Three sisters. Motherless daughters of the high king. The eldest is the warrior-woman heir; the middle child is shy and full of witchy intuition; and the youngest, Princess Amelia, she is as beautiful as the sun and just as generous.
Ami met her Prince Charming and went away to his castle on the stormy sea-cliffsand that should have been her happily ever after. Instead, her husband lies dead and a war rages. Her middle sister has been taken into a demon land, turned into a stranger. The priests and her father are revealing secrets and telling lies. And a power is rising in Ami, too, a power she hardly recognizes, to wield her beauty as a weapon, and her charm as a tool to deceive. . .
Amelia has never had to be anything but good and sweet and kind and lovely. But the chess game for the Twelve Kingdoms has swept her up in it, and she must make a gambit of her own. Can the prettiest princess become a pawnor a queen?
Praise for The Twelve Kingdoms
"Well-written and swooningly romantic." Library Journal, starred review
"Will captivate you from beginning to end with a richly detailed fantasy world."
RT Book Reviews
About the Author
Jeffe Kennedy is an award winning author. Her most recent works the fantasty series Twelve Kingdoms, the fantasy romance novels of A Covenant of Thorns, the contemporary BDSM novellas of the Facets of Passion, and an erotic contemporary serial novel, Master of the Opera. Readers can visit her website at: JeffeKennedy.com or every Sunday at the popular Word Whores blog.
Read an Excerpt
The Tears of the Rose
By JEFFE KENNEDY
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Jeffe Kennedy
All rights reserved.
When they brought Hugh's empty body home to me, I didn't weep.
A princess never lets her people see her cry.
Father expected that much, even of me.
It wasn't even that difficult. My grief, my rage, they bloomed large in my heart, too huge to escape through such a small channel as a tear duct. All that he had been, so glorious, so handsome, full of life and love ... gone.
The procession climbed the winding road to Windroven, lined by Hugh's people, all dressed in the ashy gray of mourning. The folk of Avonlidgh don't call out with their mourning. No, they observe it with silence, as stolid as their remote and rocky coastline. Fittingly, however, the wind wailed instead. It tore at my griseous cloak with pinching fingers and snapped my hair painfully against my skin.
When we first received the news, I'd tried to cut it off, the long tresses Hugh had loved so much. But my ladies stopped me, saying I'd regret it later.
They didn't understand that I only had room for one regret. It edged out everything else. I couldn't understand how anyone could imagine that any other thing mattered or would ever matter again.
Hugh was gone.
Even though the words circled my mind in an endless cruel march, I couldn't quite believe it.
The members of the procession struggled against the ferocious wind, full of bits of biting ice off the churning ocean, my sister and her elite squad, Ursula's Hawks. Now her Hawks served as pallbearers, carrying the pallet at shoulder height despite the added effort, a gesture of highest regard. Not enough regard to have prevented his death, however. As they passed, the people and soldiers of Avonlidgh fell in behind, a drab parade in their wake.
Not so long ago, before winter set in, Hugh and I had ridden up that hill, bringing my other sister, Andi, with us. We'd given her protection, the shelter of our home. Sacrificed the armies of Avonlidgh to save her—and failed.
Hugh had gone to rescue her and died for it.
A sour ball of frozen guilt and hate choked me, the gorge rising every morning. That channel wasn't big enough, either, so it grew inside me, monstrous and vile.
They reached the top and Ursula's steely gaze found mine. The eldest and heir to the High Throne of the Twelve Kingdoms, she looked more gaunt than ever. In the past, some might have called her passably attractive, in her hard-edged way, but not at this moment. Her normally clear gray eyes clouded dark with defeat and her thin lips pursed tight with exhaustion.
She dismounted, saying nothing, gesturing for her Hawks to lay Hugh's shrouded body at my feet. They hadn't had the appropriate cloth to work with—I'd fix that—so they'd wrapped him in his cloak. I'd thought my heart had already died, but it clenched at the sight of the sigil I'd embroidered for him. Still, it could all be a lie.
