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Sophia, Princess Among Beasts
With Emily Raymond
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Sophia is smart, beautiful, and accomplished, a beloved princess devoted to the people and to reading books. The kingdom is hers, until she is plunged into a nightmarish realm populated by the awful beasts she read about as a child.
The beasts are real. And so is the great army marching on her castle. The people look to Sophia for protection. They will all perish unless she can unlock an ancient secret as profound as life and death itself.
Sophia, Princess Among Beasts is a fabulous adventure, and a stunning mystery. Here again is proof of why James Patterson is the world's most trusted storyteller.
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Jeanette, my lady in waiting, woke me by tickling my cheek with the feather end of my quill pen.
“Up late writing again, Princess?” she asked. “And what was it this time? A song? A poem? Another appeal to the King about how you should be taught to joust?”
I could tell this last idea amused her; it was another of my unladylike notions. But I didn’t answer. Instead I burrowed deeper into my feather bolster, pulling the ermine coverlet over my head entirely. I’d give my father’s crown for a few more minutes of sleep. I’d been dreaming something wonderful, full of longing, and already I couldn’t recall any of it.
“Sophia,” Jeanette said, her voice still gentle but firmer now. “It’s time to dress. Your father is in the Great Hall, and he expects you to join him. You know he does not like to be kept waiting.”
And so I emerged reluctantly from my bed and dug my bare toes into the sheepskin rug. It was a damp, chill October morning, and I shivered as a chambermaid poked the fire into roaring life. My attendants fluttered around the room, silent as moths. One brought fresh linens, and two others were dispatched to retrieve my gown and mantle. Jeanette herself would unlock the lacquer box to inspect the mound of glittering jewels, choosing which ones should encircle my neck or dangle from my ears. Today, as every day, I was to be scrubbed and dressed and pampered and styled.
“You’d think I lacked the arms to do this myself,” I muttered as Adelie, the youngest attendant, moved to take off my nightdress.
She suppressed a giggle. These indulgences were my royal right and my royal duty, and we both knew it. My father, the king, insisted on every possible luxury for me—except, of course, that of sleeping in.
I made my way toward the great wooden tub of steaming water, scented with verbena, sweet woodruff, and rosemary. The last rose petals of the season dotted the water’s surface, and sinking into the bath was like sliding back into summer’s heat.
I almost could have drifted back to sleep (as Jeanette suspected, I had stayed up half the night). But I had barely closed my eyes when the door to my chamber flung open, and a scullery maid stood gasping on the threshold, her face as white as milk.
“What are you doing here, Margery?” Jeanette demanded. “This is not your place.”
“He’s coming,” the girl whispered. “What they said—it’s true. His army—”
But Jeanette didn’t let her finish. She unceremoniously shoved the girl back into the hall and quickly shut the door. Then she turned back to the room and stared at all of us, and finally me, her expression now dark with worry. My attendants stood frozen, some with their hands to their mouths, and all with terror in their eyes. My heart began to pound in my chest.
Ares was advancing upon our realm.
For weeks there had been rumors: from the bitter north would come an army of ruthless knights, laying waste to all that they saw. No village was safe, and no force could turn them back. Ares’s men were giants, the people said, and Ares himself could not be slain.
Though I did not believe the fevered whispers of frightened villagers, the threat of any attack unsettled me.
“Back to work,” Jeanette said sharply. “It’s only kitchen gossip.”
Was it obvious to everyone that she was lying? It was to me.
Still, they obeyed her. Adelie, visibly trembling, began to pour a thin stream of sweet almond oil into the bath. When she splashed some onto the floor, I reached out and touched her rough hand. “You have nothing to fear from Ares’s army,” I said.
All movement in the room stopped again. Adelie’s older sister, Elodie, stared at me with huge, anxious eyes. Faye, the chambermaid who’d been stoking the fire, began to wail. Her cry was as sharp as a wounded animal’s. “Oh, Princess,” she sobbed, “they say Ares’s men are monsters. I don’t want to die!”
Her panic was contagious. Elodie and Adelie, too, began to weep. But ancient Ana, who had been making my bed, hauled the sobbing Faye upright, slapped a hand over her mouth, and hurried her out of the room. Then she poked her head back through the doorway and threatened everyone else with the switch if they didn’t calm themselves immediately.
I looked then at wise, sturdy Jeanette. I had known her my whole life, and she was the closest thing I had to a mother. I wanted desperately for her to reassure us. But that wasn’t her task. It was mine.
