Three Queens. One crown. All out war. Dynasties battle for the crown in Tessa Gratton’s debut adult epic fantasy, The Queens of Innis Lear—available March 27th from Tor Books.
Gaela, Ruthless Commander: I am the rightful heir of Innis Lear. No more will I wait in the shadows and watch my mother’s murderer bleed my island dry. The King’s hold on the crown must end—willingly or at the edge of my sword.
Regan, Master Manipulator: To secure my place on the throne, I must produce an heir. Countless times I have fed the island’s forests my blood. Yet, my ambition is cursed. No matter what or whom I must destroy, I will wield the magic of Innis Lear.
Elia, Star-blessed Priest: My sisters hide in the shadows like serpents, waiting to strike our ailing king. I must protect my father, even if it means marrying a stranger. We all have to make sacrifices. Love and freedom will be mine.
In Innis Lear it was believed that the reign of the last queen had been predicted by the stars—and had ended, too, because of them.
Lear had been middle. aged when his father and brothers died: too old to have planned for ruling, too old to easily let go of his priestly calling, his years of sanctuary in the star towers. So the first thing the new king ordered was a star-casting to point him in the direction of a bride. He needed a queen, after all, as he needed heirs of his own to ensure the survival of his line. Every star-reader on the island joined together and offered their new king a sole prophecy: the first woman to set foot on the docks of Port Comlack at the dawn of the third dark moon after the Longest Night would be his true queen. She would give him strong children and rule justly beside him, then die on the sixteenth anniversary of her first daughter’s birth.
Lear arranged to be there, ready to greet this star-promised woman, and waited all night long under the third dark moon, despite icy winds so early in the year. As the first sunlight broke through thin clouds a ship came limping to port, too many of their rowers weak from struggling against the roiling ocean. It was a trader’s ship from the Third Kingdom, an ocean and half a continent away, where an inland sea and great river met in a gulf of sand and stone. First to emerge were the dark-skinned captain and five dark soldiers; they were royal guards along to protect a granddaughter of the empress, who’d traveled north searching for adventure. Lear welcomed them, inviting the princess to come forward. She descended like a slip of night, it was said, black-skinned and robed in bright layers of wool and silk against the cold ocean. Glass beads glinted from her roped black hair like ice or tears or—like stars.
Lear married her, though she was less than half his age, and loved her deeply.
She died at dawn on her first daughter’s sixteenth birthday, twelve years ago this winter.
The pain was as fresh to Gaela as every morning’s sunrise.
Anytime she was at the Summer Seat, Gaela would make this pilgrimage, down to the caves pocking the cliffs below the keep. Dalat had brought her here at least once a year, for all of Gaela’s childhood. At first only the two of them, then when Regan was old enough they were three, and finally in the last few years even baby Elia tagged along. They’d descended to the sea farther to the southeast, where the cliffs became beaches and bluffs with more ready, safe access to the hungry waves, and with an escort of heavily armed retainers in separate boats, they rowed back up the rocky coast here to the caves. Gaela remembered especially when she’d been eleven, and Elia only three years old, wrapped up against Gaela’s chest so she could protect her baby sister while Dalat held nine-year-old Regan’s hand. Elia had danced with all her limbs, excited and gleefully singing a childish rhyme, clutching at the collar of Gaela’s tunic and at one of her braids.
Dalat had dragged the boat as high onto the beach as she could, then smiled like a young girl and dashed with her daughters to the largest cave. She laughed at the spray of salt water that splattered her cheeks, and then when they were far inside the cave, knelt upon the wet stone, disregarding the algae and saltwater staining her skirt. “Here, Gaela,” she said, patting the earth beside her, “and here, Regan. Give me my littlest in my lap.” When all were situated, Dalat taught them a soft prayer in the language of the Third Kingdom. It was a layered, complex language filled with triple meanings depending on forms of address, and to Gaela it always sounded like a song. She fought hard, scowling, to remember the prayer after only one recitation. Regan repeated the final word of every phrase, planting the rhythm on her tongue. Elia mouthed along with their mother, saying nothing with any meaning, but seeming the most natural speaker of them all.
Today the tide was out, and Gaela was strong enough she didn’t need to row up from a beach or bring retainers to assist.
The emerald grass capping the cliffs bent in the sea wind, and she unerringly located the slip of rock that cut down at an angle, crossing the sheer face of the cliff at a manageable slant. She’d left off any armor and all fancy attire, put on dull brown trousers and a soldier’s linen shirt, wrapped her twists up in a knot, and tied on soft leather shoes. Carefully, Gaela made her way along the first section, forward looking but leaned back with one hand skimming the steep rocks for balance.
As Gaela climbed down, she muttered her mother’s prayer to herself. She didn’t believe in Dalat’s god, but it was the only piece of the language she remembered fluently, having stopped speaking it three days after the queen died.
Sun glared off the water, flashing in her eyes. Gaela turned her back to the sea, placing toes where they would not slip, and gripped the ridge in her strong hands. Wind flattened her to the cliff, tugging at her shirt. She glanced down at the steep gray-and-black precipice, toward the clear green water and rolling whitecaps. Her stomach dropped, and she smiled. The rock was rough under the pads of her fingers, scraping her palms; her knees pressed hard, she climbed down, and down, until she could hop the final few feet to land in a crouch on the slick, sandy shore.
Her shoulders rose as she took a huge breath, filling her lungs with salty air. She blew it out like a saint of the ocean, summoning a storm.
