Are you ready for magic, romance, revenge…and high treason?
We have an exclusive excerpt of Rebecca Ross’s debut fantasy, THE QUEEN’S RISING, and it will sweep you away into an epic French Renaissance-inspired world that’s equal parts Three Dark Crowns, His Fair Assassin, and Game of Thrones!!
It all starts at Magnalia House, where girls are sent to study and master one of the five passions—art, music, dramatics, wit, and knowledge—in hopes of being chosen by a patron. Of course things don’t go as smoothly as hoped for our protagonist, Brienna, and she finds herself bound to a disgraced lord and entangled in a dangerous plot to overthrow the current king. This story only escalates from there and it’s filled with drama, secret identities, and missions with incredibly high stakes. There’s also a slow burning romance that WE ARE SO HERE FOR but that’s all we’ll say about that…for now 😍❤️
We have your first official sneak peek so scroll down and read the first few chapters of THE QUEEN’S RISING now!
Province of Angelique, Kingdom of Valenia
Magnalia House was the sort of establishment where only wealthy, talented girls mastered their passion. It wasn’t designed for girls who were lacking, for girls who were illegitimate daughters, and certainly not for girls who defied kings. I, of course, happen to be all three of those things.
I was ten years old when my grandfather first took me to Magnalia. Not only was it the hottest day of summer, an afternoon for bloated clouds and short tempers, it was the day I decided to ask the question that had haunted me ever since I had been placed in the orphanage.
“Grandpapa, who is my father?”
My grandfather sat on the opposite bench, his eyeones heavy from the heat until my inquiry startled him. He was a proper man, a good yet very private man. Because of that, I believed he was ashamed of me—the illegitimate child of his beloved, dead daughter.
But on that sweltering day, he was trapped in the coach with me, and I had voiced a question he must answer. He blinked down at my expectant face, frowning as if I had asked him to pluck the moon from the sky. “Your father is not a respectable man, Brienna.”
“Does he have a name?” I persisted. Hot weather made me bold, while it melted the older ones, like Grandpapa. I felt confident that he would at long last tell me who I had descended from.
“Don’t all men?” He was getting crabby. We had been traveling for two days in this heat.
I watched him fumble for his handkerchief and mop the sweat from his crinkled brow, which was speckled like an egg. He had a ruddy face, an overpowering nose, and a crown of white hair. They said my mother had been comely—and that I was her
reflection—yet I could not imagine someone as ugly as Grandpapa creating something beautiful.
“Ah, Brienna, child, why must you ask of him?” Grandpapa sighed, mellowing a bit. “Let us talk instead of what is to come, of Magnalia.”
I swallowed my disappointment; it sat in my throat like a marble, and I decided I did not want to talk of Magnalia.
The coach took a turn before I could bolster my stubbornness, the wheels transitioning from ruts to a smooth stone drive. I glanced at the window, streaked from dust. My heart quickened at the sight and I pressed closer, spread my fingers upon the glass.
I admired the trees first, their long branches arched over the drive like welcoming arms. Horses leisurely grazed in the pastures, their coats damp from the summer sun. Beyond the pastures were the distant blue mountains of Valenia, the backbone of our kingdom. It was a sight to salve my disappointment, a land to grow wonder and courage.
We rambled along, under the oak boughs and up a hill, finally stopping in a courtyard. Through the haze, I stared at the decadent gray stone, glistening windows, and climbing ivy that was Magnalia House.
“Now listen, Brienna,” Grandpapa said, rushing to tuck away his handkerchief. “You must be on your absolute best behavior. As if you were about to meet King Phillipe. You must smile and curtsy, and not say anything out of line. Can you do that for your grandpapa?”
I nodded, suddenly losing my voice.
“Very good. Let us pray that the Dowager will accept you.”
The coachman opened the door, and Grandpapa motioned for me to exit before him. I did, on trembling legs, feeling small as I craned my neck to soak in the grand estate.
“I will speak to the Dowager first, privately, and then you will meet her,” my grandfather said, pulling me along up the stairs to the front doors. “Remember, you must be polite. This is a place for cultured girls.”
He examined my appearance as he rang the doorbell. My navy dress was wrinkled from travel, my braids coming unwound, the hair frizzy about my face. But the door swung open before my grandfather could comment on my unkemptness. We entered Magnalia side by side, stepping into the blue shadows of the foyer.
While my grandfather was admitted into the Dowager’s study, I remained in the corridor. The butler offered me a place on a cushioned bench along the wall where I sat alone, waiting, my feet swinging nervously as I stared at the black-and-white checkered floors. It was a quiet house, as if it was missing its heart. And because it was so quiet, I could hear my grandfather and the Dowager speaking, their words melting through the study doors.
“Which passion does she gravitate toward?” the Dowager asked. Her voice was rich and smooth, like smoke drifting up on an autumn night.
“She likes to draw. . . . She does very well with drawing. She also has a vivid imagination—she would do excellent in theater. And music—my daughter was very accomplished with the lute, so surely Brienna inherited a bit of that. What else . . . oh yes, they say she enjoys reading at the orphanage. She has read all of their books two times over.” Grandpapa was rambling. Did he even know what he was saying? Not once had he seen me draw. Not once had he listened to my imagination.
I slipped from the bench and softly padded closer. With my ear pressed to the door, I drank in their words.
“That is all very good, Monsieur Paquet, but surely you understand that ‘to passion’ means your granddaughter must master one of the five passions, not all of them.”
In my mind, I thought of the five. Art. Music. Dramatics. Wit. Knowledge. Magnalia was a place for a girl to become an arden—an apprentice student. She could choose one of the five passions to diligently study beneath the careful instruction of a master or mistress. When she reached the height of her talent, the girl would gain the title of a mistress and receive her cloak—an individualized marker of her achievement and status. She would become a passion of art, a passion of wit, or whichever one she was devoted to.
My heart thundered in my chest, and sweat beaded along my palms as I imagined myself becoming a passion.
Which one should I choose, if the Dowager admitted me?
But I couldn’t mull over this, because my grandfather said, “I promise you, Brienna is a bright girl. She can master any of the five.”
“That is kind of you to think such, but I must tell you . . . my House is very competitive, very difficult. I already have my five ardens for this passion season. If I accept your granddaughter, one of my arials will have to instruct two ardens. This has never been done. . . .”
