Described as “Princess Mononoke meets Stardust,” Cassandra Rose Clarke’s fantasy novel The Beholden follows sisters who make a desperate deal with a goddess and must grapple with the consequences when their bill comes due. io9 just so happens to have the beautiful cover and an exciting excerpt to reveal today!
Two sisters, a pregnant aristocrat and a scholar-magician, owe a favor to a river goddess and find themselves at the center of a conflict between the immortal being Decay and the Emperor himself, as the goddess calls upon them to seek out this elusive god before the world crumbles around them all.
Orphaned as young women, Celestia and Izara De Malena find themselves land rich but destitute, with only a failing rainforest acreage, Celestia’s perfect manners, and Izara’s nascent magic to their aristocratic names. With the last of their money running out, they enact a dangerous plan—using a spell she doesn’t fully understand, Izara summons the Lady of the Seraphine and demands a favor: a husband for Celestia, one rich enough to enable the De Malena sisters to keep their land and restore their family name. But a favor from the river goddess always comes at a cost . . .
Now, five years later, as rumors of war and disease spread across the land, Celestia’s husband is called away on a secret mission for the Emperor and the Lady of the Seraphine returns to collect her due. Izara will be forced to leave the academy where she has been studying to become a mage; Celestia will be pulled from her now-flourishing farm while newly pregnant with her first child. Together, they must repay their debt to the Lady—embarking on a mission that will put them on a collision course with Celestia’s husband, the Emperor, and a god even more powerful than the Lady of the Seraphine.
Here’s the full, stunning cover by artist Kristina Carroll and designer Dana Li, followed by the excerpt.
The sisters walked ahead of him, side by side. Ico stared at the back of their heads. As long as he could see them—could see other humans—he could keep himself calm.
When he gave up piracy, he thought he’d given up this kind of adventure shit, too. But apparently not.
The plain one stopped. Ico nearly ran into her.
“What’s going—” he started, but the pretty one fixed an icy glare on him. Right. Keep quiet.
The plain one tilted her head, as if she were listening to music. The forest was dead quiet. Ico hated it.
“This way,” the plain one whispered, and then veered off to the left. Ico followed, realizing that the path split. Wonderful. He hoped Iomin’s Treasure was enough to send them on the right way.
They walked, their footsteps rackety in the silent forest. Those eerie floating lights trailed along around them. The lights had multiplied, and they generated enough of a glow that the trees and the girls cast long shadows along the path. Ico reached up and wiped some of the sweat from his brow. The night was balmy, almost cool, but he didn’t know what they were going to find at the end of this path and that had him nervous. He thought about Calix sitting in the riverboat. Probably smoking his pipe, polishing that machete he was so damned proud of. Counting the payment from these two insane sisters.
Ico tapped the pretty one on the shoulder. He didn’t want to see what would happen if he disturbed the other one. The pretty one glanced over at him. Her eyes gleamed from the floating lights.
“We there yet?” Ico asked.
“Don’t ask that,” said the plain one, still staring straight ahead. “I have to concentrate to find the Lady.”
“She has to concentrate,” hissed the pretty one before turning away from him. Ico sighed. Lights crowded among the tree branches. He wished he was back on the boat with Calix. Wished he was just ferrying passengers back and forth between Jaila-Seraphine and Kalen-Seraphine, like he’d been doing for the last month. Boring work but at least the forest there rustled with sound, at least you could hear the monkeys and the birds shrieking in the canopy. At least there you could find other people instead of these damned floating lights.
And then Ico heard something. A whisper, a babble—
No, he’d been a pirate long enough to know better. Water.
It wasn’t the sound of the Seraphine proper. That Ico could recognize immediately, and anyway the Seraphine didn’t babble. It roared. This sounded more like a stream, some little rivulet—or a tributary.
Cold sweat prickled over Ico’s skin. The Lady’s Tributary.
The plain one slowed her walk and held up a hand. Ico and her sister stopped. Ico craned his head around the two sisters, trying to see the path up ahead. But the lights were swarming, blinding him.
