The House of the Four Winds: Book One of One Dozen Daughters

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9780765335654: The House of the Four Winds: Book One of One Dozen Daughters

Mercedes Lackey is the New York Times bestselling author of the Valdemar series and romantic fantasies like Beauty and the Werewolf and The Fairy Godmother. James Mallory and Lackey have collaborated on six novels. Now these New York Times and USA Today bestselling collaborators bring romance to the fore with The House of the Four Winds.

The rulers of tiny, impoverished Swansgaard have twelve daughters and one son. While the prince's future is assured, his twelve sisters must find their own fortunes.

Disguising herself as Clarence, a sailor, Princess Clarice intends to work her way to the New World. When the crew rebels, Clarice/Clarence, an expert with rapier and dagger, sides with the handsome navigator, Dominick, and kills the cruel captain.

Dominick leads the now-outlawed crew in search of treasure in the secret pirate haven known as The House of Four Winds. They encounter the sorceress Shamal, who claims Dominick for her own--but Clarice has fallen hard for Dominick and won't give him up without a fight.

Full of swashbuckling adventure, buoyant magic, and irrepressible charm, The House of the Four Winds is a lighthearted fantasy romp by a pair of bestselling writers.

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About the Author:

MERCEDES LACKEY is a multiple New York Times bestselling author for her Valdemar novels. JAMES MALLORY and Lackey have collaborated on several novels, including the USA Today bestseller, To Light a Candle and the New York Times bestsellers When Darkness Falls and The Phoenix Transformed. Lackey lives in Claremore, OK. Mallory lives in Baltimore, MD.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

FAREWELL TO SWANSGAARDE

 

THE EARLY-MORNING sunlight shone through the French doors that led out to the balcony of Princess Clarice’s tower bedroom. From the balcony was the sweeping vista of the Borogny Mountains, spreading their pristine robes for admiration, their high peaks crowned in clouds and their slopes robed in snow year-round. They were the first thing Princess Clarice saw each morning as the sun rose over the Swanscrown.

I shall miss this. The thought came before Clarice quite realized she was awake.

There was no point now in trying to convince herself she was asleep. Throwing back the covers, she shrugged into her wrapper, tucked her feet into her slippers, and padded over to the French doors. Taking a deep anticipatory breath, she flung them open and stepped out onto the balcony. As always, the dawn chill made her catch her breath, but she had done this every morning for as long as she could remember. Today, she would do it for the last time. In the distance, she could hear the faint music of the bells at the university calling the students to their morning lectures. Any other day, Clarice would have watched the valley awaken until she was chilled clear through. But today was a day unlike any other in all her previous eighteen years, and she was in a hurry to meet it.

*   *   *

Breakfast was normally a noisy family affair, but today Clarice saw only three places set at the long oak table. Duke Rupert was seated in his usual place at the head of the table, but the Duchess was seated to his right, instead of at the far end, and a place was set for Clarice on his left.

“Come in, darling,” Yetive said encouragingly.

“Where is everyone?” Clarice asked curiously, coming in and taking her seat.

“The ballroom,” her father answered, taking a slice of toast from the toast rack and buttering it. “Today is your birthday, after all. Had you forgotten?”

“Of course not!” Family tradition was that the birthday child had breakfast alone with Mama and Papa. Even Dantan had had his special day, though then, on his first birthday, he had been much too young to appreciate it.

And Clarice would not be here for his next one.

“I was just so…” She stopped. She couldn’t say exactly how she felt about leaving Swansgaarde. Preoccupied, absolutely. Nervous? Perhaps. Curious? Daring?

“Excited?” Mama asked.

Clarice smiled gratefully. “Yes. That. I can’t wait to begin, but at the same time, it feels almost disloyal to be so happy.”

“I shall call for the royal executioner at once,” Papa said, helping himself to eggs and sausage from the silver chafing dishes on the table. The Duke had a particularly dry sense of humor and generally cloaked his stronger feelings in it.

“Don’t you remember, dear?” Mama replied with a little smile. “Your great-grandfather pensioned the last one off and we haven’t had one since.”

“Drat,” Papa said mildly. “What’s the use of being a duke if you can’t order anyone beheaded?”

“Oh,” Mama said with a saucy wink, “you may order it as much as you like.…”

Clarice laughed, as she was meant to, at her parents’ gentle teasing. Duke Rupert was the mildest of men, preferring a day of fishing on the banks of the Traza to a day of making ducal pronouncements. Clarice knew that other countries were ruled very differently—why, far-off Lochrin, which she had studied in her geography class, had a parliament and a prime minister and hundreds of people who did nothing all day but help Queen Gloriana rule her vast empire.

“So,” Papa said. Breakfast was finished and the footmen had come in to clear away the dishes. “Today, Daughter, is your eighteenth birthday. Have you decided where you will go and what you will do?” He steepled his fingers. “Given your chosen ‘trade,’ I would become a very exclusive instructor, if I were you. I think you would excel at it.”

