Today, book nerds, we ask you to travel back in time with us. The year is 2016, it’s late September, and we’ve just finished THREE DARK CROWNS. We are completely SHOOK, and cannot imagine the story getting any wilder. Fast forward a bit, and it’s 2017 now. ONE DARK THRONE has not only exceeded our expectations, but kept us open-mouth gasp reading from cover to cover. Now, we know the likelihood for twisting shocks are high. We’ve had arena battles, royal hunts, execution orders, and every kind of unforeseen murder. But we think TWO DARK REIGNS might actually manage to be the most twisted of all.
The wait is almost over, and TWO DARK REIGNS is coming on September 4th! But we don’t want you to wait any longer, so we’ve brought you the prologue and first two chapters below. Brace yourselves, and let this be your reminder that on Fennbirn Island, things aren’t slowing down. And if you aren’t caught up, you best do that now.
Are you ready? Scroll down and start reading TWO DARK REIGNS now!
The labor, when it began, was hard and full of blood. Nothing less was to be expected from a war queen, especially one so battle-hardened as Queen Philomene.
The Midwife pressed a cool cloth to the queen’s forehead, but the queen shoved it away.
“The pain is nothing,” Queen Philomene said. “I welcome this last fight.”
“You think there will be no more war for you in Louis’s country?” the Midwife asked. “Even if your gift fades after you leave the island, I cannot imagine that.”
The queen looked toward the door, where Louis, her king-consort, could be glimpsed pacing back and forth. Her black eyes glittered from the excitement of the labor. Her black hair shone slick with sweat.
“He wants this to be over. He did not know what he was getting into when he got me.”
Nor did anyone. Queen Philomene’s entire reign was marked by battle. Under her, the capital city was overrun by warriors. She built long ships and plundered the coastal villages of every nation state except for that of her king-consort. But now, all that was over. Eight years of brutal, warrior rule. A short reign, even by war queen standards, but the island was exhausted by it nonetheless. War queens were glory and intimidation. Protection. It was not only her husband who was relieved when the Goddess sent the queen her triplets.
She strained as another pain struck her, and she turned her knee to see more blood darken the bedding.
“You are doing well,” the Midwife lied. But what did she really know? She was young and new in service at the Black Cottage. A poisoner by gift and therefore a clever healer, but though she had aided in many births, there was no true preparation for the birth of queens.
“I am,” Philomene agreed, and smiled. “It is like a war queen to bleed so much. But I still think I will die of this.”
The Midwife dipped the cloth back into the cool water and wrung it out, ready in case Philomene should let her use it. Perhaps she would. After all, who would see? To the island, a queen was effectively dead once her triplets were born. The horses to take her and Louis to their river barge and on to their ship were already saddled and waiting, and once gone, Philomene and Louis would never return. Even the doting little Midwife would forget her the moment the babies were out. She put on a show of caring, but her only aim was to keep Philomene alive long enough to bear the triplets.
Philomene glanced at the table of herbs and clean black cloths, jars of potions to dull the pain, all refused, of course. There were knives upon it as well. To cut the new queens free should the old one prove too weak. Philomene smiled. The Midwife was a small meek thing. Her trying to slice them out might be a feat worth watching.
The pain passed, and Philomene sighed.
“They are in a hurry,” she said. “As I was. In a hurry since I was born, to make my mark. Perhaps I knew I would have a short time to do it in. Or perhaps it was the strain of rushing that shortened my life. You came from the temple, did you not? Before serving in solitude here?”
“I trained there, my queen. At the temple in Prynn. But I never took the oaths.”
“Of course not. I can see that there are no bracelets marked into your arms. I am not blind.” She strained again, and more blood gushed forth. The pains were coming faster.
The Midwife grasped her by the chin and pulled her eyelids back.
“You are weakening.”
“I am not.” Philomene fell back on the bed. She placed her hands atop her great distended belly in a near-motherly gesture. But she would not ask about the baby queens. They were not hers to wonder about. All belonged to the Goddess and the Goddess alone.
Philomene struggled back up onto her elbows. A look of grim determination set on her face. She snapped her fingers for the Midwife to take her place between her knees.
“You are ready to push,” the Midwife said. “It will be all right; you are strong.”
“I thought you just said I was weakening,” Philomene grumbled.
The first queen born was born silent. Breathing, but she did not even cry when the Midwife slapped her across the back. She was small, and well-formed, and very pink for such a hard, messy birth. The Midwife held her up for Philomene to see, and for a moment, queens’ blood flowed between them through the connection of the cord.
“Leonine,” Philomene said, giving the little queen her name. “A naturalist.”
The Midwife repeated it aloud and took the baby away to be cleaned and placed in a bassinet, then covered in a blanket of bright green and embroidered with flowers. It was not long before the next baby came, screaming this time, and with tiny, clenched fists.
“Isadora,” the queen said, and the baby wailed and blinked her wide black eyes. “An oracle.”
“Isadora. An oracle,” the Midwife repeated. And she took her away to be wrapped in a blanket of pale gray and yellow, the colors of the seers.
The third queen born arrived in a rush of blood, as if on a wave. It was so much and so gruesome that Philomene’s mouth opened to announce a new war queen. But those were not the words that came out.
“Roxane. An elemental.”