The babbling of the water grew louder, sounding more and more like voices.
The plain one gulped down deep breaths of air, her hands tugging nervously at her skirts. The pretty one stared at her in alarm.
Ico pulled out his knife.
The babbling voices rose up around them. Ico thought he could make out words. He thought he heard his name, his full name, his Akuranese name, Ishi Kui Ico. He thought he heard pieces of the language he’d spoken as a child, a language he hadn’t spoken for nearly ten years, ever since he left home. He could still understand it. My Akuran child, the voice said. Welcome to the Seraphine.
One of the sisters let out a long, sharp gasp. The pretty one stumbled backward, her hand over her mouth. She knocked into Ico. He immediately gripped her arms to steady her before stepping in front of her, knife out, ready to fight for her like a gentleman.
The knife landed with a powdery thud on the forest floor.
Standing in the path before him was a woman. Her skin was dark like river water, and water streamed out of her hair, running in shiny streams over her naked form. Ico looked at her for half a second and his eyes burned and he ripped his gaze away, down to the forest floor, where his vision crackled and sputtered.
“Welcome, daughters of the Seraphine,” the woman said in her babbling voices.
With a strangled cry, the pretty one fell to her knees, her head down, bowing like she’d come before the Emperor himself. The plain one stayed standing, her gaze lifted. How could she look at that woman head on? Ico took a step back, dropped down to one knee. Better to do what the pretty one did, he decided.
The woman laughed. It sounded like rain falling across the Seraphine.
“Those who can find me,” she said, “do not need to bow to me. Stand. Both of you.”
Ico’s cheeks burned. He was reminded of his mother, chastising him in a garden. He stood, shakily. Peered up at the woman again. The water flowed and flowed over the lines of her body. She was dazzling. Too dazzling for someone like him. He looked away.
“Why do you come here?” the woman said.
No answer. Ico peered over at the pretty one but she was gaping at the woman, her face slackened with awe, her eyes filled with stars. He glanced over at the plain one. She hadn’t moved once since the woman appeared, but now she stepped forward. Ico stared at her, trembling. She looked at the woman. Her hands gripped her skirts, the only disturbance in her calm exterior.
“Taja,” she said.
Silence. Ico risked a glance at the woman. But that divine face was unreadable.
“You know my name,” she said.
“Yes,” said the plain one.
“And how did you learn my name, Daughter of the Seraphine?”
The plain one hesitated. Ico could hear a rushing in his ears—he didn’t know if it was blood pumping into his brain or the forest finally reacting.
“I read it in a book,” the plain one said.
“A book?” More laughter. The floating lights bobbed around. “Quite a girl, to have access to a book which contains my name.”
The plain one dipped her head. “I suppose so, my Lady.”
“My Lady Taja,” the woman corrected. “If you know my name, you should speak it.”
Ico reached up and wiped at the sweat forming on his brow. The woman moved forward, her steps leaving damp imprints on the mulchy ground. Beside him, the pretty one tensed, but the plain one held her place, head lifted.
“You never answered my question,” said the woman. Taja. But Ico couldn’t bear to think of her in terms of her name. It felt like an abomination. “Why are you here? If you know my name, then I suppose you want something from me.”
For the first time, the plain one dropped her gaze. The woman smiled, an arc of light that spread out over the forest. Ico closed his eyes, fireworks dancing on his eyelids.
“We have a request, yes,” said the plain one.
Ico’s head throbbed. A request.
With that word, he understood immediately what this woman was. An Airiana. This was why they’d come all this way, why they’d hired Calix and his riverboat, why Ico was cowering in the forest. Because the two sisters wanted something.
“My sister has a request,” the plain one said.
Ico blinked. That, he hadn’t expected. He looked over at the pretty one, whose face had gone ashy in the unearthly light of the Lady’s Tributary.
“Is that so?” the woman asked.
