Princess of Thorns

BOOK: Princess of Thorns
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Also by Stacey Jay

Juliet Immortal

Romeo Redeemed

Of Beast and Beauty

This is an uncorrected eBook file. Please do not quote for
publication until you check your copy against the finished book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2014 by Stacey Jay
Jacket art copyright © 2014 by Nick Chao
Map art copyright © 2014 by Jennifer Redstreake Geary

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition

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For M,
my partner in all adventures
O
nce upon a time there lived a
prince and a princess
with no happy ever after. …
The past …

In my youth, longing for immortality gave me many sons. Now, it sows the seeds of their destruction.

—Eldorio III, Immortal King of Kanvasola

Having discovered the secret to eternal life, and jealous of his throne, the immortal king summoned a witch to the castle and ordered her to curse his eleven sons, ensuring none would live past their eighteenth birthday, the age at which a Kanvasol prince may become a king.

But the witch was a gentle woman and so tempered her curse with kindness. The princes still in line to inherit on their eighteenth birthdays would not die, but would be transformed into a lamentation of swans.

Years passed and ten sons were transformed, but the eleventh, the prince Niklaas, raged against his fate and vowed to break the spell.

The past, sadly, is immortal. No child is born innocent.

—Rose Ronces, “The Sleeping Beauty”

After years of marriage, the Sleeping Beauty longed to travel beyond the fairy briars surrounding her castle, but Prince Stephen’s stepmother was an ogre, who the prince feared would imprison their two children if she were to learn of their existence. And so Rose remained hidden, until the day her new maid let slip that the prince’s other wife was not nearly as lovely as the beauty.

Doubting her husband, Rose rode to the capital, where she met the prince’s barren first wife and his stepmother, Queen Ekeeta. As Stephen had feared, Ekeeta ordered his children locked away. The prince begged for mercy, and Rose was given a home at the edge of the city, where she and the children were guarded at all times.

Years passed, and Stephen came to believe it was safe to leave his family for several months at a time. The night after his departure to the wars in the east, Ekeeta’s soldiers came for Rose and the children. They were imprisoned, and Rose sentenced to death.

Knowing the end was near, the Sleeping Beauty embraced her eldest, Princess Aurora, and wished for the girl to be granted fairy blessings. But it was not for grace, or beauty, or the gift of song that the beauty wished. …

Chapter One
Aurora

Prophecy foretells that in the last days of the Long Summer, the Age of Reaping will dawn with the rise of the living darkness. The four kingdoms will dwell in shadow, and the souls of man feed the First One’s hunger for a hundred years.

And when the land lies barren, and not a single man remains upon it, the gates of the underworld shall open and all souls—human and ogre—descend to dwell in peace with the Lost Mother for all eternity.

Only a human child, briar-born, can usher in the Final Age. And so such children must be collected and held captive until the coming of the Long Summer.

Any citizen found to be sheltering or aiding in the escape of such a child will be sentenced to death.


Royal Proclamation, 20th of Sunswane, 1458

“It’s time, button,” Mama whispers. Her voice is like lines of music—delicate bars that trap and hold me prisoner on the floor before her.

I am so terrified that I can’t move, but I love her too much to run, even if I could. Even if there were somewhere to run to, some way out of this cell where Mama and Jor and I have been brought to await our moment to die. The queen said Jor and I would be spared and allowed to live out our lives in the dungeon, but Mama doesn’t believe her.

Neither do I.

Queen Ekeeta will finish with the nobles and judges and merchants loyal to my father, and then her guards will come for us. Before nightfall, she and the ogres who came in the black ships from across the Winter Ocean will magic the light from our eyes, drink our spirits down, and throw our soulless bodies into the sea.

I have seen our fate.

The sun was rising when the guards forced us along the wall walk five mornings past. I saw the waves crashing far below the keep. I saw the ladies in their fine dresses and the men in their shining armor washing in and out on the tide, their limp bodies knocking against the rocks like dolls some spoiled child had thrown away.

I realized they were dead—all the human members of my father’s inner circle, every one dead and gone—and I screamed. I screamed and thrashed and kicked until the guard pulling me along had to pick me up and tuck me under his long arm to carry me to the dungeon. I fought for my freedom, but I was too small. Too weak. I am only seven years old.

I will never be more than seven years old.

“As soon as it’s over, take Jor and go down the waste chute,” Mama says.

The waste chute?
I look up, lips parting, but Mama pushes on before I can protest.

“There is no other way. It will be tight, but you will fit, little button.” Mama smoothes my hair from my face with her soft hands.

We’ve been in the dark with the biting beetles, the filth of the prisoners who slept here before us, and the sour water leaking down the walls for five days, but her hands still smell like spring blossoms.

