“I love the magic Lucier weaves through this dark yet hopeful tale. I devoured it in one sitting!”
--Kristin Cashore, author of the New York Times bestselling Graceling Realm books
"A beautifully crafted novel containing everything I love in an epic fantasy: complex characters and relationships, excellent world building, and a compelling story full of twists and turns."
--Juliet Marillier, author of the Blackthorn & Grim and Warrior Bards series
A rich and captivating YA standalone fantasy that's perfect for fans of Brigid Kemmerer, Rachel Hartman, and Naomi Novik, from the writer whose stories have been called “brilliant” (Booklist), “masterful” (Horn Book), and “breathtaking” (School Library Journal), comes a captivating new standalone fantasy. In the aftermath of a devastating plague, a young lord is determined to discover the truth behind a mysterious attempt to assassinate the young queen.
Three years ago, young Lord Cassia disappeared in the midst of war. Since then, a devastating illness has swept the land, leaving countless dead and a kingdom forever altered. Having survived war and plague, Cas, now eighteen, wants only to return to his home in the mountains and forget past horrors. But home is not what he remembers.
His castle has become a refuge for the royal court. And they have brought their enemies with them.
An assassin targets those closest to the queen, drawing Cas into a search for a killer. With the help of a historian-in-training named Lena, he soon realizes that who is behind the attacks is far less important than why. Cas and Lena must look to the past, following the trail of a terrible secret—one that could threaten the kingdom’s newfound peace and plunge it back into war.
Release date: November 9, 2021
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Listen to a sample
Year of the Reaper
THEY RODE FOR HOURS, through the night and into the dawn, stopping for nothing, not even to rest the horses. They knew what hunted them. A threat that could neither be seen nor heard nor felt, until one turned around and there it was. Too late to run then. Plague was spread through the air, you see. Everyone knew this.
Jehan struggled to stay awake on her horse. Weariness dragged her chin to her chest before she caught herself, jerking upright in the saddle. Bleary eyes took in the tall, stately cypress lining their route and the sun rising above the mountains in the east. Ten guards rode before her, ten in back. So few of them remained. The others had been left behind in towns and villages along the way. Her people. Shed like snakeskin.
Dead like snakeskin.
Jehan could not think of them now. If she did, she would scream. On and on forever. And that would not do, here, in front of the others.
Mari was alive. This she could give thanks for. Just then, Mari looked over from her own horse. She wore a traveling cloak the same midnight blue as Jehan’s. Her hood had been pushed back, and long dark hair blew free in the wind. The smile she gave Jehan was tired but reassuring. Not long now, she mouthed.
Despite everything, Jehan smiled. Mari had been saying the same for days. Not long now. Almost there. Jehan started to tell her so just as one of the guards ahead slid from his horse. He did not wake and catch himself but fell out of the saddle entirely, hitting the earth with a thud and the unmistakable sound of bone cracking.
“Stop!” Jehan shouted.
Dust rose, pebbles flew. The cortege ground to a halt. Without waiting for assistance, Jehan dismounted. She grabbed Mari’s hand and they raced to where the Brisan ambassador already knelt by the fallen guard.
The ambassador flung out an arm to ward them off. “Stand back!”
He was normally a mild-mannered man, gray-haired and dignified. The ferocity of his tone stopped them in their tracks. That, and the panic that lay just beneath the surface. They obeyed. Jehan, Mari, the guards, the envoy from Oliveras. The old nurse and the court painter, wringing their hands in dread.
As for the fallen guard, he sprawled on his back, barely conscious. From the way one arm lay on the ground, the angle hideous and unnatural, Jehan knew it was broken. Just as she understood shattered bones were the least of his troubles. Sweat poured off a face that had turned a familiar mottled red. Pity filled her, sorrow too, but not surprise.
“Plague?” Jehan asked quietly. Mari’s hand tightened in hers.
“He’s feverish.” The ambassador busied himself removing the guard’s tunic. Rather than yank it over his head and broken arm, he took a dagger from his belt and sliced through leather and wool.
Mari reasoned, “A fever, then. It doesn’t mean . . .” She trailed off in dismay as the ambassador pushed aside the guard’s tunic, exposing the pit of his arm, where a boil the size of an egg nestled among downy black hairs. A strange gurgling sound emerged from it. The boil shivered and pulsed, as though the blood and pus and poison within were living things struggling to break free.
