Andín hummed a nameless little tune to herself as she bustled around her father’s shop, stacking tins of dried pork, refilling jars of spices, and neatly arranging cigars in their wooden boxes. The store smelled of cigar smoke, spiced tea, and sweat, and every inch of wall space was covered with shelves heavy with every imaginable kind of good. The only clear spot was reserved for a small framed photo of the emperor right above the doorway, which Andín had to dust twice a week.
Outside, the streetcar rattled past, and Andín could just hear the bells of the tower clock chiming.
Papa was playing the jovial shopkeeper with two men, laughing and joking while trying to draw their eyes to some trinket or another.
She caught a snatch of conversation and froze, her spine suddenly ramrod straight.
“—and next year my boy Palyar will be off to the university in Palascena! We just received his acceptance. He’ll study business and—”
Cigars tumbled across the floor as their box hit the ground. “You promised!” Andín shouted at her father and the two stunned customers. “You promised!” she repeated, and fled from the shop.
“It isn’t fair,” Andín seethed at her father, who sat cross-armed and dour in the parlor. “Why send Palyar instead of me? He just wants to play his fiddle all day. He’s not even old enough—he’s still in school!”
Papa’s gaze floated heavenward. “He’ll graduate in the spring, and then he’ll go. And you have to know why, Deeny. Do I have to make it plain? I can only afford to send one of you right now, and there’s boundless opportunity there for a man looking to go into trade!” He put stress on the word ‘man,’ but Andín chose to ignore it.
“And what if I want to go into trade?” Andín pressed. Not that she did, but it was the principle of the thing.
“You may think you have an idea of what it’s like at the university,” Papa continued after huffing and running a hand over his thin, slicked-back hair, “but you’ll find it very different. Palascena is no place for a naïve young lady on her own.”
“Is that what this is about?” Andín said, fighting back tears. “I am not—I’m not naïve!”
“But you don’t know what you want,” Papa retorted. “You said you wanted to go and study history, then it was economics, then science!”
“So?” demanded Andín at the top of her lungs. “That’s what the university is there for! I could find out what I want!”
“Your temper, Andín,” her father reminded her.
She almost tore into him again, but she caught herself. Barely. “You did promise,” she said sulkily.
Her father’s bushy walrus mustache actually seemed to droop. “I did.”
“And?” she demanded.
“And it’s not possible. You know it’s not as simple as all this. Women at the university… it’s not done often, Deeny.”
“It has happened,” she snapped.
“It’s not just that, but it’s the money… the store,” he continued, his voice taking on that wheedling tone he used when he was trying to placate a customer. “You know how things have been this past year. I’m sorry, kitten, I am. Maybe… maybe in a few years, when we have a little more money to spend on luxuries.”
“Luxuries?” she shouted, filling the house with her voice. “Luxuries,” she repeated, disgusted.
He heaved a disapproving final harrumph and gave her that utterly implacable look over his glasses.
“Fine,” she said, voice tight. “Have it your way. If you won’t send me, I’ll find another way. I’ll get out of this town. I’ll go to the university. I’ll have a brilliant life. And it’ll all be no thanks to you!”
“Oh, now, Deeny!” he said, rising from his chair. But she was already gone.
Her mother would be out back gathering in the washing from the line; Andín bolted in the other direction, towards the street. She couldn’t face Mama today.
She ran into Palyar coming in from school. “Deeny!” he said brightly. “Did you—?”
He never got to finish his question. “Go away!” she screamed at her little brother, her control shattering. “I hate you!”
“Whoa!” he said, backing away. “What did I do?”
She threw up her hands in disgust and marched determinedly away, eyes full of tears.
An angry wind blew from the east, driving her out into the countryside.
The abandoned hill of the Vintoi property made a fine place to sit and brood. She glowered back at the little town of Viko Station below. The line of brick factories by the railroad tracks still belched smoke from their stacks; it was not yet dinnertime. The town’s lone streetcar rumbled down the cobbled main street, carrying people towards the station. Beyond the town, the wild forest stretched towards the horizon.
An old Lofkand song she’d sung in school floated into her mind.
Little girl, oh little girl, where do you run,
Beyond the road, toward the setting sun?
Beware the wolves, oh beware the sight
Of the Forest King, stealing through the night.
She sighed dejectedly, her fury melting away as quickly as it had come.
A rusty iron pot with “VIKO IRON WORKS” etched on it was embedded in the dirt next to her; she rested an arm on it, tracing the familiar edges with her finger. Long ago, she and Palyar had played a game called Wash Pot Land here, where she was the queen and he her knight. The pot was the throne, and the lumps of stones on the hill were villages. It had been such fun, creating a whole world from their dreams.
