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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cara's Twelve by Chantel Seabrook ♥ Sale & GIVEAWAY ♥ (Historical Romance)

Raised in the backwater province of Crowthorne, Cara finds her fate bound to a system she despises and a goddess she no longer believes in. When it becomes clear that the heir to the Elbian throne has found disfavor in the eyes of the goddess Annul, Cara is ordained by blood and required by law to take her cousin's place as heir apparent.

One man from each of the twelve provinces are chosen by the royal council to pledge their lives and swords as champions and consorts of the future queen. From these men, Cara must choose the future king of Elbia. Before she is able to take her place on the throne, Cara and her Twelve must visit each province and perform a sacred ceremony, one that will make Cara question everything she thought was real.

Cara soon realizes that not all of the men who swore to protect her are what they seem, and there are those who would use her as a tool to gain power.

Chapter 1
Cara swallowed a scream. This isn't happening. This can't be happening.
“Caralynne, daughter of Elara.” The Royal Minister's dark gaze locked on her, holding her motionless. “You have been summoned by the High Priestess, in the name of the Goddess, to present yourself within a month's time to the royal court in the Holy City of Annul.”
Her knees weakened and her whole body went numb. Sweat trickled down her skin beneath her plain blue gown.
The Minister cleared his throat. “As a direct descendant of the Goddess Annul, you have been appointed by the High Priestess and the Queen's Council as the heir apparent, the future Queen of Elbia.”
The room exploded in noise. A chorus of murmurs and gasps of alarm.
She heard the Minister's words echoing in her mind, but still she refused to believe them.
The crown passed from mother to daughter. It was the blood of Annul that conferred royalty. Cara had no claim to the throne, other than the fact that her mother had been the current Queen's sister.
“Cara.” Lord Herron broke through the torrent of voices and addressed her.
“I don't understand.” Her hands shook as she spoke. “The Queen has an heir. My cousin Maeve.”
Herron sighed heavily. “Maeve has been suffering with an illness for some time. We knew there was a chance—”
“You knew?” Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper, her eyes wide in disbelief. Shaking her head, she looked to Herron's brothers, Reyn and Callion, two of her closest friends, and then to her father, hoping he would deny the accusation.
Callion's face burned a dull red, Reyn wouldn't meet her eyes, and the look of regret on her father's face nearly gutted her.
Cara stared at them, anger breaking through the shock.
Herron took a step towards her, his dark eyes grave with concern. “The Council tried to keep Maeve's illness a secret for as long as possible, in the hope that she would fully recover. It's believed she will live, but—”
“If my cousin still lives then why am I being summoned to the Holy City?”
Callion, Herron's youngest brother, came to stand beside her. He reached out and gripped her fingers. Her hand felt like ice beneath his. She wanted to pull away, but for the moment, she allowed his warmth and strength to steady her.
Herron frowned. “The royal physicians have declared Maeve barren. In the eyes of Annul, it prohibits her from inheriting the throne.”
Still struggling with disbelief, she shook her head. “This doesn't make sense. Maeve is Birkita's daughter. She should be queen, not me.”
The Minister coughed. “In the eyes of the Goddess Annul, you are now the Queen's true daughter. Her sole living heir.”
Her heart was beating out of control. Her mouth went dry, and it was difficult to breath. She had to get out of there.
“No.” She pulled her hand free of Callion's grip, and took a step backwards. Herron's face swam before her, muddled by a prism of tears, and Cara blinked until his face resolved itself. “My mother was Elara, and Crowthorne is my home. I don't care what the council says. I won't go.”
“You have no choice.” Herron's words echoed behind her as she fled from the hall.
* * *
Standing on the edge of the cliff overlooking the old trading harbor, a cry of frustration tore from her lips.
In a few days she would be forced to leave her home and travel to the City of Annul. Forced to spend the remainder of her life under the strict scrutiny of the court.
It isn't fair.
Her life was no longer her own, and she needed to get used to the fact that what she wanted didn't matter anymore.
Cara bit her lip hard and blinked back tears as she stared down at the crumbling frames and rotting beams that held the fading memories of a once happy life. She had let hope fool her into believing that happiness was attainable, but Cara only needed to look at the abandoned town below to remember that fate was rarely kind.
Taking a deep breath of the salty air, she shivered as the fingers of a cold gust of wind whipped around her.
The sound of a rider advancing quickly behind her made her turn. She wasn't surprised to see Callion riding furiously towards her.
Shorter than his two older brothers, what he lacked in height he made up in strength. All three men shared the same dark brown eyes and tawny skin of the Crowthornians, but while Herron and Reyn had more refined features, Callion had the appearance of a seasoned warrior.
With a frustrated sigh he dismounted, and secured his gelding to a wooden post, next to Cara's chestnut mare.
She was still angry with him, and by the expression on his face, he wasn't happy with her either.
“Your father thought I would find you here.” There was sliver of panic in his eyes as he noted the short distance she had placed between herself and the cliff's edge.
“Is he afraid I'll throw myself off the cliff?”
Callion's gaze hardened. “I'm sure it crossed his mind, considering the way you've been acting.”
She huffed in response and turned, staring blankly at the horizon.
“Damn it, Cara. Would you move away from there?”
She kicked the ground with the toe of her boot, causing pebbles to skitter over the edge and then took a small step backwards.
“I suppose it's as good a place as any to contemplate the unfairness of life.” His voice unsteady as he took a few tentative steps towards her and peered uneasily over the cliff's edge.
Cara nodded.
The memories that brought her to Port Town would no doubt stir his own. The same fever that took her mother's life thirteen years before had also taken the lives of both his parents.
Day and night, Cara had prayed to Annul, begged the goddess to heal the black crusted wounds that bubbled and oozed over her mother's body. Despite her petitions and the countless hours spent kneeling on the cold stone floors in front of the small altar in the Viceroy's estate, her mother died.
Pressing the heels of her palms to her eyes, she shook off the morbid memory.
“Go away, Callion. I don't want to talk to you.”
Their friendship made his deception hurt most. He knew the royal council was considering denouncing Maeve, knew what the consequences to her would be, and yet kept it from her.
Shadows shifted across Callion's face, but he remained silent. Watching. Waiting. She met his cool displeased eyes and glared at him.
I have done nothing wrong. I won't let him make me feel guilty for being angry.
Gritting her teeth, she folded her arms over her chest and looked away.
They stood like that for a long time, and each minute that passed caused Cara's irritation to mount further.
