I am emotionally not prepared for this ending! If you’ve read the first two books in the Girls of Paper and Fire series, you’ll know that our favorites Lei and Wren are the cutest and deserve to be protected at all costs. But the end of Girls of Storm and Shadow has put all my hopes for a happy ending up in the air, never mind that cliffhanger! But the end is nigh for my favorite fantasy lesbians, and with it comes another fabulous cover! So here it is, the spectacular cover to Girls of Fate and Fury! And if you read on, you’ll get a sneak peek at chapter 1!
by Natasha Ngan
A preview of Girls of Fate and fury
This time when the guards come to my door, I am ready.
I’ve been up all night fashioning a loop of fabric from torn strips of my robes. Luckily it’s still cold enough for more than one layer of clothes. Seeing as a brazier or lantern would be too much ammunition in my hands for escape attempts, the guards have been giving me fresh sets of double-layered robes every three days. Though it must be almost spring by now, it feels like winter in this windowless, marble-walled room, and they can’t have me catching a chill and freezing to death on their watch.
Of course, I am to die. But I am not theirs to kill.
When I hear heavy steps in the hall, I scramble to my feet. I snatch my makeshift weapon and press up against the wall to the right of the door, positioning myself just so. My heart pounds against my rib cage like a war-drum. I rub my finger over the braided fabric that’s wound around my palm and listen as the steps approach, agonizingly slowly.
Demon steps: not hooves, but heavy and dull. A strange clicking accompanies them. Talons? Curved claws? After all this time locked up, I have grown adept at picking out the particularities of each guard’s gait. The heavier steps mean bird or reptile demon, though I’m leaning toward reptile given the weight. Yura, then, or an entirely new guard altogether. The other padded thuds must belong to a bear-form. Ijuma? Kucho? Sim?
They always send the guards in twos. After my first escape attempt, just a few days after they brought me here, they reduced the amount of my meals from two a day to one. After the second attempt, they began putting soporific herbs in my food to make me more…malleable. After the third, they beat me until I passed out. When I woke, they’d taken away all the furnishings from my room—or cell, as I suppose it’s more accurately called.
The Hidden Palace has always been my prison.
I wait in the darkness, hardly daring to breathe.
This will be escape attempt number four.
In all Ikharan cultures, four is an unlucky number because of how similar it sounds to our word for death. Babies born on the fourth day of the month are said to be ill-fated. We avoid lighting four joss sticks at a time so as not to taint our prayers. Tien—always the most suspicious out of our little herb-shop family—would even skip counting the number four. While at work, she’d push two of the bamboo beads of the abacus together to get from three to five quickly, as if they were poisoned and she didn’t want to touch them too long for fear of infection.
Thud, click. Thud, click.
As the guards draw closer, I get a sudden rush of certainty that this attempt—unlucky number four—will be the one that works. After all, I want to bring death’s attention to my door. What else is a weapon for but to kill?
Crouched in the attacking stance Shifu Caen taught me, I twist the fabric around both hands and bounce on the balls of my feet, ready to spring. Thankfully it’s been a cold start to the season. I wouldn’t have been able to create a strong enough or big enough noose with a thin springtime nightdress—though I suppose I could have tried to make them slip to their deaths in a pool of sweat. Still, as weapons go, I’m not sure how effective perspiration is.
The demons come to a stop on the other side of the door.
Barely muffled voices—they’re talking with the guard outside. Then a new set of footsteps sound, moving in the opposite direction this time. That must be the guard that had been posted by my room all night leaving. I didn’t understand at first why they always asked the guard to go. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize they didn’t want them overhearing us during these interrogations and spreading rumors throughout the palace as to what may be happening outside its walls.
It took me less long to understand that this is a good sign. It means the King and his court are scared.
Scared we might be winning.
My fingers tighten on the makeshift noose, heart thudding. A crack of light slices into the room. The door slides wider.
The first of the guards steps inside. I was right—it is Yura. A flicker of confusion spreads across the lizard demon’s narrow, moss-scaled face when he doesn’t see me in my usual sleeping spot, but before he’s even had time to look around for me I leap toward him and throw the noose high.
Golden eyes must trump ill-fated number four, because I’m in luck. Being a reptile-demon, Yura has no horns or large ears for the loop to catch on. It slips over his head with ease, drops to circle his scaled neck.
I barrel into him, and Yura staggers back with a shout. Claw-tipped hands fly up. He grabs and scratches me, punches at my thighs and sides with brutal force. Despite the pain, I cling on, half-straddling his neck, pulling the noose as hard as I can.