This whole sorry mess wasn’t Palyar’s fault. He hadn’t made or broken any promises; he couldn’t control what Papa wanted to do. She’d have to find him and apologize later.
Still, it was hardly fair at all! It had already been a year since she graduated from the girls’ academy in town, while Palyar wouldn’t be done with his own schooling until next spring. Her teachers had always said they expected great things from her, but all she’d done since was stand behind a counter in her father’s shop each day, smiling half-heartedly at the leering factory men who came to buy filthy cigars and tins of snuff.
At night she raced to her room to escape into dusty histories and exciting tales from distant lands. She read about the marvels of the cities, the rugged beauty of the mountains, the wonder and magic of the ancient lands of the western coast. There was so much more to learn and see. The world was vast, and it called to her. The university was a stepping stone to those endless horizons.
Papa didn’t understand that. Nobody in this tiny little factory town possibly could.
She had to get away from here. Valsin, her only real friend, always said that if they stayed much longer in Viko Station they’d both start to rust away like this old pot. Valsin didn’t care about the university; she had a long list of eligible noblemen she wanted to track down and try to marry, but both she and Andín longed to be away from the dull sameness of home.
The sun had begun to set in the faraway hills off to the west. The already brisk wind picked up, blowing her hair around her face as clouds loomed overhead. Was there a storm coming in?
When she was established as a great scholar and world traveler, everyone would finally see. A cruel little fantasy unwound in her mind. Papa’s business would fall on even harder times than now, and he’d have to come, hat in hand, to wherever she was living in academic luxury. Her shelves would be stocked with trophies from her travels and all the volumes she’d written, and she’d deign to offer Papa a few pitiful moments from her busy schedule. She was leaning back, thinking of all the choice things she’d say to him when fingers gently touched her arm.
Andín yelped and almost fell over. A young woman sat next to her on the hillside. She wore a simple brown robe with complex patterns sewn into the tattered fringes. Her skin was darker than Andín’s and her hair much shorter. She looked like she might be Alavesh; the empire had many poor Alavesh living in it, traveling from place to place.
Her tired eyes regarded Andín steadily.
“I didn’t see you there! Are—are you lost?” Andín asked.
The young woman smiled warmly. “You’re Andín dal Rovi, right?” she asked. Andín nodded. “Then I’m not lost.”
Andín’s eyes grew wide, and she started gibbering in panic. “Why are you looking for me? I don’t know you! What do you want? I don’t—I don’t have any money.”
The Alavesh woman laughed. “Antrimanians. No, I don’t want your money. Hey, I just wanted to be sure about you.” She sniffed the air. “You seem about right. You smell right to me.”
A strange buzzing sound began to vibrate the air all around her.
“I—what?” Andín asked, looking wildly around. “What’s that? What are you doing?”
“It’s time to wake up,” said the girl. “It’s been so long. I’ll be seeing you again soon. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
The buzzing continued, getting stronger and stronger. She held her hands over her ears—and yet it continued unabated.
“Stop!” Andín screamed. “Stop!”
But the young woman had vanished.
The buzzing, amplified now into the overwhelming blasting of a thousand little horns that rattled and shook her skull. She clutched her head, moaning with sudden pain.
All at once she felt as if she wasn’t quite alone in her own mind any longer.
«Oh, no, no, it’s gone wrong,» something very distinctly said. A dark, hot energy seemed to swirl around her. «This is some peasant girl!»
She passed out.
It was a dream, and something more than a dream. The colors were too vivid, the sounds too sharp.
Two men who looked like they’d stepped out of a centuries-old painting sat nearby, pointing at an irregular-looking map spread on the table. The men wore unkempt beards, and there was a stale smell she couldn’t place. “There,” said one, pointing. “The rebels have come as far as Lodt. They’ve picked up men and supplies.”
“They’re within two days’ march of here,” said the other. “What do we do?”
“We must firm up our defenses,” she said without meaning to, her voice deep and gravelly like a man’s. “Dig trenches on the hillsides. And then we must hope that General dav Peoro is swift.”
“Your Imperial Majesty,” the second said, his tone soft and wheedling. Why had he called her that? “May I suggest we retreat to Palascena? We can regroup, and it’s far more defensible.”
“Retreat again?” she snarled, standing. She vibrated with dark power. They stepped back a pace. “I will not hear of it, Ulan! I will not!” She banged her fist on the table. Her hands were large and hairy. She noticed for the first time that she was wearing a bright red outfit with stockings and a long coat, garments that a nobleman would have worn hundreds of years ago. “We stand here at Viko Castle, as planned! Prepare your men. This discussion is over.”
They bowed, fear in their eyes. She sat back down as they hastily left.