The Midwife repeated the final name and turned away, cleaning the baby before wrapping her in blue and placing her in the last bassinet. Philomene breathed heavily in the birthing bed. She had been right. She could feel it. The birth had killed her. Strong as she was, she might survive long enough to be bound up and put into the saddle, but it would be a body that Louis sailed home with, to be entombed in his family crypt or perhaps pushed overboard into the sea. Her duty to the island was finished, and the island would have no more say in her fate.
“Midwife!” Philomene groaned as another pain tore through her.
“Yes, yes,” the Midwife replied soothingly. “It is only the afterbirth. It will pass.”
“It is not the afterbirth. It is not—”
She grimaced and bit her lip against one more push.
Another baby slipped out from the war queen’s womb. Easily and without fuss. She opened her black eyes and took an enormous breath. Another baby born. Another queen.
“A blue queen,” the Midwife murmured. “A fourth born.”
“Give her to me.”
The Midwife only stared.
“Give her to me now!”
She scooped the baby up, and Philomene snatched her from her hands.
“Illiann,” Philomene said. “An elemental.” Her exhausted, depleted face broke into a smile. Any disappointment of there being no new war queen vanished. For here was a great destiny. A blessing, for the entire island. And she, Philomene, had done it.
“Illiann,” the shocked Midwife repeated. “An elemental. The Blue Queen.”
Philomene laughed. She raised the child in her arms.
“Illiann!” she shouted. “The Blue Queen!”
The days spent waiting for someone to arrive at the Black Cottage were long. After the birth of the Blue Queen, the messengers raced back to their cities with the news. They had been at the Black Cottage, their horses saddled the moment the queen’s labor began.
A fourth born. It was such a rare occurrence that it was thought by some to be mere legend. At the Midwife’s announcement, none of the young messengers had known what to do. She had finally needed to screech at them.
“A Blue Queen!” she had shouted. “Blessed of the Goddess! All must come. All the families! And the High Priestess as well! Ride!”
Had only the triplets been born, just three families and a small party of priestesses would have come to the cottage. The Traverses for the naturalist queen. The burgeoning Westwoods for the elemental. And the Lermonts for the poor little oracle queen, to oversee her drowning. But the arrival of a Blue Queen meant that the heads of the strongest families from
all the island’s gifts would come. The Vatros clan, who inhabited the capital and the war city of Bastian. And even the Arrons, the poisoners from Prynn.
Inside the cottage, beneath the dark brown beams supporting the ceiling, four bassinets sat beside the eastern wall to catch the sunlight of morning. All were quiet, except for the baby in the light gray blanket. The little oracle fussed almost constantly. Perhaps because, being an oracle, she knew what was to happen.
Poor little oracle queen. Her fate had always been sealed. Since the time of Mad Queen Elsabet, who used her prophecy gift to murder three whole families she said had plotted against her, oracle queens were immediately drowned. After wresting power away from Elsabet, the Black Council had made the decree. They would not risk such an unjust massacre again.
In the days following the birth, the Midwife burned the old queen’s bedding. It could not be cleaned, so soaked through with blood. She did not wonder where the old queen was or how she fared. Looking at the state of the sheets, she could only assume Philomene was dead.
Just over a week past the birth, the first of the families arrived. The Lermonts, the oracles from the northwest city of Sunpool, nearest to the Black Cottage, though they also insisted they had foreseen the child’s coming and had been ready to travel when the messenger arrived. They looked across the tops of the four black bassinets. They looked down gravely at the little oracle queen.
A day later came the Westwoods, new in their elemental dominance and foolish. They cooed over the elemental queen and brought her a gift of a blanket colored with bright blue dye.
“We had it made for her,” said Isabelle Westwood, the head of the family. “There is no reason she should not have it, even though her life is short.”
After them, the Traverses arrived from Sealhead, and that same evening the Arrons and the hard-riding Vatroses arrived within minutes of each other to bear silent witness. The
Vatroses, rich and well-gifted from the war queen’s reign, brought the High Priestess with them from the capital.
The Midwife knelt before the High Priestess and gave the queens’ names. When she said, “Illiann,” the High Priestess clasped her hands together.
“A Blue Queen,” she murmured, and went toward the baby. “I can scarcely believe it. I thought the messengers had gotten it wrong.” She reached down and took up the child, cradling her in the crook of her white-robed arms.
“An elemental Blue Queen,” said Isabelle Westwood, and the High Priestess shushed her with a look.
“The Blue Queen belongs to us all. She will not grow up in an elemental house. She will grow up in the capital. In Indrid Down. With me.”
“But—” the Midwife sputtered. Every head in the room turned toward her. They had forgotten the Midwife was even there.
“You, Midwife, will cull the queen’s sisters. And then you will come with us.”
The Midwife lowered her head.
The naturalist queen was left in the forest, for the earth and the animals. The little doomed oracle was drowned in the stream. By the time the elemental queen was placed on the tiny raft, to be pushed out into the water and on to the sea, both she and the Midwife were weeping. Leonine, Isadora, and Roxane. Returned to the Goddess, who had given them Illiann to rule instead.
Illiann, blessed and Blue.
Queen Katharine sits for her portrait painting in one of the high, west-facing rooms of the West Tower, just one floor below her own apartments. In her left hand, she holds an empty bottle, which in the painting will become a beautiful poison. Curled around her right is a coil of white rope that the painter’s brush will turn into a likeness of Sweetheart.
