“Dripping with bloody opulence, A Multitude of Dreams creeps up on you like a sly shadow. I couldn’t guess at the horrors until it was too late to look away! I loved this book.” —Erin A. Craig, New York Times bestselling author of House of Salt and Sorrow
The bloody plague is finally past, but what fresh horror lies in its wake?
Princess Imogen of Goslind has lived a sheltered life for three years at the boarded-up castle—she and the rest of its inhabitants safe from the bloody mori roja plague that’s ravaged the kingdom. But Princess Imogen has a secret, and as King Stuart descends further into madness, it’s at great risk of being revealed. Rations dwindle each day, and unhappy murmurings threaten to crack the facade of the years-long charade being played within the castle walls.
Nico Mott once enjoyed a comfortable life of status, but the plague took everyone and everything from him. If not for the generosity of a nearby lord, Nico may not have survived the mori roja’s aftermath. But does owing Lord Crane his life mean he owes him his silence?
When Lord Crane sends Nico to search for more plague survivors in the castle, Nico collides with a princess who wants to break out. They will each have to navigate the web of lies they’ve woven if they’re going to survive the nightmares ahead.
Release date: September 26, 2023
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Print pages: 304
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A Multitude of Dreams
Eldridge Hall was a castle built on lies.
In the highest chamber of the tallest tower, where it was drafty on even the stillest day, Seraphina stood at the sole window’s ledge. Even that window was a lie, for it had been hastily boarded up years ago, and a window that couldn’t be seen through was just another wall. Any minute, the ebony clock in the great hall would send out three booming chimes, announcing the start of another elaborate dinner the kingdom couldn’t afford.
The real time hardly mattered; the clock maker had died years ago of the mori roja, and if there was someone left outside the castle to repair it, the king would never risk the health of his beloved youngest daughter to find them. As she descended the steps to the dining hall, she hummed the tune to a children’s nursery rhyme she’d heard in the early days of the plague, when it hadn’t yet reached the city. The plague was called the mori roja in royal circles, but out there, beyond the castle walls, it had been called the Bloody Three.
Here was a fact: three was the unluckiest of all numbers. It was the number of wretched older sisters Seraphina had; it was the number of times per day she had to visit the mad king in his chambers; it was the number of days it took a person to die of the mori roja.
And it was the time the ebony clock insisted on announcing every hour for years, as stubborn in its denial of reality as the king.
Squaring her shoulders and raising her royal chin, Seraphina entered the dining hall. Chairs scraped as lords and ladies rose to greet her. Beyond the exquisite cut crystal and bone china so fine you could nearly see through it, the king was already halfway out of his chair, ready to grace her with one of his kisses that were somehow too wet and too dry at the same time.
“Father,” she said, dropping into the easy curtsy that hadn’t come easily at all. “You’re looking well this evening.”
“Not as well as you, my dear. Doesn’t she look lovely, Lord Greymont? Lord Greymont?” The king tottered in a circle, searching for his favorite young nobleman. “Ah, there you are. Doesn’t my daughter look lovely tonight?”
“As fair as a rose,” Lord Greymont said to Seraphina with a bow. “Please, allow me to accompany you to your chair.”
She bit the inside of her cheek, already raw from her efforts not to groan every time she was forced to pretend. Lord Greymont was no better or worse than any of the other young men at Eldridge Hall, which was to say he was handsome, rich, and achingly dull.
“You always look lovely,” he whispered, his breath on her bare shoulder as unwelcome as the skin on warm milk. “But I must say that pink gown suits your complexion.” His eyes lingered at the delicate neckline a moment too long.
She arched a well-groomed brow. “And you look as dashing as ever. Though we’re all a bit pale, wouldn’t you say?”
“Years indoors will do that to a person, yes.” He shooed a tabby cat off her chair. They were everywhere in the castle, having bred like rabbits for the past few years with no access to the outside, where predators would have kept their population in check. Seraphina sat and allowed Greymont to ease her chair into the table. He took the seat next to hers without asking. “Are you looking forward to your twentieth birthday party?”
“A lady doesn’t like to be reminded of her age,” she said, because it seemed like something a princess would say. In truth, she was seventeen and a half, and her favorite way to spend her birthday was with a picnic.
Lord Greymont had been paying her special attention lately, for reasons she had yet to deduce. “Forgive me, Your Highness. But if I may be so bold, you are even lovelier now than the day I met you.”
