Welcome to the Realm, where magic is your drug, your poison, and your only hope.
An illness is spreading through the city, marking the sick in mysterious letters scrawled across their skin. What is first thought to be madness reveals itself to be an awakening as residents rediscover themselves, their pasts, and their long-forgotten magic… things the Queen wants to remain buried. Things she will sacrifice her own children to suppress.
Mercy has never been a staple of the Realm. Treachery, blood, and magic steeps the city as the rebel leader, Red, seeks to topple the Tower, Princess Fay eyes her mother’s throne, and Prince Vaun must decide whether to submit to his mother’s terrible demand.
About the Author
...Or she might be a woman with a very active imagination, no desire to be outdoors, and more notebooks than she'll ever know what to do with.
Find out by following her on social media @cherylwlow or check her webpage, CherylLow.com. The answer might surprise you! But it probably won't.
Read an Excerpt
"The wolves took two more souls last night," someone murmured close by.
A woman tutted, though she sounded a touch nervous to Vaun. "Must be the ink illness."
Vaun resisted the impulse to turn and check the speaker for long sleeves or a high collar. Bare arms and displays of skin had returned to fashion lately, the show of flesh proof against treason.
Despite the opening of The Gallery, the whisper of the morning had been dedicated to the executions listed in the paper. The Queen sent her wolves almost weekly to put down traitors to the Realm — a vague charge with severe consequences.
Disloyalty was a disease spreading fast in the form of the script — markings appearing on the body of the infected, unreadable letters jumbled about and growing every day. Not all believed that the script proved a person a traitor, but none could ignore that the wolves came for those coated in the strange writing.
As far as Vaun knew, Ollan had been one of the first with the script, though far from last. Once the ever-evolving tattoos appeared, they continued to grow and the poor soul infected slowly but surely lost their mind, becoming utterly nonsensical.
Vaun sighed, bored. Pale eyes gleamed past dark lashes to study the stretches of offensively white walls, each splashed in an excess of lighting to show off squares of splattered and layered paint.
Vaun squinted at a smear nearly the same cold shade of blue as his hair. Had the artist known? To be fair, his hair had been variations of blue for months now. Perhaps it was time for a change. He wouldn't want to be predictable. Maybe white? Or silver? It all depended on his outfit which relied entirely on his mood. When it came down to it, Vaun was not certain that everything in the Realm did not depend, at least to some degree, on the mood of the prince.
"Isn't it moving?" Babette Maggrin said with an exhale beside him. "The decisive yellow strokes mock our failures while those soft blue swirls hint at the artist's inner optimism."
And here he thought the blue hinted at his hair. Vaun turned his head to consider the woman rather than the art. Maggrins were rarely senseless people, often cold and not partaking in an excess of joy. So, it was more than a little alarming to find Babette, the Lady of Maggrin, expressing emotion over what he could only understand to be a scratch of paper doodled on by a duster for the snobbery of the elite. But, being the utmost elite, Vaun was forced to return his eye to the doodle and nod his head with an agreeable sound.
AviSariel leaned into his other side and he naturally inclined his head in her direction, sensing her desire to whisper. Vaun loved a good whisper and his wife had become an expert. "I don't get it," she admitted uneasily. Even after more than five years in the High districts of the Realm, AviSariel still wasn't entirely adept to the ever-morphing oddities of their class.
The moments in which she reminded of her old self had become refreshing. The years had been quick and her changes many.
"Drink more tea," Vaun suggested, returning his eye to the wall. How long were they expected to stare at these things? This was always the trouble with new establishments. The rules had yet to be formed, so no one knew precisely what to do or, more importantly, what not to do.
"Saven Bom," Babette called, turning her reverent eye from the wall to the crowd shifting past them. A woman stopped at the sound of her name and smiled brightly, the gesture appearing easy on her soft features rather than forced. "Mrs. Saven Bom Evergreen," Babette said again, drawing her to them, and turned back to the royal couple. "Surely, you've met Prince Vaun and his wife, Princess AviSariel."
Babette enjoyed introducing people. It allowed her to pretend that their small circles were expanding rather than shrinking with every night that the wolves howled.
Vaun grinned widely; he loved pretending not to know his peers, even if they were friends as dear as Saven Bom. "Mrs. Evergreen, was it?" He held out his hand and she took it. AviSariel giggled quietly at his side. "I think I've met your husband."
"You've slept with her husband," AviSariel mumbled just low enough to hide the bite in her words from anyone but him.
"But not recently," he countered.
Saven Bom managed to brighten even more, her warm hand comfortably folded in his fingers. "How is the dear man doing? I don't think we've seen each other in ... Oh my, two years now? Does he still reside in Vym, with that lovely pastry chef? It was all the scandal when he took up with her, I recall. Something about her being from the Low." She leaned in closer to the prince and his company. "But who can blame one for wanting a lover with skills? And my Laird always did love a good tart." She blinked when her double entendre struck her and then lifted her fingers to her mouth to contain a little laugh.
