Magic has broken free over the Twelve Kingdoms. The population is beset by shapeshifters and portents, landscapes that migrate, uncanny allies who are not quite human…and enemies eager to take advantage of the chaos.
Dafne Mailloux is no adventurer—she’s a librarian. But the High Queen trusts Dafne’s ability with languages, her way of winnowing the useful facts from a dusty scroll, and even more important, the subtlety and guile that three decades under the thumb of a tyrant taught her.
Dafne never thought to need those skills again. But she accepts her duty. Until her journey drops her into the arms of a barbarian king. He speaks no tongue she knows but that of power, yet he recognizes his captive as a valuable pawn. Dafne must submit to a wedding of alliance, becoming a prisoner-queen in a court she does not understand. If she is to save herself and her country, she will have to learn to read the heart of a wild stranger. And there are more secrets written there than even Dafne could suspect…
We sailed into the harbor of the biggest island a few hours later. By then the volcano towered overhead, dominating the sky much like another Sentinel. Only instead of fog-wrapped, glassy silence, this one rumbled as a disturbed god might, not yet angry, but leaning in that direction. Like Uorsin had been most days toward the end—quiescent for the most part, then erupting at the least thing. Never predictable. I really wished I’d thought, in my packing frenzy, to include a few books on volcanoes, and what set them off.
As I looked, I recalled some scrolls I’d found in the Tala’s collection in Annfwn. The drawings, vividly inked, had caught my eye and stayed in my memory. They showed islands dominated by perfect conical peaks, draped in jungle foliage—and dragons flying through the sky. No dragons in sight here, but the islands were uncannily like those.
Ash filtered through the air like snowfall, settling on my arms and leaving dusty smears behind, like the wings of moths. A heavy stink filled my nose, burning acrid at the back of my throat unlike any smoke I’d encountered—though I recognized a faint cousin of it from the depths of Windroven. The narrow entrance to the harbor stole all my attention. Formed of two points that came close together but did not meet, sporting two great beasts facing each other.
They’d been carved from the rock of the landscape and then built up with matching stone. As fearsome as the Sentinels and probably twice as high as the tallest, they reared up toward the sky, toothed jaws gaping wide. As we passed between them, the detail became clearer—their great tails looping down the rock ridges, the scales exquisitely executed. The wings, like those of bats, lay folded against their backs, but so lifelike that the membrane seemed as ready to take wind as the sails of our ship. A shiver ran through me as we passed between the towering sentinels. Warning received.
As Zynda had reported, the harbor appeared to be far more elaborate than I’d expected of such a remote realm. No city or many buildings were in evidence, though the heavy jungle foliage could easily obscure anything but a castle. Piers and docks of the same elaborately carved rock, however, vividly displayed the high level of civilization. Everywhere sculptures twined through the architecture. Cranes and pulleys stood waiting, with a cart-and-rail system beyond to convey goods. No space wasted that could be decorated. Cranes and herons stalked in stony splendor along the pylons of the piers, the floor of which formed the back of a sleepy tortoise. Snakes twined to form the pillars of the arcade.
The place was eerily empty, however, with no ships at harbor. The ghost twin of the Port of Ehas, as abandoned as that place bustled.
“Are they all dead?” Jepp wondered in a hushed voice. Between the abandoned harbor, the fuming mountain, and the lingering hangover of doom from passing through first the Sentinels and then the dragons, she sounded as I felt. Not afraid, precisely. But ready to be.
“No,” Kral replied, striding up. He’d donned his full armor again—they all had—and I felt exposed in comparison. It seemed another ill omen that they dressed as if preparing for war instead of a diplomatic mission, though Kral told me not to be concerned, as it was protocol. Maybe I’d been around the Hawks, Vervaldr, and Tala too much, with their more relaxed ways and preference for fighting leathers over mail, but the armor made me as nervous as it had that day the general first strode into Ordnung’s hall. “They moved the ships to protect them from burning. Look there. King Nakoa KauPo and his entourage.”
