A Tantalizing Bargain Is Sealed In This Excerpt from A Crown of Ivy and GlassBooks Features Claire Legrand
Claire Legrand has the range. A bestselling author whose YA books have encompassed both sweeping fantasy (the Empirium trilogy) and suffocating horror (Sawkill Girls, Extasia), she’s more than proven herself capable of telling virtually any kind of story. This means we, as readers, should be especially excited to see her step into the world of adult fiction with the first installment of her new Middlemist trilogy, A Crown of Ivy and Glass.
The story of three sisters—Gemma, Farrin, and Mara—whose family has been given incredible abilities by the gods, must fight against the dark forces that aim to destroy the Middlemist, an ancient barrier that protects their world. The book is described as Bridgerton meets A Court of Thorns and Roses and, according to the author, each book is inspired by a different classic romantic ballet: Giselle, The Firebird, and Swan Lake.
Here’s how the publisher sets up the story.
Lady Gemma Ashbourne seemingly has it all. She’s young, gorgeous, and rich. Her family was Anointed by the gods, blessed with incredible abilities. But underneath her glittering façade, Gemma is deeply sad. Years ago, her sister Mara was taken to the Middlemist to guard against treacherous magic. Her mother abandoned the family. Her father and eldest sister, Farrin—embroiled in a deadly blood feud with the mysterious Bask family—often forget Gemma exists.
Worst of all, Gemma is the only Ashbourne to possess no magic. Instead, her body fights it like poison. Constantly ill, aching with loneliness, Gemma craves love and yearns to belong.
Then she meets the devastatingly handsome Talan d’Astier. His family destroyed themselves, seduced by a demon, and Talan, the only survivor, is determined to redeem their honor. Intrigued and enchanted, Gemma proposes a bargain: She’ll help Talan navigate high society if he helps her destroy the Basks. According to popular legend, a demon called The Man With the Three-Eyed Crown is behind the families’ blood feud—slay the demon, end the feud.
But attacks on the Middlemist are increasing. The plot against the Basks quickly spirals out of control. And something immense and terrifying is awakening in Gemma, drawing her inexorably toward Talan and an all-consuming passion that could destroy her—or show her the true strength of her power at last.
A Crown of Ivy and Glass won’t hit shelves until May 9, but we’re thrilled to be able to share an exclusive excerpt from the story right now, in which Gemma Ashbourne meets the handsome Talan d’Astier, and forges a bargain that will change both their lives.
I had long considered myself an expert in the realm of beauty, both in terms of my own appearance and my assessment of others. But in all my study of garments and jewels, flora and design, hair and eyes and bodies, not once had I seen a creature as beautiful as Talan d’Astier.
He was even paler than Mara, with loose dark brown curls that were nearly black—neatly groomed, but with a sort of careless ease, as if he had woken up that morning looking just as he did in that moment. A lock of it, a shining dark wave, kissed his brow, and I was caught up in the senseless urge to run my fingers through it and test its softness. His face had a sort of delicacy to it, with fine cheekbones, a clean, defined jaw, and a mouth that turned up slightly at the corners, practically begging to be kissed. Beneath a serious, striking brow were eyes dark as black coffee and tinged with a quiet, patient sort of sadness that seemed to me a remnant of his family’s misfortune. Broad shoulders, a slim waist, a brocaded black vest beneath a long red velvet coat. He was slender, but there was nevertheless a power to him, a solid, steady presence that hinted at quiet strength.
I called upon all my restraint to keep from leaning into his body and feeling that strength for myself.
“Lady Gemma,” said Talan, his voice soft and rich as a spill of honey, lilting with a slight Vauzanian accent. He bowed, then offered me a bashful smile that brought a sparkling warmth to those sad eyes. “It is truly a pleasure. Everyone I’ve met here in Gallinor speaks so highly of you.”
I tried not to imagine how foolish I no doubt looked, gaping up at him with naked admiration, and quickly schooled my features into a coquettish smile. No beautiful foreigner with a tragic past would best me at my own game.
“Flattery will not get you far with me, I’m afraid,” I said, offering him my hand. “But dancing might, if you can keep up.”
