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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Unspoken by Celia McMahon


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CHAPTER ONE

My mother slipped the corset over my head and tightened the straps. She cinched and pulled until it laid, pressing my ribs together, snug enough to satisfy her. I finally let out a breath. Even though I grew up wearing these lousy pieces of fashion, it always felt as though I had to relearn how to breathe.

“I'll do what I can,” she finally said.

I sat down on the chair whose back I’d been gripping for the past ten minutes. I wanted to hunch, but I couldn’t. It was like my bones had been replaced with steel rods. I bit back a swear as my mother gathered up my hair and pinned it in a neat, tight knot on the crown of my head. She patted down the flyways, flashes of her bright red nails in my periphery. As blood red as her gown.

She stood back to admire her handiwork. “There. I suppose that will be enough not to put the royal family in a state of embarrassment.”

“You do know that I am able to dress myself,” I said to her, fighting the urge to shake my head like a wet dog and tease apart the hair that began to hurt my scalp.

“As queen, you will never have to do anything on your own,” my mother replied, giving a soft smile to my reflection. As the current queen, it was her business to ensure that I was the picture of what the kingdom sees in their future. Granted, I fought tooth and nail throughout my seventeen-and-a-half years as princess of Stormwall.

“Only as queen, though, right?” I said with a smirk.

“Only as queen, but right now you must heed me and stop wearing that hideous makeup. Set on a proper color lip stain. The elders want to be pleased and amazed at your presence. Not terrified, reaching for their hearts. You are there to consecrate a temple, after all.”

I forced back a smart retort. “Yes, ma'am,” I murmured instead.

“Isabelle,” she warned.

She twirled away and plucked my dress from my bed. I tried to look as bored as possible as I stood up and took it from her outstretched hands. This one, pale green chiffon layered with satin, had a bust that curved around each of my breasts and faded to a darker green at the very end of the skirt. The train, the color of an oak tree, attached to my shoulders. The pattern was so narrow that I not only had to determine how to breathe, but also how to walk.

“My favorite,” my mother announced, clapping her hands. She rested her hands along the apron of her layered skirt and watched as I groaned my way into the dress. She smiled, which was an oddity for my mother because normally she took in the world with severe tolerance. Always the picture-perfect queen, lips pressed in a hard line, ready to rule even in her sleep. A woman may be forgotten. But a queen lives on forever. That is what she tried to teach me from birth. I listened and I nodded like any good princess would.

Just because I listened did not mean I had to obey.

“Your first public, ceremonial outing,” she said. “Are you nervous?”

“No,” I lied. I wasn’t doing much, just standing there while someone else unlocked a door and opened it to the public for the first time. But for my mother, it held much more importance. It would show me standing on my own, as I one day I would stand as queen. She saw this ceremony as the first step to becoming queen. I saw it as more of a chance to escape.

When she had taken me in for long enough, she gestured toward the pair of black leather button shoes and turned to leave, the ripples of her skirt's train trailing behind.

“Be good,” she said, her tone hard. The weakness had passed, and her dark eyes hardened.

As good as I can be in this torture device, I thought. How she’d been doing it for forty years was beyond me.

“The elders look forward to seeing you.”

They are going to be sorely disappointed. I curbed a snort.

I watched her close the door to my chambers and then turned back to my reflection. My mother had always said green was my color and I didn’t disagree. Even my hair looked better than it had in a long time. That was when I noticed the small gold barrette she had placed at the base of the knot. Tilting my head, I saw the shape of a dragonfly. Pretty, I thought, admiring my entire look. And then I gave a tongue-in-cheek smirk. It was a pity it would be coming off the second I left this room.

I set off for the servant entrance, which was the quickest route away from the castle. I could navigate the hall with my eyes closed, and I knew all the shortcuts which wouldn’t draw attention. In record time, I was through the walkway and stables, where I’d quickly changed my clothing into something much more comfortable: a loose gray tunic, fitted black trousers and my worn boots. I saddled my horse, drew my bow and quiver from their hiding place amongst the hay, and cut a path through the gates into the woods beyond.

