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Excerpt: A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff

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Exiled and hunted, Cerulia, Princess of Weirandale, knows she has one destiny.

Her enemies failed to kill her, and no one harboring her is safe. Raised in obscurity, she has no resources, no army, nothing that can help her against her enemies.

Except their gods.

A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff will be available on January 21. Please enjoy the following excerpt!

Excerpt

Cerúlia’s biggest dog, Aki, prodded her with his cold nose, which he had wiggled under the bed curtains. She rolled over, but then Aki pawed her back with his nails.

She sat up in bed, still sleep-drugged. Cerúlia felt a pressure on her mind, something akin to wings beating against a closed window. She “opened” the window, and Aki spoke to her for the first time. Danger, he sent.

Aki! You can hear me? Cerúlia delighted in her new connection with a dog. Can I talk to the other dogs too? What about the cats?

Little princess! Danger! Aki sent.

Is there a fire? she asked, yawning.

No. Strange men. Stink of fear. On the roof. Coming closer.

Cerúlia twitched the bed hangings open. Zizi, Faki, and Naki growled softly. Pakki, who was so old that he didn’t even react to his name, was the only dog not on alert. Her house cats had arched their bodies and their tails twitched. Cerúlia snapped alert.

A short interior corridor connected the queen’s chamber and the princella’s. Her mother had told her it was built so that mothers and fathers could check on their daughters in the middle of the night without walking in the public hall undressed. The passage wasn’t a secret, but because after nursery years it stood dark, cold, and airless, everyone generally avoided it. Platsy, the maid, had once referred to it with a shudder as the “Passageway of Lost Babes,” and Nana had scolded her sharply. Reluctantly, she explained to Cerúlia that the name stemmed from the fact that parents used it most when newborns were ailing.

Tonight Cerúlia raced through the black passageway barefoot, the dogs panting on her ankles. She shook her mother.

“Mamma—wake up! Wake up! There are strangers on the roof.”

“Um, what?” Her mamma reached for her sleepily and asked, “Are you ill?”

“No Mamma, listen! The dogs say that there are attackers on the roof.”

“The dogs say—the dogs say—Cerúlia, what kind of nonsense did you wake me up for?”

“Mamma! I swear men are coming to kill us! Look!” Cerúlia grabbed a narrow brand from the fire and held it up so her mother could see her dogs: their heads hung on low, rigid necks, their ruffs stuck straight up and their lips were pulled back from their teeth.

Her mother darted up, taking the burning wood from Cerúlia. She crossed through her sizeable reception room, where a maid dozed before the banked fire, and opened the double door to the main hallway. The two shields outside turned to her mother’s urgent call. Faki and Naki took advantage of the cracked door to slip out, racing away at full speed, ears flattened, low growls deep in their throats.

While her mother spoke with the men and they called their fellows patrolling the hallway with sharp halberds, Cerúlia saw the catamount push at the window shutter, first with a paw and then with her nose. Cerúlia sprang out into the hall and opened the shutters, which led onto a balcony; the catamount jumped through in one graceful bound.

Two of the shields ran off in the direction the dogs had taken.

“Platsy.” Her mother shook her maid and lit two candles with the brand before throwing it into the fire. “Take this. Go back to your quarters and lock your door. You won’t get in trouble for leaving your post. Go now!”

Sergeant Bristle and Shield Seena came into her mamma’s rooms, their stern expressions and the quivering light making them look like strangers instead of old friends. Bristle bolted the doors to the big hall and wedged a chair cockeyed on two legs against it. Then he led them into Mamma’s bedroom and again secured the door. He and Seena crossed through the passageway and locked the door from Cerúlia’s rooms to the corridor. They looked around for a sturdy chair to brace against the door but didn’t find one to their liking.

“Wake up, Nana!” said Seena, who had gone into Nana’s room and shaken her. “Trouble afoot.”

Bristle had been examining the door fastenings of the Passageway of Lost Babes. “You ladies go in here,” ordered Bristle. “I’ll stand watch on the queen’s side; Seena, you take this side. Bolt the doors from within and stay quiet there until I give you the all-clear.”

“Can we take a candle?” asked Nana, rubbing her eyelids.

“Best not,” said Bristle.

“Wait!” Cerúlia pulled elderly Pakki and her delicate little greyhound into the protected space. Aki, nostrils twitching, moved beside Seena.

