Prepare to set out on a magical voyage, a romantic ride, a fantastical quest to ports unknown… because we’re bringing you a special excerpt of The Beholder, the stunning debut novel from Anna Bright. It’s a story inspired by fairy tale adventures and the most epic of love stories, and there are so many things to love in it that we thought, you know what, everyone just needs to read it themselves. It’s absolutely enchanting.
As The Beholder begins, Selah is turned down in an excruciatingly public manner when she proposes to the boy she’s been in love with for years. She doesn’t even get the chance to recover. She’s immediately sent overseas to find a suitor, with a not-so-subtle threat—return with a husband, or don’t return at all.
This turns into both her quest to find true love, but also sees her confronting all kinds of threats, betrayals, and intrigue in the places she lands. A little bit The Selection and a little bit The Odyssey, this book will no doubt court you. And you can start reading it below!
Once upon a time always began on nights like tonight.
Candles flickered in the trees that grew up through the marble floors of Arbor Hall, setting aglow the faces of the partygoers beneath them and the garlands of shattered glass sparkling in their intermingled branches. My heart beat like a hummingbird trapped between my breastbone and spine.
I ducked behind an old oak climbed over with ivy, hiding for a moment from the music and all the people, careful to avoid the gap carved around its trunk.
Tonight wasn’t truly a beginning. I’d loved Peter forever, even if I’d never told him so. Tonight was growth—a page turned. Tonight, I would reap from seeds I’d sown and tended half my life.
Tonight, I’d go to sleep with a ring on my finger and my future clear before me. Confident in the promise that tomorrow and the next day and the next would be happy days, always the same, always close to the ones I loved. Ready to do my duty by Potomac and take my place as its head someday, with someone strong and trustworthy at my side. Just as soon as Peter said yes.
I tugged an ivy vine loose with shaky fingers, looped it into a wreath, and pinned it over the loose ponytail I’d made of my curls.
Tonight, whispered my heart. You’re getting engaged tonight.
My breath came fast at the thought, my knees practically knocking together.
Momma had told me the story of my birthday a hundred times. On the night I was born, she paced here in Arbor Hall beneath the trees, pleading with me to leave the safety of her womb and enter the world.
It was a wild, wonderful, magical place, she said. Back aching, ankles swollen, she walked through the forest sheltered beneath the hall’s marble dome and whispered stories to where I waited in her belly, as if to prove it to me.
The tale of the Beauty and the Beast, of the girl who rode off into danger to save her father. The story of the girl so kind to a fairy in disguise that her voice rained flowers and pearls all around her.
Through the years, Momma would tell me those stories again and again. Those, and so many more, as we sat in the shade of the trees outside or in the cool of this very hall.
I only wished she were here to see what would happen tonight.
A hundred couples in wreaths like mine and their finest clothes danced under the great Arbor at the center of the room. Hundreds more wove between dogwoods veiled in bridal white and river birches sloughing off their bark like old paper. Here and there I spotted people I knew. The designer who’d made my gown was radiant in her own, its pale pink silk looking soft as a rose petal against her gleaming dark skin as she danced with her husband, a well-to-do farmer. Nearby, a group of boys and girls I knew from school were laughing, faces flushed as they kept up with the music. Dr. Gold and Dr. Pugh, my father’s physicians, stood beneath a willow to one side of the room, debating something I couldn’t hear.
I took a long breath, squeezed the rosary in my pocket, and stepped out to join them all.
So many people—but of course I bumped into him. Into Peter.
Finding him in a crowd was inevitable, like everything else about us.
Peter flashed a tight grin as he regained his balance, steadying the laurel crown in his tight black curls and straightening his jacket. “Hi, Selah. You look nice.”
He didn’t look nice. With his skin glowing smooth and soft brown in the candlelight beneath the oak, dressed in tweed and smelling like springtime, he was so handsome I could hardly meet his eyes. My nerves flared, and I fought the urge to hide from him like a child.
We hadn’t exactly talked before Daddy extended the proposal, and I’d acted bright and busy and distracted when I’d run into him in the fortnight since.
I could never have told Peter outright how I felt.
