Sneak Peeks
Rating

Read the First 3 Chapters of Onyx & Ivory

Can we just start by saying that we are so excited to share this excerpt with you guys?! Mindee Arnett has written some amazing books in the past (we’re looking at you, AVALON), so we literally cannot wait for her new fantasy novel, especially after reading these first few chapters!! If you like your fantasy series to have a healthy dose of epic journey, imminent danger, forbidden magic, and will-they-won’t-they romance, then this is for you.

She’s the daughter of a man who tried to assassinate the king. He’s the song of the king her dad tried to murder. And they used to be in love. When she finds him the sole survivor of a massacre, their paths cross once more to save the kingdom from an even darker threat.

It’s epic, it’s magical, it’s brutal—and you can read the first few chapters now!

 

Part One

THE TRAITOR’S DAUGHTER

 

Chapter One

KATE

Out here, darkness meant death.

Kate Brighton urged her weary horse ever faster as night crept over the land of Rime. The gelding labored with the pace already, his pants like whipcracks in the air, and his shoulders and neck lathered with foamy white stripes. But they couldn’t stop, and they couldn’t slow down. They had to make it inside the city before the gates closed.

How much farther? Kate thought for the hundredth time, Farhold still nowhere in sight. The road wound between hills too tall to see beyond, the shadows deep and dark. The swaths of everweeps spilling down the slopes toward them were already drawing their petals closed, while the moon with its pale silvery ring peeked over the crest of the hills to the east like a watchful eye in the bruised face of the sky.

“Come on, Pip,” Kate whispered. She stood in the stirrups as she rode, her legs burning from the effort to keep her weight off the horse’s back. After so many hours in the saddle, her muscles felt like wood gone to rot.

Pip’s sleek ears twitched at the sound of her voice, but his pace remained the same. He had no more speed to give. It was more than fatigue. Even without her magic, Kate could sense the horse’s pain in the way his neck dipped whenever his left foreleg struck the ground. When she reached out with her abilities, though, Kate felt the pain as if it were her own, a hot throb running up from the base of the hoof. What must’ve started as a tiny fracture had only spread and worsened on their long journey.

Fear clutched at Kate’s heart. If the bone shatters . . . She cut the thought off before it could grow roots and spread.

The guilt was harder to keep at bay, though. If only they’d stayed a bit longer in the Relay tower, where she and Pip had spent the night on their return journey from Marared, a city more than fifty miles to the east. Another Relay rider would’ve come along to help them. The royal courier service of Rime kept strict protocols about searching for riders who failed to return with the mail they carried. Most riders who went missing were assumed killed by the nightdrakes that roamed the surface of Rime after sunset. The creatures ruled the night in this land, devouring any human or horse they could find. The only safety was behind the fortified walls of the cities and Relay towers or a magist wardstone barrier.

But she hadn’t sensed the injury. Pip had left the tower sound, if a little sluggish from the previous day’s ride. Then halfway to
Farhold—snap. The foot went from fine to on fire. At once Kate had dismounted and wrapped the leg with the cloth bandage she kept in her saddlebag. She wanted to stay put, fearing further damage, but they had to press on. She’d slowed their pace in an effort to keep it from worsening, but that too had been a mistake—one they were paying for now with this hellish race against the encroaching darkness. If she just had the power to halt the sun in its descent . . . but only Caro could do that, and she doubted the sky god was listening.

“We’re almost there,” Kate said, struggling to convey the complex idea to the horse. Although her gift allowed her to touch the minds of animals, and to even influence their behavior, making them understand wasn’t easy. Horses didn’t think in words and ideas but in images and feelings, a language much harder to speak in.

Still, for a few seconds she sensed something like relief from Pip, his steps a little lighter, his head a little higher. Then the road began to climb upward, and the horse fell out of the gallop into a trot. Kate resisted pushing him back into a run; Pip needed to catch his breath, and daylight still lingered, if only by a single brushstroke of pink on the sky ahead. Farhold can’t be much farther, she hoped. They’d been in the hills that formed the city’s eastern border for more than an hour now. But this was only her second time taking this route, and she couldn’t be certain. The Marared route, with its lengthy distance and taxing pace, was reserved for veterans, and Kate had only just made three years as a Relay rider for Farhold.