"Show me." My voice croaked out, and Ursula, the brave one, she who never flinches, blanched ever so slightly. Then she dropped to one knee and did the honors herself, touching the fabric tenderly with bare fingers the color of ice. The frozen wool resisted, then tore with a sigh that could have been a man's dying breath. One of my ladies broke into hysterical sobs that quickly faded as someone led her away.
I wanted to say it wasn't him. Surely this lifeless thing couldn't be my golden prince. When he first strode into the audience chamber at Castle Ordnung, he'd won everyone's hearts in an instant. We all fell in love with him, with the way the sun walked with him, radiant and perfect.
The light had abandoned him now.
There was nothing left to say good-bye to. Just a frozen husk.
Ursula stared at him, too, hands folded over her armored knee. The sourness of guilt and metallic shame filled the air. Of course she felt it, too. Ursula never failed. Especially not in such a spectacular way. I saved some of my hate for her. If she'd arrived in time to stop the siege, if she'd taken Odfell's Pass as was meant, Hugh would still be alive.
"Tell me what happened." I spoke to her only, where she still knelt by Hugh's pallid corpse, even his sunny blond locks sapped of color.
King Erich, who'd stood in silence behind me this whole time, stoically observing the delivery of his dead son, stirred. A gnarled oak tree coming to life and moving its creaking limbs. "Perhaps we should go inside and—"
"No," I interrupted him. Someone gasped in shock, but I was beyond caring. "I want her to say it out loud right here. So everyone can hear. And bear witness."
Ursula measured me with her eyes. Maybe seeing someone besides her flirty, flighty baby sister for the first time.
"We attempted to take Odfell's Pass. King Rayfe and his Tala armies stopped us. Hugh fell in the battle." Her voice choked on the words, the burnt smell of lies floating up from them.
"Was Andi there?" I demanded.
Ursula hesitated—so, so unlike her—and inclined her head.
"Why didn't you bring her back with you, then?"
"We could not," Ursula answered in a voice devoid of emotion.
"So the mission failed." Old Erich sounded weary. He'd traveled to Windroven in the dead of winter to keep vigil for his fallen heir. Now all Avonlidgh had was me. Having the most beautiful woman in the Twelve Kingdoms for your son's wife sounds great, until you realize she's the one who will be making the decisions when you're dead. Who wanted a girl who cared only about pretty dresses and picnics running a kingdom, after all?
Yes, I knew what they were thinking. The stink of their doubt filled the castle. Worthless, useless me.
And soon I wouldn't even be beautiful, my one claim to importance. With every day, that famed beauty flaked away, dying on the surface of my skin and sloughing off like moss deprived of water. I felt it and didn't care. Let it wither and die with everything else.
"Princess Andromeda elected to honor her marriage to Rayfe and her commitment to the Tala," Ursula was telling Erich. "The pass cannot be taken by force. There is a magical barrier that cannot be breached. We tried and failed. It's over."
"I've heard such ridiculous rumors for decades." Erich's exhausted tone held a world of regret, possibly larger than mine. "You should not believe everything you're told, Princess. Especially by such tricksters as the Tala."
"I witnessed it myself," she replied.
"I highly doubt High King Uorsin will be so convinced."
"I will convince him, King Erich," Ursula answered. "I shall go to his seat at Castle Ordnung next and confess—"
"How did he die?" My voice cut through their conversation like a rusty knife.
Ursula rose. Met my eyes. So stoic. So steady.
"He fell in the battle at Odfell's Pass."
Her words smoldered, stinking of the lie. How I was so certain, I didn't know, but I was.
"Whose hand wielded the blade?"
Erich laid a hand on my shoulder. "Princess Amelia, in the heat of battle it is rarely easy to—"
"She knows." I hissed it at her. "Don't you? Tell me what you're not saying."
Ursula's shoulders dropped, her hand finding the hilt of her sword, fingers wrapping around it for comfort.
"Hugh went for Rayfe and Andi stepped between them. She asked me to give you her confession: that he died at her hands."
A murmur ran through the erstwhile silent crowd, growing larger the farther it rippled away. I closed my eyes, listening to it spread. This. This was what I'd known. The burning ball in my gut turned, wanting to rise again. Andi. How could she?
