Keep your enemies close. RUINED by Amy Tintera is the ultimate revenge story. It’s one of those books that starts out with a 💥BANG💥 and never slows down. Give this excerpt a try and see for yourself! Read the first three chapters below and then good luck waiting to read the rest when it comes out on May 3!
The wheels of the carriage creaked as they rolled across the dirt road. The noise echoed through the quiet forest.
Em crouched behind a tree, tightening each finger individually around her sword. A squirrel darted across the road and disappeared into the thick brush. She couldn’t see the princess or her guards yet.
She glanced over her shoulder to find Damian hiding in a squat behind the bush, his body perfectly still. He didn’t even appear to be breathing. That was Damian—incredibly fast or incredibly still, depending on what the situation called for.
Aren was in a tree on the other side of the road from Em, precariously perched atop a branch with his sword drawn.
Both boys stared at her, waiting for her signal.
Em pressed her hand to the tree trunk and peered around it. The sun was setting behind her, and she could see wisps of her breath in the air. She shivered.
The first guard rounded the corner on his horse, easily spotted in his bright yellow-and-black coat. Yellow was the official color of Vallos, the princess’s home, but Em would have made them wear black. She would have insisted that several guards scout the area around the carriage.
Apparently the princess wasn’t that smart. Or maybe she felt safe in her own country.
Em barely remembered what safe felt like.
She shivered again, but not because of the cold. Every nerve in her body was on high alert.
The carriage rolled down the road behind the first guard, pulled by four horses. There were five guards total. One in front, two on either side, and two in back. All of them were perched on top of horses, swords dangling from their belts. The princess must have been inside the carriage.
Six to three. Em, Damian, and Aren had faced much worse odds.
The guard in front said something to one of the men behind him, and they both laughed. The spot of blue on their chests wasn’t clear from this distance, but Em knew what it was. Soldiers who had killed at least ten Ruined wore blue pins. For every ten killed, they received another pin.
The man in front had at least three.
She looked forward to wiping that smile off the guard’s face.
Em returned her attention to Damian. She barely nodded.
He stood slowly, a dagger in one hand and a sword in the other. He lifted the dagger and narrowed his eyes at his target.
The blade sailed through the air.
Em jumped up. Damian’s dagger sank into the throat of the guard at the side of the carriage; a scream ripped through the air. He toppled off his horse, and the other guards quickly dismounted, swords drawn. The horses neighed loudly, and one of them ran, hooves clomping as it disappeared into the trees.
Aren jumped from his tree and landed on top of two guards, his sword cutting through the air and finding his target.
Damian sprinted for the man trying to block the side door of the carriage. The guard’s face was twisted in horror, his fear palpable.
That left only one man—the one in front—and he was staring straight at Em. She clenched her sword tighter as she raced toward him.
He grabbed something off his back. She barely had time to process the bow before the arrow was hurtling straight for her. She darted to one side, but the arrow sliced across her left arm. She gasped at the quick shot of pain, but she didn’t have time to let it slow her down.
She broke into a run as he reached for another arrow. He aimed and she dashed out of the way, narrowly missing the second one.
Damian appeared behind him. He drove his sword into the guard’s back. The man gasped and fell to his knees.
Em whirled around to find Princess Mary jumping out of the carriage, sword in hand.
A burst of relief exploded in Em’s chest as she surveyed the princess. They had the same dark hair and olive skin. Mary had green eyes while Em’s were dark. And Mary had small, delicate features, making her pretty in a way Em never would be. But from a distance, most people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
Em lifted her sword as Mary rushed toward her, but the princess stumbled back suddenly, pulled by an invisible force. Her fingers sprang apart, her sword clattering to the ground.
Aren stood behind Mary, his gaze fixed on her as he used his Ruined magic to keep her in place.
Em had no magic. But she was better than almost anyone with a sword.
She shook her head at Aren, and he released his hold on Mary. She didn’t need his help. Em took a small step back, allowing the princess to retrieve her sword.
She wanted to beat the princess, in every sense of the word. She wanted to see Mary’s face when she realized Em had bested her.
The anger trickled in at first, hesitant, like perhaps fear was the better emotion right now. But Em embraced the anger, let it swirl and grow until it tightened around her chest and made it hard to breathe.
Em attacked first, and Mary raised her sword to block Em’s. The princess kept watch on Damian, but Em knew neither of her friends would jump in to help again unless it was absolutely necessary. They knew she needed to do this herself.
Em lunged at Mary again, spraying dirt into the air. Mary raised her sword and Em ducked, letting the blade sail above her head. She bolted to her feet, slicing her sword across Mary’s right arm.
The princess gasped and stumbled, and Em took advantage of the moment of weakness. She launched her sword against Mary’s, knocking it out of the princess’s hand.
Em took a step forward, aiming the tip of her blade at the princess’s neck. Her hands shook, and she gripped her sword tighter. She’d imagined this part of the plan a hundred times, but she hadn’t counted on the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“Do you know who I am?” Em asked.
Mary shook her head, her chest heaving up and down.
