Blog Tour: Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto

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Welcome to my stop of the Crown of Feathers blog tour! This gripping YA fantasy novel about queens, phoenix riders, and sisters has just come out in the UK and I’m here to give you a sneak peek at the very first chapter. Read on to get a taste!

 

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I had a sister once. If I had known then what I know now, I might have chosen not to love her. But is love ever truly a choice?

 

– CHAPTER 1 –

Veronyka

 

VERONYKA GATHERED THE BONES of the dead.

Joints of venison blackened and burned on the spit, and racks of ribs stewed so long that they were dry and brittle as driftwood. She dug through rotten lettuce and potato peelings for tiny, sharp-as-daggers fish bones and the hollow, delicate bones of birds.

The small owl perched on her shoulder hooted softly in distaste at her most recent discovery. Veronyka shushed him gently, piling the bird bones inside her basket with the rest and standing.

It was late evening, the cool night air threatening frost. The village streets were empty and quiet, with no one to notice the solitary girl digging through their garbage heaps. The clouds above glowed iron gray, obscuring the full moon and making it almost impossible to see in the darkness. That was why she’d called the owl to be her guide. His eyes were precise in the black of night, and with a nudge to her mind, he showed Veronyka the way over rocks and boulders and under low-hanging branches. In her haste, she tripped and stumbled anyway; Val had told her to hurry, and she knew better than to keep her sister waiting.

Excitement and anticipation crackled in her veins, tinged with no small amount of fear—would tonight finally be the night?

Veronyka’s breath created clouds in front of her face as she made her way back to the cabin she and Val shared. It was small and had been deserted when they’d found it, the bright blue paint peeling on its front door and the shutters broken, probably used during the warmer months for hunting and then abandoned during the rainy winter season. The weather was getting drier and hotter with each passing day, so they wouldn’t be able to stay much longer. Another home, come and gone.

As the cabin came into view, Veronyka’s insides contracted. The thick column of smoke that had been billowing from the chimney when she left was nothing more than a thin stream of ghostly wisps. They were running out of time.

She ran the last few steps, the flimsy wooden door thwacking against the stone wall as she pushed her way into the single room. All was darkness, save for the orange flicker of the glowing embers. The smell of smoke was heavy in the air, the taste of ash bitter on her tongue.

Val stood in front of the round hearth in the middle of the cabin, turning at the sound of Veronyka’s entrance. She wore an impatient, agitated expression as she snatched the basket from Veronyka’s grip and stared in at its contents.

She snorted in disapproval. “If that’s the best you can do . . . ,” she said, tossing it carelessly aside, half the bones spilling onto the packed earthen floor.

“You said to hurry,” Veronyka objected, looking around Val to see that the fire burned hot and low beneath a pile of new kindling. These weren’t the boiled or spit-blackened bones of animals, though. These were large white bones.

Human-looking bones.

Val followed her line of sight and answered the unasked question. “And still you took too long, so I went looking on my own.”

A shudder ran down Veronyka’s spine despite the heat.

She tugged at the heavy wool cloak that was wrapped around her shoulders, and her owl guide, whom she’d completely forgotten about, ruffled his feathers.

The movement drew her sister’s attention. Veronyka froze, her muscles tingling as she awaited her sister’s reaction. Would she fly off the handle, like she often did, or would she let the animal’s presence slide?

The owl twitched nervously, shifting from foot to foot under Val’s gaze. Veronyka tried to soothe him, but her own anxiety was rippling across the surface of her skin. A moment later his clawed feet dug into Veronyka’s shoulder, and he glided soundlessly out the still-open door.

Veronyka shut it behind him, taking her time before she faced her sister, dreading the argument that was sure to come. They were both animages—able to understand and communicate with animals—but they had very different views on what that meant. Val believed animals should be treated and used as tools. Compelled, controlled, dominated.

Veronyka, on the other hand, felt kinship with animals, not superiority over them.

“Loving them is weakness,” Val warned, her back to Veronyka as she crouched before the hearth. She added some of the smaller bones from Veronyka’s basket to the growing flames, piling them carefully around the sides of two smooth gray eggs, blackened and streaked with soot. They sat amid the glowing hot embers in a bed of bone and ash, tongues of fire licking up their sides.

Though Veronyka couldn’t see Val’s face, she could imagine the fervor in her eyes. Veronyka expelled a slow, somewhat exasperated breath. They’d had this conversation before.

“The Riders didn’t treat their mounts like pets to be cuddled and fawned over, Veronyka. They were warriors, phoenixaeres, and their bond wasn’t love. It was duty. Honor.”

Phoenixaeres. Even with Val’s scolding, excitement blazed in Veronyka’s heart whenever her sister spoke about Phoenix Riders—animages who’d bonded with phoenixes. The literal translation of the ancient Pyraean word was “phoenix masters,” something Val often reminded her of. Only animages could become Riders, because only through their magic could they hatch, communicate with, and ride the legendary creatures.

It was all Veronyka had ever wanted. To be a Phoenix Rider like the warrior queens of old.

