Action-packed epic fantasy from the author of A Crown for Cold Silver: a retired warrior returns to battle to seek revenge for a terrible blow; old friends and old enemies will pay the price.
The girl slept in her nest of flannel sheets and heavy down, dreaming the honeyed dreams of the few and the privileged, but awoke in the early hours to find her world aflame.
“Come,” her mother called in the dark of her daughter’s bedchamber, backlit by the unsteady lanterns of the servants who waited at the door. “Quickly, Sori, you must see.”
Yet Sori already saw, a faint glow creeping over the casement of her picture window with dawn still many dreams distant. She scrambled out of bed and went toward the window, the chill granite floor beneath her feet warning her this was no nightmare. Before she reached the stained-glass panes in the likeness of their blocky family crest, her mother slid off her beaver-lined cloak and cast it like a net over the girl’s shoulders, steering her toward the door.
“I said quickly,” said her mother, and more startling than the glint of Lady Shels’s breastplate in place of her gold-threaded nightgown was the trembling hand she pressed into her daughter’s back. That hand ought to be as firm as the steel the woman wore at her belt and, for the first time since her parents had told her that trouble might descend on their tranquil kingdom, Sori found herself afraid.
“Wait,” said the girl, turning toward her vanity, and when her mother’s fingers tightened to draw her away, she said, “I need Moonspell.”
Her mother hesitated, then released her, and when Sori hurried back with her sword she saw her mother’s teeth shining as bright as her golden war paint in the flickering light. Sori knew better zhan to ask questions as they strode upward through the keep, the tumult echoing through the halls and up from the courtyard making her heart pound; were they actually under attack? As they reached the spiral staircase leading to Father’s observatory, her mother stopped and addressed her daughter’s hovering handmaids.
“Go and pack, the lot of you, and be sure blades are brought as well as bonnets. Take only what you can carry on your own backs, then go to my chambers and help yourselves to whatever you wish from my closets and jewelry boxes. Do not tarry, though, and leave from the southern gates fast as you can. It may be safer if you travel in twos and threes, but neither all together nor alone.”
Tristessa, who had braided Sori’s hair for as long as she could remember, burst into tears, and Halfaxa shook her nearly bald head, meeting Lady Shels’s eyes as she said, “No, m’lady, we will not desert this house when—”
“You will do as you’re told,” said Sori’s mother in a stern tone she had heretofore reserved only for her children. “I should have dismissed you from the first, pray do not compound my crime by lingering a moment longer. They will be here by dawn, and there is nothing more you can do.”
Tristessa began, but again Lady Shels interrupted her maids.
“It will be better for all if Sori goes with Corben.” Before Sori could recover from the shock of hearing she was to be sent away with her fencing instructor, a yet more confounding sight met her watering eyes in the lantern-bright corridor: her stiffly formal mother stepped forward and threw her arms around Halfaxa, the two women embracing. Then her mother stepped back and, bowing to her servants, said, “It has been an honor to have you wait upon my family. Now flee while you still may.”
Before, Sori had not spoken out of customary obedience, but as she followed her mother up the tower staircase she found herself unable to speak out of sheer panic. Even after the lecture Father had given her the previous week about preparing herself for some very big changes, she had never imagined such chaos. Her mother took her hand as they climbed the stair, and though she was almost fifteen years old, Sori still found herself choking back tears.
Father, Arkon, and Esben were already on the rampart when they emerged onto the level roof of the tower, Corben holding the door open for his mistress and pupil. The stars Lord Shels would contemplate from this roost were drowning beneath waves of smoke, the grey sheets hanging thick above them like exiled clouds that had gathered to muster their strength before retaking the heavens. Father turned from the glow to the north, and upon seeing his wife and daughter tried to smile but couldn’t quite pull it off.
“Time to go, boys,” he told his sons, but their mother shook her head, joining them at the low wall.
“Take them below,” she said, planting a hand on each of their heads and ruffling their hair. “We’ll be down soon, but Sori has to see.”
“We have no time,” said Father, his voice cracking. “They must leave, now, before—”
“We’ll be down soon,” Lady Shels said gently, hands lingering on the scalps of her sleepy boys as though they might float away if she released them. Then she said a word Sori had never heard her use before: “Please, Mervyn. She must see.”
