I wrote probably a dozen starters to this post, but I’ve finally decided the best way to start this is just *incoherent screaming*
Because I’m so so happy to share with you today not only an exclusive first look at the cover reveal for Laura E. Weymouth’s sophomore novel, A Treason of Thorns, but also an excerpt from the book, and an interview with Laura herself!
Oh yes. And a giveaway *wink wink*
So be pumped. Because A Treason of Thorns sounds so lush and enchanting, like Weymouth’s debut The Light Between Worlds. Here’s the official summary for A Treason of Thorns:
Violet Sterling has spent the last seven years in exile, longing to return to Burleigh House. One of the six great houses of England, Burleigh’s magic always kept the countryside well. And as a child, this magic kept Violet happy, draping her in flowers while she slept, fashioning secret hiding places for her, and lighting fires on the coldest nights to keep her warm.
Everything shattered, though, when her father committed high treason trying to free Burleigh from the king’s oppressive control. He was killed, and Vi was forced into hiding.
When she’s given a chance to go back, she discovers Burleigh has run wild with grief. Vines and briars are crumbling the walls. Magic that once enriched the surrounding countryside has turned dark and deadly, twisting lush blooms into thorns, poisoning livestock and destroying crops. Burleigh’s very soul is crying out in pain.
Vi would do anything to help, and soon she finds herself walking the same deadly path as her father all those years before. Vi must decide how far she’s willing to go to save her house—before her house destroys everything she’s ever known.
Laura stopped by the blog to chat a little about A Treason of Thorns, its cover, sentient houses, and who will love this magical story–and to share an excerpt of the prologue and first chapter! Here’s what she said:
Laura, I am so thrilled to be holding your cover reveal for A Treason of Thorns today! Can you tell us a little bit about your sophomore novel and the magical and sentient houses (!!!) featured in it?
Of course! So, it will come as a surprise to absolutely no one who’s read The Light Between Worlds, but I have a little bit of an obsession with the concept of belonging and home and having a deep-rooted sense of place. I always mention in my bio that I’m the sixth consecutive generation of my family to immigrate from one country to another (that I know of–it could be more, that’s just where I lost track!) but I’ve also personally moved around a lot. By the time I was 6, I’d lived in 9 different houses. The house I live in now, which many people know and love as Weymouth Manor, is actually the place I’ve lived in the longest–I’ll hit the 7 year mark at Weymouth Manor in May, and the longest I’d lived anywhere previously was just over 6 years. So the theme of belonging to a specific place is one that really fascinates me, in that I’ve never had a very strong sense of belonging somewhere prior to adult life.
In The Light Between Worlds I explored that theme through the lens of a portal fantasy, but A Treason of Thorns was born out of my fascination with old British stately homes. I watched Downton Abbey avidly while it was on air, and was absolutely taken with the way the Grantham family and their lifestyle is so inextricably tied to the fate of a building–an edifice of stone and mortar that’s essentially taken on a life of its own by virtue of having housed their family for centuries, and that’s become a symbol of who they are and their obligation to the countryside around them. So of course, being a fantasist, I thought “what if the house had an actual life of its own, and we took this concept and added a generous helping of magic?”
Things just kind of snowballed from there, and Burleigh House came into being, complete with its mercurial personality and dangerous magic, and it brought a rather indefatigable Caretaker, Violet Sterling, right along with it.
Your debut, The Light Between Worlds, was one of my favorite reads from last year! It was so lush and poignant and subtle in its message, and I absolutely adored it! What elements in A Treason of Thorns do you think readers of The Light Between Worlds will love?
They’re both historical fiction with really lush settings, so if you adored the glimpse of real history The Light Between Worlds afforded, and the way the Woodlands and post-war England were brought to life, I think you’ll love this book. There’s a common thread between the two as well, in that neither of them flinch away from portraying how our closest relationships can be the ones with the greatest potential to damage us, and that the expectations we place on others can do them a huge disservice.