Stabbing her finger to his chest she burst out, “After everything we've been through together, you're going to stand there like you haven't done anything wrong? You lied to me!”
“I was trying to protect you,” he said, sounding genuinely hurt that she would believe otherwise. “Would it really have made any difference if you had known sooner?”
“I thought you were my friend.”
“I am your friend. The goddess knows I didn't mean to hurt you. The rumors were uncertain, and until we had any substantial information, no one thought—”
“No one thought! That was the problem, wasn't it! No one thought. No one thought about me ormy feelings, or my right to know!”
“We were trying to protect you.”
Cara looked at him and saw the sincerity in his eyes. Conscience pricked at her, and she let out an exasperated breath. “I know that.”
“Then don't waste our last days together fighting or being angry over something you can't change.”
“It's just so unfair.” Tears formed, but she blinked them away. “I have more in common with the Queen's stable boy than I have with Maeve, and yet they expect me to take her place?”
He took a tentative step towards her and reached for her hand, entwining his strong fingers with hers.
He looked tired. There were shadowed circles beneath his dark eyes and his thick brown hair was more unkempt than ever.
“Look around. Crowthorne is in ruins. It isn't just Port Town that has been decimated. The entire province is collapsing under the Queen's taxes, and it's only getting worse. Crowthorne isn't the only province suffering. Loewik is in a worse state than we are. You've heard the reports that Viceroy of Northlew's assets are completely depleted. How much longer until our own resources are gone? There are rumors of rebellion and riots all over the kingdom.” He tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “You have the chance to change that. To make a difference.”
Cara shook her head. She would never possess that kind of power.
“I know nothing of the ways of court and even less of being queen. What can I possibly do?”
“You'll learn. You heard what the Minister said. The High Priestess has declared that you're Annul's chosen. The goddess will guide you—”
“Do you really believe that?” she asked, her voice starting to sound shrill even to her own ears. “It's a game, and I'm just a pawn. The Council declared I am Annul's chosen. Why? It doesn't matter to them what's true. They'll use people's simple-minded faith to manipulate them into believing whatever they want them to believe.”
“You don't know that.”
She laughed miserably, knowing that despite what Callion believed, she was and always would be powerless. A victim of fate. “You know if I could change the way things are, I would. I would give up my life to save Crowthorne, but you can't be that foolish to think I'll ever have any influence there. I'm nothing to them.”
“Birkita and Maeve are your family—“
“Family?” Cara snarled, pulling away from him. They were as allusive to her as Annul. She had never been part of their world and she never wanted to be. “No, you're my family. Not them. Curse the Queen and her goddess. I don't want any part of either of them.”
Callion looked at her sternly. “Be careful who you curse. What good will it do to hate them? You judge them before you know their motives.”
She scowled. “Whose side are you on?”
“Yours.” His gaze narrowed on her. “Always yours. But before you judge too harshly, remember that you're not alone in this. Like you, your cousin has taken a brutal blow. She's lost her title and throne, and in the eyes of her people, she's lost the favor of the goddess.”
“A fairy tale,” Cara said, exasperated. “She's lost the favor of an imaginary—”
Callion raised his hand to stop her. “You may not believe in Annul, but that doesn't mean she isn't real for those who do.”
Cara rolled her eyes. “So I'm to suffer because others choose to believe in balderdash and hogwash.”
He raked a hand through his hair and blew out an uneven breath. “Believe what you wish, but don't let fear turn your heart cold. Whether you like it or not, your fate has been decided, and you will be the next Queen of Elbia. Sulking and stomping your feet like a child won't change that. You have a choice now.”
“I have no choices. You heard what Herron said.”
“You have a choice of what kind of queen you will be.”
Cara took a deep breath to calm her emotions.
They stood in silence for a long time, staring at the crumbling buildings below.
“See there,” Callion said, placing his arm around her shoulder and pointing towards the southern pier. “When we were kids, there was a bakery at the south end of Main Street. Do you remember?”
Cara shook her head.
“The owner was a mean old thing, but she made the best sugar buns you ever tasted. When I was about eight, Father brought us into town. He allowed Herron to take Reyn and me to the southern pier while he tended to some business. Herron gave the coins father had given us for sweets to some beggars he found along the docks.”
“Sounds like something Herron would do.”
“Reyn was furious. I wasn't happy about it myself, and I allowed him to convince me to trade the gold pendant Father had given me for my birthday for a dozen sticky buns.”
“You didn't?” Cara's eyes widened, knowing the cost of such a piece.
Callion nodded, picked up a rock and tossed it over the cliff. “Reyn and I sat on the edge of the pier and ate the entire batch. When we got home, Father called Reyn and me into the dining hall. He sat us down at the table, and to our horror, had the servants bring in trays piled high with sweets. Two dozen sticky buns for each of us.” Callion laughed. “He made us eat every one. When we were finished, our belly's aching, he placed the pendant on the table in front of me. He didn't beat us, although we probably deserved it.”
“I can't believe I've never heard that story.”
“We were mortified at being caught. I think both of us would have taken a beating over seeing the disappointment in our father's eyes. Memories are a funny thing. I can barely remember his face or the sound of his voice, but I can remember every word he said to me that day.”
Placing his thumb under her chin, he forced her to look at him. There was tenderness and acceptance in his gaze. No one had ever looked at her the way Callion did, and if she could stay there in that moment, she would.
How was she supposed to leave him? The very thought of being without him made her stomach coil.
After a few moments, he sighed. “When he gave me the pendant back, he said, 'a man who controls his appetite controls his future. Be careful that you don't throw away tomorrow's salvation for today's indulgences.' I didn't really understand what he meant until now.”
Callion placed his forehead against hers and closed his eyes. The warmth of his breath caressed her lips. She struggled against the desire to just once place her mouth against his.
“Callion,” she whispered, her voice shaky.
Gently, he traced his thumb over her lips. “You are tomorrow's salvation.”
“I'm not—”
He shook his head. “You belong to Elbia now.”
Closing her eyes, Cara wanted to fight the truth of his words, but she knew he was right.
She would be Queen.
My life is no longer my own.
Wrapping her arms around his waist, she buried her face in his chest. “I'll miss you.”
“I'll miss you too,” he said, holding her close. “But you'll have Reyn with you. If you need anything, he will be there for you.”
The Queen's Council had chosen Reyn the previous year, as the Crowthornian champion and consort. It was an honored position to be named as one of the sacred Twelve, and she had celebrated with him when he had first learned of his new title.
She loved Reyn as a brother, but he wasn't Callion. “I wish it were you that was chosen for the Twelve.”
