The tales tell of three sisters, daughters of the high king. The eldest, a valiant warrior-woman, heir to the kingdom. The youngest, the sweet beauty with her Prince Charming. No one says much about the middle princess, Andromeda. Andi, the other one.
Andi doesn’t mind being invisible. She enjoys the company of her horse more than court, and she has a way of blending into the shadows. Until the day she meets a strange man riding, who keeps company with wolves and ravens, who rules a land of shapeshifters and demons. A country she’d thought was no more than legend—until he claims her as its queen.
In a moment everything changes: Her father, the wise king, becomes a warlord, suspicious and strategic. Whispers call her dead mother a traitor and a witch. Andi doesn’t know if her own instincts can be trusted, as visions appear to her and her body begins to rebel.
For Andi, the time to learn her true nature has come . . .
Perfect for fans of Game of Thrones looking for more romance.
Praise for The Mark of Tala
“This magnificent fairy tale will captivate you from the beginning to end with a richly detailed fantasy world full of shapeshifters, magic and an exciting romance!” —RT Book Reviews, 4.5 Stars
“This promises to be a trilogy that will leave readers enthralled.” —Heroes & Heartbreakers
Release date: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 352
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Twelve Kingdoms: The Mark of the Tala
That’s me, there, in the middle.
Of course, the history books usually cite the Assault of Ordnung as the beginning of this story. Or the Siege at Windroven, with all the drama and glory of it. Everyone knows what the books say happened at Odfell’s Pass.
The smell of blood saturates my memories, the crimson circle widening in the snow around his body, just as I’d seen it, over and over in visions.
But the story I want to tell you starts with me and my sisters.
I suppose I’m lucky not to be the oldest and least beautiful. Ursula, however, is our father’s heir and couldn’t care a whit for things such as prettiness. Sharpening her sword, yes. Studying the law books, of course. Always planning her strategies.
I confess, I sometimes envied Ursula’s dedication to ruling. But even when she reminded me that something could happen to her—making me next in line—so I should learn my role like any good understudy, I didn’t do it. If something happened to both our father and Ursula, then the world would have fallen apart beyond repair. It would save nothing to stick my butt on a throne.
Then there’s Amelia. The youngest, breathtakingly beautiful. They called her Glorianna’s avatar when she was born and started composing sonnets to her by the time she turned twelve. Hair the color of sunrise, eyes like twilight, skin like moonbeams. Ursula used to have to shoot me mean looks and tap the cabochon jewel in the pommel of her sword to remind me not to roll my eyes.
The worst part: you couldn’t even hate her for it.
Amelia has always been the sunshine of our lives, inside and out. She’s not the fake-nice of the courtiers and the ladies-in-waiting, either, with that kind of happy chatter that grows louder and louder the more they’re trying to cover their motives. Lady Dulcinor, for example, yakking on every day about her flowers and whether or not last night’s chill will have frozen their petals. When I grumbled over dinner, for the umpteenth time, about her endless, empty-headed nonsense, I found the next morning that Amelia had taken Lady Dulcinor into her retinue and traded me the young Duchess of Gaignor.
When I thanked Amelia, she fluttered her red-gold lashes.
“I’m not martyring myself for you at all, Andi. Dulcinor is kind of sweet. I ignore the sillier things.” She hugged me with pure affection, violet eyes alight with humor. “Besides, it’s worth it to see you happy. Gaignor loves to ride almost as much as you do. I worry you don’t have enough friends.”
See how she is?
We grew up the cherished and protected daughters of the High King of the Twelve Kingdoms, our lives as carefully ordered as all of Uorsin’s lands.
Until the day Prince Hugh of Avonlidgh walked into court.
He was meant for Ursula. She would need an appropriate consort, our father declared, and she should choose one so that Uorsin could see him trained in the skills of government, also.
Hugh, naturally, fell head over heels in love with Amelia.
If Amelia’s strawberry-blond hair meant sunrise to the poets, then Hugh was blazing noon. He strode into the formal audience chamber that day like a prince out of the old stories. His chain mail, studded with rubies, glittered in the light pouring through the chamber’s clerestory windows. The velvet of his sleeves echoed his eyes, blue as the summer sky, and provided the perfect foil for his swept-back hair.
