The High Priest's Daughter Sneak Peek
Going to the Southern Network made me more nervous than opening a bag of hissing cats.
Southern Network witches were known to be hostile, behave brutishly, and hate women anywhere outside the kitchen. Three things that didn’t particularly endear me, a seventeen-year-old female witch who never left home without my sword, to their way of life.
“Well, Bianca, are you ready to meet High Priest Mikhail?” Marten asked me with a half-grin. The sun sank in the horizon, as useless as a paperweight, giving light but no warmth. Marten wouldn’t allow me to use magic to transport to our meeting in the Southern Network because I’d never been there before. “Too great a risk,” he’d said with a little tsk of his teeth. “Transporting without ever having been to a place, or at least near it, is just asking for trouble.” So we’d been riding in the cold carriage for over an hour, watching the glacial landscape glide past. Marten didn’t have to ride with me, of course, but he was thoughtful in that regard.
“I think the more appropriate question is whether Mikhail is ready to meet me,” I said, irritable after jostling over the terrible, icy roads.
Marten chuckled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Nothing made him truly laugh anymore, not since the love of his life, our previous High Priestess Mildred, died eight months before, in the summer.
“I won’t be the first Assistant to ever cross borders with an Ambassador,” I said, pushing thoughts of Mildred aside. “But I may be the first female Assistant brave enough to venture into the Southern Network. Don’t you think?”
“You’re not breaking any laws,” Marten replied as if convincing both of us. “The Mansfeld Pact between the four Networks allows for Assistants to accompany the Ambassador outside their Network on official business, it’s just that not many have. Certainly not to the cold tundras of the Southern Network, anyway.”
“Now seems as good a time as ever to break tradition. A war is about to start, isn’t it? Let’s add more chaos into the mix. It’s a habit of witches in my family.”
Marten laughed again—much louder this time—but I’d been serious.
Through the forest of thick evergreens I caught occasional glimpses of Mikhail’s looming ice castle. The second month of winter gripped the Southern Network with relentless strength, forcing me to use a flame incantation to generate heat so my fingers didn’t freeze. A little ball of flame hovered between my cupped hands, sparking and warm.
Even the castle seemed to feel the bitter effects of its southern residence. Frost clung to the outer facade of stone, sparkling in crystalline shades of blue and white. Narrow turrets poked the charcoal sky. Unlike Chatham Castle in the Central Network, which was made of warm gray stones, boasted ten turrets, and sprawled out like a tall, lazy mountain, the Southern Network palace was skinny and narrow. What it lacked in girth it made up for in height, breaking apart in only five or six pieces with the shortest turrets towering at least fifteen stories. Snow capped most of the evergreen trees here, which pressed right up to the castle.
“Prepare yourself,” Marten said under his breath, shooting me a sharp glance. His hazel eyes remained warm despite his severity. “And let me do all the speaking.”
“I strive only to be an obedient female in the eyes of the South,” I quipped. The carriage moved from a bouncing dirt road onto paved cobblestones. “Isn’t your head cold?”
He ran a hand over his bare head. “Being cold builds character,” he said. Before Mildred died, he’d looked like a man in the prime of his life. Middle thirties, lithe shoulders, an occasional smile in a serious bearing. But her death had taken its toll on him, and he no longer used magic to transform his looks the way many older witches did. Marten was somewhere in his seventies, perhaps older if the wrinkles around his face and the way his skin sagged off his bones meant anything. I’d worked as his Assistant for the last eight months, and he’d taken me under his wing in a grandfatherly kind of way.
“If being cold builds character, then I’m the most well-rounded witch in Antebellum,” I muttered, and my breath fogged out in billows. I stared out the window, memorizing the landscape. We didn’t have trees like this in Letum Wood, the forest that spanned most of the Central Network. Ours were massive and thick, hiding dangerous secrets. The forests here seemed distant and sharp, more indifferent than treacherous. I tightened my grip on my sword, Viveet. She glowed a bright blue in her sheath under my touch, comforting me. We’d arrive soon, and I didn’t intend to leave her in the carriage. They’d have to pry her from my frozen hands before I went anywhere unknown and hostile without her. A little burst of magic stirred in my chest at my agitation, the way it always did, but settled with a sigh.
The carriage halted ten minutes later. A long, slim stairway led to a single wooden door. Southern Guardians lined the walkway, hovering so close I could have touched the shiny gold buttons on their gray wool jackets. Frost covered their swords and turned their cheeks bright pink.
“Well, the castle is simple,” I said, climbing out of the carriage and studying the straight facade of the building. I could appreciate the intimidation factor of their forbidding, silent welcome.
“Functional,” Marten said. “Let’s get inside.”
We moved quickly up the stairs, stopping at the top when a male witch with sweeping light hair and dark eyes moved into our path. He had a small, scrunched face, as if he wrinkled it in surprise all the time. Just like the Southern Guardians, his intense expression made me feel like a dirty pot.
“Dmitri,” Marten called jovially. “It’s good to see you again. Bianca, this is Dmitri, the Ambassador for the Southern Network. He and I have worked together for almost twenty years. Dmitri, this is Bianca, my Assistant.”
Dmitri’s small eyes slid over to me in question. I held his gaze, but couldn’t suppress a shiver down my spine. His frigid stare rivaled the freezing temperature.
“Velcome, Miss Bianca,” Dmitri finally said, pronouncing his words with the exaggerated, crisp accent of the Southern Network. “You are daughter to the great High Priest Derek, are you not?”
“Hmm. Vat are you here for?”
“To meet with Mikhail,” I said before Marten could answer for me.
Dmitri’s lips puckered into a sour frown. “This is an … unexpected surprise.” He lifted an eyebrow in accusation, his eyes falling to Viveet beneath my heavy, fur-lined cape. “His Highness does not like surprises.”
“She’ll be no problem, Dmitri,” Marten said. “She’s here to learn, not negotiate.”
The rounded, wooden door behind Dmitri swung open with the heavy thud of a falling lock. A wave of heat flooded over us. “Vatever you say,” Dmitri drawled, indicating for us to follow him into the main corridor.
We stepped into a long hall filled with white and blue banners depicting a snarling polar bear—the Southern Network flag. A fire roared in a great hearth to the left, and a sweeping staircase led up a pair of unlit steps to the right. Unlike Chatham Castle, which never stopped moving and breathing and living, this castle sat in austere quiet. Not a worker or a Guardian or a politician broke the unnerving silence. How could the center of a Network, the very heart of a vast land, be so calm?
“Come,” Dmitri said. “Ve von’t keep him vaiting. He vill entertain you in the throne room.”
The narrow hallway led us deeper into the castle. We stopped at a set of broad double doors decorated with sparkling gems on the hinges and the doorknob. The citizens of the Southern Network had never been known for their humility. Or their height.
“His Highness vaits inside,” Dmitri announced with one lingering, uncertain look at me. He grasped both golden handles and pushed the doors open wide, spreading them into a dim room of war.
Paintings of battle scenes filled every nook and cranny of the room, leaving little wall space. A detailed tapestry displaying a particularly gory fight spread across the back wall. Chipped axes. Broken swords. A shield encrusted with diamonds. I could barely take in the sparkling, deadly glamour. Greatest of all the many decorations was Mikhail himself, the High Priest of the Southern Network.
“Your Highness,” Dmitri declared. “You have … visitors.”