Something is amiss in the state of Quadara. After a devastating civil war, the four divided (and highly different) lands of Quadara were made tranquil by a partnership between their queens. Four queens, one kingdom, and lasting peace among the people of Archia, Eonia, Luda, and Toria.
Until the queens of Quadara start dying, that is, and only a 17-year-old prodigal thief named Keralie Corrington knows what happened — and how to catch their killer. While working for a dangerous man named Mackiel, Keralie finds an artifact harboring a conspiracy.
Astrid Scholte's propulsive debut YA novel checks all the boxes for an addictive read. A fast-paced murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, set in a vividly rendered matriarchy? Check. Four different lands that will make you wonder where you'd live, à la Divergent? Double check. A couple you'll be rooting for? Just wait until you meet Keralie and Varin, her straight-laced former employer. Four Dead Queens publishes February 26 and is available for preorder. For now, watch this sneak preview of Scholte's book.
Read an excerpt from Four Dead Queens below. Published with permission from Penguin Random House.
Mackiel's office was empty, but I knew he wouldn’t be far.
Stolen wares were locked in a vault hidden behind a Ludist landscape—a maze of canals and bridges—a painting his father had stolen back when he was a fledgling dipper. We all knew what lay behind it, although we would never have dared open it.
I sat down in Mackiel’s chair to await his return. The harbor looked different from here. Beautiful, even. If you ignored the smell, you could imagine overlooking a vast constellation, the boats’ lanterns on the black sea like stars in the night sky. And Mackiel was king of this nocturnal kingdom. Until the Torian queen tore this place down.
“What are you doing?” a voice asked from behind me. I spun in the chair, a hand to my chest.
The messenger stood in the doorway.
“I told you to stay put!” I gasped for air. I wasn’t used to being snuck up on.
“Did you get the comm case?”
“I got tired. Needed to rest first.” I placed my feet up on the desk.
He stepped toward me, the destabilizer raised. “Stop wasting my time.”
That was exactly what I was going to do until Mackiel and his henchmen returned. Instead, I accidentally glanced at the painting.
He noticed my mistake and approached the wall. He ran his fingers along the brushstrokes before removing the landscape.
“Oh, well,” I said, looking at the bare brick wall behind the artwork. “I guess I really don’t know where it is.” I tried not to sound too smug.
“It’s an Eonist safe,” he said. He pressed his hand to the wall.
For a moment, the bricks shimmered, as if something reflective lay behind them.
When had Mackiel upgraded to an Eonist safe? And why? It had to have something to do with the comm case and the chips inside. What memory did they hold that required this kind of security?
“Open it,” the messenger said with a jerk of his head.
I pressed my hand to the wall and it shimmered again. “Does this look like something I can open?”
He let out an exasperated breath. “Open the vault, and I won’t hurt you.”
I held up my hands. “I’m not lying to you. I can’t open this.”
“You’re a thief,” he said, disgust dripping from his words.
“The best,” I added with a grin.
“Then open it.” He moved forward, the destabilizer pointed toward my head.
I took a step back. “Let’s not be too hasty here. This is Eonist tech.” I’d heard about Jetée businesses acquiring Eonist security to ward off other Torians. “I don’t even know how it works.”
“The vault is keyed to the thoughts of its owner. It opens only when the owner wants it to be opened,” he explained.
“Mackiel will never open it for you.” Where was Mackiel?
He continued, ignoring me. “The vault is built from microorganisms, like the technology embedded into the material of our dermasuits. At the core, they’re sentient.”
“This is all very interesting”—I waved my hand at the wall—“but none of this is going to help. I’m a thief, as you said, not a therapist. I can’t help unscramble, or scramble, a mind—whatever the case may be.”
Hang on. I blinked. I couldn’t scramble a mind, but I knew what could. “Give me your destabilizer.”
The messenger looked at me as though I were mad. “No.”
I placed my hands on my hips. “I can unlock the vault.” Although I wasn’t planning on it. Once I had the destabilizer, I could use it on the messenger.
He looked between the wall and his weapon, then aahed in understanding. Too bad he wasn’t as dumb as his stony expression suggested. He removed his hat and ran a hand through his black curls. “Please move aside.”
“Only because you asked nicely.”
He held the destabilizer to the wall and pressed the small button at the base. A bright blue streak flashed before the bricks disappeared altogether, the microorganisms now unconscious.
And although I should’ve been concerned about Mackiel finding us breaking into his vault, I couldn’t help but enjoy the buzz. I forgot where I was, caught up in the game.
The vault yawned back into the darkness. I squinted. It hadn’t been this large the last time I’d been in here. Mackiel must have extended into the room next door—his quarters. Why hadn’t he told me? And what else was he hiding?
The messenger flipped a switch on his destabilizer, and light bled out in a circle, illuminating the alcove in an instant. The closest shelves were mostly empty, making the silver comm case easy to locate.