“If it were my choice, I would be, but there are some choices—”
“That aren't our own. I know.” She frowned and saw her own loss mirrored in his eyes.
She didn't argue as he released her. What good would it do to contemplate what they could not have?
He nodded and turned, making his way back towards the horses.
For a brief moment, she glanced back at the harbor. A salty breeze blew in her face, tugging at her hair.
Cara, Cara, Cara. Daughter, do not be afraid.
She froze as she heard the words whispered in the moaning of the wind. The sun was warm but she felt an icy chill seep through her.
I am with you. Always.
Cara cast a swift look around.
They were alone on the cliff.
Her mind was playing tricks on her. She was exhausted, hungry, and emotionally drained.
“Are you all right?” Callion asked, handing her the reins. “You look like you've just seen a ghost.”
“I'm just tired,” she said, her voice not quite steady.
Following Callion's lead, she urged her horse into a canter and never looked back.
Chapter 2
“But, Mother—”
“Not another word.” Birkita raised her hand to cut off Maeve's protest. Anger burned in her green eyes. Lips tight, jaw set, her voice was dangerously soft as she spoke. “You will do as I say. You are my daughter, and I will not allow my sister's bastard to usurp your position. You will stay with her. Gain her trust. It will be your words she speaks, and when she bears a daughter, you will be its mother.”
Maeve's eyes widened in alarm. “You can't be serious?”
“You are my heir. I will not allow some hackneyed Crowthornian brat to come here and ruin everything I've spent my life working for.”
Pushing her chair back, Birkita stood and moved towards the window that overlooked the royal gardens.
Maeve's skin prickled as she watched her mother apprehensively. Whatever evil the woman had contrived, Maeve knew it did not bode well for her cousin.
Poor girl. She has no idea the dangers that await her here.
The storm of Birkita's displeasure raged around her, and it was all Maeve could do not to draw back in fear as her mother once again turned her fierce gaze upon her.
“A messenger arrived this morning. The girl will be here within a week's time. You will have a month to befriend her before the dedication ceremony. She will be alone, scared, and in a strange place. It shouldn't be difficult, even for you, to gain her trust.” The Queen's smile was vicious. “Where she goes you will go. You will teach her the ways of the court, and when Twelve are dedicated at the month's end, you will stand with her on Annul's altar, and they will see your face when they swear their allegiance to the goddess, throne, and country.”
Maeve gapped. “The council will never allow it—”
“The council will do as I say.” Her mother's shrill voice made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
Maeve had no doubt that her mother could persuade the council to do just about anything, but what she proposed went against the basic principles of their faith.
Waves of fear washed over her. To do what her mother suggested wasn't just morally wrong, it was blasphemy.
Maeve bit the inside of her cheek, and tasted blood. It was a small discomfort compared to what she would face if she dared speak against her mother's plans, but even so, she couldn't stop herself from shaking her head.
“Do you question me?”
Anger, repulsion, bitterness: she saw all these things in her mother's expression. Her mouth went dry and her body tensed. Braced for scorn Maeve whispered, “No mother.”
Birkita considered her coldly before she continued. “The girl has been reared under the same roof as the consort of Crowthorne. Most likely part of her father's scheme from the beginning to place the crown on a Crow's head. You will sway her attentions away from him and towards your cousin Edmund of Hellstrom.”
“Edmund?” Maeve grimaced. Edmund was a cruel choice. While he was as handsome as any nobleman in the kingdom, his reputation for immorality and malfeasance was well known throughout Elbia.
Birkita's eyes flashed in annoyance. “It is imperative that she choose him. His connection as your father's nephew will enhance your status once the throne is yours.”
Maeve balled her hands into fists to stop them from shaking. “Forgive me mother, but I don't understand.” Fearful that she understood her meaning all too well.
“With your persuasion she will choose Edmund as her husband. Once the little wretch bears him a daughter, she will be put away and you and Edmund will be wed. The child by legal rights will be queen, but you will act as regent until the child is of age. With your lineage and the former King Consort's nephew as your husband, no one will question your rights to the throne.”
Maeve gaped at her as she processed the depravity of her mother's plan. Icy cold dread rushed through her body. “You would kill your own niece?”
Birkita moved so fast that Maeve barely had time to prepare for the blow. She tried not to stumble, but her mother's strength doubled her own, and she fell hard. Her vision clouded and the metallic taste of blood filled her mouth.
Birkita grabbed her hair and twisted until Maeve could do nothing but stare up at her. “Wretched, ungrateful little brat,” Birkita spat, pinching Maeve's face hard with her free hand. “You dare question me? Do you think you're not as disposable as she is?”
Maeve wouldn't give her the satisfaction of crying out. Instead she gazed stoically at the woman whose only kind deed to her had been to give her life. Even in that kindness there were days, like today, when her life felt more like a punishment than a blessing.
When the physicians declared Maeve barren, she had been relieved. For the first time in her life she was hopeful. She would finally be released from the bondage of her mother's vile puppeteering.
Now she knew the truth.
She would never be free.
“Forgive me, Mother.”
The Queen's moods blew hot and cold, and as quickly as her temper had ignited, the woman's feverish expression softened. Maeve tried not to flinch as her mother's claw-like grip turned to a caress.
“Everything I do, I do for you, and the future of Elbia. You understand why it has to be this way?”
Grinding her teeth, Maeve wanted to curse at her. Fear held her tongue, and all she could do was nod sullenly in agreement.
“That's my girl.” Birkita released her and stood up abruptly. “Guards.” The door opened and footsteps approached. “The princess has had one of her spells. Call the physician to see to her, and make sure she doesn't leave her chambers without my consent.”
With her head still throbbing, Maeve groaned as strong male hands gently lifted her and carried her through the halls of the castle.
She breathed a sigh of relief the minute the door of her bedroom was sealed shut, and she was finally alone.
Like everything else in her life, she would suffer this in silence.
* * *
After weeks of travelling across the Crowthornian border, and through the provinces of Meall and Lydd, Cara ached terribly, her muscles spindly from the absence of use.
A few days into their journey, Cara begged the Minister to allow her to saddle a horse and ride alongside her escorts, but he berated her for the suggestion. He also refused to allow Reyn to ride in her carriage, insisting that he ride in his own coach or by horseback. The man was vexing with his pompous demeanor and copious rules.
Stiff, sore, and beyond bored, she despaired that they would never reach their destination.
When the Minister rode next to her carriage and announced that they had finally entered the borders of the Holy City, Cara breathed a sigh of relief, and for a moment she almost forgot her resentment.