I rode my horse down King’s Road, hooves digging into the earth, the cool, wild air against my skin, down a hill where the cloudless blue sky turned from a small sliver centered in the trees. The cusp of winter brought on earlier sunsets and chilly nights with the promise of snow, making its way slowly from across the mountains. With autumn came the end of my seventeenth year—in five weeks to be exact—and soon enough, talk of marriage proposals would be more than just an afterthought in the plan for my future.

They could dream. I heard my mother’s voice telling me to focus on my future, and saw the heated look on my father's face when I would come home covered in the blood of a pig or drenched from getting stuck out in the rain without my cloak. With a father like mine, it was normal to use fear to force me to comply with his wishes, and for him to make me feel wrong about the person I was. He’d taught me how easy it was to love someone and hate them at the same time.

Days existed in their cramped way behind the walls of Stormwall. It wasn’t until my thirteenth year that my mother allowed me past the castle gates and down into the towns which expanded the world of concrete, stone, and forest. I knew there was much more in Mirosa, the New Kingdom, but these places were as names on a map. Stormwall is Mirosa, my father would say. All power, forest, and armies nestled against the mountains in the north. Nothing and nobody else mattered.

But I knew different. Lots of things mattered to me.

I gently drew backward on the reins of my horse. Somewhere in the distance came the snort of an animal—the sound of a promising day. “This may be a good day yet.”

I jumped down, lifted the blanket from my saddle, and revealed my bow and arrow. I let out a long breath. I’d forgotten what life outside the palace was like, and how my body relaxed instead of being taut as a bowstring.

I felt free.

I raised my eyebrows and threw the quiver onto my back, adjusting the strap across my chest. I stalked deeper into the trees, bow in hand. I didn’t have to hunt for my own food as others do. I didn’t have to skin it or cook it. I didn’t even have to ask for it. It's just always been there. My brother had taught me the way others do it. He’d taught me that every piece of a kill needed to be used.

I touched the emerald necklace my brother, Henry, had given me before leaving for war, smoothing my fingertip over it. My strength always seemed to rise when I touched it, drawing my brother’s bravery from his last gift to me.

I moved further, wiping a stray hair from my face. Out here, I could feel him better than behind the castle walls. Almost as if he were right beside me, ordering me to hold my arrow steady, to breathe, to count to three. Do or die, he'd say.

“Do or die,” I whispered. I went down onto my belly and pushed myself through some thorny underbrush. I wore a mossy green calf-length tunic and brown fitted pants. With Henry’s old worn leather boots, I sported the perfect hunting attire. I trained my ears, held my breath, and peered over a small hill to a family of boar less than fifty feet off. A single large one and three babies. The large one's tusks gleamed in what sunlight the canopy of trees allowed. I pulled back my arrow, taking a deep breath, and counted to three just as Henry once instructed.

One.

The boar moved slightly, its belly fat and exposed.

Two.

Another deep breath. A lick of my lips and a steady hand.

Three.

I let my arrow fly and waited for that tell-tale wail—an animal scream and a scurrying of little boar hooves. I skipped to my feet, but before I could take a step, my ears pricked to the deep exhale of something large, silhouetted in a space between two large redwoods. A deer. And a buck at that, with more points than I could even begin to count. I drew another arrow and pulled back, my heart racing against my chest.

The snapping of branches and leaves announced a visitor of the two-legged kind. I cringed as I watched the buck dart away, disappearing into the forest. My heart landed in my stomach like a brick. “You'd be a terrible hunter,” I said.

An old man in a linen robe leaned against a tree, observing me with a quiet interest. Underneath all those white whiskers, I could see a faint smile painted on his lips.

Did you get it, he signed, his fingers moving deftly at chest-level.

I almost laughed. “Did I get it,” I said under my breath and made my way to the dead boar. The babies had scattered, probably to the group's other adults.

My boar lay with my arrow in its midsection. Not young by any means, its tusks as long as my arms. Too astounded by their size, I almost failed to notice the slow rise and fall of the boar’s chest. Shaking my head, I plucked at the branch of my pants and unsheathed Henry's hunting knife. I stood at equal height with the old man and held out my hand, where the knife laid exposed in my palm. “Render it a go, Milke’?”

