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The Bridge Kingdom

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What if you fell in love with the one person you’d sworn to destroy?

Lara has only one thought for her husband on their wedding day: I will bring your kingdom to its knees. A princess trained from childhood to be a lethal spy, Lara knows that the Bridge Kingdom represents both legendary evil – and legendary promise. The only route through a storm-ravaged world, the Bridge Kingdom controls all trade and travel between lands, allowing its ruler to enrich himself and deprive his enemies, including Lara’s homeland. So when she is sent as a bride under the guise of fulfilling a treaty of peace, Lara is prepared to do whatever it takes to fracture the defenses of the impenetrable Bridge Kingdom.

But as she infiltrates her new home – a lush paradise surrounded by tempest seas – and comes to know her new husband, Aren, Lara begins to question where the true evil resides. Around her, she sees a kingdom fighting for survival, and in Aren, a man fiercely protective of his people. As her mission drives her to deeper understanding of the fight to possess the bridge, Lara finds the simmering attraction between her and Aren impossible to ignore.

Her goal nearly within reach, Lara will have to decide her own fate: Will she be the destroyer of a king or the savior of her people?

Year:
2019
Language:
english
ISBN:
B07SB6FRDN
File:
EPUB, 549 KB
Download (epub, 549 KB)

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Contents




Also by Danielle L. Jensen





1. Lara



2. Lara



3. Lara



4. Lara



5. Aren



6. Lara



7. Lara



8. Aren



9. Lara



10. Lara



11. Aren



12. Lara



13. Aren



14. Lara



15. Lara



16. Lara



17. Aren



18. Lara



19. Lara



20. Aren



21. Lara



22. Lara



23. Aren



24. Lara



25. Lara



26. Lara



27. Aren



28. Lara



29. Aren



30. Lara



31. Lara



32. Aren



33. Lara



34. Lara



35. Lara



36. Aren



37. Lara



38. Aren



39. Lara



40. Lara



41. Lara





About the Author





This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.





THE BRIDGE KINGDOM





Copyright © 2018 by Danielle L. Jensen





All rights reserved. Neither this book, nor any parts within it may be sold or reproduced in any form without permission.





Cover Artwork Illustration: Richard Anderson

Cover Design: Silver Wing Press, LLC

Interior Formatting: Silver Wing Press, LLC

Cover produced in association with Audible Originals, LLC





Published by: Context Literary Agency, LLC

125R Cedarhurst Avenue, Suite B

Cedarhurst, NY 11516





eISBN: 971-1-7330903-0-8

Paperback ISBN: 971-1-7330903-1-5

Hardcover ISBN: 971-1-7330903-2-2





Also by Danielle L. Jensen





The Malediction Trilogy


Stolen Songbird

Hidden Huntress

Warrior Witch

The Broken Ones (Prequel)





The Dark Shores Series


Dark Shores





For Spencer





1





Lara





Lara rested her elbows on the low sandstone wall, her eyes fixed on the glowing sun descending over the distant mountain peaks, nothing between here and there but scorching sand dunes, scorpions, and the occasional lizard. Impassable for anyone without a good camel, the correct provisions, and a healthy dose of luck.

Not that she hadn’t been tempted to try more than once.

A gong was struck, the reverberations echoing over the compound. It had called her to dinner every night for the last fifteen year; s, but tonight, it rattled through her like a war drum. Lara took a deep breath to steady her nerves, then turned, striding across the training yard in the direction of the towering palms, her rose-colored skirts whispering against her legs. All eleven of her half sisters were converging on the same place, each dressed in a different gown, the color carefully selected by their Mistress of Aesthetics to complement their features.

Lara detested pink, but no one had asked for her opinion.

After fifteen years caged within the compound, tonight would be the sisters’ last here together, and their Master of Meditation had ordered them to spend the hour before dinner in a favored location, contemplating all they had learned and all they would accomplish with the tools they’d been given.

Or at least, what one of them would accomplish.

The scent of the oasis drifted over Lara on the faintest of breezes. The smell of fruits and leafy things, the char of cooking meat, and, above all, water. Precious, precious water. The compound was located on one of the few springs in the midst of the Red Desert, but far off caravan routes. Isolated. Secret.

Just the way their father, the King of Maridrina, liked it. And from what she’d been told about him, he was a man who always got what he wanted, one way or another.

Pausing at the edge of the training yard, Lara brushed the bottoms of her feet against her calves, dusting off the sand before sliding on delicate, high-heeled sandals, her balance as steady as though she wore combat boots.

Click, click, click. Her heels echoed the frantic beat of her heart as she walked down the pathway of mosaic tile and crossed the small bridge, the gentle sound of stringed instruments rising above the gurgle of water. The musicians had arrived with her father’s entourage to provide the entertainment for tonight’s festivities.

She doubted they’d be making the return journey.

A bead of sweat trickled down her back, the strap holding a knife against her inner thigh already damp. You will not die tonight, she silently chanted. Not tonight.

Lara and her sisters converged on the center of the oasis, a courtyard encircled by the spring, which turned it into an island of greenery. They walked toward the enormous table draped with silk and heavy with the silverware required for the dozen or more courses waiting in the wings. Servants, all of them mute, stood behind the thirteen chairs, eyes fixed on their feet. As the women approached, they drew the chairs back, and Lara sat without looking, knowing the rose-colored cushion would be beneath her.

None of the sisters spoke.

Underneath the table, Lara felt a hand grip hers. She allowed her eyes to flick to her left, briefly meeting Sarhina’s gaze, before returning to her plate. All twelve of them were the King’s daughters, now twenty years of age, each born by a different one of his wives. Lara and her half sisters had been brought to this secret place to undergo training that no Maridrinian girl had ever before received. Training that was now complete.

Lara’s stomach twisted sour, and she dropped Sarhina’s hand, the feel of her closest sister’s skin, cool and dry relative to her own, making her want to be sick.

The gong sounded again, and the musicians went silent as the girls rose to their feet. A heartbeat later, their father appeared, his silver hair gleaming in the lamplight as he traversed the path toward them, his azure eyes identical to those of every girl present. Sweat ran in rivulets down Lara’s legs even as her training had her take in every detail. The indigo of his coat. The worn leather of his boots. The sword belted at his waist. And, as he turned to walk around the table, the faintest outline of the blade hidden along his spine.

When he sat, Lara and her sisters followed suit, none of them making a sound.

“Daughters.” Leaning back in his chair, Silas Veliant, the King of Maridrina, smiled, waited for his taster to nod, then took a long mouthful of wine. All of them mirrored the motion, but Lara barely tasted the crimson liquid as it crossed her tongue.

“You are my most prized of possessions,” he said, waving his glass to encompass them all. “Of the twenty of my progeny who were brought here, you are all that survive. That you do, that you thrive, is an achievement, for the training you’ve received would’ve been a test for the best of men. And you are not men.”

It was only that very training that kept Lara from narrowing her eyes. From showing any emotion at all.

“All of you were brought here so that I might determine which of you is best. Which of you will be my knife in the dark. Which of you will become Queen of Ithicana.” His eyes had all the compassion of one of the scorpions in the desert. “Which of you will fracture Ithicana’s defenses, and, in doing so, allow Maridrina to return to its former glory.”

Lara nodded once, all of her sisters doing the same. There was no anticipation. At least, not for their father’s choice. It had been made days ago, and Marylyn sat at the opposite end of the table, her golden hair braided like a crown at her brow, her dress lamé to match. Marylyn had been the obvious choice, brilliant, gracious, beautiful as the sunrise—and as alluring as the sunset.

No, the anticipation was for what would come next. The choice had been made as to who would be offered to the crown prince—king, now—of the Kingdom of Ithicana. What remained unknown was what would become of the rest of them. They were of royal blood, and that made them worth something.

All the sisters, Marylyn included, had gathered close on a pile of pillows the last two nights, each of them speculating as to their fates. To whom of the King’s viziers might they be wed. To which other realms might they be offered as brides. Neither the man nor the kingdom mattered. What every girl cared about was that it would be freedom from this place.

But all those long nights, Lara had rested on the outskirts, offering nothing, using the time to watch her sisters. To love them. To remember how she had fought each of them as often as she had hugged them tight. Their smiles. Their eyes. The way, even past childhood, they nestled together like a pile of puppies newly away from their mother.

Because Lara knew what the others did not: that their father intended for only one sister to leave the compound. And that would be the future Queen of Ithicana.

A salad garnished with cheese and vibrant fruit was placed before her, and Lara ate mechanically. You will live, you will live, you will live, she chanted to herself.

“For as long as memory, Ithicana has placed a stranglehold on trade, making kingdoms and breaking them like it were some dark god.” Her father addressed them, his eyes flaring bright. “My father, and his father, and his father before him all sought to break the Bridge Kingdom. With assassins, with war, with blockades, with every tool at their disposal. But not one of them thought to use a woman.”

He smiled slyly. “Maridrinian women are soft. They are weak. They are good for nothing more than keeping house and raising children. Except for you twelve.”

Lara didn’t blink. None of her sisters did, and she wondered for a breath whether he realized that every one of them was considering stabbing him in the heart over the insult of his words. He should know well that every one of them was capable of doing it.

Her father continued, “Fifteen years ago, the King of Ithicana demanded a bride for his son and heir as tribute. As payment.” His lip curled up in a sneer. “The bastard is a year dead, but his son has called in his due. And Maridrina is ready.” His eyes went to Marylyn, then to the servants moving to clear the salad plates.

In the shadows of the growing night, Lara sensed movement. Felt the presence of the mass of soldiers her father had brought with him. The servants reappeared with steaming bowls of soup, the scent of cinnamon and leeks drifting ahead of them.

“Ithicana’s greed, its hubris, its contempt for you, will be its downfall.”

Lara allowed her eyes to leave her father’s face, taking in each one of her sisters. With all their training, all their knowledge of his plans, he never intended for any of them, save his chosen one, to live an hour past this dinner.

The soups were placed before them, and every one of her sisters waited for their father’s taster to take the first mouthful and nod. Then they picked up their spoons and dutifully began to eat.

Lara did the same.

Their father believed that brilliance and beauty were the most important attributes in the daughter he’d select. That she be the girl who’d shown the most acumen for combat and strategy. The girl who’d shown the most talent in the arts of the bedroom. He’d thought he’d known which traits mattered most—but he’d forgotten one.

Sarhina stiffened next to her.

I’m sorry, Lara silently whispered to her sisters.

Then Sarhina’s body began to spasm.

I pray that you’ll all find the freedom you deserve.

The soupspoon in Sarhina’s hand went flying across the table, but none of the other girls noticed. None of them cared. Because all of them were choking, foam rising to their lips as they twitched and gasped, one by one falling forward or backward or to the side. Then all of them were resting motionless.

