Three sisters. Motherless daughters of the high king.
The eldest is the warrior-woman heir; the middle child is shy and full of witchy intuition; and the youngest, Princess Amelia, she is as beautiful as the sun and just as generous.
Ami met her Prince Charming and went away to his castle on the stormy sea-cliffs—and that should have been her happily ever after. Instead, her husband lies dead and a war rages. Her middle sister has been taken into a demon land, turned into a stranger. The priests and her father are revealing secrets and telling lies. And a power is rising in Ami, too, a power she hardly recognizes, to wield her beauty as a weapon, and her charm as a tool to deceive…
Amelia has never had to be anything but good and sweet and kind and lovely. But the chess game for the Twelve Kingdoms has swept her up in it, and she must make a gambit of her own. Can the prettiest princess become a pawn—or a queen?
So as I write this there is a huge storm coming in, so if it is not complete it is because I have become one of the almost 100.000 people without power. Just wanted to give that disclaimer prior to the post.
“At a loss, Princess?” An amused voice hissed the question in my ear.
Startled, I turned. Then stepped back. The White Monk stood close enough that I saw his face clearly, despite the shadows of the cowl. His features were harsh but not misshapen. A strong nose with a high bridge dominated his face, sharp lined like his jaw. The spider legs of scars crawled over one cheek, a cicatrix of long-ago pain. As if he carried on his skin all the ugliness of the hurt inside me.
Though a jagged bolt of scar tissue cut through one eyebrow, his eye orbits were clear and open, pristine settings for the unearthly burning green of his gaze.
“What happened to you?” I asked, before I thought.
He smiled. Not nicely, because his upper lip snagged in the movement, making it into a snarl, like a wild beast curling its snout at an unwelcome odor.
“What happened to you?” he countered.
“I…I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Giving up your poor commoner of a midwife so easily. She’ll suffer because of your disloyalty. She who sought only to help you.”
I mastered the roiling sickness. “How dare you speak to me so? I know full well the measure of loyalty. Do you?”
“As a matter of fact, no.” He laughed, a dry, whispering sound. “So I recognize its viciously opposite cousin when I see it.”
“I’m the High King’s daughter. I’ll protect my midwife. No harm shall come to her.”
“Are you sure, Princess?”
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“You asked that before.”
“And you didn’t answer.”
“No? Perhaps you’re not asking the right question.”
“You cannot naysay me. I’ll report you to High Priest Kir. No—I shall have you dragged before the High King to answer for yourself.”
He shook his head, clucking his tongue as one might at an errant kitten. “Always running to Daddy. What power of your own do you possess, Princess?”
The way he said my title sounded like an insult, and I wanted to tell him to stop calling me that. Which was ridiculous, of course.
“I have enough power to have you beheaded on the spot. Or cast out of Glorianna’s temple and turned out into the countryside with a brand declaring that none shall give you succor. I could ruin you in countless small ways. And you discount my power so glibly.”
He tilted his head and I knew for certain that it meant he laughed at me. The cynical amusement, floating on the sweet scent of ripe grapes, altered the creases in his coarse face, and his eyes sparkled, glints of sunlight on stream water.
“The power to destroy is easily come by. Anyone can destroy.”
“I can create, too.”
He gestured at my belly. “That? Any female who spreads her legs can do that. It takes no special skill or ability. Nature did it for you.”
I gasped, my palm oddly itching to slap him, though such a thing would be scandalously beneath my dignity.
“Are males any different? They cast their seed upon the wind, careless of whether it falls on fertile soil.”
He edged closer, turning so he blocked the chanting priests. “Yes, men are different. They’re worse. Women at least must bear the burden of their choices, then are bound to nurture the child, if there’s any humanity in them. Men can walk away and leave their carelessly cast seed to take root or die. They leave behind them a trail of uncared-for life.”
I didn’t know what to say. Never had I heard someone speak such words.
“This is why Glorianna and Her sisters are the ones who remained, to care for us. The male gods abandoned their mortal charges without a backward glance,” he added.
“There are male gods?”
