When she arrives in Helsmont, the king promises her a year of courtship before marryingor parting ways. Before long, Kimri thinks she may find comfort, and perhaps eventually love, with the stoic king.
But the realms are more unsettled than Kimri realizes, and she soon finds herself caught in the middle of a war between the kingdoms. Can she count on her betrothed to take her side? Or will his loyalty to his kingdom come before his loyalty to her?
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Her brother traded her for peace, a hundred swords and ten thousand arrows. She didn't speak to him the day the guards came to escort her through the mountain pass and to her new home, for she was too furious with him.
"Kimri," he said, "won't you even give me a proper farewell?"
She patted her sorrel's neck and swung herself up into the saddle. They wouldn't need a farewell if he hadn't given her away to the mountain-king like market goods. With her heels she told her horse to move on.
Her brother stood squarely in the way. "I had no choice, you know."
She spared him a disdainful glance. It was true no one dared challenge Helsmont. The small mountain kingdom conducted its affairs as it saw fitbut in the past it had always done so quietly, involving no others. It had been her brother's messenger who had gone there first, asking what it would take for an alliance between their realms.
She was, frankly, impressed she was worth such a price. But it was one thing for the mountain-king to offer it, and another for her brother to take it.
Dereth sighed and stroked Redwing's face. "Just don't try to run away. Ride safely." He stepped aside.
Her escort waited in the yard outside the stable: half a dozen guards in leathers, standing by their mountain-bred horses. Such a small band from anywhere else would have been an insult, but Helsmont guards were famed as the deadliest fighting force in five kingdoms. Her brother's warning had been unnecessary. She wouldn't try to escape these men
and woman. One rode among them, but she didn't seem out of place, not with her short-cropped hair, a scar on her cheek, a sword on her hip and a quiver slung over her shoulder. Helsmont, unlike Anagard, must allow female soldiers.
Kimri rode up to her. "Surety for my virginity?"
The woman fixed her with a steady look. "Any good commandant could ensure that, Princess. King Tathan trusts all of his commandants, and each of them has the obedience of his troop. You would be as safe with any of them."
"An iron fist."
The commandant shrugged. "He is the mountain-king."
"I?" Her demeanor turned formal. "Commandant Beatris. I am charged with your safety until we reach Helsmont and I deliver you into the hands of my king."
"An onerous duty indeed." The hint of a smile crossed Beatris's face.
Kimri relaxed at this evidence of the other woman's sense of humor.
"The sooner started, the sooner finished," Beatris said. "You're ready?"
Kimri patted her saddlebags.
Beatris bowed to Dereth. "By your leave, King."
"Guard her well," he said from behind Kimri.
Beatris nodded and then mounted her steed. Her men followed suit, falling into a guard formation as they headed for the gate. The horses' hooves sounded unnaturally loud in the silence that shrouded the courtyard.
She'd already traded farewells with her few friends and forbidden them to watch her leave. She wanted to maintain her dignity. But as they rode out and their pace quickened, she couldn't help twisting around. She spied her brother standing by the gate, watching her. It might be a long time before she saw him again. She lifted a hand and breathed a sigh of relief when he echoed the movement. He kept his hand raised even as the distance stretched between them, pulling her heartstrings more taut with every stride of her horse. Then she could make him out no more.