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Read the First 2 Chapters of ‘Crier’s War,’ Your Next Favorite Queer Fantasy

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Read the First 2 Chapters of ‘Crier’s War,’ Your Next Favorite Queer Fantasy

'Crier's War:' Read the First Few Chapters of Your Next Favorite Queer Fantasy

“For the queer readers. You deserve every adventure.”

This is debut author Nina Varela’s dedication to her readers in Crier’s War, and we could not be more excited to enter the kingdom of Rabu. This epic fantasy is about an impossible love between two girls—one human, one Made—whose romance could be the beginning of a revolution. Tbh, it gives us major Westworld vibes, so you know we’re already sold.

Before you dive in and fall in love like we have, here’s what you need to know: After a war tore their kingdom apart, the Automae, designed to be the playthings of royals, took over and bent the human race to their will. And now, so many years later, Ayla, a human servant, is determined to get revenge by killing the sovereign’s daughter, Crier. The only problem? Their mutual intrigue turns to love. It’s a slow-burn, nemeses-to-lovers revolution and, basically, it’s everything.

We are so into the epic world-building and wildly complex romance in Crier’s War, in fact, that we’re pumped to bring you a sneak peek below!

 

Crier’s War

FALL, Y E A R 47 A E

 

Chapter 1

When she was newbuilt and still fragile, and her fresh-woven skin was soft and shiny from creation, Crier’s father told her, “Always check their eyes. That’s how you can tell if a creature is human. It’s in the eyes.”

Crier thought her father, Sovereign Hesod, was speaking in metaphor, that he meant humans possessed a special sort of power. Love, a glowing lantern in their hearts; hunger, a liquid heat in their bellies; souls, dark wells in their eyes.

Of course, she’d learned later that it was not a metaphor.

When light hit an Automa’s eyes head-on, the irises flashed gold. A split second of reflection, refraction, like a cat’s eyes at night. A flicker of gold, and you knew those eyes did not belong to a human.

Human eyes swallowed light whole.

Crier's War

Crier counted four heartbeats: a doe and three kits.

The woods seemed to bend around her, trees converging overhead, while near her feet there was a rabbit’s den, a warm little burrow hidden underground from wolves and foxes . . . but not from her.

She stood impossibly still, listening to four tiny pulses radiating up through the dirt, beating so rapidly that they sounded like a hive of buzzing honeybees. Crier cocked her head, fascinated with the muffled hum of living organs. If she concentrated, she could hear the air moving through four sets of thumb-sized lungs. Like all Automae, she was Designed to pick up even the faintest, most faraway sounds.

This deep into the woods, dawn had barely touched the forest floor—the perfect time for a hunt. Not that Crier enjoyed hunting.

The Hunt was an old human ritual, so old that most humans did not use it anymore. But Hesod was a Traditionalist and historian at heart, and he fostered a unique appreciation for human traditions and mythology. When Crier was Made, he had anointed her forehead with wine and honey for good fortune. When she came of age at thirteen, he had gifted her a silver dress embroidered with the phases of the moon. When he decided that she would marry Kinok, a Scyre from the Western Mountains, he did not make arrangements for Crier to take part in the Automa tradition of traveling to a Maker’s workshop, designing and creating a symbolic gift for her future husband. He had planned for a Hunt.

So Crier was not actually alone in these woods. Somewhere out there, hidden by the cover of shadows and trees, her fiancé, Kinok, was hunting as well.

Kinok was considered a war hero of sorts. He’d been Made long after the War of Kinds, but there had been numerous rebellions, large and small, in the five decades since the War itself. One of the biggest, a series of coups called the Southern Up-risings, had been quelled almost single-handedly by Kinok and his ingenuity.

On top of that, he was the founder and head of the Anti-
Reliance Movement—a very new political group that sought to distance Automakind and humankind even further. Literally. Most of their agenda centered on building a new Automa capital to the Far North, in a territory that was uninhabitable to humans, instead of continuing to use the current capital, Yanna, which had once been a human city. It was, frankly, ridiculous. You didn’t have to be the sovereign’s daughter to know that building an entirely new city would require ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million kings’ coffers of gold, and why would such a vain effort ever be worth the time and cost? It was a fantasy.

Before Kinok had begun the Anti-Reliance Movement, about three years ago now, he’d been a Watcher of the Iron Heart. It was a sacred task, protecting the mine that made heartstone, and he was the first Watcher to ever leave his post. Which, of course, had caused much speculation among Automakind. That he’d been discharged, banished for some serious offense. But Kinok claimed it had been a simple difference of philosophy regarding the fate of their Kind, and no one had uncovered any reason more sinister than that.

The one time Crier had asked him about his past, he had been elusive. “Those were dark times,” he had said. “So few of us ever saw light.” She had no idea what that meant. Maybe she was overcomplicating it: he’d been living in a mine, after all.

