She was raised to be beautiful, nothing more. And then the rules changed . . .
In icy Dasnaria, rival realm to the Twelve Kingdoms, a woman’s role is to give pleasure, produce heirs, and question nothing. But a plot to overthrow the emperor depends on the fate of his eldest daughter. And the treachery at its heart will change more than one carefully limited life . . .
THE GILDED CAGE
Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance. Within the sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio, she’s never seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers. But she’s been schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power. When her betrothal is announced, she’s ready to begin the machinations that her mother promises will take Jenna from ornament to queen.
But the man named as Jenna’s husband is no innocent to be cozened or prince to charm. He’s a monster in human form, and the horrors of life under his thumb are clear within moments of her wedding vows. If Jenna is to live, she must somehow break free—and for one born to a soft prison, the way to cold, hard freedom will be a dangerous path indeed…
Praise for The Mark of the Tala
“Magnificent…a richly detailed fantasy world.”
—RT Book Reviews, 4½ stars, Top Pick
“Well written and swooningly romantic.”
—Library Journal, starred review
Release date: June 12, 2018
Publisher: Rebel Base Books
Print pages: 420
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Prisoner of the Crown
I grew up in paradise.
Tropically warm, lushly beautiful, replete with luxury, my childhood world was without flaw. My least whim was met with immediate indulgence, served instantly and with smiles of delight. I swam in crystal clear waters, then napped on silk. I chased gorgeously ornamental fish and birds, and enjoyed dozens of perfectly behaved pets of unusual coloring and pedigrees. My siblings and I spent our days in play, nothing ever asked or expected of us.
Until the day everything was demanded—and taken—from me.
Only then did I finally see our paradise for what it was, how deliberately designed to mold and shape us. A breeding ground for luxurious accessories. To create a work of art, you grow her in an environment of elegance and beauty. To make her soft and lusciously accommodating, you surround her with delicacies and everything delightful. And you don’t educate her in anything but being pleasing.
Education leads to critical thinking, not a desirable trait in a princess of Dasnaria, thus I was protected from anything that might taint the virginity of my mind, as well as my body.
Because I’d understood so little of the world outside, when my time came to be plucked from the garden, when the snip of the shears severed me from all I’d known, the injury came as a shock so devastating that I had no ability to even understand what it meant, much less summon the will to resist and overcome. Which, I’ve also come to realize over time, was also a part of the deliberate design.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning.
I grew up in paradise.
And it was all you’d imagine paradise to be. A soft palace of lagoons and lush gardens, of silk bowers and laughter. With little else to do, our mothers and the other ladies played with us, games both simple and extravagantly layered. When we tired, we napped on the velvet soft grass of the banks of the pools, or on the silk pillows scattered everywhere. We’d sleep until we awoke, eat the tidbits served us by watchful servant girls, then play more.
Hestar and I had our own secret games and language. All the ladies called us the royal pair, as we were the emperor’s firstborns and we’d been born less than a month apart.
My mother, first wife, the Empress Hulda, and the most highly ranked woman in the empire, spent much of her day at court. When she was home in the seraglio, she preferred to relax without noisy children to bother her. Hestar’s mother, Jilliya, was second wife and kept getting pregnant, forever having and sometimes losing the babies. So, by unspoken agreement, we kept clear of her apartments, too. Something else I understood much later, that the miasma of misery has its own brand of contagion—and that those who fear contracting the deadly disease stay far away.
Saira, on the other hand, third wife and mother of our half-sister Inga, had a kindness and sweetness to her, so we kids often played in her apartments when we grew bored of games like climbing the palm trees to see who could pluck the most dates while a servant counted the time. Inga, along with my full brother, Kral, were the second oldest pair—the second-borns, also arriving in the same month, to my mother and Saira. Less than a year younger than Hestar and me, they completed our set of four. Our six other brothers and sisters played with us, too, but they were babies still, needing to be watched all the time. Whenever we could, the four of us ditched the babies, exploring the far corners of our world, then making hideouts where no one could find us.