Peter Janesley. Six feet tall, black, with curly hair and a strong nose and full lips. Shoulders that tended to round when he was thinking, his father’s light brown eyes, his mother’s careful hands. Peter, the boy who was brilliant at math and at sports and didn’t feel compelled to pretend he was bad at either. Who could’ve been friends with anyone, but who never made anyone feel invisible. When I was fourteen, I’d learned how to graft roses from his mother just to spend time at his house. The day Sister Elizabeth scolded me till I cried over an algebra test, he’d helped me at their kitchen table until I understood everything I’d gotten wrong.
“Perfect!” he’d said. “I knew you could get this.” He’d tapped the problems with his finger, a smile stretching wide beneath his broad cheekbones. I’d tried not to blush.
Peter was smart, and earnest, and kind. After we’d finished studying, he’d cut us both a piece of cake and we’d sat for half an hour on his porch, cross-legged opposite from one another in the rising twilight. Cicadas hummed and buzzed as the light melted off the facade of the Janesleys’ home and the abelias and roses brushing the porch rail.
Once, I made him laugh. Peter had rocked back, lovely fingers clasping his knees, mouth open to show the perfect gap in his teeth, and I’d wanted to trap the moment in a jar like a firefly.
After that, we were friends, and I clung to the fact like a trophy. After I made a perfect score on my next algebra test, he hugged me in front of everyone and ruffled my hair. “Knew you could do it,” he’d said, pointing at me as he backed away, making for his next class.
My feelings built themselves from a hundred little moments like these, rising like a castle in the distance, every humble stone growing into something I could already imagine. Into something on the horizon I’d eventually reach.
And here he was. My past and my future, standing right in front of me.
“Peter!” I blurted. “Ah—thank you. You look nice, too,” I added, remembering his compliment. He huffed a laugh and put his hands in his back pockets. The jacket strained a little over his shoulders. “How are you?”
“Fine. Good.” He nodded. “You?”
“All right,” I said.
Maybe if I said it enough, I’d believe I wasn’t shaking like a leaf.
I wanted to come out with it all—to blurt out exactly what I was thinking and feeling, to explain why he’d heard it all first through our parents and not from me, to see easy confidence in his eyes again. But somehow, I couldn’t say any of it.
Later, I thought. Once we were alone, with the public spectacle over, we’d talk. There would be nothing but the truth between us, and the future ahead.
The music quieted, and Arbor Hall’s doors swung open. Peter dropped his voice. “I need to go find my parents before it starts.” He raised his eyebrows, as if asking for my approval. I sent him away with a nod and a smile.
Soon enough, we’d have all the time in the world.
“His Grace, Jeremiah, Seneschal of Potomac,” called the herald, “and Alessandra, Esteemed Consort.” The crowd murmured, clearing a path to the Arbor for Daddy and my stepmother.
There she was. My smother, more like a bag over my head or a girdle around my waist than a guide or a guardian.
Daddy had married her after we had lost Momma seven years before. Looking at her, it was impossible not to see why.
Her hair and eyelashes were thick and dark, her white gown spotless. Her cheekbones and clavicle and wrists stood pronounced beneath her golden skin, despite the heavy curve of her stomach.
Five months pregnant, she glowed. My father looked haggard beside her.
Puffy bags hung beneath Daddy’s glazed eyes, and his black suit drowned his thin frame. I bit my lip, trying to remember when he’d lost more weight.
Not for the first time, I wondered what Peter and the court thought when they looked at my father next to Alessandra—at both of us next to her. My smother, the perfect, ice-cold center of the room.
It wasn’t kind, to speak that way of family. My godmother, one of the nuns at Saint Christopher’s, usually scolded me when I did. Better pray the Hail, Holy Queen, sweet girl, and ask Mary to correct your wayward path.
But I’d never had to speculate on how Alessandra thought I compared to her. She’d made her opinion of me perfectly clear.
I drew in a breath as Daddy and my stepmother reached the center of the hall and stepped out from beneath the oak, feeling people draw back from me as they noticed my presence. I swallowed, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Countrymen,” Alessandra intoned, perfect face earnest. “Women of Potomac. Welcome to Arbor Hall, and happy Arbor Day. We are glad to have you beside us, as we are every spring. Together,” she called to the assembly, “we remember our roots.”
