Read a sample from COLD STEEL by Kate Elliott
Read the beginning of Cold Steel, the enthralling third volume in a hugely engaging fantasy set in an ice-bound world with a Victorian feel!
I was serving drinks to the customers at the boardinghouse when a prince came to kill me.
I had my back to the gate and had just set a tray of empty mugs on the bar when the cheerful buzz of conversation abruptly ceased. Behind the counter, Uncle Joe finished drawing a pitcher of ale from a barrel before he turned. His gaze widened as he took in the sight behind me. He reached under the counter and set my sheathed sword next to the tray, in plain view.
I swung around.
As with most family compounds in the city of Expedition, the boardinghouse’s rooms and living quarters were laid out around a central courtyard. A wall and gate separated the living area from the street. Soldiers stood in the open gate, surrounding the man who intended to be the next ruler of the Taino kingdom.
Prince Caonabo had a broad, brown face, and his black hair was almost as long as mine, although his fell loose while I confined mine in a braid whose tip brushed my hips. He wore white cotton cloth draped around his body much like a Roman toga, and simple leather sandals. Had I doubted his rank because of the plainness of his dress, I might have guessed his importance from the gold torc and gold armbands he wore, as well as the shell wrist-guards and anklets that ornamented his limbs and the jade-stone piercing the skin just above his chin.
The prince raised a hand, palm up. A flame sparked from the center of his palm, flowering outward as a rose blooms.
“Catherine Bell Barahal, you have been accused in the council hall of Expedition of being responsible for the death of the honorable and most wise cacica, what you call a queen, she with the name Anacaona. As Queen Anacaona’s only surviving son, and as heir to her brother, the cacique, I am required to pursue justice in this matter.”
I met his gaze. “I would like to know who made that accusation.”
“I made the accusation.”
He knew what I had done.
I took a step back, but I could not move faster than magic. Warmth tingled across my skin as the backlash of his fire magic brushed across my skin and stirred heat within my lungs and heart.
Yet as the light of the growing flame shimmered across his face, his features melted quite startlingly, like candle wax. He was as poured into a new mold and began to transform into a different person. I had not known that fire mages were skilled in the art of illusion, able to make themselves appear as someone else! Even the bar and courtyard were cunningly wrought illusions that, like his face and body, dissolved into mist. A gritty smoke filled my lungs, choking me.
Leaping back, I grabbed for my sword, but before I could grasp the hilt, my hand burst into flame. A blast of hot wind dispersed the stinging veil of smoke. As my vision cleared, I found myself standing on grand stone steps that led up to the imposing entry of a palatial building. Its walls and roof blazed. Sheets of fire crackled into the air like the vast wings of a molten dragon. Flames clawed searing daggers into my flesh as I groped for my sword. I had no cold magic with which to kill the inferno. Only if I could wield cold steel had I a chance to save myself.
My fingers closed over the smooth hilt. I tugged, but the blade stuck in its sheath. An icy wind poured down in gouts of freezing air that battered against the raging flames, as if fire and ice were at war and I was at the center of the battle. The flames shimmered from gold to white, and in the blink of an eye the fire transmuted to become falling snow. Brushing away the snowflakes icing my eyes and lips, I tried to make sense of what had happened.
Where was I? Why was everything changing so fast? Was I dreaming?
Instead of a burning building, the sheer cliff face of an ice sheet loomed over me. The pressure of its glacial mass slowly advanced, grinding and groaning. I pulled on my sword, but the blade was crushed in the ice and my hand had frozen to it. I simply could not move.
Beyond my frozen body lay a hollow cavern that bloomed with the harsh glamour of cold fire. In that lofty cave, the melted form that had first appeared to me as Prince Caonabo glittered as it changed. Frost and crystals shaped themselves into the figure and face of a man I recognized: the Master of the Wild Hunt.
His expression was as cold and empty as his heart. “So are you trapped, little cat. You will never be free.”
“I will be free! All of us will be free!” I tugged at the sword with all the heart and might I had in me.
Instead, the sword yanked me back the other way so hard that it hauled me right off my feet.
“Cat! Fiery Shemesh! You are talking nonsense in your sleep and besides that trying to drag me off the bed.”
My cousin Beatrice loomed over me, her thick black curls framing her familiar and beloved face. Her fingers clutched mine, and I realized I had been holding her hand for quite some time. For fifteen years, since I was orphaned at the age of six, Bee had been my best friend, as close as a loving sister. Just to see her helped me relax enough that I could take stock of where I was and what I was doing.
We had fallen asleep together in the drowsy afternoon heat in an upstairs room of Aunty Djeneba’s boardinghouse.