Though, of course, when the least desire took our fancy, someone always appeared instantaneously to satisfy us. Another of the many illusions of my childhood.
Hestar and I, we had a cave we’d made under a clump of ferns. He’d stocked it with a box of sweetmeats and I’d stolen one of my mother’s silk throws for a carpet. Embroidered with fabulous animals, it told tales of a world beyond our corner of paradise. We loved it best of all our purloined treasures, and made up stories about the scenes and creatures, giving them names and convoluted histories.
One day—the kind that stands out with crystalline clarity, each detail incised in my memory—we played as usual. Hestar had been mysteriously gone for a while the day before, or perhaps several days before or for several days in a row. That part fogs in with the timelessness of those days that never ended, but blended one into the next. What I remember is the elephant.
“And the miskagiggle flapped its face tail, saying nooo—”
“It’s called an elephant,” Hestar interrupted me.
“It’s not a miskagiggle. It’s an elephant, and the face tail is a trunk.” Hestar beamed with pride at knowing something I didn’t.
“You’re making that up.”
“No, I’m not! My tutor told me.”
“A teacher. My tutor is named Ser Llornsby.”
“Is that where you went?” Hestar and Kral had been whisked off by servants, and no one would tell me or Inga where they were, just that we’d see them again soon.
Hestar’s blue eyes went wide and he looked around to see if anyone was listening. “Want to know a secret?”
Oh, did I. Even then I understood that secrets were the carefully hoarded and counted currency of the seraglio. “Yes!”
We pulled the silk throw over our heads to make a tent. It was the usual grass beneath, so we didn’t really need the carpet. Having it just made our hideaway more special—and the throw became a blanket, excellent for exchanging secrets.
“We went through the doors!” Hestar told me, whispering but much too loudly.
I hushed him. I didn’t question how I knew, but this secret held power. Most of our secrets had been silly, frivolous things, like how Inga kept candied dates under her pillow. Or ones everyone already knew, like that Jilliya was pregnant again. With the unabashed enthusiasm of children, we absorbed all the murmured gossip and repeated it with equal relish. This, though—I recognized immediately how important it was.
No wonder no one would tell us where they’d gone. Children didn’t go through the doors. Only my mother and some of the women. The rekjabrel and other servants, they went in and out all the time. But a lot of times they came back crying or hurt, so we understood the doors led to a terrible place. And yet Hestar had gone and returned, beaming.
“Was it terrible? Were you scared? Did Kral go, too?”
Hestar nodded, solemnly. “We were brave boys though. And it’s not like here. There aren’t the lagoons and it’s not as warm. They took us to a library and we met Ser Llornsby. We looked at pictures and learned animal names.”
I couldn’t bring myself to ask what a library might be. I wanted to look at pictures and learn animal names. Though I didn’t know the emotion to name it at the time, a jab of envy lanced through my heart. Hestar and I always had everything the same, only I had the better mother, because she was first wife. It wasn’t fair that Hestar got to go through the doors and learn things without me. An elephant. I whispered the exotic word to myself.
“Elephants are huge and people ride on their backs, and the elephants carry things for them in their trunks.” Hestar continued, full of smug pride. “Ser Llornsby is going to teach me everything I need to know to be emperor someday.”
“Why do you get to be emperor? My mother is first wife. Yours is only second wife. Besides, I’m older.”
Hestar wrinkled his nose at me. “Because you’re a girl. Girls can’t be emperor. Only empress.”
That was true. It was the way of things. “Well then you can be emperor and I can be empress like Mother.”
“All right!” Hestar grinned. “We’ll rule the whole empire and have lots of elephants. Kral and Inga can be our servants.”
