Overview: Cassarah, the firstborn child of a baron, is finally ready to be presented at the royal court. Every step of the way, her mother has been planning out each detail of her life—who she's going to marry, how she's going to dress, and even what she's allowed to say. But Cassarah’s ability to quietly submit to her mother has come to an end.
Hopeful that being accepted into court will change things for the better, Cassarah doesn’t realize how quickly her life will turn upside down. At the release of her magical Birthright, something unexpected happens. A clutch of dragons begins to hatch early, and the newly accepted firstborn nobles get their chance at a pair-bond.
As if this wasn’t enough, Cassarah discovers her family has been hiding a dark secret that comes to change her life in the dead of night. What will she do when she finally has the chance to decide her own fate?

 

Birthright by Elizabeth Knight Book Chapter One

 

Cassarah, would you please stop moving or we will never get you ready in time,” my mother snapped.

While I’d let my thoughts wander far from here, I’d all but forgotten the myriad of women running around my room getting me ready. I was finally going to be presented at court later today.

Currently, I stood on a small round pedestal in only a white floor-length chemise. I heaved a heavy sigh and frowned at my mother’s back as I watched her walk over to grab my corset. Also known as my archnemesis. I battled with that thing every day. I was forever grateful that I’d missed the fashion era when having the smallest waist was considered beautiful. Mind you, they still didn’t like over-indulgent women—hence the corset—but you no longer had to have your waist be the same size as your neck. I quickly swept my thick, curly black hair up out of the way so it wouldn’t get caught in the strings. I knew my mother wouldn’t be careful.

I took my last deep breath of the day as the all too familiar fit of the corset was wrapped around my waist. I had to place my feet shoulder-width apart so I wouldn’t be pulled off the pedestal as they strapped me in. I vowed that someday I would find a way to outlaw the use of these torture devices. There had to be a better way to get the same look without the worry of breaking ribs if it was too tight.

I exhaled as my mother suddenly pulled the string taut. It caused me to grunt at the sudden constriction, and I had to stop myself from glaring over my shoulder at her as my body followed the pull from her brisk action.

“Sorry Mother, I wasn’t ready,” I said while grabbing the post of my bed to hold myself steady.

“A lady should always be prepared,” my mother chided. “Remember—without pain, there is no beauty.”

“Who came up with that rule anyway? Why do I have to be in pain to be beautiful?” I mumbled under my breath so my mother couldn’t hear. I’d been lucky to avoid her swift skill with a switch thus far today.

“Stop that! It’s unbecoming. A true lady always speaks clearly and never complains. We ladies must suffer gracefully in silence.”

 I sighed. “I’ve already had my decorum lessons today, Mother.”

“Well clearly it wasn’t enough if I still need to remind you how to be a proper lady. We are presenting you in court today. You must be found without a single fault, Cassarah. I will not let your father’s tainted blood ruin your chances at marrying up in the world,” she reminded me for the millionth time.

“I understand, Mother, but why do I need to worry about getting married when I haven’t even been to court?” I countered.

My mother looked at me like I’d just slapped her. “Do you think that I haven’t been talking relentlessly to the ladies in court in order to find you a suitable husband?”

“I’m sorry, Mother, I didn’t know,” I said, gritting my teeth at the idea. “You never mentioned anything to me.”

Keep calm! Don’t say anything else! Just keep your mouth shut! I told myself as my mind furiously whirled with visions of my mother planning my wedding. And all this before I’d even met the man that I was to be stuck with the rest of my life.

One of the maids draped a full, blood-red skirt over my head, securing it into place. Then she helped me slide my arms into a snug, embroidered black overdress. The overdress had long sleeves and a square neckline that accented my full chest and my pale white skin. If I had my way, I would’ve picked something a little less flashy, but that wasn’t an option.

Once I was fully dressed, I was seated on a low stool and then set upon by two women. One worked on taming my hair into some sort of style, and the other worked on placing all my jewelry on.

“It’s a mother’s duty to her daughter to prepare an advantageous marriage. It shouldn’t have to be said,” my mother answered as she directed the ladies. “No, not that circlet, the other one. We need to make her copper eyes more noticeable.”

“I don’t think that’s a problem, Mother. They’re hard to miss,” I interjected.

