Attention Scarlet Guard, our final mission is here. Broken Throne, the Red Queen short story collection, is just a few weeks out, and it’s truly our last chance to experience the world of Red Queen. You should know that the book is STUNNING, full of extra and exclusive content, as well as never before seen short stories following both our favorite characters, as well as some brand-new ones.
To put it lightly, we’re REALLY DANG EXCITED for this book to be out in the world.
We’re so excited in fact, that we wanted to share an exclusive excerpt with you all today. Take a quick look at who is narrating the chapter and proceed to devour it!
I had my pick of days, but in the end, the snow made the decision for me.
All the better. The choice was out of my hands. How long to stay, when to return to the Montfort capital—those questions disappeared when the weather turned. It was only six inches, barely a dusting for a place like the Paradise Valley, but more would follow. I’d been told the winters here were much harsher than those I was used to, worse even than the one we weathered at the Notch. Here the snowdrifts pile up ten feet deep; rivers freeze solid; blizzards last for days on end. Too perilous for transports or dropjets. Of course, we could stay for the season if we wanted. Davidson made it clear in his last communication that the cabin outpost was at our disposal as long as we needed, but I didn’t even broach the subject with the rest of my family. None of us, myself included, have any desire to spend the winter buried in snow with only the geysers and the bison for company.
Outside the cabin, Bree makes a show of digging out the front door while our father supervises, leaning on his shovel. They spent all morning clearing a path through the snow to the dropjet landing field, and their faces are red beneath their scarves and hats. Tramy helps Mom pack for the flight south, following her from room to room. She tosses clothes and he catches, folding them on the run. Gisa and I watch from the stone-walled kitchen, our things already packed away. We wear matching knobbly sweaters and curl around hot mugs for warmth. Gisa’s cup has cocoa thick as pudding and just as sweet. Though it smells divine, I stick to tea and honey. I’m getting over a cold, and I don’t want to return to Montfort with a scratchy throat.
Certainly I’ll have to make the rounds of speech and conversation once we arrive. While I’m happy to go back to Ascendant, the capital, it means returning in time for the growing chaos of a gala with the alliance. And I’d rather do it at full strength.
Especially if Cal is there, I think, taking another boiling sip. The heat makes me shiver down to my toes.
Gisa watches me shrewdly over her mug and stirs the cocoa with a spoon. Her lips curve into a smirk. “Counting down the seconds?” she asks, her voice low enough to not be overheard by the whirlwind in the next room.
“Yes,” I reply bluntly. “I’m already mourning the loss of some peace and quiet.”
She licks the spoon clean and somehow gets a fleck of cocoa over her eyebrow. “Oh please, you’re going insane up here. Don’t think I didn’t notice the little bit of lightning swirling around with the snowstorm yesterday.”
Insane. I wince. I’ve known very few people to whom that word could be properly applied, and one in particular still unsettles me to my core. The tea seems to freeze in my stomach.
When we first came here, I told myself it was so we could heal and mourn together. And so I could forget. Put aside all the things Maven did to me and I did to him. Instead, barely a day goes by without me agonizing over him and his fate. Whether he deserved it or not. If I made the right choice. If he could have been saved.
I still remember the small dagger in his hand, the pressure of him holding me down. It was you or him, I tell myself for the thousandth time this morning. No matter what, it always feels like a lie. You or him.
My sister reads my silence with a keen eye. She’s good at deciphering my emotions, as much as I try to keep them hidden. She knows when to push me on them. And when to let me be. Today must be the latter.
“Are you finished?” she says, gesturing to my mug.
I nod and drain the rest of the liquid. It scalds its way down my throat. “Thanks.”
She bustles to the deep sink and sets to scrubbing the last of our dishes. After a second, I follow, putting away the dried plates from breakfast. I wonder if anyone else will come up here in the next few months, or if we’re the last faces the cabin will see until spring. It must be lovely up here in winter, albeit difficult to get to. And difficult to leave.
“Has anyone seen my socks?” Bree howls from the sitting room, ignoring the chorus of protest from Mom and Tramy. He must be trailing snow all over the floor.
Gisa giggles into the soapy sink. “I burned them!” she yells back. “For the good of mankind!”
My laughter is silent these days, little more than a gasp of air and a tight smile that pulls at my scars. Still, my stomach tenses as I laugh quietly, almost doubling over with good ache. We were right to come here. To rebuild ourselves, to figure out who we are now, in spite of our missing pieces.
Shade might be buried a thousand miles away, but I feel him here with us. And for once, it doesn’t make me entirely sad.
