Cora Ravenell has already lost her father. Now she stands to lose so much more. With no male heirs, her father's estate is stripped away, and Cora's only chance to remain in noble society is to marry a childhood friend.
But when her mother is accused of treason, Cora's world is shattered, and she becomes the target of a ruthless hunt. Chased through the darkest corners of the city, Cora discovers that not everything about the Empire is as it seems. In the darkness, Cora will find the truth, and a power she has never known.
The law calls her a criminal. The church calls her damned.
Her enemies call her Lady Raven.
More than anything, Cora wished she could cry at her father’s funeral. It was especially cold on the morning they brought the body to be burned. Cora pulled her black mourning cloak tightly around her arms. Trails of smoke curled up from silver bowls of incense hanging from the ceiling by thin chains. It was the only pleasant part of the experience, even if Cora preferred thick oakwood to the soapy doveflower incense traditionally used in funeral rites. The lace veil hanging from her head made her scalp itch, but her mother slapped her hand away when she went to scratch.
She didn’t speak, her mother—that wouldn’t have been proper—but she did fix her with her favourite hard stare reserved for the worst indiscretions. Cora sniffed audibly, drawing irritated glares from the priest at the pale grey altar. She imagined the rest of the lords and ladies behind her making the same exaggerated faces in their fine suits and delicately-embroidered dresses. The men clucking while the women shook their heads in solemn silence.
Cora rubbed the back of her hand and watched the men carry the ebony casket to the platform behind the altar. Priests standing to one side sang a tuneless drone, chanting ancient words calling on the Highers to guide the soul to its rest. Their white robes almost made them blend in against the pale marble walls but for their blue stoles trimmed with gold and emblazoned with the shape of a golden eagle in flight. They drew their hoods up as the casket began to lower into the platform.
Cora fought her tears, holding her eyes open in the hope they would evaporate before she had to blink and send a lonely drop running down her face. She breathed slowly as her father was taken away by devices so well hidden that even the whir of their gears was muffled and lost under the priests’ chanting. She clenched her jaw, grinding her teeth together. Her breathing turned to fits, catching in her throat and threatening a sob. That wouldn’t do. Cora and her mother were in enough trouble as it was.
When the casket finally vanished below, bells chimed and the priests stopped their chant. They filed out of the chamber, leaving through a small alcove at the back. Cora looked up to the domed ceiling and the white marble statues of the Highers that looked down in return. Cold, lifeless eyes. Their faces all stern. Fingers pointing in accusation.
Cora looked to the altar, where Archbishop Athias stood next to a girl roughly Cora’s height, the only one present dressed entirely in white. Platinum blonde hair clung to her head, fastened by jewelled clasps and adorned with a silver, feather-shaped comb. Her skin was pale enough to be lost against her dress, but radiated with vibrant health. Princess Idella, sent in place of her ailing mother, no doubt. Her presence would be regarded as an honour to the memory of Cora’s father. The Emperor had been dead for five years. Had Idella felt the same suffocating sense of accusation at the Emperor's funeral that Cora was feeling right then?
A hand fell on Cora’s shoulder. Her mother urged her up from the hard wooden pew so they could stand and let her father’s associates offer their condolences. Her mother thanked each person for their words—now that the priests had stopped chanting, they were allowed to speak—but Cora remained silent. Her composure remained a fragile thing, and she knew that even the smallest sound to come from her would be followed by a litany of crying, bringing no end of shame to her mother. Princess Idella clasped hands with Cora’s mother before moving on to Cora herself.
“I should like to express my condolences properly, but I have some matters to attend to first. Might I pay you a visit later this afternoon?”
Cora’s mother nodded, bowing her head. “Of course, Highness. We would be honoured, wouldn’t we, Cora?”
Cora bowed her head. “Indeed.”
She met Idella’s gaze as she raised her head and searched for some sign of sympathy, something to pierce the mask of formality. But there was nothing. Only cold blue eyes staring back at her, and a practiced smile—not too weak, not too wide—was her only goodbye.
When the morbid parade had finished, Cora followed her mother out of the church, away from its tall arches and buttresses reaching to the cloudy sky. A thick freezing fog hung around the church, creating a damp clinging sensation over Cora’s skin. She watched the lords and ladies take their private skiffs and disappear into the fog. Her father had owned several, and a fleet of merchant craft, all taken by House Skylark and redistributed to distant male relatives. Cora and her mother walked along a boardwalk to a ferry point, where a gondola waited for passengers.
