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By C. L. Clark
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The rebels have won, and the empire is withdrawing from Qazal. But undoing the tangled web that binds the two nations will not be easy, and Touraine and Luca will face their greatest challenge yet.
Luca needs to oust her uncle from the Balladairan throne once and for all and take her rightful place as Queen. But he won't let go of power so easily. When he calls for a "Trial of Competence" and Luca's allies start disappearing from her side, she will need to find a way to prove her might. And she knows someone who can help…
Touraine has found a home in the newly free country of Qazal. But she soon realizes that leading a country and leading a revolution are two very different tasks. And, even more importantly, if Luca's uncle doesn't ratify the treaty, the Qazali could end up right back where they started.
Together, the two women will have to come overcome their enemies, their history, and their heartbreak in order to find a way to secure Luca's power and Touraine's freedom.
It wasn’t every day that Luca woke from nightmares of burning ships and the funeral pyres of her city, but it was most days.
It wasn’t every day that Luca woke with a spasm of pain shooting through her right leg and up her spine, but that was also most days. She groaned and shifted until she was on her back. Her arm flopped limply against something warm with a fleshy slap.
It wasn’t every day that Luca felt the poke of someone else in her bed, either. Not every day, and not all that often, and as she unstuck her body from the sweat of their closeness, she remembered why.
She reached groggily for the cup on the night table beside her bed. Her mouth came away full of warm, stale wine. She clamped her mouth tight rather than spray it across the room in surprise.
The figure beside her groaned at the sound of her gagging.
“Ugh—looking for water.”
She rolled back and placed a hand on Sabine’s pale, solid waist. Little freckles dotted the skin around her shoulders in the gray dawn light.
Sabine snorted. “You’ll need more than water, I should think.”
“How do you mean?”
Sabine, marquise de Durfort, turned into Luca’s touch. The back of her short dark hair stuck up at a ridiculous angle. She raised an eyebrow that made her look even more scandalous. It belied the tenderness of Sabine’s hand snaking around Luca’s own ribs.
“Oh. That.” As if it weren’t the first thing on Luca’s mind.
Sabine’s hand drifted down to Luca’s left thigh, and she curled into Luca. “You’ll do wonderfully.” She kissed Luca’s hip. “Your Highness.”
“Of course I will.”
Of course she would.
It also wasn’t every day that Luca spoke at a funeral for hundreds of citizens she had murdered.
Outside, the swelter of summer, which reminded her all too much of Qazāl, had given way to autumn breezes. The trees in La Chaise’s greatest public courtyard were just beginning to turn colors, though the branches still clung to the leaves desperately. Not unlike the way Luca clutched her cane with nerves right now.
Inside the Grand Hall of the Palais La Chaise, however, the swelter continued. Two fires burned low at either end of the hall, and sweaty bodies crammed in a room that should have been big enough but felt like a hat box. The audience’s body odor was masked by expensive oils and noxious perfumes. Along with the smoke from the fire and the oily smell of the candles lining the walls, it was enough to dizzy and nauseate.
Luca replaced the scowl on her mouth with something dignified and somber.
In front of her, stirring and gossiping, her audience, like a single creature, its voice a wave, its gaze crushing. Were they staring at Luca or at the hulking, tarpaulin-covered statue on the dais behind her?
The monument memorializing the Balladairans killed in Qazāl’s Rain Rebellion.
Nobles from the five regions of Balladaire rustled in their silks and jackets, the comtes and marquises and their smaller, regional lordlings. The merchants rich enough to buy a place. Just as she had a year ago, Luca felt smothered by the need to gain these people’s approval. To pull them to her side. Unlike last time, however, she had little hope she could. She had just lost them an inordinate amount of money.
The captain of her guard, Guillaume Gillett, stood to her right, while the other two guards flanked her. All three of them stood utterly silent and still. Behind them, Duke Nicolas Ancier, her uncle and regent, cleared his throat brusquely.
Stop wasting my time, that sound said.
The great clock that hung on the north wall, above one of the fires, ticked merrily, its naked gears shifting, oblivious to the pressure mounting on Luca’s shoulders.
Luca stepped forward to address her citizens.
The word came out as a squeak. The hall had been designed lovingly for acoustics, and still her voice was swallowed by the space. She cleared her throat, pushed down her nerves, and tried again.
“Citizens of Balladaire.”
