Here’s a little sneak peek of To Wake a Kingdom, my fantasy romance, sleeping beauty retelling, coming out September 20, 2022!
The first thing I noticed was the sweetness of roses, twisted with the violent scent of blood. The second was the sting of an icy breeze that whispered of winter. The third was a man hovering over me, a leer on his face, his sour breath clinging to my skin.
I blinked through a syrupy fog of recollection.
Flowers in a spectrum of colors nested around my face as if I’d grown from a garden. A soft pillow cushioned my head, and my hands lay crossed over my heart. Like a corpse laid to rest.
But I was not dead. At least, not yet.
The man kneeled on the bier where I lay, the glint of bloodied steel flashing in his hand. I blinked again, trying to untangle my confusion.
Where had he come from? Who let him in here? Could no one have bothered to protect me?
Our gazes locked, shock carving into his ruddy features.
My heart thumped as understanding fused into iron. I screamed and did the only thing that made sense—lifted my knee and drove it between his legs with every ounce of strength I had.
With a howl, he clutched his groin, his head thrown back.
Skirts tangling around me, I flipped off the platform and landed in a crouch.
The man rolled on the ground, writhing, his eyes watering. “You bitch.” He rocked back and forth, gulping deep breaths. “You fucking whore!”
Spinning on my heel, I plunged through the door and entered the adjacent room where twelve women lay slain. Not women—Fae. I remembered them.
I was slowly remembering everything.
Their gossamer dresses ripped and shredded, they lay bent and broken like discarded dolls with dull glass eyes. Some had slid to the ground, while others remained seated upon the thrones where they had once argued, schemed, and plotted.
Death crawled across the stone floor like afternoon shadows.
Bile rising in my throat, I covered my mouth, shudders stamping into my skin. The man with the sword had killed every one of these Fae.
What else had he done? The vile possibilities expanded in my mind. I was to be his thirteenth victim before I’d woken up.
But why was I awake?
Behind me, the murderer roared again, and I ran.
Through the hallways of the castle I’d grown up in, I ran. Every passage familiar, my soft slippers pounded against the dark stones as I scattered around corners.
I knew with the confidence of the bricks in these walls that the man would kill me if he caught me. Only death lingered on his shoulders. Attempting to block his pursuit, I knocked down vases, suits of armor, and tottering candelabras. Given his age and girth, he was inconveniently nimble. He kept close behind, shouting obscenities that would make even the merpeople blush.
My chest constricted from lack of use, bands tightening and squeezing. I careened into the throne room—the heart of my home—and came to an abrupt stop. Sunlight winked through stained glass windows, painting the walls in rainbows.
My mother and father sat asleep on the dais, dressed in furs and silk, exactly as I remembered them. Around the massive room, guards and courtiers and servants slept. Some leaned against the walls. Some lay on the ground. Some swayed where they stood—towers ready to topple from the force of a stiff breeze.
A breath, sharp and bitter, scraped the back of my throat.
I remembered that too. How could I ever forget?
The man roared again, and I snatched the sword lying across my father’s lap.
With a sneer, the man prowled deeper into the room. “Put that thing down. You don’t want to cut yourself, Princess. I won’t hurt you. I just want a taste.”
As though a taste wouldn’t hurt me.
Beady eyes glittered as his gaze pitched over me and he licked his lips, the scant contents of my stomach threatening to rise.
“Stay away from me.” My voice was coated in cobwebs. It had been a very long time since I’d uttered a single syllable, so I cleared my throat and tried again. “Stay away from me!” This time, my words trumpeted with more certainty, despite the tremble I hoped he couldn’t hear.
As the man stalked closer, I noted his fine red jacket worked with scrolls of golden thread. His graying beard was neatly trimmed, and his polished leather boots reflected the sunlight. This man was no bandit or thief. He was a man of stature. A nobleman, perhaps. What was he doing here?
The sword in his hand glittered with life as though it possessed a heartbeat melded into the steel. Nearly losing myself in its pull, I couldn’t peel my eyes away. The sword in my own hand seemed inadequate in comparison. Like a cheap toy, instead of my father’s most lethal weapon.