The Minister tried to explain the simple logistics of how the Queen's palace, Temple of Annul, and city functioned. “Unlike the twelve surrounding provinces which are abundant in land and contain many villages and towns, the City of Annul is a singular entity in the heart of Elbia. Without land or resources, it relies solely on the provincial tariffs levied by the Queen to support itself.”
“So the Queen is subject to the provinces?” Cara stated, baffled by the absurdity of the system. “Without their taxes the Holy City would cease to exist!”
“By the grace of Annul, pray that never happens,” the Minister muttered, narrowing his eyes. “It is a thin thread that holds the twelve provinces together. The tariffs are a small price to pay for peace.”
“Says the man who eats from the table of those who starve,” Cara mumbled, crossing her arms over her chest.
The Minister shook his head and stared down his nose at her. “So says the child who has never experienced war.”
Cara shrugged and looked away.
The sun was setting as their caravan rode through the gates of the city. If she wasn't so exhausted, she would have been overwhelmed by the enormity of it, but all she could think of was a hot bath, soft bed and a jigger of the Crowthornian liquor she knew Reyn kept stowed in his haversack.
The door of her carriage opened, and a silver-haired footman held out a gloved hand for her.
Exhaling deeply, she pushed a dark strand of hair behind her ears and prayed that her legs wouldn't give out on her.
“Welcome, my lady,” he said, in the same polished accent of the Minister.
As her feet hit solid ground, Cara froze. She wasn't sure what she expected, but not once had she imagined she would be unceremoniously deposited on the steps of the servant's quarters.
The rest of her caravan was nowhere to be seen.
Cara let out a deep breath and waited for her heart to slow.
“Wynnafor will show you to your chambers, my lady,” the man said politely, nodding towards a middle-aged woman who waited expectantly at the doorway.
“Where is Lord Reyn of Crowthorne and the rest of my caravan?” Cara demanded, her tone icy.
“He will be received in the great hall, along with the other nobles that have recently arrived from the provinces.” Clearing his throat, he gave her an apologetic smile. “The Lord Minister thought it best that you be taken to your chambers, my lady. To give you time to relax and recover from your journey.”
“How thoughtful of him,” she muttered derisively.
“I will have your trunks brought to your quarters. Wynnafor will make sure all your needs are provided.”
Too exhausted to argue, Cara nodded sullenly at the man and turned to follow the severe looking woman through the servants' corridors.
Cara sighed audibly when she saw the large feather bed with plush pillows and silk sheets that predominated the room. Wanting nothing more than to sleep for a week straight, she had to stop herself from running and jumping straight beneath the richly embroidered sheets.
Wynnafor cleared her throat loudly, “Perhaps my lady would care for a bath before she retires for the evening?”
The woman looked so relieved when she nodded her assent that Cara almost laughed out loud. In her exhaustion and gratitude for an actual bed, she had forgotten about her own filth. “Thank you, Wynnafor. I would greatly appreciate your service in the matter.”
“I will have a tub filled immediately.”
An hour later, she was fed, bathed, and exhausted. Dressed in a clean white bed gown and smelling of the sweetest summer lilies, Cara gratefully laid her heavy head on the soft goose feather pillows. Wynnafor had proved to be full of resources, and to Cara's gratitude, had brought her a rich cream-based soup and an assortment of cheeses and breads. When the bath and food had been removed, Wynnafor left her final courtesy—a large, silver goblet filled with a spicy red wine that Cara had drained swiftly and without apology.
For the first time since she had met him, Cara was actually grateful for the Minister's ordinances.
Sinking deep into the soft cushions, Cara wrapped the sheets around her shoulders and closed her eyes. She had no idea what tomorrow would bring, but at least for this night she would enjoy the luxuries that the palace provided.
* * *
Cara awoke to Wynnafor's apologetic voice. “Her Majesty and the royal princess have requested an audience, my lady.”
Pulling the sheets over her head, she moaned, “When?”
“Right now, my lady. They're waiting outside your chambers.”
She cursed under her breath and threw back the sheets. She cringed as Wynnafor pulled the heavy drapes away from the windows and allowed the early morning sun to light up the room.
Her trunks had been brought to her chambers the night before, but she hadn't had the opportunity to organize them. “Wynnafor, help me sort through these trunks to find a suitable dress.”
“Forgive me, miss, but the Queen isn't to be left waiting. She has requested to see you now.”
Cara sighed. Of course she wouldn't wait. She wanted to curse the maid for not waking her sooner.
“Send her in then,” she said, throwing her arms up in defeat. What better way to make a first impression then in her bedclothes.
Wynnafor nodded and opened the door.
Cara inhaled sharply as the two women entered. If she didn't know better, she would have sworn that it was her mother who stood before her now. Cara had been young when the plague took her, and the memory of her face was distorted, but as she looked fixedly at the Queen, Cara was overwhelmed by the similarities. They had the same coloring, the same delicate features, and the same jade green eyes. Traits that Cara hadn't inherited.
Forgotten memories of her mother came unbidden as she stared at her aunt and cousin. Even the princess shared many of her mother's features. Both women were tall and delicately built, with dark red hair and perfect unblemished skin, except for a fading bruise that marred her cousin's left cheek. Their features contrasted with her own dull brown hair, dark eyes, and tawny skin.
Her mother had never looked at her the way these women were now. The Queen glared at her with such open disdain that it made Cara want to crawl back under the covers and disappear.
“Welcome to our home, Caralynne,” the Queen stated stoically.
“Thank you, your majesty.”
The Queen raked her with a derisive look. “You favor your father in appearance.”
“I do.”
“Pity. Your mother was a beautiful woman.”
She heard Maeve gasp at her mother's comment. Cara smiled in reply and refused to let the woman's cruelty get under her skin. She certainly hadn't expected a warm welcome and was prepared for their scorn.
“We hope you will be happy here,” Maeve intoned, breaking the strained silence.
Sure she did, Cara thought.
“I have assigned Maeve to help you adjust here. Her chambers are next to yours, and she will gladly be at your service should you need anything. She will come to your chambers daily to tutor you on your duties and responsibilities.” Cara glanced at her cousin, who looked as excited about the idea as she was. “She will also travel with you on your tour of the provinces. The consecration ceremony will be held as customary on the summer solstice. You will remain in seclusion until then.”
Cara shifted uncomfortably. The summer solstice was a little over a month away. “I was hoping to visit briefly with Reyn of Crowthorne. He is a friend of mine and—”
“There will be no contact with any of the consorts until after the dedication.” The Queen's voice was cold and her lip curled in distaste. “I will leave you and Maeve to get acquainted.”
