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Crown of Thunder: Stormbourne Chronicles, #3

Crown of Thunder: Stormbourne Chronicles, #3

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Crown of Thunder: Stormbourne Chronicles, #3

Length:
476 pages
7 hours
Released:
Dec 3, 2018
ISBN:
9781622531585
Format:
Book

Description

Lightning, espionage, and magic—Inselgrau's fate lies in the hands of one thunder goddess with a heart of iron, one exiled spy, and one Magician haunted by chronic pain.

Under the tutelage of the Fantazikes, Evelyn Stormbourne's dominion over the skies has become formidable. When she receives word from her spymaster that an old and powerful enemy has taken her throne by lethal force, she sets off on a cross-country trek to return to Inselgrau. If she wants her country back, she'll have to free her greatest nemesis from an ancient Magical prison and offer him as ransom for the release of Inselgrau.

Relying on old friends, new allies, and her own otherworldly abilities, Evie must use her wits, cunning, and power if she's going to defeat the greatest enemies she's ever faced, and to prove herself worthy to wear the Crown of Thunder.

Evolved Publishing presents the third book in the "Stormbourne Chronicles" series of young adult fantasies, where you'll discover an extraordinary new world, epic adventure, and memorable characters. [DRM-Free]

Books by Karissa Laurel:

  • Heir of Thunder (Stormbourne Chronicles: Book 1)
  • Quest of Thunder  (Stormbourne Chronicles: Book 2)
  • Crown of Thunder (Stormbourne Chronicles: Book 3)
  • Midnight Burning (Norse Chronicles: Book 1)
  • Arctic Dawn (Norse Chronicles: Book 2)
  • Molten Dusk (Norse Chronicles: Book 3)

More Great YA Fantasy from Evolved Publishing:

  • Kingdom in Chains by J.W. Zulauif
  • Two Moons of Sera by P.K. Tyler
  • Dream Warriors by D. Robert Pease
  • The CHOSEN Series by Jeff Altabef and Erynn Altabef

Released:
Dec 3, 2018
ISBN:
9781622531585
Format:
Book

About the author

Some of Karissa’s favorite things are coffee, chocolate, and superheroes, and she can quote Princess Bride verbatim. She loves to read and has a sweet tooth for speculative fiction. Sometimes her family convinces her to put down the books and take the motorcycles out for a spin, or they’ll haunt flea markets, searching for rusty scraps to reuse and re-purpose. Karissa lives in North Carolina with her kid, her husband, the occasional in-law, and a very hairy husky named Bonnie. Karissa is also the author of the adult Urban Fantasy series, The Norse Chronicles, where she puts a modern twist on ancient myths. The first book, Midnight Burning is available now. Her first effort with Evolved Publishing will be the Stormbourne Chronicles, a Young Adult Fantasy series.


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Crown of Thunder - Karissa Laurel

Copyright

www.EvolvedPub.com

~~~

CROWN OF THUNDER

The Stormbourne Chronicles – Book Three

Copyright © 2018 Karissa Laurel

Cover Art Copyright © 2018 Richard Tran

~~~

ISBN (EPUB Version): 1622531582

ISBN-13 (EPUB Version): 978-1-62253-158-5

~~~

Editor: Sue Fairchild

Interior Designer: Lane Diamond

~~~

eBook License Notes:

You may not use, reproduce or transmit in any manner, any part of this book without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations used in critical articles and reviews, or in accordance with federal Fair Use laws. All rights are reserved.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only; it may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please return to your eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

~~~

Disclaimer:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or the author has used them fictitiously.

Books by Karissa Laurel

THE STORMBOURNE CHRONICLES

1- Heir of Thunder

2- Quest of Thunder

3- Crown of Thunder

~~~

THE NORSE CHRONICLES

0.5- Moonlight Falling – A Prequel Novella

1- Midnight Burning

2- Arctic Dawn

3- Molten Dusk

~~~

Touch of Smoke [Coming in 2019]

~~~

www.KarissaLaurel.com

~~~

What Others Are Saying about Karissa Laurel’s Books:

~~~

Heir of Thunder:

What a wonderful new young adult fantasy series... The plot is unique with steampunk elements in an old-world setting. The characters are diverse, well-developed, and believable. ~ Big Al’s Books and Pals

~~~

Quest of Thunder:

"Quest of Thunder is an utter delight to read, full of magic, adventure, intrigue, and mayhem. ...I wish I could dive in and hang out with Evie and her friends. Everything about this book comes alive with immersive world-building and colorful characters." ~ Mary Fan, Author of Starswept

BONUS CONTENT

We’re pleased to offer you not one, but two Special Sneak Previews at the end of this book, each featuring a look at Pinnacle Book Achievement Award winners in Fantasy.

~~~

In the first preview, you’ll enjoy the First 2 Chapters of ROTA FORTUNAE, the first book in the award-winning Grims’ Truth series by mother/daughter team Isu Yin and Fae Yang.

~~~

~~~

Readers’ Favorite Book Reviews says: "Rota Fortunae (Grim’s Truth) is among the best written, most imaginative, and intricately plotted fantasy stories I’ve had the pleasure to read since The Lord of the Rings. But, where that epic tale relied heavily on war, familiar mythological themes and creatures, and the overarching world dominating power of an evil, supernatural being, Rota Fortunae is a character driven story, supported by a covert revolution, ingenious metaphysical attributes and events, and an imaginary world complete with a new language, concepts of universal laws, and a wonderfully orchestrated villain."

~~~

OR GRAB THE FULL EBOOK TODAY!

YOU’LL FIND LINKS TO YOUR FAVORITE RETAILER HERE:

GRIMS’ TRUTH Series at Evolved Publishing

In the second preview, you’ll enjoy the First 2 Chapters of the award-winning RED IN THE COMPANY OF THE DEAD, the first book in The Sundered Oath series by Ciara Ballintyne.

~~~

~~~

Reviewer Becky says: "Good Ol’ Fashioned Fantasy Castle Siege: Strong writing, good world-building with all the terminology and the different gods, conflicted characters, ever-changing plot, intrigue, betrayal, and all the goodies of a good vs. evil battle."

~~~

OR GRAB THE FULL EBOOK TODAY!

YOU’LL FIND LINKS TO YOUR FAVORITE RETAILER HERE:

THE SUNDERED OATH Series at Evolved Publishing

Dedication

For Mary

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Books by Karissa Laurel

BONUS CONTENT

Dedication

BOOK ONE - A FLEDGLING TAKES FLIGHT

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

BOOK TWO - A SEASON OF MAGIC

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

BOOK THREE - RETURN OF THE QUEEN

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

About the Author

More from Karissa Laurel

More from Evolved Publishing

Special Sneak Preview: ROTA FORTUNAE by Isu Yin & Fae Yang

Special Sneak Preview: IN THE COMPANY OF THE DEAD by Ciara Ballintyne

BOOK ONE

A FLEDGELING TAKES FLIGHT

Chapter 1

For nearly two weeks, the Fantazikes had moored their armada in an empty field on the outskirts of Petragrad, a large port city crouching along the banks of the Batiysk Sea. Their airships creaked and groaned, iridescent balloons undulating in stiff winds like dancers stepping in time to a waltz. Lightning squirmed, hot and electric in the leaden sky, and the tang of ozone mingled with salty sea air.

Hands raised, eyes closed, and senses tuned into the storm’s every subtlety, I stood among the armada and directed a grand orchestra of booming thunder, crackling lightning, and howling winds—something I’d never believed myself capable of doing only a few weeks before. But Justina, the Fantazikes’ matriarch, had upheld her offer to help me train and develop my powers. Because of her rigorous drills and guidance from my grandfather’s spirit, I’d overcome my previous shortcomings.

The thunder and I were a duet, harmonious and synchronized. Let Le Poing Fermé come for me now.

But gaining control of my powers and fighting Le Poing Fermé were only minor ordeals compared to the impossible task of reclaiming the Inselgrish throne. Like a fledgling learning to fly, I needed to swallow my fears and jump off my safe little branch. I only hoped I could flap my wings fast enough to keep from crashing.