She remembered the
day well. She was barely fourteen, coarse and malnourished, starting at shadows as if they were specters. His compliment was hardly bold. But she pursed her lips and dropped her eyes in the appropriate display of femininity, which she had learned was a bizarre combination of modesty and coyness.
“Have you chosen a costume yet?” he asked.
“No, but I have no doubt my sisters are already scheming.” She looked to the end of the table, where the young women sat. Sure enough, they were giggling behind their hands, their rouged cheeks almost garishly bright in the candlelight.
Lord Greymont cleared his throat and leaned closer. “I realize it’s a bit premature, but may I request the first dance?”
“My birthday isn’t for three weeks.”
“True, but I have no doubt you will be booked solid within the fortnight. I can’t risk losing out to our dear Lord Spottington.”
Seraphina sighed. “Lord Pottington only asks because his father demands it. He’s about as ambitious as a garden snail.”
Lord Greymont grinned. “Don’t underestimate him, Your Highness. Even the humble garden snail has aims, slow though he may be.”
“If Lord Pottington is a snail, what does that make me? A leaf?”
His eyes drifted toward his peer, who was pantomiming something to her eldest sister. He was clumsy and awkward—and true, his complexion wasn’t clear, even at twenty-five—but Seraphina knew better than to trust appearances. They were as much a lie as everything else here.
“You, Princess, are far from foliage.”
“You did already compare me to a flower,” she said.
He swirled his wine in its cut-crystal glass, and Seraphina noted absently that the gilded rim was chipped and flaking. “Is fair as a rose not the compliment I thought it was?”
“I can’t say. I haven’t seen a rose in ages.”
“Then I shall make it my life’s work to bring you one.”
She almost snorted, before remembering that a princess would never snort. “Please don’t waste your time on something as trivial as a rose.”
“And what would you have me waste it on? It’s not as if I’m doing anything of value here in the Hall.”
Seraphina took a sip of her own wine, which was heavily watered down. They had to be running out by now. Heaven help the servant to whom it fell to deliver that news to the king. She lowered her voice so that Lord Greymont had to lean in closer. It wasn’t his proximity she craved, but the pleasure of forcing others to bend to her will after so many years of doing it herself. Besides, he smelled nice, like perfumed soap, which was more than could be said of the boys she knew when she was younger.
“And what would you do if you weren’t trapped in the castle?”
His eyes, which she noticed had green flecks in the brown, darted around. She wondered if he would ask her what she meant by trapped. No one was supposed to allude to the game they all played, particularly in the king’s presence. But Lord Greymont’s lips curled just a bit at the corners as he spoke. “I should like to travel the world. I think I might like sailing. I know I would, in fact.”
She brightened unconsciously. “You’ve seen the ocean?”
“Indeed. More than
Not quite as dull as she’d thought, then. “You had access to a ship?”
He nodded. “Dance with me on your birthday, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
She’d learned long ago to couch her annoyance as teasing, though she couldn’t quite keep the edge out of her voice. “You’d keep me waiting that long?”
Something in his eyes shifted, his smile suddenly wicked. He had knowledge she wanted now, and he would use it to draw her in. Not a lie, but more games. Fortunately, Seraphina was good at games, and she could be patient if the prize was something she wanted.
“It will be worth the wait,” he purred. “I promise.”
The wine must be stronger than she’d given it credit for, because Seraphina felt warm and a little giddy. What would the girls back home say if they could see her now, dressed in a beautiful pink gown with a handsome man at her side?
Seraphina pinched the inside of her wrist hard under the table, something she did whenever she found herself enjoying even a moment of her time at Eldridge. Happiness was complacency, and complacency was acceptance. She would never accept this life as her own, not as long as she drew breath.
Besides, what the girls back home thought of any of this didn’t matter anymore. All the girls back home were dead.
After dinner Seraphina retired to the chambers she shared with her older sisters.
“A masquerade!” Rose, the youngest and most excitable of the three, squealed and fell dramatically onto one of the seven brocade fainting couches in their chambers—as if that was all ladies did: eat, sleep, swoon, repeat—upsetting a lounging longhaired ginger. “I can’t decide what I should be!”
“We have weeks to decide,” Seraphina said to her reflection in the vanity mirror. Behind her, Jocelyn, her lady-in-waiting and the only person at Eldridge Seraphina could tolerate, smiled.
