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From a gifted new voice in fantasy fiction comes the thrilling saga of a war-ravaged land and the remarkable young woman destined to restore it...
Fires of the Faithful
For sixteen-year-old Eliana, life at her conservatory of music is a pleasant interlude between youth and adulthood, with the hope of a prestigious Imperial Court appointment at the end. But beyond the conservatory walls is a land blighted by war and inexplicable famine and dominated by a fearsome religious order known as the Fedeli, who are systematically stamping out all traces of the land’s old beliefs. Soon not even the conservatory walls can hold out reality. When one classmate is brutally killed by the Fedeli for clinging to the forbidden ways and another is kidnapped by the Circle--the mysterious and powerful mages who rule the land--Eliana can take no more. Especially not after she learns one of the Circle’s most closely guarded secrets.
Now, determined to escape the Circle’s power, burning with rage at the Fedeli, and drawn herself to the beliefs of the Old Way, Eliana embarks on a treacherous journey to spread the truth. And what she finds shakes her to her core: a past destroyed, a future in doubt, and a desperate people in need of a leader--no matter how young or inexperienced....
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Naomi Kritzer grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, a small lunar colony populated mostly by PhDs. She moved to Minnesota to attend college. After graduating with a BA in religion, she became a technical writer. Kritzer now lives in Minneapolis with her family. Fires of the Faithful was her first novel, followed shortly thereafter by Turning the Storm, Freedom's Gate, and Freedom's Apprentice.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Mira arrived at the Verdiano Rural Conservatory for the Study of Music the same week that the song did. In retrospect, if either Mira or the song had appeared alone, I might have understood things sooner. But I was distracted from the song by my new roommate, and dis- tracted from Mira by the puzzle of the song, and I didn’t learn the truth about either one until it was too late to do anything but try to contain the damage.
When I heard that the conservatory had taken on a new student, a sixteen-year-old girl, I knew she’d be placed with me. My old roommate, Lia, had left Verdia with her family months ago, tired of famine and war. I’d gotten rather accustomed to the extra space, and the Dean would be pleased to remind me that it wasn’t really mine. Sure enough, I returned after ensemble practice to find the stranger in my room, her meager possessions strewn over the bed I’d reluctantly cleared for her. She had her back to me, and as I paused in the doorway before saying hello, I realized that she was trying to light a candle with flint and steel by striking them over the wick.
“You’re never going to get it lit that way,” I said. I startled her more than I meant to; the flint and steel skittered across the stone floor and she whirled around to face me. I held out my hands, one empty, the other holding my violin case. “I assume you’re my new roommate,” I said. “My name is Eliana.”
Her eyes flicked past my shoulder, just for an instant, looking to see if there was anyone behind me. Then she looked me over, her gray eyes taking in my short hair, square jaw, shapeless gray robe. I’m very tall for a woman, almost as tall as most men. I’d heard that the boys called me stuck-up; I knew that many people at the conservatory found me a little intimidating. As my new roommate sized me up, I had the eerie sense that she . . . approved.
“My name is Mira,” she said, and gave me brief flash of a smile. “I’m pleased to meet you.” She ducked to pick up the flint and steel.
I hung up my cloak and put away my violin. There was a violin case on Mira’s bed as well, tightly buckled and dusty from the road. “You play violin?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
I hoped she was decent with her instrument; sharing a room at a conservatory with a bad musician could be almost unbearable.
Having retrieved the flint and steel, Mira held them out to me. “Please, would you show me how to use these?”
I took the flint and steel out of her hands and set them on her bed, then scraped some lint off my robes. “You need something that lights easily to catch the spark. These robes they make us wear must be good for something, right?” I glanced up and she smiled cooperatively. I put the lint in the cupped edge of the candle holder and lit it with a spark from the flint and steel, then lit the candle from the burning lint. “There you go.”
“Thank you,” Mira said, and set the candle in the windowsill. It would blow out in a minute or two. She really had no idea how to deal with a candle.
I studied Mira in the flickering light. She had some of the palest skin I’d ever seen, she couldn’t have come here from a farm. But she was well fed, given the famine, she couldn’t have come from any town in Verdia. She was clearly my age, too old to be just starting at a conservatory, but her hair was freshly cut, she couldn’t have transferred from a conservatory in another province. But it was the candle that really had me puzzled.
I was always reasonably adept at magery, probably because playing the violin had honed my ability to concentrate. I couldn’t draw magefire down from the sky to melt stone, of course, I wasn’t Circle material, but I could light a hearth fire from damp wood with a moment’s effort, which impressed most people well enough. Still, even a child could kindle witchlight to light a dim room, or, if she didn’t want the distraction of keeping the witchlight glowing, she could light a candle with her cupped hand. Even my half-wit friend Giula could do that much. There were people who couldn’t use magery, but very few, and they would have already known how to light a candle the hard way. The only real reason I could think of that Mira might avoid using magery would be if she were trying to conceive a child. Using magic decreased fertility; that’s why my mother had taught me how to use flint and steel, even though childbearing was the farthest thing from my mind at the conservatory. I wondered why Mira’s mother hadn’t taught her the same thing; maybe Mira’s mother was one of those women who had children whether she used magery or not.
