He is a prince and heir to a kingdom threatened on all sides, possessor of the forbidden animal magic.
She is a princess from a rival kingdom, the daughter her father never wanted, isolated from all except her hound.
In this lush and beautifully written fairy-tale romance, a prince, a princess, and two kingdoms are joined in the aftermath of a war. Proud, stubborn, and bound to marry for duty, George and Beatrice will steal your heart—but will they fall in love?
Prince George could not remember seeing his father without the crown on his head, except perhaps in bed, and even then the imprint on his temples was clear enough. But the crown could have been melted down or stolen away, and it would not have mattered. George could see kingship in every movement his father made.
When King Davit spoke to Cook Elin, he always complimented her on how well suited her cheese was to her tart, how her salad reflected the colors of the autumn mountains in the distance. George had no idea if his father liked the flavor of the salad or the tart. He did not know if his father knew either. He knew only that the king had a duty to offer approval to his subjects who strove to please him. And the king always did his duty.
When speaking to the scarred and muscular lord general of the mounted army, King Davit nodded and talked wisely of the best way to deal with the effects of the war. George had no sense of what the war had been like for his father, whether he had been afraid of the sound of the enemy's war cry, as had the guardsman at the gate. The war was the kingdom's war, and so it had been fought.
Even when George was alone with his father, it seemed there was no difference. The king told George the story of the baker who had made too many loaves but at the end of the day would give none of them to the poor and then found in the morning they had been eaten by mice instead.
The king told George of the seamstress who left an unfinished seam in a fancy ball gown, thinking it would never be noticed, then went to the ball herself—only to watch the gown gradually spin away from the wearer until she stood in nothing but her undergarments and wrath at her betrayal.
In the stories there was always a message for George to remember. For the prince of Kendel, from the king. Never a story for fun, with magic and wildness, with adventures and threatenings and the promise of more to come. Never a story that made George want to cry, or to laugh, or to dance. Only a story to make him think.
And though George had seen the king's servants take off their uniforms and play like children outside in throwing or wrestling games, he never saw his father play. His father smiled when it was right for the king to smile. He frowned to show the king's displeasure. He was always right and good, but he never felt like a father.
Yet George's mother, for all she wore long gowns with glittering jewels and even the fragile, ruby-encrusted crown on her head when she had to, seemed to be his mother no matter what else she was. For when she looked at George, whether she had come to his own chamber to play with him or held out her hand for him to meet her in the throne room, she had a way of making him feel complete in himself. And as though there were nothing he could do that would make her turn away.
That look was the most wonderful thing in the world.
She started taking George to the stables before he was old enough to speak his own name. That was where he learned to recognize the smell on her hands and sometimes even the dirt beneath her nails. She seemed most alive there, and the smell of the stables fit her as the crown fit his father's head.
The horses perked up when she came close to them, before they could possibly have heard or even seen her. They began to stamp their feet, and their heads came up, all turned in the right direction. George used to think this was a delightful trick and would clap his little hands in delight.
"This is Sugar," his mother said, introducing George to the new foal that stood shakily in a stall with his mother, Honey.
George held out his hand. The little foal came and licked at it, and George laughed at the delicious, gentle sensation.
His mother then bent over and gave Sugar the full attention that she often reserved for George.
He might have been jealous, but she kept her hand warm in his the whole time.
Then she brushed Honey until she shone, and Sugar too, talking with every stroke. Nonsense words, it seemed at first to George, but gradually he began to understand them. They weren't human words at all; they were horse words.
Words for things that had no names in his human language, except the words that George made up for them.
Sweet-green, for the smell of his mother's hands.
Warm-red, for the touch of her brush.
Purple-light, for the sunrise in spring.
Summer-burn, for the hot light that made them blink.
They were private words, George learned quickly. For if there were others in the stables who might cross their paths or if the stablemaster had come with her, she wouldn't speak the horse words at all.
She would sing or let out a stream of syllables that had the cadence of the horse words, but left their meaning up to George to fill in. He had grown very good at it by the time he was four years old, and now and again he tried to say a word aloud himself.
His mother smiled at him if they were alone, but if someone else was present, she put a hand on his shoulder and shook her head very gravely. Never with fear in her eyes, but with enough darkness that he stopped instantly.
It was only three or four times before he learned that lesson, and likely those who heard him speak to horses in the animals' own language thought simply that they did not understand his babyish pronunciation or that he was speaking nonsense words as babies sometimes will, even when they are too old to be babies anymore.
George and his mother knew better.
The horses were dear to his mother's heart, but now and again she took George to the kennels as well. George liked how the hounds danced and barked at him, and he was sure that if only he listened long and hard enough, he would begin to understand them. But it did not happen.
Stranger still, he never heard his mother talk to the hounds as she did to the horses. She let them lick her hand, and she patted their heads or scratched behind their ears when they seemed to want it. She knew words to speak to a passing sparrow, but not to the hounds.
Yet she nonetheless seemed to understand them, for when the great white hound that was one of the king's favorites had a tick burrowing behind his left leg that not even the houndmaster had seen, she knew it was there. And she understood when Solomon, the old, drooping hound that had ruled over the kennels for as long as George could remember, was entering the long illness that led to his death. She knew he could not be saved, that the best the houndmaster could manage was to offer comfort.
George could see that his mother did not love the hounds as she loved the horses, but he did not understand why. He thought it was no more than a matter of taste. George knew that his favorite sweet, made light and fluffy with egg and then colored brightly, made his mother shake her head and hold a hand to her mouth, while her favorite, a dark, hard licorice, was no more than passable to him. So it must be with hounds and horses and his mother.
Then, on the day of George's fifth birthday, his mother took him to the houndmaster, a great big man with a red face and a broken nose who laughed too loud. He stood up when George and his mother entered, and at his feet George saw one of the bitch hounds and a litter of newborn pups. They were slick and wet yet, and the houndmaster shook his head at the queen's ability to know that the bitch had been delivered of them just this minute.