Still, the secrets he held—about the Iron Heart, how it ran, its exact coordinates within the western mountains—made him inherently powerful, and different. Many of her father’s councilmembers—the sovereign’s “Red Hands,” as they were called—seemed drawn to Kinok. Like Hesod, Kinok had a certain gravity to him, a certain pull, though where he was serious, Hesod was jovial. Where Kinok was controlled and quiet, Hesod was loud, quick-tempered, often brash. And determined to marry off his daughter to Kinok, despite all the whispers, the speculations. Or perhaps because of them.

Months before Kinok’s arrival, Crier and her father had taken a walk along the sea cliffs. “Kinok’s followers are few and scattered, but he is gaining influence at a rate I hadn’t thought possible,” he’d explained.

She had listened carefully, trying to understand his point. She had heard of Kinok’s rallies, if “rallies” was even the right word—they were essentially just intellectual gatherings, where small groups of Automae could share their ideals, talk politics and advancement. “Scyre Kinok is a philosopher, Father, not a politician,” Crier had said. “He poses no threat to your rule.”

It had been late summer, the sky clear and delphinium blue. Crier used to treasure those long, slow walks with her father, hoarding moments like pieces of jewelry, pretty things to turn over and admire in the light. She looked forward to them every day. It was their time—away from the Red Council, away from her studies—when she could learn from him and him alone.

“Yes, but his philosophy is gaining traction among the Made, the protection and rule of which are my—and your—responsibility. We must convince him to join a family structure. To bridge the divide.”

Crier stopped short of the seaflowers that had just begun to bloom by the cliff’s edge. “But surely if he does not agree with the tenets of Traditionalism, he will not agree to the kind of union you propose.” She couldn’t bring herself to say marriage yet.

“One might think so, but I have reason to believe he will accept the opportunity. To him, it will provide power and status. To us, it will provide stability and access. We will be able to track what the Anti-Reliance Movement is attempting to accomplish, and better rein it in.”

“So you disagree with ARM,” Crier said.

Hesod hedged. “Their views on humankind are too extreme for my taste. It is one thing to subjugate those who are inferior and another thing entirely to behave as if they don’t exist. We must build policy around the reality of where we came from. We were not created in a void, history-less. It is ignorant to think we cannot learn from humanity’s existing structures.”

“You find ARM too extreme. . . . Would you consider its leader dangerous, then?” Crier asked.

“No,” Hesod said coolly. Then he had added: “Not yet.”

And so she had understood. Crier was the bandage to a wound—one that was minor, for now, but had the potential to fester over time. A hairline fracture in Hesod’s otherwise ironclad rule, his control over all of Zulla, everything from the eastern sea to the western mountains—except the separate territory of Varn. Varn was part of Zulla but still ruled by a separate Automa monarchy. Queen Junn, the Child Queen. The Mad Queen. The Bone Eater.

Hesod didn’t need any more splintering. He wanted union.

He wanted to keep the same thing Crier knew Kinok wanted:

Power.

Now: the branches above Crier’s head were half naked with approaching winter, but the trees were so densely packed that they blocked out almost all the weak gray sunlight, shrouding the forest floor in shadow. Overhead, the leaves were like copper etchings, a thousand waving hands in shades of red and orange and burnished gold; underfoot, they were the pale brown of dead things. Crier could smell wet earth and woodsmoke, the musk of animals, the sharp scent of pine and wood sap. It was so different from what she usually experienced, living on the icy shores of the Steorran Sea: the tang of sea air. The taste of salt on her tongue. The heavy smells of fish and rotting seaweed.

It took half a day’s ride to reach these woods, and so Crier had been here only once before, nearly five years ago. Her father enjoyed hunting deer like the humans did. She remembered eating a few bites of hot, spiced venison that night, filling her belly with food she did not require. More ritual than meal. The core of her father’s Traditionalism: adopting human habits and customs into daily life. He said it created meaning, structure. Under most circumstances, Crier understood the merits of Hesod’s beliefs. It was why she called him “father” even though she’d never had a mother and had never been birthed. She had been commissioned, Made.

Unlike humans, all Automae really needed was heartstone. Where human bodies depended on meat and grain, Automa bodies depended on heartstone: a special red mineral imbued with alchemical energy; raw stone mined from deep within the western mountains and then transmuted by alchemists into a powerful, magickal substance. It was how Thomas Wren, the greatest of the human alchemists, had created them almost one hundred years ago when he’d Designed Kiera—the first. Automae were modeled this way still.

