Three years ago, young Lord Cassia disappeared in the midst of war…
We’re thrilled to share the cover and preview an excerpt from Year of the Reaper, a young adult fantasy from author Makiia Lucier—available November 9th from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Three years ago, young Lord Cassia disappeared in the midst of war. Since then, a devastating illness has swept the land, leaving countless dead and a kingdom forever altered. Having survived war and plague, Cas, now eighteen, wants only to return to his home in the mountains and forget past horrors. But home is not what he remembers.
His castle has become a refuge for the royal court. And they have brought their enemies with them.
An assassin targets those closest to the queen, drawing Cas into a search for a killer. With the help of a historian-in-training named Lena, he soon realizes that who is behind the attacks is far less important than why. Cas and Lena must look to the past, following the trail of a terrible secret—one that could threaten the kingdom’s newfound peace and plunge it back into war.
Makiia Lucier grew up on the Pacific island of Guam and holds degrees in journalism and library studies. She is the author of three previous books-A Death-Struck Year, Isle of Blood and Stone, and Song of the Abyss—which have appeared on many notable lists, including the Kids’ Indie Next, the American Booksellers Association’s Best Books for Children and the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. She lives with her family in North Carolina. Find her at her website, or on Twitter and Instagram @makiialucier.
They rode for hours, through the night and into the dawn, stopping for nothing, not even to rest the horses. They knew what hunted them. A threat that could neither be seen nor heard nor felt, until one turned around and there it was. Too late to run then. Plague was spread through the air, you see. Everyone knew this.
Jehan struggled to stay awake on her horse. Weariness dragged her chin to her chest before she caught herself, jerking upright in the saddle. Bleary eyes took in the tall, stately cypress lining their route and the sun rising above the mountains in the east. Ten guards rode before her, ten in back. So few of them remained. The others had been left behind in towns and villages along the way. Her people. Shed like snakeskin.
Dead like snakeskin.
Jehan could not think of them now. If she did, she would scream. On and on forever. And that would not do, here, in front of the others.
Mari was alive. This she could give thanks for. Just then, Mari looked over from her own horse. She wore a traveling cloak the same midnight blue as Jehan’s. Her hood had been pushed back, and long dark hair blew free in the wind. The smile she gave Jehan was tired but reassuring. Not long now, she mouthed.
Despite everything, Jehan smiled. Mari had been saying the same for days. Not long now. Almost there. Jehan started to tell her so just as one of the guards ahead slid from his horse. He did not wake and catch himself but fell out of the saddle entirely, hitting the earth with a thud and the unmistakable sound of bone cracking.
“Stop!” Jehan shouted.
Dust rose, pebbles flew. The cortege ground to a halt. Without waiting for assistance, Jehan dismounted. She grabbed Mari’s hand and they raced to where the Brisan ambassador already knelt by the fallen guard.
The ambassador flung out an arm to ward them off. “Stand back!”
He was normally a mild-mannered man, gray-haired and dignified. The ferocity of his tone stopped them in their tracks. That, and the panic that lay just beneath the surface. They obeyed. Jehan, Mari, the guards, the envoy from Oliveras. The old nurse and the court painter, wringing their hands in dread.
As for the fallen guard, he sprawled on his back, barely conscious. From the way one arm lay on the ground, the angle hideous and unnatural, Jehan knew it was broken. Just as she understood shattered bones were the least of his troubles. Sweat poured off a face that had turned a familiar mottled red. Pity filled her, sorrow too, but not surprise.
“Plague?” Jehan asked quietly. Mari’s hand tightened in hers.
“He’s feverish.” The ambassador busied himself removing the guard’s tunic. Rather than yank it over his head and broken arm, he took a dagger from his belt and sliced through leather and wool.
Mari reasoned, “A fever, then. It doesn’t mean…” She trailed off in dismay as the ambassador pushed aside the guard’s tunic, exposing the pit of his arm, where a boil the size of an egg nestled among downy black hairs. A strange gurgling sound emerged from it. The boil shivered and pulsed, as though the blood and pus and poison within were living things struggling to break free.
