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 Chapters 3 and 4, the Queen of Smiles agreed to do a job for an old colleague in exchange for information on Eclipse’s killers. In Chapter 5, that job takes a turn.
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!
Available sample chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
MAYOR GRAWLEY WAS waiting when I stepped into the street, the old man already sweating, though the sun was a grey orb in the sky and the morning wind brought a cold I could feel through my leathers.
“I was hoping to catch you,” he said.
I ignored the way the storm shifted and raged. “Be careful what or who you try to catch, Mayor.”
He cleared his throat, dabbing at the sweat beading on his forehead. “A poor choice of words. I do apologize. There is… there is a band of raiders who moved into the area recently. Some of them mounted a preliminary strike on our town a week ago.”
“And you drove them off.” The wounds I’d seen on the guards made more sense now. “Well done.”
“Yes, quite.” He sighed. “Only, my scouts say they’re coming back. Tonight, and with numbers, including at least one Power. We don’t have the manpower to hold them off.”
“You might want to make nice with them then.”
“It’s too late for that, I think. And the last town these people hit ended up in a pile of ashes.”
That got my attention. “Do they march under a bloody skull?”
“The Crimson Queen’s banner?”
I took one long step until I was towering over him. “You know her?”
“Of her, at least. Who doesn’t?” He shook his head. “Word is she’s bringing order to the land. If she’d come north instead of going west, she’d have no doubt stomped out these raiders long before they became a problem. Instead, my town is facing annihilation.”
A part of me wanted to tie him to my bike and drag him out to what was left of Eclipse, just so he could see the order he was so desperate for. But my fight was with those responsible, not some minor official in a nothing little town.
“What does this have to do with me?”
“We have guns, but no Powers. We’re a simple community with little to offer, but we were hoping to hire you.”
“To drive away the raiders.”
“They’ll just come back once you’re gone.” He swallowed again. “We want you to kill them.”
Behind me, Jae-Sung had come out on what passed for his home’s front porch. I couldn’t see Cho-Hee but could sense her moving about in the living room.
“I don’t work for free,” I told the mayor.
“We have food. A few heirlooms. A spare weapon or two.”
None of which I needed, especially when Raya would be waiting for me with answers. I swung my saddlebags back over a shoulder. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“You’d just walk away and let us die?” For the first time, something other than fear and worry had entered the mayor’s voice.
“Everyone dies, Mayor Grawley. Even Dr. Nowhere himself.” I stepped past the outraged little man. “I can only be what I am.”
“Wait.” I turned to find Jae-Sung coming my way. His daughter’s face was briefly visible in the window behind him, and I felt something inside of me twist as if in pain.
“I know. Raya told me. There’s a need for balance, right?”
“Something like that, yes.”
He pulled a familiar envelope from his waistband. “How many deaths will this buy? Raya said there was enough to see us comfortable for the rest of our lives. Given that we’ll be dead by tomorrow without your help, a treasure doesn’t seem worth holding onto.”
“What treasure?” squawked the mayor.
Ignoring him, I took the letter from Jae-Sung’s outstretched hand. There were directions at the bottom, but Raya hadn’t given any details about the treasure itself. It might be a single bag of currency, worthless outside of Kansas City, or a hundred bars of gold. There was no way to know whether the offer was sufficient.
Still, when I’d been searching for Dr. Nowhere, before he’d died at the hands of a boy just becoming a man, I’d done worse jobs for less, for information or favors that I didn’t know if I would ever need. Sometimes, value was subjective.
I gave Jae-Sung back the letter, and watched the mask settle over his features, hiding his disappointment. “Give the letter to Cho-Hee,” I told him. “So that she has something to remember her mother by in the years to come.”
He blinked. “Does that mean you’ll do it?”
My sigh was a snarl of shrapnel and steel. “If the treasure proves insufficient, I’ll require some additional form of compensation.” A favor would be of limited value, given his skills and lifestyle, but I told the storm we’d find a way to make things balance.
“Anything is worth my daughter’s life.”
“So be it.” I walked past the gaping mayor and dropped my saddlebags onto Jae-Sung’s porch, the smile on my visor matching that of the little girl inside. “Let’s see what we have to work with.”
The raiders came that night, after the sun had sunk below the distant horizon, somewhere far beyond the city I should have already been returning to. I added the cost of a day’s delay to my mental tally as I watched armed men and women creep up the line of switchbacks toward Eastwood.
