Taking a break from urban fantasy, Murphy (House of Cards) turns to this uneven opener for a Reformation-inspired fantasy series. Belinda Primrose is a lovely young woman whose mysterious father, Lord Drake, has trained her to be an assassin serving Lorraine, the queen of Aulun. While Belinda is Lorraine's unacknowledged bastard, young Prince Javier of Gallin was secretly adopted by Lorraine's dangerous rival, Queen Sandalia, when her husband's untimely death caused her to miscarry the child who was to be Gallin's heir. When Javier encounters Belinda while she's on a spy mission in Gallin, he falls hopelessly in love with her, a devotion that deepens when they discover they're both "witchbreed" magic users. Murphy excels in depicting their passion, but readers looking for romance will be shocked when Belinda incites and abets Javier's rape of another woman, and the talky political intrigue frequently comes at the expense of much-needed action. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Queen's Bastardby C. E. Murphy
“Wow. C. E. Murphy is good. Court intrigue in an alternate Elizabethan-era fantasy world: realpolitik with the sex included.”
–Kate Elliott, author of Crown of Stars
In a world where religion has ripped apart the old order, Belinda Primrose is the queen’s secret weapon. The unacknowledged daughter of Lorraine, the first queen to sit… See more details below
“Wow. C. E. Murphy is good. Court intrigue in an alternate Elizabethan-era fantasy world: realpolitik with the sex included.”
–Kate Elliott, author of Crown of Stars
In a world where religion has ripped apart the old order, Belinda Primrose is the queen’s secret weapon. The unacknowledged daughter of Lorraine, the first queen to sit on the Aulunian throne, Belinda has been trained as a spy since the age of twelve by her father, Lorraine’s lover and spymaster.
Cunning and alluring, fluent in languages and able to take on any persona, Belinda can infiltrate the glittering courts of Echon where her mother’s enemies conspire. She can seduce at will and kill if she must. But Belinda’s spying takes a new twist when her witchlight appears.
Now Belinda’s powers are unlike anything Lorraine could have imagined. They can turn an obedient daughter into a rival who understands that anything can be hers, including the wickedly sensual Javier, whose throne Lorraine both covets and fears. But Javier is also witchbreed, a man whose ability rivals Belinda’s own . . . and can be just as dangerous.
Amid court intrigue and magic, loyalty and love can lead to more daring passions, as Belinda discovers that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
“C. E. Murphy vividly reimagines Renaissance Europe as a world both familiar and strange. Filled with intrigue and betrayal, her story is a chess game with six of seven sides, and I look forward to seeing what the next moves are.”
–Marie Brennan, author of Warrior and Witch
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
15 March 1565
Brittany, North of Gallin
"It cannot be found out."
She knew the words as if they'd come down to her through the blood, in the first moments of awareness. There was darkness, red-tinged and warm, a battlefield of sound filling it: explosions and grumbles that came so steadily they were comforting rather than cause for alarm. There were voices, both low, but one more distant than the other. The first voice, closer, tickled through her to the very centre of her being, becoming a part of her that could never be cut away. It was that voice that carried fear into her, intense and sharp: "It cannot be found out."
In the first moments of cold, with the air screaming all around her, she heard the voice again, high and distorted. She grasped with tiny fingers at a blurred, weary face that retreated before her wide, tearless gaze. She was pressed against a different warmth, scratchy and soft and scented. She would come to know the scent as chypre, and associate it with safety for the rest of her life. She was enclosed in strong arms, the world shifting perspective dizzily as she was taken from the first, the last, glimpse she would have of her mother for twelve years.
Behind her, from the breadth of a man's chest, the less familiar voice echoed the words that seemed to define her, even at mere minutes of age: "It cannot be found out."
Then he spoke again with more clarity, the certainty and strength of love colouring his words with richness: "I know. It will not be found out, my lady. Have faith. I'll return by dawn, and by the ninth bell you must be dressed for court. You must be seen well, or their hearts will fail. Attend her." The last words were spoken to someone else, somewhere else; a murmur of reply in a deep voice came, and then the woman spoke again:
"Yes. Go. Go, Robert. And be seen with a woman in the small hours of the morning." Weariness is left behind by command. "There are too many who see you dance attendance on us already. We demand they find nothing of import. We shall be furious with you when we learn of your dalliances. Now go!"
A single image, burned into a newly made memory: slender shoulders, a proud straight spine. Linens clutched over milk-heavy breasts and wrinkling over a still-swollen belly, contracting with afterbirth labors. Thin grey eyes, a high forehead, and a proud chin, lifted in expectation.
Titian hair worn loose, bloody curls against translucent skin.
Enormous hands enveloped Belinda's head, turning her away from her mother, into the warmth of her father's body.
8 February 1577
Aulun, isolated by the sea
Memory, from what others said, did not stretch so far back.
