The Woman weaves her magic, deceit in her heart. From the shadows, a demon is born.
Something dark is brewing in the kingdom of Axaria. A monstrous beast has been laying waste to the villagers and their homes. Described as a shadow demon summoned from the darkest depths of the Immortal Realm, it is invulnerable. Dozens of trained soldiers are sent out to hunt it down ... but not a single one has returned.
The young princess and heir to the throne, Asterin Faelenhart, has a unique set of affinities-or powers. So unique, in fact, she is tasked with hunting down the shadowy beast which threatens to destroy her kingdom. With the help of her friends, Asterin sets out to destroy the creature, but as they journey deeper into the forest, they unearth a plot to assassinate the young princess.
Asterin and her friends begin to wonder how much of their lives have been lies, especially when they realize that the center of the web of deceit might very well be themselves. With no one else to turn to, they are forced to ask how much they are willing to sacrifice to protect the world they've always known.
About the Author
Coco Ma is a Canadian author and pianist. She wrote her first novel, Shadow Frost, at the age of fifteen, and since she began playing the piano at the age of five and a half, she has performed on some of the world’s greatest concert stages and graduated with a precollege diploma in piano performance from the Juilliard School in New York City. Currently, she studies at Yale University. When she isn’t practicing piano, writing, or studying, you might find her bingeing Netflix or eating cake. Lots of cake.
Visit Coco on Twitter @chaosforcoco, on Instagram @cakeforcoco, and at coco-ma.com.
Saskia Maarleveld is an experienced voice-over actress and Earphones Award–winning narrator. Raised in New Zealand and France, she is highly skilled with accents and dialects, and many of her books have been narrated entirely in accents other than her own. In addition to audiobooks, her voice can be heard in animation, video games, and commercials.
Read an Excerpt
Asterin Faelenhart ran a brush through her hair, violently untangling the stubbornest of locks with her fingers. She cast a fierce glower at her reflection in the vanity mirror. Emerald eyes stared back, glimmering with the flames of candlelight. Her scowl deepened as she glimpsed the ugly bruise blossoming across her cheek, stark purple against ivory.
Sighing in irritation, Asterin pressed two fingers to the blemish and murmured a healing spell. A tingling sensation enveloped the tender spot, the purple leeching away. Halfway through, she hesitated, debating whether her appearance or her pride were of more value.
Biting her lip, she imagined her mother's wrath at seeing her daughter as battered as a street brawler for the third day in a row. The bruise disappeared without a trace a moment later.
After dusting fine powder over her face, she twisted her ebony hair into a tight knot atop her head. She had to rummage through a drawer to find the tiara, its rubies twinkling as boldly as if they had managed to capture the candles' embers within. She found some pins to fasten the tiara onto her head. The last thing she needed was for it to fall off — again.
A knock echoed through her empty chambers. She rose from her seat, the fabric of her gown rustling as she left her bedchamber and crossed the antechamber into the sitting parlor, the fine-spun rugs softer than clouds beneath her bare feet.
When she looked up, the almighty Council of Immortals — the nine gods and goddesses of the Immortal Realm — stared down upon her from their thrones, painted in vivid, lifelike strokes along the parlor ceiling. Vicious Lady Fena with her circlet of fire and her foxes, elusive Lord Pavon half-hidden in hazy smears of gold with a peacock mask dangling from his slender fingers, and of course, the majestic Lord Conrye with his pack of snarling wolves and sword of unbreakable ice.
The knock came again, insistent. Asterin wrenched the door open and sighed. "What do you want?"
"Princess Asterin," said her Royal Guardian. He leaned against the doorframe, ankles crossed, his perfect mouth twisted in a smirk.
"Dinner isn't until half past six, Orion," she snapped. "Go away."
His ice-chip blue eyes glinted with mischief. "Such poor manners for a princess. Your mother wouldn't be pleased." She snorted at that. When was her mother ever pleased with her? He glanced from her cheek to his knuckles and then back again, all innocence. "Glad to see your bruise healed so quickly. Looked quite nasty."
