Prologue (The Andromeda’s Ghost) :
Kylee stared at her reflection in the compact mirror, trying and failing to suppress her horror. Her dark hair had been braided and twisted into three buns along the back of her head (one behind each ear and one at the nape of her neck) with only one long curl trailing down her shoulder. Makeup had been caked onto her face to supposedly make her look older than her twenty-one years. She looked like an escort drowning in white lace and chiffon. She gave her mother a miserable look.
The queen snatched the compact from her daughter and tossed it at one of the ladies in waiting. “The doors will be opening any minute. Lower your veil now. No one needs to see you pouting like a child.” Her raven black hair was piled on the top of her head to make her look taller. Her makeup was even more exaggerated than Kylee’s, although, if makeup was meant to make one look older Kylee wasn’t sure why her mother had bothered wearing any. The dress the queen wore was made of red satin with pearl embellishments and sported a plunging neckline. If this had been the first time the queen had tried to prove she still looked thirty-years-old, Kylee might have been embarrassed. Sadly, it was not.
Kylee tugged the veil into place as one of the guards opened the door to the large hover craft. He extended a hand to help her climb out, for which she was grateful. Her wedding dress was ridiculously large and heavy.
The venue was just about the only thing Kylee’s mother had gotten right. An enormous cathedral sat on a slightly elevated plateau toward the outskirts of the jungle. It had tall towers, archways, and the traditional stain glass windows of a medieval cathedral from 20th century earth. It was one of the few of its kind in New Sol. Kylee gazed up at the artistically designed structure barely visible through the layers of tulle covering her face, and smiled for the first time in months. She’d wanted to get married here since she was nine years old.
Grief smothered her moment of joy. It’s the wrong man.
The queen fluttered about her daughter, fluffing the already too-fluffy skirt of her gown, swatting away the occasional insect, and muttering, “Stand up straight, my dear. That’s right. You’re so beautiful when you exercise good posture. Hands clasped before you…Perfect. Now, nod ever so graciously at the camera and proceed.”
Kylee found the camera hovering over the heads of the thousands of guests crowded around the cathedral’s entrance. She obeyed her mother and began the long walk across the lawn. She knew Taren wouldn’t be there but she still looked for him, desperate for a glimpse of black curls or oak brown eyes or a dimpled chin. Her mother and ladies in waiting trailed behind her, smiling and waving. An armored guard stood on either side of her.
Not long ago, Taren stood dutifully at her side during grand, obnoxious events like these. He would murmur lame knock-knock jokes out of the corner of his mouth to keep her smile genuine for the crowds. Sometimes he would cup her elbow and stay a step ahead to shield her from the cameras when she was too upset to face them. The more she thought about him, the sadder she became, but she couldn’t help it. He should be here.
She stumbled. A collective gasp rang through the crowd.
One of her guards took her by the arm. “Are you well, Princess?”
She nodded, perhaps a little too hastily, and continued her walk. But yet again, maybe he shouldn’t be here. Going through with this was painful enough for her. If she had to see the look on Taren’s face when she said, “I do,” she might’ve broken down on national television.
The doors to the cathedral loomed before her, blocked the sun for a moment, and then she was inside. The walls had been modified to mirror the scenery outside. She could still see the tangles of green jungle stretching out below and the grassy floor of the plateau. The only differences between the exterior and the interior were the drop in temperature and the seemingly magical appearance of chairs. Yet more people stood here, smiling and ogling and whispering and sighing and throwing her envious looks. There were quite a few more Mer-people within the cathedral than there were outside. An archway heavy laden with pink hydrangeas and ivy waited for her at the end of the aisle, along with her groom.
Kylee swallowed hard and lifted her chin when she saw her father. He wore his traditional general’s uniform, medals, and ceremonial sword. Even with the inserts in his boots, he was barely taller than she was. He looked deathly pale; his almond-shaped eyes were sad. He mutely held his elbow out to her, still powerless to oppose his wife and the demands of their almost-enemies. Kylee felt the familiar rush of frustration before accepting his arm. What good was there in being the king if he could still be overruled?
A hush fell over the audience and then the music began to play. Ten, twenty, thirty steps later, she stood before her fiancé. He was built like a pampered prince with undeveloped muscle beneath his tuxedo and waxy, green skin. Gills cut across both sides of his neck and scaly frills grew behind each ear. His glassy black eyes stared at her, unblinking. He extended a hand with a slight bow of his head; his fingers were webbed. Kylee couldn’t help but stare. Could he speak English? Was he kind? Was he expecting her to carry his children?
Kylee’s grip on her father tightened as the floor tilted beneath her feet. She’d always wanted to be a mother, but the thought of giving birth to tadpoles made her stomach turn. But she could feel the focus of that flying camera like a light blazing through a magnifying glass and aimed at the back of her head. The whole world was watching, waiting for her to continue the ceremony. She took a deep breath and reached out to him with a trembling hand.
