For the first time in e-book format, a harrowing tale of war and survival from a master of dark fantasy.
Aradia is only thirteen when the war begins. The brutal Saz-Kronians have invaded from the North, laying siege to her homeland, and as the war grows ever closer, Aradia’s father and mother are called to Fort Hightower to help defend the City. To keep Aradia safe, they send her to live with her Aunt Elaieva, a cold and distant woman, until the danger has passed.
But Hightower falls. Her parents die in the battle. And deeply depressed, her Aunt commits suicide—leaving her home and fortune to Aradia. Unfortunately, inheritance laws mean little in the wake of war. The City has surrendered, and Aradia’s home is taken over by Flag Colonel Keer Gurz, an officer of the occupying Saz-Kronian army, who quickly becomes enamored with her.
Yet the war is hardly over. Aradia’s homeland joins into the Charvro Alliance, gaining new allies and resources, and Aradia finds herself swept up in the Kronian retreat. In order to survive, Aradia must learn to play both sides of the war, taking on many different roles and identities, but never forgetting her love for Thenser Zavion, a soldier some name traitor and others liberator. Even as circumstances make her a pawn in greater power games, Aradia is destined to be at the center of the shifting tides—destined to be a heroine of the world.
Release date: January 4, 2022
Print pages: 538
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A Heroine of the World
My aunt’s house stood at the corner of Hapsid Forum. It was thought unusual, and so it probably was, with its midnight walls, thick scarlet columns and shutters picked out in red. From the garden a gigantic pine thrust its way high over the roof, the branches becoming visible the moment one drove into East Avenue. And, “There is your aunt’s pine tree,” my mother would say briskly.
“There is your aunt’s pine tree.”
“The gales have not been kind to it,” remarked my mother, with slight malice.
I turned myself in the carriage to see what had happened to the pine.
“Don’t wriggle so, child. Did we bring you up to be a stoat?”
“I’d like that. Being a stoat.”
“No, you would not. What’s worse, you would be shedding your winter coat all over my carriage. That is, if I hadn’t already lost patience with you and had you made into a muff.”
But my mother, despite this interchange, was preoccupied. My father, a major of the White Lions, had been recalled to the mysterious and valiant war at some hour during the night. I had dimly heard the flurry in my sleep, but he did not come to say good-bye to me. This was a grievance. Also, I suspected that I was to be fobbed off for the day on my aunt, of whom I was not entirely certain. My mother I knew and loved, but she was only mine when she was not being my father’s, and the same might be said of him with her. My aunt, though my father’s sister, was no one’s. She belonged only to herself.
Our carriage turned the corner of the Avenue, was walked across the edge of the Forum, and drew up under a pair of black iron gates.
“Pansy,” said my mother to her maid, “get down and ring the bell. Must I tell you everything?”
Pansy, a girl of sixteen, only three years older than I, and looking, I thought, more frightened than was necessary, obeyed. The bell rang, the porter came and unlocked the gate.
The pine, bursting over the rooftop, seemed the same as ever as we went up the steps. The red shutters were wide on the polished windows. Vines crept over the pillars out of their lacquered urns.
“Dia,” said my mother, as we waited in the Red Salon, “it’s all been a great rush, and I suppose that I should have explained to you earlier. Darling, your father has to go back to Fort Hightower, as you know, and I—I’m to join him.”
It was unimaginably worse than I had feared. My mouth dropped open.
“Sweetheart, victory is sure, very soon. I’ll be home again with you—oh, long before winter.”
Before I properly realized why I should, I began to cry.
My mother held out her arms and I fled into them.
“Don’t go! Don’t go!”
“I must, I must. There now, is this the proper way for a sensible little stoat to behave?”
At that crucial, personal moment, my Aunt Elaieva entered the room.
Like guilty lovers my mother and I sprang apart. I wondered later if my mother and father had ever had to do so in front of her; there was a sense of repetition in it. But my mother had the wit to keep hold of my hand as, messed with tears, I turned.
