Dame Grace Hensley helped her brother Miles undo the atrocity that stained her nation, but now she has to deal with the consequences. With the power out in the dead of winter and an uncontrollable sequence of winter storms on the horizon, Aeland faces disaster. Grace has the vision to guide her parents to safety, but a hostile queen and a ring of rogue mages stand in the way of her plans. There’s revolution in the air, and any spark could light the powder. What’s worse, upstart photojournalist Avia Jessup draws ever closer to secrets that could topple the nation, and closer to Grace’s heart.
Can Aeland be saved without bloodshed? Or will Kingston die in flames, and Grace along with it?
Stormsong, the sequel to C. L. Polk’s debut novel Witchmark, is available February 11th from Tor.com Publishing.
To Fly a Kite
Fourteen days after Miles, Tristan, and I broke the aether network, I dreamed the Cauldron brewed a storm. I watched a vast, many-armed spiral of clouds from the highest reaches of the sky. Half-awake, half-dreaming, I opened my eyes, but all I saw was the vision.
The storm pinned down my arms and legs as it grew larger, larger, impossible as it swelled, hundreds of miles wide. A weight pressed my chest, denying me breath. The storm forced me to watch as it moved east. It was coming, and I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak.
A low, wavering wail sounded—me, mewling and weak. I forced a breath for another small, helpless whimper. Again. I sucked in a gulp of air and screamed.
The sound set me free. The storm winked out. I could see my tent, smell the air drowsy with the last traces of dreamresin. A full night’s sleep tasted sour on my tongue.
While I tried to convince myself it had been a nightmare, I opened a trunk, pawing through it for clothes. It was just a dream. Just a dream.
But what if it wasn’t?
I dressed in splendid garments the Amaranthines had given me, rich with color and proven against the cold. Outside, the sun rose on the white-shrouded world of a winter come too early, dazzling my eyes. The vision gnawed at my gut, driving me to ask the craftsmen for the makings of a kite. I took sturdy twine, dowels, glue, and wings of bright yellow paper up the stone-crowned slope of Bywell Rise.
My fingers knew the task by heart, even if they numbed in the too-chilly air. I’d been making scrying kites since childhood, under my father’s watchful eye. As I waited for the glue to set, I stood in the wind and put my back to the sunrise. Below me, the Amaranthine camp ringed the hill with colorful domed tents dyed saffron, scarlet, summery green, and the largest pavilion dyed in deep indigo and patterned with a scattering of stars.
Aeland’s final harvest lay under last week’s snow, destroying what should have carried Aeland through winter in comfort and plenty. I hadn’t been with the Circle the night they stood against the storm. Aeland had needed me, and I hadn’t been there.
The soft crunch of snow under heavy-soled boots pulled me from my thoughts. Tristan Hunter climbed the hill to crouch by my side. I glanced at him, but turned back to the horizon as he pulled a carafe from a leather sling.
“Good morning, Tristan.”
“Good morning, Grace. I see you roused from a screaming nightmare to climb the rise and fly a kite.” Tristan opened a glass jar filled with the roasted root tea Amaranthines used to stay alert. Steam caressed my face as I took a sip, the bitterness of the root mellowed by the spices that joined in its brewing.
“It’s for a spell.” The tea warmed my stomach. “I’m being foolish, but I have to know if I had a dream or a vision—oh Solace, I needed this.”
Tristan waved off my thanks. “And you need a kite for that? Tell me more about this spell—wait.”
The air took on the scent of summer grass and meadow flowers, a smell that spread from the Waystones behind me. Tristan loosed his sword and dagger, moving to face the stones.
“Who approaches?” Tristan asked.
A man emerged from behind a sentinel stone at the top of the hill, pausing with his hands well away from a hip quiver. A winter breeze set the hems of his scarlet-and-saffron robes to fluttering. “Tristan. What is this? Did the Grand Duchess send a party after you?”
Another Amaranthine. I stood up, ready to bow my head in greeting at my introduction.
“The Grand Duchess came herself,” Tristan said, lowering his bow. “But why have you come?”
The stranger swiped a hand over his face. “Does Her Highness know what these monsters are doing in Laneer?”