Lara set her spoon next to her empty bowl, looking once to Marylyn, who was facedown in her dish. Rising, she rounded the table, lifting her sister’s head from the bowl and carefully cleaning away the soup before resting Marylyn’s cheek against the table. When Lara looked up again, her father was pale and on his feet, sword half drawn. The soldiers who’d been lurking in the wings rushed forward, corralling the panicked servants into place. But everyone, everyone, was staring at her.

“You were mistaken in your choice, Father.” Lara stood tall as she addressed her king. She stared him down, allowing the dark, grasping, and selfish part of her soul to climb to the surface and stare out at him. “I will be the next Queen of Ithicana. And I will bring the Bridge Kingdom to its knees.”





2





Lara





Lara had known what would come next, but it seemed to happen so very quickly. And yet she was certain every detail would be burned into her mind until the day she died. Her father slammed his sword back into its sheath, then reached down to press his fingers against the throat of the nearest girl, holding them there for several moments while Lara watched impassively. Then he nodded once at the soldiers surrounding them.

The men who’d been intended to dispatch Lara and her sisters turned their swords instead on the servants, whose tongueless mouths uttered wordless screams as they tried to flee the massacre. The musicians were cut down, as were the cooks in the distant kitchens and the maids turning down sheets on beds that would never be slept in again. Soon, all who remained were the king’s loyal cadre of soldiers, their hands coated with the blood of their victims.

Through this, Lara remained still. Only the knowledge that she was the sole remaining daughter—that she was the last horse left to bet on—kept her from fighting her way free of the carnage and fleeing into the desert beyond.

Erik, the Master of Arms, approached through the palms, blade glistening in his hand. His eyes went from Lara to her sisters’ still forms, and he gave her a sad smile. “I’m not surprised to find you still standing, little cockroach.”

It was the endearment he’d bestowed upon her when she’d arrived, five years old and barely alive, thanks to a sandstorm that had befallen her party on their trek to the compound. “Ice and fire might ravage the world, but still the cockroach survives,” he’d said. “Just like you.”

Cockroach she might be, but that she still breathed was thanks to him. Erik had dispatched her to the training yard as punishment for a minor transgression two nights prior, and she’d overheard members of her father’s cadre plotting the deaths of her and her sisters. A conversation led by Erik himself. Her eyes burned as she regarded him—the man who’d been more a father to her than the silver-haired monarch to her right—but she said nothing, gave him not so much as a smile in return.

“Is it done?” her father asked.

Erik nodded. “All have been silenced, Your Majesty. Save myself.” Then his eyes flicked to the shadows not touched by the table’s lamps. “And the Magpie.”

From those shadows stepped her Master of Intrigue, and Lara coolly regarded the wisp of a man who had orchestrated every aspect of the evening.

And in the nasal voice she’d always loathed, the Magpie said, “The girl did most of the dirty work for you.”

“Lara should have been your choice all along.” Erik’s voice was toneless, but grief filled his eyes as they passed over the fallen girls before returning to Lara’s face.

Lara wanted to reach for her knife—how dare he grieve them when he’d done nothing to save them—but a thousand hours of training commanded her not to move. He bowed low to his king. “For Maridrina.” Then he pulled his knife across his own throat.

Lara clenched her teeth, the contents of her stomach rising, bitter and foul and full of the same poison she’d given her sisters. Yet she didn’t look away, forcing herself to watch as Erik slumped to the ground, blood pulsing from his throat in great gouts until his heart went still.

The Magpie stepped around the pool of blood and coming fully into the light. “Such dramatics.”

Magpie wasn’t his real name, of course. It was Serin, and of all the men and women who’d trained the sisters over the years, he was the only one who’d come and gone from the compound at his leisure, managing the king’s network of spies and plots.

“He was a good man. A loyal subject.” There was no inflection in her father’s voice, and Lara wondered if he meant the words, or if they were for the benefit of the soldiers watching the proceedings. Even the most stalwart loyalty had its limits, and her father was no fool.

The Magpie’s narrow eyes turned on her. “Lara, as you know, Majesty, was not my first choice. She scored close to the bottom in nearly all things, with the lone exception of combat. Her temper continually gets the better of her. Marylyn”—he gestured to her sister—“was the obvious choice. Brilliant and beautiful. Masterfully in control of her emotions, as she clearly demonstrated over the past several days.” He made a noise of disgust.

Everything he said about Marylyn was true, but it wasn’t the sum of her. Unbidden, memories flooded through Lara’s mind. Visions of her sister carefully caring for a runt kitten, which was now the fattest cat in the compound. Of how she’d listen quietly to any of her sisters’ troubles, then offer the most perfect advice. Of how, as a child, she’d given names to all the servants, because she’d thought it cruel that they should have none. Then the visions cleared, leaving only a still body before her, golden hair crusted with soup.

“My sister was too kind.” Lara turned her head back to her father, her heart skittering in her chest even as she challenged him. “The future Queen of Ithicana must seduce its ruler. Make him believe she is guileless and sincere. She must make him trust her even as she uses her position to learn his every weakness right up to the moment she betrays him. Marylyn was not that woman.”

Her father’s eyes were unblinking as he studied her, and he gave the faintest nod of approval. “But you are?”

“I am.” Her pulse roared in her ears, her skin clammy despite the heat.

“You are not often wrong, Serin,” her father said. “But in this, I believe you were mistaken and fate has intervened in order to rectify that mistake.”

The Master of Intrigue stiffened, and Lara wondered if he was now realizing that his own life hung in the balance. “As you say, Majesty. It seems Lara possesses a quality that I’d not considered in my testing.”

“The most important quality of all: ruthlessness.” The king studied her for a moment before turning back to the Magpie. “Ready the caravan. We ride for Ithicana tonight.” Then he smiled at her as though she were the most precious of things. “It’s time for my daughter to meet her future husband.”





3





Lara





Flames licked the night sky as the group departed, but Lara only risked one backward glance at the burning compound that had been her home, the blood-spattered floors and walls blackening as the fire consumed all evidence of a plot fifteen years in the making. Only the heart of the oasis, where the dinner table sat encircled by the spring, would remain untouched.

It was still almost more than she could bear to leave her slumbering sisters surrounded by a ring of fire, unconscious and helpless until the concoction of narcotics she’d given them wore off. Already their pulses, which had been slowed to near death for a dangerous length of time, should be quickening, their breathing obvious to anyone who looked closely. If Lara found excuses to linger to ensure their safety, she would only risk discovery, and then all of this would be for naught.

“Don’t burn them. Leave them for the scavengers to pick their bones clean,” she’d told her father, her stomach twisting into knots until he’d laughed and acceded to her macabre request, leaving her sisters slumped over the table, the slaughtered servants forming a gory perimeter around them.

That was what her sisters would wake to: fire and death. For only if their father believed them silenced did they have any chance at a future. She would carry their mission forward while her sisters made their own lives, now free to be masters of their own fates. She’d explained all of it in the note she’d slipped into Sarhina’s pocket while her father ordered the compound swept for survivors. For no one must be left alive who might whisper a word about the deception that now journeyed toward a wedding in Ithicana.

Their journey across the Red Desert would be fraught with hardship and peril. But at that precise moment, Lara was convinced the worst part would be listening to the Magpie’s chatter the entire way. Lara’s mare was laden with Marylyn’s trousseau, while she was forced to ride pillion behind the Master of Intrigue.

“From this moment forward, you must be the perfect Maridrinian lady,” he instructed, his voice grinding on her nerves. “We cannot risk anyone seeing you behave otherwise, not even those His Majesty believes loyal.” He cast a meaningful glance toward her father’s guards, who’d formed the caravan with practiced ease.

Not a single one looked at her.

They did not know what she was. What she’d been trained to do. What her purpose was beyond the fulfillment of a contract with the enemy kingdom. But every one of them believed she’d murdered her sisters in cold blood. Which made her wonder how long her father would let them live.

“How did you do it?”

Hours into their journey, the Magpie’s question pulled Lara from her thoughts, and she tightened her white silk scarf across her face, despite the fact his back was to her. “Poison.” She allowed a hint of tartness to enter her voice.

He snorted. “Aren’t we bold now that we believe we are untouchable.”

She ran her tongue over her dry lips, feeling the heat of the sun rising behind them. Then she allowed herself to slip into the pool of calm her Master of Meditation had taught her to employ when strategizing, among other things. “I poisoned the soupspoons.”

“How? You didn’t know where you’d be seated.”

“I poisoned all, save those set at the head of the table.”

The Magpie was silent.

Lara continued, “I’ve been taking small doses of several poisons for years to build up my tolerance.” Even still, she had purged herself the moment she’d had a chance, vomiting again and again until her stomach was dry, then taking the antidote, the dizzying malaise the only lingering sign she’d ingested a narcotic at all.

The Master of Intrigue’s tiny frame tensed. “What if the settings had been altered? You might have killed the king.”

“She clearly believed it worth the risk.”

Lara tilted her head, having noted the jingle of bells on the horse’s bridle as her father had ridden up behind, the creature festooned with silver rather than the tin the guards’ mounts wore.

“You guessed that I intended to kill the girls I didn’t need,” he said. “But instead of warning your sisters or attempting to escape, you murdered them to take the chosen’s place. Why?”

Because for the girls to fight their way out would’ve meant a lifetime on the run. Faking their deaths had been the only way. “I may have spent my life in isolation, Father, but the tutors you selected educated me well. I know the hardship that our people endure beneath Ithicana’s yoke on trade. Our enemy needs to be brought low, and of my sisters, I was the only one capable of doing it.”

“You murdered your sisters for the good of our country?” His voice was amused.

Lara forced a dry chuckle from her lips. “Hardly. I murdered them because I wished to live.”

“You gambled with the king’s life in order to save your own skin?” Serin turned to look at her, his expression green. He’d trained her, which meant it was within the king’s right to blame him for all that she had done. And her father was known to be merciless.

But the King of Maridrina only laughed with delight. “Gambled and won.” Reaching over, he pushed aside Lara’s scarf to cup her cheek. “King Aren won’t see you coming until it’s far too late. A black widow in his bed.”

King Aren of Ithicana. Aren, her soon-to-be husband.

Lara only vaguely heard her father give the order to his guards to make camp, the group intending to sleep through the heat of the day.

One of the guards lifted her off the back of Serin’s camel, and she sat on a blanket while the men set up the camp, using the time to think of what was to come.

Lara knew as much as—probably more than—most Maridrinians did about Ithicana. It was a kingdom as shrouded in mystery as it was in mist: a series of islands stretching between two continents, the land masses guarded by violent seas made more treacherous by defenses the Ithicanians had placed in the waters to ward off infiltrators. But that was not what made Ithicana so powerful. It was the bridge stretching above and between those islands—the only safe way to travel between the continents ten months out of the year. And Ithicana used its asset to keep the kingdoms who depended on trade hungry. Desperate. And most of all, willing to pay any price the Bridge Kingdom demanded for its services.

Seeing her tent was erected, Lara waited until the men had placed her bags inside before slipping into the welcome shade, curbing the urge to thank them as she passed.

