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Opening Lines: "There's so much blood-too much blood. I can't stop it."
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Title: THE BEAR HOUSE (#1)
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In a gritty medieval world where the ruling houses are based on the constellations, betrayal, intrigue, and a king's murder force the royal sisters of the Bear House on the run!
Moody Aster and her spoiled sister Ursula are the daughters of Jasper Lourdes, Major of Bears and lord of all the realm. Rivals, both girls dream of becoming the Bear queen someday, although neither really deserve to, having no particular talent in... well, anything.
But when their Uncle Bram murders their father in a bid for the crown, the girls are forced onto the run, along with lowly Dev the Bearkeeper and the Lourdes's half-grown grizzly Alcor, symbol of their house. As a bitter struggle for the throne consumes the kingdom in civil war, the sisters must rely on Dev, the bear cub, and each other to survive--and find wells of courage, cunning, and skill they never knew they had.
"Weaves intrigue and adventure. . . . An
epic, complex narrative."—Publishers Weekly
"The stellar worldbuilding is both expansive and accessible, and the action never falters. . . . Thrilling adventure set in an enchanting world makes this an easy pick for high fantasy fans."—Kirkus Reviews
Excerpt for THE BEAR HOUSE by Meaghan MC Issac
Excerpt for THE BEAR HOUSE by Meaghan MC Issac
AT THE START OF ALL THINGS, THERE WERE ONLY THE STARS.
Many different stars— light upon light upon light— but alone, they were not enough.
To cure their loneliness, their light combined, and of them were born the High Beasts, each belonging to their own quadrant of heaven.
To the skies of the South were born the High Fly, the Glimmer Snake, and more. And the stars of the South became known as the Waters.
To the skies of the East and West were born the Dust Ram, the White Bull, the Star Twins, the Prism Scorpion, and more. These traveled together, one after the other, a ring of High Beasts in a never- ending loop.
These stars became the Ring.
To the skies of the North were born the White Bear, the Shadow Dragon, the Starhound, and more. But of them all, the stars loved the firstborn Bear best. And so the northern stars became the stars of the Great Bear.
When from the earth, Man emerged from the darkness, looking to the sky for guidance, the stars stretched out their light and sent these beasts to lead him, bringing them into the flesh.
And Man worshipped the stars, and he worshipped the beasts, and the beasts were sacred to him.
Thus, beneath the heavenly sea of the Waters, the Highen of the Waters was born.
Beneath the Ring’s milky skies grew the Highen of the Ring.
And beneath the crisp, dark skies of the Great Bear, the mighty Bear Highen began.
— THE WRITINGS OF BERN, On the Founding of Highens: The Fore, Star Writ
THE Shadow Dragons were screaming. Their cries rose out of the dark, echoing over the peak of Mount Draccus.
Men had come for their eggs.
Quintin Wyvern crouched in the shadows of a rocky outcrop, watching the retrieval party approach the nests. The young prince had promised his father he would stay in the castle by his ailing mother’s bedside. An outbreak of firelung had taken hold of the Kingdom of Dracogart, and Mother was just one of many fighting to survive. But that night, when the dragons began wailing, Lady Wyvern had squeezed Quintin’s hand.
“Go,” she told him, her breath ragged from the sickness. “Go and witness their sacrifice.”
And so Quintin left her. He had followed hidden paths so as not to be seen, the mountain’s breath thick and fetid and burning his lungs.
From his vantage point behind an outcrop of obsidian, Quintin saw the lights of the city of Dracogart below, saw the men in impressive armor walking up the main road, their horses sidestepping with nerves.
The mother dragons hissed at their approach, plumes of smoke billowing from their gaping mouths in warning. Only three eggs had been laid that year, each one a precious gift from the stars. They would take a further two years to hatch.
One of them would never get that chance.
There was a chirrup at his back, and Quintin startled. He turned and saw a Shadow Dragon, a juvenile female, crouched on the stones above him. She blinked at him, her yellow eyes anxious.
Quintin pressed a finger to his lips and turned back to watch the soldiers.
The mother dragons paced, encircling their nests. The light of the men’s torches danced and glinted off their dark, stony scales.
Quintin knew they would not give up an egg without a fight.
Shadow Dragons did not abide the laws of men.
And yet the law demanded an egg all the same. Word had reached Dracogart a week ago from the Major: the Kingdom of the Shadow Dragon must surrender one egg. And that egg would pay for the firelung cure that could only be found in the land of their enemies, the Ring Highen.
“We can’t!” his mother had said, fuming, when she had still been well enough to stand. “There has to be another way!”
Chancellor Furia, King Wyvern’s most trusted advisor, had agreed— even though Furia and Queen Wyvern rarely agreed on anything. “Sire, it is too sinful even to think of.”