For the rest of the day we played emperor and empress. Kral and Inga got mad and decided they would be emperor and empress, too, not listening when we said there could only be one of each and we were firstborn so they had to be our servants. They went off to play their own game, but we got Helva to be in our court, and also her little brothers, Leo and Loke. The boys were identical twins and liked any game they could play together. Baby Harlan could barely toddle, so he stayed with his nurse. Ban went off with Inga, of course, as he followed her everywhere, but her full brother, Mykal came to our side.
We didn’t care, because our court was the biggest. Besides, everyone knew the emperor gets to pick his own empress, and Hestar already promised me I’d be first wife and I could pick his other wives, just like Mother did. Which meant Inga wouldn’t get to be one. Maybe not Helva, either, though I told her she would be.
Mother didn’t much care for Saira and Jilliya, so maybe I wouldn’t have other wives at all. I didn’t need them to be empress.
Playing emperor and empress turned out to be terribly fun. Hestar made me a crown of orchids and we took over one of the small eating salons, getting the servants to clear out the table and pillows, instead setting up two big chairs to be our thrones. His Imperial Majesty Emperor Einarr Konyngrr, our father, had a throne. So we’d heard. And we badgered one of the rekjabrel who’d served in the court to tell us what it looked like.
“Huge, Your Imperial Highnesses,” she said, keeping her eyes averted. “It towers above, all platinum and crystal, so bright you can’t look upon it. I can’t say more.”
“What about the Empress’s throne?” I persisted.
“Just the one throne, Your Imperial Highness Princess Jenna.”
“That can’t be right,” I told Hestar, when we let the rekjabrel go. “She must not have seen properly.”
“We don’t have platinum anyway,” he replied.
So we decorated the two big chairs, which ended up taking a long time. They needed to be sparkling, which meant we needed jewels. Leo and Loke were good at persuading bangles off the ladies, but then didn’t like to give them up. By the time we chased them down and got everything decorated, we had only a little time to have actual court. When my nurse, Kaia, came to get me for my bath, we made all the servants promise to leave everything as it was.
“Kaia?” I asked, splashing at the warmed milk water as she poured the jasmine rinse through my hair.
“Have you seen an elephant?”
She laughed. “No, Princess. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Is this one of your games?”
“No—they’re real. Their face-tails are called trunks.”
“If you say so, Princess.”
I fumed a little. How could I find out more about elephants when no one even believed they were real? “When do I get to go through the doors and look at pictures of animals and learn their names?”
Kaia dropped the pitcher of jasmine water, breaking it on the tiles. I would have scolded her for clumsiness, but she had such an odd look on her face that I stopped mid-word.
“Where have you heard of such a thing, Princess?” She had her head bowed, but with her scalp shorn, she couldn’t hide her face. She’d gone white, her eyes squinched up like she hurt. Just like that time Mother accused her of drinking from her special teapot, and had Kaia lashed until she confessed. Kaia had cried and cried, not wanting to play with me for days afterward. But this time she didn’t have any blood, so I didn’t understand why she went all pale like that.
“Hestar got to go. And Kral, too, and he’s younger. I want to go. I command you to take me tomorrow.”
“Your Imperial Highness, I cannot.”
“You will or I’ll tell Mother.”
“Up and out, Princess,” she replied, dumping the shards into a waste bin, then holding out a towel. “We must address this with Her Imperial Majesty. You can ask her in person.”
She dried me off, too briskly, and I almost reprimanded her, but she still looked so scared and I didn’t want her to not play with me for days again.
“I already said goodnight to Mother.” Mother didn’t like to be disturbed after goodnights, and the prospect began to make me a little afraid, too.
Kaia wrapped my hair in a towel, then rubbed me all over with jasmine-scented unguent. She worked as thoroughly as always, but wouldn’t answer any more questions, simply saying that I could ask my mother momentarily. She pulled my nightgown over my head and had me put on a robe, too, which wasn’t usual. And we went with my hair still damp, not carefully combed dry before the fire while she told me stories.