She was alone for barely the length of time it took to remove her scarf before her father ducked inside, Serin on his heels. “I’ll have to begin training you on the codes now,” the Master of Intrigue said, waiting until the king was sitting before ensconcing himself in front of Lara. “Marylyn created this code, and I daresay that teaching it to you in such a short time will be a challenge.”

“Marylyn is dead,” she replied, taking a mouthful of tepid water from her canteen before carefully closing it again.

“Don’t remind me,” he snapped.

Her smile was filled with a confidence she didn’t feel. “Come to terms with the fact that I am all who remains of the girls you trained, and then I will not need to refresh your memory.”

“Begin,” her father commanded, and then he closed his eyes, his presence in her tent for propriety’s sake, only.

Serin began his instruction on the code. It needed to be entirely committed to memory, as she couldn’t bring notes into Ithicana. It was a code she might never even use, its usefulness entirely predicated on the King of Ithicana allowing her the kindness of corresponding with her family. And kindness, she’d been told, was not an attribute the man was known for.

“As you know, the Ithicanians are exemplary codebreakers, and anything you manage to send out will be subject to intense scrutiny. There’s every chance they’ll break this one.”

Lara held up her hand, ticking off her fingers as she spoke. “I should expect to be completely isolated, from both the Ithicanians and from the outside world. I may or may not be allowed to correspond, and even if I am, there is every chance our code will be broken. There is no way for you to reach me to retrieve a message. No way for me to send something through their people, because you’ve yet to swing the loyalties of a single one.” She balled her hand into a fist. “Other than escaping, which means an end to my ability to spy, just how do you expect me to convey the information to you?”

“If this were an easy task, we’d have accomplished it already.” Serin extracted a heavy piece of parchment from his satchel. “There is only one Ithicanian who corresponds with the outside world, and that is King Aren himself.”

Taking the parchment, which was embossed with Ithicana’s crest of the curving bridge, the edges trimmed with gilt, she examined the precise script, which requested that Maridrina deliver a princess to be his bride in accordance of the terms of the Fifteen Year Treaty, as well as an invitation to negotiate new terms of trade between the kingdoms. “You want me to hide a message within one of his?”

He nodded, handing her a jar of clear liquid. Invisible ink. “We’ll attempt to entice messages from him to give you the opportunity, but he’s not prone to frequent correspondence. For that reason, we should return to studying your sister’s code.”

The lesson was tedious work and Lara was exhausted. It took all her self-control not to sigh with relief when Serin finally departed to his own tent.

Her father rose, yawning.

“Might I ask a question, Your Majesty?” she asked before he could depart.

At his nod, she licked her lips. “Have you seen him? The new King of Ithicana?”

“No one has seen him. They wear masks, always, when meeting with outsiders.” Then her father shook his head. “But I have met him, once. Years ago, when he was only a child.”

Lara waited, her palms soaking the silk of her skirts beneath them.

“He is rumored to be even more ruthless than his father before him. A harsh man, who shows no mercy to outsiders.” His gaze met hers, and the uncharacteristic pity in his eyes made her hands turn to ice. “I feel he will treat you cruelly, Lara.”

“I have been trained to endure pain.” Pain and starvation and solitude. Everything that she could possibly face in Ithicana. Taught to endure it and remain true to her mission.

“It may not come in the form of pain, as you understand it.” Her father took her hand and turned it over to reveal her palm, studying it. “Be wary most of all of their kindness, Lara. For above all, the Ithicanians are cunning. And their king will give up nothing without demanding his due.”

Her heart skipped.

“The heart of our kingdom is caught between the Red Desert and the Tempest Seas, with Ithicana’s bridge the only safe route beyond,” he continued. “Neither desert nor sea bends to any master, and Ithicana . . . They’d see our people impoverished, starved, and broken before they’d ever allow trade to flow freely.” He dropped her hand. “For generations, we’ve tried everything to make them see reason. To make them see the harm their greed causes the innocent people of our lands. But the Ithicanians are not men, Lara. They are demons hiding in human form. Which I’m afraid you’ll find out soon enough.”

Watching her father depart the tent, Lara flexed her hands, wanting to wrap them around weapons. To strike out. To maim. To kill.

Not because of his words.

Dire as her father’s warning was, it was one she’d heard countless times before. No, it was the slump of his shoulders. The resignation in his tone. The hopelessness that briefly showed itself in his eyes. All signs that despite everything her father had put into this gambit, he didn’t truly believe she’d succeed in her mission. As much as Lara detested being underestimated, she hated those who mattered to her being harmed even more. And with her sisters now free of their shackles, nothing mattered to her more than Maridrina.

Ithicana would pay for its crimes against her people, and by the time she was through with its king, he’d do more than bend.

He’d bleed.





Another four nights of travel north saw the red sand dunes giving way to rolling hills covered with dry brush and stubby trees, then craggy mountains that seemed to touch the sky. They followed narrow ravines, and slowly, the climate began to shift, the endless brown dirt broken by patches of green and the occasional brilliant bloom of flowers. The dried creek bed they followed turned muddy, and several hours later, the caravan was splashing through sluggish water, but beyond that, the earth was bone dry. Harsh and seemingly unlivable.

Men, women, and children stopped working in their fields to shield their eyes, watching the group pass. They were all skinny, wearing threadbare homespun clothes and wide-brimmed straw hats that shielded them from the ceaseless sun. They survived on the sparse crops and boney cattle they raised; there was no other choice for them. While, in prior generations, families were able to earn enough at their trades to purchase meat and grain imported from Harendell through the bridge, Ithicana’s rising taxes and tolls had changed that. Now only the wealthy could afford the goods, and the working class of Maridrina had been forced to abandon their trades for these dry fields in order to feed their children.

Barely feed them, Lara amended, her chest clenched tight as the children ran to line the caravan route, their ribs visibly protruding from beneath their tattered clothes.

“God bless His Majesty,” they shouted. “God bless the Princess!” Little girls ran alongside Serin’s camel, reaching up to hand her braids of wildflowers, which Lara draped across her shoulders, then across the saddle when they grew too many.

Serin gave her a sack of silver coins to disperse, and it was a struggle to keep her fingers steady as she pressed them into tiny hands. They learned her name soon enough, and as the muddy creek turned to crystal rapids racing down the slopes toward the sea, they shouted, “Bless Princess Lara! Watch over our beautiful princess!” But it was a growing chant of “Bless Lara, Maridrina’s Martyr” that turned her hands cold. That kept her awake long after Serin had finished his lessons each evening, then filled her head with nightmares when sleep finally took her. Dreams where she was trapped by taunting demons, where all her skills had failed her, where no matter what she did, she could not get free. Dreams where Maridrina burned.

And every day, they traveled closer.

As the earth turned lush and moist, the caravan was joined by a larger contingent of soldiers, and Lara was moved from the camel to a blue carriage pulled by a team of white horses, their trappings decorated with the same silver coins as her father’s horse. And with the soldiers came a whole retinue of servants tending to Lara’s every need, washing and scrubbing and polishing her as they traveled to Maridrina’s capital city of Vencia.

Their whispers filtered through her tent walls: that her father had kept the future bride of Ithicana hidden in the desert all these long years for her own safety. That she was a treasured daughter, born of a favored wife, hand-selected by him to unite the two kingdoms in peace, her charm and grace destined to see Ithicana grant Maridrina all the benefits an ally should have, which would allow the kingdom to thrive once more.

The very idea that Ithicana would concede so much was laughable, but Lara felt no amusement at their naiveté. Not as she took in the desperate hope in their eyes. Instead, she carefully stoked her fury, hiding it beneath gentle smiles and graceful waves from the open window of the carriage. It was a strength she needed, given that she’d heard the other whispers, too. “Pity the poor gentle princess,” the servants said with sorrow in their eyes. “What will become of her amongst those demons? How will she survive their brutality?”

“Are you afraid?” Her father pulled the carriage curtains closed as they approached the outskirts of Vencia, much to Lara’s dismay. It was the city of her birth, and she hadn’t seen it since she’d been taken from the confines of the harem and brought to the compound to begin her training at the age of five.

She turned to him. “I’d be a fool not to be afraid. If they discover I’m a spy, they’ll kill me and then cancel the trade concessions for spite.”

Her father made a noise of agreement, then pulled two knives encrusted with Maridrinian rubies from beneath his coat, handing them to her. Lara recognized them as the ceremonial weapons that Maridrinian women wore to indicate they were wed. They were supposed to be used by a husband in the defense of his wife’s honor, but typically they were kept dull. Decorative. Useless.

“They’re lovely. Thank you.”

He chuckled. “Look more closely.”

Pulling them from their sheaths, Lara tested the edges and found them keen, but the balance was off. Then her father reached over and pressed one of the jewels, and the gold casement fell away to reveal a throwing knife.

Lara smiled.

“If they won’t allow you to communicate with the outside world, you’ll need to bide your time while you learn their secrets, then escape. Perhaps even fight your way free and return to us with what you’ve learned.”

She nodded, flipping the blades back and forth to get the feel of them. There was no chance of her willingly returning to hand-deliver her invasion strategy. To do so would be a death wish.

After learning her father’s intention to kill her and her sisters at the dinner, Lara had had time to consider why her father wanted the daughters not destined to be queen dead. It was more than a desire to keep his plot a secret until he’d succeeded in taking the bridge. Her father wanted this plot kept secret forever, for if anyone learned of it, his ability to use his other living children as negotiating tools would be negated. No one would ever trust him. Just like he’d never trust her. Which meant if Lara ever returned, successful or not, she too would be silenced.

Her father interrupted her thoughts. “I was there when you girls had your first kills,” he said. “Did you know?”

The blades stilled in her hands as Lara remembered. She and her sisters had been sixteen when the line of chained men had been brought to the compound under Serin’s watchful eye. They were raiders from Valcotta who’d been captured and brought to test the mettle of Maridrina’s warrior princesses. Kill or be killed, Master Erik had told them as they were pushed one by one into the fighting yard. Some of her sisters had hesitated and fallen beneath the raider’s desperate blows. Lara had not. She would never forget the meaty thunk her blade made as it sank into her opponent’s throat from across the yard. The way he stared at her in astonishment before slowly collapsing onto the sand, his lifeblood pooling around him.

“I didn’t know,” she said.

“Knives, as I recall, are your specialty.”

Killing was her specialty.

The carriage was rumbling over cobbled streets, the horses’ hooves making sharp little sounds against the stone. Outside, Lara heard intermittent cheers, and flicking aside the curtain, she tried to smile at the filthy men and women lining the streets, their faces pale from hunger and illness. Worse were the children among them, eyes dull and hopeless, flies buzzing near their eyes and mouths.

“Why don’t you do something for them?” she demanded of her father, whose face was expressionless as he stared out the window.