His eyebrows lifted. How charmingly flummoxed he looked. “But Lady Gemma, I thought there were several others before me on your dance card. I wouldn’t want to offend—”
“This is my party, Mr. d’Astier. I can dance with whomever I please whenever it pleases me.”
With a small smile and a nervous little glance around the crowded ballroom, he took gentle hold of my hand. “Well, then, I would be honored to dance with you as often as you desire it. And please, call me Talan.”
“Actually, I don’t think I will. Not yet.” I flashed him a grin, and as we moved onto the dance floor, I looked back over my shoulder at Father—but he was no longer watching us, already engaged in conversation with a group of uniformed officers from the Upper Army.
I set my jaw, pushing back against the rising familiar feeling of sick disappointment. No matter. Whether or not Father cared to notice, I would do my duty.
The octet was playing a rather languorous little waltz I recognized, one of the more popular recent pieces written by the high queen’s court composers. Hoping to catch Talan off guard and reassert my authority, I spun him without warning into the tight swirl of dancers, ignoring the twinge of pain at the small of my back. The magic I’d felt all night was most powerful on the dance floor, concentrated into a small space and whipped into hot, sweaty eagerness by dozens of twirling bodies. I gritted my teeth against the prickling sensation that swept over me. The feeling made me imagine a hundred tiny claws carving little crescent moons out of my flesh. I took desperate comfort in the knowledge that this sad-eyed man was no doubt terrified of me.
However, much to my dismay, Talan slipped gracefully into the rhythm of the dance without pause, his hand firm on my waist.
“Is it not customary to wait until the beginning of the next song to start dancing,” he said somewhere above my head, “so as not to disturb the other dancers and throw them off their steps?”
“Mr. d’Astier,” I returned cheerfully, “I must say I find it odd that you would attend a party in a foreign land and proceed to educate the hostess on her own customs.”
I looked up at him—he quite towered over me, a tall lean figure, striking in his whirling red coat. But even so, he looked abashed, his eyes huge with mortification.
“Forgive me, Lady Gemma,” he murmured, ducking his head a little, which allowed a few soft waves to fall forward and kiss his brow in a frustratingly appealing fashion. “I did not mean to offend. It has been…difficult to find my footing since I arrived on your continent. I am not used to gatherings such as these.”
“Parties, you mean?”
He nodded. “With all their rules, the unsaid protocols that must be obeyed lest you find yourself shunned by the very people you wish to impress.” He gave me a rueful smile that warmed my cheeks. “I fear I’ve never been very good at understanding such things. I’ve no instinct for it. My parents didn’t either.”
“That surprises me, Mr. d’Astier,” I said coolly, hoping to catch him in a lie. “For someone who claims to be ignorant of such things you seem to know your way quite well around a dance floor, and a conversation.”
“Sure feet and a keen wit are quite different from understanding the intricacies of high society.”
A fair point I could not argue with. I pivoted quickly. “Father tells me you intend to restore your family’s reputation with the High Queen Yvaine by insinuating yourself into our good graces.”
Talan stumbled a little, and I swallowed a smug smile as I corrected our misstep, steering us back on course. A few more triumphs like that, and I would entirely forget the pain blooming throughout my body.
“You are quite direct, Lady Gemma,” he said after a pause. Then he laughed shyly, a low, soft sound that was altogether too enticing for my comfort. “I find myself uncertain what to say.”
“The truth would be my preference.”
He cleared his throat, his cheeks attractively flushed. “Well, then I must admit that what you say is true. Everyone I’ve spoken to says your family is a favorite of the queen.”
“Mostly it’s Farrin who’s her favorite,” I confessed. “The rest of us are beloved by association and because, well, the queen has always liked the Ashbournes. It’s simply the way things are done.”
“Lady Farrin is your eldest sister? The musician?”
“Yes, though she hardly plays anymore, which, as you might imagine, horrifies our peers. An Anointed savant ignoring the high magic gifted to her ancestors by Kerezen herself? If she weren’t such a dear friend of the queen, I’m not sure she could get away with it.”
