Rachel Hartman’s Latest: Exclusive Excerpt & a Note from the Author

 

The dragons of the Tanamoot and the humans of Goredd have a peace treaty, but hatred and distrust linger on both sides even after forty years. My first novel, Seraphina, dealt with an attempt to shatter the fragile peace. Now the dragons are at war among themselves, and a conflict of that scale must draw Goredd in eventually. In this opening chapter of Shadow Scale, Seraphina first glimpses what role she and the other half-dragons – if she can find them – might play in the coming crisis. —Rachel Hartman

AN EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM SHADOW SCALE BY RACHEL HARTMAN

Queen Glisselda spotted the dragon first. It was a swift-moving patch of darker darkness against the night sky, obliterating stars and birthing them again.

She pointed at it, shouting, “Singleton from the west, St. Ogdo save us!” in imitation of the knights of old. She spoiled the impression slightly by bouncing on her toes and laughing. The winter wind carried the cheerful sound away; far below us the city curled under a quilt of new snow, silent and thoughtful as a sleeping child.

Trained spotters had once scanned the skies for dragon battalions from this selfsame place, atop Castle Orison’s Ard Tower. Tonight it was only the Queen and me, and the approaching “singleton” was a friend, thank Allsaints: the dragon Eskar, erstwhile undersecretary at our dragon embassy. She’d helped my uncle Orma evade the Censors almost three months ago, just as the dragons’ civil war was breaking out.

Ardmagar Comonot, the deposed leader of dragonkind, had expected Eskar to find Orma a safe haven and then return to us in Goredd, where Comonot had established his headquarters in exile. The Ardmagar had intended to make her one of his advisors, or even a general, but months had brought no Eskar and no expla­nation.

She had contacted Comonot, via quigutl device, earlier this evening. Over dinner, Comonot had informed Queen Glisselda that Eskar would fly in after midnight. Then he had taken himself off to bed, leaving the Queen to wait up or not, as she saw fit.

It was a very Comonot way of dealing with things. The Queen wearied of him.

He’d said nothing about why Eskar had suddenly decided to come back, or where she’d been. It was possible he didn’t know. Glisselda and I had been speculating about it to distract ourselves from the cold. “Eskar has decided the dragon civil war is dragging on too long, and means to end it single-handedly,” was Glisselda’s final assessment. “Did she ever glare at you, Seraphina? She could stop the very planets in their spheres.”

I hadn’t experienced the glare, but I’d seen the way she looked at my uncle three months ago. Eskar had surely been with him this whole time.

Glisselda and I each held a torch, intending Eskar to understand that she should land on the tower top. This was Prince Lucian Kiggs’s idea—something about updrafts and a fear that she’d take out a window trying to land in a courtyard. He had left un­spoken the fact that she was less likely to alarm anyone way up here. Goredd had begun to see full-sized dragons in the sky, as Comonot’s allies came and went, but it would be an exaggeration to say people were used to it.

Now that Eskar was approaching, she looked too large to land on the tower top. Maybe she thought so, too; flapping dark leathery wings with a rush of hot wind, she veered south toward the far edge of town. Three city blocks still smoldered there, sending the new snow up as steam.

“What’s she doing, checking out her countryman’s handiwork? Some insomniac is going to see her,” said Glisselda, pushing back the hood of her fur-lined cloak, her earlier merriment already dimming to fretfulness. Alas, this was her usual expression these days. Her golden curls gleamed incongruously in the torchlight.

Eskar soared into the spangled sky and then plummeted back out of the darkness, diving toward the heart of the city like a falcon after a wren. Glisselda gasped in alarm. At the last second, Eskar pulled up short—a black shadow against the new snow—and skimmed along the frozen Mews River, cracking the ice with her serpentine tail.

“And now she reveals how she might breach our defenses, flying so high our missiles and flaming pyria can’t reach her. That’s not how those houses were razed, Eskar!” called the young Queen into the wind, as if the dragon could hear her from such a distance. “He was already inside the walls!”

He had been the third dragon assassin Prince Lucian had flushed out, sent after Comonot by the Old Ard. The saarantras had transformed into a full-sized dragon to make his escape. Comonot had transformed in turn and killed his assailant before he could flee, but five people had died and fifty-six lost their homes in the resulting inferno.

All that destruction, caused by just two dragons. None of us dared to guess how awful the damage would be if Comonot’s Loyalists failed to hold off the Old Ard and war came to Goredd in earnest.

