And also…we may have snagged a first chapter excerpt to share!
AND an author interview!
We spoil you.
Get ready for The Cruelest Mercy. In this sequel to The Kinder Poison by Natalie Mae–which People magazine proclaimed a “delicious high-stakes adventure”–the magical kingdom of Orkena is on the brink of war, and the only person who can save it is Zahru, the girl they once doomed for death.
Scroll down to see the cover!
Cover/jacket designer: Theresa Evangelista
We had a few questions for Natalie Mae about what’s next…and she had answers! Read the interview below for a taste of what’s to come!
Q: We are SO excited for book 2! Can you tell us a bit about where we left off and what’s to come in case anyone has some catching up to do? (SPOILER ALERT for The Kinder Poison!)
Yes! So, the end of book 1 leaves us with Jet and Zahru overlooking the ruined town of Atera – Zahru’s hometown – after it’s been bombed by mercenaries, leaving the reader uncertain if Zahru’s family is all right, and how close their kingdom is to the threat of war. This is also after Zahru has just survived Kasta trying to sacrifice her in the Crossing to win the crown. He’s now presumed dead, and Jet is awarded the title of crown prince.
Book 2 picks up a month later, with war tensions brewing, though I’m happy to report that Zahru has since reconnected with her family, and is visiting the palace for the first time since the end of the race to attend Jet’s coronation. For about five entire minutes she begins to imagine a bright future there as one of Jet’s royal advisors, but alas, it’s not meant to be, as she soon finds out she not only possesses a gods’ mark that means she’s meant to rule Orkena, but discovers that Kasta is both alive and marked to rule beside her.
Q: What has been your absolute FAVORITE reader reaction so far?
This is really a toss-up between a reader who skipped ahead to read the epilogue before finishing the book, thinking the epilogue would be cute and happy–and all the screaming that happened afterward–and a reader who professed their undying love/book 2 expectations for one of the #teams so hard that I actually changed a story thread to match one of those expectations.
Q: Do you have a favorite scene for us to read in The Cruelest Mercy? (Hints?! Please??)
Ooh, there are a lot of scenes I love in the sequel, but my fave would have to be the moment things go very horribly wrong for Zahru at the end (oops). But as far as scenes I can hint at: there is a point at which Zahru asks one of the #teams to train her with a sword … with ulterior motives … with half the palace watching … and obviously nothing goes as planned.
Q: The magic system is SO unique–sound-bending, paper/writing magics, death magic. If you were in the world of The Kinder Poison and The Cruelest Mercy, what would your magic be?
I would really love to have the Speaker’s magic, which comes with a three-thousand-year lifespan and the ability to master other kinds of magic, because that way I could cheat and have more than one power. Also I could travel the world over centuries and see how cultures and landscapes changed, and I could read a LOT more books.
Q: Ok…we have to ask. Can #TeamKasta get their hopes up? Can #TeamJet?? Will our feelings be SPARED?!
I feel slightly guilty in saying that yes, both teams can go into this optimistic … but by the end, one of the teams is not going to be happy with me. Actually, neither team is going to be *that* happy with me, but one will be less unhappy than the other. Which is possibly also the answer to whether feelings will be spared? I’m sorry in advance?
Q: Are YOU Team Jet or Team Kasta? Would you say your fans have been leaning one way or another?
Iiiifffff I answered this, y’all would be able to go into book 2 happy and overconfident and I just can’t have that, SO. What I CAN say is that you’ll get the answer in this book, and you’ll probably know by the halfway mark. As to whether fans are leaning one way, please allow me to direct you to The Cruelest Mercy’s Goodreads page, where that question will answer itself.
Q: Did you always know how The Kinder Poison would end and set up for book 2? I think all of our jaws dropped when we got to the end and realized EXACTLY why the book was called The Kinder Poison! (SPOILER ALERT FOR THE KINDER POISON!)
Yes – and no! I usually have a pretty solid idea of how a book will end before I write, so I knew it would come down to Kasta and Zahru and the knife, but I’ll admit I didn’t actually know if Kasta would go through with the sacrifice until I got there and realized he still had this deep rooted fear that wouldn’t allow him not to, and of course after that happened, I knew Maia would make him pay for it. Which messed everything up, because this book was supposed to be a standalone, but after Maia cursed him, I realized the story was far from over. My editors also helped me bring the war thread to the forefront through edits, so the scene with Jet and Zahru overlooking the ruined town didn’t come until later. But that thread actually plays nicely with the vision I formed for book 2, and the theme of kindness as a weapon will continue to serve as a strong theme in the series.
Now, as promised, Chapter 1! Scroll down to start reading!