I didn’t want to miss my stories and I began to be afraid I’d said something terribly wrong. I’d known this was an important secret. How could I have been so careless? It was the elephant. “Let’s not go see Mother,” I said.
Kaia shook her head, pressing her lips together. “I apologize, Princess, but I’m afraid we must.”
“I don’t want to. Tell me my stories. My hair is still wet.”
But she didn’t bend, which scared me even more. Kaia always did what I told her. Almost always. She took my hand in a grip so firm it nearly hurt and practically dragged me to Mother’s private salon. I resisted, and would have thrown a fit, but Mother wouldn’t like that. An imperial princess gives commands in a firm and gentle voice, never shrill, and tears are unacceptable.
Still, when Kaia called out through the closed yellow silk curtains, and my mother snapped out a reply, I nearly did cry. And Kaia didn’t relent in her grip, which made me think she was angry with me and Kaia was never angry, even when I refused to eat my supper and demanded dessert instead.
She parted the curtains and slipped me inside, kneeling beside me and bowing her head to the plush tapestried carpet. I lowered my eyes, too, though I didn’t have to kneel.
“Well?” the empress demanded in a cold tone. “What is the meaning of this, child?”
“My humble apologies, Your Imperial Majesty,” Kaia said, though Mother had clearly asked me. Her voice shook and her hand had gone all cold and sweaty. I yanked mine away and she let me. “Her Imperial Highness Princess Jenna has asked me questions I cannot answer. I thought it best to bring her to you immediately.”
“It’s not your responsibility to think,” Mother replied. A hissing sound as she breathed in her relaxing smoke. “You are to keep the princess well groomed, as she most certainly is not at the moment. Your hair is wet, Jenna.”
A tear slipped down my cheek, making me glad that I was to keep my eyes averted unless given permission. Maybe she wouldn’t see. “I’m sorry, Mother,” I whispered.
“As well you should be. Interrupting my quiet time. Going about like a rekjabrel with wild hair. Are you a princess of Dasnaria?”
“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.”
She hmphed in derision. “You don’t look like one. What question did you ask to upset your nurse so?”
Kaia had gone silent, quaking on the carpet beside me. No help at all. I considered lying, saying Kaia had made it up. But Mother wouldn’t believe that. Kaia would never so recklessly attract punishment. I happened to know she hadn’t snuck the tea—one of the rekjabrel had taken it for her sister, but Kaia had never said.
“Jenna,” Mother said, voice like ice. “Look at me.”
I did, feeling defiant, for no good reason. Mother reclined on her pillows, her embroidered silk gown a river of blues over their ruby reds. Her unbound hair flowed over it all, a pale blond almost ivory, like mine. In contrast, her eyes looked black as ebony, darker even than the artful shadows outlining them. She’d removed most of her jewelry, wearing only the wedding bracelets that never came off. She held her glass pipe in her jeweled nails. The scarlet of her lip paint left a waxy mark on the end of it, scented smoke coiling from the bowl.
“Tears?” Her voice dripped contempt and disbelief. “What could you possibly have said to have your nurse in a puddle and an imperial princess in tears, simply in anticipation?”
“I didn’t say anything!” I answered.
“Your nurse is lying then,” the empress cooed. “I shall have to punish her.”
Kaia let out this noise, like the one Inga’s kitten had made when Ban kicked it. The ladies had taken it to a better home and Inga had cried for days until they gave her five new kittens just like it.
“I only asked about the elephants,” I said, very quietly.
“Excuse me?” The arch of her darkened brows perfectly echoed her tone.
“Elephants!” I yelled at her, and burst into full-fledged sobbing. If you’d asked me then, what made me break all those rules, raising my voice, defying my mother, losing the composure expected of an imperial princess, firstborn daughter of Emperor Einarr, I likely could only have explained that I wanted to know about elephants so badly that it felt like a physical ache. Something extraordinary for a girl who’d rar. . .
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