As for the cover–WOW? Just wow? I am so stunned by not just one, but TWO gorgeous covers now for your books! I just wanna pluck this cover out of my computer screen and pet it. What was your first reaction on seeing this? (Because mine was unintelligible screaming.)
Oh, I absolutely gasped. I assumed Harper would do something similar to the general layout of the cover for The Light Between Worlds, and we’d talked about the basic concept, but this just blew me away. I think it’s so brilliant, and there are details in there from the book that just really make my heart happy!
Did you have a cover in mind when you were writing/after writing A Treason of Thorns? How did it differ from the actual? I’ve definitely dreamt about cool covers for unpublished books on more than one occasion . . .
Not really–I try not to envision things ahead of time, because most of the cover design process is out of my hands. The one thing I really wanted to see on this cover was plant life, because it’s a huge part of the way Burleigh communicates with Violet and others, and I certainly got what I asked for!
And lastly, for readers who haven’t read The Light Between Worlds and aren’t Laura stan accounts (so . . . nobody?), why do you think these readers will love A Treason of Thorns, and what types of books do these readers probably like?
HA! Well, I think A Treason of Thorns is quite pacy, and it has a fabulous magic system, if I do say so myself. If you like your magic a little foreboding, perhaps not fully Gothic, but with a bit of an edge to it, this is the book for you. If you loved An Enchantment of Ravens, The Scorpio Races, The Hazel Wood, and Howl’s Moving Castle, it just might be your cup of tea.
As for that cover we promised . . . well, just look at the beauty! Don’t forget–you can preorder a copy of A Treason of Thorns now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Depository, or your book retailer of choice!
SO GORGEOUS. The spiky plants look so sinister and I am absolutely in love with this cover! I have a feeling both books will look very lovely together on my shelf . . .
Are you excited for A Treason of Thorns? I sure am! You can enter the giveaway through the Rafflecopter button below where one lucky winner will receive their choice of a signed copy of The Light Between Worlds or a preorder of A Treason of Thorns! (Open internationally! Ends on the 17th.)
A lace-trimmed wedding invitation sits on my nightstand and I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Mama is not coming back. It was inevitable, but so far in life, ignoring the inevitable has always been easy for me.
There’s no avoiding the truth anymore. There it is, stamped in gold ink, wafting the lingering traces of rose-scented eau de toilette towards me.
Curled up on my side in bed, I stare at the invitation as if it’s a snake.
“Violet.” Wyn, my father’s ward, calls softly from the other side of the bedroom door. “Can I come in?”
He may not be able to see me nod, but the House can. There’s a click as it turns back the lock and a gentle scrape of hinges as it swings the door wide. I glance over and see Wyn crossing the room carefully, holding a cup of water with two hands so as not to spill. He’s always walked so since coming to Burleigh House—as if the ground beneath his feet is strewn with invisible bits of broken glass, and he might damage himself with a single wrong step.
Wyn sets the cup down on my nightstand, in front of Mama’s invitation, so that the print looks strange and distorted when seen through the glass. We may be both be only eight and surrounded by servants—Jed and Mira, Papa’s steward and housekeeper, are never far off—but even as children this is what we do. We look after each other.
As Wyn takes a seat at my side, the comforting ivy Burleigh House has blanketed me with rustles and pulls away from him—they’ve never got on that well, Burleigh and Wyn. Flames flare deep purple on the hearth and the lamplight glows in the same shade. Poor old House—it hates to see me unhappy just as much as Wyn does. I sometimes forget in these moments when Burleigh’s so kind and solicitous that it’s one of the five Great Houses, whose vast magic governs the well-being of England. To me, my House always been both more and less than that. Burleigh, like Wyn, is simply this: both family, and a friend.
Wyn shifts, putting a little more space between himself and Burleigh’s retreating leaves. If he were anyone else, he’d ask if I’m alright. But Wyn’s been a quiet child since the day Papa found him in a Taunton alley and brought him home. Which is just as well, if you ask me—I’ve never seen much use in endlessly talking over troubles. I don’t want to talk about how Papa’s gone yet again, off in London on House business. I don’t want to talk about how Burleigh House’s worries have been seeping into me through the floors, and how sometimes they make my heart pound so fast I can hardly breathe.
