When twin heirs are born in Tourin, their fates are decided at a young age…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from the young adult fantasy These Feathered Flames, the debut novel from Alexandra Overy—available from Inkyard Press.
When twin heirs are born in Tourin, their fates are decided at a young age. While Izaveta remained at court to learn the skills she’d need as the future queen, Asya was taken away to train with her aunt, the mysterious Firebird, who ensured magic remained balanced in the realm.
But before Asya’s training is completed, the ancient power blooms inside her, which can mean only one thing: the queen is dead, and a new ruler must be crowned.
As the princesses come to understand everything their roles entail, they’ll discover who they can trust, who they can love—and who killed their mother.
This was one of those rare moments when Izaveta wished she were proficient in some projectile-based weaponry. Perhaps throwing knives. A blade slamming into the solid wood of the door would certainly be a satisfying way to wipe Strashevsta Orlov’s smug expression off his face.
Not that she would actually act on the inclination, even if she were able. But fantasizing about it took the edge off her irritation.
“My orders were very clear,” the strashevsta finished. “I’m not to let anyone in until the meeting is over.”
Izaveta smiled, a smile as carefully crafted as the delicate silk of her dress. “I’m sure there has been a mistake.”
The strashevsta raised an eyebrow. “I very much doubt that.”
Izaveta clenched her teeth. Her late-night meetings with her mother were often the only times she saw the queen. Even if they were occasionally canceled when more important matters arose, her mother would always let her know. Always.
But even inside her head, that thought was tinged with bitter uncertainty.
“The queen will send for you if she needs you.”
Izaveta swallowed, ignoring the faint sting of those words. She had become well practiced in brushing off those slights, the barbs from her mother. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t quite make herself immune to them. Not when it came to the queen.
Her mother was likely just meeting with the spymaster. Izaveta was never privy to those conversations. This was not a change, not a hint that her mother was pushing her away or playing some new game.
Perhaps if Izaveta told herself that enough, she would believe it.
“It’s no matter,” she said, smile firmly in place. “I shall wait.”
She stepped back to one of the swirling pillars that lined the passageway, eyeing the guard. Anything to distract from the curling knots in her stomach, the cloying fear that her mother was shutting her out on purpose.
Orlov’s uniform was crisp, the crisp double bars that denoted his rank as captain gleaming on his right shoulder. Not so much as a hair out of place. But he’d missed something. Slight black smudges wisped along his hairline, disappearing into his ink-black hair. Some kind of root oil, Izaveta guessed, to hide any gray. Signs of aging in someone supposed to protect the queen would likely not be well received—though the dye might have been vanity more than anything else.
Her eyes flicked down, searching for any other details. His weight was not quite balanced. Though his back stood straight as the stone pillar, he listed a little to the left. Not his dominant side, judging by the saber also strapped there.
She smoothed her skirts, reaching for her own weapons. The only ones she had. “I am glad to see you’re on duty tonight.”
“And why is that?” The strashevsta’s mouth still had a self-satisfied set to it—no doubt pleased at his small victory over her.
Izaveta widened her eyes, the picture of innocence. “Your injury, of course.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched—the slightest movement, but enough to confirm her suspicions.
She allowed a small curl of her lips. Finding the weaknesses, the openings in someone else’s armor, was always calming. To know that even if she had a vulnerability, everyone else in court did too—and most wore them far more plainly than she did.
Orlov’s brow creased, hands folding in front of him—defensive. “My injury?”
Izaveta shot him a look, appraising. He had only been made commander of the strashe because of some dealing between the queen and his family, too long ago for Izaveta to remember the details—likely the Crown receiving land or troops in exchange for this position. It was all a part of the game, not a true display of devotion to the queen. That was all anything was in court, an elaborate game of exploitation where loyalty was no more than another card to play.
People like him, who barely hid their desire to grasp any dregs of power they could, were all too easy to manipulate.
“Mother told me all about it,” Izaveta went on, apparently oblivious to his confusion. “A pity too, as you would have been the ideal candidate.”
His voice took on an edge—a flash of that jealousy, that desire for power, she’d noticed before. “An ideal candidate for what, my lady?”
She waved a hand. “It’s nothing important.”