He bowed, low and deep, to Ursula. I swear to Moranu every female in the room sighed.
Ursula looked fine, too—make no mistake. Her ladies wouldn’t allow otherwise. She cleaned up well when she went to the trouble. But Ursula’s beauty is in the clear, firm lines of her jaw, the sharp eyes that miss nothing, her incisive intelligence. She sat at our father’s right hand, while I sat next to the queen’s empty chair on the other side, Amelia to my left. I’d spent pretty much my entire court life one chair divided from my father and older sister, ever since our mother died at Amelia’s birth. All told, I suppose it’s better to have an empty chair than to fill it with someone who might create a bigger rift in the kingdom’s rule than this aching hole of a reminder.
Not that High King Uorsin would marry again. Some said he kept the queen’s throne empty as a reminder that he didn’t need anyone’s help to keep his crown.
At any rate, my point is that Hugh had to look quite a ways over, away from Ursula, then across the King, another large throne, and invisible me, to see Amelia and fall in love. We were caught in the harp string that thrummed between them. Even as he brushed his lips over Ursula’s lean brown hand, strong from sword practice, Hugh’s eyes arrowed to Amelia, his head following with a snap.
The click reverberated through the foundation of our world.
Amelia gasped and clutched my hand.
I knew then we were in for it.
“Absolutely not!” Our father, in full king mode, stormed about his private office. We three stood in a row before his desk, Amelia still holding my hand as if she were the wounded party. Tears ran down her cheeks, likely more for Ursula’s pain than for her own heartbreak. “I cannot approve a marriage between Amelia and Hugh of Avonlidgh. Ursula—how can you suggest it? He’s your betrothed!”
“You would have me wed a man who longs in his heart for another?” Ursula’s face was composed, her profile clean and sharp, her clear eyes staring down our father. “You’d consign me to a fate of waking every morning to a husband who doesn’t love me? To watching a beloved sister pine for the man I took from her? My solution offers happiness to two people, while yours condemns three people to lifelong misery.”
“Love is a myth trumped up to make people feel better about themselves.” King Uorsin leaned his hands on his desk, returning Ursula’s challenge with his own hawkish gaze. “I don’t believe in it and neither should you.”
“It’s irrelevant at this point.” With an impatient sigh, Ursula pushed past me and laid her hands on Amelia’s shaking shoulders. “Look at her, Father.”
He did. Grave, King Uorsin examined his youngest. His favorite. We all knew it. Even with her face crumpled in sorrow, Amelia looked lovelier than the orchids in the hothouse.
“I’m so sorry,” she gasped. “I can go away. I could go to Glorianna’s temple—become one of the White Sisters.”
I couldn’t feel my fingers, she gripped my hand so hard.
Father raised his eyebrows. “You’d go study with the priests and priestesses of Glorianna? Take their vow of silence?”
“Yes.” Amelia firmed her soft lips. “I will. It’s just this face. Once he doesn’t see me, Hugh will love Ursula as is meant, and . . .”
They all looked surprised that I spoke. I guess I tended not to. Frankly, with both Father and Ursula in the room, I seldom needed to—or could—slide a word between their fencing barbs, even if I had something to say. On the rare occasions I did, our father would give me that look, full of some unnamed distaste.
“No,” I repeated, tasting the word, surprised at my own certainty—and at the sudden pinprick headache. “Ursula is right. Rational or not, whatever ‘it’ is—love, infatuation, lust—it’s done. Pairing either of them with anyone else would be an exercise in futility. This is how it will be.”
Even Amelia’s tears stopped while they all considered me. I nearly checked my shoulder to see if I’d sprouted a second head.
The King opened his mouth to say something, reconsidered, and shook his head. He sat. Turned away from the sight of me to Ursula. “What of the alliance with Avonlidgh? The whole point was to throw Old Erich a bone, so he’ll stop his plotting.”
“Amelia is a Princess of the Realm—she can seal the alliance.”
“Erich wants his son—Avonlidgh’s heir—on a throne, not married to a third child.”
“His son would never sit on the throne as High King, even if he married me.”
“Erich doesn’t know that.”
“Better to disappoint him now. His heir married to the most beautiful woman in the Twelve Kingdoms might please him and the people of Avonlidgh sufficiently.”
