Sarah Kozloff, author of A Queen in Hiding, continues the breathtaking and cinematic epic fantasy series The Nine Realms with book two, The Queen of Raiders, and all four books will be published within a month of each other, so you can binge your favorite new fantasy series.
The soldiers of Oromondo have invaded the Free States, leaving a wake of misery and death. Thalen, a young scholar, survives and gathers a small cadre of guerilla fighters for a one-way mission into the heart of an enemy land.
Unconsciously guided by the elemental Spirits of Ennea Mon, Cerulia is drawn to the Land of the Fire Mountains to join Thelan’s Raiders, where she will learn the price of war.
Slagos, The Green Isles
Gardener was dividing ferns in a shaded bed in the rear of his plot when he sensed the Nargis heir arrive. Laboriously, he pushed himself off the ground, leaving his tools half-buried in the dirt. He stood still a long moment, checking that he had not made a mistake, observing her disembark with his inner vision.
He washed his hands in a nearby bucket of rainwater and then strode to the bed of blue orchids, hearing the bees buzzing around the open blooms. With practiced motions he harvested a large armful of blooms with long stems; these he strung together to make a lei. He walked to the Spirit’s statue in the courtyard and hung the offering around its neck. Then he said a prayer of thanksgiving. He had hoped this might come to pass, but Mìngyùn’s threads swirled without order during these troubled times.
When he finished his prayer he returned to his work, concentrating on tidying the garden and the courtyard. Sometime soon she would visit, and he wanted to show the grounds off to their fullest advantage. A woman in a green-and-pink caftan tied at the middle with a broad white waist sash whistled as she polished tables.
“A good morn to you, darlin’,” she said to Wren.
“And to you. I’ve hardly eaten for weeks. What do you recommend?”
The round-faced, big-chested woman wore her wavy brown hair untidily piled on top of her head. She paused to regard Wren with measuring eyes.
“First voyage, eh? You do look peaked. Perch yourself hereabouts and I’ll set you to rights in a tick.” She called words Wren couldn’t distinguish to figures working behind her in the kitchen area.
Wren sat at the long, wooden counter in the low-ceilinged, whitewashed room. The woman poured her a mug of a cocoa-cinnamonchili tisane and gave her a basket of bread made from grains Wren had never tasted before; as the server moved about, her loose sleeves showed that she had a green vine tattooed around her wrist. Wren drank thirstily and enjoyed the sun slanting in through the windows, warming her kinked shoulders and making the morning dust motes shimmer.
She had been ill throughout her voyage to Slagos from Gulltown: her throat and head pained her, she developed a cough, and her stomach heaved. Her roommates in the women’s stateroom made themselves a nuisance with their chatter and whining. She caught one of the children pawing through her belongings and prying about her hair tonic. Or perhaps her fellow passengers got on her nerves because she felt so sickly? But worst of all her troubles aboard the ship, she discovered that when she went out on deck to breathe clean air and get away from her roommates, the sailors peppered her with rude comments. When she sought out the shipmaster to complain, he pinched her bottom and laughed at her.
The brazen idiot! When I’m queen I’ll—I’ll do something unpleasant to him.
Wren keenly felt the loss of all the safety and care she had taken for granted in Wyndton, rustic as that village might be. There, under Stahlia and Wilim’s protection, she had been sheltered from want, rudeness, strangers, or loneliness. On the Island Flyer, abruptly thrust into a rougher environment alone, she felt baffled, then frightened, then furious.
Disembarking in Slagos came as a welcome relief. As soon as her feet hit solid soil her empty stomach growled, but she walked through the island city awhile, looking at the whitewashed buildings of clay brick, each festooned with flower boxes that, though it was winter, overflowed from every window in this moderate climate. Pale yellow butterflies flew in singles, doubles, or swarms.
Then she chose a tavern, the Blue Parrot, several streets away from the wharf. It had a cage outside filled with parrots (though none were blue). They squawked loudly upon seeing her; Wren heard, “Majesty, Majesty, Majesty.” And two friendly terriers darted out from a shadowed passageway to wag their tails and get acquainted.
The tavernkeep broke in on her thoughts as she poured Wren more hot, spicy liquid. “Getting you some eggs first, and then soup, little darlin’.”
Wren had felt so low that this stranger taking care of her soothed her as much as the food.