I absolutely do not want to talk about Mama.
Instead, I hug my legs tighter, wishing to make myself so small I’ll disappear. Wyn looks down at me, solemn and wide-eyed. I know he and the House will stay with me all night, and dog my steps tomorrow. They never abandon me, at any rate. The House will wrap me in flowers and lull me to sleep with nightingale song, and Wyn—well. Wyn never sleeps in his own bed. He prefers a pile of blankets and a pillow in my airing cupboard.
I can’t help but remember how Mama felt about all of this. My mother and father fought about everything, but the way I feel about Burleigh and Wyn came up often.
“She should put the House first, Eloise,” Papa would say. “Vi will be Caretaker of this place when she’s grown. Burleigh will choose her, I’ll pass on the key when I’m ready, and His Majesty will certainly approve of the arrangement—you know the king’s always taken an interest in Vi. This is who she’s meant to be.”
“She doesn’t know who she is now, let alone who she ought to be in the future,” Mama always argued back. “And how will she ever sort herself out if you keep her tethered to Burleigh House and never let her be with ordinary children?”
“Wyn keeps her company.”
“He is not an ordinary child.”
They’d go on and on like that, in endless circles, arguing behind closed doors. Perhaps they didn’t know Wyn and I sat outside listening, or perhaps they were past caring.
But now all the fighting has come to an end, and Mama’s off in Switzerland, planning her second wedding to some foreign baron.
“Wyn.” I sit up and look at him. I need to know that all this is worth it. I need to know that no matter what I’ve lost, I’ve lost it for the greater good.
“Yes?” he says, all untidy sandy hair and serious grey eyes.
“Do you think I’ll be a good Caretaker for Burleigh House?”
Wyn doesn’t answer. He fixes his gaze on the blanket of ivy still covering my bed, except for the conspicuously empty space around him.
“A good Caretaker puts her House first,” I say, half to myself.
“Always?” Wyn asks.
I reach out a hand and a strand of green ivy twines around my wrist, a near match for the latticework birthmark of slick pink skin that stamps me there, like a bracelet. “Always. Papa says so—a good Caretaker puts her House before king. Before country. Before family. Before her own life, even.”
“But what if you change your mind?”
Now that is unthinkable. Mama may leave, I may grow up, but the one thing that will never change is my resolve to serve Burleigh House. My father, George Sterling, is a perfect Caretaker, and in the rare moments when he’s at home, he sees to it that I learn my place. That one day I’ll follow after him: the best Caretaker England has ever known. Under Papa’s watchful tenure, Burleigh has thrived. The counties our House governs have known peace and prosperity.
“I will never change my mind,” I tell Wyn. “I’ll put Burleigh first all my life, because this place is greater than you or me or any one person.”
And though I’ve learned this lesson by rote under the watchful eye of my stern father, my heart still swells when I repeat it. For as long as I can remember, Burleigh has been everything to me. This House is like a mother, father, comforter and friend. I intend to repay the favor someday, when I’m able.
“We may not understand the House, we may not be able to speak with it, but Burleigh House was here watching over the west country before you or I were born, and it will be here long after we’re gone. It is my duty as a Sterling to serve this place, and to help it care for the countryside. Mama knew that, Wyn. She knew it. But she was always jealous of Burleigh. She couldn’t see why it’s worth looking after.” I stop and swallow fiercely, past the heat burning in the back of my throat and behind my eyes.
Wyn stares down at the floor, looking as small and miserable as I feel.
“And what about a good House?” he asks after a long silence. I frown as he plucks an ivy leaf and shreds it to bits. “What does a good House do? Shouldn’t you get something in return?”
I run a finger across the ivy, soothing the place where Wyn marred it, and the leaves turn to my touch like flowers toward sun. “I don’t expect anything. A good House puts itself first, because the well-being of the countryside is bound up in the health of its House. And so a good House chooses its Caretaker wisely, and doesn’t spare them when trouble comes.”