I was trying to figure out what “arial” meant—“instructor,” perhaps?—when I heard a scuff and jumped back from the twin doors, expecting them to fly open and catch me in my crime. But it must have only been my grandfather, shifting anxiously in his chair.
“I can assure you, Madame, that Brienna will not cause any trouble. She is a very obedient girl.”
“But you say she lives in an orphanage? And she does not bear your last name. Why is that?” the Dowager asked.
There was a pause. I had always wondered why my last name did not match my grandfather’s. I stepped close to the doors again, laid my ear to the wood. . . .
“It is to protect Brienna from her father, Madame.”
“Monsieur, I fear that I cannot accept her if she is in a dangerous situation—”
“Please hear me, Madame, just for a moment. Brienna holds dual citizenship. Her mother—my daughter—was Valenian. Her father is from Maevana. He knows she exists, and I was concerned . . . concerned that he might seek her out, find her by my last name.”
“And why would that be so horrible?”
“Because her father is—”
Down the hall, a door opened and closed, followed by the click of boots entering the corridor. I rushed back to the bench and all but fell on it, provoking its squat legs to scrape along the floor as nails on a chalkboard.
I didn’t dare look up, my cheeks flushed with guilt, as the owner of the boots walked closer, eventually coming to stand before me.
I thought it was the butler, until I conceded to glance up and see it was a young man, horribly handsome with hair the color of summer wheat fields. He was tall and trim, not a wrinkle on his breeches and tunic, but more than that . . . he wore a blue cloak. He was a passion, then, a master of knowledge, as blue was their signifying color, and he had just discovered that I was eavesdropping on the Dowager.
Slowly, he crouched down, to be level with my cautious gaze. He held a book in his hands, and I noticed that his eyes were as blue as his passion cloak, the color of cornflowers.
“And who might you be?” he asked.
“That is a pretty name. Are you to become an arden here at Magnalia?”
“I don’t know, Monsieur.”
“Do you want to become one?”
“Yes, very much, Monsieur.”
“You do not need to call me ‘monsieur,’” he gently corrected.
“Then what should I call you, Monsieur?”
He didn’t answer; he merely looked at me, his head tilted to the side, that blond hair spilling over his shoulder as captive sunlight. I wanted him to go away, and yet I wanted him to keep talking to me.
It was at that moment that the study doors opened. The master of knowledge stood and turned toward the sound. But my gaze strayed to the back of his cloak, where silver threads gathered—a constellation of stars among the blue fabric. I marveled over it; I longed to ask him what they meant.
“Ah, Master Cartier,” the Dowager said from where she stood on the threshold. “Do you mind escorting Brienna to the study?”
He extended his hand to me, palm up with invitation. Carefully, I let my fingers rest in his. I was warm, he was cold, and I walked at his side across the corridor, where the Dowager waited for me. Master Cartier squeezed my fingers just before he let go and continued his way down the hall; he was encouraging me to be brave, to stand tall and proud, to find my place in this House.
I entered the study, the doors closing with a soft click. My grandfather sat in one chair; there was a second one beside his, meant for me. Quietly, I surrendered to it as the Dowager walked around her desk, settling behind it with a sigh of her dress.
She was a rather severe-looking woman; her forehead was high, bespeaking years of pulling her hair back beneath tight wigs of glory. Now, her white locks of experience were almost completely concealed beneath her gabled headdress of black velvet, which was elegant upon her head. Her dress was a deep shade of red with a low waist and a square neckline trimmed with pearls. And I knew in that moment as I soaked in her aged beauty that she could usher me into a life that I would not have been able to achieve otherwise. To become impassioned.
“It is nice to meet you, Brienna,” she said to me with a smile.
“Madame,” I returned, wiping my sweaty palms on my dress.
“Your grandfather says many wonderful things about you.”
I nodded and awkwardly glanced at him. He was watching me, a fastidious gleam in his eyes, handkerchief gripped in his hand once more, like he needed something to hold on to.
“Which passion are you drawn to the most, Brienna?” she asked, attracting my attention back to her. “Or perhaps you have a natural inclination toward one of them?”
Saints above, I didn’t know. Frantically, I let my mind trace them again . . . art . . . music . . . dramatics . . . wit . . . knowledge. I honestly had no natural inclinations, no intrinsic talent for a passion. So I blurted the first one that came to mind. “Art, Madame.”
And then, to my dismay, she opened a drawer before her and procured a fresh square of parchment and a pencil. She set it down on the corner of her desk, directly before me.
“Draw something for me.” The Dowager beckoned.
I resisted looking at my grandfather, because I knew that our deceit would become a smoke signal. He knew I wasn’t an artist, I knew I wasn’t either, and yet I grasped that pencil as if I were.
I took a deep breath and thought of something that I loved: I thought of the tree that grew in the backyard of the orphanage, a wise, gangly old oak that we adored to climb. And so I said to myself . . . anyone can draw a tree.
I drew it while the Dowager conversed with my grandfather, both of them trying to grant me a measure of privacy. When I was finished, I set the pencil down and waited, staring at what my hand had born.
It was a pitiful rendition. Not at all like the image I held in my mind.
The Dowager stared intently at my drawing; I noticed a slight frown creased her forehead, but her eyes were well guarded.
“Are you certain you wish to study art, Brienna?” There was no judgment in her tone, but I tasted the subtle challenge in the marrow of her words.
I almost told her no, that I did not belong here. But when I thought about returning to the orphanage, when I thought about becoming a scullery maid or a cook, as all the other girls at the orphanage eventually did, I realized this was my one chance to evolve.
“Then I shall make an exception for you. I already have five girls your age attending Magnalia. You will become the sixth arden, and will study the passion of art beneath Mistress Solene. You will spend the next seven years here, living with your arden-sisters, learning and growing and preparing for your seventeenth summer solstice, when you will become impassioned and gain a patron.” She paused, and I felt drunk on all she had just poured over me. “Does this sound acceptable to you?”
I blinked, and then stammered, “Yes, yes indeed, Madame!”
“Very good. Monsieur Paquet, you should bring Brienna back on the autumn equinox, in addition to her tuition sum.”