Ico kept his gaze on the pretty one as she spoke. She didn’t look away either. He didn’t understand how they could look without their eyes burning. Maybe their eyes didn’t burn. Maybe they did, and the sisters just didn’t care.
“Yes, my Lady,” the pretty one said.
“And what is your request?”
The entire forest held its breath. Ico watched the pretty one’s mouth, her lips pale and dry. What could possibly be worth the journey, the magic, the risk of destruction?
“I would like a husband,” the pretty one said.
“A husband?” said the woman.
“Yes,” said the pretty one.
“Shall he be handsome and kind, with a gentle touch and a way with animals?”
The pretty one shook her head. She was dazed, Ico thought, delirious. And really, truly insane.
All this for a husband.
“No?” said the woman. A teasing lightness lifted the edges of her voice, still babbling like a brook. “You’d like him to be ugly and cruel?”
The pretty one closed her eyes. Her sister was staring at her now, her expression dark. She was fucking it up, Ico realized.
“No,” the pretty one said, and her eyes opened and she drew up her shoulders. “He should be kind, yes, but most important he should be wealthy. My family—” Here she gestured at her sister “—We have kept our titles and our land but the coins are running out. Our wealth is gone. The lands still produce as they should—” She took a deep breath and looked at her sister and her sister looked back and something flashed between them. Ico didn’t know what, and he didn’t care. He just wanted this terrifying farce to end. “But the lands are not enough. Not anymore.”
The pretty one glanced at her sister.
“I would like a husband who will treat me with respect, and tend to our lands as they should be tended to. A husband who will produce an heir. But he must have wealth of his own, if our family is to return to their former glory.”
Silence. Ico lifted his gaze just enough to peer at the Lady of the Seraphine. Through the burning of his gaze he thought she looked amused.
“A wealthy husband,” she said. “I suppose I can grant that request.”
Both of the sisters sagged with relief. The pretty one even smiled and grabbed her sister’s hand. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, Lady, I—”
“There will be a cost.”
The pretty one’s smile vanished. Ice crept through Ico’s limbs. A cost. A transaction with the Airiana was never a wise decision, even he knew that. He wished he could sneak away, run back through the forest and climb back aboard the riverboat. It wasn’t his transaction but he was going to get caught up in it. He could just feel it, an energy sparking on the air.
“A cost, Lady Taja?” said the plain one. Her eyes were wide—probably thought just knowing the name was enough. Silly girl. She should have known better.
“Of course. I can’t simply grant wishes.” The woman laughed. Ico wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to stand the sound of rain again. “I will grant Celestia De Malena a kind and wealthy husband, but you will be beholden to me for one favor.” The woman moved forward. Ico resisted the urge to pull away. She put her hand on the pretty one’s face. “You are beholden,” she said, and when she slipped her hand away she left a damp mark on the pretty one’s cheek, a smear of silvery light that faded away in the span of a heartbeat. Then the woman turned to the plain one, and she did the same thing, cupping her face in her hand. The plain one closed her eyes. “And you are beholden.”
Ico stepped back. His blood pumped. He could run, let Calex take on whatever debt he was about to owe. Run straight into the forest. He could survive in the wild; he’d done it before. Done it at sea, when the fresh water threatened to run dry.
The woman stepped toward him. He forced himself to look at her, his eyes watering. She smiled. Her hair hung in wet, silky ropes over her shoulders, water streaming over her body like a gown. Her eyes were as bright as suns.
“Please,” Ico sputtered, “I’m just their guide. I’m not part of this.”
“You are here,” the woman said.
Ancestors damn it all, thought Ico, just as her hand pressed against his cheek. Her touch was cold and wet like the Seraphine itself. Ico sucked in breath. He wanted to tear away but he couldn’t move. Her stony fingernails scraped against him: a warning, he thought, against protesting further.
“And you,” she said, “are beholden.”
Excerpt from The Beholden by Cassandra Rose Clarke reprinted by permission. Copyright Erewhon.
Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Beholden will be out in late 2021; you can pre-order a copy here.
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