There were several dozen of them, enough to overwhelm the town’s remaining defenders even without the Power who towered over her fellow raiders, seven feet tall and as wide as one of Eastwood’s primary roads. In a meaty hand, she carried a metal pole even taller than she was, barely recognizable as the mangled remains of a pre-Break streetlight.
The Free States called her type Titans, and most of the continent had adopted the term in the decades since. Strong, big, and durable as fuck, Powers like that usually found enforcer roles in larger organizations. This one appeared to have taken on a leadership role instead. It meant she was either the only Power around or the strongest. I’d find out which it was in just a few moments.
I waited for the Titan to start up the path to Eastwood. Twenty raiders had preceded her, slipping up the road like hungry shadows, and the final ten followed close behind, a train of armed men snaking their way towards their unsuspecting prize.
I slipped out of the night behind them, the rattling tail to their venomous serpent, and went to work.
Three quick steps took me to the base of the path and then my shell fell away. The storm filled the night air, the shrapnel and steel and tangled wire that formed my core bursting forward to carve through meat and bone. Seconds later, I reformed my shell, black leather reflecting the cold light of the stars above, and stepped past what was left of the first few bodies.
The storm is chaos given shape, and chaos is rarely silent or subtle. Ahead of me, raiders were already turning to address the threat I represented. One particularly fast draw had a bullet winging my direction almost before I’d taken that next step. I felt it tear through my riding leathers, through the shell I’d just created, and then the storm was loose again, howling forward to teach these predators what hunger truly was.
Far above us, I sensed more than saw the light that suddenly appeared. It had taken some doing to get my bike up on the town’s narrow wall, but its headlight cut through the darkness in a way that simple torches couldn’t, a second moon picking out the figures streaming up the path below.
And that gave the people of Eastwood something to shoot at.
I reformed my shell in the midst of another clump of attackers, twisting to drive a woman’s knife into her companion’s chest, as I looked about for the Titan only I could stop. Then, I was the storm again, cutting my way through the chaos of gunfire and blood. The narrow quarters worked for me, bunching up my targets as they’d been designed to do, and the storm tore through them with ease. Before I knew it, the sizable mass of the enemy’s only Power loomed directly ahead.
She was quicker than something that size should be. The streetlight-turned-club swept through the storm in a rush of motion, but it was like driving a car through a cloud of assassin mosquitoes. A dozen fragments were knocked away, but the greater whole slipped past the strike, above and below and around, swarming the Titan as she pulled back for a second attack.
Her skin was tough, but I’d encountered tougher. As barbed wire wound ineffectually about her limbs, and steel fragments scored superficial wounds on flesh increasingly exposed by the shredded remains of her clothing, the storm drove twisted columns of rebar toward her face. One eye disappeared with a wet noise I wouldn’t have heard over the storm, even without the riotous gunfire, and then she pulled her arms back to protect what was left of her face.
In doing so, she gave the storm full access to the wounds it had already been carving into her torso.
There’s nothing pretty about what I am, despite the shell Dr. Nowhere gave me, and there’s nothing pretty about what I do either. I reformed just long enough to kick the dead woman’s club off the road, and then the storm tore into the raiders still standing on the path above.
There’s no sense of time when the storm is free, but it was still dark when the last gun fired. I reformed my shell, alone in my bike’s spotlight, surrounded by the death Jae-Sung’s re-gifted treasure had bought.
My first step was more of a stumble; I hadn’t recovered the fragments that the dead Titan had tried to send into orbit—some pieces scattered in the woods at the base of the hill, one embedded in a tree trunk, thirty feet above the ground—and without them, my shell wasn’t quite whole, the heel on my right boot too low, the decal across my visor half-formed, the zipper on my riding jacket a misshapen line of unformed aluminum.
For a moment, the storm inside of me was quiet and calm. Satiated. Quiescent. Passive. Words I was born knowing even on that first night, when the storm was still learning it had been forced into the shape of a woman. I let my consciousness drift to those other pieces of me, the tiny fragments of self that were momentarily separate from the greater whole, and then they were winging their way to me, scraps of storm that embedded in my shell and were once again absorbed.
My next step was stable, or as stable as possible given the sheer mess of fluids staining the earth around me. I walked out of the motorcycle’s circle of light and further up the hill, up to the men on Eastwood’s wall. Moans of pain came from the wall where return fire had left its mark, and the survivors’ breath sounded harshly in the suddenly quiet night. My voice, by contrast, was soft and thick as liquid honey.
“I’m going to need my bike back.”
Available sample chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
The Queen of Smiles releases next week, on November 22nd!
I’ll be back for the release day festivities with some book stats and content warnings. See you then!
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