My grandfather rushed to stand and bow to her, his relief like overpowering cologne in the room. “Thank you, Madame. We are thrilled! Brienna will not disappoint you.”
“No, I do not think that she will,” the Dowager said.
I stood and dropped a crooked curtsy, trailing Grandpapa to the doors. But just before I returned to the corridor, I glanced behind to look at her.
The Dowager watched me with a sad gaze. I was only a girl, but I knew such a look. Whatever my grandfather had said to her had convinced her to accept me. My admittance was not of my own merit; it was not based on my potential. Was it the name of my father that had swayed her? The name I did not know? Did his name truly even matter, though?
She believed that she had just accepted me out of charity, and I would never passion.
I chose that moment to prove her wrong.
Seven years later
Letters and Lessons
Late spring of 1566
Twice a week, Francis hid amid the juniper bush that flourished by the library window. Sometimes I liked to make him wait; he was long-legged and impatient, and imagining him crouched in a bush was cordial to my mind. But summer was a week away, and that provoked me to hurry. It was also time to tell him. The thought made my pulse tumble as I entered the quiet afternoon shadows of the library.
Tell him this will be the last time.
I lifted the window with a gentle push, catching the sweet fragrance of the gardens as Francis emerged from his gargoyle-inspired position.
“You like to make a man wait,” he grumbled, but he always greeted me this way. His face was sunburned, his sable hair escaping from its plait. The brown courier uniform was damp with sweat, and the sun glinted off the small accrual of achievement badges hanging from the fabric over his heart. He boasted he was the fastest courier in all of Valenia despite his rumored twenty-one years.
“This is the last time, Francis,” I warned, before I could change my mind.
“Last time?” he echoed, but he was already grinning at me. I knew such a smile. It was what he used to get what he wanted. “Why?”
“Why!” I exclaimed, swatting a curious bumblebee. “Do you really need to ask?”
“If anything, this is the time I need you the most, mademoiselle,” he responded, retrieving two small envelopes from the inner pocket of his shirt. “In eight days comes the summer solstice of fate.”
“Exactly, Francis,” I retorted, knowing he was only thinking of my arden-sister Sibylle. “Eight days and I still have much to master.” My gaze rested on those envelopes he held; one was addressed to Sibylle, but the other was addressed to me. I recognized the handwriting as Grandpapa’s; he had finally written. My heart fluttered to imagine what that letter might hold within its creases. . . .
“You are worried?”
My eyes snapped back up to Francis’s face. “Of course I’m worried.”
“You shouldn’t be. I think you will do splendidly.” For a change, he wasn’t teasing me. I heard the honesty in his voice, bright and sweet. I wanted to believe as he did, that in eight days, when my seventeenth summer marked my body, I would passion. I would be chosen.
“I don’t think Master Cartier—”
“Who cares what your master thinks?” Francis interrupted with a nonchalant shrug. “You should only care about what you think.”
I frowned as I pondered that, imagining how Master Cartier would respond to such a statement.
I had known Cartier for seven years. I had known Francis for seven months.
We had met last November; I had been sitting before the open window, waiting for Cartier to arrive for my afternoon lesson, when Francis passed by on the gravel path. I knew who he was, as did all of my arden-sisters; we often saw him delivering and receiving the mail to and from Magnalia House. But it was that first personal encounter when he asked if I would give a secret letter to Sibylle. Which I had, and so I had become entangled in their letter exchanges.
“I care about what Master Cartier thinks, because he is the one to claim me impassioned,” I argued.
“Saints, Brienna,” Francis replied as a butterfly flirted with his broad shoulder. “You should be the one to claim yourself impassioned, don’t you think?”
That gave me a reason to pause. And Francis took advantage of it.
“By the way, I know the patrons the Dowager has invited to the solstice.”
But of course I knew how. He had delivered all the letters, seen the names and addresses. I narrowed my eyes at him just as his dimples crested his cheeks. Again, that smile. I could see perfectly well why Sibylle fancied him, but he was far too playful for me.
“Oh, just give me your blasted letters,” I cried, reaching out to pluck them from his fingers.
He evaded me, expecting such a response.
“Don’t you care to know who the patrons are?” he prodded. “For one of them is to be yours in eight days . . .”
I stared at him, but I saw beyond his boyish face and tall gangly frame. The garden was dry, yearning for rain, trembling in a slight breeze. “Just give me the letters.”
“But if this is to be my last one to Sibylle, I need to rewrite some things.”
“By Saint LeGrand, Francis, I do not have time for your games.”
“Just grant me one more letter,” he pleaded. “I don’t know where Sibylle will be in a week’s time.”
I should have felt sympathy for him—oh, the heartache of loving a passion when you are not one. But I should have remained firm in my decision too. Let him mail her a letter, as he should have been doing all this time. Eventually I sighed and agreed, mostly because I wanted my grandfather’s letter.
Francis finally relinquished the envelopes to me. The one from Grandpapa went straight to my pocket, but Francis’s remained in my fingers.
“Why did you write in Dairine?” I asked, noting his sprawling script of address. He had written in the language of Maevana, the queen’s realm of the north. To Sibylle, my sun and my moon, my life and my light. I almost burst into laughter, but caught it just in time.
“Don’t read it!” he exclaimed, a blush mottling his already sunburned cheeks.
“It’s on the face of the envelope, you fool. Of course I’m going to read it.”
“Brienna . . .”
He reached toward me and I relished the chance to finally taunt him when I heard the library door open. I knew it was Cartier without having to look. For three years, I had spent nearly every day with him, and my soul had grown accustomed to how his presence quietly commanded a room.
Shoving Francis’s letter into my pocket with Grandpapa’s, I widened my eyes at him and began to close the window. He understood a moment too late; I caught his fingers on the sill. I clearly heard his yelp of pain, but I hoped the hasty shutting of the window concealed it from Cartier.
“Master Cartier,” I greeted, breathless, and turned on my heel.
He was not looking at me. I watched as he set his leather satchel in a chair and pulled several volumes from it, laying the lesson books on the table.
“No open window today?” he asked. Still, he had not met my gaze. It might have been in my best interest, for I felt the way my face warmed, and it was not from the sunlight.