“Poems and songs aren’t power.”
“Power isn’t the chair you sit in.”
Amelia and I stepped back, fading behind Ursula as she and our father engaged in their familiar back-and-forth. They could argue each other into the floor and frequently did, sitting at the high table into the wee hours, drinking wine and debating politics.
Some less discreet courtiers whispered that my father need never remarry because Ursula made a better queen than any other woman out there—and was the only woman likely to put up with him, despite his many, very temporary lovers. Watching Ursula delight in the debate over what Erich of Avonlidgh might or might not do with his wayward son, I understood that no man could match our father for her.
“This is serendipity, My Lord King,” Ursula insisted, stabbing the polished wood of his desk with a pointed finger. Still in her rose-colored court gown, made of brushed silk in the hopes that it would soften her sharp edges, she should have looked silly. Instead, she burned with magnificence. “Let Hugh and Amelia marry. Make it splendid. Commission an official Ode to True Love. We have our alliance. Old Erich will have something to chew on besides you. Hugh and Amelia get to be together. The people get to feel good about what a happy world we live in.”
“And you, my heir?”
Ursula smiled in a firm line. “I will decide for myself.”
The Royal Wedding was a magnificent event—it’s in the history books, too. Pretty much everyone in the Twelve Kingdoms took that entire seven-day off. It was the first Royal Wedding in the High King’s family, since Uorsin and our mother had married before he consolidated the Twelve Kingdoms and established his seat at Castle Ordnung in Mohraya. Besides, a party is a party.
The wedding also coincided with Glorianna’s Feast Day in the spring, which made the temple happy, as they’d always regarded Amelia as their own.
Father, determined to dissolve any hints that this might not be the wedding originally planned, threw treasure at the event. Delegations scoured the corners of the Twelve Kingdoms for the finest of everything. We wore nothing but velvet for the entire week—over-the-top even for the High King’s family.
Really, it all went blissfully. Flags, ribbons, trumpets. The horses smelled of roses and the goats of jasmine.
Amelia, of course, looked spectacularly lovely. Hugh nearly fell over himself when he saw her in all that white lace that a thousand women had crumpled their fingers to make, night after night. Ursula and I waited with our father and King Erich of Avonlidgh on the raised dais in Glorianna’s grand temple, which the High King had built along with Ordnung. Amelia’s ladies escorted her through the thronging crowd on either side of the aisle. Like little pastel fairies, they bustled about her, protecting the priceless lace that snagged on the least little thing. Ursula and I would not attend Amelia for this ceremony, King Uorsin decreed, to celebrate that Hugh and Amelia created a new era between them.
Ursula said that he sought to save our dignity. We might watch our baby sister wed before us, but at least we didn’t have to trail behind her down the aisle. Small mercies.
I doubted that was Uorsin’s motivation, however; rather he wanted to keep me out of sight as much as possible. Which was fine by me. Though Ursula brought it up again, later in the summer, when I mentioned how lovely the wedding had been.
“As if we hadn’t figured out we’ve always been in little Amelia’s shadow,” Ursula observed, taking a break to examine her sword—and giving me a chance to catch my breath. After years of trying to teach me to be a fighter, she’d given up on nagging me to spend more time in the practice yard and settled on weekly sessions to make me reasonably capable. Instead of getting better at it as I grew older, I seemed to do worse. Where Ursula was all strength and speed, I was a clumsy mess. But then, I just needed to keep myself from getting killed before a bodyguard could save me.
“You could never be in anyone’s shadow,” I told her, admiring the complicated parry, turn, and thrust she executed in the air, as if she danced with her sword.
She turned her gaze on me. Her nose might be too hawkish for beauty, her jaw too like Father’s, but those steel-gray eyes looked silver in some lights, keen as the edge of a blade.
“Whereas you’re twice shaded, Andi—is that what you think?”
I shrugged, sliding my sword into the ratty leather sheath, since it seemed Ursula had finished tormenting me for the day. “I don’t try to fool myself, Ursula. Amelia might be lovely, but you are . . .” I paused.
“Trying to choose an appropriate word?”