His jaw tightened, shoulders tensing as he drew himself up to his full height. “There must be some confusion, my lady. I am quite well.”
“I thought—” She broke off, as if suddenly realizing something may be afoot. She glanced over her shoulder, making an exaggerated performance of backtracking. “Perhaps I misunderstood. Think nothing of it. I’m certain there will be other opportunities for someone of your experience.”
She let the emphasis hang on the final word, the implication clear. Rumors of an injury, on top of his clear worries about his graying hair, would be plenty to cause some discomfort for the smug man. If Izaveta had to wait out here—no more important to the queen than a visiting dignitary—at least she’d succeeded in sowing some seeds of discord. It would be no more than a minor irritation to her mother, but it was a small victory.
A tiny way Izaveta could pretend she had an effect on the queen.
Before the strashevsta could respond, the carved birch door swung open. Izaveta snapped to attention, all thoughts of her games forgotten. She raised her chin as she prepared to face the spymaster. To glean any hint as to what she and her mother had spoken about from Zvezda’s posture, the fluid lines of her face.
But it wasn’t the lithe figure of the spymaster who stepped through the doorway. It was Vibishop Sanislav, still in his heavy church robes, spiderlike hands clasped in front of him, looking as if he had every right to be there.
Her insides went cold. Of all the members of her mother’s cabinet, the vibishop was Izaveta’s least favorite. All of them spoke in half-truths, eager to advance their own agendas, but she was sure nearly every word out of the vibishop’s mouth was a lie. He spun them as easily as breathing, all while his pale lips twisted into that simpering, pious smile.
But that was not what caught Izaveta off guard, what knocked the air from her lungs.
Why would the queen have met with the vibishop in private? And more than that, why hadn’t her mother told her? They’d discussed the Crown’s stance on Sanislav’s ludicrous theories on the Fading only a few days before, and her mother had agreed that they were not to be entertained. They had agreed.
The magic flowing through this land was one of the few things her mother trusted her with—listened to her input as she did only her most trusted advisers. Or at least, that was what Izaveta had thought.
“My lady,” Sanislav said, with a triumphant set to his mouth that did nothing to alleviate the doubt coiling in her stomach.
Izaveta inclined her head, forcing her smile to remain in place. “Vibishop Sanislav. Lovely evening, is it not?”
His thin lips quirked. “Indeed.”
He disappeared down the passage without another word. She watched him go, trying to extract anything more from his posture or movements. Information was the most powerful weapon in the court, and when facing her mother, Izaveta needed to be well armed.
She gave herself three breaths to recover from the surprise, to ensure her mask was back in place. If she let her mother see her rattled, the queen would pounce.
Izaveta shot the strashevsta a winning smile. “As always, thank you for your unwavering dedication to your post.”
She slipped through the doorway, allowing it to fall shut behind her before he could catch her hint of sarcasm.
The queen sat by a great stained glass window that stretched at least three times her height, tapping her finger against the edge of a zvess board. The window depicted one of the former queens, the Firebird at her right-hand side shown in all her flaming glory. Beyond, the palace gardens stretched into the distance, the colored glass adding unnatural hues to the carefully tended lawns. The moons were rising over the forest, barely more than glimmers against the darkening skies.
From this height, Izaveta could see all the way down to the gnarled queenstrees of the sacred lands that rimmed the palace and, beyond that, the soft glow of Ozya Kerivnei. The Depthless Lake.
Despite rumors to the contrary in the neighboring countries, the lake did still gleam with power. It used to be known as the Fourth Moon, the crowning jewel of Tóurin. Magic flowed freely then, pulsing through the land like blood and bending to a person’s will as easily as breathing. The price for a simple spell was low, so the Firebird rarely had to intervene. It made Tóurin powerful—feared. Even its militaristic neighbors in Versbühl could not hope to combat that magic, no matter how many weapons they forged.
But now the lake shone less like a full moon and more like a waning crescent on a clouded night. The Fading people called it, as if naming the thing might make them able to control it. And since the lake had begun to dim, so had the magic of the land.
Already it made Tóurin vulnerable, unable to defend its borders with enchantments and rituals as it once had. But the queendom had not lost its advantage yet, not fully. And Izaveta was going to make sure they never did, even if she had to scour every corner of the lands for a solution.