“The bumblebees are pesky today,” I said, discreetly glancing over my shoulder to watch Francis hurry down the gravel path to the stables. I knew Magnalia’s rules; I knew that we were not to create romantic entanglements while we were ardens. Or, more realistically, be caught doing such. I was foolish to transport Sibylle’s and Francis’s letters.
I looked forward to find Cartier was watching me.
“How are your Valenian Houses coming?” He motioned for me to come to the table.
“Very well, Master,” I said, taking my usual seat.
“Let us begin by reciting the lineage of the House of Renaud, following the firstborn son,” Cartier requested, sitting in the chair across from mine.
“The House of Renaud?” Saint’s mercy, of course he would request the expansive royal lineage. The one I struggled to remember.
“It is the lineage of our king,” he reminded with that unflinching gaze of his. I had seen that look of his many times. And so had my arden-sisters, who all complained about Cartier behind closed doors. He was the most handsome of Magnalia’s arials, the instructor of knowledge, but he was also the strictest. My arden-sister Oriana claimed that a rock dwelled in his chest. And she had drawn a caricature of him, depicting him as a man emerging from stone.
“Brienna.” My name rolled off his tongue as his fingers snapped impatiently.
“Forgive me, Master.” I tried to summon the beginning of the royal line, but all I could think of was my grandfather’s letter, waiting in my pocket. What had taken him so long to write?
“You understand that knowledge is the most demanding of the passions,” Cartier spoke when my silence had extended far too long.
I met his gaze and wondered if he was trying to tactfully imply that I did not have the fortitude for this. Some mornings, I thought the same myself.
My first year at Magnalia, I had studied the passion of art. And since I had no artistic inclinations, the next year I squandered in music. But my singing was beyond redeeming and my fingers made instruments sound like caterwauling felines. My third year I had attempted dramatics until I discovered my stage fright could not be overcome. So my fourth year was given to wit, a very fretful year that I tried not to remember. Then, when I was fourteen, I had come to stand before Cartier and asked him to accept me as his arden, to make me into a mistress of knowledge in the three years I had remaining at Magnalia.
Yet I knew—and I suspected the other arials who instructed me knew this as well—that I was here because of something my grandfather had said those seven years ago. I was not here because I deserved it; I was not here because I was brimming with talent and capacity as were the other five ardens, who I loved as my true sisters. But perhaps that made me want it even more, to prove that passion was not just inherently gifted as some people believed, but that passion could be earned by anyone, commoner or noble, even if they did not have intrinsic skill.
“Maybe I should go back to our first lesson,” Cartier said, breaking my reverie. “What is passion, Brienna?”
The passion catechism. It echoed in my thoughts, one of the first passages I had ever memorized, the one all the ardens knew by heart.
He was not patronizing me by asking this now, eight days from the summer solstice, but all the same, I felt a twinge of embarrassment until I bravely met his gaze and saw there was more to this question.
What do you want, Brienna? His eyes quietly asked as they held mine. Why do you want to passion?
And so I gave him the answer I had been taught to say, because I felt it would be safest.
“Passion is divided into five hearts,” I began. “Passion is art, music, dramatics, wit, and knowledge. Passion is wholehearted devotion; it is fervor and agony; it is temper and zeal. It knows no bounds and marks a man or woman no matter their class or status, no matter their heritage. The passion becomes the man or woman, as the man or woman becomes the passion. It is a consummation of skill and flesh, a marker of devotion, dedication, and deed.”
I couldn’t tell if Cartier was disappointed with my learned answer. His face was always so carefully guarded—not once had I ever seen him smile; not once had I ever heard him laugh. Sometimes, I imagined he was not much older than me, but then I always reminded myself that my soul was young and Cartier’s was not. He was far more experienced and educated, most likely the product of a childhood cured too soon. Whatever his age, he held a vast amount of knowledge in his mind.
“I was your last choice, Brienna,” he finally said, disregarding my catechism. “You came to me three years ago and asked me to prepare you for your seventeenth summer solstice. Yet instead of having seven years to make you into a mistress of knowledge, I only had three.”
I could hardly bear his reminders. It made me think of Ciri, his other arden of knowledge. Ciri soaked in knowledge with envious depth, but she had also had seven years of instruction. Of course I would feel inadequate when I compared myself to her.
“Forgive me for not being as Ciri,” I said before I could swallow the sarcasm.
“Ciri began her training when she was ten,” he reminded me calmly, preoccupied with a book on the table. He picked it up and passed through several pages that were dog-eared—something he fervently detested—and I watched him gently straighten the bends from the old paper.
“Do you regret my choice, Master?” What I really wanted to ask him was, Why didn’t you refuse me when I asked you to become my master three years ago? If three years was not enough time for me to passion, why didn’t you tell me no? But maybe my gaze expressed this, because he looked at me and then glanced languidly away, back to the books.
“I only have a few regrets, Brienna,” he answered.
“What happens if I am not chosen by a patron at the solstice?” I asked, although I knew what became of young men and women who failed to reach impassionment. They were often broken and inadequate, neither here nor there, belonging to no group, shunned by passion and common folk alike. To dedicate years, time, and mind to passion and not accomplish it . . . one became marked as inept. No longer an arden, never quite a passion, and suddenly forced to merge back into society to become useful.
And as I waited for his answer, I thought of the simple metaphor Mistress Solene had taught me that first year in art (when she realized I was in no way artistic). Passion moved in phases. One began as an arden, which was like a caterpillar. This was the time to devour and master as much of the passion as one could manage. It could happen as short as two years if one was a prodigy, and as long as ten if one was a slower learner. Magnalia House was a seven year program and fairly rigorous compared to other Valenian passion Houses, which often went to eight or nine years of study. And then came impassionment—marked by a cloak and a title—and the phase of the patron, which was like the cocoon, a place to hold and mature the passion, to support her as she readied for the final phase. Which was the butterfly, when the passion could emerge out in the world on her own.
So I was thinking of butterflies when Cartier replied, “I suppose you will be the first of your kind, little arden.”
I did not like his response, and my body sank deeper into the brocade of the chair, which smelled of old books and loneliness.
“If you believe you will fail, then you most likely will,” he continued, his blue eyes sparking against my brown ones. Dust motes crossed the chasm between us, little swirling eddies in the air. “Do you agree?”
“Of course, Master.”
