Just when Azalea should feel that everything is before her—beautiful gowns, dashing suitors, balls filled with dancing—it's taken away. All of it. And Azalea is trapped. The Keeper understands. He's trapped, too, held for centuries within the walls of the palace. So he extends an invitation.
Every night, Azalea and her eleven sisters may step through the enchanted passage in their room to dance in his silver forest, but there is a cost. The Keeper likes to keep things. Azalea may not realize how tangled she is in his web until it is too late. "Readers who enjoy stories of royalty, romance, and magic will delight in Dixon's first novel."—Publishers Weekly
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By Heather Dixon
Greenwillow BooksCopyright © 2011 Heather Dixon
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Chapter OneAn hour before Azalea's first ball began, she paced the
ballroom floor, tracing her toes in a waltz. She had
the opening dance with the King . . . who danced like a brick.
But that was all right. She could add flourishes and turns
that would mask the King's stiff, flat steps. If there was
anything she was good at, it was dancing. And this year, she
was in charge of the ball, as Mother was too ill to host. Azalea
was determined it would be perfect.
Unlike the year before, when the Yuletide had ended in
a fracas. Too young to attend the annualand onlyball
the royal family hosted, Azalea and her ten younger sisters
gathered all the blankets and cloaks and shawls from the palace
and hid outside the ballroom windows. Azalea remembered
the frigid air, how the rosebushes scratched, and how they
had to huddle together for warmth. The ballroom radiated
gold through the frozen panes. The girls pressed their noses
on the glass and oohed at the dancers, especially Mother,
who danced like an angel.
They had fallen asleep right there in the rosebushes,
burrowing together like mice. When the girls were
discovered missing, Mother had stopped the ball and
made everyoneincluding the musicianssearch for
them. Prime Minister Fairweller had found them. Azalea
had awoken in shivers to see him holding a lamp over
them and frowning.
The girls had pelted him with snowballs.
They had lost two weeks of dance lessons over that
Great Rosebush and Snowball Scandal. It had been worth
it, they all agreed. Even so, Azalea hoped this year the
Yuletide would end gracefully. Her toes curled in her
dance slippers and her hands shook as she fluttered about
the dessert table in the ballroom, rearranging the platters
and directing the hired help as they brought in trays of
lemon custards and cinnamon candies.
Mr. Pudding found her just as snow started to swirl
outside the tall arched windows and the musicians had
arrived, tuning their violins in the ballroom corner. Azalea
knelt on the marble floor in a poof of silks and crinolines,
picking up strewn pine needles. Mr. Pudding was their
Royal Steward. He was also the Royal Stableman, the
Royal Boot-Blacker, and the Royal Things-on-the-High-
Shelf-Getter. With difficulty, he knelt to the floor.
"It's all right, Mr. Pudding," said Azalea. "I've got it."
"Right you are, miss, so you do," he said, collecting
the needles with gnarled hands. "It's only . . . your mother
wants to see you, miss."
Azalea paused, the needles pricking her palms.
"She does?" she said. "The King is all right with it?"
"'Course he would be, miss," said Mr. Pudding,
helping her up. "He couldn't be averse if your mum
Mother hadn't been taken with a quick, hard illness
that swept a person up overnight. Her illness had come
slowly and had lasted for years, robbing a bit of her each
day. Some weeks she felt better, better enough to take tea
in the gardens with Azalea and her sisters and give them
dance lessons, and some weeksmore weeks, latelythe
light in her eyes flickered with pain. Still, she always said
she felt better, and she always gave a room-brightening
smile. That was Mother.
With the baby near due now, the King refused to allow
Azalea or her sisters to spend tea up in Mother's room,
or even to visit longer than several minutes a day. Even
so, when Azalea arrived at Mother's room two staircases
later, breathless and beaming, it had the mark of her sisters
all over it. Mend-up cards with scrawled pictures graced
the dresser, and vases of dried roses and pussy willows
made the room smell of flowers. A warm fire glowed in
the grate, casting yellows over the flowered furniture.
