Strike fast, love hard, live forever.
This is the motto of the Lady Knights—sworn to fealty under a struggling kingdom, promised to defend the prospective heir, Banna Mora.
But when a fearsome rebellion overthrows the throne, Mora is faced with an agonizing choice: give up everything she’s been raised to love, and allow a king-killer to be rewarded—or retake the throne, and take up arms against the newest heir, Hal Bolingbrooke, Mora’s own childhood best friend and sworn head of the Lady Knights.
Hal loathes being a Prince; she’s much more comfortable instated on the Throne of Misrule, a racous underground nether-court where passion rules all. She yearns to live up to the wishes of everyone she loves best—but that means sacrificing her own heart, and so she will disappoint everyone until the moment she can rise to prove those expectations wrong.
And between these two fierce Princes is the woman who will decide all their fates—Lady Isarna Hotspur, the fiery and bold knight whose support will turn the tides of the coming war.
Tessa Gratton’s Lady Hotspur is a sweeping, heart-stopping Shakespearean novel of betrayal, battlefields, and destiny. Avaiable January 7th from Tor Books.
The March, late spring
Hal was not yet a prince when she fell in love with Lady Hotspur, but she would be within the hour.
It was the end of the battle, and Hal had been ordered to collect the knight of Perseria and bring her to the castle where their mothers waited.
Hal was exhausted, but lit up inside with awe and hope and rippling terror. The wind smelled of sour blood and sweaty horses, and her ears rang. Just twenty years old and Hal had nearly died four times this afternoon:
—A spear caught under her buckler, shoving her arm back, and its tip would’ve gutted her if she’d not trained herself into the twist-and-nudge that turned her body and signaled her horse to sidestep.
—A surprising gust of wind tossed a rain of arrows over the shield wall, toward the cavalry troop she led; one arrow sliced open her cheek but avoided her eye.
—Her horse screamed and fell, and Hal’s boot almost trapped itself in the stirrup before she threw herself free.
—On her feet, she fought shoulder to shoulder with Vindus of Mercia, and missed the moment her fellow knight was cut down, and suddenly the space was empty: she spun into it, breathing hard and desperate, knowing if Vin was down she was the knight in charge. She screamed as she shoved her sword into the man before her, slicing under his pauldron and up to skewer his shoulder, nearly cleaving it from his neck.
But Hal had survived.
Not only that, but the rebels had won. Her mother had won.
Hal’s nerves translated into her new mount, and the mare skipped anxiously along the muddy edge of the field. She’d not seen her mother in a decade, and now she was a rebel, bruised and panting, her hair knotted and her helmet lost saints knew where.
Ten years ago, King Rovassos had exiled his niece, Celeda Bolinbroke, to the Third Kingdom on the lying word of his lover. Celeda had been accused of murdering the king’s youngest brother, though she swore she did not—she’d fought and argued and screamed she did not—on the lives of her own mother and father, on the lives of her daughters, on the lives of the great kings before them: Segovax, Isarnos, and Morimaros the Great.
Thank the saints, Celeda had been banished instead of killed, only forced to leave her daughters and homeland behind, instead of her life. Hal had grown up without her mother, a ward of the king alongside the heir to the throne, Banna Mora. She’d always hoped that someday Celeda would return home, forgiven by Rovassos. Then last year Rovassos had stripped the title and lands of Bolinbroke from Hal, giving it to his (new, different) lover. Hal had written to her mother that the last thread of hope was gone.
But in the Third Kingdom a strong mother-line was respected, and for a decade now Celeda had gathered allies and woven her plans, always knowing she’d never be invited home. Knowing if she was to return, she would have to seize back her legacy.
The divesting of Bolinbroke by the king had been the simple spark, offensive and untimely, that lit the pyre of this rebellion. And Celeda was not the only one to have seen it for the sign it was: Caratica Persy of Annyck and the Red Castle, her sister, Vindomata the duke of Mercia, Mata Blunt of Ithios, the dukes of Westmore and Or, and Ardus of Iork, had all joined together against the weakened king, and they summoned Celeda home.
Today it had come to a head here at Strong Water Castle, at the edge of the March on the western coast of Aremoria, where the king returned from a voyage to Ispania. Rovassos was welcomed back to Aremore shores with swift violence. The rebels had crushed the king’s forces beneath banners of ancient Aremore houses: the lion and bluebells of Bolinbroke, the eagles of Westmore, the wolf of Perseria, the oak of Mercia, and the coursing river of Or. As if the very animals of land and sky, the bones and veins of Aremoria agreed it was time.
Dead sprawled across the battlefield, and the injured sat or limped with the help of comrades, but most of their soldiers remained afoot. The surrender had sounded before too many casualties fell.
And Hal had survived her first real battle. It bore repeating. It was a triumph, no matter what else.
Her shoulder throbbed and the gambeson under her mail shirt stuck to her side from the seeping blood. She’d survived. She’d killed. At least three soldiers she was certain of, and others would die of wounds she’d inflicted.
Her stomach churned as she thought of their families. Their Aremore families.
In his diaries, Morimaros the Great had written, Never ignore the consequences of your actions, for such ignorance alone makes your actions unjust.
It had been academic, until now. The consequences of her actions had been more along the lines of dragging squires into punishment with her for sneaking into the throne room, or hangovers, or regrettable mornings-after with girls who would run home to their husbands or fathers. Or a bone bruise from picking a fight with Banna Mora—and worse, the charged disapproval of Lady Ianta Oldcastle’s frown.
The consequences of childhood, Hal thought, are gentle guilts and awkward memories. The consequences of adulthood are ghosts.
But there! Hotspur Persy stood surrounded by soldiers, blood smeared like autumn leaves across her face, the vivid splatter turning her eyes lightning blue. As orders flew past her lips, her teeth shone pink.
