ONE DARK THRONE is coming 💀💀💀
The book hangover we’ve suffered since the end of Kendare Blake’s THREE DARK CROWNS has been one of the longest on record, and finally the next book is within reach.
We have so many questions that still need answers! WTF is up with Katharine!?! And Arsinoe!?! And what does this all mean for Mirabella, who used to be everyone’s number one draft pick for last queen standing? We really can’t wait for the epic showdown shaping up to take place in ONE DARK THRONE. (I mean, have you seen the trailer!?!)
Luckily for you, we’ve got a sneak peek of the first three chapters! And you may have already seen Katharine’s chapter in the EW reveal of the gorgeous book cover – but we’ve got your first chance to catch up with all three sisters in the full excerpt below!
01. Greavesdrake Manor
Natalia Arron oversees her younger sister’s move back to Greavesdrake with a critical eye. Genevieve was banished from the house for only a few months. If one were to judge by the endless line of trunks the footmen carry through the front door, you would think she had been gone for years.
“It will be good to sleep in my own bed again,” Genevieve says. She inhales deeply. The air at Greavesdrake smells of oiled wood, and books, and savory, poisoned stew bubbling in the kitchen.
“Your bed in town is also your own,” says Natalia. “Do not act as though it were a hardship.”
Natalia studies Genevieve from the corner of her eye. Genevieve’s cheeks are rosy pink, and her lilac irises sparkle. Long, blond hair tumbles past her shoulder. People say she is the beautiful Arron sister. If they only knew what wicked thoughts whirled inside that pretty head.
“Now that you are home,” says Natalia. “Prove yourself useful. What is the Council whispering?”
“The story has been told as you instructed,” Genevieve replies. “That Queen Katharine survived Queen Arsinoe’s attack with the bear and cleverly went into hiding until all was deemed safe. But they have still heard the stories.”
“Nonsense, mostly.” Genevieve waves her hand. But Natalia frowns. Nonsense becomes truth if enough mouths repeat it.
“What sort of nonsense?”
“That Katharine did not survive at all. Some actually claim to have seen her die, and some say that they saw her as she made her way home: gray-skinned and covered in mud, with blood running from her mouth. They have been calling her Katharine the Undead. Can you imagine?”
Natalia barks laughter. She crosses her arms. It is ridiculous. But she still does not like it.
“But what did happen to her, in the days that she was missing?” Genevieve asks. “Do even you not know?”
Natalia thinks back to that night, when Katharine returned, covered in dirt and bleeding from a dozen cuts. Mute in the foyer with filthy black hair hanging over her face. She had looked like a monster.
“I know enough,” Natalia says, and turns on her heel.
“They say she has changed. How has she changed? Is she strong enough yet to return to her poison training?”
Natalia swallows. Poison training will not be necessary. But she says nothing. She inclines her head and leads Genevieve down the hall, looking for Kat so that Genevieve might see for herself.
They walk together deeper into the manor, where the light is softened by drawn curtains and the sounds of the footmen laboring beneath Genevieve’s trunks fade.
Genevieve tucks her traveling gloves into the pocket of her breeches. She looks very smart in her soft, brushed carnelian jacket. She claps at imagined dust on her thigh.
“So much to do,” she says. “The suitors will arrive any day.”
Natalia’s mouth twists up at the corner. Suitors. But only one requested first court with Katharine. The golden-blond boy, Nicolas Martel. Despite Katharine’s strong showing during her Beltane poison feast, both of the other suitors had elected to pursue Arsinoe.
Arsinoe, with her scarred face, trousers with frayed cuffs, and shorn, unkempt hair. No one could be attracted to that. They must be curious about her bear.
“Who would have thought our queen would have only one request?” Genevieve says, reading Natalia’s sour expression.
“It does not matter. Nicolas Martel is the finest of the bunch. Were it not for our long alliance with Billy Chatworth’s father, he would be my top choice.”
“Billy Chatworth has been lost to the Bear Queen,” Genevieve mutters. “The whole island knows that.”
“Billy Chatworth will do as his father commands,” Natalia snaps. “And do not call Arsinoe the Bear Queen. We do not want that to stick.”
They turn the corner past Katharine’s staircase.
“She is not in her rooms?” Genevieve asks as they pass by.
“You can never tell where she is anymore.”
A maid carrying a vase of white oleander blooms pauses to drop a curtsy.
“Where is the queen?” Natalia asks.
“In the solarium,” the girl replies.
“Thank you,” says Genevieve. Then she yanks the girl’s cap off her head to reveal dark brown roots beneath fading Arron-blond dye. “Now go and tend to your hair.”
The solarium is bright and open, with many uncovered windows. White paint on the walls, and multicolored pillows on the sofa. It hardly belongs in the Arron house and is usually empty, unless they are entertaining guests. But Natalia and Genevieve find Katharine inside humming, surrounded by wrapped packages.