Nevertheless, her instinct proved true. When they finally crested the hill, she spotted Farhold’s towering stone wall less than a mile ahead. In the deepening darkness, the wardstones set in the embrasures at the top of the wall glowed bright as starlight. The magic inside each stone served a single purpose: to repel the nightdrake packs. No one knew where or how the drakes passed from under the earth to the surface, but they always appeared at dark and terrorized until dawn.

Kate ran her gaze over the cornfields on either side of the road, which started at the base of the hill and stretched all the way to the city. The green stalks, high as Pip’s knees, swayed in the breeze, making gentle whish-whish sounds. At least, Kate prayed it was the breeze. In the weak light, the stalks offered enough cover for the nightdrake scouts to venture out without fear of being burned by the sun. The smaller, more timid drakes of the pack, scouts always appeared first to spy for prey. With teeth like knives and claws like razors, a single scout could bring down a horse with little effort. The drakes came in every size. Some small as pigs, others large as horses. All of them deadly.

The path ahead appeared clear for now, and she allowed Pip to slow to a walk as they descended the hill, the pressure in his hoof too great for anything faster. Each step sent needling pain through both horse and rider. Kate wanted to withdraw from it, the agony making her dizzy, but she didn’t dare. Sharing the pain with Pip was the only way he would endure this final stretch. The horse had great heart, but even the strongest spirit couldn’t push a broken body forever.

With her nerves on edge, Kate kept her eyes on the fields, flinching at each twitch of the stalks. She retrieved the bow tied to the back of her saddle and held it crossways over her lap. The quiver on her back contained twelve arrows, half of them fashioned with ordinary steel tips and the other half bearing tips enchanted with mage magic, same as the wardstones. Piercing a nightdrake’s hide was no easy task—only arrows imbued with mage magic could do it from a distance. Pistols could as well, but they fired a single shot, which made them next to worthless against a pack. The remaining drakes would be on the shooter before she had time to reload.

Kate closed her legs around Pip’s sides, asking for more speed. He snorted and tossed his head in protest, the bit jangling in his mouth. She couldn’t blame him; the pain was more tolerable at this pace. For a second, she considered letting him stay at the walk, but then two sounds reached her ears. The first was the clang of Farhold’s evening bell, calling for the gates to close. The second was the distinctive screech of a nightdrake from somewhere behind them. Both had the same effect. Digging her heels into Pip’s side, Kate sent him a vision of an attacking drake. The horse had no trouble understanding the concept this time, and he charged into the gallop.

Turning in the saddle, Kate spotted a pair of bright, glistening eyes peering out from the stalks just behind them. The scout gave chase, flanking them on the left but staying hidden beneath the cover of the corn. For now. With her heart thrumming, Kate grabbed an arrow, nocked it, and loosed it, all in the span of a second. She missed, but it didn’t matter. Scouts spooked easily, and it backed off.

But there would be others. There always were.

Turning back around, Kate heard the wind shriek in her ears even louder than the bell. Ahead she saw the teams of oxen hitched to the insides of the gates, pulling them closed.

“Wait!” she shouted. “Wait!” Once the gates closed, they wouldn’t reopen until dawn—not for one lowly Relay rider. There was another way into the city, through the hidden mage door, but only mage magic could find and open it. Hers was wilder magic, outlawed and secret and good only for influencing animals.

If the men driving the oxen heard her, they didn’t respond. She urged Pip even faster, but the horse was failing by the second as the pain in his foreleg spread. She heard the rustle of corn behind her, louder than before. In the distance, the rest of the pack began to screech, closing in. Kate spied the Farhold guards waiting atop the wall with arrows nocked to repel the beasts should they approach the gate before it closed.

Come on, Pip. Gritting her teeth, Kate closed her eyes and went deeper into the horse’s mind until she found the very center of him, his essence. All animals possessed it—a glowing brightness like a burning candle that she could see and feel only through the eye of her mind and the magic that gave it sight. She found the brightness and wrapped her magic around it, shielding the horse from the pain. She took that pain into herself instead, gasping at the sensation. The ploy worked, and the horse shot ahead, his strides lengthening.

