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Crown & Serpent - Read The Beginning

Can't wait for August 25th to start reading Crown & Serpent? Check out the blurb, prologue, and chapter 1 below!


All she wanted . . .


Seventeen-year-old Iris Winn loves her quiet life with her father, studying the poisons that fascinate them both. But after his sudden death, Iris is now the ward of her estranged aunt and uncle. In order to claim her inheritance, she must live in the capital city of Lenzen for one year. While there, she must attend parties, balls, and participate in every other vapid thing the elite of Ryden value. Iris doesn’t care about learning their rules or joining their ranks–her only goal is to endure the next year. Then she meets Prince Henri Kaelin.


Everything they demanded . . .


Every young woman in Lenzen wants Henri–except for Iris. Unfortunately, the prince only has eyes for her. The king has decreed that Henri must choose a bride before his birthday, and Iris is determined it won’t be her. Dodging a prince’s focused attention while placating her relatives and the rest of Ryden’s high society is exhausting–and more dangerous than Iris could have ever imagined. She is about to learn that not all games are innocent, and some smiles are more lethal than poison. Luckily, Iris is a quick study, and this is a game she is determined to win.


She would take it all. ***Crown & Serpent is a Fate of Eyrinthia prequel novella that’s actually the length of a novel. This villain origin story was released after Royal Rebel, but it can be read at any point in the series.***


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Prologue


Iris knelt in a puddle of blood and stared at her mother.


Verity Winn was most assuredly dead. Iris knew that, even though she was only six years old.


Blood wet her hands, and she couldn’t stop staring at the crimson stains. Scarlet trails followed the lines that crossed her palms, and the liquid oozed between her fingers. Turning her hands, Iris saw the blood had seeped into the creases around her fingernails.


She didn’t like the color.


A strangled gasp sounded at the open doorway. Iris’s head jerked up, and she saw her mother’s maid, Hilda. The woman’s hands flashed to cover her mouth, her eyes flooded with terror even though she hadn’t seen Verity’s body yet. Just Iris, covered in blood.


The maid swayed where she stood, a strange whine lodged in her throat.


Iris looked straight at Hilda, blinking once before she said, “My mother is dead.”


Hilda flinched. She stumbled forward and grasped the back of Verity’s favorite chair. It was aimed at the window, because Verity loved to see the world, though she rarely chose to join it.


“Mistress?” Hilda’s voice pitched, then became a choked cry. She was taking in the blood, which covered Verity’s arms, skirt, and the floor at her feet—where Iris knelt, holding the small knife that was likewise covered in blood.


Hilda’s gaze shifted to Iris, rising horror shining in her eyes. “Iris. What have you done?”



Chapter 1

Eleven Years Later


Iris picked at her white skirt, unhappy with how the fabric had settled over her crossed knee. She sat in the library because it carried the scent of her father more strongly than anywhere else in the house. The spice of his soap brought up images she knew she’d never forget; the crookedness of his timid smile, the smoke that curled around his head as he puffed his pipe in the evenings, the dirt that was always trapped under his fingernails no matter how well he washed.


Thelin Winn had loved the earth, and now he was buried in it. Somehow, that seemed right, even though everything else about her father’s death seemed horribly wrong.


He had died just over three weeks ago. Because of the unseasonably warm late spring, they had not been able to delay the burial, so only Iris had been present, along with the household staff. It was of little concern to Iris; her mother had no living relatives, and her father had just one brother, Sevlin Winn. He lived in Lenzen, and Iris had only met him once—after her mother’s death.


She was about to see him again, though, since her uncle was due any moment. She had sent him a letter to inform him of Thelin’s death. And though she had been quite clear that there was no need for Sevlin to come to Rew, he had sent word that he would come at once.


A book lay on the table beside Iris, but she did not pick it up. She didn’t have the concentration necessary to read about the poisons made from jungle plants in Zennor. As fascinating as the topic was, she couldn’t put aside the gnawing fear that curdled her stomach.


She didn’t like the emotion, and she had to remind herself that her father’s estate was hers. He had willed it to her years ago, and it could only be taken from her by a future husband. And since she never planned to marry, that wouldn’t be a problem. Of course, her relatives might try to take the estate from her, but Zev didn’t think they could do so unless they could prove her incapable of tending the estate. At seventeen years old, Iris knew she was still considered young, but she was more than capable of running things.


Still, she found herself praying to the fates. Please don’t let them try to take away my home.

The library door opened, and Zev poked his aging head inside. “My lady, they’ve arrived. Shall I show them in?”


“Yes, Zev. Thank you.”


The old steward dipped his chin and stepped back, allowing Iris a perfect view of her relatives.