Yura stumbles blindly. Just behind him—and right in front of me—the second guard steps forward, drawing her sword.
“Stop, Keeda!” she yells. She’s a tall panda-form woman I’ve not seen before—each one of her limbs is bound with more muscles than my entire body. She yells again, louder: “The girl is escaping!” Yet instead of slashing out with her sabre, it’s her weaponless hand that flies at me.
I duck her reach, a manic grin twisting my lips. They can’t risk killing me.
I’ve known this since I was brought here; ever since Naja found me in the desert after the battle at the Cat Clan camp and told me she was taking me home. I know it’s only momentary. That I’m only protected for now because the King wants to save all the damage, all the pain, all the revenge for himself.
But right now, I don’t care. Right now, knees still clamped around Yura’s struggling shoulders, I puff and strain to keep the noose pulled tight, sneering at the panda soldier brandishing her useless sword.
She yells some more; goes to grab me again. This time, I’m saved by Yura’s knees giving way. He collapses, and we both go sprawling to the floor. I pin him down with strength I didn’t know I had. His scaled hands flap uselessly at my back. Trapped gurgling sounds bubble in his throat.
From behind, the panda-woman dives at me with a wild growl. She grabs a fistful of the back of my flimsy, half-torn apart robes—yet still, somehow, I cling on as Yura chokes and splutters. His hits grow weaker, aimless.
It can’t be long now.
Red, vivid and bloody, pulses across my vision. I can practically feel the dark desire storming through my veins. No, more than desire: need. Need for this, for someone to take the fall for all that has happened. For some way to free the guilty anger that has been boiling inside me ever since that hopeless night at the desert; ever since the last time I held her in my arms; ever since we came across the burning wreckage in the middle of a paddy field; ever since a laughing leopard boy was set into the ground; ever since…since everything.
And suddenly, as instantly as a match being struck, the world goes still.
All the rage and desperation and fire drop away. It’s as though my soul has come untethered from my body. Floating outside of myself, hovering above the scene, I see it laid out beneath me like a painting that looks so real it appears fake.
A soldier strains to break apart two struggling figures on the floor: one of them a demon, almost dead, pinned to the floor by a crazed human girl in tattered robes with bloodlust in her eyes. The girl’s head is thrown back. Her knuckles drain white where they grip the looped fabric she spent one long, desperate night making, all for this moment. Another death to notch onto her list.
I stare down, and the girl’s eyes lock onto mine.
Framed in thick lashes and bloodied whites, her irises are gold—a clear, liquid, New-Year-moon gold. But that’s about all I recognize of them. Her feral stare pierces me.
She may as well be a stranger.
Then the moment breaks. Everything comes roaring back with violent force. There’s movement and chaos. Yura’s horrible choking sounds as he bucks beneath me. The panda soldier’s grappling and yelling. Running footsteps thundering down the corridor: more guards.
I let go of the noose so suddenly it throws the panda demon’s weight off. She jerks back with a grunt. I fall against her, and the next moment more guards are upon me, too many to fight, forceful hands jerking my arms behind my back.
My mouth is prized open. Someone pushes the now-familiar bitter bite of sedative herbs past my lips and onto my tongue.
I swallow them quickly, and when the darkness comes a few seconds later to drag me under, what I feel is gratitude.
For the first time since I was taken back to the palace, I wake in a new room.
The warmth gives it away. Eyes still shut, I feel sunlight and the softness of bedding, both foreign after endless weeks of darkness and cold stone against my spine. The air smells sweet: peonies and tea, with a strange, sharp undercurrent of muskiness that the pleasant fragrances fail to fully mask. Something about the odor tugs at my memory, but I can’t yet place it. Muffled sounds drift from a distance. As I blink my eyes open, still groggy from the herbs, I brush the blanket draped across my body—realizing a second later that I’m naked beneath it.
I jerk upright, pulse spiralling. Gripping the blanket to my chest, I look around wildly, baring my teeth, ready to fight. But the room is empty.
Slowing my breaths, I push the hair back from my face with my free hand. I’m expecting tangles—long weeks in a cell and all those interrogation sessions haven’t exactly done wonders for my beauty regime—but my fingers glide smoothly through.
I’ve been washed. The thought of hands on my body while I lay unconscious turns my stomach. Then I almost laugh at my naivete. Why should I expect anything less? This is the Hidden Palace. The Demon King’s domain. Here, my body is just something for demons to do with as they please.
My heart pulses darkly. Because that’s not quite right.
Your lives belong to the court now, girls.
