Cara’s life is about to change forever. Living a simple existence far away from the royal family, Cara is unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight. Her cousin and heir to the throne has fallen ill and into disfavor by the royal council, and Cara has been dubbed to take her cousin’s place. The shifting parameters of her life awakens this intelligent young woman into an inescapable nightmare. She will be crowned Queen of Elbia, handed a suffering empire in tenuous peace, and saddled with “the twelve” councilmen who’s intentions are apparently not either royal or pure. Adding further insult, she must leave behind her beloved Crownthorne and love interest Callion forever. Author Chantel Seabrook has constructed a classic trapdoor opening wrapped inside a unique if not mythical landscape. Chantel has dropped Cara into a veritable shark tank. Cara is an inexperienced and emotional girl, who is called upon to rapidly mature and learn, perhaps for her very survival. The setting is similar to ancient Greece, and the writing is clear and concise with tours of interiority that flesh out Cara’s skeptical mind. This is a compelling and furious read.
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 bodywent 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 diffcult 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 of 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.
The memories that brought her to Port Townwould 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 Vicroy’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 anger 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 or my feelings, or my right to know!”
“We were trying to protect you.”
Cara looked at him and saw the sincerity in his eyes. Conscious 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.”
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.