“We must make the most of each of your assets. This is going to be your first impression on the king and queen, and I plan on making it one they will never forget.” She smiled as she looked over my form.

“Don’t you think the fact that you’re having me presented late will do that for us?” I asked. “Not many families wait till their firstborn is twenty-one.”

My mother narrowed her eyes at me to let me know that I had crossed the line. Damn! I had been doing so well.

“Becka,” my mother called.

My handmaid and only friend walked up to my mother, keeping her eyes downcast. “Yes, m’lady?”

Without warning, my mother slapped her hard across the face, leaving behind a perfect red impression of her hand. I flinched, knowing how much that hurt. My heart broke for Becka. If I wasn’t going to be presented at court today, I would’ve been the bearer of that welt. Waving Becka away, my mother turned back to me with her thin lips pursed.

“Don’t think that because you can’t have marks showing on you means that I won’t demand discipline for your behavior. This is exactly why you haven’t been presented in court before now. You are far too wild. I blame your father and his tainted blood. I should have never agreed to marry him.”

My anger burned at her words. This cold, bitter woman in front of me was a viper dressed in silk. Try as I might to rein in my tongue and keep my thoughts to myself, I just couldn’t seem to do it at the moment.

“I’m not some silly little doll that you can dress up and parade around for your own benefit,” I snapped, giving in to my anger.

“Oh, you poor, silly child—of course you are,” she said as she tweaked a few small things into place. “When you get married and have a family of your own, you’ll do the same thing for your daughter.”

Just then, I heard the clatter of horse’s hooves on the cobblestone in the courtyard below my bedroom window.

“Looks like we finished just in time,” my mother said, clapping her hands to dismiss the maids from the room.

I froze in terror. Being alone with my mother was never good. As much as I wanted to stand up for myself, I’d learned it was always more painful for me to fight back. I watched as my mother glided over with a dangerous look in her eye. I had nowhere to run.

“Cassarah, I don’t need to remind you what will happen if this day doesn’t go well, do I?” she purred, letting her nails caress my cheek.

“No, Mother,” I whispered, accepting my fate.

 My mother placed a feather of a kiss on my cheek where I could still feel the bite of her nails. “We will meet you at the palace later, Cassarah.”

Becka hurried in once my mother was out of the room and walked over to me. “Are you okay?”

I looked up at my friend’s face, still marked with my mother’s anger. It was almost as red as her hair, and on skin so pale it shone like a beacon. “I should be asking you that. I’m so sorry. I had no idea she would revert back to doing that after so many years.”

“It’s fine, I can handle it,” Becka said, giving my hand a reassuring squeeze. “Come on, we shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

I took one final look in the full-length mirror, then made my way downstairs to the front hall.

“You weren’t thinking of leaving before you said goodbye, were you?” my father’s deep, rumbling voice called out from behind me.

I looked back in his direction and smiled. I’d always found comfort in my relationship with my father when things with Mother got bad. I thankfully took after him in looks—we shared the same copper-colored eyes and dark curly hair. The only thing that I acquired from my mother was her pale white skin. My father had a much darker complexion. He wrapped his strong arms around me and gave me a hug. He was much taller than me, and my head only reached the middle of his chest.

“Honey, you will ruin her appearance by hugging her so tightly,” my mother’s sharp tone interjected, cutting our hug short.

My mother was the opposite of my father in every way. She hated displays of affection and scolded him every time it went too far. Her soft blonde hair was always pulled tightly away from her face, hidden by an elegant hair net. Her dark brown eyes always seemed to be moving, watching, and making sure that she never made a misstep. When standing next to my father’s massive frame, she looked so small and slender. However, I’d learned a long time ago not to mistake her for being harmless.

“Of course, my flower, I should have known better. I just was so overwhelmed with pride at our beautiful daughter,” my father said, gently releasing me and giving me a wink.

My father, for some reason beyond my understanding, loved my mother. Even though he would comfort me after each of my mother’s punishments, he never prevented them. I didn’t know if it was because she had control over him—just like everything else in her world—or if it was his love that blinded him. I was the only thing in her life that she couldn’t seem to completely bend to her will, and it wasn’t from lack of trying.

“I better get going, I don’t want to miss my name being called,” I said, winking back at my father, then bowing my head slightly to my mother.

