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Never After

RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 2009
PUBLISHER: Jove

Here, for the first time ever, are four stories based on the classic idea of the “faerie tale wedding”—except this time, the damsels aren’t the ones in distress.

New York Times bestselling author Marjorie M. Liu tells the tale of a young princess who escapes betrothal to a warlord by entering a magical forest. But when an evil queen sends her on a quest to “The Tangleroot Palace” she faces dangers more perilous than marriage.

Excerpt

The bonds of love…The bonds of matrimony…The bonds between husband and wife…

Some bonds are made to be broken.

Here, for the first time ever, are four stories based on the classic idea of the “faerie tale wedding”—except this time, the damsels aren’t the ones in distress.

New York Times bestselling author Laurell K. Hamilton spins a story of a princess who decides to take her own destiny in hand and rescue a pampered Prince Charming from an evil sorceress in “Can He Bake a Cherry Pie?”

A selkie on the run from a century-old broken marriage arrangement has finally found true love—only to have the darkness from her past return to threaten both her and her dearly beloved in USA Today bestselling author Yasmine Galenorn’s “The Shadow of Mist.”

New York Times bestselling author Marjorie M. Liu tells the tale of a young princess who escapes betrothal to a warlord by entering a magical forest. But when an evil queen sends her on a quest to “The Tangleroot Palace” she faces dangers more perilous than marriage.

When a princess refuses her boring betrothed, the king holds a competition to see who will win his daughter’s hand. But in matters of the heart, is a winner truly worthy—or can a loser offer even more in national bestselling author Sharon Shinn’s “The Wrong Bridegroom.”

Excerpt

Weeks later, when she had a chance to put up her feet and savor a good hot cup of tea, Sally remembered something the gardener said, right before the old king told her that she had been sold in marriage.

“Only the right kind of fool is ever going to want you.”

Sally, who was elbow deep in horse manure, blew a strand of red hair out of her eyes. “And?”

“Well,” began the elderly woman, frowning—and then seemed to think better of what she was going to say, and crouched down beside her in the grass. “Here. Better let me.”

They were both wearing leather gloves that were stiff as rawhide, sewn in tight patches to reach up past their elbows. Simple to clean if you let them sit in the sun until manure turned to dry flakes, easy to beat off with a stick. Sally, who did not particularly enjoy rooting through muck, was nonetheless pleased that the tannery had provided her with yet a new tool for her work in the garden.

“You know,” Sally said, “when I told the stableboy to take care of my new roses, this is not what I meant.”

The gardener made a noncommittal sound. “There were ravens in my dreams last night.”

Sally finally felt something hard and stubbly beneath her fingers, and began clawing manure carefully away. “I thought we were talking about how only a fool would ever want me.”

“All men are fools,” replied the old woman absently, and then her frown deepened. “They were guarding a queen who wore a crown of horns.”

It took Sally a moment to realize that she was speaking of the ravens in her dream again. “How odd.”

“Not so odd if you know the right stories.” The gardener shivered, and glanced over her shoulder—but not before her gaze lingered on Sally’s hair. “Sabius is coming. Your father must want you.”

Sally craned around, but the sun was in her eyes. All she could see was the blurry outline of a bowlegged man, stomping across the grass with his meaty fists swinging. She glanced down at herself, and then with a rueful little smile continued clearing debris away from her roses.

“Princess,” said Sabius, well before his shadow fell over her. “Your father requests your . . . Oh, dear God.”

The gardener bit her bottom lip and kept her head down, long silver braids swinging from beneath her straw hat. Sally, gazing with regret at the one little leaf she’d managed to expose, leaned backward and tugged until her arms slid free of the rawhide gloves—left sticking from the manure like two hollow branches. Her skin was pink and sweaty, her work apron brown with stains.

“Oh, dear God,” said her father’s manservant again; and turned his head, covering his mouth with a hairy, bare-knuckled hand better suited to brawling than to the delicately scripted letters he often sat composing for the king. He made a gagging sound, and squeezed shut his eyes.