“Lars is designing new war machines,” I said, trying to inject some optimism. “And don’t discount the dracomachists training at Fort Oversea.” The elderly knights of the Southlands and their middle-aged squires, hastily promoted to knights, had joined together in this endeavor.

Glisselda snorted derisively, her eyes following Eskar’s second circuit of the city. “Even when our knights were at full strength—and hastily trained dracomachists are not knights—this city was routinely burned to the ground. You and I have never seen the like, having been raised in peacetime.”

The wind gusted, making it hard to forget how high up we were; my palms sweated in my gloves. “Comonot’s Loyalists will defend us.”

“I believe they will defend our people, but the city itself doesn’t matter a jot to them. Lucian says we must focus on making the tunnels livable again. We survived there before, and we can always rebuild.” She raised an arm and dropped it, as if she found it futile even to gesture. “This city is Grandmamma’s legacy; it has blossomed in peacetime. I hate that I might have to let it go.”

Eskar was returning, catching an updraft on the eastern side of Castle Hill. Glisselda and I pressed back against the parapet as the dragon came in to land. Her dark, laboring wings blasted sulfurous air, extinguishing our torches. I bent into the wind, terrified of being gusted over the edge. Eskar touched down on the tower top and paused with wings extended, a living shadow against the sky. I had dealt with dragons—I was half-dragon—but the sight still raised hairs on the back of my neck. Before our eyes the fangy, scaly darkness furled and contracted, cooled and condensed, folding in upon itself until all that remained was a statuesque, short-haired woman, naked on the icy tower top.

Glisselda gracefully swept off her fur cloak and approached the saarantras—the dragon in human form—holding out the warmed garment. Eskar bowed her head, and Glisselda draped the mantle gently across her bare shoulders.

“Welcome back, Undersecretary,” said the young Queen.

“I’m not staying,” said Eskar flatly.

“Indeed,” said Glisselda, no trace of surprise in her voice. She’d only been Queen for three months, since her grandmother had fallen ill from poison and grief, but she’d already mastered the art of appearing unflappable. “Does Ardmagar Comonot know?”

“I’m more useful to him where I’ve been,” Eskar said. “He will understand when I explain. Where is he?”

“Asleep, to be sure,” said Glisselda. Her smile covered a spectacular annoyance that Comonot could not be bothered to stay up and greet Eskar himself. Glisselda saved her complaints about Comonot for her harpsichord lessons, so I routinely heard how inconsiderate he was; how she tired of apologizing to human allies for his boorish behavior; how ready she was for him to win his war and go home.

I understood dragons reasonably well, thanks to my uncle Orma and to memories left me by my mother. Comonot could not offend Eskar, whatever he did. Indeed, the Undersecretary was probably wondering why we hadn’t gone to bed ourselves. While Glisselda had felt propriety demanded a welcoming party, I was so thirsty for news of Uncle Orma that I’d leaped at the opportunity to greet Eskar myself.

I felt a little overcome, seeing her again. I’d last glimpsed her protectively holding my injured uncle’s hand at St. Gobnait’s Infirmary; it felt like an age ago. I reflexively extended a hand to her now and said, “Orma’s well? You’re not here with bad news, I hope.”

Eskar looked at my hand and cocked an eyebrow. “He’s fine, unless he’s taking advantage of my absence to do something inadvisable.”

“Please come inside, Undersecretary,” Glisselda said. “It’s a bitter night.”

Eskar had brought a bundle of clothing clasped in her talons; she picked it out of the snow and followed us down the narrow stair. Glisselda had cleverly left another torch burning below us in the belfry, and she collected it as we spiraled down the tower. We crossed a small courtyard, ghostly with snow. Most of Castle Orison was asleep, but night guards watched us pass up a back corridor into the palace proper. If they’d been alarmed by the late-night arrival of a dragon, they were too professional to show it.

A page boy, so sleepy he seemed not to register Eskar at all, held the door of the new Queen’s Study. Glisselda had left her grandmother’s book-filled chamber alone, almost superstitiously, and had chosen another salon for herself, airier, more parlor than library. A broad desk loomed before the dark windows; rich tapestries cloaked the walls. At the hearth to our left, Prince Lucian Kiggs prodded the fire industriously.

Kiggs had arranged four high-backed chairs before the fire and started a kettle warming. He straightened to greet us, smoothing his crimson doublet, his expression neutral but his dark eyes keen. “Undersecretary,” he said, giving the semi-naked saarantras full courtesy. Eskar ignored him, and I suppressed a smile. I’d hardly seen the prince these three months, but every gesture, every dark curl on his head, was still dear to me. He held my gaze briefly, then turned his attention to Glisselda. It would not do for him to address the Second Court Composer before his cousin, fiancée, and Queen.

