Bonus Content From Tiger’s Promise by Colleen Houck!
Before the curse, there was a promise. A prequel to the bestselling Tiger’s Curse series, the much anticipated novella, Tiger’s Promise, recalls the beginning of Ren and Kishan’s story. Before Kelsey there was a girl, raised by a villain, whose love for a hero changed the course of history. Author Colleen Houck shares a bonus scene with Shelf Pleasure readers.
I think the very first question I got when I announced that I’d be publishing Tiger’s Promise was, “Is Ren in it?” Those questions prompted me to write an entire chapter completely from Ren’s perspective. I think this special bonus piece not only adds to the story of Yesubai but it gives great insight into Ren’s feelings about everything that’s going on at this time in his life. I hope you enjoy this little sneak peek into Ren’s life just before the curse and that it will give you a new perspective on not only his character but of his mother, Deschen, and of Yesubai.
– Colleen Houck
The entire course of my life changed the day my parents visited and my mother asked if I was ready to become betrothed. Marriage was something that had not been at the forefront of my mind, but I agreed to consider it since it would help bring peace to the land and it was obvious she was excited about the girl. I knew that my mother wouldn’t choose just anyone to take her place on the throne. The woman who would be my bride would need to be special.
I wasn’t disappointed. Though…that wasn’t how I felt at first.
Standing in the cool shadows of one of our holdings, high above the small but prosperous city below, I watched for my intended’s arrival. The caravan arrived earlier than I anticipated and when I saw the carriage pass through the gates and under the decorative arch I was surprised at how my hands shook. That a mere slip of a girl I hadn’t even met yet could cause me to quake like a green soldier in his first battle filled me with a strange combination of delight and distress.
My heart beat quickened and a heady sense of excitement ran through my veins. I was pleased to find that I was eager to meet my bride. Learning everything about her would be a welcome distraction from the constant skirmishes that plagued my mind. What would she be like?
I wanted to know her likes and dislikes. I wanted to memorize the way her hands moved and the scent of her hair. Perhaps I’d have enough time with her to discover one of her favorite dishes. I yearned to hear her laugh and wondered what she’d think of a future emperor that liked writing poetry.
As she approached, my thoughts shifted. Mother had mentioned that the betrothal, should I agree to it, needed to happen sooner rather than later, alluding to the notion that the girl was safer with us than she was with her own family. I frowned. Had she been hurt? Abused? My hands tightened into fists at the idea that someone had caused her harm. If I found that to be the case I would destroy whoever was responsible. That I already felt protective of her was a good sign.
The soldiers at the head of the caravan circled around the carriage as it came to a stop in front of the elaborate home that had become my temporary headquarters. Placing my hands on the carved railing, I leaned over and called out to Kadam’s soldiers asking if there had been any incidents on the journey. They replied that the trip had been as easy as slipping into a hot bath, something the eldest soldier and leader, a man nearly ready to retire from the military, said he looked forward to.
As I assured him that food, rest, and a comfortable place to wash the dust of the road from off their feet was waiting for them, there was a flutter of curtains and I saw the retreat of a delicate hand disappear into the dark space within the carriage. Cursing myself for not being at the door to meet her immediately, I spun and leapt down the flight of stairs as quickly as I could and darted to the carriage just as one of the soldiers offered his arm to assist her.
Running a nervous hand through my hair, I affixed what I hoped was a charming smile to my face and waited for her to turn towards me. She was easily two heads shorter than myself and she was so swathed in fabric that I had no idea as to her shape or form. Seeing that she wore veils of sapphire blue, my favorite color, I took that as a good sign and said, “Greetings, lovely Yesubai. I am honored to meet you.”
I bowed my head until I sensed she’d turned towards me and then lifted my gaze to meet hers. They were the most astonishing eyes I’d ever seen—a startling shade of lavender so bright they reminded me of one of my mother’s coveted pinkish purple roses. Though a veil covered her face, it was sheer enough that I could see the curve of her cheek, her generous mouth, and her pert chin.
Despite the fact that I knew it was overly assertive, I couldn’t help myself, and took her hand in mine, pressing my lips to her slim fingers. “I’m so glad you’ve come,” I said warmly as my eyes caught hers again over the knuckles of her hand.
“I, too, am glad to be here,” she answered in a soft, but distantly polite manner.
Too politically practiced to allow the wince over my careless blunder coupled with her barely lukewarm greeting to show on my face, I squeezed her fingers lightly, dropped her hand, and clasped mine behind my back and shifted several steps away. I’d assumed too much too quickly and had obviously frightened her. Perhaps she wasn’t looking forward to the possibility of marriage as much as I was.