“Look who is home,” Natalia says.
Katharine presses a lid onto a pretty purple box. Then she turns to face them, smiling broadly.
“Genevieve,” Katharine says. “It is good to have you and Antonin at Greavesdrake again.”
Genevieve’s mouth hangs open. She has not seen Katharine since the day after she returned. And Katharine was such a mess then. Still filthy, and with so many fingernails missing.
As she stares at Katharine now, it is not difficult for Natalia to guess what she is thinking. Where is the little girl with her large foolish eyes and tightly braided bun? The skinny girl who bows her head and only laughs after someone else laughs first?
But wherever that Katharine is, it is not here.
“Antonin,” Genevieve murmurs once she finds her voice. “He is already here?”
“Of course,” Natalia replies. “I asked him back first.”
Shocked as Genevieve is by the sight of the queen, she does not even pout. Katharine sweeps forward and takes her by the wrists, and if she notices the way Genevieve recoils at the sudden, uncharacteristic gesture, she does not show it. She simply smiles and drags her farther into the room.
“Do you like my presents?” Katharine asks, gesturing to the packages. They are all beautiful, wrapped in colored paper and tied with satin ribbon or large white velvet bows.
“Who are they from?” asks Genevieve. “The suitors?”
“Not ‘from,’” Katharine says. “But for. As soon as I have put on the last loving touches, they will be dispatched to Rolanth, for my dear sister Mirabella.”
Katharine caresses the nearest bit of ribbon with a black-gloved finger.
“Will you tell us what is inside them,” Natalia asks, “or must we guess?”
Katharine tosses a tendril of hair over her shoulder. “Inside she will find many things. Poisoned gloves. Tainted jewels. A dried chrysanthemum bulb painted with toxin, to bloom into poisoned tea.”
“This will never work,” Genevieve says. “They will be checked. You cannot kill Mirabella with prettily wrapped poison presents.”
“We nearly killed that naturalist with a prettily wrapped poison present,” Katharine counters in a low voice. She sighs. “But you are probably right. These are only a bit of fun.”
Natalia looks over the boxes. There are more than a dozen, of various sizes and colors. Each will likely be transported individually, by separate courier. Those couriers will be changed several times, in different cities, before arriving in Rolanth. It seems a lot of trouble to go to for just a bit of fun.
Katharine finishes inking a gift tag with dark stars and swirls. Then she sits on the gold-and-white brocade sofa and reaches for a plate of belladonna berries. She eats a handful, filling her cheeks, mashing them with her teeth until the poison juice shows at the corners of her lips. Genevieve gasps. She turns toward Natalia, but there is no explanation to give. When Katharine recovered from her wounds, she turned to the poisons and began to devour them.
“There is still no word from Pietyr?” Katharine asks, wiping juice from her chin.
“No. And I do not know what to tell you. I wrote him immediately after you returned, to summon him back. I have also written to my brother inquiring about what is keeping him. But there has been no response from Christophe either.”
“I will write to Pietyr myself, then,” says Katharine. She presses a gloved hand to her stomach as the belladonna berries take effect. If Katharine’s gift had come, the poison should not cause her pain. Yet she seems able to bear more than she ever could before, taking in so much that every meal is like a Gave Noir. Katharine smiles brightly. “I will have a letter ready before I leave for the temple this evening.”
“That is a good idea,” Natalia says. “I am sure you will be able to persuade him.”
She motions to Genevieve so they might leave the solarium. Poor Genevieve. She does not know how to behave. No doubt she would like to be mean, to pinch the queen, or slap her, but the queen before them looks like she might slap right back. Genevieve frowns, and drops a lazy curtsy.
“Has her gift come, then?” Genevieve whispers once she and Natalia have mounted the stairs. “The way she ate those berries. But I could feel that her hands were swollen through the gloves. . . .”
“I do not know,” Natalia replies quietly.
“Could it be the gift developing?”
“If it is, I have never seen any gift develop similarly.”
“If her gift has not come, she must take care. Too much poison . . . she could harm herself. Damage herself.”
Natalia stops walking.
“I know that. But I cannot seem to stop her.”
“What happened to her?” Genevieve asks. “Where was she for those days?”
Natalia thinks back to the shadow of a girl who walked through her front door, gray-skinned and cold. Sometimes she sees the figure in her dreams, lurching toward her bed on the stiffened limbs of a corpse. Natalia shivers. Despite the warmth of the summer air, she craves a fire and a blanket around her shoulders.
“Perhaps it is better not to know.”
Katharine’s letter to Pietyr consists of only three lines.
Return to me now. Do not be afraid. Do not delay.
Your Queen Katharine
Poor Pietyr. She likes to imagine him hiding somewhere. Or running through scratchy brambles and twigs that sting like lashes, just as she did the night he met her beside the Breccia Domain. The night he threw her down into it.
