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Beschreibung

The last hive has fallen.
Only one queen remains.
Should the world trust its fate to an angry sixteen year old?


They told her the hive wasn't real. They said she shouldn’t let her imagination run wild. They told her it was time to grow up and stop day dreaming.

Estefania's privileged childhood is finished. It ended with the arrival of the Forlornn battleship which brought danger with it on the next high tide. The natural world is in turmoil and an unexpected winter begins without warning. The bees are disappearing and the City of Men doesn't care.

But Estefania knows the hive she visits is real and so are the bees. She knows because she’s the last queen.

This is the first book in A Keeper's War trilogy.
Start reading today and never again view bees in the same way.

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Perpetual Winter

K T BOWES

Copyright © 2018 K T BOWES All rights reserved

Contents

Dedication

Acknowledgements

MAP OF ESTEFANIA’S JOURNEYS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

CHAPTER FORTY

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Dearest Reader

CHAPTER ONE

Please help

Other novels by K T Bowes

About the Author

Copyright Notice

Disclaimer

 

Dedication

I never used to worry about the bees either. I’m not awfully keen on flying insects, because isn’t that what they are? In the grand scheme of things, it’s them or me. And then my sister started keeping bees and I lived vicariously through her battle with nature over these tiny, furry, busy creatures. I rejoiced at her jars of ochre honey and grieved at her losses when a queen failed to thrive. And one day she told me of the swift who waited on the wind and decimated an entire colony in an afternoon.

It’s not just the birds who halt the essential activity of a hive; it’s the wasps, a changing climate. And mankind.The bees are warriors in a silent battle for our survival.

Theirs is a war of attrition like no other.The only ones raising the alarm are the bee keepers.It’s a Keeper’s War...

Joshua 24:12‘Then I sent the hornet before you and it drove out the two kings of the Amorites from before you, but not by your sword or your bow.’

Headline from a Newstalk ZB broadcast, New Zealand.29th December 2017

‘Bee-mageddon’ hits Coromandel holiday hotspot.Hundreds of bees have been washing up on Whangamata Beach on the high tide over the past week, catching out unaware holiday makers...’

Acknowledgements

For Roxanna, Charlotte, Sophia and Victoria.My girls.

One day we will rock up to Comic Con dressed as Sonora, Estefania and her entourage.No one will know who we’re meant to be, but I can see it in my mind’s eye and it will be amazing.

MAP OF ESTEFANIA’S JOURNEYS

TO THE COMMANDER OF THE ARMY OF FORLORNNBY ORDER OF THE FIRST FAMILY.THE CITY OF FORLORNN IS SUBJECT TO A CURFEWFOLLOWING A DECLARATION OF WAR BETWEEN THEWASP NATION AND MELITTO BEE CLAN.WHILST IT IS THE DESIRE OF THE NATION OF MEN TO REMAIN NEUTRAL,ANY SIGHTINGS OF EITHER BEE OR WASP ARE TO BE REPORTED WITHOUT DELAY.WE HAVE INFORMATION TO SUGGEST THAT MELITTO BEE CLAN ENTERING THE CITY MAY BE CLOAKED AS BEES AND THEREFORE ABLE TO GAIN ACCESS WITHOUT DETECTION. THIS IS A NEW AND DISTURBING DEVELOPMENT AND AS YET UNCORROBORATED. THE WASP QUEEN IS MOVING NORTH AND HAS ALREADY ROUTED VILLAGES THOUGHT TO HAVE HARBOURED BEE SUBJECTS.PUT OUR FORCES ON ALERT WITHOUT ALARMING FORLORNN RESIDENTS.NEW MEASURES IN PLACE ON ALL GATES WILL BE EXPLAINED AS A PRECAUTION.

CHAPTER ONE

The Fate of a Princess

“They’re coming for her.”

“No!” The female voice which answered him wavered. I imagined her wringing her hands in front of her flaccid face and imploring him for mercy. The crack between the sill and the window frame offered a tiny peek into the servants’ dining room. Screwing my left eye closed, I wriggled sideways in the flower bed beneath it. Cool bricks pressed their chill through my shoulder as they had many times before this one. My constant need for information had worn their rugged surface smooth over the past sixteen years. Sunshine warmed the back of my dress, adding its contrasting voice to my discomfort. The soil shifted beneath my knees. Desperate for more gossip, I strained my ears to hear above the sound of seagulls calling to each other over the high tide.

My guard appeared in front of the fireplace, his back straight and his proud head held high above his leather breastplate. The vibrant yellow of his uniform glinted in the sunlight through the window. Bending, he lifted the poker and hefted it in strong fingers. “Go away old woman,” he said, his tone harsh. “Your services are no longer required.” He plunged the poker into the fire, lifting the slumbering logs from underneath and reviving the waning flames. The scarred fingers of his left hand reached up to touch an iron kettle hanging over the fire.

“But she needs me!” My childhood nursemaid stepped into view, her chins wobbling beneath the neat bow fixing her bonnet on top of her greying curls. “The child won’t understand.”