Vaun decided to keep her hand, folding it onto his arm and turning with it to stand at her side. He had always harbored a fondness for Saven Bom. She was clever but never cruel. She simply wasn't one for wickedness — a true rarity in the High. "Actually, Laird is living in Belholn now with a gentleman. I did not catch his name but I sensed they were deeply passionate about one another."
Saven Bom seemed happy to hear this and turned her gaze to AviSariel. There was an exchange of compliments before Babette interjected, "Mrs. Evergreen is a patron of this establishment."
AviSariel lifted an eyebrow curiously. This gesture had become her royal way of asking for more information without actually asking for anything at all. Vaun attributed it to her time spent with Fay.
"I simply thought The Gallery to be a lovely idea and threw a little funding toward it," Saven Bom deflected with a polite degree of embarrassment.
She bit her lip when Babette wandered away, leaning in closer to the royal couple. "I was so inspired that I started my own theater," she confessed in a whisper.
"You?" Vaun whispered back. Everyone had heard of The Theater being constructed in Vym. It was well anticipated, if a bit mysterious. The paper had been left to speculate about the proprietor and what would be done inside, with photos of the ongoing construction and rumors of auditions. It was set to open next week and just about everyone had tickets, though no one knew exactly what they had tickets for.
"I wasn't aware you had taken to entrepreneurship. Hard times?" AviSariel pretended expertly at worry, though Vaun could see the hint of a smirk in the corner of his wife's mouth. She had new gossip for Fay's table at The Library.
Saven Bom laughed easily, their judging stares rolling off her. "Actually," she whispered, always one to accent her secrets. "I undertook the effort to impress my most recent infatuation. She likes unconventional behavior and I was hoping it might catch her eye." Saven Bom shook her head with another giggle. "But I must admit it has been a delight picking out all the materials and overseeing the construction, not to mention the auditions for musicians."
"You have always had a liking for artists," Vaun said. "Avi's taken up sketching. Perhaps you should take a look?" the prince suggested with a brow lift.
AviSariel blushed, batting at Vaun's arm. She hated when he mentioned it to their friends. He wasn't sure why, though. Her sketches were at least something worth looking at. Perhaps they should pin them to the walls here.
"I'd love to see them!" Saven Bom bounced beside them. "Laird used to write me poetry, you know. And Prince Vaun used to play the piano for me."
AviSariel turned to her husband. "You play the piano?"
Vaun laughed loudly and shook his head. "No. I bought one to get her attention and used magic to pretend to play." Saven Bom gasped in surprise at his side. "It worked for nearly a whole year before I lost her affections to a woman from the Main." He scrunched his face a little when he tried to recall the details. "She was your maid, wasn't she?"
Saven Bom sighed pleasantly and nodded. "She had such a way of doing my hair. Such nimble fingers," she murmured and, with her hand not pressed into his arm, she touched some of her maroon locks. After nearly an inappropriate length of daydreaming, the woman blinked herself back to the present and grinned at the princess, reaching out with the hand that had just been twirling her own hair to grab at AviSariel's fingers. "The Theater has become my life's work. You do have tickets, don't you?"
AviSariel smiled easily. "Of course, but I do hope it's up to all the hype, dear. It's been in the paper for weeks ..." She trailed, hoping to cause a bit of panic in the otherwise serene woman. Before she could succeed or fail the room gasped and turned its attention toward the windows.
Vaun gravitated toward the exit just like everyone else, shouldering his way through. He lost Saven Bom's hand and forgot his wife. His pulse quickened when he neared the windows.
A crack of thunder brought a gasp from the crowd, and the following torrent from the skies silenced their pretense that nothing had changed in the past few years.
The rain pelted the buildings and cobblestones. A million tiny droplets but together they became a cacophony of sound, a true force, filling all their hearts and quaking something deep inside, long forgotten. The storms had started almost a year ago but Vaun could never get used to them. They drew such silence, such surprise, and longing from the people. They pressed closer to the windows and pushed the doors wide open to see. The smell of it wafted in, rich and wild in a way not even the most unruly of them could begin to understand.
It had taken him months to put his finger on what was so unnerving about the storms. The clouds came to life, churning with new shades of gray. They were suddenly livid after a lifetime of going without attention from the crowds below. The rain came in waves, sometimes a mist, and sometimes with a rage he thought would see them all drowned. But what sent the chill down his spine was that it was real. Truly real, in a way that he had never seen before.
The brave among them stepped outside, under the awning but so close to the rain that his skin ached in envy. The paper ran warnings after every storm, telling them that the skyfall was poisonous, speculating it to be one of the causes of script disease.
Vaun didn't believe that. Oh, he knew the rain was connected to the ink illness, but he also knew it wasn't poison. It was clean, and it was that purity that made it so dangerous to their lives of pretend. They were covered in magic, coated in lies, and consuming falsehood. What could be deadlier than the truth?
