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Fray

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Fray

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Author: Rowenna Miller
Publisher: Orbit, 2019
Series: The Unraveled Kingdom: Book 2

1. Torn
2. Fray
3. Rule

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

In this epic sequel to Torn, the magical seamstress Sophie Balstrade navigates a royal court and foreign alliances fraught with danger -- and may well have to risk everything for love and for country.

Open revolt has been thwarted -- for now -- but unrest still simmers in the kingdom of Galitha. Sophie, despite having built a thriving business on her skill at both dressmaking and magic, has not escaped unscathed from her misadventures in the workers' rebellion. Her dangerous foray into curse casting has rendered her powers unpredictable, and her increasingly visible romantic entanglement with the Crown Prince makes her a convenient target for threatened nobles and malcontented commoners alike.

With domestic political reform and international alliances -- and her own life -- at stake, Sophie must discern friend from foe... before her magic grows too dark for her to wield.


Excerpt

1

THE SILK FAIR HAD DESCENDED ON FOUNTAIN SQUARE IN THE middle of Galitha City, flooding the gray flagstones with color. I inhaled, catching the scent of silk fibers, block-print dyes, and some pungent damp wool on the faint summer breeze.

"All right, Alice." My assistant caught up to me, already red-faced in the summer sun. She carried a list of necessary purchases and a ledger to keep track of our expenses, just as I usually did at the fair. This time, Alice was tabulating our purchases and watching our budget, practice for managing a shop herself someday. "Where should we start? Brocades? Wools?"

"We need more cotton," Alice answered. "Those chemise gowns have been our most frequent commission in the past two months. I've already cut into our last bolt of voile."

Though painfully pragmatic even when faced with row upon row of brilliantly hued silk, Alice was right--ever since I had designed and created a frothy, floating gown for Lady Viola Snowmont, crafted of finest voile and deftly gathered into a full bust and sleeves, our shop had been swamped with orders for similar pieces. The daring design had turned the tide for our shop; for one, only about a third of these fashion-forward women even requested my signature charms stitched into the hems and tucks of their chemise gowns.

"Fair enough--cottons first. Then silks." My conspiratorial grin coaxed a smile from practical Alice. The promise of silk was hard to resist, even for Alice.

"Poor Emmi," Alice said. Our newest hire was relegated to minding the shop and finishing some hems.

"Should I have brought Emmi instead?" I teased.

"No, of course not," Alice replied. "After all, I'll be managing the inventory, so I should learn the purchasing process. And, well, silk." She finally cracked a grin, and I laughed. "Have you considered hiring another assistant?"

I sighed, sobered even as we passed a stall crammed with beautiful brocades. "I have. I'm just not sure--this could be a temporary uptick, and I would hate to fire someone a couple months after hiring her."

"If I may, most out-of-work seamstresses would prefer a couple of months to nothing," Alice said. "And there are plenty of out-of-work seamstresses."

Alice wasn't wrong--caution had followed the failed revolt at Midwinter, with some nobles leaving the city early for their summer estates, stalling building projects and limiting spending even from the city's most confident consumers. Another side effect, I thought ruefully, that my brother and his coconspirators would never have guessed. My shop was unusually busy compared to my neighbors, and I had only the connections with Lady Snowmont's set to thank for that.

"Wise counsel. And this is why you'll make an excellent shop owner someday." Once the Reform Bill that Theodor had been drafting since the Midwinter Revolt passed, starting a business would be simpler, unimpeded by the archaic legal thorns that currently snagged every step of the process. I was sure Alice would leave me someday for an atelier of her own.

"Cottons--here we are." I passed several booths of less finely woven goods before finding the one I was looking for. I fingered the crisp edges of muslins and the soft drape of voiles. The merchant, a slight man from the Allied Equatorial States, hovered just inside a comfortable radius. Alice followed me like a puppy, waiting to note which selections I made.

"Do you like the voiles?" The merchant edged closer. "I have another five bolts just like that one--and this one is particularly fine," he said, producing a lighter weight cotton.

"No, this weight is better--don't you think, Alice?"

She nodded. "Too light and you'd see their underthings," she said. The merchant cocked his head, confused.

"Alice, that's brilliant! Imagine one of those gowns--with a bright pink sash--or deep blue--and an underpetticoat, matching. It would show through, just faintly."

"But--you'd see their underthings," she protested even as she yielded and handed me the lightest weight bolt to test the drape.