Still no word from Gideon? I asked the Fantazikes’ matriarch as she hobbled to my side. I should’ve received his report by now.

I am sure he is safe. Justina stared into the turbulent sky, and the winds played with the loose strands of her white hair like children winding a maypole. That young man of yours is quite capable.

I scrubbed my face as though I could wipe away my worries and fears. Capable is an understatement when it comes to Gideon. Doesn’t mean I don’t regret sending him away or that I don’t fear for him while he’s gone.

It is the obligation of a queen to make those difficult choices and suck on her regrets like sour grapes. Or you could flee now, call your guardian back, and run to the farthest corner of the continent together. Travel to Zhuyueguo and hide in a small village. Get married, change your name, make babies.

A few months ago, I would have seriously considered that option. Well, except for the making babies part.

What made you change your mind?

I took her hand and kissed her wrinkled knuckles. You, my lady. You care for your people and protect them from being corrupted by selfish forces. They’ve thrived under your leadership. I care for the people of Inselgrau in the same way and want to see them flourish.

I’d always loved the citizens of my country but in a detached, theoretical way. I’d been complacent and spoiled, relying on my father to bear the burden of caring for our people. In his absence, there had been a void of power and too many individuals with self-interested motivations vying to fill it. Inselgrau deserved a leader who cared for its citizens more than herself.

I didn’t know if I was that person, but I wanted to be.

For the first time since fleeing Inselgrau, I started to believe I could be.

You’ve taught me how to tame the thunder, Justina. Perhaps you’ll come to Inselgrau with me and teach me how to tame a country.

She threw back her head and hacked a toothless cackle. There is not enough gold in the world, my girl, to pay for such a lesson. It is something you either have in your blood or not.

"Do you think it’s in my blood?"

She shrugged her thin, hunched shoulders and cinched her shawl around her neck, warding off the breeze. Are you asking me to tell you your fortune?

Magic and Magicians were real, and I could make lightning bow to my will with a thought. So perhaps it wasn’t so strange that Justina could see into the future, even if it was only through a hazy window. No, I don’t think it would help.

She cackled again. Fate is no rigid road, paved in unmoving stones. It is more like a river with strong currents. But rivers can be dammed. Trenches can be dug to redirect their flow. I can tell you what I see for you in the future, Evie, but you have enough will to force the river to flow any way you want it to go, and that is what matters most.

A blush crawled up my neck and settled in my cheeks. I already promised you my loyalty, Justina. The Fantazikes’ matriarch hadn’t taken me in and trained me out of the pure goodness of her heart. In return for her hospitality, we’d made more than a few deals guaranteeing the long-term safety of her clan—deals that would forever render me, Evelyn Stormbourne, patron queen of the Fantazikes. You don’t have to win my favor with excessive flattery. Save that for when I’m actually wearing a crown.

With a swipe of my hand, the lightning calmed. The bruised skies healed, giving way to a late-afternoon sky full of chalky clouds and milky light. The Fantazikes’ airships settled. Their captains capered across their decks, hurrying to stow their lightning rigs. I’d been useful to them and therefore not unwelcome, but their latest fair had come to an end. They had packed up their booths, boxing rings, musical platforms, and trinkets in preparation for the journey to their next destination.

I hadn’t planned on moving along with them, and neither had they invited me.

When Gideon had left for Inselgrau, he’d vowed to send notice of his safe arrival. He was supposed to have dispatched a report on the state of my former kingdom. He was also supposed to have named the place and time where we would convene to discuss what actions to take next. Yet it had been four weeks, and I’d heard nothing from him. We’d made no contingency plans because he’d insisted we wouldn’t need them. Contingency plans meant preparing for failure, and I never would’ve worked up the courage to begin if I’d allowed myself to anticipate defeat.

For the umpteenth time that day, I stared at the road leading from Petragrad, hoping to spot a messenger riding out from the local church, bringing me Gideon’s correspondence.

Justina squeezed my shoulder. Come, girl. You will have supper with my kin tonight.