Other mourners would now travel to Cora’s home in the Highport district. There they would drink her father’s wine and tell each other how well they knew the man who took a commoner for a wife, and share the many stories to explain why a nobleman, with so many successful business ventures, would take leave of his senses in such a way. Cora had heard the stories before. She couldn’t decide which story she hated more: the one where her mother bewitched her father with an unholy potion, or the one where her mother had become pregnant after a careless night and her father had been too honourable to leave her to raise a bastard on her own.
“And after such charity,” they would say, “for the woman to give him a daughter instead of a son. How sad.”
How sad. Like any of those noble arses would know sadness. Cora stepped along the gangplank onto the gondola.
“Where to, ma’am?” the ferryman asked. He blew into his hands and rubbed them, pulling up the collar of his thick woollen coat.
“Across the way,” she said, speaking only the barest of words, as befitting a woman in mourning. She handed over a whole florin. The ferryman’s eyes lit up and he barely suppressed a grin as he took the money and punched out two ticket cards from the dispenser hanging across his shoulder. Cora winced as the money left her mother’s hand.
“Thank you,” Cora’s mother said.
“Ma’am.” The ferryman nodded his bald head and walked to the front of the almond-shaped ferry, leaning on the side as he dragged his stiff right leg along. He cranked a large metal wheel around three times. The tall winch system in the centre of the deck hummed to life and small clouds of steam puffed out from exhaust pipes along one side. The ferryman pushed a lever forward and the gondola jerked. The twin winch wheels turned and pulled them along the old, heavy chain that stretched across the Alvian Way.
Lingering fog trailed around them, giving way to thick black smoke from the nearby factory district. Cora pressed her cloak over her nose and mouth, wincing as the smoke stung her eyes. The ferryman didn’t seem bothered, though he did cough on occasion.
Black smoke engulfed them, creeping around Cora’s ankles and tickling her nose through her veil. The wind picked up, rocking the ferry, and a great beam of golden light slashed through the clouds ahead. The Alvian Lighthouse stood tall and proud, glowing with blue light from the power lines running along its pentagonal surface. Its walls gradually tapered towards the top, where a great glass control room sat beneath the bulb’s housing. The lighthouse beam turned slowly, dispensing both light from its immense burning bulb and powerful gusts of wind from vents along its walls. The smoke blew back, revealing the mountain spire on which the lighthouse stood, the rocky depths below and, past those, the vast farmland that fed the Imperial Capital of Greyspire.
The lighthouse stood at the centre of a network of gondola lines, like the centre of a spider web, with threads stretching out across the moutainside.
The ferry clunked against the docking platform that encircled the lighthouse. The ferryman opened the gate on the rail and Cora followed her mother off. They passed other gondola lines, leading off to other areas of the mountain range, some to private estates, others to factories and military barracks. One line led to Highport, the docks district, where the Empire’s merchant fleet and naval skyships were stationed. Where Cora had grown up; where her father had brought her mother and given her a better life. One which was about to be taken away forever.
Cora’s mother led them through the filing passengers transferring from one ferry to another. They reached their ferry and Cora’s mother held out their tickets. The ferryman, a spindly youth not much older than Cora, desperately trying to grow a wiry beard with what few hairs sprang from his face, punched a hole in each and waved them on. Cora leaned on the rail and peered through the thick black smoke as the stone and steel towers of Greyspire pierced the clouds ahead. The city clung to the mountainside, spreading like an infected wound. Glowing power lines, running from the spirit furnaces deep in the caverns below, climbed the towers, reaching above the smoke plane, to where the wealthy and highborn lived in luxury. Industrial fans spun inside metal cylinders, pushing against the rising smoke. A network of vents and fans ensured that the wealthy breathed fresh, clean mountain air, while those in the slums below choked on the fumes. Lung diseases, like the one which killed Cora's father, were common among the lower classes.
In library books she hoped her mother didn’t know she’d read, Cora had seen pictures of Greyspire Mountain from centuries ago, before there was a city. Before there was an Empire. The mountain had been covered with rich forests, with the most wonderful colours bursting from the endless spread of flowers. Pictures in books were all that remained of that lush landscape, long since slashed and carved away to make room for deep metal spikes that now held tall, arrogant buildings and cramped, dirty streets.