"She offers you her grief and great sorrow. One day, when you're ready to hear it, she will offer you her apology. She knows well that it is nothing you will accept at this time."
"This is true, then?" Erich's voice was ashen, weakened by the shock.
"It was never intended," came Ursula's reply, "but yes. In his zeal, Hugh thought to slay the King of the Tala. He died a brave and noble death."
I felt the sneer twisting my lips and opened my eyes to gaze down at the rotting shell of my true love. "There is no such thing as a brave and noble death."
"No." Ursula spoke the quiet agreement. "I erred in saying so."
"Yes." I swallowed, my mouth filling with the saliva that presaged vomit. I couldn't be ill in front of my people.
"She asked me to give you three other messages—in private."
"I don't want to hear them!" The world darkened at the edges.
Ursula frowned at me. "Ami—are you all right?"
The childhood endearment nearly broke me open. I couldn't do this.
"I have to lie down." I fumbled to stay on my feet, and my hand found Dafne, solid and steady by my side. I leaned on her before I remembered that she had been Andi's friend first. Before Andi had betrayed me so foully.
"Shh," she soothed me, though I hadn't said anything to her. She wound an arm around my waist. "Let's get you inside. I'm sure it's not as bad as it sounds. Your sister loves you. They both do. Princess Ursula—would you care to accompany us?"
"I don't want her to—"
"Now, now. Save your energy, Princess." Dafne sounded all concerned, but I knew they were worried about offending Ursula. As if anything touched her hardened heart.
I was beyond protesting, though, and my ladies swept me along, a sea of soft hands and gray silk skirts. As if my stomach knew we'd entered my chambers, it heaved in earnest just as I reached for the washbowl. Lady Dulcinor held my hair away from my face and I emptied myself into the basin. My eyes watered from the vicious spasms, but still I did not weep.
"How long has she been ill like this?" Ursula was talking to Dafne in lowered tones, and I couldn't make out the librarian's reply.
I lost the rest of their conversation in the rustle of silk and comforting murmurs of the other ladies as they swept me away from my sick and eased me onto the glorious bed I'd shared with Hugh for such a brief marriage. As I stared up at the fanciful draperies of lace and ribbon, his teasing words came back to me. A beautiful princess bed for the most beautiful princess of all.
Our story was not supposed to end this way.
Ursula sat on the bed beside me and I let her sinking weight draw my eyelids closed. I didn't resist when she took my hand, though hers was still as cold as melting ice. I felt nothing.
"Don't call me that." My voice was dull, but she heard me.
"Let me help you, Amelia. I want to be here for you."
"I don't need anyone killed today, thank you. I've had enough of that."
Her fingers tightened on mine. A low blow, but a direct hit. Funny that she was trying to mother me now. She'd never wanted to before. Always our father's daughter, obsessed with sword fighting, strategy, and law, she'd never even seemed to miss our mother. Ursula had always been studying or practicing in the yard, telling me to stay out of her way when I toddled after her. Andi had been the one to care for me, my substitute mother. Andi had always been the moderator between me and Ursula, too.
Andi, who had betrayed me and now was as gone from the world as Hugh.
"I can't imagine the kind of grief you're feeling, Amelia, but you must think of the babe. Take care of yourself for your child's sake."
What in Glorianna's name was she talking about? I squinched my eyes open to glare at the lacy canopy and pulled my hand out of hers.
"I'm sick over Andi's betrayal and Hugh's murder, Ursula. I'm not pregnant. I realize it's not in your realm of expertise, but a woman needs a living man's member inside her to make a baby. It might have escaped your notice, but my husband is dead."
"I'm going to ignore that and write it off to you being out of your head. But you need to get a grip."
There was Ursula's usual impatience—and a shadow of hurt in those steel-gray eyes. I was on a roll today. Normally nothing pierced her heart.
"Hugh left only a month ago. You could easily be two or three months along. I realize it's not your realm, but I think you can do the math."
