The Queen of Smiles, a stand-alone, full-length novel set in the world of my The Murder of Crows trilogy, launches November 22nd! I’m counting down to its release by sharing sample chapters, book stats, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun. In Chapter 1, the Queen of Smiles found her adopted home of Eclipse in ashes. The hunt for those responsible begins here, in Chapter 2!
Note: If you haven’t read The Murder of Crows yet, please be aware that these sample chapters may include spoilers from that series. Also, there will be profanity and bloodshed. Read at your own risk!
I’D NEVER BEEN much of a tracker. I didn’t have the patience for it, but the woman who tried to teach me said I also lacked the necessary perspective. Whatever the fuck that meant. I had seen enough to know that Eclipse’s attackers had gone east, but half the damn continent was east, and that did shit-all to narrow things down.
So, instead I went north.
Fall had come to the Badlands, less a season than a warning that winter was on its way with ice and snow and the return of terrors that buried themselves in the earth until the cold brought them forth to hunt again. Winter, the killer that lies in wait, that lulls you into an endless sleep with false promises of crackling fires and peppermint dreams.
I love winter. But fall? It’s just a tease.
My bike is a shit ton quieter than the old combustible engines that were still around when I was born but that’s a low bar to clear. As I traveled, it made plenty of noise: the electric hum of the motor, the tires on dirt, even the air’s moan as I forced my way through. There’s nothing silent about speed, and the prey animals of the plains heard me coming and scattered before me.
As for the predators? They watched and they waited, lurking high above, or pacing alongside me for a mile or two before finally falling away. Most killers are lazy. Only a few species in the Badlands had the malice to track their targets for hundreds of miles.
Howlers. Humans. The Great Terrors. And me.
Midway through the next afternoon, I let my bike roll to a stop. The poor excuse for a road I’d been following had petered out, so subtly you’d almost think it had happened naturally. Scrubland dotted a nearby hill, but to the east were the plains themselves, wide and open. To the west, distant storm clouds gathered in black and green ranks like an army preparing to march.
I lowered the kickstand of my bike and dismounted, leaving the saddlebags behind as I leaned back on the handlebars and waited. The wind was cold, even through my riding leathers, kicking up dirt as it swirled around me, but I kept still. I’d never had the patience for tracking, but hunting? That was a whole different thing entirely.
An hour passed, then two, and the sun disappeared behind the coming clouds. I spent the time listening to the storm inside me, watching its naturally born sibling creep closer across the sky. Fall is just a tease, yeah, but there’s a kind of peace to be found in its chaos. I let that crackling energy filter through me, waited as one storm communed with the other, and then waited a little bit longer.
Finally, I sighed.
“You already know I came alone, as usual. You also know I mean no harm, and that even if I did, you and your clan could just melt away and disappear. Assuming, of course, that your elders didn’t send their Powers to fight me instead. I don’t intend to set another foot in your territory, but I have business and I have questions.”
There was another long pause and then a man materialized out of the twilight shadows, dark-skinned and stone-faced, thick black hair bound in braids. He wore clothes fashioned from deer hide and decorated in beadwork, and the spear in his hand had two feathers bound to its shaft. I had no idea what those feathers signified, if anything, but I knew he could use that spear like he’d been born with it in his hands. I was also pretty sure he was a Power; his clan elders weren’t so dumb as to send a Normal to watch me.
He didn’t say anything, but then, he never had. Just stood there, dark eyes fixed on my helmet’s visor, as if trying to see past the smiley face decal to the face that lay beneath. Or maybe he knew enough not to bother, and simply waited, like I had been doing all these hours.
“There was a town named Eclipse,” I told him. “Almost two days to the south. Someone wiped it out. Left the bodies where they fell, so they’re not animals or cannibals. Didn’t steal the organs or the heads, so they’re not cultists. Took their own dead away with them but burned the whole place to the ground.”
More silence. Lightning flashed, close enough now to feel as well as see, and thunder rumbled like the eighteen-wheeler that had been my welcome to the world. The storm inside of me shifted, metal whirring and grinding against itself.
“I’m looking for the ones who did it,” I said to the silent nomad. I had no idea what his name was but had dubbed him Two-Feathers in our very first meeting, on account of the spear. “They went east, but your clan knows everything that goes on around here.” I motioned to the saddlebags on the bike behind me. “I’ve come with items to trade.”
He regarded me in silence, as the skies opened and fat drops of rain fell to the ground in sheets, and then finally moved, braids swaying as he looked to his left. Another nomad materialized next to him, not quite as smoothly as the first. He met Two-Feathers’ gaze, nodded, and scampered off into the darkness.
This was new. My jobs had taken me through nomad territory in the past, but this particular clan had only ever sent single representatives to deal with me: first, a scarred man with eyes like broken flint, and then, when the years turned into decades and the old generation died out to be replaced by their descendants, Two-Feathers himself, strong armed and silent as a ghost.
Whatever had changed, the storm inside me didn’t like it, but it was control that distinguished us from base animals. I ignored its grumblings, ignored the other storm too; rain that soaked my leather-clad shell, the spatter of water hitting chrome and rubber behind me. The bike was as weather-proofed as I could make it, batteries tucked away and safe from the elements, and if Two-Feathers wanted to get into a staring contest with me, he’d learn soon enough that I didn’t blink.