“Do sit, Selda,” he said, brushing imaginary dust off one of the middle chairs and offering his hand. “I should think you’re half-frozen.”

Glisselda took his proffered hand and let him seat her. There was snow around the hem of her woolen gown; she shook it onto the painted hearth tiles.

I took the chair nearest the door. I had been invited here for news of my uncle and should leave if the conversation turned to state secrets, but I was also, unofficially, a translator of sorts, helping smooth out dragon-human interactions. If Glisselda hadn’t thrown Comonot out of the palace yet, it was due in part to my diplomacy.

Eskar dumped her bundle onto the seat between mine and Glisselda’s and began untying it. Kiggs turned determinedly back to the fire, placing a new log with a cascade of sparks. “Have you come with good news about the war, Eskar?” he said.

“No,” said Eskar, locating her trousers and turning them right side out. “I’ve been nowhere near the front. Nor do I intend to go there.”

“Where have you been?” I blurted out, entirely out of order but unable to contain myself. Kiggs met my eye, his brows bowed sympathetically.

Eskar tensed. “With Orma, as I’m sure you guessed. I don’t like to say where. If the Censors learn his whereabouts, his mind is forfeit. They will strip his memories bare.”

“Obviously none of us would tell them,” said Glisselda, sounding affronted.

Eskar shoved her head and arms into her tunic. “Forgive me,” she said as her head popped out. “Caution becomes a habit. We’ve been in Porphyry.”

Relief rushed through me, as if I’d been underwater for three months and could finally take a breath. I was seized with an impulse to hug Eskar but knew better than to try. Dragons tend to bristle when embraced.

Glisselda was watching Eskar through narrowed eyes. “Your loyalty to Orma is admirable, but you owe even more to your Ardmagar. He could use a smart, strong fighter like you. I saw you bring down the dragon Imlann.”

There was a long pause. Imlann, my dragon grandfather, had struck at midwinter, killing Glisselda’s mother, poisoning her grandmother, and attempting to assassinate the Ardmagar Comonot. Orma had battled Imlann in the sky and been gravely injured; Eskar had arrived in time to finish Imlann off. Meanwhile, a cabal of dragon generals, the Old Ard, who deplored Comonot’s treaty with Goredd, had led a coup in the Tanamoot. They’d seized the capital and declared Comonot an outlaw.

If Comonot had been killed, the Old Ard might simply have swooped down upon Goredd, reigniting the war Comonot and Queen Lavonda had extinguished forty years ago. Comonot lived, however, and he had Loyalists willing to fight for him. The war had so far stayed in the mountains to the north, dragon against dragon, while Goredd watched warily. The Old Ard wanted Comonot, an end to peace with humankind, and their southern hunting grounds back; they were coming south eventually if the Loyalists couldn’t hold them.

Eskar combed her fingers through her short black hair, making it stand on end, and sat down. “I cannot be Comonot’s general,” she said bluntly. “War is illogical.”

Kiggs, who had taken the kettle off the fire and begun filling cups with tea, overfilled a cup and scalded his fingers. “Help me understand, Eskar,” he said, shaking his hand and frowning. “Is it illogical for Comonot to want his country back, or to defend himself—and Goredd—from the Old Ard’s aggression?”

“Neither,” said Eskar, accepting a cup of tea from the prince. “Comonot is right to resist. But it’s a reactive stance, answering aggression with aggression.”

“War begets war,” I said, quoting Pontheus, Kiggs’s favorite philosopher. He met my eye and risked a quick smile.

Eskar turned her teacup in her hands but did not drink. “Reactivity makes him nearsighted. He focuses upon immediate threats and loses sight of the true goal.”

“And this true goal is what, in your estimation?” said Kiggs, passing a cup of tea to his cousin. Glisselda accepted it, never taking her eyes off Eskar.

“Ending this war,” said Eskar, staring back at Glisselda. Neither of them blinked.

“That’s what the Ardmagar is trying to do,” said Kiggs, his eyes darting toward me with an unspoken question. I shrugged, having no insight into Eskar’s argument.

“No, the Ardmagar is trying to win,” said Eskar, glaring down her nose.

When we did not appear enlightened by this distinction, Eskar clarified: “Dragons lay one egg at a time, and we grow slowly. Each death is significant, and so we settle our differences with litigation, or with an individual combat at most.