“I’ve heard there was a recital she gave as a child that caused something of a riot.”
“You did your research, didn’t you? It was less of a riot and more of…an expression of spiritual ecstasy, shall we say.” I laughed breezily to shake off some of the delicious but distracting delight I felt at being the object of this beautiful man’s earnest dark gaze. “Anyway, Farrin’s too busy managing the estate now, and I think she’s glad of it, really. She didn’t know what to do with all the acclaim, the scores of admirers. Seeing to our tenants’ needs, managing the staff, keeping all the accounts straight—she’s far more comfortable doing that than she was on a stage before hundreds of people.”
“Is she more comfortable,” Talan mused quietly, “or does she simply feel safer?”
I drew back a little, surprised. It was a topic I often discussed with Farrin’s dearest friend Gareth when we got it into our heads to encourage my sister back to her music, but it was certainly not something I ever discussed with anyone else in the world.
Talan winced delicately. “I should not have said that. Forgive me. It’s only that I know quite well how easy it is to convince yourself that you are fine and comfortable in the life you lead when in fact you are desperately unhappy, and remain where you are only because doing otherwise feels too frightening to imagine.”
I considered him in stony silence until he looked away, embarrassed, and bit his delectable lower lip. Satisfied that I had regained the upper hand, I said smoothly, “Well, Talan d’Astier of Vauzanne, you’re bold, perhaps even brazen, but you’re not wrong. Maybe after our dance, you and Farrin can exchange sad stories by the fire.”
Talan laughed, then shook his head a little and cleared his throat. “Well, now that I’ve made a thorough fool of myself, perhaps I can attempt to right our conversation. You spoke of Farrin managing the estate, the accounts, the tenants. I’m curious, are those not your father’s duties?”
“They were once,” I answered, “but these days Father is far too busy planning the downfall of the Basks to bother with mundane things like bookkeeping.”
The words spilled out of me before I could stop them. Cursing Talan for so disarmingly unbalancing me, and the wine for loosening my tongue, I nevertheless glanced longingly at a tray of fresh glasses as we glided past them.
“The Basks?” A slight pause, then Talan clicked his tongue. “Ah, yes. That northern family who vanished, yes? And only recently reappeared?”
“Mmm, it wasn’t that they vanished,” I corrected him, “but rather that they were trapped.”
“Trapped? By what?”
I looked up at him in surprise, but there was no guile on his face, only pure, adorable puzzlement. “You mean to tell me that you’ve been on this continent for more than an hour and haven’t heard the story?”
He shook his head in apology. “Should I have?”
Suddenly I realized that we had come to a stop in the middle of the ballroom, earning curious glances from the dancers whirling by. Irritated with myself for too many reasons to count, I pushed Talan rather forcefully back into our waltz.
“The story of the Basks has been the talk of the continent for the past year,” I explained, “much to my father’s dismay. It’s no wonder he invited you to stay for the weekend. He’s desperate for the company of someone who isn’t enraptured by the tale of the poor piteous Bask family.” I leaned closer to Talan, relishing the heat of his tall, lean body so near the heat of my own much smaller one. “They were trapped by a curse, you see, their estate hidden from the world for years by an impenetrable forest.”
Trapped indeed. A thought arose unbidden: what it might feel like to be trapped between a wall and Talan’s body, tugging on his vest as his thigh wedged itself between my legs and I claimed his lips with my own.
I shook myself, nearly stumbling over my own feet. That wine’s potency was not to be underestimated.
Oblivious Talan’s gorgeous dark eyes widened. “Trapped? The whole family? Who would do such a thing to them?”
I giggled, shaky with nerves. Even drunk as I was, a distant part of me understood that I was treading on dangerous ground. That our family and the Bask family had long been enemies was common knowledge, but very few people knew the true extent of it, not even me.
“We would do such a thing,” I answered. “We Ashbournes. There was a fire, you see, some years ago, when my sisters and I were younger. It burned down much of Ivyhill. None of our wards could stop it. Even our head groundskeeper, a formidable elemental, was helpless against it. We had to rebuild almost everything. Mother had to regrow all her ivy from seedlings.”