“Er,” said Sally, quite certain she didn’t smell that bad. “What does my father want?”

Sabius, still indisposed, pointed toward the south tower. Sally considered arguing, but it was hardly worth the effort.

She shrugged off her apron and dropped it on the ground. Smoothing out her skirts—also rather stained, and patched with a quilt work of silk scrap from the seamstress’s bin—she raised her brow at the gardener, who shook her head and returned to digging free the roses.

The king’s study was on the southern side of the castle, directly below his bedchamber, which was accessible only through a hidden wall behind his desk that concealed a narrow stone staircase. Not that it was a secret. Everyone knew of its existence, what with the maids scurrying up and down in the mornings and evenings: cleaning, folding, dressing, doing all manner of maid, and maidenly, things that Sally did not want to know about.

Her father was just coming down the stairs when she entered his study; even more slowly than she had intended, having been stopped outside the kitchen by two of the cook’s young apprentices from the village; who, in different ways, could not help but try to clean her up. First with scalding hot water and crushed lavender scrubbed into her face, loose hair tugged into a respectable braid; while the other girl fetched a fresh apron from the kitchen, which was not fine, and certainly not royal, but was clean and starched, and certainly in line with Sally’s usual apparel. No use wasting fine gowns on long walks, or earth work, or even just reading in the library.

Her one concession to vanity was the amethyst pendant she wore against her skin; a teardrop long as her thumb, and held in a golden claw upon which half of a small wooden heart hung, broken jaggedly down the middle. Her mother’s jewelry, and precious only for that reason.

“Salinda,” said her father, and stopped, sniffing the air. “You smell as though you’ve been sleeping beneath a horse’s ass.”

“Do I?” she replied airily. “I hadn’t noticed.”

The old king frowned, looking over her clothing with a great deal more scrutiny than was usual. He was a barrel-chested man, tall and lean in most places, except for his gut and the wattle beneath his chin, which he tried vainly to hide with a coarse beard that was fading quickly from black to silver. He moved with a limp, due to an arrow shot recently into his hip.

Sally had been frightened for him—for as long as it had taken the old king to wake from the draught the doctor had poured down his throat in order to remove the bolt. His temper had been foul ever since. Everyone was avoiding him.

“Don’t you have anything nicer to wear?” he asked, a peculiar tenseness in the way he studied her that made Sally instantly uneasy. “I pay for seamstresses.”

“And I have fine clothing,” she replied cautiously, as her father had never commented on her appearance, not once in seventeen years. “These are for everyday.”

The old king made a small, dissatisfied sound, and limped past her to his desk. “I suppose you heard about the skirmish at old Bog Hill? Men died. More good men every day. Little weasel bastard Fartin throwing gold at mercenaries to test our borders. But”—and he smiled grimly—“I have a solution.”

“Really,” Sally said, suffering the most curious urge to run.

“Your darling mother, before we married, had a very dear friend who was given to one of those southern tribal types as part of a lucrative alliance. She bore a son. Who just so happens to be a very powerful man in need of a wife.”

“Oh,” Sally said.

Her father gave her a stern look. “And I suppose he’s found one.”

“Oh,” Sally said again. “Oh, no.”

“Fine man,” replied the old king, but with a glittering unease in his eyes. “That Warlord fellow. You know.Him.

Sally stared, quite certain that bumblebees had just committed suicide in her ears. “Him. The Warlord. Who commands all the land south of the mountains to the sea; who leads a barbarian horde of nomadic horsemen so fierce, so vicious, so perverse in their torments, that grown men piddle themselves at the thought of even breathing the same air? That Warlord?”

“He does sound rather intimidating,” said her father.

“Indeed,” Sally replied sharply. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Amazingly, no.” The old king rubbed his hip, and winced. “I haven’t felt this proud of myself in years.”

