With them, there are no happy endings.
In the remote city of Lushan, they know that the Fey are not fireside tales but a dangerous reality.
Generations ago, the last remnants of a dying empire bargained with the Faerie Queen for a place of safety in the mountains and each year the ruler of Lushan must travel to the high plateau to pay the city's tribute. When an unexpected misfortune means that the traditional price is not met, the Queen demands the services of Teresine, once a refugee slave and now advisor to the Sidiana. Teresine must navigate the treacherous politics of the Faerie Court, where the Queen's will determines reality and mortals are merely pawns in an eternal struggle for power.
Years later, another young woman faces an unexpected decision that forces her to discover the truth of what happened to Teresine in the Faerie Court, a truth that could threaten everything she loves.
From the acclaimed author of The Night Inside and A Terrible Beauty comes a new novel about the price of safety and the cost of power.
Nobody does worldbuilding in a fantasy world setting like Nancy Baker. Or writes heartbreaking characters like she does. I've known Nancy for something like twenty years—not only is she a friend, I'm a huge fan of her books. I nagged her gently to finish this book . . . or told her I'd murder her if I didn't find out what happened to all these people. One or the other. A second-world fantasy set in countries modeled on Laos and Thailand, and based on the famous tale of Tam Lin. Gorgeous, lush storytelling at its best. – Sandra Kasturi
"Cold Hillside is a very smart and entertaining fantasy novel that met and exceeded my expectations going in to the novel. While there is very little action in the book, it is very well written and thought provoking so that I never got bored as I read this longer novel. Baker takes the fantasy genre and turns it on its ear. There is magic and chivalry in the novel but they do not overwhelm the story. There is even a fair amount of political and familial intrigue that fans of Game of Thrones have come to love in Cold Hillside but it never bogs the story down. Cold Hillside is a very smart fantasy that does not draw the reader into the world of the fantastic but rather makes the fantastic real. I used to be a huge fan of the fantasy genre when I was younger but have drifted from it to some extent as I aged. Baker is able to capture that sense of enchantment that I used to feel when reading fantasy and transported me to a somewhat magical time in my life through this novel. Cold Hillside is sure to please fans of fantasy but I would dare anyone to pick up this book and not enjoy it."– Josef Hernandez, Examiner.com
"Baker's style combines, or alternates between, traditional realism and fantasy; realism with its developed, motivated, complex characters; plots which attempt to reflect life as we live it; and straightforward, transparent prose—and fantasy, with its more stereotyped characterizations; stylized story lines; and formal, sometimes poetic language. The latter style is more prominent in the part of the novel which flash back to ancient Japan, where the prose lilts gracefully."– Toronto Star
"Nancy Baker writes about the vampires next door . . . they bicker over petty, everyday things. They are jealous when a partner flirts with someone. They worry about paying the rent . . . 'They're Canadian,' she says."– The Vancouver Sun
"Baker evokes the various figures from Japanese culture familiar in the West—yakuza, samurai and medieval court ladies and their pillow books—but she goes beyond clichés and invests these characters with a solidity and poignancy that contrast sharply with the simpler Canadian horror of The Night Inside. This is a more contemplative offering, and while it is not always successful, it has moments of great effectiveness. Ardeth's nocturnal cross-country hitchhiking trip is particularly noteworthy for its undercurrents of violence and loneliness."– Paragraph
CHAPTER 1 (TERESINE)
Tonight, I woke and did not know where I was.
Or rather I knew and was wrong.
When I opened my eyes and lay in the darkness, the sounds I heard were the rush of the water beneath my family's hut, the air was warm and still, and I could smell sweat and dust and the heavy sweetness of jessamine.
Then the water was nothing but the wind probing the shutters, the warmth of the air was only my breath beneath the blankets and the perfume was the thin smoke from the braziers that burned on either side of the bed.
I knew where I was then, at home in my bed, in my mountaintop house in Lushan and not in far off Deshiniva. At the realization, I wanted to weep—though I still do not know if it was from relief, or homesickness, or merely an old woman's emotional fragility.
Whatever the reason, sleep was well and truly banished. There was nothing to do but push my protesting bones from the bed, wrap myself in my robes and poke the dimly glowing braziers back to life. I considered going to the workroom, to play with the tiles of colour laid out on the mosaic I will never finish. It was to be my legacy, my gift to Lilit to tell her everything I have never been able to say. But I have rearranged it a dozen times and always there is something missing. I played with it because I was not ready to tell the truth and so obscured in colour, pattern and symbolic figures what could never bear the weight of messy and shapeless reality.
I was never an artist anyway, only a restorer—and there is no way to restore what has been broken over the years of my life.
So I huddle here, feeling the cold as I have not in a long time, and hope that these words will serve me as my stones did not. I must at least try to leave some record of the truth for those who might have to bear the consequences of the choices I have made.
Lilit asked me once about Deshiniva. Did she have grandparents there, aunts and uncles, cousins? Would we ever go there? What was it like?
What could I tell her, then or ever? I could not speak of it, was afraid to for fear of what might come out of my mouth once I began. So I refused to answer.
"I'll go there myself then," she announced, eight years old and stubborn as her mother when the mood took her. We were on the patio of the house, overlooking the great drop of the valley. The sky was the bright blue of high summer, burning away the fog and mist until only the highest peaks were still wreathed in the white of their perpetual snows.
Lilit sprawled on the flagstones, playing with the painted cards Urmit had given her, laying bright patterns on the grey rock. Some claimed to be able to read futures in those cards but if Lilit were constructing a fortune there, I could not see it.