Silence rippled through the crowd as she caught their attention.
“It was my honor, last year, to oversee our interests at the farthest corners of our great empire while my uncle held us strong here, at home.”
Luca tightened her stomach against the rising nausea. This was the first time she had spoken publicly about the fall of the colony.
“I ordered Balladairan soldiers to pull out of Qazāl for the safety of Balladaire and her people.
“I also witnessed the tragic treatment of the people there, people who counted on Balladaire to bring them civilization and its benefits. Instead, we brought them—”
A heavy hand landed on her shoulder. Her uncle glared down at her, under the guise of a tight-lipped smile. Her uncle, who still sat on her throne. Her uncle, who had given the order to sink the ships with the Balladairans on them before they could dock in Balladaire and spread the Qazāli plague through the heart of the empire.
Luca shrugged his arm off.
“Instead,” she repeated, “we brought them pain. When I take my place upon the throne, I commit to forging a lasting peace between Qazāl and her people, with a new hope of magical exchange—”
Her uncle’s fingers dug deep into her shoulder, and he pulled with just enough force to unbalance her. Luca stumbled back.
And then dear Uncle Nicolas took Luca’s place in front of the crowd and began to talk about “this preventable tragedy” and the “importance of caution” when it came to the “safety of our great nation,” as well as “rebuilding damaged trade relationships.”
Luca seethed behind him.
When Nicolas finished, he stepped back. The crowd applauded, the sound deafening in the hall. At the duke’s gesture instead of hers, the workmen beside the statue gingerly pulled the tarpaulin down.
The audience gasped. Even Luca gaped in awe, and she had commissioned the piece herself.
A proud ship of black stone, sails unfurled, crested on a plinth carved in the shape of a wave. The detail was precise down to the rings of the rigging. It was called the Fire of the Sea, the name of the biggest ship that Nicolas had set fire to. A brutal irony, not least because the ship itself represented not just those who had died but those who had sailed to Qazāl and other lands that eventually became the empire. A symbol of Balladairan greatness.
The ceremony ended and the nobles swarmed her uncle, bowing and simpering. Luca’s spit soured in her mouth as she watched. Most of the dead Balladairans who’d been sunk in the sea were related to the court in La Chaise. She knew at exactly whose feet the court placed their losses.
Luca had hoped to have help from Qazāl, specifically in the form of a delegation to show how a new alliance would make up for what they’d lost. Most specifically, she’d hoped to have help from Qazāl in the form of a certain ex-soldier.
Luca didn’t think overmuch about Touraine. After leaving Balladaire, Luca had written Touraine several letters across the span of several months. Having received almost no response, she stopped writing entirely until the final, more recent letter a month ago. An official letter inviting a Qazāli delegate to be part of negotiations for the official independence of Qazāl. If Luca had written another, smaller note within, asking Touraine to be that delegate, what of it? And what of it, that Touraine had not responded to say she was coming? Nothing.
“Your Highness.” Ghislaine Bel-Jadot, comtesse des Champs d’Or, startled Luca out of her thoughts. The comtesse plucked a glass of dark wine from a passing servant and handed it to the princess with a slight bow. “You look thirsty.” She smiled, beautiful as a dagger, and sipped from her own glass.
Ghislaine Bel-Jadot, one of the five members of the High Court, owner of the most expansive and expensive menagerie in the country. The woman’s dark brown hair was framed with wings of white at the temples, and her skin was a dusky olive tone that some gossips attributed to ancestral liaisons with Shālans. All allegations denied, of course.
“Comtesse. My thanks.” Luca drank warily, waiting for anger, but that didn’t mean she didn’t feel guilty.
“I blame myself, you know.” Ghislaine stared at the stone ship. Her shoulders sagged and her eyes looked weary beyond reckoning.
“You can’t have known, Your Grace.”
The woman gave a small, tinkling laugh. Even in this shade of grief, the comtesse was enchanting. She pulled her shoulders back and tilted her head, an elegant gesture that bared a delicate neck.
“I should have kept Marie close. I can only hope that she wasn’t ill before.”
Luca nodded in sympathy. Ghislaine’s daughter had made fun of Luca in a bookstore in Qazāl, but Luca wouldn’t have wished the laughing pox on her. Or a death on a burning ship.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Your Grace. As I said, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure our losses were not in vain—”
“You are well, however, and we should all be grateful for that. I do wonder if more experience would have brought my daughter home safely, but that can’t be helped.” She cleared her throat, shucking her grief as if she’d been given a stage cue.