Moments later they charged through the narrow space between the gates and into the safety of Farhold. The gates thudded closed, sealing them in. Kate resisted the impulse to let go of the horse’s mind, fearing what the shock would do to him. She eased back on the reins and brought him to a halt. Then she slid from the saddle and slowly withdrew her magic. Immediately the horse began to tremble, struggling to stay upright with only three legs able to bear weight now.

Ignoring the curious looks from the Farhold guards, Kate led the horse forward, one slow, hobbling step at a time. The Relay house wasn’t far from the eastern gate, but it was like miles to poor Pip. Now that she’d withdrawn from his mind, he bore the pain in full, but she couldn’t risk maintaining the connection. There were magists in Farhold, same as in every city in Rime, and all of them carried enchanted stones designed to detect wilder magic. If they ever discovered what she could do, she would face imprisonment and execution, a fate she feared for more reasons than the obvious. Not that she would even be able to use her magic much longer today, with true night descending. Wilder magic worked only during the day. Like the everweeps on the hills outside, the power closed up inside her and would remain dormant until dawn.

Still, Kate did what she could to help the horse. Halting him, she removed both saddle and mailbag, slinging them over her shoulder despite the weight and her own weariness. She tried to find comfort in knowing that at least they’d made it into the city, but she couldn’t stop the tears stinging her eyes. She had done this. Broken this horse to save her own life.

By the time they arrived at the Relay house, the ringed moon had risen high overhead, drenching the cobbled street below in silver light. Irri, the goddess whose nightly charge it was to spin that shining orb, was hard at work. Kate wished for darkness, if only to hide her guilt. The iron gates into the stable stood closed and barred from the inside. She started to shout for entry when the door into the main house opened and a young man stepped out.

“You’re late, Traitor Kate,” Cort Allgood said in a mocking, jovial tone.

Kate ignored him. He used the name far too often for it to bother her like it once had.

A grin twisted Cort’s lips. “We thought you died. Even started making bets on it. You cost me more than a few valens.”

Clenching her teeth, Kate adjusted the mail pouch across her shoulder. Of all the people to be here now, why did it have to be him? The gods must hate me.

“Open the gate. Pip is lame.”

Cort examined the horse, cocking his head so that his blond curls bounced foppishly. Instead of his usual Relay rider uniform he wore a green tunic over breeches and tall black boots. The sight of his dapper appearance made Kate regret her own state of disarray. She smoothed down the front of her soiled tunic and brushed back raven-black hair from her face, where it had escaped the neat braid she’d plaited this morning.

“That horse isn’t lame,” Cort said, finishing his examination. “He’s good as dead.”

Kate’s hands balled into fists around the reins. “Open the gate.”

“How’d he get like that anyway?” Cort cocked his head in the other direction, his curls doing another ridiculous bounce. “You ride him off a cliff? Could’ve sworn they trained us not to do that.”

Turning to the gate, Kate opened her mouth to shout for someone else but stopped as Cort made a quick retreat. A moment later he appeared on the other side of the gate and swung it open.

“Come on, Pip. Just a little farther.” Kate tugged the horse forward.

“Poor thing.” Cort slapped the gelding on the rump, making him flinch. “But that’s what happens when you’re forced to carry a traitor.” Cort touched a mocking finger to his chin. “How does the Relay Rider’s Vow go again, Traitor Kate? The part about protecting the horse at all costs?”

She kept walking, head up and lips sealed, but her blood heated with every word he spoke. She had reason to hate Cort Allgood. He was the one who had first discovered who she really was: Kate Brighton of Norgard. Daughter of Hale Brighton, the man who tried to kill the high king of Rime.

The traitor’s daughter.

After her father was executed for his crimes, she’d come to Farhold hoping to escape her past, to start over with a new life and a new name. For the first ten months she’d managed it, but then Cort had seen an illustration of her in the Royal Gazette, a new monthly newspaper published by the royal court and sent to all the city-states that formed the kingdom of Rime. The story that accompanied the illustration marked the one-year anniversary of Hale Brighton’s attack on the king. Within days of its publication the anonymous Relay rider Kate Miller became Kate Brighton once more. She was lucky not to have been dismissed from the position.

“Then again, Traitor Kate,” Cort said, catching up with her, “if you had kept the vow, you would’ve ruined your reputation.” He paused, frowning. “You know, I’ve always wondered why it is your father did it. None of the stories ever say. Do you know why he did it?”