I drew myself up from the bath. Adelie, remembering her place, hurried to wrap my shoulders in a soft cloth. “There’s no such thing as monsters,” I said. “Our enemy may be preparing his attack, but our armies will meet in the field. You are safe inside the castle, which is an unassailable weapon in itself.”
“Go on,” Jeanette urged. “Tell them.”
I made sure my voice didn’t betray my own fear. “The moat that surrounds Bandon Castle is our first defense,” I explained. “Men cannot swim with swords and shields, and any of Ares’s soldiers who attempt to cross the bridge will be shot by our marksmen.”
“Suppose some arrows miss?” Adelie whispered.
“Then the enemy comes to the gatehouse’s iron-plated door. Should they get through this—which they won’t—they find themselves in a narrow, winding passageway, where they will be pierced by arrows shot through slits in the walls.” I gave each of my attendants what I hoped was a comforting look. “And don’t forget the murder holes,” I added, “which allow our guards to pour torrents of boiling water down from the ceiling!”
“Excuse me, Your Highness,” Jeanette said, “perhaps before you go on…” She held out a chemise of white linen, so fine-spun it was almost transparent.
I looked down at my body: my breasts goose-fleshed, my legs slender and dripping wet. I had been giving a speech standing half naked in a tub!
I flushed. Propriety had never come naturally to me. “Forgive me,” I said, and were it not for Ares, I would have laughed outright. As it was, I stepped from the bath, holding up my arms so Jeanette could slip the chemise over my head.
“Now that you’re properly covered,” she said quietly, “you can continue to soothe their fears.”
“Suppose they survive the gatehouse’s murder holes,” I went on, as two attendants brought forth a high-waisted gown with trailing sleeves, cut from blue silk shot through with silver thread, and edged with lace as pale and delicate as spiderwebs. “They come to the outer castle wall, where more marksmen wait on the battlements above.”
The rustling silk pulled tighter against my ribs as Jeanette set to work on the buttons. It felt wrong to dress so exquisitely on a day such as this, but I knew my father’s rules. It didn’t matter what forces might be amassing against us; my duty was to look as pleasing as a painting.
Adelie brought me burgundy slippers embroidered with violets, and her sister waited with a velvet surcoat in a rich midnight blue—the shade my father liked for me to wear. Then Jeanette led me to little stool before a tall mirror. I sat down carefully, readying myself for what came next: five hundred strokes of a boar’s bristle brush through my long, dark hair. After that, Jeanette would arrange the shining waves into artful clusters, coils, and ringlets. I will admit, I did always like this part.
Elodie seemed to have gained some of her color back, thanks to my reassurances.
Adelie, on the other hand, said, “But what if—”
Jeanette glanced up from her brushing to silence her with a look.
“There’s another thick wall beyond that,” I reminded them. I gestured to the ancient, leather-bound tome I kept on my bedside table, Myths: Demons and Monsters. “You are no more in danger from Ares than you are from the imaginary monsters in this book. You have my word.”
Elodie, smiling shyly now, came forward with an ornately etched tray of glittering bottles, each filled with the distilled essence of a flower. I pointed to the eau de rose in its ruby glass vial. I shivered as she touched the dropper to my neck, and the scent of roses—my mother’s favorite flower—filled the room.
As Jeanette finished plaiting my hair and fastened a necklace of pearls and sapphires around my throat, I thought of what lay inside that second wall, should it be breached: the broad castle yard, the gardens, the Great Hall.
But I did not mention this to the women and girls in my bedchamber.
I stood regal in my gown, armored by the splendor of silk and jewel. “Ares’s men are soldiers like ours,” I said. “They do not have the strength to breach Bandon’s walls, and they will not mount a siege with winter fast approaching. They will soon seek easier conquest elsewhere. We should not look upon the coming days as different from any other.”
Only Jeanette still looked uncomforted. She bowed her head. “May what you say be true, Princess,” she said quietly.
Unescorted, I made my way to the Great Hall, through castle passageways that were empty and strangely quiet. Unless I counted the ancestral figures woven into the richly colored tapestries decorating the walls—my great-grandfather, King Martinus, leading his knights into battle, and his wife, Queen Rosalia, kneeling in a forest, flanked by tame foxes—I passed no one at all.
Usually the long hallways rang with the footsteps of my father’s knights or bustled with the busy labors of pages and servants. But not today. I couldn’t explain the absence of washerwomen and valets, but the knights, I now knew, had gathered in the armory to polish their swords and sharpen their daggers.
