Book Review for Of Fire and Stars

fireandstars

Quick review for Audrey Coulhurst’s Of Fire and Stars. (Illustration by the always awesome Nate Hallinan.) Smart, brave heroines: check. Girl-love: check. Murder-mystery that threatens to spark a war: check. I’ll try to keep from being too spoiler-y, but I realize my track record for that isn’t the best.

It was Nate’s charming illustration that first drew my attention to Fire and Stars. It’s how I ended up buying it for my Kindle on the release date and reading it over the next two afternoons. On the surface, Stars is about two smart princesses trying to solve a murder-mystery in order to prevent a war. And if that isn’t cool enough, there’s also a lot going on beneath the surface: politics, arcane-phobia, and fear-mongering that our heroines have to contend with.

Princess Mare is kind of that tomboyish-horsewoman (cowgirl-ish?) archetype, more interested in riding or having a few drinks with the guards than in courtly pursuits. She loves riding more than anything and knows all the secret ways in and out of the palace. Though the other characters accept Mare for the way she is, few of them really respect her or acknowledge her skills and smarts. The other members of the court look down on her, convinced that she’s frivolous and never going to find a proper marriage with her attitude—and, sadly, Mare worries that they’re right and undervalues herself because of it.

Princess Denna is more the bookish type and is in an arranged engagement to Mare’s useless tosser of a younger brother. D is one of these unfortunate princesses who has been in a political engagement since she was a baby, and her life has been training for her future marriage. Additionally, Denna is a magic user trying to keep her powers hidden. Though magic isn’t universally reviled in the story, the kingdom she’s marrying into views magic users as dangerous heretics. Denna’s greatest fear is failing at both.

When a nobleman close to both heroines is murdered, Princess Denna and Princess Mare learn to respect each other’s abilities and work together to solve the murder and save their kingdom from a needless war. Naturally, they’re going to fall in love. (Not a spoiler so much as an incentive.) Yes, I recognize there are a number of popular tropes at work within the characters and story, but I felt like they were smartly applied in ways that kept the story charming and engaging.

I think what I liked best about the story was Audrey’s effective use of the trope where a street-smart character and a book-smart character discover that they work really well together. I felt that it was applied effectively and consistently throughout the story, and that both princesses had excellent opportunities to demonstrate their smarts and skills. Additionally, it means a lot to me that both see value in the other’s knowledge/skill set. Mare immediately sees the usefulness of Denna’s understanding of arrow trajectories, research smarts, and historical knowledge. Meanwhile, Denna respects and admires Mare’s courage and worldliness and even goes out of her way to learn from the older princess. Plus never do they compete or try to show off to the other or to anyone else. It’s a charming dynamic that I feel is woefully underused in fiction in general.

I liked as well that being gay or bi was treated as something normal in the novel’s world. Throughout there are references to men dancing with men, noblewomen having flings with serving women, and same-sex marriage as a recognized union. Princess Mare is openly bi and admits to trysts with men and women before meeting Denna. I appreciate that the societal pressures that keep our heroines from admitting their feelings for each other center around Denna’s arranged engagement to Mare’s brother.

Thus I love how in the end, it’s our princesses’ feelings for each other that helps each accept themselves, despite the societal pressures placed upon them. Denna’s love and acknowledgement helps Mare accept herself and acknowledge her own identity and value as a person. Mare’s love and acceptance shows Denna that her magic isn’t something to be afraid or ashamed of, and that there’s more to life than being the perfect wife and princess. Though the murder-mystery brings them together and gives them a chance to display their skills, it’s their growing affection and acknowledgement of the other’s wisdom and bravery that helps each learn to love and acknowledge themselves. It’s an uplifting dynamic that I’d love to see more often in fiction.

If I had one minor beef with Of Fire and Stars, it was an overuse of that trope where most of the adult main characters are either stubborn and ineffectual or secretly villains. In fact, about the only adult character who takes both princesses seriously is the one whose murder sparks the main conflict. And it’s not so much that I felt the trope was badly applied (I mean, I get that Denna is the new girl who doesn’t know the workings of the court, and everyone is used to not taking Mare seriously). I just felt that it was over-applied. I felt that too many of the authority figures were overly resistant to the the idea that the evidence was problematic. It was to the point that I was half-convinced that the murder was a conspiracy and all of the grown-ups were in on the assassination.

Wow, so much for a ‘quick’ review. Lots to say, apparently. On the whole, I loved the story and definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA fantasy or wlw romances. It’s smart and uplifting, and I’d love to see more tales like it. Thanks for reading and take care, folks!

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First Empress Prologue (scene 6)

So here’s the ending of the prologue to First Empress. Originally the prologue ended with Viarra confronting her uncle at the end of scene 5, but later I had an idea that I hope puts an unexpected twist on Viarra’s character. It’s a short scene that doesn’t even include Viarra, but hopefully it opens up some interesting implications about the novel’s world. As always, any feedback is welcome!


“Come to gloat, General Derron?” Duke Elladan accused as the general dismissed the guard outside his cell.

Derron waited for what Elladan suspected was long enough for the guards to be out of earshot before replying. “No, in fact I came to thank you,” the general replied, tossing a wineskin into the cell. “Believe it or not,” he continued, “you saved me a great deal of time and effort. You did what you saw as necessary for our people, and, despite appearances, you succeeded better than you could have imagined.”

Elladan frowned as he sniffed the wineskin: an aged white wine with a hint of belladonna and henbane—relatively quick and painless, despite the disorientation and nausea. He’d be dead in less than two hours. Beats dangling to death, at any rate, he decided. “Are you trying to be cryptic or condescending, General?” the duke asked as he took a sip of wine. “I can’t tell which.”

