An Orphan's Throne
Magic has broken free over the Twelve Kingdoms. The population is beset by shapeshifters and portents, landscapes that migrate, uncanny allies who are not quite human…and enemies eager to take advantage of the chaos.
Dafne Mailloux is no adventurershe's a librarian. But the High Queen trusts Dafne's ability with languages, her way of winnowing the useful facts from a dusty scroll, and even more important, the subtlety and guile that three decades under the thumb of a tyrant taught her.
Dafne never thought to need those skills again. But she accepts her duty. Until her journey drops her into the arms of a barbarian king. He speaks no tongue she knows but that of power, yet he recognizes his captive as a valuable pawn. Dafne must submit to a wedding of alliance, becoming a prisoner-queen in a court she does not understand. If she is to save herself and her country, she will have to learn to read the heart of a wild stranger. And there are more secrets written there than even Dafne could suspect…
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
About the Author
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author with a writing career that spans decades. She lives in Santa Fe, with two Maine Coon cats, a border collie, plentiful free-range lizards and a Doctor of Oriental Medicine. Jeffe can be found online at JeffeKennedy.com, or every Sunday at the popular Word Whores blog.
Read an Excerpt
The Pages of the Mind
By JEFFE KENNEDY
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Jeffe Kennedy
All rights reserved.
When histories tell of the glorious dawning of a new era, they typically focus on the grand events — wars won, tyrants deposed, glittering coronations. Much waving of pennants and joyous shouting.
The duller truth is that — even though those histories are usually written by people like myself, the humble, nearly invisible keepers of the books — they never mention what consumes the most monumental effort.
Really, can you blame us?
Since I'd returned to Castle Ordnung, to serve the new High Queen Ursula as her councilor in the wake of her father Uorsin's death, it seemed I'd done nothing but record keeping. From the smallest details of ticking off the lists of supplies for restoring the much-depleted resources at the seat of the High Throne, to looking up laws new and old — from niggling to sweeping — to keeping notes during the many interminable meetings, I sometimes felt I might be buried under the avalanche of books, scrolls, and parchments.
Not that I minded, exactly. It was my calling and practically only useful skill. I possessed neither magic, nor beauty, nor warrior skills, but I was a demon on documents.
More, seeing Ursula on the throne at last fulfilled a lifelong ambition of mine. Death to the tyrant. Long live the High Queen. She would be a fair and honorable ruler, if I had to make sure of it myself.
The thing I'd learned about realizing lifelong ambitions? Once you're there, life doesn't end. Neither, apparently, did the long hours and paperwork. Fortunately the avalanche of work kept me mostly too busy to think about it.
Or about the dire prophecy the sorceress Queen Andromeda — Ursula's sister — had told me just over a month before of the threat that loomed following the coronation. She'd sworn me to secrecy, then gave me practically nothing to go on.
There are four men, exotically armored. Tall, broad, and fair-haired. Ursula crowned, on her throne. I don't know them, but they are Dasnarians, not Vervaldr. In the great hall at Ordnung.
Not dire in and of itself, but the prospect had troubled her deeply. The only other hint she gave me was to tell me to have things in order. I was doing my utmost, though the chaos of a new reign made it no simple task.
Which is why I found myself searching for the High Queen in the early morning hours, so she could sign off on a set of sensitive declarations. The messengers were poised to depart to the far reaches of the Twelve Kingdoms — now Thirteen, in the wake of Ursula's inadvertent magical acquisition of Annfwn and subsequent treaty with King Rayfe and Queen Andromeda. We'd met until late, arguing the finer points; then I'd spent the night composing the actual text. The messengers should have gone hours ago, but I didn't like for the missives to go out without Her Majesty's final approval.
For form, I checked her rooms first, not at all surprised to find them empty. She would of course be out on the practice grounds, running her sword forms with her Hawks before court. Some things didn't change, no matter what else had.
I had the one correct — she was working out — but not on the practice grounds.
I'd taken the shortcut from Her Majesty's rooms, through the arcade open only in warm weather. Not for many more weeks. The chill of winter stung the air, promising heavy snows to come, if not that day, then soon. The ring of blades clashing echoed through the dimness, Glorianna's sun lightening the sky but not yet high enough to bring warmth. I found the High Queen with Harlan in her favored private courtyard off the family wing. She'd long been one of the few to use the walled garden. By tacit agreement, most in the castle left her to it. Probably we should make it her private space, as she had little enough of that. I made a mental note to pass the word on it.
I disliked intruding when she'd clearly chosen to be away from everyone. Thus I hesitated in the shadows of the arcade, torn between discretion and the urgency of my errand, then fascinated by the scene.
They'd been at it a while, as they both glistened with sweat. She moved fast, with the grace of a dancer, like a fluid blade herself. Harlan, a Dasnarian mercenary, her lover and probably twice her weight, took perhaps one step for every three or four of hers, fending her off with his massive broadsword as she sought to penetrate his guard, spinning in and out again, moving under his strikes with such narrow escapes that my heart felt like it thumped in my throat and I had to relax my tightening fingers to keep from bunching the scroll I held.