My guard sighed and his black hair moved against his collar. The poker spun in his fingers and his chin lifted. I expected my nurse to heed the warning and take a step back. I gritted my teeth and heard them grind together in my head. He hooked the poker over its ornate stand and the sword hilt at his side winked in the orange firelight as he rose to his full height.

“She doesn’t need to understand, Bliss.” His voice rumbled through the gap and his words seared my heart. “Estefania is leaving tomorrow. Prepare her belongings. You won’t accompany her.”

I pressed my fingers over my lips to stem the horrified gasp escaping as a hiss. Until that moment, I imagined they spoke of my sister’s fate and not mine. Absent for over thirty sunrises, I didn’t miss her angry outbursts. My nurse told me she wanted her own space and entourage. Princessa Zinnia had moved into another section of the palace, allegedly with the king’s consent. I doubted the validity of any such permission. The Melitto king never visited us. Sequestered on the island my entire life, portraits of his unsmiling face provided my only knowledge of him as a father figure.

Bliss continued to intercede on my behalf as my guard ignored her. “But why send the Men of Forlornn?” she demanded. “What help do they offer a motherless wretch? They will wall her up in their fortified city for the rest of her life. She’s as wild as a hornet and even their fortresses won’t contain her.”

I saw my guard’s fists ball against his sides. He observed the flames with his head bowed and didn’t turn enough for me to gauge his expression. “They know where she is.” His reply sounded flat and Bliss gave a shrug of defeat.

“Then you’ve failed,” she said with a sigh.

“Thank you for the reminder.” A familiar sarcasm laced his tone and my lips pursed. A lifetime of his presence had taught me the subtle nuances of every twitch of his facial muscles. I wished he would turn so I could see the truth written in his rugged features. He sounded resolute, my fate decided by him and others gathered behind closed doors.

“She still believes she visits a beehive.” Bliss swallowed, and my interest piqued. “She claims to have a hive twin called Simile who embodies the nicer parts of her nature.” Bliss huffed and shuffled her feet. “It’s an easy excuse. I might copy it for myself.” When the guard didn’t answer, she continued digging her own verbal grave, as usual. “I might have a twin who drinks all the mead.” She giggled, a grating high-pitched sound. I winced, sensing the guard’s humour worsening. His shoulders squared as though to cement my impression. Bliss took a step forward and touched his sleeve. Biceps turned to stone as he whirled away from her, the armoured leather of his breastplate creaking.

His back remained in view and I watched for a sign that he’d heard her defamatory words. He took a step back and then froze in his familiar stillness, his gaze on the fire. Bliss shook her head. “I thought she’d grow out of it,” she sighed. “This game she plays will get her into trouble.”

My guard nodded then, and that single action proved enough to make me hate him. I hadn’t realised until that moment how much his opinion mattered or how desperately I needed him to believe me. Ignoring the rest of their conversation, I sank back against the wall as misery filled my gut with a painful weight.

A feather light touch against my wrist drew my attention and I looked down to find an ant making its journey along my forearm. It wove a lazy arc around my wrist, its purposeful walk appearing haphazard. It looked tiny against the black and white tattoo of marching honeybees which my mother had given me in her womb. The black queen which nestled in the crook of my elbow reminded me of our shared secret. The tattoo had matched my mother’s while she lived, a monochrome version of the stunning raised bees which graced her porcelain skin. I had loved their ochre and black bodies and dreamed of mine one day appearing as vibrant. I ran a finger over the tiniest bee near my wrist. No human had carved it. The Spirit of Nature put it there, a passport giving me entry rights into the hive.

“What’s your plan?” My nurse’s voice rose to an angry screech as she railed at the guard. Kneeling up again, I pressed my right eye to the crack and peered inside the dining room. Bliss stood with her hands resting over her ample hips. “You can’t let them come for her! What is your plan?”

“This!” Frustration burst from my guard’s lips and he whirled to face her. I saw the ragged scar which bisected the right side of his face. “This is as good as it gets. They will take her.” His eyes closed and the scar became a complete line from his eyebrow to his chin. He raised his arms in defeat and spun towards the door, a man once again as the disfigurement disappeared from view. I had never known him without its blight, though my curiosity had pushed for information about its origins.

The door slammed as he strode from the room and left Bliss there alone. I switched to my left eye and saw her profile as she lifted a jug of mead from the dining table and poured herself a full tankard. “She won’t understand,” she whispered. Mead slopped over the sides of the cup as she lifted it to her lips. The fingers of her other hand fluttered by her side like the gossamer wings of a butterfly. “How can she understand when I never have?”

CHAPTER TWO

Shifting

They said the shifters were gone. That the stories of humans taking Bee-form were fanciful myths meant to scare the other clans. They said no one could enter the hives or communicate with a Bee Queen. But I could. I could walk within the hive and stand before the terrifying mandible of Queen Sonora without harm.

The palace staff didn’t believe me. They laughed behind their hands at my vivid imagination and scolded me for my obsession. They thought me unbalanced after my mother’s death.

