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By Kate Elliott
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The heart-pounding finale to World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s captivating, New York Times bestselling young adult series–now available in paperback!
Choose between your parents.
Choose between your friends.
Choose between your lovers.
Choose who you are.
On the run from the murderous King Nikonos, Jessamy must find a way for her beloved Kalliarkos to take his rightful place on the throne. Only then can he end the oppression of the Commoners by their long time Patron overlords. But Kal’s rise to power is fraught with manipulation and shocking decisions that make Jes question everything they promised each other. As their relationship frays and Jes’s family and friends beg her for help, will she cast Kal and her Patron heritage aside? Will she finally join–even lead–the rebellion that had been burning among the Commoners for years?
This explosive finale of World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s Court of Five series forces Jessamy to confront an inescapable truth: with or without her, the revolution has begun.
I stand poised on the shore of Mist Lake like an adversary gathering focus before a Fives trial. South across the waters, too far away to see from here, lies the city of Saryenia, from which we just escaped. A rhythmic sound drifts out of the dawn haze that obscures the horizon: the drums of a fast-moving war galley.
"Do you hear that?" I say. "The new king is already hunting us."
The boat I arrived in rocks wildly as its two occupants—Lord Kalliarkos and the poet Ro-emnu—jump out onto land and scramble up to either side of me. Kal takes my hand, the touch of his skin a promise against mine, and gives me a smile that makes my heart leap. Ro glances over, gaze flicking down to our entwined fingers, and looks away with a frown.
"We've got to get you out of sight," I say to Kal, reluctantly shaking loose from his grip. "And get my mother to safety where your uncle can never find her."
My mother has already disembarked. We are the last people out of the flotilla of now-empty rowboats in which our party fled the murderous new king. Surrounded by local Efean villagers, Mother is speaking to them with such an appearance of calm dignity that no one would ever guess how desperate our circumstances are. As the three of us run over, the villagers leave her and race past us to the shore, carrying baskets and fishing nets. They shove the boats back out onto the water.
"Are they abandoning us?" I ask as we rush up to Mother.
"Not at all, Jessamy. They are risking their lives to aid us."
Ro breaks in with his usual needling. "The sight of Efeans hard at work to enrich Patron treasuries always lulls our Saroese masters."
"By placing their own bodies between us and the soldiers," Mother goes on. "It isn't only military men wielding swords who defend the land and act with courage."
I look back again, viewing the scene on the lake with new eyes. "That's very brave, especially since they're unarmed."
"Doma Kiya, we need to get moving to the shelter of the trees," says Kal to Mother, offering her a polite bow with hand pressed to heart.
Although his words and tone are courteous, Mother's usually gentle expression stiffens into a stony-eyed mask. "I can see that for myself, my lord," she snaps.
Kal is taken aback by her hostility, and so am I.
Irritation and impatience clip off my tongue. "He's helping us!"
Kal looks from my mother to me and, still with his courteous voice, says, "I'll scout ahead to make sure my uncle isn't lying in wait in the trees to capture you."
He races away while we follow at a brisk walk. Mother holds my infant brother, Wenru, while, beside her, my friend and former Fives stablemate Mis carries Wenru's twin sister, Safarenwe. All the other Efeans have either gone out onto the lake or have left to escort the wagons conveying the fugitive Patrons of Garon Palace, who own this estate and its surrounding villages.
"Maybe the soldiers will pass by," I say with another anxious look toward the lake. The shape of a mast coalesces in the mist. Oars beat the water in unison as the warship speeds toward us.
"Seeing only dull Commoner fishermen and farmers, not bold conspirators who just rescued the new king's rivals from certain death," murmurs Ro.
"Don't speak of such matters in front of Lord Kalliarkos, Ro-emnu," says Mother, with a warning glance at me.
"Enough, Jessamy. Keep moving." Her tone scalds.
Kal waves an all clear from the edge of the orchard and ducks out of sight before the war galley can get close enough to spot his Saroese features and clothing. The fig and pomegranate trees aren't particularly tall but they are bushy enough to conceal us. As the others push forward on a wagon track through the trees, I pause to look back one last time.
While most of the rowboats have dispersed out onto the water, six have made a rough circle with a large net between them, blocking the approach to the shoreline where we landed. But the galley cuts straight through the little flotilla. Two of the boats flip, and the others rock wildly as their occupants struggle to keep them from overturning. Oars slap the heads of people in the water to jeers from the oarsmen. Arrows streak out from the deck. Most splash harmlessly into the water but one strikes a hapless swimmer in the back. The armed men crowded on the deck shout excitedly and laugh as the victim's head sinks beneath the surface. It's a game to them.