“I must take care with my words, Sweetheart,” she says softly to the snake coiled around her arm. “So he will still think me his gentle little queen.” She smiles. “I must not scare him.”
He probably thinks that he will be put into the cells beneath the Volroy when he returns. That she will allow some war-gifted guard to beat his head against the walls until his brains run out. But Katharine has not told anyone about his role in her fall that night. And she has no plans to. She told Natalia that she stumbled into the Breccia Domain on her own as she fled in a panic from Arsinoe’s bear.
Katharine looks out her window from where she sits at her writing desk. To the east, below the last of the Stonegall hills, the capital city of Indrid Down glitters in the late-afternoon sun. In the center, the twin black spires of the Volroy jut up into the sky, the great castle fortress dwarfing everything else. Even the mountains seem hunched in comparison, backing off like trolls brought down by a shining light.
The belladonna berries roll in Katharine’s stomach, but she does not wince. It has been more than a month since she had to claw her way up and out of the heart of the island, and now Katharine can withstand anything.
She leans over and pushes the window open. These days her rooms smell slightly of sickness and whatever animals she is testing her poisons on. Many small cages of birds and rodents litter the room, on top of her tables and lined along the walls. A few lie inside dead, waiting to be cleared out.
She taps the cage on the corner of her desk to rouse the small gray mouse inside. It is blind in one eye, and mostly bald from Katharine’s rubbed poisons. She offers it a cracker through the bars of its cage, and it creeps forward, sniffing, afraid to eat it.
“Once, I was a mouse,” she says, and strips off her glove. She reaches into the cage to stroke the rodent’s tiny bald haunches.
“But I am not anymore.”
02. Wolf Spring
Arsinoe and Jules are at the kitchen table slicing small red potatoes when Jules’s Grandpa Ellis bursts through the side door with his white spaniel familiar. He arches his graying brow at them and holds up a small black envelope bearing the wax seal of the Black Council.
Grandma Cait pauses just long enough in her herb-chopping to blow loose hair out of her face. Then all three women go back to the tasks at hand.
“Doesn’t anybody want to read it?” Ellis asks. He sets the letter on the tabletop and lifts his spaniel, Jake, to sniff at the potatoes.
“Why?” Cait snorts. “We can all guess what it says.” She gestures with her head to the other side of the kitchen. “Now would you crack me four egg yolks into that bowl?”
Ellis sets Jake down and tears the letter open.
“They make a point of noting that the suitors all requested first court with Queen Katharine,” he says as he reads.
“That is a lie,” Jules mutters.
“Maybe so. But it hardly matters. It says here that we are to welcome the suitors Thomas ‘Tommy’ Stratford and Michael Percy.”
“Two?” Arsinoe scrunches her face in distaste. “Why both of them? Why any?”
Jules, Cait, and Ellis trade glances. More than one suitor at the same time is a great compliment. Before the show of the bear at the Beltane Festival, no one expected that Arsinoe would receive any requests for first suit, let alone two.
“They are to arrive any day,” Ellis says. “And who knows how long they might stay on if they like you.”
“They’ll be gone by week’s end,” Arsinoe says, and chops a potato in half.
Jules takes the letter from Ellis.
“Tommy Stratford and Michael Percy.” So much of the Beltane Festival is a blur, but they were the two who came ashore on a barge together the night of the Disembarking. It seemed that they could not stop laughing. Billy had wanted to throttle them.
Arsinoe tosses her knife onto the table and piles the last of the potato slices onto a wooden platter.
“That’s done, Cait,” she says. “What’s next?”
“What’s next is you getting out of this house,” Cait replies. “You cannot hide in my kitchen forever.”
Arsinoe sinks in her chair. The people of Wolf Spring cannot get enough of their Bear Queen. They gather around her in the market and ask for tales of her great brown. They buy him huge silver fish and expect her to tear into it, too. Raw, right before their eyes. They do not know that the bear was a ruse, called onto the stage during the Quickening Ceremony to dance as if on a string. They do not know that it was Jules controlling it and a low magic spell. Only the family and Joseph and Billy know that. And still fewer know of Arsinoe’s biggest secret: that she is no naturalist at all but a poisoner, her gift discovered when she and Jules both ingested poisoned sweets from Katharine. Jules had sickened to near death, and the damage to her body gave her constant pain and a limp. But Arsinoe had not sickened at all.
That secret only she, Jules, and Joseph know.
“Come on,” Jules says. She claps Arsinoe on the shoulder and rises, stiffly. Beside her, her mountain cat, Camden, favors the shoulder that was broken by Arsinoe’s first false familiar, the diseased bear that scarred Arsinoe’s face. Not even two months passed between the crippling of Camden in that attack and the crippling of Jules by poison. It is as if the Goddess cruelly intended for them to match.
“Where’re we going?” Arsinoe asks.