I’d decided shifting would convince them. If I could take Bee-form in the Outer world, then they would know. But the overheard conversation showed I had run out of time to prove it. The sad fact remained; my mother hadn’t taught me how. Touching the queen in the crook of my arm projected me into the hive but there my skill ended. I couldn’t achieve Bee-form either in the hive or in the luxurious flower gardens of the palace. Mine was a half-life, a hybrid of the in between.

I found myself a secluded place in the rose gardens where I knew the bees loved to forage for nectar. The sun beat down on my honeyed hair and I lay beneath the leafy canopy and closed my eyes. “I won’t go anywhere I don’t wish to,” I whispered, declaring the petulant ultimatum and still believing I might have some control over my own life. Placing my right index finger over the image of the queen on my warm skin, I wished myself elsewhere and held my breath.

The wax floor of the honeycomb jarred my bones as I landed. The heady scent of sugar filled my senses and satiated a deep ache in my soul. Tiredness and contentment shrouded me. Pushing myself upright, I crouched with my spine against a knotted wall and stretched my fingers out before me. The honeycomb grounded me in the hive, sticking to my clothes and holding me in place. Delicate and ethereal, my fingers moved with grace and translucence. The wonder of it both mystified and amazed me, that I could be both here and not here, straddling two worlds like a sylph. In the Outer, my human body twitched and moved against the soft loam. In the hive, my Bee-nature drew companionship from the busy occupants.

The height of the sun left the hive emptier than usual as the bees foraged. I sat for a while and watched the main entrance as lone figures entered to fill the stores with pollen. A fluttering stirred in my breast and I closed my eyes, my lips curving in a smile of relief. “I’m here,” I whispered. “Where are you?”

A soothing flutter gave the reply and I let my muscles relax. I sent my mind to the Outer, receiving a snapshot image of my body lying prone with the appearance of a deep sleep. Sunshine scattered azure highlights over my dress but no one disturbed me. I withdrew the tendrils of thought and recaptured them, drawing them back to me in the gentle thrum of the hive.

Around me hung the scent of hawthorn and shadbush and I inhaled, delighting in the heady rush their nectar gave me. Vibrations through the floor sent a shiver along my body as I absorbed the message. Workers at the entrance communicated the discovery of a new patch of sage on the outskirts of the colony’s territory and a flurry of activity ensued amid the hum of excitement. Watching the constant movement of the hive gave me peace. And I needed peace more than any of the finest commodities available in the Outer. Pollen attached itself to my hair in gaudy daubs of yellow and white dust and I closed my eyes to concentrate on the task in hand. They would travel with me back to the Outer and I would arrive dishevelled and hive stained, but without an explanation fit to satisfy Bliss.

A worker in Bee-form halted before me and I froze, ever wary of attack. Where once I’d moved freely from queen cup to Outer without trouble, I sensed an unwelcome element of change in the air and my visits had become more perilous. The bees’ tolerance of my presence seemed less a guarantee and more a lottery. They appeared on edge and doubt crept into my expeditions like an unwelcome companion.

Without the ability to transform into Bee-body, I visited as a pale outline which hung like a translucent mist. The bees accepted my presence but ignored me. I sensed their Queen’s mood through a tenuous instinct, able to discern her behaviour even in my human form. She had communicated until recently, piping her encouragement and seeming aware of my thoughts and movements. Then something had changed and she’d grown silent.

I’d sensed a strain in our connection before it happened, the gentle flutters in my chest becoming less frequent. Her indifference acted as a drug, driving me to visit more often to find its cause. Her presence seemed barred and the honeyed halls I’d known so well felt foreign and dangerous. A darkness hung across the passage to her chamber and I couldn’t breach it. When during my last visit I’d failed again to sneak into her presence the pointless foray left me feeling more exposed.

The worker bee’s legs swerved towards me as she dodged an approaching foreigner. I sniffed the air and the aroma of another queen’s pheromones reached my nostrils. The visitor staggered on, laden with pockets of nectar and daubs of pollen clinging to the fine hairs of her legs. I tensed, knowing the guards would permit her safe entry only because she carried gifts for the store. Her antennae darted left and right as she moved deeper through the hive. I watched her thorax slump as she realised the danger from her lapse of judgment. Her excitement had sent her to the wrong hive. It seemed doubtful she would leave alive. The colours of her coat showed the blackness of a native bee and once unburdened of her day’s foraging, would mark her as vulnerable and a stranger in another’s colony. I pushed my face against my knees and clamped my hands over my ears. I knew what came next. The worker tapped her back feet, seeking permission from the queen to exercise judgement. I cringed, squeezing my eyes closed against the outcome. They would kill her and toss her body from the entrance.

My mother’s chiding returned, as clear as if she sat beside me on the hive floor. ‘Respect the order of the colony, Estefania Melitto. They are your clan. Above all else, protect them.’