The drumbeat ceases. The galley plows through a stand of reeds with a rattle of noise before dragging to a stop in the shallows exactly where we just disembarked.
A man steps up to the rail of the ship.
It is the new king himself, once Prince General Nikonos and now the man who murdered his older brother and innocent young nephew so he could seize the throne of Efea. From this distance I can't fully distinguish his face although I know he resembles Kal in having regal features and a golden-brown complexion; they're cousins, after all.
Nikonos calls out in the voice of a man used to shouting over the din of battle. "The Garon estate lies beyond the trees! The man who brings the corpse of Lord Kalliarkos or Lord Gargaron to me I will raise to become a lord! As for the rest of the Garon household and any who shelter them, show no mercy to traitors!"
I sprint after the others. Thorns from the pomegranate branches scrape my arms. Mother has been jogging along at the rear but she slows to a halt, puffing as she struggles to catch her breath. The others stop too, Mis supporting Mother with a hand under her elbow.
I charge up. "It's Nikonos himself. Right on our heels."
"Honored Lady, I'll take the baby to lighten your burden," says Ro.
To my consternation—because I should have asked first—Mother hands Wenru over to the poet. After a moment of disgruntled squirming, my infant brother settles into Ro's arms with an expression of unbabyish disgust.
The sounds of snapping branches and men cursing at thorns chase us onward as the soldiers push through the trees. We emerge at a run from the orchard and hurry through grain fields toward the stately roofs and walls of the main compound, built for the Saroese stewards who supervise the estate with its rich fields, groves, and fishing. A path lined by trees leads to the northeast, toward an Efean village.
"Shouldn't we head toward the village?" I whisper urgently.
"My grandmother always keeps an escape plan in reserve," says Kal. "There's a merchant galley hidden in a backwater river channel beyond the northern fields for just such an emergency as this. She and the rest of the household should already be boarding it."
"In other words," remarks Ro, because he just can't stop himself, "you Saroese nobles expect at any moment to be murdered by your own relatives."
Kal touches my arm as a warning not to bother answering. "This way," he says in a tone like an echo of my military father, a reminder that Kal fought a campaign in the desert and commanded a squad of spider scouts.
We splash through a shallow irrigation canal and race across another stretch of fields.
"Do you visit here often?" I ask in a low voice, sticking beside him.
"Twice a year with my grandmother. When I was a boy I would play on the hidden ship and pretend I was a sailor on the high seas."
I grin at this innocent memory. Without breaking stride, he bumps a shoulder against mine, just a tap. Despite the danger we're in, it's exhilarating to keep pace together, feet hitting the ground in perfect time.
Mudbrick reservoirs rise at the end of cultivated land and the beginning of marshier ground where bushy-headed papyrus sways over our heads. Fresh wagon tracks in the earth mark where the Garon fugitives passed only moments ago, so it's with shock that we emerge onto the bank of a backwater river channel to find the dock empty.
The merchant galley is gone.
Except for an embroidered blue silk shawl fluttering in the branches of a sycamore, there's no trace of the Garon household; of Kal's grandmother, Princess Berenise; his sister, Lady Menoë; his uncle Lord Gargaron; nor any of the fifty relatives and retainers who escaped with us out of Saryenia. Nothing except three village rowboats bumping against the pilings with neatly folded fishing nets inside, and the two abandoned wagons.
"How could they have left without me?" says Kal, a hand on his neck like he's trying to stem the bleeding from having his throat cut.
We stare, all too stunned to ask the same question. Safarenwe gives a fussing cry, and Mother takes her from Mis, soothing her with kisses. Wenru remains uncannily silent in Ro's arms.
Mis points back the way we came. "Look!"
We turn. Shock tightens to a new stab of fear. Threads of smoke rise in the distance. They thicken to columns and then boil up into fierce black clouds.
Nikonos's soldiers are burning the estate.
The tops of papyrus start thrashing: soldiers following our trail.
"I found fresh wagon tracks!" a man shouts in Saroese.
Kal and I instantly scan our surroundings. The channel has been dredged along the steeper bank to give enough draft for a galley to dock, while the other bank is a shallow marshland choked with reeds. We glance at each other with a flash of shared understanding.
"I can swim underwater to hide in the reeds," he says.
I nod. "We'll pretend to fish in the boats."