“She’s been informed.” Tristan shifted his weight—a casual gesture, but it put him between me and the other Amaranthine. “Why did you come here from Laneer, rather than go to Elondel? It’s dangerous.”
The stranger swept it aside with a careless gesture. “To find you. To bring you back and warn the Grand Duchess about— wait.” He looked at me, narrow-eyed. “Who are you?”
Tristan stood aside to let the man have a look at me. I swept back the fur-edged hood of the felted Amaranthine tunic I wore, and he recoiled. His hand came up, a balanced dagger pinched between his fingers.
Tristan raised his arms, blocking the way. “Aldis, stop. She’s a friend.”
A friend. Soft warmth spread across my face to hear Tristan call me so. But the stranger’s face puckered in scorn.
“She’s no friend. She’s an Aelander. Do you have any idea what they’ve done in Laneer? What they’re doing here?”
“We know now,” I said. “And it’s horr—”
“Don’t speak to me,” Aldis said.
“Stop that. She had no idea,” Tristan scolded. “When she learned the truth, she helped destroy the aether network. Her brother nearly lost his life, undoing what was done in their name.”
I nodded, while Aldis stared murder at me. “It’s over,” I said. “The abomination is destroyed.”
“Let’s try this again,” Tristan said, “only we’re going to be civil. Aldis, this is the Liberator, Dame Grace Hensley. Grace, this is Sir Aldis, Hunter for the Grand Duchess.”
They shared a name, but they didn’t look like brothers. They were both handsome, but where Tristan’s finely boned face and fair hair made him beguiling, Aldis’s auburn brown hair fell in loose waves around sharp cheekbones and a square chin in a blunter, more angular face. He eyed me with open dislike, but the knife went back in its sheath.
“How do you do?” I asked.
Aldis ignored me. “What justice is the Grand Duchess considering? I have a few suggestions.”
“The Grand Duchess will enter diplomatic communications with the Queen,” Tristan said. “There’s a lot you need to know before you can really form impressions of this place.”
Aldis glanced at me one more time. “Where can I find her?”
“The indigo tent. She’ll want to see you.”
Aldis marched straight for me, forcing me to step aside for him. I spared a glance at his retreating figure and hoped his toes froze off.
“Well. He seemed pleasant.”
“We have to assume that Aldis discovered Aeland’s true purpose in conquering Laneer.” Tristan watched the saffron-and-scarlet figure trot across the camp, headed for the deep blue tent that housed Grand Duchess Aife. “He’ll argue in favor of punishing Aeland, and Aife trusts him. He needs to be countered.”
How could we counter against Aeland’s abominable motive for the Laneeri War? There would never be a day when remembering the soul-engines in the basement of Clarity House wouldn’t flood my system with the horrified lurch that made me want to retch. Aife hadn’t spoken to me of the abomination, preferring instead to see me as instrumental in the liberation of the dead. But Aldis had been in Laneer. He had seen the atrocity of war, understood that Aeland was responsible for every drop of blood that soaked its ground. He would tell Aife those things, and I couldn’t see her looking on me with kindness after that.
“Aife trusts you,” I said.
Tristan pressed his lips together. “Indeed. Shall we continue?”
“Let’s.” I steadied my grip on the kite and climbed the rest of the way.
A dead child waited for us at the top of the hill. I could see right through his sore-covered skin and the holey tunic that hung off one skinny shoulder. He stared at the kite under my arm before looking at me. His lips moved, but I couldn’t hear him.
“Ahoy.” I crouched just as if he were alive and showed him the kite. He reached out, but his fingers slid right through the paper, and he vanished.
The child ghosts were the worst of all the apparitions to appear from the broken soul-engines that fueled the aether network. They deserved it least of all, and I couldn’t do anything to help them, had no talent that would serve them. They were cut off from the Solace, all the pathways between here and there stopped up by the Amaranthines in camp.
“Poor lad,” Tristan said. “Life wasn’t easy on him, either.”
But he should have had the comfort of the Solace when he died instead of the fate he’d suffered.
“All right.” Tristan scuffed his way to a tall stone and leaned against it. “How does the kite spell work?”
“A bit of witchcraft. A little blood, and I’m linked to the kite.” I stripped my left hand of its glove and mitten, fished my white-handled bolline out of my pocket, and spilled three drops of my blood on the kite’s nose.
