Vengeance and Sacrifice: Revealing The Merciful Crow

One way or another, we always feed the crows…

We’re excited to reveal the cover for Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow, a powerful saga of vengeance, survival, and sacrifice—perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo and Kendare Blake. Book one in a duology, the story follows Fie, a young chieftain from a lowly cast of mercy-killers who must use her wits and bone magic—drawn from the teeth of dead witches—to smuggle the crown prince to safety.

Check out the cover below, along with an excerpt from the novel!

The Merciful Crow publishes July 2019 with Henry Holt & Co. From the catalog copy:

A future chieftain

Fie abides by one rule: look after your own. Her Crow caste of undertakers and mercy-killers takes more abuse than coin, but when they’re called to collect royal dead, she’s hoping they’ll find the payout of a lifetime.

A fugitive prince

When Crown Prince Jasimir turns out to have faked his death, Fie’s ready to cut her losses—and perhaps his throat. But he offers a wager that she can’t refuse: protect him from a ruthless queen, and he’ll protect the Crows when he reigns.

A too-cunning bodyguard

Hawk warrior Tavin has always put Jas’s life before his, magically assuming the prince’s appearance and shadowing his every step. But what happens when Tavin begins to want something to call his own?

Cover design by Rich Deas

Author Margaret Owen had this to say about the cover:

“I absolutely adore how this cover captures not just the face of the story, but the heart. (And by ‘adore’, I mean I yelled about it to a lot of people, very smugly, and perhaps more than was proper.) This book is about power, and about survival, and most of all, it’s about the nature of mercy. Somehow, wizard that he is, Rich managed to convey all that and more. And if ‘watch the castle burn’ isn’t a 2018 Mood, I don’t know what is.”

And from editor Tiffany Liao:

“Margaret’s book is so fresh and wildly inventive that we knew the cover had to be just as unique. There are many fun Easter eggs teased on the cover but what I love most is how Fie’s stance radiates strength, power, and a healthy dose of burn it all down—qualities she’ll need to survive an usurper queen, witch trackers, and oh, terrifying skin-ghasts.”

 


 

Chapter One
The Empty Throne

Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.

Near ten minutes had run dry since he’d vanished into the quarantine hut, and Fie had spent the last seven of them glaring at its gilded door and trying not to worry a stray thread on her ragged black robe. Taking one minute meant the Sinner’s Plague had already finished off the boys inside. Taking three meant Pa had a merciful end to deliver.

Taking ten was taking too long. Ten meant something was fouled up. And from the whispers sweeping the pristine tiles of the courtyard, their throngs of onlookers were catching on.

Fie gritted her teeth until the queasy pinch in her gut retreated. Pa knew what he was doing. Twelve hells, just yesterday morning he’d led their band of Crows to answer a plague beacon, collected corpse and coin, and had them all back on the roads before noon.

That town had no shortage of gawkers either: A man slipping looks through his loom threads, a woman steering her goat herd past the sinner’s hut to steal a better view. Children had twisted from their parents’ grasp to stare at the Crows and ask if monsters hid under the beaked masks and black robes.

Fie reckoned the answer changed depending on whether a Crow could hear.

But Fie had seen gagglers and worse near every day she could recall. As the only caste untouched by the plague, the Merciful Crows were duty-bound to answer every summons.

And as Pa’s chief-in-training, she hadn’t the luxury of a faint heart. Not even here. Not even now.

The boys they’d been called to take tonight were no different from the hundreds of bodies she’d helped burn in her sixteen years. No matter that few had been this high-caste. No matter that Crows hadn’t been summoned to the royal palace of Sabor for nigh five hundred years.

But the needle-sharp stares of warriors and aristocrats told Fie the plague mattered to the high castes tonight.

Pa knew what he was doing, she told herself again.

And Pa was taking too long.

Fie yanked her gaze from the door and searched for trouble in the crowds packing the walls of the royal quarantine court. She’d kept the habit since the first time an angry next-of-kin had trailed them out. From the looks of it, the latticed galleries were all Peacock courtiers, fluttering in mourning paints and ornamental woe as they gawped from a safe distance.

Fie grimaced behind her mask as she caught whispers all too familiar: “…such disgrace…”, “… his father?”, and the pestilent “… bone thieves.” An old, tired kind of trouble. The scandal-thirsty Peacocks were transfixed by the spectacle of thirteen Crows below, awaiting a show.

Hawk trouble was wholly a different beast. King Surimir fancied the war-witches as his palace guards, warriors who could heal wounds just as easily as they tear their foes apart from within. Double as dangerous and, since the Hawks knew it, thrice as easy to vex.

These war-witches’ hands had anchored on their sword hilts the moment the Crows dragged their cart through the gate. They hadn’t budged since.

Fie found no grief in their stony stares. The Hawks weren’t waiting on a show. They were waiting for the Crows to foul up.

She caught herself rolling another thread betwixt two thin brown fingers. The queasy pinch slunk back; she nailed her gaze to the door. It stayed damnably shut.

