“A sequel that outshines its already brilliant predecessor.” —Nadine Brandes, award-winning author of the Out of Time trilogy
What happens when happily ever after starts to unravel?
Eliyana Ember doesn’t believe in true love. Not anymore. After defeating her grandfather and saving the Second Reflection, El only trusts what’s right in front of her. The tangible. The real. Not some unexplained Kiss of Infinity she once shared with the ghost of a boy she’s trying to forget. She has more important things to worry about—like becoming queen of the Second Reflection, a role she is so not prepared to fill.
Now that the Verity is intertwined with her soul and Joshua’s finally by her side, El is ready to learn more about her mysterious birth land, the land she now rules. So why does she feel like something—or someone—is missing?
When the thresholds begin to drain and the Callings, those powerful magical gifts, begin to fail, El wonders if her link to Ky Rhyen may have something to do with it. For light and darkness cannot coexist. She needs answers before the Callings disappear altogether. Can El find a way to sever her connection to Ky and save the Reflections—and keep herself from falling for him in the process?
About the Author
Sara Ella is the award-winning author of the Unblemished series and Coral, the upcoming reimagining of The Little Mermaid. She spends her days throwing living room dance parties for her two princesses, raising her little prince to be a king, and conquering realms of her own imaginings with her swoony husband by her side. She may or may not be obsessed with #Bookstagram, which feeds her current addiction to bookish tea and candles. A lover of fairy tales, she believes “Happily Ever After is Never Far Away.” Connect with Sara online at SaraElla.com; Facebook: WritingHisTruth; Twitter: @SaraEllaWrites; Instagram: SaraEllaWrites; and YouTube: Sara Ella.
Read an Excerpt
The Unblemished Trilogy, Book II
By Sara Ella Larson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2017 Sara E. Larson
All rights reserved.
Gleam and Glow
Gasp. Ugh. Crud. Drat. Blerg. "Crowe!"
The Second Reflection curse spews from my mouth as I spring from the cushy armchair in the most deserted corner of the castle library. Books and journals fall from my lap and crash to the hardwood floor. My insides cringe. Mom would have a fit if she knew I abandoned a pile of precious tomes lying open-faced and underfoot. But the clock on the wall behind me warns I'm beyond late.
Of all the days to fall asleep studying. What a way to begin the first day of the rest of my life.
I hop on one foot and then the other in my classic dance to get my Converse on. I almost — but don't quite — trip over the book mound. Then I'm lifting the skirt of my now-wrinkled taffeta gown and sprinting from the library. No time to run to my suite and exchange my footwear for something more appropriate. At least I'm in my dress already. Thank the Verity it's too late to change into the shoes Mom selected. High heels, I'm convinced, are a creation of the Void and intended only to torture my poor unfortunate soles.
The white-walled halls are abandoned and my muted steps amp my anxiety. Is this what getting cold feet feels like? My face burns and then freezes. My ears ring and my chest just might explode. I need to get out more. All these late nights perusing tomes older than Beethoven's Fifth may be getting me closer to my goal, but the downside is I'm totally out of shape. The farther I run, the louder my heart pounds because — oh crud — everyone is already in the throne room.
Everyone except the guest of honor.
Everyone except me.
Why did the library have to be in a completely opposite wing?
One corner, then another, a long hall and two short ones. I pass frosted window after frosted window. When I veer closer to the panes, the faintest image of me stares back, the crimson mirrormark climbing up the right side of my face in vines of song and melody. My fingertips trace the notes, admiring the seal of my Calling I once found so repulsive. Then I peer past it, see through the glass to the Reflection beyond.
Something inside longs to escape these walls and bask in the freedom of snowball fights and sleigh rides. But not here, in this all-too-quiet place. No, the place I yearn for bustles with cab horns and — Wait. Did I make a wrong turn?
Ugh, some queen I'll turn out to be. I can't even focus long enough to navigate my way through my own castle. I miss the simplicity of my brownstone. Of New York's structured grid. Impossible to get lost. Familiar. Home.
And then I hear it. The low murmur that accompanies a crowd. A crowd waiting for me.