Oddly, they both waved farewell as I rumbled out of the courtyard and onto the open road. My mother was only doing it to show what a perfect family we were to the castle staff.

As we began the hour-long journey to the castle, I let my mind wander to the palace and what was coming next. The king and queen would meet with all of us, gauging if we would be fit material for court life. They would also unlock your family’s magical Birthright, if you were blessed enough to have one.

Over the years, the wondrous traits that families once possessed had become watered down into nothing more than handy parlor tricks. My mother’s family lost their Birthright two generations back, but my father’s Birthright had presented him with the ability to never miss a target with his bow.

However, he gave up using the bow entirely almost immediately after his Birthright had manifested. In his eyes, it tied him to our unspoken past, which he was trying to distance himself from. It all seemed terribly silly to me. I thought we should be thanking our ancestors for acquiring such a great honor, but I seemed to be the only one that was proud of what our ancestors had given us.

In the eyes of Norden’s nobility, my family had a blemished past. My father’s tainted blood, to be specific. His family originated from a clan of mercenaries, a group of hired hands that worked for whoever paid the best price. Somehow, many generations ago, our family had been given the title of “Baron” and land to go with it. No one really talked about how that came to be, but I knew it wasn’t a common practice.

Since we hadn’t been born into our title, my family always sought to show how far removed we were from such a distasteful heritage. To make up for our lack of pedigree, we compensated by being skilled in all the proper activities that were befitting of our station. And since I was an only child, that meant I had to be found without fault in all areas.

I looked out the carriage window, wondering if I’d be able to live up to my mother’s expectations, if I’d be found worthy of the king and queen’s acceptance into court. A large shadow was moving across the land, and I looked up to see a dragon flying toward the castle.

 
* * *

Sometime later I was awoken by the clamoring sounds of Royal City. I pulled back the heavy velvet curtain and peered out at the bustling streets. The city was full of people working, selling, buying, or just traveling through like myself.

It was one of the most interesting places I’d ever visited, and I’d only been here twice. That would finally change once I get accepted into court—I’d be required to visit the castle once a week for the first two years of my courtier life to complete my education.

As the carriage rattled over the wooden drawbridge and made its way into the castle’s courtyard, page boys scurried out of various areas to come and hold the horses and help me out of the carriage. Once I was out, I shook my skirts, trying to make sure they hadn’t wrinkled too bad on the ride over. My mother would kill me if I had creases everywhere.

I followed one of the pages as he showed me into a sitting room where a few other firstborns were already waiting for the presentation ceremony. Some were playing cards, while others were reading books or looking out the windows at the gardens. Wanting to stretch my legs, I took a turn about the room, pausing here and there to examine things that caught my eye. My nerves grew as I waited, trapped in this stuffy room.

“Did you hear? The crown prince isn’t going to be here today,” a girl pouted to another she was sitting next to. “How am I going to get him to notice me if he never shows up to public events like this?”

“I heard his mother is trying to marry him off to one of the neighboring kingdoms that’s threatening our trade treaty,” her friend responded, shaking her head.

The pouting girl gasped, covering her mouth with a small, gloved hand. “No, they can’t! What about all of us who have been waiting for a chance to be presented to him? It’s not fair!”

I rolled my eyes as I left the window I’d been standing in front of and drifted to the other side of the room. I couldn’t stand listening to the simpering of a snotty girl who had no idea how the real world worked. If Errit closed the borders to us, this was a big problem indeed. That’s not even mentioning the goods they supplied us with. My skin started to itch with smothered emotion as I tried to keep from getting worked up at things I couldn’t change. Finally, I focused on a few girls playing a card game I was familiar with.

“Would you like to join our game?” one of the girls asked. “It might help to keep you from dwelling on our first court appearance.”

“Is it that obvious?” I asked, embarrassed I hadn’t controlled my emotions better in public, even if it wasn’t for the reason the girl assumed.

“If you weren’t nervous, that would be most unusual,” she stated with a slow blink.

“Then yes, I would gladly join your game,” I said, smoothing my expression and arranging my skirts to sit down.

Just as I sat, the door opened, and a palace steward walked in and bowed. “The king and queen will see you now. If you would please follow me, I will take you to the throne room.”