Crier crept through the underbrush, keeping to the darkest shadows. Her feet were silent even as she walked across twigs and dry leaves, a red carpet of pine needles. Nothing would be able to hear her coming. Not deer, not elk. Not even other Automae. She paused every few moments, listening to her surroundings: the sounds of small animals skittering through the brush, the whispers of wind, the back-and-forth calls of the noonbirds and the old crows. She was careful to keep her heart rate down. If it spiked too suddenly, the distress chime in the back of her neck would go off at a pithc only Automae could hear, and all her guards would come running.

The ceremonial bow was heavy in her hand. It was carved from a single piece of dark mahogany, polished to a perfect sheen and inlaid with veins of gold, precious stones, animal bone. The three arrows sheathed at her back were equally beautiful. One tipped with iron, one with silver, and one with bone. Iron for strength and power. Silver for prosperity. Bone for two bodies bound as one.

Snap. Crier whipped around, already nocking an arrow and ready to shoot—but instead coming face-to-face with Kinok himself. He was frozen midstep, partly hidden behind a massive oak, half his face obscured and the other half in watery sunlight. Every time she saw him, which was now about ten times per day since he had taken up residence in her father’s guest chambers, Crier was reminded of how handsome he was. Like all Automae, he was tall and strong, broad-shouldered, Designed to be more beautiful than the most beautiful human man. His face was a study in shadow and light: high cheekbones, knife-blade jawline, a thin, sharp nose. His skin was swarthy, a shade lighter than her own, his dark hair cropped close to his skull. His brown eyes were sharp and scrutinizing. The eyes of a scientist, a political leader. Her fiancé.

Her fiancé, who was aiming his iron-tipped arrow straight at Crier’s forehead.

There was a moment—so brief that when she thought about it later she was not sure it had actually happened—in which Crier lowered her bow and Kinok did not. A single moment in which they stared at each other and Crier felt the faintest edge of nerves.

Then Kinok lowered his bow, smiling, and she scolded herself for being so silly.

“Lady Crier,” he said, still smiling. “I do not think we’re supposed to interact with each other until the Hunt is over . . . but you’re a better conversationalist than the birds. Have you caught anything yet?”

“No, not yet,” she said. “I am hoping for a deer.”

His teeth flashed. “I’m hoping for a fox.”

“Why is that?”

“They’re quicker than deer, smaller than wolves, and cleverer than crows. I like the challenge.”

“I see.” She shifted, catching the faraway scuffle of a rabbit in the underbrush. The shadows dappled Kinok’s face and shoulders like a horse’s coloring. He was still looking at her, the last remnants of that smile still playing at the corners of his flawless mouth. “I wish you luck with your fox, Scyre,” she said, preparing to track down the rabbit. “Aim well.”

“Actually, I wanted to congratulate you, my lady,” he said suddenly. “While we are out here, away from—from the palace. I heard you convinced Sovereign Hesod to let you attend a meeting of the Red Council next week.”

Crier bit her tongue, trying to hide her excitement. After years of near-begging, her father had agreed to let her attend a council meeting. After years of studying history, philosophy, political theory, reading and rereading a dozen libraries’ worth of books, writing essays and letters and sometimes feverish little manifestos, she would finally, finally be allowed to take a seat among the Red Hands. Maybe even to share her proposals for council reform. As daughter of the sovereign, the Red Council was her birthright; it was as much a part of her as her Pillars. She was Made for this.

“I think you’re right, you know,” Kinok continued. “I read the open letter you sent to Councilmember Reyka. About your proposed redistribution of representation on the Red Council. You are correct that while there is a voice for every district in Zulla outside of Varn, there is not a voice for every system of value.”

“You read that?” Crier said, eyes snapping up to his face. “Nobody read that. I doubt even Councilmember Reyka did.”

She couldn’t help the note of bitterness in her voice. It was foolish, but she had thought Councilmember Reyka, of all people, would listen to her. Her argument had been that in places with higher-density human populations, the interests of those humans should be somehow accounted for in the Hands who sat on her father’s council. Though she had to wonder if when Kinok mentioned her phrase, “systems of value,” he was more interested in his own values—those he was attempting to spread through the land, via ARM—than those of the human citizens.

Still, it flattered her that he’d read it. It meant her words had more power, greater reach, than she’d realized.

She hoped Reyka had read it too, but with no reply, she’d been left to believe the worst. That Reyka thought her naive and foolish. Sometimes, Crier wondered if maybe her father thought that, too. He’d refused her for so long.

But Reyka had always shown something of a soft spot for Crier. As the longest-serving member of the Red Council, Reyka had always been a fixture in Crier’s life. She’d visited the sovereign’s estate quite frequently. When Crier was younger, Reyka would bring her little gifts from her travels: vials of sweet-smelling hair oil, a music box the size of a thumbnail, the strange dark delicacy that was candied heartstone.

