G.R. Macallister’s latest, Arca, returns to the fantasy world of the author’s Five Queendoms. It’s a sequel to Scorpica, which came out earlier this year, and io9 has an exclusive first look today.
Here’s a description of the book:
Return to the Five Queendoms in the sequel to Scorpica, a sweeping epic fantasy that Rebecca Roanhorse called “ambitious and engaging,” in which a centuries-long peace is shattered in a matriarchal society when a decade passes without a single girl being born.
The Drought of Girls has ended, but the rift it broke open between the Queendoms is not so easily healed. Political tensions roil the senate of Paxim, where Queen Heliane vows to make her son Paulus the nation’s first ruling King or die trying. Scorpican troops amass on the border of Arca, ready to attack. And within Arca itself, its young, unready queen finds her court a nest of vipers and her dreams besieged by a mysterious figure with unknown intentions.
As iron and magic clash on the battlefield and powerful women scheme behind the scenes, danger and violence abound. Can anyone stop chaos from ripping the Queendoms apart?
The cover is below, followed by an exclusive first chapter.
There was nothing Stellari of Calladocia could not imagine, and once she had imagined something, achieving it was just a matter of time.
Politically, this nimble imagination was her greatest gift. From a single choice, Stellari could visualize dozens, even hundreds, of possible consequences, all of which she held arrayed in her mind’s eye like the stars. Then she’d choose. If she wanted a law passed, she’d quickly puzzle out who was most likely to support it, then unspool a complex chain of favors wherein she’d persuade three or four fellow senators, no more than five, who would go on to persuade all the rest for her. She never planted a seed without envisioning the eventual tree.
Her imagination hadn’t served her nearly as well outside the Senate, she supposed. Potential friends quickly tired of hearing her test out unending scenarios, breathlessly recount her victories, torture herself over the rare losses. Lovers bristled at being treated like tally marks. But for Stellari, the difference between the personal and the political grew more faint until it vanished entirely. Let strangers stay strangers, let lovers turn their backs and go. She was extremely happy with what her imagination had done for her, all told.
She was, after all, the unlikeliest of senators. First off, she was not a landholder, or at least she hadn’t been. She’d come up through the Assembly. All the best families of Paxim were represented in the Senate, their wisest and strongest women handing down laws from the comfort of the capital. It had been that way as long as there had been a Paxim. The Assembly was a newer experiment, two centuries old, including members of the poorer classes. Stellari had made a name for herself initially as the Assembly’s representative from Calladocia, a remote southwestern district, a position she’d gotten mostly because no one else wanted it.
But that put her on the pathway to power. When Calladocia’s most important landholders fell on hard times, their female line dying out and the senatorship under threat of dissolution, the head of their household summoned Assemblywoman Stellari. The matron Panagiota offered Stellari the chance to marry her last remaining son, lay claim to their family lands, and take on the vacant senatorship. Immediately seeing the ways in which it would put greater strength in her hands, Stellari had readily agreed. She’d met Evander of Calladocia twice and he’d seemed perfectly lovely, if a bit timid. At their second meeting, the marriage contracts were signed. Thereafter, Evander remained at home in their district, leaving Stellari free to live as she chose in the capital.
And Stellari’s climb had not stopped there. In only a few short years in the Senate, she’d already ascended to the role of magistrate. She was not yet even thirty years old. Gossips whispered that she seemed likely, if Decima stepped down, to rise to the position of consul. Once Stellari overheard a fellow senator call her consulship inevitable. She liked that whisper best of all.
But today Stellari was just another citizen of Paxim, kept in the dark. She hated the dark. All her cleverness and vision couldn’t get her the one bit of knowledge she most needed: Would the widowed queen’s coming child, almost certainly her last, be a girl or a boy? Stellari had already determined what action to take in either case, but the wait was interminable. She was better off than most, knowing what only a handful of high-ranking officials now knew: the queen’s labor had begun. The rest of the truth would come when the child did. The augury had been unclear, and besides, thought Stellari, practical women did not trust auguries. Predictions were half shams and wishful thinking. Only facts were facts.