He turned his azure eyes on her. “Why else do you think I created you?” Then he reached into his pocket and gave her a handful of silver to toss from the window, which she did. She closed her eyes as her impoverished people fought each other for the gleaming metal. She would save them. She would wrest the bridge from Ithicana’s control, and no Maridrinian would go hungry again.

The horses slowed, making their way down the steep switchbacking streets to the harbor below. Where the ship waited to take her to Ithicana.

She tugged aside the curtain to get her first look at the sea, the scent of fish and brine on the air. There were whitecaps on the water, the rise and fall of the waves stealing her attention as her father plucked the knives from her hands to be returned when the time was right.

The carriage pulled through a market that appeared nearly devoid of life, the stalls empty. “Where is everyone?” she asked.

Her father’s face was dark and unreadable. “Waiting for you to open the gates to Ithicana.”

The carriage rolled into the harbor, then came to a stop. There was no ceremony as her father helped her out. The ship awaiting them flew a flag of azure and silver. Maridrina’s colors.

He led her swiftly down the dock and up a gangplank onto the ship. “The crossing to Southwatch takes less than an hour. There are servants waiting to prepare you below.”

Lara cast one backward glance at Vencia, at the sun burning hot and bright above it, then turned her sights on the clouds and mist and darkness that lay across the narrow strait before her. One kingdom to save. One kingdom to destroy.





4





Lara





Lara stood on the ship’s deck, which lurched and bucked like a wild horse, digging her fingernails into the railing, fighting to keep the contents of her stomach from spilling out into the sea. To make matters worse, raised in the desert, she had never learned to swim—a weakness that had already begun to haunt her. Every time the ship heeled over in the heavy wind, her breath caught with the certainty they’d capsize and drown. The only things that distracted her from visions of waves closing over her head were the more certain dangers facing her.

By tonight, she’d be married. She’d be alone in a foreign kingdom with a reputation for the worst sort of cruelty. The wife of a young man who was lord over it all. This was the life she’d been protecting her sisters from, at the sacrifice of her own, and all of it for the sake of her people. But now the consequences of that choice were terrifyingly imminent. Clouds hung low over the white-capped sea, shifting and moving like sentient beasts, but through them, ever so faintly, she could make out the shadow of an island. Ithicana.

Her father joined her at the railing. “Southwatch.”

His travel-stained clothing had been replaced with a pristine white shirt and black coat, his polished sword hanging from a belt decorated with silver and turquoise disks. “Aren keeps a full garrison of soldiers there at all times, and they have catapults and other war machines trained on the ocean, ready to sink any who’d attempt to take the island. There are spikes set into the seafloor to spear any ship that manages to approach any point other than the pier, which is itself rigged with explosives should they feel it has been compromised. The bridge cannot be taken at its mouth.” His jaw tightened. “It’s been tried and tried.”

Countless ships and thousands of men lost for every attempt. Lara knew the history of the war that had ended fifteen years ago with Ithicana triumphant, but the specifics rose and fell in her mind like the waves on which the ship rode. Her knees were shaky, her whole body weak with seasickness.

“You are the hope of our people, Lara. We need that bridge.”

She was afraid if she opened her mouth, she’d spill whatever remained in her stomach overboard, so she only nodded once. The island was in full view now, twin peaks of stone festooned with lush vegetation rising out of the sea. At their base was a lone pier crusted with armaments, a cluster of unadorned stone buildings, and beyond, a single road leading up to the yawning mouth of the bridge itself.

Her father’s sleeve brushed her wrist. “Don’t for a heartbeat believe that I trust you,” he murmured, stealing back her attention. “I saw what you did to your sisters, and while you might claim to have Maridrina foremost in your heart, I know you were motivated by the desire to save your own life.”

If saving her own life had been what she’d cared about, she would have faked her own death. But Lara said nothing.

“While your ruthlessness makes you desirable for this role, your lack of honor makes me question whether you’ll put our people’s lives above your own.” Grabbing her arms, he twisted her toward him, nothing on his face betraying that this was anything more than a conversation between a loving father and his daughter. “If you betray me, I will hunt you down. And what I will do to you will make you wish that you’d died alongside your sisters.”

The sound of steel drums danced across the sea and into her ears, punctuated by the distant grumble of thunder.

“And what if I succeed?” Her mouth tasted sour, and she turned her head away, taking in the hundreds of figures on the island waiting for the ship. Waiting for her.

“You’ll be the savior of Maridrina. You’ll be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams.”

“I want my freedom.” Her tongue felt strangely thick as she spoke. “I want to be left alone, to my devices. Free to go wherever I choose, to do as I will.”

One silver eyebrow rose. “How different you and Marylyn are.”

“Were.”

He inclined his head. “Even so.”

“Do we have an agreement then? The bridge in exchange for my freedom?”

His nod was punctuated by a loud boom of thunder. It was a lie, and she knew it. But she could live with his lies because their goals were aligned.

“Drop sails,” the captain of the ship bellowed, and Lara gripped the rail as they lost momentum, the sailors running about to make ready to land. The drums continued their beat, pace escalating along with Lara’s heart as the ship drifted against the empty pier, sailors leaping the gap to tie off the ship.

The gangplank was lowered, and her father took her arm, leading her toward it. The drumming intensified.

“You have one year.” He stepped onto the solid stone of the pier. “Do not falter. Do not fail.”

Lara hesitated, dizzy, and, for the first time since the night she’d freed her sisters from their dark fate, desperately afraid. Then she took her first step into the world that was now her new home.

The drums let out a thundering beat, then went still. Holding tight to her father’s arm, Lara walked up the pier, biting back a gasp as she took in the masked Ithicanians for the first time.

Their steel helmets were sculpted like raging beasts with mouths full of snarling teeth and brows bearing curved horns. She could see nothing of the men beneath except their eyes, which seemed to glitter with malice as they watched her pass, hands on swords and pikes. No one spoke; the only sounds were the whistle of the wind between the two towers of rock and the call of the storm beyond.

Tearing her eyes from the soldiers, Lara’s gaze went down the paved road rising up to the gaping mouth of Ithicana’s bridge. It was enclosed like a tunnel, maybe a dozen feet wide and equally as tall, made of a grey stone gone green with exposure to the damp air. A great steel portcullis was raised, the entirety of the bridge’s mouth framed by a guardhouse.

A figure stepped out of the dark opening, the steel spikes of the portcullis hanging above him like fangs, and Lara felt her stomach lurch.

The King of Ithicana.

Dressed in trousers, heavy boots, and a tunic of drab greenish gray, he was tall and broad of shoulder. Her training told her that he was as much a soldier as any of those lining the road. But those details were lost, her heart beating staccato, as she took in the helmet that concealed his face. It had a snout like a lion’s, open to reveal glittering canines, and horns like a bull sprouting from both temples.

Not a man, a demon.

The lingering dizziness from the voyage passed over her in waves, and with it came fear that possessed her like an angry spirit. The heel of her sandal slid on the stone, and Lara stumbled against her father, the ground feeling as though it were moving beneath her like the rocking ship.

This had been a mistake. A terrible, horrible mistake.

When only a handful of paces stood between them, her father stopped and turned to her. In his free hand was a jeweled belt with her camouflaged throwing knives hooked on either side. He wrapped it around the waist of her sodden gown, fastening the buckle. Then he kissed both her cheeks before turning back to Ithicana’s king. “As was agreed upon, I stand here to offer my most precious daughter, Lara, as a symbol of Maridrina’s commitment to its continued alliance with Ithicana. May there ever be peace between our kingdoms.”

The King of Ithicana nodded once, and her father gave Lara a gentle shove between the shoulders. With halting steps, she walked toward the king, and as she did, a bolt of lightning lanced through the air, the flash making the visage of his helmet seem to move, like it wasn’t metal, but flesh.

The drums resumed, a steady and harsh beat: Ithicana incarnate. The king reached out one hand, and though every instinct told her to turn and run, Lara took it.

For reasons she couldn’t articulate, she’d expected it to be cold like metal, and equally unyielding—but it was warm. Long fingers curved around hers, the nails cut short. His palm was calloused, the skin, like hers, covered with tiny white scars. The nicks and cuts that couldn’t be avoided when combat was one’s way of life. She stared at that hand. It offered some strange comfort; what stood before her was nothing more than a man.

And men could be defeated.

A priestess approached on her left and tied an azure ribbon around their hands, binding them together before belting out the Maridrinian marriage vows so that all could hear over the growing storm. Vows of obedience on her part. Vows to create a hundred sons on his. Lara could’ve sworn she heard a soft snort of amusement from behind the king’s helmet.

But as the priestess raised her hands to proclaim them man and wife, he spoke for the first time. “Not yet.”

Waving away the startled priestess, he shook loose the ribbon that Lara was supposed to have worn braided into her hair for the first year of their marriage. The silk flew off toward the sea. One of his helmeted soldiers stepped out of the ranks, coming up to stand before them.

He shouted, “Do you, Aren Kertell, King of Ithicana, swear to fight by this woman’s side, to defend her to your dying breath, to cherish her body and none other, and to be loyal to her as long as you both live?”

“I do.” The king’s words were punctuated by the hammer of a hundred swords and spears against shields, and Lara twitched.

But the shock of the noise was nothing compared to what she felt when the soldier turned to her and said, “Do you, Lara Veliant, Princess of Maridrina, swear to fight by this man’s side, to defend him to your dying breath, to cherish his body and none other, and to be loyal to him as long as you both live?”

She blinked. And because there was nothing else for her to say, she whispered, “I do.”

Nodding, the soldier pulled out a knife. “Now don’t be a baby about this, Majesty,” he muttered, and the king answered with a tense chuckle before holding out his hand.

The soldier sliced the knife across the king’s palm, then before Lara could pull away, he grabbed her arm and ran the knife across her hand as well. She saw the blood well up before she felt the sting. The soldier pressed their palms together, the King of Ithicana’s hot blood mixing with hers before running down their entwined fingers.

The soldier jerked their hands up, almost lifting Lara off her feet. “Behold, the King and Queen of Ithicana.”

As if to punctuate his words, the storm finally fell upon them with a resounding clap of thunder that made the ground shudder. The drums took up their frenzied pace, and the King of Ithicana pulled their hands out of the soldier’s grip, lowering his arm so Lara wasn’t on her tiptoes. “I suggest you board your ship, Your Grace,” he said to Lara’s father. “This storm will chase you home as it is.”

“You could always offer your hospitality,” her father responded, and Lara’s attention flicked from him to Serin, who stood with the rest of the Maridrinians beyond. “We are, after all, family now.”

The King of Ithicana laughed. “One step at a time, Silas. One step at time.” He turned and gently tugged Lara into the depths of the bridge, the portcullis rattling its way down behind them. She had only the opportunity for a brief glance back over her shoulder at her father, his expression blank and unreadable. But beyond, Serin met her gaze, inclining his head once in a slow nod before she was pulled out of sight.