I darted forward and slid the comm case into my palm before the messenger could reach for it.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Ensuring my safety.” I stepped back out of the vault, my eyes fixed on the destabilizer. “We’ll do a swap. You give me your destabilizer, and I’ll give you the comm case.” Come on, come on.
The messenger stepped forward but then stopped, his gaze trained on the office doorway. I turned reluctantly.
“Hello, darlin’.” Mackiel was blocking the exit, a pistol in his hand.
The messenger held the destabilizer up, but it was useless against Mackiel at a distance. I’d seen more powerful versions that shot darts of voltage, but it was clear this smaller one was meant for hand-to-hand combat.
“Mackiel!” I said in relief. “Thank the queens above you’re here. This messenger said he’d destabilize me if I didn’t return his comm case.”
Mackiel moved to stand behind his desk, his pistol unwavering. “Is that so?”
I frowned at him, confused by his cold reaction. I knew how it looked, but I would never betray Mackiel.
“Yes.” Now was not the time to be playing games.
The messenger shot me an angry look, an expression I wouldn’t have believed he was capable of making.
“Kera, darlin’,” Mackiel mused. “My most daring, my most talented . . . my best dipper.” He didn’t say friend. I stayed quiet, unsure where he was going with this and scared by the deadly look in his eye. “And my best liar.” He smirked. “I’ve trained you well.”
Only then did I realize the pistol was aimed at me.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “You know me. I would never—”
“Oh, be quiet!” he snapped. “I know exactly what you would and wouldn’t do. Hand over the comm case. Now.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked. “You know I wouldn’t betray you.”
“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “You’re saying you’d never leave me for dead?” He scratched at his neck.
“That was years ago! You know that was an accident!” And what did that have to do with the comm case? What was so important about the memories the chips held?
“An accident?” He pursed his lips. “Like your father’s? Many people seem to have accidents around you.”
I flinched as though I’d been slapped. He’d never spoken to me that way. He’d grown cold, yes, but never cruel. This wasn’t my friend. The boy I knew would never have thrown that in my face. He had comforted me after my father had been gravely injured. He’d given me a place to live when I couldn’t face my mother. Why was he turning on me now?
“Give me the comm case before my finger slips,” Mackiel said with a sly grin, “accidentally.”
Was I about to become another body to dump in the sewer? Was it really the henchmen or Mackiel who’d been getting “carried away”?
“Please, Mackiel.” I held my hands out, my dipper bracelet dangling from my wrist. “Don’t do this!”
He pointed the pistol at the messenger. “Move.” He gestured to me with the barrel. “Stand beside her.”
He always wanted to prove he was tougher than he looked. Would he kill me to do it?
“Quickly!” he said.
Mackiel had selected the messenger to steal from; somehow he’d known what was on the chips and how vital they were. Vital to the survival of the auction house, which was all he had left of his father. Was it a memory from his father? Surely not. But he obviously cared more about this comm case than our friendship. I would have to use that against him.
I shoved the window behind me open. “Come any closer, and I’ll throw the comm case into the sea.” I placed my hand out in the frigid air. “Then you’ll have to take a swim to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve it.” Both of us could use that day. The day he almost drowned.
“You wouldn’t.” Mackiel stopped dead, the pistol drooping a little in his hand.
“I thought you knew what I would and wouldn’t do?” I glanced to the messenger. His face showed a flicker of fear. I was going to have to be brave for the both of us.
“Now, now,” Mackiel said. Was that sweat beading across his forehead? “Don’t do anything foolish.” The sea would erode the chips; he wouldn’t allow me to send these memories and his father’s business to the ocean floor.
“Let us go,” I said, “and we’ll give you the comm case, and the destabilizer as a bonus, because we’re such good friends.” I showed my teeth, not quite a smile. “It will sell well tomorrow night. It will make your patrons happy. No one else has to know what happened here.” That was why he wanted to get rid of us, right? His reputation. He would have his comm case back and whatever memories were on the chips.
Mackiel gave me a wolfish grin. “Give me the comm case, and I won’t send two bullets to make a home in your belly.”
Or rather, the old Mackiel wouldn’t. He’d spent too many years pretending to be ruthless, too many years trying to impress his father with darker and darker deeds, desperate to earn his attention, his love. And since hiring the henchmen, he’d crossed a line that couldn’t be uncrossed.
The metal case was cool in my palm, soothing. All I had now was the comm case and the chips within it. I needed Mackiel to care about me as much as he seemed to care about these chips. Only one option remained.
My eyes flashed to the messenger before I pressed the button on the top of the comm case. A hiss echoed as the lid lifted. Both Mackiel and the messenger froze.
“Careful, darlin’,” Mackiel said, his voice low, his gaze darting to the open window and the water below. “Let’s step away from the window...”
Before he could lunge for me, I picked up the four round translucent chips from inside the case and shoved them in my mouth. As the chips dissolved on my tongue, the embedded video links traveled to my brain, tapping into my synapses and taking hold of my senses. They transported me to another time and place. I was no longer in Mackiel’s office.
I was in the palace.
And I was covered in blood.