She turns her head to the window to look out over Indrid Down: dark brown roofs of the north-end row houses and roads disappearing into the hills, the sky dotted with smoke from chimneys and cut through by the tall, finely built stone structures of the central city. It is a calm and beautiful day. Workers work. Families eat and laugh and play. And she woke up that morning in Pietyr’s arms. All is well. Better than well, now that her troublesome sisters are dead.
“Please raise your chin, Queen Katharine. And straighten your back.”
She does as she is told, and the painter smiles a little fearfully. He is the finest master painter in all of Indrid Down, quite used to painting poisoners and the common poisoner props. But this is no mere portrait. This is the Queen Crowned’s portrait. And working on it makes even the finest master sweat.
They have set her so the view through the window behind her right shoulder will show Greavesdrake Manor. It was her idea, though the Arrons will take credit for it. She did not do it for them, but for Natalia, a small thing to honor the great head of the family, the woman who raised Katharine as if she were her own daughter. Because of her, Greavesdrake will always be present. A shadow of influence over her reign. She had wanted to set the urn of Natalia’s ashes in her lap, but Pietyr had talked her out of it.
“Queen Katharine.” Pietyr strides into the room, looking handsome as always in a black jacket and a dove-gray shirt, his ice-blond hair pushed back from his temples. He pauses behind the painter. “It is coming along nicely. You will be beautiful.”
“Beautiful.” She adjusts the empty bottle and rope in her hands. “I feel ridiculous.”
Pietyr claps the painter on the shoulder. “I need a moment with the queen, if you do not mind. Perhaps a short break?”
“Of course.” He sets down his brush, bows, and leaves, his eyes moving quickly over the bottle and rope, so he will know how to reset them.
“Is it truly good?” Katharine asks after the painter has gone. “I cannot bring myself to look. Perhaps we should have brought in a master from Rolanth. That city is mine now, too, and you know they have better artists.”
“Not even the best master from Rolanth could be trusted not to sabotage the portrait so soon after a contentious Ascension.” Pietyr follows her to the west-facing window and slides his arms around her waist. “A poisoner painter is best.” His arms tighten, fingers sliding across her bodice. “Do you remember those first days at Greavesdrake? It seems so long ago now.”
“Everything seems so long ago,” Katharine murmurs. She remembers her manor bedroom, all the striped silk and soft pillows. How she sat as a child with those pillows pulled into her lap, listening to Natalia tell stories. She remembers the library and the floor-to-ceiling velvet drapes, whose folds she used to hide behind whenever Genevieve was sent to poison her.
“It feels like Natalia is still there, does it not, Pietyr? Like if we looked hard enough we could see her standing with her arms crossed before the window of her study.”
“It does, dearest.” He kisses her temple, her cheek, nibbles her earlobe so a shiver runs through her. “But you must never speak so to anyone but me. I know you loved her. But you are a queen now. You are the queen, and there is no time for childhood longing. Come and look at these.” He leads her to a table and lays out a sheaf of papers for her to sign.
“What are they?”
“Work orders,” he says. “For the ships we will provide as gifts to King-consort Nicolas’s family. Six fine ships to ease their pain.”
“This is more than just ships,” Katharine says. But whatever they give is a small price to pay. The Martels had sent their favored son to become the king-consort of Fenn-birn Island, and he had not even lasted a week before being killed in a fall from his horse. A bad fall, thrown down a shallow ravine. It took most of another week to find his body after his horse came back without its rider, and by then, poor Nicolas had been dead a long time.
If only they knew exactly how long. The story of the fall was a lie. A fabrication, worked up by Pietyr and Genevieve, so that none would ever know the truth: that Nicolas had died after consummating his marriage with Katharine. That she is a poisoner in the most literal sense, her whole body toxic to the touch. No one could ever know that. Not even the island, or they would also know that she can bear no mainland-fathered children. That she cannot bear the next triplet queens of Fenn-birn.
Whenever she thinks of that, she nearly freezes in fear.
“What are we doing, Pietyr?” Her hand hangs over her half-finished signature. “What is the point, if at the end of it all, I cannot provide my people with new queens?”
Pietyr sighs. “Look at this with me, Kat.” He takes her hand, and they return to the portrait. There is not much to it yet. Shapes and impressions. The blackness of her gown. But the painter is gifted, and even at so early a stage, she can imagine what the finished painting will look like. “‘Katharine, the fourth poisoner queen,’ it will be called. Katharine, of the poisoner dynasty. Who follows in the footsteps of the three previous poisoners: Queen Nicola, Queen Sandrine, and Queen Camille. It is who you are, and we have plenty of time to put things in place to ensure the future of the island.”
“My whole long reign.”
“Yes. Thirty, perhaps forty years.”
“Pietyr.” She laughs. “Queens do not rule that long anymore.” She sighs and cocks her head at her unfinished image. Barely begun and unknown, much like she herself is. Who knows what she might do during her years as queen? Who knows the changes she might make? And Pietyr is right. The people will know what they need to know. Already they do not know that she was thrown down into the Breccia Domain, saved from death by the spirits of the dead sisters who were thrown down similarly when their Ascensions failed. The
people do not know that she has no true gift of her own, and what strength she has is borrowed from those same dead queens, who even now race through her blood in a rotten current.