“Lord Greymont will look handsome in a mask,” she said, tugging on one of Seraphina’s auburn curls. “Don’t you think?”
She avoided Jocelyn’s eyes as she reached for a silver brush, worth more than most men’s lives, and handed it to her. It was maid’s work, but Jocelyn said it relaxed her, and Seraphina couldn’t deny it was soothing for her as well.
“Lord Greymont would look handsome in anything,” Rose giggled.
“Or nothing.” Nina, her eldest sister, flashed a wicked grin.
Seraphina rolled her eyes as her sisters and their ladies tittered and trilled like a small flock of sparrows. She wondered if there were any birds left outside the castle walls. Dalia, her best friend back when she’d had the luxury of choosing them, had loved songbirds. Goldfinches were a particular favorite. But when the king started hoarding the
crops and livestock, people began to eat anything they could get their hands on. She hadn’t heard a bird outside her window in ages.
“Thinking of your family?” Jocelyn whispered into Seraphina’s ear.
She narrowed her downturned brown eyes, eyes so familiar that her “sisters” had gasped when they spotted her for the first time. She could still hear Giselle, her middle sister, whispering to the others in the entry of her family’s home. She’s perfect. Well, she will be, once we clean away all the filth.
Seraphina wouldn’t cry. She would save her tears for later, when she went to her room in the tower. A room so cramped and dim that it allowed her to believe—for one bittersweet moment every morning—that she was home.
When they’d first brought her to the castle, she’d slept in her own royal chamber, more opulent and luxurious than anything she could have imagined. But a few months into her life here she’d discovered the empty tower and began sneaking up at night. The more she allowed herself to relish in the beautiful gowns and sumptuous meals, the more she let the flattery of men like Lord Greymont warm her cheeks—and worse, her belly—the easier it was to forget the people she had left behind to die of the mori roja. Not just her family, but her whole community. The whole world, for all she knew. For all anyone at the castle knew.
“I’m going to be a butterfly,” Rose said. “A beautiful pink butterfly.”
“There’s no such thing as a pink butterfly.” Nina plucked a candied cherry from one of the bowls of crystallized fruit that followed the princesses everywhere they went. Seraphina never touched it, no matter how tempting; she seemed to be the only one who remembered that the fruit was not never-ending. None of this was.
They’d been sequestered in the castle for nearly four years, and she still didn’t know where the fruit came from. No one was allowed out of the castle, and no one was allowed in. Jocelyn believed there was a secret tunnel the servants used, because though the king demanded his delicacies, he’d never told them how they were supposed to provide fresh food through what may as well be a siege. But Seraphina was rarely ever alone outside her tower—Giselle had made certain of that—and she had no idea where the tunnel could be.
“There might be pink butterflies,” Rose insisted. “You’ve never even been outside of Goslind.”
Nina plucked another cherry, mimicking Rose when her back was turned. “I’m going to be a siren.”
“What does a siren costume consist of?” Jocelyn asked.
“Cleavage,” Rose retorted before Nina could answer, and even Seraphina had to laugh. Rose wasn’t usually quick or witty.
“Ha ha,” Nina said, though she was admiring said cleavage in the mirror. “I’m going to wear a long blue gown, with my hair down and flowing, and I’ll leave my feet bare.”
“Careful you don’t wind up dancing with any of the Archer brothers,” Jocelyn said. “They’re as graceful as a herd of cattle.”
“What will you be?” Rose asked Seraphina, perching on the arm of her chair. “A mermaid? A swan? Oh, what about a fairy? You’d look so lovely in
a pair of wings.”
“I imagine Giselle will choose for me.” Giselle was in her own private room with her ladies-in-waiting. She avoided Seraphina whenever possible, forcing others to do the dirty work of keeping her in check.
“Come now, you must have some preference,” Jocelyn pressed.
Seraphina raised an indifferent shoulder. Her entire life was one never-ending masquerade; she couldn’t drum up enthusiasm for another. Jocelyn set the brush back down on the vanity and a shimmer caught Seraphina’s eye. She plucked a golden strand of hair from the brush and held it up to Jocelyn.
“We’ll need to dye it again this week,” Jocelyn said. “I know you hate it.”
“The henna irritates my scalp.” Seraphina frowned, tilting her head to watch the light catch the trace of a scar on her jawline, rendered almost invisible by pearl powder.
“I’m sorry, darling. But what choice do we have?”
