While citizens are distracted by the drama permeating their personal lives, sinister threats loom from both the East and the North, and one of them strikes without warning. A tale with more twists and turns than a mountain pass, is war inevitable, or will love conquer all?
A Daughter of Winter is the epic-length third book in The Scented Court YA noblebright fantasy series by an award-winning author. If you like independent heroines, animal and insect characters, slow-burn romance, and twists you won't see coming, then you’ll love A.L. Knorr’s dreamy but dangerous otherworld.
Release date: January 12, 2023
Publisher: Intellectually Promiscuous Press
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A Daughter of Winter
Spoiler Alert: This is book 3; sample may contain spoilers if you have not read A Blossom at Midnight and A Memory of Nightshade
Rayven Sabran stood in the huge empty throne room, legs shaking. Her father, Master of the Ice, had told her that the throne room had once been in the courtyard, not in this cavernous, cold space that echoed like a tomb. When she was a faeling, he had regaled her—always in secret—with whispered stories about winter sunshine and a beautiful benevolent queen holding court under an open sky, listening to her subjects’ petitions, not just nobility, but farmers and peasants, too. Often, she would surprise them by bestowing generous gifts. He never called this queen by name, and would close the story by vowing loyalty to the current queen, an utterance that rang hollow, no matter how many times it was repeated. But those stories were a long time ago, embellished and romanticized, as unlikely as a fable. That fairy-tale queen had nothing in common with the sovereign seated before Rayven now.
Sylifke gazed at her, tapping the talon of her index finger on the marble arm of her throne. Her hair was a silvery waterfall of curls, her gown breathtaking, but her face was all sharp angles, craftiness and cruelty: a portrait painted by two different artists, one who valued beauty and light, the other who treasured darkness and malice.
“You failed me, Miss Sabran,” said the queen.
“I am sorry, my queen.” Rayven cast her eyes down. “I have given you their reasons for keeping Sasha, they are within their ri—”
“My only son is dead,” Sylifke hissed, “and you want me to accept their reasons, their rights as you call them, to stand between me and Ruskin’s murderer?”
“No, Ma’am.” Rayven put her hands behind her back, not daring to look up.
“So they will try him at court, like one of their own citizens…” mused Sylifke.
The queen’s voice slithered around the empty throne room. All things considered, she did not sound as angry as Rayven had expected, but the queen was known to hide rage—to release it later, just when you thought you were safe.
“That’s what I understand, Ma’am.”
“And the lady in the ice… did you know her?”
“No, Ma’am. I never met her.”
“Was she fae?”
“I was told she might be half.”
“I assume she had dark hair?”
Rayven felt unbalanced by this line of questioning. She wasn’t sure why it mattered. Rayven had guessed the frozen woman had jilted Prince Ruskin at some point during the festival, ticked him off, maybe humiliated him. Unlike his mother, Ruskin had had no self-control whatsoever. Rayven searched her memory, but truthfully, she had not gotten a good look at the lady before or after the ice. What’s done was done. But Sylifke was waiting for an answer, and Rayven found she had a vague recollection of a dark blur inside the ice, in the vicinity of the woman’s head.
“I believe so, Ma’am,” she said.
Abruptly, Sylifke stood, making Rayven flinch and glance up. But the queen was not looking at her. She took the three steps down to floor level, walked some distance away, then stopped, a sure sign that she was thinking. No, not thinking. The queen did not think; she contrived, devised, machinated. She muttered something that sounded to Rayven like, ‘This might work for us’, but, surely, that couldn’t be right. Ruskin had been slaughtered, his throat torn out. Was the queen in denial? Had she misunderstood the situation?
Sylifke turned back to Rayven. “What did they do with her?”
“Of course the woman,” the queen snapped.
“I-I…” Rayven felt poleaxed. The queen had just lost her only son, yet she was showing more interest in the person Ruskin had attacked.
“Well?” Sylifke stomped her foot, like Rayven was a mule that needed to get moving.
Rayven expected that at any moment she would be sentenced to prison, or exiled. Or maybe the queen would just run her through with an ice-blade, right here in the throne room. Why bother with prison? She swallowed before filling the room with conjecture, hoping she might land on something the queen wanted to hear.
“I assume they’ll wait for the ice to melt. They may not even understand the significance of it,” Rayven guessed. “If she is a halfling, she won’t survive. Then, I suppose they’ll bury her, or send her back to wherever she’s from to be buried. She wasn’t a Solanan citizen. I heard she was from… somewhere south.”
“And when is the trial?”
Rayven blinked. Following Sylifke’s line of thought was like chasing a rubber ball through a labyrinth.
“They haven’t set a date yet,” she blurted, heart pounding in her ears like a war drum.
“Right,” said the queen, sounding like she’d decided something. “Fetch my scribe.”
“Do it now!”
Rayven ran from the throne room, her footsteps echoing around the queen as she stood there, ticking through possibilities, weighing opportunities. A smile slid across her face, one of triumph.
“So, you think you found her, my son? If you are right, then you will be remembered as a hero. And all that remains is to finish what you started.”