"Red," someone whispered, and he tried not to wince.
Cars pulled up and parked haphazardly about the road. Passenger doors opened and stoic bodies shrouded in dark coats and deep hoods slipped out. Each wore a mask inside their hoods identical to the others: a white face with red paint around the eye sockets and no mouth at all.
They flanked the street, watching the doors and windows, ready to confront residents who decided to interfere. Their gloved hands opened at their sides, the flicker of lightning in their palms, inviting a fight. More than a few inside gasped at the show of magic, wielded like a weapon. If it weren't for the rain, some of the High born would have welcomed the battle.
One by one, traitors in masks claimed the street until the last one, the one that made Vaun's heart shudder, appeared. They parted for her as she wove her way through their dark coats. Her steps were slow. Her red coat matched the color around their eyes. The knee-length garment boasted a deep hood and long, fitted sleeves. The mask that hid her face was black and at most angles made her appear headless inside her hood.
She haunted Vaun's dreams. Not because of what she meant to the Realm, the threat to their continued comfort and life as they'd known it. That was circling the drain and most of them knew it, though many fought to keep on pretending. No, the woman in the red coat filled him with dread because he wondered how many more times she could test the Queen before she burned.
Red stopped a few paces ahead of the last of her followers, her head turned up toward the Queen's Tower. All were silent — her followers in the street as well as the residents of the High pressed to their windows to watch. From where they were at the top of Maggrin's High, the Tower loomed above, the Queen's wall only a couple blocks away.
Red lifted her arms, and her black, gloved fingers flexed as they stretched from her sleeves. The world drew in a breath in which no one moved, and even she paused as if frozen by the fear that gripped all citizens staring at the Queen's Tower — the fear that the Queen might be staring back.
Red clapped her hands together and the onlookers flinched at the sound even under the rain. She brought her palms, now pressed together, close to her face inside that hood and Vaun watched unblinking as she blew her breath into them. Small flecks of gold drifted from her hands to twirl in the air, untouched by the thick drops of water from the sky.
She knelt slowly until the ends of her coat soaked up puddles and extended her still clasped hands down to the ground. She pressed them there, pushing something that had been between her palms into the street. The rain grew impossibly loud in those seconds, when all onlookers held their breaths and strained to see what she would do. What was worth risking the jealous eye of the Queen? What was worth their lives that they would gamble them here today?
When Red stood and stepped back, the High born almost forgot their fear of the rain, leaning dangerously close for a better look. It was a spark at first, like embers bundled together and embedded between the smooth stones of the road. And then a thin, sinuous curve broke free of the glowing bits of magic. A vine, small at first, crawled up from that crack to twist in the air. The stones rose, pushed up by something beneath.
It grew before their eyes and Red stepped back to allow it room. Stones lifted and toppled over onto one another to make way for the fast-growing vine. It turned from a fresh green, a shade Vaun had only ever seen in one woman's eyes, to a deep brown. No longer the soft, frail plant at its beginnings but, within seconds, the trunk of a tree. Branches reached out, toward the buildings on its sides and the clouds far above, stretching with such certainty that for a moment Vaun thought it might dive into the clouds and beyond.
Just as its growth began to slow, small buds appeared along those branches and twisted open to expose lush leaves and pale flowers.
One of the men in coats called to Red but even she hesitated to take her eye from her creation.
The tree had no glow about it, no sign of magic remaining in its branches, and yet the beauty in its color and presence took Vaun's breath away.
At last, Red turned back toward the cars and her waiting followers. None had budged without her. Normally, when Red made such appearances during the rains, the onlookers would at some point shout words of judgment at her, words like 'traitor.'
Today, no one spoke, and very few even noticed her leave.
Vaun noticed. He stood at the edge of the rain, staring at her as she walked by. He could have sworn she smiled beneath that mask when she turned her head to look back at him, one arm sweeping the rain and shoulders dipping in a mock bow. The prince pretended to look puzzled until her back was to him again. As soon as she slipped into a car, the hooded men and women in the street moved. They retreated into their own vehicles and, within minutes, were gone, followed shortly by the end of the downpour.
A deep silence swept over the street when the weather stilled, just before the first people stumbled away from their safe coverings and onto the puddle laden road. Vaun watched them and the curious moments in which they simply stared at the tree, like each peered at the face of someone they could not quite remember.
There would be no howling of wolves or fury from the Tower. The Queen had not seen the magic or the sedition taking place in her street today. The Queen saw nothing in the rain.
AviSariel tugged Vaun back into The Gallery. Babette appeared to be mid faint, her sister holding her up and two men fanning her with their gloves. "How dare she do such vile treacherous acts in my province! Mine!" she wailed, voice edged in fury and chest heaving with rapid swallows of air. "The Queen will see us all punished if she is not stopped!" she cried before taking the cigarette someone had lit for her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Detox In Letters"
Copyright © 2018 Cheryl Low.
Excerpted by permission of World Weaver Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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