The dream came often, sharp enough to take her breath on waking, but no one remembered the moment of her birth, not with clarity; not at all. It was only a dream, nothing more. Belinda crawled from her bed, pulling a duvet, down-filled and heavy, with her: the keep fires were long since banked for the night, the comparative heat of the winter day left behind. Her first steps were warm, onto a tapestry rug that told the story of hunting a white deer. The next steps were icy, nimbly taken on tiptoe before she scrambled into the velvet-cushioned window seat. The duvet hissed across unheated stone as she hauled it up.
Frost spread across the windows, spiked fingers growing up from the lead lining between the sheets of thin, undistorted glass. Belinda pressed a fingertip against the thickening frost, melting through to the cold glass below. Water beaded and spilled over the lead, a glistening black line picked out by the half-moon's light. She put her finger in her mouth and pulled the duvet farther up, hunching and squirming her shoulders until the warm comforter slid between her back and the chilly stone wall. Her breath fogged on the window, mixing with scattered clouds to obscure the moon for a few moments before winter proved stronger than one girl-child's exhalations and clarity crept back over the middle of the pane.
Memories she trusted more than the dreams reached back to her second Yule. The pageantry of Yule, she was told, was less than the Christ Mass whose date and name had been set aside by the Reformation Church as it schismed from the Ecumenists. Still, call it Yule or Christ Mass, gifts were exchanged in the shortest day of the year, just as they had been for what seemed to Belinda to be uncountable centuries past.
The first remembered gift from her rarely seen, beloved papa: a tiny dagger, sharp for all that she was not yet two years of age. Had her nurse-a dour-faced, dull woman with a grim sense of propriety and little in the way of imagination-not been so shocked, so very determined to remove the toy from her determined grip, Belinda thought she might not remember it at all. As it was, she carried it even now: a soft length of string, clipped from a chemise, held it around her waist. The tiny dagger and its soft leather sheath made an impression against her spine when she leaned harder against the wall. By day it was tucked against skin, held tight by corsets and layers of fabric, inaccessible but reassuring. The blade had dulled with time, leaving it barely more dangerous than a butter knife. Yet, without it, Belinda felt naked. Vulnerable.
There were dancing shoes the next Yule. Now, more than nine years later, she still remembered the tangy flat taste of disappointment in the back of her throat, although she smiled and put the shoes on her toddler feet and danced with the tall, brown-eyed man called Lord Drake by the others, and Papa by herself. Standing on his feet, she learned the steps to the dances of the Old Measures: the Quadran Pavan and the Tinternell were her favourites, for the fun of saying their names more than the dances themselves. At her third birthday her nurse dressed her in the costume of a grown-up lady, rich cream that brought out highlights in her brown hair, and with farthingaled skirts that allowed her small size to manage the weight of the dress without stumbling. That night she danced each of the eight Old Measures with Lord Drake, solemn and determined to do her papa proud.
And the back of her mind repeated: it cannot be found out.
Those were the words Papa had whispered to her that morning, when he gave her the second blade of her short life. A rapier, he called it, weighted and sized for a child, but only young gentlemen learned fencing. "So," he told her, with the air of a conspirator, "we must be secret, and never let Nurse know. You have learned your dances with great patience," he teased, "and this is your reward, my girl. The grace learned on the dance floor stands anyone, man or girl, well in the art of fencing."
Belinda threw herself into her dance lessons with an enthusiasm entirely unexpected by the long-nosed man who tutored her.
By the time she was five she understood she was spoilt; within a year, she understood why. Her real father was dead in a war, and Rosemary, her mother, had lived only long enough to bear the child her husband had gotten on her before joining him in the next world. Robert, Lord Drake, was the only relative Belinda had, and properly he was uncle, not papa. He called her Primrose, in remembrance of the sister who had died, and those who thought of it at all admired his fortitude in taking on the child's well-being. Drake was a favourite of Lorraine the queen, and her jealousies would fain to include even a girl of Belinda's tender years.
Belinda listened hard, and understood the words not said: she was a forgotten child, her birth parents of no particular import, her adopted papa's nobility a gift from a fond queen. It was enough to make a good marriage of, if she were charming and healthy enough to bear strong children. Robert was easy with money, but his visits were rare, and bittersweet. He had little time for her, and so her drive to accomplish all the things he might expect of her filled her hours, in hopes of making him proud.
That the things he expected were unusual for a girl-child passed by Belinda without note; the only other children she knew were the sons and daughters of the serving class, and they, of course, would be expected to learn and do different things. So Belinda learned reading and developed a fair hand at writing; studied history and politics, and when her nurse objected, the old woman found herself left with a pension to see her to the end of her days and no more girl-child to meddle with. Released from that stifling watch, Belinda became adept at horseback riding and swordplay, and learned to stay out of the way when Robert visited with other nobles, understanding she would be called for when and if she were necessary.
She never was.