And she was certainly not going to let someone as foolish as Vibishop Sanislav stand in the way of that.
Izaveta pulled her gaze away from the fading lake, focusing in on her mother. On the matter at hand. The queen sat in a high-backed chair carved in glinting metal to resemble burning wings. Her hair, pale as moonlight—the mirror of Izaveta’s own—was twined on top of her head, artfully arranged around the barbed points of her crown. The shards of twisted glass and silver curled up toward the vaulted ceiling, light glinting off their edges like a halo. Queen Adilena had an easy authority to her posture, a surety in the sharp lines of her face that said she was not to be questioned.
Izaveta approached her slowly, glancing down at the zvess board, the pieces still spread out midgame. She and her mother had been playing this particular round for a little over a week. Their games were always drawn out, with only a few moves played out on the evenings her mother called for her.
The queen always won, though. No matter how many times Izaveta thought she had found a way to outthink her, the queen was always two moves ahead.
Usually when she wanted something from her mother, Izaveta would plan out her strategy in the same minute detail as a zvess game. But she had not expected the vibishop, and the question slipped out involuntarily as soon as she met her mother’s gaze. “What was he doing here?”
Her mother tapped her carved Firebird piece against the edge of the board, her expression unmoved. “Are you going to play, or are you going to interrogate me?”
For a moment, Izaveta wavered, torn between standing her ground and bowing to her mother. As she always did. When Izaveta was younger—after her sister had left—she used to play a game where she would see if she could get her mother to put the mask away, to break through the queen to the woman beyond. She had never succeeded.
As she grew older, she started to realize there might not be a woman behind the mask. Her mother was regal and queenlike to the core.
Izaveta sank into the opposite chair. Not a defeat, she told herself, but a change of tactic. Subtlety was always the answer with her mother.
The queen nodded to the board. “Your move.”
Izaveta looked down at the pieces, grasping for the strategy she’d been honing the night before. Her stomach plummeted as she saw her mother had already moved her queen three spaces to the left, successfully evading the trap Izaveta had been trying to lay.
She leaned forward, as if considering the game—though her mind was still consumed with what that meeting had been about. “Strashevsta Orlov is certainly taking his position seriously this evening,” she said, forcing a casual voice. “At first, he would not even allow me in to see you.”
The queen did not look at Izaveta as she replied, staring out at the sprawling gardens instead. “He does as he is ordered.”
Izaveta’s hand froze, fingers hovering above her carved banewolf piece, though she tried to keep her face blank. She couldn’t ignore that jab. But she would not let her mother rattle her. Wouldn’t let a few well-placed words reduce Izaveta to a hurt child, making careless mistakes in both of the games they were playing.
She settled on the soothsayer piece, moving it to counter one of her mother’s strashe. A safe move, more to distract herself than anything else.
Her mother slid her own soothsayer piece forward with an elegant flick of her hand. “You were right about the lands in the foothills of Vrostav Zev.” She glanced up, pale blue eyes piercing into Izaveta. “Once I reminded the archbishop that they had been tithed to the Crown as an act of solidarity during wartime, they could not refuse the payment. It is certainly fortuitous that you thought to reexamine the original document.”
From anyone else, it might have sounded like a compliment, perhaps even fleeting pride, but her mother’s words were never that simple. They twined together like tangled thorns, and trying to break free would merely get Izaveta caught on their spines.
From the queen, a comment like that was closer to a gauntlet. Thrown on the ground for the unsuspecting challenger to take up.
But Izaveta had learned long ago that she was not yet a worthy opponent.
“It’s your move,” the queen prompted.
Izaveta’s stomach contracted, the double meaning of those words prickling through her.
Her fingers drifted to the Firebird piece, moving it two squares to stand opposite her mother’s queen. She glanced up, hoping to discern something from the slightest flicker on her mother’s expression. But no matter how long she studied the shifting lines of the queen’s face, she had never been able to determine what was real and what was an act.
Her mother sat forward, cool eyes sweeping over the pieces.
Izaveta smoothed her skirts, trying to expel those weaknesses with the movement. “And I trust the Church was satisfied with the outcome?”
