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 2, the Queen of Smiles received her first clue to the identity of Eclipse’s attackers from the nomad clan to the north. The hunt for more information continues in Chapter 3!
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!
IT TOOK ME two days to reach Kansas City, although most of that was because of the mess the storm had made of the route. I was starting to wonder how many more years my bike would remain viable as a means of transportation. Not because of wear and tear—I babied the thing, and there were a handful of engineers in the Free States willing to work on it when necessary—but because the roads themselves were vanishing throughout the Badlands, having long since gone from asphalt to dirt. Some of the larger communities with access to rock quarries still put down gravel or even stone on their local throughways, but they were more the exception than the rule.
Riding a horse around the Badlands wouldn’t be my idea of fun, even if there was a horse alive that wasn’t troubled by my presence.
I passed a couple of merchant caravans on the way in, men and women with balls of solid brass headed to Wichita or Texas or even the Free States now that international trade was becoming a thing again. Every year, a few of those caravans ended up as so much trash scattered across the Badlands, only to be replaced by the next would-be entrepreneur, ready to make their fortune.
I ignored the little rugrat hanging off the side of one wagon and spared a nod for his parents as I sped past. The rifle in the woman’s hands wouldn’t do much good against the Badlands’ horrors, let alone someone like me, but that was the risk they took. If merely human bandits came along, maybe it would be enough to keep them safe. The fact that they were leaving Kansas City alive and with their possessions suggested they weren’t complete victims.
An hour later, the city itself came into view. Even before its demise, Eclipse had been a sleepy little town. Kansas City was the opposite, a sprawling lesson on what depths humanity could sink to when freed of its morality. It was a great place to get fucked or stabbed. Or both if you were dumb enough to visit one of the cheaper brothels.
I wove through the shanty town that served as the city’s first unofficial district, coming to a stop as a patrol of bandana-clad guards slid out from between the tents to surround me.
“I heard you were dead,” said their leader, Lily, a woman with a face not even her mother could have loved. “Killed fighting Capes in the Free States.”
“You heard wrong.” I flipped Lily a coin, one of the city’s own minted bits of currency, and accepted a brightly colored bandana in return, my pass through her cartel’s district. “What’s new?”
“Same shit, different day,” she replied. “Are you looking for a job or here to finish one?”
“Just taking in the sights,” I told her.
“Fair enough.” She walked her horse carefully out of the way. “Have a good one.”
“Fair enough? I don’t think so.” One of the other guards pushed his way forward with a scowl. “Where are you headed, and what’s the reason for your visit?”
The woman rolled her eyes. “I don’t think we need to bother with the script today, Kev. Just let the woman be on her way.”
“This is why you’ve been stuck out here on patrol for years,” Kev retorted. He turned to me. “As for you, I asked you a question.”
“You asked me two questions.”
He spat, the wad of tobacco and saliva charting a slow arc from the top of his horse all the way down to splatter in the dirt. “That’s right. I did. And I’m still waiting for an answer.”
Technically, he was still waiting for two answers, but I doubted Kev would appreciate a second correction. Instead, I just fixed him with a stare he could feel if not see.
“Where I’m going and why are my business, not yours.”
“And if I make it mine?”
I held up a second coin, and watched his expression turn greedy, but when he reached for it, I pulled the coin back. “This isn’t for you. It’s for the lieutenant who will have to fill your suddenly vacant position.”
“Might need something in a smaller denomination,” said Lily. “Not sure our lieutenant has enough change to make it a fair trade.”
“Get the hell out of her way, Kev,” added the third guard, who had been quiet until then. “The queen here is practically one of ours, and it’s a sure bet that the bosses value her more than they do you.”
I didn’t think too highly of being claimed by anyone, let alone one of the piece-of-shit cartels that ruled the city, but that was a battle for another day. Instead, I just waited, a patch of darkness in the otherwise sun-dappled road.
Eventually, Kev moved aside, and in doing so, bought himself another day of existence. I restarted my bike and rolled forward.
“See you around, Lily.”
“With all due respect, I kind of hope not.”
Kev had been so busy pointing out that Lily had been stuck on patrol for years that he hadn’t stopped to realize how impressive it was that she’d stayed alive all that time.
Either he’d learn from her example, or he’d end up a lesson to the rookie brought in as his replacement.
