“A tense, fast-paced fantasy.” —Taylor Fenner, author of The Haunting Love
After seven grueling years of captivity in the Garden—a burlesque troupe of slave girls—sixteen-year-old Rose finds an opportunity to escape during a performance for the emperor. But the hostage she randomly chose from the crowd to aid her isn't one of the emperor's men—not anymore. He's the former heir to the throne, who is now leading a rebellion against it.
Rayce is a wanted man and dangerously charismatic, the worst person for Rose to get involved with, no matter what his smile promises. But he assumes Rose's attempt to take him hostage is part of a plot to crush the rebellion, so he takes her ashis hostage. Now Rose must prove where her loyalties lie, and she offers Rayce a deal—if he helps her rescue the other girls, she'll tell him all the Garden's secrets.
Except the one secret she's kept for seven years that she'll to take to her grave if she must.
The Garden of Thorns series is best enjoyed in order.
Book #1 Garden of Thorns
Book #2 War of the Wilted
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Garden of Thorns
By Amber Mitchell, Lydia Sharp
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Amber Mitchell
All rights reserved.
Needle-thin spikes line the shackles that bite into my wrists and ankles. Blood crusts between my fingers and toes, but my chapped skin stopped throbbing sometime last night. I've learned that the less I move, the less they dig. Stiffness creeps up my back, growing out from my bones like branches.
"We're almost there now," Fern whispers next to me, her voice my only comfort in the never-ending darkness.
"I wish we weren't." Fear slips into my stomach like a stone, remembering where we're heading.
I lean my head back against Fern's, her long black hair tickling my bare arms. Maybe some of her courage will soak into me as she peers out of the tiny peephole we widened on our cart to sneak a view of her old home.
For as long as we've been paired in the Garden, she's told me stories of Imperial City's grandeur, of the cobblestoned streets that shine like honey during midday, of the four multiroofed temples that shoot up so high they look like pillars supporting the bright blue sky, and hidden gardens tucked between buildings, where you can duck under a blossoming dogwood tree to escape the heat.
Most nights, after I stumbled on stage and she bore the bruises or broken bones caused by my clumsy feet, we would lie head to head on top of the dirty straw lining our cage, and she'd spin golden webs from her memories of the Imperial City to get us by. Her whispers allowed me to forget, until I turned to look at her smiling face and watched a trail of fresh blood drip down her cracked lip. As a Flower, it's my job to dance. As a Wilted, hers is to keep me in line by paying for my mistakes with her skin. In the Garden, Flowers are low, but Wilteds are the dirt beneath our petals, silently keeping our roots alive.
"Do you want to look?" she asks, pulling me back to the present.
A beam of light spills into the cart, its weak ray like gentle fingers on my face. It gives the illusion of hope. I turn away before that seed can root into my chest.
"Sure," I say, and the spikes of my shackles bite as I move toward the hole.
My eyes fight to adjust to the glaring brightness, but once they do, I gasp in awe.
A white wooden building lined in red trim appears in my line of vision, shooting up farther than I can see through our peephole, and I can just make out the edge of its slanted red roof. Everywhere I look, I catch color — a blue stream slicing through the city, green bamboo shoots groomed artfully next to an arched golden bridge. I drink it all in, letting the scenery fill my soul after the endless stream of bland grays and browns of the small towns we usually visit.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Fern says, her voice tinged with longing.
She hasn't seen her home in nearly ten years. We were stolen into this horror show within a month of each other. When the Gardener stuck us in the same cage, I assumed it was an act of kindness, so we wouldn't wither under the weight of our capture. I didn't know until later that allowing us to bond the first four years would be his cruelest trick. That he would twist that bond to keep both of us in line or else we would both end up hurt — her flesh a physical manifestation of the mental scars I bear.
I pull my face away from the slit in the wood, ready to comfort Fern, but I don't see a trace of the sorrow on her face I thought I heard in her voice. She motions for me to return my gaze outside.
During our parade through town, we've attracted quite a crowd. The people in their plain linen clothes gawk at our processional, shock straining their pale faces as they witness the first public entertainment to enter Imperial City in over ten years. As our caravan bumps through the streets, women grab their husbands' hands tighter, guards in their shiny metal uniforms pretend not to stare as they herd people off the streets, and children weave in between the carts, playing a game of chicken with the horses' hooves.
At a glance, the bright colors painted on our carriages make it seem like the show is meant for children. When I first saw them, I was reminded of the grandiose red and golden tops of the Wonder Emporium from my homeland. Behind those walls lie men who could swallow whole swords and women who rode elephants.
But our carts depict what the Gardener sells: his thirteen Dancing Flowers. And we aren't meant for children's eyes. The paintings on the sides of our carts tantalize. Each dress brighter than the last, accentuating the curves of our forms as we dance, forced to lose one petal at a time, exposing our souls.