I wrinkled my nose at her. “So many to choose from. No, I was going to say ‘powerful,’ but that’s not right. Not yet. You have a way of mastering everything and making it fall into place for you, Ursula. I think you’ll be possibly the best monarch we’ve ever had.”
“Faint praise for Father.”
I shook my head. “No—Father brought lasting peace to the Twelve Kingdoms. He will always loom large in history, the first High King. You, though—” I squinted at Ursula, who watched me with a curious look on her tanned face. The sun blazed behind her, hot and bright, starting a headache behind my eyes. “Something tells me your reign will be extraordinary.”
The word fell between us, sizzling with all the implications of good and bad it carried.
“Father expects me to take his throne.” Ursula felt her way through the words. “Are you saying my task won’t be easy, despite his groundwork?”
I laughed, trying to soften the harsh shadows gathering around her thin lips. “We’re only talking. I don’t know what the future holds.”
“I wonder.” Ursula missed very little. Just by looking, she seemed to dig my secrets out of me. As if I had any. Still, I turned away from the uncomfortable stare and stripped off my protective gloves. If I hurried, I might have time for a ride before afternoon court, which would no doubt be more complaints about crops failing and arguments over which of the kingdoms should have to assist the others. Riding my horse, Fiona, was both my joy and my refuge.
On horseback, I never felt that weakness in my limbs, the odd, shooting pains. Away from court, I escaped the strange looks or, worse, the way most people seemed to look right through me.
“When you were born, Mother said you belonged to Moranu—did you know that?”
I shook my head. Our mother had died when I was but five, and I remembered only bits and pieces about her. No one ever spoke of her, not if they wanted to avoid angering Uorsin. Which, of course, everyone did.
“They say Moranu’s priestesses can see the future, is my point,” she continued.
“You mean, the ones forbidden to enter Ordnung? You know full well that none are to worship Moranu or Danu. I’m surprised you even know that.”
“Do you know why I stopped nagging you to practice your sword skills?”
“Because I’m hopeless?” I quipped, but she didn’t smile back.
“That’s the thing, Andi.” She pointed her sword at me. “You’re not hopeless. You could learn if you wished, just as you could be as lovely as Amelia if you ever stepped out of the background. I think you like our shadows, because they let you hide.”
A frisson ran through me, something dark, with an edge of flame, the kind of hot that leaves you shivering.
“Not much to hide here,” I tossed at her, letting the foreboding roll off me and spreading my arms to indicate my shabby working leathers. “Unremarkable me is all you get.”
Ursula lowered the point of her sword, slid it into its sheath with a hiss.
“We’ll see, won’t we?”
After that, the princes came courting Ursula. Ever hopeful, they made their plays for power. When she turned them away, a few turned their intentions toward me. It amused me, to watch them realign their courtly praises and scramble to find ways to praise my beauty, my intelligence, my courage—none of which were in evidence. I tried to be pleasant, especially when Ursula sentenced me to ten laps around the stables for any time she caught me rolling my eyes.
Somehow she managed to be kind and firm to the hopefuls, sending them packing with smiles on their faces. Before much longer, the supply thinned, then trickled off altogether. They called Ursula the Sword Princess, and some of the pub songs wickedly suggested that her blade satisfied her at night better than any man could.
When an impertinent minstrel sang one of the ditties for us, late one night after dinner and after Father had retired, Ursula simply laughed and acknowledged it could be true. She stroked her sword, resting in its formal jeweled sheath on the table, her fingers brushing the cabochon topaz in the hilt.
“My lover,” she mused. “It certainly gives me all I could wish—companionship, protection, an edge over the competition.”
The minstrel toasted her and strummed a few lines.
“And what do they sing of Andi?” Ursula refilled my goblet with dark-red wine.
The minstrel glanced at me as if he’d forgotten I was there. Likely he had.
I smiled at him, one of Amelia’s sweet expressions to show him I didn’t expect to be noticed. I was accustomed to falling through the cracks.
“That’s mean, Ursula,” I stepped in while the poor man stammered. “I’ve never done anything to merit a song and you know it. Our minstrels need more inspiration than I provide.”
He plucked a few strings on the lap harp, making that liquid sound, water running over rounded pebbles, a horse clipping lightly along a mountain trail. His blue eyes studied me while his fingers flickered in the firelight.