Kate ignored his question as well as the same one that echoed deep inside her. No, she didn’t know. She never would. The dead tell no truths, as the priests were fond of saying.

Spying a stable boy ahead, Kate waved him down. “Fetch Master Lewis.”

The boy looked set to argue, then changed his mind when he saw Pip stumble sideways, struggling to maintain his awkward three-legged balance. While the boy made a dash for the foreman’s quarters, Kate continued on, guiding Pip toward the eastern stable.

Cort started to follow her, another cutting remark on his lips, but someone shouted his name from across the way. He shouted back a response, then turned and addressed Kate.

“Well, I’m off, Traitor Kate. Good luck saving that doomed horse.”

“Shut up,” Kate said, her hold on her temper finally slipping. “He’s not doomed.”

Cort barked a triumphant laugh. “I’d say let’s make a wager on it, but there’s no sport in a fixed game.” He winked, then turned and jaunted off without another word.

I hope you choke on your own spit, Cort Allgood, she thought after him.

By the time Kate managed to get Pip inside the stable, the foreman had arrived. Small and lean as a tree branch, Deacon Lewis looked fit enough to still outride any of the riders in his charge, despite his years. Short-cropped black hair, tinged with silver, framed his angular face, his brown skin leathered with age. He was intimidating on a normal day, but in this moment, Kate could barely bring herself to look at him for fear of his judgment. Over and over again, she ran her hands down the front of her tunic, trying to make it lie flat, trying to give herself the shield a good appearance could bring.

At first, he stood examining the horse from a few feet away, acknowledging Kate with a glance. Then he came forward and ran his hand down Pip’s injured leg. The gelding hopped sideways, protesting the touch.

Sighing, Deacon let go of the leg and straightened up. “I’ll summon a healer,” he said, and his doubtful tone felt like a punch to Kate’s gut.

“I might be able to mend the bone,” the magist healer said sometime later. “But I doubt he’ll ever be sound for hard work again.” He straightened from his hunched position and smoothed his green robes, the mark of his order. The magestone he’d used to diagnose the horse’s injury remained fastened around Pip’s pastern on a piece of leather. It glowed bright red, pulsing like a heartbeat.

Kate stared at the green robe, frustrated that she couldn’t read his expression behind the mask he wore and despising his matter-of-fact tone. All magists wore masks, the cut and coverage of them signifying rank. This one’s covered his whole face, marking him a master, the very best of his order—and the most expensive.

“How much?” Deacon said, his face as expressionless as the magist’s. Nevertheless, the way he kept rubbing his fingers along the four scars on his left forearm betrayed his concern. The scars ran so deep, they made the muscles beneath look permanently twisted in a cramp. There weren’t many riders who survived a nightdrake attack, but Deacon had come through two in his long years with the Relay.

“Seventy valens,” the magist said.

A wrench went through Kate’s stomach. That was nearly as much as it would cost to replace the horse, and she knew what Deacon’s answer would be.

Forgetting her position, Kate touched Deacon’s arm. “Please, Master Lewis, let me pay for it. If you hold back my wages this month and the next, maybe—”

Deacon brushed her off and raised a hand for silence. He turned to the green robe. “Thank you for your services. We’ll pass on further treatment.”

The green nodded, then stooped to untie the piece of leather around Pip’s injured foot. The glow in the magestone faded the moment it was removed.

Once the green robe had gone, Kate wheeled on Deacon, unable to stay silent a moment longer. “Please reconsider. Please. I’ll do anything. I’ll give up a month’s salary. I’ll do extra rides for free, muck out the stables for the next year. Anything. Please, Master Lewis.”

Deacon turned to Kate, meeting her gaze for the first time, it seemed. “I’m sorry, Kate, but I can’t let you.”

“But, sir . . .” Tears burned in her eyes, making her cheeks flush. If she didn’t stop speaking she wouldn’t be able to hold them back. “He’s a good horse, and it’s my fault. I didn’t mean—”

“Hush now. There’s no place for such foolishness here.” Deacon folded his arms, fingers worrying at his scars again. “I know he’s your favorite, but Pip’s a working horse and only as good as his legs. If he were a mare, it would be a different story, but a lame gelding is worth more dead than alive.”