Sickened, Jehan stepped back. Everyone stepped back. Fear sent shivers racing up her spine and trailing along her limbs. Plumes of smoke rose in the distance. Another village burning its dead. Jehan could almost taste the bitterness of the ash, thick at the base of her throat.
The ambassador remained crouched by the guard’s side. He closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, they settled on her. Red-rimmed from exhaustion, the smudges beneath grown darker with each passing day.
“Princess Jehan. This can go on no longer. You must leave us.”
Jehan exchanged a quick, startled glance with Mari. Jehan said, “What are you saying? Leave whom? And go where?” All around them were anxious mutterings.
“We’re hindering you.” The ambassador stood, knees cracking. “Every one of us is a threat. Go with Lord Ventillas. Take Mari, take the women—and find King Rayan.”
“Father, no!” Mari burst out. A look from the ambassador had her swallowing her words.
Jehan had no intention of riding to the capital of Oliveras without him. “And leave you here? Of course I won’t go—”
“Princess Jehan.” The ambassador spoke with steel in his voice. “How many years have we been at war with Oliveras?”
A history lesson? Now? “Why does that matter?”
“How many? Tell me.”
Jehan could not remember the precise number. Who could? Everyone watched, waiting, and a mortifying heat spread up her neck. Mari squeezed her hand. Under her breath, for Jehan’s ears only, Mari murmured, “Fifty-two.”
Jehan squeezed back. One could always depend on Mari. “Fifty-two,” she repeated in a louder voice.
“As many years as I’ve been alive.” The look the ambassador gave her and Mari made it clear he had not been fooled. “I’ve never known a life without war. Countless dead. Your brothers. My sons. This war ends the day you marry the king. You must survive this journey, and your odds are greater if you move quickly. If you avoid all threat.”
A traveling quarantine of sorts. It made sense. “But why won’t you come? You’re the head of this delegation. Father sent you.”
Beside her, a hitch to Mari’s breath. She knew the answer to Jehan’s question. She saw it on her father’s face.
“I cannot.” The ambassador pushed aside his collar to show the boil just beneath his ear. Like an overripe berry, wine-colored, ready to burst.
Jehan bit her lip so hard she tasted blood. Mari’s hand slipped free of hers, but when her friend stumbled forward, Jehan caught her arm and dragged her back.
The ambassador did not look at his daughter. Instead, he watched Jehan intently to see what she would do. Church bells rang out in the village. Tolling endlessly. A warning to all who heard to keep away. They would find no shelter there. Fighting a rising panic, Jehan thought about what the ambassador’s illness meant. For all of them. She hated Oliveras, this kingdom where she would be queen. It had brought nothing but pain and death to those she loved. She wanted to go home, to Brisa. But she had promised her father. She had given her word. Very quietly, she asked, “What will you do?”
Approval flickered over the ambassador’s expression. He studied the woods beyond the road. “We’ll stay here, make camp.” Glancing down at the doomed guard, he added, “No one will take us in as we are. If we can, we’ll follow.”
“When you can,” Jehan corrected.
“When,” the ambassador agreed. Humoring her, she knew. And now he looked past her. “My lord Ventillas.”
The sober Oliveran envoy was a younger man, not yet thirty. He stepped forward. “I’ll see them safe, Ambassador. You have my word.”
“Brisa is indebted to you.” The ambassador bowed. “May God grant your honor many years.”
“And yours.” Lord Ventillas returned the bow, deep and formal.
Within minutes, a much smaller cortege prepared to ride. Mari stopped her mare as close to the ambassador as she dared. “Father.”
The ambassador stood with a dying guard at his feet. Jehan heard him say, very softly, “Mari, you are your father’s heart. Be brave, my girl, for me.”
Jehan could bear to watch no longer. She spurred her horse down the ancient road lined with cypress. Tears blinded her. She did not look back to see those she had left behind. She did not look back to see if her friend would follow. All their lives, where Jehan went, Mari always followed.