My ladies had discreetly retreated into the antechamber, giving us privacy to squabble, so I scooted my own self up to sit against the pink-satin-padded headboard. Ursula made no move to help me.
"You think I'm with child?"
She nodded. She'd cut her hair short for the campaign—all the better to fit under her helm. The ragged cut set off her sharp cheekbones. "More, Andi said you were. No, don't shake your head. This is one of the things Andi asked me to tell you." "I don't want to hear it. I hate her. I'll hate her forever!" "I don't care. Enough with the drama. Be your father's daughter and pull yourself together."
"I am, Ursula! I've held up for days and days and days. You have no idea how it is! But I stood there and let you lay my husband's body at my feet and I didn't break. Now you want me to listen to the words of the woman who killed him in cold blood?" The poison wanted to rise again, but I choked it down. I didn't want Ursula to see me sick again.
"It wasn't cold blood." Ursula's voice was the flat of a blade. "It was chaotic and frenzied and horrible. Impossibly fast and excruciatingly slow. If I could take back that moment, if any sacrifice I could make would change that dreadful sequence, I would in a heartbeat. We could have hidden the truth from you, but Andi wanted you to know she takes responsibility for it. Even if it means you hate her forever."
She let the silence hang between us, full of the weight of expectation. She'd learned the trick from our father and wielded the weapon with the same mastery. I'd never been able to bear it. I plucked at my gray skirts.
"Fine. Then tell me and have done."
Ursula held up her blue-veined hand and showed me three points, as if I were still the five-year-old to her fifteen and she was explaining the three goddesses. "First, she said that you were with child and that she will bear the mark of the Tala also."
"How could she possibly know that?" The question ripped out of me. "I'm still not sure it's true! Besides—why in Glorianna's name would she wish such an evil thing upon her niece? That thrice-cursed mark brought her only misery and destroyed her life."
Ursula shook her head, seeming to notice her cold hands for the first time, because she rubbed them vigorously together, then stood and paced to the fireplace, holding them out to the fire.
"She's not wishing—she simply said what she believed to be true. Andi has changed. Whatever she's gone through, she's ... more than what she was."
"How?" My throat felt raw. It bothered me how much I ached to know. I'd hated that she'd been forced to marry that demon spawn, hated that she'd done it to rescue me. I didn't want her to change. All I wanted was to go back and make it so none of this had ever happened.
Ursula gave me a wry look over her shoulder. "She's uncannily like our mother now."
"I wouldn't remember." Hard to recall much about a woman who died giving birth to you.
"I do." Ursula spoke softly to the flames. "And Andi has that about her now. Something witchy. I saw her do things ..." She shook it off. "Hugh thought he was lying when he told her you were with child. She didn't want to come with us and he believed that she would do that for you."
I scoffed at that, but she ignored me.
"Then, after he ... Afterwards, I told her it had been a lie and she got that look in her eye—you remember how she sometimes did? Like when we argued with Father that Hugh was for you and not for me. And she said, 'Pairing either of them with anyone else would be an exercise in futility. This is how it will be.'"
I remembered it word for word, just as Ursula did. Andi had always hung in the background, preferring to be invisible, but she'd stood before our father—who'd been so, so angry that my cursed face had distracted the match he'd planned for his heir—and told him what he wanted was futile. Nobody told High King Uorsin what he wanted was futile.
He'd been so angry with her.
He'd recognized her disloyalty to the kingdom and the family long before anyone else. Maybe he'd recognized her murderous heart when I had not.
"She was that way, only more so," Ursula continued, as if I'd replied. "More confident. She said your daughter would bear the mark and—"
"Whatever that means."
"Whatever that means," Ursula agreed, "and that you should send the girl to her. That your daughter will need what she can teach her."
"Is she out of her mind?" Ursula didn't answer me, so I scrabbled off the high bed in a tangle of skirts and grabbed her by the arm. Her metal-embedded leather sleeve was still icy wet from the gale outside. "Why in Glorianna's name would I trust Hugh's child with his murderer?"
Excerpted from The Tears of the Rose by JEFFE KENNEDY. Copyright © 2014 Jeffe Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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