It was dark inside, smelling faintly of animal dung and sweat. None of the Ithicanians removed their helmets, but even with their faces concealed, Lara felt their scrutiny.

“Welcome to Ithicana,” the king—her husband—said. “I’m sorry to have to do this.”

Lara saw him lift a hand holding a vial. She could’ve dodged it. She could have taken him down with a single blow, fought her way free of his soldiers. But she couldn’t let him know that. Instead, she gave him a doe-eyed look of shock as he held it up to her nose, the world spinning around her, darkness rushing in. Her knees buckled and she felt strong arms catch her before she hit the ground. The last thing she heard before she faded from consciousness was the king’s resigned voice: “What have I gotten myself into with you?”





5





Aren





Aren, the thirty-seventh ruler of Ithicana, lay on his back, staring up at the soot stains on the roof of the barracks. His helmet rested next to his left hand and, as he turned his head to regard the monstrous steel thing he’d inherited along with his title, he decided that whichever one of his ancestors had come up with the idea of the helmets had been both a genius and a sadist. Genius, because the things put fear in the hearts of Ithicana’s enemies. Sadist, because wearing it was like having his head stuffed in a cooking pot that smelled of sweaty socks.

His twin sister’s face appeared in his line of sight, her expression amused. “Nana has examined her. Says she’s shockingly fit, most certainly healthy, and, barring tragedy, likely to live a goodly long while.”

Aren blinked once.

“Disappointed?” Ahnna asked.

Rolling onto one elbow, Aren sat upright on the bench. “Contrary to the opinions of our neighboring kingdoms, I’m not actually so depraved as to wish death upon an innocent girl.”

“Are you so sure she’s innocent?”

“Are you arguing that she’s not?”

Ahnna scrunched up her face, then shook her head. “In true Maridrinian fashion, they’ve given you a beautiful and sheltered shrinking violet. Good to look at and not much else.”

Remembering how the young woman had shaken as she’d walked up the pier, holding tightly to her father’s arm, her enormous blue eyes filled with terror, Aren was inclined to agree with his sister’s assessment. Yet even so, he fully intended to keep Lara isolated until he could get a grasp on her true nature. And learn exactly where her loyalties lay.

“Have our spies learned anything more about her?”

Ahnna shook her head. “Nothing. He appears to have kept her hidden away in the desert, and until she rode out of the red sands, not even the Maridrinians knew her name.”

“Why all the secrecy?”

“They say it was for her protection. Not everyone is pleased about our alliance with Maridrina, Valcotta most of all.”

Aren frowned, dissatisfied with the answer, though he could not say why. Maridrina and Valcotta were continually at war over the fertile stretch of land running down the western coast of the southern continent, the border contested by both kingdoms. It was possible the Valcottan Empress might have attempted to disrupt the alliance by assassinating the princess, but he thought it unlikely. For one, Silas Veliant had more daughters than he knew what to do with, and the treaty had not been specific about which girl would be sent. Two, every kingdom north and south knew that Aren’s marriage to a Maridrinian princess was nothing more than a symbolic act, all parties involved more interested in the trade terms underpinning the agreement and the peace they purchased. The treaty would have endured even if the princess had not.

But third, and what troubled him most of all, was that it wasn’t Maridrinian nature to hide from anyone. If anything, Silas would have relished the assassination of a daughter or two because it would renew the flagging support of his people for the war against Valcotta.

“She awake yet?”

“No. I came down as soon as Nana deemed her a fit and healthy wife for you, because I wanted to be the one to share the wonderful news.”

His twin’s voice dripped with sarcasm, and Aren shot her a warning look. “Lara is your queen now. Perhaps try showing her a little respect.”

Ahnna responded by flipping him her middle finger. “What are you going to do with Queen Lara?”

“With tits like that, I’d suggest bedding her,” a gravelly voice interjected.

Aren turned to glare at Jor, the captain of his honor guard, who sat on the far side of the fire pit. “Thank you for the suggestion.”

“What were they thinking, dressing her in silk in the pouring rain? Might as well have paraded her naked in front of us all.”

Aren had, in fact, noticed. Even bedraggled by the rain, she’d been stunning, her form curved, her exquisite face framed by hair the color of honey. Not that he’d expected anything else. Despite being past his prime, the King of Maridrina remained a vital man, and it was known he chose the majority of his wives for beauty and nothing else.

The thought of the other king made Aren’s stomach sour. He recalled the smug expression on the Silas’s face as he handed his precious daughter over.

It was an expression the Rat King was entitled to.

While Ithicana was now bound to new and undesirable trade terms, all the King of Maridrina had given up was one of his innumerable children and a promise to continue the peace that had stood between the two kingdoms for the past fifteen years. And not for the first time, Aren cursed his parents for making his marriage to Maridrina part of the agreement.

“A piece of paper with three signatures will do little to unite our kingdoms,” his mother had always replied when he complained. “Your marriage will be the first step toward creating a true alliance between peoples. You will lead by example and, in doing so, you will ensure Ithicana does more than just survive by the skin of its teeth. And if that means nothing to you, then remember that your father gave his word on my behalf.”

And an Ithicanian always kept his word. Which was why, on the fifteenth anniversary of the agreement, despite his parents being a year dead, Aren had sent word to Maridrina to bring their princess to be wed.

“Can’t argue that she’s easy on the eyes. I can only hope I’ll be so lucky.” Though Ahnna’s voice was light, Aren didn’t miss how her hazel eyes turned dull at the mention of her half of the bargain. The King of Harendell, their neighbor to the north, had yet to send for his son’s Ithicanian bride, but with Aren now wed to Lara, it was only a matter of time. Harendell would know by now the terms Maridrina had negotiated, and they’d be keen to extract their own pound of flesh. Both deals would incite retaliation from Amarid. The other northern kingdom’s relationship with Ithicana was already fraught with conflict, given that their merchant ships competed for business with the bridge.

Giving Jor a meaningful look, Aren waited until his honor guard made themselves scarce before saying to his sister in a low voice, “I won’t make you marry the prince, if you don’t wish to. I’ll compensate them some other way. Harendell is more pragmatic than Maridrina; they can be bought.” Because it was one thing for Aren to take a girl he hadn’t chosen and never met as a bride for the sake of peace. Quite another to give his sister to a foreign kingdom, where she’d be alone in a strange place to be used however they willed.

“Don’t be an idiot, Aren. You know I’ll put the good of our kingdom first,” Ahnna muttered, but she leaned against his left shoulder, where she’d stood with him and fought for him all of their lives. “And you didn’t answer my question.”

That was because he didn’t know what he was going to do with Lara.

“We can’t let our guard down,” Ahnna said. “Silas might have promised peace, but don’t for a second believe he intends to honor that for the sake of her. The bastard would probably sacrifice a dozen daughters if it saw us lowering our defenses.”

“I’m aware.”

“She might be beautiful,” his sister continued, “but never believe for a heartbeat that isn’t by design. She’s the daughter of our enemy. He wants you to be distracted by her. She’s probably been instructed to seduce you, to find out what she can about Ithicana’s secrets on the hope she’ll be able to pass them back to her father. We don’t need him holding that kind of bargaining chip.”

“How, exactly, would she manage that? It isn’t as though we’ll be sending her home for visits. She’ll have no contact with anyone outside of Ithicana. He has to know that.”

“Better to be safe. Better that she be kept in the dark.”

“So I should keep her locked up in our parents’ home on this empty island for the rest of her days?” Aren stared at the glowing embers of the fire. A gust of wind drove rain into the hole in the roof above, the droplets hissing as they struck the charred wood. “And if”—he swallowed hard, knowing he had obligations to his kingdom—“when we have a child, should I keep him or her locked up here as well?”

“I never said it would be easy.” His sister took his hand, twisting it upright to regard the cut across his palm, bleeding where he’d picked at the scab. “But our duty is to protect our people. To keep Eranahl a secret. To keep it safe.”

“I know.” But that didn’t mean he didn’t feel an obligation to his new bride. Whom he’d brought through the dark stretches of the bridge, knowing that when she woke, it would be in a place entirely different than any she’d known. Not the life she’d chosen, but one that had been forced upon her.

“You should go up to the house,” Ahnna said. “The sedative will wear off soon enough.”

“You go.” Aren lay back down on the bench, listening to the thunder rolling over the island, the storm nearly passed, though it would soon be replaced by another. “She’s been through enough without waking up in a room with a strange man.”

Ahnna looked for a moment like she might argue, then nodded. “I’ll send word when she wakes.” Rising, she left the barracks on silent feet, leaving him alone.

You’re a coward, he thought to himself. Because it had only been an excuse to avoid seeing the girl. His mother had believed that this princess was the key to achieving greatness for Ithicana, but Aren wasn’t convinced.

Ithicana needed a queen who was a warrior. A woman who’d fight to the death for her people. A woman who was cunning and ruthless, not because she wanted to be, but because her country needed her to be. A woman who’d challenge him every day for the rest of his life. A woman Ithicana would respect.

And there was one thing he was certain: Lara Veliant was not that woman.





6





Lara





Lara woke with a start, her head aching and her mouth tasting sour.

Without moving, she opened her eyes, taking in what she could of the bedroom. She spotted an open window, through which poured a humid breeze filled with the scents of flowers and lush greenery she possessed no names for, having spent her life surrounded by sand. The view was of a verdant garden, the light flat and silvery, as though it were filtered through thick clouds. The only sound was the faint pitter-patter of rain.

And that of a female humming.

She relaxed the hand that had instantly balled into a fist, primed to attack, and slowly turned her head.

An extraordinarily striking woman, perhaps five years older than Lara, with long, curling dark hair, stood in the center of the room wearing one of Lara’s dresses. One of Marylyn’s dresses, she realized with a pang.

Seeing the way she’d cocked her head, Lara knew the other woman had heard her move, but she carried on as though she had not, swishing the too-short silken skirts from side to side, continuing with her humming.

Lara said nothing, taking in the carved fruitwood furniture that was polished to a shine and vases of brilliant flowers sat on nearly every flat surface. The floors were made of tiny pieces of wood laid out in elaborate designs; the walls were plastered white and decorated with vibrant artwork. A door led to what appeared to be a bathing chamber and another, shut, which she assumed led to a hallway beyond. Satisfied that she had the lay of her surroundings, Lara asked, “Where am I?”

“Oh, you’re awake!” the woman said with feigned surprise. “You’re in the king’s home on Midwatch Island.”

“I see.” If Midwatch was, as the name suggested, in the middle of Ithicana, she’d been unconscious for longer than she’d realized. They’d drugged her, which meant they did not trust her. No surprise there. “How did I get here?”

“You arrived at Midwatch by sea.”

“How long was I asleep?”

“You weren’t precisely asleep. Just not . . . present.” The woman gave her an apologetic shrug. “Forgive us. It’s in every Ithicanian’s nature to be secretive, and we are still coming to terms with having an outsider in our midst.”

