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Excerpt: A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows

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cover of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows“Many a reader longing for a sense of homecoming in the realm of romantic fantasy will find it in A Strange and Stubborn Endurance.”—Jacqueline Carey

“Stolen me? As soon to say a caged bird can be stolen by the sky.”

Velasin vin Aaro never planned to marry at all, let alone a girl from neighboring Tithena. When an ugly confrontation reveals his preference for men, Vel fears he’s ruined the diplomatic union before it can even begin. But while his family is ready to disown him, the Tithenai envoy has a different solution: for Vel to marry his former intended’s brother instead.

Caethari Aeduria always knew he might end up in a political marriage, but his sudden betrothal to a man from Ralia, where such relationships are forbidden, comes as a shock.

With an unknown faction willing to kill to end their new alliance, Vel and Cae have no choice but to trust each other. Survival is one thing, but love—as both will learn—is quite another.

Byzantine politics, lush sexual energy, and a queer love story that is by turns sweet and sultry, Foz Meadows’ A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is an exploration of gender, identity, and self-worth. It is a book that will live in your heart long after you turn the last page.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows, on sale 7/26/22.


1

We’d scarcely entered Father’s new lands when I realised how little I cared that I’d never inherit them. It was a genteel epiphany, as such things go: though surprised, I neither reined Quip to a jarring halt nor made any pronouncements to Markel, who was paid to endure my rambling. Instead, I wondered whether I should pride myself on my apparent humility— a somewhat ironic paradox, to be sure— or worry at my total lack of ambition. Certainly, had my next- eldest brother lived to share in the same restrictions, he would have been angry enough for the both of us; but then, Revic had always been quick- tempered. My missing him didn’t change the fact that his death had removed an ugly complication from our father’s advancement, though acknowledging it left a bad taste in my mouth. Where Revic had always coveted Nathian’s status as heir, I’d never expected more than my third son’s modest sinecure, and though I was hardly indifferent to the prospect of greater wealth, I deemed myself allergic to the increased responsibilities it so frequently engendered.

No, I decided, inhaling a lungful of crisp, clean air. Little Jarien can have it all, and welcome. My infant half- brother, Father’s son by his new wife and, through her, heir to all I surveyed, was a fraternal blank slate. Whatever relationship we might one day have was untainted by the childhood I’d shared with Revic and Nathian, and though that unpleasant template might yet reassert itself, I was disinclined to borrow such a worry so preemptively.

That being settled within me, I found myself admiring the new vin Aaro lands— which is to say, the old vin Mica lands— as a traveller might, without thought to their upkeep or earnings. We’d passed a small township earlier on, and since ignored the diversions of smaller, only occasionally signposted roads that presumably led to the various other farms and hamlets now under Father’s purview. Before vin Mica’s folly, trade had flourished along this route, goods moving to and from neighbouring Tithena and Khytë through a single pass in the otherwise forbidding Snowjaw Mountains. Though tenants and traders here had likely suffered for their previous lord’s mismanagement, the physical beauty of the land, at least, remained untouched. The road on which we travelled wound prettily through late-fruiting orchards and gentle hills, the bright grass dotted with flowers. The autumn sky was powder blue, shading to lilac around the gleaming caps of the distant peaks, which shone white this late in the year. Pleasant birdsong coloured the air like music.

Though Markel was seldom impressed by views lacking in mortal architecture, on this occasion, he deigned to be impressed by nature’s handiwork, peering curiously about us. As we crested a gentle rise, he nudged his sorrel mare, Grace, a little closer to Quip and snapped his fingers twice, signalling his intention to speak.

From any other servant, it would have been impertinence— and indeed, was often mistaken for such by those who didn’t know that Markel was mute. We’d worked out an etiquette long ago, and though his snapping still struck certain officious types as presumptuous, it worked for us.

“Yes?” I asked, turning to watch his signs.

Reins looped over the saddle horn, Markel signed, “It’s very different to Aarobrook.”