She wanted to soar through the sky on phoenix-back, to be fierce and brave like Lyra the Defender or Avalkyra Ashfire, the Feather-Crowned Queen.

But it had been more than sixteen years since the last Phoenix Riders had graced the Golden Empire’s skies. Most had died in the Blood War, when Avalkyra and her sister, Pheronia, were pitted against each other in a battle for the empire’s throne. The rest had been labeled traitors for turning against the empire and were hunted down and executed afterward. Practicing animal magic without registering and paying heavy taxes had been made illegal, and animages like Veronyka and Val had to live in secrecy and squalor, hiding their abilities, in constant fear of being captured and forced into servitude.

During their glory days, the Phoenix Riders were guardians above all else, and for Veronyka, even the idea of them had been a shining beacon of hope when she was growing up. Her grandmother had always promised that one day the Phoenix Riders would return. One day it would be safe to be an animage again. And when her grandmother had died, Veronyka had vowed to become one herself. She wanted to be the light in the darkness for other poor, lonely animages living in hiding. She wanted the strength and the means to fight and protect others like her and Val. The strength she hadn’t had to protect her grandmother.

Maybe the Phoenix Riders as a military order were gone, but you needed only two things if you wanted to be a phoenixaeris: animal magic and a phoenix.

Veronyka moved around Val to kneel next to the hearth. The phoenix eggs nestled there were roughly the size of her cupped hands, and their color and texture were so similar to that of natural stones that they could easily be overlooked. It was a defense mechanism, Val had said, so that phoenixes could lay their eggs in secret and leave them unguarded for years until they—or an animage—came to hatch them. The Riders often concealed eggs as well, placing secret caches inside statues and sacred spaces, but many had been destroyed by the empire during the war.

Veronyka and Val had been searching for phoenix eggs for years—in every run-down temple, abandoned Rider outpost, and forgotten building they could find. They’d traded meals for information, sold stolen goods for wagon rides, and made other transactions Val wouldn’t let her see. After their grandmother had died, Val had been determined to get them out of Aura Nova, the capital of the empire, and into Pyra—but it hadn’t been easy. Travel outside the empire after the war had been closely monitored, as many of Avalkyra Ashfire’s allies had tried to get into Pyra to avoid persecution. In the years since, with the threat of bondage or poverty under the magetax, many animages had tried to do the same. Pyra had once been a province of the empire, but it had declared its autonomy under Avalkyra Ashfire’s leader ship. With the death of its Feather-Crowned Queen, it had become a lawless, somewhat dangerous place—but it was still safer for animages than the empire.

Without proper identification, Veronyka and Val hadn’t been able to cross the border. Plus, they were animages—if their magic had been discovered, they would have been put into bondage. So they’d been forced to travel within the empire, Val leading, Veronyka following. They’d slept in ditches, on rooftops, in the pouring rain and the sweltering heat. Val would disappear—sometimes for days—then return with blood on her shirt and a coin purse in her hands.

Those had been hard times, but they’d finally bribed their way onto a merchant caravan and been smuggled into Pyra, their parents’ homeland. Veronyka had been certain that, finally, their luck would change. And after several long months, it had. Val had found two perfect phoenix eggs hidden in a crumbling temple deep in the wilderness of Pyra. One for each of them.

Just thinking about that day brought a prickle of tears to Veronyka’s eyes, a surge of emotion that she fought to keep in check. Whenever Val caught sight of Veronyka’s euphoric smile at the prospect of what they were doing, she’d meet it with cold, hard truths: Sometimes eggs didn’t hatch. Sometimes the phoenix inside chose not to bond or died during the incubation process.

Even now, Val didn’t smile or take joy in the sight of the eggs in the hearth. Their incubation was as somber as a funeral pyre.

A bone snapped in the hearth, and a cloud of ash rose up. Veronyka held her breath so she wouldn’t inhale the dead, drawing a circle on her forehead.

“Stop that,” Val snapped, seeing Veronyka’s hand and swatting it aside. Her beautiful face was a severe mask, her warm brown skin painted with black shadows and swathes of red and orange from the firelight. “Axura’s Eye should not be called for some silly superstition. That’s for peasants and fishermen, not you.”

Val was never much for religion, but Axura was the god most sacred to Pyraeans—and Phoenix Riders—so she usually let Veronyka say prayers or give thanks. Still, she hated the small superstitions, turning up her nose and pretending she and Veronyka were somehow above the local villagers and working-class people they’d lived among all their lives. They hadn’t had a proper home since they were children, and even that was a hovel in the Narrows, the poorest district of Aura Nova. Right now they were squatting on the floor of another person’s cottage. Who were they, if not peasants?

“Have you eaten?” Veronyka asked, changing the subject. Val wore that fanatical look on her face again, and heavy bags sat under her eyes. Val was only seventeen, but in her exhaustion she appeared much older. Quietly Veronyka moved away from the fire to dig through their box of food stores, which were getting dangerously low.

“I had some of the salt fish,” Val answered, her voice taking on the familiar distant tenor that came over her after too much time fire gazing.

“Val, we ran out of the fish two days ago.”