The eggs of the Shadow Dragon were sacred. Blessings from the holy stars themselves. How could Dracogart allow anyone to take what had been given by the stars?
“The Major was chosen to be Major because he is favored by the stars,” King Wyvern told them. “If the Major believes this is the way to save our people, then we must trust that he is right.”
Save the people, yes . And more importantly now, thought Quintin, save Mother. Her condition was worsening by the hour.
But still, he felt a nervousness in his gut. What if Father was wrong to allow this?
Umbra chirruped again, as if she could read his thoughts.
Quintin looked beyond Dracogart’s rocky valley, over which the mountain’s shadow fell— Father was out there, somewhere, hunting with his mount Draco, the largest dragon alive, the dragon- king of the Shadow Dragons. When the Major’s men had left the castle for the mountain path to retrieve the egg, Father had left with Draco— the king of dragons would be angry to hear his wives so distressed, he’d said.
But Quintin knew the truth. Seeing the Major’s men take an egg from the Shadow Dragons’ nest was too painful for even his father to bear.
There were shouts from the men in armor, and when Quintin looked, one had approached the edge of the nest. The man held a spear, its tip fitted with a fat, dripping hearth weasel— as if a treat would be enough to trade a dragon for her child.
One of the mother dragons slunk toward him, a threatening hiss venting from her smoking maw. The fins at the edge of her jaw fluttered. She was eager to crunch bone.
“Courage, men!” shouted someone. “Hold!” cried another. And still more were roaring orders as the man in armor inched closer to the dragon.
Quintin held his breath. The young soldier stepped across the line on the ground where the rock had been scorched by dragon breath— the threshold of the nest.
“Too close,” Quintin whispered.
The mother dragons reared up, all of them screaming in unison, black wings flapping. The foremost dragon lunged, her powerful jaws snapping with a thunderous clap just short of the young man’s belly.
The dragons’ screams built on one another, the noise folding onto itself, lifting with a ferocious desperation. They were screaming for Draco.
Draco, whose size and power would protect them all.
Quintin’s eyes burned with tears. Draco was with his father.
Draco would not save them.
And then a roar exploded from somewhere below the mountain.
It was so loud and resonant, it was as if the earth itself had opened up.
No. This roar was earthbound. Not of the sky.
Quintin heard Umbra screech and skitter away, scurrying back to her family, back into a nest farther up the mountain. She was only a little dragon, after all, even if she was Draco’s daughter.
The mother dragons’ mood shifted, their hissing and smoking replaced by a quiet, nervous chirping, tiny sparks spitting from the sides of their mouths. Quintin had never seen Shadow Dragons look like that— tails wrapped close to their sides, bellies pressed low to the ground, all huddled close together. They were frightened. Frightened of what was making its way up the mountain road.
A bear unlike any Quintin had ever seen before.
The hulking beast stood heads above the horses, her girth so wide it took up the entire path. Her long, grizzled fur looked like fire, a bright amber color that gleamed in the torchlight. Her jaws looked powerful enough to crush iron, her paws big enough to shake the earth. There was no mistaking it— a Hemoth Bear.
She was Mizar. The mightiest creature in all of the Bear Highen.
And beside her stood a man, just as hulking and grizzled as she.
The Bear Major himself: Jasper Lourdes.
They approached the nest, the dragons clustered together in a quaking mass. Mizar the Hemoth chuffed and snorted, her massive footfalls causing the very earth to shake.
Quintin watched as the Major placed a hand on the Hemoth’s flank and the bear stopped. The Major continued to approach and, without hesitation, stepped over the nest’s threshold. The dragons did not make a sound. He picked his way over rocks and boulders until he was standing above an egg, its black shell speckled with pinpricks of warm light.
One of the mothers, the one who had snapped at the soldier, whined with alarm, and the Hemoth roared again, dislodging rock and stone from the mountainside and sending it tumbling down.
Quintin threw his hands over his head to protect himself from the stony shower; dust powdered his shoulders.
When the rumble faded to nothing, the dragons were silent again.
Major Jasper Lourdes bent down to the egg and took it gently in his hands.
Quintin longed to know how it felt. Warm, he imagined. Like the stones that lined the hearth fires in the castle.
Finally, delicately, the High King of the Bear Highen fit the egg into the crook of his arm, as if cradling a baby, and bowed to the frightened flock of dragons.
And just as suddenly as they’d arrived, the Major and the Hemoth left, disappearing down the mountain road with the Major’s soldiers following behind.
Quintin was alone with the Shadow Dragons, trembling with his awe of the Hemoth Bear, and with fear and sadness for the egg the men had taken with them— the Shadow Dragon that would never be.