I snorted. “Much as fine lace is different to canvas, yes.” And then, in signs—for use of the skill kept it fresh for me—“We should see the main house, soon.”

Markel grinned and nodded, resuming his hold on the reins. Despite (or perhaps because of ) my tendency to use him as a captive audience, he was sharp enough to hear what I left unsaid: that for all my eagerness to leave the capital—and moons, but I’d been eager!—I still didn’t know why Father had summoned me here in the first place, and was therefore blind to what we might expect. His letter had said only that he wished to see me at my earliest convenience, to discuss “some family matters, best addressed in person.” The ambiguity of it gnawed at me, and what little peace I’d felt on so calmly accepting my half-brother’s future accession to titles and properties I might have otherwise coveted vanished in an instant.

Had Father learned of my indiscretions? Both recently and otherwise, I’d committed so many that I didn’t bother to narrow down what stories might have reached him, or from which sources. My life in Farathel had become little more than a string of offences against propriety; that I regretted only a few of them, and for more complex reasons than simple contrition, didn’t make me any less keen to avoid their consequences, nor did it blunt my desire to escape, however briefly, the circumstances of their creation. It was equally possible, however, that the summons entailed only news of pleasant things—an increase in my sinecure; the expected birth of a new niece or nephew, or—moons!—another half-sibling; some propitious detail about the estate—and a certain self-interest wouldn’t let me forget it.

Unable to sway me one way or the other, hope and fear formed a bipartisan knot of anxiety in my gullet, which felt a little like being seasick and a lot like being drunk, and by the time we reached the estate proper and rode into the main courtyard, my back was as lathered with sweat as Quip’s flanks were not.

Whatever else could be said of the late Lord Ennan vin Mica— and there was a lot to be said, his lateness being unlamented by virtually everyone who hadn’t joined him in it—he’d certainly loved his horses. The grandeur of the stables reflected this fact, and if the estate’s grooms were at all perturbed by the still-recent change in their livery, it didn’t show in their enthusiasm. I’d scarcely dismounted before a wiry, capable-looking man appeared to take Quip’s reins from me, while a short youth did the same with Markel’s Grace. They had the stamp of father and son, or possibly uncle and nephew; their eyes were the same watchful grey, while their noses shared a distinctive crook. Their skin was lighter than Markel’s tawny brown or my own dark olive—a deep tan that came partly from outdoor living, but whose golden undertones suggested more than a drop of Tithenai blood. Looking so unlike my own sire, I always marvelled at such likenesses in others, though as she’d been the handsomer parent, did I say it myself, I never grudged a whit of my mother’s heritage.

“I’m Lord Velasin vin Aaro,” I said—redundantly, it seemed, for they must have known me, lack of paternal resemblance or not. “And this is Markel, my valet.” I hesitated, casting him my usual questioning glance. Markel considered, then gave a minute shake of his head to indicate that no, on this occasion, he didn’t want me to give these strange servants the my valet is mute speech. He carried a slate and a clever chalk pen to aid in making himself understood by strangers who proved inimical to either silence or pantomime, but didn’t always wish to be preannounced as an oddity (as he’d once put it). Turning back to the grooms, I said, “Is my father in residence?”

“Aye, my lord,” said the elder, head jerking towards the house. “The butler will see you right.” He eyed the meagre bags strapped behind our saddles, one brow rising in surprise. “Should I have your things brought up, my lord?”

“Yes, with my thanks,” I replied, and headed straight on, Markel following close behind. I was three paces from the main door when it swung open, revealing a harried-looking butler, two very large dogs and the noblewoman who was—in law, if not in raising—my stepmother, Lady Sine vin Aaro, formerly Sine vin Mica. She was freckled and clever-looking, a scant three years my senior, her reddish-gold hair escaping from a series of upcoiled braids. Little Jarien wasn’t in evidence, but if the spit-stains on the shoulder of her gown were anything to go by, he wasn’t too far distant. I’d met her once before, though briefly, on the day of her wedding; she’d been polite but understandably flustered, and I’d been too distracted to try and observe her more closely

Now, though, she favoured me with a smile I was inclined to think genuine, holding out her hands for me to take and kiss, which I did. By the standards of women of our class, she’d come late to marriage and motherhood both, but inasmuch as I was placed to judge, they both looked well on her.

