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VanOps: The Lost Power by Avanti Centrae Banner

VanOps: The Lost Power

by Avanti Centrae

on Tour November 4, 2019 – January 10, 2020

Synopsis:

VanOps: The Lost Power by Avanti Centrae Da Vinci Code meets Tomb Raider in this award-winning thriller that #1 NYT’s author James Rollins called, “Full of action and suspense.” Spain 1057: During a thunderous battle, the first King of Aragon wrestles Alexander the Great’s priceless Egyptian weapon from the Moors, but finds it holds a terrifying and mysterious power. A thousand years later, on a hushed, fog-shrouded, Napa morning, gunshots and the sound of breaking glass rip through the silence. Maddy Marshall, an app designer and aikido instructor, and her twin brother, Will Argones, an engineer, quickly run toward the sound. Horrified, they discover a sniper’s bullet has found its human target. Before the pool of blood on the living room floor is dry, the twins are sent on an arcane quest to recover Alexander’s ancient weapon. Joined by a VanOps covert agent, they soon discover the rifle’s sights are now set on them. No place is safe, a wrong move means death, and even a simple phone call is off limits if they are to survive. From a medieval Spanish castle, they follow a time-worn trail, starting at a secret warren under the streets of Jerusalem. But if the killer finds the weapon first, it will be used to cripple the United States’ eye-in-the-sky early warning systems, allowing the Russians to swoop in and prey on the vulnerable nation. Can Maddy learn to wield the power of the dangerous weapon in time to stop the Russian scheme? Failure means the fragile world peace will be forever shattered…

Critical Praise for VanOps: The Lost Power

“Avanti Centrae’s VanOps: The Lost Power opens a tantalizing new series that combines historical mystery and cutting-edge science into a masterwork of international intrigue—with the promise of more to follow. Written with a dynamic, cinematic style and full of action and suspense, here’s a book that defines page-turner. Don’t miss this riveting debut!” ~ James Rollins, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Crucible “Just a good ole’ fashioned rip-roaring adventure from start to finish. Enjoy the ride.” ~ Steve Berry, New York Times best-selling author “A high-stakes, daring adventure charged with suspense and mystery!” ~ Ann Charles, USA TODAY bestselling author of the Deadwood Mystery Series “The writing is superb. Easy to read and captivating. There is a mixture of mystery and action that keeps me turning pages. Readers who like Indiana Jones, or the books by James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Vince Flynn, will enjoy Centrae’s first installment in her VanOps series.” ~ John Bernstein, Professional Reviewer

Book Details:

Genre: Thriller Published by: Black Opal Books Publication Date: November 9th 2019 Number of Pages: 308 ISBN: 1644371960 (ISBN13: 9781644371961) Series: VanOps #1 Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

Read an excerpt:

CHAPTER 1

Napa Valley, California, June 25, 8:56 a.m., Present Day Through the crosshairs of his long-barreled sweetheart, Ivan scanned the wood-casement window of the vineyard’s stone-walled residence, and waited for his intended target to walk into view. His movements were slow and meticulous. Lying in the loft of an old barn, he calculated range, altitude, temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed, and humidity. His skin was irritated by the coarse hay that surrounded him, but he ignored the sensation and focused on his calculations. Click. He made a minor adjustment on his rifle to account for the drop of the round due to air density. And another for windage. Although misty rivers of fog swirled into gray whirlpools around the winery, the computer enhanced scope of his Springfield EBR allowed him to visually lock onto the home’s large bank of windows. Human movement flickered behind the glass. He didn’t want to pull the trigger. Nevertheless, Ivan waited for the perfect moment, the perfect shot.

CHAPTER 2

8:57 a.m. As she headed toward her father’s vineyard, Maddy drove as fast as she dared down a familiar tree-lined Napa country lane. Today, she didn’t recognize the road. It looked eerie and unnatural. The area was draped in sheets of fog from yesterday’s unseasonable rain, and the silver half-light gave the trees an ethereal patina. “Sensei, would you kill someone if you had to?” AJ asked. Surprised, Maddy frowned. “I’m not a sensei yet, remember?” She paused for a moment before she replied to his query. “Where did that question come from?” “We were talking about it in the locker room at the dojo after class. We know aikido is about non-violence, but what if you don’t have a choice?” His voice dropped to a dramatic whisper. “What if it was kill or be killed?” Maddy shook her head. The things children thought about. “I would always look for another way.” She glanced over at AJ, glad she’d brought him along today. His ears stuck out and his face was dotted with freckles. She found him adorable. “Okay. Can martial arts masters light paper on fire with just their hands?” Maddy halted the car at a stop sign and peered through the swirling patchy-dense fog, trying to get her bearings while she figured out how to answer this question. The mist distorted everything. She turned right. Without warning, a smothering mass of black rustling feathers flew toward the car. She flinched in her seat and slammed on the car brakes. Her heart pounded. She stopped breathing and scanned the road ahead of her. After a long moment, she realized with chagrin that she had just scared a bunch of ugly, red-faced black turkey vultures into flight by turning onto a new road after a stop sign. She took a deep breath. It wasn’t like her to be so jumpy. She was, after all, shodan, a first-dan black belt. But the sudden movement of wings, obscured through the morning’s foggy haze, had pulled her off balance. Maddy gave the car some gas and it inched forward down the road. Maddy looked over at AJ. “Are you okay?” AJ laughed. “I’m okay. But that scared you!” “Did not!” Maddy replied, twisting her ponytail. “Did too—I saw you jump! And you smashed on the brakes.” Maddy grinned for a moment at the childish banter and AJ’s creative language. It could be a happy day, in spite of everything. She loved AJ, she and Vincent had even talked about adopting him. Vincent, her former fiancé. Of course, that was before the breakup. Since then, she’d been feeling brittle, and the nightmare last night didn’t help. The dream was gut-wrenching. Although the sensation had faded in the dim light of morning, much of it lingered like a bad relationship. That dream was probably why she was on edge and had jumped at the thrashing wings. She looked at the dash clock—only a few minutes late. Heart still beating faster than normal, she turned down the long shadowy driveway of the once proud vineyard.