He doesn't protest that we'll become targets while he hides. We both know this is the only way. I grab his wrist and, even with my mother right there, give him a quick kiss as a promise.
If his gaze slides to meet Ro's in challenge, it happens so fast I am sure I have mistaken it. But then Ro says, as if in retort, "Don't you fear crocodiles, Kal?"
"The ones on two feet are sure to kill me, so I'll take my chances."
He slips into the water, vanishing without sound or splash. I run to the end of the dock and yank the shawl out of the branches so our pursuers won't guess that Patron women have passed by here. By the time I race back, Mis and Ro, with Safarenwe, are already rowing away as Mother, holding Wenru, waits for me.
We push off. Mother gives Wenru to me and takes the oars. She handles them with an adeptness that surprises me until I remember she grew up in a rustic village far from sophisticated Saryenia. Wenru clutches at my vest like he's afraid I'm going to toss him overboard. A pair of ducks flutters up noisily from deep within the reeds. I can't see Kal from here but he must have surfaced and startled them. The thrashing in the papyrus comes closer as men shout, having heard the quacking. Ahead of us, Ro and Mis glide behind a thick stand of reeds. We're too far behind to have a hope of concealing ourselves.
Mother stops rowing and takes up a net as five soldiers burst into view and stamp out onto the dock. She flips out the net, which flares like a flower blooming, strikes the water, and sinks. The movement draws their attention.
"Hey, Sergeant! Let's catch some Efean delicacies for our supper," calls one, his accent that of a man from overseas, not a locally born Patron.
I hate the way they stare at us as if they are hungry and we are food. If only I could slam my oar into their ugly faces.
Mother whispers, "By no sign show you can understand them."
Wenru stirs, stout infant legs shoving against my chest as he twists around to look their way. He sucks in a breath, prelude to a scream.
In Saroese I snap, "You should be ashamed of yourself, you little rat."
Our gazes lock. His face is as brown as my own, and his eyes so black they are shadows dropped into his heart. A flicker of irritation passes across his face, and I'm once again sure that an unknown self resides in my dead brother's body.
I lower my voice to a whisper that brushes his perfect little ear. "I know you aren't what you seem, but to Saroese soldiers you look like an ordinary Efean baby. They will throw you into the river to drown. If you betray my mother, I will pin you to the dirt and let the vultures eat you alive."
Mother is staring at me, eyes wide. But the net twitches, distracting her, and she briskly hauls in two fish.
From out of sight a man calls, "Here's mule tracks, Sergeant! Someone went this way with animals, maybe the ones used to haul the wagons."
"You two!" The sergeant points to the man who was just insulting us and his nearest companion. "Bring in those women for questioning."
"But Sergeant, they say the rivers here are infested with monsters that eat people."
"Use the boat. You others, follow me."
He and two other soldiers hurry off on a track that leads behind the crowds of willow and sycamore shading the opposite bank. The two remaining soldiers, arguing with each other in the tone of very nervous men, climb into the boat.
"Switch with me." I thrust Wenru into Mother's arms, the boat rocking as we change places. "I need my hands free."
"What do you intend?"
"I don't know yet."
I row as Mother uses the shawl to sling Wenru to her hip. I'm not as skilled, so the oars skip over the water a couple of times. The soldiers gain on us. We skim past a clump of reeds into a backwater overhung by trees, where Mis and Ro have paused to wait for us.
I gesture at them to keep rowing upriver. Something large in the water passes beneath us and rocks the hull of our boat. I'm so startled I yelp out loud. Beyond the reeds, the soldiers shout in excitement; they think I'm scared of them, and that's true too.
A hand emerges from the water to tap the side of our boat, then Kal's head emerges. He gulps air.
I murmur, "Two soldiers in a boat behind us. No one else in sight. They're scared of crocodiles."
"Distract them." He dives.
I turn the boat and start back the way we came.
"Jessamy, we should follow Ro-emnu and Missenshe, not expose ourselves like this for some reckless plan."
"Father trained him. Kal knows what he's doing."
The soldiers have come up so fast it takes only three strokes for us to skim past their bow.
"Good Goat!" One laughs. "The luscious fruit drops into our laps."
Reaching for our boat, they don't notice Kal launch out of the water on their boat's other side. He grabs the gunwale with both hands and uses his weight to tip them.
Alone he can't overturn it, but I shout, in Saroese, "Crocodile!"