“So it would seem,” Lara murmured, noticing that the woman hadn’t answered her question, though she knew exactly what they’d dosed her with and why. Keeping a person unconscious for days had consequences—often of the fatal variety. Drugging her to wipe her memory was safer.

But fallible. Especially when the individual being dosed had been exposed in the past. Already, shadows of memory were creeping around the edges of Lara’s thoughts. Memories of walking. Walking in ill-fitting footwear on a hard surface. She’d been in the bridge, and at some point along its length, they’d brought her out.

Refocusing her gaze on the woman, she asked, “Why are you wearing my dress?”

“You have a whole chest of them. I was hanging them up for you, and I thought I’d try one on to see if I liked it.”

Lara cocked one eyebrow. “And do you?”

“Oh, yes.” The stranger arched her back, smiling at her reflection in the mirror. “Entirely impractical, but appealing nonetheless. I could use one or two in my own closet.” Reaching up one hand, she pushed the dress’s straps off her shoulders, allowing it to slide down her body and pool on the floor at her feet.

She wore not a scrap underneath, her body all curved muscle, her breasts small and pert.

“Gorgeous gown you wore for your wedding, by the way.” She pulled a short-sleeved tunic over her head, then tugged a pair of snug trousers on beneath. There were a set of vambraces sitting on the floor, and she buckled those on as though she’d done so a thousand times. “I’d ask to borrow it for my own part in the Fifteen Year Treaty, but I’m afraid it took a bit of wear on your journey.”

Lara blinked, realization dawning on her. “You’re the Ithicanian Princess?”

“Among other things.” The woman grinned. “But I don’t want to give away all our secrets. My brother would never forgive me.”

“Your brother?”

“Your husband.” Picking up a bow and quiver, the woman—the princess—strode across the floor. “I’m Ahnna.” She bent down to kiss Lara’s cheek. “And I, for one, am so looking forward to getting to know you, sister.”

There was a knock at the door, and a servant carrying a platter of sliced fruits entered, setting the food on a table before announcing that dinner would be at the seventh hour.

“I’ll leave you alone,” Ahnna said. “Give you a chance to get settled. I’m sure waking up here was quite the shock.”

After years of Serin’s aggressive tutelage, it would take a great deal more than waking in a feather bed to shock Lara, but she allowed a faint tremor into her voice as she said, “The king . . . Is he . . . Will he . . .”

Ahnna shrugged. “Aren is not horribly predictable in his comings and goings, I’m afraid. Better that you make yourself comfortable rather than wait for him to come home. Have a bath. Eat some fruit. Have a drink. Or ten.”

A flash of disappointment surged through Lara, but she gave Ahnna a smile before shutting the door and flipping the latch. She stared at the bit of metal for a long moment, surprised the Ithicanians would allow her privacy, then she set aside the thought. Everything she knew about them was more speculation than fact. Better to approach her circumstances as though she knew nothing at all.

After donning the gown Ahnna had discarded and belting on her knives, which she was surprised to find sitting on top of her trunk, Lara circled the room looking for signs she was being spied on, but there were no holes in the walls or the ceiling, no cracks in the floorboards. Picking up her tray of fruit, she wandered into what she’d presumed to be the bathing chamber, only to discover it devoid of anything resembling a bath, despite the wooden shelves laden with soft towels, scrubs, soaps, and whole collection of brushes and combs. However, there was another door.

Lara pushed the solid slab of wood open, revealing a sloped courtyard resplendent with a lushness she had never seen before. The walls of the building were concealed by climbing vines laden with brilliant flowers of pink and purple and orange, and two trees with enormous split leaves climbed toward the sky, several colorful birds sitting on their branches. A pathway made of square cut stones framed by tiny white rocks meandered through the courtyard, but what took her breath away was the stream flowing through the center of everything.

The building, she realized as she stepped into the courtyard, had been constructed almost like a bridge over a small waterfall. The water cascaded over slabs of rock into a pool below, which flowed through a channel to another pool, and then yet another, before running under the far side of the home to whatever lay beyond.

At the base of the waterfall, by the pool, she noted the curved stone benches beneath the water. This was where one was intended to bathe. Steam rose faintly from its surface and a quick dip of her toe turned her skin pink with heat. There was only one other entrance to the courtyard, and that was a door opposite to the one leading to her rooms.

Crossing the stream using a small footbridge, Lara walked up to the door and silently tested the handle. Locked. The rooms beyond also had a window that mirrored hers, but it was closed and curtained.

Tilting her head skyward revealed nothing but swirling clouds, and a quick test of the vines on the walls revealed them strong enough to bear her weight, should she choose to climb out. Countless ways to escape, which meant this home was not intended to be a prison.

A voice caught her attention.

“She’s awake then?”

Aren.

“About a half hour ago.”

“And?”

Lara hurried down the path next to the spring, dropping to her knees where the water flowed under the building.

“She was calmer than I anticipated. Mostly she wanted to know why I was wearing one of her dresses. I suppose we all have our priorities.”

Silence. Then, “Why were you wearing one of her dresses?”

“Because they were pretty and I was bored.”

The king snorted, and Lara crawled forward a few feet under the building until she could see their legs. He had a bow held loosely in one hand, which he swung back and forth. She wanted to go farther, to attempt to see his face, but she couldn’t risk being heard.

“She say anything of note?”

“I’ve had more exciting conversations with your cat. Your dinners together are destined to be lively affairs.”

“Shocking.” The king kicked a rock, sending it bouncing into the stream, splashing Lara in the face. “Most precious daughter, my ass. I’d bet he has boots that are more precious to him than that girl.”

I’ll take that bet, you self-righteous bastard, Lara thought.

He added, “These concessions weren’t what I wanted out of this treaty, Ahnna. I don’t like them, and I don’t want to sign the order.”

“You have to. Maridrina fulfilled their end of the deal. If we break faith, there will be consequences, the loss of peace being the first of them.”

They both started walking, then there was a scrape of boots, the measured thuds of two people walking up stairs, and Ahnna’s voice was faint as she said, “Giving the Maridrinian King what he wants will make him depend on us all the more. It might pay off.”

And just barely, Lara heard his response: “Maridrina will starve before it ever sees the benefit of this treaty.”

The embers of Lara’s fury burned hot on the heels of his words, memories of the gaunt children she’d seen on the streets of her kingdom filling her eyes. Straightening, she stormed up the path to her room, intent on finding that asshole of a king and plunging one of her knives into his wicked, Ithicanian guts.

But that would accomplish nothing.

Stopping on the path, she stared up at the sky and took a series of breaths, finding calm in the sea of fire that was her soul. As delightful as gutting her husband would be, it wouldn’t solve Maridrina’s problems. Otherwise, her father would’ve sent an assassin a long time ago to do that very deed. It was not a matter of bringing down a man, but bringing down a kingdom, and to do that, she needed to play the long game. To delay her strike for when it would be most effective. To remember what she’d been trained for and why. To be the woman that her father had created to save their homeland.

A door slammed behind her, and Lara whirled around, expecting one of the servant women had come to offer her services.

She could not have been more mistaken.

The man was naked, save for the towel wrapped around his waist that kept him from being exposed to her entirely. But what she could see was more than enough. Tall and broad-shouldered, his muscled body was as defined as if it were carved from stone, his arms marked with old scars that were white against tanned flesh. And his face . . . Dark hair framed high cheekbones and a strong jaw, which were tempered by full lips. His eyes roved over her, making color rise to her cheeks.

“Of course of all the rooms she could’ve put you in, she chose that one,” he said, and the familiarity of his voice was like a pail of icy water being dumped over her head as she realized who was standing before her. All she saw now was that wicked mask, and all she heard was Maridrina will starve.

Lara’s hands twitched to the knives at her waist, but she covered the motion by adjusting the waist of her dress.

He wasn’t fooled. “Do you even know how to use those?”

The thought that she could kill this arrogant, condescending man where he stood danced through her head, but Lara only gave him a sweet smile. “I’ve cut my fair share of meat.”

His eyes brightened with interest. “So the little princess has a backbone after all.” Gesturing to her knives, he said, “I meant, do you know how to fight with them?”

To say no meant she could never be caught using them in any capacity without outing herself as a liar, so instead Lara cocked one bemused eyebrow. “I was raised to be your queen, not a common soldier.”

The interest in his eyes flickered out. Which would not do. She was supposed to seduce him and, in doing so, make him trust her. But for that to happen, he had to want her. The misting rain had made the silk of her dress damp, and she could feel it clinging to her breasts. She’d been trained for this. Had sat through countless lessons where she’d been taught precisely what she needed to do to catch a man’s interest. And to keep it. Arching her back, she said, “Are you here to claim what is your due?”

His expression didn’t shift. If anything, he appeared bored with her. “The only thing I’m due for is a bath before dinner. Dragging your ass back from Southwatch was sweaty business. You’re heavier than you look.”

Lara’s cheeks flamed.

“That said, if you are inclined to do the same, you are welcome to go first. Given you haven’t seen a wash in three days, you probably need it more than I do.”

She stared at him, at a loss for words.

“But, if you’re only out here to admire the . . . foliage, perhaps you might grant me a modicum of privacy.” He gave her a lazy smile. “Or not. I’m not shy.”

That was what he expected. For her to be dutiful little Maridrinian wife and attend to his needs, whether she wanted to or not.

It was what he expected, she thought, watching him watch her, but it wasn’t what he wanted. Thoughts flicked through her mind one after another. Of the clothes he wore, the colors intended to blend into jungle around them. The scars, which had clearly come from battle. The bow he’d held in his hand, ready to use at a heartbeat’s notice. This man is a hunter, she decided. And what he wants is a chase.

She was more than happy to give him one. Especially if it meant delaying a certain inevitability that she was desperate to avoid.

“Then you can wait.” She smiled inwardly at the surprise that lit up his eyes. Unbuckling her belt, she dropped the weapons next to the edge of the pool, then turned her back on the king, pushing the straps of her dress off as she did. Peeling the damp silk from her body, Lara kicked the garment aside, feeling his eyes on her as she stepped into the pool, with only her hair hanging to the small of her back to conceal her naked flesh.

It was scorching hot. A temperature that one needed to ease into, slowly, but Lara gritted her teeth and waded down the steps, only turning when the swirling water covered her breasts.

The king stared at her. She gave him a serene smile. “I’ll let you know when I’m finished.”

He opened his mouth as though to argue, then shook his head once and turned. Lara allowed him to take three steps before calling out, “Your Majesty.”

The King of Ithicana turned to regard her, not quite hiding the anticipation in his expression.

Lara let her head fall back so that the waterfall poured over her hair. “Please leave me the soap. I’m afraid I forgot to bring any out with me.” She hesitated, then added, “The towel, too.”

The bar landed in the water next to her with a splash. Lara opened her eyes in time to watch him remove the towel from his waist and toss it on a rock, his feet smacking against the path as he strode naked back to his room.