The fire flickers on the hearth, as if to confirm my words.
When I glance up at Wyn, the expression in his eyes makes my stomach clench. He always looks just so—restless, ill at ease, like an animal poised for flight—before making the suggestion I know is coming. “Let’s run away. You don’t have to stay here, or be a Caretaker, if you don’t want to. We could go to Switzerland, to your mother. Or somewhere else—you can choose, just…let’s leave.”
Wind moans in the chimney, like a sob, and the ivy on my bed begins to recede, sliding sadly away towards the windows it crept in through. Out of habit and out of practice, all my self-pity shifts as my heart goes out to Burleigh House.
“You shouldn’t say such things,” I tell Wyn, my tone a reproach. “You know I’ll never go, and you know even talking about leaving upsets Burleigh.”
Wyn hangs his head and looks so woebegone I don’t know who I feel for more—him, or my keening House.
“Oh stop it, Burleigh,” I say, and the wailing wind subsides even as I speak. “I’m not going anywhere.”
But it’s Wyn who I throw my arms around, and he relaxes just a little. As much as Wyn ever does, at any rate.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” he whispers, and I hold him tighter.
“I’m not.” The words come out so fiercely I almost believe them. “I’m not, I’m not. I’ve got you and Burleigh, and Papa when he’s not working on House business. What more could I possibly want?”
After Wyn climbs off the bed and retreats to his makeshift cot in the cupboard, I get up. Opening the drawer in the nightstand, I pull out a letter Mama enclosed with the wedding invitation. It carries even more of her scent than the invitation itself and I breathe in that aroma of roses, remembering the feel of her arms around me.
One sentence stands out, for the ink has run and spotted, as if tears were shed when it was written.
Come to me, my Violet—let me make a home for you here.
But I have a home. I am a Sterling—I was born on the grounds of Burleigh House, and someday, I hope to be as brilliant a Caretaker as Papa.
A good Caretaker puts her House first. Before king, before country.
Kneeling next to the hearth, I feed Mama’s letter to the sympathetic flames, which shift to blue as I scrub the sleeve of my nightgown across my eyes.
“Think about something else. Anything else. It helps,” Wyn’s voice says from the shadows of the cupboard.
I take a shaky breath and begin to hum. It’s an song Papa always sings for me when he’s at home.
Blood for a beginning
Mortar for an end
Speak out your binding,
Be you foe or friend
Take up the deed
Take it well in hand
And bind a House’s power
Bind it to the land
Blood for an ending
Mortar for a start
Unmake a binding
At your House’s heart
Unleash a House’s power
Let it all run free
Leave naught for the king
Naught for you or me
First House for a prison
Second for ladies’ rest
Third for a palace
Fourth to be blessed
Fifth House holds quicksilver
The Sixth ruins all
But for blood in its mortar
But for breath in its walls
But this time it doesn’t have the usual effect, not even when I fix my mind on the words.
All I see is Mama’s handwriting. All I can think of is the fact that she’s never coming back.
“Once upon a time there was a Great House,” I begin somewhat desperately. I haven’t told Wyn a story in over a year, not since he grew used to life here at Burleigh. But it grounds me, the sound of him settling in to listen, and the feeling of the immense, brooding presence that is my beloved Burleigh turning its attention in my direction. “There were the Sterlings, too, who lived and died for it. Their blood ran with its mortar. Their bones rested in its ground.”
When I turn away from the fireplace, every inch of the bedroom floor is carpeted with new-sprouted daisies. Slowly, I lock up the sadness of my mother’s leaving deep inside, because I know I would give anything for this place. One day, my blood will run with its mortar. One day, my bones will rest in its ground.
NINE YEARS LATER
Beneath me, the flat bottom of my boat thrums ever so slightly as a fenland pike bumps against it. The long, gleaming creature is focused on its fishy business and I’ve been motionless for near an hour, letting gentle currents in the marshwater carry me this way and that. I’m all but invisible to the pike, and an invisible fisher is a successful one.