“I know how hard it was for you to make that decision to murder your brother’s family,” Derron told him, leaning against the cell bars, as if in casual conversation. “I was in the process of making a similar decision, if for a different outcome. I loved those four young men like my own sons; in fact I was hoping to marry my granddaughter Ryllia to Prince Dollan. Arrol gave every indication of wanting to continue his father’s pacifistic goals, but without a plan of action for accomplishing them. Kallis was a scholar with no interest in ruling. Emmet and Dollan were intelligent enough, but neither had any manner of decision-making capabilities.”

“They were good, solid sons of Kel Fimmaril,” Elladan agreed as he took another drink, “but not one of them had any business taking up the throne. And now we’re stuck with that damned girl as queen. So tell me how the situation has improved, Derron.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say they had no business on the throne,” Derron disagreed. “I think any of the king’s sons could have made excellent caretaker monarchs—ones good at maintaining stability and status quo. Unfortunately, a caretaker monarch is not what we need right now.”

Elladan took another long drink from the poisoned wineskin. “Right, we’re in deep shit,” he agreed. “You probably know this better than I do.”

“No, the shit got much shallower last night,” Derron corrected. “And I have you to thank. For the first time since the old king died, I have hope.”

The duke stared at the old general for a long moment. “Maybe the poison is going to my head already, but I swear you sound sincere, General. Viarra is tough and smart, but do you really think putting an inexperienced, untried woman on the throne is an effective plan?”

“No, Viarra was our backup plan,” Derron told him flatly. “A role her grandfather and I started preparing her for since she was six years old.

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First Empress Prologue, (scene 5)

Scene Five of the prologue is where I first get to show readers how tough Queen Viarra is. I imply it in scene 2 when Lady Synnis tells Ronnius about how her majesty slew five armed hoplites by herself, but it’s the following scene where I show readers just how freaking tough she is. Critically wounded, Viarra still makes a showy public appearance when her soldiers apprehend her uncle who sent soldiers to murder her brothers. She does this to show her people what she’s suffered while fighting for them. She seeks to inspire them to keep on fighting for their homes and families, despite her uncle’s treachery and the death of their king.

Too, I’m establishing here that while her uncle’s betrayal was the catalyst for her ascension to the throne, he is not one of the primary antagonists in the story. She confronts her uncle, the soldiers side with her, he hangs. First Empress is a drama about politics and empire building; the opening betrayal and revenge were never intended as the primary conflicts. (Scenes 1, 2&3, 4, 6)


The rain had long since ceased and the eastern horizon was just beginning to pinken when Ronnius returned to the apothecary shop with General Derron and the honor guard. At Derron’s insistence, Ronnius now wore a burnished-bronze officer’s cuirass and greaves with a ceremonial short sword on his right hip. At Tanna’s insistence, she accompanied him wearing a crimson gown and shoulder cloak. Eighteen of the Royal Honor Guard stopped and stood at attention, wearing polished bronze armor and helms with tall, navy-blue horse-hair plumes. Each guard bore a bronze round-shield with the royal crest, ceremonial swords, and bronze-tipped spears. General Derron personally led his finest white mare for the queen to ride.

A small crowd of citizens had already started to gather at the spectacle as Ronnius stepped up and knocked on the shop’s door. Moments later Elissa and Lady Synnis emerged leading the new queen. Her majesty stepped barefoot into the dawn, wearing only a bed sheet as a skirt and bandages covering only her chest, baring the stitched-up stab wounds on her abdomen for all to see. The black sutures glared out against her nearly pallid skin. Yet Ronnius couldn’t deny that she carried herself no less regally wearing bandages than wearing a formal gown.

Ronnius saluted as Queen Viarraluca straightened up in the orange light from the rising sun, reminding him that she was several inches taller than he was. Those intelligent jade eyes regarded her second-in-command imperially for a moment. “Report, Ronnius,” she ordered, only a trace of her earlier hoarseness evident.

“Of course, your majesty,” he replied crisply. Despite her stoic demeanor, Ronnius could tell his queen was in unimaginable pain. Again he wondered if this showmanship was prudent but knew better than to voice such concerns. “The Assembly has been called and gathers as we speak. We have confirmation that Duke Elladan will be in attendance. Your honor guard waits to escort you.”

“Thank you, Ronnius. What of my brother’s household? Were there other survivors of the attack?”

Ronnius bowed his head slightly at her question. “Eleven servants and one guard were found alive, most of them wounded, your grace. No survivors were accounted for among your family, I’m afraid. They even murdered your nieces and nephews.”

Those jade eyes narrowed, a look that Ronnius knew would scare the piss out of any man who crossed her. Two of her nephews were infants. “Very well,” her majesty declared, “we’d best set off.” As the queen stepped off, Elissa and Lady Synnis each took one of her elbows and led her gingerly to General Derron’s horse. The sun continued his leisurely journey over the Vestic Sea to the east as Ronnius and General Derron carefully set the queen sidesaddle on the white mare.

As Ronnius started to turn away, Elissa grabbed his elbow. “She may not look it, but she’s weak as a newborn right now,” the handmaid whispered to him. “She hasn’t slept and has been throwing up most of what we feed her. We finally got her to keep some broth and tea down a quarter-hour ago. You get her to that assembly safely, have her make her appearance, then get her resting as quickly as gods-damned possible, hear?”

“I hear,” he nodded. Elissa nodded in return and stepped solemnly back into the crowd.

As he started to turn again, Tanna grabbed his other elbow. She turned him to her and kissed him long and passionately. “Good luck,” she whispered as she broke the kiss, then scampered into the crowd.

The thought occurred to Ronnius that asking the curvy little nymph to marry him might at last be in order. As the queen’s steward, he was certainly in a position to finally impress the naysayers in her family.