Like so many things in the palace, the map is deceptively beautiful.
Jet smooths the creamy parchment on the desk, its golden border glimmering as he weights the corners with stones, a piece of artwork with gilded details and jewel-studded houses that turn my stomach. This is not how my hometown looked the last time I saw it. Memories spin as I trace the little buildings, remembering the horror we returned to at the end of the Crossing, with smoke billowing from Mora’s home and my father’s stable abandoned on the hill. Here’s where I almost jumped into crocodile-infested waters. Here are the roofs of the cratered estates I ran past with Marcus, Melia, and Jet on my heels, until I found a soldier who knew where the evacuees had gone. Here’s the leveled bakery where I fell to my knees in relief, after learning my family had made it safely to the next town over.
All of these lines should be jagged, smeared.
“There were three bombs,” Jet says, the sunlight dappling his arm where it shines through the palace windows and into his room. “Sixty dead. Mostly in the market, and here by the estates. We think Wyrim targeted your hometown because it’s close enough to the major cities to make a statement, but too small to have thorough security. But you have my word that our best soldiers are on this. We haven’t been able to link the attack to Wyrim’s queen yet, but we will.” His fingers curl around the hilt of the sword at his hip. “They will pay for this.”
The edge in his voice pricks up my neck. I can’t remember, in the month we’ve spent apart, if it was there before. It sounds more like the other prince I knew, and that’s the most I’m going to think about it. That one haunts me enough without starting to see him in other people, too.
I’m not sure I want the answer to this next question, but I have to ask. “Are you going to declare war?”
His brow pinches, the question setting lines in his face. He looks so much older than he did on the day we said goodbye, like we’ve spent years apart, and I wonder what else he’s learned in this time that’s aged him. A fine blue tunic drapes his swordsman’s figure; a crown of silver leaves circles his close-cropped hair. At a distance he’s still the joking boy from the banquet who helped me with the food, ivory scabbard and all, but close up, I find myself searching for him. He’s nervous today, though I guess that’s probably natural since his coronation is in an hour.
I’ll admit I’ve been anxious for today, too. But also excited, like settling back into the saddle of a horse who once took my breath away on a glorious sunset ride and then threw me over a cliff. Such are my complex feelings for this luxurious place that turned me into a human sacrifice. But even though I’ve sworn off adventure for the rest of my life, the glass boat Jet sent to fetch me and my family this morning to be his honored guests was still a very welcome sight. It’s been a grueling month, between relocating to the nearby city of Kystlin with most of our neighbors while repairs start on Atera, and helping the Kystlin Whisperers alongside my father, as they now have another town’s worth of refugee pets and livestock to care for. Mora and Hen have found work too, and while I haven’t minded the long days, since they distract me from thinking about certain dead princes, we’ve all been looking forward to the day we can return home.
Back to our average, boring, wonderfully normal lives.
“War,” Jet repeats sadly, working his hand over his jaw. “No, I don’t think we’re there yet. I’m hopeful other tactics will discourage them. Embargos, reminders of our military strength over theirs, without taking lives. There are ways to make them sorry without killing people.”
This, at least, sounds more like the merciful boy I saw as a king, and I exhale. Jet has a plan, and I chide myself for even thinking he could sound like Kasta, because of course he’ll find a way to do this with the least amount of pain possible—he doesn’t want a war. He has no point to prove here beyond wanting to protect his people.
“Good,” I say.
“Now, in that same vein . . .” He rolls the map, and freezes. “Not in this same vein. I don’t know why I said that. This vein is terrible, this is terrorism, and what I want to ask you isn’t—do you want something to drink?”
I lean against the desk. “It’s really strange seeing you this nervous.”
“Nervous?” He laughs, as only someone half-panicking can. “This isn’t nervous. I’ve been in war rooms with Orkena’s deadliest soldiers telling me to start wars, and this does not make me nervous. I was raised to face giants.” He points at me like I’m about to disagree. “I am the Steel of Orkena—”
“Jet! What do you want to ask me?”
He closes his fist in front of his mouth, grimacing. “I . . . have a present for you? Follow me.”
I would point out this is yet another change in subject, but he’s already marched through the door and I have no choice but to follow. And I really do mean no choice, because being in Jet’s “room,” it turns out, is vastly more complicated than being in any other normal bedroom, as it comprises multiple suites and hallways and secret passages and false doors, and I’m concerned I will get very lost in here without him. And so I gladly leave behind the study’s maps and disconcerting thoughts of bombs, duck through the hidden door of a greenhouse fluttering with jewel-winged butterflies, cross a room that houses an actual pool, and step back into the original space we entered at the start of this tour—his main bedroom.