This queen had birthed two girls and two boys over the years—a stillborn boy, then a living girl, then a set of girl-boy twins—but only the youngest girl remained. A single child was bleak ground on which to stake the country’s entire future, especially when misfortune seemed to covet the queen’s company. The stillborn boy had been a bad omen in the early years of Heliane’s rule. The arrival of a girl the next year was heralded as a sign of better things to come. As for the twins, the boy had always been sickly, quick to bruise at the slightest touch. The world proved too much for him before his first year was out. His sister Zofi was stronger, with no sign of her brother’s ills; in fact, she was a daredevil of a child, willful and mischievous. Then fever flooded Ursu, a whimsical pox that carried off the healthy young—including the queen’s eldest daughter—and left the elderly and lame untouched in their beds. Then, only months ago, one more misfortune struck: King Cyrus, too, sped to the Underlands, wasting with a disease not even the medical experts of the Bastion or the gifted healers of Arca could cure. Now only Queen Heliane and Queenling Zofi remained. A second heir would secure the nation’s confidence. This child would determine the future.
Stellari would have to wait for the signal smoke—black for a boy, white for a girl—just like everyone else. Being like everyone else was perhaps the thing Stellari hated most in the world.
She lifted her head from the pillow and stared out the high, square window toward the triple spire of the palace. The sky above the central spire remained stubbornly blue. No smoke. No way of knowing how long it would be before smoke appeared.
“Do I need to yank the child out of her wrinkled muoni with my own two hands? Time is wasting,” she complained to Rahul, who was sprawled out on the bedclothes next to her, his back still sweat-slicked and gleaming.
“You think this afternoon was a waste?” he answered.
She turned over with a lazy smile. He was inviting a compliment and she knew it. It was one of the ways in which they were so well-matched: both delighted equally in giving and receiving flattery. Looking at his long body stretching out, tawny and beautiful against the pale sheets, she was reminded of other ways in which their match was excellent.
“Time is never wasted with you,” she said. “And your dedication to distracting me was delightfully . . . thorough.”
“I aim to please.”
“You strike your aim.” She offered her neck and he leaned over to kiss it, running his lips up its curve until he reached her jawline, then flicking out his tongue to take a light lick of salt from her skin.
He relaxed back onto one elbow, letting her take a good look at the full length of his body, and she happily indulged. He was all sinew and grace, his jaw broad and square, his thick brows low over deep brown eyes. His face was too rough-hewn to be attractive, but there was a magnetism to him she found more compelling than beauty. Any Arcan man could look good through the use of their inborn enchantments. Rahul was different. His magical talents lay elsewhere. Not one Arcan man in a thousand had his particular manifestation of magic, which was why he was the first Arcan man she’d ever chosen to share pleasures with, and she strongly suspected he would be the last. Not, of course, that she would tell him so. Complacency was a risk she didn’t care to run. Rahul raised a hand, and she thought he might use it to reach for her, but he ran it over his own head instead, exposing for just a moment the white scar dividing his black hair at the scalp.
She was the one who reached out, then, for the only thing he wore: a glass amulet dangling from a cord around his neck, resting in the curls of his lightly furred chest. The double teardrop shape remained firm under her touch, of course. It had been forged by a fire magician to withstand any force, magical or otherwise. The level of the glittering sand within, a shadowy, changeable gold in color, was what she examined.
“Running low, then?”
“Likely all right for a few months. It depends on what’s needed.”
She hummed noncommittally and kept turning the hourglass shape in her fingers, watching the sand tilt and settle, enjoying the charm’s seamless, flawless curves. It felt warm against her fingertips. She never knew whether that was from the magic used to bind the artifact or from Rahul’s own steady, welcome heat.
He prompted her, “Will you need my assistance in the wake of the child’s birth, do you think?”
She tried to read his eyes, but as always, it was difficult. She enjoyed that about him. He wasn’t entirely trustworthy, but he was also dependent on her, and his need was something she could trust. No one in Ursu but Stellari knew that he was Arcan; he was safe here. While some in Arca would worship him as a hero if they recognized him, there were others who would attack him on sight. He would risk it, of course, for her.