“Are we ready?” General Derron asked, sounding and looking both amused and annoyed at his granddaughter’s public display of amour. Ronnius nodded and took his place at the queen’s right while the general moved to the left of the white mare.

“Your majesty?” Ronnius inquired, looking up at his queen.

Viarraluca nodded down at her escort. Derron signaled to the honor guard and took the reins of the queen’s horse. The honor guardsmen formed a box around their new monarch, and the procession stepped off at what Ronnius hoped looked like a slow, stately pace. In truth, it was a slow, gingerly pace to keep from further agitating the queen’s injuries.

“Give me your hand,” her majesty whispered to Ronnius. He extended his left arm up to her, and she grasped his wrist in her right hand. He could feel her squeeze tighter whenever her pain increased.

There was no cheering from the crowd as the honor guard made its way to the assembly hall—no cheering and only the occasional whisper. Indeed, an overwhelming sense of awe seemed to have fallen over the crowd on either side and behind them. Any conversation or commotion ahead of them immediately ceased as citizens moved to make way for the procession.

The lack of colorful clothing in the crowd seemed to add to the somberness of the procession. Ronnius remembered a merchant friend once telling him that the variety of colors worn by a group of citizens is one of the most telling indicators of a city’s economy. Most of the assembled citizenry wore earth-toned garments or that red-violet color that came from those bitter, wild berries that grew in the hills and woods on the north side of the island. The only exceptions he saw were faded garments in colors that the islanders no longer had access to. And with no new merchants selling dyes or dyed textiles in their markets, the color shortage was likely to continue for a long while. Ronnius took this as a sign of things that needed to change—of trials their island faced and problems their new queen would need to overcome.

Periodically Ronnius looked up to check on her majesty, her unkempt copper hair gleaming in the morning sun. She kept her right hand on his arm and left hand on her knee as she rode sidesaddle next to him. She never looked down at him, but kept her eyes and face fixed forward.

The procession stopped only once on the journey, when the white horse stumbled over a loose cobblestone in the agora, eliciting a gasp from the crowd. Ronnius felt the queen’s grip tighten on his arm and he looked up in horror to see her face contorted in agony. Viarra sat hunched forward, left hand clutching a wound on her right side. Her eyes were clinched shut, but tears rolled down each side of her majesty’s nose and down each cheek. Derron noticed as well and signaled the vanguard to a halt.

“Your majesty?” the general asked quietly.

Don’t move,” came the rasping whisper from between clinched teeth. Her breaths came in and out as painful hisses.

The procession stood still for what felt like hours, concerned murmurs fluttering throughout the crowd. Someone gasped as scarlet drops oozed from between her majesty’s fingers. Ronnius realized with sickening dread that the small but sudden jolt had torn her stitches, not just on the surface, but possibly internally as well. No one moved for agonizing minutes, Viarraluca’s battle with the pain playing out on her face. It was agony that would have felled a lesser human being. In the back of his mind, Ronnius doubted whether a greater human being existed.

The escort and crowd finally began to relax as her grace slowly straightened herself out. She let go of her side and of Ronnius’s arm to tear a large section of her skirt to use as a bandage. The tear exposed nearly all of her right leg, but the makeshift bandage held, to the relief of all present. Viarra wiped her hands on what was left of her skirt and signaled the vanguard to continue. She took Ronnius’s arm again as they started off.

A group of city guards approached as they entered the courtyard in front of the assembly hall. “So it’s true,” the guard captain said as he jogged up to the procession, “her highness did survive the attack.” Ronnius was never positive, but he thought he saw the man weeping.

General Derron dropped the reins and walked over to the guards. “Is Duke Elladan within the assembly hall?” he asked their leader.

“I believe so, my lord general,” the man confirmed.

“Take two of your men and fetch him from the hall,” the grizzled general ordered. “Use force if necessary—or if you feel like it.”

The guards saluted and rushed to comply. The crowd parted to let them pass. Queen Viarra continued to clutch Ronnius’s wrist as they waited, but he felt her hand trembling and her grip weakening. He squeezed her wrist in return. “Not much longer,” he whispered up to her.

Several minutes later, the guards returned, dragging a fussing and fuming Duke Elladan between them. Ronnius noted that one of the guards had his kopis drawn. The steward had to force himself not to laugh as he realized that the duke was too busy with his temper tantrum to notice what was going on. The guards hauled him forcibly through the crowd and threw him at General Derron’s feet.

Duke Elladan started to protest, but turned silent and pale as he saw Queen Viarraluca astride that white mare. With jade eyes and copper hair glistening in the sun and her battle scars and bloody bandage bared to all, the queen gazed down at him with cold contempt. No words were spoken, but the naked look of helpless, silent terror on the Duke’s face was plain to everyone present. It wasn’t the last time Ronnius saw someone with that expression, but he only ever saw Queen Viarra create this reaction in people.

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First Empress Prologue (scene 4)

Shoot. So I figured out yesterday that I completely forgot to post the remaining scenes from the First Empress prologue to SSH. Sorry about that. I’ll post the rest today and tomorrow.

So I lied in my intro to scene 1, there’s actually six scenes in the prologue, I just divided them up into five posts. This scene features Queen Viarra talking shop/politics with Ronnius after the physician, Esset, finishes bandaging her. Ronnius was originally one of the characters I’d considered as a significant other to Viarra, before she and Elissa came out to me as lesbians. Instead of Ronnius’s rescue of the title heroine in the prologue leading to an eventual relationship, Queen Viarra rewards Ronnius by making him her kingdom’s steward when she’s away. As always, any feedback is most welcome. (Scenes 1, 2&3)


Ronnius wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep when Esset quietly woke him. The window was still dark, but the noise from the commotion outside had apparently died down. “Her majesty is stable and wants to see you, young Ronnius,” Esset told him. Ronnius nodded groggily as he stood and stretched. “Damned girl refused any opium to reduce the pain. I stitched up her wounds, as well as several internal injuries. In a few weeks I’ll have to go back in and take those stiches out,” Esset continued. “That handmaiden was a terrific help, and I’m letting her sleep for now. Her majesty suggested I head down to the hospital now to volunteer and to see if they found any other survivors at the estate.”