Amaris sat in the shade cast by the overhanging roof. There was a ledger book open in her lap and several more piled beside her. I did not look at her; the pinched, dissatisfied line of her mouth still had the power to distress me, for all I swore that she had chosen her life and I was not to blame for any of it. It was enough that she had come and not sent Lilit with a servant. She had grown up here in this house but always seemed a guest in it. I guessed that she was grateful for the wall of important, complicated Kerias family work between us.
"You will not go anywhere," Amaris said. "Why would you want to go there? It's a poor, ugly place . . . full of poor, ugly people." I felt her glance towards where I sat in the sun. "That's what your great-aunt told me once, when I said I wanted to go visit my mother's family. Why would I want to go to see such poor, ugly people, she asked me."
"I never said ugly," I replied. "Poor and stupid, yes."
"All of them?" Lilit asked tentatively, looking from her mother to me curiously. Trying to reconcile that statement with what she knew of us, I guessed, or unwilling to consider it a judgement on herself.
"Of course not all of them," I admitted. "Some of them are rich and stupid." I looked at her open, curious face. Her skin was lighter than her mother's, honey instead of copper, but even in the bright sun her hair was the rich black of Deshiniva. Her eyes were hazel, a common enough colour in Lushan, with its odd, mingled heritages. But I still shivered sometimes when I saw them—and that made me harsh. "Trust me in this, child. There's no family worth finding and no way to find them."
"I could. Maybe you're wrong."
"You could certainly stop at every poor hut all the way down the river and ask who had a daughter named Teresine, a daughter named Keshini. But Teresine what, Keshini what? We were too poor to have last names. What does a peasant need with a last name? Every village probably has a child named Teresine who disappeared down the river to the city and was never seen again. Every village probably has a child named Keshini who—" But I stopped myself in time for that.
"You found her. You found your sister," Lilit pointed out after a moment of thought. I was grateful she had not pursued my slip and asked exactly what Keshini had done. Amaris looked at me, narrow-eyed and angry. She had long since decided where the blame for her mother's early death lay. I put my hands up to shade my eyes and stared out over the valley.
"I did," I conceded, at last. "But I knew where to look."
So here is a place to start. It might be only my cowardice that makes me believe so, my fear of finally setting down the words I have hidden from everyone for so many years. But there is truth in the old saying that the beginning holds the ending—and this story begins in Deshiniva.
What do I remember?
I remember the river: that wide, muddy vein that ran down the length of Deshiniva and gave it much of its life. The Deshi begins somewhere in these mountains, but I did not know that then. I only knew that the river was the place we lived. Our village was nothing special. A cluster of huts, some on stilts above the water; a road to the fields won back from the jungle every few years; a society of aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, and faces known since birth. We were poor but no poorer than most of our neighbours so we did not notice it most of the time. Only when the great merchant barges or a lord's pleasure boat passed did we glimpse a different world than the one that had been ours for generations.
The river was our life but it was also our death. Each year it would rise, swollen with the snow we never saw and the rain we suffered under. I remember lying on the floor, my eye to the crack in the board beneath me, watching the detritus of others' lives flow beneath me. Broken boats, rags, wooden bowls swirled by in the water. Animals floated past, held aloft by struggling limbs or the bloat of death. Once, when the river swallowed the lower half of the hut, we sat in sodden misery on the roof and I saw an arm wave once above the waves and then vanish again. No one remarked upon it for there was nothing we could do. We waited until the river fell again and then dug the silt from our hut and went on with the work of living.
I was the fourth daughter in the family of ten. I do not think any of us were ugly; I have hard proof enough that the world did not think me so. Whether my parents were stupid, I do not know. For years I was torn between ascribing their actions to ignorance or malice. I do not know which it was and I never will. But I have no strength left to hate them for what they did. If they had not done it, I would not be here now.
Down the river, far away, was Jayasita, the capital city. Strangely enough, it is water I remember there as well, though the house I lived in gave no glimpse of it beyond a fountain that burbled in the courtyard. Our masters there did not trust us so close to water especially those of us from up the river, and in that they were not wrong, at least in my case. When we saw the river, it was always from the decks of barges or the terraces of the palaces. And always at night, when the water was black but for the silver sheen of the moon and the reflected glow of the lanterns. I would lie back and close my eyes and for a moment, the lap of the waves on the sides of the boat would be the water against the stilts of the hut. Sometimes the sound comforted me. Other times, it made me want to weep.
It was hot in the city. In my early years in the mountains, I missed that heat, for all I had cursed it on the long days of summer when the air would not move and the sweat would coat your skin if you dared to try. On the hottest days in Lushan, when people shed their heavy robes and turn their faces to the sky, like flowers seeking the sun, it would be considered cold in Deshiniva. It always made me laugh but I am a creature of the mountains now. When I went back to Deshiniva forty years ago, I revelled in the heat for two days, then longed only for a cool mountain breeze.
Water. Heat. And green. That is the other thing I remember of my homeland. The shadowed green of the jungle, the dusty familiarity of the herbs in my mother's pots, the flower-starred gardens of Jayasita. Deshiniva is green in a thousand shades that do not exist here.
And here I live in a world where the only water is the silver slip of a stream through the rocks, where the braziers give heat and the sun, so close in the blue sky, only burns, and there could be a thousand words for grey and not exhaust every nuance of it.
I bought this place with blood and grief and bitterness. I bought it for myself and for you, Lilit, whether or not you ever read these words.
I bought it because I thought it might protect your mother and then you from the danger I brought upon us all.