Sun beats down on my bare head, and heats the long rope of my braid. Sweat trickles between my shoulder blades and down my raised arm, which holds a sharp-tipped fishing spear aloft. This is the one thing that affords me relief—this moment where everything comes together and all of me fixes on a single goal. I’m no longer Violet Sterling, dispossessed daughter of a treasonous nobleman, too long separated from her family home. All the aching worry over Papa and Wyn and my House recedes, and I become whole instead of fractured—Vi of the Fens, who never ends the day empty-handed.
In this moment, I distill into my most elemental self. A level head. A keen set of eyes. A pair of hands that move like quicksilver, or summer lightning. The fish turns over on its side, exposing a glistening expanse of scales.
In an explosion of spear and net and brackish water, I haul the pike aboard. It thrashes ferociously and the boat rocks, but a quick blow from the hatchet I keep under my low seat puts an end to that. Shoving my braid back over one shoulder, I finally allow myself to grin, to wipe the sweat from my forehead, and to feel that my nose has burned terribly yet again. It’ll peel and freckle, and Mira will scold, but so be it. We’ll eat for half a week thanks to this fish. And in this moment of clarity I’ve found a way to shed the creeping anxiety that’s plagued me these past years. At least for a little while.
But even as I straighten and stand above my catch, the sense returns—that I am too far from home, but still bound to it by a long, taut stretch of line. It’s not just Burleigh I can’t get past, either.
“What do you think of that, Wyn?” I murmur. I only indulge the habit of speaking to him when I’m alone on the fens, careful to make sure no one hears. God knows who actually talks to Wyn now—who takes his silences and his moods into account, who lets him stay close when the night is too long and too dark, full of noises and shadows that remind him of things he’ll never speak of. I hope it helps, that I send my voice to him when I can.
With the trackless expanse of the East Fen surrounding me, there’s only a miry waste of bogs and silt deposits and tidal estuaries to hear my secret conversations. In places, the land’s been shored up and laid to pasture, so that farmhouses and sheep enclosures stand out incongruously against the marshland. It’s all a jumble and a maze, but I know this place better than any other save one. The currents speak a language I’ve learned, the seabirds call to me, and the brassy blue sky above is a map waiting to be read. The marshes are honest, if you understand them, and they always play by their own particular set of rules.
But they are not the west country, which encompasses the five most southwesterly of England’s counties, and which Burleigh House nurtures and governs. This land is wide and flat and straightforward in its wildness. It’s unlike the Blackdown Hills I grew up among, which look tame at first, checkered with enclosed pastures and apple orchards, but which hide old shrines in their valleys and bone-wrought charms in their hedgerows. And nothing could compare to Burleigh’s strange, enchanted grounds. The truth is, though I take up the oars and begin sculling back to shore, it doesn’t feel like heading for home. It never does.
By the time I make it back to our little cottage on a raised hump of land in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the light’s growing long and golden away inland. Mira has the shutters thrown open, and Jed sits on the front stoop whittling. He wasn’t a whittler before our exile, but I suppose I wasn’t much of a fisherwoman, either.
“Find your luck, then?” Jed asks as I tie the boat to our bit of dock. In answer, I sling the pike up, and it takes two hands for me to lift it.
Jed lets out a low whistle. He’s a thickset, bearded man with a florid white complexion and close-cropped hair that long ago went grey, and though he’s stood by me through good times and bad, I love him best for how he was with my father. There never was a more devoted steward, whether Papa was present or absent. When the king sentenced my father to House arrest, it took six men to hold Jed back. He shouted and struggled as they sealed George Sterling away behind Burleigh’s walls, and he never stopped fighting, not till the front gate vanished, replaced by unbreachable stone.
“Mira’s waiting inside,” Jed says. “She’s—we—have something you need to hear.”
I can feel the smile fade from my face at his words. “What—”
But before I’m able to ask, Mira’s voice calls from within the cottage, cutting me off. “Bring that fish in here at once and wash the stink of it off your hands.”
As I step into the close confines of the cottage, she tuts at me. “I expected you home hours ago.”