Crier had come to think of her the way human children in storybooks thought of their godmothers. She couldn’t say that to Reyka, or to anyone. It was such a weak, soft-bellied idea. So she just thought it to herself, and it made her feel warm.

“Well . . .” Kinok stepped forward a little, light sliding across his face. His footsteps were silent amid the blanket of dried leaves. “I read it twice. And I agree with it. The Red Hands shouldn’t be based on district alone; it leads to imbalance and bias. Have you mentioned this issue to your father?”

“Yes,” Crier said quietly. “He was not incredibly receptive.”

“We can work on that.” At her look of surprise, Kinok shrugged one shoulder. “We are bound to be married, are we not? I am on your side, Lady Crier, as you are on mine. Right?”

“Right,” she found herself saying, staring at him in wonder. What new opportunities might come to her in this marriage? For months now she had thought of it as nothing more than a prolonged political maneuver, unpleasant but ultimately bearable, like the stench of rotting fish in the sea air.

It had not occurred to her that she might be gaining an advocate, as well as a husband.

“And if we are on the same side, there is something you should know,” said Kinok, lowering his voice even though they were entirely alone, no living things around but the rabbits and the birds. “There was a scandal in the capital recently. I know only because I was with Councilmember Reyka when she learned of it.”

Crier almost questioned that—it was no secret that Council-member Reyka hated everything about the Anti-Reliance Movement, including Kinok himself. But another word caught her attention. “A scandal?” she asked. “What kind of scandal?”

“Midwife sabotage.”

Crier’s eyes widened. “What do you mean, sabotage?” she asked. Midwives were an integral part of the Making process. They were created to be assistants to the Makers themselves, a bridge between Maker and Designer. They helped newly Made Automae adjust to the world. “What did the Midwife do?”

“Faked a set of Design blueprints for a nobleman’s child. It was a disaster. The child was Made wrong. More animal than Automa or even human. Their mind was wild, violent. They had to be disposed of for the safety of the nobleman’s family.”

“That’s horrible,” Crier breathed. “Why would the Midwife do such a thing? Was it madness?” She knew the condition plagued some humans.

“Nobody knows,” said Kinok. “But, Lady, there is something you should know.”

There was something strange in his voice. Warning? Trepidation?

“This was not her first Make,” Kinok continued, meeting Crier’s eyes. “She had been working with the nobles of Rabu for decades.”

A pit seemed to open in Crier’s belly, but she was not sure why.

“Who was she, Scyre?” she asked slowly. “The Midwife. What was her name?”

“Torras. Her name was Torras.”

Crier gripped her bow so tightly that the wood creaked in protest. Because she knew Midwife Torras.

She knew it, because that was the Midwife who had helped Make her.

As soon as the Hunt was complete—two rabbits and a fox ensnared—and their party had returned to the palace, Crier retired to her chambers, poring again over the Midwife’s Handbook, a thin, leather-bound booklet she’d come across in a bookseller’s stall in the market last year and bought with so much enthusiasm that the stall owner seemed a little alarmed. She reassured herself that an infraction of the kind Kinok had mentioned was nearly impossible.

There was no way her own Design had been tampered with, of course. She was far too important.

And besides, if there were something off, something Flawed, something different about her, she’d know it already . . . wouldn’t she?

 

Chapter 2

Luna was killed in a white dress.

A week had passed since her death, and the dress that had been stripped off her body and dangled from the tallest post was still fluttering in the faint breeze. It was some kind of symbol, or warning. By now the dress was soaked through with rot and rainwater, but there were still some parts white enough to catch the sunlight. Catch the eye.

Ayla could not stop glancing over, and every time she did, she felt the gut-punch of what had happened to Luna all over again. And now, days later, the reminder rippled through the other humans like the dress itself rippled in the summer wind. No one even knew what Luna had done. Why the sovereign’s guards had killed her.

Ayla continued on her way through the marketplace. She usually worked in the orchards at Sovereign Hesod’s palace, sowing seeds and collecting bushels of ripe apples, but one of the other servants was practically delirious with fever and Ayla had been ordered to fill in. For the past week she’d joined the group of exhausted servants who left their beds halfway through the night, just so they could make it to the closest village, Kalla-den—a good four leagues of treacherous, rocky shoreline from the manor—and set up their wares by dawn. It would’ve been miserable no matter what, but being greeted in the marketplace by Luna’s empty dress made it all the worse. It was like a ghost. Like a pale fish in dark water, flickering at the edges of Ayla’s vision.

Ayla had worked in some capacity at the sovereign’s palace for the past four years. And it had been months since she’d finally made it out of the stables and into the orchard-tending rotation. Some days she was so close to the white stone walls of the palace that she could smell the burning hearth fires within, taste the smoke on her tongue. And yet . . . she still hadn’t managed to get inside.

Nothing mattered until she got inside. And she’d vowed to do so to exact her revenge—even if it killed her.