“Your eyes never lie to me, Brienna. You should learn better composure when you fib.”
“I shall take your advice to heart.”
He tilted his head to the side, but his eyes still rested on mine. “Do you want to tell me what is truly on your mind?”
“The solstice is on my mind,” I answered, a bit too quickly. It was a half-truth, but I could not imagine telling Cartier about my grandfather’s letter, because then he might ask me to read it aloud.
“Well, this lesson has been futile,” he said and rose to his feet.
I was disappointed that he was cutting it short—I needed every lesson he was willing to give me—yet I was relieved—I couldn’t focus on anything with Grandpapa’s letter resting in my pocket as a coal.
“Why don’t you take the rest of the afternoon to study independently,” he suggested, waving his hands to the books on the table. “Take these, if you want.”
“Yes, thank you, Master Cartier.” I stood as well, to grant him a curtsy. Without looking at him, I gathered the books and strode from the library, anxious.
I made my way out into the gardens, walking into the hedges so Cartier would not be able to see me from the library windows. The sky above was rippled and gray, warning of a storm, so I sat on the first bench I came across and set his books carefully to the side.
I retrieved my grandfather’s letter and held it before me, his crooked penmanship making my name look like a grimace over the parchment. And then I broke his red wax seal, my hands trembling as I unfolded the letter.
June 7, 1566
My Dearest Brienna,
Forgive me for taking so long to respond. I fear the pain in my hands has worsened, and the physician has instructed me to keep my writings brief, or else procure a scribe. I must say that I am very proud of you, that your mother—my sweet Rosalie—would be proud as well to know you are mere days away from becoming impassioned. Please write to me after the solstice and tell me the patron you choose.
To answer your question . . . I fear you will be familiar with my response. Your father’s name is not worthy to note. Your mother was swayed by his handsome face and saccharine words, and I fear it would only harm you to learn his name. Yes, you have dual citizenship, which means you are part Maevan. But I do not want you to seek him out. Rest assured that you would find the same faults in him as I do. And no, my dear, he has not inquired after you. Not once has he sought for you. You must remember that you are illegitimate, and most men flee when they hear that word.
Remember that you are indeed loved, and that I stand in place of your father.
I crumpled the letter in my hand, my fingers as white as the paper, my eyes swarming with tears. It was folly to cry over such a letter, to once more be denied the name of the man who was my father. And it had taken me weeks to muster the courage to write that letter and ask again.
I decided that it would be the final time I asked. The name did not matter.
If my mother had lived, what would she say about him? Would she have married him? Or perhaps he was already married, and that was why my grandfather was so mortified by the mere thought of my father. A shameful extramarital affair between a Valenian woman and a Maevan man.
Ah, my mother. Sometimes, I thought I could remember the musical cadence of her voice, that I could remember how it felt to be held in her arms, the scent of her. Lavender and clover, sunshine and roses. She died from the sweating sickness when I was three, and Cartier had once told me that it was rare for one to remember memories that early. So perhaps it was all in my mind, what I wanted to remember of her?
Why did it hurt, then, to think of one I didn’t truly know?
Shoving the letter into my pocket, I leaned back and felt the scalloped leaves of the hedge stroke my hair, as if the plant were trying to comfort me. I should not be dwelling on fragments of my past, pieces that did not matter. I needed to think of what was to come in eight days, when the solstice arrived, when I should master my passion and finally receive my cloak.
I needed to be reading Cartier’s books, pressing the words into my memory.
But before I could so much as twitch my fingers toward the pages, I heard a soft tread on the grass, and Oriana appeared on the path.
“Brienna!” she greeted, her black hair captured in a tangled braid to her waist. Her brown skin and arden dress were speckled with paint from the endless hours she spent in the art studio. And while her dress told of enchanting creations of color, mine was boringly clean and wrinkled. All six of Magnalia’s ardens wore those drab gray dresses, and we unanimously loathed them, with their high collars and long plain sleeves and chaste fit. To shed them soon would feel passionate, indeed.
“What are you up to?” my arden-sister asked, closing the gap between us. “Has Master Cartier driven you to frustration yet?”
“No, I think it’s the other way around this time.” I stood and took the books in one hand and looped my other arm with Oriana’s. We walked beside each other, Oriana petite and slender compared to my height and long legs. I had to slow down to remain in stride with her. “How are your final paintings coming?”
She snorted and gave me a wry smile as she plucked a rose from a bush. “They are coming along, I suppose.”
“Have you picked which ones to display at the solstice?”
“Yes, actually.” She began to tell me which paintings she had chosen to display for the patrons, and I watched as she nervously twirled the rose.
“Don’t worry,” I said and eased her to a stop so we could look upon each other face-to-face. In the distance, thunder rumbled, the air swelling with the scent of rain. “Your paintings are exquisite. And I can already see it.”
“See what?” Oriana gently tucked the rose behind my ear.
“That the patrons will fight over you. You will bring the highest price.”
“Poppies, no! I do not have the charm of Abree, or the beauty of Sibylle, or the sweetness of Merei, or the brains of you and Ciri.”
“But your art creates a window into another world,” I said, smiling at her. “That is a true gift, to help others see the world in a different way.”
“Since when did you become a poet, my friend?”
I laughed, but a clap of thunder swallowed the sound. As soon as the storm’s complaint quieted, Oriana said, “So, I have a confession.” She pulled me back along the path as the first drops of rain began to fall, and I followed, mystified, because Oriana was the one arden who never broke the rules.
“And . . .” I prompted.
“I knew you were here in the gardens, and I came to ask you something. You remember how I drew portraits of the other girls? So I can have ways to remember each of you after we part ways next week?” Oriana glanced at me, her amber eyes gleaming in anticipation.
I tried not to groan. “Ori, I cannot sit still that long.”
“Abree managed it. And you know she is constantly in motion. And what do you even mean, you cannot sit still that long? You sit all day long with Ciri and Master Cartier, reading book after book!”
I pressed a smile to my lips. For an entire year, she had asked to draw me, and I had simply been too overcome with my studies to have the leisure time for something like a portrait. I had lessons with Cartier and Ciri in the mornings, but then come the afternoon, I typically had a private lesson with Cartier, because I was still struggling to master everything I should. And while I sat through grueling lessons and watched the sunlight melt across the floor, my arden-sisters had the afternoons to themselves; many days I had listened to their laughter and gaiety fill the house while I flogged my memory beneath Cartier’s scrutiny.
