Ready yourselves, book nerds, because today we have not only your first look at Five Dark Fates, the finale to the Three Dark Crowns series, but also an extended look at it! A LOT has gone down over the past three books: there’s been death, betrayal, more death, romance, magic, even MORE death, deadly magic, sisterhood, fierce animal friends, and too many twists and turns to count. If you want a refresher before diving into your first look at Five Dark Fates, check out our Three Dark Crowns recap, our One Dark Throne recap, and our Two Dark Reigns recap.
Now, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. You can start the end of a very good thing right now. Check out the first five chapters of this epic finale!
Arsinoe, fugitive queen of Fennbirn Island, sits stone-faced before the desk, surrounded by crumpled balls of parchment. She has not slept but a few hours, and the light spilling in through the cut-stone window hurts her eyes; it shows the dark hollows beneath them and the gray hue of her face. Not that anyone is there to see. Her only company is a tan mountain cat with a black-tipped tail, chained to a wall. And the occasional thump from behind the closed door of the inner chamber as the tonic she gave to Jules to keep her in a stupor starts to wear off.
Arsinoe turns her head and stares through the wood. Jules Milone, the Legion Queen of Sunpool, lies behind that door. Her hands and feet are bound. The broken blood vessels in her eyes from the force of the legion curse being unleashed have begun to heal. But Arsinoe will never forget what her friend looked like when Emilia brought her home from battle. Jules with bared teeth and bloodred eyes will always be there, lurking behind Arsinoe’s eyelids when she goes to sleep.
“But she will get better,” she whispers, a promise to the mountain cat. Camden’s only response to the promise is a deep, low growl. “She will,” Arsinoe says again, and rubs her face with both hands to try to summon the last of her energy. “Not fast enough to suit you, I know. But she will.”
In the meantime, there is the business of the letter. The reason she dragged the small writing desk up into the seclusion of the tower to begin with. She touches her pen to the paper and watches the ink gather. How can she tell them that their daughter was taken hostage and then murdered by Katharine the Undead? How would she tell anyone that, let alone Cait and Ellis Milone, who are like her own grandparents?
Footsteps sound in the stairwell and Arsinoe groans. She nearly picks up her ink pot to throw before she sees that it is Billy, smart enough to lead with a tray of food and poke his head in second.
“I’ve some oat cakes and honey. A few boiled eggs. And tea.”
“So strong it may as well be whiskey.” He comes in and wedges the tray onto the side of the desk, spilling the small pile of crumpled parchment. Then he runs his hand through her hair and kisses the soft skin of her temple. “You look terrible. Maybe I should have brought actual whiskey.”
“How do I write this letter?” she asks. “How do I tell Cait and Ellis that Madrigal is dead? How do I tell them that Jules is out of her mind?”
“Leave out the details about Jules’s condition.” He pours the tea and drips honey over the oat cakes. “That’s better done in person. But you have to write to them, and soon. They’ll want to be here for their daughter’s burning.”
When the sun rose, she had wandered to the window to look out over the beach. The flat, gray stones and rocky shore of Sunpool do not resemble the sand of Sealhead Cove, but they will have to do. “Is Emilia still grumbling about the location?” The warrior had suggested they hold the funeral in the square. Arsinoe insisted that Madrigal be burned by the water. A naturalist should be burned in the wild.
“No. She’s stubborn, but she trusts that you would know best about this. About what Jules would want, if she could tell us.”
Arsinoe snorts. “Stubborn she is. Yet what bothers her most is that it was my suggestion. An order, from a queen.”
“Only, that’s not what it was,” Billy says, a little too carefully. He, as much as Emilia, does not want to see Arsinoe step back into that role.
“No. That’s not what it was.” She places her hand on his, then sighs and reaches for her teacup. “But until Jules is well again, who else is there but me and Mira? Speaking of Mira, I should go to her. We’ll need her gift on the beach, to calm the winds and embolden the flames.” She stands up too quickly and jostles the tray, spilling tea across unused parchment. “Damn it all!”
“Cursing like a mainlander, I see,” Billy says as he helps her mop it up.
She smiles. “You do have much better curses. We never should have come back. We should have stayed there.”
“No. Daphne and those dreams were right. You and Mira are needed here. What would be happening to Jules without you and your poisoner potions? What would the mist have done if not for Mira’s wind and storm? You’re needed. Just not forever.”
“Not forever,” she says, and takes his hand, her touch like a promise. They turn at the sound of rushed footsteps up the stairs and break apart when Emilia bursts in, her face flushed and long strands of dark hair hanging down her shoulders.