Ronnius patted the apothecary on the shoulder. “Thank you. Keep an ear open while you’re there,” he suggested. “Find out what rumors are flying around and what Duke Elladan and General Derron and the others have been saying.” Esset grunted an affirmation, then turned and slipped out the front door.

Ronnius entered the candlelit back room and closed the door quietly behind him. Queen Viarraluca smiled weakly up at him from one of the doctor’s cots. Even broken and bandaged, his queen managed to look regal. There was strength of spirit in those jade eyes that he’d never paid attention to before. He couldn’t explain it, but somehow he foresaw her becoming one of the greatest queens to ever reign. She squeezed his hand as he sat in the chair next to her cot.

They sat without talking for a long moment. “Hell of a way to begin your reign,” Ronnius finally said, more to break the silence than anything.

Viarra smiled, shaking slightly. Then she winced in pain. “Please, don’t make me laugh, it hurts to do so right now,” she admonished him hoarsely.

“I wanted to thank you, Ronnius,” she continued, “for everything you’ve done tonight. You saved not only me, but likely the entire kingdom as well.” She paused. “I saw Lord Vennis’s body on the path when we met those watchmen. You killed him?”

“I did, your majesty.”

“That must have been hard; he was very close to you,” she replied.

“He was as my brother. But at the moment I killed him, I didn’t see him as such,” Ronnius admitted. “He’d revealed his part in his father’s plot against the king. I couldn’t be a party to that, nor could I just sit by and let it happen.”

Her majesty looked at the ceiling. “We’d long suspected the Duke was plotting to seize control, but all indications were that it centered on marrying his son to me. Arrol, General Derron, and I thought that we could buy time to unravel his plans by having me play ‘hard to get’ with Vennis—by making them think he had a chance with me and that I could be manipulated. Apparently his father saw through that. Not even our worst-case scenarios anticipated so sudden a violent takeover.”

“Duke Elladan caught us all off guard with this—even Vennis didn’t know about it. Bastard executed his gambit perfectly.”

“No, he didn’t,” Queen Viarra disagreed, looking back over at him. “I’m alive, aren’t I?” Ronnius smiled when he saw her smug little smirk in the candlelight. “No, the fatal flaw in his plan was that it hinged entirely on all of the people between him and the throne dying tonight. With us dead, he could tell the nobles and commoners anything he wished, despite the obvious blood on his hands.”

“And with you alive, he is a dead man.”

The queen coughed as she nodded. “Publicly by noontime, if at all possible,” she agreed. “It’s an unfortunate necessity, but the people need that catharsis while they mourn the loss of their king.”

Ronnius frowned. “Unfortunate in what way?”

She frowned up at him. “Truthfully, do you think my brother was a good king?” she asked, cocking her head slightly.

He sighed, realizing where she was going with this. “Truly? No, I don’t think so. He was a good man, but a weak king. His passive policies were weakening our status among the other kingdoms along the northern Vestic Sea. Because of your father and brother’s reigns, we have dangerous enemies, few allies, and plenty of predators hovering around, waiting for us to show any sign of weakness. Though we’re not currently at war, it’s just a matter of time.”

“Actually, we have no allies,” she confirmed, looking back at the ceiling. “And just behind the predators lurks a host of scavengers, just waiting for us to fall. The only reason we haven’t been invaded yet is because several of our more powerful opponents are busy fighting someone else at this time. I’m sure Voris and Ireth would both love a rematch with us, if they weren’t already at war with each other. Ovec and Fildor aren’t in much position to move against us on their own, but they’ll want to make sure they profit from our downfall. And I’ll put money down that within a month Andivel’s messengers will show up trying to extort tribute money from us. We desperately need a strong ruler to lead us through this storm, and I feel that Duke Elladan genuinely believed he could be that ruler—that he could save our people. And because of his belief, he now must die.” Her voice seemed to grow wistful.

“At any rate,” she continued, looking back at him, “I’m glad we’re on the same page with this. I agree with your assessment, as does General Derron. May I confide something in you?”

“Anything, your grace.”

“General Derron and I were working on a plot to depose Arrol and Kallis, to force them to step down and put Emmet on the throne with me as his first-in-line. It was supposed to be a bloodless military coup forcing them into quiet retirement or—worst-case scenario—exile. But we were far from having a concrete plan ironed out. Not that Elladan could have known about any of this.”

“So, Elladan did essentially what needed to be done, but not in the way that you needed it done,” Ronnias nodded. “For what it’s worth, I think I could have supported your plot if you wished me to.”

She reached out and squeezed his hand again. “It’s worth more than you think,” she assured him. “Make no mistake, I love my brothers and will mourn them on my own time. That time is not now. I don’t like the idea of being our kingdom’s only hope, but if I’m going to save our people, I need to act quickly. To do this, I need intelligent, capable people working under me—I’m starting with you. Fetch Elissa and Lady Synnis, please.”

Elissa was slow to awaken, but Ronnius had the both of them in that back room only moments later.

“Kneel, Ronnius,” the queen commanded. Ronnius knelt. “Patrician Ronnius, this night you have shown your loyalty to our people and to the Crown a dozen times over,” her majesty declared, placing a hand on Ronnius’s forehead. “I make it my first act as queen to reward you for your bravery and dedication. Before these witnesses and Ferra, our patron goddess, I hereby appoint you as my Steward, my second-in-command. Rise, Steward of Kel Fimmaril.” Ronnius felt a jolt at her words. The shock made standing up shaky, but he felt his eyes water as he contemplated the magnitude of her gift. If there was anything he’d have denied his queen before, he would do it or give it freely now.