And the Great Bear Lord Tawn saw inside the heart of the human Dov, and saw in it that which pleased him: courage to face whatever threat might meet him, love for all the On-High’s children, and the honor to uphold the greatness of the stars . . .
And so it was that the Great Bear Lord Tawn chose the human Dov to be protector of the realm.
And so it was that the Highen had its first Major and its first Hemoth Bear.
— THE WRITINGS OF BERN, The Crowning of the First Major: The Age of Tawn, Star Writ
BERNADINE Lourdes was pouting. The only daughter of the House of the White Bear was used to having her own way.
But this was Aster Lourdes’s house— and she’d be damned by Tawn if she let her spoiled cousin dictate the afternoon.
“Pout all you want,” Aster snapped, fishing through the drawers of her father’s giant mahogany desk. “I told you, I’ve no interest in board games today.”
The girls sat in the high- ceilinged study of Aster’s father, where heavy, deep- red curtains framing the bay windows blocked the sun-shine of another beautiful summer day. Bernadine sulked, a Crowns
& Stones board across her lap. The periwinkle damask of her petticoat clashed with the rugged coldness of the room.
Aster loved this room. She loved the dimness; loved the musty smell of the old leather books in the towering shelves; loved the icy chill of the dark tiles under her feet, painted with depictions of Hemoth Bears from history. They reminded her of her family’s importance to the Highen every time she took a step.
For Aster Lourdes was the daughter of the Bear Major, the ruler of all the Bear Highen— Jasper Lourdes, the Death Chaser.
Her fingers grazed the smooth, familiar handle of the object she was looking for, and she grinned. Her father’s ivory quill knife. She pulled it out and placed it gently on the desktop.
Bernadine let out a huff, folding her arms and narrowing her eyes. “And I have no interest in your silly map.”
“It’s not silly, and it’s not just any old map.”
“It’s not. I’m making a war map. ”
Aster smoothed the giant map out on the surface of her father’s desk. The parchment was wrinkled and bruised from con-stant folding and unfolding, its sides and corners fraying. No matter how lovingly she cared for her map, Aster could see she was loving it to death.
Picking up the quill knife, she resolved to be gentler, then set about her work, sharpening and shaping the tip of her quill. “Father and Uncle Bram plan to meet the enemy’s forces near Kishtowel Pass, where the Great Bear River meets the Celestial Sea. I have to draw their route.”
“You don’t know that that’s where they are. And it’s tool. ”
“Tool,” Bernadine said again. “Look”— she hopped off the windowsill and stormed over, slamming her finger down on the name under Aster’s quill—“K-i-s-h-t-o-u-l. It’s pronounced Kish- tool.
Not Kish- towel.”
Aster slapped her cousin’s hand away and made a mental note to remember Kish tool.
“I do know where they are,” she insisted, hoping the mispronun-ciation would disappear from conversation.
“You know they plan to meet the Ring’s forces at the pass, but that’s all. There’s no way to know where they are for certain— them or the Ring. Your map is probably all wrong.”
“Of course they’ll be there,” said Aster, gritting her teeth and circling Kishtoul Pass to mark the end of her father’s path.
In truth, she didn’t know for certain. They hadn’t heard from the Bear Highen’s armies in a fortnight.
The day word reached her father that the Ring Highen had declared war, there had been shock and fear. The Major had just traded the Ring the egg of a Shadow Dragon— a deeply powerful and sacred object— for the venom of the Prism Scorpion to cure the firelung plaguing Dracogart. It was a mutually beneficial arrange-ment, one that promised friendship and peace after many centuries of rivalry— and often war. Two Highens, a sea apart, helping each other into a new age.
Certainly, there were voices that had cautioned against the trade.
Bah, her father had said, waving an unconcerned hand, men always have opinions on matters as delicate as this. All will be well.
But now, with the egg delivered and the new alliance made, the Ring had the gall to attack? It was a baffling move, one her father and the other Heads of Houses were completely unprepared for.
The Ring had attacked and burned several coastal cities quickly and mercilessly, and Father had had no choice but to answer.
Jasper Lourdes had mobilized his men. And as Minor of the Highen, first among the lesser kings and the Major’s second, Uncle Bram had moved the White Bear’s armies the very next day to join them. Both Aster’s and Bernadine’s father were at war.
“Fine. Do what you want,” said Bernadine. “I’m going to try on some dresses.”
“Which dresses do you think you’re trying on?”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
Bernadine peeked around the open door and looked back at Aster with a wrinkled brow. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because Ursula will kill you if she catches you.”
Bernadine waved an unconcerned hand. “She’s outside. She’ll never know.”
Aster looked over to the window, the sunlight of a cloudless day fighting to invade the darkness of her father’s office.