Cora watched the dock move closer with each chug of the winch. Two men in fine suits, dark blue with a crimson trim, the colours of the Imperial Courts, stood waiting with a mechanised carriage behind them. One was short, at least an inch or two shorter than Cora, and sported a sharp widow’s peak, while the other was tall, with a hooked nose and short hazel hair, all tucked into fashionable curls on top of his head. Two city watchmen, in their white jackets and red rank sashes, stood next to the carriage. They held rifles up across their chests, standing at attention, and wore cutlasses on their belts.
“Madame Ravenell,” the shorter man said. His thick grey moustache bustled as he spoke. He tucked his thumbs into his belt, tugging it down under his swollen paunch. “We are here to escort you to the courts.”
“Lady Cumbrid, if you please,” Cora’s mother said.
The smaller man scoffed. “You will be relieved of that title once the proceedings are completed.”
“But until then,” she said, “I am still the wife of Lord Albert Cumbrid, of House Skylark.”
“It is just a formality,” the small man said.
“If that is the case,” she said, “then it won’t matter if you speak to me with the respect I am owed.”
The small man’s face turned the colour of raw beef and swelled up like an over-filled wineskin. He sucked in a breath, ready to unleash a raging rebuff, but the taller man placed a hand on his chest and bowed his head.
“Of course,” the tall man said. “Our apologies, Lady Cumbrid. The law must be obeyed.” He narrowed his steel-grey eyes. “To the letter.”
“To the letter,” Cora’s mother said.
“My name is Sentius Cavel, of House Kestrel. I am adjutant to Magistrate Barrow.” Cavel bowed his head a little. “The magistrate has requested that Mr. Torvel and I escort you to your meeting.”
The small, moustached man nodded with a practiced smile.
Cora’s mother nodded. “Of course.”
They climbed into the sharp-angled carriage. The watchmen took their places on raised plates at the rear. The side door clanked shut, sealing them inside with only small round windows letting Cora see out into the streets. Light came from a trio of humming bulbs on the ceiling. The seats were comfortable, softly upholstered in crimson to stand out against the metal and painted grey wood surrounding them. Everything rattled and chugged as the spirit engine started up.
Cora had once seen an old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage, long ago when she was a child, at the Emperor’s coronation. She’d wanted to ride in one ever since. Or better yet, to ride an actual horse. She withheld a sigh as they drove through the streets, passing city watchmen shoving protesters into a prison wagon and tearing down posters that called for an end to the war in the south. She winced as one man was smacked over the back of the head with a sap. Blood hit the stone pavement before the victim, and his tongue flopped out of his mouth.
The journey to the courts didn’t take long. Street traffic was always sparse at this time of day, since the pious were offering up their midday offerings to the Highers while the gluttons got a head start on eating and the industrious rushed to finish as much work as they could before lunch. Cora’s stomach ached. As per custom, she and her mother had not eaten breakfast and would not eat until the sun had set. Cora had tried to convince her mother that even the most fashionable of nobles overlooked that practice, but her mother insisted on adhering strictly to the expectations of women in their social class.
The courthouse loomed above Cora as she stepped out behind her mother. Tall columns capped with marble eagles stood at either side of the steps leading up to the portico where lawyers in their white caps discussed various legal matters. Eyes flicked to Cora and her mother as they passed. Voices hushed until they walked through the main doors, under the arch and the stone inscription that read, in the ancient script, Justice sees all. Let those who walk under the Heavens know its gaze.
Magistrate Barrow waited in a long, cold room, with dull light filtering in through long, thin windows along one wall. He sat behind a dark wood desk, flanked by four other old men, two on each side.
A pale, worn man, Magistrate Barrow watched Cora and her mother through wire-framed spectacles. A white stole hung from his shoulders, and he reached back to draw a small hood up over his thin grey hair.
“Welcome,” he said. “We may begin.” He nodded to Cavel, who walked over to a pedestal on which stood a small stone statue of a man in robes, wearing a deep hood. Cavel lit a bowl of incense and waved the smoke through the air.
“We here call upon Marrin, Higher of Law and Justice,” Barrow said, in an utterly dreary tone. He touched his fingers to his forehead and then held his hands out, palms up, in the traditional prayer pose. “Guide us and endorse our actions in your name.”