Milke’ cocked his head quizzically. He smelled like tobacco and looked as though he’d weathered the worst this world could give him. I winked at him and closed my hand over the grip of the knife.

“Their hearts sit low,” I said, more to myself than to my guest. I prepared my entry, holding the handle tight. I brought it down and out quickly, bringing with it a squishing, fleshy sound, like biting into a peach. Except peach juice isn’t red and tastes a little sweeter.

In the time it took me to remove the tusks and tie the beast to my horse, the number of spectators began to grow as we moved through the forest toward their village. Though they were older, something radiated from them. In their silence, there was power. It was something I never understood.

They were called the Voiceless, a people inflicted with a disease that attacked their vocal chords and rendered them mute. They say it was brought upon by infected birds or tainted water—something of that tragic manner. All I knew with certainty was that the Voiceless came from the Old Kingdom on the other side of the mountains and warred against my father. Once the disease had struck, they gave up their arms and a new age emerged—one of the old and the new coming together as one.

A new world.

Several hundred of the Voiceless came into my father’s land to live, having fled their war-torn country and settled under his rule. I felt sorry for them, these people who had their lives destroyed. But my father said the Old Kingdom was full of old magic and evil and that he’d saved them from such an existence. That he’d liberated them.

The truth was a fragile thing.

The Voiceless lived in severely rundown camps, like the one where I’d brought the boar. Most were elderly, plagued by brittle bones and shriveled lungs, and were unable to hunt for themselves. Some were younger, having been babes when the disease had struck. But the youth had mostly gone off and spread themselves across the great continent, taking jobs and living as citizens. Or they went back to the Old Kingdom. But nobody talked about those ones. Nobody talked about the Voiceless much at all. With no written history, I only knew what others had told me. Nothing more.

“There’s talk of white mountain cat sightings.” I wiped the blood from the hunting knife on the saddle blanket and replaced it in its sheath. The men took the boar and lifted it onto a wooden table in the center of the small village.

White cats are rare, Milke’ signed.

“If you were younger, you’d accompany me, I’m sure,” I told him. “Maybe I’d even let you woo me.”

If I were younger, I’d be out there fighting.

I frowned at this. It was no secret that some of the Voiceless had formed their own small armies, wreaking havoc wherever they could. There were none here at Stormwall, but the stories made their way across the continent, from the smaller kingdoms and beyond.

“I fear what would happen if enough of you got together,” I said in jest as the butchers hacked up the boar. They’d given me the tusks and I slipped them into my saddlebag, then returned to watching them cut the meat. Blood spilled down the side of the table and through the cracks. I watched the drip, drip, drip until something caught my eye.

“Whatever could that be?”

Milke’ tugged my arm as I began to move toward the large trunk of a tree. I turned to look at him.

Don’t worry about that.

Whenever people said that, it made me worry even more.

I didn’t answer. I moved to the tree trunk and I swear the birds in the forest stopped chirping. I heard my own gasp as if it were thunder.

Claw marks.

They started higher than my head and stretched down to my knees. Deep grooves, five of them, carved deep enough into the wood to splinter it. I rounded the tree and cupped a hand to my mouth.

“Why did you tell me not to worry?” I’d turned to face Milke’ but also came face to face with the dozens of the Voiceless. “What did this?”

Mountain cat, a woman signed.

Bear.

I let out a shaky laugh. “Bear maybe, but…” I ran my fingers through the grooves. A bear would have the height, perhaps, but not the claws.

From somewhere close, a man was shouting. Then another. Through the trees, I caught sight of black and yellow. Palace guards.

I looked up at the sky to see where the sun was sitting and cursed under my breath. If the guards were here, that meant my mother had sent them, which meant…

I nodded to Milke’ and signed that I’d be back before the boar ran out, then hugged him. I wanted to stay and investigate those claw marks, but I knew being caught would mean facing my mother’s wrath. I vowed to return soon.