There wasn’t much to pack. The furnishings, rations, everything down to the soap in the bathrooms, stays at the cabin. We only have our clothes and other personal items to worry about. Gisa easily has the most stuff. Her art supplies and sewing kit are probably the heaviest thing loaded into the dropjet waiting at the edge of the clearing. She worries over them like a nervous mother, keeping a close watch as the Montfort pilot tucks them in with the rest of our baggage. I’m surprised she didn’t insist they travel in her lap. Mom and the boys are already inside, strapping themselves in away from the cold.
Dad stands back a little from the craft with me. He scrutinizes the frosty ground beneath us. I think he half expects a geyser to explode beneath our feet and blow the jet sky-high. It isn’t an entirely ridiculous notion. Many of the clearings and basins throughout the Paradise Valley are pocked with geysers and hot springs, steaming even beneath the snow.
Our breath clouds in the air, a testament to the cold. I wonder if Ascendant will feel this frozen already. It’s only October.
“Are you ready?” Dad says, his voice a low rumble barely audible over the jet engines as they spool up. On top of the drop, massive propellers whirl around at a quickening pace.
I want to tell him yes. I’m ready to go back. Ready to be Mare Barrow again, where all the world can see. Ready to return to the fight. Our work is far from over, and I can’t spend the rest of my life surrounded by nothing but trees. It’s a waste of my talent, my strength, and my influence. There’s more that I can do, and more that I want from myself.
But that doesn’t make me ready. Not by a long shot.
The pilot waves for us before I can speak, sparing me the pain of lying to my father.
It doesn’t really matter. Dad knows the truth of it anyway. I feel it in the way he supports me as we walk, even though he’s the one with a regrown leg.
Each step feels heavier than the last, the safety belt like a chain across my lap. And then we’re flying, the ground disappearing beneath a bank of gray cloud as everything goes bright and empty.
I let my chin fall forward onto my chest, and I pretend to sleep. Even with my eyes shut, I can feel them all looking at me. Gauging my mental and physical state by the set of my shoulders or my jaw. I still have problems talking about the worries prancing around my head, so my family has to improvise. It’s made for some very idiotic questions from Bree, who is without any kind of emotional sense. But the others have found ways, Gisa and my father especially.
The roar of the dropjet makes speaking difficult, and I only catch snippets of their conversations. Most are innocuous. Will we be staying in the same apartments at the premier’s estate before moving to the new house? Is Gisa going to bring that shopgirl around to meet everyone? She doesn’t want to talk about her, and Tramy is good enough to provide a change in subject. Instead, he needles our sister about wanting a new jacket for the upcoming gala. She huffs but agrees to make him one. Something embroidered with the wildflowers that dotted the Paradise Valley—purple and yellow, green too.
The gala. I haven’t even begun to think about the specifics of the celebration. Needless to say, I’m not the only one returning to the capital this week. Part of me almost wonders if Davidson dispatched a storm up here to drive me back to the city. I wouldn’t be upset if he did. It gave me a good excuse to return right now, in time for a gathering of so many.
The snow made the choice, not me.
Not the party.
And certainly not the lure of a young man with bronze eyes and a broken throne.
Kilorn is waiting when we land at Ascendant, to the surprise of exactly no one. I don’t know if it’s possible, but he looks taller than when I saw him last, only two months ago. He said he would visit us up north, but he never got the chance between his duties in Montfort and building his own life here. Cameron might have something to do with it too. She’s acting as a go-between, with her father, bouncing between the Scarlet Guard, Montfort, and her home in the Nortan States, speaking up for the Red men and women of their tech town. They’ve been invaluable to the reconstruction effort in the States and smoothing over relations with the Republic. Kilorn waits alone, so Cameron must not be here yet, if she’s coming at all. As much as I’d like to see her and hear of everything going on back east, I’m happy to get Kilorn to myself for a little bit.
He grins widely when he sees us, a tall figure on the landing ground. The jet propellers cast a furious wind, whipping Kilorn’s tawny hair back and forth. I try not to rush to him and inflate his ego any more than it already is, but I can’t help it. I’m eager to see him. And eager to get out of the cramped metal box we’ve been stuck in for three hours.
He embraces my mother first, always a gentleman with her. She’s more of a mother to Kilorn than the woman who abandoned him years ago.
“You haven’t been missing meals,” Mom jokes, patting him on the stomach. Kilorn grins and flushes. Indeed he looks broader too, filled out by Montfort food and a less-than-lethal lifestyle. While I still kept to my running schedule up at the cabin, I don’t think he can say the same. He looks healthy, normal—settled.