“I don’t know.” I hesitated, shifting the books in my arms. “I am supposed to be studying.”
We rounded the hedge’s corner only to plow into Abree.
“Did you convince her?” Abree asked Oriana, and I realized that this was an ambush. “And don’t look at us like that, Brienna.”
“Like what?” I countered. “You both know that if I want to receive my cloak and leave with a patron in eight days, I need to spend every minute—”
“Memorizing boring lineages, yes, we know,” Abree interrupted. Her thick auburn hair sat free upon her shoulders, a few stray leaves caught within the curls as if she had been crawling through the bushes and brambles. She was known to practice her lines outside with Master Xavier, and several times I had watched her through the library windows as she tossed and turned on the grass and crushed berries to her bodice as fake blood, projecting her lines to the clouds. I saw evidence of mud on her arden skirts now, the stain of berries, and knew she had been in the throes of rehearsal.
“Please, Brienna,” Oriana pleaded. “I have drawn everyone else’s but yours. . . .”
“And you will want her to draw it, especially after you see the props I found for you,” Abree said, wickedly smiling down at me. She was the tallest of us, taller than me by an entire handbreadth.
“Props!” I cried. “Now, listen, I do not—” But the thunder came again, drowning out my weak protests, and before I could stop her, Oriana stole the books from my hands.
“I’ll go ahead and get things set up,” Oriana said, taking three eager steps away from me, as if my mind could not be changed once she got out of earshot. “Abree, bring her to the studio.”
“Yes, Milady,” Abree returned with a playful bow.
I watched as Oriana dashed across the lawn, in through the back doors.
“Oh, come now, Brienna,” Abree said, the rain fully breaking through the clouds, dappling our dresses. “You need to enjoy these final days.”
“I cannot enjoy them if I worry that I will become inept.” I began to walk toward the house, yanking the ribbon from my braid to let my long hair unwind about me, running my fingers anxiously through it.
“You are not going to become inept!” But there was a pause, which was followed by, “Does Master Cartier think you will?”
I was halfway through the lawn, drenched and overwhelmed with the impending expectations when Abree caught up to me, grabbed my arm, and spun me about. “Please, Brienna. Do the portrait for me, for Oriana.”
I sighed, but a small smile was beginning to touch the corners of my lips. “Very well. But it cannot take all day.”
“You really will be excited to see the props I found!” Abree insisted breathlessly, dragging me across the remaining strip of lawn.
“How long do you think it will take?” I panted as we opened the doors and stepped into the shadows of the back hall, soaked and shivering.
“Not long,” Abree replied. “Oh! Remember how you were helping me plot the second half of my play? The one where Lady Pumpernickel gets thrown in the dungeon for stealing the diadem?”
“Mm-hmm.” Even though I was no longer studying dramatics, Abree continued to solicit my help when it came to plotting her plays. “You don’t know how to get her out of the dungeon, do you?”
She sheepishly blushed. “No. And before you say it . . . I don’t want to kill her off.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “That was years ago, Abree.”
She was referring to the time when I had been an arden of dramatics and we had both written a skit for Master Xavier. While Abree had authored a comical scene of two sisters fighting over the same beau, I had penned a bloody tragedy of a daughter stealing her father’s throne. I killed off all the characters save for one by the end, and Master Xavier had obviously been shocked by my dark plotting.
“If you do not wish to kill her,” I said as we began to walk down the hall, “then make her find a secret door behind a skeleton, or have a guard shift his allegiance and help her out, but only at a twisted, unexpected cost.”
“Ah, a secret door!” Abree cried, linking her arm with mine. “You plot like a fiend, Bri! I wish I schemed like you.” When she smiled down at me, I felt a drop of remorse, that I had been too frightened of the stage to become a mistress of dramatics.
Abree must have felt the same, for she tightened her hold on me and murmured, “You know, it’s not too late. You can write a two act play in eight days, and impress Master Xavier, and—”
“Abree.” I playfully hushed her.
“Is this how two of Magnalia’s ardens behave a week before their solstice of fate?” The voice startled us. Abree and I stopped in the hall, surprised to see Mistress Therese, the arial of wit, standing with her arms crossed in blunt disapproval. She looked down her thin, pointed nose at us with eyebrows raised, disgusted by our drenched appearance. “You act as if you are children, not women about to gain their cloaks.”
“Much apologies, Mistress Therese,” I murmured, giving her a deep curtsy of respect. Abree mimicked me, although her curtsy was quite careless.
“Tidy up right away, before Madame sees you.”
Abree and I tripped over each other in our haste to get away from her. We stumbled down the corridor into the foyer, to the mouth of the stairs.
“Now, that is a demon in the flesh,” Abree whispered, far too loudly, as she flew up the stairs.
“Abree!” I chided, slipping on my hem just as I heard Cartier behind me.
I caught my fall on the balustrade. My balance restored, I whirled on the stair to look down at him. He stood in the foyer, his stark white tunic belted at his waist, his gray breeches nearly the same shade as my dress. He was fastening his passion cloak about his neck, preparing to depart in the rain.
“I assume you will want another private lesson Monday after our morning lecture with Ciri?” He stared up at me, waiting for the answer he knew I would give.
I felt my hand slide on the railing. My hair was uncommonly loose, falling about me in wild, brown tangles, my dress was drenched, my hem dripped a quiet song over the marble. I knew I must look completely undone to him, that I looked nothing like a Valenian woman on the verge of passioning, that I looked nothing like the scholar he was trying to mold. And yet I raised my chin and replied, “Yes, thank you, Master Cartier.”
“Perhaps there will be no letter to distract you next time?” he asked, and my eyes widened as I continued to stare down at him, trying to read beyond the steady composure of his face.
He could punish me for exchanging Francis’s and Sibylle’s letters. He could impart discipline, because I had broken a rule. And so I waited, waited to see what he would require of me.
But then the left corner of his lips moved, too subtle to be a genuine smile—although I liked to imagine it might have been—as he bestowed a curt bow of farewell. I watched him pass through the doors and melt into the storm, wondering if he was being merciful or playful, desiring that he would stay, relieved that he had departed.