Sickened, Jehan stepped back. Everyone stepped back. Fear sent shivers racing up her spine and trailing along her limbs. Plumes of smoke rose in the distance. Another village burning its dead. Jehan could almost taste the bitterness of the ash, thick at the base of her throat.
The ambassador remained crouched by the guard’s side. He closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, they settled on her. Red-rimmed from exhaustion, the smudges beneath grown darker with each passing day.
“Princess Jehan. This can go on no longer. You must leave us.”
Jehan exchanged a quick, startled glance with Mari. Jehan said, “What are you saying? Leave whom? And go where?” All around them were anxious mutterings.
“We’re hindering you.” The ambassador stood, knees cracking. “Every one of us is a threat. Go with Lord Ventillas. Take Mari, take the women—and find King Rayan.”
“Father, no!” Mari burst out. A look from the ambassador had her swallowing her words.
Jehan had no intention of riding to the capital of Oliveras without him. “And leave you here? Of course I won’t go—”
“Princess Jehan.” The ambassador spoke with steel in his voice. “How many years have we been at war with Oliveras?”
A history lesson? Now? “Why does that matter?”
“How many? Tell me.”
Jehan could not remember the precise number. Who could? Everyone watched, waiting, and a mortifying heat spread up her neck. Mari squeezed her hand. Under her breath, for Jehan’s ears only, Mari murmured, “Fifty-two.”
Jehan squeezed back. One could always depend on Mari. “Fifty-two,” she repeated in a louder voice.
“As many years as I’ve been alive.” The look the ambassador gave her and Mari made it clear he had not been fooled. “I’ve never known a life without war. Countless dead. Your brothers. My sons. This war ends the day you marry the king. You must survive this journey, and your odds are greater if you move quickly. If you avoid all threat.”
A traveling quarantine of sorts. It made sense. “But why won’t you come? You’re the head of this delegation. Father sent you.”
Beside her, a hitch to Mari’s breath. She knew the answer to Jehan’s question. She saw it on her father’s face.
“I cannot.” The ambassador pushed aside his collar to show the boil just beneath his ear. Like an overripe berry, wine-colored, ready to burst.
Jehan bit her lip so hard she tasted blood. Mari’s hand slipped free of hers, but when her friend stumbled forward, Jehan caught her arm and dragged her back.
The ambassador did not look at his daughter. Instead, he watched Jehan intently to see what she would do. Church bells rang out in the village. Tolling endlessly. A warning to all who heard to keep away. They would find no shelter there. Fighting a rising panic, Jehan thought about what the ambassador’s illness meant. For all of them. She hated Oliveras, this kingdom where she would be queen. It had brought nothing but pain and death to those she loved. She wanted to go home, to Brisa. But she had promised her father. She had given her word. Very quietly, she asked, “What will you do?”
Approval flickered over the ambassador’s expression. He studied the woods beyond the road. “We’ll stay here, make camp.” Glancing down at the doomed guard, he added, “No one will take us in as we are. If we can, we’ll follow.”
“When you can,” Jehan corrected.
“When,” the ambassador agreed. Humoring her, she knew. And now he looked past her. “My lord Ventillas.”
The sober Oliveran envoy was a younger man, not yet thirty. He stepped forward. “I’ll see them safe, Ambassador. You have my word.”
“Brisa is indebted to you.” The ambassador bowed. “May God grant your honor many years.”
“And yours.” Lord Ventillas returned the bow, deep and formal.
Within minutes, a much smaller cortege prepared to ride. Mari stopped her mare as close to the ambassador as she dared. “Father.”
The ambassador stood with a dying guard at his feet. Jehan heard him say, very softly, “Mari, you are your father’s heart. Be brave, my girl, for me.”
Jehan could bear to watch no longer. She spurred her horse down the ancient road lined with cypress. Tears blinded her. She did not look back to see those she had left behind. She did not look back to see if her friend would follow. All their lives, where Jehan went, Mari always followed.
Excerpted from Year of the Reaper, copyright © 2021 by Makiia Lucier.