Biting the insides of her cheeks, Lara struggled to contain her grin. This man might be a hunter. But he was mistaken if he believed she was prey.





7





Lara





Lara stayed in the hot springs until her skin was pink and wrinkled, half to annoy the King of Ithicana and half because the sensation of being wholly immersed in warm water was an unfamiliar delight. In the oasis, bathing had been limited to a basin, a cloth, and lots of vigorous scrubbing.

Back in her rooms, she took care with her appearance, selecting a sky-blue gown that left her arms and most of her cleavage bare, braiding her wet hair into a coronet that revealed her neck and shoulders. In her trunk was a chest of cosmetics, the false bottom concealing tiny jars of poisons and drugs, from which she tucked a vial into her cleverly designed bracelet. She darkened her lashes and swept gold dust across her skin, staining her lips a rosy pink right as the clock on the desk struck the seventh hour. Then, taking a deep breath, she stepped out into the hallway and followed the smell of food.

The polished floor of the hall reflected the light from beautiful sconces made of Valcottan glass. The walls were covered with a latticework of thin pieces of amber-colored wood, on which several bright paintings framed with bronze were hung. The end of the hallway led to a kitchen, so she took the door leading left, and found herself in a foyer tiled with marble, a heavy exterior door framed with windows revealing nothing in the growing darkness.

“Lara.”

Turning her head at the sound of her name, she looked through the open doors into a large dining room, which was dominated by a beautiful table made of wood inset with squares of enamel, around which a dozen chairs were placed. Ahnna sat with her chair pushed back and a glass balanced on one trousered knee.

“How was your bath?” The amusement in Ahnna’s eyes suggested she was not unaware of Lara’s conversation with her brother.

“Delightful, thank—” She broke off with a surprised gasp. Sitting on a chair across from the princess was the largest cat she’d ever seen, at least the size of a dog. Regarding her with golden eyes, it lifted one paw and licked it, proceeding to groom itself at the dinner table. “Good god,” she muttered. “What is that?”

“That’s Vitex. He’s Aren’s pet.”

“Pet?”

The other woman shrugged. “Aren found him abandoned when he was just a kitten. Took him into the house and then couldn’t get the damned creature to leave. He does keep the snakes out, I’ll give him that.”

Lara watched the animal warily. It was big enough to take down a human, if it got the jump. “Is he friendly?”

“Sometimes. Best to let him come to you, though. Now shoo, Vitex. Shoo!” The enormous creature gave her a look of disdain, then hopped off the chair and disappeared from the room.

Lara sat down across from the princess, taking in the full wall of windows, which she expected showcased an impressive view in the light of day. “Where is everyone?”

Ahnna took a long mouthful of wine, then picked up the bottle on the center of the table and filled Lara’s glass and her own, the act making Lara blink. In Maridrina, only servants handled a bottle. One did not pour for oneself. She rather thought that her countrymen might perish from thirst before ever breaking with the custom.

“This is my parents’”—Ahnna broke off with a wince, then corrected herself—“my brother’s private residence, so there isn’t anyone here right now but us three, plus the cook and two servants. And I’ll be gone tomorrow once my hangover wears off.” She lifted her glass. “Cheers.”

Lara dutifully lifted her own and took a swallow, noting the stemware was also from Valcotta, the wine from Amarid, and unless she missed her mark, the silverware from her homeland. She catalogued the details away for later consideration. Ithicana made the market for most goods, buying at Northwatch, transporting the products through their bridge, then selling them at a premium at Southwatch, only to reverse the process with the southern kingdoms’ exports. Merchants who traveled the length of the bridge paid stiff tolls for the privilege, and they were always kept under guard by Ithicanian soldiers. Ithicana itself exported nothing, but it appeared they had no compunction against importing products from other places.

“Is the entirety of this island the king’s private domain, then?” Lara asked, wondering when or if the man in question would make an appearance.

“No. My father built this home for my mother so that she would be comfortable during the times of the year they were here.”

“Where were they the rest of the time?”

Ahnna smiled. “Elsewhere.”

Secrets.

“Are there others living on this island whom I should be aware of?”

“Aren’s honor guard is here. You’ll meet them at some point, I imagine.”

Frustration bit at Lara, and she took another sip of wine to soothe the sensation away. She’d only been here a matter of hours. No one—not even Serin and her father—could expect her to find a way through Ithicana’s defenses in the space of a day. “I look forward to meeting them, I’m sure.”

Ahnna snorted. “I doubt that. They’re a little rough around the edges compared to what you’re used to, I expect. Though you are something of a mystery.”

The princess was doing her own digging. Lara smiled. “What of you? You say that you will be leaving tomorrow? Is this island not your home?”

“I’m the commander at Southwatch.”

Lara choked on her mouthful of wine. “But you’re a—”

“Woman?” Ahnna supplied. “You’ll find we hold to a different way of life in Ithicana. What’s between your legs doesn’t determine the path you’ll walk in life. Half the garrison at Southwatch is made up of women.”

“How liberating.” Lara managed to get the words out between coughs even as she envisioned the horror on her father’s face should he discover the island he’d failed time and again to beat in battle was defended by women.

“It can be for you, too, should you want it to be.”

“Don’t make promises we can’t keep, Ahnna,” a male voice said.

The King of Ithicana strode into the dining room, his dark hair damp from bathing, though she noted his face was still rough with stubble. It gave him a roguish appeal, but she stamped the thought down the moment it rose.

“What’s wrong with her learning how to wield a weapon? Ithicana’s dangerous. It would be for her own safety.”

He eyed the table, then sat at the end of it. “It’s not her safety that I’m concerned about.”

Lara shot him a look of disdain. “You’d fit in well in Maridrina, Your Grace, if the thought of your wife knowing how to wield a knife puts such fear in your heart.”

“Oh my.” Ahnna filled her glass up to the brim and leaned back in her chair. “I misjudged your wit, Lara.”

“You’re wasting your breath, Ahnna,” Aren said, ignoring the comment. “Lara believes weapons are the domain of common soldiers and not worthy of her time.”

“I said no such thing. I said I was trained to be a wife and a queen, not a common soldier.”

“And just what did that training entail?”

“Perhaps fate will favor you and one day you’ll find out, Your Majesty. Although as it stands, you’ll need to content yourself with my flawless needlework.”

Howling with laughter, Ahnna poured herself yet another glass of wine and then filled one up for her brother. “This might help.”

Aren disregarded them both in favor of the servants who appeared bearing trays of food, which they set down on the table, disappearing only to return again with more. There were fresh fruits and vegetables, all brilliantly colored, as well as large fish still in possession of their heads. One fish sat on a bed of steaming rice, which Lara eyed and then dismissed, her attention snapping to the herb-crusted roast beef, the question of its origins tamping down her anger at the excess of food. Food that could’ve gone to Maridrina.

She waited for one of the servants to serve her, but they all departed. Then the royal siblings began helping themselves, loading their plates with salad and fish and beef all at the same time with no regard to the order of things. “This is more diverse fare than I’m used to,” she said. “I’ve never had fish before, although I suppose it’s a staple here.”

Aren lifted his head, eyeing the offerings, and Lara saw the corner of his eye tick. “There are some islands with wild boar. Goat. Chicken. Snake is often on the menu. Everything else is an import—usually from Harendell via the market at Northwatch.”

Serin’s spies reported that not all the goods that entered the bridge at Northwatch exited at Southwatch, indicating that the Ithicanians used the structure to transport products within their own kingdom. There are ways in and out of the bridge beyond the openings at Northwatch and Southwatch, Serin had shouted continually at Lara and her sisters. Those are the weak points. Find your way in.

Taking healthy servings of everything, Lara cut into her slice of beef, watching the juices pool beneath. Then she took a bite. Smiling at one of the servants who’d reappeared with more wine, she said, “This is delicious.”

None of them spoke for a long time, and for her part, Lara’s silence was a result of her mouth being full of food. It was better than anything she’d ever had, fresh and seasoned with spices she couldn’t even name. This is what possessing the bridge meant, she thought, imagining all this food arriving in Maridrina.

“Why did your father keep you in the middle of the Red Desert?” Aren finally asked.

“For our safety.”

“Our?”

Give the truth, when you can, Serin’s voice instructed from her thoughts.

She swallowed a bit of fish that was drenched with a citrus-butter. “Mine and my sisters’. Well, half-sisters.”

Both siblings stopped chewing.

“How many children was . . . is he hiding out there?” Aren asked.

“Twelve, including myself.” Lara took a sip of wine, then refilled her plate. “My father selected from amongst us the girl he believed would be most fitting as your queen.”

Aren was staring at her with a blank expression while his twin nodded sagely before asking, “The most beautiful, you mean?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“The most intelligent?”

Lara shook her head, thinking of how swiftly Sarhina and Marylyn could crack codes. And build them.

“Why you, then?” Aren interjected.

“It wasn’t my place to question the reasons behind his decision.”

“Surely you have an opinion on the matter?”

“Certainly: that my opinion doesn’t matter.”

“What if I asked you for it?” He frowned. “I am asking for it.”

“My father is the longest ruling monarch in Maridrina’s history. His wisdom and understanding of the relationship between our two kingdoms is what guided him to choose me to be your wife.”

Ahnna abruptly jerked toward her brother, her voice urgent as she said, “Aren, we’ve been infiltrated. There’s a spy amongst us.”

Lara felt her stomach drop as Aren’s eyes turned on her. Her fingers twitched toward the knives at her waist, ready to fight her way out if she needed to.

“There’s no other explanation for it,” Ahnna said. “How else could that deceitful prick of a king have known which daughter would make the absolute worst wife for you?”

Snorting, Aren shook his head. Lara hid her relief behind another mouthful of fish, which now held the same appeal as swallowing sawdust.

“No wonder he looked so damn smug at the wedding,” the princess continued. “He probably figured you’d send her back after a week.”

“Ahnna.” The King of Ithicana’s voice was full of warning.

“It’s amazing, really. It’s almost as though she were created to drive you into an early grave.”

More accurate than you know, Lara thought.

“Ahnna, if you don’t shut your mouth, I’m going to drown you in your wine.”

Ahnna held up her glass in toast. “You’re welcome to try, brother dearest.”

Lara chose that moment to interrupt, while at the same time, refilling both the siblings’ glasses. Pouring the wine herself made it an easy thing to deposit several drops from the tiny vial hidden in her hand into each, ensuring they’d both sleep heavily tonight. “Speaking of my father, will you allow me to correspond with him?”

They stared at her, their displeasure at her request clear as they both drained their glasses, seemingly unaware of how they mirrored each other. Lara smiled internally, knowing the narcotic mixed with the alcohol would do its duty well.

Finally, Aren asked, “Why would you want to? And please don’t tell me it’s to sustain what is so obviously not a close father-daughter relationship.”