After washing up on the jetty of the city of Expedition, on the island of Kiskeya in the Antilles, I had come to live at the boardinghouse. Here Andevai Diarisso Haranwy, the cold mage I had been forced to marry back in Europa, had courted me and won my heart. Bee and I were napping on the bed Andevai had built for his and my wedding night. I shut my eyes, remembering his kisses. For a few breaths I pretended I could hear his voice downstairs in the courtyard, as if he had just come home from the carpentry yard where he worked. But he was gone.
You will never be free.
I sat up, trying to shake off the memory. “What a frightful nightmare I just had. Pinch me, Bee.”
She pinched my arm with the force of iron tongs wielded by a brawny blacksmith.
“Ah! You monster!” I cried.
“You said to do it!”
I shook my arm until the pain subsided, while she laughed. “No, it’s all right. I just wanted to make sure I’m finally awake.”
Bee tapped my cheek affectionately. “You were talking in your sleep. You’ve become quite the revolutionary, Cat. You kept mumbling, ‘All of us will be free.’ ”
With a sigh, I leaned against her shoulder. Bee was significantly shorter than I was, but she was sturdy and determined, easily strong enough to hold me up when I needed support. “It’s no wonder I mumble such words in my sleep. When I wake up, I remember that my sire threw Vai into his magical coach and drove off with him into the spirit world.”
Bee pressed her fingers to my knee, staring at me with brows drawn down as if she could bend the world to her will through her glower, and sometimes I was sure she could. “I know you’re worried because your sire is the Master of the Wild Hunt, because he is a powerful magical denizen of the spirit world, and because not even the most powerful cold mage can stand against him. But even though all that is true, it doesn’t mean you and I can’t defeat him and rescue Andevai.”
“I always feel so heartened when you explain things in exactly that cheering way, Bee.”
“Do you doubt that we can?” she demanded in the belligerent manner I loved.
“I don’t doubt that we must, for certainly no one else can! Anyhow, I’m not going to lie here and cry about it. We will figure out what to do because we have to.”
I rose. In the dim and rather stuffy little room, a cloth-covered screen folded out to divide the space into two halves. Vai’s younger sister had slept on the other side of the screen, but she had recently married a local man and moved into his family’s compound. Two wooden chests held Vai’s clothes and other necessaries. His carpentry tools resided in a smaller chest he had built specially to house them. A covered basket held my few possessions, for I had arrived in Expedition with nothing except the clothes on my back, my sword, and my locket. Through the open window floated the sounds of the household waking from their afternoon naps.
A length of brightly printed fabric that depicted green fans was draped over the screen. Tied around my hips, it made a skirt. I pulled a short gauzy blouse over my bodice.
Bee surveyed me critically. “That looks very well on you, Cat. The style would not flatter my figure.” She fluffed out her curly hair to get the worst snarls out. “Wouldn’t the fastest way to pursue Vai be to enter the spirit world here and follow your sire to Europa through the spirit world?”
“I’ve been warned off trying to enter the spirit world here in the Antilles. The Taino spirits don’t like me. They will do everything they can to stop me entering their territory. Anyway, getting Vai back does not solve our greater problem, does it? The Hunt will still ride every year on Hallows’ Night. It will still hunt down powerful cold mages and innocent dream walkers. Nor will rescuing Vai stop my sire from binding me whenever he wishes.”
With a frown like the cut of a blade, Bee crossed to the window and set her hands on the sill. “It’s true. I can hide from the Wild Hunt in a troll maze, but you can’t. And it isn’t just about you and me and Andevai. What about other women who walk the dreams of dragons, the ones who don’t know that the mirrors of a troll maze will conceal them from the Hunt? I hate to think of what will happen to them when next the Wild Hunt rides. They should be safe, too. Everyone should be safe.”
“Yes. I don’t see why anyone should have to fear the Wild Hunt just because the spirit courts of Europa demand a sacrifice of mortal blood every year. It’s wrong for any person to be torn to pieces and have their head ripped off and thrown down a well.” I looked away so Bee would not see my expression, for that was exactly what had happened to Queen Anacaona on Hallows’ Night. To speak of how Bee’s new husband, Prince Caonabo, had walked in my dream with his threats seemed cruel because it would upset her dreadfully, so I said nothing of it. Bee hadn’t been on the ballcourt when the Wild Hunt had descended on the wings of a hurricane, but the prince had seen it all.
Bee did not notice my guarded expression or my pause. She was gazing down on the courtyard, watching the family making ready for the customers who would arrive at dusk to eat Aunty Djeneba’s justly famous cooking and to drink the beer and spirits served by Aunty’s brother‑in‑law, Uncle Joe.