I had not met Aunt Elaieva for several months, which interim seemed years to me. She appeared always a stranger. Unlike the fairness of my mother’s side, she was, like my father, olive-skinned and dark. Black hair smoothed itself back from her forehead, below which brows and eyes had been marked with such ebony decision. Her clothing was neither in the fashion nor out of it. Really, you could not say where it was exactly. But if her style was ambivalent, also it was bold: a viridian sash, a pair of silver earrings. My mother was like some busy flower before her, a hyacinth or sweetpea.
“Elaieva,” she said, in the brisk tone that invested all their dealings, even at the remove of a pine tree, “you’ll have heard, he was recalled last night.”
“The wide-open gape of war,” said Elaieva, in a beautiful, cold, unremembered voice.
“Well, there it is. And here, I’m afraid, are the child and I.”
“I received your message. You wish me to take your daughter off your hands.”
“To take her rather under your wing,” amended my mother, most civilly. “My husband has some claim on me. I believe you’ll have been told the strategy—”
“A singularly stupid one,” said Aunt Elaieva. She did not look angry, but she had interrupted.
“Dear sister,” said my mother, with every ounce of falseness she could summon, “I have only this one morning to arrange it. I’m to have an escort and must be ready to leave—”
“Dry your eyes,” Elaieva said to me, interrupting again. “It’s useless to cry. She’s going.”
I turned back and stared at my mother in anguish. To be informed of my defeat by the enemy was more than I could bear. But my mother only bent her hyacinth head to me and retracted me into her embrace. “Sweetest, your things are to come round before midday. Our rooms will be shut up and you are on no account to go there and bother the servants. Pansy is coming with me—” Oh, lucky hateful Pansy, might the earth swallow her—“And you, my dear, must be splendid and make your aunt, who is so kind as to take you in, not regret for a single second that she has done so. Now, have you listened? Do you understand?”
I sobbed that I did. My tears had stained her silk bodice dark as blood. As she left me, I felt bereft beyond words, or thoughts. I seemed to have lost my mind. But I choked down my weeping before my dreadful aunt, not to please her, but because she was an alien.
She allowed me, as if to try to break me nevertheless, a last view of my mother and Pansy being driven away from me across the Forum. My heart strained and cracked within me, but I cannot say it was a premonition. I had no idea at that time I would never see my mother again.
During the next two weeks I settled sullenly into the new temporary life. I had only one flash of respite, when I decided, as my birthday fell in early autumn, and as it was unthinkable my mother should miss it, she was sure to have returned by then. Even so, ultimately, this only made things worse, for autumn was an age away. We had never seriously been parted before. Indeed, I was born in a village in the hills on a long-ago campaign when she had, against advice, gone visiting my father, then a mere lieutenant. Afterward she had had to leave him and bring me home to cheap lodgings in the City. We were poor in those days.
My aunt was very far from poverty. Her black house was filled by efficient and nearly invisible servants, some of whom, when seen, alarmed me, for they acted as if scarcely human, more like ensorcelled dolls. It was these beings who tidied my bed, brought my breakfast, and water for my bath. The midday meal was served for me alone in a small pleasant purposeless chamber on the first floor. This had become for me a sort of playroom, where I might do very much as I wanted. I was also allowed the garden, but to roam the house was discouraged. For my aunt’s bedroom, library, study and chapel, they were forbidden and in fact kept locked against the world. I saw my aunt rarely during the day, but at night we would normally eat together in the Sphynx Salon. Elaieva did not bother to keep me to a child’s hours of dining, or retiring, which until then I had had fairly rigidly observed on my behalf. At home my supper was presented to me at the fifth hour of the evening, and Pansy would have packed me into my bed by the time the old cracked bell of the Pantheon gave tongue for ten. But in Elaieva’s house we took dinner between seven and eight at night, reclining on the scrolled couches of the Sphynx Salon in the classical way my family seldom troubled with. After dinner Elaieva might offer a scatter of sentences to me. My education had been rather random. I was taught to read and thereafter what I learned was largely dependent on what books I chose to put in front of my eyes. Those tutors I had had never properly succeeded in convincing me of the true reality of anything beyond my home life. This had been so happy and comforting, and just strict enough, and just eccentric enough to content me to the exclusion of most other matters. My aunt detected my shortcomings. I could not follow her most ordinary flights. For example, she spoke of the East and at once I saw—and vocalized—golden domes rising from a magician’s mist and princesses riding upon flying carpets. She raised her brows, and the conversation closed. I seemed to bore her. And even the treat of falling asleep on the carpet of the first floor room, my head on a game of Temples, at midnight, did not make up for the loss of love and happiness.