A dozen nasty retorts formed in her mind, and Lara bit down on every last one of them. She did need the cursed man to fall for her. “It has been made clear to me that to protect the interests of Ithicana, I will never be allowed to see my family, my home, or even my people again. That this house, as lovely as it may be, is to be my prison for as long as you see fit. Pen and paper are all I have left to maintain my connection with all that I have left behind. That is, if you allow it.”

He looked away, his jaw working as though he were waging some great internal debate. Then his eyes flicked to his sister, the woman giving him the very faintest shake of her head. Which was interesting. Ahnna portrayed herself as the lighthearted and compassionate of the pair, but perhaps that was not an accurate assessment of her character.

Yet whatever warning had passed between brother and sister, Aren chose to ignore it. “You are welcome to correspond with your father. But your letters will be read, and if they contain information that jeopardizes Ithicana, you will be asked to remove it. If you’re caught using a code, your privileges will be revoked.”

What he might ask her to remove would reveal a great deal, a concept that was not lost on the Commander of Southwatch. Ahnna’s eyes flashed with irritation, and she opened her mouth before shutting it again, unwilling to compromise her performance. Though Lara had no doubt she’d argue against the correspondence once Lara was out of earshot.

“I don’t care for having my private letters read,” Lara argued, only because he’d expect it.

“And I don’t overly care to read them,” Aren snapped. “But we must all do things we don’t care to do, so I suggest you get used to it.” And without another word, he shoved back his chair and exited the room with a slight sway to his step.

Ahnna let loose a world-weary sigh. Pulling the cork from another bottle of wine, she filled Lara’s glass to the brim. “At Southwatch, this is what we call an Ahnna pour.”

Despite knowing that the woman’s behavior was an act to earn her trust, Lara smiled, taking a mouthful of the liquid. “Is he always this quick to temper?” she asked, even as she thought, Is he always this much of a prick?

The smile on the other woman’s face fell away. “No.” There was a slight slur to her voice, and she frowned at her glass. “God, how much of this did I drink?”

“Amarid makes the finest wines in the world—hard not to indulge.”

Moments later, Ahnna’s chin hit the table with a heavy thud. One of the servants entered at that precise moment, his jaw dropping at the sight of his princess snoring at the dinner table.

“Overindulged,” Lara said with a grimace. “Will you help me get her to her room?”

Ahnna was deadweight between the two of them as they half dragged, half carried her down the hallway and into her room, which was as lovely as Lara’s own.

“If you hold her, Majesty, I’ll check the sheets for snakes.”

Snakes? The thought distracted Lara enough that she nearly fell sideways under Ahnna’s weight when the boy let go. He walked over to the bed and gave it a solid kick before flipping down the bedding, which was thankfully devoid of serpents.

Easing Ahnna onto the bed, Lara dodged a near kick to the face as the taller woman rolled onto her stomach with a muffled grumble. Jerking off her boot, which had a wicked-sharp blade concealed within it, Lara tossed it next to the bed, followed by the other, then dusted off her hands. “Thank you for your assistance,” she said to the boy, exiting the room and waiting for him to follow. “What’s your name?”

“It’s Eli, my lady. I should say, this isn’t normal for Ah . . . Her Highness.” He bit at his lower lip. “Perhaps I should let His Grace—”

“Let it be.” Lara closed the door. “No need to embarrass her further.”

The servant looked ready to argue, then Ahnna let out a loud snore, audible through the thick door, and seemed to think better of it. “Do you require anything else this evening, Your Grace?”

Lara shook her head, wanting him gone. “Goodnight, Eli.”

Bowing, he said, “Very good. Please check your bed for—”

“Snakes?” She gave him a smile that turned his cheeks pink against the soft brown curls of his chaotic hair. He bowed again before fleeing down the hallway. Lara listened for the clatter of dishes being removed from the dining room, then silently let herself back into Ahnna’s room, flipping the latch shut behind her.

The princess did not so much as twitch as Lara methodically searched for any information of use, sighing covetously at the woman’s arsenal of weapons, which were all of the finest make. But else of interest, there was nothing beyond a few keepsakes, a jewelry box with some worthless items, and a music box with a false bottom filled with poetry. A childhood bedroom now seldom used.

After turning down the lamp, Lara eased open the door to ensure the hall was empty before striding to her own room. There had been noise of activity at both ends of the hallway; no chance of her making it to the other side of the house without one of the servants noticing. Chewing on her thumbnail, Lara eyed the clock. The narcotic wasn’t intended to last long, and the king hadn’t indulged in wine to the extent his sister had. Which meant she was running short of time.

Slipping off her dress, Lara retrieved some toweling, along with soaps and scrubs and, lamp in hand, she stepped out into the courtyard. The night air was cool, a light mist of rain dampening her shift as she walked barefoot down the stone path toward the hot spring. Setting her bathing supplies next to the pool, Lara slid off her shift and slipped into the steaming water, taking one of her knives in with her. Then she turned down the lamp to a bare glow and allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness.

The noise of the jungle managed to be both deafening and soothing, a ceaseless cacophony that settled the rapid patter of her heart as she rested her elbows on the edge of the pool, perusing her surroundings. The chittering of birds merged with the rustle of leaves, the sharp shrieks of monkeys called back and forth through the trees. A creature, perhaps a frog of sorts, made a repetitive rattling noise, insects droned, and mixed with it all was the gurgle of the waterfall behind her.

Watch. Listen. Feel.

The latter had always served her best. Master Erik had called it the sixth sense—the unconscious part of the mind that took what all the other senses provided, then added something more. An intuition that could be tuned and honed into the most valuable sense of all.

So whether she heard a sound or saw a motion, Lara could not have said, but her attention snapped from the roofline to the opening under the house through which the stream flowed.

Guard.

Sure enough, as she stared into the darkness, her eyes eventually picked out the shape of a foot resting against a rock. A flash of irritation that they’d dare to watch her while she bathed was erased by the obvious necessity. Aren was the King of Ithicana, and she was the daughter of an enemy kingdom. Of course any avenue between them would be guarded.

After ensuring there were no other guards, she marked the sightlines. Searched for places that would give her cover. She glanced at her white shift resting in clear sight and eased into the stream that drained the pool, crawling on her elbows to keep her body beneath the bank. Warm water caressed her naked body as she crept down to the decorative bridge, which she used as cover to ease out, moving silently behind a bush with wide leaves.

From there, she made quick work of crossing the courtyard, coming up beneath the king’s window, which was slightly ajar.

Adjusting a frond to cover her arm, she stretched upward and pulled the window open wider.

Breathe.

Reaching up with both arms, she heaved herself through the small gap, the frame scraping over her naked ass as she flipped, landing silently on her feet inside the dimly lit room, knife blade clenched between her teeth.

She was met by Aren’s cursed enormous cat staring at her with golden eyes. Lara held her breath, but the animal only leapt onto the windowsill and slipped out into the courtyard.

Her gaze went immediately to the man sprawled across the large, canopied bed. Aren lay on his back, wearing only a pair of undershorts, the sheets tangled around his lower legs.

Knife gripped in her hand, Lara stepped carefully toward the bed, using one of the rugs to clean her feet. No need to leave her tiny footprints.

There’d been no doubt in her mind after seeing him naked earlier that he was an impressive specimen of a man, but this time, she had no fear of being caught staring. Twice her breadth in the shoulders, he was muscled in the way of an individual who pushed his body to the limits on a regular basis. Combat, judging from the scars, but his leanness spoke of an active life, not a man who sat back and ruled from a throne.

Circling the bed, she examined his face: high cheekbones, strong jaw, full lips, and black lashes that a harem wife would die for. Scruff marked the line of his chiseled jaw, and she had to curb the urge to reach out and run her finger along it.

Maridrina will starve before they ever see the benefit of this treaty.

His words echoed through her mind, and of its own volition, Lara’s hand snaked up, resting the edge of her blade against the steady pulse at his throat. It would be easy. One slice, and he’d bleed out in a matter of moments. He might not even wake long enough to sound the alarm. She’d be gone by the time they even realized he was dead.

And she would have accomplished nothing besides destroying the only chance Maridrina had for a better future.

Lara lowered her knife and made her way to the desk. Her heart skipped as she took in a polished wooden box of heavy parchment embossed with Ithicana’s bridge, edges gleaming with gilt. The very same stationery Serin had shown her that Aren used for official correspondence. She immediately searched for anything written on it that was directed to Maridrina. All she found were stacks of short notes on cheap paper, and she flipped through, taking in the reports from spies from every kingdom north and south. More reports from Northwatch and Southwatch islands, revenues, requirements for arms and soldiers and supplies.

Provisions for Eranahl . . .

Frowning, she eased the sheet of paper out from under a stack when the bed creaked behind her.

Twisting, her stomach plummeted as her gaze locked with Aren’s. He was propped up on one arm, shoulder muscles straining against the sleek golden brown of his skin.

“Lara?” His voice was rough, eyes blurry from narcotics, sleep, and . . . lust. His gaze roved over her naked body, then he rubbed his eyes as though not quite certain whether she was real or an apparition.

Do something!

Her training, drilled into her by her masters, finally kicked in. Either she followed through with what her standing there naked promised, or she found a way to get him back to sleep. The former was the safer strategy, but . . . But that wasn’t a card she was yet willing to play.

“How did you get in here?” His gaze was sharpening. If she didn’t act soon, he’d remember seeing her when he woke, and that was not part of her plan.

Believe that you are something to be desired, and he will believe it, too, the voice of Mezat, the sisters’ Mistress of the Bedroom, said, invading Lara’s thoughts. Desire is your weapon to wield as wickedly as any sword.

That had seemed so simple back on the compound. Much less so, now. But she had no other choice.

Slipping the vial from her bracelet, Lara covered her finger with the drug before lifting it to her mouth to coat her lips.

“Shh, Your Grace. Now is not the time for conversation.”

“A shame. You have such a pleasant way with words.”

“I’ve other talents.”

A slow smirk rose to his face. “Prove it.”

A droplet of the narcotic beaded on Lara’s bottom lip as she strolled with false confidence toward the bed, feeling Aren drink her in. Watching his arousal take hold. Perhaps there was something to Mezat’s teachings after all.

Climbing onto the bed, she straddled him, her pulse roaring in her ears as he reached up one hand to cup her ass. His lips parted as though he’d say something, but she silenced him with a kiss.

The first kiss of her life, and she was giving it to her enemy.

The thought danced away as he groaned into her, his tongue chasing over her drug-laced lips, then delving deeper into her mouth, the sensation opening an unexpected floodgate of heat between her legs.

She silently willed the drugs to work as she kissed him again, hard and demanding, feeling his other hand graze the bottom of her breast until she caught hold of it and pinned it to the mattress. He chuckled softly, but she marked the way his eyelids fluttered, barely conscious, even as his other hand trailed down her bottom, down the back of her leg and then up the inside of her thigh. Up and down. Lara felt the drugs starting to take effect on her even as she felt something else building in her core.

He rolled, catching her other hand and pinning them