I bought two bolts of the lightest weight and three of the more substantial voile. Alice was right--the concept was daring. But I was sure some of Lady Snowmont's set would be delighted with the idea. The merchant promised delivery within the hour. I knew it was more likely to be three, as his helper--probably one of his sons--attempted to navigate the side streets and alleys of sprawling Galitha City.

We stopped at one of my favorite silk merchants next. Over the years, I had made the West Serafan woman several health charms and she had always saved the best of her wares for me. As usual, Aioma was effluent in her enthusiasm when I entered her stall.

"Miss Sophie!" She bowed, which made me blush, even though I knew that deference to a guest was proper courtesy to Serafans. "I feel more alive, more full of health than when I made your acquaintance three years ago. I will dance at my daughter's sheen-ata night this year!"

"Oh--I--very good," I said, unsure what she meant.

"It is a tradition for wedding celebrations." She laughed. "The women dance all night long before the bride and groom are joined. I will dance, thanks to your charms!"

I smiled awkwardly, and her gangly teenage son brought several bolts of fabric from under a table.

They were exquisite. I traced the lines of an intricate brocade, gold and pink and yellow on pale ivory, imagining the court gown it could make. A brilliant green was almost too bright to look at, but I thought of the silk-covered hat or pert caraco jacket it would make and grinned. And a pale, almost foamy blue organza seemed to float off its bolt.

"All of it," I whispered.

Aioma insisted that we join her family for the midday meal. Alice gratefully accepted a mug of cold tea, and though I wasn't familiar with the lettuce-wrapped meatballs and milky sauce Aioma served me, I enjoyed my lunch thoroughly.

We were halfway to the wool merchants before I remembered that I had wanted some fine book muslin for kerchiefs. The sun was hot, stronger than usual for early summer, and Alice was already wilting a bit, perspiration glistening at her hairline. "Why don't you take a rest in the shade, and I'll go find the muslin." She agreed happily.

The square was growing more crowded. A pair of jugglers tossed slim orange rings to one another near the fountain, and strawberry sellers jockeyed for the best corners to hawk their wares. The Silk Fair pulled plenty of people, not only shop owners and seamstresses, from their everyday work into the center of Galitha City. The rich excess of fabrics, the brightly colored Serafan tents, the Kvys wool merchants who traveled with painted sheep--all a spectacle that any Galatine could enjoy.

I stopped between stalls of near-gaudy printed cottons and sturdy woven checked linen. One bolt caught my eye, a blue-and-white windowpane check that looked just like one of my brother's shirts. I took an edge between thumb and forefinger; it was good-quality linen, but nothing special, nothing I couldn't buy anytime. The indigo-blue crosshatches were common on working men's shirts and women's kitchen aprons, garments I didn't make. Still, I smoothed the folded edge of the linen back onto the bolt with a gentle hand.

"Not really your specialty, is it?" The voice, too close to me and unsettling in its familiarity, made me jump.

Niko Otni leaned against a crate of osnaburg, flipping the frayed edge of the undyed, coarse linen between two fingers. My eyes widened, but I recovered my composure quickly. Despite his vocal disdain for me and his willingness to torch Galitha City to further the Red Cap goals, Niko couldn't hurt me here. Especially given that he was, technically, still wanted for his participation in the violent insurrection and regicide.

"No, it isn't," I replied, forcing a level tone and sounding more prim than I intended. "Though fabric, on the whole, isn't really your specialty, either."

He cracked a smile. "I'm not exactly sharp with a needle," he conceded. I could see why my brother had liked Niko; they shared a quick wit and I could sense bright good humor buried underneath Niko's sharp tongue. Yet there was something unsafe about him, even now, under a blanching summer sun, a lack of compassion and an unrestrained motivation. If my brother was the pen of the revolution, Niko had been the blade. "But I'm not here for silk."

I considered him as he fell into step beside me, his unbleached linen trousers and a short linen jacket left open over what had to have been his best shirt, with a finer-than-average ruffle at the opening. "If you wanted to have a chat, Mr. Otni, you could have dropped by my atelier."

His smile faltered, slightly. "You know I couldn't. I can't exactly run around the commercial district making social calls. Still a wanted man, aren't I?"

"I suppose the pardon did exclude the leadership of the revolt, yes."