But now Ayla stared out at the marketplace, at the crowd of sleek, beautiful Automae—leeches—and tried to keep the hatred and disgust off her face. Nobody bought flowers from a girl who looked like she’d rather be selling poison.

“Flowers!” she called out, trying to keep her voice light. It was almost sunset, almost time to give up for the day, but there were still far too many unsold garlands in her basket. “We’ve got seaflowers, apple blossoms, the prettiest salt lavender up and down the coast!”

Not a single leech glanced in her direction. The Kalla-den Market was a kingdom’s worth of chaos stuffed into an area the size of a barn, and it was so noisy you could hear it from half a league away. The marketplace was vendors’ stalls shoved up against each other three deep, their carts and baskets overflowing with candied fruits, pastries, fresh-caught fish, oysters that smelled like death even under the weak autumn sun. It was leeches huddled around baskets of heartstone dust, dipping the tips of their fingers into the powdery red grains, bringing them to their lips to test the quality. It was whole chickens or goat legs rotating on spits, roasting slowly, smoke filling the air till Ayla’s eyes watered; it was wine and apple cider and piles of colorful spices; it was a crush of grimy, skeletal, desperate humans hawking their wares to an endless stream of Automae.

And of course, the rows and rows of Hesod’s prized sun apples, gleaming like so many red jewels—nearly as crimson and bright as heartstone itself.

But the majority of the Automae seemed to treat the market like one of those traveling menageries—Step right up, folks. Gawk for free. Look at the humans. Look at the flesh-and-bone animals. Point and stare, why don’t you. Watch ’em sweat and squeal like pigs.

The only good thing about the market was Benjy. She looked over at him as she called out Flowers! again. He was the closest thing to a friend that Ayla would allow herself. She’d known him since she was twelve years old and haunted, hollowed by grief. In the thick of it, still.

Unlike Ayla, Benjy was used to the madness of Kalla-den. He even seemed to thrive in it, his brown eyes bright and sparkling, the sun bringing out the freckles on his brown cheeks. The first day Ayla had joined him here in the market, he’d nearly taken some eyes out while pointing at all the exciting things he wanted Ayla to see—colorful glass baubles, mechanical insects with windup wings, twists of sugared bread shaped like animals. On the second day, Benjy showed Ayla the secret underbelly of the market: Made objects. These were forbidden items created by alchemists—Makers—and passed from hand to hand in the shadows, hidden by the dust and the crowd. Objects smaller than Ayla’s little finger but worth double her weight in gold. For humans, possessing a Made object was forbidden, as Made objects were the work of alchemy and considered dangerous, powerful. After all, Automae themselves were Made. Perhaps they didn’t like any reminder that they, too, were once treated like trinkets and playthings. Made objects were completely illegal, and therefore incredibly tempting.

Ayla had no use for temptation—except in one single case. The locket she wore around her neck. The only remnant she had of her family—a reminder of the violence they’d suffered, and the revenge she planned to take. She didn’t even know how it worked, if it even did work, but she knew it was Made, and that it was forbidden, and that it was the one thing she could call hers.

“Are you going to help me or not?” Ayla said now, prodding Benjy in the ribs. He yelped. “I’ve been yelling my head off for an hour; it’s your turn.”

He looked down at her, squinting in the dying sun. “Take it from someone who’s done this a hundred times. The day is over. All anyone’s willing to buy right now is heartstone.”

Ayla huffed. “You of all people know if we don’t sell every single one of these flowers, we won’t get dinner.”

“Trust me, I’m aware. My belly’s been growling since midmorning.”

“You got any food squirreled away back in the quarters?”

“No,” he said mournfully. “I had some dried plums stowed away in the old gardener’s lean-to, but last time I checked they were gone. Guess someone else found them.” He tugged at his messy dark curls, wiped the sweat off his forehead, fiddled with one of the garlands they had yet to sell. That was Benjy—always in motion. It would make Ayla anxious if she weren’t so used to it.

“The world is just full of thieves, ain’t it,” Ayla said with a hint of amusement.

Benjy picked a petal off one of the seaflowers. “Like you’re not a thief yourself.”

She grinned.

When Ayla first met Benjy, he had looked more like a deer than a boy. Long-legged and awkward and perpetually wide-eyed, sweet and young and angry, but a soft kind of angry. A harmless, deathless kind of angry. His family hadn’t been killed by the sovereign’s men. He’d never known them at all—his mother had left him on the doorstep of an old temple, still wet from birth. If it were Ayla, she knew she’d be consumed by the need to track them down, to find her birth mother, to ask her a thousand questions that all began with why. But Benjy wasn’t like that. He’d survived under the care of the temple priests for nine years, then ran away. Three months later, Rowan took him in.

