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The Chronicles of Nerissette
By Andria Buchanan, Libby Murphy Danielle Poiesz
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Andria M. Buchanan
All rights reserved.
"Are you ready?" my boyfriend, Winston, asked in my ear as he came to stand beside my throne later that morning. I felt my heart flutter. We hadn't had the chance to spend much time together in the past year because of the war we had been fighting, but the boy who could turn into a black dragon still made my knees weak. "All you have to do is sign your name and it's all over. We'll finally be at peace."
I swallowed as the rest of the nobles started to filter into the room, all of them quiet, their faces drawn. It couldn't be this easy to arrange a truce with the empress of Bathune. Aunt or not, she had tried to kill me. My people were all waiting for the other shoe to drop, and I didn't blame them. I was sort of waiting for the exact same thing.
After all, waiting for the next disaster was how I'd spent all my time here in Nerissette. Biding my time until the next attack. The next person to die. For the past year I'd been stuck, waiting to hear that it was Winston who had been killed. Or my best friend Mercedes. People I cared about. People trapped here because they'd had the bad luck to be with me the day I was pulled through the Mirror of Nerissette between the World That Is and the World of Dreams.
"Allie?" I glanced up at my boyfriend and saw that he was staring down at me. "It's almost over."
"Over ..." Somehow I knew better than to believe that. We'd been in Nerissette for a year, and every single moment of it had been spent fighting. Or preparing to fight. Or cleaning up after a fight. An entire year of war. Which, if you asked my former history teacher, wasn't much of a war, but I was pretty sure he'd never actually been in one, so he wasn't an expert. Not that anyone back in the World That Is could have been an expert in a war like this one. No one there had ever fought on dragonback or had to deal with angry, fireball-throwing wizards for that matter.
"It's never going to be over," I whispered.
Winston looked down at me. "What?"
"My aunt and I will sign this treaty, and then we'll all pretend that we're friends, but that's what it will be. Pretend. We can't trust her, and we all know it."
"I know." He swallowed. "But we don't have a choice. We laid siege to the border for nine months. We spent a winter burning the coal from our own mines and everything in reserves. We don't have enough coal to keep all the homes in Nerissette heated if we cut off trade for another winter. People will freeze to death."
"I know. We need trade with Bathune, we do. But that doesn't change the fact that her army killed Timbago and Brigitte — that maid who came from Sorcastia because she wanted a glamorous life in the palace — and so many others. My aunt helped the Fate Maker try to take my throne."
"She says —" Winston started.
"I don't care what she says!" I snapped. Everyone in the ballroom fell silent, staring at us.
"My queen?" Rhys Sullivan, one of our best friends and the lord general of my army, hurried forward.
"I'm fine." I sat back on my throne and glared first at my boyfriend and then at Rhys. "Perfectly fine."
"Good." Rhys nodded, his eyes understanding. "We've had a messenger. Your aunt has left the fort at Neris, and she's on her way toward the palace. She should be here within the hour."
"How many people are with her?" I asked as the rest of the nobles went back to chatting, all of them glancing from me to the door from time to time, waiting for the next volley to begin in a war that was meant be over.
"Just the former ambassador, Eriste," Rhys said. "He's coming to offer you a formal apology, in front of the entire court, for his role in the Fate Maker's uprising against you. Otherwise, she's coming alone, as you requested."
"And the rest of the wizards she tried to bring with her?" I asked, thinking about the fifty men she had originally rode across the White Mountains with.
"Still under guard at your father's estates in the Leavenwald," Rhys said. "Enjoying the hospitality of the Woodsmen."
My father. I'd almost forgotten about him. Not that it was hard. I only found out who he was ten months ago, and he hadn't been around much since. First he'd volunteered to help lay siege on the border with Bathune and then hosted the peace talks inside the Leavenwald. We'd only seen each other a few times since the day I'd banished the Fate Maker into the Bleak, trapping him in the space between worlds, a gray nothingness where monsters stalked the landscape and there was no escape.
My mother had been in a coma since a car accident on my thirteenth birthday, and I'd thought finding my father would give me a chance to have a parent again. A family. Stupid me. Turns out my father was happier keeping his distance. And if that was how he wanted it, then fine, I'd been on my own long enough — I didn't need him anyway.
"And what about John of Leavenwald?" I asked quietly anyway. "Is he coming to the treaty signing?"
"He showed up this morning," Winston said. "He went to rest and clean himself up."
"And you just happened to see him when he got here?" I asked.
"No." Winston swallowed, looking guilty.
"He met with me and your Prince Consort here" — Rhys pointed a thumb at Winston — "at the aerie. He wanted to discuss the palace's security plans before the Empress Bavasama arrived."