I sensed the new arrivals, long minutes later, moving quietly enough, but with none of the almost supernatural stealth I associated with my usual contact. First was the younger nomad Two-Feathers had sent away, followed by an older man: gaunt, grey haired, and hook-nosed, with burn scars across the left half of his face. He rested one wrinkled hand on Two-Feathers’ shoulder and stepped forward to address me.
“We greet The Storm Who Rides.”
“Greetings… elder,” I returned, my guess rewarded with an almost imperceptible nod. “I come seeking information. I have brought items—”
“To trade, yes.”
I waited as the storm swept by overhead, and the three of us—plus however many more had come in silence with the old man—stood there and got wet. I respected the nomads, respected anyone who could not only survive but thrive in places like this, but I sure as hell didn’t understand them.
“We know of those you seek,” the elder finally said. “They have yet to dare our lands, but that day will come and soon.” I could feel the weight of his gaze, heavy with foresight and hard-won wisdom, for all that I was older than he was. “Unless it can be delayed.”
“Delays are temporary,” I told him. “Death is forever.”
“Some of the time,” he agreed, turning to Two-Feathers.
The silent warrior extended his spear, butt-first, and dragged it along the ground, digging into the fresh mud. Within moments, he had drawn a crude image of a skull that appeared to be dripping blood on a pile of bones.
“This is the banner they march under,” said the unnamed elder. “They come from the east and their numbers are legion.”
“Not for much longer.” I committed the image to memory, even as rain filled in the freshly dug channels, like blood welling to the surface of a razor-thin cut. If there were as many of them as the elder said, that banner would be all I needed to find them. It was worth as much as a name.
I motioned to my bike and its saddlebags. “I have seeds and gold and a few pieces of steel. You are welcome to as much of it as you wish.”
He shook his head. “The land gives us what we need, and we thank it for its bounty. This information is offered freely.”
I shook my head slowly. “I can’t accept. It must be an exchange of equivalent value.”
For the first time since I’d met him, something like interest sparked in Two-Feathers’ black eyes, but he remained silent. The elder at his side nodded, as if he’d anticipated my reply. After a moment, he spoke again.
“There is a tale among the clans about a one-handed stranger who speaks to the spirits. A man who walks with an army of ancestors.”
Of its own volition, the storm inside me went quiet, and I heard the change in my voice, the absence of that metallic snarl.
“Bakersfield. I didn’t know you two had met.”
“We have not,” said the elder, “but this individual shared fires with another clan and the story spread, as stories do. We would know what became of him when he left our lands. If you have knowledge to share, consider your debt fulfilled.”
There was a whole lot I could say about Bakersfield, about the boy I’d escorted to superhero school, the man I’d rescued in bloody Reno, and the Power who went crazy and wiped a town not unlike Eclipse right off the map. And yet none of it mattered anymore.
“He went south. Into Tezcatlipoca’s domain.”
“Ah.” The elder’s face closed itself up like a fan. “Do you know why?”
I didn’t. I’d already left him at that point, left because I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I stuck around, wasn’t even sure who I was anymore with all my questions answered in the least satisfying way possible. But I had known Bakersfield before he became what he became. Something told me that even powers-given madness hadn’t changed his core.
“I think he was trying to make something good of his death,” I finally said. “Maybe buying time for those he loved in the Free States.”
“A delay of the inevitable.” The elder nodded knowingly.
I didn’t miss the synchronicity.
With our exchange done, the elder stumped his way back into the night, to a warm fire and what I could only hope was an equally warm bedmate. He didn’t invite me to the nomad camp, which was just as well because I wouldn’t have been able to accept. It hadn’t been part of our deal, after all.
Night in the Badlands is all-consuming. Nothing but darkness and the cries of creatures you’ll never see in the daylight. Predators and prey and all too often it’s hard to tell the difference. I knew what my next step was, what it had to be, but even in the Free States, post-Break roads weren’t compatible with nighttime riding. Out here in the Badlands, it was so much worse. I’d survive the almost inevitable wreck, but the nomads called me The Storm Who Rides, not The Storm Who Walks Away From a Mangled Frame of Rubber and Steel… and I’d hate to disappoint them.
So instead, I made myself cozy right there. No fire because you never knew what would set the clans off. Just me, stretched out on the wet earth next to my bike, saddlebags under my helmet as a pillow.
I gave it a good ten minutes of lying there in the night, as the thunderstorm dwindled to a disappointed shower, before I turned to the darkness and asked:
“Do you have a name?”
A soft rustle was my only response.
“Guess I’ll just keep calling you Two-Feathers then.” If there’d been light to see, I’m guessing the smiley-face on my visor would have looked particularly maniacal. “You know, your predecessor never smiled—I’m not sure he even knew how—but he did remember to occasionally speak.”
“Fair enough. It’s been a pleasure. Let’s talk some more in the morning.”
When the sun rose, he was gone.
I was a fan of the strong and silent type, especially when they had shoulders like Two-Feathers, but there was such a thing as taking it too far.
I’d make sure to tell him so the next time I rolled through.
The Queen of Smiles releases November 22nd, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
On Thursday, I’ll be back with Chapter 3. See you then!