Benjy’s anger was different now—he’d grown, learned more about this broken world, learned about the Revolution. Some bitterness had seeped into him; some passion. But he was still soft. Would always be. For years, that softness had annoyed the hell out of Ayla. Made her want to grab his shoulders and shake him till some fury came out.

After all, it was fury that had kept Ayla alive all these years; fury that had lit a flame inside her chest and made her keep going out of sheer anger.

When she had no hearth fire to keep her warm, she’d picture the look on Hesod’s face when his precious daughter lay in Ayla’s hands, broken beyond repair. On the days her belly seemed to crumple in on itself from lack of bread, she’d picture some older, stronger version of herself looking Hesod right in his soulless eyes and saying: This is for my family, you murderous leech.

Ayla scanned the crowd, feeling horribly small and soft, a mouse surrounded by cats. Automae looked human the way statues looked human—you might be tricked from far away, but once you got up close you could see all the differences. Most leeches were around six feet tall, some even taller, and their bodies, no matter the shape or size, were graceful and corded with lean muscle. Their faces were angular, their features sharp. They were Designed in Automa Midwiferies, each one sculpted to be beautiful, but it was a chilling kind of beautiful. Some sick practice in vanity: How big can we make her eyes? How cutting her cheekbones? How perfectly symmetrical her features?

There was also something odd about the look of a leech’s skin. It was flawless, sure—no pores, no peach fuzz, no freckles or sunburns or scars, just smooth, supple skin. But more than that, it was the way they looked carved from stone, indestructible. It was the way their skin stretched over their hand-designed muscles and bones. Like it could barely keep all the monster inside.

The leeches had let themselves forget that they’d been created by the same humans they now treated worse than dogs. In the forty-eight years since their rise to power, they’d conveniently let themselves forget their past. Forget that they were once merely the pets and playthings of human nobility.

Ayla did not let herself think about her own past, either—the fire, the fear, the way loss lived in the cavity of the chest, the way it chewed her up from the inside out. Thinking like that wasn’t how you survived.

She and Benjy packed up the stall before sundown, aiming to be long gone by the time darkness fell over Kalla-den. As they took a shortcut through a damp alley, baskets of unsold sea-flowers strapped to their backs, someone fell into step behind them. Ayla glanced back and, despite herself, she almost smiled when she saw Rowan.

Rowan was a seamstress who lived and worked in Kalla-den. At least, that’s what she was on the outside.

To people like Ayla, she was something else entirely. A mentor. A trainer. A protector. A mother to the lost and the beaten and the hungry. She gave them refuge. And taught them to fight back.

You wouldn’t know it from the looks of her. She had one of those faces where you couldn’t quite tell how old she was—the only signs of age were her silver hair and the slight crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes—and she was short, even shorter than Ayla. She looked rather like a plump little sparrow hopping around, ruffling her feathers. Sweet and harmless.

Like so much else, it was a carefully constructed lie. Rowan was no sparrow. She was a bird of prey.

Seven years ago, she’d saved Ayla’s life.

She was so cold that it didn’t feel like cold anymore. It didn’t even burn. She barely noticed the winter air, the snow soaking through her threadbare boots, the ice crystals that whipped across her face and left her skin red and raw. She was cold from the inside out, the coldness pulsing through her with every weak flutter of her heart. Dimly, she knew this was how it felt right before you died.

It was comforting.

She was so cold, and so tired of being alone. So tired of hurting. The last thing she’d eaten was a scrap of half-rotted meat three days ago. Maybe four. Time kept blurring, rolling over itself, going belly-up like a dead animal. Ayla wasn’t hungry anymore. Her stomach had stopped making noises. Quietly, it was eating what little muscle she had left.

There was a patch of darkness up ahead. Darkness, which meant something not covered in snow. Ayla stumbled forward, the ground tilting in strange ways beneath her feet. Her eyes kept falling shut against her will. She forced them open again, head pounding, vision reduced to a pinprick of light at the end of a long, long tunnel. The darkness—there. So close. Gray, a stone wall. The dark brown of cobblestones.

It was a tiny gap between two buildings. A sloping roof caught the snow, protecting the ground beneath. Ayla dragged herself into the dark snowless space and her knees gave out. She hit the wall sideways and fell hard, skull cracking against the cobblestones. And there she lay.

“Hey.”

Her eyes were closed.

“Hey! Wake up!”

No. She was finally warm.

“Wake up, you idiot!”

A sound like striking an oyster shell against rock; a sharp, stinging pressure on Ayla’s cheek. Heat, for a moment. Someone was talking, maybe, but they were very far away, and Ayla couldn’t make out the words. The exhaustion closed over her head like water, and she let go.

It was only later that she learned just how far Rowan had dragged her body to warmth and safety, before nursing her back to health.