Completely and utterly focused on each other, they moved in sync, a study in synchronicity and opposition. For all that they attempted to best each other, they seemed to be two halves of one whole. Harlan laughed, a deep, sensual sound. "Come closer and try that again, little hawk."
And Ursula laughed with him, sounding carefree as I rarely heard her, her smile fiercely exultant. "You wish, rabbit."
"I do wish."
Abruptly, I became excruciatingly aware of seeing something I should not. As if I'd walked in on them in sex play. Which, it became more apparent, this was, in its own way. They circled, tested, and teased each other, their bodies speaking in a profound harmony of visceral intention.
Definitely intruding, urgent timing or no. I took a step, intending to flee.
Harlan, however, spotted my movement and called a hold before I could escape. He lifted the flat of his sword to his forehead in the Elskastholrr, gaze on Ursula as if she shone brighter than the sun. Now that I fully understood the meaning of the vow, the gesture blew through me, leaving ragged emotion behind. He'd pledged himself to her unconditionally, for life, whether she kept solely to him, married another, or took a hundred lovers.
For all that I reminded myself I'd never trade places with her — I was a librarian, not a warrior or queen — unexpected bitter jealousy burned my throat where my heart had been, acrid as I swallowed it down.
I gathered my composure quickly when Harlan tipped his head in my direction and Ursula turned in inquiry. She did shine. Flushed with exertion, yes, but also radiant with love. Perhaps with being loved. Something I'd never know.
Her keen gaze surveyed me. "Problem?"
For a second I thought she meant my state of eternal spinsterhood, of only reading about the adventures of others, never being in the center, but forever on the edges, witnessing and recording the lives and loves of someone else, never knowing any of it for myself. No, idiot. She wants to know why you're here. "I apologize for intruding, Your Majesty. The new proclamation." I handed her the scroll. "Would you review it? If you approve, I'll make copies and send it straightaway."
"If you wrote it, I'm sure it's perfect," she replied, but she unrolled it and read. "Interesting. You manage to convey a great deal concisely and in a way that should minimize quibbling. Well done, librarian."
She handed it back to me. Studied my face.
"I'll go copy it, then."
"Stay a moment. Harlan, would you excuse us? It's time to prepare for court anyway."
"Of course." He lifted her hand and kissed it, a courtly gesture that nevertheless carried over the fierce sexuality of their duel. I prayed that my face had not turned red.
After he left, Ursula pinned me with a steely look as sharp as the sword she hadn't yet sheathed. "What troubles you?"
"Nothing in particular." I tried for a cheerful grimace. I wouldn't tell her about Andi's prediction of a Dasnarian incursion, even if I could. Until it happened, there was nothing she could do. "I'll be glad to get this task off my list so I can move on to some of the others. King Rayfe sent back the allied kingdoms agreement with a list of additional stipulations and requests for concessions."
"A few you won't like. I'll flag those and we can review after court."
She nodded, with an expression of affectionate exasperation for her brother-in-law. None of us blamed Rayfe and Andromeda for zealously guarding the bounty of Annfwn now that the protective magical barrier that had sealed their kingdom away from the world no longer did. But parts of the Thirteen desperately needed to establish trade for food — one of Ursula's highest priorities — and the back-and-forth had gone on for weeks.
"What else?" she asked.
"I'm sure you've heard from Jepp's scouts, but rumors that the volcano at Windroven is rumbling still continue to come in, along with similar rumors from elsewhere on the Crane Isthmus and from the Remus Isles. Several barges on the Danu River have gone missing, unfortunately with much-needed food supplies, with possibly coincidental and certainly unconfirmed sightings of a giant violet squid or octopus." Once I would have temporized on such a description. No longer.
She listened as I updated her, polishing her sword, the newly embedded ruby in the hilt glinting in the light of Glorianna's rising sun. Until just over a month ago, it had been a cabochon topaz — or so all, including me, had believed. Instead the jewel turned out to be a flawless orb, a gift from her mother, Salena, powerful sorceress and former queen of Annfwn. Now the topaz, the Star of Annfwn, remained in our High Queen's belly, apparently for good, as it had shown no sign of passing through her system. It troubled me, but short of cutting the jewel out of her, there wasn't much we could do. And it seemed to be doing her no harm. We'd replaced the wound in her hilt with one of Salena's rubies. That looked better than the jagged metal, though it would never hold the same power for her.
Most of what I related the queen already knew, but she nodded, checking things off against the list she carried in her head.
"Were you awake all night?" she asked when I finished, taking me by surprise. It never paid to forget her warrior's instincts — and how much she loved the unexpected attack.
"Finishing this missive and a few other things, yes. I'll grab a nap after you adjourn court this afternoon."
"I thought you just offered to go over Rayfe's new demands then."
"After that," I amended.
She gave me a long look.
"That's usually my line," she said with wry amusement. "And it's a lie when I say it, too. I'll ask again. What troubles you?"