“I’m trying.” I mouthed the words and conjured up Mother’s gentle face as she instructed me. The fingers of my right hand brushed across the black-and-white image of the marching bees on the soft underside of my forearm. They twitched in the hive’s musty air, craving the touch of Mother’s silken fingers on mine. I sought her wisdom. None came. Just the sting of her loss and the denial of understanding. She had abandoned me. Like my father and now my sister.

Impatient, I reached out to my hive twin again. “Where are you, Simile?” I demanded. Petulance laced my tone and I struggled to calm myself. A raised heart rate and heightened temper would make me a target. Leaning forward, I peered along the slick corridor towards the direction she would come. I imagined her slender form and glossy blonde hair, an image of my six-year-old self. Often a boy trailed with her, black haired and shy. His presence infused me with jealousy though his lack of speech made it impossible to find out anything about him. “Hurry Simile!” I hissed. Her vibrations felt half-hearted and lacklustre, reaching me through the hive floor as though sent without enthusiasm. “I’m in danger!” I pleaded. “Something is coming for me.”

“Estefania!” Bliss’ voice echoed in my mind and I knew she searched for me in the Outer. I fought the distraction of her pestering. Holding my breath, I ignored her insistent tone which communicated trouble.

The worker moved on, losing interest in the approaching drama with the native bee and keen to collect from the sage before its usefulness ended. I sighed in frustration, no nearer learning how to shift to Bee-form than in the other times. I needed access to the queen’s chamber, but the sense of foreboding prevented me from moving.

My hive twin answered with more strength and I imagined her rising from the comb floor and seeking me. A permanent resident of the hive, she safeguarded the better half of my nature. Somehow severed during the grief process, she formed a carbon copy of my childish innocence at the point in time where Mother died. I disliked the person I’d become without her on the Outer but seemed unable to redress the balance.

I tugged on our connection and felt her fluttered reply. Then pain infused my cheek, accompanied by the muffled sound of a slap. My consciousness crashed into my human body on the Outer without grace. I gasped. The hive disappeared and sunlight made my eyes water. “No!” I shouted as my head shook from the blow. “By the grace of Sonora, leave me alone! I need to see my simile!”

My nurse stood over me in the Outer, wobbling breasts and myriad chins belying her calm expression. My fingers clutched at the soil beneath them, tearing up clods as I rose to a sitting position. She jabbed a finger into my face. “Never speak that name again! There is danger in it,” she snarled. “Imaginary beehives are for children.” She prodded my budding breasts through the fabric of my dress and the corset creaked. “You’re finished with childhood. Get up, Estefania Melitto! Behave as a princessa of your clan.”

“It’s not imaginary. And you slapped me!” Horror and indignation seeped through my voice as I rubbed a palm across the hot patch on my cheek. “You can’t slap me, Bliss. I’ll tell my father.”

She snorted and a familiar wariness entered her expression. “Do it, Estefania. He’s at war again and won’t answer you. No one else wants to look after such an ungrateful child. Get up.” Hauling me by my arm to a standing position, she brushed soil from my dress. Fluffing the fabric as though preparing a bride for a wedding, she grunted in dissatisfaction. “I give up trying to make a lady of you.”

“I don’t wish to be a lady,” I grumbled, shucking her grip from my wrist and adopting a well-practiced pout. “The hive fascinates me. Did you know the queen bends an entire colony to her will without shouting?” I rubbed my cheek. “Or slapping.”

“Ridiculous child!” Bliss raged. “You must stay away from it.”

I shook my head and pollen bounced in my curls, the tiny specks the only evidence of my visit. My chin rose in defiance. “Stay away from what? You say it doesn’t exist. One day I’ll take my Bee-form and ask Queen Sonora why she ordered my mother killed.”

“Stop!” Bliss rounded on me and her eyes goggled in her head. If she intended to frighten me, she succeeded. I took a cautious step back and then another. “You will not go to the hive again,” she ordered, each word enunciated for effect. “It’s in your imagination and forbidden, Estefania. You are not a Bee and never will be. The Melitto clan haven’t taken Bee-form for generations. Your childhood is over. Today!” Her voice faltered and I detected sadness in the determined set of her jaw. “Over.”

The usual protests failed me and I ran to catch her up, the soft grass bending underfoot. Domed roof tops rose through the trees as the palace shimmered before us. “You don’t understand.” My voice held a characteristic wail. “My hive twin grows weaker. She didn’t come to me though I still sense her here.” My fingers tapped my bodice. “It feels wrong. I need her. She holds all the best parts of me.”

Bliss sighed and maintained her fast pace. “Stop, Estefania! This talk of splitting yourself in half is a fancy for magicians. Perhaps reunite with her and become a better person. I’m tired of disciplining the bad half.”

The steps into the palace garden rose to meet us and she pressed an embroidered slipper to the bottom stair.

“Who’s coming for me?” I caught her sleeve and saw a strange emotion crash through her expression in the seconds before she masked it. Alarm kept the sharp breath in my chest. “I order you to tell me.”

Her face screwed into a look of dismissal and she shook her head. “I can’t help you anymore, Estefania. Your fancies must end, child.”

I swallowed and scented weakness. “Please, tell me. The guard doesn’t need to know.”