“Sometimes I wonder whose crown this is, Pietyr. Mine,” she whispers, “or theirs. I could not have done it without them.”
“Perhaps. But you do not need them anymore. I thought . . . ,” he says, and clears his throat. “I thought they might be gone. That they might leave you alone now that they have what they wanted.”
Katharine’s stomach flutters. Her hunger for poison and her lust for blood have slackened since her sisters sailed into the mist to drown. So perhaps Pietyr is right. Perhaps the dead queens are finished. Perhaps now they will grow quiet and content.
She finishes signing the orders Pietyr brought and takes up her empty bottle and rope as the painter returns.
He wraps the rope again around her wrist, over and over until he has it just as it was. “We must work quickly now, before I lose the light.” He lifts her chin with a finger and gently positions her head, daring one moment to look into her eyes.
“How many sets of eyes do you see?” she asks, and he blinks at her uncertainly.
“Only yours, my queen.”
The next morning, Genevieve arrives at the door of Katharine’s chamber to escort her to the Black Council.
“Ah, Genevieve,” says Pietyr. “Come in! Have you had your breakfast? We are just finishing.”
His voice is bright and smug; Genevieve’s smile forced and closer to a grimace. But Katharine pretends not to notice. Na-
talia’s murder has left a void that must be filled, and all Arrons will bicker among themselves to fill it. Besides, despite the hatred she still feels for Genevieve, Katharine has determined to judge her anew. She is Natalia’s younger sister, after all, and now the Arron matriarch.
“I have already eaten.” Genevieve studies the queen’s empty plate: a mess of cheese scraps and bits of boiled egg. Smears of a jam of poison fruit. “I thought we had decided to limit her poison intake after what happened to the king-consort.”
“It is only a little jam.”
“Two days ago, I saw her shove belladonna berries and scorpions into her mouth faster than she could chew.”
Pietyr glances at Katharine, and she blushes. The dead warriors made her hands itch for blades, and the dead naturalist queens drew her to stroll in the garden. Sometimes the dead poisoners had their cravings.
“Well,” he says, “limiting her intake may not reverse the condition anyway.”
“But it is worth trying, since we have time. And that is the only thing we do have, is it not?”
Katharine slips away to feed Sweetheart as they argue. The coral snake has molted and grown and has a lovely new enclosure filled with leaves to hide behind and rocks to sun herself on. Katharine reaches into another small cage and scoops out a baby rodent. She loves to watch Sweetheart race across the warm sand of her enclosure after it.
“Is there a particular reason you have come to escort me this morning, Genevieve?”
“There is. High Priestess Luca has returned.”
“So soon?” Pietyr wipes his lips with his napkin and stands. It has been only two weeks since the High Priestess departed for Rolanth to move her household from her quarters in Rolanth Temple to her old ones in Indrid Down. “Kat, we should go.”
One on each side, Pietyr and Genevieve escort her down the many stairs of the West Tower, down and down until they reach the main floor of the Volroy and the council chamber. The other members have already assembled, chatting quietly over their tea. High Priestess Luca stands apart, drinking nothing and speaking to no one.
“High Priestess Luca,” Katharine greets her. She takes the old woman’s hands. “You have returned.”
“And so quickly,” says Genevieve with a frown.
“My household is traveling slowly behind me by wagon,” Luca replies. “I have beaten them by a day or two.”
“You should install some of your belongings here in the West Tower.” Katharine smiles. “It would be good to have another floor in residency. From a distance, it looks very grand; imagine my surprise to discover how many floors are taken up by kitchens and storage.”
She and the High Priestess both refuse to acknowledge the sour looks on the faces of the council, as well as their own discomfort. Katharine cannot say that she likes the old woman, and from the way Luca’s eyes follow her, she knows the High Priestess neither likes nor trusts her either. But Natalia struck this bargain. Her last bargain. So Katharine will honor it.
She gestures to the long dark table, and the Black Council takes their seats as servants leave two fresh pots of tea, one poisoned with Natalia’s beloved mangrove, and refresh the sugar and lemon bowls. They clear old cups and saucers littered with biscuit crumbs and brighten the lamps before closing the heavy doors. An extra seat has been added for Luca. Pietyr sits in Natalia’s old seat, though he has not replaced her as Head.
As Cousin Lucian goes over the day’s accounts—tax collections from the merchants for the Queens’ Duel were higher than expected, and there is a fear over a lack of crop production in Wolf Spring—Katharine does her best to pay attention. But day-to-day matters on the island are not what is on everyone’s mind.
“Oh, how long will you make us wait?” Renata Hargrove exclaims.
“Renata, be calm,” says Genevieve.
“I will not be calm! Natalia promised the temple three council seats. And you know whose seats those are.” She looks at Lucian Marlowe, Paola Vend, and Margaret Beaulin. They are the only other members of the council who are not Arrons. Marlowe and Vend at least are poisoners, but Margaret is war-gifted, and as for poor Renata, she is completely giftless.
“How can you know whose seats they are,” Katharine says mildly, “when I do not?” She studies Renata from her chair, and Renata shrinks back. It is a good feeling, to be able to command such a reaction. Katharine does not look like much, small as she is from so many years of poisoning. Forever scarred and forever pale. But there is more to her than that. More to her even than the boost of a thousand years of vanquished queens, and the entire island will come to know it.