Father yielded, as he always did, but he seemed just as embarrassed as Sori was at Lady Shels’s requesting instead of ordering. “Come along, boys, it’s time. Who’s ready for an adventure?”
They might be young, but neither nine-year-old Arkon nor six-year-old Esben seemed to buy whatever tale he had told them as they left their mother and went to the stair, looking at their sister with wide eyes. She shrugged and smiled, hoping if she put forth a firmer façade than their father they might not be as scared as she was. Esben flung his little arms around her hips, and she pulled Arkon in, too, when he seemed reluctant to hug his big sister. Their father joined them, a knot of arms shivering in the early chill, and beyond them Sori saw her mother turn away from her family, planting her hands on a battlement as she looked out onto the ruddy horizon. Then her brothers and father went back down into the keep, Corben following to give Lady Shels and her daughter their privacy.
“Come here,” Lady Shels called, and Sori dragged her cold feet over to the battlement, dreading whatever hellish sight must have consumed their lands. Yet when she put her own goose-pimpled arms on the granite rampart, she saw the fires were still distant and, stranger still, almost beautiful as they danced against the bruise-dark curtain of night at the northern end of the alley. “Do you know what’s happened, Sori?”
“The Cobalts,” said Sori, the hated word almost catching in her tight throat. “They’re . . . they’re burning our fields.”
“Yes and no,” said Lady Shels, her low voice carrying more fury than any shout or cry could have. “They’re on the far side, looking upon the same fires. But we set them, as soon as we spied their advance.”
“We did?” Sori remembered riding with her family along the wide track that cut through those fields, picnicking along the river, hiding in the labyrinth of corn with her brothers, plucking berries with her maids. Tears quivered in her eyes, but she held them back, as she knew her mother expected. “Why?”
“Why do you think?” Lady Shels was looking down at her daughter, her successor, and Sori could scarce believe her mother would take even such a terrible occasion to deliver another of her endless lessons.
“To buy us time to flee,” Sori decided, her heartbreak giving way to relief, however mild. “To keep them at bay long enough to—”
“No,” said her mother, “that is not why. Do you know what a symbol is?”
“Yes?” said Sori, and knowing her mother expected further proof, tried to think of an example. “Like our crest. It’s a symbol for our province, and our history. The corn is gold because our gold grows from the earth. The bear is our family, guarding the realm. It’s all in a star, because food for the people and strength to protect them is what holds up the Star.”
“Very good,” Lady Shels said, and pointed to the distant fires. “I ordered that our fields burn as soon as the Cobalts came to take them because that’s a symbol, too. Do you know what it symbolizes?”
“No,” said Sori, embarrassed by the wetness on her cheeks. To ignite thousands of acres just before the harvest as some kind of a symbol frightened her nearly as much as the prospect of the Cobalts burning them.
“It’s a symbol that we will never, ever give up,” said Lady Shels, wiping away Sori’s tears with the back of her glove. “That we would sooner destroy our world than let our enemies rob us of it. That if thieves seek to take our lands from us, they will find themselves poorer for having made the effort. That what we labor to build is ours alone. Do you understand?”
Sori’s hand tightened on the scabbard in her shaking hands, and she shook her head.
“You will,” said Lady Shels, and now she sounded sad instead of angry, another unprecedented and upsetting change in her temperament. “I told you they ordered our surrender, yes? It would have been easier to accept their terms. It would have been safer, for our family, for our friends and vassals. But that would have been a symbol, too, and not a good one. Our enemies would use our surrender as a symbol to strengthen themselves, even as we were brought low. Instead our fall will be a symbol to our allies, to all just people of the Star, that might does not make right, that hope is not lost so long as good people stand strong by their principles instead of taking the easier path, when they know it is wrong. Now do you understand?”
“Our fall . . .” Sori gulped, the orange horizon no longer seeming pretty at all. “You don’t mean we . . .”
“We lost a long time ago, Sori,” said her mother, the gold flake of her war paint shimmering in the dark. “But even when one has lost, there is still a choice to be made—to stop fighting, or to carry on even when the odds are impossible, because you know that your fight is righteous. Our fight is righteous, Sori, and even if we cannot win this day, we may still be a beacon of hope for others, trusting that tomorrow the odds may be different. Our courage will not die, even if we do, and that is why the songs still speak of heroes long past—because true courage is only found when victory seems beyond reach but we stretch for it all the same. This will be my legacy, and when I am gone, you must uphold it, even when you are scared, even when you doubt yourself, even when all seems lost. We are not simply people, Sori, we are symbols, every one of us, and so we must ensure that our symbols are worthy.”