“We will be safe,” I said out loud to myself, and the hall’s stony emptiness amplified the sound and sent it echoing back to me. Safe, safe, safe.
Somehow this served to reassure me—it was as if the castle itself had a voice—and I began to sing part of the song I’d stayed up so late writing.
A lovely girl, so young, so bright
That death sought her for his own
He made her his queen on a winter’s night
In a dress of ice and a crown of bone…
In the Great Hall, my father, a huge, gray-bearded man with powerfully muscled shoulders, was hunched in his gilded chair like a boulder. I approached, taking small, graceful steps so that he wouldn’t reprimand me, as he sometimes did, for “indelicate behavior.” He raised his big, grizzled head and smiled gently at me. But his calmness was deceptive—he could strike quicker than a snake.
If Bandon Castle was our first weapon, my father, King Leonidus, was our second. Our kingdom had tripled in size since he’d ascended the throne after the early death of his own father. His skill with a sword was unmatched, and he could kill with a single blow from his fist. He’d spent more than half his life on the battlefield.
Until last year, that is.
When I turned sixteen, my father—full of wine, and flush with victory in battle—told me to name my birthday gift. Ask, he’d said, and it shall be yours.
I knew that I could have any treasure from the castle’s vaults. If I wanted a carriage of mother-of-pearl and six fire-eyed horses to pull it, I would have it. Had I said that I wished for a dress of ice, my father would have found a way to make one. Gold or silk or fur or diamond—anything I sought would be mine.
But I asked this instead: No more war raids. No more conquests.
How many times had he marched upon some other king’s lands, seeking to take what he did not truly need? How many men died for our claim to a forest, for the right to call a mountain ours? Shouldn’t we take better care of what we already had?
Our kingdom was large enough, I told him. It was time to stop fighting. Time to protect instead of attack.
Let us not cause any more suffering: that was my argument. What I didn’t admit to him, though, was my fear. How when he was gone, the castle felt haunted, and I couldn’t sleep from worry. First, of course, was the worry that I would lose my father, having already lost my mother. And if I were left alone, what then? I’d be expected to rule a kingdom by myself—I, who had never even been permitted to dress myself.
Please, I’d said. Enough.
My father’s face grew ashen as he listened. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. But he was a man of his word, and he had promised me anything I wanted. And so Great Leonidus the Warrior King set aside his weapons and shield to honor his only daughter’s wish.
Now I bent and kissed my father on the cheek. Sunlight spilled in dusty rays through the high windows, but still the room was dim. As big as it was, it felt cozy to me.
Safe, safe, safe.
“Ah, you are brighter than the sun this morning, my little songbird,” he said, as a manservant in blue livery came bearing a platter of bread and meat and a pitcher of small ale for my father, and a bowl of fruit for me. “Tell me, how does this day find you?”
How could I answer his question truthfully? My father was unable to bear the thought of anything troubling me, so I dared not admit my fear of the coming battle.
“I’m well enough,” I said, sitting down next to him.
“You look a bit tired,” he said.
I lowered my eyes and said nothing. I picked up a slice of apple and then put it back down again.
“You were writing songs all night long again, weren’t you?” he asked. I heard a low chuckle. “If only you’d been practicing the harp instead of singing—I know your teacher begs you to.”
“And I endlessly disappoint her,” I said, offering him a smile. I had neither talent nor affection for the instrument, and we both knew it.
At my father’s elbow, the servant poured small ale into his goblet. When he finished, he bowed solemnly and then stood up, his gaze meeting my father’s. “To the defeat of Ares’s army,” he said, as if he were a lord giving a toast.
I turned to him in surprise—he must have been new and untrained to dare to speak in front of the king unprompted.
My father’s jaw clenched as he rose from his chair. I put my hand on his to calm him, because I knew his temper. But he roughly shook me off. His lips curled in a snarl, and then he struck the man across the face with the back of his hand.
The blow rang through the hall.
“Father!” I gasped, as the servant crumpled to the ground with a cry of agony.
The guards, too, seemed stunned. Though the king was known for his fury, never had he struck a servant with his own hand. No one moved except the man on the floor, who clutched his cheek and moaned.
Then my father snapped his fingers, and the guards stationed at the door rushed forward and pulled the servant roughly from the floor. The man looked at me dazedly, pleadingly, as they dragged him away by the hair. A dark rivulet of blood trickled down his cheek.