“She’s harassing your bear boy again.” Bernadine shrugged, slipping out the door. “She’ll be at it all afternoon.”
Aster winced as the door slammed shut, and, alone in the quiet, she sighed. Ursula, her big sister, had a wardrobe of at least two hundred dresses. Aster wouldn’t see Bernadine again until dinner.
It was funny, really, how much Bernadine had changed since coming to live with the Major’s family four years ago. Uncle Bram had sent her to Tawnshire from Whitlock after her mother, Aunt Gwynlin, became very sick. And when poor Aunt Gwynlin had died, Uncle Bram thought it best that Bernadine remain with her cousins, not only to keep her from the sadness of his empty house, but to have her brought up a proper lady at the Major’s court. Whitlock was a cold wasteland compared to Tawnshire; Aster could still remember the Minor’s little daughter arriving on horseback, wearing weasel furs and coveralls like a peasant. Not even a carriage! Just her own white horse and her father’s soldiers to escort her. She had been a different girl then.
Aster stared at the handle of the quill blade in her hand: heavy ox bone, honey- stained, carved in the likeness of the Hemoth Bear.
A simple instrument for a Major, humble, with no gemstones or precious metals. And yet the bear had been so carefully carved, with so much detail, that it was ornate in its own quiet way. It was a strange thing for a Major to have— traditionally, his quills were kept sharp by devoted attendants, and no Major bothered himself with such a small, tedious task. Perhaps that was why she liked it so much— because it made her father different. Keeper Rizlan had given it to him when he was a boy not much older than her. To help with my studies, her father had said.
Where was Father now? How long until he would send word?
She walked her fingers along the trail her father’s armies had marched for the past month. From Tawnshire . . . southwest along the Great Bear River . . . and through the Wellin Woods, a dangerous forest of dark shadows and hungry wolves— or so her father always told her. She made a silent vow to see it someday.
Someday, when she would lead the Bear Highen’s armies through the dangers of the Wellin Woods.
It could happen. It wouldn’t, but it could. Ursula was the heir, the one expected to fill the role of Major, but sometimes Aster liked to dream it would be her.
The Lourdes had headed the House of the Hemoth Bear for centuries, and her own father was the younger of two brothers, whom no one expected to take the throne. And even though he had been chosen above her uncle by the Hemoth Bear, it had never divided the brothers, as some might expect. The White Bear, the second- most- powerful and - sacred of High Beasts, chose Uncle Bram, and the Lourdes brothers brought stability and prosperity to the Highen as no Major and his Minor had ever done before. They were a team, united by blood and purpose. If Aster became Major, she liked to imagine that Ursula would be just like Uncle Bram and serve as Minor, the Lourdes legacy continued.
But then, Aster doubted her big sister could even name the eight sacred High Beasts of the Highen, let alone their kingdoms. Aster closed her eyes and ran through them: Dracogart, the Kingdom of the Shadow Dragon; Hundford, the Kingdom of the Hounds; Felis-brook, the Kingdom of the Lynx; Roarque, the Kingdom of the Lion; Twigate, the Kingdom of the Blue Giraffe; Härkädia, the Kingdom of the Ox. And, of course, Whitlock, the Kingdom of the White Bear, where Bernadine and Uncle Bram reigned. And most importantly, there was Tawnshire, the Kingdom of the Hemoth Bear. Home.
A roar, furious and deep, suddenly shook the windowpane. Ursula’s familiar high- pitched shriek rang out next, and Aster ran to the window.
There was her sister, racing across the front green away from the stables and the Bear Holding. Her usual train of six ladies-in-waiting was absent. What, Aster wondered, had her sister been up to that she had to leave her lady’s maids behind?
“Get it away from me!” Ursula screamed, tripping over the front of her rose- colored dress and landing face- first in the grass.
Another loud roar— and then the large, round, shaggy form of Alcor, Mizar’s cub, exploded out of the Bear Holding, his white teeth glinting in a terrifying snarl .
Ursula, Aster thought, finally understanding, why can’t you just keep your nose out of the Holding!
Her big sister had been poking around the Bear Holding all season. Ursula had never shown any interest in Mizar or Alcor before— in fact, Aster had long suspected she was frightened of the monstrous war bears. It was a strange thing for her vain, cosseted sister to do, and Aster couldn’t quite figure what had started it.
All she knew was this: it was a bad idea.
“Bear boy!” Ursula shrieked, Alcor closing the gap between them with raised hackles. The young bear was getting big. Aster couldn’t believe how big. “Bear boy! Bear boy!”
Aster’s eyes scanned the grounds, her heart beginning to race.
Where were the Hermans, the Manor’s guards?