I passed through two more districts, collecting each cartel’s passes as I went, before finally reaching my destination on the other side of the river. The house was a shirtwaist, even older than I was, with a limestone first floor and a porch that would have been inviting if it hadn’t been entirely bare. It fit neatly into a neighborhood free of trash and corpses. Most of the residents here were persons of value to the district’s cartel and the community was a far cry from wilder districts like the Zoo.
I pulled onto the remnants of a driveway, dropped my kickstand, and headed for the house’s cheery yellow door. There weren’t many places in Kansas City where you could leave a bike like mine unattended, but this was one of them. Thieves got the same penalty as traitors and child molesters, and that penalty was death. Usually preceded by torture. Unless there was a war going on, shakedowns and shakeups were something that only happened to other districts.
I was a step from the door when it opened, revealing a small but cozy foyer and the similarly small, if not at all cozy, woman standing inside. Somewhere along the way, Raya had gotten old—wrinkles and frown lines, grey hair now dominant among the black—but her skin was still golden, her eyes as hard as railway spikes. She scanned me from head to toe and I let her do it.
“It’s been a long time. Been out west?”
“What gave it away?”
“Mud on your bike. Heard there were some storms out that way recently.”
“You heard right.” I nodded past her. “May I come in?”
“We both know I couldn’t stop you if I tried.” She moved aside and waved me through, throwing in a bow that was ninety-percent mockery. “I’d offer tea and scones, but I’m doubting you’ve gained an appetite after all these years.”
“Not that kind of appetite anyway.” I followed her to her sitting room, where a comfortable couch and significantly less comfortable chair had been set up with a coffee table between them. “Very domestic.”
“We can’t all ride the roads forever.”
“It’s still just you?”
“Had a man. Loved a man. Lost a man.” She flipped her hair as if she was twelve. “Turns out I’m not the catch my mama always said I was.”
I stifled a laugh. Raya’s mom had been a cartel enforcer without a kind word for anyone, least of all her daughter.
“So, what can I do for you, your Ladyship?” she asked. “I’m guessing you didn’t come around just to count the grey hairs on my little old head.”
“You’ve always been a spectacularly sarcastic bitch.”
“That’s why we get along. Insofar as we do get along.”
There wasn’t much I could do but nod. “I have a job for you.”
“On whose behalf?” She arched an eyebrow. “You know that working against my own cartel’s interests would be problematic.”
“And it’d cost you extra.” Her smile was as cold as her eyes.
“I’m the client. This one is personal.”
That smile disappeared. “Personal’s never a good thing. You taught me that back when I was just a child.”
“Yet here we are, sitting, talking, and not drinking tea.” I scanned the living room. It was empty of décor, of any trace of personality or those little touches that said someone lived within its walls. Honestly, it was a lot like my old house out in the wilds near Eclipse.
I wasn’t sure I’d been the best of influences.
For a long minute, I watched Raya watch me, and wondered what was going through that clever brain of hers. Finally, she shrugged.
“What’s the job?”
“I’m looking for raiders,” I told her. “Burned out a town west of here less than a week ago. No survivors. They march under the banner of a bloody—”
“Skull and bones,” she finished for me.
“You know them?”
“Yeah. If you hadn’t disappeared off the face of the planet for the past few years, you would too. There’s a new empire in the East that’s been pushing their way into the Badlands.”
I’d heard something about a warlord but hadn’t put two and two together. “The red queen or something?”
“Crimson Queen, but yes.” That smile came and went. “Between the two of you, that’s an awful lot of royalty for one little region.”
“What can you tell me about her?”
“She’s supposed to be a Power, but nobody knows what kind. Her empire’s been buying other Powers off slavers. Adding them to an army that might already be bigger than anything short of the Free States’.” She shook her head. “That much is free. Honest. Anyone on the street could tell you the same.”
“And if I want more?”
“I’d circle back to the part about the woman building an entire army of Powers, and suggest, based on our past relationship, that you might want to let things go.”
The storm gnashed its metal teeth and raged inside of me, the whirr and buzz of metal filling the room’s small space.
“And then I’d charge you triple. And do my best to get the hell out of the way.”
“I don’t care about this so-called queen,” I told her. “Or her plans for the continent. Tyrants come and go, and hell claims them all eventually. I just want the name and locations of the people who destroyed my town.”
She chewed on that for a bit and then pulled out the electronic tablet I’d brought her from the Free States, years earlier. Without access to a network, it was little more than a glorified notepad, but that was valuable all on its own.
“What was the town’s name?”
“Eclipse. In what used to be Nebraska.” I gave her the general directions and what information I’d put together about the attack itself.
