We're delighted to share an extract of Huntress, by Malinda Lo with you all! Huntress is set in the same world as Ash but many centuries earlier. It's an epic adventure, beautiful love story, and has that dash of magic we all love!
She saw a beach made of ice, and she felt her heart breaking.
The ground where she stood was frozen white, but twenty feet away, cold blue ocean lapped at the jagged shore. Someone there was climbing into a rowboat, and she knew that she loved this person. She was certain of it in the same way that one is instantly aware of the taste of sweetness in a drop of honey. But she was afraid for this person’s life, and the fear raised a cold sweat on her skin and caused a sick lurch in her stomach, as though she were on a ship during a violent storm.
She opened her mouth to call the rower back — she couldn’t bear the loss; it would surely cripple her — and at that moment she realized she could hear nothing. All around her was an eerie, unnatural silence. There was no sound from the ocean. She could not even hear herself breathing. She felt her tongue shaping the syllables of the person’s name, but she did not recognize what the name was until the rower turned to face her. Kaede.
The rower was Kaede, and she looked back with dark, troubled eyes. Loose strands of black hair whipped around her pale face; there were spots of red on her wind- roughened cheeks. Her lips parted as though she would speak. But then Kaede reached down into the boat and lifted out a long oar, dipping it into the azure sea to propel the small craft away from the shore. The droplets of water falling from the blade of the oar were tiny stars, extinguished as quickly as they burned into being. The boat cut through the water, leaving the shore behind, and just before the destination came into view, the vision ended.
She was wrenched out of the icy landscape and back into her body, where she was sitting in the empty practice hall, alone on her cushion.
She opened her eyes, blinking against the light of the single candle she had lit on the altar. Her heart was pounding, and there was an acrid taste in her mouth. Her hands, folded in her lap, were trembling and chilled. A trickle of sweat ran from her temple down her cheek.
She drew her knees up and hugged them close, burying her face in the crook of her elbow, and because there was no one to hear her, she let out the sob that reared up in her throat. The sound echoed in the vaulted ceiling of the practice room, and for once she gave in to the overwhelming feelings rushing through her. She felt gutted. She felt powerless.
She had never seen so clearly before, and her teachers would praise her for it. But she felt no satisfaction, for she could not rejoice in the vision of someone she apparently loved departing on a journey to her death.
Kaede was working in the cliff garden when she received the summons. This was her favorite part of the Academy — the crescent shaped patch of earth carved out of the edge of the island, facing the mainland. On a clear day, she could see the brownish- green hills behind the crooked roofs of Seatown. But there had not been a clear day in a little over two months; only this constant gray light and scattered drizzle. Yet, as much as she hated it, it was better to be outside in the brisk sea air than trapped indoors behind the Academy’s suffocating stone walls.
She continued down the row of stunted carrots, working in the rich fertilizer that Maesie, the Academy’s cook, had given her at the start of her shift. A hard winter had been followed by no sign of spring, and Maesie had delayed planting at first, hoping for sunshine and warmth before she subjected her seedlings to the cold earth. But one morning she announced that she would wait no more, and the seeds went into the ground that day, followed by biweekly applications of the thick black fertilizer she concocted in the evenings. And despite the lack of sunlight, the seeds sprouted, though they were thinner and weaker than usual.
Kaede had just finished the row and was about to drag the jug of fertilizer to the next when Maesie came out of the kitchen, an odd look on her face. She held a wooden spoon in her hand as if she had come straight from the stove. Kaede straightened, brushing off her dirty hands on her cotton trousers. “What is it?”
“I’ve just had word from the Council,” Maesie said. “They want to see you.”
Kaede was puzzled. What would the Council of Sages want with her? She was hardly one of their favorite students. “What? When?”
“Now. You’d better leave your things there. I’ll have someone else finish up for you.”
She blinked at Maesie. “Now?” She wasn’t sure she had heard correctly.
“Now. But you should clean up before you go — you don’t want to track mud all over their chambers.”
- * -
Kaede had not been to the Council chambers since her first visit to the Academy of Sages when she was eleven, to apply for admission. In the ensuing six years, there had never been a reason for her to make the long trek to the North Tower, for the only students invited into that inner sanctum were those who could perform the rituals they were taught. Although she had read the Book of Rituals several times, Kaede had never successfully completed even the simplest of blessings. She knew she had only been allowed to remain at the Academy because her father was the King’s Chancellor, and her mother — before she married him — had been a sage. Now she wondered if her time at the Academy was finally coming to an end, for why else would the Mistress have called for her, if not to dismiss her at last?