“As my newly-appointed Second, my first order for you is to find Lord Fillan,” she continued. “Let him know that I’m alive and instruct him to call an emergency meeting of the Assembly of Archons—assuming no one else has already done so. Secondly, find General Derron and tell him about the assembly meeting. Have him meet me here at dawn with a full honor guard and one of his finest horses. I want full colors when I ride to the assemblage—highest possible profile.”

Ronnius started to ask if she was up to such a demonstration, but decided that second-guessing her wouldn’t be the wisest first act as her steward. “Shall I see about obtaining better attire for you then? Perhaps a set of officer’s armor?” he asked instead.

She shook her head. “No. I want the people, my people, to see me as I am. In fact, I may remove some of these bandages and let them see the scars and stitches on my belly. I want them to see what I’ve suffered for the sake of the kingdom.”

“It will be as you say, my queen,” Steward Ronnius replied, saluting—or at least hoping he saluted correctly. He bowed, then left.

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Thanks!

So, um, apparently someone from the UK spent yesterday reading the entirety of Sartorially Smart Heroines. 194 views in total, and I’m not sure that I even have that many writeups on here. So whoever you are, thank you so much for your interest in my blog! Take care and best wishes!

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First Empress Prologue (scenes 2 & 3)

So I opted to put scenes 2 and 3 of the prologue together, since they’re both relatively short. Scene 2 introduces the physician/apothecary Esset who, like Ronnius and Lady Synnis, I’d intended larger roles for when originally planning the story out (in contrast with Elissa, who didn’t even have a name in my original draft of scene 1, but who eventually ended up cast as Queen Viarra’s lover). Scene 3 brings in General Derron, one of Viarra’s mentors and commander of her island forces.


Ronnius didn’t bother knocking when they arrived at Esset’s shop; he kicked the door in and barged up the stairs to the old man’s bedroom. “What in the—?” Esset yelped as Ronnius jerked him out of bed. “Ronnius? What in the hells has gotten into you, man?”

“There’s been an attack on the royal estate,” Ronnius said shortly, dragging the old man down the stairs. “Queen Viarraluca is critically wounded and you are going to do your best to heal her, as your survival now depends upon hers.”

The physician gulped visibly. “Queen Viarraluca?” he repeated. “Get her into the back room, then. I’ll do everything in my ability.”

“Light no flames in the front room,” Queen Viarra ordered hoarsely as they moved her onto a cot in the back room. “We want no one to see light through the window. Synnis, help Ronnius fix and then bar that door he broke while you’re waiting. Elissa, stay with me and assist the doctor with anything he needs. Doctor, keep the door to the back room shut so that no light leaks from it into the front room.”

Thankfully, despite the darkness, the front door was not difficult to fix—Ronnius’s kick had merely knocked loose one of the clasps holding the bar in place. It only took a couple minutes, then Ronnius and Synnis each found shop chairs and sat in the darkness to wait. After what seemed a long time, the alarm bell began clanging in the distance. Ronnius smiled as the commotion ensued outside the shop. He could see torches being carried by running men outside the curtained window.

“I wonder if anyone else survived,” Lady Synnis said into the darkness.

“I can’t say,” Ronnius admitted. “My first duty was to find the King. It wasn’t until after that I started to search for survivors.” Though he couldn’t see her, he looked over at her anyway. “How did the three of you survive, may I ask?”

Lady Synnis seemed to hesitate. “I… her majesty and I were up late talking in her chamber, and I fell asleep in her favorite chair. Elissa rushed in to wake us when the attack hit, so we barricaded the door and hoped they wouldn’t come after us.”

“But they broke in anyway,” he finished for her. “How did the three of you stop them?”

Ronnius thought he could hear her smile. “Her majesty slew all five attackers, actually.”

For a moment he thought she was bullshitting him, but he could hear the earnestness in her voice. “I’d heard that her majesty had trained with General Derron, but I had no idea she was so formidable,” he mused aloud. “Those hoplites weren’t the best I’ve seen, but they weren’t incompetent either.”

He heard Synnis yawn and nod her head. “Formidable is a good word,” she agreed. “Elissa and I were terrified, but her majesty kept calm and waited for them to attack. She took up the sword she keeps in her room, then used it to slay the bastards, though she was wounded several times during the fight. I… think if she’d had armor or a shield they’d not have harmed her at all.”

Ronnius mulled this new information over as he sat in the dark. A warrior queen could make for an interesting change of pace for their little city-state. Viarra’s father had been a pacifist almost to the detriment of the kingdom. Certainly, he’d rallied the soldiers and citizens to the city’s defense on several occasions, but he’d also passed up many opportunities to strengthen their geopolitical position, opting out of open war. Arrol, who’d taken up the throne barely a year past, was more charismatic than his father but had given every indication of continuing his father’s policies. Ronnius privately felt that this was the reason Kel Fimmaril had so many enemies—because their rivals and would-be allies alike saw this pacifism as a sign of weakness.

He yawned, then smiled a bit as he heard Lady Synnis snoring softly from her chair. After a few minutes, he dozed off as well.


General Derron, commander of the soldiers of Kel Fimmaril, strode through the late king’s manse, surveying the carnage. The guards had lit all of the torches in the house, giving an orange glow to the blood and death. The old general felt sick as he leaned against the doorway to the king’s chambers. King Arrol and his queen were dead, as were their children. He could see their bodies lying within the royal chamber.

Though he’d had no warning of the attack, no way of preventing it, Derron couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d failed. He’d failed his life-long friends, King Arrol’s father and grandfather. He’d failed the king’s brothers and sister, who he’d loved like his own children. He’d failed the citizens of the island, who’d counted on him to protect them and their rulers.

