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 3, the Queen of Smiles agreed to do a job for an old colleague in exchange for information on Eclipse’s killers. That job continues in Chapter 4!
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!
EASTWOOD WASN’T NEAR a forest and it wasn’t particularly far east either. Whoever had named the town clearly hadn’t been concerned with accuracy. I’d passed the place once before, in the early decades after the Break, but what had then been a small collection of shacks atop a hill had since grown to a thriving town, complete with a wooden palisade surrounding it. The path up to the town’s only gate followed a series of switchbacks, and guards atop the wall watched me coming the whole way. For such a small place, the defenses were impressive. They wouldn’t stop anything that could fly, of course, let alone a Power or two, but most animals and raiders would move on to softer targets.
By the time I made it up to the gate, a crowd was waiting for me, most of them armed and on the wall. An older man stood outside, bald pate shining in the sun and hands twitching at his sides. I let the bike roll to a halt and regarded him in silence, the smiley face on my visor golden in the afternoon sun.
“Welcome,” he said, voice cracking like a boy just entering puberty. “I am Mayor Jonas Grawley. May I ask the purpose of your visit to Eastwood?”
“I’m here for a job,” I told him.
He licked his lips nervously and the men on the wall shifted and muttered among themselves.
“We are a law-abiding town. If someone has done something that merits killing, we ask only that you tell us what that was.” He swallowed. “Maybe we can offer restitution or—”
“A delivery job,” I interrupted, sparing a second to scan the gunmen looming over us. “Nobody needs to die today.”
“Oh, thank God.” Grawley wiped the sweat off his brow with gnarled fingers. “Please, enter and be welcome.”
I parked the motorcycle just inside their gate and pulled my saddlebags over one shoulder. Eastwood didn’t look all that different from a lot of towns sprinkled throughout the Badlands and adjacent territories. Hard-packed dirt roads, wooden houses, and a faint sense of desperation hanging over everything, like morning fog on the ocean. Up close, the armed force that had greeted me on the wall looked even less impressive: exhausted and worn thin. A few sported bloody bandages, suggesting that I wasn’t the first threat they’d faced down recently.
I didn’t ask what had happened. Even discounting the Crimson Queen’s armies, conflict was a fact of life out here. The town’s business was none of mine; I had a job to do for Raya and I would do it.
“Who are you looking for?” asked Mayor Grawley. “I’ll show you to them, or have a message passed if they’re down in the fields.”
“The fields?” Eastwood’s position on top of the hill made it defensible but didn’t leave much space for agriculture.
“On the other side of our mountain,” he said, dramatically overstating the size of the town’s molehill. “To the north. We have a small lift that provides access, and half our town works those fields on a daily basis.”
I nodded, impressed despite myself. It left the town’s food supply vulnerable to attack but kept the town itself secure. If they had sufficient stores, they’d be able to wait out what passed for sieges these days. Raiders weren’t exactly known for traveling with their own supply trains. “My delivery is for Han Jae-Sung.”
“You’re in luck then. I believe he’s home today.”
I followed the mayor down one of the town’s side streets to a small house two rows from the exterior wall. Like its neighbors, the building was showing its age—paint peeling, and shingle roof bulging with one too many patch jobs—but the large window that flanked the front door had a flower box mounted below it, and that box had daisies planted in it.
“This is Jae-Sung’s house,” said the mayor, clearing his throat before continuing. “When you are done with your delivery, maybe we can talk over tea?”
I shook my head. “I’ll be heading back out. Miles to go before I sleep and all that.”
He didn’t get the reference. There were times I wasn’t sure I got it either. I’d been born with knowledge I hadn’t earned; places I’d never seen, people I’d never met, and words I’d never read. For the first few decades of my existence, I’d tried hunting those strange memories down, thinking they were clues that might lead me to my past, but the Break had buried more than just a world. Half the stuff in my brain didn’t exist anymore.
Grawley wanted to say something more, but I was no longer in the mood to listen. I left him behind, taking three long strides to the house’s wooden door. One knock. I could hear Jae-Sung inside, along with another voice, high-pitched enough to be a child or woman. Then footsteps. A moment later, the door swung inward to reveal a moderately tall Asian man with gentle eyes, wide cheekbones, and short-cut hair as black as my leathers. He wore the same rough-spun clothing as the townsfolk I’d seen, pants rolled up to the shin to expose bare feet.
