The following is an excerpt from Blood Heir, the debut YA novel by author Amélie Wen Zhao. In January, Zhao asked publisher Delacorte Press to postpone publication of the book, which was acquired in the reported six figures, after allegations of racial sensitivity and “anti-blackness” in its depiction of slavery surfaced. After rereading the book, Zhao reversed course, deciding to move ahead with some revisions in April. “In writing Blood Heir, I set out to write a fantasy with blood magic, fierce heroines, con men, and falling kingdoms, with parallels to modern-day human trafficking,” she said in a statement. “I researched extensively on that subject and on indentured labor throughout the world, and specifically from my heritage. It became clear to me that my book was being read in a different cultural context from my own, and so I took the time to make sure the hallmarks of this global epidemic were being incisively drawn. My hope is that the themes explored spark meaningful conversations, and that readers become immersed in the fantasy world I have created.”
Blood Heir is the first in a planned trilogy centered on Princess Anastacya Mikhailov, who lives in secrecy, sharing the same blood and powers as the Affinites, her empire’s enslaved population. The novel publishes Nov. 19, and is available for pre-order.
For a moment, Ana only stood, staring at his retreating back, feeling as though the world were disappearing beneath her feet. Conned by a con man. A bitter laugh wheezed from her throat. Had she not expected that? Perhaps, after all these months she’d spent learning to survive on her own, she was really only a naïve princess who couldn’t survive beyond the
walls of the Salskoff Palace.
Her wound throbbed, a trickle of blood and Deys’voshk winding gently down her arm, filling the air with its metallic tang.
Her Affinity stirred.
No, Ana thought suddenly, touching a finger to her wound. The drops of blood seemed to pulse at her fingertips. No, she was not just a naïve princess. Princesses did not have the power to control blood. Princesses did not murder innocent people in broad daylight in the middle of a town square. Princesses were not monsters.
Something snapped within her, and suddenly she was choking on years of built-up ire, churning with nauseating familiarity.
No matter what she did, no matter how good she tried to be, she always ended up as the monster.
The rest of the world dimmed, and then there was only the blood trickling down her arm and onto the floor in slow, singular droplets.
You want me to be the monster? Ana lifted her gaze to the corridor where Ramson had disappeared. I’ll be the monster.
Reaching into that twisted place within her, Ana stretched her Affinity.
It was like lighting a candle. The shadows that had been pulling at her senses burst into light as her Affinity reached out to the very element that made her monstrous: blood.
It was everywhere: inside every prisoner in the cells surrounding her, splattered and streaked on the filthy walls like paint, from vivid red to faded rust. She could close her eyes and not see, but feel it, shaping the world around her and gradually, several corridors down, fading into nothingness beyond her reach. She sensed it coursing through veins, as powerful as rivers and as quiet as streams, or still and stale as death.
Ana stretched her hands, feeling as though she was breathing in deeply for the first time in a long time. All this blood. All this power. All hers to command.
She found the con man easily, the adrenaline pumping through his body lighting him like a blazing torch among flickering candles. She focused her Affinity on his blood and pulled. A strange sense of exhilaration filled her as the blood obeyed, every drop in Quicktongue’s body leaping to her desire. Ana drew a deep breath and realized that she was smiling. Little monster, a voice whispered in her mind—only, this time, it was her own. Perhaps Sadov had been right after all.
Perhaps there was some twisted part of her that was monstrous, no matter how hard she tried to fight it.
A shout rang out in the hallway, followed by a thud, then sounds of scuffling. And then slowly, from the darkness, a foot emerged. Then a leg. And then a filthy torso. She dragged him to her by his blood, savoring the way it leapt at her control, the way he jerked like a marionette under her power.