The question was rhetorical. They both knew they had no choices when it came to their lives at Eldridge. Jocelyn’s entire family had died of the Bloody Three, including her infant sister. Her childhood nurse had written to Jocelyn several months after the castle gates were locked, warning her to stay away, not realizing Jocelyn couldn’t leave even if she wanted to. But Jocelyn considered herself fortunate to be here, safe and sound from the mori roja, and she thought Seraphina should, too.
They were safe, perhaps, but nothing was sound. Life at Eldridge Hall was like a child’s wooden block tower, only the blocks were lies, the king was the child, and one wrong move didn’t just mean a few weepy minutes on a nursemaid’s knee. It meant death.
“I think I’ll go to bed,” Seraphina said, rising from her vanity.
“Let me help you change out of your gown.” Jocelyn wasn’t a beauty like Rose, or a coquette like Nina, but she was kind and clever. She was the only one who knew what Seraphina was really thinking, even though Seraphina liked to believe she’d gotten quite good at playing princess by now.
“I can do it myself,” she said gently. “Get some rest.”
“At least take an extra blanket,” Jocelyn insisted, kissing her on the cheek. “It’s so drafty up there.”
No one liked to think about Seraphina up in the tower. It distracted from the charade. Rose waved sleepily from the settee. “May you dream of Lord Greymont and a royal wedding.”
“And a royal wedding night,” Nina added.
“Good night, Princess Imogen,” Jocelyn said as she closed the door behind Seraphina.
She climbed the stairs to her tower barefoot, relishing the way the cold stone bit into
the soles of her pampered feet, a ritual that kept her from ever forgetting where she came from. After locking the thin wooden door behind her, she went to the windowsill and pressed her eye to a small crack in the wooden boards, relieved when she saw her: a girl clad in a white linen dress, her delicate features merely a smudge at this distance. She was the greatest reminder of home that Seraphina had. Every day Seraphina feared that she wouldn’t come, but every night she did. Dalia, her best friend.
Seraphina waited for her to wave, just one raised hand before she disappeared into the forest as the clock began to chime once more. Dalia was the only true thing she had left, the last remaining vestige of a world she would return to, one day. Because she was not a princess, or the king’s daughter, or even a lady.
Her name was Seraphina Blum. She was a Jew who had survived the plague because she was a pretty girl with sad eyes who happened to look like a dead princess.
And that was the most beautiful lie of all.
Nico stabbed his shovel into the dirt, which thankfully wasn’t yet frozen. Burying bodies was a miserable task under any circumstance; burying them in snow and ice was an altogether different breed of torture. He tossed a pile of dirt onto the rotting arm of a corpse, little more than a skeleton at this point, unlike its more freshly deceased neighbor.
His late father, a butcher who had turned the head of a nobleman’s daughter—much to her father’s chagrin—had reminded Nico often that he was made of softer stuff than his two older brothers. At least Nico had inherited Jeremiah’s strong stomach. It came in handy for grave digging.
In all other ways Nico took after his mother, tall and lean with a perpetually furrowed brow. He’d always been Lucinda’s favorite, a role he had cherished until she died of the mori roja in his arms. He hefted the shovel and drove it into the dirt harder than necessary, just to prove to himself that he wasn’t as soft as he’d once been. His father and brothers would hardly recognize him now. Why, they’d be—
The shovel’s head slammed into a rock, sending shock waves through Nico’s arm. He shook it out, scowling at the sky. Someone up there had a shit sense of humor.
“That’s the last of them,” Colin said, coming to stand next to Nico. Colin Chambers had been a chimney sweep before the plague, and now Nico, a gentleman—by birth if not manners—was working side by side with him. Death truly was the great equalizer.
Nico nodded. “Only three bodies this week. That’s three less than last week.”
Colin swiped his forearm over his brow, revealing branching red streaks on the light brown skin of his inner wrist that matched the marks on Nico’s own. Built like a chimney, Colin was uniquely suited to life as a sweep, work he’d detested but which, in the end, had spared him witnessing the worst of the plague. Just before it hit, he’d been sent to the seaside for a few weeks by his employer, who had taken pity on him after listening to him cough all winter long. The plague hit while Colin was at the shore, and his employer’s family had let him stay on there to look after the house while they sailed for even safer lands.
The plague had eventually spread throughout Goslind and beyond its borders to the surrounding kingdoms, but when it reached the shore, Colin found that, like Nico, he was one of the lucky few with blood immunity. He had come back eventually to check on his family, but they were all “dead or fled,” as the saying went.