“From the sounds of it, those were troops from the general army, and not third-party slavers.” She tapped on her tablet. “That will make it easier for me but harder for you.”
“Names and locations and I’ll handle the rest,” I said.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Raya tucked the tablet away. “It’ll take a few days. Maybe even a week. And because I know you, I know that now we’ll have to talk about my fee.”
“Yeah. I have some local currency but nowhere near enough, especially at triple your rates. So, what do you want? Gold? Seeds? A second tablet?”
She shook her head, and this time, the smile that spread across her face almost looked genuine, a match for the permanent smile across my visor.
“I want to hire you for a job. Something personal.”
An hour later, I was on my way back out of town, a letter added to the mix of items in my saddlebags. It wasn’t the first time I’d played courier. Given my bike and my powers, I was uniquely suited for the task; a one-woman substitute for the armed caravans I’d passed on my way to Kansas City.
The sun was low in the sky behind me, sending my shadow flitting ahead as I headed east. I could have waited until morning to leave, but Raya and I didn’t have that kind of relationship, and even in its quieter moments, her city had a way of preying on my mind. Not sure if it was the people or the politics or just one more quirk Dr. Nowhere had hardwired into my personality when dreaming me into existence. Not sure it mattered either. It was the road for me, and after all those months in semi-isolation near Eclipse, it felt good to be tearing across the landscape again.
Figuratively or literally, I was born to ride.
When darkness fell, I followed a small trail down into a gully that ran parallel to the road and set up camp. If another storm came through, I’d be in a bit of trouble, but I hadn’t seen a cloud all day, and in the meantime, the walls of the canyon would hide my campfire.
Technically, I didn’t need a fire, of course. Cold wasn’t going to kill me anymore than heat exhaustion or dehydration. Still, I did feel temperature, and there was no reason to rough it if I didn’t have to. There was plenty of wood in the gully, some of it dry, and within minutes, I had a cheery fire burning away, sending shadows dancing across my bike and the rocky walls behind me.
This was what my life had been for decades. In the days before hotels and motels disappeared, I’d been too new, too uncertain of my existence to risk staying at one. And by the time the world had finished breaking, well let’s just say the tourism industry wasn’t what it had once been. Some towns, like Eclipse, had inns, but travel had gone from a leisure activity to something you only did if you had to.
Above me, a large and unseen creature moved along the lip of the canyon, sending pebbles and clods of dirt bouncing down, but whatever it was didn’t seem interested in working its way around to me. As it shuffled away, I turned back to the fire. For the first time in years, I spared a thought for my future. Once the debt was paid and Eclipse became just another memory, avenged and buried, what then?
People needed the necessities to survive. Food, drink, and shelter. Some might add nebulous concepts like love and fulfillment to that list, but overall, humans and animals weren’t so different; each scratching and clawing for another day in the face of a death that could only ever be delayed.
Where did that leave me? I didn’t eat, didn’t drink. Hadn’t fucked in too damn long. I’d achieved what I thought was my life goal, and the disappointment of that moment had made me a hermit. I was doing jobs again now, but for what purpose? Revenge would keep me going for a while, but just like the fire I’d set, it couldn’t burn forever.
That’s the downside of being on the road; when you’re your only company, it gets that much harder to avoid the questions that come creeping in from the shadows. I toyed with the zipper on my riding jacket—the jacket that was as much a part of my shell as the flesh and bone beneath—and stared into the fire. Three years and I still didn’t have any answers to replace the ones Dr. Nowhere had taken with him to his grave.
Some hours later, the dawn broke early on a horizon I couldn’t see, rays of light struggling to penetrate the gully’s depths. Two handfuls of dirt put the fire the rest of the way out, and I was ready to go. I didn’t ever sleep, not really, but there was a release of sorts: quiet, empty stillness where the storm and I pretended to be separate thoughts, where the heart in my chest was flesh and blood and not the endless spiral of a tornado about to touch down.
Raya’s envelope was still safely tucked inside my saddlebags. I didn’t know what she’d written or why, but she’d given me the name and town of the recipient and that was enough. Two days there, and two days back, if it all went according to plan. By the time I returned, she’d have the information I’d requested, and after that, well, Eclipse’s raiders and I would have ourselves a reckoning.
And when that was over?
Hell if I knew. I’d been born a creature of action and violence. Introspection was best left to other people.
If only I could remember that.
The Queen of Smiles releases November 22nd, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
Next week, I’ll be back with the final sample chapters. See you then!