She shrugged, a jerking twitch of the shoulder, and Veronyka sighed. Val hadn’t eaten since she’d found the eggs. For all her intelligence and cunning, she often lost track of the mundane activities that made up daily life. Veronyka was the one who cooked their meals and mended their clothes, who worried about sleep and nutrition and a clean home. Val’s mind was always elsewhere—on people and places long gone, or on distant dreams and future possibilities.

As she continued to search through their stores, Veronyka unearthed an almost-empty sack of rice. They’d have to find something worth trading in the village the next day, or they’d go hungry.

“You know we won’t,” Val said, speaking into the flames.

Immediately realizing her mistake, Veronyka closed her eyes. She’d been projecting her thoughts and concerns into the open air, where anyone—where Val—could snatch them up. While their shared ability to speak into the minds of animals was fairly common—one in ten people, Val said, though it was higher in Pyra—their ability to speak into human minds was as rare as a phoenix egg. Shadowmages, they were called, and for two sisters to have the gift was even rarer. Unlike animal magic, shadow magic wasn’t hereditary, and as far as Veronyka knew, most people thought it was a myth. It existed only in old stories and epic poems, a magical ability belonging to ancient Pyraean queens and long-dead heroes.

While they had to be careful with their animal magic since it had been outlawed in the empire, they had to be extra cautious when it came to shadow magic. People in Pyra would often let animages be, but if anyone were to catch Veronyka and Val using shadow magic, they would almost certainly be turned in. For every legend of a powerful Phoenix Rider queen with an uncanny ability to tell truths from lies, there was also a cautionary tale about a dark witch who corrupted souls and controlled minds. It was mostly nonsense, Veronyka suspected, but people often rejected and distrusted things they didn’t understand. She and Val were safest if they kept their shadow magic to themselves.

Of course, that didn’t stop Val from using it on Veronyka whenever she pleased.

Guard your mind, Val said, speaking the words inside Veronyka’s head rather than out loud. Like speaking to animals, shadow magic could be used to communicate, or it could be used to influence a person’s will: to order and command. Val often used the latter to get them food or clothes or shelter, but she only ever turned shadow magic on Veronyka to communicate. As far as Veronyka knew. Still, she could see Val was tempted sometimes, when Veronyka disobeyed and refused to listen, and she could understand the danger of such a powerful ability.

“I’m making dinner,” Veronyka announced, drawing her thoughts and feelings inward and putting up mental walls to surround and protect them, just like Val had taught her. She was usually better at keeping her mind guarded, but they’d been tending the fire for two days, and in her exhaustion, her emotions were raw and close to the surface. Cooking some food would help distract her from the alternating surges of fluttering anticipation and aching dread that were in constant flux inside her. The closer they got to the moment of hatching, the more terrified she became that it would go wrong, that it would all be for nothing.

Everything rested upon those two round rocks in the fire.

Veronyka lifted their heavy clay pot and hoisted it over to the edge of the hearth, the bag of rice tucked under her arm. “We’ve still got some onions and dried meat to make broth, and . . . Val?”

Veronyka caught the scent of singed fabric. Val crouched so near the flames that the hem of her tunic was smoking, but she was still as a statue, oblivious to the heat, a steady stream of tears making tracks down her soot-smeared cheeks.

Veronyka’s heart constricted, and she looked into the flames, expecting to see cause for concern. Instead the nearest egg twitched and rattled. Veronyka held her breath. The gentle sound of hollow scraping punctuated the hiss and pop of the flames.

A font of purest, powerful hope welled up inside her chest.

She looked back at Val, asking the question—begging for the affirmation.

Val nodded, her answer barely louder than a whisper. “It’s time.”

 

In the beginning, there was light and dark, sun and moon—Axura and her sister, Nox.

Axura ruled the day, Nox ruled the night, and together there was balance.

But Nox, ever hungry, wanted more. She began sneaking into the sky during the day, unleashing her children, the strixes, to spread shadows over the world.

To combat Nox’s devouring ways, Axura’s own children, the phoenixes, joined the fray. Only light can defeat darkness, and so they did, beating back the strixes again and again.

The war lasted centuries, and the world suffered under such a regime. But Axura was wise, and in humankind she saw not beings to rule over, but allies to fight alongside.

Atop Pyrmont’s highest peak, Axura took her phoenix form and made contact with the Pyraean tribes who lived there.

“Who among you is brave and fearless?” she asked.

“There is no bravery without fear,” said Nefyra, leader of her tribe.

Axura was pleased with this answer and offered a trial for Nefyra to prove her worth. As a test of faith, Axura lit a fire as tall as the trees and asked Nefyra to enter the flames.

Nefyra did so, and burned alive. But her death was not the end.

She went into the fire a tribal leader and emerged as an animage, a shadowmage, and the First Rider Queen.

—“Nefyra and the First Riders,” from The Pyraean Epics, Volume 1, circa 460 BE

 

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the Crown of Feathers blog tour to see reviews and other content!

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Have you read Crown of Feathers yet? Is it in your TBR? Let me know!

 

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