Colour rushed along Belinda's jaw, crawling upward until her cheekbones felt scarred from the heat. Her reflection, faint in the frosty window, darkened perceptibly. She pressed her forehead against the glass, listening hard for a hiss, like water striking hot metal. Ice melted against her skin, silent, a bead trailing down between her closed eyes. It tickled, pushing the blush back down with an itch. Belinda relaxed her jaw, keeping her eyes closed, determined not to rub the tiny blot of water away. It slid down her nose, the itch subsiding, and she let out a puff of air. Frost steamed, melted, and crystallized again under her breath.
Clear memory was a curse, when the memories were of waiting for the call that never came. In summer of her ninth year it was Robert's honour-and burden-to host the queen's court for a month. The estate was in a flutter; Robert came early, barking orders and clapping his hands together, suddenly master to a house that had drifted along in quietude without him. He carried Belinda around on his shoulders, deliberately unaware that she was too old and too big for such behavior. Giddy with happiness, she was blind to exchanged glances among the servants. For a blissful week, she rode out every day with her papa, hunting and bringing back boar and deer to dress the tables with for the queen's visit. She pleaded, cautiously, for a new dress, and got two. The evening before Lorraine's arrival, Robert came to Belinda's room and knelt, taking her hands as he smiled at her.
"I will call for you, do you understand? When it's time for you to be presented to the queen, I'll come for you, my dear. Until then, it's best if you stay out of sight. Will you do that for me?"
Belinda, dressed in one of her new gowns, tightened her fingers around Robert's and nodded eagerly. "Of course, Papa. I can wait."
For thirty mornings, Belinda dressed with care, choosing one of her two new gowns or the very best of the older ones, and stood by the door, fidgeting and breathless with hope. At noon and night she ate the same rich meals that the courtiers in the dining hall below ate, but dined alone in her room, meals carried up from the kitchen by the servants, and waited with all the reserve she could muster. At sunfall each evening, she undressed as carefully as she'd dressed, and retreated to her bed, strands of coldness wrapped around her heart and tempered with hope for the next dawn.
At the end of thirty days, the queen and her court rode away again, Robert with them. Belinda knelt in the window of her room, fingers pressed against the thin glass.
Robert did not look back.
Belinda began, that morning, the game of stillness.
It was a game of nonexistence, of not being there. The rules, as Belinda laid them out in her mind, were simple: she would be stronger than the events around her. A biting fly might land on her skin; she would learn to ignore the tickle of its feet as it walked across her throat. If it bit, she would learn to hold inside the flinch of pain and the slap of motion to dislodge it. A scratch earned in a fencing bout would no longer pull a gasp or paling cheeks from her; a burn from the embers might raise a blister, but not a cry.
The rules were easier in thought than action.
In the beginning there were more failures than successes. Belinda taught herself to use the memory of Robert's shoulders in the soft gold sunlight of morning as a cloak, wrapping it around herself. She made it into armour, hardening the memory of being left behind into a layer of protectiveness between her skin and the invading entities.
The tiny dagger, held against the small of her back, began as an irritation, and became the test itself. Days turned into weeks, and the stiffened brocade of her dresses changed from pressing the hilt of the dagger uncomfortably into her spine to something she no longer noticed, and finally felt undressed without. She sharpened the little blade, and drew it carefully against her palm, waiting days for each last cut to heal, until she could part the skin without tears.
Then she began with fire.
When Robert returned at Yuletide, nothing could touch her unless she allowed it to. She had grown, taller and more slender, beginning to leave a child's shape behind even at the youthful age of nine. The cloak of memory grew with her, pinning tightly against her skin, constricting and safe. Robert's gaze upon her was sharp and appraising, even approving. She thought, in between moments, that he could see the wrap of memory that clung to her. Challenged, she strengthened it, lending it her indifference in the form of an uplifted chin and a cool hazel gaze.
Robert's smile grew warmer.
Once rooted in her bones, the game of stillness spilled out of her. The near-perfect memory that both blessed and dogged her wouldn't let her forget the moment when the stillness became larger than she was. She was dressed unfashionably, though the brown velvet was expensive enough to almost forgive the colour; Belinda didn't care. The depth of the fabric made her hair rich and soft-looking, especially against the gold net snood that kept loose curls from falling into her eyes. The dress was a Yuletide gift, warmer than the two summer gowns. Extra length was nipped into the hem, a seamstress's silent expectation that Belinda would grow taller still before spring. For now, she curled her fingers into the velvet's weight, lifting it a few inches to allow her feet clearance from the petticoats and skirts. She clung to the shadows along the manor stairs, following the curve down into the great hall. It was cold, the new year a few hours from ringing in. Belinda's boots, lined with rabbit fur, flashed beneath the hem of her gown as she trotted down the steps.
Meet the Author
Beverley A. Crick is a New York-based actress and accomplished voice-over artist. Her credits include film, television, commercials, radio, corporate narrations, looping, theater, comedy, and hosting. Her humor, dedication to research, and sensibility to nuance collectively inform all her narrations.
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