I continued my way up the stairs, leaving a trail of rain, and wondered . . . wondered how Cartier always seemed to make me want two conflicting things at once.
A Maevan Portrait
The Art Studio was a chamber I had avoided since my first failed year at Magnalia. But as I tentatively entered it that rainy afternoon, my wet hair wound in a bun, I was reminded of the good memories that room had hosted for me. I remembered the mornings I spent sitting beside Oriana as we sketched beneath the careful instruction of Mistress Solene. I remembered the first time I tried to paint, the first time I tried to illuminate a page, the first time I attempted an etching. And then came the darker moments that still sat in my mind as a bruise, such as when I realized my art lay flat on the page while Oriana’s breathed and came to life. Or the day Mistress Solene had pulled me aside and said gently, Perhaps you should try music, Brienna.
I glanced across the room to see Oriana readying a place for me, a new streak of red paint on her cheek. This room had always been overwhelming with clutter and mess, but I knew it was because Oriana and Mistress Solene made their own paints. The longest table in the room was completely covered with jars of lead and pigments, crucibles and earthenware bowls, pitchers of water, chalkstone, stacks of vellum and parchment, a carton of eggs, a large bowl of ground chalk. It smelled of turpentine, rosemary, and of the green weed they boiled to mysteriously render pink paint.
Carefully, I wended my way around the paint table, around chairs and cartons and easels. Oriana had set a stool beside the wall of windows, a place for me to sit in the stormy light while she drew.
“Should I be concerned about these . . . props Abree is so excited about?” I asked.
Oriana was just about to respond when Ciri entered the chamber.
“I found it. This is what you wanted, right, Oriana?” Ciri asked, leafing through the pages of a book she held. She almost tripped over an easel as she walked to our corner, passing the book to Oriana as she looked at me. “You look tired, Brienna. Is Master Cartier pushing you too hard?”
But now I did not have time to respond, for Oriana let out a cry of delight, which drew my eyes to the page she was admiring.
“This is perfect, Ciri!”
“Wait a moment,” I said, reaching for the book. I plucked it from Oriana’s hands. “This is one of Master Cartier’s Maevan history books.” My eyes rushed over the illustration, my breath hanging in my chest. It was a gorgeous illustration of a Maevan queen. I recognized her because Cartier had taught us the history of Maevana. This was Liadan Kavanagh, the first queen of Maevana. Which also meant she had possessed magic.
She stood tall and proud, a crown of woven silver and budding diamonds resting on her brow as a wreath of stars, her long brown hair flowing loose and wild about her, blue dye that Maevans called “woad” streaked across her face. Hanging from her neck was a stone the size of a fist—the legendary Stone of Eventide. She wore armor fashioned like dragon scales—they gleamed with gold and blood—and a long sword was sheathed at her side as she stood with one hand on her hip, the other holding a spear.
“It makes you long for those days, doesn’t it?” Ciri asked with a sigh, peering over my shoulder. “The days when the queens ruled the north.”
“Now is not the time for a history lesson,” Oriana said, gently easing the book away from me.
“You don’t intend to draw me as that?” I asked, my heart beginning to pound. “Ori . . . that would be presumptuous.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” Ciri retorted. She loved to argue. “You are part Maevan, Brienna. Who is to say you have not descended from queens?”
My mouth fell open to protest, but Abree walked in bearing an armload of props.
“Here they are,” she announced and dropped them at our feet.
I watched, stunned, as Ciri and Oriana sifted through pieces of cheap armor, a dull sword, a dark blue cloak the color of midnight. They were props from the theater, no doubt smuggled from Master Xavier’s stash in the dramatics wardrobe.
“All right, Brienna,” Oriana said, straightening with the breastplate in her hands. “Please let me draw you as a Maevan warrior.”
They all three waited, Oriana with the armor, Abree with the sword, Ciri with the cloak. They looked at me, expectant and hopeful. And I found that my heart had quieted, thrilled by the thought, my Maevan blood stirring.
“Very well. But this cannot take all day,” I insisted, and Abree victoriously whooped and Oriana smiled and Ciri rolled her eyes.
I stood still and patient as they dressed me. The portrait would only be from the waist up, so it did not matter that I still wore my arden dress. The breastplate enclosed about my chest, vambraces about my forearms. A blue cloak was draped about my shoulders, which made my stomach clench as I inevitably thought of my passion cloak, and Ciri must have read my mind.
She stood and liberated my hair from its bun, braided a small plait, and said, “I told Abree to choose a blue cloak. You should wear your color. Our color.” Ciri stepped back, pleased with how she had arranged my hair.
When an arden became impassioned, their master or mistress would present them with a cloak. The color of the cloak depended on the passion. Art received a red cloak, dramatics black, music purple, wit green, knowledge blue. But it wasn’t a mere marker of achievement and equality, that the arden was now on the same level as their master or mistress. It was a unique commemoration, a symbol of the relationship between the master and the arden.
But before my thoughts could become too entangled with cloaks, Sibylle rushed into the studio, drenched from the rain. A jubilant smile was on her face as she held up a crown of white flowers. “Here!” she cried, slinging water and attracting our attention. “This is the most starlike crown I could make before the rain came!”
Indeed, all five of my arden-sisters must have been in on this portrait ambush. But Merei, my roommate, was the only one missing, and I felt her absence like a shadow had fallen upon the chamber.
“Where is Merei?” I inquired as Sibylle brought her flower crown to me.
Sibylle, graceful, buxom, and coy, set the crown upon my brow. “You look like you could take off a man’s head,” she said, her rosebud lips opening with a wide, satisfied smile.
“Can’t you hear her?” Abree responded to my inquiry, and held up a finger. We all fell silent, and over the tickling of rain on the windowpanes, we could hear the faint, determined song of a violin. “Merei said she is furiously working on some new composition, but she’ll come as soon as she can.”
“Now, Brienna, take up the sword and sit on the stool,” Oriana requested as she held a shell of blue paint.
I watched her, warily, as I eased myself to the stool, the sword awkwardly blooming from my grip. With my hand coaxed to my right thigh, the sword crossed my chest, its dull point near my left ear. The armor was pliant but still felt odd on my body, like a set of unfamiliar arms had come about my chest, embracing me.