There had been, in the apartment below that of my parents, another girl, of fourteen, with whom I had sometimes played, and gone walking in the public gardens. One morning, finding my aunt in a corridor, I suggested I should go to call on this other girl. To add weight, I virtuously murmured she and I might put flowers before the shrine of Vulmartis, at the Pantheon.
“No,” said Elaieva, her black eyes already moving by me and the rest of her about to.
“But Litty and I have often done it. My mother always lets me go. Litty will take her maid—”
“I mean,” said my aunt, “that your friend’s family have left the city.”
I was amazed, outraged. Had my and Litty’s mother taken her away to the fortress in my stead? Something of this dashed from me.
“Not everyone rushes into the cannon’s mouth,” said my aunt. “The people you refer to have escaped in another direction.”
I could not fathom this. My aunt did not say another word.
That afternoon, sitting under the pine tree in the spring sunshine, I heard male voices very near. Two pairs of army boots came around a lilac hedge with two beautiful uniformed officers in them. I was overcome, and my face caught fire, not being used to sudden meetings alone with exotic unknown young men. Even so, I recognized the insignia instantly. They were captains, and their regiment was the Eagles.
They seemed very much at home in Aunt Elaieva’s garden, and had been chatting about gambling, not that I really knew what gambling was. Now they stood above me and exclaimed.
“It’s a child.”
“Origos! Can it be hers?”
“Don’t be a fool,” said the shorter of the two. He looked vexed, but then laughed. He had a mane of light-colored hair and unnerving odd-shaped humorous eyes. “Madam,” he said to me gravely, “it is a delight to find you so prettily here on the grass. Pray tell us to whom you belong.”
Old training not to speak to strangers set in. I held my tongue and gazed at the flowers I had been plaiting.
My aunt spoke from over the hedge. She had come up soundlessly as was her wont. “This is my brother’s daughter, gentlemen. Her name is Aradia.”
I glanced up proudly at my proper title, and so saw the light-haired young man going as red in the face for my aunt as I had done for him. But he carried it better, seeming amused to blush, and bowing to her soldier-fashion as she moved around the hedge. She gave both men her cold slim hand to kiss. It was not that I had thought her elderly especially, she was only on the timeless plateau of the adult. But it had certainly never occurred to me that, like one of our flighty maids, my aunt received admirers.
She allowed them to walk with her across the lawn to the sundial, and the pond where the marble swan with a woman’s head sat stilly in the water.
Curious, nostalgic for the elements of my father’s army, I trailed after.
“Finished by the winter?” the second, taller, young man was saying. “High summer should see it out. Half their troops are sick with dysentery. The other half are rebelling and clamoring to go home. I tell you, Elaieva, for us it’s just a little holiday. And, as you see, eternal leaves.”
“Your brother, of course, the major, is distinguishing himself in all directions,” said Fair-Hair, laughing again.
Elaieva seemed not to notice. But I wanted more.
“What is he doing?” I inquired.
Fair-Hair turned round and looked at me intently.
“Why, madam, riding at the head of the charge, making gallant sorties, taking prisoners. And at night, in full dress uniform, he dances with your lovely mother between banquet tables groaning with game and cakes.”
This only bewildered me, but since he had been good enough to offer it, I tried to seem enlightened.
“They go to bed,” added the tall captain, not to be left out, “at four in the morning, and rise at six to bombard the enemy positions.”