Stop. Deep breath. Straighten shoulders. Blink. Gulp. Act like the eighteen-year-old queen they expect and not the terrified little girl trembling within.
When I round the next corner at the hall's end, I'm there. The scent of roasted chestnuts draws me in. A few feet ahead, one of five tiers of balconies awaits. I'm on the lowest tier so I don't have far to go. I walk with as much regality as I can muster, all at once feeling like a fraud with my non-updoed hair and secret sneakers.
Once atop the grand staircase I pause. This is the part where everyone is supposed to gasp in awe at the beautiful Cinder girl about to descend the steps. And indeed, the guests do cease their chatter. Everyone stares. A chill that has nothing to do with the season wraps me. I twist the white gold engagement ring Joshua gave me around my finger as a jumble of doubts flurries through my brain.
But then a stirring takes residence inside me, like a warm blanket encompassing my entire being. In an instant I recognize it as the Verity. An unfathomable confidence that is beyond out of character.
I lift my fingertips, grazing the purple ends of my mocha hair — a tassel to show I stand with the Verity. I lower my hand, smile, and descend the staircase with all the poise of a prom queen.
Toe, heel, toe, heel.
Green has overtaken every arch and pillar, the space transformed into an enchanted wood. Fresh pine garlands deck the railings, and hundreds of tea lights gleam and glow on sills and ledges. All eyes attend me, but mine lock on two.
Even from across the throne room the sight of him sends my stomach butterflies into a frenzy. His strong jaw works, lifting his stubble-surrounded lips into a crooked smile. Barely twenty-one, but he holds so much wisdom behind his cerulean gaze. He combs his fingers through his dark hair, then folds his hands in front of him. Waiting for the only one in the entire room I know he sees.
The acoustic quartet to my left plays a Celtic waltz, and I find myself striding in time to the tempo. The familiar sound is oxygen to my soul. Tables crafted from tree stumps sprout beneath the high arched windows on either side of the throne room. Wreaths and moss encircle tea light–filled jars at the table centers. Pine boughs twist around the marble columns supporting the five tiers of balconies above. White globe lights blink at me from the balcony railings, perfectly in sync with the music's elegant tempo. Paper lanterns dangle in a zigzag fashion between tiers, their hearts beating with the light of the Maple Mine Fairies.
The Second Reflection residents watch as I glide toward the dais. Toward him. I tilt my head back and a gasp escapes. Even the artwork on the painted dome ceiling has been freshened, the broad strokes and swirling colors more vibrant than ever. The four-tiered chandelier sends beads of colored light in every direction. I think of my favorite line from Annie as I glide across the cherrywood floor, all polished and Chrysler Building shiny. Miss Hannigan would be so proud.
The scents of cinnamon and pinewood welcome me in, and I suddenly find myself aching for a cup of hot cider. I'll have to keep an eye out for Regina Reeves. She is in charge of the kitchen staff, after all. She's known Mom since she was a girl, and she acted as midwife when Mom was in labor, so Reggie (and I'm the only one who calls her that) has a soft spot for me. Though she bears no Calling, she refers to herself as my "fairy godmother" and insists my desire is her command. Even if cider isn't being served, she'll bring some if I ask.
When I reach the bottom dais step, Joshua David extends a hand. This is it. The moment I've waited for since I took on the Verity two months ago. I'm ready, but I'm also not. What if I can't do this? What if I can't —?
But then Joshua's broad hand covers my smallish one. And like the soothing of the Verity, his touch assures me everything is going to be just fine. His gaze holds mine as he lifts my hand and caresses my knuckles with his lips, brushing more than my skin with his not-so-innocent touch. The dark stubble on his upper lip scratches, but I don't mind. For an instant I forget everything but this. Each heartstring pluck, pluck, plucks. "More," they seem to sing.
This is right. This is real. I can do this.
Joshua winks and I release a breath I didn't know I was holding.
The quartet ceases as he guides me in a wide arc just as we rehearsed yesterday. The toe of my sneaker catches my dress hem. My eyes close and I prepare for the rrrriiiipppp that's sure to follow. But, as always, Joshua is one step ahead. Steadying me. Saving me from a royal faux pas.