Mama always smells like flowers. Daddy says it’s because she is as beautiful as a flower, the most beautiful woman in the world. The fairies made her the most beautiful when she was only a baby. Mama wouldn’t let the fairies bless me when I was born—she said it was too dangerous, that fairy blessings, no matter how well intended, too often become curses—but she’s going to bless me today. She’s going to give me the fairy magic hiding inside her. Time is running out, and there is nothing left to lose.

“Are you ready, Aurora?” Mama cups my cheek.

“Will it hurt?” I try not to cry, but fail. Hot tears spill down my cheeks, and my body shakes hard enough to wake Jor, who has fallen asleep with his head in my lap.

“Ror,” he mumbles. He pats my face with one pudgy hand. He turned four last month but still has a baby’s hands.

I love his baby hands. I love my little brother. I can’t imagine a world without him. But we are both briar-born—children birthed within the circle of enchanted fairy briars—and Mama says the queen will kill us if we don’t escape. Even if Mama is wrong, and the queen sincere in her promise to hold Jor and I captive until the long summer of the ogre prophecy, a life lived in a cell is worse than no life at all.

I am Jor’s only hope, which makes me even more afraid.

“Don’t cry, Ror.” Jor sounds near tears himself as I settle him on the floor beside me and tuck his blanket beneath his cheek.

“It’s all right, biddle bee, go back to sleep.” I sniff away my tears and rub his tummy until his eyes drift closed, trying to be brave the way Mama wants me to be.

But I’m not brave. I am so frightened that
frightened
is too small a word to describe the feeling crushing my heart to liquid inside my chest. I need a bigger word, a word with fangs and blood dripping from its chin, but I haven’t learned a word like that yet, and now I never will. I will die tonight. I know it. I can’t do what Mama asks. I’m too little, so small people often mistake Jor and me for twins when we go to visit the castle with Father. I will never be a hero, not even with the help of fairy magic.

“There is no more time, love. Be my brave, strong girl.” Mama plucks the long knife from the floor. “I know you will make me proud.”

One of the prison guards smuggled the knife in with our breakfast this morning. He is loyal to Ekeeta but can’t bear to see two innocent children killed. Mama believes we can trust him to take Jor and me to the fairies, and that the Fey will protect us until it is safe to return to Norvere.

“I love you both so much,” Mama says, her voice breaking as she begins to cry. “Tell Jor how much. He’s so little he might forget. You must help him remember.”

I’ve heard Mama cry before—when Daddy would leave our estate with bags full of gifts, bound for some secret destination in the east—but I’ve never heard her sound this sad. Despite everything she’s told me, and the hours spent discussing her plan, it is only now that I realize she truly intends to do it, to take herself away from us. Forever.

I clutch her soiled skirt in my hands. “Mama, no, I—”

“You and your brother are the brightest lights I’ve ever known,” she says, trembling as hard as I was a moment ago. “You will shine for this kingdom. You will grow up strong and brave and clever and kind, and you will make everything right. I know it.” She pulls in a desperate breath. “And I will always be with you in your heart, button. Always.”

“Mama, don’t! Please!” I throw my arms around her waist, press my face to her chest, and hug her tight, but Mama doesn’t hug me back. She tenses and her body jerks.

Moments later, I feel it—something hot and wet rushing over my forehead, sticking my hair to my skin, running down my cheeks. Even before I wipe my face and bring red away on my fingers, I know what it is.

Blood.
Mama’s blood.
Because fairy magic will only leave a body in blood, when a human chooses death in order to pass the power to another.

Mama is dead. I am alone.
Alone!

I open my mouth to scream for Mama to come back, to beg for help, but before words can escape something flickers within the hollows of my bones and a transformation begins deep inside of me. Deeper than blood or sinew, deeper than this dungeon, deeper than the sea crashing against the rocks below the keep or the world the ogres believe exists beneath ours. A place so secret and deep I had no idea it was there until the light of Mother’s magic fell into the darkness and lit me up.

But now it has, and I know I am more than a frightened little girl; I am a briar-born child, beloved by the Fey. I am a daughter and a sister and a princess, and as fierce and strong as I choose to be.

And I
choose
to be strong. I choose to fight, even if I am small and alone. I choose to be the hero my mother wanted me to be.

Without a sound, I ease Mother’s body back onto the stones and hurry to the pallet we’ve shared since the morning we were brought to the dungeon. I use our thin covers to clean my face and hair as best I can, then lay the blanket gently over Mama, refusing to look too closely.

I will not remember her as a corpse. I will remember her smile and the way her eyes danced when she built castles of pillows for Jor and me on days when it was too cold to go outside. I will remember her stories and songs and the way she never let a day go by without whispering “I love you” in my ear. I will remember the flower smell of her clothes when she hugged me tight and her laughter when we would sneak out to dance in the rain without Jor, because rain dancing was our secret, just between Mama and me.