1 ONE YEAR LATER
WHEN IT CAME to the dead, it was best to pretend he did not see them. This Cas had learned the hard way, early on, when the plague had struck and the bodies lay blanketed around him. And as he crossed the bridge, the ghost keeping pace by his side, it became clear he would have to pretend harder. This particular spirit was growing suspicious.
Cas knew him. His name was Izaro. In life, he had guarded the bridge just beyond Cas’ ancestral lands. A grizzled toll keeper with a black beard that tumbled down his chest. Nearly as solid as any living creature. So Izaro was gone too. Who was left?
“Boy?” Izaro said, a question spoken hard and rough. He had caught Cas unawares, appearing from behind a tree near the foot of the bridge. Cas had not been able to hide his expression in time, and Izaro had seen something—an awareness, a recognition—that had made him wonder.
A chill hung in the early morning air, accompanied by the blustery winds of autumn. Cas did not alter his stride. He pulled his cloak tighter about him and glanced down into the river with its rapid westward current. His breathing remained even, his expression bland. If his heart beat faster than usual, no one knew but him.
The horse was another matter. She followed behind Cas, led by reins. A pretty white mare with a black star below her right eye, placid enough until Izaro’s appearance. Then her steps shied. She tugged at the reins and swung her head in clear agitation. Did she see Izaro? Or merely sense him?
Cas said mildly, “What’s the matter, girl? Tired? We’re almost home.”
“You see me, boy?”
Cas yawned. They had reached the center of the bridge. Izaro stopped even as Cas and the horse continued on. Good. The toll keeper had been fooled. Behind him, Cas heard a muttered “Bah. Dumb as a sack full of cats. Just like his mother.”
Cas froze. An instant, only. It was enough. Izaro whisked around to stand before Cas. He threw out his arms, triumphant.
“You do see me! I knew it!”
Cas snarled, “Get out of my way.” He shifted right. The toll keeper blocked his path. He shifted left. The same. Cas would not go through him, though it was possible. He had done so once, would never forget the repugnant feeling of it, like worms twisting around his innards. It had sent him to his knees, retching onto the dirt.
Thwarted, Cas drew himself up to his full height and glared. He was eighteen, away from home these three years past, and in that time he had grown tall enough to meet the toll keeper’s gaze full on. They were both startled by it.
“What do you want?” Cas demanded.
“What do I—? How can you see me?”
“I don’t know.”
It was a question Cas had asked himself many times. If others could see spirits, he did not know this, either. It was not something one asked, ever, or freely admitted to if you knew what was good for you. There were places for the mad, none of them pleasant. “Is that all? Then, good day to you, toll keeper.” He waited for Izaro to take the hint and move aside.
Izaro did not budge. Now that he had Cas’ attention, he appeared uncertain as to what to do next. The wind whipped Cas’ black hair up and around in every direction. In contrast, Izaro’s beard lay unmoving against his chest. The seconds ticked by. Finally, it was Cas who spoke. He did not want to ask, but he was desperate to know.
“Have you seen my brother?” The tremble in his voice was humiliating.
“No.” Something like pity crossed Izaro’s features. “Not for a year. Not since the pestilence. No one comes by here anymore.”
Cas had not truly expected an answer. He stepped aside. This time Izaro let him pass, much to the horse’s relief, but moments later, Cas heard him speak quietly.
“Will you bury me?”
Cas stopped. He spoke without turning. “You insult my mother’s memory, and you expect me to do this for you?”
“Bah. I only said it to chafe you—”
Cas shot a look over his shoulder. “Well, it worked.”
“Lord Cassiapeus . . .” Cas grimaced upon hearing his birth name. Izaro did not notice. He was looking to the opposite end of the bridge, where a stone cottage stood off to one side. For centuries, it had served as a place where the toll keepers worked and slept. “No one has been to tend to me. The animals have come.”
His words produced a grisly assortment of images in Cas’ mind. Reluctantly, he eyed the cottage. Part of the thatched roof had fallen in. Something that would never have occurred had Izaro been alive. The door stood wide open, knocked free of its upper hinges so that it hung askew from its lower.
The animals have come.
“Please,” Izaro added.
Cas inspected his hands. Scarred, callused. Hands accustomed to burying the dead. He had hoped to be done with it. “You have a shovel?”
The relief on Izaro’s face shamed him. Cas turned away and pretended he did not see.