"Her Ladyship Bavasama," I corrected. We'd all specifically agreed not to refer to my aunt by her royal title while she was here. She had lost the war against us, and that meant while she was here she was just another noblewoman. Second in line for my throne. The would-be queen of Nerissette.
"Right," Rhys agreed. "Sir John wanted to make sure that all of our security was in place, in case the Lady Bavasama decided to try something. Like murdering you and then climbing over your body to take the Rose Throne for herself."
"I'd like to see her try," I said, looking pointedly around the room at the soldiers in their red coats, positioned shoulder to shoulder around the ballroom.
"I'd rather not," Winston said. I looked up to see him staring down at me grimly. "If she moves fast enough, she could kill you before any of those soldiers get to you. They'll kill her, but you'd still be dead so we've won the battle but lost the war. Lost you."
"Not going to happen. We've already won the battle, and I'm still here. That's why my aunt is being forced to ride in the back of a hay wagon all the way to my palace so she can apologize for invading us."
"And the people of Neris have all turned out to scream at her," Rhys added. "We had to put a guard around her for her own safety."
"Really?" I asked.
"People are still angry," Rhys said. "The army she and the Fate Maker built burned the city of Neris, left the residents without homes. Not to mention all the people they killed trying to overthrow you. The people of Neris want to see her hurt — or dead."
"I don't blame them," I said as I thought about all the people we'd lost, all the people who had been injured, both physically and otherwise, because of my aunt's greed.
"They were throwing rotting fruit," Rhys said. "One wrong move and it would have turned into a riot. They'd have killed her before she ever made it here to sign the peace treaty."
"I'm not sure that would've been a bad thing," I said. "If she died, I'm next in line for her throne, and I wouldn't need to sign a peace treaty with myself."
"No," Winston said. "We'd just have to fight a hundred wizards to win you that throne, and if this falls apart, there's no way we'll be able to fight them into a truce. You'll have to burn Bathune to the ground to conquer it."
"You make that sound like a bad thing, too," I muttered.
"Because those of us who actually have to set things on fire for you do think it's a bad thing," Winston snapped.
"And that's why we're signing a peace treaty. Because some people have lost the will to fight," I argued bitterly. I'd agreed to the peace treaty because we didn't have the resources to keep the siege going, but I knew that my aunt wouldn't honor it and then more people would get hurt, more people would die, and it would be because I hadn't kept them safe. Again.
"Anyway," Rhys tried to cut in.
"I'm not —" Winston started.
There was a sharp rap on the floor, and everyone around us fell silent as we turned to stare at Kilvari, the goblin who had taken over as butler and head of the palace household after Timbago had died during battle with the Fate Maker.
Kilvari brought his heavy staff down again, the crack of its wood hitting the marble floor echoing through the quiet ballroom. "Your Majesty," the tiny goblin announced, his long, green nose quivering and the rings in his trembling beagle ears clinking together like tiny bells. "Sir John, Head Woodsmen of the Leavenwald."
I clenched my fingers against the arms of my throne as my heart started to pound. The father who had told me we had sixteen years to make up for and then had taken off on me. Sure, he'd been securing my position as queen and then hammering out the peace agreement that would keep me on the throne, but you'd think he could manage to come for at least one father-daughter visit in ten months. Even if it was just for one day.
Kilvari stepped aside, and I watched John step into the doorway. He was tall and lanky, his shoulders ramrod straight, and his chin lifted as he stepped into the ballroom and started toward the throne. He looked straight at me the entire time, not even glancing at the other nobles who filled the ballroom.
"Your Majesty," he said. He reached the stairs that led to the dais my throne was on and knelt down on one knee, his hands on his sword.
What was I supposed to call him? Sir John? That seemed a bit too formal considering I was talking to my dad. Then again, we barely knew each other, and I wasn't even ready to call him dad. I didn't think he was ready to hear it, either.
"John." I nodded as he stood and came forward, taking my hand and pressing a kiss across the back of it.
"Allie." He smiled up at me. "You look tired."
"Yeah," I said bitterly. "It's been a rough year. I'm sure you know that, though."
He swallowed and didn't meet my eyes. "Thankfully, all that will be over soon. Once this treaty has been signed, we'll finally be at peace. All of this behind us."
"And then what?" I asked.
"Your Majesty?" He looked at me, confused.
"Will you be going back to the Leavenwald once the treaty has been signed?" Will you be leaving me again? was what I really wanted to ask. Bailing out again. Just like he had my whole life.
"I was going to stay at the palace, actually," John whispered. "If that pleases you, Your Majesty ... So we could get to know each other better."
"Sure," I said quietly. "I'd like that."
Sad as it was, it was the truth. The man hadn't been there my entire life, and then in one day I'd found out that I had a father and a half brother, and then seen that same brother double-cross me and get himself killed. John had taken off the next day to mourn, and I'd barely spent any time with him since. But even with all that, I still wanted to get to know him. To have him in my life.