She slammed the door in his stupid face.
Asterin sucked in an exasperated breath. Although she loved Orion dearly, it was more an affection born from spending over a decade side by side. Only separated by six years of age, they squabbled on the daily, just like they had as children. A few members of the court pegged it as some sort of sibling rivalry, but Asterin could never think of Orion as a brother. He was her friend and mentor, but Guardian first and foremost. He put a sword in her hand and told her to try and beat him up, which didn't strike her as particularly brotherly.
Now she listened to the unimpressed tap tap tap of his foot outside. Oh, how she wished to bash his pretty nose in with a flick of her wrist or rip all his tailored finery to shreds with a wave of her hand — but she couldn't. The two of them had exactly one rule and one rule only — that they would never use magic against one another. Because history had proved magic could do terrible things when provoked, even accidentally — and great Immortals above, she was definitely provoked. She took another breath, forcing her pulse to slow and her mind to calm. "Please?"
The doorknob twisted into her side. She thrust her weight against the door as Orion shoved it open, his gleeful face poking at her from the crack.
"No can do, Your Highness," Orion said. "Your mother has requested your presence in her chambers." He shoved again, and her feet slid backward.
"I'm a little busy." She adjusted her stance to add pressure on the door. "Thanks to a certain someone."
"When I say requested, I'm being polite. So," he said, grunting as she gained on him, "I suggest that you go see her immediately." He suddenly withdrew, throwing her balance off and causing her to crash face-first into the wood with a thunk. She heard him stroll away, his laughter pealing through the corridor like an off-key bell.
Forehead throbbing and tiara knocked askew, Asterin hiked her silk skirts up to her knees, muttering vehement, very unprincess-like words beneath her breath as she stuffed her feet into some jeweled slippers and stormed out of her chambers.
Two guards waited outside her door, but she signaled for them to stay and bolted before they could protest. Peaked windows lined the white marble corridor, interrupted only by the occasional archway adorned with enchanted snow-laden ivy. The corridor opened into a large alcove and Asterin swerved right onto the spiraling grand stairway, just barely skirting past a cluster of tittering court ladies. Each glass step shone like ice beneath her slippers.
The top and fourth floor was reserved for the adjoined quarters of the king and queen, as well as their personal guards. Asterin passed the king's chambers. No one had occupied them for a decade.
At last, she arrived at her mother's door. Asterin drew in a deep lungful of air before rapping thrice upon the black obsidian, rubbing away the sting in her knuckles with a slight wince as the door opened. The round face of one of the maids peered out at her. Without a word, the girl curtsied and beckoned Asterin through the sitting parlor and into her mother's bedchamber.
Asterin toed off her slippers before entering, her feet sinking into the plush carpet. The teal curtains had been braided back, the last of the waning daylight bathing the walls in an amber glow. An enormous four-poster bed sprawled across the center of the room, a riot of peacock feathers fanning out over the massive headboard. A slender woman stood silhouetted by the farthest window.
Tendrils of blond hair so light they could have been mistaken for gossamer were piled in an exquisite coil atop her head. Shimmering blue silk — she only ever wore silk — cascaded from her shoulders, rippling on a phantom breeze. From the slant of her spine to the delicate tilt of her chin, her entire being seemed to exude an effortless elegance that Asterin had always struggled — and failed — to replicate.
And of course, it was impossible to miss the exquisite diamond spires encircling her head like spears of ice, crowning her as Queen Priscilla Alessandra Montcroix-Faelenhart, ruler of Axaria.
Asterin performed her best curtsy, low to the ground, her skirts pooling like syrup around her. "Mother."
The queen turned, a single brow arched. Eyes of teal swept over Asterin. "Ah, there you are, Princess. You've kept us waiting ... as usual."
Asterin flushed, averting her eyes. Only then did she spot the shadow in the corner, half-hidden by a candelabra. She plastered what could hopefully pass as a civil smile onto her face. "General Garringsford."