The man lurched, and I snapped back to the present. Barely able to lift the blade, I swung it wildly, its weight throwing me off balance. When I stumbled, the man barked out a cruel and mirthless laugh, delight in his eyes.
Then he was on me, his sneer morphing into a guttural snarl. Grabbing my hair, he pulled me upright and pressed my back against his broad chest. My scalp burned as he twisted harder, and I felt the heavy weight of his stare drifting down my body. Spinning me around, a meaty hand encircled my throat.
He knocked the blade from my hand, and I watched it clatter to the stones along with my fleeting courage. Pinning me against the wall, the man smiled, showing off two rows of clean, white teeth. The scent of blood and sweat coated the inside of my mouth, choking me like wet rags stuffed down my windpipe.
“You can make this easy, or you can make this hard.” He leaned in closer, his breath burrowing into my skin. “For your sake, I’d choose easy. But for my sake, I like it hard.”
With a grunt, he jammed his body against mine, trapping me to the stone. My breath rushed out in quick gasps as he crushed my throat. I had little doubt he cared if I was unconscious for this.
“That’s right,” he said in my ear. “Be a good girl and do as you’re told.” Hot and heavy, his breath wormed across my cheeks as tears slipped from my eyes. Black spots mushroomed in my vision when he gripped my throat harder.
I was going to die.
After everything, how could this be my ending?
Then I remembered something else.
It was taking time to unravel each buried memory from the snarl of chains locking them down. But as he shoved his knee between mine, a tendril of recollection unfurled like a feeble blossom of hope. I clung to it, bruising the stems.
My father’s captain of the guard believed a princess should be able to defend herself. I wasn’t offered many useful lessons in my pampered life, but Andrick had gifted me this.
I slid my hand into my skirt, searching for the opening cut for exactly this reason. Down the side of my leg, I reached for a lifeline of polished steel, and there it still was.
The man had failed to notice it in his fury. Or maybe he saw me as so meager an opponent, he’d dismissed it. Desperation made me quick. I yanked the dagger from the strap around my thigh and thrust it between his ribs.
Stunned, we both watched blood gush out of him and onto me, coating my hand and arm and chest. Warm splashes pelted my chin and cheeks, my eyelashes fluttering at the impact. He met my gaze, outraged, as if he couldn’t believe I’d had the nerve.
I didn’t give him the chance to reach for the dagger. Desperation also made me decisive. I jerked the weapon away and slammed the sharpened point into the side of his neck. A fountain of blood spurted, bathing us in a robe of scarlet. Suspended in time, everything went quiet but for the shreds of my panting breaths. His knees then crumpled, and he dropped to the ground. Blank eyes stared at the ceiling. Dead.
I just killed a man.
A sob ripped from the back of my sternum as I slid down the wall, cradling my head in my arms, and dropped the bloody dagger. I trembled as my heart battled my lungs. Condensing myself into a ball of cemented limbs, I cried and cried until my cheeks were raw and my chest had drained out into a hollow chamber.
Eventually, I forced my chin up and surveyed the room. With a pool of blood congealed beneath me, I peeled myself off the floor. Black and silver banners hung from the high stone walls, the points ending above where my parents sat. Their bodies were relaxed, and they slouched against their silver thrones, hands hanging off the armrests as though they’d still been clasped when sleep took them.
On wobbly legs, I stumbled over and reached for my mother, circling my hands around her delicate shoulders.
“Wake up,” I whispered.
With a gentle shake, I searched her face for any flutter of consciousness. She remained placid—dead to the world, for all it mattered.
“Wake up.” I shook harder, her arms flopping like a scarecrow’s. “Wake up!” I screamed it this time, my plea desperate and wretched. “Wake up! I need you to wake up!”
Nothing happened as my voice echoed off the room’s high corners. My mother’s head, garlanded with glossy black curls, had fallen forward, chin resting on her chest. “Please, wake up.” I hiccupped a ragged sob and laid her back, carefully arranging her in the same position. Blood covered the arms of her white dress and the fur stole hanging around her shoulders. I stared at my hands in horror.
I killed a man.
