25 Jan Sneak Peek: The High Priestess
This sneak peek is at the first book in the new Historical Collection. There will be four standalone books taken from the history of the world of Alkarra. Fans of The Network Series and The Dragonmaster Trilogy can’t miss the next installment in this beautiful fantasy world.
Before you dive into the sneak peek of Chapter 1, here’s a little bit about The High Priestess:
The Eastern Network is owned by the wealthy Tradesmen and Landowners, so uneducated witch Vittoria Gutia isn’t about to make any waves. She either works as a lavanda maid, or she and her beloved nephew starve to death.
That sort of math is pretty simple.
When an unexpected savior lands in her lap, fate falls with him. La Salvatorra—Giver of Justice and Savior of the Impoverished—beckons her with him.
To save her nephew, Vittoria takes the reckless Trademen’s soon-to-be-disastrous offer. She’s thrust into a glittering new court, a world without conscience, and the burden of saving her entire Network.
Can Vittoria save her witches by focusing on what matters most? Or will the world of power and men cast her aside like the lavanda maid she was raised to be?
An elegant silk dress, the color of blood, spilled across Vittoria’s palms.
Her hands trembled as she stared at it. The bottom hem, though edged with cream-colored lace, was torn six inches above the bottom, right at the front of the dress. The ripped fabric sent a glacial chill down her spine.
“By the Givers,” she whispered. “They’ll take all my food.”
Her empty stomach grumbled a worried assent.
She dropped a small scrub brush used specifically on the hem into a bowl of tepid water and frantically surveyed the offended garment. The tear snaked up the silk panel—it couldn’t even be hidden.
Late summer air drifted into the room from a window on the other side of the room, cooling her hot skin. Water boiled in a cauldron on over a crackling fire, which sent heat into an already damp room. Outside, witches passed by in a quiet background noise that softened the utter silence of the stone walls. Occasional thumps and calls rang out from the dressmaker store above.
Despair sent her into a quick lurch. She was a lavanda maid, not a seamstress. She cleaned laundry, didn’t create it. This tear couldn’t be hidden before the andrea of the house came into the basement to check her work.
This dressmaker was well-known amongst the elite landowners. Foot traffic was constant and the reputation heavy. To lose this job would cripple Vittoria’s chance of getting Pere his breathing medicine.
Another loud thud overhead drew her back to the present. Vittoria straightened her shoulders and mentally pulled herself together. Her five-year-old nephew, Eneko, needed the food her work brought home.
She had to figure something out.
Maybe the andrea wouldn’t notice the tear? No chance of that. Of course the andrea would notice it. The rip slipped at least a hands-breadth up the skirt in the front. The landowner daughter destined to wear this dress to an upcoming ball would demand retribution because silk this elegant came only from the Southern Network. It cost more currency than Vittoria would see in her lifetime.
An itchy suspicion nagged at her. Despite being a well-known dressmaker, this andrea had been sneaky in the past. She may have planted that tear so she could blame Vittoria and not pay her despite cleaning both complicated dresses. The mauve dress had over fifteen different layers that required attention.
Vittoria dismissed that suspicion—she wouldn’t accuse the woman before she knew for certain. For the next hour, she focused on her work. The correct potion on the silk. Wet heat from a boiling cauldron. Scrub, scrub, scrub.
What felt like an eternity later, Vittoria slipped the dress on the wooden hanger as the upper door creaked open. Sweat trickled down her back, but all windows were already open. She set the crimson dress on a hook in the stone wall and quickly straightened the mauve dress. The slow tap of a heavyset woman came down the stairs just as Vittoria managed to spin around.
A hook-nosed woman with perpetually slitted eyes appeared seconds later. She wore a gray dress that matched her hair, both flat and neat as a pin, and a pair of cloth shoes. A bolt of panic slipped through Vittoria like lightning.
She’d taken her wooden shoes off an hour ago. The heavy, awkward things made lavanda work impossible. If the andrea saw her barefoot . . . Vittoria edged to the left, where a bucket might hide her bare toes. Then she bowed her head.
“Andrea,” she murmured.
The woman ignored her and approached the dresses with a hand held out. First, the andrea touched the mauve silk, ran her fingers down the sleeve, and inspected the lace around the neck. Trace amounts of dirt and stray strings had been there from before. Vittoria had cleaned them all away. Even the hem was clear, the lace cleaned by hand with her small brush and a special potion made just for light-colored material. Vittoria clamped her hands behind her back. The caustic soap left the skin reddened over her knuckles.
The andrea turned away from that one after studying the fifteen underlayers, each perfect, as always.
Vittoria held her breath as the andrea moved to the crimson dress. The front of the long-sleeved dress faced the stone wall. Perhaps she wouldn’t—
“What,” the andrea muttered, “is this?”
The andrea noticed the issue unusually fast . . . as if she’d been looking for it. A chill trickled through Vittoria’s chest as the andrea flipped the dress around and motioned to the damaged spot. Vittoria drew in a breath.
“It was there when I began, andrea. Before I even took it off the hook.”
“When I went to clean the lace on the hem, I noticed it.”
The andrea‘s beady eyes tapered so thin they became mere lines. “You expect me to believe that?”
“Why would I tear it? How would I tear it? There’s nothing sharp down here.”
“Laziness?” the andrea cried. “Foolishness? You stepped on it? You’re nothing but a lavanda maid, so what do you know?”