She turned to leave and then stopped at the door and smiled icily. “I believe the two of you will become close friends, just as your mother and I were.”
An awkward silence followed the Queen's departure.
Maeve fidgeted and looked uncomfortable. “Would you like me to help you sort through your trunks?”
“I can do it myself.” Her tone was sharper then she meant it to be, and she saw the girl flinch. “What did she mean about touring the provinces?”
Maeve tilted her head and studied her. “It's tradition that after the dedication ceremony the heir apparent and her newly appointed Twelve travel to each of the capital cities throughout the provinces.”
“But that would take forever,” Cara said, flabbergasted at the idea of spending more time confined in a carriage.
“It takes about two years.”
“Two years!”
Maeve smiled. “It's important that each province is represented fully, and each consort be given the opportunity to impress himself on the heir. They must feel that they have been carefully considered as the future king. Once the tour is over, you will return to the palace, and name your chosen consort. The nuptials will be read on the second summer solstice proceeding the dedication of the Twelve. After the ceremony, the Queen will abnegate the crown, and there will be a public inauguration at the temple of Annul where you and your chosen consort will be crowned. Did the Minister not go through all of this with you on your journey here?”
Cara shook her head. Most of what she knew about the palace affairs came from her father. “You could say that the Minister and I have a strained relationship. I believe he found me almost as insufferable as I did him,” she said sheepishly. Cara blanched as a thought crossed her mind. “Will your mother be joining us, on the tour?”
“No. She has her duties here to attend to.”
“Well thank the goddess for that blessing.”
Maeve burst out laughing.
“Sorry. I shouldn't speak of her like that.”
“To tell you the truth, I am more than happy to have the interlude myself. She can be particularly demanding at times.”
Cara smiled and assessed the young woman. She appeared to lack the maliciousness and pomposity that dominated her mother's presence, and she thought that in any other situation they would have become friends easily. As she looked more closely at the girl, she saw the evidence of her long drawn-out illness. She was painfully thin, her skin appeared almost transparent, and her eyes were clouded, lacking the vibrancy of her youth.
“I hope you don't take offense to my asking, but are you well enough to travel?”
“The Queen's physician says that I am.”
Cara saw the apprehension in Maeve's eyes. “Sorry, I shouldn't have asked.”
“No, I'm thankful for your concern.” She crossed the room and sat on the edge of the unkempt bed. “It's been so long that sometimes I feel like the illness is so much a part of me that people see nothing else.”
“I felt similar when my mother died. For a long time it seemed like my identity was tied to her death. It's strange.”
Maeve nodded. “I was sixteen when they first thought something was wrong. Intense headaches made me extremely nauseous, and my vision started failing. At first they thought that I was faking being ill, because they couldn't find anything physically wrong with me, but other than that I was not maturing the way a sixteen-year-old girl should.”
Cara walked over and sat on the edge of the bed beside her cousin.
“They tried herbal remedies, bleedings, and a mass of other treatments, but nothing would bring forth my monthly cycles. When I had my first convulsive fit, the physicians swore that I was cursed by the goddess.” Maeve shrugged, “Perhaps I am.”
Cara shook her head at that notion. “Is that how you got the bruise on your cheek?”
Maeve smiled sadly, gently touched the ugly green and yellow bruise, and didn't answer.
They sat in silence for a long time. Finally, Cara turned and gently took her cousin's fragile hand in her own.
“I want you to know that I didn't want this. I was happy with my life, and I never imagined that I would ever be here. I know you don't want my pity, and I promise you will never have it. But you must know that I am grieved by your loss, and if there was any way to give you back your title, I would do it.”
Maeve stared at her, an array of emotions flittering across her face. A single tear fell down her cheek as she squeezed Cara's hand. “And I promise you, sweet cousin, that I will do everything in my power to make sure that never happens.”
Chapter 3
“You look beautiful.” Maeve squealed in delight as she entered the room. “The goddess herself will be jealous.”
Cara rolled her eyes at her cousin's enthusiasm. She had been sitting for hours, while Wynnafor had fussed over her.
The weeks leading up to the summer solstice had passed quickly with Maeve as company, and tonight she would finally be released from the Queen's sequester. Cara wasn't sure how she felt about it. She had enjoyed her time with her cousin, and they had grown close during her daily visits. But now she would be forced to interact with the strangers who lived within the palace walls.
Maeve had helped Cara prepare for today's ceremony, and her upcoming tour of the kingdom. The memorization of vows, names, and proper protocol had proven taxing, and she was grateful that her cousin would be with her every step of the way.
Wynnafor wove the last pearl into Cara's hair and handed her a bronze mirror. She gasped at her reflection. Her hair hung loosely in perfect waves down her back, and a crown of pearls had been meticulously braided through the dark tresses.
“It's perfect,” Cara said, which earned her one of Wynnafor's rare smiles.
“Oh Cara, you truly are the most lovely thing I've ever seen,” Maeve said.
Cara smiled and appraised her cousin's attire. “Thank you, but I fear that I will be shadowed by your own beauty. You look stunning.”
Maeve grimaced and began to fidget, biting on her knuckles, which were often chafed and painfully red. Cara had learned through observation that it was a habit Maeve had whenever she felt reprimanded. During their time together Maeve had grown more confident in Cara's presence, but there were still moments like these, when she worried over her cousin's timidity.
“It was a compliment Maeve, not a rebuke. Don't look so despondent.”
“The Queen had the dress made for me,” she fretted, biting her lip. “I didn't want to wear it.”
Now that Cara looked more closely, she noticed that Maeve's dress was very similar to her own which had been made especially for tonight's ceremony. Both dresses were cut from the same white and ivory silk, and elaborately embroidered with pearls. Cara frowned as she realized that Maeve wore a ceremonial garment that transcended her own.
Cara shook off the uneasy feeling. Maeve had proven to be a good friend, and Cara knew there was no deceit in her. She wasn't sure what the Queen was up to, but she was certain that Maeve had no part in it.
Cara smiled and tried to relieve Maeve's anxiety. “You could be wearing a burlap bag and you would still shine brighter than me.”
Maeve's mood remained melancholy as they rode together through the streets of Annul towards the temple. Cara tried to suppress her unease as she watched her cousin stare gloomily out the carriage window.
“It's all right to be angry with me. I'm not sure how I would feel if our roles were reversed,” Cara said.
