A Queen of Gilded Horns (A River of Royal Blood #2) - Amanda Joy

Prologue

Ysai of Ariban

The sky above the sprawling camp at the foot of Mount Ariban was a bruised purple—a sign of the storms to come and the snows that would follow. This far north in the Roune Lands—the lawless territory east of Dracol and north of Myre—a handful of weeks was all it took for High Summer to turn into Far Winter.

The smaller peaks rising around the valley were limned in gold from the sun’s recent descent. The silver light of a hundred thousand stars and a sickle moon would have been enough for most in the camp to see by, despite the copper lamps hung in concentric rings around their tents. For most in this camp were khimaer—horns adorned their brows and their bodies were an elegant amalgam of animal and human—and they could see even in darkness. The few who were not khimaer were fey or bloodkin, their vision as sharp.

The lamps were magicked to keep time and would only be doused when all the day’s work was done.

Seated upon a tree stump carved with snaking vines and budding wildflowers, Ysai eased a narrow blade around a length of buttery noshai wood in a slow spiral.

So used to the feel of a carving knife in her hand, Ysai focused her attention solely on her students’ upturned faces and the significantly duller blades in their laps. Until her gaze slid past them to the nearest copper lamp, throwing warm light in a spray of pinpricks, waiting for it to flare and signal the end of her day.

The children of the camp took lessons well into the night after history and weaponry and magick during the day. Blessedly this group of eight-year-olds was Ysai’s last lesson in charm-making for the day.

Instead of the sacred noshai, each clutched a bit of spare wood left over from the older children’s lessons in their sticky palms. The noshai trees, the tallest and most ancient of all the beings who dwelled in the North, only grew in the A’Nir Mountains north of Myre’s borders. It was a curious thing, how many.

In millennia past, the wild fey who dwelled in these mountains offered noshai saplings to the first Queens who ruled most of Akhimar, both north of the river and south of it. Back when the realm was known by just one name, instead of the three nations it was split into now. Yet the noshai trees rarely thrived in the South, so the tradition became the offering of a charm of protection carved from the trees. In the centuries since it had been forgotten, until the Tribe fled Myre after the Great War and adapted the tradition, making carvings of their own.

Most created charms in the likeness of the animals they were akin to and hung them from the trees around their tents; the charms were a small magick, prayers and wishes to their Goddess Khimaerani bolstered by a simple offering of power. The hundreds upon hundreds around the camp created a strong ward that set off a wave of foreboding for anyone who might venture here.

“Sister Ysai,” Kisin, one of the smallest and thus most outspoken of the group, called. Lamplight caught the gold rings adorning the tips of his pronged horns, and huge sand-fox ears dominated either side of his face. His coppery skin and fur were the exact same hue, and though the spray of white freckles across his face reminded Ysai of a fawn, the boy’s expression was distinctly tricksome. All wide-eyed innocence at odds with his toothy grin. “What will you carve for us today?”

Ysai had been planning on a cunning leopard. The children, having never ventured far enough south to see the great cats of the Arym Plain and the Deadened Jungle, were fascinated with the large predators.

Yet Kisin, she knew, would request a fox, like he had the last few lessons.

“I haven’t yet decided. Perhaps Tosin can help us,” Ysai murmured, offering a smile to the fox boy’s twin sister.

Unlike her brother, Tosin never spoke unless prompted. Her big, glossy black eyes were always slightly out of focus, lost in a dreamland. Ysai hoped that meant her imagination would be a bit more well developed than her brother’s.

The girl blinked a few times, fox ears twitching, before she explained, “Mother Moriya told us about the krakai in the desert.”

Ysai’s heart sank. She had learned the stories of the krakai that crawled up from the sea into the desert, but she had no sense of what the creatures truly looked

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