I twist my body so I can peek ahead. The ornate blue gate has been swung wide to let us pass unencumbered, and about ten men flank it, their woven chain armor as silver as the walls they guard. My heart squeezes, and panic swells my veins.
"Can you see the palace?" Fern asks, the familiar weight of her hand on my shoulder.
Before I can answer, our cage jolts to a stop and we fly off the bench, crashing in a pile of limbs. The splintered floor underneath the straw stings my knees. As I look up at Fern, I catch the thick scar twisting down her shoulder blade — a reminder of the first time I talked back to the Gardener — and keep my discomfort silent. She catches me staring and playfully sticks her tongue out at me.
I meet her gesture with a smile, like always. The word "sorry" hangs unspoken around us in the air. We both know that no matter how many times I say it and no matter how many times she whispers that it isn't my fault, it won't change the fact that she suffers every time I make a wrong move. All the scars and bumps and cuts littering her body are because of me. Though I didn't wield the weapon or the fist, they always fall on her because of my imperfections.
And yet, she still tries to make me smile.
We remain motionless until sounds spill from the crack in our wooden cage: men shouting orders, wood banging against the ground as cart doors are thrown open, and the shrill sound of giggling. All the noises feel so familiar I can almost trick myself into forgetting that tonight we'll be performing at the first Spring Ceremony in ten years since the border to the neighboring kingdom was shut down. My gut twists thinking about what that day meant for me, and I push it from my mind.
Fern's fingers pick through my hair, yanking out pieces of straw, while I crawl back toward the peephole. Every bit she drops to the floor will be one less she'll have to pluck later when helping me dress.
"I lived here for nine years and I've never once seen the palace gates open," Fern says, longing coloring her voice. "I used to wonder what the inside looked like, how the cherry blossom trees were arranged, what their benches were made of."
"Then you should look," I say, scooting out of her way. Fern peeks outside. As she does, a loud bang sounds to our left and, despite my best effort, excitement grows in my chest. My shackles won't be on for much longer.
One of the Gardener's lackeys has begun releasing us. They always start with Clover's cart at the front of the line, since her throwing knives aren't going to sharpen themselves. The heavy door at the back of the cage is yanked up, and we're temporarily blinded by sunlight then ripped out onto the grass. Torn from our cage and planted into the Garden for a one-night show.
And tonight's spectacle is the one our ringleader has been scheming since the idea of the Garden developed in his head. The emperor of Delmar personally requested our show to entertain him and a hundred of his highest-ranking soldiers, celebrating in the name of the Delmarions' earth goddess, Lin.
With the particularly grueling winter and shortage of crops, rumors of how important this festival is to the people have even spread into the Garden. I overheard several lackeys talking around the campfire three nights ago about a town near the Blue Wall where bowls are even emptier than they are here after a bad performance.
That's the only reason I can think why the Gardener packed up our show before we'd even performed at the last city when a scroll with the imperial seal was dropped at his feet. And just like that, we're back at Fern's home, in the heart of Delmar, where rumors of glowing men and weapons that can freeze a man's movement run rampant. The Garden's lackeys whisper of magic, but I know too well that magic can't exist in the same world as our show.
"I can't believe I'm back here," Fern says. "I never thought I'd get to see these streets again."
We don't talk about her family or the house she used to live in. She only ever told me once, right before we fell asleep a few years ago, that her father traded her to the Gardener for the price of a cow. That her head literally has a price on it. That she has nowhere to go back to.
"I didn't think we'd ever see the palace," I whisper.
Fern pulls away from the peephole, and we meet each other's gazes. My worry is reflected in her face. For as long as I can remember, our nightmare show has been flitting on the outskirts of the emperor's watchful eye, his heavy ban against any form of entertainment casting the shadow of an ax over all of our heads. The entirety of the land knew about our traveling band but turned a blind eye, because it was one of the only things that kept the soldiers happy.
But now the emperor is publicly acknowledging our existence, inviting us into his home and openly allowing us to perform behind his gates, which can only mean one thing: he's planning on legalizing the Garden. If that's really true, then we will never be able to leave.
And our master will get everything he has ever dreamed of.
I have to do something, anything, to make sure that doesn't happen.
Fern pulls her hair behind her back, revealing a jagged scar across her collarbone, the very first lesson of what my disobedience would cost us.
If I make a move, if I try to stop whatever it is this invitation means, Fern will pay for it in blood.
"When you were looking out earlier, did you notice the new lackey that gave Clover a blanket back in Lao Zun?" Fern asks. "I didn't see him out among the rest."
Our show picks up a few new lackeys at almost every stop we make, men not deemed fit for the emperor's army or the odd single man who spends all his spare coin underneath our silken tent flaps while we're in town. But the particular lackey Fern mentioned has made waves through the Garden with every spare piece of bread he sneaks for Juniper, every kind word he whispers when the others aren't looking, and every clean bandage that passes through his hands.
"No, I didn't," I say.
She leans up to look out the peephole again.