The wind blew out the candle and I watched as Mira fumbled for a moment before she managed to get it lit again. I set it down on the table beside her bed.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Cuore,” Mira said. Then she hesitated for a moment and added, “Most recently.”
“Cuore?” Whatever answer I’d imagined, that wasn’t it. I tried to hide my surprise. “How are things up there? They say the famine is affecting everyone . . .”
“Not Cuore.” A sardonic smile flashed across Mira’s face. “The home of the Circle, the Fedeli, and the Emperor will always stay well supplied.” She turned away to hang up her cloak on a peg by the foot of her bed. “How are things here?”
“Not too bad, not at the conservatory. This part of Verdia didn’t see any fighting during the war; my friend Bella and I used to go up to the top of the bell tower to look at the countryside beyond Bascio, and we never saw so much as smoke, let alone magefire. Food was a little short during the war, but at least it grows here now. The famine areas are closer to the Vesuviano border, where the fighting was, we don’t waste much, but we don’t go hungry, either.”
Mira picked up her violin and moved it to her desk. “Is it true what I’ve heard?” she asked, her back to me. “About the seeds?”
“That the seeds die in the ground without even sprouting?” I sat down on my own bed, staring at Mira’s back. “Yes. At least in the worst areas.”
“Where are you from?” Mira asked.
“Doratura,” I said. “It’s west of here, but nowhere near the famine areas. Don’t worry, my family is fine.”
“That’s good,” Mira said, turning toward me again and sitting down on her stool.
“There are others here who aren’t as fortunate,” I said. “My friend Bella, her family’s farm isn’t in the truly devastated area, but everything they plant grows stunted, and withers in a strong sun.”
Mira was silent, rubbing the edge of one sleeve with her fingers.
“If you are from Cuore â€˜most recently,’ where were you from originally?” I asked.
“Tafano,” Mira said. “It’s a very small village south and west of here. I wouldn’t expect you to have heard of it.”
I blinked. “How did you end up in Cuore? And what are you doing back in Verdia?”
“I thought I had a calling.” Mira studied her hands. “My order was pretty obscure, and I had to go to Cuore to go to seminary.”
“You’re a priestess?” I said.
“No,” she said. “I was only ever an initiate. I didn’t get as far as the ordination, and now, obviously, I’m never going to.” She looked up to give me a rueful smile. “I decided I wanted to pursue my first love, music. I came here because, well, I was born in Verdia. I felt like I belonged here.”
I shook my head. Starting at a conservatory so late, she couldn’t possibly have been sponsored by the Circle with a scholarship, she had to be a paying student. I was curious to know where she’d gotten the money, but it would have been too rude to ask. I wondered if she’d stolen it from her order; the Dean was unlikely to inquire too carefully regarding the source of any silver crossing his desk.
“Eliana!” There was a sharp rap at my door. “Are you in there?”
“Come in,” I called.
Giula flung the door open. “You were going to come meet me, weren’t you? To practice? Remember?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I hadn’t forgotten; I’d just decided that Giula could wait. “Giula, this is my new roommate, Mira. Mira, this is Giula, one of the other violinists.”
“Oh!” Giula’s indignation melted; a newcomer was certainly excuse enough to be late to a practice session. “How nice to meet you.” She smiled at Mira, showing her dimples. “Where are you from?”
“Tafano,” Mira said.
“Tafano!” Giula actually seemed to recognize the name of the village. “Where ever did you get lovely pale skin like that in Tafano?”
“Well, most recently I lived in Cuore,” Mira said.
Giula’s eyes bugged out.
I grabbed Giula’s arm. “Did you want to practice, or not?” I asked. Giula shot me a venomous glare, but let me drag her off. “It’s not like she’s going anywhere,” I said once the door was closed. “You can interrogate her later.”
Giula was cheerful again by the time we’d reached the practice hall. “So that’s your new roommate! Not quite so bad as you made it sound at lunch, is it?”
“I still say there are enough empty rooms that I shouldn’t have to have a roommate if I don’t want one,” I said. Giula shrugged unsympathetically. In the practice room, Giula and I set our music on the stand. We would play a duet in the autumn recital the following week; I was a better violinist than Giula, but we shared a teacher, Domenico, and he had instructed us to play together. She would take the easier part.
“Did she tell you why she came here from Cuore?” Giula asked, still incredulous.
“She was in Cuore preparing for ordination,” I said.
“She was going to be a priestess? But why would she ever come back here?”
“You can ask her later, can’t you?” I flipped open the music to the duet. “Are we going to practice or not?”
Giula tightened her bow and started tuning her violin, still talking. “And why would she be starting at this time of year? Auditions were in the spring. Though she couldn’t have auditioned anyway, she’s our age, or maybe even older. She has to be a paying student. But why would you pay to come here?”