“What’s your name?” Wren said.
The woman stopped her work and leaned on her arms across the counter. “I’m Zillie.”
“Is this your place?”
“Aye. I bought it from the previous owner eight years ago. Islanders don’t like to boast, but I serve up the best meals in Slagos. Darlin’, you aren’t traveling on your lonesome, are you?”
“Aye.” Wren couldn’t help but reach out to this kindly stranger. “May I ask you a question?”
”How can I help you?”
“When a woman travels alone,” said Wren, “how does she keep men from bothering her? I have a knife and know how to use it, but I judge that would lead to trouble.”
“Aye, keep your knife hidden unless a man lays his hands on you. But you have another sharp weapon—your tongue. When I first opened this place, didn’t I have a time! But I’ve learned when to laugh at a man, when to cuss him out, when to bring him down, and when to pretend he ain’t in the room at all. Just takes a bit of practice.”
The owner straightened up. “Your eggs must be ready, darlin’; let me fetch them.”
Wren ate the eggs and herbs, savoring their warm, soft texture. The Blue Parrot started to fill up for the midday meal. The tavernkeep next brought her a steaming bowl of soup made with shellfish. Wren scarfed it down with more bread and started to feel much stronger. As she paid for her fare she asked Zillie, “Do you know where I can get lodgings?”
“Head up the street a few more blocks away from the harbor,” she said, gesturing with her chin because her hands were full of trenchers. “When you come to the Garden of Vertia, turn left. A number of clean, respectable houses back that way rent to travelers. Good fortune, darlin’.”
Wren thanked her and followed her instructions. She was not sure she would recognize a Garden of Vertia, but no one could mistake it. Small stones arranged in elaborate, swirling patterns marked the approach to an open gateway. In the middle of the walled courtyard stood a figure taller than the tallest person. It was wrought from green marble, vines, and moss so cunningly intermixed that one would be hard-pressed to point to exactly where the living material left off and the stone began. The figure had no legs, or at least the leg portion of its body had been replaced by twisting vines. Its gender was indecipherable because it had male attributes from the waist down, but female from the waist up. It held a basket of stone and living fruit pressed against its torso, and the other hand offered a cupful of liquid. The long hair was either marble carved to look like or actually made up of greenery. A necklace of interlaced orchids hung around its neck.
Wren gazed at the courtyard with wonder for a few moments and then reluctantly pulled herself away to journey farther down the road, surveying the houses. Several posted hand-lettered signs reading “Lodgings.” She chose a house that appealed to her and knocked on the door. The elderly householders offered her three different rooms; the cheapest, which she selected, was situated in the back of the building.
The landlords asked for the first week’s payment in advance; Wren fished out the coins she had brought from Wyndton. Like Zillie, the landlords were practiced in the exchange of foreign silvers and coppers against their own currency. They left her in possession of her tiny but private room.
Wren opened the window shutters onto a small garden, not at all disappointed to discover that she had no view of the sea. She placed her bag on the only stool and hung her cloak and hat on the only hooks. A waist-high shelf held a ewer and a basin. The bed was an unfamiliar design to her: the frame sat only a hand’s length above the floor, with the cross lashes made out of a springy reed. The mattress material was white linen; whatever was stuffed inside smelled sweet. She lay down on the bed to try its comfort and—full of good food and feeling safe for the first time in weeks—fell asleep.
In the midafternoon when she awoke, Wren took stock of her situation. Wilim’s purse had gotten lighter; she needed to find a way of earning her keep and saving money. If she was to buy passage to Liddlecup, the capital of Lortherrod, where she had distant kin, she needed to find work.
After freshening up, she gathered her bravery to leave her sanctuary for a further look at the harbor city. The afternoon had waned, as had the sun’s ferocity. Wren noticed that most of the citizens, men and women, wore loose gowns like Zillie’s; the men tied theirs with a broad green sash at the middle, which held a knife scabbard, but no one strolled around armed with swords. Everyone also wore hats of braided straw they called “toppies” against the glare. Wren located an apothecary shop for when she ran out of the hair tonic that turned her blue hair a dull and lifeless brown. She also spied a market of open-air vendors selling secondhand clothes and fabrics; she walked the aisles, coveting the unpatched stockings, and wondered if she would ever be able to buy changes.