To reach the Council chambers, she had to climb a lengthy, circular flight of stairs. Carved in every step were the words to a different verse from the Book of Changes. She knew that if she read each step in order from the ground floor up, she would find the entire first folio there, comprising the core teachings that every student was required to learn during her first year. But Kaede only glanced down at random, and the verses made little sense out of context.
In disorder, misfortune.
In sincerity, fear gives way.
Dragons battle on the plain: yellow and black blood spills.
Fire in the mountain lake: grace brings success.
The phrases irritated her, reminding her of countless hours spent huddled over her books, feeling as though they were only mocking her. By the time she reached the landing outside the iron doors to the Council chambers, she was eager to be done with it. Whatever form her dismissal might take, she would welcome it.
She reached for the rope hanging from the mouth of the iron dragon embedded in the stone wall, and pulled. Several minutes later the left- hand door was opened by Sister Nara, the youngest of the three Council members. Her black hair, which was normally coiled in two careful braids tucked against the nape of her neck, was coming loose as though she had rushed through her morning rituals. Two small vertical lines appeared between her brown eyes as she said, “Come in.”
Kaede followed Sister Nara through the circular antechamber to the inner redwood doors. Each was hung with a round gold shield. On the left was a phoenix, its tail feathers curling toward its beak, wings extended: the sign of harmony. On the right was a unicorn, the symbol of justice; its deerlike head was lowered so that its curving horn pointed down, while its goatlike tail curled up.
Sister Nara opened the doors, and the moment that Kaede entered the Council chamber, she knew something was wrong — she could not have been called there merely to be dismissed. For there were two men seated at the long wooden table along with the Council members and the Mistress of the Academy: One of them was her father, Lord Raiden, the King’s Chancellor; the other was King Cai Simin Tan himself. What could have possibly brought him all the way from his palace to the isolated Academy?
Out of long habit, she folded her hands and bowed to the King, but she did not acknowledge her father. The last time they had spoken, they had argued heatedly, and the memory of it still made her face burn with suppressed anger.
At the head of the table, Maire Morighan, the Mistress of the Academy, said, “Kaede, please sit down.”
As she walked to the table, her cloth shoes making no sound on the cold stone floor, her pulse quickened with curiosity. She saw the three Council members: Sister Nara, who was just pulling out her chair; Sister Ailan; and Sister Yuna. She saw Maire Morighan, her hands clasped on the table before a small wooden box. And, unexpectedly, she saw another student seated beside Sister Ailan. Kaede recognized the girl’s face, but she couldn’t remember her name. They had arrived at the Academy the same year, but after that first year, they had never had any classes together. She was supposed to be extraordinarily gifted, and she took all her classes in private with Sister Ailan. Kaede had never given much thought to her, but now she wondered why she was here. The girl’s cheeks darkened a little under Kaede’s gaze, and she turned deliberately toward the Mistress. And then Kaede remembered: Her name was Taisin.
Maire Morighan said: “You must be wondering why you have been called here. But before we can tell you that, you should know a bit more about why His Majesty has visited us so unexpectedly.” She inclined her head toward the King. “Would you like to tell the tale, Your Majesty?”
King Cai glanced at Lord Raiden before turning his attention to Lord Raiden’s daughter. He had seen her before, of course, when the Chancellor brought his family to the palace, but the King had never done more than keep track of her as a potentially useful tool. She was not the beauty her mother was, though she resembled her in spirit, at least, for she raised her eyes to him boldly. He ran a hand over his triangular beard, considering where to begin.
“One month ago,” the King said, “a visitor arrived at the palace in Cathair. He demanded an audience with me, but he was in a wretched state — looked as if he’d been traveling for months, clothing all torn up. I thought he might be mad. Of course, I refused to see him. I couldn’t risk it. This year alone my guards have uncovered three assassination attempts — those southern lords are getting more brazen by the day. So I waited until Lord Raiden — until your father returned from his visit to the South. That was about two weeks ago.”
Kaede finally let herself look at her father, whose face was carefully blank as he regarded the King. He was wearing the plain black cap and robes of his station, but they were made of the finest silk, embroidered all over with phoenixes in black thread. The last time she had been home in Cathair, her father had been preparing for the trip to the southern provinces that the King had mentioned. The past two years had delivered extremely harsh winters followed by particularly poor harvests, especially in the South. This year, the strange, lingering winter, combined with the unexpected spoilage of much of the Kingdom’s food stores, had led to growing panic among the people. The Academy was largely insulated from such things, but Kaede knew that some in the Kingdom were already going hungry, and hunger led to unrest — especially when the wealthy continued to eat well.