Vittoria hid a flinch. “Andrea, I assure you, I didn’t cause that tear. My work is sound. Your dresses are otherwise perfectly laundered and prepared for presentation to your buyers.”
“No food for you today.” The andrea waved a hand. “Go. Don’t come back. You’re not welcome here anymore.”
“But I did the work you conscripted me to do today. Please, just cut the amount if you’re upset. I should at least get payment for the mauve—”
The woman shouted, a strand of hair falling from her thick bun. Vittoria longed to shout back. Her throat ached with it. She’d spent six hours on the mauve. Six hours she’d never get back. Six hours of stolen time, and what could she do about it? Vittoria clenched her fingers. Eneko’s smudged, five-year-old face floated through her mind. He would go hungry again tonight. Pere would cough and moan in his sleep.
All of this was for nothing.
Vittoria hesitated a moment, then opened her mouth to counter again. Warmth wrapped around her throat, silencing her words like a hand. Magic. The andrea had used a silencing spell on her.
“Not. A. Word.” The woman spoke through gritted teeth. “Or I’ll have your tongue cut out. Go.”
The andrea gathered both dresses and turned to go up the stairs, but not before casting a suspicious look over her shoulders, as if Vittoria would chase after her. Vittoria wanted to throw the hand brush at her, but refrained out of fear. This dressmaker stood right in the middle of the north side of the city, Necce, where the landowners ruled. Guardians roamed the streets constantly. One move against the andrea and she’d be in prison. If she were conscripted to a house, they’d sew her mouth shut for speaking back. A favorite punishment amongst the noble elite.
Then Pere would die.
Eneko would starve.
No, Mere and Pere had already lost one son. She couldn’t abandoned them out of frustration.
Vittoria closed her eyes, stuffed her rage into a little corner in the back of her mind, and turned to find her wooden shoes. Tears made her vision hot and blurry, but she blinked them back. No, she wouldn’t give any tears to such a wretched witch. With any luck, La Salvatorra, the Giver of Justice, would come and shred those dresses to ribbons in the night.
She sighed. If only . . .
When she crouched to pick up her clogs, she stopped. Sitting next to her shoes, near the back door, was a wooden bucket with a metal handle. The interior of the bucket was heaped with flat pitta bread, linen bags the size of her palm, shiny apples, and what appeared to be slices of smoked eel. A bright blue symbol hovered over it, conjured by magic. It was an intricate, woven design. Too detailed to be able to copy, and nearly impossible to mimic, for it only appeared for a few moments.
The sign of La Salvatorra.
Her breath caught as the sign began to fade. Hadn’t she just thought of La Salvatorra? Had she somehow invoked him here?
The tears she’d valiantly fought disappeared as she touched the food. The bread was pillowy and warm. The seeds in small linen bags were crisp. Even the apples smelled fresh, as if straight from the orchards that ringed Necce.
She straightened and looked around, but of course the lavanda was empty. Nothing but barrels of fresh water and potion bottles on the wall, as usual. Of course he wasn’t here. La Salvatorra was a reputed Giver and famously powerful with magic.
Vittoria shook herself. For a moment, she could almost believe La Salvatorra was real. That Givers—magical witches sent from the goddess of the sea—actually watched over them. Listened to their prayers. Brought justice, hope, courage, or strength. They were myths. Tales. Legends that workers told each other in the dark, miserable, hungry nights while the landowners took their food. La Salvatorra was likely a charitable landowner. Rogue, for no one knew him. He hid behind his magic, but served the workers.
Somehow, he’d heard of her plight just now.
Vittoria grabbed five pitta bread, five apples, and several smoked eels. She stuffed them into the deep pockets Mere had sewn into her dress. They weighed her dress down, but the folds of her skirt managed to hide them. Only a fool carried their food for all to be seen.
More food remained in the bucket, of course. Vittoria gathered the rest in her hands, then stepped out of the basement lavanda with relief. A warm wind brushed over her skin as she stood in the crowded Necce alley. The back entrance kept her far from the landowners. Only workers and conscripted witches—workers assigned to a trade—flowed through the alleys back here.
Not three steps into the alley, a huddled figured hid in the shadows. Vittoria stopped, crouched down, and peered into the face of a witch with one eye. A gaping socket stared back at her, bright red. Dried blood drained down the gaunt cheek. The other eye was a warm, chocolate brown. Bloodshot from tears. This injury was recent and clearly still painful.
“Allo,” Vittoria whispered. She passed a piece of pitta bread over. “For you, masuna.”
A wrinkled, trembling hand reached from the folds of filthy clothes. Their lips formed the words thank you as they pulled the bread to wrinkled lips. A mouth full of teeth meant they must be young, though it was hard to tell. Vittoria squeezed their hand, straightened, and shuffled to the next hungry soul on the street.
“Here, masuna,” she murmured to a beggar with an arm cut off. “We are all friends, aren’t we? Have some food. May La Principessa bless you.”
A looming, pale statue of a woman with long hair on her shoulders and her hands held out at her sides stood nearby. The marble was stained brown and smeared on the bottom with what appeared to be blood. Despite the filth, a shockingly white magnolia flower rested on the woman’s chest, unmarred by filth and time.
Vittora slowed, let out a deep breath, and touched the foot of the graceful statue. She murmured the salutation meant to La Principessa, Giver of Hope, before she gave away the last of the food.
La Salvatorra had blessed her this day. She may not believe in the Givers, but at least she knew that.
I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek at the first book in the Historical Collection, The High Priestess.
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