Once, the Church had been irrelevant to the politics and movements of the court. But almost fifty years ago, in the wake of a failed coup, Izaveta’s grandmother had opted to consolidate power where she could before another attempt was made. She’d offered the Church a position in the queen’s cabinet in exchange for the sway they held over the general populace, for the gold that lined their pockets. Now the Crown and the Church were inseparable, the queen’s power as dependent on the Church’s support as the dwindling magic that flowed through the earth.
Her mother believed she could leverage the Church’s beliefs against them, bending even the gods to her will. But Izaveta had never been so sure. To her, the Church was as ephemeral as magic—and just as likely to turn on the user.
“For now,” her mother replied, moving her queen to capture one of Izaveta’s banewolves.
Svedye, she shouldn’t have missed that.
Swallowing, Izaveta examined the board. Her eyes snagged on her mother’s soothsayer, and a thought crept into her mind, momentarily banishing the vibishop. A thrill of anticipation jolted through her—that same cool satisfaction of finding the weakness in someone’s armor.
Izaveta’s mistake in losing a piece might have given her an opportunity. If she had planned it, she doubted her mother would have fallen for the trap. She would have been able to read it on Izaveta’s face, in her purposeful maneuvering of the pieces. But in capturing the banewolf, the queen had left a vulnerability in her carefully laid lines of defense.
Three moves. That was all it would take for Izaveta to win, provided the queen did not realize her own error.
Trying to sound casual, as though it were a natural progression in the conversation, Izaveta said, “Then Vibishop Sanislav was not here to further plead the Church’s case?” At the same time, she slid her queen two spaces back, away from the center of the board.
Her mother sat back, folding her hands in her lap. She fixed Izaveta with a look—the look that used to make her want to crouch under the table. But now she held her mother’s gaze. Izaveta was no longer the scared little girl she had once been, and she would not show the queen any of the apprehension that churned inside her.
“No,” her mother said finally, moving her clergyman as she spoke. “He was here to further discuss a theory of his.”
Her mother’s move did nothing to protect the vulnerability. Izaveta’s eyes swept over the pieces, her heartbeat picking up. It seemed almost impossible that the queen had not noticed. Had Izaveta missed something?
But she hadn’t. This time, the queen was one step behind.
Izaveta fought not to let the excitement bleed onto her face and give her away. She moved her strashe into position. It was a weak piece, one most people ignored. And that would be to Izaveta’s advantage.
One move. Just one more move, and she would beat her mother. That tantalizing possibility was almost more enticing than the information. “And which theory is that?”
She still could feel her mother’s eyes on her, piercing into her bowed head. “His theory on the Fading. On how to restore magic,” her mother went on. “The same one we deliberated on before.”
Izaveta’s hand jerked, knocking over the elegantly carved Firebird piece. She barely noticed. “You are not seriously considering that.”
The queen pursed her lips, a warning sign that Izaveta was bordering on insolence. “I am more than considering it.”
Cold dread trickled into Izaveta’s stomach, icy and foreboding as midwinter snow. This had to be another of her mother’s games, a ploy or trick to leverage something she wanted.
The queen seemed to read Izaveta’s thoughts on her face. “The plan is to be set in motion this week, once all the pieces are in place.”
Izaveta took a deep breath, trying to form her racing thoughts into something coherent. “This plan—” she laced as much contempt into that one word as she could “—would leave us vulnerable. It could destroy our country.”
The queen tilted her head, face as blank as the stained glass woman behind her. “It is a calculated risk.”
“A calculated risk?” Izaveta repeated, momentarily dumbfounded. “His plan to use the Firebird’s blood and bones as his own personal source of magic is a calculated risk?”
“Yes,” her mother replied simply, as if that were all the explanation required.
Izaveta reached for her nearest zvess piece—a frowning witch—and wrapped her fingers tightly around it. She needed an outlet for the frustration flaring inside her. Digging the carved edge of the witch’s cloak into her palm, she forced her tone to remain even. “There are other steps we could take before going to this extreme. There are already rumors in Versbühl that our magic is growing weak. Without the Firebird—”
“This is not a discussion,” her mother cut across. “The decision has been made.”
Izaveta stood, abandoning her zvess piece with a resonating clatter. “What did Sanislav say? What did he offer that could make you agree to this?”