Just steps away from Ursula, Alcor stretched out his long neck, flabby lips curling over razor teeth, and let out another roar. Aster’s breath caught. She lifted a fist to the glass, about to bang on the pane—
And then she saw them: three Hermans, racing for Ursula, ready to throw themselves between her and Alcor.
But Alcor stopped. Just like that.
The bear sat back on his rump, gargantuan paws folded daintily in front of him. He’d forgotten Ursula completely. There was a sound, Aster noticed now, like a quacking, whining duck.
She unlatched the glass and leaned her head out the window.
There: it was Devin, the bear boy, standing in the door of the Bear Holding. He was blowing into what Aster knew to be his special kazoo.
The young bear— now more like a stuffed toy than a monster—
leaned his head back as far as he could to see his kazoo- playing servant, then rolled happily in the grass, his fury completely dissolved.
Aster couldn’t help but wrinkle her nose. She was relieved enough that Ursula was unharmed, but the fact remained— Alcor was shaping up to be a pretty lousy High Beast for the House of the Hemoth Bear. If it had been Mizar that Ursula had offended, her sister would have been flung in pieces all over the front green, the bear boy’s kazoo only making matters worse.
The Hermans rushed to help Ursula to her feet.
“A monster!” she shrieked, pointing at the overgrown cub. “He’s nothing but a killer!”
Aster rolled her eyes. He certainly was not. Not yet.
“That’s what your father needs me to make him!” the boy bellowed back. Aster sat up. A servant, yelling at a daughter of the Major? That took a lot of nerve . . . or lack of brains.
Ursula straightened and stood in that dignified Lady-of-Lourdes pose she saved for visiting princes and dignitaries— proud and regal, like their father.
Aster watched as the bear boy’s anger drained into his feet, his stiff, accusing posture dissolving into slumped shoulders and a drooping head.
“How dare you speak to me that way?” Ursula spat. “What will my father say when I tell him what an insolent wretch you are?”
Ursula might have been beautiful, but at just sixteen she had a bite almost as powerful as Mizar’s. “You are a servant of my house! My servant!”
“I am Alcor’s servant!”
Aster watched the bear boy, surprised. He had always lived at the Manor, as far back as her memory would go. He’d grown up here, all thirteen years, just as she had. And in all that time, Aster had barely heard him speak. He was apprenticed to Master Rizlan, the High Keeper of the Hemoth Bears; maybe with all the talking Master Rizlan did around the Manor, there wasn’t much left for the boy to say.
Ursula was less amused. “If you think for one minute that your first loyalties are to that— that— that— animal over there,” she said,
“you’d best think again! How dare you presume to put me and my family second to that beast?”
The boy said nothing, digging his knuckles into his eyes.
“Jumping Juniper Bears!” Startled, Aster whirled around to see Gatch, her nurse, standing in the door to the study. “Aster Lourdes!
You’re in your war formals!”
Aster gripped the leather pleats that made up the skirt of her war formals, twisting it to the side as though she could hide it behind her back. No use— she’d been caught. In her best dress for the festival season, without a festival in sight.
“I laid out your clothes for you this morning!” Gatch wrung her pudgy hands, storming over. “And you go and dig out your finest garment, again! Ohhhhh, your mother’s gonna have a flying fit if she sees what I’ve let you do!”
Aster frowned, noticing the violet fabric of an evening gown draped across her nurse’s arm. It was a fine frock, but nothing compared to the ornate stitching of her war formals. In the purple dress, she looked like a child. In the war formals, she looked like a queen.
Gatch grabbed Aster by the shoulders, turned her away from the window, and began undoing the back lacing of her dress. “I’ve been calling you for an hour! You should be nose- deep in your Star Writ studies by now. Not to mention how behind you are on your Roarsh lessons. I might’ve known you were up in this dank space! What in the name of Tawn do you get up to here all day?”
Aster pressed her palms against the dress’s hardened leather breastplate, feeling the ridges of its embossed Hemoth Bear. Gatch was right, of course: her mother would be horrified to see her wearing something so precious outside the festival season. But it only came once a year, which— to Aster’s mind— was entirely too infrequent.
“Honestly, Gatch, I do love this dress,” Aster said, ignoring her nurse’s question. “Please, can’t you just pretend you didn’t find me?
I’ll change before dinner!”
“Pretend you didn’t find me, she says! Do you know how many stairs I’ve been climbing looking for you?”
Aster could guess. Gatch’s brow was beaded with sweat and her palms were hot and wet as they lifted Aster’s arms to the sky.
“Besides, yer mum’s quite partial to the purple, as you well know, so’s best to just—”
Another bellow from Alcor rattled the windows and cut Gatch off.
“What? What?” Gatch let go of Aster. “Stars above! What is Dev doing with that bear now?”