I fumbled for a reply. As well as I knew Ursula — distantly all her life and more recently, in closer quarters, through serious trials — I never kidded myself that I was anything near her equal. She was High Queen and she had far more important concerns than my personal issues. I'd sworn not to tell her about Andi's vision. More than that, I trusted Andi's judgment that it wouldn't help Ursula to know. But how to give her a satisfying answer that wouldn't sound like another prevarication?
"Nothing troubles me on the scale of the problems we're facing, Your Majesty. You were the one to emphasize that we're too busy to worry about less important things."
"And you corrected me that priorities sometimes should be revisited." She sheathed her sword. "You know, you're valuable to me. Have been to all of us through all that's happened. In the past few days, I've come to appreciate that even more. There are not many people who will look me in the eye and tell me I'm wrong."
"Not wrong, Your Majesty. I only mean to —"
"I don't mind being wrong. And stop trying to make this a formal conversation. I consider you a friend, and it's been pointed out to me, by more than one person, that I don't have many and so should make an effort to be good to the ones I do have." She grimaced ruefully. "However, I'm the first to admit that I have little practice and probably zero skill at it. So help me out. Tell me what I can do for you. How can I make things better for you?"
"Better ... for me?" I couldn't imagine. It would be easier to go back to the endless task list.
"Dafne. These past weeks haven't been easy and they're not likely to get better anytime soon. I need you, but I can find a way to get by without you. You don't have to stay here. Uorsin's gone. You have no reason to be loyal to Ordnung or the High Throne — and good reason not to be."
Everything clarified then. "Harlan said something to you."
To her credit, she didn't wince, simply met my gaze with calm and clear understanding. "You didn't tell him not to and he felt I should be aware."
I struggled with that. It was true that I hadn't thought to tell Harlan not to mention the long conversation we'd had when he escorted me from Annfwn to Ordnung. The Dasnarian former mercenary, for all his threatening bulk, had a way of worming confessions out of a person. The tradition he followed, the skablykrr — both philosophical and martial — included the tenet that internal wounds harmed a warrior as much as or more than external ones. He possessed an uncanny knack for sniffing them out, including my own, which I normally never discussed, asking in such a way that I'd actually answered, telling him my sad and sorry tale.
"I regret that I never thought to ask you about it," Ursula continued when I couldn't muster a reply. "All my life, you were always around. Though I knew on one level that you'd survived the fall of Castle Columba at Uorsin's hands, I didn't give it more thought than that. I'm ashamed of that blindness and I apologize to you."
"You had plenty of your own concerns," I managed, quite overcome. So odd how the pain you easily ignored became overwhelming when another offered sympathy. Ursula had always borne the brunt of Uorsin's rages — and possibly far worse. I'd sometimes wondered but had so little power that I stopped there. It hadn't been my place. My own kind of willful blindness.
"What do you want out of life, Dafne?" she asked then, looking into me nearly the same way Queen Andromeda did. Andi had followed in her sorceress mother's footsteps, but at these moments, I wondered how much of Ursula's uncanny insight into people and politics came from a touch of Salena's magic.
"This." I gestured with the scroll. "I wanted Uorsin gone, Salena avenged, and a good monarch on the High Throne — you."
"And now that you have that?"
Not an easy answer. I'd formed this ambition the moment Ursula had been born, when Salena had handed the indignant baby to me and told me I held the future High Queen. When Salena said things like that, you knew they would come true. It had given me a kind of hope, to channel all that rage and grief over the loss of my family, the outrage of seeing Ordnung built on the bones of my family's home, to imagine their destroyer dead and good coming out of all that death. But then, perhaps hope is simply the absence of despair.
"You told me once that you still see Castle Columba when you look at Ordnung. That you returned with me from Windroven because you felt you owed me."
"Well, that and my deep agenda to see you on the throne, which didn't seem appropriate to mention at the time." I tried to make it a joke, but that didn't divert her either. She possessed an excellent memory and, now that Harlan had directed her attention, wouldn't let this go. "I couldn't stay at Windroven, couldn't stomach yet another siege and occupation. I didn't care to contemplate how I might have fared at Old King Erich's hands. My place is at Ordnung and I'm fi — I don't need you to do anything for me. I should go copy this. The messengers are waiting. We'll both be late for court."
She didn't move. "They won't start without us and the messengers can wait a bit more. That has been pointed out to me, also, that a benefit of rank is letting go of some concerns."
"You have rank, Your Majesty. I am only as good as the work I do." I tried to pull back my too-sharp words, but Ursula grinned.
"Aha. There you are — the Dafne who doesn't fear speaking her mind. I've been giving it thought. Another thing I never questioned before. Why did Uorsin keep you, out of all your family?"
The weariness of the night shadowed me and I could hardly bear the rise of old grief at her question, on top of my sudden, strange burst of jealousy and longing for something I'd thought I'd long since resigned myself to not having. Ursula would not release me until she'd satisfied herself, however.
"Because I was the only one left." It felt terrible to say. A final truth.
Ursula, however, waved that off. "That might be true, but it's not why he kept you. We both know my late, unlamented father was not a man or a ruler to give succor to anyone not useful to him. It would have been more in character for him to have you killed."
Excerpted from The Pages of the Mind by JEFFE KENNEDY. Copyright © 2016 Jeffe Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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