Mistress Eira had it wrong when she told us that the night we arrived to become Paper Girls. The court didn’t take our lives when we arrived at the palace—they’d already had them. As long as the King sits on the throne, Ikhara will continue to be a demon’s world. The only place for Papers like me lies beneath their grinding feet.
Focused and sobered by the thought, I take in my surroundings. Though carved from the same white marble of the room I’ve been so far kept in, these walls and floors are softened with furnishings. Deep violet ribbons of silk flutter over half-drawn shutters. A huge rattan mat stretches from one end of the room to the other. A low bed sits empty in a corner, draped in plain grey silks.
I notice a tea set on a table by the windows. Two cups have been set out. One is half-empty, feathers of steam still rising from within.
Someone was here recently.
My nose wrinkles. Under the tea, that particular sweet-musky odor jerks my recollection again, a faint warning bell ringing in the back of my head. But I still can’t quite place it, and, instead of wasting time chasing old memories, I turn my attention to the windows. A breeze edges in past the half-drawn shutters. Noonday light fills the room; its glow on my skin feels like a call.
I am on my feet in seconds, wrapping the blanket messily around myself as I move to the window and shove the folding shutters aside. I scramble onto the deep-set ledge, almost crying at the blast of cold early-spring air, so gloriously soul-wakening with its birdsong and sunlight and the promise of freedom—
Talons click behind me.
“Get down from there, Lei-zhi,” orders a deep, croaky voice.
I freeze, still contorted in an awkward jumble of limbs on the sill, the blanket twisted so much it’s hiked up to almost my waist. But I don’t turn. Now my eyes have adjusted, I can see that we’re high up, at least three floors. My heart thumps as I take in the view.
Blocks of low buildings stretch into the distance, punctured in places by green courtyards and wide squares. Ahead, a glittering river curves under the noonday sun. To the far left, a lush, verdant landscape of gardens and forests rolls out. Birds wheel over the distant tree tops, swirling formations that feel so familiar to me because of how many times I stared out of a different window in this very same place, watching them dance and wishing, wishing with all of my being that I could join them.
And there, far in the distance: the reason why I never could.
A towering wall of midnight stone.
My breathing catches. I’d known where I was all this time, of course. Naja told me when she’d found me in the desert. The guards reminded me in their daily interrogations. More than any of that, though, I’ve felt it, every moment, every second: the walls around me. The awareness that somewhere within them, not so far away, a broken demon with hatred in his heart waits to tear me apart.
Still, it hits me afresh to actually see it. I’d thought once I’d never see these streets and gardens again. I’d been so sure of it.
We’d been so sure of it.
I close my eyes and release a long breath until the thought of her fades into the background. Until the pain and ache of thinking of her is a low, faded buzz I can work around.
Once, love had been empowering.
That was before I understood what losing love felt like. What heartbreak can do to a soul.
“Lei-zhi!” The harsh, guttural voice barks again, louder now. “Get down at once! This is no way for a Paper Girl to behave.”
Wrestling my face into as neutral an expression as I can manage, I slide down from the window ledge.
“Madam Himura,” I say graciously, turning to face her. My lips curve into a smile, just a little too sharp. “How wonderful to see you again.”
She glares at me, yellow eagle eyes narrow. The cuff of feathers at her neck are ruffled in anger, and she’s gripping her bone-handled cane so tightly I’m amazed it hasn’t cracked.
I hold myself tall, bracing for the inevitable attack. The violent force of Madam Himura all of us grew so accustomed to. The eagle-woman may only be the supervisor of courtesans, but she has always carried herself as a general of an army, able to keep us in order equally viciously with both words and blows.
The two of us stare each other down. Yet in the end, Madam Himura only waves a winged-arm toward the table. “Sit,” she says, almost tiredly. “And do not waste any more time trying to escape. There are guards outside and many more throughout the building.”
“I could go out the window,” I reply stubbornly.
“Can you fly?”
“Not sure,” I reply with a shrug, trying to sound braver than I feel. “I’ve never tried.”
She opens an arm toward the window. “Go ahead, then. It makes no difference to me.” When I don’t move, she rasps icily, “Didn’t think so,” before stomping to the table. She kneels down, and something in her movements is awkward and slow.
I don’t join her. Still glaring, I start, “Where are—”
“We are in Royal Court, in the King’s palace. This is the Moon Annexe.”
The Moon Annexe. Dimly, I recall an early lesson in Mistress Eira’s suite where she explained the various areas of the palace to us. The King’s fortress in Royal Court is the largest building in the Hidden Palace, carved from the same dark rock as that of the perimeter wall. Conversely, the Moon Annexe is a ring in the western part of the building built from white marble, as recommended by the architects for optimal feng shui. If I remember correctly, it houses offices for high-ranking court members, rooms for entertaining, and suites for guests of the King.