“Cowards,” she said to no one in particular. “The world is shaped by will and dreams alone.”
Her eyes snapped open.
Clouds passed over the moon, shining high overhead, and the gas lamps were lit in the town below. The stacks of the factories were silent. Hours had passed.
Rebels, Lodt, General dav Peoro… those were all pieces from a history of the empire she’d been reading. Her books were starting to intrude into her dreams.
She scrambled to her feet, the world swaying before her. The wind blew ever stronger, and she could smell rain on the way. Her head throbbed and she almost threw up, but she got control of herself. She dimly remembered a young Alavesh-looking woman, the sound of buzzing, voices…
Andín wanted nothing more than to lie back down and let the pain pass, but she knew she had to get home before the storm hit. She hiked up her long skirts and trudged wearily back down the hill toward the town, her head throbbing.
She didn’t quite make it. The rain started as she crossed the streetcar tracks by the station, and she was dripping wet by the time she opened her own front door.
Her father was waiting for her. “Where were you?” he demanded, worry on his face.
“I’m sorry,” Andín said, holding her pounding head in her hands. She felt even worse. “I was out on the hill, and I fell asleep. I won’t do it again.”
“This is just the problem,” Papa fumed. “How can I trust you in a place like Palascena when you’re irresponsible enough to go out to the field by yourself, without telling anyone where you were, and sleep there? In the rain!”
“I said I was sorry!” Andín snapped, her temper flaring again.
“You asked why I’d send Palyar,” her father said as she tried to push past. “Because he wouldn’t ever do this! He’s responsible!”
“Good for him,” Andín said as sharp pain lanced through her head and body. She felt too strange and weary to fight any longer.
“Are you all right?” her father asked, concern chasing the anger from his face.
“I’m fine,” she said faintly. “I didn’t mean to worry you. I’ll… I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She left her father to worry in her wake as she climbed the stairs to her room.
Andín tossed and turned in her bed that night, unable to find rest or relief. Vivid dreams tormented her.
Worse, she couldn’t shake the feeling of something foreign lodged firmly in her mind, like a piece of meat stuck in her throat. It drew her through places she’d never seen or even imagined, through strange horrors and incomprehensible sights. Waking was a relief.
Someone was pounding on the door. “Deeny?” her mother’s voice came through the door.
She tried to tell her mother to go away, but all that came out was a sad little whine.
Her mother cracked the door and peered in. “Deeny! It’s morning! You need to be down in the shop; your father’s been asking after you!” Andín groaned and sat up. Her mother’s eyes widened in shock. “By the Holy Pair’s grace, you look awful. What were you doing last night?”
“Nothing,” said Andín said. The world swam in front of her. She swallowed hard.
“Nothing indeed! Your father says you were out until all hours!” Her mother bustled into the room and threw open the curtains. Early morning sun streamed in. Andín winced. Mama whirled to face her, hands on her ample hips. “And what were you doing out on the hill in the middle of the night, anyway?”
“I fell asleep! I was just out there to be alone. Papa—” Andín swallowed what she was going to say. She didn’t want to involve Mama in any of this. “It’s where Palyar and I used to go to play,” she finished limply.
“Not with some boy, I hope! That Mansar dav Palyen has been giving you such looks lately, I had better not catch you with the likes of him.”
“Ugh, never!” Andín protested.
“You can do much better,” said Mama with a sly grin. “If you have to spend time with any boys, the dal Gari boy is a nice one, or Kavín dav Iusco’s son.”
“Mama,” Andín groaned. She could never muster much interest in boys.
“You’ll have to think about it sooner or later,” Mama said with a sad little smile. “Now get dressed. Papa’s waiting in the shop.”
Andín listened to her mother’s footsteps receding down the creaky stairs, then sighed and dragged herself out of bed. Her head still ached.
What had happened out on the hill last night?
There had been that horrible buzzing, and then the bizarre, vivid dream. What had that been about?
Viko. The Battle of Viko? She knew the story well enough. The emperor at the time had faced down a rebellion led by one of the western barons who had designs on the crown, but Andín’s head was so fogged that she couldn’t remember which one.
“Who said that?” she exclaimed, shocked. The voice was deep and alien.
«Ropan. He was the baron. You should learn your history better, peasant girl.»
“How dare you!” she said, stinging from the insult. She looked wildly around to see if she could see where the voice was coming from. “I know my history very well, thank you! And where are you? Show yourself!”
She waited. No answer.
“Hello?” She checked around the bed and picked up the little pen she kept on her nightstand. If some strange man were to come at her, she could stab him in the eye with it.
And yet, no one came.
I refuse to be insane, she thought, putting the pen down with trembling fingers. I refuse!