Sori was relieved her mother’s gaze stayed on the burning fields so she could not see her daughter’s weakness as she tried to digest this heavy lecture. Sifting for meaning in all the talk of symbols, she said quietly, “If we’re supposed to fight, why are you sending me away with Corben?”
“Because today we need but one martyr,” said her mother, and it finally sunk in all the way, what this was all about. Lady Shels, golden chin held high, looked down at her daughter and said, “When we go downstairs I will lead our people north, and we will fight the Cobalts to the last. I will die with my boots on the soil our ancestors have tilled for generations, and after I am gone, child, it will be up to you to avenge me. To lead whomever remains. To fight on, and not stop until you reclaim our lands, our legacy. In time you will rule from this keep, just as I did, and my mother before me, and her father before her. You must live, so that you may become a symbol of righteousness.”
“But you might not die,” said Sori, not caring that her voice was rising. “You’ve fought before, plenty of times, even against the Cobalts, and you always . . . you always . . .”
“Strength, Sori!” her mother snapped. “Everyone dies; our doomed fate is the very thing that unites mortals against the First Dark. Two centuries hence no one who draws breath this morn will still be alive, not one mortal in all the Star, and all that will be left are the symbols they left for their heirs. I must die, and so I will die fighting for what I believe in. And when the time comes, so will you. Won’t you?”
“Yes.” Sori blinked away the last of her tears and met her mother’s firelit eyes, and though it wasn’t quite true, not yet, she said, “I understand.”
“Good,” said her mother, leading her away from the ramparts, down into Junius Keep. “You will be strong, Indsorith, and in time even the Cobalt Queen will learn to fear your name. Now come, I ready for my last charge, and you must watch your mother ride to claim her fate. We shall not meet again, my child, and so let our parting be worthy of the songs of our heirs!”
* * *
Lady Shels’s final proclamations had been so fiery the words were branded into her daughter’s skull. Through all the hardships young Indsorith endured over the following weeks as she and her fencing instructor fled across Junius and into the Witch Wood, the words shone through like a beacon revealing the only safe path through the perilous night. Even when the agents of the false queen braved the Salted Crypts and discovered her and Corben hiding in that unhallowed place, Indsorith believed in her mother’s words the way feebleminded folk believed in the Burnished Chain. She and Corben fought shoulder to shoulder until his was hewed open by an ax, and even then she battled on until they battered her down, too. She was ashamed to be taken alive, her injuries minor, and all along the snaking trails back through the Witch Wood she repeated her mother’s words like a prayer, begging atonement for her failure to be a worthy symbol.
But then the girl was delivered to Karilemin, the work camp that the so‑called Imperials had erected in the scorched fields of northern Junius, and she learned that her mother’s claims had never been fulfilled. Every single oath had been undone by the machinations of the Cobalt Queen.
And while Indsorith knew that she betrayed her entire legacy by doing so, she gave thanks to the Fallen Mother to see her parents and brothers again. That they had all been captured by the forces of the usurped Empire stung her pride, but Indsorith truly believed that as a family they could weather anything, even such an indignity as this.
Her mother had different ideas, refusing to eat or drink or even speak to her family. The morning that she refused to take her turn in the fields, rebuffing the command with silent dignity, a guard casually caved in her head with his mace. It happened in front of the whole camp, Father and Arkon and Esben wailing as they ran to Lady Shels while Indsorith just stood there, staring, remembering how it had felt when Corben’s arm had come off right beside her, spraying her face with its fading heat.
After that, none of them spoke very much.
Father died of a broken heart shortly after, or maybe it was just barrow plague. And try as Indsorith did to protect her brothers from the vicious guards, to keep them warm through the blanketless winter and fed through the lean spring—
Indsorith didn’t startle away from her memories at the intrusion, as though they were something to be ashamed of. Instead she drifted slowly back to the present, to the play of late afternoon sunlight on the obsidian floor of her throne room. She was the Crimson Queen, Regent of Samoth, Keeper of the Crimson Empire, and so she let herself linger over the memory of awaking to discover Arkon curled against her, hard and cold as the rocks they prised out of the stingy earth until their fingers bled.