I rolled my eyes and tucked my violin under my chin.
“Maybe her family lives near here,” Giula said.
“Maybe.” Students who left the conservatory, even for a day, lost their scholarships and could not return. We assumed it was to discourage all but the most dedicated from pursuing a life as a musician. But our families could come and visit us, which was a possibility if they lived close by. Lia’s family had visited once. “We need to work on this duet,” I said. At least Giula needed to work on it, because if she didn’t sound at least decent at the recital, nobody would notice my playing at all.
Giula reluctantly tucked her violin under her chin. “Why do you suppose she’s so pale?”
“Presumably she spent most of her time indoors at her seminary,” I said. Giula started to lower her violin again, and I tapped the music pointedly. “Let’s take it from the top.”
I counted out a beat and started to play. Giula picked up her part in the third measure, and stumbled almost immediately.
“Again,” I said. “Start here.”
“Wait,” Giula said.
For a moment, I thought Giula was going to start gossiping again, but her head was tilted to the side, and after a beat I realized that she was listening to the musician in the next practice room. The musician was Celia, one of the sopranos; I recognized her voice. But she wasn’t practicing anything I’d heard before, and since Celia was at least nominally a friend of mine, I was familiar with most of her repertoire.
I’ve come to wed your father but I want to make you mine.
If you’ll take me as your mother, you will find my faults are few.
I’ve brought a gift of honey, bright as sun and sweet as wine.
And as pure as all the love I hold inside my heart for you.
Celia paused, and Giula looked up at me, her eyes wide. “Everyone’s talking about this song. I hadn’t heard it sung yet.”
Celia began to sing the verses. Six children tasted the honey and embraced their stepmother. Then the seventh son rejected the honey, and was murdered by his own father for his insolence. Then one by one the other six children died, poisoned by the lethal gift. In the end, the father wept over the graves of his children, but was at the mercy of his new wife and his two stepchildren. In the final verse, the bones of the dead children cried out for vengeance; apparently this was left up to the listener.
There was a knock on the door of our practice room. I opened the door; it was Bella, her trumpet in her hand. “Did you hear Celia?” she asked.
I sighed. “I gather we aren’t the only students here who aren’t rehearsing.”
Bella waved her hand, not the one with the trumpet, dismissively. “I think I saw the person who brought the song.”
“Really?” Giula set her violin down altogether. I resigned myself to the inevitable and put mine down as well.
Bella sat down on one of the practice stools, and Giula and I did as well. “I was watching down the hill for the messenger wagon, and I saw someone ride into town. I don’t know horses that well, but it looked like a fast riding horse, not the sort of horse you’d hitch to a plow. The rider was wearing a cloak pulled over his face, “ Bella gestured with the floppy sleeve of her robe.
“It’s been a chilly autumn,” I said. “Of course he wanted to protect his face.”
Bella rolled her eyes. “I saw him dismount by the cottage where your teacher lives, Domenico. He was inside for less than an hour, and then he rode away.”
“Did you see his face?” Giula asked.
“It would have been too far even if his face hadn’t been covered,” Bella said. “You should try asking Domenico about it.” She shot a glance directly at me. Domenico would never gossip to Giula, not when she was so busy flirting with him, but he might talk to me. I nodded a little. It was worth a try.
“What do you think the song’s about?” Giula asked.
“It’s probably some stupid noble’s feud,” Bella said. “Some branch of the family got killed by treachery and now they want the whole world to help them get revenge.”
“Wouldn’t it help if the offending family were named?” I asked.
“People might not spread the song if they knew it was some petty feud,” Bella said.
“They would if it was a good enough tune.”
“So what’s your theory?” Bella asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think the poisoned honey refers to literal honey, though. I think it’s some sort of disguised danger, but it’s disguised awfully well. I don’t have any idea what it’s talking about.”
Giula didn’t even venture a guess. “I wish it had been the messenger service, instead of a man with a mysterious song,” she said.
“Honestly, so do I.” For a moment, Bella’s face looked worn. “The news from my family last time wasn’t good.” The news next time was unlikely to be better, but anything was preferable to uncertainty. And perhaps the harvest would be better than expected, if only by a little.
The supper bell rang, and we quickly packed up our instruments to walk over to the girls’ meal hall. I had expected Mira to join us for supper, but she wasn’t there. Celia was, though, repeating the words of the honey song to those who hadn’t heard them yet. Giorgi, the cook’s assistant, brought out heavy tureens of stew made from the vegetables we grew in the conservatory garden, and jugs of tea and wine.
Celia flicked back a curl that had fallen into her face and took a sip of her tea. Celia didn’t like tying her hair back, probably because the curls framed her heart-shaped face so charmingly. Not that any of us were supposed to be trying to attract the attention of the boys, but Celia liked any attention she could get. “It’s a lovely song,” she said, “but I think it’s just about ...
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