“And may we stay to dine with you?” asked the other, gazing at my aunt.
Her assent was indifferent. Yet he sat down at her feet, and they all began to talk of the entire universe I did not know, in forms I could not follow. Presently I left them, having crowned the swan-woman with my flowers.
I went to playdream under the pine. Where my remorseful mother was soon hurrying home and finding me pale and sad, and my father was leading a charge, flying through the air on a horse with wings.
Fair-Hair’s name was Thenser, as I found out that evening.
He and his companion lounged elegantly on the scrolled couches and red and yellow wine was served in glass kraters. Otherwise nothing seemed any different. We ate from the Sphynx service, to match the salon, as always, only more of it. There were, as usual, no flowers on the table, and Thenser’s companion—whose name I heard but forgot—offered to have some sent my aunt from the hothouses.
“You’re very kind, but I prefer not,” she said.
“Isn’t there anything,” said Thenser playfully, “a man can be allowed to give you?”
She sent him one icy stare, and he flushed again.
Greedily intent on my dinner, I did wonder why he should want to visit when she was so unfriendly, or why she let him when she disliked him so much.
After dinner, they played cards, and I joined them for one or two sets of expurgated Red-and-White, but I was not clever at cards, nor very interested. Forgotten Name became rather irritated with me, so I declined another game, though Thenser tried to call me back. My aunt then said that I would probably prefer to go downstairs and draw or read, and this had the effect of propelling me away altogether.
About midnight, still wide awake with my crayons in the first floor room, I thought I heard them leaving, and stole out to catch a last glimpse of Thenser and the army.
Only the lamp in the foyer was burning before the house-god, but by its glow I saw Forgotten Name, sworded, cloaked and helmed, vanishing through the black door, which one of the servants shut behind him. As the servant withdrew, the door of the Sphynx Salon opened wide above and yellow light fanned down the stair.
“There is no point at all,” I heard Aunt Elaieva say, “in your remaining to tell me that.”
“Perhaps. You knew already,” said Thenser. His voice was soft and blurred.
“You should leave now,” Elaieva replied.
I could not see them, but abruptly both their shadows appeared in lieu of them, thrown on the damask wall. He was the same height in his boots as she was in her high-heeled slippers, and this did not fit with my notions: The hero should always be some inches taller than the heroine.
No one had told him, presumably, he was disqualified from the role.
His shadow leaned precipitously toward hers, his shadow had got hold of hers, so that they blended and were monstrously one. Save for a very slight flickering, this shadow-beast did not thereafter move for some while.
Then, as quickly as it had joined, it fell away, became again her shadow, and his. And now his shadow was violently agitated, all of it shuddered, gesticulated. Hers did not alter.
“Now will you let me stay?” he said breathlessly.
“No,” she said.
At that, his shadow again converged on hers, but now there was an explosion of movement, the monster unable to reform and wildly opening into diamonds and squares, ovals and oblongs of light, before breaking apart.
“No, is what I said.”
“Then I’m never to trouble you again.” He had got his breath back. His voice was leaden.
“It might save you some annoyance.”
“And you. Since apparently I do annoy you, Elaieva.”
There was a silence. (Fascinated, I had naturally realized I should not be watching, and was ready to dart into cover.)
“In fact,” he said, “my leave’s canceled. I’m to go out again tomorrow. These things are minimized, you understand, in case the citizens grow uneasy. But I think you know our danger.”
“Of course,” she said, “but if you mean I should invite you into my bed because tomorrow you may die, or the day after the enemy may be at the City gate—you’d be very foolish, Thenser.”
“Yes, I’m a fool, a fool for you. But I don’t expect that. Either you’ll have me or you won’t.”
“Give me up,” she said with a brittle lightness I had never heard in her voice before.
“If you tell me to.”
“I do tell you.”
“Then, I give you up,” he said. His voice was suddenly theatrical, eloquent, full of the relish of pain. “And I can die and be damned now. Good night, priestess.”
Behind my door, astonished, I heard him run like a cat down the stair and out of the house.
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