Outside her cell, Quicktongue writhed on the ground. “Stop,” he panted. A red blotch appeared on his sweat-stained tunic, soaking through the fabric and filth. “Please—whatever you’re doing—”
Ana reached an arm through the cell bars and seized his collar, wrenching him so close that his face thunked against the metal. “Silence.” Her voice was a low snarl. “You listen to me. From now on, you will obey my every word, or this pain that you feel right now”—she tugged at his blood again, drawing a low moan—“will be just the start.” She heard the words as though someone else were speaking through her lips. “Are we clear?”
He was panting, his pupils dilated, his face pale. Ana tamped down any guilt or pity she might have felt.
It was her turn to command. Her turn to control. “Now open the door.”
The con man roused himself in starts and stops, shaking visibly. A sheen of sweat coated his face. He fumbled with the lock, and the cell door squeaked open.
Ana stepped out of the cell and turned to him. The world swayed slightly as another bout of dizziness hit her—yet her stomach clenched in twisted pleasure as Quicktongue cringed. Blots of red were spreading on his shirt where vessels in his skin had broken. Tomorrow these would become ugly bruises that pocked his body like some hideous disease. The devil’s work, Sadov had called it. The touch of the deimhov.
Ana turned away before she could feel revulsion at what she had done. Her hand automatically darted to her hood, pulling it back over her head to hide her eyes. Her hands and forearms felt heavy, streaked with jagged veins engorged with blood. She tucked her ungloved hand inside her cloak, fingers twisting against the cold fabric, feeling exposed without her glove.
The hairs on her neck rose when she realized that the prison had gone completely silent.
Something was wrong.
The moans and whispers of the other prisoners had quieted, like the calm before a storm. And then, several corridors down, a loud clang sounded.
Ana tensed. Her heart started a drumroll in her chest. “We need to get out of here.”
“Deities,” cursed Quicktongue. He’d pulled himself up from the ground and sat leaning heavily against the wall, panting, the corded muscles of his neck clenching and unclenching. “Who are you?”
The question came out of nowhere; she could think of a thousand ways to answer. Unbidden, memories flipped through her mind like the pages of a dusty book. A white-marble castle in a wintry landscape. A hearth, a flickering fire, and Papa’s deep, steady voice. Her brother, golden-haired and emerald- eyed, his laugh as radiant as the sun. Her aunt, doe-eyed and lovely, head bowed in prayer with her dark braid falling over her shoulder—
She pressed the memories back, replacing the wall that she’d carefully built over the last year. Her life, her past, her crimes—these were her secrets, and the last thing she needed was for this man to see any weaknesses in her.
Before she could respond, Quicktongue leapt. He moved so fast that she’d barely let out a surprised grunt when his hand clamped down over her mouth again and he spun her behind a stone pillar. “Guards,” he whispered.
Ana rammed her knee between his legs. Quicktongue doubled over, but past his furious whisper-curses, she heard the sound of footsteps.
Boots thudded down the dungeon hallway, the rhythmic beat of several guards’ steps. She could make out the dim light of a far-off torch, growing brighter. Voices echoed in the corridor and, judging by the sound of laughter, the guards were cracking jokes.
Ana loosed a breath. They hadn’t been discovered. These guards were only making their rounds.
Quicktongue straightened and leaned into her as he pressed himself against the pillar. Huddled together, their hearts beating the same prayer, they might have been partners in crime, or even allies. Yet the glare in his eyes reminded her that they were anything but.
She tried not to breathe as the guards passed by the pillar. They were so close that she heard the rustle of their rich fur cloaks, the scuff of their boots on the grimy floor.
A sudden realization hit her. The guard. They had left him unconscious in Quicktongue’s cell.
By her side, Quicktongue tensed as well, as though he’d reached the same conclusion. He hissed a curse.
A panicked shout rang out, followed by the ominous squeak of the cell door. Ana squeezed her eyes shut, dread blooming cold in her chest. They had discovered the unconscious guard. “Listen to me.” Quicktongue’s voice was low and urgent. “I’ve studied the plans of this prison—I know the layout as well as I know the goldleaves in my purse. We both know you’re not getting out of here without my help, and I need your Affinity as well. So I’m asking you to trust me for now. Once we’re out of this damned place, we can go back to tearing each other’s throats out. Sound good?”