“It’s not what the boy is doing.” Aster sighed, watching Gatch wig-gle up onto the bay window seat and peer out at the front green. “It’s Ursula.”
Gatch leaned out the window and screamed, “Ursula Lourdes!”
The sound bored a hole through Aster’s eardrums. “You get yerself back in this house and get to yer studies this instant! Leave the boy alone to do his blessed work, for the love of Tawn!”
Peeking over Gatch’s shoulder, Aster could see her big sister, dagger eyes trained on them. She could have sworn Ursula’s skin turned bright red to match her hair— hair like their father’s. Aster bit back a snigger.
Gatch closed the window with a slam, so hard Aster worried she’d cracked the glass.
“Arms up,” the woman said, tugging Aster’s bodice up over her head, the leather and metal clinging to her skin, refusing to let go easily. “You’d think I’ve nothing better to do than chase you around all day. And at your age, no less.”
Her age. Thirteen and nearly grown— this time next year she’d have no nurse, a retinue of lady’s maids tittering behind her instead. What would that be like? Dainty young women who gossiped and whispered behind thin fingers. Not like old Gatch. Her nurse was crude and loud, big and determined and stubborn. Aster was very fond of her. Gatch was the only person besides Aster’s father who could shut Ursula’s mouth with a pointed finger, or silence Bernadine with a snap of her sharp tongue.
The idea of being without her struck Aster with a sudden pang of loss.
“There now,” Gatch said, finishing up the laces on Aster’s purple dress. The nurse gave one final tug. “Quite refined, if I do say so m’self.
Now scoot. Yer mum’ll be waiting on you to start supper.”
“Oh, Gatch, don’t say mum. ”
Gatch let out one of her explosive laughs that always sounded more like a hacking cough. “Well, beg yer pardon, Miss Poppy Pro-priety.” And with an affectionate tug of her hair, she sent Aster out the door.
It is, by my estimation, not the Major who receives the highest blessings from the On-High, nor is it even the mystical Oracle. It is the humble Keeper.
And because of the On-High’s great blessings, it is the Keeper who is doomed to suffer most.
— THE WRITINGS OF THUBAN, On the Mysteries of the On-High: The Star Majors, Star Writ
THE night air nipped at Dev’s skin as he made his way to the back door of the kitchens. He was glad of the chill— it cooled his boiling blood.
The Lourdes girls would be the death of him, he was sure. Spoiled Aster and vain Ursula had been intolerable since the day he began his service at Lourdes Manor. Today had pinched the young Keeper’s last nerve.
“Stupid, no-good, pampered princess brats!” he growled to himself.
The young Herman standing guard at the kitchen’s servants’
entrance cast a downward glance at him. Dev glared back, flinging open the rickety wooden door. A gust of warm, wet, savory air, the steam of a dozen cooking pots, dampened his face.
“Eh!” Gatch, the girls’ nanny- woman, stood over a large wooden table. She held a bowl of oddgob, Chef Ingle’s usual stew of leftovers.
“What’s all that about, little Dev?”
Little Dev. He was nearly fourteen, and taller than Gatch to boot. The little she insisted on was another irritating part of life at Lourdes Manor.
He ignored her and stormed up to the table— well, not even really a table. The servants of the Lourdes’ house had no table. It was, in actuality, a counter, one the cooks used for chopping, and dicing, and rolling out dough. Dev always ate his dinner standing at that counter, the occasional piece of onion or carrot flying into his meal.
He slammed his fist down, and Cook Darby looked up from her creamed potatoes with a frown. Dev returned it. He’d dealt with enough attitude for one day.
“Well, well,” said Gatch, shoving a spoonful of stew into her mouth. “Someone’s in a right sour mood this evening.”
“Chef Ingle,” he barked, “can I get some oddgob here, or what?”
The wiry chef raised an eyebrow and looked at Gatch. Gatch just shook her head. Ingle grunted, but scooped a ladleful of stew into a wooden bowl.
Dev grabbed the hot bowl, burning both his hands, but he swal-lowed down the pain.
The crunchy, beady eyes of a particularly ugly crustacean stared up at him from the brown gravy. Binger heads. He hated binger heads.
He slammed his fist on the counter for the second time. “Turds of Tawn!”
“Jumpin’!” shouted Gatch. “A very sour mood!”
Dev shouldn’t have been so blasphemous, especially as a Keeper.
But he couldn’t hold it in any longer. All he could hear was Ursula’s voice in his head— her arrogant, nasal voice. “She called me her servant!”
“Me!” he shouted. “Her servant!”
The kitchen went silent, save for a quiet bubbling. Gatch, Chef Ingle, and Cook Darby stopped what they were doing and stared at him, their old foreheads folded in half with worry. The other kitchen helpers looked anywhere but at Dev.