Soon a cheerful bit of yellow flew in a clean blue sky, stretching a thread of my soul between me and the blood I’d shed on the paper. The kite dipped and swirled in the upper breezes, caught its breath, and steadied as I emptied my mind and sent my senses out. Westward, crossing polar breezes. Westward, pushing upwind over the ocean, where the air dampened and swirled around the depressed air from the north. And where they fought…
The kite dipped, diving to the ground. I hauled on the line, caught the wind again, and what I saw strained belief:
A storm spread out miles wide, spinning away from the Cauldron off the coast. It was wrong: too vast, too violent. The storm came east even as it swelled with fury. East to Kingston, where millions huddled in the dark and cold with no aether.
I reeled the kite in with shaking hands.
“A tidy trick,” Tristan said. “You should have eaten first.”
“Yes, Mother.” My head spun with the turning of the land, my hunger multiplied by my wind-reading. I hadn’t been dreaming. I wasn’t mistaken. The storm I sensed in my half-wakeful daze was real. And if it broke on the shore, I couldn’t count how many it would kill.
Tristan caught my shoulder, steadying me. “But really, you’re green around the edges. What did you see?”
I shook my head, trying to clear it. Maybe I was still dreaming. Maybe this was still a nightmare. “A storm. It’s bad. It’s—I have to go.”
“Go where? Grace? What are you—?”
I laid the kite in the snow and set off, my feet slipping along the slope. Tristan called my name, but I kept my course, aiming for the long tent that served as a stable.
“Grace.” Tristan caught my arm and held fast. “Explain yourself and let me help.”
“I have to get to Kingston. There’s a storm. It’s huge, and it’s headed straight for us.”
“And you need to be there.”
I swept my arm in a wide arc. “Look what happened when I wasn’t there.”
“You can’t blame yourself for that. They kicked you out of the Invisibles, remember? Besides, Miles needed you.”
“You’re right,” I said. “But being rational never stopped guilt before. This storm that’s coming, it’s worse than last week. I have to get back—”
Tristan caught my hand. “And then you’ll be taken in for treason. And what good will you do then?”
“I can’t just sit here!”
“No one is asking you to. Miles can be moved if we pad a wagon. Aife sits on the cusp of a decision. Help me convince her to move the camp. It’s time we went to Kingston anyway. Come on,” Tristan said, heading toward the Grand Duchess’s tent. “The less time Aldis has to whisper venom, the better.”
Two sunrises after I flew my weather kite, I came home to picketers gathered in the parade square in front of Mountrose Palace. They carried signs that voiced the anger and fear of the people, painted in hand-high letters: “Bring us the light” and “We are hungry—We are cold.” Most of the signs had one word, lettered in black: “Shame.”
It pooled in my gut, sour and hot. I couldn’t tell them why Kingston was dark, their wireless stations and telephones silent. If they knew the truth, Aeland would burn with their fury.
I had come as quickly as I could with the company of the Amaranthines. When I had burst into Aife’s tent to tell her of the storm, she agreed to strike camp so quickly I wondered what Aldis had been saying when Tristan and I arrived. But the storm, still hundreds of miles away, had grown in speed and ferocity as the ocean winds shoved its fury toward us. There was no more time.
But just now, Kingston was astonished at the sight of us. We stunned newsboys out with their stacks of the daily paper, confounded wagon drivers and constables, amazed the shift change of assembly workers walking home from a night of work. Some of them abandoned their tasks to follow us, jostling for position and a better look at the procession. And now the protesters stared, their angry signs askew.
Mingled among our witnesses were the dead. Their lips moved, but no sound escaped them. The light shone through their transparent forms as they groped for the living, who flinched from their skin-crawling touch. They were the first to crowd around us, and Aldis clicked his tongue, moving his mount closer to the center of the procession. He caught sight of me and scowled, turning to radiate his disgust at the people who came nearer.
The Amaranthines riding around me glanced my way, their expressions tight with disapproval. I shrank in my saddle and turned my mount to walk beside the wagon that carried my brother. He sat up and tried to see past horses and riders, but gave up with an exasperated sigh, flopping back down onto the pallet.
Miles caught my eye and tried to wheedle me with a smile. “I can ride.”
“No you can’t,” I said. “Besides, we’re finally here.”
He sighed and stared at the sky. “And you’re going to rush off and do something stupid.”
“I’m not,” I said, and winced as the weight of the air pounded against my head.
Someone carrying a photographer’s tripod mounted with an enormous camera and flash torch ran toward us. She set the contraption down as Amaranthines peered at her with curiosity. She shot a picture, and the whole company reared in surprise, shocked exclamations sounding all around me.
“What is that?” Aldis asked.
Tristan spoke loudly enough to be heard. “It’s a camera. Amazing little things. They capture a subject’s image perfectly.”
The photographer straightened up, peering at the crowd. “Sir Tristan?”
I knew that voice. I stood in my stirrups to get a better look.
It was her. My memory cast back to her striding into the Starlight Room at the newly opened Edenhill Hotel, garbed in scandal. She had rebelled against the iron-clad code that restricted unmarried women to white, her freshly cut hair dyed bottle-black in a sleek, short style that curved around her cheekbones to point at her mouth, painted red as the ballgown draped from her shoulders, her pale arms sheathed in black silk opera gloves.
I had stood rooted to the spot as my heart thrilled to see her, and then in horror as her furious father threw a white tablecloth over her head and dragged her from the room so violently she cried out in pain.
This was her: same black hair, same angled cheeks, same heart’s blood lipstick. Her fur-trimmed coat had been fashionable two winters ago, her hat a pinch-fronted topper favored by reporters. But it was her, and she froze me in my tracks, just as she had on New Year.
Tristan raised his hand in greeting. “At your service, Miss Jessup.”
Avia Jessup had been an heiress, the eldest child of three girls in line to reap the fortune of Jessup Family Foods. I watched her float about at parties, laughing and glamorous and glittering, wishing I could talk to her. Now she was a one-eye in a secondhand coat, and I couldn’t imagine it—she had persisted, refusing to go back to the velvet life so she could work at a newspaper. She had chosen her own desires, her own ambitions, herself. It was shocking. She was interesting. I wished I weren’t surrounded by Blessed Ones, that I could find something clever to say to her.
My mount swung its head to whicker at another beast coming nearer. I tore my gaze away to greet Grand Duchess Aife with a nod. She smiled at me, and a breeze caught her spiralling golden locks, making them float around her angular, brown-skinned face. She moved to my side and tilted her head, watching Avia slam another plate into her camera and shoot, the flash torch giving one last flare of light before it burnt out with a smell like burning wire.
Aldis put his hand out, blocking the view. “Stop that. It’s rude.”
“A little,” Avia admitted. “But you’re news, you see.”
Tristan pushed Aldis’s hand down. “She’s come to get the story of our arrival. That’s her job.”
Aldis eyed Tristan. “She’s a herald?”
Tristan shrugged. “Close enough.”
Aldis grunted. He directed a stern gaze at Avia and spoke too loudly. “We follow Grand Duchess Aife of the Solace, heir to the Throne of Great Making, most blessed daughter of Queen Eilidh the Watcher. Make sure to tell them that in your song, herald. Tell them we come with our blades ready. Tell them we come to set your people away from the evil you have done.”
Tristan sighed, loud and annoyed. “Enough, Aldis. She doesn’t know about that.”
Avia let go of her camera and reached inside her coat for a pad of paper and a pen. “Aife of the Solace, Throne of Great Making…” She dropped her pen in the snow. “You’re Guardians. You’re Amaranthines. You’re real.”
Gasps erupted from the protesters behind her. A woman shoved Avia aside, falling on her knees. “Blessed Ones. What have we done to bring your justice down on us?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” I guided my mount with nudges and gentle hands to move in front of Aldis. “The blame is not yours, people of Aeland. Please remain calm. These are the Blessed Ones, and they have come to speak to Queen Constantina. Let them proceed into the palace in peace.”
I let myself look at Avia Jessup one more time. She watched as I turned toward the cohort of scarlet-coated guards, my ears bitten by the icy air.
Miles’s voice. I kept my mount’s gait steady and rode with my hands up. “Ahoy,” I said. “I’m Fiona Grace Hensley.”
The guards raised their rifles in one motion. “You are wanted on suspicion of treason,” the guard captain said. “Surrender.”