Is this where Madam Himura is staying now? Or did they only bring her here to deal with me?
I glance at the door, then once more at the tantalizingly wide window, my mind whirring to conjure up escape routes. Though now I’ve seen exactly where we are, I know any attempts would be futile—at least, not without some proper planning. So, reluctantly, I join Madam Himura at the table.
She reaches to fill my empty teacup.
I lift a brow. “No maids?” I’ve never seen Madam Himura so much as lift a winged-arm for anything before—apart from to hit us with.
She sets the kettle back down. “Not anymore.”
My eyes flit over her. Under her simple black and white patterned hanfu, the eagle-woman looks shrunken, her feathers laid flat and dull against her body instead of rippling with their usual annoyance, and her movements are not nearly as quick and sharp as before.
I’ve seen too many women who have had their spirit broken not to recognize it when it’s right in front of me. Still, whatever the King had done to Madam Himura, he was careful not to leave any visible signs of abuse. I wonder if shamans worked on her body the way they did on mine after my nights with the King. If they laid their magic on her skin to lift the bruises and wounds but didn’t allow their enchantments to penetrate any farther, so the pain would live on, invisible, incurable, a reminder not to cross the King again.
I feel a stab of pity before shoving it away. Madam Himura never showed any of us kindness when we were hurting. She tossed Mariko out as if she were garbage and beat me when I ran from the King. She was the one who asked the shamans to leave me in my suffering when I’d been battered by him.
I scowl at her across the table. “Where’s Mistress Eira? Are the other girls safe? Where’s Kenzo? What did you do to Lill? Why am I still here?”
I don’t say what I really mean: why am I still alive?
Madam Himura stares back, an unsettling blankness in her yellow demon eyes I’ve not seen before. “I am not here to answer your questions, Lei-zhi,” she retorts coldly. “Even if you had the patience to ask them in the polite, elegant manner in which I trained you.”
“Why are you here then?” I snap, not caring about sounding rude.
She answers as though it’s obvious. “What I have always been here for—to prepare you. You have an important dinner to attend tonight, and you must look your best for the King.”
I lick my cracked lips and laugh, the sound harsh in the room’s gentle quiet. “You’re joking.” When Madam Himura doesn’t say anything, I push to my knees, shaking the table so forcefully in the process that my cup tips over, fragranced tea spilling across the lacquered wood. Warm water kisses my fingers, and Madam Himura looks at the mess disapprovingly, but I don’t tear my eyes from her. “You’re disgusting,” I spit. “All of you.”
The eagle-woman clucks her tongue. “Calm yourself, Lei-zhi,” she snipes.
I laugh again. “Oh, my apologies for not being dead inside.” My hands are trembling, a high-pitched ringing in my ears. “That’s what you were always trying to beat out of us, wasn’t it? Life. Passion. Any semblance of humanity. Paper—that’s what you wanted us to be. Good little cut-out girls with nothing but reams of blank pages in place of hearts.”
Madam Himura hesitates—actually hesitates—at this. And for the briefest of moments, an almost hurt expression crosses her feathered face. But then she gets to her feet. Her beaked mouth presses thin. “The King has called for you, Lei-zhi. You know what that means. Either you can let me prepare you, or we can drug you again and do it while you are unconscious. I shall let you decide.”
“Fine,” I reply coldly, glad my voice comes out stronger and steadier than my insides feel. “I’ll play along for now. But don’t expect it to last.”
I know exactly what the King has in store for me—a demon like him would never let a girl humiliate him and not be punished. It’s only a matter of time before an animal bores of toying with its food before devouring it.
Unfortunately for the King, the same goes for human girls.
The two of us have been toying with each other long enough. The last time I saw the King, I drove a knife into his throat. This time I know better.
This time, I’ll aim for his heart.
About the Author
Natasha Ngan is part young-adult author, part yoga teacher, part habitual nap-taker. She grew up between Malaysia and the UK, speaking Chinese with her mother mainly as a way to talk about people without them understanding. She studied Geography at the University of Cambridge and later worked as a fashion blogger, social media consultant and freelance writer. Natasha recently moved to Paris, where she likes to imagine she drifts stylishly from brasserie to brasserie, notepad in one hand and wineglass in the other, but in reality she mostly spends her time lost on the metro and offending locals with her French. Her novel Girls of Paper and Fire was a New York Times bestseller.