“You shouldn’t call him fat, Mom,” Gisa says teasingly, poking him in the side with a grin. “Even if it’s true.” Whatever schoolgirl crush she had on him, born of proximity, jealousy, or good old-fashioned want, is completely gone.
Mom swats her away, scolding. “Gisa! The boy finally looks like he’s had a decent meal.”
Not to be outdone, Kilorn musses Gisa’s hair, sending red locks spilling from her perfect bun. “Hey, I thought you were the polite one in the family, Gee,” he shoots back.
Bree hoists his pack up onto his shoulder. Then he elbows Gisa for good measure. “Try living in an isolated cabin with her for months. You’ll lose all your illusions of the little madam.”
Our sister doesn’t bother shoving him back. Bree is nearly twice her size. Instead she folds her arms and turns up her nose as she stalks away. “You know,” she calls over her shoulder, “I was going to make you a party jacket as well. But I guess I shouldn’t bother!”
Bree is after her like a shot, already whining, while Tramy follows with a grin. He won’t dare jeopardize his own outfit, so he keeps quiet. Mom and Dad follow along with shrugs of their own, content to watch everyone else scurry ahead, leaving me behind with Kilorn.
Thankfully, no one points out that I’ve somehow become the proper one in the family, what with my court training, my time spent masquerading as a princess, and my new affinity for silence. Such a change from the Stilts thief always covered in mud, sweat, and a foul temper. And Kilorn knows it. He eyes me thoughtfully, glancing over my clothes, my hair, my face. I look healthier than I did when I left, just like him.
“Well?” I hold out my arms and spin on the flat tarmac. My sweater, jacket, pants, and boots are all shades of gray or green, muted colors. I don’t intend to attract more attention than I need to. “Are you done with your examination?”
“And what’s the verdict?”
He waves for me to walk next to him. “Still look like a pain in the ass,” he says as I match his pace.
I can’t help the burst of warmth in my chest. “Excellent.”
The Stilts was not a good place to grow up, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t good pieces. And I’m lucky enough to say those are still with me. Walking side by side with Kilorn, picking our way toward the city and the premier’s estate, I’m reminded of days long ago, the little things that made them bearable.
Our path takes us above most of Ascendant, the city already shadowed by the shortening days. Lights pinprick the mountainside below, some moving back and forth, marking the major roads. The lake at the base of the city reflects it all like another sky, deep blue with yellow and red stars. We move slowly, letting my parents and siblings go ahead. I catch them staring at the surroundings as I am. We forgot how beautiful it was here, in an impossible city in an impossible country.
As much as I want to stop and take it all in, I have to focus more on my breathing than anything else. The electricity pulsing through the city is more than I’ve felt in months, even when we were caught beneath a passing thunderstorm. It taps at my senses, begging to be let in. Instead of shutting out the sensation, I let it flow through me, down to my toes. This is something the electricons taught me, months ago in another country, in what feels like another life. It’s easier to flow than fight.
Kilorn watches me the entire time, green eyes dancing. I don’t feel scrutinized, though. He isn’t watching to make sure I keep control. He knows I don’t need him to do that, or anyone else. I’m my own.
“So what am I walking into?” I mutter, noting the lights in the city. Some are transports, weaving among the streets. Others are windows, lamps, lanterns, flickering on as the afternoon gives way to purple dusk. How many belong to government officials or soldiers or diplomats? Visitors?
The premier’s estate is above, the same as I remember. Is he there already?
“Things are buzzing up at the premier’s,” Kilorn replies, following my gaze. “And in the People’s Assembly. I don’t live up that way anymore, got a little place down the hill in the city, but it’s hard not to notice the constant traffic going up the mountain. Representatives, mostly, their staff, some military filtering in. The Scarlet Guard mouthpieces arrived yesterday.”
What about him?
Instead a different name falls off my tongue. It tastes like relief.
She’s the closest thing I have to an older sister. I immediately wonder if she’ll be up at the estate with us, or housed somewhere in the city. I hope the former, for my own sake as well as my mother’s. Mom has been dying to see baby Clara and will probably end up sleeping wherever her grandchild is.
“Yep. Farley’s already here, and already bossing everyone around. I’d take you to see her, but she’s in meetings right now.”
With the baby in her lap, no doubt, I think, remembering how Farley carted my niece into war councils. “And what’s going on over in the Lakelands? There’s still a war happening.” Here, there, everywhere. It’s impossible to ignore the threat still looming over all of us.
“On hold, more like.” Kilorn glances at me and notes my confusion. “Didn’t you read the reports Davidson sent you?”