The sound of an explosion made her twist around in alarm. Through the open doors of the cathedral, she watched her mother’s hovercraft erupt in a ball of fire. The floor shook from the blast, causing the cathedral’s walls to flicker in and out of existence. Chaos followed. The guests jumped from their chairs and ran to where they assumed the nearest exits were. They encountered invisible walls instead. The guards masquerading as attendees tried to calm those nearest to them with little success. The armored guards rushed outside to investigate the cause of the explosion, only to be thrown off their feet by a second blast which destroyed yet another hovercraft. Kylee was torn away from her father by the desperate throng. The second earthquake from the blast sent her looking for shelter. She fell back against the wall. Her fiancé, mother, and personal guards wrestled through the people running in every direction, trying to get to their princess.
All she could hear was white static. She blinked at the fire consuming the two hovercrafts in the distance and gaped the herd of frantic people as if in a stupor. What in the world was going on? Someone touched her shoulder. She spun around to see Taren standing beside her. He was dressed in a tux for the occasion. He could have passed for a guest. Her former bodyguard lifted the veil away from her face, cupped her cheek, and pressed his lips against hers.
He flashed her a crazy grin once they parted. “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
“You know you just started a war between my father’s kingdom and the Mer-people, right?” Kylee sputtered.
Taren squinted at the burning hunks of machinery in the distance. “I set the bombs under your mother’s hovercrafts. If anything, it appears the Mer-people are waging war against your father.”
Kylee let out a hysterical laugh before she threw her arms around him. “Thanks for waiting until my mother was out of the car.”
“Oh, it wasn’t easy. Believe me,” he said with a chuckle.
The sight of the Mer-prince sprinting toward them with murderous rage twisting his face made Kylee shove Taren out of the way. She received a punch to the face that was probably meant for the back of Taren’s head. Stumbling back, she slapped a hand over her aching mouth and blinked away tears.
The Mer-prince gaped at her in horror. “I’m sorry!”
Taren tackled him into the archway. “You bastard!” The wood collapsed, sending hydrangea petals and leaves of ivy everywhere. The men wrestled, but it was obvious who had been trained in hand-to-hand combat. Taren quickly gained the upper hand.
“Kylee Wen Dao!” her mother screeched from somewhere behind her.
The princess half turned, hand still over her mouth. Through a sliver of a gap between people, Kylee could see her furious mother marching toward her, hair undone, makeup ruined, dress torn. It was the angriest and most disheveled she’d ever seen her mother look. The rebellious child in her rejoiced. Kylee gripped Taren’s shoulder before he could continue to beat up the Mer-prince.
“If you have an escape plan, now would be the time to share it.”
He nodded somewhat grimly at the prince before rising. Then he took her hand and expertly zigzagged them through the crowd. She didn’t know when he’d taken the time to memorize the locations of the camouflaged exits and she didn’t ask. She knew they were outside when the temperature changed. A cargo cruiser waited in the shade of some trees toward the bottom of the plateau. She grinned at the man leading her by the hand, memory after memory flashing through her mind.
Taren sitting at his usual chair on the terrace, calmly cleaning his blaster gun while explaining his reasons for not telling the queen about her daughter’s alter ego, the Golden Mare, champion racer of the underground.
Taren laughing a full belly laugh when Kylee asked for his opinion on her god-awful painting.
Taren lying in a hospital bed, battered and bruised, after surviving a bomb blast that had been meant for the princess.
Taren wearing a white tux and holding out his hand during her birthday ball, asking for the first dance.
Taren pressing her up against the wall and kissing her with enough passion to make her head spin.
Taren bowing stiffly after the queen had fired him. “Good bye, Princess. It was an honor serving you.”
The dress tore while she ran down the steep decline. Kylee hefted up the heavy skirt with her free hand and picked up the pace. Then her veil ripped away from the clips keeping it attached to her head. Kylee couldn’t have cared less. Once at the bottom of the plateau, she let go of Taren’s hand so that he could press the button that would lower the cargo ramp.
“The Mer-king’s ships will be waiting for us as soon as we leave the atmosphere.” Taren winked over his shoulder at her. “Are you ready for one last race, Golden Mare?”
Kylee laughed and kicked off her shoes. “You better believe it.” She reached for her tiara as she followed him into the space ship, wanting nothing more than to chuck it into the jungle. But she paused when she caught her reflection in the diamonds.
“If you do this, you’ll never be able to come back,” her mother’s voice hissed at the back of her mind.
Kylee took a deep breath, suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. Racing in the underground and falling in love with the youngest bodyguard to graduate from the Guard Institute had been the only acts of rebellion she’d had the courage to do. And those had been committed after twenty years of trying to please her unappeasable mother. But there had been no leniency upon the discovery of these two secrets. The queen had put her daughter on an even shorter leash, organized this marriage, and banished Taren from the palace grounds within a week.
Tears made Kylee’s eyes burn. Was there ever a time when you loved me? You were so focused on turning me into what you believed would be the perfect daughter and princess. Did you ever wonder who I really was? Were you ever the least bit curious?
She turned to face him. Taren’s eyes flickered to the tiara in her hands before landing on her face. The wind tousled his hair as a sad smile made his lips curl.
“It’s a part of you whether you leave it behind or not.”
She glanced down at the symbol that had always set her apart from the rest of the world, the metallic piece of headwear her mother never let her leave the palace without. She knelt by the edge of the ramp and gingerly placed the tiara in the grass. Yes, she would always have royal blood running through her veins, but she was done playing the part of the perfect princess.
The diamonds reflected the sun as the cargo cruiser made its ascent. Kylee turned her head skyward and didn’t look back.