“You made good time,” she said, laughing as the dogs nosed between us. I dropped her hands in favour of scratching their ears, my panic settling somewhat at the contact. “We weren’t expecting you until supper, though even then, my lord seemed to doubt you’d arrive before tomorrow.”

“I have a history of tarrying,” I said. “But the weather is fine, and I”—needed to get away—“was moved by filial piety.”

“That will doubtless please my lord to hear,” said Lady Sine, and for a moment, her gaze was shrewd as Markel’s. “Though he might wonder at the occasion.”

My reply was forestalled by the sudden appearance of the man himself, trailed by a nursemaid carrying baby Jarien. Remarriage certainly suited Father; I hadn’t seen him so hale in years. His paunch was gone, new muscle firming his arms and shoulders, eyes bright, skin clear. Even before the awful wrangling of what was now called the Dissension, the decade or so in which a loose cadre of antagonistic nobles had stoked political strife within Ralia, and which had finally ended, somewhat anticlimactically, with the exposure of Lord Ennan vin Mica’s plans for rebellion and the arrest, imprisonment and/or execution of his various co-conspirators, my mother’s death had wearied him on a level I’d been too young to fully comprehend, for all that I witnessed it daily. But not even civil peace had eased him as Lady Sine did; or perhaps that was Jarien’s doing, if not the two in combination. Either way, his positive transformation threw into sharp relief my own, inverse trajectory, and in that moment, had he asked for the truth, I would have confessed to everything—even, perhaps, beyond my culpability.

But he did not ask; just clapped my shoulder, fingers squeezing briefly against the bone, and bade me welcome.

“Your timing is better than you know,” he said. And then, eyes crinkling: “It’s good to see you, Vel.” He didn’t acknowledge Markel, but that was as expected.

With his typical quiet skill, he herded our whole panoply back inside: wife, servants, dogs and youngest sons, the front door shutting neatly behind us.

Given this friendly greeting, it was hard to imagine I was in any serious disgrace, and yet my traitor brain refused to abandon the possibility wholesale. As such, I endured the subsequent hours of niceties in an agony of tension. Not that I betrayed this fact beyond a slackening of my usual chatter, but as I was more often the party addressed than addressing, that was hardly incongruous. I was shown the estate, Lady Sine enlightening me as to various features and points of historical interest, all learned during her childhood there, while noting certain recent improvements, such as the addition of magelights and, in the courtyard, an artifex sculpture set within a fountain.

This latter surprised me greatly: while Father had as much respect for magecraft as any Ralian nobleman, he’d never had much interest in artistry or aesthetics, and while the magic underpinning the sculpture was truly impressive—a series of embedded cantrips which caused the carving of a great water serpent to glow, roar and even move when certain control words were spoken—it was hardly utilitarian. I ventured as much to Lady Sine, fishing to see whether she’d had to fight him over its acquisition, but she only laughed.

“Varus is quite fond of it, actually,” she said. “He thinks of it as an investment piece.” She hesitated, then said, “There’s plans to reopen the Taelic Pass to trade with Tithena, and hopefully that will bring Khytoi trade, too. They’ve always been famed for their artifex as well as furs, and if all goes well, he’s hoping it’ll make a good impression on their merchants. And, well.” She laughed. “He likes that Jarien likes it.”

Her smile softened at the mention of her son, and the conversation turned swiftly to talk of his development. Both then and later, I offered up as much admiration of Jarien as one with no real knowledge of infants can for a six-month-old; I praised the quality of the rooms I was given and the food I was offered, both of which were exceptional; and only then, at the tail end of supper, did Father finally invite me into his study.