Her eyes flashed and panic bubbled up to accompany the alarm. My fingers clawed at her sleeve, balling it into my fist and collecting more. Her expression shuttered and I knew she wouldn’t tell me. My hand dropped the wrinkled sleeve and I took a step back, my eyes narrowing. “You won’t help me?”

Bliss’ shoulders slumped. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I have my orders.”

“So, you’re abandoning me too?” My teeth chattered in my head, setting up a clamour which confused my thoughts. My mind churned with possibilities, none of them preferable to this. “My bodyguard just returned from another furlough. You think I don’t notice him coming and going, but I do. His replacement is tardy and inefficient.” My lips drew into a pout. “The one with the scarred face is impossible to lose. I find this one too easy to fool.”

Bliss put her hands on her rippling waist and glared at me. “Yes, Estefania, I’ve noticed. Which is why I’m searching for you yet again!” She reached for me and seized my upper arm. I shucked her off and stood my ground. “And yes, he’s returned.”

“You can’t let them take me. Zinnia and I will appeal to Father and prevent it.” I licked my lips seeing the resistance in her eyes. Tears pricked behind my eyelids and a familiar sense of loss washed over me as a cold wave. The stunning backdrop of the island and its sumptuous palace seemed to pale against my fear. “Am I going home to Melitto? Tell me, what is my homeland like?” My mind contained no images of it, exile my only memory.

“Don’t quiz me like you do the simple palace boys!” Bliss snapped. “I can tell you nothing.”

Disappointment and powerlessness made a heady concoction. “Zinnia will prevent it,” I stuttered, though my chest hitched. Bliss pushed out her bottom lip and sighed, drawing my face into the cushion of her chest. She said nothing and I dried my eyes on her apron and let her pat my back and play the role of a mother.

“Can I visit with Zinnia?” My face creased in confusion and my tearful gaze drifted out to sea. “Does she know you’re sending me away? Please, Bliss, don’t send me away. I’ll go to the hive less often, I promise. Just say you’ll stay with me?” A sense of doom settled on my shoulders. “Let’s find Zinnia together. I haven’t seen her new quarters. She’ll stop all this.” Eagerness for distraction made me shake my nurse’s wrist.

Bliss gulped and I followed her gaze. She looked beyond the rugged cliffs and blinked against the sun’s heat. We saw it at the same time and held a collective breath. The dot I’d mistaken for a bird on the horizon only moments before, had changed. “It’s time,” she whispered, her wide face paling to a white mask.

“For what?” I demanded. “What is that?” The huge battleship maintained a direct course towards the island, taut black sails soaring overhead.

Bliss swallowed. “For your marriage,” she whispered. “The Men of Forlornn have come for you.”

CHAPTER THREE

The Foolish Prince

I’d spent my life wishing to leave the island. But not for marriage to a stranger. The notion terrified me. I hid myself long before the battleship’s hefty anchor splashed into the gentle waters of our quiet bay as it nudged closer to land. Bliss flushed me from a remote linen cupboard with promises and then threats.

“My bodyguard will come for me!” I spat as she hauled me from my dark corner. “He always does.”

“Not this time, Estefania,” Bliss huffed. She pushed the door closed with the heel of her slipper. “Forlornn will guard you now. This is your destiny.”

“It isn’t!” I shrieked. Kicking out at her, I caught her shin with my foot. She released me and I tumbled to the ground. “My bodyguard will come,” I insisted. “And he’ll punish you all for this.” I made the threat while knowing he wouldn’t. He’d spoken the words with his own lips.

I escaped as far as the path to the walled gardens. Hesitating, I contemplated taking the track which skirted the cliff and led to the other side of the island. I could hide in the cove no one else ever visited. I knew it well from late night forays to meet with the only male I’d ever seen outside of my clan. He’d promised to return two suns before my sixteenth summer. He was already late.

Making my decision, I hoisted my skirts and broke from a walk into an ungainly run. The track meandered before me and I moved with more haste than grace. Turning the first corner, I screamed and crashed into a dark figure. He gripped my wrists as I bounced off his wide chest and fell backwards in an undignified sprawl. His grip saved me from injury and a wide smile stretched across a dark, handsome face. “Lady Zinnia?” he asked, his tone questioning.

I shook my head, awed by his height and build. He dwarfed me and the black of his clothing appeared stark beneath the azure sky. “I think you are,” he stated and his brown irises twinkled. “Your new husband is looking for you.”

“I’m not Zinnia.” I straightened my spine and fixed him with a glare guaranteed to melt a palace boy’s resolve. Fear ticked in my breast as I saw it had no effect. “I’m not!” I maintained. “She’s my sister.”

“I’m the prince’s personal guard.” The man bowed but didn’t relinquish his grip on my wrists. “You should greet him.”