“Can I help you?” he asked. His eyes went wide as he took in my appearance, darting past me to the mayor as if looking for reassurance.
It was hard to imagine anyone less like the sort of people Raya had once rolled with, making me even more curious about the letter she’d sent.
“I have a—” My words trailed off as the owner of the second voice I’d heard came into view, dragging a poorly crafted doll behind her by one long bunny ear. The girl, who couldn’t have been more than four, was wearing a dress too large for her, the hem tangling in her feet as she walked.
“My daughter,” said Jae-Sung when he realized where my attention had gone. He held the little girl to his leg as she drew near, ruffling her hair.
I just nodded, drawn to the small face now turned up in my direction. She had cheekbones like her father, if still waiting to emerge from childhood fat, but her eyes… her eyes were one hundred percent Raya, right down to the flecks of gold in their darkness. Without the years of bloodshed, effort, and pain that colored the older woman’s every expression, those eyes were almost beautiful.
“I have a letter for you,” I told the man, finally tearing myself away from his daughter. And then, because I couldn’t help myself… “And some questions.”
He looked from his daughter to me and something in his face shifted. He offered a short bow, eyes never leaving my visor.
“Please, come inside.”
The house was homier than I’d expected from the outside, a far cry from the empty shack I’d spent years in outside of Eclipse. The little girl who looked too much like Raya for comfort ran in front of us to curl up in a badly upholstered chair, pulling a heavy blanket up to cover her and her rabbit doll.
I took the letter from my saddlebags, and let Jae-Sung escort me past his daughter, into the room that served as their kitchen, complete with a wood-burning stove, and a bubbling pot of something that looked like onion soup. There he turned, eyes drawn to the envelope in my hands. “What does Vo Binh Raya want?”
“How do you know it’s from her?”
“My life is here in Eastwood,” he told me, words flat. “My friends are here, my daughter is here. Raya is the only person beyond this wall who would even remember we exist, let alone have the resources to find us. And,” he added, gaze reluctantly leaving the still-unopened letter as he looked me right in the visor, “she told me stories about you.”
I let the humor drain from my metal voice. “She never told me about you. Or her,” I added, nodding back to the living room where the small child was now singing to herself.
“I was a mistake,” said Jae-Sung.
“And your daughter?”
“Cho-Hee was a gift. To me, at least.”
“So, she is Raya’s daughter?”
Despite decades of observation, I didn’t really understand families. But Raya’s daughter living here, days away from the woman who had given birth to her, made even less sense than normal. Especially if you considered the relative opulence of Raya’s lifestyle back in Kansas City. Which left only one possibility.
“Yes. Of course, if you know Raya at all, you know we could never have made it to the city limits unless she let us go.”
That much was true, but it didn’t answer the bigger question.
He shrugged. “Why did we leave, or why did she allow us to? The answer is the same, I think.”
“I did not want that life for our daughter. That I am still alive tells me some part of Raya agreed. I spent the first two years here waiting for her to walk through the door, never sure if she would come to join us or to take her daughter back. Eventually, I convinced myself that she truly had let us go, that we had become just two additional threads in the tapestry of her past.” He shook his head and looked pointedly at the letter I still hadn’t given him. “I do not know whether to be relieved or distraught at my continued naïveté. May I?”
I passed the letter over without a word and stood there in silence as he scanned its contents, watching emotions chase each other across his features. By the time he was done, his mask was back in place. He shook his head again.
“She has not changed.”
“A mixture of admonishments, apologies, and threats,” he said, “followed by directions to a treasure somewhere south of here, so I might raise our daughter in the manner she deserves. Classic Raya.”
“For a guy who is about to be rich, you don’t seem happy.”
“What use is treasure in a place like Eastwood? It has been months since the last merchant caravan deigned to grace our town. Cho-Hee needs a mother, not a benefactor.”
“She had a mother,” I said, pointing out the obvious.
“Did she?” He shrugged. “You knew the woman who raised Raya, didn’t you?”