Again, I’m using that term loosely. No bedroom I’ve ever been in has been made entirely of silver-veined Icestone to ward off the day’s heat or had a ceiling several stories high, especially one with domed cities carved into it and backlit by enchanted fire. Likewise, it seems decidedly more ballroom-like to have seven windows the size of carriages along one wall, and a balcony that could host a large dinner party. That also overlooks the inner palace gardens. With spindly trees strung with light potions that look like stars.
“It’s not a ballroom,” Jet says loudly, because that’s what I told him it reminded me of the first time we walked through it. “I told you, think ‘warrior’s den.’ ‘Swordsman’s lair.’ There are sixty weapons on the wall over there.”
“I’m really sure I didn’t say anything out loud this time.”
“I can feel you judging it.”
I smirk. Now things are starting to feel easier, more like we were at the end of the Crossing, and I acknowledge that maybe things have only seemed stilted today because I’ve been nervous to see him, too. It’s been an entire moon. During which I’ve alternated between wondering what it would be like to actually kiss him, and worrying that I only started feeling for him because I was in a high-stress situation and thus found the idea of anyone who didn’t want to kill me attractive. I’m still not sure where I’ve landed on it. But remembering this ease, this safety, is a good start.
Jet leads me to a recessed section of the floor—which, I might add, would be perfect for dancing if the couches were cleared—and turns around with a grin. “Close your eyes.”
This is the kind of statement that years of friendship with Hen have taught me not to trust, but if Jet and I are going to move anything past awkward, trust is probably a critical thing to begin with. Also, I like presents, and I’m hoping it’s chocolate. I close my eyes.
Sandaled feet slap the floor. Something wooden slides over tile, and then there’s no sound at all, to the level that I can’t even hear the birds outside—Jet must be using his Soundbending to keep quiet. This piques my curiosity to unbearable levels, but just as I’m cracking an eye open, he moves in front of me.
“All right,” he says. “You can open them.”
The first thing I see is his warm eyes and that cheeky smile he wears so well—and then I take in the spotted, wriggling bundle of fur in his hands.
“Oh. My. Gods.” I reach for the feather-soft, purring animal. “You got me a kitten?”
“I believe she was item number four on your list of things I owe you for your near-death experience.” His smile quirks. “Do you like her?”
“Do I!” The kitten gazes up at me with bright green eyes, little pearlescent universes that send all other thoughts scattering from my mind. Thumb-sized spots cover her golden fur from head to tail. It should be stated that I’ve already been affected by the sheer size of everything in the palace, for calling her a “kitten” is like calling Jet’s suite a bedroom. She is young, but she’s also the size of a large house cat. “I love her! Is she a leopard?”
“Yes, and actually she’s a cub, but I thought you might forgive me the technicalities. She’ll be a loyal companion, and a fierce protector when she’s grown.”
“Thank you. Really.” I rub behind the cub’s ears, my heart swelling. “I’m going to call you Jade. Do you think you’re a Jade?”
She chirps and nuzzles me, my magic translating her sweet, childlike words in my head. Jade, she agrees. You, mine!
Jet claps a stack of crates. “Also from your list of demands: salves for your stable. Three crates to start, and if you need more, just write. The bottom crate is four weeks’ worth of chocolate, with my apologies for being late, since I believe you specified ‘weekly shipments.’ Rest assured the others will come on time.”
“Oh my gods, Jet—”
“Item five: a job for Hen.” He lifts a scroll from the crate. “It turns out the Royal Materialist is looking for help, and she’s been following your friend’s work for some time. This is an offer of employ to assist her here in the palace.”
I can’t make my mouth work. I gape at the kitten and the tower of crates, which is easily half a year’s worth of supplies, and back at Jet.
“Last but not least.” He holds up a silver key with a delicate white rune carved into its top. “After the coronation today, come with me to the stables. This will glow when you’re outside the stall of your new horse.”
“I have a horse?” I squeak, then yelp when sharp teeth bite into my arm.
Ouch, Jade thinks. Squeeze!
“Sorry.” I set her down, and she tears off across the room. “Wow. I just . . . I don’t even know what to say.”
“If you think of anything else, by all means, tell me. I wouldn’t be here at all without you.”
Heat builds behind my eyes, and I shake my head in bewilderment. “It’s definitely enough. But you do realize I was joking about that list?” I press a hand to my head, laughing. “I made it while we were soaked in blood, and had both nearly died . . . you didn’t have to come through on it.”