We all stood and followed him out the door and down the hall, joining with the male firstborns who’d been waiting in a different room. As I looked around, I counted ten of us to meet with their majesties. I didn’t really know how many people were normally here for a firstborn ceremony, but I felt this was a small group. I distracted myself by looking at all the beautiful paintings of past royalty and heroes that were hung on the walls.

Two guards stationed at the end of the hall pulled open a set of large double doors, revealing a magnificent room adorned in detailed murals depicting angels, flying horses, and what looked to be baby dragons along the walls and ceilings. The room was full of courtiers who watched excitedly as we were led down the center of the room, chatting to each other as we passed, the women hiding behind their fans and gossiping about god knows what.

The king and queen sat on a pedestal in two high-backed chairs made of dark, polished wood. King Edward was regaled in dark blue from head to toe, which set off his fine features. Queen Mary was clothed in golds and creams, contrasting the cascade of red curls around her face. The young man who sat a step down from the queen’s left had to be the younger of their two children, Prince Phillip.

“Your Majesties, I present this season’s court petitioners,” the steward said loudly as he bowed, signaling the rest of us to bow as well.

“Welcome to you all,” Queen Mary said, smiling. “We would like to speak to each of you individually so that we might know our new arrivals.”

The steward took a few minutes to move us around according to some unknown order before the king’s herald called the first name. It was a young man, the son of a duke a few provinces over from ours. They talked with him for a while, asking questions, smiling, and then laughing at something he said. Then they sent him back to stand with us, and the next person was called up. The poor thing looked like she was going to throw up. After her was another young woman who seemed very confident in herself and answered all questions simply and assuredly. There was no doubt that she was going to make it in—she was the picture-perfect court lady.

“Presenting Lady Cassarah, firstborn of Baron Charles and Baroness Adeline,” the herald announced.

I walked toward them and curtsied low, hovering a moment before standing straight again. I made sure that I had proper posture with a slight smile on my face, just as I’d been taught.

“Ah, the firstborn of Baroness Adeline. She is such a dear friend to my younger sister. How is your mother doing, dear?” Queen Mary asked, giving me a genuine smile.

“My mother is doing very well. She is very excited to see you and your sister tonight at dinner,” I answered, knowing that was exactly what Mother would want me to say.

The queen chuckled a little at that. “I have no doubt that she is very excited to show off her daughter at court, seeing as she’s kept you hidden all these years. Tell me, what would she boast about to her friends?”

“My mother would most assuredly tell everyone that I am a graceful dancer, as if I float on air,” I answered, hearing my mother saying it in my head. “She would also tell you that I’m very skilled in needlework, weaving, painting, and poetry.”

“Good heavens child, your mother has been busy with you,” King Edward said, laughing. “Tell me what your father has had you learn? I know what an intellect he is.”

 “My father is a smart man indeed. He has taught me how to speak three different languages, to read and write them as well. He says for anyone to get anywhere in this kingdom, they must first be able to understand it. He also taught me arithmetic all the way up to the basics of geometry.”

Both the king and queen looked shocked to hear that. Most women in our kingdom could only read and write their own name and add basic household accounts. I was proud of what my father taught me. Those were the things that I would need to know for the rest of my life, not how to sew a pretty flower on a pillow.

“Well, it seems that your family has taken great pains in your education. It also shows how smart you are to learn all of these various tasks as detailed as you have said. I think you would be a great asset to the courts,” Queen Mary said, holding out her hand to me.

Apparently, the others didn’t have Birthrights to be unlocked, which is why they hadn’t done this part.

I grasped her hand and held it lightly as I bowed over it, kissing the large black gem set on her ring. “I am honored that Your Majesties would think that of me.”

“Welcome to the court, Lady Cassarah,” King Edward said, smiling as he touched both of my shoulders with his scepter.

I waited for something to happen after my Birthright had been unlocked, but other than getting a cold chill and goosebumps, I felt no different. I’d passed the test and would be accepted into court.

We all had to wait until the rest had the chance to talk to the king and queen before we could leave. There had been two in the group that hadn’t been accepted into court, but the rest of us had, along with our Birthrights unlocked.

The king and queen had just finished accepting the last of the petitioners when a man burst into the room. The crowd around the throne room dropped into silence as the man skidded to a stop before Their Majesties.

“The dragon’s clutch is hatching!”