The general swept into an austere bow, the lines of her silver uniform sharp enough to cut flesh. "Your Highness." Her inflection sounded more command than greeting.
Carlotta Garringsford had first risen to her position as the General of Axaria when Asterin's father had been just a boy. And though illness had taken King Tristan nearly a decade ago, Garringsford still appeared not a day past forty, a few strands of silver amidst her perfect golden bun and several crinkle lines between her brows the only signs of aging. She trained right alongside the soldiers and personally kicked the recruits into shape without the slightest mercy. Rumor had it that someone once tried to stab her in the heart, but the sword had shattered instead.
Whereas Asterin had lost her father, Garringsford had once had two sons. They had both been killed while assisting a raid many years ago, not yet full-fledged soldiers — merely trainees that King Tristan had thought might benefit from the experience of tagging along with their superior officers to stamp out a very much underestimated threat.
Asterin swallowed the slightly acrid taste in her mouth and curtsied to her mother again. "What is it you need of me, Your Majesty?"
A smile, but that teal gaze was indecipherable, as always. "Why, is it such a surprise that I might desire my own daughter's company?"
"Of course not. But surely ...?"
Queen Priscilla gave a long-suffering sigh, as if Asterin had already disappointed her. "General Garringsford has brought you a gift." Her mother gestured, and the general strolled over to Asterin, producing a small chest from behind her back.
Asterin accepted it warily. A gift? From Garringsford? Now that was a surprise. She placed the chest upon the bed, the silken wood warm and rich beneath her fingertips, yearning for her touch. Even so, she hesitated, tracing the simple but beautiful metal embellishments.
The general tapped her foot, obviously trying to hide her impatience. "If you would kindly open the chest, Your Highness?" But only when her mother cleared her throat did Asterin finally flick the silver clasp and snap the lid open, ducking her head to hide her scowl.
Nine iridescent stones, which formed the outline of a triangle, nested upon a bed of viridian velvet. They glimmered despite the deepening dusk, flat and round, polished to a dark, oily sheen so glossy that she could glimpse her reflection within each surface, disrupted only by the different sigils carved into the center of each stone.
The sigils represented the nine affinities — the nine elements, each hailing from a different kingdom and bloodline. The three core affinities making up the fundamental trinity — earth, water, and fire — cornered the triangle, the other six falling in between: ice, wind, sky, air, light, and illusion. Asterin had her own set of stones in her room, fashioned of ruby and silver, but these were unlike any that she'd ever seen. Affinity stones could be made from nearly anything so long as the sigils were carved properly, ranging from actual stones to metals, and even wood, but their effectiveness depended heavily on their quality and durability.
"They're beautiful." Asterin trailed her fingers along them, hovering over the empty center where a final stone representing the tenth element might have rested, had it not been long forbidden. Shadow. It was said to be the most powerful of all, equivalent to the power of the other nine elements combined. "Thank you."
Garringsford nodded, and then after shooting a quick glance at Queen Priscilla, ever her mother's obedient pet, she said, "I understand you've been trying to unlock a third fundamental, Your Highness."
Asterin's shoulders tensed. "What of it?"
"In order for our soldiers to reach their fullest potential, they must be trained in both physical and magical combat. I fear they are lacking in the latter, but I believe that watching you practice your magic might provide crucial insight on how to better train them."
Ah, Asterin thought, letting out a soft laugh. The "gift" makes sense now. "Is it truly a gift when one asks for something in return, General?"
"An exchange, then," Garringsford said bluntly. "Call it whatever you will, Your Highness, it matters not to me."
Asterin narrowed her eyes at the general, trying to gauge a second motive behind that impassive stare, tamping down the growing unease worming through her stomach. "I've never practiced under the watch of others."
Her mother glided away from the window, crossing beneath the glittering chandelier and approaching her. Asterin did her best not to shrink from that intimidating grace, suddenly reminded of a deadly snake disguised as a swan. "Come, my child," the queen coaxed. "Just pick up the stones."
