For the Throne (Wilderwood #2)

For the Throne (Wilderwood #2)

Hannah Whitten

To anyone who grew thorns instead of flowers—

You had your reasons.

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This thing of darkness I

Acknowledge mine.

—Shakespeare, The Tempest (5.1.275–276)


a second light and you get a second darkness, it’s only


—Richard Siken, “Portrait of Fryderyk in Shifting Light”

mirror mirror

three years ago

She couldn’t sleep.

That wasn’t so strange. Sleep had never come easily to Neve, not even in the cradle; apparently, it’d taken an elaborate bedtime ritual of stories and songs to get her infant self to slumber, the nursemaids taking turns in an endless cycle of walking and bouncing the tiny First Daughter before she was finally soothed to rest.

Not much had changed, really. Neve still had to wear her mind thin before it would accept respite, had to tie it up in knots until the threads wore out. It’d never really bothered her, as sleeping often seemed like a waste of time, hours that could be better spent working.

Like now.

Neve tapped her fingers on her comforter, filled with fine down from Ryltish geese and spun with soft fibers from Karseckan looms. Prayer-taxes put to use. She probably had one of the most comfortable beds in Valleyda, which seemed wasteful, with how little she used it lately.

Wasteful or not, sleep wasn’t coming anytime soon. Muttering a curse, Neve pushed herself up.

The floor was cold, but she didn’t bother finding slippers. There was a fireplace in the library that was never completely banked; she’d be warm enough.

A taper in a pewter stand and a book of matches waited on her bedside table. Neve struck the match, blooming sulfur-scent into the chilled air as she touched flame to wick. She nudged her door open quietly, careful to keep it from squeaking, and padded out into the corridor.

She passed a guard or two dozing at their posts, but if they saw her, they didn’t speak. The First Daughter haunting the halls was nothing new. For a year now, she’d been sneaking out of her room at night, heading to the library. Finding every scrap of information she could about Wolves and woods and Second Daughters.

Her steps slowed the closer she got to Red’s door, stalling a decision she didn’t really have to make. Red used to join her on these nighttime excursions, as unable to sleep as Neve. But last year, after she turned sixteen, after… well, after, Red had stopped coming with Neve to the library. Stopped trying to find a way out of the awful bargain she’d been born into.

It made something that was almost anger burn in Neve’s belly, Red’s compliance. Her acceptance of the unacceptable. Maybe her twin really did think it was for the greater good, but in her darkest moments, Neve thought it was more like cowardice. If fate delivered you something awful, why would you decide you had to take it? What could ever make that decision fit comfortably in your mind?

So Neve kept going to the library, kept pulling from the shelves every book that so much as mentioned the Wolves or the Kings or prophecies or bargains and reading them cover to cover. Red might be willing to walk into the mouth of a monster, but Neve was going to find a way to make the monster choke.

She could fix this.

Despite knowing what the answer would be, she lingered a moment outside Red’s door. Silence from within, silence in the hall, silence in the soft dark cut by moonlight through the window.

Neve sighed. She walked on.

The double doors to the library opened at her touch, the hinges well-oiled and gleaming. The Valleydan library was prized, something queens had added to over centuries, full of rare books and art—some the only copies in the known world. Neve walked inside and pulled the doors closed behind her, setting her taper on a table. The flickering light made shadowed recesses of the shelves, turned all the chairs to spindly, spidery things.

Embers glowed in the large hearth to the left of the door, making the oil painting hung above it macabre in the half-light. Neve studied it as she poked the ashes into a low flame, sending a wave of heat through the frigid room.

The painting was huge, nearly the size of the floor in Neve’s room. A dark field studded with bright spots of white, connected with pale lines. A map of the constellations.

There’d been a time when Neve was fascinated by the night sky. She still felt a certain kinship with it, though she was self-aware enough to recognize that it was painfully pretentious for someone her age to think of themselves as dark and unknowable.

Neve was very knowable. She wanted so little. Safety for her sister. Someone who loved her. A measure of control, as large a measure as she could get. To be an active player in her life rather than led along by outside forces, pushed in different directions as easily as a plume of smoke from a snuffed candle.

Fire fed, she stepped back, squinted up at the painting. She knew most of the names of the constellations, knowledge she’d found in this very library. The Leviathan, the Plague Stars, the Sisters, the Far-Flung Queen. She knew some of the stories, too, though they varied so widely from country to country, it was hard to believe there was any kernel of truth in them. In Nioh, the Far-Flung Queen had been a conniving daughter who usurped a throne and plunged the world into war; the constellation was considered an ill omen. In Valleyda, the constellation’s story was one of gentleness and peace, a queen who’d been raised far away coming of age and ushering in a period of prosperity. And in Alpera, they didn’t think the shape in the stars was a queen at all, but a dagger.

Destruction and rebirth and peace and war, all of it twisted, none of it true. Neve’s squint became a scowl.

Neve walked to the bookshelf she’d been working through, rubbing the heel of her hand against her tired eyes. Three books, plucked from the shelves and held against her chest like shields, then dumped unceremoniously on a nearby table. She sat down, yawned, opened the first one. A singular edition, the cover cracked leather, the pages smelling of dust. The letters looked handwritten, ink faded to ghostliness in some places.

Most of the entries were formatted like poems. Her nose wrinkled. At this point, Neve couldn’t really afford to be picky, but she didn’t have much faith that she would find what she needed here, in what looked more like an old journal than anything else.

In fact, she was so sure the book would be useless that she had the cover halfway closed before a stray line caught her eye: the Golden-Veined, the Wood-Entangled.

She swallowed, hard. Then she opened the book and read.

I have heard the whispering in the branches, and they tell of one who becomes two, who become three.

One to be the vessel—the Shadow Queen, the Dark-Holder.

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