So this is it, he realized, tears staining his grizzled face. The royal family was dead. Duke Elladan had left his stench on the entire assassination, but because he was the only person left in line for the throne, he’d get away with murdering his brother’s family. Certainly, some of the other nobles would balk, but what could they do? Elladan was king now. Derron could easily raise a military coup and depose the bastard, but there was no one left to put on the throne. And such a move would only bring more chaos to the already beleaguered citizens of the island. Somehow, he knew that this was what Elladan was counting on.

No, Derron would do his duty to the people of Kel Fimmaril. He would serve the usurper faithfully and dedicate the last years of his life to protecting the citizens of the island that had been his home for over sixty years. Turning to leave the king’s chambers, Derron knew that these last years would be the hardest years of his life.

“I’m sorry, my lord general,” city guard Fillo said, looking rattled to see his commander weeping. Derron just nodded, patting the old guardsman on the shoulder as he passed him in the hall.

The general paused outside of the door to Princess Viarraluca’s chambers. The beautiful princess had been Derron’s best and brightest pupil. Strong, smart, and tough, Viarra had been a match for any of Kel Fimmaril’s hoplite elite since she was fourteen. Despite his grief, Derron was curious to see how many attackers she’d taken with her. He braced himself and stepped through the broken doorway.

Stepping over the debris from the battered-down door and barricade, Derron smiled slightly seeing five fully-armed and armored hoplites lying dead in the room. Good girl, he thought, that’s my good girl. Derron frowned, realizing there were no other bodies in the room.

“Fillo,” he called to the guardsman, “could you step in here for a moment?”

“Yes, General,” the old guard replied as he entered the princess’s room. “She, ah, she gave as good as she had, didn’t she?” he commented, whistling.

“So this is the first you’ve been in here?” Derron asked, tilting his head slightly.

“Aye,” the guard nodded. “As there were only the four of us, and I sent young Kellim to raise the alarm, we thought it best to wait for reinforcements before securing the grounds. The reinforcements got here just before you did.”

“Probably wise,” Derron agreed. “But you told me when I arrived that the royal family was dead. How did you know that if you hadn’t been inside the house?”

“Sir, I…” Fillo broke off, looking down. The guard’s hesitation nearly made the old general crow with joy.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Derron told the guardsman, trying not to laugh. “The fact that the princess’s body isn’t here tells me that she escaped. The fact that you lied tells me that you saw her and she told you not to tell anyone she was alive.”

Fillo looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry, General, I—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Derron cut him off, laughing quietly. He took Fillo by the shoulders and kissed the old man on both cheeks. “That you’d keep her secret even from me has earned you and your group a promotion.”

Fillo just stared in shock. “Yes, sir, thank you, sir,” he stammered a bit. “But I should also tell you that she was hurt, bad. Dark bandages on her chest and stomach. Prince Kellor’s woman and one of her handmaids had to all but carry her.”

“Handmaid? Which one?”

“I can’t think of her name… the skinny one with the brown hair.”

“Elissa,” Derron confirmed. Good. “It was just the three of them?”

“No, that young nephew of the duke’s wife was with them: Ronnius, I think his name is.”

“Why was Ronnius there?” Derron frowned.

“I didn’t ask, General. Should I have?”

“No, I’m just not sure where Ronnius’s loyalties lie.” Derron thought for a moment. “If the princess was willing to trust him, I will for now. But if he’s betrayed her somehow, I’ll gut him with my bare hands.”

“He was the only one armed,” Fillo informed him.

So if he’d wanted, Ronnius could have killed the princess sooner. “That helps, thank you, Fillo.”

“So, what now, General?”

“Now, I do exactly what I was going to when I thought her highness was dead.”

Fillo looked puzzled. “You’re not going to try to find her?”

Derron shook his head. “She’s at Esset’s shop. It’s the only place it makes sense for her to go if wounded and trying to hide. When she’s ready she’ll find me.”

They left the princess’s chamber and headed for the rainy courtyard. Throughout the house guards and medics checked among the bodies and tended the handful of wounded servants they’d found. Outside, eleven city guards watched over the eight prisoners—attackers who’d surrendered once the guard arrived. Two of them were clearly wounded.

“This is all of them?” Derron asked, stepping over to where the traitors were bound on their knees against the courtyard wall.

“Yes, General,” one of the guards confirmed.

Derron glared coldly down at them for a long moment. “Hang them,” he ordered the guards. “They’re all expecting a pardon from Duke Elladan for betraying our king. Take them to the execution square, right now, and make sure that pardon never comes.”

“Wha—? You can’t do this!” one of the prisoners shouted.

“So stop me,” Derron suggested icily as he turned and strode from the courtyard.

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First Empress Prologue (scene 1)

Hi folks! So in preparation for NaNoWriMo, I’m going to go ahead and post excerpts to my blog and Tumblr. Partly I’m hoping for feedback, but I also just want people to be able to read and enjoy. The novel starts with a five-scene prologue, saved as chapter00 on my computer. Scene 1 was the very first scene I started writing in NaNoWriMo 2013. I began with a short epigram from Zahnia, the Chronicler and start in semi medias res. This first scene has undergone fairly extensive revision and will likely undergo many more. Feedback and comments are always welcome.