“Jules is still resting,” Arsinoe says. “And I’ve nearly finished writing these letters.”
“Forget the letters.” Emilia strides across the room and slams a flattened scrap of parchment down on the desk. “You have a far larger problem.”
Arsinoe picks up the paper and reads.
It is elegant, scrawling script, written in an unfamiliar hand.
We have spoken with the queen, and we, too, believe she is true. We have departed for Indrid Down. The decision is yours, but we will be here if you need us.
“That was discovered in Mirabella’s room this morning.”
“B and E?” Billy asks, reading over Arsinoe’s shoulder.
Arsinoe swallows. “Bree and Elizabeth.” She looks up.
Emilia’s expression is as triumphant as it is angry, validation written over every line of her frame. The warrior curls her lip and spits the words as the note falls from Arsinoe’s fingers.
“Mirabella has defected.”
Mirabella wakes to the thumping of the driver’s fist against the carriage roof. She does not know how long she slept. Judging by the light, she thinks it seems near midday, though it is difficult to tell beneath the low, gray clouds.
“Coming up on the capital,” the driver calls, and Mirabella wipes her eyes. She moves to the window and drops it open. Ahead, the twin black spires of the Volroy rise into the sky.
She has seen the Volroy before. As a girl, she saw it a hundred times in weavings and paintings, in books and in her own imagination, when she thought she would rule there one day. She saw it for herself when she arrived in Indrid Down for the Queens’ Duel. But this time is different. Queen Katharine reigns there now, and though Mirabella comes under an offer of truce, it may not be true. She may arrive and find a block prepared, ready for her head. She may have to fight her way out of the capital for a second time.
In her hood, the small black-and-white tufted woodpecker trills. He is excited, sensing he is close to Elizabeth, and Mirabella strokes his head feathers. Katharine said she would be safe. Bree and Elizabeth thought that she meant it.
Back in Sunpool, they must know by now that she is gone, and it pains her to think of Arsinoe, and Billy, when they realize what she has done. They would not believe it at first. They would defend her. Maybe they would even send out a search party, or a rescue party, thinking she was taken against her will.
After that— Well, there is plenty of time to worry about what she will say the next time she has to face Arsinoe. For now, her mind is on Katharine. One sister at a time.
When the carriage last stopped to rest the horses, the driver asked Mirabella where she wanted to go. It would have been easy enough to go to Indrid Down Temple, where she might send for Luca. Or to Bree’s household, where she could be sure she was safe. Instead, she asked to be taken to the Volroy gate.
“The big gate, then,” the driver had said, and for the first time, looked carefully at Mirabella’s face. After that, she did not speak much to her and began addressing her as “Mistress” rather than “Miss” when she did. She dared not say “Queen” so close to the castle.
In the back of the carriage, Mirabella listens to the horses’ hooves clack along the road and watches the Volroy grow larger. The approaching sight of the castle has banished all thoughts of sleep, and she fidgets with the folds of her cloak and the skirt of her light blue dress. The lace edge has come loose and turned black with dirt after dragging across the ground, and she considers tearing the whole of it away. Instead she clasps her shaking hands in her lap. She must be calm. Katharine is her little sister and will not see her tremble.
Two guards stop the carriage before the main gate and approach to question the driver and peer inside. All the other passengers have been let off elsewhere. Only Mirabella and the cargo remain, trunks and crates loaded onto the roof and lashed to the back.
“What business do you have at the Volroy?”
“None of my own. I’m bringing a passenger. And I think you’ll find that she has plenty.” At the driver’s words, both guards lean back to look in through the windows. Mirabella gazes evenly at them. It takes longer than she expects for them to realize who she is, but eventually they open the gate, and shout for more guards to attend the carriage.
“Our coming must have been kept a secret, Pepper,” she whispers to the little bird, who watches with his head cocked. “But of course it would be. Katharine would not want to lose face if I refused her offer.”
The carriage stops, and Mirabella steps out into the shadow of the fortress. The moment she is clear, Pepper darts from inside her hood, flying off to find his Elizabeth. Mirabella tries not to feel abandoned. But as the guards glare at her warily, she wishes he would have stayed.
“Will you be all right, Mistress?” the driver asks, and Mirabella turns to her with a grateful smile. “I will be fine. Thank you. It has been a pleasure.”
The woman makes a reverent gesture and clicks to the horses. Mirabella turns back to the queensguard and is greeted by the blades of their spears.
“Do not point those at me,” she says. She sends a crackle of dry lightning through the sky and the blades drop. “Take me inside. To the queen.”