“I felt like I owed you.” He steps closer, and my pulse ticks up. “Also, I tend to buy presents when I miss someone, and I . . .” He fidgets with one of his silver bracelets, and I swear I feel a flash of nerves, as strongly as I would from Jade. “Well, that brings me to my next point. I was wondering if . . . that is, if you want to, and you definitely don’t have to, but I thought maybe you’d be interested, or maybe you’d want to go home, but in case you didn’t—”
My own nerves build, and I almost shake him. “Jet, what?”
He inhales and reaches into his tunic pocket, and panic jolts through me as I realize this is starting to look a lot like a courtship proposal. By which two people would make a relationship official, and very public. Except, as I reflected on just a moment ago, what Jet and I have is barely a ship. This is a friendship; this is two people who survived something horrible and thought it might be nice to kiss this person sometime and see what happens, except I know the royals like to move ridiculously fast—
He pulls his hand from his pocket. But where I dreaded there might be a couples’ necklace, instead a wide silver armband shines in his palm. “Will you be my advisor?”
“Oh, thank the gods,” I say, relieved that maybe we’re on the same page after all. Jet looks slightly concerned by my reaction, and I clear my throat. “I mean, yes. Maybe? What would I need to do exactly . . . and why is there jewelry?”
Jet snorts. “What did you think I was going to ask you?”
“Nothing! Absolutely nothing, I just like to make things awkward—what were you about to say I’d do?”
Jet snickers, likely putting together exactly what my assumption was, and holds up the band. “There’s jewelry because this is what all advisors wear to display their station. It’ll give you access to nearly anyplace I can go in the palace. There’s a symbol here, see?” He shows me a golden lantern stamped into one side. “You’d be on a team, helping me make decisions about things like taxes and laws and how they would affect people.”
I blink. “You’re going to put me in charge of laws?”
He gives me a look. “Don’t discount what you can do. You’re my best eyes and ears for how to help the working classes. I’ve also asked Melia and Marcus, who’ve agreed to stay, bless them, and I’ll likely pull in a top scientist, and one of my father’s advisors, too. Your help would be invaluable in so many ways.” His smile turns clever, and he nudges my arm. “I also rather like having you around, you know, in general. Melia tries, but no one can throw out demeaning compliments quite like you.”
I nod. “You do make it easy sometimes.”
“Is that a ‘yes’?”
I pluck the armband from his hand, weighing my potential responsibilities in my palm. This would mean adamantly not returning to a normal life, with the problems with Wyrim just beginning and all the pressures this job would entail. Already Jet has had to make decisions that have no happy outcome, like choosing his life over his brother’s. There would be a lot to learn—about politics and the court, trade and taxes, and I know there would be days I’d long for simpler times at the stable. Not that all my work is easy there either, but at least my decisions don’t determine the fate of kingdoms.
But it wouldn’t all be stress. I could see Jet and Marcus and Melia whenever I liked. I would never again worry about what would happen to me after my magic fades, when I’d otherwise be assigned to various jobs around the country, separated from my family, until I served Orkena my full sixty summers. And instead of wishing laws like that would change . . . I can be the one behind the changes. I can help other Whisperers in a way that would actually matter.
Which feels like the perfect ending for my story . . . and maybe the beginning of something greater.
I turn the wide band, feeling oddly shy. “Can my father live here?”
“Absolutely. And Hen and her mother too, if they want. Why do you think I made sure Hen’s job was here?”
Ever the strategist, in all the best ways. “Then yes. Definitely.”
His eyes shine bright as bronze. “Yes?”
“Someone’s got to keep you in check.” I clasp on the armband and tap it with a finger. “I’m also going to need a list of all the places this can get me into.”
He pulls a small scroll and a miniature quill from his pocket. “I’ll work on that.”
I snicker. “You don’t have to do it right now. Aren’t you supposed to be meeting the priests soon?”
“There’s only a hundred or so places to list. And it’s not like I haven’t been late to palace meetings before.”
I freeze in adjusting the armband. “Wait, you’re being serious? And what do you mean ‘been late before’? When are you supposed to meet the priests?”
Jet glances at the water clock on a golden end table. “Ten minutes ago?”
I grab his wrist. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack? Do you know who gets blamed for these things in the stories? The new advisor! We are leaving, right now. I’m not being dragged behind a horse or hung from my toes or whatever it is you people do to disappointing servants.”
He chuckles. “Those punishments are archaic, and you are adamantly not a servant—”
A knock sounds on the door. “Dōmmel,” a man says. “May we come in?”
Jet grins, and pulls gently from my grasp. “Ah. See? If you wait long enough, the priests come to you.” He looks to the doors. “Enter.”