“But, sir, given time he could be sound again. He’s still young. If you just let me buy him, then maybe—”

“I said no, and that’s final.” Deacon glared down at her now, his dark eyes sharp enough to cut. “How would you feed him? Where would you keep him? He can’t stay here, and don’t tell me you’re paid so handsomely that you can afford to be wasteful with your coin, because I know better. No, I won’t let you sacrifice for
nothing.”

Kate flinched at every point he made, each harsh truth laid bare. He was right. She couldn’t afford the coin, and a part of her even understood the practicality of his reasoning. Saving a lame horse was more than pointless—it was wasted space, a great selfishness in a city already overfull with humans and animals both. There wasn’t room for anything that didn’t serve a purpose. Even the elderly and infirm were encouraged by the priests and priestesses to give their lives in sacrifice to the gods. But the rest of her had touched Pip’s very essence, had caressed his soul with her magic. That part couldn’t bear the idea of his death. A piece of her would die with him.

But she couldn’t tell Deacon any of that, not in a way that he would understand and accept. Although Deacon always treated her fairly, even after he learned who she really was, he wouldn’t tolerate her wilder magic if he ever found out. Wilders were outlaws, subject to the Inquisition.

Sagging in defeat, Kate swallowed. “Yes, sir.” She reached for Pip’s lead. He was her charge, and it was her responsibility to take him to the slaughterhouse. She’d never had to take a horse there before, and her fingers shook as she untied the rope.

Deacon took the lead from her, his expression softening. “Go home, Kate. I’ll see it done.”

Kate looked up at him, torn between what she knew she ought to do and what she wanted to do. But in the end, she couldn’t refuse his kind offer, the escape too welcome, too easy a path to choose any other.

She turned to Pip and ran a hand over his sleek neck, wishing she could touch his mind one more time, to give him the peace he deserved. He leaned into her touch, burying his muzzle in her belly. She stroked his nose for a moment, whispered good-bye into one velvety ear, then turned and walked away.

Shame and regret dogged each step she took on the way to her rented room, a few miles from the Relay house. Cort’s taunts echoed in her mind, taking on weight. It was true—as a Relay rider, she had vowed to always bring Pip back safely, to hold his life equal to her own. But she had broken that vow tonight, an act of betrayal as sure as any other.

Have I become my father? Did oath breaking run in her blood? She was so much like him. Even her magic was inherited from him. Hale Brighton had been master of horse to the high king, a position he’d earned with the help of his secret, forbidden gift. He’d been the king’s friend and liegeman, and yet he had tried to kill him. Kate didn’t know why, but there was no denying her father’s guilt. Just as there’s no denying mine. Traitor’s daughter. Traitor Kate.

Once again, she had lived up to her name.

 

KATE

The morning came too early, as it always did, night slipping away like a thief afraid of discovery. Fingers of sunlight pressed against Kate’s eyelids, and she rolled over out of their reach. It was more comfortable on this side, cooler, though the bed remained hard, nothing like the beds she used to sleep in. Memories disguised as dreams—of feathered mattresses wrapped in silken sheets and long luxurious mornings spent dozing only to be awakened by the smell of sugar-glazed sweet rolls—started to lull her back to sleep.

Then a more recent memory slid through her mind—of Pip, and the disaster of the night before. Kate groaned, coming fully awake. She forced her eyes open, breaking apart the crust of dried tears that had sealed her lashes together. The urge to renew that crying rose up in her, only to be shoved aside by a sudden jolt of alarm. The sun beyond the narrow window shone too brightly and too high in the sky, more than an hour past dawn. But the dawn bell didn’t ring! She was sure of it. She never slept through the loud gong that signaled the opening of the gates.

Panicked, Kate scrambled out of bed just as the door swung open and her roommate stepped in, carrying with her the faint, sweet stench of barberry wine.

“You’re still in bed?” Signe’s pale eyebrows climbed her forehead, almost disappearing into her golden-blond hair. “What happened?” Yawning, she gestured to Kate’s unmade bed. She wore a sleeveless jerkin and breeches, both disheveled from whatever activity had kept Signe away all night from their shared room.

