Today on the Barnes & Noble teen blog, we’re excited to share the cover of author Scott Reintgen’s epic fantasy Ashlords.
In this new series, the writer behind the stunning Nyxia trilogy takes on phoenix mythology in a fast-paced thrill ride that explores concepts of empire, competition, spectacle and heroism. Learn more about it below, then check out our delicious three-chapter sneak peek.
Red Rising meets The Scorpio Races in this epic fantasy following three phoenix horse riders—skilled at alchemy—who must compete at The Races, the modern spectacle that has replaced warfare within their empire.
Every year since the Ashlords were gifted phoenix horses by their gods, they’ve raced them. First into battle, then on great hunts, and finally for the pure sport of seeing who rode the fastest. Centuries of blood and fire carved their competition into a more modern spectacle: The Races.
Over the course of a multi-day event, elite riders from clashing cultures vie to be crowned champion. But the modern version of the sport requires more than good riding. Competitors must be skilled at creating and controlling phoenix horses made of ash and alchemy, which are summoned back to life each sunrise with uniquely crafted powers to cover impossible distances and challenges before bursting into flames at sunset. But good alchemy only matters if a rider knows how to defend their phoenix horse at night. Murder is outlawed, but breaking bones and poisoning ashes? That’s all legal and encouraged.
In this year’s Races, eleven riders will compete, but three of them have more to lose than the rest–a champion’s daughter, a scholarship entrant, and a revolutionary’s son. Who will attain their own dream of glory? Or will they all flame out in defeat?
Chapter One: The Alchemist
Farian wakes me at some ungodly hour.
He comes in like he lives here, drags me out of bed, and gets me into a pair of boots. My corner candle’s out, so I can’t even see which cloak he throws around my shoulders or which hat he slaps on my head. Farian would say that’s for the best. According to him, fashion and I were never properly introduced. He’s always threatening to throw away my favorite dresses. It is a point of contention between us.
We stumble through the dark. Someone’s asleep on the couch. An uncle, but I couldn’t say which one. They all snore the same. Empty bottles spin away from my clumsy steps. Farian keeps a steady hand on my back until we’re in the candlelight of the kitchen. He sets a cup of coffee in my hands, lets me take a few sips, and then pushes me out the door.
It should be black at this hour, but the sky’s cloud-clear, and the stars recognize a stage when it’s there. Dueling nebulas slash over the dark, rolling mesas. I hear Doctor Vass explain, “Each light is a sun. To each sun, planets. To each planet, moons. How endless it all is. . . .”
Farian looks back. “You awake yet?”
“No talking until I can see what color your clothes are.”
He laughs. Farian has always laughed easily. Doesn’t know his way around a joke, but he always makes you feel like you do. My best friend and confidant lopes ahead, his limp barely noticeable, a satchel full of camera gear tucked under one thick arm. He’s always been big. Fourth son in a family of farmers, with three older brothers that have all grown even bigger than he is. But that’s because Farian’s made his world more than digging irrigation pits. He skips out on his chores to color photographs or edit our film series. He’s bound for an education if he keeps at it, as long as his parents don’t disown him before he can get there.
We’re not the only ones awake at this hour. The door to Amaya’s bar bangs open, and three ranch hands slide out into the slick shadows, laughing and singing the wrong words to “The March of Ashes.” Farian hums the tune long after we’ve passed them.
Down the road, a pair of postmen trot past on slender mounts. Both tip their brims, looking like any other riders but for the government-issued gloves threaded with gold and the sacks full of letters strung to their saddles. We arrive at the ranch well before sunrise. It’s dead and dark, quiet-like. The stars are fading.
“Looks empty,” Farian says. “Only Martial is out there.”
I squint, but Farian’s eyes have always been better than mine. I can’t make out much beyond the nearest row of fence posts, but there’s nothing surprising about the quiet. It’s a holy day. “The Ashlords only bow to the gods,” I remind him.
He snorts but says nothing. We’ve caught hell for skipping Gathering the past few years, but we both know it’s the only way to get any respectable riding time. Martial owns the only Dividian-friendly ranch in the district. He won the Races about twenty years ago and used the prize money to build his own ranch and buy his own herd of phoenixes. He promised it would be a training ground to hopeful Dividian riders who couldn’t afford their own horses. Like him.
It was a stunning kindness.
Until the money started running out. It always does. Gold is worth less when it’s in Dividian pockets. Not to mention they tax Dividian landowners twice as much. A few years back, Martial opened the ranch to some of the lesser Ashlord nobles. Carved out just a few days of the week at first, but it wasn’t long until he was booked solid. I don’t blame him, either. Ruling-class gold pays too well to turn down.
“What’s it going to be today?” Farian asks, glancing back again. “Something new?”
“Something old,” I reply with a smile. “Something long forgotten.”
We head in different directions. Farian strides out to talk with Martial. He’s been working up to asking the old champ to do a biopic, but Farian’s about as careful as thunder. Won’t make any noise until he’s sure lightning’s already struck. I leave them to it, heading for the stalls.