“Yes. Bian and I did a few jobs together, back in the day. I was with her not long after Raya was born.”
“And was she a good mother?”
“No.” My voice had gone as flat as his. Bian had been many things, but loving mom wasn’t one of them.
“And that is the second reason I think Raya let us go. She remembered her mother, and knew that if we stayed, she might repeat that woman’s mistakes.”
I chewed on that—metaphorically, of course—for a long while. Then, it was my turn to shrug. Three days ago, I hadn’t even known Raya had a man… let alone a daughter. As revelations went, this was a big one, but it was also irrelevant. I would walk out that door and these people, much like the town itself, would become echoes in the past: blurred faces and half-remembered words.
If Raya wanted to talk to me about it, I’d listen, but for now, I’d done my job. It was time to return to Kansas City to reap the rewards.
“Luck to you both,” I finally said. “But I need to get back on the road before the light is gone.”
“If that is your wish.” This time, his bow was a little bit less perfunctory. “However, the sun will be down well before you make it to the base of the hill, and I would not recommend trying that route in the dark. Instead, you can stay the night here. The soup is—”
His nose wrinkled, and he rushed to the stove, pulling the pot off the hotplate, and setting it aside on a metal rack.
“The soup is slightly burned,” he admitted, “but still better than whatever rations you would eat on the road. Cho-Hee and I would welcome you as our dinner guest.”
He was silent for a moment. Finally, he sighed. “You knew Raya. Before everything. I would enjoy hearing of the woman she was.”
A lot of things clicked just then. “You still love her.”
“Yes.” His smile was bleak and cold. “Sometimes, love means letting someone go, and sometimes it means leaving while you still can.”
I shook my head. Despite the shape I’d been born into, the shell that walked this broken earth, there were times humans confused the shit out of me.
He took my gesture as a reply and bowed again. “So be it. I wish you fair travels. When you see Raya next, please tell her we are well, and that Cho-Hee will be raised knowing that her mother cares for her, in her own way.”
In the living room, the little girl was still curled up on the couch, now whispering secrets in her doll’s floppy ears. I started to move past, toward the door, when those eyes, bright and shiny like another girl I’d known, decades earlier, darted over and up to my helmet. Her smile, missing a tooth, but beautiful all the same, spread to match the decal across my visor.
One night wasn’t going to change anything.
“I don’t eat soup,” I told Jae-Sung, the snarl in my voice missing for the first time since I’d left Kansas City, “but you’re right about those switchbacks.”
It was strange, lying awake in a stranger’s home. I couldn’t let go of my shell for fear of what the storm might do to the interior, to handmade furniture and the handful of heirlooms Jae-Sung had brought with him to the town. I couldn’t wander, for fear of waking up the man and his daughter, and since their primary bedroom, currently shared to give me my own space, was on the way to the front door, I couldn’t go outside for the same reason.
Instead, I lay there in my shell of flesh and leather. I listened to the sounds the house made in the darkness, listened to the rustling from the other bedroom, the occasional high-pitched complaints when Cho-Hee woke to find herself in a strange room and was then soothed back to sleep, listened to the muffled noises of the world outside. Eastwood didn’t have solar panels or a generator and most of the town shut down with nightfall, but there were guards on the wall, and the occasional night owl wandering the street; I listened as they came and went, mentally charting their course around us.
I’ve had better nights. Worse ones too.
When dawn broke, I was up and ready to go, but the house woke up around me before I could make good my escape: Cho-Hee padding past me on bare feet, eyes half-closed as she made for the outhouse, Jae-Sung starting a kettle in the kitchen. He sent me a tired smile as I came in to say goodbye.
“Job’s done. It’s time I left.” And then, because I’d stayed under his roof, and that required recompense, “I’ll pass on your message to Raya when I see her.”
“Thank you.” Jae-Sung was clearly not a morning person. No doubt it made being a single parent that much more challenging. “Safe travels and quiet roads to you.”
I didn’t tell him that both things were fantasies and had been since the Break. As someone who had shared a life with Raya and then fled that life, he already knew as much. Instead, I just nodded and headed for the door. I was ready to be gone. Ready to be back on the road.
Too bad Eastwood had other plans.
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!