I will remember her, and I will avenge her.

“Goodbye, Mama,” I whisper, ignoring the stinging in my nose. There will be time to cry later, when Jor and I are safe.

Being careful not to wake him, I scoop my brother into my arms and carry him to the dungeon’s waste chute. He is tall for four and I am short for seven, but it’s easier than I thought it would be to hold him to my chest as I shuffle across the stones. I’m glad. It will be better if Jor doesn’t see Mama again, and if he doesn’t realize he’s falling until he’s halfway to the bottom.

The waste chute empties onto a street outside the castle walls. The kind guard promised to have a cart of straw waiting there to break our fall, but even if he’s changed his mind about helping us, there’s a chance we’ll survive the thirty-hand drop to the stone road, a better chance than we’ll have if we stay here to await the coming of the ogre priest.

I saw Illestros yesterday, his long white robe dragging along the filth-caked floor as he came to fetch Father’s spymaster from the cell next to our own. He is even taller than the other ogres, with dozens of tiny coin-shaped tattoos marking his large bald head. Queen Ekeeta wears a wig to cover her hairless skull and looks nearly human—though taller than a mortal, with larger eyes and mandrill fingers Mama said are leftover from a time when the ogres consumed more than human spirits, when they would pry between our bones for each tender piece of meat—but the priest makes no effort to hide what he is. He flaunts the tattoos that show how many souls he’s captured inside of him; he bares his pointed teeth when he smiles.

He is a wolf, and Jor and I are rabbits he means to devour, but he will not have us.

Ignoring the putrid smell, I ease Jor into the waste chute and give him a push. He wakes as he falls and begins to scream, but I am already climbing into the chute, muffling his cry with my body, keeping it from the ears of the guard at the top of the stairs.

The longer our departure goes unnoticed, the better the chances we’ll reach the woods where the fairies will be waiting.

I count to ten—knowing I must give Jor time to land and hopefully be pulled out of the way—and then I flatten my body, lift my arms, and slide down the chute. My spine knocks painfully along the slimy stones for a few moments, but after a fall of a dozen hands, the narrow passage joins a larger tunnel where rushing waste water carries me along more gently, gaining speed as the channel dips sharply toward the ground.

Less than two minutes later, I am born into my new life in a rush of filth and wet.

I land with a grunt in the sodden, stinking hay of a farmer’s cart and turn to look for Jor. I find him clinging to the neck of the guard with the dark eyes and the single brow scribbled across his broad forehead.

When he sees me, the guard’s breath rushes out, his eyes widening as he takes in my bloodied hair and face. “She’s dead, then? Lady Rose?” I nod, and he hugs Jor tight before whispering, “The gods rest her beautiful soul.”

“She didn’t believe in the gods,” I say, brushing the hay from my dress. “She believed in good people. She told me to tell you thank you with all her heart,” I finish in a voice I scarcely recognize.

I sound like a grown-up. A girl who will become a queen.

I
will
be queen. Father is dead, and he had no children with his first wife. He named me his first heir and Jor his second. I will go to the fairies now, but one day I will return with an army and reclaim my kingdom from those who have stolen it, and I will start gathering my allies now.

I come to my feet in the cart, putting myself at eye level with our savior. “When I am queen, I will grant you forgiveness for pledging yourself into Ekeeta’s service, and land of your own, if you’re still alive to work it.”

The guard nods, but I see the pity in his expression. When he looks at me, he sees a helpless little girl. He doesn’t know that I have Mama’s magic inside me. He doesn’t know that I will
never
stop fighting to avenge her, not so long as there is breath in my body.

“Come, Princess. My horse is tied in the alley. You and your brother will both fit on the saddle in front.” He shifts Jor to one arm and reaches for me with the other. “Think you can hold the little man tight as we go?”

“I can.” Ignoring his hand, I vault over the edge of the cart, landing lightly on the stones, my bones vibrating pleasantly from the impact. I feel as if I could leap the entire road, run for miles. As if I could lift the heavy sword hanging from the guard’s belt over my head, storm the castle, and knock every ogre inside it into the sea. I’ve never felt so strong or fearless or full of life.

Even before we meet the fairies in the shadows of the woods—before Janin, the Fey healer who will become my second mother, places her hand on my chest to take the measure of my new magic—I know that Mama has wished something very different for me than the beauty or grace or lovely singing voice the fairies granted her in her cradle. When I learn I will walk through life with enhanced strength, a brave spirit, a merciful mind, and a heart no man I love will dare defy, I am pleased that Mama wished so well for me, that she gave me such fine tools to help me reclaim our kingdom.

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