“Together,” rumbled the crowd, “we stretch ever upward.” Their response was a wind at my back, whispering through the trees.
Alessandra beamed. “As every year, the seneschal and I honor the old custom. The sun sets tonight on a thousand new saplings in the southeast quarter, beyond the Anacostia River.”
I fisted my hands, feeling the calluses on my palms, and tried to imagine my smother wielding a shovel in her new gown and jeweled bracelet.
She looked beautiful. But the seneschal’s family was supposed to live simply—to take only what they needed, to feed themselves and Arbor Hall from the same common lands that fed the hungry.
I tried not to think of the public fields we wouldn’t be able to seed if Alessandra kept up her extravagance.
“Spring is the heart of our hope.” Alessandra pressed her hands to her chest. “It was on Arbor Day so many years ago that word of our independence came from England. So today, we rejoice, celebrating the peace we hold dear and our work toward Potomac’s prosperity and growth.”
I pressed my lips tightly together. The Council was nowhere to be seen, but they were undoubtedly to blame for this speech. Secretary Moreau, most likely, though Secretary Allen had probably helped. Their glib words—the peace we hold dear—were like bile in my stomach.
Our little country of Potomac was at peace, more or less, if only because her once-upon-a-time colonizers had retreated back across the Atlantic, abandoning her for a lost cause, forsaking a costly connection that brought them little return.
We hadn’t been liberated so much as deserted because we failed to thrive. We weren’t at peace so much as isolated. Occupied with survival, like most every other little kingdom and territory and tribe on this continent.
“And so we welcome you to Arbor Hall, to celebrate the future.” She put a hand on her belly. “Welcome, all, and happy Arbor Day!”
Applause burst out. “Do you think it’ll be a boy or a girl?” the woman in front of me whispered excitedly to her neighbor, who shook her head, grinning.
I blinked a little. Alessandra hadn’t even mentioned my proposal.
A hush fell again as my father stepped forward to speak.
“Happy Arbor Day, everyone.” He smiled faintly, one hand twitching at his side. “Thank you all for coming.” Swallowing hard, I dropped my gaze.
I didn’t want to watch the crowd cock their heads, strain to hear his words. To see them see how thin Daddy had gotten, how his limbs shook like leaves in the wind.
I couldn’t watch them watch him. Barely over forty, my father looked like an old man, voice weak as water as he spoke.
I wished Peter could stand beside me right now. I wished I already had my answers, written out like a story in a book, black and white and certain.
But then Daddy called for Selah, Seneschal-elect of Potomac, voice creaky as a brittle old oak, and panic filled me. I wasn’t ready. I suddenly wished I could slip back through the trees and hide from his answers and the waiting court.
Instead, I uncrossed my arms and walked to the Arbor, feeling exposed in front of the entire court.
They all knew what I was about to ask.
I sifted through their faces as I passed, ignoring everyone as I searched for Peter.
I’d feel stronger once he stood beside me. I knew it.
When I found him at the edge of the crowd, it was all I could do not to reach for his hand as I passed. But Peter wouldn’t look at my face.
His long fingers were twined together, his earnest gaze trained on them.
My pulse sped.
“Captain Matthew Janesley, I’ve extended a marriage proposal to your son on behalf of our daughter, Selah, the Seneschal-elect,” Daddy said. “Will Peter accept?”
The moments between the question and its answer hung like smoke in the air, burning my lungs.
I willed Peter to meet my eyes. I knew I’d see his answer there. But no sooner could I catch his gaze than he’d glance away again.
Yes, I prayed, squeezing my fingers so hard I feared they’d snap like twigs. Say yes.
Captain Janesley stared at his broad hands, at his feet, anywhere but at my father. Or at me. “No, my Lord Seneschal. Peter respectfully declines your proposal.
I couldn’t hold my silence.
“What?” The word was a breath, a whimper. But not a single person in the noiseless room missed that small sound of hurt.