“Out from underfoot,” Cait says as she tosses scraps of food up onto the cupboards for the crow familiars, Aria and Eva. The birds bob their heads appreciatively, and Cait lowers her voice. “Do you need some willowbark tea brewed before you go, Jules?”
“No, Grandma. I’m fine.”
Outside in the yard, Arsinoe follows Jules past the chicken coops as she and Camden stretch their sore limbs in the sun. Then she darts off into the woodpile.
“What are you digging for?” Jules asks.
“Nothing.” But Arsinoe returns with a book, brushing bits of bark off the soft green cover. She holds it up and Jules frowns. It is a book of poison plants, lifted discreetly from one of the shelves in Luke’s bookshop.
“You shouldn’t be messing about with that,” Jules says. “And what if someone sees you with it?”
“Then they’ll think I’m trying to get revenge, for what was done to you.”
“That won’t work. Reading a book to out-poison the poisoners? You can’t even poison a poisoner, can you?”
“Say ‘poison’ one more time, Jules.”
“I’m serious, Arsinoe.” She drops her voice to a hissing whisper even though they are alone in the yard. “If anyone finds out what you really are, we lose the only advantage that we have. Is that what you want?”
“No,” Arsinoe says quietly. She does not argue further, tired of listening to Jules talk of advantages and strategies. Jules has been considering their options since before she was even able to get out of bed from the poison.
“You sound hesitant,” Jules says.
“I am hesitant. I don’t want to kill them. And I don’t think they really want to kill me.”
“But they will.”
“How do you know?”
“Because every queen we have ever had has done the same. Since the beginning.”
Arsinoe’s jaw tightens. Since the beginning. That old parable, that the Goddess sent gifts through the sacrifice of queens, triplets sent to the island when the people were still wild tribes. The strongest slew her sisters and their blood fed the island. And she ruled as queen until the Goddess sent new triplets, who grew, and killed, and fed the island. They say it was an instinct once. The drive to kill one another as natural as stags locking horns in the autumn. But that is only a story.
“Arsinoe? You know they will. You know they’ll kill you whether they want to or not. Even Mirabella.”
“You only think that because of Joseph,” Arsinoe says. “But she didn’t know and . . . she couldn’t help it.” I did it, she almost says, but she still cannot, even after all that her botched spell has cost them. She is still too much a coward.
“That’s not why,” Jules says. “And besides, what happened with Joseph . . . it was a mistake. He doesn’t love her. He never left my side during the poison.”
Arsinoe looks away. She knows that Jules has tried hard to believe that. And to forgive him.
“Maybe we should just run,” Jules goes on. “Go to ground and hide until one destroys the other. They wouldn’t hunt for you too hard with each other there to choose from. Why bother searching the scrub brush for a grouse when there’s a deer standing in the clearing? I’ve been squirreling away food, just in case. Supplies. We could take horses for distance and trade them for provisions when we go on foot. We’ll circle around the capital, where no one will look. And where we’ll be sure to hear of it when one of them dies.” Jules looks at her from the side of her eye. “And for the record, I hope it’s Katharine who dies first. It will make Mirabella easier to poison if she’s not on the lookout for it anymore.”
“What if Mirabella dies first?” Arsinoe asks, and Jules shrugs.
“Walk up and stab Katharine in the throat, I suppose. She can’t hurt you.”
Arsinoe sighs. There is so much risk, no matter which queen falls first. Mirabella might kill her outright, without a bear to defend her, but if Katharine were to cut her with a poisoned blade, her poisoner secret would come out. Then even if she won, the Arrons would claim her, and she would be yet another poisoner queen seated on the throne.
There must be a way, she thinks, a way out of this for all of us.
If she could only talk to them. Even if it was forced. If she could force a stalemate and they were locked together in the tower. If they could only talk, she knew it could be different.
“You have to get rid of that book,” Jules says stubbornly. “I can’t stand the sight of it.”
Arsinoe slips the book guiltily into her vest.
“How would you feel if I told you to hide Camden?” she asks. “If you hate the poisoners, you hate me.”
“That’s not true,” Jules says. “You are ours. Haven’t you been raised a naturalist all this time? Aren’t you truly a naturalist, at heart?”
“I am a Milone,” she says. “At heart.”
Arsinoe bends down and parts the foliage and longer grasses in the meadow north of Dogwood Pond. She sent Jules into town, to the Lion’s Head to look for Joseph and Billy. She said she would follow as soon as she hid the poison book. But she lied. Crouching, she combs through the grasses, and it does not take long for her to locate what she seeks: a stalk of white-flowered hemlock.
The poison sent by Katharine, meant for Arsinoe but swallowed by Jules as well, was thought to have contained a measure of hemlock. According to her book, it causes a peaceful death as it paralyzes the body from the feet up.