Blood sharpened the flavor of Hal’s tongue, too. She wanted to kiss that other bloody mouth.
Hal stared at the flaring aggression, the living command that was Hotspur of Perseria. It was an easy pull to feel, to be drawn toward the lady knight, and Hal wished she weren’t so weary, so nervous; she wished that instead of muddy armor she wore a splendid suit of shining silver mail, her hair combed and fresh—anything to capture Hotspur’s attention in return.
The almost-prince stared too long. Her horse stomped; Hotspur’s gaze swung around and slammed into her.
Hal, startled, pushed a fist into the air and called, “Lady Hotspur! I’ve word from Mercia.”
Wind scoured across the space between them, jerking Hal’s hair free of its braids. The black strands whipped about her cheeks and tangled in the buckles of her armor.
Hotspur lifted a gauntleted hand in response.
Was it Hal’s imagination, or did the wind die at the gesture?
She could not bring herself to dismount, but directed her horse toward the other woman. An aide in Persy green spoke urgently in Hotspur’s ear and Hotspur nodded, eyes on Hal the entire time. The lady knight’s mail hood was pushed back of her head, pooling against her neck, her cap gone, and so her wild hair was tangled and torn, some dark orange strands stuck to Hotspur’s pink cheeks with sweat and blood.
“Hotspur Persy,” Hal said as her horse picked delicately over a broken shield. “I’m Hal Bolinbroke. I’m commanded to bring you with me to the gates of Strong Water Castle, where your aunt, Vindomata of Mercia, and my mother, Celeda, have the king.”
Hotspur nodded at Hal and put a hand on the aide’s shoulder. “Unhook my chest plate, Sennos.”
The young man, plain, his face shadowed with strain, helped her out of the plate armor, swinging it over his own shoulder when she was free of it. Hotspur wore a dark green gambeson beneath. Her sword belt was empty, her boots muddy up the calf.
“Ready,” Hotspur said.
Hal blinked down at her, and did her best to banish uncertainty. She offered her arm and shifted her foot out of the stirrup to allow Hotspur to put her boot in its place. Their hands gripped together, and Hotspur mounted gracefully, swinging up behind as Hal clenched her teeth against the ache of her side injury.
“Hi, Hal,” Hotspur said eagerly, with a broad smile, and shifted her seat closer, their thighs pressing together. She tucked an arm around Hal’s waist.
Twisting her neck, Hal was desperate to see the expression Hotspur wore, but only was able to glimpse Hotspur’s profile as the lady knight stared behind them at the field of battle. Did she notice how easily they fit, the rightness of her arm around Hal’s waist?
Hal ground her teeth and urged her horse to trot, thinking, No, don’t be a fool, this is the Wolf of Aremoria! She never would be distracted from the work of war by carnal thoughts, or even romantic ones.
Lady Hotspur had made a name for herself at only sixteen, leading Persy soldiers against Diotan bandits, routing them completely until she chased them across the border and returned with four hostages. At seventeen, Hotspur had defeated Sir Corio de Or, a legendary knight himself and as large as Lady Ianta, at single combat, then at the same tournament taunted a Burgundian earl by stealing his sword and holding it over her head, though its length was the same as her height, for over a minute. Last year, Hotspur and her mother had traveled to the Rusrike to assist her father’s people in putting down a small rebellion of landholders, and by all accounts had impressed even the cold-hardened soldiers there with her ferocity. Hal had always wished Hotspur would be brought to court, to join the Lady Knights who served Banna Mora, but Hal wondered if Rovassos had feared her.
Look at the time Hal had wasted not knowing how beautiful Hotspur was.
Hal asked, “Is it a day for glory, Lady Hotspur, or a day for grief ?”
“Both,” Hotspur answered readily. “Always both, with war.”
Relieved, though she’d not realized she meant the question as an exam, Hal nodded. She held her shoulders straight but relaxed slightly with Hotspur at her back.
“Do you know who we lost?” Hotspur asked, brushing Hal’s loose hair away from her right shoulder, gripping her hip with the other hand.
Strands of Hal’s hair slid against her skin above the narrow steel gorget protecting her neck; Hal shivered and said, “I didn’t get official reports—I doubt they’re ready yet. I know your mother fell, but lives, and we lost your cousin Vindus of Mercia. He rode at my side. I’m sorry.”
Hotspur’s hand on Hal’s hip curled into a fist, and she knocked it into Hal’s thigh. “My mother will live; I was there when she was thrown and she will live. But Vin—wormshit and baby-eaters. I did not know him as well as you, because he was always in Lionis. My aunt Vindomata will be inconsolable.”
“He and Banna Mora…” Hal paused. It didn’t matter what Vindus and Mora might have been. This rebellion put them against each other, as it had put Hal against Mora, too, by the simple fact that Mora had been Rovassos’s heir, and now the Blood and the Sea would belong elsewhere.
As they reached the muddy road, Hal pushed the horse toward the small town that surrounded Strong Water Castle. Dark gray roofs rose against the city wall, and beyond it the ramparts of the castle. Past even that was the vivid gray ocean, rippling under heavy wind.
Soldiers held the city gates, and one in Bolinbroke colors dashed forward to wave Hal on. It was a relief to see purple everywhere—not only because she missed her family crest and her title, but because it meant her mother was finally near. Nervous energy tightened Hal’s thighs against her horse, and it tossed its head in protest.
They followed the Bolinbroke soldier through the town—shutters pulled tightly closed, flags appearing in green, purple, and red, the leading colors of the rebellion: Mercian red, Persy green, Bolinbroke purple. Hal saw only a few scraps of Aremoria’s own vivid orange. They’d need to fix that fast.