"It certainly did. They've been rather half-hearted about actually hunting us down, but the likes of me, trotting into your pretty shop?" He shook his head with a scolding cluck. "Noticeable. Reportable. Here? Half of Galitha City is here." He shrugged as we passed a clutch of dockworkers buying strawberries from a round-cheeked country girl with bare feet. "And here I blend in. These blokes aren't likely to turn me in even if they do recognize me," he added, nodding toward a trio of men in patched trousers who laughed at a trained monkey fleecing the pockets of a fourth unfortunate man. The monkey's keeper, in bright harlequin costume, met Niko's eyes and bowed subtly.

"Fine." I was losing my patience. The last person I wanted to see was Niko Otni, and the last thing I wanted to do was engage in a prolonged conversation with him. "You wanted something?"

"I think we both want something," he answered. The smile faded, replaced with urgent gravity. "We want those reforms passed."

"Of course we do." I sighed, annoyed. "We all do. If you hunted me down just for that, you've wasted your time."

"I wouldn't say we all do." Niko caught my arm and drew me into the shade of a sprawling flaxwood poplar, its seeds in their tow-colored tufts drifting past us on the faint breeze. "Plenty of voting members of the Council of Nobles don't want reform, do they? Things are too nice for them just the way they are. And sure as shit they'll vote against the reforms your prince is pushing."

"Yes," I replied carefully. I didn't know every vote on the council, but many were vocally opposed to the reforms that had already been months in the drafting. "But I don't vote, remember?"

"You talk to plenty of people who do," Niko said. I assessed him, his best shirt starched at the collar, his hair clubbed carefully under a weather-beaten cocked hat that he pulled off in an awkward, earnest gesture. "This vote has to pass, or there will be another uprising."

"You don't have to threaten--"

"I'm not making threats." He slapped the hat against his leg. "I'm just--I'm telling you. Drop the prissy act, will you?" He sighed. "At this point, you're the closest thing to an ally in high places those of us still slogging through day wages have."

"Believe me, Theo--Prince Theodor is taking all of this into consideration, and his small council will bring the Reform Bill to the Council of Nobles within the fortnight."

"And if it doesn't pass, what happens?"

I hesitated. The revolt had failed at Midwinter, but another uprising would be better thought out, less incumbent upon a single man's plan, and fueled by what could only be seen as an utter failure by their own government. The people had risen up once, and their anger still simmered, ready and willing to boil over again. "I know," I replied softly. "More blood."

"Not just another revolt. A real revolution, fully organized and unwilling to yield. If they allow you to try this your way, with politics, and you fail them?" He shook his head with a low whistle.

"The price of failing will be unimaginable."

"But the future doesn't have to cost blood," Niko said, earnest belief in the words.

A lump formed in my throat, awkward to talk around as I tried to ignore it. "That sounds like one of Kristos's catchphrases."

"It is. It's new," Niko said.

"You--is he here?" Panic pressed against the lump and made my voice catch. "He can't--they might not catch you, Niko, but he's not--"

"Calm down, and maybe don't use my name." Niko's dark eyes narrowed.

I met them, stony and unflinching. "You don't get to tell me to be calm, not about this. Tell me. My brother."

"I've been keeping him informed of the situation here, and he's been writing. I found a new printer and of course we still have our old distribution channels. No, I won't tell you how or where or what his address is."

"I wouldn't ask," I retorted.

"But it brings me to the point, Sophie. We're working, on our end, to make promises that we can't keep alone. Your brother's writing is encouraging the people to hold fast and wait for the Reform Bill. That it's enough. That they don't need to riot or burn anything down." He smirked. "I'm guessing you have no idea how many times I've told Red Caps down at the Rose and Fir to put the pitchforks away and wait. But they need to get something worth waiting for."

"I agree completely," I said. A tuft of flaxwood seeds settled on Niko's shoulder. I resisted the impulse to pluck it off.

"Then do something. When you talk to those nobles, be a voice for us. I don't think they'll believe it when your prince claims the people are ready to take up arms again the way they'll believe it when you tell them. You're close enough to the ground to speak for the dirt."

I didn't like that analogy, but he was right. In the limited time I had spent with the nobles as Theodor's guest, I felt both their disdain and their curiosity. "So you hunted me down just to ask me to talk more?"

"Be our voice." He clutched the well-worn hat. Its top was bleached gray. "Help us. I--I know I wasn't exactly kind to you this winter, and your brother never understood you or your insistence on spending your talents on nobles. You certainly didn't make any friends spurning poor Jack in favor of being a noble's doxy." I bit my lip. "But I have to admit that you're in a position we never could have dreamed of. It might lead to nothing, in the end. But damn it all, Sophie, use it."