“A peaceful death,” Arsinoe mutters. But it was not merciful, combined with whatever other poisons Katharine mixed it with. It was terrible. Slow, and damaging, and Jules suffered cruelly.
“Why did you do it, little sister?” Arsinoe wonders aloud. “Is it because you were angry? Because you thought I tried to have that bear slice you open?”
But in her mind, Katharine offers no reply.
Little Katharine. When they were children, her hair was the longest. And the shiniest. Her face had the sharpest little features. She would float on her back in the stream behind the cottage, with her hair clouded around her like black widgeon grass. Mirabella would send currents through it, and Katharine would laugh and laugh.
Arsinoe thinks of Jules’s face, contorted in pain. Little Katharine is not to be trifled with.
Impulsively, she reaches forward and tears the hemlock out by the root. She should not have those fond memories anyway. She would not, if not for Mirabella and her cursed sentimentality, making her remember things that might never have been true.
“And even if they are,” Arsinoe mutters, “Jules is right.” Before the year is over, two of them will be dead. And no matter how hesitant she is to kill, she does not want to be one of the fallen.
She sniffs the hemlock blossom. It smells terrible, but she jams it into her mouth. The rancid smell takes on a new note as her chewing brings out the juices.
The hemlock does not taste good. Yet it tastes . . . satisfying. What she feels chewing poison must be something like Jules feels when she ripens an apple, or Mirabella feels when she calls the wind.
“Later I’ll go take a nap in a bed of poison ivy,” Arsinoe says, and chuckles as she eats the last of the flowers. “Or perhaps that is going too far.”
“What’s going too far?”
Arsinoe steps quickly away from the hemlock plant. She drops the last of the stems and kicks them about to be lost in the grass.
“Good Goddess, Junior,” she barks. “You sure know how to sneak up on somebody.”
Billy grins and shrugs. Somehow he never seems to have enough to do. And he always manages to find her. She wonders if that is some mainlander gift. The gift of being a busybody.
“What are you doing?” he asks. “Not more low magic?”
“Cait sent me out after blackberries,” she lies. Blackberries are not even in season yet.
Billy cranes his neck and looks over the shrubbery.
“I don’t see any berries. Or a basket to carry them.”
“You’re a pain in the arse,” Arsinoe mutters.
He laughs. “No bigger one than you.”
She walks past him, leading them away from the hemlock.
“All right, I’m sorry,” she says. “What are you doing here? I thought you would be with Joseph and Jules, at the Lion’s Head.”
“They need their time alone together.” Billy plucks a fat blade of grass and puts it between his thumbs to whistle. “And Jules says you’ve had news of your suitors.”
“So that’s why you’ve come running.” She grins, and the grin pushes up the side of the black lacquered mask she wears to cover her facial scars.
“I didn’t ‘come running,’” he insists. “I’ve always known this would happen. I knew they’d be after you once they saw that bear. Once they saw you up on that cliff at the Disembarking.
“And everyone else knew too. Down at the pier, we have boats lined up to have their hulls scraped and repainted. No one in Wolf Spring wants to seem like they care what the rest of the island thinks. But they are lying.”
Wolf Spring. A hard, farming, seafaring town full of hard, farming, brutal people. They value their land, and their waters, and the swing of their axes.
Arsinoe puts her hands on her hips and looks out over the meadow. It is beautiful. Wolf Spring is beautiful just as it is. She does not like to think of it changing to please some so-called illustrious guests.
“Tommy Stratford and Michael . . . something or other,” she says. “Are you worried I’ll like them better than I like you?”
“That’s just not possible.”
“Why? Because you’re so irresistible?”
“No. Because you don’t like anyone.”
“I do like you, Junior.”
“But I have more important things to think about right now.”
Billy has let his hair grow since coming to the island, and it is long enough now to almost move a little in the wind. Arsinoe catches herself wondering what it would be like to run her fingers through it and promptly stuffs her hands into her pockets.
“I agree,” Billy says, and turns to face her. “I want you to know that I’ve refused to go to your sisters.”
“But your father. He will be furious! We’ll stop the letter. Did you send it by bird or by horse? Do not say by boat. Jules can’t call one of those back.”
“It’s too late, Arsinoe. It’s done.” He steps closer and touches the cheek of her black-and-red mask. He was there that day, when she had foolishly led them into a bear attack. He had tried to save her.
“You said you didn’t want to marry me,” she whispers.
“I say a lot of things.”
He leans toward her. No matter what she says about putting off thoughts of the future, she has imagined this moment many times. Watching him from the corner of her eye and wondering what his kisses would be like. Gentle? Or clumsy? Or would they be the way his laughter is, confident and full of mischief?
Arsinoe’s heart beats faster. She leans into him, and then she remembers the hemlock that still coats her lips.
“Don’t touch me!”
She shoves him, and he lands on his hip in the grass.
“Ow,” he says.