“There’s been some terrible error,” I began, my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. My guard told Bliss they came for me, but perhaps he’d misunderstood the Melitto king’s order. “Release me and I’ll find Zinnia.” My mind worked through scenarios at lightning speed. I could hide in the cove and wait for the anticipated gift from my secret love interest. After he’d stolen my first kiss on the night before my sixteenth birthday, he’d promised to return with my surprise present. We could row to safety while everyone celebrated Zinnia’s marriage. I would run away as I’d always dreamed. Then I could use my time to explore the full extent of my Bee-nature without constant interruption.

I tugged at my wrists and flexed my arm muscles. “Let me go!” I insisted. “My shin kicks are famous and I’m told I have an irritating, high-pitched scream.” My eyes flashed a warning.

The Forlornn guard laughed. “I’ll cope,” he said. “I’m not letting you escape.”

Injustice roiled through me. “You can’t laugh at me!” I blustered. “How dare you!”

“Get used to it, Princessa,” the guard said. He dipped his head and bent at the knees, releasing my wrists at the same time. If I thought him ready to bow, then I was wrong. The back of his head hit my stomach and he hoisted me over his shoulder like a sack of vegetables. “You will meet Prince Kuiti of the Forlornn,” he stated. “And I need not hear your opinion about it.”

He carried me to the beach path, ignoring my fists beating on his back and my famous screams. When I resorted to kicking, he hoisted my legs away from his chest and tilted me further, so I feared I might hit the ground face first. And that’s how I first met the Prince of Forlornn, feet first with my bottom in the air.

Haughty eyes narrowed in irritation at my physique as the guard set me on my feet. Kuiti’s noble lip curled back on itself. “She isn’t as pleasant as the girl you promised.” He aimed his comment at the Melitto king’s negotiator and his words cut me. I reeled as though struck a physical blow. “I expected something more suited to childbearing.” The prince postured before me, a showpiece of perfect masculinity. I hated him already. Dark curls formed an elegant halo around his head and bounced as he twisted to peer at the negotiator. Bliss released a sigh of appreciation at his looks, and I shot her a silencing glance. “No.” He shook his head. “This won’t do.”

I opened my mouth to offer a biting retort, but the blond negotiator glared me into muteness. The look of venom shocked me. I inhaled and readied a stream of unpleasant sentences to regale him with, but Bliss dug a finger in my ribs. “Estefania, no!” she breathed in my ear. She bobbed her head and her chins wobbled. I saw consternation bud in her eyes. The following jabs to my waist and spine from her pudgy fingers continued like an erratic drum beat.

“I will not stand for this!” I hissed. “They’re mocking the daughter of the king!”

The prince ignored me, raising his voice to debate my suitability as a bride. He berated my father’s negotiator for his negligence. “The substitute is too boyish. I wish to see the other girl,” he demanded. “The one promised in the letter.”

“The Princessa Zinnia is unwell, but both kings wish the allegiance to continue, Lord Kuiti,” the negotiator stated. He tossed his glossy blond hair and looked down his nose at the tribesman-prince. “The Melitto king and your father made an agreement.”

Kuiti took a step back and ran long fingers through his hair. He eyed his guards sideways and waved a dismissive hand towards the negotiator. “Must I bargain with a twelve-year-old?” he spat. Kuiti’s guards laughed, encouraging the arrogant prince through a hollow boost of ego. He bloomed beneath their admiration like a flower opening to a false sun. I cringed, recognising my own haughtiness in his behaviour.

Father’s negotiator bristled. Not twelve, but eighteen summers marked his brow in tanned lines. His position reflected his intelligence, not his years. “I am the King of Melitto’s ambassador, Sir! My age or suitability for the task are not your concern,” he replied. He levelled a jabbing finger towards me. “You will take the Princessa Estefania. This is the price of peace between our nations.”

My eyebrows narrowed in confusion. Zinnia would have loved this arrogant prince. Her absence seemed even more mysterious. This man came for her but would take my freedom instead. Freedom. The word stuck in my throat. I’d never known real freedom.

Father’s negotiator offered his hand to Kuiti. “The King of Melitto wishes this alliance to benefit both nations,” he reiterated. “Accept his generous gift or prepare for our drones to attack Forlornn on the seventh sun from today. You already fight a war on two fronts between the Swift forces and the Vespae Wasps. Add a third enemy at your peril.”

The King of Melitto had used me as a bargaining tool. My chin sank to my chest at my lack of value to him. I’d hoped for more. My mind conjured up no memory of his face or voice. The fanciful image of a father figure died in that moment.

Kuiti sighed. “I can’t argue that the promise of peace with Melitto isn’t a strong motive. The weather changes at an alarming rate and Forlornn suffers great unrest. The Swift attacks have decimated our northern territories. But you’re wrong about one thing. My father has brokered peace with the Wasps. The Vespae have ceased their raids.”

The negotiator tensed and the bones stiffened in his outstretched fingers. “Peace with the Wasps?” His voice fell to a whisper. I frowned as he retracted his hand. “That changes things.”

The air seemed to heat and a dampness dappled my brow. I realised too late that pheromones leaked from my pores. Though the guard who had carried me over his shoulder appeared unaffected, the negotiator and Kuiti shifted in discomfort. Gravel ground beneath their feet and I held my breath.

