Daughters of Ruin - K. D. Castner
Three little queens went riding into Meridan
Three little queens who won’t ride out
The price of war makes a strange inheritance
Four little puppets all pretty and proud.
—Children’s nursery rhyme
THE KINGDOM OF MERIDAN,
TWO YEARS PAST THE TREATY OF SISTER QUEENS
The royal carriage tilted on two wheels as it careened onto the dirt path behind a pair of panic-stricken horses. Flames blew out from the suitcases tied to the back of the coach and ruffled in the wind like torn skirts.
The driver was long gone—thrown to the ground by the two bandits sitting in his seat.
One of them—the one missing both of his ears—leaned over the harnesses, trying to reach the reins, which were dragging at the horses’ feet. The other bandit had a permanently broken nose. He held his partner’s belt to keep him from falling.
Doors on either side of the carriage flapped open and shut.
A five-year-old girl with pigtails sat on the floor of the coach and cried. She held a dagger with two hands and whacked it at the cushioned seats for no reason. Suki.
Three older girls waited for the carriage to topple back onto four wheels, then began climbing out.
The bandits didn’t notice at first.
A girl with blond hair pulled back by a green and black sash—the colors of Findain—climbed out first, holding her dagger in her teeth. She was athletic and nimble, as if she had experience moving on a lurching vessel. Cadis.
On the opposite side of the coach, another girl exited. This one had short black hair cropped in the Corentine style and held her dagger backward along her forearm, in the way of assassins. She was lithe and made the least noise as she scrambled to the forward section of the carriage. Iren.
The earless bandit cursed as the reins dangled just out of reach. The broken-nosed bandit, holding him by the belt, looked back and shouted, “Hey! Get inside!”
The girls didn’t listen.
As Cadis reached the luggage racks on top of the carriage, the last girl followed tentatively behind her, staying a bit too close. Like the others, she wore the light leather vest and vambrace of dragoon scouts made especially for one so small. Her chestpiece bore the royal seal of Meridan. Rhea. Her eyes flitted in too many directions. Her long curls flew in her face. The hand that should have held her weapon was used to keep the locks out of her eyes. The knife remained strapped to her calf.
The horses crashed through a hedge.
The carriage ramped over it.
For a second everyone was airborne.
The flames licked at the bags on the top rack.
The carriage landed with a crunch on the rear axle.
Cadis of Findain, with the green and black sash, landed on her stomach atop the coach. Iren of Corent had disappeared by climbing down the side of the coach to the undercarriage.
Rhea of Meridan lost her footing and held on to the top rack. Below her, the dirt lot sped past. If she fell it would scrape for bone and mangle what it found.
The broken-nosed bandit let go of his partner and grabbed the driver’s whip.
“Back now,” he said. He whipped at Cadis. She kept her knife in her mouth and held up a forearm. The vambrace took the lashes with no harm.
The horses raced madly toward a rounded wall.
Cadis ground her teeth on the dagger and coiled her body, ready to lunge at the bandit.
He whipped at her arm again.
The back wheel of the carriage wobbled.
Its axle broke.
The Findainer planted her feet, just as the wagon jerked.
She heard a scream coming from behind her. Someone shouting her name, “Cadis!” but she paid no attention.
She had stepped on fingers as she launched herself at the broken-nosed bandit.
The two of them tumbled from the carriage and smashed into the dirt—the bandit taking the brunt of the fall.
Rhea wrenched back her crunched hand and fell. She hit the ground and curled in a ball as she skidded across the lot.
The one inside the coach, little Suki, had been strapped to the seats. She kept crying and slapping the sideboards with the flat side of her dagger.
The horses continued the blind stampede to the wall.
The earless bandit finally grabbed the reins.
Before he could straighten himself and yank the reins to stop the horses, a face appeared right below his.
“Hello,” she said.
Iren of Corent had climbed the undercarriage and now lay upside down, a foot above the dirt lot and even less distance from the pounding hooves of the horses. She held herself like a plank, her