There was a slip of a movement to her left. Hangdog, Pa’s other trainee, had shifted by the cart. Torch-flame charred his silhouette, edging it in vivid orange where the light caught tattered robes and the long curve of his beaked mask. From the tilt of his head, he was eyeing the patchouli burners squatting about the hut.

Fie wrinkled her nose. She’d stuffed a fistful of wild mint into her own mask’s beak to ward off plague-stink. She couldn’t fault this fine palace for trying to daub it over as well. She could, however, fault them for their terrible taste in patchouli.

Hangdog’s sandal idly inched toward the burner.

Anywhere else and she’d have accidentally punted the patchouli herself. Hangdog was likely itching under so much high-caste attention, and the sneering arcades of gentry above were begging for some nasty surprise.

But not here, not now. Fie tugged at the hood of her robes, a sign only the other Crows would ken. Don’t make trouble.

Hangdog’s foot slid another toe-length toward the burner. Fie could all but smell his grin behind the mask.

They’d both been born witches, and for Crows, that meant they were born to be chiefs, too. Fie’s gut gave a hard little twist every time she thought on it… but she doubted Hangdog thought on being a chief at all. Pa called him “two-second clever”: too bent on making fools of others to catch his own purse getting cut.

Fie looked at the soldiers, then at Hangdog, and resolved to scalp him if the Hawks didn’t do it for her first.

There was a squawk from the hut’s rare-used hinges as Pa finally stepped outside.

Fie let the loose thread go, head and heart steadying. Damp red streaked down the front of Pa’s robes. He’d dealt a mercy killing, then.

Wretched-slow mercy, Fie reckoned.

Her relief lasted half a heartbeat before metal rasped, dreadful, from the wall behind them.

Any Crow knew the song of quality steel being drawn. But Pa only turned toward the sound, torchlight flashing off his mask’s glassblack eyes. And then he waited.

A hush iced over the courtyard as even the Peacocks froze.

In the city streets, in sorghum fields, anywhere from Sabor’s western merchant bays to its cruel mountains of the east, a higher caste could cut down Crows for any invented slight. Brothers, aunts, lovers, friends—every Crow walked with the scars of loss. Fie’s own ma had vanished down a dark road years ago.

But for now, the Hawks kept to their walls. The Sinner’s Plague spread swift once its victim died. One body could rot a town to stone before year’s end. Here in the quarantine court, with two dead boys guaranteed to bring the palace down in less than a half moon… here was where the Crows could not be touched.

There was another rattle as the blade returned to its scabbard. Fie didn’t dare look back. Instead she fixed on the rumble of Pa’s rough voice: “Pack ’em up.”

“I’ll handle the dead moppets,” Hangdog said, starting forward.

“Not on your own.” Pa shook his head and motioned for Fie. “They’re bigger than you.”

Fie blinked. The steward had called the sinners “boys” when he led the Crows in. She’d expected tots, not lordlings near grown.

Pa caught her shoulder just as she reached for the door. She cocked her head at him. “Aye, Pa?”

The mask hid his face, but she still caught a hitch in his breath, the way the beak tipped less than a fingerbreadth to point clearer to the Hawks.

“Just… bring them out,” said Pa.

Fie stiffened. Something was fouled up, she’d swear it on a dead god’s grave. But Pa was the chief, and he’d gotten them out of worse.

Most of them, at least.

She nodded. “Aye, Pa.”

The second the door swung shut, Fie cuffed Hangdog upside the head.

“What in twelve hells were you thinking, fooling like that?” she hissed. “The Hawks near gutted Pa for walking out a door, and you’re aiming to try their patience?”

“Aiming to make you mad.” This time she heard Hangdog’s grin in the hut’s thick darkness. “Those scummers won’t gut the chief. Or they’ll all rot with us if they do.”

“You’re the only one keen to test that,” she snapped, then stopped cold.

Her eyes had adjusted to the little torchlight filtering through the hut’s canvas window screens. The lordlings were already tightly cocooned in linen shrouds on their red-stained pallets, a blot of blood seeping through the fabric at each throat.

Bundling up the dead was their job, not Pa’s.

“Maybe chief didn’t trust us to get it right.” Hangdog didn’t sound like he was grinning anymore.

That was nonsense. The two of them had handled shrouding for five years now, ever since Hangdog had come to her band for chief training.

“If Pa’s got reasons, he’ll tell us,” she lied. “Sooner these scummers are on the cart, sooner we clear the damn patchouli.”

There was a short, muffled laugh as Hangdog picked up one body by the shoulders. Fie took the feet and backed through the door, feeling every gaze in the courtyard alight on her— and then dart to the bloody shroud.

Quiet shrieks ruffled through the Peacock courtiers as Fie swung the body up onto the cart. Hangdog gave it an extra heave. It toppled onto heaps of firewood with an unceremonious thud, knocking over a pile of kindling. A collective gasp swept the galleries.

Fie wanted to kick Hangdog.