The soldier led them through a bewildered crowd hurrying for shelter under the orders of more soldiers in purple and Persy green. “He gave up so easily,” Hal said. “The king had no stomach for fighting.”
Hotspur snorted. “That was part of the problem.”
The castle rose from the north of the city, across a massive arched stone bridge beneath which a tributary of the river raced toward the sea. The castle wall was gray and streaked dark by moss and weathering, its barbican blacker and newer built to fortify the gateway. Bloodied soldiers saluted Hal and Hotspur, while others lit torches: the sun was setting, and Hal hadn’t even realized it was so late. They rode over the bridge and into the mouth of the barbican, through the fifteen-foot tunnel gate. Hal glanced up at murder holes and arrow loops, and suddenly a spear thrust down into her neck from above. She heard the hiss of metal on stone, felt the weight of it and the pop as its tip cut through her gambeson, mail shirt, flesh—
Hal swallowed away the vision. She was whole; there were no assassins hiding, but only the hungry teeth of three portcullises overhead.
They emerged into a dim outer bailey, and Hotspur laughed sharply; beyond it was yet another gatehouse, even better fortified than the barbican. An attacking army could be trapped here, thinking they’d won entrance, then slaughtered with fire and arrows. Hal felt a squeeze of gratitude toward Rovassos for not forcing that end.
The inner gatehouse’s iron portcullis gaped open, too, and the only colors she saw were their own. Celeda’s personal banner hung from the crenellations. It was the lion and bluebells of Bolinbroke, crossed with a white arrow under the trio of flowers.
Hal wondered if she even would recognize Celeda. It had been ten entire years! Worse, would her mother recognize her? Hal was older now, a woman, and bloodied.
“This way,” called the Bolinbroke soldier, and picked up his pace to the inner ward.
There they dismounted—Hotspur winced when her left foot touched down, and Hal reached to clasp her arm in support.
Hotspur bared her teeth but allowed it. “I took a hit from behind, twisted my ankle to avoid being knocked to the ground. But I got him in the gut. I didn’t realize it was so bad while battle-high.” Her eyes glowed like little suns, fiery blue, and she could not seem to stop grinning at Hal, whenever Hal glanced over. Hal’s cheeks heated.
“Your mother,” Hotspur said.
Hal saw her, standing in a small crowd of nobly armored knights and commanders: Celeda Bolinbroke, regal and tall, her black hair knotted in braids, her body covered in tooled steel armor so she shone like a moon. The capelet tied over one shoulder was fresh, untainted by blood or ash, fringed in black and dyed a vibrant purple with the lion-and-bluebell crest of Bolinbroke embroidered in white and black. Celeda spoke with the men, holding sway over them with her bearing and dark charisma. One man stood too near her, in a weathered orange gambeson with a small crown pressed into the steel of his single pauldron. He had shorn hair, an equally short beard, and suntanned skin, and he stared suddenly at Hal with vivid blue eyes. Hal did not recognize him—and she knew everyone with an ounce of royal blood.
But it did not matter then who he was, because Celeda was there.
“Mother,” Hal said, the word sticking in her throat. She tried again. “Mother.”
Celeda stopped midword and turned, her surprise transforming into eager welcome. “Calepia, come here,” she said, holding out a bare hand.
The command rang through Hal, and she released Hotspur to dash for her mother.
The two women slammed together, Celeda’s arms open and Hal flinging hers about her mother’s neck. Her chest plate clanged against Celeda’s, keeping them from truly meeting, but Hal hugged tightly, tears squeezing out of her eyes. “Mom,” she whispered, breathing sweat and blood and dusty black hair.
“My Calepia, little Hal, you are so tall,” Celeda said. She herself was more than forty now, and it showed in the frowning lines about her mouth, but not in the black of her hair.
Hal laughed, “Still not so tall as you, Mother.”
Celeda pushed Hal back, holding her at arm’s length. “I’ve good reports of you.”
“And I of you,” Hal teased, unable to help it. She thought her eyes must be saucers, they felt so round and bulging.
Hotspur came up behind them, giving greetings, and Hal turned with a sweep of her hand. “This is Isarna Perseria, Lady Hotspur.”
“Lady Hotspur,” Celeda said.
Hotspur bowed. “It is an honor to meet you, having battled for your return and justice, Lady Celeda.”
“And I am most pleased to see you with my daughter, for I wish the two of you to be great friends, as I myself have been with your mother and aunt for most of our lives. Here is Commander Abovax and Commander Ios de Or, Lord Cevo of Westmore and his brother Aesmaros.” Celeda pointed at each of the men encircling them, ignoring the man in the orange gambeson. His mouth beneath the beard seemed to bend in amusement he shared only with Hal. He looked so familiar; why could she not recall his name? Hal knew Abovax from his work in the Lionis palace guard, a nemesis of her youthful pranks, and Commander Ios, too. Celeda continued, “Mata Blunt is deeper in the castle with Vindomata, meeting with Rovassos.”
“And my mother?” Hotspur asked.
Celeda made a disgruntled face. “Refusing to go to the hospital. I have her in a chair at least and a healer I brought from the Third Kingdom is at her side. If she does not die of infection she will survive, though perhaps not walk again.”
Hotspur gritted her teeth but nodded.
“And Dev?” Hal asked.
Hal’s mother hesitated; it was Abovax who spoke. “Devrus is dead, but Vindus I’ve no report on.”
“No,” said Hotspur, too softly.
“Vin is dead, too, Mother,” Hal said. Both the sons of Vindomata of Mercia, lost to Celeda’s rebellion. Hal’s guts were knots. They’d been such strong warriors—but even the best destiny could turn on an accident. Her eyes flicked to the strange, silent man in royal Aremore orange, seeking solace. But he was gone.
