Their battles ended in victory, but the war has only just begun…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Gilded Serpent, a thrilling new novel from Danielle L. Jensen set in the Dark Shores World—available now from Tor Teen!
Lydia returns to Mudaire to enter training at the healing temple. But instead of fighting to save lives, she’s convinced she is doing more harm than good. She delves into the history of the gods only to discover a truth that will change her life forever.
His birthright as commander of the Royal Army is finally in his grasp, but Killian feels anything but victorious. Burdened by his past, he embraces the darker side of his mark—and in doing so, risks starting a war.
Having defeated the tyrant Urcon, Marcus struggles to form a lasting alliance with the Arinoquians. But he is plagued by the knowledge that there is a traitor among his friends, and it could cost him everything that he’s fought for.
Torn between her growing allegiance to the Thirty-Seventh legion and her need to liberate her people, Teriana finds herself mired in a web of secrets. She embarks upon a path that will either save everyone she loves—or put them all in their graves.
It was pouring rain.
Monstrous droplets that stung as they struck, like having pebbles thrown against one’s face over and over again. A deluge that turned the streets of Aracam to streams, waterfalls pouring from the rooftops. Blackened skies flickered with lightning, the resultant thunder deafening Teriana’s ears.
Yet for all the storm’s ferocity, the Arinoquians had still come out in the thousands, in the tens of thousands, to witness the execution of Urcon.
A platform was set up at the center of the god circle, the great stone towers dedicated to each of the seven gods seeming to watch as the space filled with people. Men. Women. Children. Their faces were twisted with hate and fury and anticipation, their words indistinguishable, but the collective volume rivaled the thunder as they called for the blood of a tyrant.
Motion caught Teriana’s eye, and she glanced past Marcus to see Titus cross his arms, his helmet doing little to hide his disapproval of the scene. Not for the first time, she was struck by how much the young commander of the Forty-First resembled his father, Lucius Cassius. And not just in his features.
“If they riot, we’ll have more casualties than we did taking the rutting city,” Titus muttered. “Every blasted person in Arinoquia is here.”
“To bear witness is to strike the blow. It’s the closest thing to revenge these people have,” Marcus answered, his voice still raspy from his injured throat.
It had been only two days since he and Teriana had stood together on the hill overlooking Aracam. Since he’d committed to whatever it was that was between them: a fragile relationship built on affection and lust and something deeper she wouldn’t put a name to. Two days since she’d abandoned reason and committed to the same.
Water sluiced down Marcus’s face, but his eyes remained fixed on the crowd, mouth an unsmiling line, the slight flexing of the muscles in his jaw the only sign of emotion. A scrape marred one of his cheeks, and his throat was ringed with dark bruises in the shape of fingers. In juries that he’d gained coming to her aid when she’d been kidnapped and held prisoner in a failed gambit to defeat the Cel legions.
As though sensing her scrutiny, Marcus turned his head, grey blue eyes meeting hers with an intensity that made Teriana feel as though they stood utterly alone, despite being surrounded by fifty men of the Thirty-Seventh. The corner of his mouth tilted up for a heartbeat, and warmth flooded her chest, then his attention moved back to the crowd.
Her own skin prickled, and Teriana looked to her left, finding Felix’s gaze on her. The second-in-command’s bland expression did nothing to hide his anger and hurt at having his place at Marcus’s side usurped. Given he was potentially the one who’d paid Urcon’s men to get rid of her, standing elbow to elbow with him was unnerving at best. Was it you? she silently asked. Are you the traitor?
Or are you merely the scapegoat?
The crowd surged, pulling Teriana from her thoughts. A thin corridor formed, leading toward the platform, and several armed Arinoquians appeared, dragging a figure between them.
For more than a decade, he’d lorded over his people with a heavy fist, extorting their wealth, stealing their children for his armies, slaughtering any who stood against him, and enforcing his dominance with terrifying brutality. He was a monster. A villain of the first order.
But it was hard to remember that as she took in the ancient man the warriors were half-carrying, his legs were unable to bear his weight.
They’d stripped him, his naked body scrawny and feeble and showing signs of gout. A few wisps of white were plastered against his skull, and his sunken eyes were wild with fear and confusion. He tripped over his own feet, only the grip of his captors keeping him from falling.