The queen rose to her feet as well, a dangerous glint in her eyes. “I am not required to explain myself to you, daughter.”
“Mother,” Izaveta pressed on, her frustration bubbling through in her voice, giving away too much. “You have to see that he has no evidence for his belief that the Firebird is behind the Fading. That her magic grows as ours dwindles. No reasoning beyond his supposed divine knowledge and a distrust of power he cannot control. Sanislav is a fanatical fool, and you would hand him the very weapon that could destroy Tóurin.”
Izaveta froze. She shouldn’t have said that, should not have so directly attacked the queen’s plans. But it was too late now. There was no taking it back. Izaveta raised her chin. She would not back away, not cower in front of her mother as she once had.
The queen met her gaze, a terrible quiet solidifying around her. The moment before a predator pounced. “You would do well to remember, Izaveta, that Vibishop Sanislav is a respected member of my cabinet. Moreover, I agree with his theories, and, as such, to insult his intelligence is to also insult mine. The vibishop is making preparations as we speak. I shall be overseeing them myself tonight. In this matter you should trust that far wiser heads are seeing to it.”
Izaveta’s breath hitched. She knew she was pushing too far, overstepping her bounds, but she couldn’t stop herself from adding, “Have you thought about what this would mean? What it could mean for Asya?” She threw the name out almost without meaning to. A last desperate push for something to get through. It tasted odd on her tongue, so rarely was it spoken aloud. “Do you think he’ll stop when he’s drained the magic from Tarya’s bones?”
But instead of any crack in her mother’s face—any hint of emotion beneath the regal mask—she just smiled.
Her mother had perfected that expression. A devastating smile that made one feel like they were special until she cast them aside. Another way she gave and withheld affection like a game.
The queen took a step forward, her expression fracturing into something far less kind. “So now you care about your sister? What brought on this sudden rush of affection?”
Izaveta opened her mouth, trying to find words. “I—” she started, then trailed off when she realized she had none. No answers that would sway her mother. No way for her to win this battle. Because her mother didn’t care. Words were Izaveta’s only weapon, and they were useless against the one who had trained her to wield them.
The queen let out a low laugh, hollow and tinkling. “We both know you have no concern for anyone else—least of all your sister. You wanted to find the solution, and it pains you that someone else might have reached it first. Don’t pretend this is a noble cause. You are interested in your own power and position, no more.”
Izaveta reeled back as if her mother had slapped her. Those words tugged at some deep part of her. The part she tried not to examine too closely as she worked to mimic her mother’s cool indifference. Her twisting manipulations. The way she used and discarded people as she saw fit.
After all these years, Izaveta had learned to emulate her mother so well she couldn’t always tell where the imitation ended and she began.
“Don’t look like that,” her mother snapped with a dismissive wave of her hand. She turned to the zvess game, moving her Firebird piece with an expression of supreme disinterest. “It’s one of the qualities I actually admire in you.”
Izaveta stared at the board. Her mother’s ornately carved Firebird had reached the bright silver square in the center, and now Izaveta’s own queen was too far to pose a challenge.
She’d missed it, too caught up in her own strategy to remember her mother always had a plan of her own.
And her mother always won.
A weight pressed on Izaveta’s chest, too heavy to draw breath. Why did she let her mother get under her skin like this? Anyone else she could brush off or cut down with a barbed remark of her own. But her mother knew how to slip a blade through her armor like no one else.
She swallowed, pushing down the traitorous lump rising in her throat, grasping for words again. Her only weapons. “Mother, this is a dangerous plan. It could weaken us irreversibly.”
The queen’s smile vanished, and with it her patience. “I will discuss this no further.”
The familiar tone of dismissal, cold and impossible to argue with. For a moment, Izaveta teetered. She hated to back down, to slink away and admit defeat. But she had no more words.
Nothing that would move the immovable.
She turned on her heel. As she swept out of the room, a cold realization spread through her. A deep chill that seeped into her bones. Her mother would always win these games when she set all the parameters. So if Izaveta wanted to outmaneuver her, she would have to find a way to change the rules.
Excerpted from These Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy © 2021, used with permission from Inkyard Press/HarperCollins.