Izaro had been dead for many months. Long enough that the worst of the smell had gone, along with most of his flesh and innards, gnawed away by forest creatures.
From the doorway, Cas surveyed the chamber. An abacus and ledger sat on a table covered in dust. Part of the ledger had been chewed away. Animal droppings littered the floor, the rug, the windowsill. Rats and birds by the look of them. A bed and chair had been placed in a corner. Izaro walked past Cas to collapse onto the chair, and they both stared at the body on the bed. Cas had seen worse. He guessed Izaro had not.
“The shovel?” Cas prompted quietly.
“Where”—Cas gestured toward the bed—“is your preference? The village?”
“Too far,” Izaro replied, unable to take his eyes off what was left of him. “Anywhere. Just . . .” His voice broke. “Not here.”
With quick, efficient moves, Cas untucked the bedclothes and wrapped the body in them. His actions sent a wave of shiny yellow beetles scuttling off the corpse in every direction. The insects piled into a mound by Cas’ boot. The sounds they made, click, click, click, grew louder as they formed a single queue and trailed across the chamber, up to the open window, and out of the cottage. The clicking faded away. Izaro, still in the chair, turned a curious shade of green. Cas had not realized it was possible for a ghost to feel queasy.
“Don’t look,” Cas advised. It was easier to breathe through his mouth. The worst of the smell might have gone but not all of it. Grunting, he tossed the shrouded Izaro over his shoulder and staggered out the door. The body, though heavy, was little more than bone and hair, held together by tendon and rotting wool. It rattled and clacked as Cas rounded the cottage, past a small fenced yard that he remembered had once held chickens. A rusted shovel lay on the ground by the back wall. He grabbed it, then clambered up the embankment, Izaro following close behind.
“Here?” Cas asked.
They stood in a grove full of wild olive trees and dense pine. A good place, he thought, to bury a man who had prized his solitude. At Izaro’s nod, Cas tossed the shovel onto the ground and laid the body beside it. His heavy cloak followed.
The morning sun offered little heat, and the wind remained brisk, but the work more than made up for it. Cas had already gone to the river twice to refill his flask. As for Izaro, he sat with his back against a nearby olive tree. Quiet at first until Cas, shirt sticking unpleasantly to his skin, tugged it over his head and left it by the cloak. At the sound of Izaro’s hiss, Cas went still.
Idiot. How could he have forgotten the scars? Cas looked at Izaro, whose eyes were filled with shock and horror, and saw what he saw.
Scarring that covered his back and chest. The long line of a whip, from left shoulder to right hipbone. The crescents formed by a steel-toed boot. Deep purple bands at his wrists where iron cuffs had rubbed the skin raw. Cas had lost any hope the vivid, angry markings would ever fade away.
“Who did this to—?” Izaro broke off. Whatever it was he saw on Cas’ face silenced him.
Without speaking, Cas reached for his shirt and put it on. Humiliation rose like bile in his throat.
He grabbed the shovel and dug.
And he remembered.
The last of his beatings had come a year ago, a memory that never strayed far from his thoughts.
The guard’s kick had caught him in the ribs as he bent to lift another stone. Flinching, Cas did as he was told. In the years since his capture and imprisonment, he had sprouted upward and outward, though this guard continued to loom over him. “Get your slop,” the guard ordered. He marched off, kicking and barking his way past the other prisoners.
Cas had never been so far from home. Only feet away, Brisa’s grandest bridge lay in ruins. Destroyed in the ongoing war between Oliveras, the land of his birth, and Brisa, this wretched kingdom in the north. Cas had been among the prisoners sent here to help rebuild the bridge. Stone by stone. He joined the others in the queue waiting for their share of kettle slop. Turnips and cat meat likely, if there was meat at all. At least it would be hot. He had woken with a vicious chill and a discovery that he had spoken of to no one. For he was surrounded by his enemies, and there was no one here to tell.
The shove at his back was expected. Almost perfunctory. Cas ignored it, which only earned him another. This time he shifted and smiled pleasantly at a gray-toothed man named Mendo.
“What are you looking at, Oliveran?” Mendo demanded. “I’ll beat that ugly face of yours in, you keep looking at me.”