“Sorry,” she responds sheepishly, and helps him up. “I didn’t mean to do that.”
“The near kiss or the shove?” He brushes himself off without looking at her, his cheeks red with embarrassment. “Did I do something wrong? Did you want to be the one to kiss me? Is that how it is here? Because I would be fine with that—”
“No.” Arsinoe can still taste the hemlock, in the back of her throat. She almost forgot. She almost killed him, and the thought takes her breath away. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want to. Not right now.”
Jules and Joseph finish two mugs of ale before acknowledging that Billy is not coming back with Arsinoe.
“Probably for the best,” Joseph says. “It’s grown late. Drunk folk might start demanding to see her bear.”
Jules frowns. Their phantom bear is becoming a problem. Arsinoe has not been seen with him since the night of the Quickening, saying that he is too violent and must be kept far off in the woods. But that will not satisfy the people of Wolf Spring for much longer.
“Well,” Joseph says, and pushes back from the table. “Shall we go? Or do you want another order of fried clams?”
Jules shakes her head, and they walk together out into the street. The early-evening light is softening, and the water of Sealhead Cove glitters cobalt and orange, visible between the buildings. As they make their way down toward it, Joseph slips his fingers into hers.
His touch still gives her a pleasurable jolt, even if it is tainted by what happened between him and Mirabella.
“Joseph,” she says, and holds his hand up. “Your knuckles.”
He lets go of her to make a fist. His knuckles are split and scabbed from working the boats. “I always said I would never work in the shipyard with my father and Matthew. Though I don’t know what else I thought I would be doing.” He sighs. “It’s not a bad life, I suppose. If it’s good enough for them, who am I to think any different? As long as you don’t mind me smelling like a barnacle.”
Jules hates to see his brave face. And how trapped he seems.
“I don’t mind,” she says. “And anyhow it’s not forever.”
“Of course not. It’s only until Arsinoe is crowned, remember? You on her council and me on her guard.”
“Ah,” he says, and slips his arm about her shoulders. “Our happy ending. I did say something like that, didn’t I?”
They walk companionably through the alley between the Heath and Stone and the Wolverton Inn, Camden hopping up and down on stacks of wooden crates full of empty bottles.
“Where did Arsinoe go off to tonight?” Joseph asks.
“To the bent-over tree, probably. To find Madrigal and do more low magic.”
“Madrigal is with Matthew. She met him on the docks, the moment he came in off The Whistler.”
Madrigal and Matthew. Their names together make her wince. Her mother’s fling with Joseph’s older brother should be over by now. Matthew at least should have come to his senses. He should realize how flighty and fickle Madrigal is. He should remember that he still loves her Aunt Caragh, banished to the Black Cottage or not.
“They ought to end that,” she says.
“Maybe. But they won’t. He says he loves her, Jules.”
“Only with his eyes,” she spits. “Not with his heart.” Joseph nearly flinches when she says that, and she glances sideways at his handsome profile. Perhaps that is how all men love. More with their eyes than with their hearts. So maybe it was not the storm and the circumstances. The delirium. Queen Mirabella is certainly more to look at than she is, and maybe it was nothing more complicated than that.
Jules pulls away.
“What?” Joseph asks. They round the corner at the end of the alley, and a small group spills out from the doors of the Heath and Stone. When they see Joseph, they stop short.
Joseph wraps an arm about Jules’s shoulders.
“Just keep walking.”
But as they pass, the nearest girl, brave on too much whiskey, cuffs Joseph in the back of the head. When he turns, she spits on the chest of his shirt.
Joseph exhales in disgust, but does his best to smile.
Jules’s temper flares.
“It’s all right, Jules,” he says.
“It’s not all right,” the girl snarls. “I saw what you did at the Beltane Festival. How you protected that elemental queen. Traitor!” She spits again. “Mainlander!” She turns to walk away but warns him over her shoulder, “Next time it won’t be spit. Next time it’ll be a knife between your ribs.”
“That tears it,” Jules says, and Camden leaps. She knocks the girl to the ground and pins her to the worn stones of the street with her one good paw.
Underneath the cougar, the girl trembles. The whiskey-courage is gone now, but she manages to curl her lip.
“What are you going to do?” she challenges.
“Anyone who touches Joseph will answer to me,” Jules says. “Or maybe to the queen. And her bear.”
Jules motions with her head, and Camden backs off.
“You shouldn’t protect him,” one of the girl’s friends says as they help her up.
“Disloyal,” says another as they back away and turn down the street toward their homes.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Jules,” Joseph says when they are alone.
“Don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t do. No one’s going to touch you as long as I’m around. No one’s going to so much as look at you wrong.”
“And here you were worried that you and Camden would seem weak with your matching limps. I think they give you a wider berth even than before.”
“They must sense that we’re more ill-tempered now,” Jules says wryly.