Clarice refrained from making a face. Granted, she probably would make a good instructor—and eventually that might be what she would do. But not before she had a chance to see more of the world!

“I shall seek adventure, of course,” Clarice said with a laugh. “Think how disappointed Damaris would be if I said anything else! But the best adventures come when one is not looking for them, so I have it in mind to see something of the world. Besides, the best instructors all have continentwide reputations, and I’m not going to get enough pupils to earn my living without one. I believe even traveling all the way to Lochrin itself will be far less costly than staying quietly in Swansgaarde.” And perhaps adventure will find me. “It isn’t as if I can’t do without servants, after all.”

This, too, was true. From the time they were fourteen, the princesses were required to spend a month of each year waiting on their sisters, and at sixteen, to spend three months living in the Royal Hunting Lodge without a single servant. It was one thing to be able to shoot a goose—any noble worth his salt could do that. But could he gut and skin it, then cook and serve it?

Duke Rupert’s daughters could. And polish a pair of boots, make up a bed, or muck out a stable. It was excellent training, Duke Rupert always said, in case one had to go incognito among someone else’s servants—or flee into the wilderness.

Clarice was unsurprised to see her mother nod. “An excellent choice,” Yetive said.

“I thought that was what you would decide,” the Duke added approvingly—but then, the Duke so trusted his wife’s judgment that he was inclined to approve anything she endorsed. “I have made arrangements with my banker in Heimlichstadt for the necessary funds, so remember to see him before you go.” While each of them would be expected to earn her own living, each princess would leave Swansgaarde with everything she needed to take up her chosen trade, and enough money to support her for perhaps a year. While it might seem like a great deal of outlay—especially since the entire purpose of this plan was to not bankrupt Swansgaarde—even the whole cost of sending twelve princesses forth to seek their fortunes was less than the cost of twelve royal dowries and twelve royal weddings.

The Duke got to his feet; Clarice and the Duchess stood as well. “And I wish you luck, love, and adventure, my darling.” He hugged her tightly.

“Adventure most of all,” her mother said, putting her arms around Clarice in turn. “And so you don’t forget us on all your adventures…” The Duchess cocked an eyebrow at her husband.

The Duke reached into his pocket and drew out a small blue box. “What’s a birthday without presents?”

Clarice opened the box. Inside, on a bed of royal-blue velvet, lay a golden brooch, perhaps as long as her thumb. Upon it, in silver and blue enamel over gold, were the swans and towers of Swansgaarde. As a proper princess, Clarice had had lessons on heraldry, and she could blazon the device as easily as the chief herald: argent and azure, shield quartered per chevron; center base, a swan swimming, argent; to dexter chief, a tower, argent; to dexter sinister, a mountain peak, argent. The arms were bordered by a double ring of diamonds alternating with pearls, and the back of the brooch was as ornate as the front, its smooth gold etched with an intricate drawing of Castle Swansgaarde. Engraved beneath was the family motto: Je me promène là où je vais. The first Prince of Swansgaarde had come from Wauloisene, and Waulois was still the official court language. “I wander where I will.” Perhaps it is a good omen.

“Of course it is bespelled,” Mama said. “So long as you have it, you will always be able to find your way back to Swansgaarde.”

“I shall wear it always—and think of all of you,” Clarice said proudly.

*   *   *

The Temese docks were a noisy, bustling place, even at dawn. Dockers and wharf rats were everywhere, carrying loads almost larger than they were. The air was noisy with whistles and shouts, and ripe with smells—some exotic, some merely foul. At this hour, mist still skirled over the surface of the river, like steam in a cook pot, adding a dreamlike aspect that would disappear as soon as the sun rose higher.

Clarice had been surprised to discover the capital of the Lochrin-Albion Empire was not a coastal city, and that Lochrin was many miles inland. The fountainhead of its vast maritime empire was the river Temese, which flowed through the city itself—or perhaps it was more accurate to say that the sprawling city bordered the Temese. It was the largest city she had yet seen in the half year since she’d left home.

Clarice had been in Albion for a sennight. In that time she had entirely ignored the shops and playhouses, and even the parks and menageries. The docks held her interest, with their bustle of ships coming up the river or setting off down it. She always came to watch the docks at dawn because ships sailed on the ebbing—morning—tide, when the flow of the Temese ran unimpeded toward the sea. Now, one of the ships had cast off, drifting leisurely into midchannel with the aid of a oar-driven towboat. As Clarice watched, someone in the towboat tossed the towrope loose. As the sturdy craft backed nimbly out of the way, the trailing rope was drawn up to the deck of the ship and its sailors hoisted narrow, triangular sails, which quickly caught the morning wind. The ship began moving with slow grandeur down the river.

I want to go wherever she is going, Clarice decided firmly. Somewhere far from any of the lands I know.

Lochrin-Albion was a wealthy and far-flung empire. And the cornerstone of that power was thaumaturgy.