I nodded, unable to speak past the swollen lump in my throat. Where are you, Gideon? Please be all right.

***

Justina’s family occupied the largest ship in the Fantazikes’ fleet, and I sat among them at a crowded dinner table in the ship’s massive galley. Their voices bounced back and forth, talking over, around, and through each other in a dozen different languages. They passed bottles of wine. Dishes smelling of garlic, paprika, curry, and basil zoomed from person to person. I took enough from each bowl to be polite and forced myself to chew and swallow, but my worry for Gideon filled my stomach like a ball of ice. At Justina’s request, Malita and Niffin had also joined us, and Malita noticed my thin appetite and sour mood.

It is good, Evie. She nudged my elbow. Eat.

I raked my fork through a pile of yellow rice dotted with pepper flakes and crushed nuts. I’m not very hungry.

Worried? She snagged a roll from a basket passing over our heads and split it open. Steam escaped in thin, curling clouds.

I nodded and passed the butter crock.

We will go see the kareeyatids tonight, yes? Malita smeared a thick dollop of butter across her bread. Maybe they have Gideon’s note.

That was the plan. You’ll come with me?

Eyebrow arched, she gave me a tart look, an obvious pronouncement about the idiocy of my question.

I didn’t want to presume.

"I do not know presume." In a short time, the Fantazikes’ legendary language skills had rubbed off on my friend. She now spoke passable Inselgrish along with a smattering of other Continental languages. Her mind was sharp, an asset an aspiring queen should seize for her own benefit, but Malita had her own burdens to sort through, and I hesitated to add mine to her collection.

I hoped you would go with me, I said, but it’s a long ride. Maybe you have something else you need to do instead.

I need to go. Her gaze shifted to Niffin, and she frowned. "I need to breathe."

Smothering a snicker, I stuffed a mound of rice in my mouth. In only a few months, Malita and Niffin had become like an old couple settled in their ways. They were loving and sweet, except when they bickered. Which was often. What if Niffin insists on coming with us?

She narrowed her eyes at me and scowled. Do not tell him.

I coughed, almost choking on my rice. Fine. I cleared my throat and swallowed a sip of wine. "Meet me outside the Charosvardo after supper. We’ll ride into the city together."

***

Adaleiz, my sweet gray mare, tramped over the dusty trail leading to the city. Malita shifted behind me, and the saddle creaked. She had threaded her thin brown arms around my waist, and her body heat soaked through my Thunder Cloak, a comfort against the chill night breeze blowing from the sea. She smelled like lilacs from the Tippany family’s homemade soap.

I savored the moment of quiet and the pleasure of my friend’s embrace. Before long, we’d likely be separated again, she on her own path and me on mine—unless I asked her to go with me to Inselgrau. Though I still wasn’t sure I should. Have you decided on anything yet? I asked, patting her hand. You and Niffin, I mean.

They loved each other, obviously, but the stress of uncertainty strained their relationship. The Fantazikes had never let an outsider live among them, and Malita had told me she missed her family in Nri. Would she leave them to live in a faraway country, acting as an advisor to a foreign queen? It seemed unlikely.

I will not ask him to leave his family for me. She pressed her hand to her chest over her heart. But I hurt when I think of my mother. My sister.

Homesick, I said. I know that feeling, and I don’t even have a home to long for.

You have me, whispered a quiet voice in the back of my mind. My grandfather was silent for long stints, sleeping, perhaps, or whatever spirits did when they weren’t babbling in my ear, nagging me about the proper tone and posture for commanding storms. In the beginning, his ghostly presence had been strange, but I’d grown used to him. Now, I liked knowing I wasn’t entirely alone as far as family was concerned.

Indeed. I stroked the scar, still red and angry, where it crossed over my heart. I do have you, Grandfather, and I’m glad you’re here.

The dusty road turned to cobblestones, and both foot and carriage traffic multiplied as we entered Petragrad. Adaleiz’s hoofbeats blended with the traffic clatter, echoing off tall brick buildings lining both sides of the street. Flames flickered in the streetlamps, chasing away the evening gloom, and the city smelled of coal smoke, fish, and burning oil.