Sally closed her eyes, grabbing fistfuls of her skirt and squeezing. “I think I’m losing my mind.” She had heard about the man for as long as she could remember. Warlord of this and that: colorfully descriptive names that were usually associated with pain, death, and destruction. Sally had vague memories of her mother speaking of him, as well, but only in association with his mother. He would have been a small child at the time, she thought. Nice and innocent; probably skinning dogs and plucking the wings off butterflies while suckling milk from his mother’s teat.

“What in the world,” she said slowly, fighting to control her temper, and rising horror, “could a man like that possibly want from a woman like me? He could have anyone. He probably has had everyone, given his reputation.” Sally leaned forward, poking her father in the chest. “I will not do it. Absolutely not. You are sending me to a short, hard, miserable life. I’m ashamed of you.”

Her father folded his arms over his chest. “Your mother’s best friend was sent to that short, hard, miserable life—and she thrived. Your dear, late, lovely mother would not have lied about that.” He turned and fumbled through the papers on his desk. “Now, here. The Warlord sent a likeness of himself.”

Sally frowned, but leaned in for a good long stare. “He looks like a dirty fingerprint.”

“Of course he doesn’t,” replied her father, squinting at the portrait. “You can see his eyes, right there.”

“I thought those were his nostrils.”

“Well, you’re not going to be picky, are you? At least he has a face.”

“Yes,” Sally replied dryly. “What a miracle.”

The king scowled. “Spoiled. I let you run wild, allow you teachers, books, a lifestyle unsuitable for any princess, and this is how you repay me. With sarcasm.”

“You taught me how to think for myself. Which never seemed to bother you until now.”

He slammed his fists onto the desk. “We are being overrun!”

His roar made her eardrums thrum. Sally shut her mouth, and fell backward into the soft cushions of a velvet armchair. Her knees were too weak to keep her upright. Terrible loneliness filled her heart, and sorrow—which she bottled up tight, refusing to let her father see.

The old king, as she stared at him, slumped with his arms braced against his desk. Staring at maps, and embroidered family crests that had been torn off the clothing of the fallen soldiers; and that now were scattered before him, some crusty with dried blood.

“We are being overrun,” he said again, more softly. “I know how it starts. First with border incursions, and petty theft of livestock. Then villages ransacked, roads blocked. Blamed on vandals and simple thieves. Until one day you hear the thunder of footfall beyond the walls of your keep, and all that you were born to matters not at all.”

He fixed her with a steely look. “I will not have that happen. Not for me, not for you. Not for any of the people who depend on us.”

Sally swallowed hard. Perhaps she had been spoiled. Duty could not be denied. But when she looked at the small portrait of the man her father wanted her to marry, terrible, unbending disgust filled her—disgust and terror, and a gut-wrenching grief that made her want to howl with misery.

Married to that. Sent away from all she knew. Forced to give up her freedom. No matter how fondly her mother had spoken of her friend, that woman’s son had a reputation that no sweet talk could alter. He was a monster.

The old king saw her looking at the Warlord’s likeness, and held it out to her with grim determination. She did not take it, but continued to stare, feeling as though she were going to jump out of her skin.

“I can’t tell anything from that,” she said faintly. “His artist did a terrible job.”

“Probably because he never sits still,” replied her father sarcastically. “Or so I was told. I assume it’s because he prefers to be out killing things.”
Sally grimaced. “You’re not seriously considering this?”

“Darling, sweet child; you golden lamb of my heart; my little chocolate knucklehead: I did consider, I have considered, and the deed is done. His envoy should be arriving within the week to inspect you for marriage, and sign the contracts.”

“Oh, dear.” Sally stared at her father, feeling as though she hardly knew him—quite certain that she did not.

And, since he was suddenly a stranger to her, she had no qualms in grabbing a nearby candle, and jamming it flame first into the tiny portrait he held in his hand. Hot wax sprayed. She nearly set his sleeve on fire. He howled in shock, dancing backward, and slammed his injured hip into the desk. He yelled even louder.

“And that,” Sally said, shaken, “is how I feel about the matter.”