Epic world-building at its finest, debut fantasy The Black Coast is the start of an unmissable series filled with war dragons, armoured knights, sea-faring raiders, dangerous magic and crowd-pleasing battle scenes.
The Sun Palace, atop its mighty sandstone plateau, was the jewel of the city of Idramar. It blended beauty with fearsome defensive architecture, and had stood as the symbol of Narida’s unquestioned power since the God-King Nari rose from obscurity to conquer the lands between the Catseye Mountains and the ocean. From the mighty Eight Winds Tower of the central stronghouse the current God-King could look east across the waves that lapped at his city’s shore, follow the great River Idra west towards the Catseyes, hundreds of miles distant, or gaze north or south across the wide floodplain and its fertile fields.
Unfortunately the current God-King was doing no such thing, and Tila could feel one of her headaches coming on.
“Where is he?” she demanded. The servant, a scar-faced pox survivor, bowed and began to stammer a reply. Tila slapped him, and grabbed his tunic to haul him in front of her black veil.
“Let this princess make something clear,” she growled. “She knows His Divine Majesty likes to disappear and keep his advisors” – the word got mangled as it passed her teeth – “unaware of his whereabouts, but she will find him eventually. You can either tell her where he went, or she can put you through that window and do this the hard way. Where is he?”
“The Oak Avenue, Your Highness!”
“A thinker.” Tila snorted. “How remarkable. Congratulations on choosing to see another meal.” She released the servant, wiping her hand on her dress and ignoring his miserable bow. She never exactly set out to mistreat the staff, but she always had so much to do – or at least, there was always much that needed doing – and they inevitably slowed things down.
She did indeed find Natan, God- King of Narida, on a bench catching the winter sun slipping through the bare branches of the oaks lining one of the private avenues within the Sun Palace. He was enjoying a goblet of wine from his northern vineyards, and he was not alone.
Tila didn’t know his companion’s name, but the youth was a dragon groom; a strapping fellow, whose clothes did little to disguise his well- formed limbs. Such vigour was hardly surprising, since a groom had to be both strong and quick on his feet. Even the most amiable beast could accidentally crush a man too slow to dodge a swinging tail.
Any other member of the Inner Council might have awkwardly cleared their throat, or made some other discreet announcement of their presence. Tila didn’t bother with such niceties: she marched up to the groom and tapped him on the shoulder, causing him to hurriedly disengage his mouth from that of the God-King.
“You,” Tila snapped, clicking her fingers. “Leave. Now.” She eyed his half-unfastened tunic. Idramar had mild winters, but even so . . . “And cover yourself.”
The poor youth glanced desperately at the God- King, back at her, and fled away through the trees, presumably towards his duties. Tila folded her arms and shook her head at her monarch.
“Are you happy?”
“His Divine Majesty was happy,” her older brother replied sourly. “We need to talk about your propensity to interrupt his intimate moments.”
“Do not take that form of address with your sister,” Tila snapped. “And kissing a groom here is not ‘intimate’.”
Natan looked around ostentatiously. The royal guard stood in pairs some distance away, to intercept anyone intruding on their ruler . . . so long as that intruder wasn’t Princess Tila Narida, since they weren’t fools. Otherwise, there was no one to be seen.
“Besides, that is not the point,” Tila continued. “It is unseemly for you to consort with such a lowborn man.”
“And what do you know of his parentage?” Natan demanded, sipping his wine.
“It is clearly low enough for the stables!” Tila snapped.
“Your brother fails to see how it matters,” Natan said, running a hand through his hair, which was starting to thin very slightly on top. Not from stress, Tila doubted. Natan Narida would reach forty summers this year, and she could count the number of difficult decisions he’d made on both hands with digits to spare. “We are Nari’s blood. Everyone is lowborn, compared to us. It is just a matter of scale.” He looked at her, eyes suddenly sharp. “This is presumably some prelude to trying to make your brother court a woman, is it not?”
“No,” Tila said tiredly. She sat down next to him, in defiance of all convention that one should wait for the Light of Heaven’s permission. “Or at least, not a specific woman. Quite frankly, anyone would do.”
“You would be happy for the God-King to court a lowborn woman, then?” Natan asked in mock surprise.
“You need an heir,” Tila said bluntly.
“Oh Nari’s teeth, not this again.”
“You need an heir,” Tila repeated, even more firmly. “Preferably more than one, as well you know.”
“Your brother does keep fucking the men, but so far they have stubbornly refused to get with child,” Natan said, swirling his wine. “He supposes he will just have to try harder.”