Joseph steps close and tucks a lock of wavy brown hair behind her ear. He kisses her softly.
“You don’t seem so ill-tempered to me.”
Are the preparations made?” Mirabella asks.
“Your guards and the decoy carriage will be ready tonight,” replies High Priestess Luca. “Though the people would have you wait until morning for a proper send-off.”
Queen Mirabella’s heart thumps. She is seated on one of Luca’s small sofas, elbow-deep in striped silk pillows, and looks for all the world to be a queen at ease. But she has been waiting for this night ever since Arsinoe betrayed her by sending the bear across the Quickening stages.
The door of Luca’s chamber opens, and Elizabeth enters. She closes the door quickly behind her to shut out the ruckus from the rest of the temple. There is no peace to be found in Rolanth Temple anymore, except for the quiet space of Luca’s personal rooms. Everywhere else is busy from sunrise to after dark. The apse bustles with visitors lighting candles for their elemental queen or leaving offerings of scented water dyed to a bright blue or dark black. The priestesses are constantly occupied with sorting the gifts and crates of supplies arriving in the city daily: all they will need to lavishly entertain the coming suitors.
Luca tells the queen that they are sorting the supplies. But everyone knows that since Katharine has returned, they are checking each parcel for poison.
“Elizabeth,” Luca says. “What kept you? The tea is nearly cold.”
“Forgive me, High Priestess. I wanted to bring some honey from the apiary.” She sets a small clear jar on Luca’s table, half-filled with fresh honey still leaking from a piece of comb. Luca dips a spoon into the jar and sweetens their cups as Elizabeth brushes dirt from her initiate robes and takes a seat. Her cheeks are rosy from hurrying, and a fine glow of sweat sits on her deeply tanned forehead.
“You smell like the garden and hot summer air,” Mirabella says. “What is that in your pocket?”
Elizabeth reaches into the skirt of her robes and pulls out a small spade fitted with a leather cup and bracelet.
“I had it made in the central district. It affixes directly to my stump.” She holds her arm up so Mirabella can see the scarred end of her left wrist where the priestesses cut her hand off as punishment for aiding Mirabella’s escape from the city. “I can buckle it one-handed, and it makes tending the vegetables much easier.”
“That is wonderful,” Mirabella says, but her eyes linger on the scars.
Luca sets their teacups before them.
“So,” Elizabeth says. “We are leaving in the morning, then?” She sips her tea and studies the High Priestess over the rim of her cup. “Don’t be worried, High Priestess. Bree and I will keep her safe until we find Queen Arsinoe in her woods.”
“I do not need to be kept safe. I need to find my sister and to do my duty by her. And I would not wait for morning, Luca. I would leave tonight.”
Luca takes a sip of tea, using the cup to hide her smile.
“For so long I waited for you to find the heart to kill your sisters,” she says. “And now I worry that you are too rash.”
“I am not rash. I am ready. Arsinoe sent her bear for me, and it killed our people and our priestesses. It cannot go unanswered.”
“But the Ascension Year has barely begun. We could make opportunities for you. Just as the Arrons are sure to arrange for Katharine.”
Mirabella’s mouth tightens. Luca practically raised her. Mirabella knows the tone in her voice, and she knows when she is being tested.
“I will not waver in this,” she says. “And this Ascension will be over far sooner than any anticipated.”
“Well then.” Luca nods. “Take my mare at least.”
“Crackle?” Elizabeth asks.
“I know she is not as fine as the white horses of the temple,” Luca says, “nor as beautiful as the black horses who will draw your decoy carriage to Indrid Down, but she is tough and fast and has been my trusted mount for many years.”
“Tough and fast,” Mirabella muses. “You think I will need to run.”
“No,” Luca replies softly. “But I must still try to protect you where I can.” She reaches across the table to lay her hand atop the queen’s, when a shriek cuts through the walls of the chamber. All three quickly stand.
“What was that?” Elizabeth asks.
“Stay here,” Luca orders, but Mirabella and Elizabeth follow her, down the stairs and through the door to the long east hall and the upper storerooms.
“The main storeroom!” Elizabeth points.
The scream tears through the hall again. It is so full of panic and pain. Priestesses are shouting, barking frightened orders. When Mirabella bursts through the door it is chaos, white robes flashing as priestesses run back and forth.
In the corner of the room, a young initiate jerks and cries, held still by four shouting novices. She is practically a child, perhaps fourteen at most, and Mirabella’s stomach goes cold at the sound of her screams. It goes colder when Rho, the war-gifted priestess with the bloodred hair, takes the initiate by the shoulder.
“You little fool!” Rho shouts. Baskets of goods topple; voices grow louder, talking over one another to soothe and question the girl.
Mirabella’s voice rings out over the erupting room.
“What has happened? Is she all right?”
“Stay back, Mirabella, stay back!” Luca says, and rushes to the corner. “Rho, what is it?”