Martial might have sold out to the Ashlords, but there’s still no ranch like his. As a Dividian, I get to ride his phoenixes free of charge. And he slashes component prices by half. He even lets us pay off all the expenses through a little side work. I’m pretty sure there’s no better setup in the Empire, at least not for a Dividian like me.
His barn is a fine thing, too. All stone, with slightly sloping roofs and lamps dangling every few paces. I walk the outer courtyard, hearing horses occasionally stomp in their stalls on my left, seeing columns and arches running on my right. Martial sank most of his winnings into the place. People called it a mistake, but the quality of the facility is the only reason gold keeps moving from Ashlord pockets into his accounts. He has seven city-bred families boarding horses here, and more on the waiting list. I’m just glad he hasn’t turned the whole place in that direction. He’s still got about eight of his own horses, and they’re the closest I’ll ever come to calling one my own.
At the end of the yard, a great red door waits. I lift both latches and put my whole body into a shove. The door opens into the dark. I smile as a great smash of scents carry through the opening. I follow them inside. Practiced hands find the lamp thread and I give it a pull. The bulb takes its time, warming the room with light, brightening until I can see the endless containers with all their precious powders. All those possibilities . . .
I remove a half-ripped theater poster from the pocket of my riding jacket. Proper paper is too expensive, but street litter and old playbills are always free. I copy ingredients from the poster to one of Martial’s inventory forms. I cringe, though, when I see the price he has listed for unborn ash.
“Seventy legions. Pick my pockets, why don’t you, Martial.”
After a second, I scribble the component down. I know today’s video will make up for the cost eventually. It still stings to use anything that costs that much. I haven’t taken on a component with a price that steep since my disaster last year with powdered gold. Burned through a hundred fifty legions in less than two minutes. But I won’t make that mistake again.
After noting each component, I take five racing containers and link them up. Martial’s cubes are a cheaper version, about a fourth the size of the Race-regulation ones, but I’m only doing one rebirth anyway.
It takes a few minutes to locate each component, measure out what I’ve purchased, and strap the cubes to my riding belt. I lock the door behind me and find Martial rolling a cigarette outside. He keeps his thinning hair long and pulled back in a knot. His eyes are bright and blue, so shockingly Dividian that it’s like looking across oceans, a few hundred years into our past. I can almost see our ancestors arriving on the shores of the Empire for the first time, eyes bright with desire.
He nods once. “Imelda Beru,” he says. “The Alchemist.”
“That name was Farian’s choice. He says we need a brand if we want it to sell.”
Martial taps the end of his cigarette. Dissatisfied, he starts rolling it again.
“Smart kid,” he says. “I watched your last video. Some twelve thousand views, no?”
“Enough to pay you back, and buy Farian a new lens.”
“What an age,” Martial says. “Getting paid for people to click on a box.”
“The modern world has its charms,” I reply. “Speaking of which, sun’s rising.”
He glances out, nods once. “Seventh stall. Your ashes are waiting.”
I thank him and head that way. He and I both know the sun won’t touch the ranch for another twenty minutes, but talking with Martial makes me nervous these days. He’s a man of hints. Idle comments intended to stir me up. Too often he talks about the Races with Farian. He thinks I have a chance to be chosen as this year’s Qualifier. There’s also a chance I’ll be devoured by wolves, but I’m not betting on either one. Martial was chosen all those years ago, and a man who’s been struck by lightning always thinks it’s likely to happen again.
Opening the seventh stall, I find the ashes piled neatly in a metal box. I lift them up, careful with the lid, and start my search for Farian.
The land stretches north and south of the barns, and even though the estate’s massive, Farian’s been complaining about the shots getting stale. Like me, though, he knows we’re lucky to even have this option. I find him at the south end of the property, navigating the low limbs of Martial’s lonely shoestring tree. He doesn’t like climbing, but by the time I reach him, he’s wedged fifteen feet in the air. The mountains glow with coming gold. I frown up at him.
“You’re going through all this trouble to film a Stoneside rebirth?”
Farian shoots me a furious look. “You serious? Why would you do Stoneside again?”
I grin at him. “Just snacking on you, Farian.”
He flicks me off, laughs, then almost drops his camera. We both gasp, then laugh again when he catches it to his chest. He shakes his head, like I’m the one who almost dropped it.
“I hope you have something good for me,” he says, glancing back through the branches. “I think this lighting will be flawless. It’s the only time we’ve ever done a camera angle this high, you know? I’m thinking of doing some crosscutting for this one, if you ride well.”
“Crosscutting,” I say. “Glad to hear that. I was going to suggest . . . crosscutting.”
He makes a face. “It’s when you—”
When he sees my face, though, he cuts off. We’ve played this game too many times. He talks like a textbook and I end up . . . distracted. He gets annoyed; I get mad.
“You film. I ride. It’s simple.”
“Gods below,” he says, eyeing the light again. “Get me to a university already. I’d like to have a proper conversation about montages and backlighting with someone.”
I smile up at him. “I thought you talked about all that stuff with Doctor Vass.”
“For fifteen minutes.” Farian shrugs. “Not his area of expertise.”