The lump in my throat grew again. I had managed to ignore, most days, that I returned alone to the row house I had shared with my brother every evening, to bury any sorrow over his absence in anger at how he had used me at Midwinter. But I did miss him, and deep in the pit of my stomach, a bitter kernel of worry often swelled into full-blown fear for him. I wanted, desperately, to ask if Kristos had any hand in seeking me out, if he had said anything about me. But I couldn't. I didn't want to know any more about my brother in exile, not really. Knowing meant being responsible for keeping that information safe. I needed the distance.

I straightened. I needed the distance from Niko, too. I couldn't be tied up with a fugitive, and I didn't want to risk Kristos's life by knowing any more about his whereabouts. "You have my word, Niko. I will advocate for what I can, when I can." Even, I knew, if it meant driving a deeper wedge between me and the nobles that made up Theodor's world. "But don't contact me again."

"I will have little trouble," Niko replied with a grin like cracked porcelain, "keeping that promise."

2

"DID YOU FIND ANY DECENT SILK?" THEODOR EXAMINED THE tightly closed bud of a yellow rose next to him; pink and cream climbing roses bloomed in a cascade of petals in the arbor. He had carefully trained them himself, nudging their fledgling vines up the trellis as they grew, year after year.

"Oh, loads. Cottons, too. And a nice set of wools--good colors, not drab stuff. Alice and I spent all day, and I'll be going back tomorrow for a few more pieces. You want to come peruse the wares?" I joked.

"I wish I could. The small council is finalizing the Reform Bill. It goes to the Council of Nobles for debate as soon as we can hammer out the election regulations."

"Finally," I breathed in near reverence for the bill that had taken months for the group of council members under Theodor's leadership to draft. "Elections--for the councils replacing the Lords of Stones, Keys, and Coin?"

"Those elections exactly, and the Council of Country." A smile crept over his face at saying the name borne of a concept cobbled together from political theory books, my brother's revolutionary writing, and hours of discussion with his small council. What was only an idea would be, if the bill passed, real seats of government filled by real people, elected by their peers, in the fall, serving as a second and equal governing body alongside the Council of Nobles. When the bill passed, I amended. I had to believe it would.

"So close," I breathed. "You included the voting provision for women, yes?"

"Let's not push," Theodor said. "The suggestion horrified enough of the small council that it will have to be put off for now. The bill has to be as perfect a presentation as possible," he added. "If it's too radical, they'll call for a quick vote and eliminate it right off, then recess and trot off to their estates for the rest of the summer."

"But it has to be enough," I countered. My relationship to the movement I had thought of for so long as "my brother's revolution" was messy and difficult, but I knew that trivial changes wouldn't be enough. Not for Niko, and not for the thousands he certainly spoke for.

And not, I accepted, for me, either. I had never peddled pamphlets in the streets or been willing to risk fire and scythe in a coup, but change could come without violence now. The past months had shifted that, working quietly with Theodor to build and revise this monumental piece of legislation. Of course I wasn't welcome in the chambers of the Council of Nobles, but Theodor had asked my opinion, and I had carefully considered what insights he needed from the commoners of Galitha, as well as I could represent them. Moreover, working alongside one another, our relationship had changed in myriad minute and lasting ways. Spark and flash of early romance had softened and built into comfortable coals of earnest partnership.

Now reform--true, enduring change--was so close that it hung ripe and heavy like the early blackberries in Theodor's garden, and still as fragile as the unpicked fruit.

"I think," Theodor said with a statesman's deliberate care, "that it will be. The most important, most oft-repeated theme of the literature preceding the Midwinter Revolt was elected representation. Replacing the Lords of Coin, Keys, and Stones with elected bodies and creating an elected council to serve alongside the Council of Nobles should accomplish that."

"Yes," I said with some hesitancy. My brother and his friends would have happily seen the nobles' control removed completely. I knew, of course, that eradication of the Council of Nobles would have been the kiss of death for the bill itself. "And taxation? The imposition of taxes has always been contentious among the people."

"Indeed. I suggested a popular vote for all taxes, as your brother's pamphlets all suggest, knowing it would be rejected." I sighed, but Theodor held up a hand. "Knowing it would be rejected, but that requiring approval from their elected representatives in the Council of Country would, then, sound far more appealing."

"You're actually quite good at this," I said with a grin. I nodded. "Will this--all this--be enough?"

"I think so." He reached into the inside pocket of his coat. "If this is any indication."