“Angry?” Maeve echoed, mouth agape. “At you? Why on earth would I have any reason to be angry with you?
“What reason don't you have? This should be your day. It's not fair. You know that I wish that I could change things.”
Maeve shook her head. “I have come to terms with my fate, and I am absolutely certain that the goddess has chosen you wisely. When you stand on the altar tonight, I will pledge my loyalty alongside the Twelve to serve and protect you always. Please Cara, trust me when I tell you that there is only friendship and good will between us.”
Cara sat in the carriage and looked at her cousin in confusion. “Then tell me what is upsetting you?”
Maeve smiled, but the sadness and fear remained heavily painted on her face.
“Forgive me,” Maeve said, as she leaned forward to grip Cara's hand. “I'm feeling in poor health today. It's nothing to worry about.”
Cara could tell it was a lie, but she wouldn't push Maeve any further; it would only cause her to retreat into herself.
“Do you think they are already there?” Cara asked, changing the subject.
“Who? The provincial consorts?” Maeve asked, and Cara nodded. “They would have held vigil in the Temple during the night. They will be waiting in earnest, and they will not be disappointed when they finally lay eyes on you.”
“I hope you're right,” Cara sighed. “But I fear I am a poor substitution for you.”
“I am fragile compared to your strength and goodness. I have no doubt that they will fall madly in love with you the moment they see you.” Cara huffed at Maeve's romanticizing. “And I have no doubt that all of Elbia will follow suit.”
Cara shook her head in denial. Maeve had so much faith in her, and she was fearful that she wouldn't live up to her cousin's expectations.
The entire process terrified Cara. The romantic tales of passion and rapture that Maeve had told her about past queens and their consorts had done little to quiet her nerves. She had never considered herself romantic by nature, and the thought of having twelve men vying for her affections was overwhelming.
Since she had been isolated in her room over the past month, she had begged Maeve to be her eyes and ears. Her cousin had spent her evenings in the company of the Twelve and the nobles that had come to witness the ceremony. Every night Maeve would return and tell her about the men and their different mannerisms and customs. She had described each one with such detail that Cara was sure she would easily be able to identify them.
She had laughed out loud when Maeve had described Reyn as frustratingly kind and annoyingly loyal. It was a family trait that he shared with his brothers. Although Maeve had been shy to tell her, Cara had been delighted to hear that the two of them had become friends.
Cara missed Callion terribly, and her isolation had only intensified those feelings. Despite the Queen's warning that she was to have no contact with any of the men, Maeve had offered to relay messages between herself and Reyn. It was only through these small graces that Cara hadn't felt completely detached from the world outside her chamber walls.
“Did you see Reyn yesterday? Before he left for the Temple,” Cara asked.
Maeve smiled at the mention of his name. “Only briefly. He wanted me to tell you how proud he and his brothers are of you, and that your father sends his love.”
Cara smiled sadly as a wave of sorrow washed over her. She had known that her father, Herron, and Callion would not be able to make the ceremony. Resources were tight, and they couldn't afford to make the trip without sacrificing more basic needs. Still, she selfishly would have given anything to have them there.
Cara tightened her grip on Maeve's hand. She missed her family terribly, but it was enough to know that Maeve would be with her.
* * *
At the temple of Annul, Cara waited with Maeve in the priestess' quarters. While only patricians were allowed within the Temple to witness the ceremony, the temple grounds and streets were crowded with those who had hoped to get a glimpse of their future queen.
An older priestess, wearing the blood red robes and shaved head of her order, entered the chambers and announced, “The time has come. The goddess awaits you.”
“I'm terrified,” Cara admitted, grasping both of Maeve's hands tightly.
Maeve pulled Cara into a quick embrace and whispered in her ear, “You will be magnificent. I am proud to call you cousin, and even prouder to one day call you my queen.”
“Thank you,” Cara said, leaning her forehead against Maeve's. “For everything.”
“Go.” Maeve gave her a little shove. “I will follow in a moment and we will celebrate tonight.”
Cara took a deep breath, nodded, and followed the priestess through the chamber door.
Maeve held back and waited for the inevitable. For just this one day she would be brave. For Cara she would battle the storm she knew was coming. She would stand her ground no matter what the punishment.
“What are you doing here?” Her mother hissed behind her.
Maeve cringed and turned to confront the Queen's hostility. “Mother.”
“Answer my question.” There was fire in the woman's eyes. ”Why are you not with the girl?”
Maeve took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I won't do it. I won't be part of your plot. Cara is good and kind and she will be an exceptional queen.” Maeve stood tall and stared boldly at her mother. “I won't let you or anyone hurt her.”
The Queen's face turned crimson, but she didn't strike out as Maeve assumed she would.
“So the little mouse has found her voice.” She scowled, and began to circle Maeve slowly. Her eyes were feverish with rage. “You would deny your own mother? For what? The friendship of a worthless Crow bastard. I offer you the kingdom. A husband and child. What does she offer you? What can she possibly give you compared to what I was willing to provide?”
The unexpected response was far from comforting. Maeve had prepared for a physical and mental beating, not questions. Her resolve faltered slightly, but she held her tongue.
The sound that came from the Queen's throat was feral. “And tell me little mouse, how do youplan to stop me?”
“I don't have to stop you, mother. You have already buried yourself in your own wickedness. When the people of Elbia see Cara for who she truly is, there is not one man or woman who will stand behind you over her.”
The Queen struck quickly, grabbing her hair at the base of her neck and pulling Maeve down to her knees. “Wretched little brat. I should have drowned you as I did the others. You will regret defying me.”
Maeve stared at her in shocked silence. The others? There had been rumors, but Maeve hadn't believed her mother could be so heartless. What could she possibly benefit from the death of her own children? It hit her hard as she realized that it had been her crown she was protecting. She had committed infanticide merely to reign longer. Without an heir, she would remain queen.
She looked at her mother in horror.
“Monster,” Maeve hissed.
She gasped as her mother's fingers tightened around her throat.
Maeve wheezed and fought for breath. “Kill me then. Get it over with,” she choked.
“Do you think I would be that easy on you?”
Maeve was thrust to the floor, and she inhaled sharply as she tried to catch her breath.
“Guards.” Two of her mother's men entered the room. “The princess is ill. Take her to the infirmary. Tell the physician that he has my consent to commence with the new treatments he recommended. It is time we rid the princess of her demons once and for all.”
Maeve paled and her legs went weak beneath her as the guards lifted her to her feet. She knew that her mother had just sentenced her to weeks, if not months, of excruciating torture.