“Guess you’ll have to go to university.”
“Guess so,” he says, but his voice is full of doubt.
His family doesn’t send off to school. Neither does mine. Every uncle and cousin is proof enough of that. Education is reserved for Ashlords and city-born Dividian with deep pockets. Out in the rural villages, we’re more likely to inherit trades. Both Farian and I spend most of our time ignoring the trade we’ve been pegged for since birth. Farian knows as much about farming as a chicken. And I know even less about charming and getting married to a boy. My parents are already hinting that I can’t spend my life riding other people’s horses. One day they’ll shrug and say that all we can do is make the best of the world the Ashlords offer us.
But on holy days—while the Ashlords worship their gods—I forget all of that. I walk out to greet the sunrise and become who I really am.
He jams an elbow into his lap, turning the lens slightly. At his signal, I start spreading the ashes out over the ground. They’re still warm, so I take quick handfuls and sweep them out in a flat, even circle. I don’t flinch away from the heat, not after Farian claimed my cowardice ruined his shot a few months ago. I am as bright and fiery as the creature I will summon.
Once that’s done, I unclip the cubes from my belt, flipping the individual lids so Farian has a good angle on each stored component. Sunrise isn’t far off. I lift my eyes to Farian, focused on the camera. He’s been walking me through the acting cues, but I always need a deep breath before we start, no matter how many videos we’ve made. He signals, and I begin.
“Good morning.” I offer the camera an unnatural smile. “My name is Imelda Beru, also known as the Alchemist. First, I wanted to thank all of you for watching our recent videos. If you missed our Stoneside or Fearless rebirths, you’ll find the link to those videos below.
“Today, we’re staying with the theme of vintage rebirths. Everyone knows the standard resurrections these days. Those are tired. They’re boring. All we have to do is look back at the pages of history to see just how inventive phoenix rebirths used to be. Since you don’t have time to wade through codices and scrolls, I’ve done your homework for you. Here’s a rebirth I like to call Trust Fall.”
Farian leans out from behind his camera long enough to roll his eyes at my chosen title. I kneel down, hiding my laughter as I take a healthy pinch of locust dust.
“You’re going to start with an outer ring of locust,” I explain, letting the powder feed between my fingers and highlighting the circle’s border with a deep tan color. “Keep the circle unbroken. You want your locust to burn hard and quick. You’ll know you did it right if there’s the faintest trace of sandstone coloring just as sunrise hits.
“Next: gypsum and limestone.” I empty those containers into a central pile on my ashes, mixing them slowly with both fingers. “You’ll want to lightly mix them, but don’t spread them out too far. Three fingers of height will guarantee your mixture doesn’t burn away.”
As I hold up the last cube, I throw a wicked grin at the camera.
“Now, unborn ashes are as vintage as it gets. Our ancestors lived in a crueler world. Blood sacrifices every month and gods roaming the land. Unborn ashes aren’t the cheapest component in the storeroom, but they’re what you need if you want to call on the powers of old. Make another circle.” I take a handful of the dead ashes. They’re so cold that the hairs on that arm start to rise. “Place them inside the locust powder, but ringed outside the mixture of gypsum and limestone. Make the circle thick and add them just before sunlight hits.”
I stand back, wiping my hands clean and gesturing past the camera.
“Which is about . . . right . . . now.”
Sunlight spills over the plain. I take a step back and hear the obvious gasp of a creature coming to life. My piled ash stirs with movement. The wind turns the ashes in quick circles before raising them up, where they howl into a sudden dust devil. In all that chaos, I see my phoenix starting to take form, a dark, inconsistent mass. Then sunlight fractures against the growing magic, sudden and blinding.
I shield my eyes as a glorious figure staggers free of the storm. Farian keeps the film rolling, but I know the phoenix is still too bright to see. I can’t even look at it without squinting and shielding my eyes with both hands. The horse itself isn’t all that marvelous. As the light begins to fade, I note that it’s Martial’s gray pinto with the steel-tipped tail. Stand her up next to any Ashlord-bred stallion and you’d think she was a miniature horse, but Farian’s filming will make her look twenty feet tall, and my alchemy will add what his filming can’t.
“Our ancestors used the Trust Fall rebirth to leap off cliffs,” I say, raising my voice above the phoenix’s unsettled stamping and snorting. “I suggest starting with ten or fifteen foot drops, and keep in mind this is a dangerous rebirth. Even if you’re an experienced rider, use caution.”
Farian hates disclaimers, thinks they’re boring. But I’m not going to have some rookie breaking their neck and blaming me for it.
As quietly as possible, I approach the horse’s left shoulder. I keep my voice soft and patient. Most riders would just use constants. They’re with their horse through every death, every life. Feed them a certain apple, whisper a certain word. That’s all it takes for the Ashlords who can afford to own their own horses. It’s a little more difficult when you’re trying to convince a creature you haven’t seen in months to trust you again.