“Your Majesty,” said the abbotess, “I am sorry to intrude but—”
“What?” Indsorith snapped, perturbed to have her reverie interrupted before she could properly agonize anew over the yet worse fate that had met her younger brother, Esben. These meddling Chainites grew bolder by the moonrise, no longer content to harass her only when the Brat Pope sat in state on the onyx throne beside Indsorith’s. Though really, now, if she only had to put up with one cultist at a time Abbotess Cradofil was far less obnoxious than Pope Y’Homa.
“Her Grace wishes to inform you that all is ready for your arrival in the Middle Chainhouse,” said the perpetually sweaty abbotess, even her voice sounding as greasy as collection-plate coppers. “If you might be so good as to attend her now, she assures you that the procession shall be completed by midnight.”
“Oh, is that all?” Indsorith climbed down from her sable-padded throne, sore and weary from another long day of sitting. Twenty years and a hundred different combinations of bolsters and furs later, that fire glass chair was just as fucking merciless as when she’d first seized it from Cobalt Zosia—no wonder the evil old witch had been so keen to give it away to the first comer. “I don’t suppose I can cancel over something as trivial as awaiting word from the Fifteenth Regiment on what exactly the fuck is going on at the Lark’s Tongue?”
“I would never presume to suggest what Your Majesty may or may not do, even under the most dire of circumstances,” said Cradofil, milky eyes everywhere but on her queen. What an answer! The old snoop must know as much about the unfolding situation on the Witchfinder Plains as Indsorith or any of her advisors; if she didn’t, she surely would have tried to fish more details out of Indsorith instead of settling for noncommittal toadying. “No, you’re too smart for that, aren’t you?” Indsorith stretched from side to side in preparation for the strenuous hike down to the Middle Chainhouse. “Tell me, Abbotess, how many masters have you served in this chamber?”
“There’s Y’Homa, and me, of course, now that the Black Pope and I share certain offices and honorifics, so that’s two.” Cradofil was obviously having a hard time following, even though Indsorith was holding up only two fingers. “And before his niece stepped into his slippers and mitre there was old Shanatu, whom you must have served before, during, and after his repeated attempts to depose me, yes?”
“Yesssss?” Cradofil fidgeted as Indsorith made a big to‑do of retrieving Moonspell and her scabbard from their sheath in the arm of the throne. Her mother insisted Indsorith’s first weapon be the ancient Bodomian spatha that had been in their family since the Age of Wonders, and while the sword had felt so heavy and unwieldy when she was a girl, she had grown into it, like so much else. Hard to believe that tracking down the Imperial who had stolen Moonspell when she’d first been captured had been the hardest part of her vengeance—escaping the prison farm hadn’t taken much, and confronting Zosia even less.
“That’s three, which isn’t a bad run for a lackey, but old as you are I expect you may have had other masters before we youngsters came along—my predecessor, for example?”
“King Kaldruut would never have allowed a humble abbotess in the Crimson Throne Room,” said Cradofil.
“Ah, but he wasn’t my predecessor, was he?” said Indsorith, allowing the pair of attendants who had glided into the room to help her into the absurd parade dress she was expected to wear. It was all garlands of garnets and rows of rubies held together with black velvet. “You know who I’m talking about, don’t you? Or will you force me to say her name?”
“Never, Your Majesty,” said Cradofil quickly. “And no, I . . . I should not say I served her. She was a heretic, a butcher, and—”
“And why do you phrase it so?” Indsorith had only intended to get Cradofil’s goat as payback for the woman’s disturbing her from her memories, but now her lazing curiosity was unexpectedly awakened. “I don’t give a good devildamn what you should or shouldn’t say, I want the truth—did you serve Cobalt Zosia when she was queen?”
One of the attendants gasped and the other nearly tore off a gem-studded button at the use of the forbidden name, and Cradofil looked like a turtle who’d just realized she’d swallowed a fishhook. The abbotess looked down at the halo of the sun reflected in the obsidian floor as she said, “I met with her once, yes. Here. Only a month before you cast the pretender down, Your Majesty.”
“Do tell!” said Indsorith, pulling herself free of her trembling handmaids and straightening the Carnelian Crown on her jaded brow.