“Thank you, mother,” Maeve fought back the tears that threatened to choke her. “You have reminded me why my loyalty lies with a Crow over the beast who calls herself my mother.”
“Get her out of my sight.”
Despite the agony she knew was coming, for the first time in her life Maeve felt free. She would endure the torment knowing that it had been her choice.
* * *
Cara couldn't breathe as she waited in the shadows for the High Priestess to call her forward. The ceremony had commenced some time before, and yet there was no sign of Maeve. She couldn't imagine what kept her, but she had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. Maeve wouldn't have abandoned her without reason.
Cara's blood pounded in her ears, and she could barely make out the High Priestess' words.
Damn it, Maeve, where are you?
Two young girls, both dressed in the white cloak of a novice, stood on opposite sides of Cara. Like the older priestess, their hair had been shaved, and thick black coal outlined their eyes. Both girls held an object tented in a white shroud, and waited patiently for their cue.
The older priestess in red stood in front of her and placed her hands on either side of Cara's shoulders. She spoke in hushed tones, “May your path honor Annul, and your life magnify her grace. Be filled this day, as the spirit of the holy mother claims your kinship.”
Cara nodded solemnly. Annul was so much more than myth and legend to these people. Maeve had shown her that for those who followed her doctrines, she was the very breath of life. Still, Cara couldn't allow herself to believe, but she also wouldn't deny them their faith, and that meant participating fully in the ceremony without the appearance of skepticism.
The woman handed her a small cup filled with an amber liquid. Cara drank it quickly and cringed at the bitter aftertaste.
Cara heard the dreaded words of the High Priestess that summoned her to the marble dais, the raised platform where the statue of Annul stood and the sacrificial flames burned. Taking a deep breath, she straightened her spine, and followed the two novices. As she turned the corner, she heard the audible gasps and murmurs that filled the room. The entire temple was dark, except for the hundreds of candles that lit the altar and the sanctifying fire in the brass podium in the center of the platform.
The High Priestess waited for her at the foot of the juncture. Cara glanced quickly at the bowed heads of the men who formed a semicircle around the raised platform of the altar. From Maeve's accounts, Cara recognized Helfrich of Drumlish with his shaggy orange fringe, and Hauk of Northlew whose dark shoulder-length hair was braided with brightly colored beads and feathers. She suppressed a smile as her gaze found Reyn, who like the others, knelt with his head bent in reverence.
The High Priestess was dressed in ceremonial black robes, her face hidden behind a veil. She was the shadow of Annul, cloaked in her mysteries, and hidden from mortal eyes.
Cara shuddered inwardly.
“Caralynne of Elbia, daughter of Annul, the great goddess has found favor with you,” came the voice of the High Priestess.
“Praise to the goddess,” Cara replied, as Maeve had instructed her. “May Annul consecrate my union with her chosen Twelve, and unify Elbia under her righteous hand.”
The two novices came forward and Cara saw the now unconcealed objects they carried. One held a bright red pomegranate, the symbol of life and fertility. The second held a bronze dagger, the symbol of power and death.
The High Priestess began to chant, her voice echoing unnaturally throughout the temple. Taking the dagger, she sliced through the fruit's flesh and handed a half to Cara. “In the name of blessed Annul, may your womb be opened, and the bloodlines of the goddess endure.”
Cara bit into the fruit as was expected, and handed it back to the novice. Both halves were placed on the sacrificial fire, which hissed and smoked as the wet fruit was quickly charred.
The priestess took Cara's left hand and placed it palm up in her own. “She who sees and knows all has called your name Caralynne of Elbia. How do you respond?”
“I am the goddess' daughter. I hear my mother's voice,” Cara affirmed.
The priestess took the bronze dagger and sliced horizontally across Cara's palm. Her breath hitched in her throat at the pain, but she didn't cry out. A crimson pool formed quickly in the center. She walked towards the sacrificial fires and placed her wounded hand above the flames.
Cara hesitated briefly as she remembered the words Maeve had taught her. “By the blood of Annul that runs through my veins, I consecrate my life and the lives of my unborn daughters to the goddess, so her bloodlines will never perish. Where I walk, she walks, what I speak, she speaks. By the goddess' desire let it be so.”
Fisting her hand, she watched as her blood dripped slowly into the flames.
The high priestess continued to chant, while one of the novices wrapped Cara's hand in a thin gauze.
Cara turned from the fire. All twelve men were now standing and watching her with mixed expressions. The priestess handed Cara the bronze blade, which was still stained with her blood. Her stomach churned at the thought of what she had to do next.
They would be presented in the order in which she would visit each province.
“Cuch of Lydd,” the priestess acknowledged as the youngest of the Twelve stepped forward.
From the second wealthiest province, Cush was the oldest son of the Viceroy of Lydd, but he had just barely reached the age of majority. Maeve had described him as an over-energetic puppy. It was an accurate description and Cara laughed inwardly as the boy kneeled before her, his disheveled brown curls falling clumsily into large turquoise eyes.
Cara found him charming in his youthful awkwardness.
She smiled at his eagerness, and in return he gave her a lopsided grin that showed deep dimples on both cheeks.
Placing his right hand over his heart, and his left palm outreached towards her, he recited the ceremonial vows that would bind him to her, “Upon the altar of Annul I pledge my loyalty to you, Caralynne of Elbia, daughter of the great goddess. My life is sealed to yours. Where you go, I will follow, and my sword will slay your enemies. By the shedding of my blood upon the sacrificial flames, I swear in her holy name that I will be loyal to you above all others. May the goddess in her wisdom strike me down, and the province of Lydd, if I should ever be proven unfaithful.”
Cara's breath hitched in her throat at the enormity of his words. “In the name of Annul, I acknowledge you, Cush of Lydd, and find you acceptable in my sight.” They were such simple words in comparison, and Cara scoffed at the coldness of the statement.
With a deep breath, Cara brought the blade across his palm. He winced slightly, but his eyes never faltered from hers, and his smile never left his face.
He stood and bowed his head in acknowledgment, and then walked to the sacrificial fire. He fisted his hand above the flames and sealed his life to hers. As his blood dripped slowly into the fire, he spoke, “I consecrate my life to Caralynne of Elbia, the daughter of Annul.”
Reyn was the next to step forward. His brown eyes appeared amber as they reflected the firelight, and when he knelt before her, his expression was one of brotherly pride and love. Cara wanted to throw her arms around him. Instead, she smiled and mouthed the words, “I've missed you.”
He gave her a half-hearted smile, and recited the vows.
