QSFer Nita Round has a new lesbian steampunk book out in her “A Touch of Truth” series: Raven, Storm and Shadow.
In the shadows, treachery and betrayal grow unseen.
The state funeral of Princess Olivia at Port Ruth marks the end of the Mistress of the night. Yet, as Lucinda, Magda and Ascara attend this grand ceremony, a storm of secrets and lies emerge from the shadows, and threaten to destroy them all.
Even when they make their way home, peace and safety are still not theirs. Malice and betrayal, hidden and out of sight, finds them. The shadows reach out and engulf them in a storm of darkness and pain. For the trinity of Raven, Fire and Ice, there can be only one way forward, but at what price?
Captain Magda Stoner stood atop the palace wall, stared over the city of Port Ruth, and out across the bay. The sun, low on the horizon, bathed the whole city in a red-gold shimmer, but she hardly noticed. Her thoughts remained conflicted and uncertain in this time of grief. It had been five years since her wife had been killed, yet it had taken until now to bring home the remains for the funeral she deserved.
Three others stood with her for this, the first night of mourning. Lucinda Ravensburgh, the Raven of Raven Tower, and Ascara, the Fire to her Ice. They would always be with her, no matter what. They were as one, and she took strength from their nearness.
With them stood Prince Mogharan Ruth, ruler of all Rabia, and brother to Olivia. They’d been friends once, but time and events had rendered their friendship moot. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Upon his shoulders, grief sat like a heavy cloak. He’d lost his sister in such a terrible way, and even after all these years, he still grieved for his loss. His grief made her uncomfortable. Magda looked away.
Magda pulled at the collar of her grey dress uniform as though she might blame her discomforts on her clothing. She ground her teeth and tensed her jaws together with such force her whole face ached, but at least she didn’t scowl. Emotion threatened to overflow her control, but she didn’t have time for emotions to cloud her mind or her judgment. Not now she had duties to perform.
I am like ice, she told herself. Ice. And I feel nothing.
They had almost died to bring Olivia home. Yet now they were here, she wished she could be someplace else. Any place else. Even back in the tomb of Sh’Na, where she would rather face the wrath of the Queen of the Night herself than this. This grief and this loss.
At her side, Ascara stood ramrod straight. Her stiffness had little to do with her formal uniform and more to do with the ownership mark upon her collar. A ceremonial sabre rather than her more familiar sword lay across one hip, and a three-barrelledpistol rested on the other.
Next to her, Lucinda wore a black dress of mourning. Her red hair swept back in a tight and severe bun and the gold chain of ownership around her neck were the only signs of colour.
Neither of them had complained about the marks of ownership they were once more forced to wear. It was not easy for them, but they bore the indignity with grace and poise. Both of them. Magda wished she could remove this indignity, but to do so would have compromised their safety, and she would not—could not—do such a thing.
She turned her attention to Mogharan. All in black, with gold epaulettes, gold braiding, and rows of medals on his chest, he looked very much the part of the leader of the Rabian High Guard.
“Face the sun, Mag,” he said. His voice sounded harsh and disapproving. “You know this.”
Magda nodded. To turn away from the sunset on the first day of mourning would be to turn away from God. And no Rabian would ever do such a thing. On this day, she would be a good Rabian.
She adjusted her gaze and watched as the sun sank further over the horizon. In the bay, the sea turned from blue to grey and then, as the sun sank out of sight, the sea turned black. As far as she could see, not a single white top marred the stillness of the ocean.
Darkness spiltlike ink across the cityand chased away the remaining light. Not a single lamp nor open flame broke the gloom. This ever-active city, which brimmed with life and commotion, had drawn to a complete stop.No one spoke. Still, like death, the thriving city had become little more than an empty and abandoned ruin.
A city of the dead.
When the last sliver of light vanished below the horizon, she and Mogharan turned to the temples of the four quarters on the palace grounds. The priest of the third quarter stepped out onto the parapet of his tower. In his hand, he carried a single lit candle, the only light in the city that drew attention to this one man.
He called out then. “V’arlya,” he called out. “Attend to me,” he said in High Rabian. His voice,and only his voice, rang out clear and strong as he began the recitation of the prayers of mourning.
Magda let the words flow through her. The sound of his voice as it echoed across the palace compound resonated within her chest and heart. She did not follow every word, but not even the Rabians understood the formal language of High Rabian. She recognised some of the words but knew the meaning of his words even if she failed to recognise the exact words used.
Other priests joined in at the start of each part of the prayer, until the priests of all four quarters prayed together as one. Their combined voices rose high and then settled over the city like a shroud.
As the words died into the night, acolytes strode from the temples. Each one carried two burning brands which they held aloft. At a word from the priests, the acolytes dropped the torches into the heart of huge braziers placed before each temple. With a whoosh as the fire caught, the flames of remembrance grew high. As light erupted from the palace grounds, around the city people joined in and lit their own pyres of remembrance.
“Look to Holy Mount,” Mogharan said.
She turned, and there, in the darkness, the three peaks of the mountain erupted in dancing yellow lights. A string of torches circled the mountain like pearls of shining flames.
“Now the procession will come to us. My sister was much loved, and there are many to show their respect,” Mogharan said.
“Yes, she was,” Magda agreed.
“You were there for my parents, weren’t you, Mag? Do you remember what happens next?”
“I was there, and yes, I remember well.”
“Good. There are no explanations needed then.” He stopped for a moment, but Magda waited for him to say more. “I should have named myself king right away.”
“Yes,” Magda agreed. She wasn’t sure where this line of talk would lead. “Then why not be king?”
“Politics,” he said. “A prince has more freedom than a king. They forgive a prince his indiscretions, and he answers to no one, but a King of all Rabia answers to them all.”
“I understand,” she said.
“Maybe I should change my mind. Perhaps now is the time to take control of the whole of my country and my people.” He looked away then, a sure sign that the conversation had ended.
“Yes, Prince Ruth,” Magda replied.
It wasn’t until the torchbearers were halfway through the city and close to the palace that Magda heard their approach. She could hear them singing now; hundreds of voices joined together in such a slow and mournful dirge that the hairs on her arms stood on end. They sang in Street Rabian, with a little Gyptan added. And although she could not follow it all, she had more chance of understanding them than the High Rabian of the priests.
Their song talked of the princess, and they mourned her passing. They sang of the loss to her brother, to Magda, and to the city. Even in the warmth of the early evening air, Magda shivered; she couldn’t stop herself.
The singers stopped at the palacegates,and over the voices, she heard someone bang the gates.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
They were expected, and so the gates opened and mourners filled into the palace grounds like a lamp lighting tide of black robes.
“Come,” said Prince Mogharan, “we must go to them now.”
Nita Round lives in the heart of England with her wife and their ruby Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Rosie. She has many interests and hobbies, including walking, D&D, cooking, and drinking wine. Not always in that order. Her damson gin and plum vodka have been a factor in several hangovers, but she says it has nothing to do with her. If you can’t manage your fruit, lay off the gin.
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