We followed the streets to the city’s center where Troitsky Zerkov, Trinity Church, stood with its three domed spires shaped like fat onions painted in bright patterns. After I’d tied Adaleiz’s reins to a nearby lamppost, Malita and I climbed the steps at the church’s rear entrance, and I banged on the door. A red-robed kareeyatid answered, and I crooked my knee in a brief curtsey. Monahínja Vera? I asked, naming the priestess who’d promised to act as point-of-contact for Gideon’s messages, if and when he sent them.

She blinked at me then furrowed her brow. "Zhdaht," she said, holding up a finger—a command to wait, if I was interpreting her tone and body language correctly. She quietly closed the door, and Malita and I stood on the stoop together, waiting for her return. The church’s service entrance opened to an alley filled with empty crates. I watched a rat creep out from one box and sniff the air before scampering away. Malita muttered something under her breath in a tone of disgust, but I didn’t ask her to interpret.

I began to wonder if we’d been forgotten when the door swung open again, and an older woman—Sister Vera, I presumed—stepped out. She clutched a folded bit of parchment tied in a string and sealed with a lump of beeswax. At the sight of it, my heartbeat surged, drumming an anxious rhythm.

"Evelyn, ja? she asked in Dreutchish. She presented the parchment to me, and I tried not to snatch it from her fingers. Gideon sent this for you. We received it yesterday afternoon, but we have not had time to send a messenger. I apologize. I know you must have been eager to receive it."

I curtsied and squeezed her hand, pressing a coin into her palm. Thank you, sister. Your assistance is most appreciated.

She retreated into the church’s dark interior, closing the door silently behind her. Malita and I remained on the stoop while I read Gideon’s message in the pale glow of the lantern hanging by the steps. What does he say, Evie?

He says he’s well but unable to meet me in person. Frowning, I read ahead. He’s got information that’s too risky to send in the open. He’s booked me passage on a ship leaving from Petragrad in two days, and he wants me to go incognito to— My stomach dropped to my feet, and bitter acid rose in my throat. H-He wants me to go to Steinerland. There’s someone there who’ll have more information for me. Someone he trusts.

Steinerland? Malita recoiled, her dark eyes filling with horror. Is that where...?

Indeed. I stuffed Gideon’s note in my cloak pocket and tried to ignore the dread squirming like snakes in my gut. It’s Lord Daeg’s stronghold.

What if Daeg finds you?

Descending the steps into the alley, I led Malita back to my horse. It’s too late for Daeg to transfer my birthright to his son like he’d planned. If he found me now, I’m not sure what he’d do. Try to force me to be his slave, maybe. Or perhaps he’d simply kill me in a fit of jealous rage. Either way, Steinerland was the last place in the world I wanted to return to, but if I didn’t, I might never find my way back to Gideon, or to Inselgrau.

Will you go? Malita clutched my hand, staring at me with a puckered brow, her round face full of concern.

I nodded. I don’t see how I have much of a choice.

Chapter 2

The late-summer sun beat on my back and shoulders, raising sweat along my hairline. I abandoned the security of my Thunder Cloak, packing it away in my saddle bags and choosing, instead, to ride in only my muslin shirt and long indigo skirt—the customary attire I’d been wearing since joining the Fantazikes.

The Tippany family and I had said goodbye before, so this time we avoided making a fuss. In fact, their farewells were almost curt enough to sting. Puri handed me a bag of rolls and a hunk of cheese, gave me a brief hug, and disappeared into the Charosvardo’s cool interior. Melainey paused in her chores long enough to drop off a packet of books from her personal collection. Emorelle watched with a detached gaze as Timony bowed and pressed a kiss to each of my cheeks. I am certain we will see you again soon enough, he said with a wink. Then he marched away, heading for the hold of his ship.

Emorelle patted my shoulder, but her expression seemed grim enough to raise hairs along my arms and neck. Safe travels, she said, her voice thin and brittle. She departed without a backward glance.