“She . . .” Cradofil looked as nervous as Sister Portolés had, the night the disgraced war nun had been brought in here. “The Stricken Queen . . .”
“Out with it, woman, I’m not very well going to punish you for something that happened twenty years ago.”
“It was the Stricken Queen who charged me with establishing the Dens,” said Cradofil, finally looking back up at Indsorith. “Under King Kaldruut’s rule any obvious anathemas were put to the stake on sight, and there was nothing the Chain could do to dissuade him from this position. When . . . she usurped Kaldruut she first tried to break the Chain entirely, to dismantle our noble church, but her sinful ambitions were thwarted by the will of the Fallen Mother. When we proved too strong for her to sunder, she made a number of egregious reforms, all but one of which were reversed as soon as you liberated the realm, Your Majesty.”
“And the one reform the Chain kept was the practice of amassing an army of fervent weirdborn converts right under my feet?” Indsorith drained the glass of salt wine a page had brought her but waved away his squid pie, tempting though it smelled. “For the life of me I can’t imagine why.”
“It is only through my continued resolve and patience that the institution persists,” said the abbotess, her chest puffing out with more than a hint of that shameless pride Chainites were so big on. “I know you have had your differences with the Holy See on the particulars of the matter, Your Highness, but of course that is not my purview.”
“Nor mine, at present,” said Indsorith, not caring to rehash the whole ugly business anew—when she’d found out just what methods the Chain used to “heal” the weirdborn and tried to put a stop to it, Shanatu had refused to budge, and one thing led to another, and that was the most recent civil war. For all the good it had done her, or the weirdborn for that matter—the only ones who had benefited were mercenary guilds, blacksmiths, and, as always, the Burnished Chain . . . and now there was another war in the works, because there always was. To think there was a time not so long ago that Indsorith had thought getting Shanatu’s young niece to succeed him was a minor coup for the future of the realm . . .
“I believe that not even the lowest devil is so lost that it cannot be brought into the Fallen Mother’s grace,” Cradofil added, perhaps to fill the silence or perhaps because she thought there was an argument to win here. “And it is only through the benevolence of the Chain that these poor wretches are made whole.”
“Or close enough,” said Indsorith, remembering how scarred the Chain had left Sister Portolés, and not just from their surgeons’ removal of her weirdborn mutations. It was the deep emotional scars that had convinced Indsorith to trust the wretched war nun after knowing her for only an hour, and to trust her absolutely—one look in her scared eyes and Indsorith had known she had found the most powerful ally in all the Star, and also the most dangerous: a true believer in both good and evil. Of course she might betray her queen out of misplaced faith in the Chain, but Indsorith had wagered her life that the girl wouldn’t, at least not intentionally. In a world of chance, deception, and deviltry, intention counted for something. It had to, because if it didn’t, what did that say about Indsorith, and all the countless lives that had been snuffed out by Imperial soldiers over her twenty years of rule? What sort of a symbol had she grown into?
“News, Your Majesty, and what news it is!”
Indsorith squinted in the glare of the setting sun that washed out the only entrance to the Crimson Throne Room, recognizing the voice but scarcely expecting the girl would come to her.
“Your Grace!” Abbotess Cradofil exclaimed, confirming that the hazy silhouette striding out into the open terrace of the throne room was indeed Pope Y’Homa III herself. She wasn’t alone, half a dozen of her personal guard accompanying the girl. She was naked under her loose cape of oily black fur, her pale cheeks and brow daubed with fresh blood, but far more disturbing than her ceremonial dress was the curved bronze dagger in her left hand, its rune-etched blade still dripping.
“Is the news that you have decided to get tossed over my balcony, stepping in here with a drawn weapon?” Indsorith demanded. “I don’t care what ritual I’m late to, you don’t come in here . . .”
But she did, Y’Homa’s bared teeth flashing brighter than her sun-kissed dagger as she advanced on the Crimson Queen, the Dread Guards stationed at the door who should have at least announced the pope and her retinue nowhere to be found, and Indsorith recognized the scene for what it was. Well she might, having welcomed forty-seven assassins over the course of her reign. Yet never in her wildest fantasies had she imagined Y’Homa herself daring to settle the matter with steel—the girl must have gone off her nut, if she thought this was going anywhere but south.