Walking along the beach, Gaela eyed the mouth of the cave: a slanted oval, wider at the base and twice taller than her. At high tide the ocean swallowed this whole beach, and only tiny boats could row in, though there was danger of becoming trapped. This cave that Gaela had climbed to was directly below the Summer Seat, but unfortunately too wet for storing castle goods, and there were times smugglers would need to be cleared out. Gaela glanced up the cliff toward the black walls of the castle, high above and leaning over in places. She thought perhaps to install stairs, or some system of ladders, and wondered, too, if the cave could be transformed into cold storage, if they could put in high shelving to keep the water off. But it seemed too complicated to be practical.
She reached the mouth of the cave and paused, one hand on the rough edge of the mouth, her lips curled in a frown. For five years now she’d only come alone, since Regan had married. Elia hadn’t been welcome in the caves, not since she chose Lear over her sisters, damn her. Today, Gaela would’ve preferred to have Regan with her again, but her sister had kept herself away in Connley unexpectedly, even since their summons.
On her own these two days, Gaela had been assessing the state of her kingdom behind her father’s back, first meeting with the strongest earls, Glennadoer and Rosrua and Errigal, and discussing a tax for the repair of that blasted coastal road, if her father did refuse funds from the treasury. It was necessary, especially that the worst erosion be bolstered before the fierce winter storms. She and Astore had been appalled at the state of Lear’s accounting records in the past three years, demanding Lear’s stewards find a path through the mess. The earls had promised records from their own holdings that would make up for some of the confusion. When Gaela took the throne, she’d be ready to put resources exactly where she wanted them: trade and a stronger standing army. Her grandmother was an empress, and Gaela would transform Innis Lear into a jewel worthy of such a relationship. By the time she died, no longer would this land be a blight clinging to the sea, its inner woods a mystery of ghosts and hidden villages, the people known for superstition and old magic. Kay Oak had told Gaela that Lear’s star prophecies were considered an artful, childlike folly in the Third Kingdom, where the study of stars was a science. Even in Aremoria the king was building great schools, and his father had turned his people away from magic. Innis Lear was a backward holdout.
Gaela would change it all. She would not be remembered only as the prophesied daughter who killed a beloved mother, but as the king who dragged Innis Lear away from venal superstition and filthy wormwork.
She entered the cave. The floor was sand; her boots sank into watery puddles and the meager warmth of the sun vanished. Layers of rock, slick with algae and striped gray with pale green stratification, cut away, curving deeper. Salty, wet stone-smell filled her nose, and she even tasted the delicate flavor of dark earth on her tongue. The air seeped with it. A drip like a pretty chime echoed farther back, where she could not see.
It was like standing in a frozen moment of rain, surrounded by a refreshing, cool breeze and droplets of water that never quite touched her. Gaela’s mother had said there was nothing like this in the desert. And that standing here, breathing, was as near to sharing God’s breath as Dalat had found since leaving her old home.
Gaela often wished she could visit the Third Kingdom, but Innis Lear was her birthright. In Dalat’s home, Gaela might be allowed to govern a city, or work her way up in the ranks of the armies to general. But here she would rule over all. If she had a god, it was this island. She would make her name, and the name of Innis Lear, so strong and great that the words and spirit of them would travel to the desert in her place.
“I am so close, Mother.”
Her voice remained low, but Gaela had no need to be heard. It was the memory of her mother to whom she spoke, no ghost. She had not brought a candle to light; a thousand candles burned for Dalat every night in the north. Nor did Gaela bring mementos: eagle feathers pinched her heart, but what good were they buried in this sand or tossed into the ocean? Gaela was unsentimental, and her mother was gone. Taken from her by Lear, by the reign of his stars. Nothing could bring Dalat back, no rootwater nor blood, no star prophecy nor faith in even the great god of her mother’s people.
When Gaela spoke to her mother’s memory, she really was talking to herself and the island.
“There are things I’ve done you would not approve of,” Gaela said, crouching. Her bottom leaned on the craggy wall for balance, and she rested her wrists on her knees. “My barren body, my loveless marriage. You were so happy when I was young, because you loved him, and you had us, and I remember you found so much joy in so many mundane things I still don’t understand. But I did what I had to do, and I’m not sorry, Dalat. I will rule Innis Lear, and Regan’s children will be my heirs.”
Gaela pictured her mother’s face, though Dalat looked rather more like Gaela herself than she truly had; it was the best a daughter could do so many years later. Kayo had brought a small bust of Dalat-as-a-girl from the desert, and her orange clay face at fifteen was so much like Elia’s instead: round and sweet and smiling. Gaela had rejected it.
“Mother,” Gaela said, “I miss you. You wanted me, despite everything, but he never did. You gave me the ambitions to rule this island. You taught me I could, encouraged me to find my own way to strength, because our ancestors are queens and empresses. He pretended I was nothing, tolerating me despite the prophecy, because he loved you. When Elia was born, and her . . . her stars were perfect, he’d have named her heir if she’d been a boy. If I wasn’t married to Astore and hadn’t made myself into a dangerous prince, he’d try it now. Fortunately for all of us she has no ambition of her own, or I’d have to kill her. He and his stars would necessitate it.” Gaela closed her eyes. The ocean outside matched the roar of her blood. Sometimes she thought that men had created star prophecies solely to benefit themselves.
“I don’t understand how you loved him, Mother. He used you, and me, to prove the truth of the stars, and I will never let that happen again. My kingdom will not be defined as yours was, and I will not let him, or any of them, trap me as you were trapped. I love you, but I will not be like you.”
She spat on the ground, leaving that piece of herself there, her body and water, for the sand and tide and Innis Lear.
Excerpted from The Queens of Innis Lear, copyright © 2018 by Tessa Gratton.