Niffin and Malita made no appearance at all, and I left my horse waiting near the Charosvardo’s starboard bow while I went looking for them. Oddly, I found them together, both packing another set of saddlebags strapped to a bay Rhemony, standing patiently outside Justina’s ship. Malita wore Fantazike attire as well, but while I preferred keeping my hair in a braid, she favored wearing a scarf wrapped around her close-cut curls, and today she had chosen a bright-yellow one that complemented the ochre undertones in her brown skin.

What are you two doing? I asked, brow furrowed, hand on my hip.

Niffin’s mouth slit into a grim line. His broad-brimmed hat shaded his pale skin from the sun. Coming with you.

His words stunned me stupid. Wait... What?

Justina’s orders. His nostrils flared. Since there is now a treaty between the future queen of Inselgrau and the Fantazikes, she decided you needed an ambassador to go with you and make everything official. And also to help you keep your head attached to your shoulders long enough to reclaim your throne.

I pointed at him. And that ambassador is you?

Apparently.

Huh. Now I understood the undercurrent of hostility swirling among the Tippany family. I don’t want to offend Justina or imply that I’m not grateful, but I don’t want to start out on the wrong foot with you, Niffin. Your family and your clan have already given more than I could ask for. If you don’t want to come, I’ll talk to Justina—

No. His posture stiffened, and his violet eyes blazed with a cold purple light. If this is what Justina wants, then I will honor her orders.

I returned his haughty gaze. "I won’t begin on the path to my throne by forcing people into my service or asking others to do it for me. Maybe my ancestors operated that way, but the old ways are dead, if you hadn’t noticed. If you come with me, you come of your own free will or not at all."

He adjusted a buckle on the saddlebag’s flap, snugging it tight. I understand, and I appreciate that you would give me that option, but I respect Justina’s authority, and I choose to obey her.

What about your family? I glanced at the Charosvardo’s gleaming balloon and considered the household living beneath it. How it must have pained them to prepare for takeoff, knowing they were leaving their son behind to venture into uncertain danger with me, an outsider and exile who’d, too often, found herself in the crosshairs of powerful enemies.

If my mission with you is successful, they will be honored by my actions. He set his foot into the stirrup and hauled himself into the saddle.

And if we’re unsuccessful?

He held out a hand to Malita, and when she took it, he tugged her into the seat behind him. If we are unsuccessful, I think my family’s honor will be the least of my worries.

Malita, are you sure you want to come with us?

She glanced at me over Niffin’s shoulder. What can I do? I cannot stay with them. She pointed at the airships. I cannot walk to Nri. I cannot get home alone.

Unable to offer Malita an alternate solution, I set aside my qualms. I’d have plenty of time to worry about her while we travelled. You know we’re taking a ship, right?

Niffin patted his pocket. Justina made sure I have the necessary supplies to perform my duties. By supplies I assumed he meant money, which relieved me because I certainly had none to spare.

Mounted and ready, we waited at the field’s edge and watched as the Fantazikes lifted off, one by one, rising into the skies like shimmering silver fish gliding through a vast blue ocean. We watched until they turned to distant dots in the sky, until the last speck of the armada disappeared and only the three of us remained.

Adaleiz stamped a foot as if eager to get moving. Without a word, I pushed my heel against her side and clicked my tongue. Malita and Niffin’s horse, Khosha, matched Adaleiz’s stride, and we sauntered away, leaving the emptied fairgrounds behind us.

Separated from the bustling, loud, and vivid Fantazike community for the first time in weeks, I felt alone and weighed down by trepidation. My heart seemed heavier than usual, as if filled with sand, but I kept my thoughts to myself, suspecting Niffin wouldn’t have much sympathy for my worries. He’d left his family before, tracking the bandits who’d kidnapped Malita from her village, but he’d known then he would eventually return to his clan.

***

We reached Petregrad before noon and found the Burya, the small steamship on which Gideon had booked my passage. After purchasing Niffin’s and Malita’s fare, we led our horses away from the docks, heading into the heart of the city.

So, Niffin said, we are to call you Liesl, now, if I overheard your conversation with the ship’s purser correctly?

