The queen clutches the silver headband her sister once wore. “I was the sun,” she says, turning it over in her hands. “And she was the moon.”
Beyoncé has not cried since Solange’s disappearance three days ago. She has not shouted. Her behaviour toward her cabinet has been unchanged: she is still asking after babies, husbands, grandmothers. Only the inner circle know how deep the queen’s grief goes, and how much deeper her fear. If she loses Solange, she will lose the point of fighting this war in the first place. Ruling with Solange was the point.
“What news, Kelly?” she asks as Captain Rowland enters the room. “Do we know who has my sister?”
“The arrow bore Rihanna’s insignia,” Captain Rowland replies.
“So we go after Rihanna.”
“I would exercise caution,” Captain Rowland says warily. “If Rihanna wanted to take Solange, she would take her in the night and we wouldn’t know until breakfast the next morning. There’s a showiness to this that doesn’t feel like her.”
Beyoncé smiles at her trusted advisor. “You’re saying it’s Cher?”
“I’m saying we should check if it’s Cher. Send an envoy to her court. Get the lay of the land.”
Capitan Rowland turns to her second-in-command. “Michelle, can you handle this?”
“Your Highness, three men have died in the mustard gas experiment your ordered. Do you really need us to continue?”
“I’m baby,” Taylor Swift replies, beading a friendship bracelet for her boyfriend.
Her advisors were right: you don’t so much as lead a Disney Army as you do hire them. In fact, hiring them wasn’t even a guarantee of their compliance.
“Selena,” she says through gritted teeth. “When I hired you, I thought I was getting a bloodthirsty Disney army. Instead I have a dozen moping girls.”
Selena Gomez watches her new leader steadily. Sure, she’s a sell-sword. But in absence of loyalty, Selena finds dignity. And she will not allow that dignity to be questioned by anyone.
“My army is in mourning,” she spits. “Demi Lovato has had her throat ripped out by Kesha.”
“Kesha,” Rihanna laughs. “Kesha is alive?”
“Great. Keep forgetting she’s a threat. That’s what she wants, you know.”
“I’m sorry you lost one of your best, Selena. Truly. But Kesha’s bunch of laughing hyenas are none of my concern. They’re not big players. And anyway, the woman is impossible to find, and I’m not scouring the desert trying to look for her.”
“Just send me,” Selena says tightly. “Just send me.”
“Why do you care?”
“I made a promise to Demi Lovato on the set of the Princess Protection Programme. One I don’t intend to break.”
Rihanna regards the young knife thrower she rescued from near-starvation. She had come to like her. “Fine. Go. But Selena: this is a fact-finding mission.”
Selena smiles. “I’ll keep my hands to myself.”
Ariana feeds her pet pig Piggie Smalls mints from the flat of her hand. “You have to keep your hand really flat, Piers, so he can eat properly. Like a pony, you know?”
Piers Morgan screams in agony as the first drop of boiling oil falls on his forehead.
“Piers? Would you like to boop his snoot?”
Cher sits on a throne that, from a distance, looks like black diamond. Michelle Williams gasps as she approaches it, forgetting momentarily that she is here as envoy to Beyoncé. “It’s not diamond,” rasps Shirley Bassey, dragging her forward. “It’s ash. Concentrated ash.”
“Ash from what?”
Silence. Shirley Bassey only smirks. Michelle trains her eye on the throne’s gleaming white arm rests. Bone. Solid bone.
“Not… not people?”
Bassey’s smile widens. Michelle, a religious woman, tries to hide her disgust.
A low warble echoes from the black throne. That voice, Michelle thinks. The voice all the pop divas had known since they were babes in arms. It was like someone trying to calm down a horse underwater.
A deep curtsy. Cher casually traps a salamander between her thumb and forefinger.
“I know why you have come,” Cher says, breaking a fingernail through the lizard’s spine like a knife through a sealed envelope. “And Solange isn’t here.”
Michelle gasps. News of Solange’s disappearance has been tightly controlled. Only the inner circle knew. Could there be a mole? In Beyoncé’s court?
She bit her lip. A betrayal like this had never happened. Not to the Knowles family. Not since Jay-Z. Were they losing their grip? Did it only seem like she was in the most powerful political clan in a century?
Cher chugs on the lizard, wiping its dark silver blood from her mouth.
“I know who has Solange, and I’ll tell you.”
Never make a bargain with Cher, Kelly Rowland had told her. Not unless your life depends on it.
“In exchange for what?”
Cher elegantly eases her hand into the newly cleaned lizard’s body, its skin shaping around hers like a glove.
“You leave your court, and join mine. I’ll even pay you. Handsomely.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I’ll see Solange is murdered if you don’t.”
Michelle’s mouth falls open. “So you’re not giving me a choice?”
“I believe I’m giving you a very clear choice,” Cher says, her nostrils flaring. “Who is more important to you – the woman who has loved you your entire life, or Beyoncé?”
The thin, icy mist that separates the mortal world from Lorde’s realm is touched tenderly by a sleepy-eyed woman, as though it were a harp.
“Sister Lana,” Lorde whispers. “Do you mean to leave us? This safe place? This blessed coven?”
Lana murmurs indistinctly and goes back to her chambers.
The red clay walls of Kesha’s underground lair are slick, and almost impossible to hold onto, but Selena finds a way. Using her twin knives, she plunges each into the high roofs of the winding tunnel, scaling the labyrinth from above. Her feet are the problem. She kicks each shoe deep into the roof, mud falling as she does.
A guard wearing a goat skull for a helmet stops at the droplet of mud.
Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t fucking look up.
Goat Head looks up.
Before Goat Head can sound the alarm, Selena has thrown a dagger through the guard’s throat. She falls from the roof like a cat, rips the blade out and then cleans it against her leg.
“You made me do that.”
So this was Kesha’s labyrinth. Selena had only heard the rumours. You could lose your mind in here, if you didn’t know the way. She had to find the way. She owed it to Demi to avenge her needless death. It was long known that all Disney warriors swore an oath to protect one another, but she knew it was different between her and Demi.
Selena cocks her ear. A smooth, soulful melody echoes through the walls. Selena follows it, cautiously. This is not Kesha’s battle cry. This is not a sound Kesha has the range for.
The song leads her to a high beehive-shaped cave. There, dangling a hundred feet in the air hangs a golden birdcage, swaying precariously.
It is only then she recognises the voice of the songbird.
“Solange,” she gasps.