"We should have seen him by now," she mutters under her breath. "He said he would check in when we arrived."
"What're you talking about?" I ask, crawling up beside her.
I place a hand on her back as the muscles in her shoulders stiffen.
"What is he doing here?" she asks.
Before I can ask who she's talking about, something heavy slams into the side of our cart, the wood creaking with the weight of it. "Rose, there's something I need to tell you," Fern says, pushing off from the wall of our cart.
"One second," I say, taking her place to see what the commotion is.
"No, this can't wait." Panic colors her voice, and she wraps both hands around my arms, trying to pull me back to her.
I catch the back of Shears's head. He's the Gardener's right hand. He bangs a stick on the wheel spokes of our cart. The infamous set of gardening shears that gave him his nickname poke out of the back pocket of his ratty pants. The Gardener collects many things, but Shears is by far the worst of his collection. No one really knows where he came from, but that hasn't stopped the myriad of rumors spreading like weeds throughout the Garden about how many people he killed and how many body parts he separated before signing on to do the Gardener's dirty work.
I shoot back from our peephole, into Fern's waiting arms, and try to breathe. No one ever wants to catch Shears's attention. The Gardener is cruel, but Shears is twisted. He cuts with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes that activates only when his blade carves flesh.
"I didn't do anything," I say as the sound of another person banging against our cart echoes. "I swear I didn't."
"I know, I know." Fern presses me against her chest, rocking us back and forth.
A third set of bangs, then a fourth. The number keeps rising with every pound of my heart. They're surrounding us like a herd of swarming beasts.
Somewhere in the distance, the airy sound of a flute slithers through the air like a snake in the grass, one of the musicians probably practicing for our performance tonight in a nearby tent.
"I just thought about disobeying him," I say over and over again. "I wasn't going to do anything. I'd never let them hurt you again, I swear!"
"They must have discovered who Bái really was," Fern says, her hands shaking underneath mine.
She pulls away from me and leans down so we're eye to eye. Every ounce of ease has left her face, and her mouth draws into a serious line. I've never seen her look at me like this, and it scares me more than the banging outside ever could. Her brown eyes are saying the one thing I could never survive: good-bye.
"Now listen to me," Fern says, holding my face in both of her hands. "You know I'll always do my best to protect you, right?"
"And I'd do the same for you."
Her words send a sharp jolt of panic through me. Why would she bring this up now, with Shears right outside our cart?
She nods. "Just like we promised."
We were two little girls clinging to a splash of stars between wooden planks, whispering the only words that could ever truly mean anything to us: no matter how dark the night, we will always be there for each other.
"Whatever happens next, remember that we have to stop him."
"What are you talking about?" I demand, clutching her hands.
"Something's happening," she says. "Something between the Gardener and the emperor, and we can't let it — do you understand me?" The latch to our cart releases with a loud pop. Soon light will flood inside and I won't be able to see her.
"I don't —"
"It has something to do with you, Rose," she says. "You and that glowing rock they found a few towns back."
She's speaking so fast that it's hard to stay focused, but I remember the chunk of jagged brown rock that glows green every time the Gardener presses his fat fingers to it. He brought it to his personal trailer where he keeps all of his favorite trinkets.
"I know you have your secrets; we all do," Fern continues. "But you can't let it happen. No matter what, you can't let that bastard get what he wants, or none of the Flowers and Wilteds will ever be free."
"I don't understand what's going on. I didn't do anything."
Her brow furrows, and the ghost of a smile plays on her face. "You're right, you didn't," she says. "Let him think you're scared. Don't let him think there's anything different about your behavior, and during tonight's performance get every step perfect. When the time is right, when the lights are low, escape and don't look back until you can free the others."
Her words flood my mind as I try to figure out how many broken bones and bruises my escape would cost her, but before I can ask what she means, light pours in from our open door.
Four dark silhouettes block the pristine white square as they jump into our cart, the floor shaking with their weight.
Fern squeezes my cheeks.
And then we are ripped from each other, the shackle spikes digging into my flesh as I'm thrown from the cart onto the grass inside the palace gates.
My head spins from the combination of bright light and the impact of hitting the ground. One of the lackeys yanks up the chain connecting my shackles and unlocks them. Warm air attacks my chapped wrists.
I turn on my side, pain shooting up my shoulder, and see Fern's ocean of black hair spilling out around her a few feet away. I reach for her, my fingertips brushing the ends of her hair, but another hand beats me to it, grabbing a fistful and holding her up off the grass.
Though pain must be shooting across her scalp, she doesn't scream.
I follow the arm to the shoulder and see Shears, his unnaturally wide grin revealing a row of shiny white teeth before he turns away from me.
And I realize we're lying like plucked flowers at our master's feet, in the perfect position to be stomped back into the earth that we came from.
Excerpted from Garden of Thorns by Amber Mitchell, Lydia Sharp. Copyright © 2017 Amber Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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