She trembles beneath my fingertips, but she’s quiet when I stand at her side. Still whispering, I start sliding a saddle over her back, fumbling at the buckles that attach the girth on both sides. As I slide forward to work on the bridle, Farian’s moving, too, adjusting his angle. We’ve got instructional videos up for saddles and harnesses, so he never films this part. Our viewers subscribe for the new rebirths, and for Farian’s brilliant production values.
“Trust Fall?” he says, starting to climb down from the tree. “We need to have a conversation about your creative decision making.”
I ignore the dig, knowing the horse will feed off any anger or nerves this early in the connection. She huffs once and settles back into calm.
“What does the mix even do?” Farian asks. “I don’t see anything different about this one.”
“Just keep filming.”
He’s right, though. She looks plain as sand. But that’s the beauty of alchemy and phoenixes: they’re like an ace hidden up a sleeve, magical if you know how to make the trick work. I finish with the saddle and move up to look the sweet thing in the eye. She’s not nervous now. She likes my hands and the sound of my voice.
“Let’s do this,” I say, eyes back on Farian. “What do you say, Catcher?”
Farian stands over his tripod and signals for me to say the name again. Not my most creative work. He looks annoyed that I didn’t consult with him first, but names matter with phoenixes. If Farian knew what kind of stunt I am about to try to pull off, he’d understand why it’s the perfect name for the horse.
“All right.” I raise my voice. “You won’t see much difference in Catcher until I leap from her back. I’m going to ride along that upper ridge there. Keep your eyes on the screen once I’m in the air. And say a little prayer for me that this actually works.”
I can tell Farian’s eyes are wide behind the camera. He’s adjusting his lens and prepping the tripod for a perfect shot of the ridge off to our right. I wait for his signal before turning Catcher around and making sure my face is visible before our first gallop. A normal horse might need the warmup, but phoenix horses run hot, always ready for that first sprint.
“Get, get! Let’s ride, girl!”
I dig in my heels, and she shoots forward. She opens up quick, trying to take control from me, so I rein her in and make sure she knows that where I’m heading is where she’s heading. Both of us taste the wind for a few seconds, galloping in a dead straight line away from Farian. When she’s got the swing of me, I loop us back around. Martial’s property has a handful of little ridges and hollows. Good spots for practicing elevation changes or learning how to bail. The ridge I’m aimed at isn’t much higher than Catcher, but it’s high enough for what I’m planning.
Farian has us locked in his sights as we nose toward the first rise. I start to stand up in the saddle, freeing my feet from the stirrups and tightening my grip. Catcher’s a little unnerved by the change, but the ridge is smack up against a second rise, so there’s nowhere for her to scare to. She holds the path I’ve chosen as I push onto my knees, then onto my feet. I crouch on her back like a statue, waiting for the right moment. When we reach the crest, Catcher’s in full frame for Farian.
Fear slips away. I become something more.
I release the reins and leap to my left.
There’s nothing but air and ground. The sudden drop steals my breath. I can feel my stomach twisting as I turn in the air, widening my stance, falling to the ground below. The earth rushes up to devour me. Only it doesn’t, because Catcher appears beneath me.
From ridge to ground level in an impossible blink. I land hard against her back, nearly slip off the saddle, and scramble for the reins. She snorts with delight when I manage to hang on. Farian’s already got one fist raised in triumph. I’m lost in the glory of it, that the rebirth actually worked, as I yank her to a stop right in front of him, grinning my wildness down at the camera.
“Trust Fall,” I say breathlessly. “That one’s called Trust Fall.”
Chapter Two: The Longhand
Sixteen hats on the table, set down in front of their owners, each as meaningful as words on a page. There’s Maggie and Maggie, snipers both, with their black and white brims. Trick is knowing which Maggie’s which. The one with the black hat’s sweet as pie. One in white has the devil parading around her twisted little heart. Knowing is living. Daddy has taught me that much.
Beside them, Antonio Rowan. Looks like he spent all morning kicking his hat through the sticks to get it properly dusted. The man is a legend, as good at talking as he is at keeping the right people quiet. He’s even going at it now. Telling a story about a time and a place.
The hat across from his is as pristine as its owner. Gale Gusto doesn’t have a speck of dirt on her. I wonder how she got here, which street she asked them to shake the dust out of before she agreed to sidesaddle her way into town for a meeting. She doesn’t smile, but when you’re as rich as she is, there are only so many folks you have to play nice with.
I know all their names, their favorite drinks, too. These are our people, every rotten one of them. And, of course, there’s Daddy. The only one in the room who sits taller than me.
His hat is a brown brim with a leather braid snaking quietly around the crown. There’s a little tear right of center, noticeable, but no one knows the story. The brim edges up on one side because of how often he lifts that eyebrow in curiosity. That’s how he’s always been. A man of questions. He sat me on his lap when I was five and said the man who asks the most questions gets the most answers. Knowing is living. I stopped being so quiet after that.
“Well,” he says, and that one word gives Antonio Rowan’s story a new ending. The man falls quiet. Everyone else follows suit. Daddy sets a hand on his hat. “Shall we get started?”
“About time,” Gale Gusto replies. “I’ve business to attend to.”
