Picking up where The Queen’s Assassin left off, Lilac’s birthright makes her the Queen of Renovia, and a forced marriage made her the Queen of Montrice. But being a ruler does not mean making the rules. For Lilac, taking the throne means giving up the opportunity to be with love of her life, the kingdom’s assassin, Caledon Holt.
In the far north of the Kingdom of Montrice, winter arrives early once more. The mellow days of autumn are over, the fruits of the harvest hastily packed into granaries and cellars, cured meat dangle from oak rafters. The fields are empty apart from golden bales of hay ready to be transported to stables and stacked high in barns. This far north, they are accustomed to snow.
So when a blizzard swirls in before the trees have shed their last leaves, no one gives it much thought at first. For three days the wind howls and snow falls in frigid ropes. In the village of Stur, snow piles so high that tunnels must be dug to allow doors to open, and every family wakes to darkness, their houses packed in snowdrifts. At last, when the blizzard passes, they climb out to find snow heaped on rooftops, clogging chimneys, and encrusting wells.
The village elders say that Stur has never seen so much snow, not in living memory. It makes them uneasy about the winter that lies ahead. But the snow has transformed the muddy streets and plowed fields into a sparkling white wonderland. After the children of Stur finish their morning’s work, they gather to play on snowy banks, creating makeshift sleds by lashing branches together. The village rings with the happy shouts of children tumbling down hillsides and jumping into drifts.
The pond is covered by thick white ice; its surface is the face of the moon. A dog skids across the ice, barking with surprise, and some of the children decide to try skating, something they’ve heard about but never experienced. They hurry to strip bark from the birch trees around the pond and strap it to their boots with ribbons of leather. The bravest go out first, soaring across the ice, laughing when they lose their balance and sprawl across its hard, slippery sheen. Soon the village children play on the frozen pond.
A crash of thunder sounds, splintering the calm of the afternoon. A dark cloud moves across the wintry blue sky so the snow no longer glints in the sun. Some of the children look up, hoping for more snow.
But no more snow falls. Not one crystal snowflake. Thunder crashes again, so loud the nearby houses shake. Lightning cracks open the sky and ink-black fingers shoot across the pond’s surface, staining the ice with veins of ebony. The same black ripples from the hillsides to the banks surrounding the pond, and outward to the snowbound streets of the village.
Along these ominous fault lines, ice begins to crack. Snow melts as suddenly as it fell. Torrents of freezing water pour down the hills, and Stur’s main street is transformed into an icy river, sweeping people and animals into its freezing surge. With a thunderous crack, the frozen pond splinters and the children sink into the frigid water, screaming and thrashing. As the hills above churn with cold water, the pond becomes a drain, drawing everything—and everyone—into its icy whirlpool.
When the dark cloud passes, all evidence of snow has disappeared. All that remains are soggy fields, bare hillsides, and streets thick with sludge. The village pond is still, its bright moon face gone. The villagers who survived the deluge rush to its banks, and there, through a thin layer of frost, delicate as a spider’s web, lie the frozen bodies of the children, their faces distorted with terror.
By the time the messenger rides out to the capital of Mont, he is reminded to report that of all the day’s strange and horrifying events, there is one detail that is so curious that it must not be overlooked.
The layer of frost across the pond was not gray, or even dirty white, the usual color. It was the color of fresh spring lilacs.