“Would it kill you to pick a highborn woman, marry her, fuck her until her belly swells, then go back to your men?” Tila asked bitterly.
“Tila, your brother would not have the faintest idea what to do with a woman. He understands the theory, but could never bring himself to enact it.”
Tila closed her eyes and scrubbed her forehead with her hand. “Your sister cannot believe she is having this conversation with you, but Nari knows no one else will. What about if you were blindfolded? If you were only aware of the other person through touch, then—”
“Your brother is not some stud dragon for you to breed a prize calf from!” Natan snapped, hurling his goblet away. “He refuses to be held hostage to your notions of what he should be doing with his cock!”
“It’s not about your cock,” Tila said with a shudder, “it’s about the future of the nation! An unbroken line of male succession, may Nari help us all. Woe betide Narida if it suffers another Splintering!”
Natan rubbed at his right eye. “Tila, you know your brother would give up the throne to you in an instant.”
“Your sister knows,” she replied, trying to keep frustration out of her voice now he was at least attempting to be reasonable. “Although she thinks you underestimate how different your life would be, once you were no longer God-King. But that aside, it cannot happen, so there is no point speculating. The thanes would rebel against a woman’s rule in a moment.”
“You cannot know it would lead to another Splintering,” her brother said, and Tila sighed. No matter how many times they had this conversation, he never seemed to fully accept the truth.
“Yes, your sister can,” she told him bluntly. “And that, incidentally, is why she came to find you. You missed another Council meeting.”
“Resentful, power-hungry people your brother cannot stand, discussing things about which he has no interest,” her brother muttered. “And you, of course.”
Tila gritted her teeth. “So dismiss them, and choose others whom you like better, so long as they are competent. Your sister would not miss any of the current council on a personal level.”
Natan waved one hand gloomily. “It would cause too much trouble.”
Very briefly, Tila contemplated whether she would rather be remembered chiefly for regicide or for fratricide.
“More trouble than letting them run the country without you?” she said instead. “No, do not answer that. Your sister will just keep trying to control them in your name, and hope their respect for our bloodline wins out.” She took a deep breath. “But she needs your approval for something.”
“We both know you are a better ruler than your brother anyway,” Natan said. “Write the decree, and he will sign it.”
“No,” Tila said patiently. “This will not be written down. But your sister will not do this without your approval.”
Her brother’s thick brows narrowed suspiciously. “Go on.”
“The Council wants to move against the Splinter King again.”
Natan’s face hardened. “Remind your brother how many times assassins have been sent after that family, within our lifetimes?”
“Three times,” Tila replied neutrally. She didn’t need to. Her brother might be self- absorbed and uninterested in affairs of state, but he remembered these particular details. “And how much success have we had?”
“The family is still there,” Tila admitted. “When we were children, our agents were intercepted before they could even make the attempt. Father tried sending agents again a few years later, during a festival, but the guards stopped them.”
“Alaban fighters are particularly deadly, your brother hears,” Natan commented. Tila raised her eyebrows in surprise: she honestly hadn’t expected him to know that.
“They can be,” she acknowledged. “In single combat, at any rate.”
“So you are suggesting we send sars on dragons?” Natan asked. “That is not in keeping with your usual preference for subtlety, Tila.”
She snorted. “As entertaining as the notion is, no. The third time an attempt was made, shortly after Father’s death, we had slightly more success. Archers killed the eldest male child, but both parents and the two younger children survived. The ruling Hierarchs take the safety of their poor foreign pets seriously, and limit opportunities for them to be seen in public.”
“It all sounds impossible,” Natan muttered. “Impossible, cruel and pointless.”
“All the attempts so far have been made on the family when they appeared in public,” Tila told him. “Yet most of the time, they are unseen. They live another life, unmasked, away from public view.”
Natan frowned. “And guarded, your brother would have thought.”
“Of course,” Tila agreed. “But less so, to avoid attention. Day to day, their safety relies on being seen as nothing more than a wealthy family of a minor Naridan bloodline.”
Natan’s eyes narrowed. “You are not speaking speculatively, are you?”
Tila smiled tightly behind her veil. “Your sister is not.”
“You know the family?”
“Yes.” She still carried a faint shadow of the excitement she’d felt when she’d read the final pieces of the puzzle from her agents, and drawn her conclusions.
Natan rubbed his chin. “How? It is a foreign city that knows we have tried to kill them . . . however many times, over the last two centuries. Your brother knows you are clever, Tila, but how have you managed this when no one else has?”