Asterin didn't want to pick up the stones. Garringsford wanted her to, and Asterin would never trust anything the general said — not since her father's death. But her desire to please her mother overpowered her reluctance.
"The fundamental trinity," Asterin began, sweeping her hand over the triangle. She picked up the top stone. It illuminated as soon as she touched it. "Water." The two women came to her side, peering over either shoulder. "Earth." The earthstone came to rest in the cup of her palm beside the waterstone, their lights intertwining. With her other hand, Asterin cradled the third core affinity stone. It stayed dark. "And fire. I've been practicing, but I can't seem to get it to cooperate."
"Two fundamentals," Garringsford said. "And an ice affinity, of course. Any others?"
Asterin nodded. "Light and wind, but those developed when I was older."
Although she didn't remember it — she had only been a month old — the tale of her Revealing Ceremony had been one of her father's favorites to recount. Revealing Ceremonies were momentous occasions, a tradition dating back thousands of years. In honor of the first — and only — child of the new royal family, noble and royal envoys from all nine kingdoms had been invited, and hundreds of Axarians had flocked to the capital to celebrate. The ceremony itself was simple — nine drops of blood pricked from each finger but the right pinky. One drop per stone. The sigils on the stones represented not only an affinity, but also a god or goddess — for the nine affinities originated from the blood of the Immortals. That blood ran through the veins of every mortal, no matter how small the quantity.
At her ceremony, three stones had glowed — those bearing the sigils of Lord Tidus, God of Water; Lady Siore, Goddess of Earth; and Lord Conrye, God of Ice and the House of the Wolf, whose stone had shone brightest of all.
Her kingdom had rejoiced. If any other stone had shone brighter, by tradition, she would have belonged to a different House, as her mother did. Queen Priscilla belonged to the House of the Peacock in Oprehvar — for it was Lord Pavon's power of illusion running through her veins.
Asterin returned the firestone to its place. "And you, General? What are your affinities?" She knew the answer, but it was worth asking just to see Garringsford grimace.
"I was born unifinitied," came the grudging answer. "Only ice."
Almost every person inherited at least one or more affinities when they were born, and most, like Queen Priscilla and the general, would only ever be able to wield their single element. Those who could wield two elements were bifinitied. Even rarer were the trifinitied, like Orion. Asterin was multifinitied — meaning she could wield more than three elements, though at the time of her Revealing Ceremony, the stones of Lady Reyva, Goddess of Wind, and Lord Ulrik, God of Light, had remained inactive. Her wind affinity manifested when she was six, and her light affinity took three years to follow.
There were legends, too, of those who could wield all nine elements, known as the omnifinitied, their power equal to that of the tenth element — shadow, the affinity born from the powers of King Eoin, Ruler of Darkness. But the accounts of the omnifitied that Asterin had come by were few and far between, and she certainly hadn't heard of any still living today.
Asterin prepared to call forth her water affinity, laying the earthstone back in the chest. "You might want to take a step back. This can get a bit messy."
"What incantations do you use?" Garringsford asked.
Asterin chewed her lip, wondering if she could get away with lying. She went with a half-truth. "A few here and there. My tutors forced me to use them as a child, but I've found that I prefer not to confine my magic to the boundaries of a spell."
Garringsford's brow raised. "That's practically unheard of."
Asterin opened her mouth to retort, but then her mother's hand fluttered onto her shoulder and squeezed. "Perhaps you could give General Garringsford an example," the queen said.
How could she not oblige? "Fine." Asterin grimaced slightly, her tone far sharper than she had intended. The queen's hand tightened on her shoulder, and Asterin couldn't help the small part of her that wished her mother would tell the general off for once. "I suppose you could use a simple summoning spell."
Garringsford's steel eyes glinted — a challenge. "Would Your Highness be kind enough to demonstrate?"
Asterin resisted the urge to grind her teeth and took a deep breath. When her mind cleared, she lifted the waterstone. "Avslorah aveau," she recited, the language of the Immortals heavy on her tongue.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shadow Frost"
Copyright © 2019 Coco Ma.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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