Then I fled on horseback, giving the palace guards a chase as I made for my castle in the wind.

CHAPTER TWO

I made two stops before going home. First, at the stables, to drop off my horse. Second, through the back gardens to the cemetery, my sack of tusks on one shoulder. There, I said hello to Henry.

The cemetery was open and covered in daisies, with a few scattered trees. The wind moaned through the gravestones, rustling the leaves of the trees that stood in this place. Days, weeks, years, decades went by outside of those gates, yet, behind them, nothing changed except the leaves on the trees. I’d spent long days here, unaware of my mortality—but that was before. Back when I was so sure that I would live forever.

I took in the cool air and stepped carefully around the graves until I found it. A limestone marker engraved with his full name:

Henry Yuel Rowan.

Henry was lost in a battle far away from Stormwall. I was only seven years old then. Ten years later, I still remembered his smell. A mixture of tobacco and firewood.

Part of me still hoped that he was out there, somewhere, but the other part knew, if he were, he’d come home.

“I know you’re going to haunt me forever for not visiting for so long,” I told the great limestone. I blew a laugh through my nose. “But listen, you wouldn’t believe the buck I saw today. You’d kill me for mucking it up. Though I must tell you, it wasn’t my fault. Don’t say it was. Trust me. It wasn’t.”

The leaves crunched beneath me as I sat at my brother’s grave. Flanked by two massive willow trees, it wasn’t far from the rock wall that surrounded the entire castle. He had no mausoleum. No concrete casket atop the earth. Just a bright, smooth headstone and behind it, thrust into the ground like its own marker, his sword.

I guess when you’re dead and there is no real body to bury, there is no point in building a house around you. There’s nothing to protect. I scraped away some bird-shit and brushed away the leaves. I vowed that when I was made queen, I’d build a mausoleum just for him.

I pushed to my feet and blew a kiss to the wind. “I’ll be back,” I said. “Don’t go anywhere, all right?”

I used the servant entrance to get back into the castle. Most of the guards knew me well enough to let me pass without a second look. Today, there was one I had never seen before. At my presence, he hovered a hand over the sword at his hip before the other guard nodded to let me pass.

I rushed up the first set of stairs, and turned the corner to another set. With a heaving breath, I gripped the wall and bounded two steps at a time. I stopped short, almost running smack dab into two people walking ahead. They wore neat, gray uniforms—a common wardrobe for the kitchen staff. I recognized one by voice as the head of the kitchen staff, Maurie Bets, an old man with hunched shoulders. The other wasn’t recognizable from the back, but from what I could tell, he was younger. What I did know was that they were in my way.

“Princess Isabelle,” said Maurie Bets. He watched from the landing. His face was a dried-up raisin with wrinkles so deep you could stick a coin in them. He lowered his head to me. The other person, a boy about my age, merely looked at the floor until Maurie gave him a swift smack to the chest. He straightened after a low bow and looked to me. Despite my haste, I blinked at the sight of him.

And blinked and blinked until my eyes adjusted.

He cast a look through tired, pale blue eyes and tawny brown hair that looked as though someone had taken a knife to it blindly. Such a pretty boy. Man. Boy. Whatever he was. He was…

Gods is he handsome. So handsome, in fact, that I tripped up the second stair and would have fallen into him had I not caught myself on the edge of the landing. I cursed aloud, causing Maurice to clear his throat in an exaggerated fashion. The boy bent down to hand me the sack of tusks that I had dropped at his feet, arching an eyebrow curiously. He smelled like sweet root. I cursed again, suddenly aware of how I must have looked. And smelled.

I took the sack of tusks and nearly dropped them again.

I turned, not trusting myself to speak, and ran up the last set of stairs to a large steel door.

The echoes of my name reverberated against the walls and down to my very bones as I strode through the castle, the sack of boar tusks in hand. My mother could be so dramatic.