First in the room was Sevlin. She had not seen her uncle since her mother’s funeral, eleven years ago. He looked very much like her father, though he was a bit thicker in build and had a rounded stomach. His dark hair nearly reached his shoulders, and he wore a well-fitted tunic in a very sensible shade of black.


The woman who trailed after him was not so sensibly dressed. She wore a bright yellow gown that made Iris’s eyes itch, and her copper hair was gathered high on her head with tendrils that framed her somewhat pinched face. Her lips were pink and pursed as she viewed the room—then her gaze landed on Iris, and the pinched look of her features intensified. “You’re Iris?” she asked.


Iris stood, gripping her hands in front of her. “I am. And you are my aunt Anora.”


“Indeed I am.” The woman’s gaze dragged over Iris, from her simple black braid to her dusty shoes, and lingering longer than necessary on her plain white dress. Her aunt’s lips twitched.

Sevlin shifted his feet against the worn carpet, his expression hesitant. “Do you remember me, Iris?”


She nodded once. “Yes. Hello, Uncle Sevlin.”


Anora Winn let out an irritated sigh. “Fates, we need tea. We had a dreadful journey.” She looked over her shoulder to find Zev hovering in the door. “Bring us tea at once, and sandwiches.”


The old servant glanced at Iris, who nodded, before he bowed toward Anora. “As you will, Lady Winn.”


Anora’s nose wrinkled as she watched Zev retreat. “What a lumbering old fool,” she muttered.

Iris stiffened. “My father valued him highly.”


“I’m sure he did.” Anora eyed the room. “This place has fallen into disrepair, hasn’t it? Fates, did Thelin not care for it at all?”


Before Iris could speak, Sevlin did—with a little more of an edge than Iris had expected from the otherwise quiet man. “Anora. Please.”


His wife’s jaw worked, but she held her tongue.


Sevlin stepped up to Iris, hesitated, then set a tentative hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for the burial. You shouldn’t have had to lay him to rest on your own. We came as soon as we could.”


Her heart cracked, and she had to shove aside all thoughts of her father. “It’s no matter. There’s nothing you could have done that I did not.”


Sevlin swallowed. “I suppose you’re right.” His hand dropped, and Iris breathed a little easier, even though he didn’t step back; she didn’t know this man, and she didn’t like having him touch her. “Your letter didn’t state how he died,” Sevlin said, his voice a little halting. “Did he . . . suffer?”


Dread curled up her spine. She didn’t want to tell the story again. She’d already told Zev, and thankfully he’d conveyed the story to everyone else. But she couldn’t rely on him in this moment—she needed to show nothing but confidence and competence to her relatives. “I’ll tell you everything, but may we sit?”


“Of course.” Sevlin stepped back quickly, giving Iris space to reclaim her seat. Anora dropped into a chair across from Iris, and Sevlin took a seat beside his wife.


Iris smoothed her skirt into place, her back straight. “The morning he died, we were working in the garden, as was usual for us. I left him for a brief moment to fetch a few more seedlings we wanted to plant. When I returned, he was on the ground.”


Her chest tightened, remembering the panic of that moment. Iris knew she didn’t feel emotions as strongly as other people; that had been proven countless times over the course of her life. It took something intense to make her feel, and seeing her father sprawled out on the gravel path had been earth-shattering.


“I screamed for help,” she continued, “but we were in the northeast corner, far from anyone. I felt his chest, but his heart wasn’t beating, and he wasn’t breathing.”


“Was he poisoned?” Anora asked, a morbid fascination in her eyes. “Fates knows he was a fool to love his poisonous garden so much.”


Iris stared at the woman. “My father was a genius. He did not accidentally ingest anything from the garden.”


Anora’s green eyes narrowed.


Sevlin set a stilling hand on his wife’s knee. “What happened next, Iris?” he prompted.


“I returned to the house and Zev summoned a physician. Of course, there was nothing the healer could do. He believes my father’s heart simply gave out.”


Sevlin’s eyes misted. “Fates, I . . . Somehow I always thought Thelin would outlive me. He’s older, but . . .” His words trailed off and he shook his head.


Irritation tickled the back of Iris’s throat. His display of emotion wasn’t truly earned; the man hadn’t visited his brother in years. True, Thelin had visited his brother whenever he journeyed to Lenzen, but her father hadn’t gone to the capital often. He preferred to stay home, away from the bustle of society. As did Iris.


She didn’t have much patience for people, and she preferred to keep her own company.

She cleared her throat. “I told you in my letter that you didn’t have to come.”


Sevlin blinked. “Of course we had to come. He is . . . was my brother.”


Anora patted her husband’s hand, which still rested on her knee. “Besides,” she said to Iris, “you’re our ward now. We have an obligation to care for you.”