Though the room was wildly different to its predecessor at Aarobrook—which was Nathian’s now, though I struggled to picture it—enough of the order and furnishings were the same that, instantly, some inward sense transported me back in time. As children, Nathian, Revic and I were only ever admitted to the vin Aaro study at times of great praise or censure, and so it had held a kind of grave magic for us all, like a cave of wonders. It was where I’d been caned for breaking a tenant’s window while flinging rocks at a hornet’s nest, and where I’d been awarded my choice of Father’s prize books for having mercy-killed a beloved hound instead of delegating the task to a servant.

I remembered the cane, and the book, and the dog, and for the second time that day, I battled the urge to confess.

“Sit down, Vel,” said Father, motioning to one of a pair of armchairs. I obeyed, careful to fold my hands in my lap, lest I grip the leather and give myself away through whitened knuckles—a redundant effort, as the next words out of his mouth were, “Relax, boy! I can see you’re tense, though the Lord Sun alone knows why. Or, well,” he amended, scrubbing a rueful hand through his beard, “perhaps that’s unfair of me. After all, I can hardly blame you for wondering where you stand. If Revic—”

He broke off, and we shared a certain fond, pained expression at all that the absence entailed. “I know,” I said softly, and left it at that.

“Well,” said Father, after a moment. “Well, then.” He set his hands on his knees and met my gaze. “Let me speak plainly. Though His Majesty granted me vin Mica’s holdings on the condition that their inheritance falls, not to my eldest sons, but to Jarien, and to any other children with which Sine might yet bless me—” He coloured, just a little, in presumed remembrance of the efforts made in getting them, and I stared very hard at the opposite wall, the better to suppress an embarrassed laugh. “—still, my elevation might yet benefit you.”

“My sinecure, you mean?” I asked, hardly daring to hope.

“In a manner of speaking, yes. I mean for you to marry.”

At this, my lungs and brain forgot how breathing worked, denying me that function for seconds that passed like minutes. My poleaxed expression must have been the expected response, however, for Father waited out my breathlessness with no apparent chagrin.

“How?” I finally managed. “And to whom? My sinecure cannot be increased so greatly as all that, surely!”

“It isn’t,” came the blunt response. “I don’t propose that you could or should support a wife, Vel—in fact, I mean the opposite.”

“You want a wife to support me?”

“And why not?”

I stared at him. “In principle,” I said, pulse galloping in counterpoint to my careful speech, “I have no objection.” A bald-faced lie; I had every objection, though none I dared to voice. “But in all practicality, Father—and I say this with no false modesty—what good Ralian heiress would have me? They are not such abundant creatures as to have no better prospects than a sinecured third son, no matter your elevation.” Not that the vin Aaros had risen in rank, per se, but as any good Ralian knows, there are lords and there are lords, and since being awarded vin Mica’s holdings in the still-recent aftermath of the Dissension, Father was now much closer to the latter than the former.

Ah,” said Father—pleased, as though I’d hit upon the crux of it. “A Ralian heiress, no; I would not force you to swim such waters against your inclination. But a Tithenai girl, Vel—there, there you have value.”

“A Tithenai girl,” I echoed faintly. I could no more swallow the concept than water could swallow oil. “You—that is, you mean— I—”

“Velasin,” said Father, not unkindly. “Think. These lands abut the Taelic Pass; there’s no closer route to Tithena west of the capital. More Khytoi trade passes through Tithena than Ralia; and Nivonai trade, too! That fool vin Mica let those trading routes fall to ruin and the pass itself to banditry—even engaged in border raids himself against the Wild Knife, if the rougher tales are to be believed, though if not, he certainly sanctioned them—but now he’s dead, Shade keep him, and His Majesty is keen to make reparations. The reigning lord of Qi-Katai, Tieren Halithar Aeduria, has an unmarried daughter of twenty-two, and has said in missives that he’s willing to make an alliance. You’ll go to her, Vel, and Qi-Katai is a city of trade—of libraries, even, and theatre, and craft; and I know you speak the language, thanks to those court-friends of yours. And even if you didn’t, many there speak Ralian; you won’t lack for civilisation, nor for anything else, and should you wish to visit home, the distance is not so great.”

