queen who wants revenge, and a noble young king who wants to save his nation.
. At least, it
the Empire of Durdane up until a few hundred years ago when the territory north of the Great Pearl River was conquered and enslaved by the Exile barbarians from across the Juren Gap. The rest of the empire soon fell into civil war and broke up into the southern Despotates.
Ever since this Great Partition, the Despotates have been in a gradual, accelerating state of decay. The Exiles are in a constant state of tension with the Despotates, but both sides are too afraid of each other to actually wage war and accomplish anything. So most of the Despots are content to live in luxury and exploit their people for all their worth. The poor are getting poorer as the rich get richer. It is in the poorest, most primitive, southernmost village of Riversong, at the end of the Wing River and the very edge of civilization, where we meet the protagonist Lale.
Needless to say, spoiler tropes are below.
Lale was found as a baby drifting down the Wing River in a boat
with the dead bodies of a man and woman, too old to be her parents. She was given to a foster family who abused her, as did pretty much everyone in the village. Circumstances finally forced her to run away when she was eleven. By the apparently most wonderful coincidence, she is found on the road by Makina Seval, the Despotana (queen) of the far-off Despotate of Tamurin, who just happened to be traveling in the area
. Makina Seval takes Lale to her palace, Serene Repose, where Lale is given a home in the Despotana's orphanage and school for abandoned and homeless girls just like her. She lives in a dormitory on the palace grounds, attends lessons in history, etiquette, the arts, and her chosen trade of acting, and becomes best friends with a fellow runaway abuse victim, Dilara. Life is good.
But much is not quite right about Serene Repose. First is Makina Seval's bloody family history. Her entire family, including her husband and infant son, were slaughtered in a feud for the throne of Bethiya. As the rival clans exterminated each other, the throne and title of Sun Lord was given to a child with no significant blood connections, Terem Rethai (now an adult and married), to prevent such incidents in the future. Then there is Nilang, a foreign sorceress who serves the Despotana and provides a constant supply of rumors and mystery about her origins, job, and powers. There is also Three Springs, a temple of the deity the Moon Lady in the mountains, where some girls are sent as priestesses after graduation. But the biggest warning bells come from life at the school itself. The girls call each other "sisters" and the Despotana "Mother." They are taught that their family is the most important thing in their life; the thought of ever being separated or sent away is a Fate Worse Than Death
. The two unforgiveable crimes are deceit and disloyalty. Loyalty, with a capital L
, to Mother and their family, is everything
It's a Cult
But Lale doesn't realize that. Even when she and Dilara are sent very unhappily to serve at Three Springs, she joyously resolves she would rather die than disappoint Mother. Both Lale and the reader now learn the heavily concealed truth about Three Springs — it is a training camp and headquarters for Mother's carefully selected personal Amazon Brigade
of assassins and spies. Mother's first and oldest student, Tossi, is the leader
. Nilang and three of her kinsmen
are the instructors. The girls are trained in everything from espionage to combat to survival to the use of various poisons. Why? To someday, somehow defeat Mother's arch enemy, the tyrannical usurper, Sun Lord Terem Rethai. Nobody wonders how this is possible, questions if it is right, or worries about the greater threat of the Exile king Ardavan who appears to be plotting to conquer the rest of the Empire. All that matters is loyalty to Mother. And just in case one would ever waiver in this doctrine, every girl upon her arrival at Three Springs undergoes Nilang's "initiation" — being cursed to be slowly tortured to death by demonic wraiths from the spirit world should they ever divulge any of Mother's secrets.
Opportunity apparently strikes for Mother to put her Gambit Roulette
into action when Merihan, the Sun Lord's wife, dies of an unknown illness. Lale, who graduated from Three Springs long ago and joined a prestigous theater company, is given her assignment. When the company makes its annual trip to perform in Kurjain, the capital of Bethiya and home of the Sun Lord, Lale is to make contact with Terem Rethai, make him fall in love with her, and as his lover, become The Mole
in prime position to give Mother all the inside information she needs to know to get her revenge on Terem and take back her legacy. The plan hinges on Lale's excellent acting ability and her uncanny resemblance to Merihan, something the Sun Lord should not be able to resist.
Indeed, he can't. All goes according to plan. Terem begins inviting Lale to the palace after seeing her perform. She seals his trust and his love when she publicly foils an unrelated assassination attempt on him. She's beginning to find her job more and more pleasant, including the inevitable prospect of sharing his bed. Finally, the two make a midnight excursion to party among the commoners during the Ripe Grain Festival, where Terem makes his move.
Lale accepts Terem's offer to become his Inamorata ("a peculiarly Bethiyan court title, more than a mistress but less than a wife"). Forgetting than she is plotting his death, and not caring that she finds herself forgetting or enjoying her role as his lover, her eyes are slowly opened to the obvious facts that Terem had no hand in the death of Mother's child, and further that his plans for going to war, defeating Ardavan, and restoring the empire to its old glory are not only possible under him but just what should be done.
The more Lale seems to enjoy life with Terem, the stranger things get outside. Nilang, who serves as her go-between to Mother, seems to be getting suspicious. Dilara, now a heavy drinker who appears to be hiding something, is frequently sent to town to help her, but her behavior and blind loyalty strike Lale as odd. A visit by Mother on political matters turns ugly when Lale sees her summon and converse with a grotesque ghost, making her wonder for the second time if the woman is fully right in the head. Things finally reach a climax when Bethiya goes to war with Ardavan, and Lale realizes she fears for Terem's life. The inevitable has happened: she has become the mask
. She has fallen in love with her enemy.
Her loyalty to Mother ever strong, Lale continues to help her plot against Terem, aware of the gruesome punishment that awaits her should she turn traitor. That, however, is a risk she is willing to take when the scope of Mother's plots and the truth about her family is finally revealed.
Caught in the middle of a raging war in her nation and another in her heart, Lale must make a choice that will decide not only her own fate, but the fate of the entire Empire.