Katharine sits beside the bed, surrounded by whispers. Her old bed in her old room, only this time it is not she who lies upon it but Pietyr, as the three healers she has summoned from the capital and one from Prynn mutter near the open door.
They are the finest healers she could find. Poisoners all. But none of them has been able to help Pietyr. None is even able to say what is wrong with him.
Of course, perhaps they could if they knew what truly happened. But Katharine will never tell them that.
“Please wake up,” she murmurs for what feels like the thousandth time. She touches his cheek, then his chest. Both warm, and his strong heart keeps beating. The slow bleeding from his eyes and nose has finally eased, and his face and neck have been wiped clean, the pillow and bedding beneath him changed. Only the barest bit of red seeps from inside his ear.
“Let him wake,” she growls, but the dead queens do not respond. She can feel them staring at him through her eyes. Perhaps she can even feel a little remorse.
No. Regret, perhaps, but not remorse. They did what they had to do to Pietyr to keep him from sending them back into the Breccia Domain. With his bumbling, flawed, low-magic spell that caused them so much pain, he gave them no choice. And every day and night since then, they have reminded Katharine by raising their rot to mar the surface of her skin, by humming through her blood and her mind in soothing, comforting tones. They are part of her now, and they will not be moved.
He would have harmed us. Weakened you. We would protect us. Protect you.
“Be silent,” Katharine whispers. “Be silent!”
“Our apologies, Queen Katharine,” one of the healers says, and bows his head.
“We will take our counsel into the hall so as not to disturb you,” says another, the one from Prynn, and motions to her colleagues.
“No.” Katharine stands. “Forgive me. This accident—his illness—I cannot think.” And it seems that Greavesdrake is always full of whispers. At the end of every hall. Behind every closed door. “Speak plain and tell me your thoughts. What is wrong with him? When will he recover?”
They straighten nervously, huddling and rustling like a flock of birds.
“I know there is no good news,” she says, reading their faces. “But I would have your opinions.”
The healer from Prynn steps back toward the bed. She was the one who took the most aggressive approach to Pietyr’s examination, prodding his gums, pulling on his fingers and toes. It was hard for Katharine to stand there and watch him be poked at, lying unresponsive while a stranger turned his head back and forth and peered inside his ears. When they peeked under the bandages wrapped around his hand, Katharine held her breath. It had been ugly business when she sliced into the rune, mangling it to hide it from discovery. She had made so many cuts that his palm looked like it had been torn apart. But sweet Pietyr had not been awake by then. He had not felt it.
“The wound on his hand continues to heal. Though it is still impossible to tell what caused it. And it does not seem to be the source of his illness. There are no dark lines stemming from the cuts, no foul odor—”
“Yes, yes,” says Katharine. “So you have said before.”
“We think it likely a trauma inside the skull. An unlucky vessel that burst or became clotted. It would leave no outward sign and would require no external impact. You said you found him lying on the floor. It is likely that, when the vessel burst, he simply fell there. There was probably little pain or what there was would have been brief.”
Katharine stares at his sleeping face. He is still handsome when he sleeps. But he is not himself. What makes Pietyr Pietyr is the glint in his eye, the clever and cutting curve of his mouth. And his voice. It has been too many days since she heard his voice. Nearly weeks.
“When will he wake?”
“I do not know, Queen Katharine. That he continues to breathe is a good sign. But he is unresponsive to stimuli.”
“So much blood . . .” When Katharine returned to her senses after the failed spell and found Pietyr lying beside her on the floor, his face was a mask of red.
“There is no way to tell the extent of the damage,” the healer says. “We can only wait. He will need round-the-clock monitoring . . . care and feeding—”
“Leave us,” Katharine says, and listens to their footsteps shuffle into the hall. She takes his hand and kisses it gently. She should have banished the dead queens when he gave her the chance. If only she had not been such a coward. They know she cannot oust them now, not with her reign assailed from all sides: the mist, the Legion Queen, her sisters’ return. She used to think that the dead queens had made her strong. Now, too late, she knows the truth: the strength was theirs and theirs alone. And they would see her weak forever, to keep her as their puppet.
“I did not know,” she whispers against Pietyr’s cheek. “I did not know that this is what they would do.”
When Katharine walks out of Pietyr’s sickroom an hour later, tired and dazed, she stumbles directly into Edmund, Natalia’s old butler, carrying a tray of tea.
“I thought it might be welcome,” he says softly.
“It is,” Katharine says. “But I have had enough of sitting in that room. Perhaps in the drawing room or the solarium.” She trails off and puts her hand to her eyes.