Nico’s family never had the chance to flee. He’d been the one to care for them during their final three bloody days. His brothers may have been sturdy and strong like their father, but they’d died the same way his mother had: with blood spilling from their pores, their eyes, their ears, their noses, and every other orifice imaginable. He’d never know if his father had been immune. He’d died shortly before the plague hit.
“Most of these bodies have been out here for a good while, months and months. The plague is over,” Colin said, then promptly knocked on Nico’s head. “Touch wood.”
“Ow.” Nico rubbed at his brown hair, which had grown long enough to tie into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. The barber who’d once kept his hair fashionably styled was dead, along with his tailor, his cobbler, the butcher, the baker, and the bloody candlestick maker.
“We should get back to the house. It’s nearly nightfall.” Colin picked the empty wheelbarrow up by the handles and turned it around toward the stately stone manor on the hill. The place they now called home.
It was strange to be a servant after so many years of having them, but not a day went by that Nico didn’t thank his lucky stars for his savior, Lord Crane. Nico had gone to his neighbors in the days immediately following the plague, hoping to be of some use with his medical knowledge, but they had all been too afraid to open their doors to anyone. And considering no one had ever come to him seeking aid or refuge, he had to assume a huge portion of the population
For a while he had contemplated going to Esmoor, the capital city and the epicenter of the plague. Even if no one had need of him, perhaps he could learn more about the mori roja and how it spread. He wasn’t brilliant enough to find a cure, but there was still a chance he could help someone. A chance that he wouldn’t fail them the way he’d failed his mother.
Finally, after Nico had consumed everything edible at home—and some things that were decidedly not—he had set out on his own to look for other survivors. Sadly, he had found nothing but corpses, sometimes still lying in the middle of the road where they had collapsed. There weren’t even enough people left to bury them.
Lord Crane had found Nico in the forest, half-starved and delirious, nearly twenty miles from Crane Manor. Crane was also immune to the plague, and after most of his servants and the farmers on his lands had died, he started making trips out into the countryside.
So far he’d taken in more than a dozen survivors, all living and working together at Crane Manor. If he’d been braver, Nico liked to think he would have done the same. But even if he wasn’t saving lives, he helped the rest of the household with his medical knowledge, and that gave him the sense of purpose he’d been lacking since his family died.
Nico wasn’t paid money for his work, but he was given everything he needed to live a perfectly decent life. Someday maybe he’d go back to his ancestral home, if looters or animals hadn’t taken over. But for now it was nice not to be alone. He’d always considered himself a solitary, independent sort, until he’d been truly alone for the first time. He quickly realized that the company he’d kept in his prior life wasn’t nearly as witty or charming as he’d thought.
They knocked the mud off their boots and went to the servants’ area downstairs, following the aroma of cooking meat.
“Hurry and wash up for supper,” Mrs. Horner, the cook, said as she bustled around the kitchen. “The master has a guest tonight, and he wants a formal dinner at eight.”
They all wore multiple hats in the manor; Nico served as footman, valet, undertaker, and nurse, depending on what was needed that day. Tonight he’d be a server in the dining room.
“Who’s the guest?” Colin asked, munching on a scraggly carrot plucked from the cutting board when Mrs. Horner’s broad back was turned.
“A girl,” said Abby, a young woman whom Colin himself had found over two years ago. She was short and plump with an angelic face, and Colin had fallen in love with her the moment he saw her. But Abby had aimed her sights higher, on the only other young aristocrat at the manor, Clifford Branson.
Not that any of it mattered. Lord Crane didn’t tolerate tomfoolery amongst the
staff. It was one of his requirements for living at the manor, one that had little effect on Nico. Romance was the furthest thing from his mind these days.
“An immaculate?” Colin asked.
Abby nodded. Immaculates and immunes were not the same. Immunes had been exposed to the plague and gone unaffected but for red marks that appeared along the veins of their inner wrists, whereas immaculates had somehow managed to escape exposure altogether. They were rare, especially now and especially in these parts, where the plague had hit hard. Sometimes they turned up—returning to look for survivors, or just now venturing out after locking themselves away for years in a manor. No one who caught the Bloody Three survived it, as far as Nico could tell. By his estimation, at least three quarters of the population of Goslind had been wiped out in the past three and a half years. ...
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