“It’s good of you to encourage Qazāli immigration. If we must lose the colony, this will at least make up for some of the losses.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking.” Luca smiled invitingly, tapping her wine glass with the tip of her fingernail. “If you have any ideas about how these new relationships could strengthen Balladaire, I’d love to hear them.”
Ghislaine’s sharp smile returned. A predator’s smile, enticing. “As a matter of fact, I do. I was thinking of a development project. We have so much land in Champs d’Or. It could come cheaply for building a home if the crown subsidized it. An incentive to stay, to contribute to the empire.”
“That would be very generous, Your Grace, though of course I expect nothing less.” In the back of her mind, Luca tallied up the ways this would benefit Champs d’Or: Ghislaine would get Qazāli labor more easily, and the bulk of the cost would come out of the crown’s coffers. “I’ll consider it. Let’s speak in more depth soon.”
“I would like that. Until then, if you’ll excuse me, Your Highness. I also need to speak with your uncle. A matter of my donation to his Droitist project. Will you be going to the opening?”
Luca covered her initial grimace with a sip of the wine. “The opening of the school?”
“Yes, of course.” Ghislaine’s dark eyes studied Luca carefully. Ever and always a performance, and everyone waiting for her to miss a step.
Luca smiled. “I wouldn’t dream of missing it. Please, don’t let me delay you.”
As soon as Ghislaine was gone, Luca cast about for Gil. He appeared at her side out of nowhere.
“What did she want?” He furrowed his thick, graying eyebrows.
“To help the Qazāli, apparently,” Luca murmured into her goblet as she finished the last of the wine. “Which means she wants to use them.” She handed the cup off to the next passing servant. “Shall we leave? I would like to leave.”
“Isn’t this your memorial project?” Gil didn’t quite chastise her, but something in the tone of his voice put Luca’s defenses up.
“Not anymore. Look around,” she grumbled. Pockets of nobles gathered and talking among themselves, elbowing to get to her uncle, and not one of them there for her. It reminded her just how tenuous—less than tenuous—her grasp on the throne was.
As Luca said that, however, Sabine de Durfort swaggered over to them, her left hand on the sword hilt at her hip. She gave Gil a salute so crisp it was a joke. “Sir!” Then she bowed low over Luca’s hand and kissed her knuckles like a chevalier in the stories. Her lips lingered on Luca’s skin, and she smirked.
Luca raised an eyebrow. It was hard to be cross with someone as ridiculous as Sabine.
“Shall I come by this evening then?” Her jaunty smile faltered just a hair as Luca shook her head.
“No. Not today. Not—I just—I don’t want—” Luca clamped her teeth together so that she could properly filter her words without the rush of her mental chaos slipping out.
Sabine’s expression cooled as she saw something over Luca’s shoulder. “Don’t look now, but your friend from the south is coming this way.”
Luca’s heart leapt in her chest. Touraine, so soon? She turned casually, however, and disappointment made her feel heavy and foolish at the same time.
“Bastien!” Luca said, forcing herself into joy she almost felt. It had been a long time since she had seen the new comte de Beau-Sang.
“Your Highness.” He smiled at her and bowed. He looked marginally more comfortable in the Balladairan court than he had been the last time Luca had seen him.
He sketched a slightly shallower bow to Sabine. “Your Grace. Am I interrupting something?” His smile was charming, unassuming, and he really did look like he would leave if Luca said yes.
Luca had the manners not to. Sabine, however, did not. “Yes,” the marquise said, pursing her lips.
Luca arched an eyebrow up at the other woman and put a hand out against Sabine to hold her back. “It’s all right, Bastien. You’re welcome to join us.”
With an annoyed noise in her throat, Sabine said, “We were just speculating on what we think the Longest Night Masquerade fashions will be this year.”
Bastien blinked, startled and a little confused. “So early? It’s a couple of months away, yet, isn’t it?”
He peered at the milling nobles as if he could divine what the next fashions would be in the clothes people were wearing now. But the Longest Night fashions were unpredictable and came at the whims of tastemakers. Once, a brown diagonal slash of fabric had become all the rage when Sabine had been splashed by a muddy carriage. She hadn’t had time to change, she’d said, striding into whatever function it was. She’d looked so dashing despite the mud-spattered trousers and jacket that the fashion stuck for a season.