“I will take her anyway,” Kuiti said, his decision made. “I have a sudden liking for her.”

“Stop, Estefania!” Bliss’ whisper contained an element of hysteria. “You must stop whatever you’re doing.”

But I couldn’t. The Queen Bee’s stupefying scent misted from me like invisible steam. The negotiator’s eyes rolled back in his head and his fingers balled into fists. “Your alliance with the Wasps nullifies Melitto’s treaty with Forlornn.” His jaw clenched. “The Princessa Estefania is no longer on offer.”

New scents assailed me, throwing my mind into turmoil. Smells and sensations carried from the world of Men. The shadowy haze of bristles nudged through Kuiti’s olive skin. His companions’ voices sounded harsher than I ever imagined and the smell of sweat hung around them like a tangible shroud.

They all bridled as the negotiator’s words invoked rage. He’d withdrawn me from the game like a pawn from a chess board.

Tossing my light curls, I seized my own fate. A huddle of foolish males would not decide my future. “I have a voice of my own,” I proclaimed, drawing myself up to my full height and puffing out my chest. A tight bodice compressed my ribs and my wince ruined the effect of maturity and poise. Kuiti’s gaze strayed to the tiny breast mounds propped up by whalebone and metal. The slightest smirk crossed his lips. I cursed my boyish figure and realised too late I drew more ridicule than respect.

Kuiti shook his head and dismissed my protest without consideration. “Where is the ambassador who summoned me for this union?” He put his hand on his hip and I heard a sword clank against its sheath. “I’ll deal with him.” An ornate hilt protruded from beneath his jacket and I flinched. Kuiti’s guards looked around them as though a mysterious third party might emerge from the landscape. The gentle swish of the wind whispered through the trees in answer and insects whirred translucent wings against nearby petals.

Father’s negotiator stepped closer and lowered his voice in a confidential tone. “I am the only ambassador here. The King of Melitto doesn’t reside on this island.” His voice changed to a snarl. “The princesses are here for their own protection. Your visit is permitted by royal license and no return to this island is allowed. Leave now and forget the route here.”

Kuiti lifted his chin. His eyes narrowed. “You fear kidnapping plots?” he asked. His gaze drifted across my face. “I can’t imagine why.” The uptick of my heart sent more sweet fragranced bee pheromones drifting into the surrounding air. Kuiti shook his head as though in confusion. “What was I saying?” he asked.

Bliss slipped her fingers around my upper arm as I opened my mouth to speak, her iron grip bordering on cruel. The threat of kidnap came as news to me and I wished to investigate the threat further. Bliss gave my arm another squeeze in warning and I clamped my lips closed. War and battle seemed a distant, unimaginable thing against the backdrop of our beautiful island.

As I moved to shake off Bliss’ grip, Kuiti narrowed his gaze and I swallowed at the way his pupils dilated. I struggled to still the chemicals raging through my blood, but I’d sealed my own fate. After a moment of inner wrangling and watching the slow grin of intoxication stretch across his lips, I decided it could get no worse. Fighting confusion and anguish caused the pheromones to bead at the pores of my skin and I held my breath. Whilst Kuiti appeared foolish enough already, I did not wish for the added complication of his lust and devotion. Danger hung over me like a shroud. I didn’t want to leave our island palace or find myself kidnapped by faceless enemies of my father. Inhaling the intoxicating scent of summer to give me strength, I prepared to call Queen Sonora. Surely she would help me by calling forth her formidable Bee army. One touch of the black queen inside my elbow and they would send the arrogant prince home wifeless and sore. His presence had upended my world. I wanted him gone.

I reached deep inside my consciousness and felt for the colony at the edge of the Outer. The fingers of my right hand edged nearer my left arm. “Help me, Sonora!” my inner voice called. Doubt burgeoned at the queen’s resistance. My skin prickled and the fine hairs on my arms rose as the hive repelled my distress signal, deflecting it and letting it drift into a whisper. A strange dizziness assailed my head and I reeled. My fingers grabbed my wrist instead of the soft skin of my elbow. Panic set in as the gap between worlds widened and the thin thread which bound me to the hive twisted out of reach.

With a valiant effort, I dug my index finger into the crook of my arm. Detaching my mind from the Outer, I left my body standing. It took greater concentration not to appear absent and I fixed a wooden smile on my lips. Kuiti argued with the negotiator, their voices a distant, rumbling echo. He didn’t notice my fingers gripping the flesh beneath my puffed sleeve.

As if an unseen hand had snatched me, my consciousness hovered between worlds in a darkness which tugged at the fringes of my resolve. I sought the hive’s soft glow and the hum of its activity and its resistance weakened. Darker than usual and much quieter, it radiated the same peculiar sense of unease. A sharp pinch to my thigh forced me back into my body with a jolt, a muted squeal issuing from my lips.

Bliss glared a warning. “Don’t!” she hissed. The men’s heated dispute covered her caution.