Just then another soldier ran up. “Lady Celeda, Mercia sends for you: the king will see you, and surrender to you, she says.”
They wasted no time on further questions or mourning, but followed fast at Celeda’s side, into the keep tower and through narrow stone corridors warm from fire and men. Hal was breathless as they entered the castle’s great hall to the sound of barking dogs echoing of the low ceilings. Benches were tipped to their sides and shoved back, and Rovassos slumped atop the high table in chain mail, his sword beside him and two rangy hunting hounds circling his feet, howling, growling, upset at his lack of response. Hal pitied the old man, even knowing it was weakness inside her to do so.
At the end of the table stood a battered Aumerle, and Hal clenched her jaw. Bolinbroke no longer belonged to him! It was hers again—her mother’s, at least. Unable to stop herself, Hal marched to him and shoved him over. Aumerle stumbled, shocked, and barely caught himself at the edge of the table.
“Calepia!” snapped her mother.
“I’m sorry,” Aumerle said to Hal, his eyes heavy, his entire body drooping.
Hal snorted, retreating to her mother’s side, and Hotspur’s. She could not forget the sickening feeling of his hand on hers, when he had ofered her marriage last year as an avenue to regain her Bolinbroke lands. This was so much better.
Rovassos King lifted his head to watch. Pink rimmed his pale blue eyes. He leaned back on one hand, even in this state the perfect pose of defeated king.
“Sit,” snapped Vindomata of Mercia to the dogs. They startled, and one sat while the other raised its hackles further.
The king waved his hand wearily. “Take them out, Aumerle.”
Hal tried to calm her rough breathing as she watched Aumerle grab the dogs by their collars and drag them away, handing them of to soldiers in Persy green. He returned to his position behind his king.
“I have come, Rovassos, for what I am owed,” said Celeda.
“A swift death?” he countered.
Vindomata snarled and put her fist to the hilt of her sword. Dried blood streaked her white cheek, smearing back into her hair. She’d removed her heaviest armor and stood like a vicious wolf, ready to feast. Just like her niece Hotspur—they were older and younger versions of each other, redhaired beasts of war. “None of your bluster, old man. Give her the ring.”
The command rang against the high stone rafters of the great hall. Orange banners hung, striping the dark walls with loyalty to Aremoria.
Hal’s legs trembled. Blood rushed in her ears and she missed Rovassos’s following words, though saw his lips move through graying vision. She’d known Celeda returned to take all of Aremoria, not only Bolinbroke. She’d known, and yet—
Celeda said, “You have nothing behind you, Rovassos, no army willing to defend you against us; your choices have marred the glory of Aremoria’s throne. I am as much Segovax’s heir as you, and I have been welcomed. I have been greeted with flowers and cheering. Your lords and commanders understand you are weak.”
“All this because I gave Bolinbroke to a loyal man? I treated your child as my own,” Rovassos said.
“You stole my home!” Hal cried.
Vindomata put up a hand to halt Hal’s outburst, then tilted her chin toward the side entrance: Mata Blunt entered through it, behind her two men in purple propping Caratica Persy between them. Caratica bared her teeth in a wild grimace of pain. There was no color in her face, and streaks of ashy tears painted her cheeks. Hotspur did not go to her mother, but remained at Hal’s side as a chair was dragged forward and Caratica put into it, though she growled her pain through panting breath.
“We all are here now,” Vindomata said firmly. “Have your say, Rovassos.”
Caratica hissed a dismissal to the healers and guards, and when the heavy wooden door slammed closed it was only the king, his lover, and six women: Celeda Bolinbroke, Vindomata of Mercia, Caratica de Persy, Mata Blunt, Hal, and Hotspur.
“This is how kings die,” Rovassos muttered. “Shall I tell you, niece, so you will see it coming? Betrayed, all. Either by our bodies, our hearts, or our friends.”
“So the circle comes around for betrayers,” Celeda said, her voice thick. “I loved you once, Uncle, and you betrayed me first.”
“Tit, tat, who murdered my favorite brother? Who?”
“Not me!” Celeda snapped.
From her seat, Caratica said, pained, “It does not matter, Celeda. You have won. We have won.”
“Look at my daughter,” said Celeda, and Hal stifened at the sudden attention. “She was a child when you forced me away, and I have missed her growing. Because of you. You may have treated her as yours, but she was mine to care for, mine to teach and train!”
Rovassos’s watery gaze met Hal’s, and Hal’s heart seemed to freeze—not with cold, but with warm dread.
“So she was,” the king said. He lifted his fist, and there on his forefinger clung the Blood and the Sea. The garnet burned deep brown-red, the pearls embracing it like tiny moons. It was the symbol of power, and all her life Hal had been conditioned to respect it, to love it. That ring had graced the hand of Morimaros the Great, and Isarnos, then Segovax, and now this merry king, this disgrace—so her mother would say, so Vindomata and Caratica, and so even Mata Blunt, who was Hal’s mother’s cousin, and for three years had lived in the Third Kingdom, too. Plotting this, Hal supposed, her world spinning.
“Give it over,” Vindomata demanded again. “You have taken more than was a king’s due, and neglected much that was. No one will regret this day.”
Rovassos tugged the ring free and held it up, staring at Celeda through its small circle. “In the end, this empty well will be all that you have, too.” “Rovassos,” Vindomata said.
He closed his eyes and sighed.
Aumerle threw himself to his king’s side and then to his knees. “I beg you, let him live. If he does this, let him live.”
For a moment, Hal admired the man’s brave desperation, but then was filled with pity when Caratica Persy spoke, every word a struggle through her pain, sweat glistening on her lip and brow, “Will you die for him? In his stead, Aumerle? If you both live past today, always shall you plot against us.”