I didn’t care that all of Arbor Hall could see as I stared. I couldn’t look away from Peter. As the room filled with hissing whispers like water boiling over the rim of a pot, I heard nothing but my own keening heart, was aware of nothing but my own humiliation.
I felt well and truly naked, stripped bare before them all.
I’d never cared for anyone but Peter. He’d been my first and only choice.
But Peter hadn’t picked me.
He knew me—he was my friend—and he didn’t want me. And all of Potomac was here to bear witness to my rejection.
I’d never have to wonder again what Peter thought of me when I stood beside my family.
I turned toward Daddy, panicked. His eyes darted between Peter and me, confusion and disappointment in the lines of his weary face.
My heart sank into my stomach. He hadn’t reckoned on this. He didn’t need this kind of worry right now.
How could I have made such a huge mistake?
In the scene I’d envisioned, Peter said yes. Daddy would’ve been jubilant. He would’ve given me a kiss, hugged Peter tightly, welcomed him into the family, worn the kind of smile I remembered.
I hadn’t prepared for this, either. I hadn’t imagined what would happen if Peter said no.
My father studied me, asking me silently what he should do. I gave him the tiniest shake of my head, the feeblest shrug of my shoulders.
“Very well,” he managed to say. And Daddy cleared his throat and said nothing else.
The rest of the ball passed in a blur. I sat with my would-have-been in-laws through dinner, hollowed out with embarrassment, flat and thin as a paper doll, like a child disabused of foolish illusions.
I couldn’t stand the pity in Peter’s eyes.
I’d told myself he and I would talk after the announcement, once we had the truth between us. But I hadn’t prepared for the truth to be this.
Our tense meal was a mockery of the festive night I’d envisioned, the ball a total farce. But Peter was well liked, and his parents were respected. His father was a captain in the military, his mother a talented florist.
So I contained myself.
Besides, everyone was watching to see how I’d react.
We sat side by side through dinner, hardly speaking. I couldn’t produce any words; he could only produce two.
I’m sorry, he said, again and again, in whispers and with looks.
I’d been a fool to choose him.
I’d never risked telling Peter how I felt, always afraid of his reply. Proposing via official channels had felt safer, somehow.
Why hadn’t I seen that public rejection would only hurt worse?
What, I wondered, makes one person want another?
I knew why I wanted Peter. I had speculated for so long on whether he cared for me, carried the hope of him for so long, I hardly knew how to break it apart and examine it.
The only thing left to wonder now was what made a person stare into a proffered heart and say, No, no, thank you, not for me.
After dinner, Peter’s parents left the hall, making quiet, polite excuses. I met Peter’s eyes, searching for an answer, trying to trace the path to destruction my hopes had taken.
A flush crept up Peter’s light brown skin, and as he dipped his head slightly, his laurel wreath slipped a little in his tight black curls. He stood wooden and awkward, fingers clasped behind his back, shoulders rounded. A mere two feet away and a world apart from me.
The gap between us taunted me.
I thought I understood him. I thought we were friends, that I could ask him things. But his refusal had stolen my voice. I couldn’t ask the only questions left to me.
And the person in front of me was a boy I barely knew.
“I just wish you’d told me when it was just the two of us,” I whispered, staring at my shoes.
Peter hitched up a lean shoulder, his light brown eyes baffled. “The thing is, it never was just the two of us, Selah.”
The words stung me.
They didn’t merely remind me that I’d been avoiding Peter these past few weeks. They meant he’d been totally blindsided by my proposal.
I saw now I’d been hoping he’d answer my question without my having to be brave enough to speak the words. But he’d never even suspected that I would ask. He had never thought of me as I had endlessly imagined him.
And perhaps, more than that, I’d never known him as truly as I’d wished I did. I’d been hoping, not believing. Imagining, not knowing.
I dropped my eyes, avoiding his confused gaze, taking in safer pieces of the boy I adored. Rounded shoulders. The soft shell of his ear beneath his laurel wreath. His hands, clean and slim and white-knuckled with disquiet beneath their dark complexion.
I would never hold them. And they would never hold me.
Peter disappeared through the trees, and I watched him walk away.