Mira does rule us with a bit of an iron fist, but Jed and I would be lost without her. We’re a family—an odd one, to be sure, but time and tide have bound us together and it would break my heart to lose them.
I cross the cottage’s tiny downstairs room—just the one space for cooking and eating and living, with a curtain drawn across the nook that holds Jed and Mira’s bed. A ladder leads up to a loft for me, and that’s all there is to it.
With a weighty thud, I let my pike fall onto the kitchen table, and Mira turns. Horror writes itself across her face.
“Violet Sterling, you’re a sight, and today of all days I wanted you home early.”
Leaning against the table that holds my rather splendid fish, I hunch my shoulders, as if doing so can protect me from what’s surely coming. If Wyn were here, he’d appear and just stand at my side, a silent ally in all things. And if we were home, the House would already have a carpet of reassuring flowers around my feet.
Will I never feel whole without them?
“Why? What’s happened?” I finally summon the courage to ask.
Jed ducks into the cottage, and the whole space feels suddenly smaller. “Mira had a visitor come looking for you today. A messenger from the king.”
All the air goes out of me. I drop onto my chair, ignoring the fish now laying forgotten on the table.
“His Majesty’s back from Belgium and stopping at the Knight’s Arms in Thiswick tonight,” Mira says. “Apparently he’d be much obliged if his only goddaughter would pay him a visit tomorrow at noon, before he journeys on. The messenger said—he said there’s news from Burleigh House.”
“News.” My voice breaks on the word. There’s been no news from Burleigh House for seven years. And every sun that sets without it is a relief to me, because it means that across the country, my father and Burleigh and Wyn have survived another day of House arrest.
Jed steps up behind me and puts his enormous hands on my shoulders. “He didn’t give any particulars, but I don’t think we have to tell you what to expect.”
I choke back questions I know Jed and Mira have no answers to, and mechanically lay the table for supper. But when we’ve eaten and the dishes have been cleared, I duck out of the cottage the instant Mira’s back is turned. Jed watches, saying nothing as I shove our dory into the water and scramble aboard. I ship the oars and haul back on them and the boat reluctantly begins to move.
“Violet!” Mira calls through the open cottage doorway. “Just where do you think you’re going so close to nightfall?”
“Away!” I answer back, sculling for all I’m worth. The dory pulls steadily forward, building momentum until I’m skimming across the water, dragging the welter of my emotions behind me like a length of tangled net. Movement is the best thing for me, I know—to still the aching of my heart, the clenching of my stomach, the furious grinding of my teeth. I scull until my arms and back ache—till sweat drips between my shoulders again and the last of the day’s sun adds freckles to my freckles.
And when I’ve rowed for so long that each oar seems weighted with lead, I drop anchor in the middle of a tidal floodplain. Water stretches ahead of me to the very edge of the eastern sky, which has gone dark. I turn away from it, and from the vast, uneasy North Sea, looking westward instead, towards the setting sun. Beyond that blaze of splendor lies my past. Beyond it lies my future. Beyond it lies my House.
Blood and mortar, I miss it with everything in me. Every bone and every breath. I thought the end of Papa’s House arrest might taint things between Burleigh and I, but even knowing what’s surely happened—that my father must be dead, finally killed by the House itself—all I feel when I think of Burleigh is an agonizing desire to be with it.
So I know in the morning I’ll visit His Majesty. I’ll sit in front of him while he feigns pity and tells me Papa’s protracted death sentence has ended, and a new Caretaker must assume his place. I’ll do what must be done, choking down my hatred and fear of the king, all for the sake of Burleigh House. Because in the wake of Papa’s arrest, Burleigh will need a gentle hand.
It is a wicked punishment, House arrest, designed to torment both a Caretaker and the Great House they tend. If found guilty of treason, a Caretaker is stripped of the key that allows him to channel his House’s magic safely, and restricted to the grounds. The House is bound to let no one in or out until its powerless Caretaker lies died.
But a Great House cannot keep the countryside healthy for long without a key-holding Caretaker to direct its power. Sooner or later, a good House must put itself and the land first, no matter how badly it hurts to do so.