“Perhaps right here on the floor. It is still your home if you wish it. A tea party on the carpet.”
“Just like we never used to have,” Katharine says. But she smiles at him, and they step aside as a maid enters Pietyr’s room. “Where are the healers?”
“They have clustered in the library,” Edmund replies. “And are demanding lunch.”
“I suppose that they will need to eat.” Katharine and the butler fall in step beside each other down the hall. “Poor Edmund. I have turned your household upside down.”
“Nonsense, my queen. It is good to have heartbeats in Greavesdrake again. Even the heartbeats of new staff and strangers. Since Natalia was killed, it has not felt like a great house so much as a shrine.”
How right he is. As they ascend the stairs, the sounds of people in its farthest corners, the bustle and occasional laughter of servants, make Greavesdrake feel alive again. Still draughty and dark, of course. But alive and no longer haunted.
It will feel haunted forever if Pietyr dies upstairs.
In the main floor dining room, they find Genevieve, reading a book over a half-eaten bowl of soup.
“How is he?” she asks, and sets the book down.
“Unchanged.” Katharine sits across from her as Edmund readies the tea.
“Unchanged,” Genevieve repeats, and sighs.
Katharine watches her carefully. Katharine was the one who “found” Pietyr, unconscious and covered in blood, just as she was with Nicolas the night her poisoned body killed him. Two lovers, one dead and the other unable to wake. Though Katharine was careful to dispose of all evidence of the low magic, Genevieve must still have her suspicions.
“He will wake,” Genevieve says, and tries to bolster Katharine with a smile. “He is too meddlesome not to.”
Katharine nods. She is about to bite into one of Edmund’s excellent crumbly shortbreads when they hear the front door open and the servants speaking in raised voices. Soon enough, a breathless messenger arrives in the doorway.
“She’s at the Volroy,” the messenger declares, her eyes wide.
“Who?” Genevieve asks. “Were we expecting someone?”
Katharine stares at the girl. She knows, by the way the messenger avoids speaking the name and the fearful wonder in her eyes, that she means Mirabella. Her powerful sister has come. The strongest of the triplets. The strongest queen in generations has come at her request.
Katharine’s legs twitch beneath the table. She is so eager to meet Mirabella, to look her in the eye under an offering of peace. But she is careful to control her reaction.
“Who?” Genevieve asks again, losing her patience.
The messenger opens her mouth but says nothing, trying to decide how to phrase it without breaking decorum. “The queen’s sister,” she says finally.
“Mirabella,” Katharine supplies, and Genevieve gasps.
“She—? She would come here?”
“She was invited.”
“By Luca,” Katharine says. “And I suppose, by me. Where is she now?” she asks the girl.
“Waiting for you at the Volroy. The guards are holding her in the throne room.”
“Has anyone seen her? Spoken to her? Anyone from my Black Council?”
“No, my queen.”
Katharine rises. “Then ride quickly back there ahead of me and make sure that no one does. No one is to see my sister before I do. Not Antonin or Bree Westwood. Not even High Priestess Luca. Is that understood?”
“Yes, my queen.”
“Good. Hurry. Take a fresh horse.”
Katharine and Genevieve share a carriage to the Volroy. Genevieve’s jaw has not unclenched since receiving the news, and she holds her arms crossed tightly over her chest.
“I am to be your eyes and ears. How? When you tell me nothing!”
“Luca and I told no one of this,” says Katharine. “Honestly, Genevieve, I did not think she would come.” She turns back toward the receding bulk of Greavesdrake and to the window of her old bedroom, wishing that the curtains would move and reveal Pietyr standing there. He would love to be at the Volroy for this meeting. And she does not know how she will fare without him.
“Why is she here?” Genevieve asks. “What good can she do?”
“She is another queen. She can help me win the war,” replies Katharine. “If I can trust her.”
“Neither of you are queens,” Genevieve says, her voice thick with disgust. “If you were, there would only be one of you left.”
We have received word that the queen is on her way.”
“Thank you,” Mirabella says. They have put her in the throne room to await Katharine. The guard nods and leaves, closing the heavy doors. No doubt they are stationed three deep on the other side, afraid Mirabella will blast the door open with a gust of wind and set fire to the entire castle.
She snorts softly. She could, she supposes, be free of the Volroy within minutes if she chose. Her gift, now that she has returned to the island, has come back even stronger and quicker than it was when she left. Though she still may not be able to blast through the door. To do that she might need a different kind of gift. A gift like Jules has.