“However, Renata does have a point.” Katharine turns to Luca and smiles, all teeth. “You have returned. And you must have given some thought to your choices while you were away.” She had hoped that the High Priestess would not be able to stomach staring into the eyes of the queen who had bested her beloved Mirabella. That Luca would not be able to bow to her and would never return. But she should have known better. Before Mirabella and Arsinoe sailed into the mist, Luca had agreed to preside over Mirabella’s execution, after all.
“I have,” says Luca. “And my choices are myself, the priestess Rho Murtra”—she lifts her chin—“and Bree Westwood.”
The cousins, Lucian and Allegra, make small pained noises.
Pietyr scoffs. “Never.”
Katharine frowns. The only real surprise is Bree Westwood. She had expected that Luca would choose Sara, the head of the elemental family. Not Bree, the flighty girl who played with fire. And of course, Mirabella’s best friend.
“The High Priestess cannot serve on the Black Council,” Genevieve spits.
“It is uncommon, but in the old times, it was not unheard of.”
“The temple is meant to be neutral!”
“Neutral to the queens. Not to the affairs of the island.” Luca’s gaze slides over Genevieve dismissively, and Genevieve’s lip quivers with rage.
“So,” the High Priestess goes on. “Queen Katharine. These are my choices. Who are yours, to be replaced?”
Katharine looks at the faces of her council. But they are not really her council. They are Natalia’s. A few are even Queen Camille’s. She feels the hostility coming off them, and beneath her skin, the dead queens prickle.
The Arrons expect that she will remove three of the others; the others would say that she ought to keep them, to better represent all interests. Even the giftless. Genevieve would tell her to throw the High Priestess’s selections back in her face. And no doubt they all think that she should replace Pietyr. She has seen the way they look at him, how their eyes narrow whenever he touches her.
But they can think what they like. Her Black Council will be hers alone.
“Lucian Marlowe and Margaret Beaulin, you are released. You have both been faithful servants of the crown, but Lucian, we have no shortage of poisoners here. And Margaret, I am sure you can understand my feelings about the war gift, given what happened to me at the hands of Juillenne Milone. Besides, there will be a war-gifted priestess on our council now, to look after the interests of Bastian City.”
Margaret stands and shoves her chair back from the table. She does not use her hands, but the movement is too quick for Katharine to tell whether she used her mind to push or her heel.
“A priestess has no gift,” she growls. “Rho Murtra’s voice will be for the temple and the temple alone.”
“Indeed,” says Lucian Marlowe. “Do you mean to have an entire council of only Arrons and priestesses?”
“No,” Katharine replies, her tone clipped. “Renata and Paola Vend will stay. Allegra Arron will yield the last place.”
Allegra opens her mouth. She looks at her brother, Lucian Arron, but he will not look at her, so finally she rises and bows her head, so low that Katharine can see the whole of the ice-blond bun piled high atop it. She looks so much like Natalia. And it is for that reason as much as anything else that Allegra is leaving.
“Will you stay on,” Katharine asks them, “until my new council members arrive?”
Lucian Marlowe and Allegra nod. But Margaret slams her fist against the table.
“Do you want me to shine my chair for the priestess as well? Give her a tour of the Volroy? This is not the way to rule. Allowing the temple to invade the council space. Keeping your boy by your side as though it is his advice that you’re interested in!”
Katharine reaches into her boot.
“Guards!” Genevieve calls. But Katharine leaps to her feet and throws one of her poisoned knives hard toward Margaret, so hard that it sinks into the tabletop.
“I need no guards,” she says softly, sliding another knife between her fingers.
“The first was a warning, Margaret. The next will go into your heart.”
Jules Milone places her hands on the stones of the city wall. Beneath her palms, the mortar is rough, warmed by the sun but cooling now in the early hours of twilight. Before her lie the sea and the beach, cast in gray by the stretching shadow. The sound of the waves and the smell of the salt air are a little like home, but nothing else is. The wind in Bastian is less wild, and the beach is not dark sand and flat black rock for the seals to lie on, but pale, fading into a beach of small red and white wave-polished stones. It is pretty. But it is not Wolf Spring.
Camden, her cougar familiar, rubs along the back of her, hard enough to press her to the wall, and Jules winds her fingers deep into the big cat’s soft, golden coat.
Their companion on this walk is Emilia Vatros, the eldest daughter of the Vatros clan, warriors who have led Bastian City for as long as anyone can remember. Emilia looks at Camden and frowns. She would have rathered the cat stay behind, in hiding. But Jules is a naturalist, gifted to make fruit ripen and fish swim into her net. And she does not like to go anywhere without her cougar.
Camden hops up and places her good front paw atop the stones, to look out at the waves like Jules is. Jules moves quickly to drag her back down, careful to avoid the cat’s bad shoulder, injured the past winter by an attacking bear.
“It is all right,” Emilia says. “No one is here, and with the sun at her back, anyone looking will mistake her for a big dog.”
Camden cocks her head as though to say, Big dog, my eye, and swats at Emilia half-heartedly when the warrior girl leaps up onto the wall’s edge. Jules gasps. The wall is high, and the ditch below full of unfriendly rocks.
“Don’t do that,” Jules says.
“Just jump up there like that. You’re making me nervous.”
Emilia raises her eyebrows and hops from stone to stone. She spins on one foot.