Would you like to hear my story? It’s a story about Empress Viarraluca, Tollesia’s greatest heroine and wisest ruler. There are many stories about her, you know—some truer than others. Some are based on research. Some are based on folklore. Some say she reigned for over two-hundred years. Others argue that she died after only a twenty-year reign, and her subjects used look-alikes to rule in her place for nearly two-hundred years. Some say she still lives today, secretly watching over and protecting her beloved subjects. Take those stories for what you will. My story may not be the longest, or the darkest, or the most heroic. But it is the most factual. Other stories lack eyewitness testimony, personal interviews with participants, and first-hand experience. Mine has all of these. It begins on a very dark night, a night of rain and blood and death—a night that would mark the turning point in the history of a small, island city-state.
—excerpted from Stories of Tollesia: a Young-Adult Reader, by Zahnia, the Chronicler


Ronnius! Get your ass up!” awakened Ronnius from his girl-filled dreams. He sat up with a start, spilling Tanna from his girl-filled arms. He blinked a couple times, then looked up to see his cousin Vennis standing over him in the candlelight. “Get your clothes on and grab your sword,” Vennis ordered. “We need to gods-damned hurry.”

Throwing a tunic on, Ronnius strapped on his sword baldric and followed his cousin out the door and into the rainy night. He felt somewhat guilty about leaving Tanna behind like that—and as General Derron’s favorite granddaughter she had the ability to make Ronnius’s life miserable indeed. But he knew better than to argue when Vennis was like this—the sense of urgency was unmistakable. Their bare feet splashed through the torch-lit puddles as they ran through the streets of Kel Fimmaril. As best Ronnius could tell, his cousin was ranging between panic and fury, mostly looking ahead, but occasionally glancing behind. Clearly something was desperately wrong.

“Where are we going? Gods, is the island under attack or something?” he finally asked as they rushed down an alley and out onto another set of streets. Still somewhat sleep- and sex-disoriented, Ronnius had difficulty getting his bearings.

“No time!” Vennis panted. Ronnius reflected that his cousin never did have the best stamina. “If we don’t hurry, they’re going to kill Viarra!”

That comment made Ronnius pick up his pace. While Ronnius and Vennis were related on their mothers’ side, Princess Viarraluca was Vennis’s cousin through his father, Duke Elladan. She was also younger sister to King Arrol and though not yet eighteen she was fourth in line for the throne of Kel Fimmaril behind her brothers and three-year-old nephew. Tall, strong, beautiful, well-educated, and charismatic, Viarra was the royal jewel of their little island city-state. And their enemies knew it. Her assassination would deal an irreparable blow to the morale of the beleaguered city.

They took every shortcut they knew on their way to the royal manor. The streets were lit by torches, though Ronnius noticed at least a half dozen extinguished by the heavy rainfall. Around them very few of the one- and two-story stone buildings showed signs of life. They skirted around the agora and the Hall of Archons where the nobles held their meetings, not wanting to have to stop and explain to the city guards where they were they were going so late at night.

Neither said a word as they ran, but Ronnius could see that his cousin was running out of breath. He suspected that it was from a combination of panic and exertion. Though, the rain-soaked tunic likely wasn’t helping.

As they rounded the last corner, they saw a pair of Duke Elladan’s bronze-clad hoplites guarding the gate to the king’s manor house. Two royal guards lay dead in the street. Ronnius noted that the hoplites wielded cudgels instead of their swords.

“Your father said you’d come this way if you found out,” a hoplite said as the cousins approached. “I’m sorry m’lord, but we can’t let you by. We’re under orders to haul your skinny ass home, and we have permission to rough up you and your lackey here if either of you tries to resist.” Ronnius silently brushed off the “lackey” reference. He’d been called worse.

Rain ran down over Vennis’s clenched fists. Ronnius could see the impotent fury on his cousin’s face. “This wasn’t the plan, gods damn it!” he shouted at the soldiers. “I was supposed to marry Viarra, then we’d kill her brothers. Father and I could rule through her as proxy. She wasn’t supposed to have to die!”

“S’why your father’s in charge instead of you, boy,” the second hoplite commented. “Princess Vi is smarter than you think. Smart enough to figure out when she’s being manipulated. Smart enough to be dangerous.”

Ronnius nodded his understanding. “And she’s tough enough to stand up to and expose her manipulators. So instead Duke Elladan has the whole family murdered and rules as king.”

“Right,” the soldier nodded. “See, Ven, even your lackey catches on faster than—” he cut off as Ronnius stepped inside the man’s shield, grabbed his wrist, and pulled him off balance. He used the stumbling loudmouth’s momentum against him and slammed his elbow into man’s Adam’s apple. With the ringing of iron blade against scabbard, Ronnius drew his xiphos and slashed the hoplite’s throat to finish him off.

Ronnius turned to see Vennis scuffling with the second hoplite—and clearly losing. Ronnius stepped behind the soldier, wrapping his left arm about the man’s torso and pulling him back. He shoved his sword arm beneath the hoplite’s armpit and thrust the weapon into the man’s chin. The hoplite crumpled to the ground making hideous gargling noises.

Vennis stood gasping for breath. “Thanks, cousin,” he started, “I—”

Ronnius cut him off by slamming him into the near wall with his left arm. He followed up by sliding his sword into the base of Vennis’s sternum. “Forgive me, cousin,” Ronnius said, looking the startled dying man in the eyes. “I love you like my brother, but being a party to the King’s murder is the one thing you cannot ask of me. I’m sorry.” He withdrew his sword and ran through the arched gateway as Vennis’s body slid to the ground, blood mingling with the rain water.

Jogging across the main courtyard, Ronnius could tell he was too late. The front door was wide open with bodies of royal guardsmen lying about. It occurred to him that with the high outer walls, thick hedges, heavy rainfall, and overall size of the grounds, the surrounding homes likely hadn’t heard the commotion. Since none of the neighboring estates seemed to be stirring, it was clear that the King’s family hadn’t even had the chance to send a messenger for help.