“I believe you knew my father?” Em said. “You killed him and left his head on a stick for me to find.”
Mary pressed her lips together, her eyes darting from Em to the blade at her neck. Her mouth opened, a squeak coming out before she spoke. “I—”
The princess cut herself off and ducked, grabbing for something on her ankle. She bolted upright, a dagger in one hand. She lunged for Em.
Em dove to one side. Panic seized her chest for a moment. If Mary killed her or escaped, the entire plan would crumble.
Mary swung at her again, and Em grabbed her wrist, yanking the arm with the dagger to the sky.
With her other hand, Em drove the sword into the princess’s chest.
The blue pins hit the ground with a soft clink. Em counted as Damian and Aren ripped them off the coats of the dead Vallos guards. Nine pins total between them. Ninety Ruined killed, just by these five men.
She leaned down and scooped up the pins. The two interlocking circles symbolized the union of two countries—Lera and Vallos—in their fight against the dangerous Ruined. The sword that cut across the circles symbolized their strength.
Em dropped five pins into Aren’s hand. “Put them on your coat.”
“The Lera guard will respect you more. Actually—” She added one more. “Six. You’ll be a star.”
Aren’s mouth twisted like he’d eaten something sour, but he put the pins back on one of the coats without protest. He slipped one arm through the yellow-and-black coat, then the other. He buttoned the five gold buttons and ran his hand down the front, straightening the material.
“Do I look like a Vallos guard?” He grabbed his sword. “Wait. It’s more realistic when I swing my sword around like I have no idea how to use it. Now I look good, right?” He grinned too widely, showing off dimples on both cheeks.
She snorted. “Perfect.” She pointed to where blood dotted his dark skin above his eyebrow. “You’re bleeding.”
Aren swiped at his forehead as Em dropped the remaining three pins in Damian’s hand. “Get rid of those. We don’t want hunters finding them and getting suspicious.”
Damian slipped the pins into his pocket. “I’ll burn them with the bodies.”
Em’s gaze slid to the wagon behind him, where the princess and her guards were piled. A piece of Mary’s long dark hair stuck out from beneath the blanket at the back of the wagon, almost touching the dirt.
She looked away from the wagon. Her mother had always said that the only way to find peace was to kill everyone who threatened it. But the tight feeling in Em’s chest remained.
“I should take care of the bodies as soon as possible,” Damian said quietly.
Em nodded and turned to face Damian, then quickly focused on the ground. He had that expression, the one that made her heart squeeze painfully. It was a mix of sadness and hope and maybe even love.
He stepped forward and she wrapped her arms around him, the familiar smell of him enveloping her. He knew she wasn’t capable of returning his feelings. Not now. Revenge swelled and twisted and burned inside of her and left room for nothing else. Sometimes it would simmer down for a while, and she would think it was gone, but it would always return. She would be back in her home, her lungs filled with smoke and her eyes watering as she peered around a corner. Staring as King Salomir pulled his bloody sword out of Em’s mother’s chest. Hearing her sister’s screams as his soldiers dragged her away. Finding her father a few weeks later, after Princess Mary killed him.
Maybe when she killed the king and his family, she’d be able to feel something else. Maybe then she’d be able to look at Damian the same way he looked at her.
She tried to smile at him. A lump had formed in her throat, and the smile probably came out more like a grimace. She watched as Damian said good-bye to Aren.
“I should make it back to the Ruined camp by tomorrow evening,” Damian said, stopping next to one of the horses pulling the wagon. He glanced at Em. “Are you sure you don’t want me to tell them you’re trying to find Olivia? They should know there’s a chance their queen may return.”
Em shook her head. “Not yet. They voted you as their leader, and they need someone to depend on now. Let’s not get their hopes up yet.”
Regret flashed across Damian’s face at the word “leader.” He was a good one, despite his young age. But he only had the position because the Ruined had turned their backs on Em. She might have been heir to the throne with her mother dead and sister missing, but she was useless. Powerless. Not fit to lead, a Ruined had said when they demanded Damian take over a year ago.
“Keep them safe,” she said. “I’ll wait to hear from you.”
Damian climbed into the wagon, putting his right fist to his chest and tapping it once. The fist tap was the official Ruina salute to the queen, and something no one but Damian and Aren had ever done for her. Em blinked away tears.
She lifted her hand, waving good-bye, and Damian did the same. The Ruined marks on his hand and wrist were visible, a reminder of why he couldn’t even consider coming with them. The marks let the world know he was a Ruined with power. Em lacked power, so she also lacked Ruined marks.
It was completely dark now, and Damian’s figure disappeared quickly, the clomping of hooves echoing through the night.
She turned back to Aren, who was pulling his collar away from his scarred neck. Aren had barely escaped the burning Ruina castle alive, and much of his upper body told the story. They also hid the story of his Ruined magic, as the fire had burned away all traces of his Ruined marks. His marks had been beautiful—white against his dark skin, the thin lines twisting together and creating spirals all over his arms and back and chest.
“Ready?” he asked quietly.