Minutes passed so slowly. Locked in their black, shut-in space, with only glimmers of firelight slipping around the doorjambs, they couldn’t tell what was going on. Cerúlia grew bored, and her feet were so freezing she picked them up off the icy stone and rubbed them. She noticed that her mother and Nana wore night clogs; she wished she’d left hers neatly by her bedside as Nana always told her to.

Still they waited. Cerúlia wanted to complain about her feet, and she wanted to call out to the shields to check that they were still close by, but she held her tongue. She wondered, with a shudder, if the lost babies’ souls surrounded her in this dark corridor, but she pushed down her rising panic.

The thoughts of Zizi, the knee-high greyhound, battered inside Cerúlia’s mind for the first time. Startled by the strange sensation, Cerúlia jerked.

Zizi?

Danger! Men with death in their hearts. The dog trembled against Cerúlia’s calf so intensely that her whole body shook.

You’re all right, Zizi. I swear I’ll protect you.

In the distance they heard shouts and the noise of swords clanging, higher-pitched yells, and then the sound of a woman screaming into the night. She screamed and screamed and screamed.

The noise ceased, and for long moments they heard nothing more. Cerúlia strained her ears, but all she could hear was Mamma and Nana breathing quickly. She took her mother’s hand and patted it.

Abruptly, Aki growled. The noise of a blade splintering wood cut through the dark.

“See-na!! I’m coming!” Bristle shouted from behind them.

People had burst through the outer door into her rooms! As terror coursed through her, Mamma crouched down and enfolded her in her arms.

Intruders! This is one’s territory! Aki’s warning splashed into Cerúlia’s mind.

Seena shouted, “For the Nargis Throne!” and the clash of sword hitting sword rang out.

But Cerúlia couldn’t make out anything further because all at once the air was sundered by ear-splitting yowls, rising in pitch.

The noise became so loud and fearsome that Nana covered her ears in her hands and cried out, “Nargis, protect us!” Mamma pulled Nana down and wrapped her arms around her too. But Cerúlia yanked herself free of the embrace, jumping up and down. She put her mouth to her mother’s ear, “It’s the cats! I have five cats in my room!”

Her delight in the cats joining the battle only lasted a second. Without warning, something extremely heavy struck the door to their passageway hideout. The door shook, and a chink opened between two planks!

Without meaning to, Cerúlia screamed.

They heard catfight screeches, Aki’s growls, and human shouts of pain. Heavy footsteps came thumping down the hallway. More sword clashes and yells and curses. Pakki, finally realizing something was wrong, started woofing, his deep voice echoing in the enclosure and deafening the shut-ins.

“DROP YOUR SWORDS IF YOU WANT TO LIVE,” roared Captain Clemçon’s voice with such authority it rose above the chaos.

A clattering noise. The cats cut off as if someone had thrown a basin on them. Shut up, Pakki! Cerúlia sent to him without even realizing she had done so, and the old hound was so surprised to hear her thoughts in his head that he too ceased his barking. Cerúlia caught the noise of moans and men talking over one another. Someone pounded on the door on the queen’s entrance to the passageway.

“Your Majesty, are you unharmed?” came Sergeant Bristle’s voice.

Mamma unbolted the door that opened into her own bedchamber. “Yes. Tell me.”

Bristle looked wild; he’d lost both helmet and cloak, and dark sweat stains spread under his arms. Nana went to the wardrobe to pull out a night cloak to cover her queen’s nightshift. Cerúlia grabbed a fringy coverlet off a chair and wrapped it around herself.

“A band of intruders penetrated the palace grounds,” reported Bristle. “They went from the terrace to the roof and were making their way to the Royal Wing. Eight have been killed. Hard to survive when a catamount has broken your neck or a dog ripped out your throat. Two broke into the princella’s rooms. They were fought off by Seena and all the animals.”

“Who are these intruders?” asked her mother.

“We don’t recognize ’em.”

“But are they Weir citizens?” she pressed.

“As far as we can tell. Course, we’ll be asking these questions of the captives.”

“I would see them. Nana, keep her here.” Wrapping her cloak around her, Mamma left the suite through the public hall. Nana reached out for Cerúlia’s shoulders, but Cerúlia was too quick—she slid out right behind her mother.