When we're both facing forward, he releases my hand and I let it fall to my side. It takes everything in me to keep from clenching my sweaty palms into anxious fists. I think of what Mom always told me when I'd get nervous in a school play.
"Find me.Even if everyone in the audience is frowning, I'll give you the smile to keep you going."
It takes me all of two seconds to spot her, off to one side, Makai Archer's arms wrapped loosely around her growing belly. His gray-streaked charcoal hair is now long enough to gather into a ponytail. I shake my head, and a smile creeps to my cheeks. As a pair their contrast is undeniable. He's Bogart to her Bergman. An unlikely match, yet it's impossible to picture one without the other anymore.
Mom's brown eyes twinkle and the creases around her smile deepen. She offers an encouraging nod and I return the gesture. Inhale. Face the people once more.
"People of the Second," Joshua's voice booms. "On this, the twenty-fifth day of the First Month, I, Joshua David Henry, being of sound mind and valiant heart, do relinquish this here crown and bestow it upon the rightful ruler of the Second." Joshua removes the mirrorglass circlet at his temples. The same crown his father, King Aidan, wore before Jasyn Crowe took over. A diadem, I'm told, that would've weakened Jasyn had he tried to wear it. The reverse effect of mirrorglass would've counteracted the darkness within him. Put a cap on the Void's power like the Confine on an under-eighteen soul.
Add that to my list of things to research. Check.
When Joshua lifts the crown high in the air, the light filtering in through the windows reflects off of it, creating a prism effect and showering tiny rainbows throughout the throne room. Rainbows that remind me of the Verity's true form. Of the beauty and power residing inside.
This is it. It wasn't supposed to happen until spring. I was supposed to have two more months to prepare. But Joshua moved the date up, didn't see the need to wait. As the vessel of the Verity, I might as well be queen already. This is merely a formality.
I swallow. Clench my teeth.
"It is my honor to present to you the vessel of the Verity, the purest soul in this Reflection, Her Majesty, Queen Eliyana Olivia Ember. Long may she reign."
With exceptional care Joshua lowers the crown and places it upon my brow. The mirrorglass is cool on my forehead and I breathe in the finality of it. Something like a spark of electricity jolts my insides. The calm I felt just moments before dwindles, replaced by something dark and new. A hollow ache settling in my gut.
What in the Reflections is that?
I shake my head. It's just nerves. The Verity will soothe me again and I'll be fine. No second-guessing. Joshua has been interim king for two months, waiting patiently as I prepared for this day. But now it's my turn. I feel like Elsa of Arendelle, destined to be queen but terrified of the weight now resting on my narrow shoulders.
Am I good enough?
My gaze falls upon the people and I see them with new eyes.
These aren't just the people, they're my people. Only eighteen and I'm responsible for an entire Reflection? How can I do this? The sole thing that qualifies me is the Verity. I'm no queen. I'm nothing more than an average, blemished —
"May I have this dance, Your Majesty?"
Kuna Lauti's voice draws me from my internal storm. I blink twice and nod. As my insecurities reigned, the world around me shifted. The quartet now plays an up-tempo waltz, and couples glide around the throne room in time with the melody.
Kuna's broad grin spreads from ear to ear, his full lips stretching over whiter-than-usual teeth. He must've stopped chewing tobacco. Stormy never did cease pestering him about it. I can't help but smile in return. Like a big brother, my best friend's husband always has a way of bringing light to the darkest of moments.
For an instant I forget the Verity's sudden absence. Forget tomorrow and duty and what being queen means. I place my pasty hand in his coffee-colored one. "Why, it would be my honor, good sir."
He chuckles and his entire body quakes. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were nervous to dance with a good-looking gentleman such as myself."
The knots in my gut unfurl. I look past him and spy Stormy leaning against a nearby column. She rolls her eyes and shakes her head. We exchange a smirk in the way that's become so natural, I can't even remember a time when we weren't joined at the hip.