“I knew Your Grace was a loon, but I’ll admit I underestimated your madness,” said Indsorith, snapping Moonspell out of her scabbard. As she did, her eagerness to duel the girl evaporated. Her hand was heavy, her arm sluggish, and her head floaty; something more than salt in the wine, and something strong at that to be hitting her so fast. “I’ll give Your Grace one last chance to reconsider, chalk it up as—”
“It’s happened!” Y’Homa cried as she stopped a short distance away, her cape flapping over her wildly gesticulating arms like the wings of an oddly hairless owlbat. “The Fifteenth’s met the Cobalt Company on the Witchfinder Plains, and the war is ended! We’ve won!”
“We’ve . . . what?” Indsorith had assumed the girl’s bluster about news of great import was just the preamble to a boast. Pieces began to materialize through the harsh sunlight, like interesting pebbles glimpsed at the bottom of a swift-moving stream. Too late, she gleaned the girl’s plot. “You . . . you’ve been working with Hjortt? You had him engage the Cobalts without my permission, and so his victory is yours instead of mine? And now you come to kill me?”
“His victory?” Y’Homa brayed with laughter, and began saying something else when Indsorith charged. Being drugged and betrayed came with the regency, but mockery did not. Would‑be assassins could try to kill her or try to laugh at her, but they couldn’t have both.
Even reeling from the poisoned wine, Indsorith’s thrust would have skewered the startled brat’s heart if one of her guards hadn’t gotten in the way. The big cleric’s sword batted Indsorith’s away as a second guard came in with a maul. Indsorith oozed around it and swept the swordsman’s leg out from under him, her blade coming back down to bisect Y’Homa’s snotty face. But that hammer again, coming in fast, and so she redirected her swipe, chopping off the fingers that wielded it and biting into the weapon’s handle. Two more guards surrounded her, Y’Homa drifting back through the contracting ring of bodies, and Indsorith speared one under the chainmail cowl and elbowed another’s face before the rest took her down.
To her mortification, neither the blows of their pommels nor the drugged wine were strong enough to kill her outright, and so she suffered the indignity of staring up at Y’Homa as the girl leaned down and tugged the Carnelian Crown away from her throbbing temples.
“Oh, Indsorith,” said Y’Homa dolefully and, instead of donning the crown she’d stolen, the girl slid down onto the slippery floor beside Indsorith, cradling the limp queen’s head in her lap. The mad little pope stroked Indsorith’s cheeks, but the queen couldn’t lift a finger to stop her even had she wanted to . . . and the worst of it was that Y’Homa’s touch was actually comforting, maternal. “I fear you’ve got it all wrong, as usual. I didn’t come to kill you, and Hjortt wasn’t victorious. At least not to his primitive thinking. I’m talking about something much, much bigger, something that you’re going to be a part of, the same as me. We each have our part to play, and I know that by the end of this we’ll be as close as sisters. Closer!”
Indsorith felt as though she were sliding down a chute, arms and legs bound to her side, and the farther she fell the faster she went, speeding toward the twin pits of Y’Homa’s world-spanning black eyes. The Black Pope leaned down closer, and Indsorith saw that the blood on the girl’s cheeks hadn’t been anointed there, but dripped down from her shining eyes like war paint running in the rain. Her breath smelled of raw meat and vinegar as she tenderly kissed Indsorith’s brow, then whispered in her ear.
“All is forgiven, sister. The sun sets on the Day of Becoming, and the Sunken Kingdom rises from the deep. The Fallen Mother has returned, and she awaits our journey to the living paradise she has brought us. The reign of mortals has expired, Indsorith; our duty is complete!”
The words struck the surface of Indsorith’s ears but floated there for a time, yet more religious babble without real meaning. What did register was Pope Y’Homa holding up Indsorith’s crown to catch the last rays of light, and then casting it toward the edge of the throne room. It skipped several times on the obsidian, then slowed so quickly it seemed it might stop just short of the precipice, or jut out over the edge like a piece in some noble’s lawn game. It didn’t, though, slipping neatly over the edge and vanishing, the Carnelian Crown tumbling down to the streets of Diadem like the heaviest symbol ever wrought by a mother’s metaphor.
And finally, the Black Pope’s words made some kind of feverish sense to Indsorith, but her tongue was too sticky to ask the obvious question: if the reign of mortals had truly ended, who would rule the Star in their stead?