And it’s like a terrible flashback to one of the worst moments of my life: in walks the grumpy priest who deemed Kasta’s knife mark on my wrist divine, followed by his haughty young apprentice, who still looks like a paler, meaner version of him. Except this time, instead of glaring down her nose at me, her gaze drops to my chest. Where her eyes widen in recognition at the vivid red scar the sacrificial knife left over my heart. And I again begin to question my life decisions. It seemed like such a good idea this morning, when Hen and I were getting ready, to choose a jole with a particularly low neckline—in this case, one cut almost to my navel—as I know the nobility will ask about the knife’s scar whether they can see it or not, and I’m determined to show them it belongs to me and not the boy who made it. That’s still my plan, but I’ll admit the staring is getting awkward.
The apprentice drops to one knee . . . and raises her fingertips to her forehead, like she would for a Mestrah.
“Gudina,” she says, the light gleaming off her blonde hair. “It is an honor to be in your presence.”
Gudina: Holy One. I glance uneasily at Jet, and at the grumpy priest, who—impossibly—is not regarding me with even a hint of a sneer. Well, maybe there’s a little bit of a grimace. But he looks like he’s trying very hard not to, which is still an improvement.
“Living Sacrifice.” The priest dips his head. “My honor as well.”
His apprentice rises, keeping her eyes on the floor. It’s only after the priest has turned to Jet that I realize they addressed me before addressing the crown prince. Which Jet had warned me this morning might happen, at least until he’s crowned, because that’s how the priests scrambled to explain my survival at the end of the Crossing: as divine intervention. Apparently they’ve even gone so far as to claim the girl I was actually did die on the end of the sacrificial knife, and that a goddess returned in my place.
Hiding my identity as the Living Sacrifice was easy enough in Kystlin, where I was just one more nameless refugee. But tonight that ends.
“Perhaps you missed our summons, dōmmel.” The priest gives Jet a look like he knows that isn’t the case. “But it’s time to get dressed, and then the Mestrah would like to go over a few final ceremonial details. Gudina, are you sure you wouldn’t like to watch from the royal dais?”
I almost laugh. “Gods, no.” I may be here to make this scar mine, but the last thing I want is to be studied like a piece of art for the better part of an hour. I realize too late this is a very un-courtly way to respond, and hastily correct myself. “I mean, no. Thank you.”
Jet pockets the scroll and quill. “Has the Materialist finished her alterations on my tunic?”
“Ah.” The priest rubs his bald head. “I forgot about the hole. Alise, will you check on that immediately?”
“Of course, adel.” She bows and takes her leave.
“There was a hole in your coronation tunic?” I ask. No wonder Jet wants the Royal Materialist to hire Hen.
“A purposeful one, though for an outdated reason.” Jet taps the top of his chest. “In a normal contest, the sacrificial knife would have created a mark here on the winning heir. A circle of Numet that proves they completed the sacrifice. Galena referenced old paintings for her coronation design, where the tunics used to open at the center to show it off. We reminded her there wasn’t a sacrifice. No mark.” Jet smiles. “Thank the gods.”
“Oh.” Dread prickles my arms, and I touch the wide necklace around my throat. “Right.”
“I need to ask her about the banquet tunic, too,” Jet says, this time to the priest as they start for the door. “But I suppose we could always draw a mark if needed, for the purposes of tradition . . . Zahru, are you coming?”
They turn in the doorway. I haven’t moved. That dread climbs my throat now, thick as smoke.
“Yes!” I pipe. “I just . . . need to check my face.”
“All right. We’ll be right outside.”
I dart past the bed, suddenly grateful the room is so much more than a room. A washing basin waits inside a large closet to the side, and I catch my balance on its cold marble edge, panic shoving against my skull.
I steel myself and look up at the gilded mirror.
“It’s not, it’s not, it’s not,” I mutter, raising shaking hands to the bronze necklace. Hen and I chose this piece not only because its gemmed flowers add color to the plain gold of my dress, but also because I still have a nasty bruise on my chest from the sacrificial knife, and this is the best way to cover it. So maybe it’s a little strange, now that I think about it, that this particular bruise never faded to green or yellow with the rest of the bruises, and that it’s closer to the base of my throat than to the knife’s scar. Or that Hen and I had just been joking about how it seemed to be taking on a shape, and we were going to start charging people to see it, like someone might for a slice of cheese that looks like Sabil’s face. Coincidence. No one in the world can possibly be this unlucky.
I lift the heavy gemstones, and my breath catches.
The deep scarlet of the swirling circle of Numet smiles back at me.
“Oh no,” I whisper.
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