His tone was enamoured, wheedling, but I chilled all over at the implications. You’ll go, he’d said, and you won’t lack—not you could, or you wouldn’t. There might have been a mason present to carve the words in stone, for all the give I sensed in them, and it took every scrap of self-possession I had to say, with barely a quaver, “So this—this is finalised, then? You’ve arranged it?”

“Yes,” said Father, and though he was discomforted in the admission, at least he did me the courtesy of not looking away. “You’ve always been a good son, Vel—a good third son, supportive of your brothers and uncovetous of their dues. I watched you with Jarien earlier, and unless I miss my guess, you bear him no ill-will, though many in your position would. I know you haven’t sought marriage”—and here he reached out, squeezing my chair’s arm as if in proxy for my withheld hand—“but I wouldn’t propose it now, even though it please my king, if I thought it was not also a reward to you; a fitting, good thing for a loyal son.”

I wanted to scream, but could not. I wanted to weep, but dared not. I looked at him, and all at once, the dreadful ironies of my flight from Farathel—of why I’d left, and in what hopes—rose up to choke me, gales of awful laughter locked behind my teeth. My smile was a rictus. I bowed my head, and let another memory of childhood obeisance carry me through.

What do you say, Velasin, when Father gives you something?

“Thank you, sir,” I croaked out.

My hoarseness he took for a sign of joy; my shock, he took for awe. Still gripping my chair, he spoke in excited tones of the Tithenai envoy due to arrive sometime tomorrow, bearing the marriage contracts; of any arrangements I might want to make, to have my Farathel possessions carefully shipped to Qi-Katai, and whether I’d take Markel with me; of the Tiera Laecia Siva Aeduria, who was to be my wife, and her many apparent virtues. I listened in a halfdead daze, and so missed the knock on the study door that broke my father’s speech. Instead, I saw only the butler, bowing at the threshold; heard only his cruel, absurd pronouncement:

“I’m sorry to interrupt, my lords, but there’s a visitor inquiring after Lord Velasin.”

“A visitor?” asked Father, brow wrinkling in puzzlement. “Not the Tithenai envoy already, surely!”

“No, my lord. Our guest is Ralian—a Lord Killic vin Lato.”

The bottom dropped out of the world.

“I know of the house, but not him,” said Father, oblivious to the wreck of me. “A friend of yours, Vel?”

That’s one way of putting it. “Yes, Father,” I said, though how I kept my voice steady, I’ll never know. “I—I was not expecting him. He must have sought me out.” Please, please send him away. But I couldn’t ask for it; not without raising questions, and I felt too stupid to lie.

“He’s very welcome, then,” said Father. To the butler, he added, “He can have the oak room, Perrin, but send him through to the games hall while it’s made up—Lord Velasin can meet him there. And do offer him a tray, would you? Late as it is, he’s likely starved.”

“Yes, my lord,” said Perrin, and left.

“Well!” said Father, bright and final. “We can discuss the particulars more tomorrow, but as your friend has come all this way, I shan’t keep you from him—unless,” he said, with a certain slow awareness of my discomfort, “you’d rather I make your excuses? Sun knows, I’d understand if you’d rather take some time to yourself—”

“No,” I said. The word felt tacky and strange in my mouth, like a half-cooked mushroom. Killic was persistent; as unpalatable as I found the prospect, it was best to deal with him now. “I’ll see him.”

“Good lad,” said Father, and as we both came to our feet, he clapped my shoulder again, more gently than before. “I’m proud of you, Vel. Of all of us.”

You wouldn’t be, I thought, if you knew.

“Thank you,” I said, and watched him turn left down the corridor, towards his wife and the son too young to have yet disappointed him.

Which left me—false, dutiful creature that I was—to greet Lord Killic vin Lato: the man who, until a mere fortnight past, had been my lover in Farathel.

Copyright © 2022 from Foz Meadows

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