“No one should have to live at the mercy of another’s cruel whim,” she said. “That is the same whether it is the Wild Hunt, or the unjust laws and arbitrary power wielded by princes and mages. It is the toil and sweat and blood of humble folk that feed those who rule us, is it not?”
Her fierce expression made me smile. “A radical sentiment, Bee! And so cogently expressed!”
She tried to smile but sighed instead. “I can’t laugh about it. We are caught in an ancient struggle.”
I recalled words spoken to me weeks ago. “ ‘At the heart of all lie the vast energies which are the animating spirit of the worlds. The worlds incline toward disorder. Cold battles with heat.’ Is that what you mean?”
“You are poetic today, Cat. I mean the struggle between those who rule unjustly merely because they have claimed the privilege to do so, and those who seek freedom to rule themselves.”
I studied her from across the room. With only one window for light, the details of her face were obscured, as the future is obscured to every person except the women who walk the dreams of dragons and thus may glimpse snatches of what will come. Over the last two years, since long before she admitted the truth to me, Bee had been having dreams of such clarity and intensity that she felt obliged, upon waking, to sketch the most vivid moments from those dreams. As the months passed, she had discovered that the scenes in these sketches were visions of future meetings.
Naturally, all manner of powerful people wanted to control her gift of dreaming. The mansa of Four Moons House had sent Andevai to claim her for the mage House, but Vai had mistakenly married me instead. General Camjiata had tried to seduce Bee to his cause so he could use her visions to give him an advantage in war, and in a way he had succeeded, for he was the one who had brokered the marriage between Bee and Prince Caonabo; the alliance gave him Taino support for the war he wanted to fight in Europa. Queen Anacaona had wanted her son to become cacique when her brother died, and an alliance with a dragon dreamer like Bee gave Caonabo a prestige other claimants did not possess. But now, the tilt of Bee’s head and the tone of her voice worried me. I did not like to think she had sacrificed her happiness believing she had to do it to make us both safe.
“Bee, you told me all about your wedding adventure, but you never really said if you are truly happy, married to Prince Caonabo.”
By the way her chin tucked down, I guessed she was blushing. “I do like him. He is levelheaded and thoughtful. I find him interesting to talk to, and he is not at all taken aback that I am knowledgeable about such topics as astronomy or the mechanics of airship design, not as some men are. I must admit, I rather enjoy being a Taino noblewoman, even if my consequence is borrowed. From what I have seen, the Taino court governs in a just manner. But everything that has happened to us, even my marriage, has made me think so much more about what we used to take for granted, the things we thought were inevitable and proper.” She leaned out the window and glanced at the sky, then withdrew, looking alarmed. “I must go! I didn’t realize we had slept for so long. Usually I dream. How strange that I didn’t dream at all.”
“Why are you in such a hurry?”
She laced up her sandals and straightened her spotlessly white linen draperies. “Caonabo has diplomatic meetings today with the provisional Assembly here in Expedition. He means to hammer out a new treaty with the new government before we journey to the Taino court in Sharagua. He wants matters with Expedition Territory settled before he presents himself to the Taino court as the rightful cacique.” She slipped on enough gold jewelry to purchase a grand house and compound. “I am obliged to be at the palace on the border of Expedition Territory when he returns, to greet him with the proper ceremony.”
“Are you?” I asked, then thought better of teasing her about this unexpected display of wifely compliance because she grabbed my hands and squeezed them so tightly I feared my fingers would be crushed.
“Promise me you’ll stay out of trouble until tomorrow, Cat. When I come back, we will figure out how to get you to Europa.”
“Of course I’ll stay out of trouble! When do I ever deliberately court trouble, I should like to ask?”
“When do you not court trouble, you should be asking!” Bee snatched her sketchbook from the side table and stuffed it into the knit bag she carried so she could keep it and her pencils next to her at all times. “I am not the one who goes about punching sharks or speaking my mind so caustically to arrogant cold mages that they fall in love with me. Come along.”
When Bee set her mind to drag a person along with her to wherever she was set to go, it was impossible to resist, nor did I try. Hand in hand, we descended the stairs to the courtyard. The boardinghouse had a wall and gate that separated it from the street, while the living quarters were laid out in a square whose center was a courtyard. Because it was hot year-round in the Antilles, most of the daily life went on in the spacious courtyard. A wide trellis and a canvas awning covered the benches and tables where customers drank and ate and gossiped, but right now, with the heat of the afternoon ebbing, the courtyard was empty except for Uncle Joe and the lads setting up benches and trays while Aunty Djeneba and her granddaughters cooked in the outdoor kitchen.