Rho grasps the novice by the neck and jerks her arm upright. It is bloody to the wrist. Blisters rise and burst as they watch, traveling farther down the arm as the poison makes its way deeper into her body. Toward her heart.
“She has put her hand into a poisoned glove,” Rho says. “Stop squirming, girl!”
“Stop it!” the initiate begs. “Please, make it stop!”
Rho grimaces in frustration. There is no saving the girl’s hand. She holds up her serrated knife, considers it a moment, then tosses it clattering to the floor.
“Someone bring me an axe!” She bends the girl down across a table. “Hold out your arm, child. Quickly. We can take it at the elbow now. Do not make it worse.”
More priestesses join Rho to hold the girl and shush her gently. A priestess runs past Mirabella with a small silver hatchet.
“It was all I could find,” she says.
Rho grips it and flips it over, testing its weight.
“Turn her face away.” She raises the blade to strike.
“Turn yours as well, Elizabeth,” Mirabella says, and pulls her trembling friend close to hide her eyes and tuck the edge of her hood closed so the tiny, tufted woodpecker nestled in Elizabeth’s collar cannot fly out and be seen.
The hatchet comes down, one hard, chopping thud into the table. It is a testament to Rho’s war gift that she did not need to strike twice. The surrounding priestesses wrap the poor girl’s bleeding arm and steal her away to be tended. Perhaps they have saved her. Perhaps the poison, meant for Mirabella, has been stopped.
Mirabella clenches her teeth to keep from screaming. It was Katharine who did this. Sweet little Katharine, who Mirabella knows not at all. But Mirabella is smarter now. She made the mistake of sentimentality with Arsinoe. She will not make it again.
“When she is healed, I will have a spade fashioned for her. Just like mine. We will tend the gardens together. She will not miss her arm at all,” Elizabeth says tearfully.
“That is kind of you, Elizabeth.” Mirabella says. “And when I am finished with Arsinoe, I will silence Katharine so no one will have to fear poisoned gloves out of the capital ever again.”
That night, Mirabella and Bree and Sara Westwood meet Luca and the priestesses before the temple courtyard. Mirabella’s black dress is covered in a soft, brown cloak, and her riding boots are laced up tight. Bree, Elizabeth, and her escort of guards and scouts are all similarly outfitted. Anyone who sees them pass might mistake them for traveling merchants.
Mirabella strokes the muzzle of one of the long-legged black horses who will pull the decoy carriage toward Katharine and Indrid Down. The carriage is a beautiful, empty shell, lacquered and trimmed in silver, the horses so dark they would be shadows if not for the shine off their bits and buckles. They will be enough of a distraction for Katharine and the Arrons. Just enough to keep them from interfering with her in Wolf Spring.
“Here is Crackle,” Luca says, and places her stout brown mare’s reins into Mirabella’s palm. “She will not fail you.”
“I have no doubt.” Mirabella scratches the horse beneath the forelock. Then she moves to Crackle’s side and swings into the saddle.
“What are these?”
Mirabella turns. Her party is mounted, but one of the priestesses is tugging on Bree’s saddlebags.
“Leave off!” Bree nudges her horse a step forward. “They are pears.”
“We have not inspected any pears,” the priestess says.
“That is because I picked them myself, from the orchard at the edge of Moorgate Park.”
“They should not go,” the priestess says to Luca.
“And yet they are going,” Bree insists. “Queen Katharine is not so devious as to poison these three particular pears from one particular tree in one particular orchard in one of the many parks in Rolanth. And if she is,” she says to Mirabella through the side of her mouth, “then she deserves to win.”
Mirabella and Elizabeth suppress their smiles. But there is not much light; the moon is waning, and what slice is left is obscured by clouds. So perhaps the priestesses will not see how their sides shake.
“Ride fast,” says Rho. She has taken down her hood, and dark red hair spills over her shoulder. “And quietly. We have heard reports of another bear mauling near Wolf Spring. A man and his boy, disemboweled and necks broken. Your sister does not have control of her familiar. Or she does and is wicked. Either way there is no time to waste.”
Mirabella takes up her reins and whirls Crackle onto the road.
“For the first time, Rho, you and I are in agreement.”
About One Dark Throne
The battle for the crown has begun, but which of the three sisters will prevail?
With the unforgettable events of the Quickening behind them and the Ascension Year underway, all bets are off.
Katharine, once the weak and feeble sister, is stronger than ever before. Arsinoe, after discovering the truth about her powers, must figure out how to make her secret talent work in her favor without anyone finding out. And Mirabella, once thought to be the strongest sister of all and the certain Queen Crowned, faces attacks like never before—ones that put those around her in danger she can’t seem to prevent.
It looks like things are full speed ahead on Fennbirn Island… are you as excited as we are for ONE DARK THRONE?! Tell us in the comments below!
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