Mother sat in the upright sofa, her auburn hair tussled
as always. She wore her favorite blue dress, mended but
clean, and rested a hand on her stomach.
She was asleep. Azalea's smile faded.
Secretly hoping the rustle of her skirts would rouse
Mother, Azalea arranged the mend-up cards on the
dresser, then chastised herself for hoping such a thing.
Sleep was the only peace Mother had of late. From the
table next to the sofa, the old magic tea set clinked and
clattered faintly, pouring a cup of tea in its pushy way.
Azalea did not care for that old silver-mottled tea
set. Several hundred years ago, before Eathesbury had
streetlamps and paved roads, the palace had been magic.
The reigning king, the High King D'Eathe, had gone
mad with it. He magicked the drapery to twine around
servants' necks, made the lamps flicker to life as one
passed, and trapped unfortunate guests in his mirrors,
never to release them. Azalea's ninth-great-grandfather,
Harold the First, had overthrown him, but still pockets
of magic remained in the palace. The old tea set was one
of these. It even had a pair of sugar tongs that snapped at
the girls' fingers if they wanted more than one cube. The
girls called them the sugar teeth, and Azalea guessed they
were quite as evil as their creator had been.
"If you wake her," Azalea threatened in a low voice,
picking up the full teacup and setting it on its platter, "I
will have you melted down into napkin rings, I swear it."
The teacup hopped back onto the sofa arm and
nudged and prodded at Mother's hand. Azalea grabbed
it and pinned it between the dented sugar bowl and
teapot. The sugar teeth hopped out of the bowl and bit
"Ow!" Azalea snapped. "Why, you little"
"Oh, goosey," she said. She opened her eyes and
pushed a smile. "Don't be cross. They're only trying to
help, you know."
"They're bullying you," said Azalea, whose spirits
rose in spite of seeing the pain in Mother's eyes. Mother
had a plucky way of smiling that deepened her dimples
and brightened the room. "I'll take them to the kitchen.
How are you feeling?"
"Mmm. Better. Where are the girls? I wanted to see
"Out and about. In the gardens, I think." In the
hustle and come-and-go of preparations, Azalea had lost
track of them. They hadn't even come to see her in her
ball gown. Mrs. Graybe and one of the maids had had to
help her dress in the kitchen, tightening her stays while
she traced her toes on the wood floor, impatient.
"Oh," said Mother. "Well. If they are having a jolly
Christmas Eve, then . . . I'm glad for it. Ah, but look
at you! Princess Royale! You look a picture print! The
green makes your eyes pop. I knew it would."
Azalea caught her reflection in the glowering tea set.
Auburn ringlets framed her face and her tightly strung
corset flushed her cheeks. From shoulder to waist she
wore a silver sash. She looked regal, and nothing like
"Everyone says I look like you," said Azalea shyly.
"You lucky thing! Do a Schleswig curtsy."
Azalea's feet took over and she dipped into a curtsy
before her mind fully realized it. It flowed from the balls
of her feet to her fingertips in one rippled movement
and a rustle of skirts. She disappeared into a poof of
"Masterful!" Mother laughed. "You're better than
me! Up, up, up. Very good! Ladies' cloaks, in the library,
"In the entrance hall. Yes, I remember." Azalea stood
and smoothed her skirts.
"Brilliant. The gentlemen will be mad for you. Dance
with every single one and find which one you like best.
We can't let parliament do all the choosing."
Azalea's toes curled in her dance slippers.
She hated the sick, milk-turning feeling that came
when she thought of her future gentleman. She pictured
it as a sort of ball, one that lasted a lifetime, in which
parliament chose her dance partner. And she didn't
know if he would be a considerate dancer, one who led
her through tight turns with ease, or if he would lurch
through the steps. Or worse, if he was the sort of partner
who would force her through the movements and scoff
at her when she stumbled at his hand. Azalea tried to
swallow the feeling away.
"I wish you could come," she said.
"Your father will be there."
"That's not the same." Azalea leaned down and kissed
Mother, inhaling the sweet smell of white cake and baby
ointment. "I'll miss you."