Daddy smiles a trademark at her. “That you do, Gale. We all do. Welcome, friends.” That word is a stretch, but he makes it sound fitting enough. “I imagine you’re awfully curious about such a gathering. Deposed generals, oil magnates, sharpshooters. What a crew we make.”
“We’re breaking a few laws, aren’t we?” Old Trent asks.
“Two very specific ones,” Daddy answers. “But it’s not much off our noses if word doesn’t make its way to the wrong ears. I’m sure what’s spoken here won’t leave the room.”
Hearing that settles the group. Daddy’s word is the steadiest currency in the Reach. And even if they’re afraid of what he might say today, they’ve spent most of their lives waiting for someone to say it. I look around the table again and know these are the Rebellion’s children. Each of them grew up hearing stories about Gold Man Jones or the Running Rabbits. But their parents told those stories like they were tragedies. That’s what you do after losing a war. You tell your histories at the fire and you make them as quiet as you can.
Daddy’s never liked quiet. “It’s time for the Reach to rise,” he says. “Our war debt has been absolved. The population has more than recovered from the Purge. Between Gale, the Foresters, and myself, we have enough money to mobilize at least half the troops we’ll need. The state treasury is ticking its way to heaven in spite of Ashlord sanctions. We’re far more formidable than we were at the start of the first Rebellion.”
“A rebellion? To what end?” Grayson asks from my left. “You’re right. The Reach has flourished, but it has done so in peacetime. What happens if we go to war? How many of our boys will we lose to battle? I’ve read Paxon’s latest book on the matter. . . .”
A few snorts sound. Gale Gusto rolls her eyes. Only Daddy doesn’t react to the name. Paxon is too liberal by half, but Daddy makes me read all of his books. It’s always harder to defeat an enemy you don’t know. I’ve even read the book that Grayson’s mentioned.
The Grave Illusion.
In it, Paxon examined the idea of a second Rebellion, and the inevitable war that would follow between the Reach and our current rulers: the Ashlord Empire. His analysis of the economics was surgical. There wasn’t much to argue with, honestly. His conclusion was that a second war would be bad for everyone.
“I’m just saying,” Grayson goes on. “There are consequences to war.”
Daddy nods at that. “You’re not wrong. I imagine we all lived through the consequences of war for a time. Felt like I ate nothing but potatoes one year. Our parents reached for glory and couldn’t quite get a hold of it. This time will be different. You know I’ve read Paxon’s book, too. The economics in it are staggering, aren’t they? Can’t say I like the man, but he’s got an entertaining perspective on things. There’s one word he doesn’t mention even once in the text, though, Grayson. Do you know which one it is?”
Grayson frowns, quiet now. The others are leaning forward, licking their chops. It’s a dysfunctional family that likes seeing its members laid low, but none of them know that Daddy talked with Grayson months before the meeting. Asked the man to stick his boots in the mud and brace himself for a good drag through it. He’s played his part well. Now it’s time to play mine.
“Freedom,” I say, letting them hear the deep certainty in my voice. Daddy wanted me to be visible today, memorable. “He doesn’t talk about freedom.”
Daddy nods. “Not once.”
“You can’t evaluate the cost of freedom,” Grayson complains.
“Agreed.” Daddy’s moving quick now, everything rehearsed. “Freedom is invaluable. Paxon ignored the idea because it weighs too much. We all know how much a drum of oil costs, Grayson. We can sell you a horse for the right price, too. But freedom? Too dangerous to set that on the scales. Paxon knew the men and women of the Reach would set every oil field on fire if it removed the chains the Ashlords still have around our wrists. It’s been centuries. Our ancestors came up here after the Dividian War and asked for one thing: freedom. And it’s the one thing that we still don’t have.”
Antonio Rowan raps his knuckles on the table in agreement. The Maggies are grinning like murderers, and even Gale Gusto’s wearing her little crease of a smile. Old Trent has war in his eyes, and the rest of the generals look like they can hear the sound of soldiers marching. Daddy has the room in thrall. They wanted to rise; he just needed to remind them they could.
“If you want war so you can line your pockets,” he says, “go on home. The war we start will cost us everything. The world will burn. We have to be brave enough to put the torch to it.”
Gale Gusto nods. “I know where you can get some oil.”
The room shakes with laughter, but it’s plain as day they’re still on the fence. Most of them have whispered rebellion into their cups, at their dinner tables, in their beds. Daddy knew they needed more than words. It’s easier to trust a man who stands to lose as much as you do.
“Adrian,” he says. “Stand up.”
I rise. Most of them remember the boy I was, but Daddy wants them to leave in awe of the man I’ve become. Standing is a good place to start. I’m a hand or two taller than any of them. I inherited broad shoulders, but the arms and chest are my own. I’ve spent the past few years making power into an art form. They all see it now. I am everything the Reach could be.
I am endless possibility.
“Adrian’s heading south,” he says. “He will be the first Longhand in twelve years to compete in the Races. When he wins, our people will remember. They will rise to war. My son will remind the Ashlords who we are, what we can do. Their world will tremble.”