“No, put him in prison, and—and banish me. Anything.”
The king touched Aumerle’s mouth. “Hush.”
Aumerle fell quiet, sinking down to sit on his heels, shoulders slumped. “Now,” said Vindomata.
Celeda held out her hand to Rovassos.
The king said, “By my word, I give you Aremoria. By this ring, and my hand. By the stars above and the earth below, by my heart and blood and—and by my tears. Aremoria is yours.”
He dropped the Blood and the Sea. It hit the stone floor with a sharp clang.
All present stared as Celeda knelt reverently and lifted the ring. She stood with it cupped in her palm, breathing through slightly parted lips.
Hal did not know what passed through her mother’s thoughts in that moment, but they caused a tremor in Celeda Bolinbroke’s hand. She clenched her fingers around the Blood and the Sea as Vindomata approached. The duke of Mercia surrounded Celeda’s hand with both her own, ofering comfort. Then Vindomata pried the hand open and took the ring. Her eyes lifted to catch Celeda’s, and Celeda raised her chin.
Mercia put the ring onto Celeda’s forefinger, and then dropped to one knee. “Long may the queen of Aremoria reign.”
The lord Aumerle sank further to the floor, hands and knees against the cold stone, head lowered and shoulders shaking. Rovassos remained still, seated at the edge of the high table. But Mata Blunt knelt, and Hotspur, too, dragging Hal down with her.
Hal stared at her mother. Her queen.
If she’d not had both knees on the hard floor she’d have fallen.
And Rovassos said, “What else remains?”
Vindomata Mercia stood, flicked her eyes over Celeda’s, then to her sister, Caratica, and Mata Blunt—but not to her niece or Hal. “This only,” she said, and took two steps to Rovassos in the space of time needed to draw her sword.
A cry pierced the dull weight of the room’s silence just as the heavy blade cut down, stabbing through Rovassos’s neck. Blood spurted, then gushed, and Aumerle scrabbled at Vindomata, throwing himself at her arm.
The duke shrugged him of, leaning in to drive her sword harder into Rovassos, then pulling sideways so it sliced through most of his throat and the old king’s body tilted, the head falling to the side first, dragging the rest with it.
Mata grabbed Aumerle’s hair and jerked him away, throwing him hard to the floor.
Hal could not move, staring, stuck on Rovassos’s head and the unnatural angle from which it dangled, still attached by muscle and skin, as blood painted a mantle down his chest, flowing and smooth, and Hal felt it on her own skin, prickling over her collar and down her breast, over her shoulders and flaring down her back like wings.
This is how kings die, she thought, again and again. Betrayed.
This is how kings die.
Miraculously, Hotspur took Hal’s hand and gripped it tight.
And Prince Hal thought, Maybe I did not survive this war after all.
Lionis, late spring
Banna Mora of the March had been the heir to the throne of Aremoria for seven years. There’d been a ceremony the day after Rovassos King, her granduncle, asked her sweetly if she wished to try on the Blood and the Sea. She’d known what he meant, of course, for she’d been a ward of his crown since her parents died, and she paid good attention.
In the throne room, with seven lords and generals as witness, Banna Mora had sworn loyalty to the Blood and the Sea, to the earth of Aremoria and its people, and to Rovassos himself. She had promised to uphold the honor, courage, and wit of the Aremore kings who’d come before her. At fifteen, she naturally held Morimaros the Great at the fore of her thoughts when she made that vow, but so had she remembered the faces of her mother and father: the former a lady of the esteemed Errigal clan on Innis Lear, of direct royal descent, the latter the earl of the March whose family had held the Aremore border against Burgun for three generations before the annexation.
Always Mora had been proud that the blood of both countries rang in her pulse, despite her affiliation to the vibrant hills and plains of Aremoria over the strange, rocky crags of Innis Lear. The March was wet borderlands on the northwestern coast of Aremoria, curving along the northern border with Burgun, rife with streams and lush meadows, with plentiful game and damp peatland. Hers. And if she no longer could hold all of the country, Mora was determined at least not to lose the March.
Her jaw clenched and she leaned out over the rampart of this sleek tower: the second highest of Lionis Palace, on the eastern side where Mora could watch the conquering army approach. It swarmed over the plain outside the city, a distant rainbow of violet, red, green, orange, like a meadow of wildflowers bending in the wind.
And Lionis itself cried welcome.
From the blue-gray peaked roofs of the city to its winding limestone roads, up and down the blufs that overlooked the Whiteglass River, flags and banners flew. Arched across streets and dangling from bridges were strings of colored paper in purple for Bolinbroke, vivid orange for Aremoria, and pristine white for the crown.
Mora wished she could have gone with Lady Ianta to drink away her dread. The Lady Knight had been Rovassos’s best friend for longer than Mora had been alive—both of them merry and good with people, neither of them any better than the other at ruling. Even Mora could admit Rovassos had been only a mediocre king. He’d lived too much for moments of pleasure and made quick promises instead of considering long-term alliances and consequences. He hadn’t been strong. But neither had he been a plague of a king, or deserved to die.
Mora didn’t deserve to die, either.
So while she wished to be drunk right now, and had also considered awaiting the arrival of Celedrix in the throne room or the People’s Courtyard for a show of pride, Mora remained here, watching. Here she was no threat, but neither did she hide. She would be found, escorted where Celedrix willed it, and she would submit—submit and plead her case.
All with this hard ring of betrayal cutting against the skin of her chest.