Curious eyes met me at every turn. Princess or not, hidden glances from guards and servants alike weren’t uncommon. They were the type of looks you give when you’ve accidentally seen someone naked—shameful, but oddly curious about the strange birthmark or saggy body parts. For me, the strange birthmark was a streak of blood on my cheek that I only noticed when I passed one of the many oval mirrors on my way to my mother’s chambers. I wiped it clean, dropped off the sack in my room, and turned down a second hallway where my personal guard, Crimson Stanwood, waited.

I sighed deeply at the sight of him. “I know, Crim. She must be losing her stones.”

He nodded, exasperated, glad to have finally found me, running his hand across his head as if there was even a wisp of hair left there. Crim was a mountain in his own right. Standing over six feet tall and big enough to fit me inside of him four times over. He’d been known all over Stormwall and the new and old country as “The Woodchopper,” a name earned after he toppled a perfectly standing tree and carried it ten miles on his back. This impressed my father, the unimpressible king, and earned him a place in Stormwall.

A place, yes, but Crim was a Voiceless. For people like him, his place was merely a placard.

At first, I’d learned how to sign to better communicate with Crim, and then with the other Voiceless in Stormwall. He had been there since the day I was born. The least I could do was have a proper conversation occasionally.

You’re getting better at giving me the slip, he signed. He wasn’t mad, per se, but he folded his big arms across the chest of his gray and yellow uniform. His hands were the size of dinner platters. Unlike the other guards, Crim didn’t carry a weapon. It was easy to see that a mere sword was very much beneath him.

“The slip, yes,” I said with a quick curtsey. I held my hand out to Crim with a bow. “But have you seen me dance?”

The wailing of “Isabelle!” interrupted my sad excuse for a slow dance with my guard. In a moment’s time, the queen would float down this hallway in a frenzy of ruffled skirts, perfume, and flailing arms. I didn’t want Crim to bear the brunt of my mother’s temper, so I sent him away and slipped into her chambers.

I stood against a polished wardrobe, cleaning my nails with my dagger when my mother arrived. She gave one look and, with no thought at all, snatched the weapon from my hand and slammed it down onto the massively ornate desk to her right. She walked into the other room, her bedchambers, just as the door opened behind me.

My cousin Lulu slipped in, smiling through clenched teeth as she took position beside me. She was my own spitting image, down to the part in her hair. She argued that she was at least a quarter of an inch taller than me, but I swore she’d rise on her heels every time.

“It was your mother who caught me.” Lulu’s voice was barely a whisper. Her mouth turned upward in one corner. Nervous amusement.

I snorted. My mother. Of course, it was.

“There’s a new boy,” I said.

“Really?” Lulu replied. Her lips quirked up higher. “Is he cute?”

I thought back to those blue eyes and bit my inner cheek. “Painstakingly so.”

A thin smile spread across her face. “Sounds fun.”

I laughed. “Sometimes I admire your candor.” She still wore my green dress and the dragonfly pin in her hair.

“You’ll admire my dalliance when I have the servant boy between my sheets.”

“You little tart.” I went to punch Lulu but my mother strode back into the room. We both diverted our eyes to the floor. From this angle, all I could see were my mother’s apple red heeled boots as she walked toward us across the carpeted floor.

“I don’t quite comprehend why you insist on disappointing me, Isabelle.” One heel pivoted as she waited for a reply.

“Did the elders even notice?” I asked brazenly. “Gods. In the dozens of times I’ve stood before them, they’ve never once looked me in the eyes. I could have the head of a lizard and rule the land with a matchstick, and they wouldn’t bat an eye.”

“Your insults toward the elders do not help your cause.”

I bit my tongue, doing my best not to give her the satisfaction of a debate that I would clearly lose. I finally lifted my chin and met her gaze. Despite the scarcity of any sort of apology in my eyes, my mother did not look as close to a warpath as I’d imagined. I might get out of this with a stern speech about respect and maybe, if she was particularly keen on ruining my day, she’d bring up Henry—not by name, of course—and my obligation to Stormwall. It was then that I realized Lulu was my buffer, and when she was ordered to leave, the air around me changed into something thick.

“Smile when they think they’ve got you, Izzy,” Lulu whispered before leaving. “They can’t know that they’ve won.”