She unfastens her cloak and drapes it across a chair before the long, dark table beside the throne—the table where the Black Council must sit on days when the queen gives audience. She runs her fingers along the back of the chair. Who does it belong to? Bree? Or perhaps Luca? Probably not. This seat, directly to the right of the throne, is probably reserved for one of the Arrons. The eldest woman. Or that pale-haired boy of Katharine’s, Pietyr Renard.
Mirabella’s eyes roam over the room. The walkways of the stone and wood floor have been overlaid with carpets woven in designs of black and gold. The hammer-beam ceiling shows intricate carvings representing the gifts and many of the great queens, the wood itself very dark and the ceiling painted in stunning black and silver. Luca used to tell her about it all when she was a girl. She sat by Luca’s knee and daydreamed of the time when she would rule in the castle beneath all that history. She looks up and tries to spot the carving of lightning and thunderclouds for her favorite, Queen Shannon. And of course it does not take long to find the plaster and wood plaque crafted for Queen Illiann, as it is the only part of the ceiling painted blue.
Mirabella wanders to the throne and steps up beside it, her fingertips just grazing the gilded arm. Even now, it feels like it is hers, this thing she has been directed to, pointed at, since the day she was born. But it is not her portrait that hangs behind it. No portrait of fire and fierce storms, no elemental queen with her gown billowing behind her. Instead, the portrait that hangs there is Katharine’s, dark and still, and full of bloody bones.
“Do you want to sit in it?”
Despite herself, Mirabella jumps. And when she turns, there she is: wicked, deadly little Katharine, who slipped inside silently, without so much as the creak of a door or the rustle of a skirt.
“To pretend for a while that you won?”
“No,” Mirabella says. “Of course not.”
“Then get away from my seat,” says Katharine, and smiles. “Come and greet me properly.”
Properly, Mirabella thinks. Is she expected to kneel and kiss her ring? She could not bring herself to do it. She does not know if she can even steel her spine enough to touch Katharine at all, for fear of a poisoned blade quickly buried in her neck.
Katharine walks slowly forward. Her black eyes glitter. Unlike her guards, she seems not the least bit afraid.
Mirabella steps down and away from the throne, forcing her legs to move across the carpet. The sisters stop in the center of the room, no more than an arm’s length away from each other.
“Do not ask me to bow,” Mirabella says. “I am here as an ally, not a subject.”
“I will not ask you to bow any more than I will ask you for embraces.” Katharine’s mouth crooks. “Not yet.”
Mirabella relaxes slightly. They have not been this close since the banquet before the Queens’ Duel, when Katharine dragged her around the dance floor like a marionette shortly before Mirabella was poisoned by Billy’s father. But she remembers well the coldness of Katharine’s grip and the strength in her fingers.
“I am surprised that you came,” Katharine says, and crosses her arms. “You could not have been pleased that I cut that naturalist’s throat.”
“It was supposed to be a trade. The Legion Queen for her mother. No one was supposed to die.”
“And no one would have, if not for the mist. And if she had not tried to run.”
Mirabella swallows. Her mouth has gone completely dry.
“I did not turn to your side,” she says. “And I did not turn against Arsinoe. I turned against Jules Milone when I saw what the curse had done to her.” She narrows her eyes. “Or, I suppose, what you turned her into when you cut the blood-binding loose from her mother’s neck.”
Katharine cocks her head, indifferent. “All that did was reveal the monster she always was underneath. And what a monster she was. She will be a handful, even for you.”
She will be more than that, Mirabella thinks. The war gift that Jules hurled at her in the valley knocked her clean off her feet. And Jules had not even truly been aiming.
Katharine walks around Mirabella in a slow circle, and Mirabella straightens as she is appraised. The queen looks over the stains in the blue fabric of her dress, the torn and dirty lace. It is a rather poor fit as well—too tight in the bodice and bosom, cut for the thin, wiry figure of Billy’s sister, Jane. Mrs. Chatworth had brought in a tailor to make alterations, but the fabric had its limits.
As Katharine walks behind her, Mirabella is careful to keep her in her sights.
“Is that all?” Katharine asks. “All it took to make you desert the rebellion?”
“It was not all.” Mirabella looks down. “I am a queen. A true queen, in the blood. And the line of queens should not be set aside so lightly. Not even if the future of it resides in someone as terrible as you.”
Katharine whirls. She holds her hands together so tightly that they shake.
“An interesting choice coming to the Volroy dressed as a pauper,” she says finally, her voice light. “Was it intentionally symbolic, or could you just not manage anything else?”
“On the mainland, this dress was one of the finest in the city.”