She stumbled down into the shop attached to the west side of the house, hoping for some strong tea. She knew she looked awful despite her feeble efforts to tame her hair and scrub her face, and she hoped that maybe her father would take pity on her and send her back to bed.
To her despair, the store was already packed with men clutching newspapers and speaking in animated tones. Her father would barely notice her now.
“You’re late,” her father said distractedly as she settled herself gingerly onto the stool he kept behind the counter.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t sleep well,” she said, yawning for emphasis. She took the cup of delicious-smelling tea he handed her. Papa had the best teas. “I think I may be getting sick.”
“You must really be sick if you’re apologizing to me,” he said, smiling a little under the mustache.
“What’s going on?” she asked, changing the subject. “Busy this morning.” For a change, she thought but didn’t say.
“The paper says the emperor is near death,” he said, perking up considerably. “And someone saw a detachment from the Army in town this morning. They may make the proclamation.”
“Oh,” she said. Her head started throbbing again. “I see.” Whenever an old emperor died, the army went to every town that had more than a handful of people to proclaim his death and the ascension of his heir. She’d never seen it done; the current emperor had been in power since her father was a little boy.
“It’s a moment of great significance and solemnity,” he said, glancing around with an avaricious gleam in his eye. “Everyone’s buying plenty of newspapers and mourning caps.”
“That’s only right and proper,” she said, her voice coming out deeper than she expected. She suddenly remembered dozens of facts about mourning caps that she couldn’t ever recall learning. “You’re aware that they were originally made of sheepskin, painted blood red, and were meant to signify a son who had fallen in battle?”
“You’re always full of facts, Deeny,” he said absently as he waded back into the crowd to hear the latest rumors. The shop was one of the centers of social life for the men of the town, and they often gathered here to gossip, smoke, and clap each other on the back.
She sat on her stool, reading a book of old poetry through her pounding headache, enduring the customers and the stale air for a good hour before an excited little boy burst in.
“They’re setting up in the Station Square!” he said. “They say to get everyone together!”
The men all streamed for the door en masse, like excited boys going into a show.
“Lock up and follow!” her father ordered, his eyes bright.
When she arrived in the open square in front of the railway station, she had to stand behind what seemed like the entire town. An honor guard stood off to the side holding flags and ceremonial pikes. Imperial flags with their stylized stocky northern horses and crossed swords, the emblem of the ruling Molasca family, fluttered in the breeze next to the green, white and blue Antrimanian state flag. At the center of the square stood three Imperial Army officers, resplendent in their green coats, peaked hats and shining buckles.
The crowd hushed, eager to hear. One of the officers stepped forward and unrolled an official-looking proclamation.
“People of the town of Viko Station, Lofkandi province, hear the will of Heaven!” he said, his clear voice ringing through the square. “Be it known that His Imperial Majesty by the Will and Call of the Glorious Pair, the God and Goddess Eternal, our sovereign Askar Molasca of Antriman has departed this mortal realm.”
A sigh went through the crowd. At last, what they’d come to see.
Behind the honor guard, a good two dozen soldiers raised their rifles to the sky and fired. Andín jumped. They shot into the air again and again until Andín’s eardrums rang.
This didn’t help her headache. Spikes of pain lanced her, and she clutched her father’s arm to steady herself. He glanced down at her, concern in his eyes.
She couldn’t respond; her mouth felt full of cotton. Worse, a strange energy seemed to pulse and grow within her. It felt like her body was being consumed by some dark fire. She felt woozy, like she might be sick. Something was very wrong.
The smoke cleared, and the lead officer read the next part of the proclamation.
“Viko Station, Lofkandi! Hear the will of Heaven!” cried the army officer again, in the same lilting, rising and falling tones. “Be it known that His Imperial Majesty Hular Molasca, late Grand Prince of the Realm, has ascended to the Imperial Throne of Antriman in his capital at Palascena. Long life to the Emperor Hular Molasca!”
The crowd, loyal subjects all, applauded enthusiastically.
The dark energy had built inside Andín to the point where she couldn’t control it any longer. Something felt like it was bursting out from within her.
“No!” she screamed. Everyone turned to look at her. “No!”
She tried to stop herself, but she couldn’t. Some other voice from deep inside her had clawed its way to the surface.
“That ungrateful brat!” she cried. “How dare he! He is not the emperor! I am emperor! I am emperor!”
Her knees buckled, and she sank to the ground, wild with terror as the soldiers ran toward her. Her father’s eyes were wide with horror.
“I am the emperor!” she shrieked in a voice that wasn’t her own.
She repeated herself over and over, unable to stop, until she passed out.
September 25, 2016 release date. Available for pre-order in April. Contact us for review copies. Want updates on The Demon Girl’s Song? Sign up on the form below!
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