Pa cleared his throat, muttering pointedly, “Mercy. Merciful Crows.”

“We’ll be nice,” Hangdog said as they headed back inside. He’d just picked up the remaining body by the feet when he added, “Wager someone faints if we drop this one.”

Fie shook her head. “Pa can sell your hide to a skinwitch, not mine.”

The second body was met with another round of sobs as they loaded it. Yet once the Crows began to haul their cart toward the courtyard’s gateway, the Peacock courtiers miraculously overcame their sorrow enough to jostle at the lattices for a better look.

The spectators’ enraptured angst grated like a broken axel. The dead boys must have been favorites of the royal Phoenix caste if this many Peacocks battled to out-grieve one another.

Fie’s skin crawled. Of all the bodies she had ever dragged off to burn, she decided she hated these two most.

To reach the quarantine court, they’d been all but smuggled down cramped, plain corridors; now a stone-faced Hawk hustled them straight through the belly of the palace. The longer the bodies lingered, the greater the odds the plague would pick a new victim.

Fie’s spite grew with every marvel they passed. Their cart clattered over ceramic inlays in mesmerizing whorls, past gardens of amber-pod wafting its perfume through the damp late-spring night, and into arching corridors of alabaster and bronze. Every pillar, every alcove, every tile paid some tribute to the Phoenix royals: a sun, a gold feather, a curl of flame.

The Hawk threw open a set of enormous ebony doors and pointed her spear inside. “You’ll know your way from here.”

Pa motioned them on, and the cart creaked into what could only be the fabled Hall of the Dawn. They’d emerged at the head of the hall, which was crowned with a dais; the way out waited far, far down a grand walkway bracketed in more galleries. Great black iron pillars held up an arched ceiling, each cut like a lantern into the likeness of a dead Phoenix monarch. Fires burned within every column, hot enough to cling to Fie’s arms even from the door.

Most of the hall was lacquered in deep purples, scarlets, and indigos, but frothy gilt laced the railings of each gallery, and at the dais, a grand disc of mirror-polished gold sat on the far wall above a pool of golden fire. Gem-studded rays of gold fanned all the way to the roof. Every facet hoarded up golden firelight until the dais hurt to look at straight on. The whole mess made a sun that rose behind the Phoenix thrones.

The empty Phoenix thrones.

Fie sucked in a breath. No king, no queen, and neither the older prince nor the new one here to mourn the dead lordlings, yet the gentry wailed as if their fortunes depended on it. It didn’t make sense. But whatever this was, whatever had fouled up, Pa would get them out as he had every time before.

They rolled onto the walkway and began to march.

She hated the way the hall’s slick marble tiles whined against the nails spiking her shoes’ soles, dulling them with every step. She hated the perfume oils besmirching the stagnant air. And most of all, she hated the galleries of Peacock gentry, who shuddered daintily in their satins as if the Crows were no more than a parade of rats.

But behind the Hawk guards stood a silent legion in the brown tunics of Sparrow-caste palace servants, near outnumbering the courtiers above. Harrowed expressions said their grief was more than decorative.

The pinch in Fie’s gut returned with a vengeance. Nobody liked Peacocks that much.

This was bad business, treating with castes too high to fear the plague. At this rate Pa would be throttling their viatik fee out at the gate. At this rate, maybe they wouldn’t get paid at all.

Then, halfway to the door and ten paces ahead of the cart, Pa stopped.

At first Fie didn’t understand. Then her eyes skipped to the colossal palace gate, the final landmark betwixt them and the capital city of Dumosa. It had been built large enough for parades of dignitaries and mammoth-riders alike; it would swallow the thirteen Crows and their cart easy enough.

And sure enough, a lone sentry stood at the gate, waiting to pay viatik for the dead.

The woman was a glittering specter, from her unbound cascades of silvery hair to the silk white gown that barely rippled in the sluggish breeze. Even from so far off, the telltale shatter of moonlight and torch-flame on her finery promised enough gems to feed Fie’s whole band of Crows—twelve hells, maybe the entire Crow caste—for her lifetime. But one thing carried more weight than the sum of her jewels: the collar around her neck.

Two hands of gold, cradling a sun that dawned below her collarbones. It was the royal crest. Fie had seen those hands stamped into every Saborian coin and woven into every flag, and now she could say she’d seen them wrapped around the neck of a queen.

Marriage had made the woman a Phoenix, but she’d been called the Swan Queen even before she left the courtesan caste’s pavilions. One of those empty thrones Fie’d passed belonged to her.

And in that moment, Fie kenned what part of tonight had fouled up.

It had been five hundred years, or somewhere near it, since the Sinner’s Plague had touched the royal palace. Five hundred years since Phoenixes had lit that plague beacon. Five hundred years since they’d called for Crows.

But if Queen Rhusana was here to pay viatik for these sinner boys, Fie knew sore plain who was under one of their shrouds.

The Crows were hauling the crown prince of Sabor to his funeral pyre.

Excerpted from The Merciful Crow, copyright © 2018 by Margaret Owen.

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