He’s a murderer, she reminded herself, remembering the people from Imperatrix Ereni’s town that Urcon’s men had left slaughtered on the path as a warning for Marcus. Remembering how their blood had coated her bandaged feet, sticky and stinking of copper. Remembering the testimonies of the victims of Urcon’s men, who’d committed atrocities in his name. Remembering that it had been this feeble old man who’d employed Ashok, one of the corrupted, to exercise his control of Arinoquia and its people.
Yet for all the reminders brought back her terror, they still jarred with what she was seeing with her own two eyes. Who would follow this man?
Then the Arinoquians started to throw pebbles.
Teriana flinched as the first struck and Urcon cried out, blood running from a wound on his temple. Another pebble opened a thin line of red across his shoulder. Another a lesion across his thigh. Swiftly she lost count, the air filling with flashes of grey as the people he’d tyrannized for so long rained their hate down upon him.
“They’re going to kill him before Ereni has a chance to swing that axe,” Titus said. “What a mess this is. We should have handled the execution.”
“He’s their kill,” Marcus answered, and Teriana wondered whether he’d made that decision because he knew Ereni had been displeased about him taking the honor of executing Urcon’s men in Galinha. Whether it was a political choice meant to earn the Arinoquians’ favor. Or whether it was another reason entirely.
The warriors dragged Urcon onto the platform, where Ereni and the other imperators waited, and the barrage of stones ceased. The old man was bleeding and sobbing, and he remained prone in front of the leaders of the clans.
“The gods have borne witness to your crimes, Urcon!” Ereni inclined her head to each of the towers. “And unless one of them sees fit to stay my hand, let them bear witness to your punishment!”
Everyone in the crowd lifted their hands to make the sign of the Six against their chests, and though she was typically careful never to do so around the Cel, Teriana did the same.
Ereni hefted an axe, the blade wet and glinting from the rain, and the crowd screamed for blood. Her mouth moved, but it was impos sible to hear her over the noise of the crowd.
“What did she say?” Titus asked, and Teriana curbed the urge to tell him to be quiet.
“She told him to get up.” Marcus’s tone was flat. “For Arinoquians, it’s a matter of honor to face one’s execution bravely in order to earn the favor of the gods. She’s giving him the opportunity to re gain face before he dies. An opportunity to save himself from being taken by the Seventh god to the underworld.”
How do you know that? Teriana wondered. Who told you?
Do you believe it?
Titus spit on the ground. “Pagan nonsense. Bastard deserves to die on his knees.”
“Titus,” Marcus said, “shut up.”
At any other time, Teriana would’ve smirked, but it was all she could do to keep her stomach contents in check as Ereni again shouted at Urcon to get to his feet. Instead, the ancient tyrant at tempted to crawl to the edge of the platform, trying to flee his execution.
Expression tightening, Ereni barked an order at her warriors, who grabbed hold of Urcon’s ankles and dragged him back to the center of the platform. He managed to extricate himself from their grip, curling into a ball like a frightened child. The warriors forced his body straight, trying to get him into a position where Ereni could swing, but Urcon writhed and twisted.
This isn’t right.
Next to her, Marcus rocked slightly on his heels, and when she glanced at him, his jaw was tense, his brow furrowed. Stop this, she willed him. Stop it, before it’s too late.
The crowd was losing its momentum, the noise diminishing as more warriors dragged an execution block onto the platform, tying Urcon to it so that his arms were splayed out. Ereni said something to the other imperators, who all nodded. Then her gaze flicked in Marcus’s direction.
He didn’t so much as twitch.
The axe blade gleamed as Ereni swung it through the air, slicing through the falling rain, time seeming to slow to a crawl as it descended. But instead of striking true, it embedded in the base of Urcon’s skull. The old man screamed in agony.
Grimacing, Ereni jerked the blade free and swung again, but this time hit Urcon’s shoulders, the axe sinking deep in the muscle. The old man howled, and Teriana gagged, covering her mouth.
“I’m not watching this,” Felix growled, turning, but Marcus reached past Teriana, catching his second-in-command’s arm.
“We helped make this happen. So we will watch.”
Ereni swung the axe a third time, the blade sending droplets of blood flying over the crowd, which was no longer cheering.
This time her aim was true, and the weapon severed Urcon’s head from his neck. She reached down and picked it up, holding it high. Blood poured down, glistening crimson droplets joining the rain on the platform, Urcon’s eyes dull and sightless. “The tyrant is dead!”
The crowd repeated Ereni’s words over and over. Teriana wondered whether Urcon was being dragged down to the underworld with their screams in his ears. And whether he deserved it.
“The tyrant may be dead,” Marcus echoed the crowd’s refrain. “We shall see about the tyranny.”