There have been five House arrests over the years, before my father’s. Two Caretakers killed themselves before their Houses had to. Three were killed by their Houses, though outside of the confines of an arrest, the binding the Great Houses have been placed under expressly forbids them to take a life.
My heart aches for Burleigh, required to do what is neither in its nature or its bond. But it breaks at the thought of Wyn. Seven years after the arrest began and I still don’t understand why my father was allowed to inflict a portion of his punishment on a child, and keep Wyn trapped within the manor walls. I’ve never been able to think of it without resentment gnawing at my insides. Everything else I can fathom—Papa risking arrest and a charge of treason in his attempt to steal Burleigh’s deed from the king and free our House. Indeed, all across England, there are people who support the unbinding cause in spite of its risks.
Of course I sympathize with that. Of course I want Burleigh out from under the king’s thumb. The royal family has maintained control of the Great Houses since William the Deedwinner first bound them. Caretakers may manage the Houses’ magic, but it’s the deedholder they must obey. I suppose it must have worn on Papa, watching the king make decisions for Burleigh that were not in its best interests.
Yet the price Papa paid for his attempt and subsequent failure—the choice he made to sacrifice not just his own freedom, but Wyn’s—has never sat well with me. And I don’t know why it had to be that way.
A good Caretaker puts her House first, I remind myself, to calm the anger that still rises in me when I think of Wyn. Before her family. Before her friends. Surely, that must have been what Papa was doing, whether I understand his actions or not.
The light on the horizon burns down to crimson embers. Swallows skim across the water, and far above them, bats flit here and there. Around me, the air cools and sweat dries on my skin as the sky darkens. I shiver, a salt girl alone on a salt marsh.
When the stars wake in the sky, winking to life one by one, I count them. It’s an old trick Wyn and I learned together, long ago when we’d sit out on the roof of the House. We were both of us children plagued by worries, and on the nights they kept us from sleeping, we’d count stars together until the fears faded. It used to work. It used to keep my fear at bay.
Now, though, I always lose count before the tide of my worry turns, and this night is no different than any other since my father and my friend were sealed away within Burleigh’s walls. When I’ve lost myself among the stars, I turn inward, the way I learned to do after both heart and home were taken from me. In the labyrinth of my own mind, I count fears instead of stars.
I am afraid of memory, and the visions it brings of my father’s careworn face—his stern eyes, his harried smile. Did he do right? Will I be a worthy successor to him? Will I someday meet the same fate?
I’m afraid of never seeing home or Wyn again, of living my life in limbo here on the fens, and never wishing for better. Of never feeling whole.
I’m afraid of losing Jed and Mira as I’ve lost everything else. I’m afraid of hunger, which stalks us each winter as the saltfish barrels run low. I’m afraid of the sea, that gives life and then buffets the coast with storms.
Each fear surfaces and as they rise, I take them one by one, box them up and put them away on a dusty shelf in the back of my soul. I don’t know what else to do with these thoughts that threaten to choke me, so I keep them locked inside, like last winter’s molding apples or a dragon’s tarnished hoard.
The last fear I tuck away is this: I’m afraid of the king, desperately afraid. But for me, the good of Burleigh House will always come before that fear. It must.
“I want to go home,” I whisper to myself and the night sky and the stars.
Home. The word tastes like honey and ashes, like hope and regret, and this I know. I would face the devil himself for a chance at getting back to the House I grew up in, and at finding out what fate has befallen the only friend I had as a child. The king is only a little worse than the devil, after all, and I would beg or bargain, whichever he prefers, to get back to where I belong. To be what I was born to become—the Caretaker of my beloved House.
The tide has turned, running out to sea. It pulls at my boat, tugging me eastward and away from home. For the first time in years I ship oars and truly set myself against it.
As I scull towards the west, I hum an old, old song.
Blood for a beginning
Mortar for an end
Speak out your binding
Be you foe or friend
Fifth House holds quicksilver
The Sixth ruins all
But for blood in its mortar
But for breath in its walls