Katharine raises her brows. “No matter. We will have you dressed in proper blacks and looking yourself again soon enough.”
“Would you want that? Should I not be dressed in a penitent cloak of gray? To show my shame and my deference to the crown?”
“The people do not need to be reminded of who wears the crown,” Katharine says. “And if you are here, I would have them see you. You, the great elemental queen, come to fight by my side. If you are here, you will be of use. But only when I choose. Guards!” The door to the throne room opens, and in moments, Mirabella finds herself surrounded again by the points of spears.
“Take my sister to the king-consort’s apartment.” She turns to Mirabella. “My sweet Nicolas did not have the chance to enjoy it before he was killed in the fall from his horse, and I will not have such fine furnishings go to waste. And of course, there are no chambers designated to hold a Queen Crowned’s sister.” Katharine pivots on her heel, and shining black curls bounce over her shoulder. “I will send Bree Westwood and the priestess Elizabeth to see you. I am sure you would be comforted by their presence. And then I will have a small meal sent up. But do not eat too much. Tonight you will dine with me.” She stops at the door and smiles at Mirabella broadly.
“We have much work to do.”
Katharine goes from the throne room to the Black Council chamber and shuts herself inside. The moment she is hidden from view, she begins to tremble as she hugs herself and paces.
She had been face-to-face with Mirabella again, and she had done well. The black crown emblazoned across Katharine’s forehead had acted like a shield, giving her courage and lending righteousness to her words. It had been hard not to shout. Not to strike out preemptively. Everything about Mirabella put her on the defensive: the way she stood in the throne room, beautiful and regal, even in that hideous wreck of a dress; the lingering bonds of affection she still holds with many members of Katharine’s Black Council.
Perhaps it was a mistake to bring her here. Perhaps she is falling right into Luca’s trap.
Even the dead queens, as they hissed and sniffed around her, also tugged against Katharine’s edges, drawn to the strength of the elemental gift that flowed off Mirabella in waves.
“You would leave me for her.”
Never, they whisper. You are ours. We are you.
But Katharine feels them pull against her skin. She feels them rise up and nearly slip out of her mouth. The dead queens had a taste of being outside her, of moving through another person when they left her to rush into Pietyr. And they liked it.
We are with you, always.
“Always,” says Katharine as a plan begins to form in her mind. She could be free of them, and free of them for good, if she is careful, and if she is more clever than they are.
Wolf Spring arrived in time for Madrigal’s burning. Cait and Ellis Milone, their backs straight and rigid as knives. Luke, cheeks wet, in a deep crimson vest and coat he was sure to have sewn himself. And much of the city came with them. Madrigal burned, in the salt spray and wind, atop the chest-high pyre of wood that the workers of the rebellion had built. The priestesses of Sunpool had wrapped her in crimson cloth and covered her in crimson petals. The rebels left offerings of wreaths and colored shells. Birds’ eggs to crack and sizzle in the heat.
Together Wolf Spring and the rebellion watched as the pyre blazed, turning to ash the body that was not really Madrigal Milone any longer but merely the very pretty shell that could barely contain her.
Madrigal, Arsinoe thinks now, in the echoing whispers of Sunpool’s great hall. Madrigal was the sum of her actions. She was a laugh in a quiet room. In life, she had never liked for anything to be easy, and in death she was the same.
“I thought you were dead, too.”
At his voice in her ear, Arsinoe turns and grasps Luke around the waist. “I’m so sorry,” she says, over and over, and only lets him go when his black-and-green rooster, Hank, begins to flap and spur holes into her only good pair of trousers. They sit down together at the nearest open place.
“Where’s your boy?” he asks.
Arsinoe gestures to Billy in the crowd, where he spoons meat and gravy onto plates. All through the burning he let her lean on him without being seen to be leaning. When the flames touched the crimson cloth, he held her close.
“Getting you food, eh?” says Luke. “He knows you well.” Then he lowers his eyes. “The funeral was well attended.”
Arsinoe nods. “You would think she was someone important.” Luke clears his throat, and she knows that Cait and Ellis are there.
“We wanted to wait,” she says to Cait. “But we didn’t know if you would be able to come.”
“Your letter reached us,” Cait says. “That is what matters. What of her sister? Has no one told Caragh?”
“I sent a letter to the Black Cottage, but—” Arsinoe shakes her head. “Maybe travel is slower . . . with the baby. . . .” She closes her mouth and looks to Ellis. Cait will be all right. She was made to bear. But Ellis—gentle, scholarly Ellis—he has doted on Madrigal since the day she was born.