“It’s not important,” Luca said. “How was your trip to Beau-Sang?”
Bastien looked askance at Sabine. “It was different than I expected, Your Highness. But fine. It was fine. Nothing that would interest Her Grace,” he said stiffly, “but perhaps another time I could tell you about it, Your Highness. Balladairan history, you know, the things you and I researched together in Qazāl.”
Luca inhaled sharply. “Sabine, could you give us a moment?”
The marquise’s eyebrows lifted in surprise, but she bowed graciously. “Of course, Your Highness. My lord.”
“What is it?” Luca asked, her pulse quickening. “What did you find?”
“Will you come with me to Champs d’Or?” he asked in a low murmur. His eyes were bright and eager behind his spectacles.
Luca leaned closer. “What for? Did you find something?”
“I think so. I won’t know, though, unless—You were talking to Lady Bel-Jadot just now. About what?”
“Nothing important, why?”
“We should talk to her. I think she knows. If anyone would, she would.” He stroked the blond strip above his lip as he considered the comtesse. The mustache was new.
“Why?” Luca said again, impatient now. “What does she know?”
“I think—and I can’t be sure, I would actually like to speak with her tenants and the older farm families in the heart of the Champs—Luca, I think Balladaire’s magic—it comes from the land.”
“We already know that, though. You wrote it yourself.”
“No, I discovered that we once kept a god. This is different. That god of harvests… I suspect that Balladairan magic manifests similarly.”
Luca hissed him quiet, looking furtively about them, but everyone was still enamored with her uncle.
“We can’t talk about this here. And if I’m honest, Bastien, I don’t think this will come well from me. Can you talk to her? You’re one of her people and—”
“And I have less to lose by asking members of the High Court about magic because I’m already an outsider.” Bastien smiled ruefully. “Of course, Your Highness. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
The last time he had been in the city, they had been somewhat casual lovers. In Qazāl, he and his father had both separately urged her to consider taking him as her royal consort, and she’d been amenable at the time. It had seemed like a good alliance.
He took a deep breath and held up both of his hands, staving off the excuses Luca struggled to muster.
“No need, Luca, no need. Consider this a favor.”
We will not let El-Wast govern all of Qazāl without the other cities having a say.”
“And yet that’s exactly what you have been doing up to this point.”
Touraine wearily watched Qazāl’s bickering leaders volley shot after verbal shot from side to side.
This war room had once belonged to the Balladairan Colonial Brigade. Touraine had been court-martialed here—the first time she was accused of betraying the empire, but not the last. Now she sat with the other traitors, the fledgling government of a newly independent nation. Well. Partially independent. Touraine shifted her hand to cover the letters she’d taken from the packet ship. One was addressed to the Qazāli Council. The other was addressed to her specifically.
The other members of the council from the Rain Rebellion remained: Malika sat across from them, her long black hair twisted up in a bun that told everyone she was simultaneously the most elegant person in the room and too exhausted to care. Beside Touraine sat Aranen, who, despite her best wishes, remained alive. Her golden eyes were dull, the bags beneath them dark.
At the head of the table sat the Jackal, Jaghotai, resting her head against the stump of the forearm Balladaire had taken from her. She closed her eyes and sighed.
“We’ve been busy putting our own city back together.” The Jackal bared her teeth like her namesake at the latest three to grace the council table.
“And ignoring the rest of us.”
Of the three strangers present, it was the gray-bearded man from southeastern Zanafesh who spoke this time. He pressed himself to standing, leaning over the table as if Jaghotai would be cowed by him. She only blinked blearily at him.
“We sent messengers, Basim,” Jaghotai said through clenched teeth. “To be specific, we sent them during the rebellion when we needed aid, and this is the first you’ve deigned to respond. You’re a little late if you want to start dictating orders.”
Aranen’s voice was quiet, listless, but she injected enough disappointment into her gaze as she looked from the new delegates to Jaghotai that Touraine could practically see everyone’s hackles fall.
“Haven’t we lost too much, all of us, to fight like this?”
The group’s chagrin lasted for only a second.
“Some of us lost more than others,” Jaghotai growled.
Even as Basim bristled, turning his shoulder to Aranen, one of the other delegates sniffed sharply. An older woman, thickly curved, tall for a Qazāli, with a heavy gold ring through her septum. She narrowed her eyes at Aranen—and for that matter, Touraine. Dina, she’d said her name was, from El-Tarīq just south of El-Wast.