“Who did?” ventured Gatch finally.
Dev dropped his eyes to his bowl and shoved a crunchy, rubbery binger head into his mouth, his face suddenly red. Chewing would keep him from speaking; he’d already said too much. Keepers were supposed to be mild and forbearing and . . . well, all the things he wasn’t being.
“You serve Alcor,” said Ingle, a confused look on her face. “No other.”
Dev shook his head.
“Is this about Lady Ursula?” Gatch asked quietly.
Dev kept chewing.
“Lady Ursula?” said Chef Ingle. “What about Lady Ursula?”
Dev sighed. He’d opened this door, he might as well go through.
“She said I was her servant. As though I were nothing but a stableboy.”
There was a simultaneous gasp from Ingle and Darby, Ingle dropping her soup ladle with a loud clatter onto the floor.
Dev winced. He shouldn’t have spoken. Rizlan would not approve of him venting his frustration to half the Manor like this.
It wasn’t as if Ursula could be changed. Very little about Lourdes Manor could be changed.
“ That— that— that girl!” The scrawny chef fingered the bear pen-dant around her neck, her face contorted with fury. “Blasphemous!
Disrespectful! Gatch, how dare she speak to a Keeper that way?”
Here it comes. Dev hated when Ingle got on about faith— about the Chosen Keepers and all that. Her piety sometimes embarrassed him. Yes, he had been selected at birth by the stars to be a Keeper of a High Beast— and not just any High Beast, but the most powerful and beloved of all the stars’ children, the Hemoth Bear— but it was Master Rizlan, Mizar’s Keeper, who led the faith at Lourdes Manor.
Dev was only an apprentice, and truth be told, he studied scripture less than Riz would like.
Gatch nodded understandingly at him, a kind smile on her face.
“Lady Ursula can be thoughtless at times.” Dev didn’t answer. “You have to understand, little Dev”— he shoved another disgusting binger into his mouth—“that she hasn’t been raised with the same . . .
vigilance to scripture as you.”
“No vigilance, more like!” growled Ingle. “Imagine! A noble demanding service from a Keeper! It’s disgusting! He was chosen!
Chosen! This boy is a servant of the Hemoth Bear! Not of her spoiled behind!”
Exactly, Dev thought. He was chosen to dedicate his life to Tawn and his descendants. How could Ursula Lourdes not understand that?
Sure, Dev spent his days shoveling bear dung, washing Alcor’s stall, and studying scripture until he fell asleep on his books. But that was his duty. Keepers were not supposed to care for their own wealth and comfort. Keepers cared only for their Beasts.
Gatch put a hand on Dev’s shoulder. “Ursula doesn’t fully understand that you work for a Higher Power than her father. To her, he is the Highest Power.”
That was ridiculous. A man with more power than the Hemoth Bear? More power than the On-High?
“If that mother of hers spent more time taking care of her spiri-tual well- being instead of indulging her every selfish whim—” shouted Ingle.
Everyone turned quickly to the kitchen door, terrified that Jasper Lourdes’s wife would suddenly appear to punish them for speaking ill of her older daughter.
With a hand over her mouth, and in a hissing whisper, the chef finished: “— she wouldn’t be the laughingstock of the Highen. Her
and the little one.”
Dev raised an eyebrow. As though the spoiled nature of Ursula and Aster were entirely the fault of Lady Lourdes. Dev knew the Lourdes better than he’d known any family of his own, and this was the truth: Jasper Lourdes adored his daughters. He adored them so much that he indulged them in everything. Oftentimes, that meant letting them neglect their Star Writ readings, or forgo a riding lesson, or sleep late— despite Lady Lourdes’ objections.
And the lack of discipline in the Major’s home was no secret to the Highen, either. Most people had a low opinion of the Major’s daughters. No one believed Alcor would choose Ursula for Major when her father and Mizar came off the post. Not just because she was unprepared, but— these whispers were increasingly common in Tawnshire Town— because the On-High would reject her as punishment for Jasper’s decision to hand a holy dragon egg to the Ring Highen, something no Major had ever done before. Did not the On-High entrust the Shadow Dragons to the Bear Highen, and the Bear Highen alone? Was it not sacrilege to trade their young like crops or cattle?
But if the girls weren’t chosen to succeed Jasper, oh, what a disaster it would be. The Hemoth Bear had chosen a Lourdes for a millennium. It was a thing that kept Dev up at night— if Aster and Ursula proved to be the first Lourdes in a hundred generations to be unworthy of the Hemoth Bear, who would Alcor choose? What strange new lord or lady, Dev didn’t like to wonder, would he and Alcor spend their lives alongside?
“Can we stop talking about this?” he grumbled.
