Praise for Sharon Shinn
“Shinn has created a world that is completely believable and magical at the same time.”—Fantasy Literature
“[Shinn] is one of the best fantasists.”—Alternative Worlds
“Shinn is a master.”—Mary Jo Putney, New York Times bestselling author of Not Quite a Wife
“[Shinn] carries readers away into a vivid new fantasy world.”—Publishers Weekly
The national bestselling author of Troubled Waters and Royal Airs returns to her Elemental Blessings series with the story of a young princess who will need more than blessings to survive in a kingdom where everyone will do whatever it takes to claim the throne…
As one of the four princesses of Welce, Corene always thought she might one day become queen. Only circumstances changed, leaving fiery Corene with nothing to show for a life spent playing the game of court intrigue—until a chance arises to become the ruler of a nearby country.
After stowing away on a ship bound for Malinqua with her loyal bodyguard, Foley, Corene must try to win the throne by making a play to marry one of the empress’s three nephews. But Corene is not the only foreign princess in search of a crown.
Unaccustomed to being anyone’s friend, Corene is surprised to find companionship among her fellow competitors. But behind Malinqua’s beautiful facade lie many secrets.
The visiting princesses are more hostages than guests. And as the deadly nature of the court is revealed, Corene must rely on both her new allies and Foley’s unwavering protection—for the game she has entered is far more perilous than she ever imagined…
Praise for Sharon Shinn
Read an Excerpt
Leah crowded onto the dock with half the population of Palminera and watched the ships come in. There were dozens of them, crammed with soldiers, because the empress didn't believe in leaving Malinqua without a formidable force at her back. Even when she was only planning friendly negotiations with the rest of the southern nations, Filomara had always believed that the threat of war was the best way to ensure peace.
A cry went up from the crowd as the most elegant ship in the fleet tacked its way closer to the pier reserved for the royal family. As everyone else surged forward, Leah dropped back, moving from the rough wood planking of the dock to the paved streets of the surrounding harbor. Eventually she came to rest against the warm brick of a dockside tavern and settled in for a long wait. She knew how these disembarkations went; it would be another hour before the boat was secured and the exalted personnel began to exit. First the empress, of course, whose stern face would soften to a smile as she acknowledged the waiting multitudes. Then her attendants, the high-born family members who had accompanied her on her long journey. And finally Princess Corene of Welce. Who had stowed away on the empress's ship without the consent of her family.
It had been common knowledge in Malinqua that Filomara was visiting the nations of the southern seas with the precise goal of bringing princesses back to the royal court. She was looking for eligible foreign young women to marry off to her nephews, and Princess Corene was as eligible as they came. The girl's father had politely declined the invitation on his daughter's behalf-but Corene had accepted it anyway.
Even though it had been five years since Leah lived in Welce, she vividly remembered a twelve-year-old hellion, all fierce will and red hair. She wondered if Filomara had any idea what she'd brought home to Malinqua.
The summer air was starting to heat up, though at this noon hour, it wasn't truly wretched yet. Leah resettled her back against the building, then glanced up as the front door opened. The man who stepped out was wearing a cook's apron and polishing a glass, so she assumed he was the tavernkeeper. He stood there a moment, eyeing the great ship, which was still tacking and rocking its way to the dock. Behind it, the escort flotilla hung back, not a single boat planning to drop anchor until the empress was safely on land.
"Not tied up yet, then?" the bar owner asked. "It'll be sundown before we see a one of them."
"Not quite that long, I think," Leah answered.
He seemed annoyed. "And everyone out in the streets watching instead of inside ordering beer."
"I'll come in and order something," Leah offered. "Food, too, if you've got it." There would be no chance of missing the empress's appearance; the crowd would roar out its welcome the minute she showed her face.
The barkeeper looked pleased. "I do. Not yesterday's leftovers, either, but fresh-made this morning."
She followed him inside to find the tavern clean enough, pleasantly cool, and wholly empty. She picked a booth by a window, though it didn't show a view of the harbor, and ordered lunch.
The barkeeper, it turned out, was talkative, but that suited Leah perfectly. Gregarious people were indirectly her source of income. He loitered by her table, holding a broom as if he planned to wield it, but he really just stood there and speculated about the events that might transpire now that the empress was home.
"So she's found three brides," he observed.
Leah affected surprise. "I know about Princess Melissande from Cozique and Princess Alette from Dhonsho," she said, because these two very different creatures had arrived in Malinqua within the past two ninedays and had already taken up residence at the palace. "There's a third one?"
The barkeeper nodded in satisfaction. "A girl from Welce. A princess," he corrected himself. "Apparently they have dozens of them over there."
Well, not quite dozens, Leah thought, though it was truly hard to keep track. Before he died, old King Vernon had amassed four wives and four daughters-though it seemed that some of those daughters had been sired by other men to conceal the fact that Vernon was practically impotent. One of the men who had stepped forward to perform this most intimate service was Darien Serlast, the king's closest advisor. It was his daughter who was on the Malinquese ship.
"How'd you hear about that?" Leah asked. "This princess from Welce?"
The barkeeper spared a moment to look self-important. "The empress has been sending news to the palace every nineday since she's been gone-she brought a whole fleet of clippers to carry her messages. I know all sorts of things. I have lots of friends at the palace."
Probably his fish vendor also supplied a merchant who made deliveries to the palace, Leah thought cynically, and his information had traveled a very circuitous route before finally landing here. Still, as she had learned during the past five years, gossip that filtered down from the highest to the lowest levels of society had an uncanny way of being accurate. The lives of the royal heirs and the titled nobility were far less private than they liked to think.
And in this case, the tavernkeeper's information was good, though Leah liked to think hers was better. Since she'd gotten it from Darien Serlast himself.
He'd been the one to suggest Malinqua to her, five years ago when she had wanted to be anywhere but Welce. Vernon had already started to fade, and Darien had clearly been the force behind the throne, the firm hand that kept Vernon steady whenever the old king started to wobble.
"I could use someone in the city of Palminera," he'd told her.
"I'd have thought you already had spies in Malinqua," she'd answered.
"I do. But none of them are-" He'd hesitated, as if looking for a word. Which, of course, was a ploy, because Darien always knew exactly what he was going to say before he opened his mouth. He wanted her to rush right in and supply the words herself.
"Connected to the highest echelons of society," she said bitterly.
He smiled. "Exactly. Able to understand how the machinations at the palace play out in the taverns along the wharf. And how policy in one royal house might have repercussions for royal houses in other nations."
So she'd come to Palminera to spy for Darien Serlast, and he'd sent her a regular supply of gold to pay her expenses and fund her bribes. She'd thought his political clout might fade once Vernon died, but in fact, he grew more influential. First he'd acted as regent while everyone squabbled over who should be the next person to take the throne; very recently, Welce's royal advisors had decided Darien would actually make an excellent king. He hadn't been crowned yet, but Leah thought he was the ideal choice: an intelligent, thoughtful, committed, and righteous man who had an uncanny knack of getting people to do what he wanted. Though apparently that ability didn't extend to his daughter.
She could only imagine how relieved he'd been to know Leah was already in place when he learned Corene had sailed off to Palminera.
It had been only four days since one of his messengers had arrived at her doorstep, bearing the surprising news. Darien had sent his letter via one of the sleek little mail ships that could skim through the ocean much faster than Filomara's heavy warships. Darien was the sort of man who habitually concealed his true thoughts, so she had been astonished to read the bald distress in his first missive.
Corene has defied me and set out for Malinqua with Filomara, who claims she is looking to forge alliances through weddings between her nephews and foreign brides. But Malinqua's royal court has an unsavory history of poisoning off its political rivals, and who knows how a Welchin princess will be received? She has her own personal guard with her, so she's not unprotected, but one man might not be enough. Let me know AT ONCE if Corene needs to be rescued by force or if a slower extrication will be safe for all.
He might as well have claimed he was mad with worry; it could not have been more obvious.
Leah had wasted no time sending him a reply that should have assuaged the worst of his fears. Those legendary poisonings seemed to be a thing of the past, since the last suspected murder among the palace elite had been more than fifteen years ago. The empress was indeed collecting potential brides for her nephews-two of them were already present, and so far, they had both been treated like the royalty they were. Leah emphasized the fact that one of the foreign visitors was from Cozique, the largest, most sophisticated, and most powerful nation in the southern waters. It might be considered a coup for a Welchin princess to stand alongside a Coziquela heiress and look every bit as desirable.
Two letters had followed in the next two days, each more temperate and more in Darien's usual guarded style. They included instructions on how to approach Corene, with helpful details about her preferences and personality traits. But gaining access to the palace was going to be trickier than winning Corene's trust, Leah suspected, since-unlike the boastful barkeeper-she didn't have friends among the staff.
Time to find some, maybe, she thought. She wondered now if the tavernkeeper might introduce her to his fishmonger friend, and smiled at the thought.
"Another glass of beer?" the bar owner asked at that very moment. In the interests of developing the friendship, she accepted.
"If you'll sit and have one with me," she added. "It feels lonely to drink by myself."
"That it does," he agreed, bringing two glasses over to the table. "I'm Billini, by the way."
"Leah." She took a sip, wondering how much to tell him, how much he might already know. He hadn't mentioned the second-and even more interesting-Welchin traveler on the empress's ship. Was it possible that Filomara had managed to suppress this news, that she planned to bring the young man ashore without giving her nephews or advisors the slightest hint that he was about to disrupt all their lives? "This beer is very good."
"Brew it myself. A family recipe."
Well, Filomara's secret wouldn't be secret very long. And Billini would be grateful to Leah forever if she gave him a piece of gossip hours before anyone else had it. And gratitude, she knew, was a currency as good as gold.
"I have a friend in Welce-lives near the palace-thinks she knows everything," Leah said. She rolled her eyes and Billini nodded.
"Some folks just like to be ahead of the news. Makes them feel important," he said without any visible traces of irony.
"But she told me the empress is bringing a young man with her. From Welce."
Billini shrugged. "So?"
Leah glanced out the window, as if to make sure no one was outside eavesdropping. "She said this young man is really her grandson. The child of Filomara's dead daughter."
Billini almost collapsed against the back of his chair. "No."
"Yes. The daughter who married the prince in Berringey. Everyone thought she was dead, but she just ran away with the baby. And took him to Welce. Now he's grown up and he's coming here."
Billini's face showed rising excitement as he sorted through all the implications. "If he's her grandson-she might name him her heir, not any of her brothers' sons. Oh, they won't like that, any of those boys. This could change everything, couldn't it?"
Billini took a deep breath. Then he started laughing and waving his hands in a broad gesture that could have meant anything, but Leah knew what he was trying to express. He was indicating the two great towers that stood at opposite ends of the city, invisible from inside the tavern but designed to watch over the city from all vantage points, at all hours. One was topped by a crystal dome that glowed with an eerie white light; one sported a jagged lotus of red and yellow glass and was lit by a fire that never went out. These were the sentinels of Palminera, its guideposts and its metaphors.
"Night and day," Billini said. "Shadow and flame."
"One thing ends," Leah said, "and the next begins."
Almost on the words, they heard an enormous roar of excitement rip through the crowd outside. Filomara must have stepped to the railing of the ship; it was time for the royal party to disembark.
"Ah-that'll be the empress," Billini said, rising. "I suppose you want to see her go riding through town, then."
That was clearly her cue to leave, so Leah came hastily to her feet. "I do! I've been waiting for hours just to catch a glimpse."
"Good timing, too, for I've got to close the place up. I've just remembered an errand I have to run."
I'll bet you have, Leah thought. Off to see his fishmonger friend, no doubt, or someone with even better connections.
"Thanks for the meal. And the conversation," Leah said, digging in her pocket for a few coins.
Billini waved his hands again, this time in magnanimity. "On the house," he said. "But come back sometime and bring your friends."
She grinned. Yes, he could be useful to her indeed. Or-even better-they could be useful to each other. "I will," she said. "Now I want to go get a look at the empress. And everyone she's brought from Welce."