"Azalea," said Mother, reaching out to place her hand
on Azalea's shoulder. "Before you go. Kneel down."
Azalea did, a little surprised. Her skirts poofed about
From the end-table drawer, Mother produced her
handkerchief, a folded square of silver. Silver was the
color of the royal family. The embroidered letters K.E.W.
glimmered in the soft light. Mother took Azalea's hands
and pressed them over it.
Azalea gasped. Mother's hands were ice.
"It's your sisters," said Mother. "You've done so well
to watch out for them, these months I've been ill. You'll
always take care of them, won't you?"
"Is something wrong?"
"Of . . . course," said Azalea. "You know I will."
The moment the words escaped her lips, a wave of cold
prickles washed over her. They tingled down her back,
through her veins to her fingertips and toes, flooding her
with a cold rain shower of goose prickles. The unfamiliar
sensation made Azalea draw a sharp breath.
"I want you to keep the handkerchief," said Mother.
"It's yours now. A lady always needs a handkerchief."
Azalea kept Mother's cold hands between her own,
trying to warm them. Mother laughed, a tired, worn
laugh that bubbled nonetheless, and she leaned forward
and kissed Azalea's fingers.
Her lips, white from pressing against Azalea, slowly
turned to red again.
"Good luck," she said.
The King did not look up from his paperwork when Azalea
rushed into the library. Two flights of stairs in massive
silk skirts had left her breathless, and she swallowed the
air in tiny gasps.
"Miss Azalea," he said, dipping his pen into the
inkwell. "We have rules in this household, do we not?"
"Rule number eight, section one, Miss Azalea."
The King looked up. He had a way of frowning that
froze the air and made it crack like ice.
Azalea clenched her fists and bit back a sharp retort.
Two years! Nearly two years she had run the household
while Mother was ill, and he still made her knock! She
strode out of the library, slid the door shut with a snap,
counted to two, and knocked smartly.
"Yes, you may come in," came the King's voice.
Azalea gritted her teeth.
The King was already dressed for the ball, fine
in formal reds and silvers. His military uniform had
meticulously straight rows of buttons and medals, and
he wore a silver sash across his chest to his waist, like
Azalea. As he sorted through papers, Azalea caught
words like "treaty" and "regiments" and "skirmish."
As Captain General, he would be leaving, along with the
cavalry regiments, to help a neighboring country's war
in just a few short weeks. Azalea did not like to think
"That is well enough," he said when Azalea stood
before his desk. "One cannot run the country without
laws; one cannot manage a household without rules. It
"Sir," said Azalea. "It's Mother."
The King set his papers down at this.
"I think we need to send for Sir John," said Azalea.
"I know he was here this morning, but . . . something's
The image of Mother's lips, white, then slowly, slowly
turning to red, passed through Azalea's mind, and she
rubbed her fingers. The King stood.
"Very well," he said. "I will fetch him myself
straightaway." He took his hat and overcoat from the
stand near the fireplace. "Tend to the guests. They will be
arriving soon. And" The King's brow furrowed. "Take
care that your sisters remain in their room. I've made
them promise to stay inside, butit is them."
"You made them promise to stay inside?" said Azalea,
indignant. "Even Bramble?"
"But it's tradition to peek at the Yuletide! Even
"Tradition be hanged, Miss Azalea. I will not allow it,
not after the complete debacle last year."
Azalea pursed her lips. She didn't want the ball to end
like it had last year, naturally, but caging them up in the
room was unfair.
"That will do, Miss Azalea," said the King. "I've sent
goodies to your room, and a dissected picture for them to
piece together. They shan't be desolate."
The King turned to go, and Azalea spoke after him.
"You'll be back within the hour?" she said. "For the
"Really, Azalea," said the King, putting on his stiff
hat. "Is everything about dancing to you?"
It was, actually, but Azalea decided now wasn't the
best time to point that out.
"You will be back in time?" she said.
The King waved his hand in dismissal. "As you say,"
he said, and he left.
Excerpted from Entwined by Heather Dixon Copyright © 2011 by Heather Dixon. Excerpted by permission of Greenwillow Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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