They look from me to him, more convinced than ever. No one objects to the plan, or to the war, but there’s still a fear that they’ll leave today and have their throats slit within a week. The Ashlords have faced insurrections before, and they always put them down in fire and blood.
Luckily, we’ve got one more show for them.
I unsheathe a blade from my hip, take two steps, and let it swing. The metal shines a silver arc before stopping an inch shy of Sweet Maggie’s throat. The room takes in a breath. The other Maggie stands, pistol rising to my temple, her eyes a storm.
“You’ve got that aimed at the wrong person,” Daddy tells her. “Sweet Maggie’s been sliding secrets back to the Empire. Informing for the Ashlords since the incident in Vivinia. I always did wonder how you slipped your charges on that nightmarish expedition.”
Bad Maggie’s still got her gun to my temple, close enough I can smell the loaded powder. But I was taught to show no weakness. Give them nothing. So my blade hangs steady over Sweet Maggie’s blotchy throat. After a second, Daddy stands, angry at this show of distrust.
“Unless you are her accomplice in this betrayal,” he says, “set the gun down.”
Bad Maggie’s reply is mostly spit. “Like hell. She wouldn’t.”
“She would. She did,” Daddy says. “Set it down.”
“He’s right.” Sweet Maggie can pick someone off from a hundred paces, but she’s too honest to carry a lie. “Ashlords snagged me. I should have told you, Mags, but I thought it’d be easier this way. All I sent them was a few notes. The information wasn’t even that good.”
There’s a few seconds where the tension holds. Bad Maggie makes a noise, no doubt feeling fouled by it all, then lowers her gun. My eyes flicker to her for a second, and that’s as long as Sweet Maggie needs to go for her knife. It’s off her hip and driving toward my stomach, but I’m quicker. I slam the grip of my sword down and crush her at the wrist.
She fumbles the knife and I bring my elbow up and across. The blow sends her staggering to the ground. Before she can even think to reach for her fallen weapon, I have the sword at her neck again. She goes still, her chest heaving, eyes wide and defeated.
“It was confusing enough having two of you,” Daddy says. “Get her out.”
Antonio Rowan sweeps up from his chair. Bad Maggie’s still fuming, like she’s angry at the whole world, but her pistol’s back on her hip and she’s punishing the back of her chair instead of me. I sheathe my sword as the traitor is escorted out. Daddy nods approvingly at the decision before turning back to a room full of rebels and warlords.
He sets his hat on his head and smiles recklessly.
“Well,” he says. “Who wants to go to war?”
Chapter Three: The Favorite
You hit the replay button again. Stylists are arranging your curls and fussing over your makeup, but you’re too fixated on the screen to care. The Chats lit up this afternoon. Everyone and their mother’s sharing the Alchemist’s video. It’s not hard to understand the obsession. You watch the girl leap from the horse’s back. She vaults through the air like a dancer. The horse vanishes from the ridge and appears beneath her. She sticks the landing, and gods does she looked shocked when she does, then grins at the camera like a fool.
It’s not half bad for a Dividian, you think. A glance shows the video’s been watched two million times. A clip of you dancing on the beach last week had double that number, but still, not bad for a Dividian.
“Stage in twenty seconds,” Zeta announces.
You nod, shedding stylists to glide through the backstage labyrinth. You like the quiet darkness, but you like the bright chaos even more. A thousand cameras flash as you take the stage. You brush a dark lock behind your ear because you know Bravos is watching, and he’ll love that little display of calm control. When you flash your commercial smile, the media attendants swoon. Automated applause echoes out from each of the metallic chair mannequins.
Life has readied you for the stage. You know to keep your eyes level, your back straight, and your legs crossed. The designer’s auction only finished an hour before the interview. Seven thousand legions pile into your personal account from some off-brand company just so you’ll wear their jacket during the live feed. It has the most absurd silver loops you’ve ever seen for buttons and a vintage collar. Not really your style, but the video will feed through the Chats and before long you’ll see it featured in storefronts on Promenade Avenue. A little sacrifice for a little pocket change never hurt.
House lights come up and you get your first look at the audience. People are still bidding for seats, so the faces and clothes keep changing inside the vacant, crystal mannequins. Bidding on the front row’s even fiercer than usual. You watch the faces change. Bearded men replaced by bald women, diva stylists outbidding political dignitaries. Everyone wants a taste of you.
Overhead, a clock ticks down bright-red numbers. When it hits zero, the auctions will end and the interview will begin. Only the back row’s not subject to the grappling of public hands. You promised yourself you wouldn’t look there before the interview, that it’s the grown-up thing to do this all on your own, but you can’t help it. You’ve always needed them.
Father and Mother sit in their customary seats, back left. Father’s hair is swept into a traditional topknot. So old-fashioned, but he makes it look classic somehow. You know most men who’ve won the Races put on weight as the years pass. Fifteen years of endless training lead to fifteen years of banquets and parades. But not for your father. In the same way his haircut and uniform are timeless, so is he. A mark of something better, something the years can’t wash away.