“Be as nervous as you like. I’ve been running these walls since I was nine. The war gift gives balance. You could do it as well as I. Perhaps even better. Faster.” She smirks at Jules’s doubtful face. “Or perhaps you could had your naturalist mother not bound your war gift with low magic.”
Emilia spins away, miming sword slashes and dagger strikes with imaginary weapons. She has the grace of a bird. Of a cat.
Maybe Jules could do what Emilia does. She is legion cursed, after all. Cursed with two gifts: naturalist and war.
“Had Madrigal not bound the curse, I’d have been driven insane and been drowned a long time ago.”
“Yet you can use your war gift now. It is weakened, but it is there. So maybe you would have been fine all along.” Emilia spins again and thrusts an imaginary sword at Jules’s throat. “Maybe the madness of the legion curse is nothing but a lie spread by the temple.”
“Why would they lie?”
“To keep anyone from being as powerful as you could be.”
Jules narrows her eyes, and Emilia shrugs.
“I see you think it is not worth the risk.” She shrugs again. “Fine. You have the war gift, however muted, so I will hide you however long. Until you no longer want to hide.”
On tiptoe now, Emilia jumps to another stone. But the stone she lands on is loose, and she wobbles precariously.
Emilia grins and lowers her arms.
“I knew it was loose,” she says, and chuckles when Jules scowls. “I know every step of this wall. Every crack in the mortar. Every creak in the gates. And I hate it.”
“Why do you hate it?” Jules looks back at Bastian City, the light and shadow slatted across it by the setting sun. To her it is a marvel, fortified and ordered, built-up buildings of gray brick and timber. The marketplace with stalls covered over in red cloth, the shades as differed as the offered goods as the dye fades with age.
“I love Bastian,” says Emilia. She jumps down. “I hate the wall. We keep it up now because of the gift, because to be ever prepared is our way. But a wall isn’t needed when we have the mist. So it just seals us off.” She clenches a fist and pounds the stone. “Until we forget the rest of the island. The wall makes the people turn their backs, lazy and safe, and who cares if the gift grows weak? Who cares that another poisoner wears the crown?” She watches Jules run her fingers along the mortar lines. “I suppose there are no walls at all in Wolf Spring.”
“Not like these.” Only fences made of wood or pretty, piled rocks to mark the borders between farms. Easily jumped by a horse, or by a person with enough of a running start. “When we rode into Indrid Down to save Mirabella from Katharine in the duel, we passed what was left of the wall that once enclosed the capital. It was overgrown with grasses and weeds. Half-buried. There’s nothing else on the island like this. Not even the ramparts that protect the Volroy fortress.”
“I have heard they still have a fine border wall in Sunpool.” Emilia sighs. “Oracles. They are a paranoid lot. Are you going to do what you came out here to do or what?”
“Can we go down to the beach?”
“Not today. I did not send scouts. There could be others down there in the dunes. Others to recognize you and your cat and send word back to the Volroy. The longer the poisoner queen thinks you left on that boat with her sisters, the better.”
“The longer the better.” Jules takes the pair of silver shears from her back pocket. “How about forever?”
“Nothing lasts forever. Why do you want to go down to the beach?”
Jules pulls her long brown braid over her shoulder.
“I don’t know. To cast it out into the water, I guess.”
“Are all naturalists so sentimental?” She gestures toward the shore full of red and white stones. “Throw it anywhere. The terns will tear strands of it to line their nests. That should please you. Though you don’t have to do it at all. That braid is the last thing that will give you away. More likely are those two-colored eyes of yours.” She nods at Camden. “Or that.”
“I’m never going to put Camden aside, so you can stop hinting about it,” Jules snaps.
“I’m not hinting about anything. I like her. Only a war-gifted naturalist would have a familiar so fierce. Now get on with it.”
Jules touches the end of her braid. She wonders how long Emilia’s dark hair is. She always wears it pinned to her nape in two small rolled buns.
She sets the braid between the open blades of the shears, just below her chin. Arsinoe used to do this. Every season, she would hack off what had grown, anything to avoid the sleek, groomed beauty expected of the queens. One year she left it cut so crooked that it looked like her head was perpetually cocked. Her Arsinoe. She would be so proud.
Jules takes a deep breath and then cuts off her braid. She throws it out as far as she can, out toward the water her friend sailed away on.
The family house of the Vatros clan is tucked into the southeast quadrant of the city, along the wall. It is a large house, with many floors and rows of brown-shuttered windows. The shingles of the pitched roofs are deep red. And it is old, some parts older than others and made of the same gray stone as the wall. The newer additions have been constructed in white. It is one of the finest houses in Bastian City, but all houses seem quite fine to Jules, who is used to clapboard and paint faded by damp, salty breezes. The war gift may have diminished over the centuries, but they have done what they can to not let it show; it is only visible upon much closer inspection, in the patched masonry in the walls and the stitches over stitches in their clothing.
“Attack at half speed.”
Emilia turns the sparring stick over in her hands. It is a clever weapon: sturdy, oiled wood joined in the center as a long pole and able to be twisted apart quickly into two shorter staffs for dual striking.
Jules does as she is told, though her own sparring stick feels heavy and clumsy. She sweeps low for the legs twice, then blocks Emilia’s attacks and dodges an attempt to pop her in the chest. Emilia nods, the only encouragement she ever gives.