They were not one bit overawed by Bee’s borrowed consequence as she made respectful goodbyes to the women and charming farewells to the menfolk. Outside the gate, Taino attendants handed her into the carriage that had waited there half the day while she visited me. We embraced and kissed, after which she promised ten times to return in the morning.
“Bee, don’t fret. How much trouble can I get into overnight?”
“That’s what worries me.” She squeezed my hands so tightly that I gritted my teeth rather than wince. “Dearest, promise me you’ll do nothing rash.”
“Ouch! I’ll promise whatever you wish, only you’re crushing my fingers again!”
She released me at last. I waved as she drove off down the cobblestone street through the quiet neighborhood where lived people whose labor built and sustained the city of Expedition.
The moment I went back inside, one of the lads handed me a broom. I swept between the benches and tables as had been my habit in the weeks I had lived and worked here, for I had come to enjoy the household’s routine. When I finished, I went to the shaded outdoor kitchen.
“Aunty,” I said to Djeneba as she prepared a big pot of rice and peas, “I don’t see Rory and Luce. Did they go to the batey game?”
A wry smile creased her lined face. “So they did, Cat. By that frown, I reckon yee’s not so glad to see Luce walking out with yee brother.”
My frown deepened. “I am not! He’s no better than a tomcat. A pleasant, kind, charming, and well-mannered tomcat, but no better regardless.”
“Luce is sixteen now. Old enough to choose for she own self.” She handed me a wooden spoon and directed me to stir the pot as she added more salt and pepper. “Is yee determined to wait tables tonight? Yee don’ have to work if yee’ve no mind to do it.”
The pot simmered, a luscious flavor wafting up. I licked my lips as I wielded the spoon. “Aunty, you know I can’t sit quietly. Waiting tables will keep my mind off Vai.”
“It surely did before.” Aunty’s laugh coaxed a reluctant smile to my lips as I remembered the clever way he had won me over by bringing me delicious fruit to eat and confiding in me about his embrace of radical principles. “Yee never could seem to make up yee mind about Vai. Yee pushed him back with one hand and pulled him close with the other. What settled yee?”
“Really, Aunty, did you think he would give up before he got what he wanted?”
“Yee’s a stubborn gal, Cat. I had me doubts.”
“You shouldn’t have had. I think I was always a little infatuated with him, even back when I disliked him for his high-handed ways. The Blessed Tanit knows he’s handsome enough to overwhelm the most heartless gal.”
“Good manners and a steady heart matter more than looks, although he have all three in plenty. Still, I reckon yee have the right of it. ’Tis no easy task for a gal to say no to a lad as fine as he. Especially after the patient way he courted yee.” She took the spoon. “Yee get that man back.”
“I will get him back, I promise you, Aunty.” I did not add that I had no idea how I was going to manage it. “Bee will help me. We’re going to make our plans tomorrow.”
The thought of him trapped in my sire’s claws made me burn. Yet not even worrying could dampen my appetite. I ate two bowls of Aunty’s excellent rice and peas, by which time the first customers had begun to arrive. They greeted me with genuine pleasure, for even though I was a maku—a foreigner—in Expedition, folk here did appreciate my willingness to speak my mind. Better yet, they laughed at my jokes. The easy way people conversed pleased me, and no one thought it at all remarkable that a young woman had opinions about the great matters of the day.
“I certainly hope the new Assembly will not allow the Taino representatives to bully them on this matter of a new treaty,” I said to a table of elderly regulars.
“Hard not to feel bullied when a fleet of Taino airships sit on the border chaperoned by an army of soldiers who have already marched once through Expedition’s streets,” said Uncle Joe from the bar. “Peradventure without yee intervention on Hallows’ Night, Cat, we in Expedition would have had to bow before a Taino governor instead of setting up this new Assembly. If yee had not done what report say yee did do.”
I dodged past the lad who with pole and ladder was lighting the courtyard’s gas lamps. With a shake of my head, I set a tray of empty mugs on the bar as I made a grimace at Uncle Joe. After the dream I had just had, I did not want anyone to begin reflecting on the part I had played in halting the Taino invasion of Expedition Territory. He nodded to show he understood, then turned to draw a pitcher of ale from a barrel to refill the mugs.
Between one breath and the next, the lively rattle of conversation ceased. The courtyard fell silent. I had my back to the gate. As Uncle Joe turned with the full pitcher, glancing past me, his gaze widened. He reached under the counter and set his machete next to my tray.
He had done the same in my dream, only my sword was looped to a cord around my hips. The blade of his machete caught a glimmer of gaslight that carved a shimmering line along its length.
I swung around.
Prince Caonabo stood in the open gate, surrounded by attendants and soldiers.
Just as he had in my dream.