Then Daddy crouched beside me, eyes gentle in his thin, drawn face, and took my hand.
We couldn’t truly get lost among those milling through the damp, green hall, but as the candles burned low in the trees, the party had seemed to move on and forget me. My father gave my hand a squeeze. “I’m sorry, sweet girl.”
My parents’ love story was one I knew well. My grandparents had been less than amused when the wealthy Savannah princess they’d invited to visit brought a sharp-tongued nun along for company. But that nun had become my godmother, and Althea told me Daddy fell for the girl from Savannah the first time she smiled at him.
Momma had been his solid ground, and he’d been her open sky. I wondered if anyone would ever see me that way.
I’d been blind enough to think Peter had.
“Is something wrong with me?” I finally asked.
“Oh, honey.” Daddy stopped me, hands on my shoulders, weary eyes serious. “You are everything you ought to be. Everything, and more. And that’s nothing compared to what I know you’ll be someday.”
He pulled me into a hug, and I wanted to weep against his chest like a child at the sharpness of his ribs. “Daddy, are you feeling all right?” His too-large jacket muffled my words. “You look like Alessandra’s got you on a diet.”
He chuckled. “Don’t you fret about me. I’m just getting old, that’s all. Don’t need as much to keep me going anymore, since you do all the work around here these days.”
I huffed a weak laugh. “You aren’t old. And don’t be silly. You do a lot.”
“Well, I ain’t young.” He sighed. “You hear all that racket last night?”
I shook my head.
“Maybe I’m imagining it. But I don’t think I’ve slept through the night in weeks. Always seems to be so much noise.” Daddy pressed bony fingers to his temples. The band had struck up again, a boisterous song with a heavy drumbeat. “I thought it would help.”
I glanced back to my father, unhappiness curdling in my stomach. “You thought what would help?”
But Daddy wasn’t listening, and now people were drawing near us—Alessandra, his physicians, members of the court. I felt the private haven we’d shared for a few precious moments collapsing.
Other people needed his time. Mine was up.
But the sound of my name halted my retreat.
“Selah!” My stepmother shook her head, lips pursed. “The evening isn’t over.”
Daddy cast me a worried glance. “Alessandra, I think the ball can spare her.”
“But the Council can’t.” Her tone was utterly bare of sympathy. My father’s chest and shoulders deflated. “The Roots—now.”
“W-wait—” I stammered. But Dr. Gold and Dr. Pugh descended as I spoke. No one heard me excuse myself as Dr. Pugh began rambling about how much better Daddy was looking.
“Clearly, the treatment is working,” said Dr. Pugh. Dr. Gold nodded brightly, an attempt at a smile stretched across his kind, young face.
Daddy had told me not to worry. It didn’t look as if his doctors were of the same mind.
I wanted to press him, to pinpoint when he’d become this worn, fragile thing, like a page in an old book.
But no one looked at me. I had no one left to question. I could only obey.
The glass decorations in the branches overhead blurred in my vision as I walked away. And as I pushed through a streaming willow’s branches and out the side door, I finally began to cry.
Tears streamed down my face as I shuffled down one, two, three flights of comfortless marble stairs, empty but for the echoes of the party. I pressed my back to the cold wall of the bottom landing and fished in the pocket of my gown until the wooden beads of my rosary whispered against my fingers.
One by one, I choked out the string of prayers Momma taught me when I was a little girl. Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Hail Mary, full of grace. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. The beautiful words eased my blistering pain, smoothing me out and untangling my snarled nerves.
But as my tears subsided, I caught the sounds of quiet conversation—of talk not coming from the ball upstairs. Vague uneasiness rose inside me again, sickly and clinging like fog. The Council meeting in the Roots had already begun.
If Alessandra came down and caught me crying in the dark, she’d lean into my weakness, press on my bruises in front of the others until they thought me as spineless as she did.
Slowly, slowly, I crept down the stairs.
The marble paths between the twisting bases of the trees were overgrown, carpeted with moss and fallen leaves, so my shoes made no noise as I approached the Roots of the great Arbor at the center of the room.
Conversation ground to a halt as I stepped into the light.