“You never ask me to use my war gift,” Jules says. “You never tell me when to use it.”
“You’ll use it when you use it.” Emilia twists her pole into separate staffs. “And you will know when.” She comes forward, still at half speed, but even so, Jules’s arms cannot keep up. The poles crack against each other.
“Though it would come easier if we could get your mother to lift the binding.”
Jules lowers her staff. She flexes her fingers and tucks her hair behind her ear. When she cut it, she cut too short, and now it escapes from its ribbon. She does not like it. Camden does not either. The mountain cat licks it every night when they go to sleep as if she is trying to slick it back into a braid.
“Stop asking that,” Jules growls.
“I am only teasing.”
Except that she is not. At least not entirely. Jules rubs the ache in her poison-damaged legs. Bound gift or no, she might never be the warrior Emilia hopes she will be, thanks to that.
“Come on,” Emilia says. “We don’t have all day.”
They square off again. They do not have all day, but they have most of it; the afternoon sun burns bright and hot against the top of Jules’s head. Emilia’s dark hair shines like a mirror, and knowing how skilled Emilia is at combat she will probably figure out how to blind Jules with it.
As they circle, Jules’s eye wanders to the tree. One lone tree in the private, walled-in courtyard of uneven bricks, not as full as it could be, as it should be, in the height of summer. She could make that happen. Make it bloom with leaves that instant. They would have shade, and Emilia might be distracted enough that Jules could land a decent hit.
“I never ask you to use your war gift,” Emilia says, and Jules looks away from the tree. “But you never use your naturalist gift either. Why? Do you think the other gifts offend us?”
She strikes twice, and Jules blocks them.
“Maybe not,” Emilia repeats. “Maybe not normally, you mean. But in you it would, with your legion curse.” She moves in quick and effortlessly smacks Jules right between the eyes. Behind her, Camden begins to growl.
“Can you blame me?” Jules scowls. “My own family feared the curse. My own town turned their backs on me for it. I still don’t understand why you—and the warriors—don’t.”
“We look past it because of what you have done. The great things that you will do. It was you who boosted the weak queen. Arsinoe,” Emilia adds when Jules’s eyes narrow. “And even bound, your war gift is as strong as mine. You could use it now. Push my staffs off course, if you wanted to. If you would.”
Something sharpens in Emilia’s eyes, and she comes for Jules in a flurry. No longer fighting at half speed or half strength, she drives Jules back, using her advantage in skill to push Jules until her knees bend. And as her heel slides in against the gravel path, Jules feels a spark of familiar temper.
She dodges and pivots as Emilia keeps coming on. Jules waits until she is positioned just right. Until Emilia has allowed herself to put Camden in a blind spot.
Jules strikes out hard with her staff and Camden leaps. She had been crouched, waiting, to knock Emilia down and pin her to the grass.
“Oof!” Emilia says, and rolls faceup as Jules and the cougar look at her. For a moment, her jaw clenches and her face reddens even beneath her deep tan skin. Then she laughs. “All right.” She grasps Camden fondly by the fur and pats her ribs. “No need of a war gift when you have her.”
Emilia tosses Jules a light red cloak, like the ones the servants wear.
“Where are we going?” Jules asks. After a long afternoon of training, she is in no mood to go anywhere; she craves a hot bowl of stew and the softness of her pillow.
“There is a bard staying at the inn. Father told me she knows the song of Queen Aethiel, and I would hear it.”
“Can’t you go without us? I’m likely to fall asleep in my ale, and I don’t want to insult the bard.”
“No,” Emilia replies, “I can’t go without you. Camden will have to stay here, of course. Too many people not in our trust. We’ll bring her back a nice fat leg of lamb.”
Camden lifts her head from her paws but only long enough to yawn. A leg of lamb and a quiet room suit her just fine.
As Jules walks beside Emilia through the city, she pulls the hood of the cloak down to shadow her eyes. Nearly everyone they pass acknowledges Emilia somehow, with a nod or a lowered gaze. The whole city knows the oldest daughter of Vatros by the jut of her chin and the bounce in her stride. They revere her, almost like the people of Wolf Spring used to revere Jules before they knew about the curse. Now if she were to return, they would march her to Indrid Down with her hands tied behind her back.
When they arrive at the inn, there is already a crowd and the bard has already started. Emilia frowns slightly, but the long spoken songs are known to go far into the night, with listeners coming and going as they hear their favorite parts.
“This isn’t even the song of Aethiel,” Emilia says. “It is the arming verse for the song of Queen Philomene. And it goes on forever. I’ll get us some ale and food.”
Jules lets the hood slip back in the heat of the inn. No one is paying attention to her anyway. All eyes are on the bard, standing near the fireplace in a lovely tunic edged in gold thread. She is one of the youngest bards that Jules has seen, though she has not seen many. So few pass through Wolf Spring, tired perhaps of night after night of the song of Queen Bernadine and her wolf. This bard wears a light hood, not unlike the red one that Jules wears, and her voice is melodious even as she recites the arming passages: greaves and knives and leather to be buckled, on and on, dressing the long-dead war queen in her battle finery.
Jules finds an empty table along the rear wall and sits. By the time Emilia returns with two mugs, the bard has moved on to tell of the fierceness of the queen’s army.
“What is there to eat?” Jules asks.