“You know where to take him,” my father said to his men, and then he turned back to his breakfast.
“You mustn’t let them hurt him more,” I pleaded. “It was a misunderstanding—”
He grunted. “You have only me in this world, Sophia, and it is my duty to protect you. I do not care that he forgot his place and believed he had the right to speak. But I will not let you be disturbed by any talk of strife,” he said.
“So am I to pretend that Ares will simply pass us by?” I asked quietly.
My father’s dark eyes flashed with warning. “Do not speak of such things. Listen to me, Sophia. That man shall be taken to the dungeon, where he will be whipped until he screams. And he deserves every burning lash.”
I stiffened at his words. This was a side of my father I hated to see. But had I truly expected him to change after only a year of peace? If so, I’d been wrong. I loved him—of course I did, he was all I had in the world—but I couldn’t call him kind. Couldn’t argue that he was merciful. And I knew that if I said anything else right now, his wrath might turn against me.
He stabbed his knife into the charred meat on his plate. “I know what is best, daughter,” he said.
I nodded. I knew it was best to keep quiet. Though I was his flesh and blood, I, too, was the King’s subject. And though Ares’s approach troubled us all, we would not speak of such things.
My father sucked the marrow from the center of a pheasant bone and then threw it to Dogo, the snarling hound that kept him faithful company. I could see by his appetite—voracious, as usual—that he had already put our moment of discord out of his mind.
I, however, could not stop thinking about the servant’s beseeching eyes. I knew too well what would happen next. He’d be stripped shirtless, his wrists tied to a whipping post. Two men would take turns flogging him until the skin on his back hung down in bloody shreds. And when they’d tired of whipping him, they’d salt his wounds and throw his unconscious body into a prison cell, where he’d wake—if he woke at all—to darkness and agony. All this, the price of a single, well-meaning sentence.
Order must be kept, my father would say, at any cost.
Was there anything I could have said that would have spared the man?
I pushed away my golden bowl. I had lost what little appetite I’d had. I decided I would ask Jeanette to tend to the servant, if he was indeed alive, to see that he was given a sip of ale and a crust of bread. Without risking my father’s wrath again, there was nothing else I could do.
A princess has no true power, and her crown is but a decoration, if she even bothers to wear one.
A new manservant came into the room to refill our glasses, and he did it so silently he might have been a ghost. My father took a big draught of his ale and wiped his greasy mouth on his sleeve—a sleeve that I myself had embroidered with the blue gentian flowers from our family crest. Well, to be fair, it was not my best work.
“And what will my princess do today?” he asked.
“I’m going to the village,” I said. “As I always do on Fridays.”
His brow furrowed. I knew he didn’t want me to make the journey, though it was my favorite part of the week. He objected to my walking among our subjects as if I were not their superior, just as he objected to my sparring with his loyal knight Odo as if I were not a girl. But he himself had given me my silver sword, and he had never forbidden me to go down to the village. He knew that if he kept me in the castle, occupied only with needlework and plucking at harp strings, I would be a far less pleasant meal companion.
But had he understood how lonely I was, he might have encouraged me to visit the village more often.
“Today of all days, you must be quick,” he said.
I couldn’t help what I said next. “But isn’t Ares’s army still days out?”
My father’s face immediately darkened. “Have I not made myself clear? I will not have you talk of strife, either,” he warned.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “But don’t worry, Father, I’m not afraid of Ares. You’ll protect me.”
“That I will,” he said, nodding his great shaggy head. “I always have.”
“And in my own way, I protect the villagers.”
My father looked somewhat skeptical. “You’re but a child,” he said—though not unkindly.
“I am not a child, I’m seventeen. And the villagers welcome me. They rely on me. They need the food I bring.”
“Last year was a hard winter,” he acknowledged.
“Then came the long spring and summer rains,” I reminded him, “and many of the crops fell to rot before they were ever ripe.”
I hoped that he’d somehow hear the question I didn’t dare to ask: where were the villagers to turn if not to us? We, who had lush gardens, fat livestock, full cellars, and a forest full of pheasant, deer, and elk. If I had my way, we’d share everything we owned. But that wasn’t how my father saw it. As far as he was concerned, our family was better than everyone else. Our birthright was luxury, whereas theirs was labor. Our blood was royal; theirs might as well have been mud.
He’d raised me to believe that, anyway, but it was a lesson I hoped I’d failed to absorb.
