And the book is done, off to beta readers, and feedback is already coming back. I will have a cover done this weekend, aided by potential bad weather that will trap me in the house so I have to work… or fool around. But I think I’ll at least get the cover done! As always, this is the raw rough draft. There are errors, and there will be changes before publication. I welcome comments below, but might not answer them if it will spoiler the book. I don’t have a release date yet, but I can say it will be the last week in March! Also, there will be a big sale on the previous two books in Mid-March, I’ll announce that when the time comes, so if you’ve been looking for a good time to get a friend started on the series, that will be it.
War Council in the Kitchen
I picked up my coffee cup and inhaled. The black nectar of the gods was all that was going to get me through this. Night had fallen, the council had gathered, and it was time to reap the whirlwind I’d kicked into action that morning. Bella’s hand on my thigh and her chair scooted as close to mine as possible told me my new bride was nervous, for which I did not blame her. Everyone was looking at me.
I looked back at them, savoring the coffee and deciding how to begin. Bella and Dean had joined us, Ellie was doing something quietly in the kitchen behind me, but I knew she was listening, and would not hesitate to add something if she felt like it. Ash was leaning against the doorframe, a compromise between being left out and on guard. There were sprites flickering in and out, most of them were out in the dark garden, I could hear them riotously cheering at something.
Daffyd, my old companion and the best archer in the kingdom, had joined us at some point that day. Ash had appointed him to external security, meaning that I had wood elves inside and out. Something very few people knew about my lodge is that it was built partly around a massive oak, Ellie’s home tree, and was thus partly living itself. There were special magics involved there, and the wood elves were best able to take advantage of it.
I was killing time, now. Bella shifted restlessly in her chair. She preferred being in action to waiting, and I didn’t blame her. Finally, with a soft pop, the final member of my ad hoc council materialized in front of the fireplace. Covered head to toe in a deep brown cowled cloak, he spoke with a deep voice.
“Lom, introduce me.”
I inclined my head to him. “Corwin, my friend, joins us.”
There was a reason for that bit of byplay, as Corwin shook back the concealing hood and took a seat by my mother, who had known who it was at once. I didn’t think he was fooling anyone in this room, but technically as Corwin he could do things impossible for King Trytion.
Now, I could begin. “Margot’s death was the final step in something that has been building for some time, and due to my illness, then the trip to the Eastern Court, I haven’t been aware of this. Lucia, and then Alger, have been keeping their thumbs on it.”
I nodded to my mother, who was sitting very straight, her pale face composed. She took up the narrative with a steady voice.
“Margot and I were aware that a new queen had been crowned to Low Court’s throne. We were unable to ascertain for some time the identity of the woman, who was calling herself the Blood Queen, and who wore red veils to conceal herself in open areas where we were able to scry, or bird-ride.”
I knew she meant not physically, but like Raven had done with me so long ago, to look through the bird’s eyes at what lay below it. With the lesser birds, some amount of control to their flight path was also possible.
“We did know that she did not mean for us to discover her, not only from her furtive movements, but…” Lucia looked at me. “Margot’s was not the first death. One after another, our informants in the Low Court fell silent. Some we knew their fate, others,” She spread out her hands and fingers. “Just vanished. Finally, Margot went to visit an old friend, to ask a very dangerous favor. I had expected to hear from her tomorrow.”
“Could her friend have been turned, and done this?”
She shook her head. “This person is not connected to Low Court. We were asking for the loan of an artifact, which might have gained us entrance to it in secret.”
I raised an eyebrow, but she only shook her head a fraction. I looked at Alger, who cleared his throat.
“Mark and I have been traveling on the fringes of the Low territory. We ascertained through inquiries…”
Mark interrupted. “He means through getting schnockered in a lot of greasy dives where the barmaids look like they were exhumed, or in the nicer ones, like Harpies.”
Alger glared at him, and I suppressed my chuckle. Mark had just gotten his own back for the ‘kid’ earlier.
His train of thought shaken off course, Alger continued more conversationally. “We discovered the true identity, and the goals, of the Blood Queen. She is Dionaea, formerly wife of Lom, and she wants to rule all of Underhill.”
Bella’s hand gripped my leg tightly. I patted it out of sight. We would talk later in private, and I would assure her again that the whole marriage had never been my idea in the first place…
Alger went on. “What we didn’t hear anything about was a planned killing of anyone from High Court. Egged on by their queen, the Low Court grows contemptuous, saying that we are weak, soft, and lack the will to resist. However, to my knowledge there are no firm plans for how they intend to take over. I suspect this is largely a ploy by the new queen to gather support.”
I nodded. “Perhaps. But while she likes to talk a big game, and play for big stakes, she’s also impatient. Which is why we aren’t married any longer.”
They all looked at me, and I sighed. I’d opened my big mouth and inserted a foot up to my ankle. I’d forgotten that none of them knew what had led up to my kicking Dion out, and divorcing her quietly. She’d gone without much fuss…
“She wanted me to maneuver a coup, and overthrow Trytion. I told her I’d see her in hell, first, and when she mocked me for not having enough magic to prevent her, I pulled my pistol on her.” I didn’t want to talk about the attempts at mental manipulation that had gotten me carrying the weapon every moment of the day, not knowing if I would use it on myself when I finally felt her break through my mental shields, or her. It had come very close to being her, I’d pulled the trigger a fraction of a second after her panicked bubble had burst in midair. I’d never seen her again, and there was a book in the library with a bullet embedded in it.
I shrugged, dismissing the memories, and seeing the looks on everyone’s face. I looked at Bella, whose eyes were full of horror for me. “You don’t have to worry about her, my dear. It’s not a mistake I’d make again.”
My mother twitched a little and caught my eye. I looked at her, my face smooth. I would not betray my feelings again. She looked away, and I relented and looked at the others to give her time to compose herself.
“Dionaea means to have all of Underhill. But she lacks the skills to take it. Or she did, a century ago.” I corrected myself. I knew how much I had learned in that passage of time, and my ex-wife might be evil, but she wasn’t stupid.
“Did she have Margot killed?” Bella asked. “I don’t know what I saw in the magic remaining on the body, but it wasn’t… female. I don’t think.” She looked at Alger. “Did you know what that thing was?”
He shook his head. “I suspect she is behind Margot’s death, but we cannot simply storm into Low Court demanding her head for it.”