Their panic and flailing does the rest. The boat goes over with a huge splash. One man goes under and never comes back up, while his comrade churns the murky water with his arms, struggling to keep afloat in his stiff leather armor. I slam an oar down, clip the side of his head, then slam it down again, stunning him momentarily.
He goes under, dragged down as if by a mauling crocodile. Thrashing disturbs the water. Bubbles fleck the surface, staining it red. I balance in the boat, an oar in my hand, ready to strike. I'm breathing so hard I can't catch my breath.
A head breaks the surface: Kal, alive, expression grim and yet satisfied. A body bobs up briefly, then rolls over to flash the dead man's slack face before the heavy leather armor drags him under. Kal grabs the gunwale of our boat and tosses his sword in. The blade gleams, already washed clean by the river water. He dives under twice more, retrieving the soldiers' swords, then mires their boat in the reeds so it can't be seen from the shore.
"May the blessings of the Mother of All give mercy to the living and the dead," Mother whispers.
She and I throw our weight to the opposite side as Kal hauls himself up and over the gunwale, flopping gracelessly atop the now-tangled net. He's dressed in the clothes of a laborer, and the cloth of his keldi—the knee-length skirt Efean men wear—is plastered to his muscular thighs. I glance away, only to find Mother examining me with a frown.
As we drift out from under the overhanging branches of a giant sycamore, Kal straightens up. The stark sunlight gilds his face, making him look like a hero on the stage despite his dripping-wet clothes and bedraggled hair. His grave expression fixes on me, but there's a wild light in his eyes that unsettles me and yet also sets my heart pounding.
Hoarsely he says, "Ask me again when we're safe, Jes."
My cheeks flush as if I've been burned. He said those same words when we escaped Garon Palace with his uncle, when we caught a moment alone in a secret passage to kiss in a way I have never kissed anyone before.
Was that only last night?
Mother taps my arm as if she's angry. With me. "Jessamy! We must get out of here. The others will come looking for their comrades."
Irritated by her unrelenting hostility to Kal, I start rowing after Mis and Ro, who are now out of sight around a bend in the channel. Smoke billows up in the distance, accompanied by shouts from the searching soldiers. A bird whistle pulls my head around.
"There," says Mother.
Ro is waving at us from partway up a tree. I maneuver the boat in beneath branches. We rustle through bulrushes and bump up against the other boat, which is tied to a post in a hidden inlet. Three Efean sentries armed with sickles help us out onto the bank, paying particular attention to Mother, whom they address as Honored Lady. Kal greets each by name, and it's clear they know who he is from his occasional visits to the estate and aren't surprised that he recognizes them.
Ro tests the heft of the captured swords. "How did you get these?"
"The crocodiles took their tax," I say, hoping to get Kal to smile, but his grim expression doesn't lighten.
Ro makes a fist of his hand and bumps the side of Kal's fist in a gesture Efean men make with each other. "Well done."
The unexpected mark of respect startles a grin out of Kal after all.
"Thank you for saving our lives, Lord Kalliarkos," I say with a meaningful glance at Mother.
"Your quick thinking served us well, my lord," says Mother, finally sounding more like the gracious, accommodating woman I grew up with than like this angry, mistrustful person I don't recognize.
"My thanks, Honored Lady," says Kal cautiously.
But she's not done. "We must also thank the honored poet, Ro-emnu, for arranging our passage out of Saryenia. It was astoundingly well managed, especially with so many people to transport in secrecy."
"My thanks, Honored Lady," Ro murmurs with downcast eyes, and spoils the pretense of humility with a sidelong look at me, making sure I've heard my mother praise him.
Kal says, "I hope you know how indebted Garon Palace is to you, Ro."
"I do know."
An awkward silence follows.
I catch Mis's eye, and she comes to the rescue by handing over one of the bundles she's carrying. "Here's your Fives gear, Jes. Darios grabbed it when they evacuated Garon Stable. Now what? We can't hide here."
"That's right," I agree. "Nikonos isn't going to give up searching. Is there a plan?"
One of the sentries says, "We were sent by General Inarsis to look for the honored lady and bring her to shelter."
Instead of waiting for Kal's order, which he normally would give as one of the Patron masters of the estate, all five Efeans look to Mother, who nods agreement. If Kal is offended at being bypassed he gives no sign of it. We leave one of the swords with the two sentries remaining on guard at the inlet. The third leads us along a concealed path through a tangle of overgrown vegetation. Of course, despite our frantic situation, Mother has brought the two fish in a basket, just as if we are returning home with our night's supper to a happy family.