“I don’t know.” Kate stooped and picked up the clothes she’d discarded on the floor the night before, their presence there, instead of carefully folded and put away, a telling sign of her distressed state of mind. Scowling at the soiled state of her Relay rider’s tunic—whoever thought light blue and horses was a good pairing should be drawn and quartered—she slid it on over her shift. “What time
is it?”

“Nearly eight.” Signe stepped in and dropped onto the bed nearest the door. There wasn’t much room for standing and the two narrow beds were the only places for sitting. “If you hurry, you should make it to roll call.” Signe was a Relay rider too, and both of them knew the consequences of a late arrival. Fortunately for Signe, it was her day off.

“Gods, let it be so.” Kate pulled on the rest of her uniform of black breeches and overskirt, wishing she had time to rebraid her hair and wash the dirt from her face.

“Did you hear?” Signe asked, a gleam in her voice. “There’s a royal in the city.”

“What?” Kate’s hand stilled in the act of fastening her belt over the tunic.

Signe nodded, raising one leg to pull out the knife tucked inside her boot. She leaned back on the bed and idly began to toss the knife in one hand. “I don’t know who, but it must be someone important.”

“Obviously,” Kate said, breathless. A royal was in the city. A Tormane. But who? She shook the thought from her head. Whoever it might be was not her concern anymore. She’d left that life behind. “That explains it, though. The dawn bell doesn’t ring when there’s a royal in the city.”

“It doesn’t?” Signe cocked her head, birdlike. Even with her gaze fixed on Kate, she didn’t stop juggling the knife, catching it absentmindedly. Although they’d been friends for more than two years now, Kate had no idea where Signe had learned such a skill. She was from the Esh Islands and never talked about her life there or what had brought her to Rime, but Kate often suspected she’d either been a circus performer or a thief. “If I’d known that,” she continued, “I would’ve come home sooner to wake you. Why doesn’t it ring?”

Kate made a face. “Because royals don’t like to have their sleep disturbed so early.” That wasn’t precisely true, but she didn’t have time to explain the political nuances involved. Although there were kings in Esh, there weren’t sealed city gates. All the islands were free of the nightdrakes that plagued Rime after sunset.

Why did you ever leave? Kate wanted to ask, the memory of Pip ambushing her again. If the horse had been reared in Esh, he would still be alive.

She shoved the regret down deep inside her and headed for the door. “I’ve got to go.”

“Wait,” Signe said. “I brought you a gift.”

Kate turned back automatically, unable to resist her friend’s infectious enthusiasm. She gaped as she saw the object in Signe’s hand, a silver chain with a series of small colored stones fastened between the links. The magestones glowed faintly, the enchantment on them strong and new. “A moonbelt?”

Signe grinned. “I swore I would find you one.” She thrust out her hand. “Take it. And learn to enjoy life. Like I do.”

Against her better instincts, Kate accepted the moonbelt. The very hint of its purpose made her insides squirm like she’d swallowed a jar full of worms. It was indecent for an unmarried woman to possess one, let alone wear it.

“Uh, thanks, Sig, but I enjoy life enough already.” Kate tried to hand it back.

Signe brandished a finger at her like a whip. “Working all the time is not enjoyment.”

“It is if you’re me.” There was nothing Kate liked more than riding, and—last night aside—she loved working for the Relay. “Besides,” she added, “you know I’ve no need for it.”

A suggestive smile stretched across Signe’s face. “Yes, so now you must choose a nice boy for a plaything and create the need.”

Ignoring the blush creeping up her neck, Kate shoved the moonbelt into the single outside pocket on her overskirt, making sure it was hidden from view. She would put it on—or not—at the Relay house.

“I’ve got to go.”

Signe shooed her toward the door. “Yes, yes, may the luck of Aslar be with you.”

With a determined bent, Kate hoisted her overskirt and trotted down the narrow hallway to the even narrower staircase. If she was late to morning roll call, she would get bumped from her route by one of the other riders to either a less lucrative one or a more difficult one. The latter was the last thing she wanted, especially after the tragedy with Pip.

Grease hung thick as smoke in the air as Kate descended, the walls and railing slick with it. She would be slick with it too by the time she made it outside. A greasy face and hair were an inevitable consequence of renting a room in the Crook and Cup. So was the stench of boiling meat and ripe onion (a smell she despised) that lingered on her clothes nearly as strong as the ever-present scent of horse (a smell she loved). She and Signe would’ve preferred staying at the Relay house, but there wasn’t a bunk for women riders, only the men, who vastly outnumbered them.