I followed the line of his finger to see the group emerging through a vine-draped archway and striding onto the stone dock. Surely that was the infamous King Nakoa KauPo, leading the way, just as Ursula would want to do. Our ship drew up to a berth at the deserted pier, the men throwing out ropes to secure the Hákyrling in place, and I tucked myself into a corner of the rail out of the way, where I could observe and take notes in my journal. As the king and his party came near, it became clear that the Nahanauns were as naked as the Dasnarians were armored. Darker skinned than Jepp, King Nakoa KauPo’s chest was bare, decorated with tattoos a few shades deeper. They reminded me of the dragons and other creatures carved into the rock, the muscles of his chest and abdomen similarly hard and ridged as the volcanic formations. As if he’d been created of the same substance and then animated. A fanciful thought indeed. Something about this place brought out my imagination—in a dark and twisted way.
He wore his black hair loose like the Tala, but not as long. Instead it coiled around his shoulders like a living thing, and what I took at first for ash dusting the dark locks turned out to be silver and white streaks threading throughout, like lightning spearing through thunderheads. More than his coloring evoked that image, as his expression was also stormy, brooding and stern. Some of what I’d taken for tattoos turned out to be what looked like flexible scaled armor at the vulnerable points of his shoulders, elbows, and ankles and over his groin. His only other garment was a sort of skirt—though that seemed the wrong word for it, as it wasn’t feminine in the least. More like the kyltes the Vervaldr sometimes wore when off duty, short and mainly to cover the groin. He went barefoot as they all did, with some sort of similar shields over his ankles, and wore a copper torque at his throat.
Male and female warriors attended him, the women with the same scaly plates over their breasts, but their slender, toned waists also bare. They carried bows and spears instead of swords, and all looked as fierce as Jepp. None had the white streaks King Nakoa KauPo did. Was it a sign of age or something else? Not age, I thought, as his face seemed not lined enough. Ridged, yes, set in those brooding lines, but not wrinkled. I found myself sketching that face, rapt.
At that moment, though I hadn’t moved, he looked up, fixing me with a stare so penetrating I startled. His eyes were as black as the obsidian Sentinels, and equally sharp and forbidding. He studied me, as if equally fascinated by me, though I couldn’t imagine why.
“Danu take me.” Jepp whistled. “We have to go ashore, if only for one night. Look at those people. I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t taste one—male or female. I wonder if they’d be willing to do a threesome with me. I’ll ask. What can it hurt? After all, we’re only here a night, if that.”
“You’ll have a difficult time asking,” I told her quietly, as if King Nakoa KauPo could hear me. It seemed as if he did, as hard as he stared at me, a ridiculous thought, as he couldn’t understand Common Tongue. “Remember—they don’t speak Dasnarian.”
Jepp gave me an arch look. “You might be the smart one with all your knowledge, but the language of the body is one I know and communicate in very well. Some things don’t require words.”
Between Jepp’s salacious remark and the discomfort of King Nakoa KauPo’s intense regard, I flushed. His expression didn’t change from the stark lines, but his full lips curved into a slight smile, though he couldn’t possibly guess at our conversation. He dipped his chin and turned to greet Kral, now that the gangplank was down and the general, along with his own set of guards, strode ashore. They raised hands, palm out, and King Nakoa KauPo gestured to the ship. Kral pulled something palm-sized from his pocket and handed it to Nakoa, who glanced at it, at me again. Nodded.
Then he turned and beckoned to me.
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. Her essays have appeared in many publications, including Redbook. Her most recent works include a number of fiction series: 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. A fourth series, the fantasy trilogy The Twelve Kingdoms, hit the shelves starting in May 2014 and book 1, The Mark of the Tala, received a starred Library Journal review and has been nominated for the RT Book of the Year while the sequel, The Tears of the Rose, has been nominated for best fantasy romance of the year. A fifth series, the highly anticipated erotic romance trilogy, Falling Under, released starting with Going Under, followed by Under His Touch and Under Contract. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.