Beside him, your mother. That famously pointed chin, those famously watchful eyes. After her victory in the Races, women actually purchased illegal surgeries, hoping to look a little more like the famous Prama. The government agencies had so much trouble regulating the industry that they just changed the law instead. For three years in a row, your mother was Going Girl magazine’s “Most Desirable Bachelorette in Furia”!
Until she married your father.
The perfect couple.
Which left you with only one choice: to follow in their perfect footsteps.
The red numbers vanish. You lift your chin and turn as the crystal mannequin in the opposite seat animates, filling with color. A blue suit and pink buttons. The famous showman, Maxim, sweeps a robotic hand through his perfectly combed hair and smiles for the cameras.
“We’re back and live with our coverage of this year’s Races. But there are some people who would argue that our coverage is only beginning as we arrive at the interview that everyone in Furia has been waiting for. Gods be good, Pippa, you look astonishing.”
Smile once at the audience, once at Maxim, prepared answer.
“All thanks to the designers at Press Emporium and the unbelievable makeup artists that Flight Forever sends over before every interview. Where would I be without those girls? They’re the ones who inspired my catchphrase, after all. You remember it, Maxim?”
The showman smiles. “I’m really not sure I’ve heard anything about a catchphrase.”
Incredulous look, wink at the audience, wide smile.
“Really? And I thought you were the kind of guy who knew things.” Second wide smile. “Let’s see if my real fans know it: I totally believe in luck. In fact, the harder I work . . .”
Raise an eyebrow to cue the audience.
Everyone shouts, “The more I have of it!”
Maxim claps his hands and smiles. Your publicist found that quote in some gods-awful library up north. The team ran through catchphrases for hours before settling on that one. You know they’ll be filling back orders on the glittering T-shirts you designed for weeks to come. Your father said you should be more focused on training than sales, but you’ve always been a best of both worlds kind of girl.
“Pippa,” Maxim says, leaning conspiratorially close. “If we’re being honest, last year’s event was overshadowed by the knowledge that you would be eligible for the Races this year. It doesn’t mean we weren’t entertained, but we were simply ecstatic to get to this year’s ride. Everyone was very pleased when you decided to submit your name in your first qualifying year. Was there any pushback on that?”
Amusement, a shake of the head, firm voice.
“Not at all, Maxim. My father preached caution in the past, but after seeing me in training sessions and on the amateur circuit, he withdrew those concerns. It’s pretty clear now that I’m ready. As the daughter of two former champions, this is in my blood. I’m not here to put on a good show or smile for the cameras, Maxim. I’m here to win.”
“As sharp as your mother and as fiery as your father!” He looks back to the audience. “I’m glad you’re up to the challenge. We’ve been looking forward to this, so much so that we just set the record for audience calls! Ready to field your fans’ biggest questions, Pippa?”
Soft smile, playful wink. “Of course, Maxim.”
“All right, let’s get to it!”
The interviewing mannequin shimmers. Maxim’s tie disappears and a woman with a bright-red scarf and square-framed glasses replaces him. You smile as your first caller lets out a rather hideous squeal and wiggles with delight in her seat.
“It’s actually you! You! Here! In front of me!”
You smile wider. “Pippa, at your service.”
“Well, I just had to ask you about what happened with Bravos.”
Show a flash of anger. Follow with a playful front. Respond with a question.
“I thought he’d come up tonight. What did you want to know about Bravos?”
You keep your smile steady as a knife. Only two days ago, you and Bravos put on quite a performance for your dinner guests. He contradicted you on something. You pointed out how boring his tie was. It wasn’t long before the Chats were full of rumors about Furia’s favorite couple. Were they really breaking up?
“Well,” the fan says. “I’ve followed your romance since day one on the Chats! So hot and steamy and just, I don’t know, fun. But the reports claim it’s over. Say it isn’t so.”
“It is so.” Every audience member punches their gasp buttons. The room fills with robotic sadness and you’re careful to let it die down before continuing. “Bravos and I had our time. But in a few weeks, he becomes my enemy. Anyone standing between me and the finish line can only ever be that: an enemy.”
You know the words are lifted directly from your father’s first interview. The publicity team concluded you looked soft in the eyes of other contestants and that you needed to adopt some of your father’s intensity. Loom larger and look wilder. It was easier to take Father’s words and carve your own threats out of them.
The fan nods sympathetically before the interviewing mannequin goes blank again. There’s a lottery shuffle of faces and clothes before a thin man with dark eyebrows and a severely angled face appears. You smile as his eyes widen in surprise.
“Oh dear gods.”
You laugh. “A mere mortal most days. What’s your question?”
He blinks before speaking. “I was wondering about your training. The Chats say you were in Baybou last week and the Sunsickle Islands before that. Some of the other contestants post training videos every day. Are you really as prepared as Etzli or Revel?”
Bite the lip, exasperated sigh, firm eyes.
“I saw a few of those videos. Impressive, but nothing I saw in any of them has me worried. I’m one of three contestants riding a pureborn phoenix. I went to Baybou to get him accustomed to the thinner air. Then I visited the Sunsickle Islands so I could practice quick water and land transitions. People only ever see the pictures of me sunbathing on the beach or attending Crossing matches, but every hour in between the stolen photos is spent training. I’m ready, sir, and any competitor who thinks I’m not is just giving me one more way to beat them.”