Turning right into the kitchen, Kate darted between a cook and a serving girl on her way to the alley door. The cook shouted that she wasn’t supposed to be in here, but Kate batted her eyes at him and smiled before heading outside. She turned left down the alley, her boots splashing mud over the hem of her overskirt with each step, and soon reached Bakers Row.

“Oh hells,” she muttered at the congestion in the street. Always a little crowded, this morning Bakers Row looked like a fisherman’s net after a good catch, full of flailing, chattering people piled one next to the other. There were women in brightly colored gowns embroidered with lace and with long gaped sleeves, and men sporting velvet or silk tunics and boots polished to a high sheen. Jewelry hung from belts and around necks, some glowing with mage magic designed to enhance beauty or hide disfiguration, others merely glinting in the sun. Kate clucked her tongue in dismay. Such finery had no business in a marketplace as common as Bakers Row.

One man, a merchant by the looks of him, wore a sash made from the carcass of a small nightdrake. The reptilian head hung over the man’s shoulder with its fanged mouth fastened to the scaly tail, and its body wrapped crossways over his back and chest. Shiny black stones had been placed in the eye sockets, making it look alive. Kate suppressed a laugh at the absurdity of such a person wearing such a trophy. No one would believe this portly, gray-bearded man had actually killed the drake.

She pushed her way into the crowd, elbowing sides and stepping on toes without care. The royal is to blame for this, she realized. Why else would everyone bother with such finery if not with the hope of impressing whichever of the Tormanes was here? Not that they’re likely to be seen right now. In her experience, the nobility preferred to breakfast late in the quiet comfort of whatever palace or stately home was grand enough to host them.

With her agitation building, Kate couldn’t keep the glare from her face. Some of the people stepped out of the way at the sight of her blue tunic with the silver galloping horse on the left breast, but most did not. A Relay rider uniform commanded respect only from atop a horse and with a full mail pouch in tow—the contents of those pouches too important to impede, containing everything from personal missives to newsletters to royal decrees.

Booths and vendor carts lined both sides of the streets, some beneath canopies, some leaning with off-angled sides, but all displaying savory wares like sweet buns, pumpkin-glazed crumpets, or flatbreads slathered with butter and honey. The smell of yeast and sugar filled Kate’s nose, making her stomach quiver. She’d been too distraught last night to eat, and hunger sabotaged her now when there was no time to assuage it.

As she reached the end of Bakers Row, turning onto Copperfield, Kate began to silently curse the royal for all the congestion. Nothing brought out a crowd as quickly as the chance to ogle one of the Tormanes, especially way out here in Farhold, where they so rarely journeyed. She wanted to scream aloud how foolish everyone was being, that they were wasting their time—and hers.

But when she reached the intersection with Main Street, she realized she might be the foolish one. A row of city guardsmen standing at parade rest blocked the road ahead. In the distance Kate heard the trill of trumpets, sounding the approach of a royal procession.

Damn them all, she thought, picturing every member of the Tormane family in her mind. Well, not everyone. There was one she refused to picture. One she chose to believe did not exist.

Kate glanced behind her, weighing her options. Nearly everyone towered above her, and they were all pushing forward, vying for a spot near the intersection. The only option was to sneak across Main Street somehow, and her short stature would be an advantage. She ducked under the arm of the woman in front of her, then jostled her way forward until she reached the guardsmen. They stood with their backs to her, their cloaks so dark a shade of green they were almost black. Kate couldn’t see beyond to determine how far the procession still was, but it didn’t matter. She refused to be late, especially after last night. Taking a deep breath, she dashed between the guards onto the empty street.

“Stop!” someone shouted, but Kate plunged on, counting on her size and quickness to keep her from being caught.

Once again, her assumption proved wrong. Whether motivated by the approaching royal or perhaps just favored by the gods, one of the guards managed to grab the end of her braid. The sudden jerk against her scalp yanked her off-balance, and she landed hard on her rump, a shock arching up her spine and into her neck. Her teeth clanked together, catching her bottom lip