One by one, the men knelt before her and dedicated their lives to her.
The slightly built and awkward Batch of Loewik. The winsome and mischievous Efnisien of Meall. The suave and well-dressed Wesley of Colechester. They were everything Maeve had described, and Cara couldn't help but feel as if she already knew them. She was at an unfair advantage, since they knew very little, if anything about her.
“Finn of Crantock,” the High Priestess announced, as a towering form emerged from the shadows.
Cara's breath caught in her throat, as the warrior approached and stopped a few feet away, gazing down at her with hard blue eyes.
Cara felt dwarfed as she stared up at him.
His dark blond hair was pulled back in a leather tie. One piece had fallen loose and framed his perfectly sculpted jaw.
He knelt before her in the ceremonial pose, and even kneeling, his eyes were almost level with hers.
As he spoke his vows, his voice was dark and heavy with the weight of each word.
His presence was disconcerting.
Her knees weakened, and she cursed herself for allowing him to affect her in such a way. She tried to calm her nerves, but her heart was racing in her chest as she placed one hand under his large hardened palm, and quickly dragged the blade across.
She felt a mixture of relief and disappointment as he made his way back to his place in the shadows.
Arwel of Bere Alstern and Theo of Ashwater came next. Both were similar in height and build, with matching dark eyes and plain features. Their mannerisms were arrogant and Cara immediately took a dislike to both of them.
Cara smiled as Helfrich of Drumlish, with his unruly orange hair and intelligent green eyes, came forward. Maeve had told her that he was a scholar and prided himself in his studies of philosophy and physics.
The entire experience was exhausting, but there were still three men left.
Hauk of Northlew was the oldest of the twelve men, and as he kneeled before her, Cara could see strands of silver that ran through his dark braided hair. Maeve had heard rumors that he had once been the Viceroy of his province, but he had resigned position when his wife and children had been brutally murdered by raiders.
There was despondency in his demeanor that made Cara wonder if the rumors weren't true.
“Tahdaon of Dalgliesh,” the High Priestess repeated for the third time.
The man didn't move. Perhaps he's asleep. Cara smiled at the thought. She wouldn't blame him; the entire ceremony was tedious and she could doze off herself.
People began to murmur, and Cara could feel the tension rising within the room.
“The Dog's either deaf or dumb,” someone jeered.
Cara cringed at the vulgar nickname given to the Dalglieshans. Her own people had been bestowed with a similar label, and she detested it.
“Tahdaon of Dalgliesh,” the High Priestess repeated. “Take your place now, or your actions will be seen as a declaration of war!”
Cara drew her breath in sharply and the room erupted in outrage. She had heard talk that the Northern Province sought independence, but to do so would be mutiny. To declare war in the temple of Annul would be his death.
Tahdaon stood slowly, raked a hand through his short black hair and walked defiantly up the marble steps, to the front of the platform. Cara tried not to react in fear as he approached. He rivaled Finn of Crantock in height and brawn
Tahdaon's grey eyes were murderous as he stood before her, and he gave her a look that Cara could only interpret as disgust. He scowled as he assumed the submissive posture, and placed his right hand over his heart.
She wanted to shrink into herself as he spat the words that had sounded noble on the lips of the others, but now sounded more like a curse. “Upon the altar of Annul I pledge my loyalty to you, Caralynne of Elbia, daughter of the great goddess. My life is sealed to yours. Where you go, I will follow, and my sword will slay your enemies. By the shedding of my blood upon the sacrificial flames, I swear in her holy name that I will be loyal to you above all others. May the goddess in her wisdom strike me down if I should ever be proven unfaithful.”
He breathed out sharply as he finished, and closed his eyes as if the words had caused him physical pain.
He had left out the last part of the vow, which cursed his province if he should ever betray her.
An aura of grief surrounded him and made her at once both anxious and protective. It was evident from his pained expression that he had not come here willingly. She knew the feeling all too well, and her heart broke for him despite the hatred he directed at her.
She remembered the words Callion had said to her the last day on the cliff. It would do no good to hate. She wouldn't let cynicism be her measuring rod, or let fear turn her heart cold. She would not repay his hostility with animosity of her own.
Cara smiled and touched his rough, unshaven cheek. She heard the murmurs throughout the room, but she ignored them. He was obviously wounded, and it was kindness that he needed.
Cara looked past his unkempt appearance. His eyes were rimmed with thick dark lashes. They weren't grey as she had originally thought, but the palest blue with a single brown spot on the far corner of his left iris. There was something about him that reminded her of Callion when he was in one of his moods.
“In the name of Annul I acknowledge you, Tahdaon of Dalgliesh, and find you acceptable in my sight.”
She saw the apprehension and vulnerability cross his eyes before he closed and carefully composed his face.
Cara sighed in relief as she watched him take the final steps to the sacrificial fire and seal his vow with blood.
The tension in the temple was still high, and Cara was sure Tahdaon would face repercussions for his actions through taunts and verbal accusations, but the crisis had been avoided. His life was now sealed to hers, and no one could take any rightful action against him without Cara's permission.
Edmund of Hellstrom was the last of the twelve men to approach the altar. He was Maeve's cousin, but Cara didn't see any family resemblance. If anything, he looked more like Tahdaon than Maeve, with his dark hair, pale skin, and light blue eyes. He was slighter in build and not nearly as tall, but there was a similarity in the cut of his jaw and straight-edged nose.
Maeve had warned her of Edmund's lecherous pursuits, and looking at him, she wasn't surprised. He had a dark charm that Cara found both hypnotizing and disturbing. She drew the blade across his palm and he gave her a crooked grin that was more lascivious than boyish.
She was still unnerved by his presence as the High Priestess ended the ceremony. It had been a long and emotionally taxing day, and Cara was anxious to find Maeve and return to her chambers before the week long feasting and festivities began.
Chapter 4
“I need your help,” Cara whispered, grabbing Reyn's arm and pulling him into the shadows.
“What's wrong?”
“When was the last time you saw Maeve?”
Reyn's expression darkened. “I haven't talked to her since before we left for the temple. I thought she was with you.”
Cara shook her head. “I couldn't find her after the ceremony. I heard that she had been taken to the palace infirmary, but when I went to see if she was there, there were guards at the door and they wouldn't let me in.”
End of this sample Kindle book.


Chantel Seabrook is the author of Cara's Twelve. She currently resides in London, Ontario, with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about writing and enjoys reading fantasy, paranormal romance, and science fiction. Chantel has a four-year Anthropology degree from Western University.


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