Cerúlia’s eyes opened round when she saw her own rooms. Five shields and Captain Clemçon were crammed inside, and all her furniture had been tossed about. In the light of flickering torches she saw red splattered everywhere and pooling on the floor. The cats perched here and there, briskly and innocently licking paws and coats. Aki’s eyes were locked on two men on the floor, his lips pulled back in a snarl, his fur puffed out like a porcupine. The men on the floor wore dark colors; their clothes were torn; their faces twisted.

Aki, what—

Cerúlia broke off contact with the dog to attend to the human conversation. Captain Clemçon had gone down on one knee to the queen, not noticing that he knelt in a puddle of blood.

“How did these men infiltrate the castle grounds? How did these ruffians enter my daughter’s rooms? The princella’s bedchamber!” Her voice got higher, and some spit sprayed out of her mouth.

“I swear to you, Your Majesty, we will find out.” Captain Clemçon pulled out his sword and laid it hilt-first across his thigh, keeping his head bowed low. “This happened on my watch. My liege, would you like my sword?”

“Don’t be a noble ass, Clemçon, just get to the bottom of this.” Mamma studied the wounded men. All Cerúlia could tell was that one was big, the other tall and lean. Cerúlia saw their faces bore wicked scratches and their hands had little punctures in them everywhere from the cats’ bites. Their trouser legs showed Aki-sized tears. A gaping wound—a sword slash?—cut across the bigger man’s belly, pulsing blood.

“I don’t know them,” said her mother.

“Nor do we,” replied Clemçon. “We will bind them up so they don’t bleed out here and take them for questioning.”

“Did you get them all?” Mamma asked.

“We’re searching the grounds now. I’ve gotten the rest of the catamounts to help.”

Clemçon turned to a shield. “Yanath! Get healers in here! We have to keep these two alive by all means.”

The thinner man on the floor noticed Cerúlia staring at him. His eyes locked on hers. She experienced his hatred like a blow. His lips moved. Cerúlia couldn’t hear what he was saying because Aki started growling low, but she guessed he cursed. His ill will alarmed her; she ducked behind her mother, holding on to her skirt.

Captain Clemçon caught sight of Cerúlia. Again he went down on one knee, “Princella, my deepest regrets.”

When her mother realized that Cerúlia had snuck into the room she asked Shield Seena to take her back to the queen’s bedchamber. But Mamma bent down and whispered to her, “I wish you to keep all the dogs with you at all times.”

Cerúlia was glad to escape the wounded man’s hatred. Nana disapproved of her running off, but she held her lips together and didn’t scold this time. As Cerúlia crossed to warm her feet at the fire, she saw that the dragging length of the coverlet dripped with blood. She threw it off with a shudder and a little yelp. Aki, who had followed them into Mamma’s room, thrust his nose into her neck.

“Nana,” Cerúlia said, “my stomach feels really bad. Like I ate an old shoe.”

“Saw more than she should’ve,” Seena told her nursemaid.

Nana got down on her knees and hugged her tight. “There, there, my Chickadee,” she said. “I’ll set you to rights.”

Nana sat her down on a footstool and rubbed her freezing feet in her warm hands. She sent Tiklok for a sleeping draught with lots of honey, which tasted comforting.

When Faki and Naki scratched at the door, Shield Seena cautiously opened it and let them in.

“Naki’s bleeding!” Cerúlia pointed, with a little shriek of distress.

“We’ll take a look,” said Seena.

“Sit still, Naki,” said Cerúlia. Nana held a lantern close to his middle and wiped off the blood, while Seena probed the injury along his ribs with her fingers.

“Good boy,” said the shield, and Cerúlia noticed that despite the sprays of blood across her forehead and breastplate—despite everything that had happened that night—her voice and hands were steady.

“It’s only superficial, Princella.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s only on his skin, not deep into his body. He’s going to be fine.”

Then Cerúlia felt embarrassed for screaming over a little hurt. “How does your stomach feel, Shield Seena? Would you like some of my tisane?”

“My stomach? Thank you, Princella, I’m fine.”

“Seena’s trained for this, Chickadee,” said Nana. “Now drink the last bit and hop into bed.”

Cerúlia let all of them—Aki, little Zizi, Faki, injured Naki, and even no-good old Pakki (Seena had to pick up his stiff hind legs)—get up on Mamma’s big bed with her. Nana said that this once, her mother would not be angered. In the morning she would talk to Aki more and see if she could converse with all the dogs. But now the bed was warm, and Zizi felt soft and her little heart thumped against Cerúlia’s chest rhythmically

Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Kozloff

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