He held the pose for a moment, then took up a quill and dipped it in an ink pot. “Now, with that out of the way, the death of Lord Albert Cumbrid Skylark.” Barrow tutted and shook his head. “Sad business. Your husband was a good man. Very well respected.”
“Thank you, Magistrate,” Cora’s mother said.
“What was it?” Barrow asked.
“Ether-lung,” Cora’s mother said.
“Unusual for that these days, even in a merchant.”
Cora’s mother opened her mouth, rasping slightly. She stopped herself, coughed, and spoke. “There was an accident. One of his skyships was land-docked for maintenance. The spirit engine’s casing cracked. He managed to disconnect the crystal core before it detonated, but he was exposed to the exhaust fumes. We didn’t know for some time that the dose would eventually be fatal.”
“He saved many lives at the cost of his own, then,” Barrow said, nodding. “No doubt he will rise as a hawk and reach the Heavens.”
“You are kind, Magistrate.”
“Sadly,” Barrow said, “it would seem he left no provisions for you or your daughter.”
Cora’s brow creased and her nostrils flared. Provisions. A polite way of saying her father hadn’t asked some other noble to marry her mother or take her on as a servant after his death.
“Under the law,” Barrow went on, “now that your husband is dead, you will have his name and rank in society taken from you, along with all privileges and worldly possessions not befitting of a member of your previous class. You are hereby re-named Ania Ravenell, of the Lower Order, as you were before you were married. House Skylark will no longer speak for you in legal matters, nor may you enter those places of the city of Greyspire reserved for members of the Upper Order and the noble houses.”
Cora grit her teeth. She was about to watch her entire life be stripped away with the stroke of a pen and etiquette dictated she say nothing about it. Her heart raced, and she felt bile building up at the back of her throat. Her lungs struggled, and she felt fresh tears form.
She watched her mother’s face remain calm and for a moment thought she saw her mother’s mouth curl up at the side.
The doors flew open behind them. Everyone turned to see Lucas Fell, the captain of the City Watch, stride through the chamber in his white, red, and gold uniform. His black cape, trimmed with red, billowed behind him, and his hand rested on the sword by his side.
Keeping pace three steps behind him was his son, Laden, dressed in the grey uniform of a watch cadet. Like his father, he had tidy, blonde hair and broad shoulders. The dark green eyes he had inherited from his mother, quite distinct from his father’s pale blue colour. She narrowed her gaze. Captain Fell was a friend to both her parents. She and Laden had grown up together, often playing on her father’s skyships when they were docked. And yet, neither he nor his father had been at the funeral.
“Magistrate,” Fell called out. “I ask you to hold.”
Magistrate Barrow frowned and sat back. “What is the purpose of this interruption, Captain?”
Captain Fell stopped several paces ahead of Cora and her mother.
“Forgive me, but I ask that Madame Ravenell and her daughter not be removed from the Upper Order at this time.”
“The law is the law,” Barrow said.
“Indeed. But I have just this morning made arrangements for them to remain in House Skylark.”
Barrow’s frown deepened, threatening to consume his eyes with his thick brows. “And how have you managed this?”
Fell stepped forward and presented an envelope from inside his jacket. “My son will marry Madame Ravenell’s daughter.”
Cora’s eyes went wide, and she caught an outraged cry before it escaped her throat. She looked to her mother, who was now definitely smiling. Did she know about this? Is this why Captain Fell and his son were not at the funeral?
Barrow opened the envelope and examined the letters within, holding up his spectacles. He nodded and hummed as he read. “This all seems in order.” He looked up at Fell. “Your son is a man?”
“He turns sixteen in the next fortnight,” Fell said.
“The wedding will have to wait until then, you realise?”
Fell nodded. “Of course, Magistrate. However the law does allow for the engaged woman to dwell in the home of her new family, along with immediate relatives.”
“Indeed,” Barrow said.
Fell pointed to the court documents on the desk. “And as your signature has not yet touched the revocation of title, I believe the property of Lord Cumbrid remains in the care of House Skylark?”
Barrow nodded. “It does.”
“Then I should like to formally request that these properties be remanded to my family, as a wedding gift for my son.”
Barrow ran his bony finger down the documents. “Very well. You can fill out the request forms while you are here, but without any other family members to contest your claim, I do not imagine it will be a problem.”
“Then it’s settled?”
Barrow folded his hands together. “It is. A fortnight from now, Madame Ravenell’s daughter will marry your son, and they shall take his name and rank.”