He tossed a smudged pamphlet to me, its cheap binding already coming apart. The Politics of Reform and the Duty of Conciliation: A Peoples' Responsibility. "That sounds like one of my brother's titles," I joked weakly as I paged through it. These reforms are hardly adequate, but they open a door of progress... We must not mistake compromise for concession... Our voices will be heard over the clamor of tradition, as reason and logic that convince the aristocracy of their own injustice.

I set the paper down slowly. "This sounds like my brother's work," I whispered. So familiar in its cadence and diction, so like him. It was like holding a part of him in my hands, letting an echo of his voice speak over incalculable distance.

"He said he would find a way to keep working. I suppose I should be grateful he's working in our favor. Somewhat," he said, nudging the page open to a particularly incendiary diatribe against the liberties taken by the nobility.

"I--he's not the only one." Even here in Theodor's serene garden, leaning against his chest, surrounded by roses in explosive bloom, Niko's charge followed me. "I saw Niko at the Silk Fair."

Theodor sat upright, pulling me to face him. "Niko Otni? He's evaded the Lord of Keys for months."

"He says you're not trying hard enough," I replied blandly.

"That may be true," Theodor said. "Things have been blessedly calm and the Lord of Keys hasn't wanted to upset the quiet with a manhunt."

"Well, Niko says you have him to thank for the quiet, too." I traced an over-bloomed rose with my fingertips, and its petals fell in a fragrant shower into my lap.

"What did he want?" Theodor brushed the rose petals from my skirt impatiently until I stayed his hand.

"To impress upon me my responsibility," I said loftily, then softened. "I need to advocate for the Reform Bill."

"You?" He caught himself. "Not that you aren't as well versed as anyone, but you're--" He stopped abruptly.

I watched the flush break over his fair cheeks, embarrassment at what he almost said. "Yes, it's because of who I am. A common woman. They'll believe me when I say the people are ready to rise up again if reform doesn't pass."

He nestled into quiet reflection of the yellow rosebud nearest him. "I suppose," he said finally, "that you may be correct." He pressed his lips together. "I confess that I've been... protecting you a bit."

I pulled his hand away from the rose and searched his face. "Protecting me?"

"If you were noble, if this match was more... conventional, we would be appearing together at social events far more often. Publicly, not quiet evenings at Viola's salon."

I nodded, appreciating this. I had only attended a couple of social functions with Theodor since the Midwinter Ball, and those had been small events, hosted by Viola at her salon or, more recently, by Theodor's brother Ambrose, who had insisted with firm kindness on making my acquaintance and including me in his monthly card parties. "You didn't want to put me through what the nobility would say. How they'd look at me."

"No, I didn't. They're not all like Viola and Annette and Ambrose. Some of them are far more wedded to tradition and the elevated separation of the nobles for the good of the country and all that rot. They're not pleasant when someone skips serving a fish course at a dinner, let alone something of this magnitude."

"I couldn't avoid them forever. I mean, not if..." I left that hope, that future unspoken but tangible.

"I know," Theodor confessed. "I suppose I figured they would eventually accept it without pushing them. That is, I had hoped that time would simply relieve them of their curiosity or surprise, but the tension surrounding the Reform Bill... there's no chance for them to calm down enough."

"I think," I said, hesitant but unwilling to back away now, "that it's time. I... I could have done more last fall and winter. Maybe. I don't know. But trying to hold the ground in between sides only resulted in..." I stopped, overcome for a moment remembering Nia, and Jack, and the hundreds of dead, nameless to me but known and fully loved by others. They had been neighbors, faces I passed in the street. Perhaps the nobility couldn't account for their loss, but I could. "I can't stand by again. Speaking for the common people is all I can do, so I will."

I paused, absently pulling a few petals from a rose. I didn't want to bring up the one additional thorn to appearing with Theodor at more social events, but I had to. I hadn't pressed the issue, but I had not been invited to the spring concert series his mother hosted at the palace, or the official coronation ball--of course, I hadn't particularly wanted to attend, either. If I was honest, I was content to avoid that potentially painfully terse situation as long as possible.

"What about your parents?"

"What about them?" He handed me a new rose, taking away the bare stem I held. "Oh. You mean--right. You'd certainly see them at some juncture and--yes." I waited. Theodor stared at his hand. I gently kicked his ankle. "I'm sorry, I'm sure once they meet you, they'll be delighted--"

Copyright © 2019 by Rowenna Miller


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