As she strolled the streets she paused to read all the tacked-up broadsheets she could find. Since Slagos was a major port, it received news from many lands. The Oros had solidified their hold over all of the Free States. King Rikil of Lortherrod had called for an alliance of Powers against Oromondo, but Weirandale had remained unaccountably silent to this plea.
Wren grew hungry again but needed to avoid the expense of a tavern. In a cobbled triangle between buildings she saw a stand selling skewers of roasted meat that, judging by the number of sailors clustered around, offered good quality and fair prices.
She started back to her tiny room to eat, but ended up pausing once more at the gate of Vertia’s Courtyard. With tall trees dappling the fading light, the statue’s grace created an air of serenity.
As the island sunset colored the wide sky with pinks and oranges, an older man with a heavily seamed, coffee-brown face, wearing a simple green robe and a broken straw hat, came to sweep the courtyard and remove the now-withered floral necklace. He nodded and smiled at Wren.
“I am a visitor, not a worshipper. Do I intrude?” she asked.
“The Garden of Vertia welcomes all. Will you be staying in Slagos a spell?”
“I don’t really know. I’m not eager to get back on board a ship!”
A yellow-and-green parrot perched nearby repeated with perfect mimicry: “Board a ship. Squawk! Board a ship.”
“The sailing life doesn’t suit everyone. I too prefer my feet on steady ground. Islanders are clever with our boats, but unlike the Lorthers we do not worship the sea. We worship the Spirit of Growth, who gives us food, wine, beauty, wood, thatch, and shade. But more than these gifts—Vertia is the Spirit of the Life Force, of the desire to live and multiply.”
“How long have you tended this garden?” Wren asked.
“Oh, many years. Come. I should like my orchids to meet you.”
Wren followed him through a stone portico. A flight of nine wide stone stairs led down to a large walled garden of artfully arranged and meticulously maintained fruit trees and flowers.
“How do you keep it so perfect?” Wren asked.
“I treat it with the best food for the soil,” he chuckled. “A gardener’s sweat.”
“This is truly a tribute to Vertia,” marveled Wren. Her new acquaintance beamed at her praise. It was only as he reached up to pick some ripe fruit for her fastbreak and she saw him feeling about on the branch that she realized his milky gray eyes were sightless.
“Thank you for this. Pray, what should I call you?”
“‘Gardener’ is the name I prefer now.”
Wren gathered a little more courage. “Gardener, might you have counsel for me? I need to find work here, but I can’t imagine what kind of job would suit me or what I’d be fit for.”
“Gardeners love being asked for advice, for we grow very sage.” He smiled at his own pun. “Come, come. A young woman such as you must have many skills.”
“I do have a knack with animals,” Wren admitted.
“There,” he said, with satisfaction. “Many Slagos businesses use horse carts to get their wares down to the docks. Perchance a concern needs help with its horses?”
“Would anyone take me, a stranger, on without a vouchsafe?”
“I will vouch for you,” said he.
“How could you do that? You hardly know me! You don’t even know my name.”
“Squawk! Know my name. Know my name.”
“Ah, ’tis not true. I see you clearly. As for names, well, they are easily adopted and just as easily shed when they no longer fit. I myself have worn several in my thyme.” He paused to make sure she had heard the pun. “Tell anyone that Gardener will vouch for you. I think that will assuage any doubts.”
“I am indeed in your debt.” For her “Wren” persona in Wyndton she had adopted a meek, high voice; this evening she sounded older and more confident.
“No. If you feel indebted, ’tis to Vertia. The Spirit drew you here. I am just its Gardener. Feel free, my dear, to come back anytime. The peacefulness or the fruit or any help I can provide: all are yours for the taking.
“But let me offer you a word of caution: whatever you do, stay away from the Green Isles Bank. As anyone would tell you, Slagos attracts a number of people who are paid to further the interests of other lands. Some of these people might be watching for a foreign young woman such as yourself.”
“Squawk! Stay away, stay away, stay away. Squawk.”
Wren felt a chill to learn that this island teemed with spies as eager to find her out as her pursuers back in Androvale.
Gardener continued, “Rumor even reached me that the bank director is in the pay of the Lord Regent of Weirandale, and I don’t trust his people either. They seek a young woman with special Talents.”
And the old man winked at her, confirming Wren’s guess that somehow he recognized her.
Copyright © Sarah Kazloff 2020
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