I blink back tears, remembering the days when we four sisters would sit in the courtyard at dusk as Mother embroidered: Amaya writing poetry and practicing speeches from plays, Bettany muttering about injustice and hypocrisy while her sisters ignored her, me counting the moments until I could escape to run the Fives, and Maraya studying for the Archives exam she hoped to take one day.
"Where are Maraya and Polodos?" I ask in Efean, with a glance at Wenru. He's looking around as if he's trying to figure out where we are and where we are going.
"They stayed in Saryenia at the Least-Hill Inn. That way they can listen to the gossip of foreign soldiers and pass on intelligence."
"As spies? That's dangerous."
"We are all fugitives now, Jessamy. We are in danger no matter where we are. Anyway, you said Bettany and Amaya are on their way to the city by ship."
"Yes." I'm not yet ready to break her heart by telling her what really happened with Bettany.
"So Maraya will be there to shelter them when they arrive." She pauses, then goes on sternly. "Was calling your baby brother a little rat your idea of a jest? Because I am not laughing."
Nothing is worse than Mother's disapproval but I don't know how to explain my suspicions or whether she'll believe me.
"Don't think I didn't notice that you spoke to Wenru in Saroese rather than Efean. I've raised enough children to know his behavior is unusual and even at moments disconcerting."
We plod along, her expectant silence as she waits for my reply like a hand tugging insistently on my arm. What if I don't warn her that her infant son is actually dead, and whoever resides in his body has a chance to betray her because she's not on her guard? To protect her, I have to try.
So I say, in Saroese, "There's a huge poisonous snake about to drop out of the trees right onto your heads."
Wenru's head snaps back in fear, but Mother has heard the lie in my voice. Her gaze stays on the baby and his slow confusion as he realizes what I've just done. He tucks his head down as if he wishes he could turn into a turtle with a shell to hide in, and then says, "Ba ba ba" in the most unbabylike voice.
Mother stares at him as if he has turned into a snake. In Efean she says, "Jessamy, what is going on?"
Our guide raises a hand for silence. Concealed by a stand of trees, we look across well-kept gardens to an empty Efean village.
The guide murmurs, "Move fast and keep your heads down."
We dash along a wagon track that takes us into the center of the village, where stands a simple Fives court. I hear soldiers speaking Saroese, their voices far too close, and I gesture toward the gate into Pillars, thinking we can hide in the maze. But a burly, threatening man steps out from behind that very gate, sword drawn, to halt us in our tracks.
Kiya! I was afraid we'd lost you." The man facing us presses a hand to his heart. The intensity of his gaze on my mother disturbs me.
"Inarsis! There you are at last," Mother gasps in evident relief.
He glances toward the rising voices of foreign soldiers entering the village. "Follow me."
We head in the opposite direction, trotting past a row of granaries toward the northern edge of the village. Inarsis opens a closed gate, and we slip into a walled garden that encloses a tiled pool and neat herb and flower beds. Months ago I bathed here with my Fives trainer Tana and my stablemates Mis and Dusty, amid a friendly gathering of Efean villagers. Now an Efean woman emerges from a stand of lush rhododendrons, carrying a staff as a weapon.
Scowling, she addresses Inarsis in Efean, a language Kal does not understand. "Him too, General? All of them were meant to go on the ship."
"He fell behind." Inarsis looks at me as if it's my fault.
The woman looks at me too. She says, "Ah, I see," and steps aside.
Behind the thick screen of bushes, a brick-lined tunnel plunges under the wall. We climb down into an underground storage pit crammed with children, elders, and sealed jars of oil and baskets of grain.
"Hidden from the Garon tax collectors," says Kal.
At the sound of his voice, every head turns. People stare at him. Tension thickens the air, and blades glint as they brace to attack.
"Is that you, Doma Henta?" With his perfect highborn manners, Kal bows over the hand of an elderly woman as if she is an exalted Patron lady. Of course he's speaking Saroese, which most Efeans can understand. "I see you are keeping a share of your crops out of the hands of the Garon treasury, just as we hide a portion of our harvest from the royal tax collectors."
I hear a few chuckles, and people lower their knives.
Praise for Buried Heart:
Kirkus Best Teen Books of 2017
A 2018 Locus Awards Finalist for Young Adult Books
* "High-fantasy series rarely attract serious literary scrutiny, yet when done well--as here--no genre is better fitted to trace the threads of history from past to present and explore the fascinating patterns they weave."
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
- On Sale
- Jul 25, 2017
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers