Second in a brilliant new fantasy series.
A masterwork of fantasy, The Nessantico Cycle is the epic tale of an empire at its height, yet poised on the brink of what could be a devastating descent into ruin. Told from the viewpoints of numerous characters, it is a sweeping saga of murder and magic (portrayed both as a powerful religion and a forbidden art), deception and betrayal, Machiavellian politics, star-crossed lovers, and a realm facing war on every front.
About the Author
S. L. Farrell boasts (but generally resists sending out) a resume that includes the obligatory long list of occupations, including a stint as half of a juggling act where a few scars and a grudging appreciation for gravity were acquired. Other interests include music, fine art, history, and the fascinating details of cultures both present and past. S. L. is the author of The Cloudmages trilogy: Holder of Lightning, Mage of Clouds, and Heir of Stone; and The Nessantico Cycle: A Magic of Twilight, A Magic of Nightfall,and A Magic of Dawn. S. L. Farrell currently lives in Ohio and teaches Creative Writing at a local university. He can be found at farrellworlds.com.
Read an Excerpt
HER VATARH HAD BEEN the sun around which she had orbited for as long as she could remember. Now that sun, at long last, was setting.
The message had arrived from Brezno by fast-rider, and she stared at the words scrawled by a hasty, fair hand. “Your vatarh is dying. If you want to see him, hurry.” That was the entire message. It was signed by Archigos Semini of Brezno and sealed with his signet.
Vatarh is dying. . . . The great Hïrzg Jan of Firenzcia, after whom she had named her only child, was passing. The words set alight a sour fire in her belly; the words swam on the page with the salt tears that welled unbidden in her eyes. She sat there—at her fine desk, in her opulent offices near the Gyula’s palais in Malacki—and she saw a droplet hit the paper to smudge the inked words.
She hated that Vatarh could still affect her so strongly; she hated that she cared. She should have hated him, but she couldn’t. No matter how hard she’d tried over the years, she couldn’t.
One might curse the sun for its scorching heat or its absence, but without the sun there was no life.
“I hate him,” she declared to Archigos Ana. It had been two years since Ana had snatched her away from her vatarh to hold her as hostage. Two years, and he still hadn’t paid the ransom to bring her back. She was thirteen, on the cusp of her menarche, and he had abandoned her. What had originally been anxiety and disappointment had slowly transformed inside her into anger. At least that’s what she believed.
“No, you don’t,” Ana said quietly, stroking her hair. They were standing on the balcony of her apartments in the Temple complex in Nessantico, staring down to where knots of green-clad téni hurried to their duties. “Not really. If he paid the ransom tomorrow, you would be glowing and ready to run back to him. Look inside yourself, Allesandra. Look honestly. Isn’t that true?”
“Well, he must hate me,” she retorted, “or he’d have paid.”
Ana had hugged her tightly then. “He will,” she told Allesandra. “He will. It’s just . . . Allesandra, your vatarh wished to sit on the Sun Throne. He has always been a proud man, and because I took you away, he was never able to realize his dream. You remind him of all he lost. And that’s my fault. Not yours. It’s not yours at all.”
Vatarh hadn’t paid. Not for ten long years. It had been Fynn, the new son her matarh Greta had given the Hïrzg, who basked in Vatarh’s affections, who was taught the ways of war, who was named as the new A’Hïrzg—the title that should have been hers.
Instead of her vatarh and her matarh, it was Archigos Ana who became her surrogate parent, shepherding her through puberty and adolescence, comforting Allesandra through her first crushes and infatuations, teaching her the ways of ca’-and-cu’ society, escorting her to dances and parties, treating her not as a captive but as a niece it had become her responsibility to raise.
“I love you, Tantzia,” Allesandra said to Ana. She’d taken to calling the Archigos “aunt.” The news had come to Kraljiki Justi that a treaty between the Holdings and the Firenzcian “Coalition” was to be signed in Passe a’Fiume, and as part of the negotiations, Hïrzg Jan had finally paid the ransom for his daughter. She’d been a decade in Nessantico, nearly half her life. Now, at twenty-one, she was to return to the life she’d lost so long ago and she was frightened by the prospect. Once, this had been all she’d wanted. Now . . .
Part of her wanted to stay here. Here, where she knew she was loved.
Ana folded her in her arms. Allesandra was taller than the Archigos now, and Ana had to raise up on tiptoes to kiss her forehead. “I love you, too, Allesandra. I’ll miss you, but it’s time for you to go home. Just know that I will always be here for you. Always. You are part of my heart, my dear. Forever.”
Allesandra had hoped that she could bask in the sun of her vatarh’s love again. Yes, she’d heard all about how the new A’Hïrzg Fynn was the child Hïrzg Jan had always desired: skilled at riding, at the sword, at diplomacy. She’d heard how he was being groomed already for a career in the Garde Firenzcia. But she had once been the pride of her vatarh, too. Surely, she could become so again.
But she knew as soon as he looked at her, across the parley tent there at Passe a’Fiume, that it was not to be. In his hawkish eyes, there had been a smoldering distaste. He’d glanced at her appraisingly, as he might a stranger—and indeed, she was a stranger to him: a young woman now, no longer the girl he’d lost. He’d taken her hands and accepted her curtsy as he might have any ca’-and-cu’ and passed her off to Archigos Semini a moment later.
Fynn had been at his side—the age now that she’d been when she’d been taken—and he looked appraisingly at his older sister as he might have at some rival.
Allesandra had sought Ana’s gaze from across the tent, and the woman had smiled sadly toward her and raised her hand in farewell. There had been tears in Ana’s eyes, sparkling in the sun that beat through the thin canvas of the tent. Ana, at least, had been true to her word. She had written Allesandra regularly. She had negotiated with her vatarh to be allowed to attend Allesandra’s marriage to Pauli ca’Xielt, the son of the Gyula of West Magyaria and thus a politically-advantageous marriage for the Hïrzg, and a loveless one for Allesandra.
Ana had even, surreptitiously, been present at the birth of Allesandra’s son, nearly sixteen years ago now. Archigos Ana—the heretical and false Archigos according to Firenzcia, whom Allesandra was obliged to hate as a good citizen of the Coalition—had blessed the child and pronounced the name that Allesandra had given him: Jan. She’d done so without rebuke and without comment. She’d done so with a gentle smile and a kiss.
Even naming her child for her vatarh had changed nothing. It had not brought him closer to Allesandra—Hïrzg Jan had mostly ignored his great-son and namesake. Jan was in the company of Hïrzg Jan perhaps twice a year, when he and Allesandra visited for state occasions, and only rarely did the Hïrzg speak directly to his great-son.
Now . . . Now her vatarh was dying and she couldn’t help crying for him. Or perhaps it was that she couldn’t help crying for herself. Angrily, she tore at the dampness on her cheeks with her sleeve. “Aeri!” she called to her secretary. “Come in here! I have to go to Brezno.”
Allesandra strode into the Hïrzg’s bedchamber, tossing aside her travel-stained cloak, her hair wind-tossed and the smell of horse on her clothes. She pushed past the servants who tried to assist her and went to the bed. The chevarittai and various relatives gathered there moved aside to let her approach; she could feel their appraising stares on her back. She stared at the wizened, dried-apple face on the pillow and barely recognized him.
“Is he . . . ?” she asked brusquely, but then she heard the phlegm-racked rattle of his breath and saw the slow movement of his chest under the blankets. The room stank of sickness despite the perfumed candles. “Out!” she told them all, gesturing. “Tell Fynn I’ve come, but leave me alone with my vatarh. Out!”
They scattered, as she knew they would. None of them attempted to protest, though the healers frowned at her from under carefully-lowered brows, and she could hear the whispers even as they fled. “It’s no wonder her husband stays away from her . . . A goat has better manners . . . She has the arrogance of Nessantico . . .”
She slammed the door in their faces.
Then, finally, staring down at her vatarh’s gray, sunken face, she allowed herself to cry, kneeling alongside his bed and holding his cold, withered hands. “I loved you, Vatarh,” she told him. Alone with him, there could be truth. “I did. Even after you abandoned me, even after you gave Fynn all the affection I wanted, I still loved you. I could have been the heir you deserved. I will still be that, if I have the chance.”
She heard the scrape of bootsteps at the door and rose to her feet, wiping at her eyes with the sleeve of her tashta, and sniffing once as Fynn pushed the door open. He strode into the chamber—Fynn never simply walked into a room. “Sister,” he said. “I see the news reached you.”
Allesandra stood, arms folded. She would not let him realize how deeply seeing her vatarh on his deathbed had affected her. She shrugged. “I still have sources here in Brezno, even when my brother fails to send a messenger.”
“It slipped my mind,” he said. “But I figured you would hear anyway.” The smile he gave her was more sneer, twisted by the long, puckered scar that ran from the corner of his right eye and across his lip to the chin: the mark of a Tennshah scimitar. Fynn, at twenty-four, had the hard, lean body of a professional soldier, a figure that suited the loose pants and shirt that he wore. Such Tennshah clothing had become fashionable in Firenzcia since the border wars six years before, where Fynn had engaged the T’Sha’s forces and pushed Firenzcia’s borders nearly thirty leagues eastward, and where he had acquired the long scar that marred his handsome face.
It was during that war that Fynn had won their vatarh’s affection entirely and ended any lingering hope of Allesandra’s that she might become Hïrzgin.
“The healers say the end will come sometime today, or possibly tonight if he continues to fight—Vatarh never did give up easily, did he? But the soul shredders will come for him this time. There’s no longer any doubt of that.” Fynn glanced down at the figure on the bed as the Hïrzg took another long, shuddering breath. The young man’s gaze was affectionate and sad, and yet somehow appraising at the same time, as if he were gauging how long it might be before he could slip the signet ring from the folded hands and put it on his own finger; how soon he could place the golden crown-band of the Hïrzg on the curls of his own head. “There’s nothing you or I can do, Sister,” he said, “other than pray that Cénzi receives Vatarh’s soul kindly. Beyond that . . .” He shrugged. “How is my nephew Jan?” he asked.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Allesandra told him. “He’s on his way to Brezno behind me and should arrive tomorrow.”
“And your husband? The dear Pauli?”
Allesandra sniffed. “If you’re trying to goad me, Fynn, it won’t work. I’ve suggested to Pauli that he remain in Malacki and attend to state business. What of yourself? Have you found someone to marry yet, or do you still prefer the company of soldiers and horses?”
The smile was slow in coming and uncertain when it appeared. “Now who goads whom?” he asked. “Vatarh and I had made no decisions on that yet, and now it seems that the decision will be mine alone—though I’ll certainly listen to any suggestions you might have.” He opened his arms, and she reluctantly allowed him to embrace her. Neither one of them tightened their arms but only encircled the other as if hugging a thornbush, and the gesture ended after a single breath. “Allesandra, I know there’s always been a distance between us, but I hope that we can work as one when . . .” He hesitated, and she watched his chest rise with a long inhalation. “. . . when I am the Hïrzg. I will need your counsel, Sister.”
“And I will give it to you,” she told him. She leaned forward and kissed the air a careful finger’s width from his scarred cheek. “Little brother.”
“I wish we could have truly been little brother and big sister,” he answered. “I wish I could have known you then.”
“As do I,” she told him. And I wish those were more than just empty, polite words we both say because we know they’re demanded by etiquette. “Stay here with me now? Let Vatarh feel us together for once.”
She felt his hesitation and wondered whether he’d refuse. But after a breath, he lifted one shoulder. “For a turn of the glass or so,” he said. “We can pray for him. Together.”
He pulled two chairs to the side of the bed, placing them an arm’s length apart. They sat, they watched the faltering rise and fall of their vatarh’s chest, and they said nothing more.
Excerpted from "A Magic of Nightfall"
Copyright © 2010 S. L. Farrell.
Excerpted by permission of DAW.
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