“About that.” Iris shifted in her chair. “I’m seventeen years old. I don’t need supervision.”


“Of course you do! Don’t be absurd.” Anora huffed once. “You’re only a year older than our Lillin. Kell is a year older than you, but the fates know I would never trust him on his own. Besides, it’s not seemly for a young lady to live alone.”


“I wouldn’t be alone. I have the servants—”


“No,” Anora cut in. “They don’t count.” She glanced at Sevlin, but he remained silent. Her glare sharpened.


Her husband sighed. “Anora is right, Iris. You can’t live here on your own.”


“You won’t like it here,” Iris said at once. “There is no high society in Rew, and—”


“Fates save us,” Anora gasped. “You think we mean to live in this remote, horrible place? Absolutely not! You will come live with us in Lenzen.”


Iris’s stomach pitched. “No. I can’t leave. This is my home. My father’s garden, all his work—”


“The servants can tend things, I’m sure.” Anora lifted a slim hand when Iris opened her mouth again. “I’ll hear no arguments. You’re coming to Lenzen, and that’s final. I’ll see to your proper introduction to court and attempt to repair any damage your father’s reclusive lifestyle may have caused you. It won’t be easy, but I’m sure in time you’ll be accepted by the other noble families. And who knows, we might manage to find you a husband.”


“I don’t want a husband,” Iris said through clenched teeth. “And I certainly don’t care about being accepted by the court. I’m not leaving Rew.”


This is when Zev returned, a tray balanced in his age-spotted hands. The man hesitated on the edge of the rug, clearly feeling the tension in the room. “My lady, is everything all right?”


“Everything is fine,” Anora declared. “Leave the tray and be gone.”


Zev’s face tightened. He looked to Iris. “My lady?” he asked again, more firmly than before.


Anora sucked in an affronted breath.


Iris looked to the old servant. “You may leave the tray, Zev.”


The man did, though he moved stiffly. With a last look at Iris, Zev finally left.


“Well,” Anora breathed out. “I’ve never been so insulted.”


Keep on as you are, and that will change, Iris thought grimly as she stared at her aunt. “I’m not leaving Rew,” she restated.


“I don’t think you understand the situation,” Anora said. “While this house was left to you, you can only truly inherit it once you’re of age. As our charge, the estate currently belongs to Sevlin.”


Her uncle winced. “Anora . . .”


Iris barely registered his weak protest. Her heart tripped as she stared at her aunt. “That isn’t fair,” she said.


“Fair or not, it’s the way of things. And I won’t have anyone gossiping about us not taking care of our ward, so you’re not staying here on your own, like some rejected limb of the family. How would that make us look?” She shook her head, making her tight curls shake. “You will come live with us, and we will insert you into society.”


“I don’t want to join society.”


“Iris—”


“Perhaps we should strike a bargain,” Sevlin cut in, startling both women into momentary silence. He took advantage of that by nodding to his wife. “Anora is right, Iris. You can’t stay here on your own. It wouldn’t be seemly. People would talk, but more than that, you’re still young. You shouldn’t be burdened with running an estate of this size—at least not yet. So, I propose a compromise. Come to Lenzen for one year. If at the end of it you would like to return, you may do so. I will gladly sign away any claim to the estate so you can inherit it easily.” He took his wife’s hand. “Anora will help you to make a good entrance into society, so no one will gossip or worry that we aren’t caring for you. And who knows, you may find you like living in Lenzen.”


Doubtful, Iris thought. She gritted her teeth. “The estate is mine. My father left it to me.”


“He did,” Sevlin agreed readily. “And it is yours. No one is trying to take it from you. But you must understand, by law you are our ward, and we must fulfill our obligations.” A shadow rose in his eyes. “I was not here to help my brother all these years. Please . . . let me help you.”


Iris remained unmoved. “You can’t force me to go.”


“You have no choice,” Anora said simply. She glanced sidelong at Sevlin. “However, a year spent in Lenzen would be deemed enough by society, so long as you do everything I say and make a favorable impression. If you agree to one year, Iris, then I will agree to let you return here after that year. Do we have an understanding?”


Iris’s fingers clenched in her skirt. A dozen different poisons ran through her mind. So many ways to stop her aunt from controlling her. If she was caught, she would find herself in prison, possibly for the rest of her life. But if she went to Lenzen . . .


One year in Lenzen, and then she would be free.


She met her uncle’s gaze, because he irritated her less. “Very well. One year, and then I return to Rew—alone.”


Sevlin’s relief was obvious. Anora, however, did not relax.


That was all right, because neither did Iris.


********


Crown & Serpent is out August 25th!


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