“Other cultures still worship them. We of the Twelve Kingdoms know better.”
“Have you heard the tale of Glorianna’s daughter, then?” Why the question plagued me so, I didn’t know.
“I have. Shall I expect you to give me up to the High Priest also?”
I smiled up at him, gazing through my lashes. “Not if you’ll tell me what became of her.”
His gaze flickered over my face, not quite with that gleam of hatred, but without admiration. “You wield your beauty like a blunt-force weapon, did you know that?”
I blinked at him, fisting my hands in my skirts so I wouldn’t reach up to touch my face, to feel what he saw there that seemed so brutal to him.
“Even when you don’t mean to, you manipulate anyone who looks at you with the way you widen your eyes and moisten your lips.” He studied me, as if I were a butterfly on a pin. We’d had a tutor with cases of insects on little displays, that we might learn their names. He’d looked like that, interested and without concern for their small lives.
I wanted to flee. But I didn’t want him to know he frightened me.
“Why do you talk to me if you dislike me so?” My voice came out in a whisper, and I bit my lower lip, afraid I’d say more. I hadn’t meant to ask that.
He lifted an eyebrow, the one interrupted by the scar that looked a bit like a lightning bolt. “Shall I compose a poem to your perfect pearly teeth and how they worry at the full rose petal of your lip? Perhaps that would make you more comfortable.”
“I never asked for poems.”
“But it’s what you know.”
“From what I hear of you, all you know is service to Glorianna, White Monk. Though I notice you’re not so silent with me.”
He barked out a bit of a laugh, unpleasant, like the cawing of a raven. “Don’t believe everything you’re told, Princess. You understand nothing about me.”
“Then you tell me. You evade every question.”
Shaking his head, he pulled the cowl into place, once again shadowing his features. “No—you haven’t earned the right to my story. You’d have to do more than flutter your lashes for that.”
Outrage flooded me. “Surely you’re not suggesting—”
“Relax, Your Highness. I’m not even remotely interested.”
Ah, that made sense. “I understand many of Glorianna’s priests are lovers of other men.”
“You would prefer that explanation, wouldn’t you? No, I value my neck more than that. A dalliance with you would hardly be worth it. Even were I attracted.” Those green eyes flicked over me again, with more than a little disdain.
Left with my outrage and nothing to do with it, I cast about for a reply. Every man wanted to bed me, and some women, too. I could read it in them, like the warmth from a fire, even the ones who were too polite to show it. I’d navigated my world by these stars, the desire and admiration. Even the troubadours who sang songs they wrote for me and then retired for the night with some brawny soldier—they coveted me for my beauty, too. As if I were an object of art.
“I believe it’s time for me to go,” I finally said.
“Fleeing an uncomfortable conversation? Doesn’t speak well of your fortitude.”
“You know nothing about me!” I flung his words back at him and caught, perhaps, a twitch of a smile. “You taunt me and answer none of my questions. Why in Glorianna’s name would I stay? You bore me.”
He made a tsking sound. “Ah, Princess. That’s not true. You’re fascinated, if only by the conversation. Else you would have flounced off long ago.”
“I do not flounce.”
“On the contrary, you have a most practiced and seductive flounce. I imagine it earns all sorts of attention and concessions.”
“You watch me quite closely, then, for a person who hates me.”
“I have my reasons.”
“And they are?”
He hadn’t denied hating me, and though I shouldn’t care, it pricked me like the thorns on wild roses, small and slim, dug deeply into the skin. Nobody hated me. I was beautiful.
I opened my mouth to announce that I was leaving, recalled I’d said that once already, so turned to go.
“Glorianna’s daughter did survive. With her mortal blood, she eventually died, of course. But she lived a very long and full life. Her name was Talifa.”
I looked over my shoulder at him. “I never heard of her.”
He shrugged, his shoulders making sharp points against the robe. “You wouldn’t have. She was erased from the official canon of Glorianna’s teachings. ’Tis heresy to speak of her.”
“And yet you speak her name in Glorianna’s very temple.”