“Ciri, will you hold the illustration up next to Brienna’s face? I want to make sure I do this perfectly.” Oriana waved Ciri closer.
“Do what perfectly?” I stammered.
“The woad. Hold still, Bri.”
I had no choice; I held myself still as Oriana’s eyes flitted from the illustration to my face, back to the illustration. I watched as she dipped her fingertips into her blue paint, and then closed my eyes as she dragged her fingers diagonally across my face, from my brow to my chin, and felt as if she was opening up some secret part of me. A place that was supposed to lie hidden and quiet was waking.
“You can open your eyes.”
My eyes fluttered open, my gaze anxiously meeting my sisters’ as they looked me over with pride and approval.
“I think we are ready.” Oriana reached for a rag to wipe the paint from her fingers.
“But what about that stone?” Sibylle asked as she braided her honey-brown hair away from her eyes.
“What stone?” Abree frowned, upset that she’d missed a prop.
“That stone about the queen’s neck.”
“The evening stone, I think,” Ciri said, examining the illustration.
“No, that would be the Stone of Eventide,” I corrected.
Ciri’s milk white face blushed—she hated to be corrected—but she cleared her throat. “Ah yes. Of course you would know Maevan history better, Brienna. You have a reason to listen when Master Cartier drones on and on about it.”
Oriana dragged a second stool before mine, her parchment and pencil ready. “Try to hold still, Brienna.”
I nodded, feeling the blue paint begin to dry on my face.
“I wish I held dual citizenship,” Abree murmured, stretching her arms. “Are you ever going to cross the channel and see Maevana? Because you absolutely should, Brienna. And take me with you.”
“Perhaps one day,” I said as Oriana began to sketch upon her paper. “And I would love for you to come with me, Abree.”
“My father says Maevana is very, very different from Valenia,” Ciri remarked, and I could hear the pinch in her voice, like she was still upset that I had corrected her. She set Cartier’s book down and leaned against a table, her gaze wandering back to mine. Her blond hair looked like moonlight spilling over her shoulder. “My father used to visit once a year, in the fall, when some of the Maevan lords opened their castles for us Valenians to come stay for the hunt of the white hart. My father enjoyed it whenever he went, said there was always good ale and food, epic stories and entertainment, but of course would never let me go with him. He claimed that the land was too wild, too dangerous for a Valenian girl like me.”
Sibylle snorted, unbuttoning the high collar of her dress to rub her neck. “Don’t all fathers say such, if only to leave their daughters ‘safe’ at home?”
“Well, you know what they say about Maevan men,” I said, helplessly quoting Grandpapa.
“What?” Sibylle was quick to demand, her interest suddenly burning as stars in her hazel eyes. I forgot that Francis’s letter to her was still in my wet arden dress, which I had left discarded on the floor of my room. That poor letter was most likely drenched through and smeared.
“They are smooth-talking, skilled, dastardly lovers,” I said, using my best imitation of Grandpapa’s scratchy voice.
Sibylle burst into laughter—she was the most confident with the opposite sex—and Abree covered her mouth, like she didn’t know if she should be embarrassed or not. Ciri made no response, although I could tell she was trying not to smile.
“That’s enough talk,” Oriana playfully scolded, waving her pencil at me. “If one of the mistresses happened to walk by and hear that, you’d be given kitchen duty for the final week, Brienna.”
“They would have to be skilled, dastardly lovers to be worthy of women who look like that!” Sibylle continued, pointing to the illustration of the queen. “By the saints, whatever happened to Maevana? Why is there now a king on her throne?”
I exchanged a glance with Ciri. We had both had this lesson, two years ago. It was a long, tangled story.
“You would have to ask Master Cartier,” Ciri finally responded with a shrug. “He could tell you, as he knows the entire history of every land that ever was.”
“How cumbersome,” Abree lamented.
Ciri’s gaze sharpened. “You do recall, Abree, that Brienna and I are about to become passions of knowledge.” She was offended, yet again.
Abree took a step back. “Pardon, Ciri. Of course, I meant to say how enthralled I am by your capacity to hold so much knowledge.”
Ciri snorted, still not appeased, but thankfully left it at that as she looked back at me.
“Are you ever going to meet your father, Bri?” Sibylle asked.
“No, I do not think so,” I answered honestly. It was ironic to me that on the day I vowed to never inquire of him again I would be dressed as a Maevan queen.
“That is very sad,” Abree commented.
Of course it would be sad to her, to all my sisters. They all came from noble families, from fathers and mothers who were in some measure involved in their lives.
So I claimed, “It truly doesn’t matter to me.”
A lull settled in the room. I listened to the rain, to Merei’s distant music mellowing the corridor, to the scratch of Oriana’s pencil as she replicated me on parchment.
“Well,” Sibylle said brightly, to smooth away the wrinkles of discomfort. She was an arden of wit, and was skilled to handle any manner of conversation. “You should see the portrait Oriana drew of me, Brienna. It is the exact opposite of yours.” She retrieved it from Oriana’s portfolio, held it up so I could get a good glimpse of it.
Sibylle had been staged as the perfect Valenian noblewoman. I gazed, surprised at all the props Abree had scrounged for this one. Sibylle had worn a daring, low-cut red dress studded with pearls, a necklace of cheap jewels, and a voluptuous white wig. She even had a perfect star mole on her cheek, the marker of feminine nobility. She was beautifully polished, Valenia incarnate. She was etiquette, poise, grace.
And then here was mine, the portrait of a queen who wielded magic and wore blue woad, who lived in armor, whose constant companion was not a man but a sword and a stone.
It was the stark difference between Maevana and Valenia, two countries that I was broken between. I wanted to feel comfortable in the fancy dress and the star mole, but I also wanted to find my heritage in the armor and the woad. I wanted to wield passion, but I also wanted to know how to hold a sword.
“You should hang Brienna’s and Sibylle’s portraits side by side,” Abree suggested to Oriana. “They can teach future ardens a good history lesson.”
“Yes,” Ciri concurred. “A lesson as to who you should never offend.”
“If you offend a Valenian, you lose your reputation,” Sibylle chirped, picking dirt from beneath her nails. “But if you offend a Maevan . . . then you lose your head.”
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