Chapter One: Jess
Laec and Grex were a blur of thundering black flesh, flashing hooves, and flying red hair far ahead of Jessamine. Her mount—which she’d never ridden before, but borrowed from the stables because he looked more awake than the others—a painted gelding named Kitabee, sturdy and stalwart though he was, could not keep up with the Stavarjakian stallion. Tears streamed from Jess’s eyes as she pressed low over Kitabee’s neck, urging him on. Her breath was hot in her throat, her thighs screaming their own burning pain as she crouched above the saddle the way Laec had shown her.
The race had been Laec’s idea. So had the ride. At another time, when things in Jess’s life were humming along the tracks of routine, she would have declined his invitation. But routine had been derailed, along with Jess’s peace-of-mind, not to mention good nights’ sleeps. Jess had not been able to see Sasha— or Rialta—in the four days since he had fainted in the lion’s den and been carried away, hidden by a crowd of soldiers, Fahyli and big familiars.
So when Laec knocked on her door—before the palace corridors began to bustle with life, before the stable hands had rubbed the sleep from their eyes—dressed in boots and riding leathers, Jess had agreed. Beazle complained that even the bugs weren’t awake before tucking his wings more tightly around himself and going back to sleep.
As Solana City came into view, Laec slowed Grex to a canter, then a walk, giving Jess and Kitabee time to catch up. They caught their breath as rays of silvery sunlight kissed the highest towers, lighting the terra-cotta tiles and reflecting off stained-glass windows. Flags fastened to the tallest towers whipped and snapped. They could be heard even from where Jess and Laec stood upon a distant hill. Solana’s lion’s head sigil blinked in and out of sight.
A pang of loss tugged at Jess’s heart as she thought of Marion, and of Greta. Marion had lived long enough to know of Jess’s ascension—if it could be called that—to the ranks of the Calyx, but not the many strange turns Jess’s life and talents had taken. Jess was no longer a child. This she felt within—like the hardening of candle wax once the flame was blown out—as she was forced to respond to difficult circumstances, make difficult choices. No, Jess was no longer the naïve and innocent village girl she had once been, no longer the novice Calyx who didn’t know up from down.
She scanned the city walls, the towers, the incredible beauty of the wealthiest kingdom on the continent of Ivryndi. Despite the incredible power and loveliness all her mind could muster was: Where are you?
A visit to the city gaol—a place Jess hoped never to visit again—confirmed that Sasha and Rialta were not being kept there, which was a relief. But it had also become clear that no one was going to give her their exact whereabouts—either because they didn’t know or because they were sticking to the rules. Permission had to be given by one of three people: the justice—who didn’t live at the palace and whom Jess never learned the name of as everyone just called them ‘the justice’—Captain Bradburn, or Ian Peneçek. Presumably, the king and queen’s say-so would work as well.
Ilishec hadn’t seemed to notice that Jess’s focus on her work was basically non-existent. He bustled about the palace in a state of constant fretting and frustration over the way the Calyx had reacted to the quarantining of their familiars. Of Solana’s flora fae familiar population, only Ania and Beazle had escaped the week-long hell of being restricted to life in a small box. Some of the insects seemed to understand and accept their fate, like Sphex, Jalla, and Amarylis’s familiar, a carpenter bee named Xylo. But Bombini, Trea, and Heath’s familiar, Coco, buzzed about their tiny prison walls angrily, eating hardly at all. Others fell into a despondency that would have sent their fae into a panic had the Calyx not been mystically connected to their familiars. Familiars who’d gone dormant had responded to none of the attempts to revive or comfort them: nectar, music, fragrant blooms tucked inside their boxes to be a comfort and a nourishment.
The good news though, was that four days had passed and none of the familiars were acting in the way Moony had before he died. Ilishec reminded the Calyx of this beam of light in an otherwise dark time, but the Calyx were too upset to work until the quarantine was over—and there were still three days to go.
Jess and Laec rode back to the stables and put their mounts in the capable hands of the grooms to be rubbed down, blanketed, fed and watered. They parted ways with hardly a word, and it wasn’t until Jess was bathing away the smell of horse in her suite that she regretted not asking him how he was. How he really was. He cared deeply for Çifta and not knowing if she would survive the ice must be torture.
She chided her reflection as she combed out her hair: “You’re not the only one suffering, you know.”
She donned a long-sleeved woolen gown of deep burgundy, a typical winter dress for a Calyx. She pinned back half of her hair, revealing her ears, before wrapping a thick scarf around her neck and a soft fur cape around her upper body; she felt ready to go outside. Everyone was complaining that this winter was the coldest in a hundred years, but Jess was too distracted to care much about the weather. As she opened the door to leave her room, Beazle swooped from the ceiling and crawled under the hair at the nape of her neck. Jess smiled when she felt him drop off into a doze again almost immediately.
Jessamine spent most of her time in the west keep, hoping for some clue about Sasha’s whereabouts and avoiding the moping Calyx in the east keep.