Back then, Rowan’s hair had still been brown, streaked silver only at the temples. But her eyes were the same. Deep and steady. “You were ready to die,” she had said.

Ayla didn’t answer.

“I don’t know what happened to you, exactly,” said Rowan. “But I know you’re alone. I know you’ve been cast aside, left to die in the snow like an animal.” She reached out and took Ayla’s hands, held them between her own. It felt like being cradled: like being held all over. “You’re not alone anymore. I can give you something to fight for, child. I can give you a purpose.”

“A purpose?” Ayla had said. Her voice was weak, scraped out.

“Justice,” said Rowan. And she squeezed Ayla’s hands.

“The moon is full,” said Rowan now, looking straight ahead, in the hushed, coded tone Ayla had come to know so well.

The three of them moved easily through the crowd of humans, used to dodging people and carts and stray dogs. The chaos of the Kalla-den streets was a strange kind of blessing: a thousand human voices all shouting at once meant it was the perfect place for conversations you didn’t want anyone to overhear.

“Clear skies lately,” Ayla and Benjy said in unison. Nothing to report.

It was Rowan, of course, who had taught them the language of rebellion. A sprig of rosemary passed between hands on a crowded street, garlands woven from flowers with symbolic meanings, coded messages hidden inside loaves of bread, faerie stories or old folk songs used like passwords to determine who you could trust. Rowan had taught them everything. She’d saved Ayla first, Benjy a few months later. Took them in. Clothed them. Taught them how to beg, and then how to find work. Fed them. But also gave them a new hunger: justice.

Because they should never have needed to beg in the first place.

“What news?” Benjy asked.

“A comet is crossing to the southern skies,” Rowan said with a smile. “A week from now. It will be a beautiful night.”

Benjy took Ayla’s hand and squeezed. She didn’t return it. She knew what the code meant: an uprising in the South. Another one. It filled her gut with suspicion and dread.

They turned onto a wider street, the crowd thinning out a little. They spoke more softly now.

“Crossing south,” Ayla repeated. Her heart sank. “And how many stars will be out in the southern skies?”

Rowan didn’t pick up on her skepticism. “Oh, I’ve heard around two hundred.”

Two hundred,” Benjy repeated, eyes gleaming.

Two hundred human rebels gathering in the South.

“High time, loves.”

Rowan was gone as swiftly as she had appeared, leaving only a crumpled flyer in Benjy’s hands—a religious pamphlet, something about the gods and believers. Ayla knew it would be riddled with code—code that only those in the Resistance could decipher.

Part of Ayla worried that Rowan was still harboring hope for these uprisings, for what she called “justice,” because of her grief for Luna and Luna’s sister, Faye. After all, they’d been two of Rowan’s lost children, just like Ayla and Benjy. It was known within the village that any orphan kid could find food and comfort with Rowan. Ayla remembered when Faye and Luna had come to Rowan’s after their mother had died. Ayla had taken to Luna immediately, a girl with shy smiles and sweet questions. Faye had been pricklier, distrusting, far too much like Ayla for the two of them to get along. But still, they’d grown up around each other. And Ayla knew that Rowan’s soft heart grieved for the two sisters. Those two girls she’d tried to save.

Two girls who, in her mind, she had failed.

And in that grief, Rowan was willing to send more innocents off to find more of her “justice.”

Over the years, they’d received word of a few uprisings here in Rabu, but each one had been bloody—and quelled quickly. The Sovereign State of Rabu was controlled by Sovereign Hesod. His rule had come to extend to all of Zulla except for the queendom of Varn. Though he claimed he did not hold all the power, as the Red Council—a group of Automa aristocrats—was supposed to share governance of Rabu, Ayla hardly believed that to be true. Hesod was enormously wealthy and influential. He was also power-hungry. It had been his father who led the Automa troops in the War of Kinds. It was he who first declared humans should be separated from their families. And it was on his personal land, the vast grounds of his seaside palace, that Ayla, Benjy, and four hundred other human servants lived and worked.

The Red Council was cruel, merciless, and worst of all, creative. That was part of the reason the Revolution was so slow-going—people were just so damn terrified of the Council and its ever-tightening laws. Even Ayla had to admit their fears were well founded. Luna—and her disembodied dress—was proof of that.

Benjy looked at Ayla as they hiked up the steeply sloping path toward the palace, his eyes full of hope and excitement. The message was clear: he wanted to join. Even after the disastrous uprisings of last year.

She shook her head. No. He knew better. He knew she couldn’t leave now, tonight. Not when she was this close to the inside of the palace. And Crier.

Benjy’s smile vanished. “Ayla.”