In the crowd, Arsinoe spots a slew of familiar faces. A few of the Paces, and the Nicholses. Shad Millner and his seagull. Even Madge, who sold the best stuffed fried oysters in the Wolf Spring market. And Matthew. Of course Matthew.
“Matthew,” she says when he sees her, and he walks forward and scoops her up, almost like he did when she was a child.
“Hello, kid,” he says, and sets her back down on her feet. He wipes a tear from her cheek with his thumb and adjusts the knot of her crimson scarf.
Billy returns to the table with food and greets them all, especially Matthew, who he views as extended family through his connection to Joseph. His eye lingers on the crow on Cait’s shoulder. “Is that Aria?” he asks, speaking of Madrigal’s familiar.
“No,” Cait replies. “This is Eva. Aria flew away from the smoke. Where is Jules? In your letter you said she was unhurt but still unwell. What did you mean?”
Arsinoe rises. “I’ll take you to see her. But only you two,” she adds when Luke and Matthew move to join them. It would be too difficult for Luke to see her in that state, and Matthew—Matthew looks too much like Joseph. She does not want to think about how Jules would react if she opened her eyes and saw Joseph’s face. As Arsinoe and Billy escort Cait and Ellis from the hall, she stiffens with sudden realization.
“He doesn’t know.” She grasps Billy’s arm. “Matthew and the Sandrins, they don’t know about Joseph. They don’t know that he’s dead!”
“Dead?” Ellis exclaims as Billy shushes them both.
“I’ll tell them,” he says. “He was my brother, too, in a way. And I can describe what happened as well as you can.”
“Tell them where he’s buried,” Arsinoe says hurriedly. “Tell them about the headstone, the inscription—”
“I’ll tell them everything. Go. Take them to see Jules.”
Arsinoe nods and leads them on, almost in a daze. As they make their way up the stairs to the tower, she tries to prepare them for what they will find, telling them as gently as she can what happened: how the legion curse was cut free when Madrigal died and what a violent reaction it sparked in Jules.
“She might not even be awake,” she warns. “The tonics I craft to keep her calm sometimes make her sleep during the day.”
“The tonics you craft,” Cait repeats. “So the rumors are true. Our naturalist queen was only ever a poisoner.”
Arsinoe pauses with her hand on the door. “You raised a naturalist, and a naturalist I will always be. Though I do feel better about never being able to grow anything.”
To her surprise, Cait chuckles. “True. But we never schooled you in poisons, Arsinoe, as we didn’t know. Is it safe, what you’re doing?”
Arsinoe swallows. Safe? Nothing about the ingredients she must use feels safe. If she is not extremely careful in her measurements, Jules could simply stop breathing. But in Arsinoe’s use of it, she has discovered that there is an instinctual aspect to the poisoner gift. Her hands are always sure. She blends the tonics as if in a trance. But that would be difficult to explain to a naturalist. “There’s a healer here who fills in the gaps that my gift doesn’t.”
She opens the door of the outer chamber, and they go inside. At the sight of Cait and Ellis, Camden rises on her three good legs and grunts softly.
“You’re happy to see us at least,” says Ellis as he goes to her and strokes her soft, golden fur. “Shouldn’t she be with Jules?”
“It isn’t always safe. Camden is violent when Jules is unwell. And Jules . . . hurt her when the curse was cut free.” Cait and Ellis frown; for a naturalist, there are few crimes worse than the abuse of a familiar. So Arsinoe clears her throat and brightens her tone. “But when she’s quiet, Camden’s basically fine. Her old self. If Jules is resting, she can go in with you.”
She unbars the door. Inside, Jules lies on the pile of straw, pillows, and blankets that Arsinoe and Emilia arranged for her. Her hands and feet are chained. Ellis frees Camden from the wall, and the cougar trots quickly into the room. She circles Jules twice before lying down and resting her head in the hollow of Jules’s shoulder.
Without a word, Cait kneels in the straw and gathers her granddaughter into her lap. Ellis places his hand on her shoulder. It is harder to watch than Arsinoe expected, and her throat tightens.
“I’m so sorry, Grandma Cait.”
Cait takes Jules’s hand, so dug into the links of the chain that she has to pry it loose. “Don’t say that. It wasn’t your fault. None of this is your fault.”
“If not mine, then whose?”
“No one’s,” Ellis says.
“They say she tried to save her,” Arsinoe whispers, her voice choked. “She tried to save Madrigal.”
“Of course she did,” Cait says. “That was always her way. Saving you, protecting you, trying to keep you out of trouble. And before you, there was Joseph. Our Jules was born a guardian, just as she was born a naturalist, and a warrior. Just as she was born cursed.”