I grit my teeth. I remember the packets, pages of typed information that arrived at the cabin every week. Dad spent more time with them than I did. Mostly I scanned for familiar names. “Some.”
He smirks at me, shaking his head. “You haven’t changed at all,” he says with some pride.
Yes I have, I want to reply. I cannot even begin to list all the ways I have changed, but I let it go. I’ve only just arrived. I can give Kilorn a little time before I inundate him with my problems.
He doesn’t allow me a chance to wallow.
“Basically, yes, we’re still at odds.” He holds out a hand, ticking off names on his fingers. “Lakelands and Piedmont against the Republic, the Guard, and the new Nortan States. But we’re in a standoff for the moment. The Lakelands are still regrouping after Archeon, Piedmont isn’t willing to strike alone, and the Nortan States aren’t in any position to pursue or go on the offensive for now. We’re all on the defensive, waiting for the other side to make a move.”
I picture a map of the continent as we walk, with pieces upon it set in motion. Lines of division clearly drawn, armies waiting to march. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Somehow, up at the cabin, I could pretend that the rest of the world was moving on too. Recovering from the violence as I was. If I ignored the reports, avoided news from the south and east—it might just all come together without me. A sliver of me thought the war would end beyond my reach. But the war was hiding too, catching its breath as I was. The bitch was waiting for me.
“Lovely,” I mutter, drawing out the word. The paved pathway is dotted with frost beneath the shadow of the pines, still clinging where the sun cannot reach. “So no progress made.”
Kilorn shakes his head, laughing. “I didn’t say that.”
“It’s fine.” I shrug my shoulders with exaggerated motion. “I don’t expect you to know anything of importance.”
He gasps and puts a hand to his chest, the picture of wounded pride. His jaw drops open to hide a grin. “Excuse me, I am incredibly important to the cause. Who do you think helps Carmadon catch fish for his dinners?”
Who organizes charity drives for refugees in the Nortan States? Who petitions the Montfort government to aid war orphans scattered across the battlefields we made? Who all but sleeps in Representative Radis’s office, working with officials both Silver and Red? Kilorn, of course, though he isn’t the type to brag about such things, admirable as they may be. Strange, the most worthy people are often the least likely to say so.
“And at these dinners, do you ever find yourself in . . . female company?”
A scarlet flush swipes up his neck and onto his cheeks, but he doesn’t dodge. Kilorn doesn’t have to do that with me. “Cam isn’t keen on parties,” he mutters.
I don’t blame you, Cameron.
“So you’re . . . ?”
“We’re spending time together when we can, that’s all. She’s got much bigger and more important priorities than me. But we write letters. She’s better at it than I am.” His tone is matter-of-fact, without a hint of jealousy or even annoyance over her time spent elsewhere. He knows Cameron has her hands more than full with the Nortan reconstruction. “And neither of us is a soldier. There’s no pressure to rush into anything we aren’t ready for.”
He doesn’t mean it as a rebuke. Still, it’s impossible not to draw parallels to my own life. Every romance I’ve ever been involved in had a sword hanging over it. Sometimes quite literally. Cal kissed me when I was his brother’s betrothed, before he was sent off to war. When I was a deadly secret hiding in plain sight. Maven loved me as he could beneath terrible circumstances, where death threatened me, and where Maven himself was the greatest threat of all. In truth, I don’t know what it’s like to be in love without a storm cloud overhead, ready to erupt. The closest I can think of is my time at the Piedmont base, days spent training with Cal. Training for war, of course, but at least we weren’t afraid of dying in our sleep.
I snort at the thought. My definition of normal is incredibly screwed up.
The path curves downward, breaking into steps that wind through the high meadows above the city. The premier’s estate is just ahead, awash in golden sunlight. The pines seem to bend over the palatial compound, taller even than the highest tower.
The windows are shut fast against the chilly autumn air, each one polished to a high sheen. We’re too far away to see inside, but I squint anyway, searching the dozens of glass panes for a familiar face.
“Are you going to ask about him or keep dancing around the subject until I break?” Kilorn finally huffs.
I don’t miss a step. “It seems you have broken.”
He huffs again.
“Cal’s supposed to be in tomorrow morning at the latest.” He gestures vaguely at the estate. Tomorrow morning. My heart thuds wildly in my chest. “With Julian and his granny in tow, as well as other members of the Nortan delegation. Reds, Silvers, newbloods. An even spread.”
Members of the former High Houses, lords and ladies who would rather skewer a Red than sit beside them. If not for Cal, if not for Montfort. I can’t imagine what the delegation looks like, or how rife with chaos and conflict it must be.