It was also probable that the idea of being near a man was alarming to her. I was good enough at reading body language to know that she considered me a perfect stranger, and one she didn’t trust yet, but I was determined that I’d do everything in my power to show her I was worthy of earning it. And somehow I’d make up for approaching her like an untrained, exuberant puppy.
“Would you prefer to rest? I can have food brought to you if you would rather dine alone,” I offered as we walked.
She considered my words for a moment and then answered, “No. I think I’d rather take my meals with the household.”
Nodding my head slightly to acknowledge her words, I considered not just what she said but how she’d said it. I didn’t get the sense that she particularly wanted to eat with me but she felt it was her duty. The last thing I wanted was to force a woman to become my bride who considered marriage to me an obligation. I wanted love. Maybe this wasn’t going to work.
“We’ll take our meal in an hour then.”
She nodded and I signaled the women I’d employed to see to her needs during her stay. They rushed forward and bustled her off to her suite of rooms to see to her comfort. Sighing heavily, disappointment weighing on me but refusing to allow it to snuff out the hope I’d felt earlier, I resolved to give it and her some time and met with Kadam’s soldiers as I waited for her return.
Dinner was a quiet affair with me doing most of the talking and her answering with brief words and barely discernable nods. My frustration mounted. This wasn’t what I wanted. The girl I imagined spending the rest of my life with would have more fire, more passion, more…boldness. I wanted someone who would stand up for themselves. Who wouldn’t be cowed simply because I was a man or the heir to a throne.
That night after dinner I paced the rooftop, wondering what I should do. Should I send her back? Tell my mother she’d been mistaken in her choice? It was true that she was lovely and she was well spoken, but that wasn’t enough. Was it wrong to want more?
The moon suddenly broke from the clouds and I spotted Yesubai on the balcony below. She wore a gossamer gown of white with bell sleeves. Her shining face was free of veils and her dark hair hung loose, the ends of it nearly touching the ground. Strands of the thick stuff blew in the breeze. Again I was struck by her loveliness. As I stood there watching her, I saw her lift her hand to her cheek and swipe it. She did this over and over and though I couldn’t hear a sound, I knew she was crying.
Was the idea of marrying me that awful? Did she feel trapped? Maybe she thought we’d cast her aside if she didn’t agree to the wedding. Perhaps she would prefer to do something different with her life. She needed to know we’d protect her regardless. I was surprised my mother hadn’t already explained that.
I headed down the steps and out onto her balcony. “Yesubai?” She spun to look at me in alarm. I held up a hand. “I am sorry if I frightened you. I was on the rooftop and heard your crying.” It wasn’t true. She hadn’t made a noise at all, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Will you tell me what’s wrong?” I asked.
Her lavender eyes were luminous in the moonlight and she looked like a nervous forest sprite ready to leap over the balcony and fly away at any moment.
“N…nothing is wrong,” she answered finally. I could tell she was distressed that I’d been witness to her tears.
I took a step closer. “I promise you. I have no wish to see you hurt or unhappy. If the idea of becoming my bride is upsetting to you, it is easily remedied.”
The panicked look on her face confused me. “No!” she declared. “I cannot allow you to send me away.”
“That’s not what I mean.” I rubbed my jaw as I studied her, wondering why I seemed to be saying all the wrong things. It wasn’t like me. I tried again. “I only meant that if you have no wish to marry, I will not force you. Nothing has been finalized. You are free to choose.”
“Free.” She blew out a short breath with a half laugh then froze and lifted her eyes to mine before turning her back to me. “If only I was,” she finished.
“You can be,” I said as I closed the distance between us. “Marriage to me isn’t the only way for you to be rid of those who hurt you.”
She stiffened. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean…” I sensed she didn’t want me to touch her, so, not knowing what to do with my hands, I folded my arms awkwardly across my chest. “I mean our family will protect you regardless.”
“And who will protect you?” Her words were so soft that I could barely make them out, but when I did, understanding filled me. She was terrified. And not of me.
“Yesubai, I won’t let you come to harm.”
She turned and looked at me then, fully. No hesitancy. No reservation. Nothing hidden. It was like a window to her soul had opened and I saw the person she was. The person she wanted to be. She had a core of strength but it was buried so deeply within her that I wondered if she even knew it was there. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to bridge the distance and peel back the layers she hid behind. Even if it was possible, it would take time and a lot of patience, but I sensed the result would be worth it.