After Cait and Ellis leave Jules and drift away to rest, Arsinoe remains. She stays in the tower of the castle with Camden, idly scratching between her ears and looking down on the city. There is much activity below. So many goods and supplies coming in that the gate is rarely closed. So many weapons being forged and horses being shod that the fires at the smithy are always burning. Sunpool, not so long ago a failing ruin, has come alive again with war.
When she hears footsteps on the stairs, she expects that it is Billy, but instead, a man knocks and enters, wearing the
yellow-and-gray tunic of the seers.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she says, glancing at Jules’s barred door.
“Forgive the intrusion, but I need to know where to house the new naturalists. The newcomers from Wolf Spring.”
Arsinoe rubs at her brow. The tower with Jules had become her hideaway, and his intrusion is an intrusion indeed.
“There’s no need to house them anywhere. They’ll not be with us long. And they’re naturalists. Perfectly happy in tents by the sea.”
“Surely some will want to stay?” he asks.
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
“What is he asking you for, anyway?”
Arsinoe does not bother to stifle her groan when Emilia walks into the room, with no warning or announcement. The warrior’s footsteps are only heard when she wants them to be. She grasps the man harshly by the shoulder and spins him away from Jules’s door.
“You are not to be here. And you are not to ask her anything.”
“I only thought . . . in the absence of the Legion Queen—”
“In the absence of the Legion Queen, I will handle all arrangements,” Emilia growls.
“Good Goddess,” Arsinoe says as the poor fellow hunches low and tries to sidle from view. “He only asked me because I am a naturalist and I am from Wolf Spring.”
“Naturalist, poisoner . . . ,” Emilia grumbles. “You wear whatever hat suits you at the moment.”
Arsinoe sighs. “They’ll be fine on their own. They’ll figure it out,” she says, and the man nods.
“No,” says Emilia. “Place them in the vacant wing of the Lermont estate and whoever does not fit in the empty servants’ quarters adjacent. We need them rested and comfortable if they are to fight.”
“They aren’t to fight,” Arsinoe whispers.
“Some will fight. More than you think.” Emilia gestures with her chin, and the man bows to her and leaves to see it done. Arsinoe waits for her to leave as well, but to her extreme displeasure, Emilia does not.
“Is there anything else?”
Emilia looks past her to the partially open door where Jules lies. She has not told anyone besides Mathilde about Mirabella’s defection, and Arsinoe knows why. Emilia does not want the rebellion shaken. Not before their Legion Queen is well again.
It is something to be thankful for, she supposes, and then immediately hates herself for thinking it. She looks at Emilia with a softer expression and tries to remember the hours the warrior has spent by Jules’s side.
Emilia’s eyes flash to hers, full of contention, setting Arsinoe’s teeth back on edge immediately. But before either can hurl another insult, a large, brown hound comes bursting through the door, followed by Jules’s Aunt Caragh, with a baby slung around her middle.
“I had a feeling you two wouldn’t get on,” says Caragh as her brown hound sniffs happily at Arsinoe and goes to whuffle around Camden.
“Caragh,” Emilia says, and embraces her. She wiggles a finger before the baby’s face. “And little Fenn. Welcome.”
“Caragh,” Arsinoe breathes. She banishes the flicker of annoyance that Emilia greeted her first and hugs her heartily, careful to keep from jostling Jules’s little brother. “What are you doing here?”
“I missed my sister’s burning.” Her voice drops. “But I won’t be kept from Jules. And I had to bring Fennbirn Milone here to meet his father.”
“Yes,” Arsinoe says. “Matthew is here.”
“I’ve seen him. And I’ve seen my mother. And convinced her to give you this.”
Caragh reaches into her coat and produces a glass jar with a length of blood-soaked cord inside. It is the color of rust, and beside it rests a yellowed, folded piece of paper.
Arsinoe recognizes the cord and the blood. It is a low-magic spell.
“It’s all Madrigal left us about the binding. She never was much of a writer.” Caragh taps the glass. “Only a page and a half, but it’s all there. All she knew.” She pushes them farther into Arsinoe’s hands. “And now I’m giving them to you.”
“Cait wasn’t going to give them to me?”
“Maybe she was angry. Maybe she was blaming you. But if she was, she is over it now.” Caragh bounces the baby on her hip. “And she was wrong to.”
“What might that do?” Emilia asks, peering into the jar.
“Maybe nothing,” Caragh replies for her. “Maybe it’s too late. Or maybe you can still find something in there to help.”