When the letter had come for Hal three weeks ago today, Hal had spun in a dance at the thrill of her mother’s handwriting, her mother’s summons. But Mora had understood what it meant. Because Rovassos had been away in Ispania, due back in seven days, the timing gave away Celeda’s true intention. She’d said nothing to Hal, and nothing to Ter Melia or Imena or any of the other Lady Knights about why Hal rushed out of the city. Instead Mora went into King Rovassos’s private rooms and opened the cubby hidden beneath an iron sconce in the bedchamber. From it she removed a small beechwood box carved with the simple lines of the Aremore crown. Inside, cradled in undyed silk, was a thick silver ring set with a moon-cut garnet and pearls.
The Blood and the Sea.
Rovassos always traveled with a copy, one pearl shy of this original, and lacking the etching on the inner wall of the silver: Aremorix.
It was a secret only the king and his heir knew.
She wore it now on a simple chain beneath her gown. A hard, heavy burden of truth. Mora pressed her palm over the lump it made beneath the linen and silk, and glared out over the beautiful Lionis spring.
“I am Banna Mora of the March,” she murmured to herself, practicing. “Never have I taken up arms against you, Celedrix.” The honorific form of the name stoppered Mora’s throat. She swallowed again and again.
It had been stupid of Rovassos to leave his country, stupid of him to neglect his dukes and earls, to take titles so lightly and distribute them for nothing but favors, stupid of him to never remarry, never produce a direct heir and place instead Banna Mora, a half-bearish niece, in line for the Blood and the Sea.
Or perhaps he hadn’t been stupid; perhaps none of it mattered so long as Celeda Bolinbroke lived, free to plot with Vindomata of Mercia and Caratica Persy together to take powerful revenge.
Perhaps Rovassos’s only stupidity had been granting mercy to his niece ten years ago, banishing her instead of taking her head.
Celeda surely would not make the same mistake.
Sudden panic closed Mora’s throat.
The most ruthless answer to her existence was immediate execution. Not only had she been the heir to Rovassos’s throne; she was descended from better Aremore royalty even than Celeda herself, through her Learish maternal line.
Mora ought to go to her rooms and put on armor and traveling boots, take this ring and the money she had at hand, and run to Innis Lear. They would keep her alive. Her mother had been a great-granddaughter of Elia the Dreamer.
But Mora’s mother had also been the great-granddaughter of Morimaros the Second, the best king Aremoria had ever known, and it was to his line, his throne, that Mora professed love and loyalty. Just like Hal—saints and stars, Mora had met Hal face-to-face for the first time all those years ago in the small portrait gallery where a painting hung of Prince Mars, before he became king. She and Hal had fought over the history of it, and whether his eyes could possibly have been so blue, or whether he smiled at all when he was a young man because he never smiled in his portraits.
A flicker of movement drew her attention to a shadow along the far curve of the tower. Standing against the stones, safe from sunlight, was a man.
No, not a man: a ghost.
Morimaros the Great.
He was young, bearded, and blue eyed, in an old-fashioned cut of orange gambeson, boots, trousers, sword, and some bits of armor. Ceremonial wardress, not quite ready for a battlefield. His hand was on the hilt of his sword, and on the first finger gleamed the Blood and the Sea. As surely as it hung around her own neck.
Mora’s mouth fell open, and he nodded once, solemnly.
Then Mora blinked and he was gone. Only shadows gathered, and wind pushing curls across her eyes.
She’d been thinking of him, then imagined him.
Calm and certainty swept through her.
She would survive this. Her mind conjured ghosts to reassure her of what she knew deep within. She could maneuver through this and survive.
With that Mora pushed away from the pale crenellation and charged down the tower stairs. She strode through the wide palace corridors hard enough her skirts snapped, to her bedroom where she grabbed up her sword belt and the sword sheathed there. Clutching it, she continued on quickly, past the library and throne room, turning the corner to the smaller gilded doorway that opened into the Princes’ Gallery.
Tall windows at the south let in so much light the picture frames gleamed. Painted wildflowers grew up the corners of the room, all the way to the bright blue ceiling. Seven portraits graced the walls: the most recent seven princes of the Aremore royal line. Including Mora herself.
Her painting was only an arm’s length tall, and she posed with a hawk on her arm, in an elaborate burgundy dress with a quilted bodice to suggest armor. Her sun-brown curls were bound tightly back against her head, twisted into a knot beneath a pearl-dotted crown, and black makeup lined her hazel eyes. One could see the Third Kingdom in the shape of her nose and cheeks, and her skin was a shade darker brown in the portrait than the rich tan it was in life; Mora did not mind, though she wondered at the artist’s purpose in pretending he could not mix the proper tone.
Banna Mora liked being a beautiful prince, a stand-out, skilled at knowing whom she could manipulate with her looks, and how. Some found her rather exotic for her foreign coloring; others just strange, as Mora did come from Innis Lear. There were courtiers who trusted her when she made herself more plainly Aremore, and those who felt better confidence when she let her old Learish accent play through, or wore bright lapis to hint at her Third Kingdom heritage. She flirted with some and remained coolly intellectual with others, treating them to their expectations in order to get what she needed. By all the saints and worms of earth, Banna Mora was a good prince.
Anger, an emotion she vastly preferred over fear, wrapped warm fingers around the base of her spine, and Mora chose to stand before the portrait of Prince Mars instead of her own.
Hal would know to seek her here.
Mora buckled the sword belt over her gown and then settled with her hands folded in front of her, waiting patiently. The hours she’d spent teaching herself to be still, to observe, to hold her expression calm, served her now. Though she was alone, Banna Mora would play her role as prince this final time, until it was taken from her.
Over her shoulder in the massive, life-sized portrait, Prince Mars stood in his ruddy orange uniform with his hand on the shoulder of a white charger. Both he and the horse wore plate mail, and Mars’s helmet was tucked under his arm. The blue sky behind him was striped with gray from funeral fires, and the grass beneath his feet churned to mud and blood. But the prince himself was untouched by gore. Because of the old style of painting, his features were difficult to make out, but for being square and handsome and pale. His eyes, though, maintained their fierce blue.