Already knowing it was pointless, I stood in front of my father, hoping that if I screamed loud enough, someone would come and fix this.
None of them were supposed to be asleep.
No matter how loud I yelled, my father remained silent. I laid a hand on his dark hair and thought of the deep brown eyes concealed by shuttered lids. I would give anything to feel the warmth of his gaze. To feel his trust and his confidence. He would have known what to do.
It was then I snapped—the tether binding me to the earth, loosing me like an errant cannon. I ran from person to person, trying to wake someone. Rattling them, shouting at them. “Wake up, wake up, wake up. Someone, wake up!”
Tears blurred my vision, and I wiped them away with my sweaty palms. The air in my chest was as thick as tree sap. The guards, the courtiers, and the servants all slept on, oblivious to me. Oblivious to the blood coating the floor and my hands. Oblivious to the twelve Fae lying upstairs, murdered as they slept.
I had thirteen bodies to deal with and not a soul to help. But this was my home, and that man could not remain as a reminder of his sins in what had always been the sunny yellow center of this castle.
Beyond the throne room lay a wide stone hallway ending in a massive set of doors that stood several feet over my head. One stood slightly ajar where the man had entered my sanctuary.
Shielding my eyes from the bright light, I stepped outside, my slippers crunching on a pile of thick brambles littering the path. Brittle and black, they were covered in sharp, deadly spines. Growing up around the walls and over the top of the battlements, spreading with a thousand extendable limbs, they covered the entire castle. Was this part of the curse? They were too dense and ominous to have grown by nature’s will.
My breath caught as I saw a man—or rather what was left of one—trapped in the brambles as if he’d tried to climb his way to the top, only to be rendered fleshless into bleached bone.
How long had I been asleep?
I picked up a bramble, its end severed cleanly with a blade. Others had tried to transgress my resting place.
I thought of the way the man’s weapon had glittered with a preternatural glow. Like I could have pressed two fingers to the hardened steel and counted the beats of its heart. Why had he succeeded where others had failed?
Further down the wall, more skeletons sat trapped in the brush, and I swallowed the burning lump of coal in my throat.
A neigh caught my attention. I spun to find a white horse in a polished leather saddle, tied to a tree. It could only have belonged to him. With trembling hands, I fumbled with the rope, untying the beast and leading it toward the stables. My mind spun with calamitous thoughts, but these mundane, insignificant tasks calmed my galloping heart and gave me something else to focus on.
I killed a man.
The stable’s massive sliding door sat closed, and I hauled it open. Rusted tracks shrieked in protest to reveal a dozen stalls. My slippers crunching on a layer of hay, I found a stall to store the horse. The air was thick and damp, clinging like a second layer of skin. I walked to the third stall on the left, where my mare, Blizzard, lived. My throat knotted as I peered over the partition. Bones. Nothing but a dry husk left of my old friend.
A boy no older than twelve, wearing dark breeches and a thin shirt, lay asleep against the back wall. He sighed, his narrow chest rising and falling. A spattering of freckles bridged across his nose, his shaggy blond hair falling in his eyes. Propped up against the wall next to him was a shovel.
With the shovel slung over my shoulder, I walked deeper into the forest. Royal birch grew in dense formations, their trunks wide with the confidence of age. Bright green leaves fluttered in the breeze, their edges coated in creeping borders of white. Winter was around the corner and soon they would turn silver, forming a glittering canopy.
Under normal circumstances, it was one of my favorite sights.
My long skirts tangled around my ankles, stiffening with dried blood. Heart beating in my throat, I walked through the forest until the castle disappeared behind a curtain of foliage. The air was cool, a nip biting against my fevered skin.
Continuing deeper, I found a clearing surrounded by royal birch and apple trees. Rotten fruit littered the ground, their cloying scent filling the air. How many years had these trees provided for a harvest that never came?
Slowly pushing the breath from my lungs, I walked to the center of the clearing. Closing my eyes for a moment, I listened to the stillness of the forest, trying to coax a sliver of relief from my splintering nerves. Shovel gripped so tight my hands ached, I swung it off my shoulder and plunged it into the earth.
Then, I began to dig.
Copyright 2022 Nisha J. Tuli
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