CHAPTER 3

9:02 a.m. Up in the old barn, Ivan was close to the target, only seventy meters from the glass curtain that separated him from his quarry. Although the misty morning limited his visibility, he felt confident in his ability to execute the task Baron Sokolov had assigned to him. Ivan recalled much longer-range kills. Two months ago, from a nearby skyscraper, he’d eliminated a traitorous spy during a French soccer match, piercing the man’s forehead as directed. His record was just under two thousand meters, one hundred fifty meters shy of the longest recorded sniper kill in history. But he reminded himself to stay vigilant and cautious, traits that had earned him medals as one of Russia’s most accurate shooters. Being watchful was his nature. It was the silver lining of his disorder, congenital analgesia, which made him insensitive to pain. My gift from Mother, he thought. Ivan wondered where on his body he would mark this job. His left arm was covered in sets of hash marks—scars, where he had marked his kills. He started scarring himself in school to impress the other children, and in time it had become a blood ritual after a task to remind himself to be careful, that he too could die. After this morning, it would be time to add another scar. At one hundred and fifty-five confirmed kills, he had scars on both thighs, both arms, and was running out of room for the marks. Soon he would catch up to the kills his grandmother had recorded during World War II. After Germany had invaded, she had volunteered for the military and had one hundred and seventy-nine confirmed kills to her credit. Impressive. He remembered how she had taught him to shoot when he was young. She had a fondness for killing rabbits and he could still picture their crimson blood sprayed on the bright Siberian snow. However, patience was her favorite lesson and it had served him well. A puff of wind tugged at a windmill in the distance, and the melancholy creak of metal scratching metal disturbed the morning silence. He held his breath and listened for any sound to indicate he’d been discovered. There was nothing further, only an unnatural, muted quiet. Focused on his breathing and the window, he continued to wait for a clean shot. He was tired of killing, but he had to do his job. This last job. Or his son would die.

CHAPTER 4

9:05 a.m. Maddy’s car hit a pothole on the vineyard’s long gravel driveway. It annoyed her that Dad hadn’t said what was so urgent, and she’d been too distracted with the breakup to call him back. As she drew closer to the house, she was irritated to see Will was playing fog-fetch with the dog in the front yard. What is he doing here? Did dad call all the siblings? Bella, too? Will waved, walked toward an obnoxious sky-blue convertible that must be a rental, and opened the trunk. Maddy parked by Will’s car, near the house. She wished Dad would get the place painted. It was overdue and made the house look dilapidated in the gloom. Barking, her dad’s middle-aged golden retriever ran up to the car. “A dog! Can I play with the dog?” AJ asked, true excitement in his voice. “Sure, just don’t head too far into the vineyard,” Maddy replied. “His name is Squirrel.” AJ bounded from the car and ran off, chasing the dog through the murky, fog-bound yard. Will closed the trunk of the Mustang, moved around to the side of the car, and watched AJ and the dog playing. Dressed in his usual style, he wore tan cargo shorts, leather sandals, and a dark-blue Ralph Lauren polo shirt. Ever prepared for disaster, he had a small flashlight hanging from the front of his shorts, and she figured he had a knife in his pocket. He was holding two small travel bags and managed to cradle a book in his hand. Without a doubt, a geeky physics book. Maddy had avoided prolonged contact with Will since their senior year in high school when he had pulled that awful prank. She had turned her back on him then, and her face flushed with the memory. As she opened her car door, she stood and swung her hair out of her face. Then she shut the door and walked over to him. It was so foggy and quiet, she didn’t even hear songbirds. Maddy tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice. “Hello, Will.” After they’d spent time apart, she was always surprised at the strength of their emotional bond. She couldn’t believe he was happy to see her—he had no shame! She had felt some connection to her boyfriends, Vincent included—I hate you right now, Vincent—and sometimes to her students at the dojo. But the connection was always strongest with Will, her twin, like it or not. He felt content now. She had almost missed his charm. Will flashed his irksome, boyish, lopsided grin. “Hey, Maddy, it’s good to see you! Did you have a safe drive?” To meet her, he walked around toward the front of the car. She noted his dark curly hair looked ruffled and a little shorter than the last time she’d seen him. His green eyes looked pinched, as if he were worried about something. Dad sometimes teased that they all had Spanish olives for eyes, but she enjoyed sharing the feature. She just wished she’d been blessed with Will’s long eyelashes, instead of having to create them every day with mascara. Maddy studied Will’s face. She noticed that the scar on his chin was almost hidden by a fashionable new beard that he’d grown since she’d seen him last year at Christmas dinner. The scar was always a painful reminder of the childhood accident that killed their mother. As he put down the bags, he scratched the beard, casually leaned back against the hood of the Mustang, and crossed his long lanky legs. She knew protocol called for a hug, and considered it. Rejecting the idea, she also ignored his worrywart question about the safe drive. “Did you leave Maria in Brazil?” Maddy could tell from his eyes that Will didn’t understand her cold shoulder, and she didn’t care. He had never made amends for that thoughtless stunt back in high school and she wasn’t going to let him off the hook. “No, I brought her with me,” he replied. Remembering her nightmare, Maddy’s gut clenched. She tried to ignore it. “We’ve both been working too hard.” Instead, she lashed out, her voice rising more than she intended. “Was that wise? Bringing her? Do you even know what Dad wants?” Will took a deep breath. “Gee, sis, simmer down. I thought I was the worrier of the family.” He met her gaze. “Maria was up for a change of scenery so we planned a romantic wine-country vacation. You know, the train, mud baths, that sort of thing? We might even stop by Safari West. Besides, you brought company.” He nodded toward AJ. “Who’s the little guy?” “His name is AJ. He’s a foster kid from the dojo and it’s his birthday.” She watched AJ and the dog play a spontaneous game of tag. “Is that all Dad wants with us? A vacation? He sounded concerned on the message he left me. And didn’t mention you’d be here, or Bella. Is she coming? He didn’t even say why he wanted me to come, which just seems odd. Did you talk with him?” “Bella is on her way, but no, we didn’t talk before I came up. I hope nothing is wrong. We just got here and haven’t had a chance to visit much, but he did mention he had some disconcerting news.” He paused. “You feel upset. What are you not telling me? What’s the big deal?” On days like today, Maddy hated that the emotional bond between them worked both ways. She didn’t feel like telling him anything, especially about the dream. Irritated, she looked around for a way out of the conversation but didn’t see one. The sun was hidden, the vineyard foggy and subdued, like it was holding its breath. She clenched her teeth and took a deep breath of her own. “I had a dream last night.” Now his tone sharpened a notch. “What kind of dream?” “A bad one. Maria was in it. I woke up early and it’s stuck with me since.” “Tell me,” he demanded. “I don’t know…there was blood on her face.” She remembered another dream she had when they were six. The night before their mom died. She knew by the look on his face that he was remembering that dream, too. “Blood on Maria’s face—” he frowned, thinking, questioning. “Yes, it was horrible. Splattered like a Pollock painting. I don’t remember much else. But the feeling is still with me.” Her mood picked up a little, having gotten it off her chest. “It’s probably nothing. I just wish you hadn’t brought her.” “Interesting,” he said. “You haven’t had one of those dreams in a while, have you? A real one?” “No,” she said. “It’s been a few years and the last was about a boyfriend cheating on me. The dream ended that relationship.” Will put his hands on his hips. “How is Vincent?” She grimaced. Irritated, Maddy turned and headed up the sidewalk toward the house. Will grabbed the bags and his book, and followed her, his feet padding on the concrete. As they walked, she remembered the lush landscaping that had been here once. It had provided a jumbled, colorful contrast to the acres and acres of straight green vines in the fields. Her father’s landscapers, back when he could afford them, had done well in this entry area. She couldn’t see it, but she inhaled the light scent of gardenia, and she recognized remnants of some sort of native grass, night-blooming jasmine, pansies, and roses. Vincent had brought her roses only three weeks ago. Bastard. “I see,” Will said. “So…maybe this dream was a reaction to whatever is going on there?” “Maybe—” she said. “I hope so.” Then she added, “Let’s go see what Dad wants.”

CHAPTER 5

9:15 a.m. Ivan tugged on the two-stage trigger, testing it. He was used to his Soviet bolt-action SV-98, but in the interest of time and ease of entry into the country, he had purchased a black-market rifle in the States. He was pleased with his choice, and glad it had come with a suppressor. The Enhanced Battle Rifle was decent—he tested it out yesterday in an isolated vineyard he found for the purpose. The rifle was a little heavy, but he liked the trigger-shoe modification the prior owner had done, as it gave the pull a more natural feel. He drew his attention back to the wood-casement window and twice glimpsed the oblivious inhabitant, dancing his way to death. A minute ago, the sound of car tires on gravel had come to him through the fog, so his partner, on lookout, should be reporting in. On cue, a voice in his head broke the morning stillness, “Green Prius has parked at the front of the house.” The sniper appreciated that he could hear his partner’s Russian voice clearly through the high-tech device, as he was old enough to remember missions without such advanced technology. “Driver?” he subvocalized the question, also in Russian, into the tiny molar microphone that had been custom formed to fit his teeth. “She’s female, young, maybe thirty. Slim, with an olive complexion. Has sexy long dark hair in a ponytail, and is tall. Pretty tall for a woman. Rape-bait if you ask me. Dressed in jeans and a snug purple T-shirt,” his partner said. On this job, his partner was here as much to keep an eye on him as to help, Ivan knew. The man’s simple mind and cruel nature were evident every time they worked together. The idiot had caused them to run late this morning. This part of the job should have been over an hour ago. Now it was getting complicated. “That’s not what we’re here for,” Ivan hissed. “Maybe. If so, you need to take your shot.” A few beats later his partner continued, “She was talking to the tall man next to the blue sports car. They look alike. Now they’re headed to the front door.” There was a long pause. The sniper adjusted his hold on the rifle, concentrating. He’d read the dossiers on Maddy Marshall and her twin brother, Will Argones. Argones was an engineer, no real threat. But the Marshall woman. A world-class athlete and national ski champion who had been a favorite for Olympic gold, she’d used her lightning-fast reflexes to become a warrior in an unusual martial art. And she was gifted with a keen intelligence. A dangerous combination. In another time and place, he’d have been interested in her as a mate. He swore. Based on his orders, their arrival meant he had run out of time. A low whistle pierced his ear. “Ivan, she’s got long legs. You know I like long legs, right? Why don’t we stick around and have some fun?” “You’re a pig and the baron was clear in our instructions,” the sniper replied, with heat in his tone. “You’re a bore. Oh, she had a kid with her in the car.” “A kid? What kid?” The dossier didn’t mention a child! That wasn’t part of the deal. I may go down in flames if the baron makes me shoot a kid. This target is one thing but— “How do I know what kid? He looks like he’s eight or nine. Red hair, big ears. He’s playing with the dog in the vineyard.” Ivan hoped the kid and dog were off in a different direction. At home, Ivan’s son might be playing with his own dog. But that thought was dangerous. “Just make sure they don’t come this way.” His attention back on the window, Ivan finally got a complete look at one of the other inhabitants: a short, dark-skinned woman. She wore a pale pink blouse above a blue skirt and Ivan prayed she would get out of the way. He didn’t like killing women. However, he knew that, whether he liked it or not, the latter part of the baron’s plan already called for its share of female bloodshed. The older man, near a black sofa, came into Ivan’s sights for a brief moment. It appeared that he and the younger woman were moving into the room with all the windows. Ivan knew it was time. Ivan was glad now they’d chosen a fast getaway car. “I must focus—go get the car ready.” The older man came completely into view. He was tall, clean-shaven, tan-skinned, with owlish glasses. His receding black hair was streaked with gray, and he wore slacks and a white button-down shirt. Yes, finally. But the woman was directly behind the target! Move, he willed to her. Please. This was the best shot he had. Time had run out! He had no choice but to urge her to move at the last minute. He took a slow, steady breath and tugged again on the two-stage trigger. Only this time, it wasn’t a test.

CHAPTER 6

9:20 a.m. AJ and Squirrel, done with the chase and on to a game of fetch, ran around the side yard, enjoying the grass and the feel of morning in the dense, wet fog. AJ loved all things nature. Feeling happy today made him miss his parents. He had vague memories of joyful times when they took him to his grandparent’s Ukrainian dairy farm. When the Russians came and killed his grandparents, his parents and he had fled to San Francisco. Then, one day, his mom and dad had been caught in the crossfire of a convenience store holdup while stopping for milk. That’s what he’d gathered, no one had told him. Since his parents’ death he’d been in foster care, because all of his family back in Ukraine were dead, too. He didn’t like his foster family because they ignored him, but he loved Maddy and did whatever his foster creeps asked so that he could go to the dojo. Maddy treated him the way his mom used to, warm and caring. Today, he was full of pleasure—hanging out with Maddy, getting to chase a dog outside. More than anything, he wanted a real family again. And a dog, just maybe not one named Squirrel. Someday, he’d get a big dog to protect him and name it Rufus, or Damien. AJ threw a stick and tried out the new name, “Damien, fetch!” After several minutes of chasing the stick in the side yard, AJ decided they should play a new game in the rows of vines. “C’mon, Damien,” he called as he ran into the shadows, followed by the panting dog. The morning was blissfully perfect as they ran up and down the rows. Then a loud crack sounded from the direction of the barns, like a tree branch breaking. He called his new canine friend and they headed off to investigate. *** Excerpt from VanOps: The Lost Power by Avanti Centrae. Copyright 2019 by Avanti Centrae. Reproduced with permission from Avanti Centrae. All rights reserved.
   

Author Bio:

Avanti Centrae International award-winning author who blends intrigue, history, science, and mystery into nonstop thrillers. Avanti Centrae is the author of the international award-winning VanOps thriller series. An avid world-traveler, she’s studied aikido, been a river raft guide, and thrives on adventure. Her book, The Lost Power, took home a genre grand prize blue ribbon at the Chanticleer International Book Awards, and an Honorable Mention at the 2018 Hollywood Book Festival. She resides in Northern California with her family and German Shepherds.

Catch Up With Avanti Centrae: avanticentrae.com, Goodreads, Twitter, & Facebook!

   

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Excerpt

I grew up in paradise.

Tropically warm, lushly beautiful, replete with luxury, my childhood world was without flaw. My least whim was met with immediate indulgence, served instantly and with smiles of delight. I swam in crystal clear waters, then napped on silk. I chased gorgeously ornamental fish and birds, and enjoyed dozens of perfectly behaved pets of unusual coloring and pedigrees. My siblings and I spent our days in play, nothing ever asked or expected of us.

Until the day everything was demanded—and taken—from me.

Only then did I finally see our paradise for what it was, how deliberately designed to mold and shape us. A breeding ground for luxurious accessories. To create a work of art, you grow her in an environment of elegance and beauty. To make her soft and lusciously accommodating, you surround her with delicacies and everything delightful. And you don’t educate her in anything but being pleasing.

Education leads to critical thinking, not a desirable trait in a princess of Dasnaria, thus I was protected from anything that might taint the virginity of my mind, as well as my body.

Because I’d understood so little of the world outside, when my time came to be plucked from the garden, when the snip of the shears severed me from all I’d known, the injury came as a shock so devastating that I had no ability to even understand what it meant, much less summon the will to resist and overcome. Which, I’ve also come to realize over time, was also a part of the deliberate design.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning.

I grew up in paradise.

And it was all you’d imagine paradise to be. A soft palace of lagoons and lush gardens, of silk bowers and laughter. With little else to do, our mothers and the other ladies played with us, games both simple and extravagantly layered. When we tired, we napped on the velvet soft grass of the banks of the pools, or on the silk pillows scattered everywhere. We’d sleep until we awoke, eat the tidbits served us by watchful servant girls, then play more.

Hestar and I had our own secret games and language. All the ladies called us the royal pair, as we were the emperor’s firstborns and we’d been born less than a month apart.

My mother, first wife, the Empress Hulda, and the most highly ranked woman in the empire, spent much of her day at court. When she was home in the seraglio, she preferred to relax without noisy children to bother her. Hestar’s mother, Jilliya, was second wife and kept getting pregnant, forever having and sometimes losing the babies. So, by unspoken agreement, we kept clear of her apartments, too. Something else I understood much later, that the miasma of misery has its own brand of contagion—and that those who fear contracting the deadly disease stay far away.

Saira, on the other hand, third wife and mother of our half-sister Inga, had a kindness and sweetness to her, so we kids often played in her apartments when we grew bored of games like climbing the palm trees to see who could pluck the most dates while a servant counted the time. Inga, along with my full brother, Kral, were the second oldest pair—the

second-borns, also arriving in the same month, to my mother and Saira. Less than a year younger than Hestar and me, they completed our set of four. Our six other brothers and sisters played with us, too, but they were babies still, needing to be watched all the time. Whenever we could, the four of us ditched the babies, exploring the far corners of our world, then making hideouts where no one could find us.

Though, of course, when the least desire took our fancy, someone always appeared instantaneously to satisfy us. Another of the many illusions of my childhood.

Hestar and I, we had a cave we’d made under a clump of ferns. He’d stocked it with a box of sweetmeats and I’d stolen one of my mother’s silk throws for a carpet. Embroidered with fabulous animals, it told tales of a world beyond our corner of paradise. We loved it best of all our purloined treasures, and made up stories about the scenes and creatures, giving them names and convoluted histories.

One day—the kind that stands out with crystalline clarity, each detail incised in my memory—we played as usual. Hestar had been mysteriously gone for a while the day before, or perhaps several days before or for several days in a row. That part fogs in with the timelessness of those days that never ended, but blended one into the next. What I remember is the elephant.

“And the miskagiggle flapped its face tail, saying nooo—”

“It’s called an elephant,” Hestar interrupted me.

“What is?”

“It’s not a miskagiggle. It’s an elephant, and the face tail is a trunk.”

Hestar beamed with pride at knowing something I didn’t.

“You’re making that up.”

“No, I’m not! My tutor told me.”

“What’s that?”

“A teacher. My tutor is named Ser Llornsby.”

“Is that where you went?” Hestar and Kral had been whisked off by servants, and no one would tell me or Inga where they were, just that we’d see them again soon.

Hestar’s blue eyes went wide and he looked around to see if anyone was listening. “Want to know a secret?”

Oh, did I. Even then I understood that secrets were the carefully hoarded and counted currency of the seraglio. “Yes!”

We pulled the silk throw over our heads to make a tent. It was the usual grass beneath, so we didn’t really need the carpet. Having it just made our hideaway more special—and the throw became a blanket, excellent for exchanging secrets.

“We went through the doors!” Hestar told me, whispering but much too loudly.

I hushed him. I didn’t question how I knew, but this secret held power. Most of our secrets had been silly, frivolous things, like how Inga kept candied dates under her pillow. Or ones everyone already knew, like that Jilliya was pregnant again. With the unabashed enthusiasm of children, we absorbed all the murmured gossip and repeated it with equal relish. This, though—I recognized immediately how important it was.

No wonder no one would tell us where they’d gone. Children didn’t go through the doors. Only my mother and some of the women. The rekjabrel and other servants, they went in and out all the time. But a lot of times they came back crying or hurt, so we understood the doors led to a terrible place. And yet Hestar had gone and returned, beaming.

“Was it terrible? Were you scared? Did Kral go, too?”

Hestar nodded, solemnly. “We were brave boys though. And it’s not like here. There aren’t the lagoons and it’s not as warm. They took us to a library and we met Ser Llornsby. We looked at pictures and learned animal names.”

I couldn’t bring myself to ask what a library might be. I wanted to look at pictures and learn animal names. Though I didn’t know the emotion to name it at the time, a jab of envy lanced through my heart. Hestar and I always had everything the same, only I had the better mother, because she was first wife. It wasn’t fair that Hestar got to go through the doors and learn things without me. An elephant. I whispered the exotic word to myself.

“Elephants are huge and people ride on their backs, and the elephants carry things for them in their trunks.” Hestar continued, full of smug pride. “Ser Llornsby is going to teach me everything I need to know to be emperor someday.”

“Why do you get to be emperor? My mother is first wife. Yours is only second wife. Besides, I’m older.”

Hestar wrinkled his nose at me. “Because you’re a girl. Girls can’t be emperor. Only empress.”

That was true. It was the way of things. “Well then you can be emperor and I can be empress like Mother.”

“All right!” Hestar grinned. “We’ll rule the whole empire and have lots of elephants. Kral and Inga can be our servants.”

For the rest of the day we played emperor and empress. Kral and Inga got mad and decided they would be emperor and empress, too, not listening when we said there could only be one of each and we were firstborn so they had to be our servants. They went off to play their own game, but we got Helva to be in our court, and also her little brothers, Leo and Loke. The boys were identical twins and liked any game they could play together. Baby Harlan could barely toddle, so he stayed with his nurse. Ban went off with Inga, of course, as he followed her everywhere, but her full brother, Mykal came to our side.

We didn’t care, because our court was the biggest. Besides, everyone knew the emperor gets to pick his own empress, and Hestar already promised me I’d be first wife and I could pick his other wives, just like Mother did. Which meant Inga wouldn’t get to be one. Maybe not Helva, either, though I told her she would be.

Mother didn’t much care for Saira and Jilliya, so maybe I wouldn’t have other wives at all. I didn’t need them to be empress.

Playing emperor and empress turned out to be terribly fun. Hestar made me a crown of orchids and we took over one of the small eating salons, getting the servants to clear out the table and pillows, instead setting up two big chairs to be our thrones. His Imperial Majesty Emperor Einarr Konyngrr, our father, had a throne. So we’d heard. And we badgered one of the rekjabrel who’d served in the court to tell us what it looked like.

“Huge, Your Imperial Highnesses,” she said, keeping her eyes averted.

“It towers above, all platinum and crystal, so bright you can’t look upon it. I can’t say more.”

“What about the Empress’s throne?” I persisted.

“Just the one throne, Your Imperial Highness Princess Jenna.”

“That can’t be right,” I told Hestar, when we let the rekjabrel go. “She must not have seen properly.”

“We don’t have platinum anyway,” he replied.

So we decorated the two big chairs, which ended up taking a long time. They needed to be sparkling, which meant we needed jewels. Leo and Loke were good at persuading bangles off the ladies, but then didn’t like to give them up. By the time we chased them down and got everything decorated, we had only a little time to have actual court. When my nurse, Kaia, came to get me for my bath, we made all the servants promise to leave everything as it was.

“Kaia?” I asked, splashing at the warmed milk water as she poured the jasmine rinse through my hair.

“Yes, Princess?”

“Have you seen an elephant?”

She laughed. “No, Princess. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Is this one of your games?”

“No—they’re real. Their face-tails are called trunks.”

“If you say so, Princess.”

I fumed a little. How could I find out more about elephants when no one even believed they were real? “When do I get to go through the doors and look at pictures of animals and learn their names?”

Kaia dropped the pitcher of jasmine water, breaking it on the tiles. I would have scolded her for clumsiness, but she had such an odd look on her face that I stopped mid-word.

“Where have you heard of such a thing, Princess?” She had her head bowed, but with her scalp shorn, she couldn’t hide her face. She’d gone white, her eyes squinched up like she hurt. Just like that time Mother accused her of drinking from her special teapot, and had Kaia lashed until she confessed. Kaia had cried and cried, not wanting to play with me for days afterward. But this time she didn’t have any blood, so I didn’t understand why she went all pale like that.

“Hestar got to go. And Kral, too, and he’s younger. I want to go. I command you to take me tomorrow.”

“Your Imperial Highness, I cannot.”

“You will or I’ll tell Mother.”

“Up and out, Princess,” she replied, dumping the shards into a waste bin, then holding out a towel. “We must address this with Her Imperial Majesty. You can ask her in person.”

She dried me off, too briskly, and I almost reprimanded her, but she still looked so scared and I didn’t want her to not play with me for days again. “I already said goodnight to Mother.” Mother didn’t like to be disturbed after goodnights, and the prospect began to make me a little afraid, too.

Kaia wrapped my hair in a towel, then rubbed me all over with jasmine scented unguent. She worked as thoroughly as always, but wouldn’t answer any more questions, simply saying that I could ask my mother momentarily.

She pulled my nightgown over my head and had me put on a robe, too, which wasn’t usual. And we went with my hair still damp, not carefully combed dry before the fire while she told me stories.

I didn’t want to miss my stories and I began to be afraid I’d said something terribly wrong. I’d known this was an important secret. How could I have been so careless? It was the elephant. “Let’s not go see Mother,” I said.

Kaia shook her head, pressing her lips together. “I apologize, Princess, but I’m afraid we must.”

“I don’t want to. Tell me my stories. My hair is still wet.”

But she didn’t bend, which scared me even more. Kaia always did what I told her. Almost always. She took my hand in a grip so firm it nearly hurt and practically dragged me to Mother’s private salon. I resisted, and would have thrown a fit, but Mother wouldn’t like that. An imperial princess gives commands in a firm and gentle voice, never shrill, and

tears are unacceptable.

Still, when Kaia called out through the closed yellow silk curtains, and my mother snapped out a reply, I nearly did cry. And Kaia didn’t relent in her grip, which made me think she was angry with me and Kaia was never angry, even when I refused to eat my supper and demanded dessert instead. She parted the curtains and slipped me inside, kneeling beside me and bowing her head to the plush tapestried carpet. I lowered my eyes, too, though I didn’t have to kneel.

“Well?” the empress demanded in a cold tone. “What is the meaning of this, child?”

“My humble apologies, Your Imperial Majesty,” Kaia said, though Mother had clearly asked me. Her voice shook and her hand had gone all cold and sweaty. I yanked mine away and she let me. “Her Imperial Highness Princess Jenna has asked me questions I cannot answer. I thought it best to bring her to you immediately.”

“It’s not your responsibility to think,” Mother replied. A hissing sound as she breathed in her relaxing smoke. “You are to keep the princess well groomed, as she most certainly is not at the moment. Your hair is wet, Jenna.”

A tear slipped down my cheek, making me glad that I was to keep my eyes averted unless given permission. Maybe she wouldn’t see. “I’m sorry,

Mother,” I whispered.

“As well you should be. Interrupting my quiet time. Going about like a rekjabrel with wild hair. Are you a princess of Dasnaria?”

“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.”

She hmphed in derision. “You don’t look like one. What question did you ask to upset your nurse so?”

Kaia had gone silent, quaking on the carpet beside me. No help at all. I considered lying, saying Kaia had made it up. But Mother wouldn’t believe that. Kaia would never so recklessly attract punishment. I happened to know she hadn’t snuck the tea—one of the rekjabrel had taken it for her sister, but Kaia had never said.

“Jenna,” Mother said, voice like ice. “Look at me.”

I did, feeling defiant, for no good reason. Mother reclined on her pillows, her embroidered silk gown a river of blues over their ruby reds. Her unbound hair flowed over it all, a pale blond almost ivory, like mine. In contrast, her eyes looked black as ebony, darker even than the artful shadows outlining them. She’d removed most of her jewelry, wearing only the wedding bracelets that never came off. She held her glass pipe in her jeweled nails. The scarlet of her lip paint left a waxy mark on the end of it, scented smoke coiling from the bowl.

“Tears?” Her voice dripped contempt and disbelief. “What could you possibly have said to have your nurse in a puddle and an imperial princess in tears, simply in anticipation?”

“I didn’t say anything!” I answered.

“Your nurse is lying then,” the empress cooed. “I shall have to punish her.”

Kaia let out this noise, like the one Inga’s kitten had made when Ban kicked it. The ladies had taken it to a better home and Inga had cried for days until they gave her five new kittens just like it.

“I only asked about the elephants,” I said, very quietly.

“Excuse me?” The arch of her darkened brows perfectly echoed her tone.

“Elephants!” I yelled at her, and burst into full-fledged sobbing. If you’d asked me then, what made me break all those rules, raising my voice, defying my mother, losing the composure expected of an imperial princess, firstborn daughter of Emperor Einarr, I likely could only have explained that I wanted to know about elephants so badly that it felt like a

physical ache. Something extraordinary for a girl who’d rarely experienced pain of any sort.

Once I’d had a pet, an emerald lizard with bright yellow eyes. Its scales felt like cool water against my skin, and it would wrap its tail tightly around my wrist. I’d only had it a day when it bit me. Astonished by the bright pain,

the blood flowing from my finger, I’d barely registered that I’d been hurt before the servants descended, wrapping the wound in bandages soaked in sweet smelling salve that took sensation away.

They also took the lizard away and wouldn’t give it back, despite my demands and pleas. When the salve wore off, my finger throbbed. And when they took the bandages off, the skin around the bite had turned a fascinating purple and gray. They tried to keep me from looking, but I caught glimpses before they made it numb again, then wrapped it up and I couldn’t see it anymore. I’d tap my finger against things, trying to feel it again. My finger and the lizard, both gone.

I felt like that, full of purple bruising and soft pain, as if I’d been bitten inside, and somehow numb on the outside. I wondered what might disappear this time.

“Elephants,” my mother pronounced the word softly, almost in wonder.

Then she laughed, not at all nicely. “Leave us,” she snapped, making Kaia scurry backwards. “It’s apparently time for me to have a conversation about life with my daughter.”

 


Prisoner of the Crown
Chronicles of Dasnaria #1
She was raised to be beautiful, nothing more. And then the rules changed . . .
In icy Dasnaria, rival realm to the Twelve Kingdoms, a woman’s role is
to give pleasure, produce heirs, and question nothing. But a plot to
overthrow the emperor depends on the fate of his eldest daughter. And
the treachery at its heart will change more than one carefully
limited life . . .
The Gilded Cage
Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance. Within the
sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio, she’s never
seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers. But she’s been
schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power. When her betrothal
is announced, she’s ready to begin the machinations that her mother
promises will take Jenna from ornament to queen.
But the man named as Jenna’s husband is no innocent to be cozened or
prince to charm. He’s a monster in human form, and the horrors of
life under his thumb are clear within moments of her wedding vows. If
Jenna is to live, she must somehow break free—and for one born to a
soft prison, the way to cold, hard freedom will be a dangerous path
indeed…

 


Guest Post

Writing PRISONER OF THE CROWN was an interesting foray into history for me. See, this book is the first in a trilogy that’s a spinoff from the world established in my Twelve Kingdoms and Uncharted Realms series. The Empire of Dasnaria, where PRISONER takes place, is a foreign – and aggressive – realm encountered by the people of the Twelve Kingdoms. And Dasnaria is a very different culture where women do not have the same rights and freedoms that they do in the twelve.

Part of that came from wanting a foil to my assertive and powerful High Queen of the Twelve Kingdoms, and the other part came from me being aware of the political and cultural situation in our modern world. I wanted to better understand how women can be happy raised in a culture where they’re kept “under wraps” in one way or another, where men decide their lives and provide escorts everywhere. Dasnaria became that place in my fictional world.

With PRISONER, I got to write that story from the inside, through the character of Imperial Princess Jenna, born in the seraglio of the Imperial Palace of Dasnaria. She’s spent her entire life there, surrounded by women and given a carefully crafted education. So, while I knew the societal rules of Dasnaria from my people of the Twelve Kingdoms learning about them, Jenna was my first opportunity to be in the head of a woman who grew up inside that culture, who knows those rules as immutable.

This proved to be a challenge, because the cloistered world of the seraglio is all Jenna knows to begin with. It’s not until she leaves the seraglio to be married that she begins to seriously question whether she could have another life. At first, she utterly believes that men are smarter and stronger, that only through her husband and sons – and manipulating her daughters the same way she’s been groomed – can she gain any power. She takes at face value that women must learn to pleasure men, and she’ll offer her body with complete obedience and submissive grace to her husband, no matter what he demands of her. She even nurtures a romantic ideal that if she’s beautiful and perfect, then she will have a happy marriage.

We all know how that kind of thinking works out.

This story is not a romance. The beastly husband doesn’t turn out to be a wonderful man beneath. This is entirely Jenna’s story, and how she discovers that how she’s been raised and what she’s been taught is only one lens on the world.

And that there’s more out there beyond the Empire of Dasnaria.


Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author with a writing career that spans
decades. She lives in Santa Fe, with two Maine Coon cats, a border
collie, plentiful free-range lizards and a Doctor of Oriental
Medicine. Jeffe can be found online at JeffeKennedy.com, or every
Sunday at the popular Word Whores blog.
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