“A fire that could overpower the wards of an Anointed family?” Talan was rapt, my story holding him in thrall just as the wine held me. “I wouldn’t think such a thing was possible.”
“Normally it wouldn’t be. But the Basks are special, and so are we. You see…”
I trailed off, looking around to ensure no one could hear us, and discovered that Talan and I were no longer dancing at all. Somehow, we had wandered to one of the curtained alcoves on the ballroom’s perimeter, huddled close together like lovers sharing secrets.
Incensed, I tried to push him away, but the effort nearly sent me crashing to the floor. Talan caught me and helped me settle on the alcove’s cushioned bench. I looked around, fogged with confusion, all my artifice stripped away.
“Would you be so kind as to remind me how we got here?” I mumbled, gripping the cushion’s velvet piping to remain upright.
Talan looked deeply embarrassed for me. “Well, you rather veered off from the dance floor and stumbled over here. Shall I bring you some water? Or perhaps a cool cloth for your head?”
“Or perhaps,” I said slowly, pressing one finger into his chest, “another glass of wine.”
He made a doubtful sound, his brow furrowed with earnest worry that melted my heart. “I don’t think that would be wise. In fact, perhaps I should find someone on your staff to help you upstairs to your rooms?”
“Before I finish my story?” I said, indignant. “I think not, sir! You must listen and listen hard, for it’s important, and you need to know, if you’re going to be here at Ivyhill. Father doesn’t invite visitors without an agenda. He’ll want to use you somehow in one of his little schemes. His business ventures, whatever he’s told you about your family’s wine stores, that’s only the surface of things. So, you see, you need to listen. You need to understand.”
“All right,” said Talan with admirable patience. “What do I need to understand?”
“The Basks and the Ashbournes, we’re special,” I repeated. “You’ll hear all kinds of stories explaining why. Farrin and Father won’t tell me the real truth—they’re probably afraid I’d spill it to someone like you, which I can’t say I blame them for—but here’s the most popular story people like to tell. It’s absurd, and something of a legend in this country. It’s part of why people like us. We’re mysterious.”
I waggled my fingers at Talan, then leaned close and whispered, “There’s a demon, you see. A demon who’s promised us eternal power and life and unending favor with Queen Yvaine if only we destroy the Basks, whether that’s quite literally, or spiritually, or simply by tarnishing their good name so thoroughly that they can’t come back from it. And we can’t stop fighting each other, not ever, or else the demon will wreak unthinkable havoc upon us and everyone we’ve ever known. So they say. The details vary depending on who’s telling the story, as happens with all good legends. The Man with the Three-Eyed Crown—that’s the demon’s name, so they say, or at least one of them. His true name, of course, being a creature from the Old Country as he is, can’t be uttered by a human tongue. So Farrin’s best friend, Gareth, tells me. He’s a student of the arcana—an Anointed sage, a librarian with a mind like a trap. He teaches at the university in the capital.”
It was as if some spellcrafter had enchanted me, tugging each word out of me on a knotted string I simply had to expel from my body. I could not stop telling the story, and I did not want to. It felt good to say it aloud, the whole ridiculous tale. I even found it rather funny, sitting there in the curtained shadows with Talan staring at me, aghast, though nothing about my family’s situation had ever seemed funny to me before that night.
“And the demon, he offered the same prize to the Basks,” I continued breathlessly, “which is why they burned down Ivyhill when I was seven years old. That did actually happen,” I added, gratified by Talan’s horrified expression. “That fire nearly killed Farrin because she got stuck inside the house. And then, as revenge, Mother and Father commissioned a beguiler to set a curse on Ravenswood—that’s the Basks’ ancestral home—and their curse wrapped Ravenswood in a forest no one could pass through. No one could get in, no one could get out. For years. Twelve years, in fact. And we all thought that was the end of it. We’d won. And Farrin was happy, and Father was happy—well, as happy as people can be when their mother and wife has run off, for Mother left us not long after Mara was taken to the Mist.”