With Cal at the center of it all, no longer a king. Little more than a bystander, a soldier, another voice in a crowd of many. I can’t imagine him like that either.
“I guess you’ll want to talk to him.”
I feel slightly sick. Of course I do. Of course I’m dreading it. “Yes.”
The last time I saw Cal, we stood in the cold shadow of a jet, saying good-bye to each other. We were angry and exhausted and heartbroken, in mourning and in pain. Or at least I was. I needed to leave. I won’t ask you to wait for me, I told him. In the moment, it felt like the right thing to do. The fair thing. But the look on his face was so horrible when I said it. As if I’d killed his brother all over again. He kissed me, and I could feel how deeply the hurt ran in us both.
“Any idea what you’re going to say?” Kilorn glances at me sidelong and I still my face, trying to hide the torment beneath. My mind whirls, a hurricane of every thought I’ve had over the past months. Everything I’ve wanted to say to him.
I missed you. I’m glad I went away. It was a mistake to go. It was the right thing to do. I’m sorry I killed him. I’d do it again if I had to. I need you now. I want more time. I love you. I love you.
“Not sure,” I finally mutter, forcing the words out.
Kilorn makes a clucking sound, a scolding teacher. Annoyed. “Are you clamming up because you really don’t know or you just don’t want to tell me?”
“I can barely talk it through in my own head, let alone out loud,” I reply quickly, before I lose my nerve. “I don’t know what I’m going to say, because I still don’t know . . . what I want.”
“Oh.” He pauses, thoughtful. Always an odd look on Kilorn Warren. “Well, that’s a perfectly fine way to feel.”
Something so simple shouldn’t bring me such relief, but it does. I put my hand on his arm, just for a moment, and squeeze. He nudges me back.
“Thanks, I needed that,” I whisper.
“I know,” he whispers in return.
“The gala isn’t until the end of the week.” I count off the hours in my head. Tonight, all of tomorrow, the day after . . . “Do the Nortans really need that much time to get ready for a party?”
Or do they want more time here? Did someone want to be here early? And will he stay for very long after? Get a grip, Mare Barrow. Just one mention of Cal, a few hours separating me from him, and I’m already going crazy. And for what reason? It’s only been two months since I saw him last. That isn’t very long, at all.
Was it even enough? For us to heal, to forget, to mourn?
Or was it too much? Has he moved on? Did he wait? Have I?
Both possibilities fill me with icy dread.
“If you bothered to read your reports, you might have figured out that the gala is pretty much just cover,” Kilorn says, his voice bringing me back. “An excuse to get all the key players in the alliance in one spot without causing too much concern. There have been delegation meetings before, but we’ve never been able to get everyone together at the same time until now. The States, the Guard, the Republic. The whole gang.”
I narrow my eyes at Kilorn. “The Lakelands aren’t stupid. They’re watching our movements. They probably have spies in our ranks. Iris and Cenra will know we aren’t just drinking and dancing all week.”
“Like you said, I don’t know anything of importance,” he says brightly. I have to roll my eyes as he keeps talking. “Farley mentioned something about deniability. If we convene for war councils and make our intentions clear, the Lakelands and Piedmont have no choice but to move first. It’s escalation.”
The logic isn’t entirely sound, but when has that stopped any of us?
“So the gala buys time,” I mutter.
“And some drinking and dancing never hurt anyone.” Kilorn spins for effect, his boots sliding over the pavement.
In my experience, balls, parties, and gala events aren’t cause for celebration, but it isn’t in me to ruin his fun. I can tell Kilorn is excited, and I suppose my family might be too. Back home, the best we ever got were a few fiddles in the market square or a barn hall. They’ve never seen what the other half is capable of in their delights.
Sneering, I brush some nonexistent dirt from the shoulder of his jacket. It’s too small for him, though it used to fit a few months ago. “I hope you have a suit handy.”
He flicks my fingers away. “I figured Gisa could help.”
In the distance, I can hear Bree still needling our sister, probably begging for the exact same thing. I grin at the thought of her being in such high demand. She’ll certainly enjoy turning the boys away, or forcing them into increasingly more extravagant costumes.
I wonder what she has in store for me. Again, my heart thuds. I haven’t had much cause for beauty in the last few months. I suppose I should make an effort for such an important gathering, and look the part of the hero everyone thinks I am.
And if it makes Cal blush, all the better.
“Gisa will help, right?” Kilorn mutters apprehensively glancing in my sister’s direction.
“You should get in line.”
Excuse us while we scream!!! We honestly feel kind of bad for teasing you all with that excerpt knowing you can’t read more just yet. Not that bad, though, because you know what to do: