Two young women from rival factions must work together to reunite their country, as they wrestle with their feelings for each other…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Julia Ember’s dark and lush romantic fantasy Ruinsong, available November 24th from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Her voice was her prison. Now it’s her weapon.
In a world where magic is sung, a powerful mage named Cadence has been forced to torture her country’s disgraced nobility at her ruthless queen’s bidding.
But when she is reunited with her childhood friend, a noblewoman with ties to the underground rebellion, she must finally make a choice: Take a stand to free their country from oppression, or follow in the queen’s footsteps and become a monster herself.
I light the candles and hum as the prayer chimes begin. The heat from each candle propels a tiny wooden fan connected to an individual music box. The bronze bells inside the boxes each emit one note, played over and over. The ringing metal blends in a mechanical harmony. I close my eyes and lose myself in the simple, familiar tune. The incense tickles my nose with lavender.
The prayer songs are meant to be performed a cappella and in an ensemble beneath the open sky, where Adela can witness, but most of us perform them alone now. Elene doesn’t prohibit prayer to Adela, but such public displays of piety and shared song have fallen out of fashion now that our queen worships another.
The double doors to my suite fly open behind me, but I don’t turn around or open my eyes. Today is a day for chaos, for pain, and I will cherish this peace for as long as I can. I’ve been preparing for this day all year, and still, it’s come far too soon.
“It’s time to go.” Lacerde’s voice cuts through the melody. My maid leans over my shoulder and blows out the first of the candles. The propeller stops, and one of the shrill voices dies.
The melody falters, incomplete.
She blows out the other candles, but I hum the rest of the song anyway. She begins styling my hair while I’m still on my knees. Her deft, wrinkled fingers sweep through my hair and braid a small section into a crown.
“Your dress is waiting for you at the Opera Hall,” she says, dabbing my cheeks with white powder. “There is a carriage waiting for us outside.”
I nod and rise slowly to my feet. My legs are numb from holding the position for so long, and despite the prayer, my soul feels heavy, too. Lacerde helps me into a black traveling cloak and ties the hood so it covers most of my face.
She bustles me down the hallway and out into the palace courtyard, where a black carriage stands. The horses are plain brown palfreys, not the showy white stallions Elene usually favors. Today I must pass through Cannis unnoticed. The sight of me, before the event, could provoke a riot.
The driver helps Lacerde into the carriage, but I ignore the hand he holds out for me. The echo of the prayer bells still chimes in my head, and I want to hold on to the song for as long as I can. As a corporeal mage, it’s hard for me to focus on the ethereal prayers. My magic yearns for life, and if I touch something alive now, after connecting with the goddess, it will well up of its own accord, eager.
Hopping back up into his seat, the driver clicks his tongue, and the palfreys set off at a canter. We pass through the rear gates of Cavalia, and the guards pause their game of Tam to salute us.
“Are you warm enough?” Lacerde asks. Without waiting for me to respond, she drapes a fur over my lap. The cold autumn air seeps through the gaps in the carriage door, making the small hairs of my arms stand up.
I give her a little smile, even though I’m dizzy with nerves.
I expect the driver to veer right at the fork, onto the main road that leads to the city. Instead, he takes the left route that winds to the outer gates of Cannis and the farmlands beyond. I open the window and lean out. “This is not the route,” I call to him. “We’re to go straight to the hall.”
“No, Principal,” he says. “I have direct instructions from Her Majesty to take you this way.”
My stomach curls into a knot. There is only one place Elene would send me along the western wall. I sit back in my seat and look pleadingly at Lacerde. “Why are we going there?”
Lacerde reaches across and clasps my hand. Her fingers are clammy with sweat. She’s been my maid for three years now, the longest any of them have ever lasted, and she understands me better than anyone. “We’re not stopping, but I think the queen wanted you to see it. That’s what the chief justicar told me, anyway.”
“I’ve seen it before.”
“She wants you to remember.” She winces in sympathy, gaze focused on her lap.
The palfreys keep a steady pace, but I refuse to look out the window now. Beyond the majestic hunting park that flanks the palace’s rear gates lies the settlement of the Expelled: a swampy labyrinth of small alleys, ramshackle houses, and disease. The place I will end up if I disobey the queen.
The smells of human waste, sweat, grasses, and livestock blow into the carriage as we roll through the lush farmlands and pastures. I grew up on the lower streets of Cannis. I’m no stranger to the perfumes of life, in all their many varieties, but as we enter the settlement, the scent changes. Here, misery and loss cling to everything, their smells like burned hair and vinegar. Detectable only to a corporeal singer, they are the worst odors of all.
I pull my cloak up over my nose, trying to block them out, but after years of training with magic, my senses are over- tuned.
The carriage rattles to a halt. I pound on the side of the cab with my fist. Lacerde looks out the window and grimaces.
“I’m to stop here until you look out.” The driver’s voice trembles. He turns to face us, but he won’t meet my eyes.
He’s afraid of me, I realize. But not enough to go against Elene’s wishes.
I take a deep breath. Elene would be specific with her orders, especially today. I lean forward in my seat and glance out the window.
A group of elderly men huddle beside the crumbling western wall. They hold their hands out to the carriage but make no sound. Farther on, a town of broken buildings unfolds before us: houses made from scrap wood and metal, with holes in the roofs, all of them small, barely big enough to fit a horse inside. There is a shop selling rotten fruit, and a legion of barefoot, skinny women who trace their stories in the mud with sticks. They wear shirts so old and tattered they almost fall from their wearer’s bones. All of them bear the telltale, silver incision scar across their throats.
They are all ankle deep in mud. Elene sends a group of elementals to the settlement once a week to saturate the ground with so much rain it never dries. The fragile houses are continuously washing away in the floods.
No one may trade in the settlement. No one can hire an Expelled worker in Cannis. No one can offer them land to settle elsewhere or even a free room for the night. Those who have tried have ended up in prison, or dead. The inhabitants can leave, to beg in the city or take their chances foraging in the forest among the wolves and bears, but they have no other home to go to and no hope of finding one in Bordea.
A short, white woman with long silver hair points toward the carriage. The scars on her cheeks and across her throat are new, and I recognize her by the shape of her jaw and her fierce amber eyes. A bolt of fear courses through me. Once, Francine Trevale was one of the country’s most powerful corporeal mages. She had the ear of the old queen and was famed throughout Bordea for her abilities in war and healing. But she refused to bow to Elene’s wishes, and now she is here.
In the academy, they whisper that Francine’s strength was such that Elene did not dare have her arrested outright. Instead, they say that the queen sent Francine a chest of jewels to lull the mage into a sense of safety, to make her believe that
Elene had chosen to listen to her point of view. Then Elene hired an assassin to sneak into Francine’s bedchamber and sever her vocal cords as she slept.
If I refuse what Elene has planned today, she will kill me— if she is feeling merciful. If she isn’t, she will exile me here.
“She’s seen it,” Lacerde growls. “Now drive on.”
A group of children dart past the carriage, making the palfreys shy. They sign excitedly to one another in the new language they’ve created and toss a dried sheep’s bladder among them as a ball. They hold a small, precious spark of joy that even Elene for all her cruelty hasn’t stamped out. Lacerde smiles at them, and I see her fingers twitch toward her purse.
A small ginger- haired girl misses her catch, and the makeshift ball sails over her head. Our driver snatches it from the air. He digs his nails into the thin, fragile leather until the ball bursts and goes flat. He stuffs it beneath his feet and flicks the reins at the horses to drive on, leaving the children with nothing.
Shuddering, I close the window with a snap.
* * *
My dressing room is beneath the main stage of the Opera Hall. It has been decorated to suit me, with fine furnishings in the soft periwinkle Lacerde knows I like. I know better than to think Elene had anything to do with its selection, though she’ll probably claim credit later.
The theater servants have left a tray with juice, tea, and fresh pastries on the sofa. I don’t touch it.
I allow Lacerde to dress me without turning to examine myself in the mirror. I don’t want to see how I look, how they’ve fashioned me. In my mind, I already see stains of blood on the muslin fabric of my skirt, dotting the white leather of my gloves. Lacerde adjusts my skirt and smooths my hair. Then, with a grunt, she bends down and buffs my new shoes to a gleam.
She opens the door for me so I don’t get my gloves dirty and leads me down the dark corridor. My dressing room is the only one in use. All the others are boarded up, so that no one will use them to hide.
I imagine what the Opera Hall must have been like years ago, when so many singers performed here together for more willing audiences. The corridors would have been filled with the sounds of laughter, rustling taffeta costumes, and a chorus of warm-u p scales. Above, the audience would be straining to get inside the house, clinking glasses together at the theater bar, speculating on the wonders to come.
If I strain my ears, I can still hear the echo of their merriment in the walls, obscured by the more recent cacophony of despair and pain. The smell of thousands of spellsongs, layered atop one another for centuries, lingers in the musty air. It’s been eight years since this place functioned as a real theater, but the Opera Hall remembers.
We climb the stairs up onto the stage. Elene and Lord Durand, her newly elevated pet footman, stand together on the edge, shouting instructions down to the conductor in the orchestra pit.
Elene glances up and nods to Lacerde, who positions me at center stage without releasing me. It’s as if they think I will run, even though there is nowhere to go.
No one has dimmed the gas lamps that line the theater’s aisles yet, so I have a full view. The theater is much grander than our replica at the academy. The ceiling bears a centuries- old mural of Adela gifting the first mage with magic. The singer kneels beside the sacred pool, and the goddess rises from the water, her mouth open with song and her arms spread wide.
Musical notes surround them, each flecked with real gold leaf.
Portraits of the three other goddesses border the mural. Odetta, goddess of spring and renewal, wearing a silver mask that covers her eyes and cheeks and holding a sparrow’s skeleton in her cupped hands. Karina, goddess of justice and winter, thin and draped in a linen sheath, with her arms wide. Marena, the autumn goddess of war, chin lifted proudly, staring down with her hypnotic purple eyes, bejeweled with human teeth.
Beneath, row upon row of tightly packed red velvet seats stretch back to the imposing black doors at the rear of the theater. They’re made from mageglass, a material designed by the elementals: sand spun, dyed, and hardened so that not even diamond bullets could shatter it. Hundreds of people will fill the house tonight. Dame Ava, the queen’s former principal, told me that sometimes there are so many that folk have to stand along the walls.
My knees shake at the sight. My mouth goes dry.
In the second row, a maid kneels between the seats. She scrubs the floor vigorously with a brown cloth, and the sickly scent of lemon wafts up to the stage.
All these seats. All these people. My unshed tears blur the rows of red seats together, like a smear of blood.
“I can’t,” I whisper.
“You will,” Elene says.
Excerpted from Ruinsong, copyright © 2020 by Julia Ember