“No one else asked the right questions,” Tila told him simply. “They only thought of the Splinter King as a silvermasked imposter appearing in public, when he was an obvious target. They never asked where he was the rest of the time.”
“It appears His Divine Majesty’s low opinion of his Council is not inaccurate,” Natan muttered.
“This took your sister ten years!” Tila snapped, angry at having the success of her hard work dismissed as simply due to the incompetence of others. And Nari knew, there had been incompetence, but that didn’t diminish her achievements! “Ten years, Natan! Your sister infiltrated the City of Islands’ society with her own agents and, more importantly, with locals who have no idea the people they take money from for tasks or information take their pay from her! She knows that city very nearly as well as she knows our own!”
“Forgive your brother,” Natan said, scrubbing at his face to hide what might have been embarrassment. “He did not mean to demean your work. He had no idea . . . Ten years?”
Tila sighed. “Ten years. Your sister did not tell you, as she knew you would not be interested.” She snorted a laugh. “And after all of it, one man was the breakthrough. A former servant with a fondness for drink, and not enough money to buy his own. His drunken speculation might have gone unremarked in a city where gossip is rife, but one of your sister’s agents heard him, and provided further lubrication to his tongue. Not enough to be certain on its own merit, but when combined with what we already knew . . .”
Her brother actually had the decency to look impressed. “And would you make their deaths look accidental?”
“An extravagance we cannot afford,” Tila said firmly. “We will get one opportunity at this. Once the Hierarchs realise we have discovered the family’s identity, they will have no option but to guard their pets closely at all times, whatever the cost.”
“So it is perhaps not impossible,” Natan acknowledged reluctantly. “Your brother still feels it is cruel and pointless.”
“The older child, the male heir,” Tila said, deliberately avoiding looking at him, “has reached the age of majority. Hence the need to try again.”
Natan tapped his chin with a finger. “What if your brother were to adopt?”
Tila gave him the sort of look she usually reserved for impertinent servants. “What?”
“Your shadows can place a knife in any city in the known world, given enough time,” Natan pointed out. “Surely they could find a suitable candidate to become your brother’s heir?”
“We are the divine blood of the God-King!” Tila hissed at him. “Our family, alone in all of Narida, must continue by blood inheritance! The people will accept nothing less!”
“Your brother is the divine blood of the God- King, and we both know he is not a good ruler,” Natan argued. “The people would not know if any heir of your brother’s was truly his blood, in any case. They’d know what they were told. Find a young, sensible, intelligent man. Say, sixteen years or so; of an age where we could claim he was your brother’s bastard, fathered by laying with a woman in the depths of his low mood following Father’s death. An orphan would be ideal. Your brother can adopt and legitimise him, and you can teach him to run this country well. Once he is ready, your brother can abdicate, and you can worry less.”
“We cannot risk it,” Tila told him. “There are rumours that Nari Himself has been reborn. The foolish mutterings of country folk, undoubtedly, but even so—”
“If Nari Himself has been reborn, as prophesied, your brother’s rule is invalid anyway, doubly so the Splinter King,” Natan said lazily. “Not to mention that we’ll have bigger problems: the sun going out, dragons ravaging the land, and the ocean rising to swallow us all.”
“This is no laughing matter!” Tila hissed.
“Who’s laughing?” Natan responded, more sharply than she’d expected. “Tila, you have raged since we were children against the rules that bind us. Let us break them. Who is to say your brother’s blood-son would be any better at ruling than he is? You won’t live to guide Narida forever. Choose a competent heir, and we need not worry about the scions of our great-great-great-great-uncle, thousands of miles away in Kiburu ce Alaba.”
Her brother was actually making sense, which was enough to make Tila consider his words carefully. She also couldn’t deny the transgressive appeal of subverting the system that had held her back all her life. Even so, she’d always been cautious.
Well, apart from that one time. But she’d been wallowing in self-destructive grief, and it hadn’t turned out too badly. In the end.
“It could be done,” she said slowly. “But some nobles may suspect the ruse, and view the Splinter King as a viable alternative. Narida’s future is still at risk while that family lives.”
“They must be almost pure Alaban by now,” Natan objected.
Natan slumped back on the bench. “This, then, is the choice you are giving your brother? Your king? Marry a woman and father children, or send assassins after distant relatives, despite all previous attempts having failed?”
“Your sister would prefer you did both,” Tila admitted. “But, yes.”
“Fine.” The God-King buried his head in his hands. “Go find your knife-men.”