If I’m going back to Steinerland, it’s best if I’m as invisible as possible. I have a feeling no one in Dreutch will be rolling out a welcome mat for Evelyn Stormbourne. I glanced at Niffin’s distinctively colored eyes and thought of the crimson hair hiding beneath his broad-brimmed hat. The pedestrians around us noted him, ladies leaning close to whisper to each other behind their hands as they passed. Traveling with a Fantazike was like traveling beneath a spotlight, but how did I ask him to camouflage himself without wounding his pride?

You must change more than your name, Malita said, as if reading my mind. She gestured at my skirt and blouse and at her own distinctive attire. Niffin and I will change, too, yes?

Buying a new outfit and accessories is on my long list of things to do today. I pointed down the street at a tall marble building with a wide staircase rising to a pair of heavy red doors—the Banka Mirovoy. First, though, is to collect the funds Gideon arranged for me. Although his note had told me which bank to visit, it hadn’t explained where he’d gotten the money. Either he didn’t want me to know, or he was protecting his source—possibly the same source I was on my way to meet in Steinerland. Then lunch, then shopping.

Shopping? Niffin said drolly, rolling his eyes as I tied Adaleiz’s reins to a hitching post outside the bank. Not my favorite pastime.

I gestured at his vividly colored eyes. You’ll draw attention—you can’t help it.

His brow furrowed. What do you expect me to do?

I marched up the bank’s wide stairs, and a doorman swung open one heavy red door for me while my companions waited on the sidewalk. Pausing, I glanced back at Niffin. Have you ever considered the aesthetic possibilities of shaded spectacles?

I ignored Niffin’s haughty snort and crossed the bank’s threshold into the cool, quiet interior. My skirts swished across the black-and-white tiled floor, and I pinned my gaze straight ahead, ignoring the inquisitive and arrogant looks from my fellow bank patrons. My attire was appropriate but humble, and compared to the bank’s customary clientele in their expensive gowns and fine hats, I looked like a wren among peacocks.

After a brief exchange with a short, bald bookkeeper with a drooping mustache, I exited with a pouch of coins large enough to strain my skirt pockets and make my head spin. I wondered how Gideon had arranged to give me such a large sum of money. Who was our mysterious benefactor? Or had Gideon robbed someone for my benefit? I pushed the unlikely and unsavory thought aside. When it came to my stalwart protector, there had always been more to him than he was willing to show me.

Once a spy, always a spy...

Gideon was like the wooden nesting dolls popular among Varyngan children. Every time I removed one of his outer layers, I found there were still many more yet to be revealed.

Chapter 3

With funds securely in hand, Niffin, Malita, and I followed directions the bank’s bookkeeper had given when I’d asked him to recommend a reasonably priced inn. We handed our horses to a stable boy, set our saddlebags in our rooms, and met in the inn’s dining room for a quick lunch of thin pancakes with sour cream, pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, and fish seasoned with dill.

Glancing at my distinctive scarlet-haired companion, I frowned. I’m happy to go into Steinerland alone if abandoning your customs makes you uncomfortable, Niffin.

He touched his napkin to his lips before answering. I would not have you go alone. I would not be doing my job if I did. And the Fantazikes are more experienced with disguises than you think.

And you? I met Malita’s gaze. If you want, we’ll find a safe place for you to wait while I meet with Gideon’s contact.

She shrugged. Where you and Niffin go, I go.

After the innkeeper gave directions to the local shops and markets selling the things we needed, Niffin left Malita and me on our own, promising to meet us later for supper. We followed him outside and watched him disappear into the throngs of heavy traffic trundling along Petragrad’s sidewalks. Malita and I turned the opposite direction and weaved through the crowds, my fingers firmly laced through hers to avoid being separated.

Several blocks later, we turned into an open-air market where merchants had laid out their wares—everything from cooking pots, teakettles, and horse-tack to fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Vendors hawked their goods, their voices blending into a discordant jangle. Smells of cooking food, warm bodies, machine oil, and manure combined into a hostile, urban stench. I resisted the urge to pinch my nose as we pushed deeper into the market.