“It has never been our way to fight on this scale; if the war continues, our whole species loses. Comonot should return to our capital, the Kerama, take up the Opal of Office, and argue his case as is his right. If he can get there, our laws and traditions dictate that the Ker shall hear him out. The fighting would cease at once.”

“You’re certain the Old Ard would accept this?” asked Kiggs, handing me the final cup of tea.

“There are a surprising number of dragons in the Tanamoot who haven’t taken sides,” said Eskar. “They will come down on the side of order and tradition.”

Glisselda tapped her foot on the hearth tiles. “How is Comonot to get there without fighting every ard along the way? There’s a whole war’s worth of enemies in his path.”

“Not if he follows my sensible plan,” said Eskar.

We all leaned in. Surely this was why she’d come back. But she scratched her chin and said nothing.

“Which is what, exactly?” I prompted, as designated dragon-prodder.

“He should return with me to Porphyry,” said Eskar, “and enter the Tanamoot from the other side, via the Omiga River valley. The Old Ard won’t anticipate an incursion from that direction. Our treaty with the Porphyrians is so ancient that we forget it’s not a law of nature but a document that can be changed or disregarded at need.”

“The Porphyrians would allow this?” said Kiggs, swirling his tea.

“The Ardmagar would have to bargain,” said Eskar. “And I anticipate that there might still be fighting along this route, so he can’t go alone.”

Queen Glisselda looked up at the shadowed ceiling, thinking. “Would he take an ard with him?”

“That would alarm the Porphyrians and make them uncooperative,” said Eskar solemnly. “Porphyry has its own ard, a community of dragon exiles who’ve chosen a circumscribed life in human form over excision by the Censors. It’s a provision of our treaty: Porphyry keeps an eye on these deviants in exchange for our leaving their precious valley alone. Some exiles might accompany Comonot if he’ll pardon them and let them come home.”

“How many is some?” asked Kiggs, spotting the weak link at once. “Enough?”

Eskar shrugged. “Leave that to me.”

“And to Orma,” I said, liking the thought of him helping the Ardmagar’s cause.

At this mention of my uncle’s name, Eskar lowered her gaze for a second and her lower lip twitched. I saw—or maybe felt—the smile lurking below the surface. I glanced at the royal cousins, but they seemed not to have registered the expression at all.

She was fond of Orma. I knew it. For a moment I missed him terribly.

Eskar fished in a deep pocket of her trousers and extracted a sealed letter. “For you,” she said. “It isn’t safe for Orma to send anything through the post, or use thniks. I enforce his safety tyrannically, he tells me.”

The letter’s wax seal, brittle from the cold, shattered under my fingers. I recognized the handwriting, and my heart beat faster. Leaning toward the wavering firelight, I read the dear, familiar scrawl:

Eskar will tell you where I am. You and I spoke of it often enough; I am pursuing the research I proposed. You will remember. I’ve been unexpectedly lucky, but I cannot put my findings here. I only risk writing you (despite Eskar’s admonitions) because I have learned something potentially useful to your queen.

I have reason to think that you and other half-dragons can thread your minds together. “Like beads on a string,” it has been described. In so doing, you will find you can make a barrier in the air, an unseen wall, strong enough to stop a dragon midflight. “Like a bird against a window,” according to my source, who has more flair for description than I. You will be astonished to learn who it is.

The process will require practice. The more ityasaari on your string, the stronger the barrier. The uses should be obvious. I urge haste in finding your fellows before the war comes south. Unless you give up prematurely, your search will bring you here.

All in ard,

O

While I read, Eskar proclaimed herself tired. Glisselda escorted her to the anteroom and roused the dozy page boy, who led Eskar to her quarters. I was hazily aware of this, and of Lucian Kiggs watching me while I read. When I finished the letter, I looked up and met the prince’s dark, questioning eyes.

I tried to smile reassuringly, but the letter had produced such a riot of emotion in me that I felt only the struggle between them. It was bittersweet hearing from Orma, all my love bound up in sorrow for his exile. His proposal, on the other hand, fascinated and horrified me. I had longed to find the others of my kind, but I’d had a frightening experience early on with another half-dragon invading my mind. Just the idea of another mind threaded to mine made me squirm.

“I’ll be interested in what Comonot makes of her plan,” said Queen Glisselda, returning to her seat. “Surely he’s thought of this and rejected it. And there is still a great deal of risk to Goredd if he pleads his case and fails.” Her blue eyes darted back and forth between Kiggs and me. “You’re making strange faces. What did I miss?”