This old, dead prince had been confessor to so many: Mora remembered coming here to explain to his painting how she intended to make her name as great as his one day, and that her parents were dead, and that Rovassos had chosen her; she remembered, too, finding ten-year-old Hal Bolinbroke huddled beside a window, bent over her drawing pad. Hal had been the king’s ward since her mother’s banishment, and certainly was not supposed to be in the Princes’ Gallery. But Mora had only been the king’s ward then, too, not yet a prince.
We aren’t supposed to be here, she’d said, haughty instead of companionable.
The drawing pad had slapped hard to the marble floor when Hal dropped it. She gaped, then clenched her jaw and pretended to be unconcerned. I can get in through the windows, then back out again whenever I like—the tutoring room they stick me in is right above. And Mars likes my stories, and isn’t as stupid as my tutors. The math one drones on and the history one can’t tell me why King Isarnos didn’t use the river in his tactical plan against the Rusrike invasion.
It was winter, Mora answered. The river was too frozen for barges, but not frozen enough to sled across.
Hal’s dark brown eyes had widened in excitement. Oh! Why didn’t he just say that?
Can I see your art?
Biting her lip, Hal had fallen quiet, but picked up the pad of paper. Mora joined the younger girl on the ground, hiking up her dress to sit crosslegged. Together they paged through the drawing pad. Mora made the appropriate coos of appreciation at the portraits, but especially complimented Hal’s sketches of weaponry and mail. She could identify Diotan-style hilts, Burgundian buckles, and the darkening smears Hal had put on the blades to suggest Errigal iron.
Then Mora had turned a page to reveal a rough drawing of a woman’s face, her jaw and lips well marked, but the details of her eyes unformed.
My mother, Hal whispered. I might forget her face if I don’t keep drawing her.
You’ll see her again. Mora did not want to say she already had a hard time clearly recalling her parents’ features. But if you do forget the way her lashes curl, remember this: the first time I met your mother, I was only eight years old, but she knelt to put herself at my level to speak with me. I asked her about the hilt of her dagger because it had a star-shaped pink stone, and she told me a story right then, of acquiring it. Though others wanted her attention, Celeda Bolinbroke knelt there, telling an eight-year-old girl from Innis Lear everything I wanted to know about that dagger. I will never forget that, the way she made me feel, even if I don’t know what she looks like anymore, or what color are her eyes.
Hal had gripped the edges of her drawing pad so tightly she bent the thin wooden binding. Do you know other stories about her? Will you tell them all to me?
Mora allowed herself a smile now, remembering. She’d loved Hal for ten full years, and been loved in turn. She believed that. Hal would not let Celedrix kill her.
Only a year ago, Hal had knelt before Mora and sworn her life and death to Mora’s name. Lady Hal of Aremoria, she’d been dubbed, only because she could not be Bolinbroke then.
Two of Mora’s other Lady Knights, Lady Ter Melia and Lady Imena, had not joined the rebels, remaining here with the palace guard instead. Mora’s guard. Lady Talix had gone at Hal’s side, though, and of course the squire Nova Irris, too, for her infatuation with Hal. Mora did not know where the rest were—or if any would remain now, or be allowed to remain under Celedrix’s rule. Nor did she know of those who had fought, who had fallen. Rovassos was dead, but who else?
The things Mora did not know could fill a hole the size of the sea.
Horns and trumpets blared outside at the arrival of the new queen in the People’s Courtyard; she heard footsteps in the hallway, voices on the other side of the small panel door that led into the throne room itself.
If only Vindus Persy, the next duke of Mercia, had remained with her— and against the rebellion. A knightly retainer in Rovassos’s service, Vin had been assigned to the palace during the king’s absence, because Mora had asked for him. But Vin had left two months ago, called to his mother’s side in Mercia, along with his brother Devrus, still a squire in the palace. He’d known since then, Mora suspected, what was coming. Vindomata of Mercia had wanted her sons fighting beside her. But Mora would have preferred Vin to remain at her side. He should have chosen her. He’d been such a brutal comfort to her, charming and violent in equal strokes, whichever she needed most. And she did not have to manipulate him, thanks to his rough reluctance to dissemble. Even when he tried, the truth was there in his touch. Fingers curled around the hilt of his sword, pressing hard to the small of her back, the tremble of tense muscles at his jaw. And when he was amused, he always laughed. She’d been nearly ready to make him her husband and the future king of Aremoria. Would he return the favor now? Keep their association and make her instead the future lady of Mercia? Perhaps if Hal could not fight for Mora’s life, Vindus would.
But he’d left. And then Hal, too.
Even Lady Ianta Oldcastle had gone—drinking herself stupid in her leaning town house down by the docks. Every day since word had come of Rovassos’s death.
Alone, Mora would not weep; she would not tremble. She was a daughter of Aremoria and of Innis Lear and of the Third Kingdom. Three strong bloodlines united.
“I am Banna Mora of the March,” she murmured to herself again, and left it at that.
When the door opened it was not Hal Bolinbroke who entered: it was a woman in worn leather and steel armor, walking hard in war boots, a pinegreen cape pinned over her oyster-shell pauldrons. Red hair braided in a crown was incongruously set with small blue flowers.
Lady Hotspur grinned and strode across the marble floor. “Mora,” she said, voice light for such a compact figure.
Mora could not return the smile, though she liked Hotspur Persy well enough. She’d witnessed the famous baiting of that Burgundian earl last year, at the Persy Tournament, and had shared a hearty meal and heartier laughter with the soldier.
But Hotspur had helped depose Rovassos, and she was here to take Mora’s title.