“A leg of lamb, like I told you. And boiled greens. We will eat what we can and bring the rest back to the cat.” Emilia’s eyes dart around the inn and back to the bard. “She will never get to Aethiel at this rate. Perhaps we can bring her to the table when she stops for food and get a few lines then.”
“Or you can wait. She’ll be here for as many nights as
people have coin to pay her. Besides, I don’t want her so close. Bards travel all over the island. She could recognize me.”
“Even if she did, she would not say anything. For a people who speak so much, bards have very tight tongues.”
“How do you know?”
Emilia raises her eyebrows.
“Well, I’ve never had to cut one out, for a start.”
The food arrives, a great platter of it, a whole roasted lamb leg on a bed of greens and roasted potatoes besides.
“Thanks, Benji,” Emilia says to the server, a yellow-haired lad who will run the inn one day.
“An entire leg for two,” Benji remarks. “I wouldn’t think such a small thing would have such a large appetite.”
Jules looks up and finds him smiling at her. She lowers her eyes quickly.
“Nothing small about my stomach,” she says.
“Well, I hope you enjoy. I’ll bring another jug of ale.”
“He is curious about you,” says Emilia.
Jules does not respond. She is bad company, pretending to listen to the bard and speaking only when she must. She supposes that she has been bad company since she came to Bastian City. But it is hard not to be, when every dish of food makes her think of Arsinoe and her famous appetite, and every boy with a crooked smile could be Joseph, for just one instant before she remembers that he is dead.
She forces herself to look back toward the bard and finds her staring directly at her, eyes fixed as her lips move over the words of the raid on the burned city. Jules stares right back, angry, though she cannot say why, and the woman turns her head just slightly so Jules can see the stark white streak running through her hair. The white strands have been gathered together into a braid that falls through the gold like an icicle.
Such white streaks are common marks amongst the seers.
“That is no mere bard,” Jules whispers. “Emilia, what are you up to?”
Emilia does not deny it. She does not even look guilty.
“The warriors and the oracles have always had a strong bond. It is how we knew to come to your aid during the Queens’ Duel. And now we would know what the Goddess has in store for you. What? Did you think we would just hide you here forever, like a prisoner?”
Jules watches as the bard bows to the crowd, taking a break for a meal and some wine. “You said I was welcome for as long as was needed,” she mutters.
The bard stops before their table.
“Emilia Vatros. It is good to see you.”
“And you, Mathilde. Please, sit. Take some ale with us and food. There’s plenty, as you can see.”
“You even know each other,” Jules says as Mathilde takes a seat. She is striking, up close. Not more than twenty years old perhaps, and the braid of white stands out so starkly against her bright blond waves that it is a wonder Jules did not notice it right off.
Emilia takes her knife from her belt and carves a thick slice of meat from the leg, piling it onto a plate along with the greens and potatoes. Benji arrives with a fresh jug of ale and a third cup.
“I would take some wine, also,” Mathilde says, and he nods before going to fetch it. “It is an honor to meet you, Juillenne Milone.”
“Is it?” Jules asks suspiciously.
“Yes. But why are you looking at me like you hate me? We have not yet spoken.”
“I don’t trust many these days. It’s been a bad year.” She looks at Emilia. “And she’s saying my name awfully loud.”
Emilia and Mathilde share a pacifying look. If only Camden were there to swat both of their faces.
“I am aware of the need for discretion,” Mathilde says. “Just as I am aware that your dislike of oracles stems from the prophecy surrounding your birth. That you were legion cursed. But that has turned out to be true, hasn’t it?”
“That I was cursed, yes. Though I’ve heard that the oracle also said that I should be drowned. That is not true.”
Mathilde raises her eyebrows and tilts her head as if to say, Maybe not. Or just not yet. “And is that all that you have heard?”
“What else is there?”
“We never knew the specifics of the portent. We see through another seer’s eyes only that murky curse.”
“You never knew her, then?” Emilia asks. “The oracle who threw the bones when Jules was born?”
“I was still a child when Jules was born. If I knew her in Sunpool, I do not remember. And nor would many, anymore. For that oracle never returned.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Jules snaps.
“That your family covered the truth of you well.”
That they killed the oracle is what Mathilde means. But seer or not, she does not know for sure. It is only conjecture. Accusation. And Jules will not imagine Grandma Cait or Ellis or even Madrigal putting a rock to an old oracle’s head.
“And what is the truth of me now? Isn’t that what you’re here to tell us?”
Mathilde tears a sliver of meat off her plate. The lamb is succulent; there is no need for cutting. Even so, she takes forever to chew. Waiting, Jules vows that she will not believe a word out of the seer’s mouth. And at the same time, she hopes to hear some other vision, some news about Arsinoe and Billy and how they fare on the mainland. Is Arsinoe happy there? Is she safe? Did they give Joseph a fine funeral? It seems an age since she left them that day, bobbing before the mainland. That day that the mist of Fenn-birn swallowed her up again and brought her and Camden home.
She would even settle for news about Mirabella.
“The truth of you is yet to come,” Mathilde says finally. “I know only that you were once a queen and may be again. Those words came into my head like a chant the moment that I looked at you.”
Did you ever think, in your wildest dreams, that we’d get a war brewing between Katharine and Jules?! What could happen?! And are Arsinoe and Mira okay?!?!
Let us know what you think of TWO DARK REIGNS in the comments below!