I swallowed, shock and dismay conveyed in the expression of surprise which swept across my face. She’d spent a lifetime mocking my fascination with the hive, but the apprehension in her eyes betrayed her belief. She knew everything. I shook myself free and took a step back, confusion striking me dumb. The hive slipped away from the delicate tendrils of my mind and I swallowed. Exhaustion attacked the muscles in my legs and I faltered. Accessing the hive had never been this difficult. I doubted I could summon the energy for another attempt.

Kuiti debated my worth as though arguing over a sack of flour. He seemed determined to convey me to his battleship with immediate effect but wanted compensation for not disclosing the location of the island. The sea licked the rocks below our path, singing its familiar song. For once, it brought no comfort. Beneath the gentle, regular lapping of the water, I sensed the vibration of the turbines which fuelled the palace kitchen. Steam pillared in a jet of white from the chimney and my desire to escape the men grew more pressing. Their turbulent arguing churned my stomach and a sense of nausea rose into my chest. It felt as though everything was ruined, innocence stripped from the cornflower blue sky like a blanket lifted out of my reach.

Catching up my skirts, I turned. Bliss snatched for me again and I sent her such a look of displeasure, she recoiled. “Debate as you wish,” I said to the men. “You’ll find me in my chamber when you’re finished discussing ownership of my person.” Bliss took a step towards me and I jerked away, anger budding at her betrayal. “Never speak to me again,” I hissed, forcing inflection into my voice. She had known this day approached and done nothing to help me.

Kuiti’s arm shot out and strong fingers clamped around my wrist. My skin paled beneath his grip. I tugged but couldn’t free it. My lips parted to unleash a string of vitriolic protests but he dragged me towards him, his chest hard and unyielding against the softness of my cheek. “Silence,” he growled, fixing his other hand around the back of my neck. “Or I will throw you to the underwater beasties.” He returned to his debate and ignored me, his fingers digging a welt into my tender skin. The unexpectedness of my situation forced itself home as I listened to his words. He was leaving on the next high tide and taking me with him.

A distant movement caught my attention as Kuiti’s grip pinned me to his side. A flash of yellow flared in my peripheral vision and I searched harder for its source. I scoured the area to the right of the path, narrowing my eyes to distinguish between the lime green foliage and the mixture of other forest colours. Keeping my head lowered in feigned deference to Kuiti as he bartered my value against gold coins, I tracked another flash of movement from beneath my lashes. A tantalising spark of yellow moved and then rested. Moved and then rested. It crept closer and I allowed myself a flicker of hope.

A man’s face became discernible through the camouflage of late daffodils and undergrowth. My breath caught in my chest with a burst of victory. He wore the black and yellow uniform of my guards and I watched as he halted his steady crawl towards the path. When he peered beneath the fronds of a fern, I inwardly rejoiced. His presence promised rescue. He’d changed his mind and jubilation budded in my chest.

His face proved as familiar as a painting on the palace wall. He’d rescued me from many foolish scrapes and I knew his look of disdain well. Muscular and capable, he’d pulled me from a disused well after a misspent afternoon before his last absence. Chastising me for my stupidity, he’d hauled me from the drain and berated me the entire ride home. Sinews bulged in his forearms as he held me tight, my soaked dress flapping around his boots and the legs of his horse. The bruises from his coarse leather gloves marked my wrists for ages, but he’d averted danger as always. “How many more times will you make the same mistakes?” he’d growled.

I’d leaned against him with the motion of his horse and smirked, unable to think of a smart retort. But I’d got a reaction from him and considered my mission a success, bruises and all. Boredom meant my exploits knew no boundaries. The constant need burned within me to take risks. I’d broken my arm the previous time. But death held no dread in my quest for admittance to the hive. Yet nothing I tried proved effective. I could not shift into Bee-form. Not then. And not now, when I really needed the gift of shifting.

I swallowed and whispered the childhood mantra taught to me by my mother. “Fly higher, fall faster, test your limits.” My lips moved without a sound, but Kuiti stiffened.

“What did you say?” he barked. “Who do you whisper to, girl?” Suspicion back-lit his eyes. His grip revolted me as he flexed his fingers around my forearm. He dared to squash my face into his armoured breast plate and I wriggled to break free. A spiteful jab in the ribs from his finger made me gasp. “Stand still!” Kuiti growled beneath his breath. “If you show signs of transforming into one of those awful, mythical Bee-creatures, I’ll kill you before you’ve finished.”

I exhaled at the irony of his words. Superstition made him wary of me, even though I only dreamed of achieving what he accused. “They don’t exist,” I retorted. “I have never seen one.” I narrowed my eyes and it seemed he believed me. The truth struck me hard in the stomach. I wanted something that didn’t exist. I’d never seen one. Kuiti returned to his debate over my worth.

“She’s no longer for sale. I think.” The negotiator lurched for my arm with a half-hearted effort, his pupils still dilated with the remnants of lust. He shook his head from side to side as it wore off, leaving him confused with the argument. “Is she? Perhaps she is.”

“I’m taking her today,” Kuiti maintained. “I’ll give whatever you ask in return.”