The King continued: “Your father met with this visitor as soon as he returned. He — I could hardly believe this when I first heard it — the man claimed that he had been given something by the Fairy Queen, and she had ordered him to deliver it to me. We have heard nothing from her people, the Xi — at least nothing official — in generations.”
He leaned forward, stabbing a heavily ringed finger against the table to emphasize his point. His blue silk sleeves ballooned. “I thought it was a hoax at first.”
Kaede asked, “What do you mean, nothing official?”
Irritated by the interruption, the King answered brusquely, “There have been some sightings — nothing definite, mind you — but it seems that some of the Xi have been coming across the borders into our lands.”
“It may not be the Xi who are crossing over,” Maire Morighan said.
“Then who— or what— are they?” the King snapped. “They’re unnatural, these creatures, whatever they are, and they don’t belong here.”
Lord Raiden said mildly, “Your Majesty, perhaps we can discuss the identity of these creatures later. Let’s continue.”
The King relented. “The man brought a box with him; he said it had come from the Fairy Queen herself. Inside the box there was a medallion and a scroll. The scroll was written in the language of the Xi, which we could not read. Lord Raiden informed me that the scroll appeared to be genuine, and in that case, we had no choice but to bring it here. This morning, the Council deciphered it. It appears to be an invitation to me to attend the Fairy Queen at her palace in Taninli at midsummer.”
“This is the box,” Maire Morighan said, gesturing to the small rosewood container before her. She placed her finger in the center of it, and the top opened like the petals of a flower. From within, she removed a tiny scroll and a medallion on a long silver chain. “We have read the scroll, and it is indeed an invitation. It seems that the Fairy Queen, at least, still abides by the laws of our treaty.”
Kaede was puzzled. “What treaty?”
“Many generations ago, our kingdom negotiated a treaty with the Fairy Queen that established the border between her lands and ours,” said the Mistress. “It was also agreed that we would each keep to our side of the border, and that no one — human, Xi, or other races of fay — would cross it without an invitation from the other land’s sovereign. It has been so long since the Borderlands Treaty was signed, and no invitations were ever issued, I believe, until now. So this is quite unexpected.”
Everything Kaede had been taught led her to believe that the Xi had no interest in humans anymore. Some traces of them remained — especially here at the Academy, where each Mistress took on a name in the Xi language — but Kaede had always had the impression that the Kingdom was better off without the Xi. “Why do you think they’re contacting the King now?” she asked.
The Mistress’s eyes flickered to the gray sky outside the windows. “We believe that the unchanging seasons — and even those creatures who have been crossing into our lands — we believe that these are all connected. You have learned, in your lessons here, that we are all part of one vast motion of energies. Something is disrupting the natural flow of things. The meridians that run across our world have been . . . bent . . . somehow. We suspect that the Fairy Queen may be aware of this, too. It is very important that we accept her invitation.” Maire Morighan’s lips narrowed briefly, as if in disapproval. “However, the King is not able to go on the journey, for it will take many months and may be quite dangerous. He will send his son, Prince Con Isae Tan, in his stead.”
“I remind you that my hands are full dealing with the chaos in the southern provinces,” the King said defensively. “They’re nearly ready to launch a civil war. I cannot leave my kingdom for months just to gallivant off on an invitation to the Fairy Queen’s court — an invitation that says nothing about why she’s inviting us after all this time, I might add.”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” Maire Morighan said, “it is the Council’s strong belief that the Fairy Queen may know why the seasons haven’t changed, and I remind you that all the storms and droughts and food spoilages have been the primary cause of all that unrest. We need to reestablish relations with the Xi; it is a matter of supreme importance.”
“His Majesty and I agree that we must answer the Fairy Queen’s invitation,” Lord Raiden put in, trying to smooth both King Cai’s and Maire Morighan’s ruffled feathers. “But he cannot travel now. Not only are we on the verge of war, the Queen is pregnant.”
“I dare not leave her,” the King said stiffly. “She has had a difficult pregnancy.” Kaede remembered that the King’s first wife had died more than a decade ago, but he had not remarried until last year, when he chose a much younger bride. It had been something of a scandal, for the new Queen was the same age as Prince Con, the King’s son from his first marriage.
“We understand,” Maire Morighan said, as though they had argued over this many times already. She looked at Kaede. “We have also consulted the oracle stones about the invitation, and they called for Taisin, your classmate, to accompany the prince.”
Kaede shifted in her seat, confused. “But what does this have to do with me?”
The Mistress leaned forward slightly, her dark eyes focused on Kaede. “You have been called, as well.”
Kaede stared at her for a moment, dumbfounded. “Me?”
It made no sense to her.
And then Taisin, who had been silent until now, said: “I had a vision. I had a vision, and you were in it.”