She hated him—hated the fact that he had fooled her, and the fact that he was right.
“Fine,” she breathed. “But if you even think of using any tricks, just remember what I can do to you. What I will do to you.”
Quicktongue was scanning the corridor ahead, his head cocked as he listened. “Fair enough.”
Beyond their pillar, one of the guards stepped into the cell and desperately shook his fallen comrade. The other two foraged farther into the depths of the dungeons with their swords drawn, torches held high. Hunting.
Quicktongue’s beard tickled her ear. “When I say ‘run’ . . .” The torchlight grew dimmer.
Ana dashed from the pillar. She didn’t think she’d ever run this fast before. Cells flew by on either side of her in dark streaks of color. Down at the end of the corridor, so small that she could have blocked it out with a thumb, was the sliver of light from the exit.
She dared a glance back to find Quicktongue tearing toward her.
“Go!” he shouted. “Don’t stop!”
The light was bright ahead of her, the stone ground hard beneath her pounding feet. And before she knew it, she was at the stairs, careening up two at a time, her breaths ragged in her throat.
She emerged into bright, unyielding daylight. Immediately, her eyes began to water.
Everything was white—from the marble floors to the high walls to the arched ceilings. Sunlight streamed through the narrow, high windows above their heads, magnified by the marble. This, Ana had read, was part of the prison’s design. The prisoners would have stayed in the darkness underground for so long that they would be blinded as soon as they emerged from the dungeons.
And despite all of her careful reading and research, she had no way out of this trap but to wait for her eyes to adjust.
A loud clang sounded behind her. Through her tears, she saw Quicktongue twisting the key to lock the dungeon doors in place. He hurtled up the steps, three at a time, and when he reached the top, he clamped his hands over his eyes with a curse.
Beyond this hall, somewhere that Ana could not locate, shouts echoed. A faint clattering sound thrummed along the marble floors and reverberated off the blindingly white walls—the sound of boots tapping and weapons being drawn.
The alarm had been raised.
Ana looked at Quicktongue. Through the blur of her tears, she could make out the look of pure panic that flitted across his face—and Ana realized that, despite all his cunning and bravado, Ramson Quicktongue did not have a plan.
Fear sharpened her wits, and the world shifted into focus as the smarting in her eyes faded. Corridors fanned out in all directions from them: three to her left, three to her right, three before her, three behind her, all identical, all white.
Her head pounded with the effects of the Deys’voshk; she couldn’t even remember which way she’d come in. This place was a maze, designed to trap prisoners and visitors like quarry on a spider’s web.
Ana seized Quicktongue’s shirt. “Which way?”
He peered out from a slit between his fingers and groaned. “The back exit,” he mumbled.
She drew a breath. Of course, none of her readings of Ghost Falls—which had been sparse enough to come by already— had mentioned a back exit. The front, Ana knew, had three sets of locked and guarded doors, not to mention a courtyard watched by archers who would stick them like shooting-range targets if they even stepped a toe outside. She’d taken it all in quietly as she’d followed the guard inside—back then as a visitor.
Never, in her wildest imagination, had she thought she would be running from the prison with a convicted criminal in tow and a dozen guards on her trail.
Fury spiked in her; she grasped Quicktongue by his filth- stained tunic and shook him. “You got us into this mess,” she snarled. “Now you get us out. Which way to the back exit?”
“Second door . . . second door to our right.”
Ana hauled him into a run after her. Boots pounded along one of the corridors—she couldn’t tell which. At any moment, the reinforcements would be there.
They were halfway down the hallway when a shout rang out behind them. “Stop! Stop in the name of the Kolst Imperator Mikhailov!”
The Glorious Emperor Mikhailov. They flung Luka’s name around so casually, so authoritatively. As though they knew anything about her brother. As though they had the right to command by his name.