Mother. Mara. Mist. As the words left my mouth, none of them sounded quite real. I giggled, swooned a little, then braced myself against the bench. Talan’s strong warm hands helped me remain upright—one hand at my waist, the other gentle around my left wrist. His touch was tender, deferent. The sensation made me ache.
“But even powerful curses can only hold for so long,” I continued, “and when this one fell, the forest shriveling up like dead crops, the Basks were alive and well, not starved or gone mad, not in the slightest. They were resplendent, even, hale in that hardy northern way. The garments they’d made for themselves while shut away were so absurdly out of fashion that they seemed to everyone quite daring and sophisticated indeed. It was as though the curse had never existed, for all that it had hurt the Basks in the eyes of Gallinor. And so the war goes on. A war started by a demon, if you believe the legend, which I absolutely do not. Demons and promises of eternal life—absolute nonsense. No, this war was started by stupid prideful men ages ago, and it lives on thanks to their stupid prideful descendants who can’t bear to do the sensible thing and call a truce. Anyway, the Basks returned a little over a year ago, and Father’s been a right bastard ever since. And that’s the most important thing to remember from all this: Gideon Ashbourne’s a bastard, and I wish I could bring myself to hate him.”
I sagged back against the wall, utterly spent, and looked at Talan with a dumb, soppy grin on my face.
But Talan looked changed, his expression gone rigid with something too dark for me to name. Hatred, perhaps, or fear. A desolation so complete that for a moment I was stunned out of my buzzing, wine-soaked stupor.
“What is it?” I asked, the words slightly slurred.
“Do you know the story of my family’s disgrace?”
His voice was deadly soft, fraught with emotion. A quiet chill raced down my spine.
“Father said you fell out of the queen’s favor,” I managed to say. “You were Anointed by Jaetris, and you rejected your ancestral magic, choosing instead to cultivate vineyards.”
He laughed bitterly, looking away. “No, there was no choosing. My parents were forced to do what they did—compelled, coerced—all the while knowing in the back of their minds that it would doom them, undo everything their ancestors had built, and insult both the high queen and the gods.” Another dark laugh, soft and full of wonder. “How strange, how utterly fitting, that both our families have been ruined by a demon’s touch. Yours has trapped your family in an endless, senseless, violent feud. Mine wormed into my parents’ minds, changed them, seduced them, tormented them, deluded them. And by the time she grew bored of watching us destroy ourselves and left to hunt some other family, the damage was done. We were finished. My mother withered away. My father killed himself. Our estate fell into ruin. The d’Astier name was like poison. No one wanted to acknowledge that we’d ever existed.”
His voice broke, and I touched his arm gently. “Talan…”
He turned to me, grasped my hands, and brought them to his lips. He pressed a fierce kiss against my fingers, his eyes shut tight as if in agony. Unsettled and bewildered as I was, shaken by the grim hopelessness of his story, I could not look away from him. In fact, I suddenly longed to hold him, to cradle his dark head against me, and barely restrained myself from doing so.
“We can help each other, Gemma,” he whispered, his voice like silk against my skin. “I have to believe we can help each other.”
Then he looked up, and our eyes locked, and a warm liquid feeling spilled through my body—an anchored feeling, as if I stood with my feet firm on the summer-warmed ground, all the great heat of the world pressing up against my toes. It was a feeling of absolute rightness, and it terrified me, for it came without warning and seemed to have a will of its own.
“How can we do that?” I whispered. Beyond the shadowed world of our alcove, the octet began a new waltz—merry and quick, breathless.
“I have spent the long years since my father’s death learning all I could of demons,” Talan said. “I have been taught by scholars of the arcana, like your sister’s friend Gareth, and I have collected countless stories of others who have been preyed upon by these foul creatures.
“If you help me restore my family’s name and honor,” he said very low, his eyes fixed on me, his breath hot and wine-sweet on my mouth, “I will help you hunt your family’s demon, and I will not rest until he is destroyed and you and yours are free. I could not save my own family. But maybe if we work together, I can save yours.”