“Orma has had an idea,” I said, handing her the letter. Glisselda held the page, and Kiggs read over her shoulder, their dark and golden heads together.

“What is he researching?” said Kiggs, looking at me over Glisselda’s bowed head.

“Historical references to half-dragons,” I said. “My strangeness, in part, got him obsessed with learning whether there had been others.” I’d told them about my garden of grotesques; they had some idea what I meant by strangeness.

“In part?” asked Kiggs, catching the qualifier at once. He was too sharp by half; I had to look away, or my smile was going to reveal things it shouldn’t.

“Orma also found it irritatingly illogical that there are no records of interbreeding in the dragon archives and no mention in Goreddi literature. The Saints mention ‘abominations,’ and there are laws forbidding cohabitation, but that’s it. He thought surely someone, somewhere, would have tried the experiment and recorded the results.”

Talk of dragon “experimentation” produces an odd facial expression in humans, halfway between amused and appalled. The Queen and prince were no exceptions.

I continued, “The Porphyrians have a word for what I am—ityasaari—and Orma had heard rumors that Porphyrians might be more open to the possibility of . . .” I trailed off. Even now, when everyone knew about me, it was hard to talk about the practical mechanics of my parentage. “He hoped they might have some useful records.”

“He seems to have been right,” said Glisselda, scanning the letter again. She turned to me and smiled, patting Eskar’s empty chair. I shifted one seat closer to the royal cousins. “What do you make of this ‘unseen wall’ idea?”

I shook my head. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. I can’t picture it.”

“It would be like St. Abaster’s Trap,” said Kiggs. I stared at him incredulously; he smiled, enjoying that. “Am I the only one who reads scripture? St. Abaster could harness the fires of Heaven to make a shining net, with which he pulled dragons out of the sky.”

I groaned. “I stopped reading St. Abaster when I got to ‘Women of the South, take not the worm to thy beds, for thusly wilt thou bear thine own damnation.’ ”

Kiggs blinked slowly, as at a dawning realization. “That’s not even the worst thing he says about dragons or . . . or . . .”

“And he’s not alone,” I said. “St. Ogdo, St. Vitt. Orma once extracted the worst parts and made me a pamphlet. Reading St. Abaster, in particular, is like being slapped.”

“But will you attempt this mind-threading?” Queen Glisselda said with barely concealed hope. “If there’s any chance it could spare our city . . .”

I shuddered, but covered it with exaggerated nodding. “I’ll talk to the others.” Abdo, in particular, had some unique abilities. I’d start with him.

Glisselda took my hand and squeezed it. “Thank you, Seraphina. And not only for this.” Her smile grew shy, or perhaps apologetic. “It’s been a hard winter, with assassins burning down neighborhoods, Comonot being Comonot, and Grandmamma so ill. She never intended me to be Queen at fifteen.”

“She may yet recover,” said Kiggs gently. “And you’re not much younger than she was when she and Comonot authored the peace.”

Glisselda extended her other hand toward him; he took it. “Dear Lucian. Thank you, too.” She took a deep breath, her eyes glittering in the firelight. “You’ve both been so important to me. The Crown consumes me, I sometimes feel, until I am only Queen. I don’t get to be Glisselda except with you, Lucian, or”—she squeezed my hand again—”at my harpsichord lesson. I need that. I’m sorry I don’t practice more.”

“I’m surprised you’ve had time enough for the lessons,” I said.

“I couldn’t give them up!” she cried. “I have few enough chances to take off the mask.”

I said, “If this invisible barrier works—if Abdo, Lars, Dame Okra, and I can thread our minds—then I want to search for the other half-dragons.” Glisselda had proposed such a journey at midwinter, when she’d first learned there were others, but nothing had come of it.

Glisselda blushed furiously. “I’ve been reluctant to lose my music teacher.”

I glanced at Orma’s letter and knew just how she felt.

“Still,” she continued stoutly, “I’ll bear it if I must, for Goredd’s sake.”

I met Kiggs’s eyes over the top of Glisselda’s curly head. He nodded slightly at me and said, “I believe we all feel the same way, Selda. Our duties come first.”

Glisselda laughed lightly and kissed his cheek. Then she kissed mine.

I left shortly thereafter, retrieving Orma’s letter and bidding the cousins good night—or good morning. The sun was just rising. My mind was all abuzz; I might soon go in search of my people, and that eagerness had begun to triumph over every other feeling. Beside the door the page boy dozed, oblivious to all.