Mendo alone was no threat, but he had friends. Fellow Brisans. Not for the first time, Cas wished his brother were here. For his protection and for his counsel. What would Ventillas do in his place? And as he thought of his brother, the answer became clear. Cas replied, “Ugly? That’s not what your sister said.”
That was all it took. It was as simple and as pitiful as that. Mendo’s eyes widened in outrage and his face purpled as the other prisoners heard and laughed. Cas braced himself. Here it starts. Seconds later, he was in the mud, kicked and pummeled by Mendo and anyone else who could get a fist or a foot in. His lip split open. The blows to his stomach had him coughing up blood. A single kick or a thousand. One would think he would become resigned to the beatings after years of imprisonment, able to bear them more easily. It was not so. They never became easier. Every indignity made him feel more like a dog and less like the boy his family had loved. Though terror and pain filled him, Cas fought none of it. Did not even attempt to shield his face as the blows rained down. Touch me all you want, you mules. As much as you want, today.
More shouting came from afar. Cas’ abusers were hauled off. He squinted through swollen eyes to see the same guard glaring down at him.
“Oy! What’s this, then?” the guard demanded.
“The Oliveran started it,” one prisoner offered. “Said bad things about Mendo’s sister.”
It was not the guard who answered but his captain, who stepped into Cas’ line of sight. A man not much older than Cas with a weak chin and a crisp uniform. He regarded the situation with mild interest. “Ah. The old sister provocation. Only you don’t have a sister, Mendo.”
“He didn’t know that,” Mendo protested. “Can’t have a filthy Oliveran insulting our women.”
“True.” The captain surveyed the prisoners with their bloodied knuckles, then turned to Cas, who had pulled himself to his knees. “What’s wrong with you today, Oliveran? You usually fight back.”
Cas spat blood onto the ground. “One against thirty?” His voice came out hoarse. It hurt to speak. “To what end?”
“That never stopped you before,” the captain pointed out. “I wouldn’t be so eager to die if I were in your place. We all know where you’re off to next.”
Mendo, who didn’t have a sister, said, “To hell, you basta—”
“Yes, Mendo, I think he understood. On your feet, Oliveran.” The captain turned to the guard, who pulled a whip from his belt. “Fighting is not tolerated in my camp. Someone must be punished. It might as well be you.”
Cas swayed to his feet, every inch of him screaming in agony. He shivered. It was so terribly cold.
The guard stepped forward. “Your shirt.”
With difficulty, Cas pulled his shirt, stained and torn even before the beating, over his head. A stunned silence fell, followed by a mad rush as everyone—prisoners, guard, captain—backed away from him.
Cas glanced down. He had discovered the boils that morning. One below his collarbone, the other by his hip. They had not been there the night before. And now they had burst open, punctured by kicks and punches. He knew what the boils meant, had heard the rumors from the city, of overrun hospitals and bodies left in the street. He had seen the uneasy watchfulness among the guards.
This was what his brother would do. If escape was impossible and death imminent, Ventillas would take his enemies with him. As many as he could. Though it hurt tremendously, Cas grinned, teeth slick with blood as he looked at the men with their bleeding knuckles and panicked eyes.
“Going to hell, am I?” He barely recognized his voice. “I’ll take you with me.”
But Cas had not died that day, or any day since. Of all the men by the bridge, he had been the only one to survive the plague.
“You’ve done this before.”
Izaro’s voice recalled him to the present. The toll keeper pointed at the shovel. “Grave digging. This is not your first time.”
Cas turned away. “No.”
“Where were you?”
“North.” Cas shoveled more dirt onto the growing mound. The grave could not be a shallow one. Six feet at least. Otherwise the animals would come sniffing and dig it up again.
“Where north?” Izaro prodded.
Cas did not answer. He wrestled a large rock free and set it aside. There was a small silence before Izaro observed, “You used to talk more.”
“And you less.”
A snort. What might have been a laugh. “You never told your brother what I did to you.”
“There was nothing to tell.”
“No?” Izaro returned with deep skepticism. “A toll keeper beating Lord Ventillas’ younger brother? I could have lost my life for that.”
The shovel hit another rock. Cas dug it out and tossed it away. “I might have deserved it.”
“Bah,” Izaro said, amused. “That you did. ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...