I stared at him, my heart pounding so hard I could feel it in my cheeks. The story of his family’s ruin had unearthed too many unwelcome memories of my own—Farrin covered with ash and barely breathing, my mother’s wail of grief the day the Warden took Mara. The first time my father warned me against embracing him or Farrin, for if they were tired or ill or distracted, their magic might lash out and hurt me. And if it someday became impossible for me to be near my own family, what would I do? Where would I go? It was best, Father had said, to exercise caution.
My thoughts began to race, and my stomach dropped as I felt the familiar, ferocious downward spin take hold of me. The panic was coming. The shock of this conversation, the pain of my magic battered body, and Talan’s own distress combined to flay me, leaving me vulnerable, like a soldier with all her armor stripped away. I felt helpless before it, too drunk and ragged to face it, too weak in body and mind to fight it.
“But the legend of our family’s demon is just that—a legend,” I said weakly. I was beginning to regret saying anything. I was beginning to regret taking Talan’s hand, drinking that wine, even dreaming up the party in the first place. “It’s a story people made up to turn a boring, stupid feud between rich families into something more interesting, something to gossip about. There hasn’t been a demon in Gallinor since the Unmaking.”
Talan shook his head. “And yet one was on my continent, in Vauzanne, and was the ruin of my family. Not even the gods in all their glory were perfect, and with a sister serving at the Middlemist, you should know better than most that no seal between worlds is impenetrable.”
The memory stabbed me, quick but lethal—Mara’s transformation, the shrieks of whatever monsters she was duty-bound to fight. The silver fog of the Mist slithering all around me.
“In every legend,” Talan said quietly, urgently, pulling me back to him, “there is a kernel of truth, and when the word demon is uttered, you cannot be too careful. If one of those creatures is indeed behind the conflict between your families, there may be something even deeper and darker at work. I can help you find out. I can help you hunt him—a fair exchange for your good word with the high queen on my behalf. Even more than that, though, Gemma, it would be a chance for me to kill your demon as I was never able to kill my own.”
He laughed in disbelief, scrubbed a beautiful white hand through his hair. “The gods work in unknowable ways indeed. That my path has brought me here, to this night, and to you…”
I stood and moved away from him too quickly, my knees wobbling. My head spun, and I leaned hard against the wall to steady myself. Whatever comfort the wine had brought to my aching body was beginning to fade, and quickly, as if Talan’s words had fallen upon me like fists. The frenzied magic in the ballroom swarmed and swirled just beyond my reach, crowding closer with each unsteady breath I drew.
Talan was there at once, a strong arm around my waist and his other hand smoothing back the damp hair from my cheek. I was sweating and shivering as if seized in the grip of a fever.
“Gemma, what is it?” His voice came from somewhere distant, tense with concern. “Are you ill? I’ll fetch one of your staff. Just wait here a moment, try to breathe slowly.”
I grabbed his arm to keep him near me, shook my head, struggled to catch my breath. “I’m fine,” I said faintly, my tongue fat and slow. “Too much wine. My body doesn’t like rooms like this, so full of people and their shimmer.”
He said something else, something I couldn’t hear for the pulsing roar in my head—the pain of my body and the panic of my mind joining in terrible chorus—but I dug deep for whatever shreds of strength I could find, and gripped his arm hard, and looked up at him.
“Meet me tomorrow at midday,” I said quickly. “Near the hothouses by the footbridge, there’s a fountain, a statue of Kerezen, and beside it an old oak. We’ll speak further then. I can’t…” I gritted my teeth and looked away so he wouldn’t see how utterly the sudden revolt of my body devastated me. “Please leave me. Find a servant, have them send for Jessyl. My lady’s maid. She’ll come for me.”
I turned away from him, pressed my burning cheek against the heavy velvet curtain. I felt movement, and then the bench beneath me, and the floor throbbing under my feet, or perhaps my feet were the throbbing things, all the bones inside them at war with one another. Something soft brushed against my damp forehead. Then Talan’s fingers sweetly pressed mine, and then he hurried past me and was gone, and so was I.
Text copyright © 2023 by Claire Legrand. Reprinted by permission of Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks. All Rights Reserved.
A Crown of Ivy and Glass will be published on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, but you can pre-order it right now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.