"I've also brought you a gift," John added softly. He reached inside his coat and then pulled out a small, dark-green package. "To celebrate your birthday."
"Thank you." I took the gift from him and put it in my lap, staring at it for a moment before I pulled its brown ribbon free and slowly unwrapped it. Inside lay two small, wooden hair combs with delicate butterflies carved into each of them. "They're beautiful."
John smiled at me as I ran my finger over the carving on one of the combs. The wood began to sing. "They belonged to your grandmother. My mother. The last Grand Lady of the Leavenwald. They aren't the Great Relics of Nerissette," he said. "But they do have a quiet magic all their own."
"I —" I went to hand them back, unsure if I had the right to such a family heirloom.
"She would be so proud of the young woman you've become," John said as he brought his hand up to close my fingers around the combs. "So proud of the queen you've become. Just like I am."
"Thank you," I said quietly as he squeezed my fingers.
Kilvari banged his staff on the floor again, and we both quit staring at each other and turned to look at the goblin. "The Lady Bavasama and Ambassador Eriste have arrived."
John moved aside to stand on my right as Rhys moved to stand beside Winston on my left. The rest of the ballroom fell silent. I started to stand, but John put a hand on my shoulder, keeping me seated.
"Make her come to you," he said out of the side of his mouth.
Kilvari stepped to the side again, and I stared at my aunt as she stepped into the doorway, her ambassador behind her. Her red hair was escaping from its elaborate bun, and her face was pale. The emerald-green dress she was wearing was smeared with splotches of dark brown mud, and I could see more than one splatter of red. Even from across the ballroom I could smell the lingering stench of rotting fruit that seemed to cling to her.
Bavasama looked from side to side, watching as the people she had once considered her friends — before my grandmother had banished her to Bathune to rule there and given the throne to my mother instead — all glared at her. She swallowed, and I could see her throat working as she looked around her, obviously searching for even one kind face. Not that she was going to find one — not after she'd declared war on us.
"Lady Bavasama," I said, trying to keep my voice ice cold. "Come forward."
"Allie." She stepped toward me and held her hands out. "My darling —"
"The proper way to address me," I snarled as I stared at the woman who had tried to murder me all those months ago, who had sent her army to help murder my friends, "is as Her Majesty, Queen Alicia Wilhemina Munroe the First, the Golden Rose of Nerissette."
"Of course, Your Majesty," she said as she came forward. "But as your aunt, your only remaining family, I had thought —"
"We are here to negotiate your surrender," I said stiffly. "Not have a family reunion."
"My surrender?" Her eyes widened. "I thought we had negotiated a truce?"
"We have." I nodded, trying to act tough so that she wouldn't realize how weak I truly felt, that I was still making it up as I went along and hoping that no one noticed I had no idea what I was doing. "You surrender, and I promise that we'll resume trade with Bathune so your people won't starve to death."
"You need this treaty as much as we do," she said quickly.
"You want to bet?" I asked, raising an eyebrow at her.
"Without the fuel from our mines ..."
"We'll get by. At least for as long as it takes for us to starve you out and then take over Bathune."
"Your Majesty," John said quietly.
"Right." I glanced up at him and then back at my aunt. "Enough catching up. Kneel. Beg for forgiveness. Swear that you'll never try to take over Nerissette again."
I watched as my aunt's shoulders tensed and her face twisted with rage. For a second I thought she might walk away. Might tell me to take my peace treaty and stuff it. Not that I would be surprised — I was egging her into losing her temper, after all. I wanted to make her sweat. Make her suffer for all the pain she'd caused me and everyone else here in Nerissette. For all the nights I'd spent worrying about my friends, camped out on her border, waiting for war.
"I'm waiting," I taunted.
Bavasama dropped to her knees, her back straight and her eyes on mine. Eriste knelt just behind her, his own head lowered. "Please."
"What?" I raised an eyebrow at her again.
"Please," she said, louder this time, but her voice trembled. "Please forgive me for my actions, Your Majesty. It was a mistake. I had thought you were in danger."
"Enough," I snapped. "I don't want to hear your lies today. I don't want to hear about —"
"The Fate Maker told me —"
"The Fate Maker is a liar. A murderer. And if you don't want to join him in the Bleak, then I suggest you never, ever, try to raise an army against my people again. Because next time? Next time I will march my army across your borders, and I will burn Bathune to the ground. And once I'm done with that, I'll lock you and every single wizard I find in the Bleak, and we can see how long you last against the nightmares that call the realm between worlds home."
Excerpted from Infinity by Andria Buchanan, Libby Murphy Danielle Poiesz. Copyright © 2013 Andria M. Buchanan. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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