He could feel the old women trading concerned looks over his head. Perfect. No doubt Gatch would talk to Master Rizlan about this when he returned from the front. Even if she didn’t, Ingle and Darby were bound to gossip with every servant at the Manor; it was only a matter of time before Dev’s complaint made its way to Lady Lourdes herself. Either way, when his mentor returned from battle, Dev would have to listen to another lesson on the importance of silence.
A wise Keeper uses his words sparingly, Riz always said. Consider words your gold, young apprentice. To keep them behind closed lips is to stay a wealthy man.
If that was true, then Riz was poor indeed.
He never chattered or gossiped. But he did lecture Dev nightly about the duties of a Keeper: offering counsel; divining prophecies; fortelling the future; caring for the Highen’s sacred beasts; and record-ing great events, that his writings might someday be added to the holy Star Writ. Most of their evenings lately, though, had been devoted to training Dev to open his mind to visions sent by the stars. Dev had yet to see anything, and he knew that Riz was getting frustrated. He should have seen something by now.
At least Dev wouldn’t have to endure a lesson tonight. Though he missed Master Rizlan desperately, he had to admit that he liked having the Keepers’ quarters all to himself.
Eager to enjoy some privacy, Dev lifted the hot stew of binger heads to his mouth and slurped up what was left. No time for chewing— an evening of peace and quiet was at the bottom of that bowl. With the last drop drunk, he slammed the bowl down and let out a belch.
And noticed everyone staring at him.
Including Lady Lourdes.
The Major’s beautiful wife stood in the middle of the kitchen, staring down her nose at him. Her fancy gown glittering with precious Ursan amber was almost laughable, it was so out of place in the kitchen.
“I trust you enjoyed your meal, young Keeper.” Her voice was rough, like the leathery bottoms of Alcor’s paws. All that Celeste root she smoked had worn it out.
“Yes, my lady,” he mumbled, adding a polite bow.
“I am pleased to hear it.” She didn’t look pleased. She looked downright disgusted, with frowning crimson- painted lips. Her dark eyes kept him frozen to the spot, afraid to move. He could feel his palms getting slick with sweat.
And then she blinked and turned to Ingle. In an instant, she’d forgotten Dev completely. “The girls are in low spirits tonight, Chef Ingle. They miss their father, and I fear they’ve grown restless. I’ve decided a change of menu is in order.”
Ingle curtsied, so low she nearly fell over. “Of course, my lady.
What did you have in mind?”
Dev fought the urge to shake his head. Ingle spoke the worst of Lady Lourdes, but she always bowed the lowest.
“Lamb pies.” The words cracked from Lady Lourdes’ mouth like the snap of a whip. “I don’t care for them, but I do believe my Aster is fond of the ones you make. I should like an assortment of greens on the side, of course.”
“Of course, my lady,” said Ingle, already abandoning Darby’s creamed potatoes.
Dev pursed his lips. He would have preferred those potatoes to Binger heads.
With a curt nod, Lady Lourdes left them, the train of her dress floating behind her, twinkling.
A change of menu, Dev thought. An entire meal tossed aside as though hundreds of Tawnshirians living a few hundred tail- lengths down the hillside in Tawnshire Town wouldn’t have loved just a taste.
It had been a very dry summer, and the yields of good Tawnshirian crops— lettuce, parsnips, chard, leeks, tomatoes— were low. The war was not good for business in the city, either. The unwanted potatoes was a true waste.
But creamed potatoes was a rich man’s food, a king’s food, not fit for the low and the humble. So Ingle had tossed it all, as was expected.
Dev left the counter and pushed open the kitchen door, the cool night meeting him with the refreshing smell of cherry trees from the Manor’s orchards.
Ingle grabbed him by the shoulder. “Take this,” she said, smiling and holding up a raw lamb shank wrapped in parchment. “For the little prince.”
As inappropriate as Gatch’s little was for Dev, Ingle’s little was even more ill- fitting for Alcor. Alcor was certainly not little anymore. But still, Ingle loved to sneak him treats. And Alcor was happy to eat them.
Dev nodded and took the shank.
The night’s quiet and the chill of the wind surrounded him as he crossed the Manor’s grounds. He let out a sigh of relief: the day was almost over. A quick stop in to Alcor with the shank, and then the hours were his. He’d curl up in front of the fire and watch the blaze until he fell asleep.
He could think of nothing he’d enjoy more than doing absolutely nothing at all.
About Meaghan McIsaac:
Meaghan McIsaac is the author of several books for young readers, including The Boys of Fire and Ash, which was shortlisted for the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Award; and Movers, which was a Shining Willow Finalist for the Saskatchewan Young Readers’ Choice Awards. Meaghan lives in Toronto, Ontario with her two dogs.
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