“Please see the Blessed Ones to comfort and hospitality. I need to speak to the Queen. It’s life or death.” I spread my empty hands, imploring.
Bolts pulled back in a chorus of slides and clicks. A shout went up from the company of the Amaranthines, and Tristan rode forward, one hand raised for peace.
“The Liberator is protected by Grand Duchess Aife of the Solace,” Tristan called. “She is our guest, and we will defend her from insult and violence.”
They could fight. Right here. The guards and their rifles against the Deathless and their magic. Would they be stupid enough to spill Amaranthine blood?
I wouldn’t let them fight, not over me. I planted one hand on the saddle and dismounted. “Tristan, stand down. Please. I have to do this. She has to know right away.”
Tristan shook his head. “You have the protection of Grand Duchess Aife.”
I held my hands up, palms out. “Should I insult my Queen by staying under that protection when a loyal subject would trust her monarch’s wisdom? I throw myself on her mercy. I have every faith that she will hear me out.”
“Queen Eilidh would expect the same,” Tristan said.
Something in his tone made me look at him, to read his face. But his expression was still as a pond, and he stepped back, allowing me to surrender.
“Take her,” the guard captain ordered, and scarlet coats closed in on me. One of them wrapped copper-lined manacles around my wrists. Cold flames shuddered over my skin. My lips tasted like metal. The world warped and snapped back with a clang. My empty stomach shuddered, and two more guards seized me before I could fall.
I couldn’t react. I couldn’t scream, or retch, or indicate in any way that I couldn’t bear the touch of copper against my skin. They’d know what I was, and no one could save me from the examiners.
“Gently,” Aife said. “She surrendered. Treat her with respect.”
The guard captain regarded Aife with a worried pinch to his brows. “She’s wanted for treason, Your Radiance.”
“‘Highness’ will do,” she said. “I am Grand Duchess Aife of the Solace, Hand of the Throne of Great Making. I wish to see your Queen immediately. Will you go and tell her?”
The captain gave an order and an underling ran, kicking up chunks of snow as he sprinted through the gates.
The others marched me away, turning down the snow-tamped path to Kingsgrave Prison.
“I must see the Queen,” I said. “It’s the fate of the kingdom.”
“We have our orders, and they don’t come from you,” a guard said. “Now shut up and march.”
I held my tongue. We passed under an ash tree, its boughs draped in snow. A flight of scarlet jays circled the rough gray stone of the prison tower as the heavy doors swung open, ready to swallow me whole.
It was time for a meal in Kingsgrave Prison, and I couldn’t stay here another minute. The awareness of the storm pressed on the base of my skull, tying knots in my stomach and twisting my dreams in the dark. The others had to have felt it by now. They had to have come to the Queen with the news. She wouldn’t leave me in here, not when she needed me. I could convince her if I could just speak to her. She would understand everything. If she would see me, even for a minute.
The door opened with a rusty groan. Prince Severin strode into the cell block, his fashionable attire incongruous in the rough stone and stink of the prison. From the shiny toes of his shoes to the hand-eased shoulders of his suit to his dark hair dressed and gleaming, he was every bit as handsome as the last time I’d seen him. A satin-woven orange silk tie-dyed the same shade as the Hensleys’ heraldry descended from under the collar of his shirt. After a day and a half, my hair hung in my eyes. I was unwashed and clad in the shapeless undyed hemp of prisoners.
“I came as soon as I could,” he said. “I can’t believe you brought the Blessed Ones to us.”
“Your Highness. Please. A storm is coming—” I lifted my head and groaned. “Sorry. It hurts.”
“I know about the storm. The others sent messages an hour ago, and they all say the same thing.”
I fought to sit up. “There’s no time to waste. It’s the biggest storm I’ve ever seen. Did Her Majesty send you to get me? No one else can lead the ritual.”
He came closer to the copper-plated bars. “Listen to me. I can help you get out of this cell, but I need something from you.”
I stood up and swayed, but I stayed on my feet. “If it’s in my power.”
“Whatever she says, no matter what she says, agree to the Queen’s terms.” Prince Severin spoke so quietly I had to watch his lips to understand. “But after, I need you on my side. Aeland is in deep trouble with the Amaranthines because of this mess with aether and the asylums, and she won’t listen to me.”
I came as close to the bars as I dared. “What kind of trouble?”
“They want things the Queen doesn’t want to give. I’m trying to compromise, but she can’t be convinced to bend.”
“And you want me to help you convince her?”
“I want Aeland to survive this storm and the Amaranthines’ pronouncement of justice,” Prince Severin said. “We must surrender to their word and do as they tell us, but Mother won’t do it. But it’s even worse than that. The people are angry.”
How angry? I hadn’t any idea what had happened in Kingston since we discovered the truth deep in the basement of Clarity House. Was it more than just protesters standing in the parade square? “They should be angry. The lights are out.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to discuss this when you’re released. Will you support me?”
“What do the Amaranthines want that Queen Constantina won’t give?”
Severin counted one point on his finger. “Reparations for Laneer, for Aeland’s aggression against them.”
“Oh.” The old tales were clear. An Amaranthine’s justice cost the punished what they least wanted to pay. Queen Constantina prided herself on the success of her reign, measured in millions of marks. “Is that all they want?”
“No.” A second finger joined the tally. “They want the witches freed, and reparations paid to them.”
And once freed, they would tell their stories. That knowledge would have the people in a rage. Constantina could lose her crown over that revelation. Maybe even her head. “She’ll never do it.”
“She must,” Prince Severin said. “Lastly, they want Aelanders to know the truth of what has been done in their name.”
I stared at the third finger counting the point that would destroy us. “Aeland will burn to the ground if that happens.”
“We might be able to control that part, if we can convince Mother to agree,” Severin said.
“But if she doesn’t?”
“Then I need you.”
To turn my back on the Queen, he meant. Severin suggested that I promise to commit treason as a condition of acquitting me of that same charge. How hard would he try to preserve his mother’s place if I stood with him? How could I turn against the rightful monarch? How could I turn generations of service to the Crown to dust as I betrayed her?
“Must you ask this of me, Your Highness? Is there nothing else I can pledge?”
He wrapped his hands around the bars, his chin raised to meet my eyes. “I don’t want to do this. But it’s the Amaranthines, Grace. It’s them. Here in the palace.”
His eyes shone with awe and wonder. I understood that. It hit me too, sometimes, when I remembered they knew the faces of the Makers. I found it easy to forget—but the Prince attended temple. He kept his book of meditations. He saw them differently. “Is it strange, sometimes?”
“It’s a blessing,” Prince Severin said. “The fact that they’re granting us the chance to beg them for mercy can’t be wasted. She doesn’t understand that they could simply take their justice, and what that could mean for Aeland.”
“What will they do?”
Severin’s shoulders came up. “You know the Blessed Ones better than I do. One of the Grand Duchess’s courtiers is no friend to Aeland. Do you know who I mean?”
“Aldis.” His advice to Aife wouldn’t favor us at all. “What does he want?”
“He argued that they should take the royal family and all the Royal Knights prisoners, and make us a vassal state to Laneer—”
“And if we refuse,” Prince Severin said, “he’s asking that we be withered.”
I stopped breathing. Poets sang of the Amaranthine who cursed King Randulf, his twenty heirs and bastards, and his sixty-eight grandchildren: “You will wither.”
His wife had miscarried on the spot. A year later, neither he nor his children nor the children of his children proved fruitful. Ten years later, brides were returned, treaties broken, the land taken or emancipated as Randulf’s line grew old and powerless, and died, vanished from all but poetry and legend.
I understood why Severin looked so pale. I had to get out of here.
“The Grand Duchess said she would give us her decision after she has seen the truth of Aeland for herself, but I fear she won’t be patient with Mother’s resistance.”
Queen Constantina would choke to death before she apologized to Laneer and admitted the war was a criminal act. If she learned of the Prince’s plans, she wouldn’t hesitate. He would hang, and his accomplices with him.
But if she brought Aeland to ruin, could I really stand by and plead loyalty? Never. I would never let Aeland fall, if I could help it.
And so I committed treason, in truth. “All right. I’ll support you. And if it comes down to it, I will stand with you.”
Severin let out a long-held breath. “Thank you. Let me get you out of here. Guard!” he called. “Unlock this door. I am taking Dame Grace into my custody immediately.”
Excerpted from Stormsong, copyright © 2020 by C. L. Polk.