A clutch of dirty children in ragged clothes rushed past us, and the largest one, a gamine girl not much younger than me, plowed into my shoulder. Stumbling, I yelped, and Malita clutched me against her side, holding me steady while I fisted my coin purse in my pocket. Niffin and the bank’s bookkeeper both had warned me about pickpockets.

"Osteregat'sya," the shabby girl snarled as she gripped my upper arm, fingers gouging my flesh. Her blond hair fell in tangles to her shoulders. Grime stained the knees of her knickers, and patches adorned her waistcoat.

Malita shoved herself between us, putting me at her back, and I gaped at her uncharacteristic display of hostility. Snatching the urchin’s wrist, Malita squeezed until the girl’s eyes popped wide. She gasped and released my arm, but Malita held fast, applying steady force until the girl’s hand bent back to the point of snapping.

Otpusti menya, devushka, the urchin growled, her eyes shooting daggers.

Neither Malita nor I spoke much Varyngan, but sometimes actions were clearer than words, and this girl was clearly furious. Her jaw muscle bulged as she ground her teeth. Malita released her, and she stumbled back. Giving us one last hateful glare, the girl spat at our feet before sprinting away and joining her gang. They disappeared into the crowds of oblivious shoppers.

Staring with my mouth agape, I grabbed Malita’s hands. I’ve never seen you do anything like that before.

Niffin teaches me things—how to fight. She looked up, a blaze burning in her eyes as she stabbed a finger to her chest. "I am no victim."

I pressed her knuckles to my chest over my heart, which was still beating at an uneasy pace. You were amazing. Maybe I should ask Niffin to teach me too.

Her gaze drifted over my shoulder, scanning the market behind me. We should not stay long. That girl will not be happy with us.

After waving off a pushy tinsmith and ignoring the flirtatious grins of a young man trying to sell us a bouquet of daisies, Malita and I found a stall of ladies’ secondhand clothing. I turned my nose up at the petticoats and wide skirts, but her eyes went big and round when she found a plain muslin dress printed with yellow crocuses. It was perhaps a bit finer than something a working-class woman would wear on a regular day, but her smile melted my heart. I plucked coins from my purse, but Malita waved me off. She revealed her own small pouch of money. I take care of myself.

While we waited for the merchant to wrap the dress in brown paper and string, I surveyed our surroundings, looking for something more suitable to my tastes.

No dress for you, my lady? the vendor asked.

Shaking my head, I pointed toward another stall farther down the road. I’m looking for something a bit more—

For boys, Malita said, rolling her eyes. She thanked the merchant and tugged me toward the men’s clothing stall. Come, come. Trousers for you. I know what you like.

***

We had finished our soup and were starting on plates of roasted hen when Niffin finally showed up, plopping into his seat across from me in the inn’s dining room. Malita had insisted we not worry, not give up dinner plans to go out searching for him. My mind had invented a half dozen scenarios, all leading to his demise or imprisonment—it wouldn’t have been the first time a Fantazike in my company had wound up in jail. But he seemed unmolested, unperturbed, and almost unrecognizable as he tucked his napkin under his chin and raised his wine glass.

Cheers? he asked, ignoring our gaping mouths.

Malita recovered first. Her hand shot out, fingers raking through his midnight-colored hair. Tinted spectacles, as I’d suggested, rode the bridge of his nose, concealing the purple hue in his eyes. He’d traded the Fantazikes’ standard homespun shirt, embroidered waistcoat, and knickers for black canvas trousers, a drop-sleeve calico shirt, and a faded blue neckerchief.

Who are you? Truly, I mourned the loss of his crimson hair and regretted the need for his disguise. He was a rainbow reduced to shades of gray. And what have you done with Niffin?

The corner of his mouth curled up as he swallowed his wine. I take it you find my disguise acceptable.

More than. I glanced at my own attire, tweed trousers and worn boots, and fingered my long brown braid. Perhaps I should take some inspiration from you.

He shrugged, dismissing my concerns, and poked his fork at

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