“Heresy according to priests. Once again, I notice that Glorianna does not strike me down.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said such a thing. You must be quite confident.”
His teeth flashed in the depths of the cowl. Not really a smile. “Or driven to other extremes. You pay close attention to my words, for a person who hates me.”
“I never said I hated you.”
“You did, actually—but without realizing it.”
I rubbed a finger between my brows, smoothing away the frown. “How do you know of this Talifa, then?”
“Because she is the mother of the White Monks order.”
“Oh.” I felt a bit deflated. Some part of me felt attached to her, as if she might have a special meaning for me. Likely it was only that the story had tugged at my heart, the way Glorianna had sought out knowledge so She could cherish and raise Her mortal child. When I was little, before I knew better, I sometimes grew angry at my mother for dying. I’d childishly thought that if she’d been more careful, she could have lived and been my mother for real.
After I grew up, I understood that she hadn’t been able to help dying. Women often died in childbirth. Still, every once in a while, a slice of that remembered anger welled up in me.
“Talifa lives on in your blood, Princess.” The White Monk said it with what I would have called gentleness from a less callous man.
That caught me short, the knot of tears in my throat cramping in fierce response.
“How can that be?”
“Because she became the Queen of the Tala—the people named for her—as your mother was after her. You are not only Glorianna’s avatar, as all seem to wish you to believe. You are Her descendant.”
My gaze flew up to the rose window. Glorianna’s descendant? Though I’d been compared to the goddess, even called a goddess from time to time, it had never occurred to me to see myself that way. I carried divine blood, and the thought made me giddy. And overwhelmed.
“I am no goddess.” I found myself fluttering.
He laughed, raven voiced, threading his hands inside his sleeves, as if he restrained himself from something. “No, Princess, you are no goddess. Not even close.”
Insulted rage followed that, and my face heated, the skin of my cheeks stretching with the pressure. Bastard to tease me and lead me on, then expose me as fishing for praise. I didn’t understand myself anymore. I seemed to be tossed on a stormy sea of emotion, riding the wave of one only to crash into the nadir of the next.
“Did I make you angry?” He murmured the words, taunting. “What will you do now?”
“What I do or do not do is none of your concern! Why do you follow me about, only to express your disdain? I want to do right by my people, my child, my goddess, and, most of all, by Hugh’s memory!” The pain spiked with his name and the realization that, in all this torturous conversation, I hadn’t thought of him once. My words ended on a near screech, the songbird’s scream of pain to his harsh corvid’s call. The background chanting stumbled, losing its cadence, then sputtered into silence.
My breath pushed in and out, hoarse and unpretty in the sudden quiet. The knot of grief that lodged at the base of my throat swelled and groaned with urgency, turning into a spinning sphere.
Now I’ll cry.
I didn’t even care who witnessed it. Even this horrible priest who seemed to delight in tormenting me. I wanted the tears gone, to release this dreadful lock that kept me confined.
The pressure grew, until I staggered a little with it. Then one of his hands cupped my elbow, decorously over my sleeve, barely touching, but still grounding me. His other hovered near my cheek, as if he might cup it. And I would turn my face into his hand, taking comfort in the caress. His gaze burned into mine, fierce in that craggy face I could see again clearly, he was so close.
“Have you wept?” He asked the question no one else had, seeing more than anyone else could.
I shook my head. “I can’t.”
He nodded, as if that made perfect sense. “Sometimes the grief is too large.”
He opened his mouth to say something more, his eyes softer than I’d ever seen them, pooling with some kind of compassion. Then he firmed his lips, so the scar whitened, and he stepped away, releasing my elbow and shattering the moment so thoroughly I wondered if we’d shared anything or if I’d imagined it.
“I shall not keep you longer.” His tone was formal, as was the bow that followed.
Once again, I turned to leave, swimming through the confusion that darkened my mind, more than half expecting him to call me back again. But he didn’t, so I straightened my spine and moved slowly—not that I had ever flounced in my life—from the cool rose-tinted shadows of the temple, out into the bright, white-stone light of Ordnung.