Ana turned to face the prison guards. There were five of them, silver Cyrilian tiger emblazoned against white uniforms, their blackstone swords drawn and flashing in the sunlight. They had come fully equipped, with helmets, too; their attire glittered with the telltale gray-hued alloy.
They snarled at her, spreading out like hunters surrounding an untamed beast. There was once a time when they might have knelt in her presence, when they would have raised two fingers to their chests and drawn a circle in a sign of respect. Kolst Pryntsessa, they would have whispered.
That was long past now.
Ana’s fingers curled over her hood, pulling it closer. She raised her other hand, wounded and gloveless, at the guards. Blood trickled down her arm in a lover’s spiral, vivid crimson against the dusky olive of her skin.
Nausea stirred in the pit of her stomach, and her throat ached with revulsion. Unlike apprenticed or employed Affinites who had honed their abilities for years, Ana had only a basic and crude control over hers. Fighting this many people at once could easily mean losing control of her Affinity entirely. It had happened before—nearly ten years earlier—and it made her sick to think of it.
An archer knelt into position, the tips of his arrows glistening with Deys’voshk. Ana swallowed. “Cover me,” she said to Quicktongue, and her Affinity roared to life.
Show them what you are, my little monster. Show them.
She let her Affinity free and it coursed through her, singing and screaming and writhing in her veins. Through the haze of her frenzy, she latched on to the outlines of the five guards, their blood racing through their bodies with a combination of adrenaline and fear.
She held those bonds and gave a sharp, violent pull— Flesh tore. Blood filled the air. Her Affinity snapped.
The physical world rushed back in a torrent of white marble floors and cold sunlight. Somehow she was on all fours, her limbs trembling as she struggled to breathe. The beige-gold veins of the marble floor spun before her eyes, the Deys’voshk running its course through her head. In less than ten minutes, the onset would be complete; her Affinity would be gone.
She leaned forward, her back arching to a fit of coughs. Crimson spattered the white marble floors.
A hand closed on her shoulder. Ana flinched. Quicktongue crouched by her side, his mouth hanging open as he surveyed the scene.
The corridor was eerily empty. Beyond the stairwell, scattered throughout the hallway, were five crumpled shapes. They lay still in pools of their own blood, the dark stains inching over the floor and creeping across her senses.
The touch of the deimhov.
“Incredible,” Quicktongue murmured, looking at her with a mixture of awe and delight. “You’re a witch.”
She ignored the insult and slumped over the polished marble floor, panting. The use of her Affinity had drained her energy, as it always did.
“Stay here,” Quicktongue ordered. Then he was gone.
Ana pushed herself onto her knees. She was suddenly too conscious of the bodies around her, cold and still in their deaths. Their blood hung in her awareness, roaring rivers turned to pools of dead water, eerily silent. The white marble gleamed in contrast to the crimson, sunlight spilling bright on the blood as though to say: Look. Look what you’ve done.
Ana curled forward, wrapping her arms around herself to stop her shaking. I didn’t mean to. I lost control. I didn’t ask for this Affinity. I never meant to hurt anyone.
Perhaps monsters never meant to hurt others, either. Perhaps monsters didn’t even know they were monsters.
She counted down from ten to give herself time to stop crying and get off the floor. The blood smeared beneath her palms as she stood. She leaned against the wall and drew in deep breaths, her eyes closing to avert the sight before her.
Ana started. Quicktongue stood before the second corridor to her right, a cord of rope slung over his shoulder. He waved at her and turned down the hallway, disappearing from sight.
How long had he stood there, watching her break down? She stared after him, unease filtering through the tide of her exhaustion.
“Hurry!” His voice drifted back, echoing slightly.
It took every ounce of her willpower to straighten her spine and hobble after him.
Excerpt copyright © 2019 by Amélie Wen Zhao. Cover art © 2019 by Ruben Ireland. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.