And behind the Wolf of Aremoria came Hal.
Prince Hal, Mora supposed, feeling the cold drain of uncertainty hardening her expression as she met Hal’s rich brown eyes.
“I knew you’d be here,” Hal said. “Didn’t I, Hotspur.”
Hal was in orange and Bolinbroke purple, both of which suited her creamy complexion and her stark black hair. Unlike Hotspur, Hal had no armor, only a fine jacket with a full skirt that split and flared behind her. And all that hair was loose, falling around her face and shoulders in messy waves. Her gaze fell to the sword at Mora’s hip.
But Hotspur stared at Prince Mars, lips parted. “I’ve never seen this one,” she murmured.
Hal flung an arm around Hotspur’s shoulders. “It’s the best. The only one in Lionis where he’s not got a beard.”
“Nothing wrong with a beard.” Hotspur laughed.
The new prince’s face fell as she studied the portrait behind Mora, as if she, too, were seeing a ghost.
Mora remained still, her gaze flicking between the two of them: Hotspur staid and practical, stance wide and ready for attack, but not shifting away from Hal’s embrace in the slightest; Hal’s fingers pressing slightly too hard into Hotspur’s pauldron so that the tips blanched and her nails turned pink.
Like Mora, Hal was tall, and when the new prince glanced at her, their eyes locked. “Mother will be in the throne room, and Abovax promised to knock on the wall and let me know they are ready for you.”
“What does she want from me?”
Hotspur lifted an incredulous eyebrow. “Surrender! A vow of honest loyalty. Banna Mora, you have to go through the formality. It is war, and rules of war will be observed.”
“War?” Anger sparked against Mora’s teeth when she bared them. But she smoothed her features again before continuing. “War is between kings; this was a coup. This was an illegal seizure of power. You won, but it was not war.”
“Soldiers died killing each other under orders from their commanders; that is war,” Hotspur said firmly. “You’re talking about politics.”
“Maybe.” Mora looked again at Hal, whose cheeks were actually too pale, the edges of her lips white. “I know Celeda has taken the Blood and the Sea, and I know my uncle is dead, but tell me the rest before I appear for her.”
Hal let go of Hotspur. It was a bad sign, but still Mora was surprised when she said, “Vin and Dev both, Mora. I’m sorry. There’s more, but…”
Clenching her hands tighter together, Mora pushed it all down. She could grieve later, tear something apart later, scream later. “How?” she whispered.
“Vin in the heat of battle—”
“On your side,” Mora interrupted.
Hal only hesitated a moment before she nodded.
“There was no other side,” Hotspur said, with surprising gentleness. Mora turned away from them completely.
“I always wanted to join your knights,” Hotspur added. “I was needed in Perseria, but the stories I heard of Banna Mora’s Lady Knights, of you and Hal, your adventures—I wished to be here. It sounded glorious.”
“It still can be,” Hal said. “Mora, don’t think now, don’t react, only come with us and tell my mother what she needs to hear, and stay. Be a knight. Be—mine. You’ll be a royal knight still.”
As if Prince Mars lived and watched from the portrait, judging her, as if the funeral fires painted into the background burned for Mora’s death, Mora could only breathe thinly. In order to survive, she had to accept. She knew it. She hated it.
Hal continued, though. “Hotspur has agreed to be my second. My commander. I need one, to be a prince, to build my own court. And I need someone to tell me how to do it all. An advisor. You.”
“I want the March.”
“Yes, I think Mother will agree to that.”
Mora turned, and under her glare, Hal said, “I’ll make sure Mother agrees to that. Banna Mora of the March, still and always.”
It was so difficult for Mora to speak. She refused to allow her mind to wander away from this precise moment to Vindus, dead, or the true Blood and the Sea pressed beneath her bodice.
Hal touched Mora’s face. Clasped it in both hands, so Mora could not pull away. She said, “Banna Mora, on my knee in that throne room beyond, I promised to serve you, and I swear still to keep that vow by keeping you thriving, at my side. I need you, and even so, I think you might reject me, and all of this, and leave. But I have loved you since I was ten years old, and we have been friends—sisters, even. Please try with me. Try to change with our changing world. You can do that, because you can do anything.”
Such a pretty story. Hal was so good at making everything into a pretty story. Tears pinched Mora’s eyes. “Did you practice that?” she spat, but could not keep either her despair or her cursed fondness out of her voice.
“She did,” Hotspur said. “I thought it was good.”
“Hotspur is enamored with me,” Hal whispered.
Hotspur gasped. “I am—I am not!”
Now Mora opened her eyes in time to see the heat in Hal’s gaze when she watched Hotspur Persy splutter. Mora saw, and read it clearly: Hal was the one besotted.
Mora said, “Who would not be,” though a mean part of her reveled. While Hal had been merely a knight almost none had given any care to whom she fucked. But now—now it would be a matter of state.
Hal’s hands loosened against Mora’s face, her grip becoming a soft caress. “Will you go with me, my friend?”
With hands that did not shake, Mora unsheathed her sword, stepping back.
Hotspur sucked in a quick breath, but Hal did not move. She kept her eyes on Mora’s face.
It was the Heir’s Score. A sword of dark Errigal steel—forged on Innis Lear, with the power of iron wizards, never to break. The grip was wrapped with black leather, the crosspiece short and set with a single pearl. Through the heavy silence, Mora flipped it and offered the hilt to Hal. “Yes, Hal Bolinbroke, I will go with you. But you are friend no longer; our prince instead.”
“Both,” Hal insisted.
But of the two of them, Mora had the experience with the heavy crown, and she did not think both was possible anymore.
Excerpted from Lady Hotspur, copyright © 2019 by Tessa Gratton.