He dashed up the front stairs, keeping his sword ready. As he hadn’t encountered any of Elladan’s men returning to check on the men with the cudgels, the attackers would still be on the property. Lit by a single burning wall sconce, the scene in the main foyer told the tale of a gruesome, one-sided battle. The guards, family, and servants had given the best they had, but under-armed and caught by surprise they hadn’t stood a chance. Princes Kallis and Dollan—first and fifth in line for the throne—had apparently led the initial defense, dying not far from each other with just their swords, shields, and under-tunics.

The fifteen-year-old Dollan, youngest of the previous king’s sons, lay with his back against the near wall, a gaping, bloody hole in his chest. Ronnius winced; two days ago, he’d spent most of the evening teaching the young prince to shoot dice. Dollan had been a touch slow witted, but was a decent young man, all around.

While their efforts had laid low two of the attackers, the heavily armored hoplites had taken the foyer and main hall. Ronnius edged around the corner and crept toward the royal bedchambers.

The savage butchery continued down the hall, leaving guards, slaves, servants, stable boys, and scullery maids in its wake. Ronnius recognized faces of several royal family members among the fallen. A pair of still-burning sconces illuminated the carnage. Ronnius also noted that six more of the attackers seemed to have fallen as he got closer to his destination. The defenders here had had more time to prepare, and thus some of them were better armed than those in the foyer. He kept moving, but heard nothing as he continued along. He heard no sounds of fighting or looting anywhere and wondered if perhaps the remaining attackers were combing other parts of the house, hunting for survivors.

Ronnius didn’t bother checking any of the other rooms as he followed the path of the fighting right up to the royal bedchamber. Here King Arrol had made his last stand. He lay just inside the chamber doors wearing his father’s armor. Queen Allera lay across him, murdered as she wept over his fallen body. At the foot of the bed lay Prince Emmet, second for the throne. Six more attackers and perhaps a dozen defenders lay about the room. Ronnius made a mental count of the attackers he’d seen. Two guarding the gates, two in the foyer, four in the hall, and six in the royal chamber made fourteen. He frowned a bit, trying to guess how many more there might be. He had trouble imagining Duke Elladan sending less than twenty. Having confirmed that the king was dead, Ronnius started checking among the bodies for survivors, be they attacker or defender.

“S–stay back,” a woman’s voice said from behind him. Ronnius grimaced, annoyed at himself for being caught off guard. He tossed his sword aside and raised his hands. He turned to see a skinny young woman standing in the dimly-lit doorway. It took Ronnius a moment to recognize her as Elissa, the princess’s favorite slave and closest handmaid. Elissa pointed a kopis at him with both hands—a clear sign she had no idea how to use the weapon. “I don’t know who you are,” she continued, voice earnest but trembling, “but I swear you will not get past me to harm my lady.”

The words my lady caught the young patrician by surprise. “You mean Princess Viarra?” he asked. “She’s alive?”

“Y–yes, but you will not harm her.”

Ronnius felt his heart soar. “Please, take me to her,” he instructed the maid. “She’s queen now; we need to get her to safety before more soldiers show up.”

Elissa seemed to hesitate. “I know, but h–how do I know I can trust you?”

Tiring of this, Ronnius simply stepped in and swatted the sword from her hands. He grabbed both her wrists in his left hand and stepped close, raising her arms over her head. “You know you can trust me,” he answered, “because if you couldn’t trust me I’d simply have killed you just now.”

“It’s alright, Ronnius,” a voice said from the hall. “The fact that you’re not wearing armor is enough to tell me you’re not with the men who attacked us.”

“Your grace,” he greeted his queen, releasing the maid and stepping into the hall. “Forgive me for not reaching you sooner.” He found Viarraluca heavily bandaged and leaning hard against Lady Synnis, wife—and now widow—of Prince Kallis. His copper-haired queen was injured grievously, the upper half of her bedclothes torn open and her chest and abdomen wrapped in heavy linen bandages. Dark blood stained the bandages in four places. She had two more bandages on her left arm and yet another on her left leg. Even in the dim torchlight her face was nearly ashen, telling Ronnius just how much blood she’d lost.

The queen waved him off when he started to move to support her other side. “No, let Elissa do it,” Viarra insisted. “I have no idea how many of our foes are alive, and I want you with a free sword arm.”

Ronnius nodded as the handmaiden moved to help support her lady. He scavenged a sword and round shield from one of the fallen guardsmen. “Take me to Master Esset’s apothecary shop, it’s not far from here,” her majesty instructed. “He’s an experienced physician and a competent surgeon.” She winced as they started to move her, “and I suspect I’ll need both.”

With Ronnius leading the way, the four of them made it down the macabre hallway and out to the entryway steps without incident. As they ventured down the steps they heard a commotion from the direction of the main stables. A scream arose from a stable boy begging for mercy. Ronnius grimaced as the scream tapered to a gurgle and went silent.

Once out in the rainy courtyard they made better time, not having to step over fallen bodies. The first people they encountered were four night watchmen looking over the bodies of Vennis, the royal guards, and the two hoplites Ronnius had slain. The watchmen looked up as the group approached.

“There’s been an attack on the King’s estate,” Ronnius informed the guards, keeping his sword and shield ready. He doubted Duke Elladan had paid off any more men than he absolutely had to but didn’t see a need to chance it. “The royal family is dead and the princess—your queen—is grievously wounded by the assassins.” The stunned looks on the guards’ faces told Ronnius he could trust them. “You,” he pointed at one of the younger watchmen, “raise the alarm and make sure word of the attack gets to General Derron. Send any guards you come across in this direction. The rest of you, secure the gate and the main courtyard. Once reinforcements arrive, clean out all remaining hostiles and secure any wounded for transport to the hospital, clear?” The watchmen each nodded in turn. “And under no circumstances are you to tell anyone you’ve seen us or that the queen is alive. Do you understand?”

The senior watchman wetted his lips, then nodded, making sure the others agreed. “If anyone asks, we’ll say I gave the orders,” he answered.

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