No,” she said. “I’m not going.” Did she want what he wanted? Did she want the leeches dead? Of course, but not like this. Not when it only meant a trail of human blood, not when it was doomed to futility. She was not ready to lose anyone else. The last time there had been an uprising in the South, it was quashed almost immediately—and that uprising had been massive, with nearly two thousand humans marching through the streets of the city Bram, armed with torches and saltpeter, aiming to take the heart of the city where the most powerful Automae lived. They had been defeated in a single night. The Automa who had led the counterattack—who had destroyed them—became a decorated war hero. A household name, a household monster. Kinok.

Benjy fell silent, but Ayla could finally feel his anger—could tell that it was now directed at her. His strides grew long, determined, as they reached the narrow path that curved up toward the palace. She could see the peaked roofs of the palace towers now in the distance.

She hurried to catch up with him, panting in the heat. By now they were farther from the crowd. She grabbed his shoulder, and he stopped walking so suddenly she nearly crashed into him.

“I know what you’re going to say,” he said through gritted teeth.

Ayla struggled to catch her breath. “You could always . . . watch the comet without me.” The words grated in her throat like she’d swallowed a mouthful of salt.

His dark-brown eyes locked onto hers. The breeze danced in his messy hair. He’d grown taller than her, and broader too. She held his gaze.

For a full minute, he said nothing. They just stood there, breathing hard, looking at each other. Thinking the same thing: it was too soon.

Ayla wanted to say: Don’t leave me.

Ayla should have said: Leave me. Because maybe it would be better that way.

Benjy’s anger seemed to transmute into sadness, his lips parting. Finally, he said, “I won’t do that. I won’t go without you, and you know it.”

She did. And that scared her more than anything. He wouldn’t leave her. It made her heart rage. Leave, she wanted to scream. Don’t stay for me.

But then another part of her, buried so deep it had almost, almost, gone silent, knew she couldn’t do this—do any of it—without him.

His lips were still slightly parted, as though there was more he wanted to say. She knew how badly he needed this. Revolution. Blood. Change. She waited for him to keep going, to try again to convince her. But he also knew how much she wanted what she wanted: Lady Crier’s blood on her hands.

So in the end, Benjy just sighed. More and more servants began to pass them on their way up the narrow path, and Ayla put a few paces between herself and Benjy, kept her eyes on the rutted path as they marched the rest of the way back to their quarters in silence, the past piling into her thoughts like shovelfuls of dirt.

After what Ayla had come to think of as that day, the day that changed everything, the splitting point in her mind, the thing that cracked her life into a before and after, the waking nightmare, the bloodstain, the splintered bone that would not heal, that day, Ayla had allowed herself one week to mourn.

Even at nine years old, she’d known that it was all too easy to drown in grief—get pulled under and never come back up. One week, she told herself. One week.

One week to mourn the deaths of her entire family.

Mama. Papa. Her twin brother, Storme, who had loved Ayla more than anything else in the whole world. Who had been wrenched away from her, trying to protect her from Them. Storme, who, from the sounds of his screaming cut short, had met his end then and there, just beyond the walls of what had been their home.

You couldn’t depend on much in this world, but you could depend on this: love brought nothing but death. Where love existed, death would follow, a wolf trailing after a wounded deer. Scenting blood in the air. Ayla had learned that the hard way.

Now she was sixteen, and everything she wanted was just inches from her fingertips.

When Rowan had first rescued her, Ayla only had her pain and her anger.

But one day, about a month after being with Rowan, a group of nomadic humans had come into town. Rowan had given Ayla a choice. Leave with these traveling humans, leave all of her pain and her memories behind and start anew. Or stay under Rowan’s wing. Rowan would care for her until she could find work. And Ayla would learn to fight, learn to live, and plan for justice.

Ayla had chosen the latter. And Rowan, keeping her promise, had found Ayla work as a servant of the palace.

Hesod. The leech who’d ordered the raid of Ayla’s village.

It was Hesod’s men who had broken into Ayla’s childhood home, who had murdered her family just because they could.

Hesod prided himself on spreading Traditionalism throughout Rabu—the Automa belief in modeling their society after human behavior, as though humans were a long-lost civilization from which they could cherry-pick the best attributes to mimic. Family was important to Sovereign Hesod, or so he and his council preached. The irony was not lost on Ayla.

And now she worked for him. It disgusted her, every second of it, but it was the only way she could get close to Hesod. She’d come so far. She was not going to throw it all away for some doomed dream of revolution.

Rowan had always told her that justice was the answer. And for a long time, Ayla had believed her. She’d believed that revolution was possible, that if humans just kept rising up, refusing to submit, they could really change things. But Ayla knew better now. Over the years, she’d seen how hopeless Rowan’s dreams were. Every uprising had failed; every brilliant plan had been crushed; every new maneuver just resulted in more human death.

Justice was a god, and Ayla didn’t believe in such childish things.

She believed in blood.

 


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