“I don’t expect to,” she said. “I want to save you for when I need you.”
“Ahh,” he sighed, and this time when he raised his hand he did reach for her, letting his nimble fingers drift down, down, down. “I expect you’ll be needing me again very soon.”
She let out a little gasp of pleasure as he reached his goal. This, too, she trusted.
As she shifted her body to open to him, her gaze drifted toward the window. The sound in her throat turned from sigh to squeak. Every part of her went rigid.
He opened his mouth to ask why she’d stopped, but when he followed her gaze, he shut his mouth without speaking.
Out the open window, above the skyline of Ursu, rose a twisting billow of smoke.
Stellari’s throat closed. How long since they’d lit the torch to signal? How many minutes had she lost?
The smoke was black. Dark as jet. No mistaking it.
“The All-Mother’s muoni. A boy,” said Rahul, half to himself.
But Stellari was already on her feet, splashing herself quickly with water from the basin, her attention gone. Within moments she had stepped into her magistrate’s sky-blue robe, wrapping and belting as she went, heading for the door. At least she’d left her hair up in the braided crown that marked her as a senator, she told herself. The interwoven plaits were disarrayed from her afternoon in bed, no doubt missing most of their pins, but there wasn’t time to call a servant to replait them. She’d do the best she could in motion.
In ten minutes she would be in the halls of power, ready to whisper, I’m sure I must be the only one who has concerns into the right ears, settling her fingers on the arms of certain senators. For others she’d stroke the braid above her ear and peek meaningfully over her shoulder, then muse, Of course I’m loyal to the queen above all others, the monarchy is eternal, but if something were to happen to the queenling, who would follow after? It just doesn’t seem wise to allow a son to rule. Didn’t our foremothers, who laid down these laws, know best?
She was ready to sow discontent, but she needn’t start from seed alone. The freshly widowed queen had many allies in the Senate, it was true. But other legislators were more like Stellari, disdainful of the very idea of monarchy, no matter who wielded its reins. These women had their own goals and ends in mind, for the nation and for themselves. Discontent was already there, in sprouts and seedlings. All Stellari needed to do was help them grow.
What Stellari didn’t know—because no one in the Five Queendoms could yet know—was that the birth of this royal son would usher in a new age, one beset by questions. There were girls born the same day as Paulus, but the next day only boys, and the same was true the next day and the next day and for fourteen long years thereafter. Nor did Stellari know that three years into the Drought of Girls,
in the irrepressible Queenling Zofi’s seventh year, she’d ride out on a spirited sun-gold mare that had been a gift to Heliane from the High Xara of Sestia. The golden mare would return hours later, panting, with a damaged leg and an empty saddle. Heliane’s young son Paulus, her only remaining child, would become the queen’s sole heir, just as many had feared.
Stellari didn’t know that year after year after long year would pass with no girls’ names written in the scribes’ official record books, the lack of girls wreaking havoc throughout all five queendoms, weakening their careful peace until it crumbled. She didn’t know—how could she?—that the renegade sorcerer Sessadon would break Queen Heliane’s back at the Rites of the Bloody-Handed, leaving the mon- arch fragile and fading. Stellari could, it was true, imagine anything. But that day, as she rushed toward the Senate, smoothing down her crown of braids and rehearsing her whispers, she didn’t imagine the Drought of Girls.
Years later she would look back on the fourth day of the fourth month of the All-Mother’s Year 502, on that last moment before she stepped into the Senate, as the end of something. Of innocence, for many. Of peace, in a number of ways. It was both the key moment of Stellari’s rise and the seed of her eventual fall.
Ten minutes after she spotted the black smoke, Stellari took a deep breath and swept into the Senate, head high, mind already spinning in a hundred directions.
“May the All-Mother be praised!” she called brightly. “A son for our queen. And healthy, yes? How blessed she is. How blessed we are. A miracle.”
Excerpt from Arca by G. R. Macallister reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.
Arca is available for preorder now. It will release March 7, 2023. The first in the series, Scorpica, is available wherever books are sold.
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