“And some of us lost our way,” Dina said.
Aranen jerked still, eyes wide and staring as if Dina had struck her.
Now that really was enough.
“Fuck off.” Touraine pressed herself up to loom like Basim and almost upset a decanter of pale green olive oil in the process. It lurched, wobbled, and then came to a stop. “Don’t you dare. You don’t know a thing about what Aranen din Djasha sacrificed to free your cities.” Touraine spoke slowly, trying to pronounce each Shālan word carefully.
“That’s noble, coming from the empire’s whore,” Basim spat at her. “You come in with them, abuse our magics, and then expect us to be grateful? You’re no better than the empire you sailed in with.”
“Why don’t I invite them back, then, shall I?” Touraine growled. She didn’t look down at the pale envelope addressed to her on the table.
The Jackal slapped her hand against the table and made everyone jump. “Shāl take your fucking eyes, shut up!” she roared. “All of you, shut up!
“You.” Jaghotai glared at Touraine, her message clear: Don’t dig yourself into a hole I can’t dig you out of. Then Jaghotai turned to Basim and Dina. “If you want to negotiate anything with us, you will treat all members of the council with respect.”
“You can’t expect us to come to the table in good faith if you laud someone who has perverted Shāl’s teaching.” Dina pointed to Aranen with her lips.
“As if you could claim half of her faith—” Jaghotai started.
Aranen held out her hand to stop Jaghotai’s defense. When she looked at Dina and Basim each in turn, and included Istam, the third of the new arrivals, for good measure, they each shivered under her golden gaze. To avoid Aranen, they looked to Touraine instead. Their spite rolled off them in waves. Aranen frightened them—what the priestess stood for frightened them, too, but Touraine didn’t understand enough of Shāl or the odd schism between the Qazāli and Brigāni branches of the god’s magic. Touraine, on the other hand—she was an empty page they could write their hatred and anger all over. Whatever Aranen had done to the magic, Touraine had done it, too, and she was an outsider, an easy target who hadn’t used the killing magic to save anyone but herself. She tilted her chin up and took the brunt force of their fury head-on.
“I will not argue about the gifts Shāl gave us in our desperation,” Aranen started. “I pray often to understand what I have done and how I’ll proceed. However, I understand your fears.”
“But—” Jaghotai interrupted, but Aranen continued over her.
“I did what I did to save my people, and I do not regret it.” Then she stood, looking down at Touraine and the other council members. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes as she exhaled. “However, in the interest of peace over all, I understand that you need me to step away.” She raked her hand through the short, loose curls on her head. They were more gray than brown now.
“Aranen, you don’t have to comfort these Shāl-damned scavengers.”
“Peace, Jak. Peace.”
Aranen closed the door behind her with the softest snick. Touraine wished she had that kind of poise.
She quirked an eyebrow at Jaghotai: Should I go, too? The Jackal gave a minute shake of her head, then slouched back in her seat.
“Are you happy now?” Jaghotai asked the delegates from the other cities.
Istam remained neutral, but Basim frowned. Dina turned her haughty gaze on Touraine.
“She stays,” Jaghotai said sharply. “If you didn’t want to deal with us, you shouldn’t have come. Keep acting like festering asswipes, and we’ll take our chances as a city-state.” She gripped the arm of her chair tightly with her left hand, nails digging into the wood.
Jaghotai’s words made Touraine sit up straighter. Stare down the strangers a little harder. It made her feel a little—just a little—less out of place.
Istam cleared her throat. She was the delegate from Atyid, a city straight south down the river at the border of the Southern Mountains.
“What are your plans for food?” she asked. “The Many-Legged have granted us fishing rights, but the drought has caused difficulties.”
Malika Abdelnour, daughter of the premier seamstress of El-Wast and current master of logistics, took over. She plucked up a piece of paper from the stack in front of her and referred to it. “We’re struggling. We sacrificed many of our goats and fowl for the rebellion, and the crops were eaten by birds.”
Touraine winced inwardly. That had been part of Djasha and Niwai’s plan—using the Many-Legged priest’s affinity for animals to create a food shortage for the Balladairans. It had worked, but now the Qazāli were paying the price.
- On Sale
- Mar 7, 2023
- Page Count
- 512 pages