Applause buttons flood the room with noise. The next fan doesn’t look a day over twelve. But she doesn’t stutter through a question or shake with nerves. She’s focused, a young Ashlord girl who looks like she’s trying to learn a valuable lesson from a worthy teacher.
“Pippa,” she enunciates clearly. “How are you going to handle the Longhand?”
Nod seriously, keep chin raised, show no fear.
“So you saw that announcement yesterday?” Proud smile, little wink. “I suppose the entire Empire’s heard about Adrian Ford by now. Looks big, doesn’t he?”
The girl gives a nod, grinning. “I wouldn’t want to wrestle him.”
You laugh. “Me neither. Fortunately, this isn’t a wrestling match. It’s the Races. Adrian made a lot of noise yesterday, but remember, that’s all thunder ever is. Noise. It’s the lightning you have to worry about. Ever seen a good storm out on the plains?” The girl nods. “You always see the strikes before you hear the boom. That’s how I’ll handle the Longhand. I’ll ride hard and I won’t look back. I’ll be in the distance, and he’ll just be the noise that follows.”
The girl nods like she’s the lightning, too.
“Besides, we know the Longhands aren’t accustomed to winning.”
That draws a laugh from the crowd. You watch the mannequin spin through an endless sea of faces. It stops on a fourth fan. Pretty eyes, round face, hair styled short like most middle-aged women in Furia. She doesn’t smile and she isn’t nervous.
“Pippa, I wanted to know something.” The voice isn’t familiar, but you hear something in her tone that’s like a second language. Your fame has negative consequences, too. It comes with denouncers and haters. You know the kind of words that always dance with a tone like this one. “How many Beholder shots did you pose for? How many marriages are you planning on ruining as you put yourself out there for money? Do you have any idea how it makes us feel?”
It’s the only question you’re not ready to answer. The natural cues don’t come. You stare at her, wondering how to lie to her and to the cameras and to everyone, but she doesn’t let you get that far. The mannequin lunges out of its chair. You duck back instinctively, but the chair you’re sitting in is high-backed, and your escape routes are all cut off. Your eyes widen as the metallic hands reach for your throat.
And fall short. The machine’s fail-safe system hums to life and the hands hang lifelessly in the air, just a few inches from your neck. The audience stares in horror until Maxim’s blue tie appears and the mannequin takes its seat again. He sweeps a hand through that perfect hair and starts to apologize.
“We’re so sorry about that, Pippa. Always a few people out there trying to ruin the fun.”
He’s smiling, but you see his head tilt slightly to one side, and you know his producers are feeding him some fresh bit of news. You remember he’s got a show to put on. To him, that’s all that matters tonight. Not you and not your feelings and not your privacy.
“We are receiving reports,” he says, “of several sources claiming these Beholder shots do exist. My producers would kill me if I didn’t take the time and at least ask—”
“This is done,” you say, because if it’s not done now, you’re going to get burned to ashes in front of a live audience. “Thank you for your time, Maxim. Goodbye.”
You’re backstage in seconds, crew swarming around you, studio door opening. One photo shoot. That’s all it was. You did one Beholder session. It wasn’t even anything scandalous. A few pictures of you in a bathing suit. A little skin, but nothing you don’t see on the streets of Furia every day. Your publicist was all warnings, but the cash was too good to pass up.
Beholder shots of a girl like you sell very well. Only twenty-seven were produced. For each picture, only the first person to open the portrait can see the contents. That’s the two-way beauty of Beholder shots. It gives the buyer something private and unique, something only they can see. And it promises anonymity. You agreed to do it because you thought no one could prove the picture was of you, because no one but the first Beholder can see it.
“What are they saying?” you hiss.
Zeta just shakes her head. “He says it’s a completely revealing shot. The descriptions are crass and crude, but the account’s been seconded already. It’s a nightmare.”
“But they’re lying. You can’t see anything in those photos.”
She frowns back. “It doesn’t matter now.”
And she’s right. It doesn’t matter. Beholder shots work both ways. No one can disprove what they’re saying because no one else can see the shots. All that matters is what they’ve said, and the doubt they’ve already planted in the mind of every fan, every critic.
“We release a statement,” you say. “Dismiss the rumors.”
“Not yet,” Zeta replies. “Go home. Be with your family. I’ll have to come up with a whole new branding strategy. Give me a few hours. I’ll come by tonight.”
“Great,” you say. “Just great.”
But your mind’s skipping ahead. You’re trying to imagine what your parents will say, what they’ll think. And then Bravos. You never told him, either. Dreading all of it, you change into your sponsored evening wear, wrap yourself up in a summer scarf, and storm out of the room. Reporters catch you at the back exit, flash bulbs bursting, but you don’t answer questions as you mount your phoenix.
Instead, you smile wide, look unconcerned, and show them no fear.
Ashlords hits shelves January 21, 2020, but is available for pre-order now.