As we twirl, Kuna lifts me off my feet now and then, making me break into full-on laughter. The Samoan's moves are big and dramatic, forcing me into giggle fits. What was I so worried about? Jasyn Crowe is dead, as is his lackey Haman. My traitorous half sister Ebony is locked away in the dungeons. The lovely but vicious Troll Isabeau and her stooge Gage are nowhere to be found, good riddance. Mom is alive and well, pregnant as can be with her husband, Makai, at her side. The Soulless are no more. All is right with the Second. Even the Void is contained —
I stifle a gasp and squeeze my eyes. Drat. I promised myself I wouldn't think about that. Not until I have the answer I seek.
I crane my neck to peer out one of the arched windows. The sun is setting. I'll stay another hour, then slip away. There are more important things than coronation parties. I'm queen now. And as queen my first mission will be to do the one thing no Verity's vessel has ever done before.
Destroy the Void once and for all.CHAPTER 2
So much for only staying an hour. The sun has long since sunk into the horizon, and the guests have exchanged dancing for light conversation and sips of champagne. The quartet continues to play low in the background as I take a much-needed moment of solace. I slip off my shoes and shove them beneath the throne where I sit. Wiggle and flex my toes. Seriously, I am so glad I didn't wear heels. If my feet ache this much in flat Converse, what agony would I be in had I donned stilettos? I must've danced with every Guardian in the Second. If I have to do one more box step, I'll end up with blisters the size of Staten Island. #nojoke
Resisting the urge to swing my legs over the arm of the throne and fall asleep right here, I sit a little taller and scan the scene before me. The Second's residents are straight out of a Fairy tale, garbed in silk and taffeta, cravats and cummerbunds. Has it only been two months since these people were beggars and vagabonds? Rebels?
Joshua has done so much in such a short time to restore this Reflection to its previous state. How can I fill his shoes? Never thought I'd see Saul Preacher with a trimmed beard, minus a knit cap, plus a tux. It's quite a sight, especially considering he keeps tugging at his bow tie like it's an electric dog collar. He shoots me one of his classic glares. Guess being queen doesn't matter — some things never change.
My muscles tense and a seedling of fear sprouts. It's been hours since I felt the Verity stir. This has never happened. Could something be wrong?
I shift in my seat and move my focus to Robyn and Wren Song. They stand near the back of the room with their father, Wade, and mother, Lark. I owe a lot to this family. Wren rescued me from Haman. Robyn and Wade tended to my wounds. And Lark? She aided me when Gage tried to kidnap me. The woman offers a soft smile, the kindness behind her black and yellow eyes filling me with warmth.
Wren notices me and my insides freeze over. She glares, then flips her midnight blue–streaked hair over one shoulder.
Robyn follows her gaze. I smile and wave. Robyn does the same despite the elbow in the ribs Wren gives her.
My anxiety eases a smidge despite the Verity's silence. I make a mental note to invite Robyn for tea next week. Mom will be so proud.
When my attention rests on Joshua, he's already watching me. He winks from his perch at the bottom of the grand staircase.
I smile and my cheeks flame. He's been doing this a lot lately. Flirting. Wearing his heart on his sleeve. I'm still not quite used to it. After three years as "just friends," it feels a little odd to be so open about our feelings. And there's this other thing, too, this ping of doubt I get whenever he looks at me this way.
What if it isn't real?
What if his feelings are merely a result of our childhood connection — the bond created by the Verity? If we'd met under normal circumstances and he hadn't known his soul was linked to mine, would he have seen me as anything more than a naive teenage girl with a crush?
As if reading my mind, he makes his way toward me. It's like his goal these past months has been to prove his love. To prove his most recent Kiss of Infinity wasn't a product of something artificial. The weight riding on his coattails is undeniable. Whenever we're alone I sense it. In the way his brows pinch when I'm not as affectionate as he is. In the silence festering between us when I can't think of anything to say. I don't mean to be so insecure about us, but how can I not be? How will I ever truly know if his love for me is genuine, or if it's just a result of our intertwined past? Did he give me a Kiss of Infinity because he loves me, or does he love me because he gave me a Kiss of Infinity?
Excerpted from Unraveling by Sara Ella Larson. Copyright © 2017 Sara E. Larson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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