Magery was said to have come from Ammon, the son of King Solomon, who had first learned, and then taught, the ways of magic to his people. But when the Age of Exploration dawned, the Cisleithanian and Albionnaise and Wauloisene and Rossiyskayan ships had discovered vast kingdoms that had never heard of King Ammon—Khemetia and Khitai and the lands of Ifrane. From theurgy, magery had become thaumaturgy, a science just like geomancy or astromancy. It had taken centuries and been neither simple nor bloodless—as Clarice knew full well from her lessons in both history and thaumaturgy. But the realization that magic was but one of the natural sciences and not a mysterious indication of divine favor—as Dr. Albertus Karlavaegen was so fond of saying—had laid the foundation of the modern world in which she lived. Thaumaturgy guarded the great empires, armored their soldiers, empowered their physicians, and made travel across the great oceans a commonplace thing.

Thaumaturgical power was the product both of innate gift and long training. It was no more mysterious than skill with a blade, which was also the product of both gift and training, but its products were primarily the purview of the Crown (of whatever land) and the wealthy. Thaumaturgy could heal a wound, cure disease, suspend decay—so that bread or flowers would remain fresh and pristine for months or even decades—and do many other wonderful and miraculous things.

It didn’t take any particular magical ability to see magic, Clarice knew, because she certainly didn’t have any aptitude for spellcraft. It was more a case of learning to see. Dr. Karlavaegen had taught languages and magic to the royal family of Swansgaarde for the past three dukes, and he had told his young charges that most people saw what they expected to see. He intended, so he said, to teach them to see what was really there instead.

Now Clarice watched closely as a lady in satin and velvet stepped from her carriage to ascend the gangplank of one of the merchant ships. The lady’s trunks were being hoisted onto the deck in a net, and the lady was accompanied by a small parade of servants: maid, footman, bodyguard. The lady wore the highest of high fashion, with voluminous ground-sweeping skirts over an enormous hoop petticoat—but even through the dockside was far from clean, her skirts remained pristine. And no wonder: the yards of lilac silk had been bespelled—probably on the loom—to repel dirt and stains. It was easy to tell if you knew what you were looking for: the use of thaumaturgy gave its objects a kind of hyperreality, so that even at several yards’ distance, Clarice could make out every pleat and seam of the garment, and every separate hair of the fur-lined capelet the lady wore over it. Even the rings on her fingers were sharp and distinct, probably bespelled with a Finding Charm so that if they were misplaced—or stolen—they could easily be traced. Such wonders came at a high price, when they could be purchased at all on the open market. Clearly the lady in lilac was a wealthy woman indeed. Wealthy—or well connected.

The lady and her entourage vanished in the direction of the stern of the ship—only the best passenger accommodation would do, clearly—and Clarice’s attention was claimed by movement farther along the dock. Another ship was departing. She stepped forward, to the very edge of the quay, hoping to watch the departing vessel as it began its journey.

“Hi! You! Laddie!” An urgent shout caused Clarice to spring backward just in time to escape being flattened by a net full of crates being swung to shore. The man who had shouted at her glared. Then his eyes flicked to the sword belted at her hip and he contented himself with warning her to watch her head.

He would have been demanding to know where my brother or my husband was had I been wearing a dress, Clarice thought smugly to herself.

No one would have recognized the slender, blond-haired, young man standing on the docks as Princess Clarice of Swansgaarde. She had a man’s height, and all that had been needed to transform the princess into Mr. Clarence Swann was an artfully cut suit of clothes and a specially made corset that flattened her breasts. The current fashion was for a full-skirted coat that fell to midthigh, and the waistcoat beneath it—worn buttoned up nearly to the throat—was almost as long. Her soft leather riding boots, flaring out at the knee, with their tidy spurs buckled across the instep, and wide-brimmed felt hat—fashionably turned up at three sides, and decorated with a stylish plume—completed her transformation from princess to adventurer. She had played the part of a boy in many of the family’s amateur theatricals, and if Mr. Swann seemed to be nothing more than a beardless youth, the rapier he wore at his hip—and his obvious ability to use it—discouraged his fellow travelers from attempting to take advantage of him, a matter she’d proved to her satisfaction many times in the past six months.

Clarice had never regretted her decision to masquerade as a young man, for in all the tales she’d read, it seemed that the princes got to have the adventures while the princesses had to languish in a high tower or a woodland cottage and wait for something exciting to happen. As she’d made her way westward, no one had ever for a moment suspected she was other than what she presented herself as: a young man of good family and modest fortune out to see the world. Though she’d presented herself on several occasions as perfectly ready to duel, her confident assumption of victory had meant there was no opportunity to practice her skills.

Having reached this bustling island at the edge of Eurus, Clarice had been trying to resign herself to retracing her steps. But in the days she had spent watching the passengers board the ships and the ships set sail, Clarice realized she had made up her mind: excitement and adventure were to be found in the New World, and that was where she would seek...

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