Quietly, I asked, “What do you want, Yesubai?”
She answered with a hesitant murmur, her brow furrowed as if she didn’t understand the question. “I want…” she paused, “I want to be with someone who loves me. I want to live with your family. I want to feel safe.”
I smiled then and offered my open hand. She placed her much smaller one in mine and though her fingers trembled, she didn’t protest when I placed my other hand on top, and squeezed lightly. “I promise you. I will give you all of those things, if…if that is what you want, Yesubai.”
She looked at our hands and then up at me, searching my face for a moment before saying finally, “It is.”
That was the turning point for me. I had seen the person she wanted to be. The person of strength and fire who lived behind the veils. It would just take a great deal of kindness and patience to bring her out. I decided I could wait for that. I could wait for her to learn to love me. We could postpone a betrothal and even if we did decide to go forward with it, an engagement could last for years. I was confident that over time we would get to know one another and that there was a chance for us to be happy.
When I suggested delaying the betrothal the following day, she objected, saying we needed to sign the paperwork before she returned. It took me several hours of plying her with carefully worded questions before she admitted that it was her father that insisted upon the union. She absolutely believed that if she left without an agreement from me, he would cause great suffering.
I knew that her father was a clever and wily military leader and that he had manipulated his way into a kingdom, but now I also knew that he was the one responsible for terrorizing his daughter. That knowledge burned inside me, especially knowing that there was no immediate recourse to deal with him as he deserved. I would have to move carefully where he was concerned.
The important thing was keeping Yesubai safe and out of his reach. Taking revenge rashly or moving against the one who hurt her could undermine everything we were working to accomplish. Lokesh would terminate the betrothal at the very least and then use the excuse that we’d insulted him and his family to rain war down upon our heads at the most. I needed to think like the diplomat I’d been trained to be and curb the fire within my warrior’s heart until the time was right.
Despite the political advantages our union would bring, I didn’t want Yesubai to think that I desired a match with her simply to make peace between our kingdoms or even to protect her, though both of those reasons were valid. I told her that I looked forward to being a husband and pledged that I’d try my best to make a good one. Above all else I wanted her to be happy. When I said as much, she seemed to take me at my word and relaxed a bit more.
We spent a few days together and I was delighted that she wanted to be at my side as I visited the troops and met with city leaders. She remained shrouded in veils and was as quiet and as still as a statue, but I could see her bright eyes watching me as I spoke and she appeared to be alert and interested in everything she saw and experienced.
Hope bloomed within me again and I thought perhaps all was not lost. On several occasions I caught her staring at me, at the exposed bare skin of my upper chest and throat in particular, and I wondered if that meant she might be as attracted to me as I was to her.
I found myself smiling more often. I’d even penned a poem not about my mysterious dream girl but about the real girl with the long, black hair and shining face, who stood in the moonlight on the balcony with silver tears running down her cheeks. Though I never heard her laugh or discovered her favorite food, she did grace me with a beautiful smile or two and I counted myself lucky.
Before she left, I felt confident that we would be a good match and when I asked her once again if she was sure, she replied, “Becoming a Rajaram is all I could wish for.” At her urging, the papers were brought in and we made our betrothal official. I knew my mother would be pleased and I was as well. Seeing her leave was difficult. We’d barely had time to begin the long process of getting to know one another.
I knew I needed to move carefully and slowly with her, so I only attempted the most courteous, the barest, of gestures and touched my lips briefly to the back of her hand, longing for the day when she’d be comfortable enough to allow me to hold her in my arms, and bid her farewell.
As I watched the caravan leave, I wondered at my newly betrothed state. We would be apart for much longer than I wanted. If there was anything I’d learned about Yesubai in the short time we’d spent together, it was that she needed constant coaxing, much like a hesitant mare, and I worried that the tenuous steps forward we’d made would be for naught if we were separated too long. It would be far too easy to let the fragile relationship we’d begun backslide to the cold distance we’d experienced at first meeting.
That was when I decided I’d write to her. Every day if necessary. If I couldn’t be with her in person, I’d bare my soul to her on the page. Then, perhaps, when we met again, we’d feel that the distance between our hearts wasn’t so hard to bridge after all.
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Colleen Houck’s New York Times bestselling Tiger’s Curse series has received national praise. Colleen is a lifelong reader whose literary interests include action, adventure, science fiction, and romance. Formerly a student at the University of Arizona, she has worked as a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter for seventeen years. Colleen lives in Salem, Oregon, with her husband and a huge assortment of plush tigers.
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