“Forgive me, Princess Andromeda”—he bowed his head to me—“but it occurs to me that those who are overlooked are like the waters of our deep mountain lakes. They seem only to reflect what’s around them, but in the depths lurk the great mysteries.”
“Sea monsters?” I replied with a laugh, imitating one of Amelia’s delicate shudders. Hopefully that covered my flinching at his use of my full name. Only my mother had ever used the whole ungainly thing. It both annoyed me and picked at the scar over my old, aching sense of loss.
“Ah, but Mohraya has no seacoast. Let me sing you a song of the ocean, then. If it pleases you. Of lost treasure. Or paradise.” With that he launched into a winding ballad I’d never heard, of a land with turquoise waters and white cliffs, where fish fly in the air and birds swim in the waters, bringing back pearls to nestle in the petals of tropical flowers. And lovers walk hand in hand along the shimmering sands.
Ursula smiled, her face smoothing into relaxation, and closed her eyes to listen.
The song stuck with me.
Silly, I know. Still, there’s something about a handsome young man singing a song just for you. Or that you can pretend is just for you. It creates this nostalgia for love you’ve never experienced. I know you can’t be nostalgic for something that hasn’t happened, yet I felt it. As if I already loved someone and he was out there somewhere, moving around in the world. Someone who would see me for me and not as the space between my sisters.
The sense of searching drove me to longer rambles, exploring trails I hadn’t ridden before in the forested foothills that rose behind Castle Ordnung.
Technically that land was out of bounds to me, and probably was outside the boundaries of Mohraya at some point. The boundary with the Wild Lands wasn’t clear. Very few people lived there, mostly hunters, trappers, and hermits. The Wild Lands were forbidden, the warnings laced with tales of roving demonic creatures. Restless, driven by a need to see more, I skirted those boundaries, pushed them.
In all truth, Fiona and I had been riding out farther west each day since the wedding. I missed Amelia and her happy presence. In the quiet of my heart, I could admit I envied her. Hugh had been kind even to me. He would cherish our Amelia as she should be. As she deserved to be, our little motherless sister. But the envy worked on me, and I found myself wishing that people—that our father—looked on me with admiration. That Hugh had seen me and fallen in love.
These were ugly feelings to have, and they plagued me.
The farther I rode from Ordnung, though, the more the dark thoughts dissipated, and the more right I felt. So I went farther than I should have, had anyone known. Sometimes too far for me to easily make it back before I was expected, and we would return in a headlong rush, racing against disapproval.
That day, moody with the song, I rode farther than ever. Fiona’s hooves tapped along the trail in a cadence that echoed the minstrel’s song.
The longing in it made me a little teary, and I shook my head briskly at myself, nudging Fiona into a canter. We’d reached the top of a hill we’d never before climbed, finally emerging from the close, shadowed woods. A high meadow, filled with waist-high grass the color of green apples, lay before us in unspoiled splendor. With a snort of horse-joy, Fiona leapt under me, racing across the grassy bowl that curved up to the cloudless sky.
A laugh tore from me, even as my hair escaped its coils, whipping free behind me like Fiona’s pearly white mane lashing my face.
This was real. The smell of the air, a hint of snow sliding down from the high peaks, promising winter to come after glorious summer. It thrummed through me, filled me. I sank into the solid muscle of the horse, savoring her sleek strength. I didn’t need more than this. Formless longings meant nothing.
Then Fiona screamed.
I heard it after we were already falling. I fell with her, tumbling to the grass—not soft, but brutally hard under the bright dressing. Fiona’s great supple weight rolled over me, crushing my breath. Long practice had me kicking free, so her ungainly lunging to right herself left me behind, grateful not to be dragged by my foot as she galloped out of sight.
My lungs struggled against paralysis, grasping at the bits of air they could drag in. Knife-like pangs shot through my muscles. The image in my head throbbed with stark shock.
A man, standing there with a pack of dogs, in the fold of a wallow. Hounds bigger than wolves. No wonder Fiona had shied and lost her footing.
They would be on me in a moment.