“But what if they’re being mistreated, or not fed well, or Sasha needs to have a letter delivered?” Jess complained to Regalis as he carved a new handle for an old Kittrell blade that had belonged to his grandfather.
The Fahyli spared her a glance. “They’re fine, Jess. No one is presumed guilty or treated as such before a trial. Their needs are being met. Now leave it alone. Leave me alone,” he added with a cornerwise smile of affectionate annoyance.
Jessamine sat down on the bench beside him. The head of an eagle was taking shape under his deft fingers. It was already so like Ferrugin that Jess should have been impressed. She stared blankly at Regalis’s hands as they coaxed a new shape from the wood, registering nothing.
She sprang up again. “But, where are they?”
“Jess, you’re in my light.” Regalis pushed her sideways, then blasted dust and shavings away from his creation with a quick, well-aimed puff. Condensation misted the air and dissipated on the winter wind. “Why is it important to you, anyway?”
“I told you.” Jess replied a little too quickly. “We’re friends.”
“I see.” Regalis’s tone said he didn’t care.
Beazle shifted sleepily, coming briefly out of his slumber with an exasperation that matched Regalis’s. You’ve interrogated pretty much everyone else. Why not him too?
Who? Jess looked around and caught a flash of sunshine on brown hair and tanned cheeks as Digit walked by the open gate before disappearing behind the stone wall. A moment later Ania hummed by in a straight line.
“Bye Regalis,” murmured Jess, her sights and hope now set on Digit.
Regalis didn’t look up. “Mercy, at last.”
Jess caught up to Digit as he climbed a rocky trail curving up and around the base of the castle, leading to pastureland. It passed a forested copse where animals gathered between the slender trunks for shade on hot days and shelter on windy ones. Right now there was so much horseflesh crammed into the grove that their exhaled breath hovered over them like a fog.
“Shouldn’t you be on the other side of the palace?” Digit asked as she fell in step beside him.
“The Calyx are on strike,” Jess replied, picking up her skirts to make for easier walking over the rough terrain.
This was not strictly true. Ilishec had—in a moment of irritation—referred to the Calyx’s lack of interest in work during the quarantine as a strike, and the term had stuck, even though it was not their intention to be rebellious. Their insects were in distress, so naturally, they were also. Jess, however, had many Calyx duties she could do on her own—botanical studies, sweat sessions, even learning the new spring dances—but if the rest of the Calyx weren’t working, then she didn’t want to either. Jess told Ilishec that it was solidarity for her fellow flora fae. He’d rolled his eyes but let it go. Really, it was all about Sasha.
Digit looked up at the sky, calculating something, maybe the time. “I’d go on strike too, if the crofter wanted to put Ania in a box.”
“Well, sure,” replied Jess. “Can I ask you something?”
“I’m all ears.”
“Do you know where they might keep someone… who… recently got in trouble with the law?”
Ania landed in the pillow of Digit’s hair, looking like a glittering jewel in the world’s softest nest.
Digit cocked an eyebrow. “Gee, I wonder who that might be? No, I don’t know where they’re keeping Sasha and his wolf, but I do know the palace pretty well, and they’re not in it. If they were, the guard rotation would make it obvious.”
Jess stumbled over a loose stone. “Not in the palace?”
“Careful.” He put a hand under her elbow.
“I’d guess they’re in the caperlands.”
The name rang a very small, very distant bell.
The caperlands referred to a run-down building on a corner of land that was totally overgrown and mostly forgotten. The palace grounds were massive, with not only huge yards, gardens, greenhouses and keeps, but also countless outbuildings, towers, stables, forges and sheds. Jess had never had a reason to visit the caperlands, but recalled seeing it marked on one of the secret passageway maps. It was positioned well away from the palace, beyond even the training yards.
“They use it as a prison?” Jess pulled up her scarf as they turned a corner and a blast of wind struck her in the face.
Digit pulled a pair of gloves from the pocket of his bulky coat. “Not usually. It’s a five-hundred-year-old building that hasn’t been maintained, but it’s still pretty solid. They say it was the building Erasmus first lived in while Solana City was being built. Caperberries took over the land, hence the name.”
“Weird place to keep him,” Jess mumbled.
“Better than the gaol or the dungeons,” Digit said, tugging a glove on with his teeth as he lifted his collar for Ania to crawl inside. “I heard there was a big debate about where to keep them. Laws say he should be gaoled, but many view him as a hero, so they pressured the justice to put him somewhere nicer. The justice is up for an election next year, so I guess he caved, which is just as well. Sasha and Rialta don’t deserve to be thrown in with murderers and thieves.”
Jess felt a renewed sense of hope. “Thanks, Digit. In that case, the caperlands makes a lot of sense.”
“It’s an educated guess, but I’d stay away if I were you.” At her expression, he put up his palms. “Just a suggestion. It’s your business, but you’d better not let Ilishec see you with that look on your face.”
Digit strode away, leaving Jess standing alone with a pounding heart. What did her face look like when she was thinking of Sasha? However her love changed her features, it was recognizable as love to others, and that was a little frightening given the circumstances.
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