He drained the last of his small ale and set the goblet on the table with a bang. “We have a duty to our subjects in the village, but always remember one thing, Sophia. They are, for want of a better word, beasts. Never, ever forget that.”
I ducked my head humbly. I didn’t dare contradict him.
My father put his rough hand on my cheek. “You are so dear to me. Be careful today.”
I forced a smile onto my face. “You always act as if I’ll never come back.” I placed my fingers around his wrist and squeezed it. “And yet I always do.”
“There is no honor among beasts, my daughter,” he said. “Remember that.”
“I am always safe,” I assured him.
“Always safe,” he repeated.
And it was with those words, I believe, that we tempted Fate, who is more powerful than any king.
After breakfast I went to visit my mother, as I did every morning.
“Good morning, Mama,” I whispered, as I sat down on the tufted stool I kept beneath the portrait of her that hung in the hall. Quickly I looked around to see if anyone had noticed that I was talking to a painting. It was a habit I’d been scolded for more than once. A princess should not talk to the dead, they said. It was unbecoming. Strange. Morbid.
I would point out that I had no siblings, no friends. Who else was I supposed to talk to? Also, no one dared call my father strange or morbid, though he’d commissioned dozens of portraits of her. He kept at least twenty of them in a single hall near his privy chamber, and I’d certainly heard him bid her likeness goodnight.
To sit before my mother’s picture every day soothed my loneliness a little somehow, and perhaps it was the same for my father when he paced that long corridor, the one the servants secretly called the Hall of the Flat Queens.
Here, in her cloth-of-gold gown, with its exquisitely embroidered partlet and heavy, jeweled neckline, my mother looked impossibly beautiful. Impossibly regal. Her skin was opal, luminescent. She had smooth cheeks and wide green eyes under arching, dramatic brows. Her thick braids coiled around her head like a crown. In this painting—my favorite of them all—she wore jewels in her plaits: diamonds that winked like stars in the dark night of her hair.
“I’m taking food to the village today,” I whispered. “I don’t know what they’ll do when Ares comes. We’ll have to let them seek refuge in the castle, won’t we? It’s the only way they’ll be safe. Father will want to refuse, but I’ll—” I heard footsteps ringing on the stone floor, so I shut my mouth and bent my head as if in prayer. No one would dare reprimand a princess for praying for the soul of her poor dead mother.
But instead of praying, my lips moved with the words of a song I’d written for her a long time ago.
Once you ruled over forest and fen, reigned over river and sea.
Now you sit on eternity’s throne, watching over me.
My place is here within the world; I cannot join you yet.
Though I was too young to remember you, I also never forget.
Jeanette came up behind me and placed her hands on my shoulders. “She married your father when she was just sixteen,” she said wistfully. “Oh, if you could have seen her on her wedding day! Her gown was ivory silk, embroidered in gold, and when she came into the chapel she was more beautiful than the sun.”
“I can’t imagine being married so young,” I admitted.
Jeanette turned my face toward her own. “She was engaged to your father by her tenth birthday, you know. And it’s high time you were betrothed, Princess. Come the spring, the King will have to reckon with the matter. A kingdom can grow in other ways besides war and conquest, and he’d do well to remember that. A wise marriage means a strong alliance.” She smiled gently. “Of course, he doesn’t want to part with you. You are all he has! When you leave us, Sophia, we’ll both be lost.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I said firmly.
“I’m sure your mother told her lady in waiting the exact same thing before she journeyed to marry your father.”
I touched the ruby ring that circled my finger. It was meant for her—a birthday gift from my father—but she died before she got to wear it.
“I miss her,” I whispered.
“I know you do.”
“But how can I miss what I’ve never even known? Dogo doesn’t miss flying. A bird doesn’t miss swimming.”
“And I myself don’t miss being king,” Jeanette agreed. “But a girl longs for her mother, no matter what, and that is the sorrow you must carry. It is heavy, I know, and I can only hope it makes you stronger.”
- Goodreads and Amazon reader reviews:
- "A great story by a great story teller. Lots of action, Harpies and monsters will not disappoint you. The attraction never goes away. You will love it."
- "I think this is my favorite book by Patterson. A great exciting story for all ages. Try it you'll like it."
- "I found the story very spell binding. I was waiting for the next twist. I would recommend this book."
- "Very off the wall but it was amazing."
- "I loved this book, the fictional monsters were well crafted and Sophia was such an amazing character."
- On Sale
- Jul 15, 2019
- Hachette Audio