A man with dogs where they shouldn’t be was never a good thing. As far as I’d gone, I was surely still in Mohraya, where Uorsin owned all hunting rights. And my sword still strapped to the saddle, racing off to nowhere. Only my little dagger remained, in the sheath on my belt. If I survived this, Ursula would kill me.
The hissing grasses as he strode toward me sent panic through my veins. Gasping, forcing my rib cage to flex, I struggled to my hands and knees.
“Should you move just yet?” inquired a low voice.
The air burned like fire. I looked up through the dark tangle of my hair. He stood a short distance away, black leathers, black cloak. Seven wolfhounds ringed him, sitting on their haunches, an avid audience with uncannily blue eyes.
“I’m fine,” I managed to say evenly, thinking of the times Ursula had knocked me with the flat of her blade and taunted me until I stood. Of course, she hadn’t done that in some time, since it took me so long to get up again. “You startled my horse.”
And you shouldn’t be on King’s Land.
I didn’t dare say that, though. Because I shouldn’t be on King’s Land either, unless I came from the royal family, and he didn’t need to know I was Uorsin’s relation.
“Yes,” the man agreed, dark eyes steady. “Do you need assistance standing?”
Definitely not. The man shared the lean, hungry, and lethal look of the wolfhounds, even with his careful distance. I wiggled my knees and ankles. They felt okay. Hopefully nothing was so damaged as to make me stagger when I stood. The cold congealing in my stomach told me I couldn’t afford to appear at all weak.
I stood, slowly, brushing grass off my riding pants as I unfolded, to give myself time to test my weight. Nothing gave way, thank Moranu.
“I’m fine,” I repeated, returning his assessing stare, deliberately slowing my heaving lungs.
One of the wolfhounds sniffed the air in my direction, raising its russet ears. It growled softly. A hushed word from the man settled it.
“Not often one finds a princess unattended in the wilderness,” the man observed, as if commenting on the weather, but his face burned with an unholy, acquisitive light.
I scoffed. “I wish! I imagine those royal brats have soft lives of silks and candies. No, I’m only hunting rabbits for my family.”
He took a step toward me, flattening his hand to signal the dogs to stay. I steeled myself not to step back. Predators always became more dangerous when presented with a chase. Two horse lengths between us still gave me room. To do what, I didn’t know. I could never outrun those hounds.
“Lies don’t become you, Princess.” His gaze drilled into me, evaluating, calculating. “Now, which one are you? Not Ursula the heir, I don’t think. Rumor says she looks more like a man than a woman.”
“No closer,” I commanded.
“Or what, Princess Amelia—you’ll scream?” He held out questioning hands to the empty sky, but he stopped closing on me.
“I’m not Amelia,” I said on reflex. Idiot. I closed my hand over the hilt of my dagger and drew it. “And I was thinking more of using this.”
He smiled, eyes glittering. A breeze wormed through the meadow, sending a wave through the grasses and lifting a strand of his long black hair, tied in a tail at the nape of his neck. He took another step closer and stopped, watching me to see what I’d do.
“You’d have to get quite close to me to use that,” he purred. “Are you certain that’s wise?” He flicked long fingers, and the wolfhounds stood to attention, ears and tails high, surging around him in an eager sea.
“What will happen is that you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine.”
He took another step. One horse length.
“Even if I hadn’t recognized Salena’s look about you, I’d have known you for one of Uorsin’s by the way you give orders. I am not, however, one of your subjects.”
At the sound of my mother’s name, I lost the little breath I’d gained. The name no one spoke. This wasn’t bad. This was catastrophic.
“Who are you, then?” I gritted out, my thighs tensing. One more step and I’d be within his reach. His looked to be a good six inches longer than mine. I was outmatched in every way. I’d have to get inside and do damage quickly, before he could inflict any on me. “Besides a bully and a trespasser.”
He raised a defined eyebrow at my words, taking a half step. Barely outside the boundary where I’d have to act, which he had to know. He moved like a warrior and used the pressure to discomfit me. He stared me down, the hounds shifting restlessly behind him. From this close I could see his eyes weren’t black at all, but very dark blue.
“Is that how you name me?”
“Care to argue the points?”
“If you’re not Ursula and not Amelia, then you’re the other one.”
He grinned unexpectedly, a flash of white teeth unsettlingly like his hounds’.
“What shal. . .
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