archia or see the stags and deer roam the mountains.
She sat back in her wooden settee; it sank into the grass while her black skirt swallowed the frame. She removed her heavy crown and placed it on the table beside her. She tilted her head, enjoying the sunlight on her pale skin. The warm springs bubbled nearby, reminiscent of the gentle brook that trickled not far from her childhood home.
This would have to do.
Also dictated by Queenly Law, Iris had been raised by adoptive parents outside the palace in the region she would one day rule. But while she’d been raised in a humble stone cottage, she’d never wanted for anything. She didn’t know how to want for things she’d never seen, never experienced. She learned all she could about her land, the animals and her people. And Quadara’s dark past.
Archia had been an untouched refuge from the nation’s troubles for hundreds of years; in fact, it wasn’t until Toria had built their boats and traveled to the west that the lush island was discovered. The rest of the nation had grown desperate, their natural resources nearly depleted. And there was Archia, ripe for the taking.
While the distinct regions had each developed strengths and resources, they shared the same weakness. Jealousy.
And so began the Quadrant Wars. They lasted nearly a decade, with thousands of lives lost. During this time, the other regions attempted to conquer Archia. But their plans were foolish. As rearing livestock was foreign to Eonists, Torians grew restless and wanted to discover new lands, and Ludists didn’t want to dirty their elaborate outfits by tending to the crops.
Then the founding queens of Quadara built the walls to separate the regions, finally ending the Quadrant Wars. The walls provided space to breathe, allowing the quadrants to continue to evolve independently, and harmoniously.
Archia was once again safe.
Iris left her homeland for the first time on her eighteenth birthday, when she had been informed her mother had died. She sailed across the channel on a Torian vessel toward the palace. She took to her new world and throne without blinking, insisting she attend court minutes after her mother had been laid to rest beneath the palace. That evening she had stayed awake until the early morning, reading books on Archian history and diplomacy. Nothing could shake Iris. Not even the death of her mother.
Iris opened her green eyes to the vibrant blue sky—enjoying the break from the enduring golden palace. With the palace enclosed by a glass dome, every room, and everything within it, was cast in a golden hue. Even at night, the corridors blurred into a deep amber, as though darkness would not dare caress the queens with inky-black fingers.
When Iris looked to the clouds in the sky, she thought of her father. Not the father whose blood she shared—a man who’d never been identified by her mother—but the man who had raised her in Archia. When she was a child, he’d told her about the queens above, the deceased queens who lived in the quadrant without borders, watching the relatives they’d left behind. When she was alone, she would look to the clouds and share her gravest fears and most wondrous dreams, knowing her secrets were safe with them. Her most loyal confidants.
Then she came to the palace and met the queens. They spent every evening together—often staying up beyond a “respectable” hour to discuss their childhood, families and quadrants. Iris was no longer alone.
Still, she often looked to the sky, but now she spoke to her father, long dead.
“Father, I have not wavered,” she said. “Queenly Law is, and will always be, paramount. However, there are certain rules that pertain to the queens, to me, that I have come to see as irrelevant over the years.” Even speaking the words aloud felt wrong. Iris shook her head. She would need to be stronger, be a woman with an iron backbone. “We are the queens. We should be able to change the rules that do not affect the quadrants and the peace we uphold. We should have some control over our own lives.” She shook her head. “I will continue to fight for Archia and protect all we have, but I want more.” She shook her head again, thinking of the governor’s request. “Not more for Archia, but for me.” She hated how weak she sounded.
“I have a plan.” She let out a weighted breath. “I’ve been too many years silent. But no longer. Tomorrow things will change. Queenly Law will change. Tomorrow I will—”
A bee pricked her throat. An intense bite, followed by a dull ache. Bees, and all other bugs and insects, were supposed to have been eradicated from the garden by a spray. Another wonderful Eonist creation, Iris thought wryly. Iris didn’t object to sharing her garden with the creatures that should come with it. But the advisors had insisted it was best, for Iris’s safety.
A smile appeared on Iris’s face; perhaps nature had conquered technology in the end, beating out the spray. She couldn’t wait to gloat about her findings to Corra at tonight’s evening meal.
The bee’s sting grew more painful, to the point where Iris was unable to swallow. Saliva pooled in her throat. Was she allergic?
She brought a hand up to the bite and found a gaping ridge of skin. When she pulled her hand back, it was darkened with blood. A wail gurgled from her lips.
A figure loomed over her, teeth gleaming with menace and delight. A thin knife reflected a slice of sunlight, dripping red.
Fury flashed through her as hot blood spilled down her neck. Her arms flung backward, knocking her crown to the floor.
An outrage! I am the Archian queen!
How dare someone cut my thr—