“Why do you say that?” Teriana murmured under her breath.
“Because,” he said, turning away from the bloody scene. “This particular tyrant wasn’t working alone.”
Despite the cold, the smell of corpse was heavy in the air. The sickly sweetness of rotting flesh mixed with opened bowel, and there was something about it that told Killian it was human, not beast. Sliding off the side of his horse, he dropped the reins and moved forward on foot, easing over the embankment toward a thicket of dead bushes. The wind howled, tearing at his cloak as he drew closer, heart beating faster and faster until he swore it would tear from his chest.
Please don’t let it be her.
Please let it be her.
The thoughts alternated back and forth, same as they always did, fear and grief warring with his desire for this search to be over. To have closure, even if his guilt would remain.
As he reached the thicket, his eyes picked out the familiar shape in the snow. A body facedown, legs splayed and cloak flipped up, concealing the head. A woman, judging from the skirts, which were stiff with dried blood. Small and slender.
Please don’t let it be her.
Please let it be her.
Hand shaking, Killian reached down and rolled the body, cringing as the woman’s frozen hair peeled away from the ground.
“Malahi was wearing a red velvet dress that day.”
He lurched upward at the voice from behind him, drawing his sword even as he whirled around. His blade came to rest against Ber cola’s throat.
The last time he’d seen her was on the battlefield at Alder’s Ford, her holding the spear she intended to use to safeguard Malahi’s plot to assassinate her own father, King Serrick. The spear that had ended up embedded in Killian’s side, the wound nearly the death of him. “You should have stayed gone.”
The giantess’s throat moved as she swallowed, colorless eyes unreadable as she regarded him. “Probably. But I thought I owed you an explanation.”
“There is no explanation good enough!” he snarled at her, watching droplets of blood roll down his blade. Not that she so much as flinched. “You betrayed me.”
Because it hadn’t been him that she’d intended to hit with that spear. It hadn’t even been Serrick.
It had been Lydia. And for that reason, no explanation was worthy of forgiveness.
“I know you think that,” she answered. “But I need you to know that I was only trying to protect you. And so was she.”
“Bullshit!” he shouted. “You were trying to cover Malahi’s tracks so that no one would discover she’d sent an assassin after her own father.” “No.” Bercola started to shake her head but froze as his blade dug deeper. “Lydia is corrupted, Killian. Malahi saw her steal life the night of the ball. And if she did it once, she’ll do it again. And again. It would only be a matter of time until you had to kill her. And I knew doing so would kill you. Better that you hate me for the rest of your life than that.”
“She is not corrupted!” He screamed the words, his body shaking. “She’s a gods-damned healer, and you should be glad of it, because otherwise I’d be dead by your hand!”
“Lydia sacrificed her freedom to save my life. And she wouldn’t have had to if not for Malahi’s scheming. If not for her lies. If not for you enabling her.” Fury flooded through him, and because he knew if he didn’t, he’d kill her, Killian dropped his sword. “I trusted you.”
“I won’t apologize,” Bercola finally said. “I swore to your father to keep you safe, and though he might be in the grave, my oath remains. You may refuse to see it, but there is a darkness in that girl, and it is born of fear. And fears never stay buried.”
“I neither need nor want your protection,” he said between his teeth. “Go, Bercola. Get out of my sight and out of Mudamora, because if I see you again, I will kill you for what you did.”
“She’s dangerous, Killian. And you and I are the only two living who know it.”
“We know nothing! This is all on Malahi’s word, and we both know she wouldn’t hesitate to lie if it served her ends.”
“I saw!” Bercola’s large hands clenched into fists. “She healed me afterward, and despite that I was near death, she gave up nothing of herself to make me whole. Because she was only giving up what she’d stolen!”
“The only thing she did wrong was not letting you die!”
Bercola closed her eyes, taking a measured breath. Then the giantess who had watched over him most of his life took one step back. And another.
“They say there is some of the Six in all of us,” she said when she reached the top of the slope. “But so is there some of the Seventh. Even in the Marked.”
“Go!” he screamed, reaching down to retrieve his sword. “This is your last chance, Bercola. That I’m giving you a chance at all is only because we were once friends.”
Her eyes glistened with tears, but the sight only hardened his heart.
“The days grow darker, Killian,” she said. “And I think it will be in the absence of light that we all see who we truly are.”
And without another word, she disappeared.
Excerpted from Gilded Serpent, copyright © 2021 by Danielle L. Jensen