She grasped for her necklace and rubbed her thumb over the silver O. No. She’d been planning this for almost a year, but she’d never be ready.
“We should be able to make it to the Lera border by morning,” Aren said as he walked to the carriage and climbed up. He gestured behind him. “Do you want to ride in the carriage like a real Vallos princess?”
Em headed for one of the horses. “Not yet. I’ll ride a bit ahead and scout the area. I’ll get in when we approach the Lera border.” She swung one leg over the horse and settled onto the saddle. She glanced over at Aren to see her friend watching her, his head cocked to one side. “What?”
“Your mother would be proud, Em.” He bowed his head slightly at the mention of their dead queen.
“I hope so.” The words came out as a whisper. She was certain her mother would be furious that Em had allowed her younger, powerful sister to be taken by the Lera king. Em was supposed to protect Olivia, and she’d failed.
But she would make it right. She would save her sister, and kill the man who had taken her and murdered their mother.
Make people fear you, Emelina. Her mother’s words echoed in her head. Stop worrying about what you don’t have and start focusing on what you do. Make people tremble when they hear your name. Fear is your power.
Wenda Flores had never known the days when the Ruined were feared for their powers and revered as gods, but she longed for those days. She wanted nothing more than to make the humans bow down in terror.
Em lifted her head, fixing her gaze straight ahead.
No one feared Emelina Flores, the useless daughter of the most powerful queen Ruina had ever known.
But they would.
Cas leaned back, barely avoiding the sword aimed for his neck as he spun away from his opponent. His foot caught on a rock and he stumbled, throwing his arms out to keep from falling on his face.
His opponent’s sword poked his chest. That was unfortunate.
“Dead.” Galo grinned as he withdrew the dull blade. “Feeling tired, Your Highness?”
Cas took a step back, running a hand through his hair. The sun beat down on them in the castle gardens, and his hair was damp with sweat. “I am a bit tired. It must be from winning the first four times.”
The guard spread his arms wide. He was still breathing heavily from the fight. “I like to lull you into a false sense of security first. Then I really start trying.”
Cas laughed, transferring his sword to his left hand to roll up the sleeves of his white shirt. His jacket lay on the ground, covered in dirt they’d kicked around while sparring. His mother wasn’t going to be pleased.
“Let’s go again,” he said, lifting his sword.
“Perhaps you should rest a moment.” Galo placed his palms on his thighs, letting his sword dangle from his fingers. He let out a long breath. “You look exhausted.”
“Yes. It’s me who looks exhausted.”
Galo straightened, glancing back at the castle. The white stone building loomed large next to them, casting a shadow across the gardens. Arched windows lined the rear of the castle, and a maid stuck her head out of one on the second floor, giving a rug a quick pound against the wall.
“Maybe we should stop.” Galo gestured at the dusty jacket on the ground. “You’re going to smell like dirt and sweat when your new bride arrives.”
Cas dropped the sword on top of his jacket, messing it up further. “She’s been traveling for days. I’m sure she’ll smell as well. We’ll be even.”
“How very considerate of you, Your Highness.”
Galo only called Cas “Your Highness” when he was making fun of him. Cas shot him a mildly amused look. Galo was two years older than him, and in his three years on the guard had become more of a friend than someone who should call him by his formal title.
“Did you hear that Olso warriors are coming to visit after the wedding?” Cas asked.
“I didn’t hear that,” Galo said, pushing a hand through his dark hair. “Why?”
“Negotiations. They have some issues with a treaty that gave Lera control of their main port after the last war. But I think my father agreed to the visit so he could show off.”
“Show off what, exactly?”
“After I’m married, Lera will control Vallos as well as Ruina.” Cas laughed. “It is impressive. He can’t stop bragging that he’s leaving me with two more kingdoms than his father left him. Of course, one of them is Ruina. That one isn’t really something to brag about.”
“Not unless you’re a fan of dead crops and gray skies.”
“I asked him if I could visit Ruina, see the mines, but . . .” Cas shrugged. “Maybe it’s still too dangerous.”
“It’s definitely too dangerous,” Galo said.
Cas turned at the sound of his mother’s voice from inside the castle. She swept out onto the patio of the second-floor library, the skirts of her light-blue dress swishing around her ankles. She planted her hands on her hips.
“She’s been spotted at the end of the road,” she said.
His heart dropped. “All right.”
“You could at least pretend to be excited.”
“I am simply alight with excitement and anticipation. I can hardly contain myself, really.” He flashed a big fake smile. “How was that?”
Galo covered a laugh with a cough. His mother let out a deeply annoyed sigh and strode back inside.
“I’d better go,” he said, grabbing his sword and handing it to Galo. He snatched his coat from the ground, shaking the dirt out.
“Good luck,” Galo said, then frowned. “Is that the appropriate thing to say in this situation?”
Cas lifted one shoulder. There wasn’t much to say to someone who was headed out to meet the woman he’d been ordered to marry. Try not to vomit might have been the best choice.
He gave Galo a tight smile and hopped up the steps, grabbing the handle of the tall wooden door. He threw it open, his eyes adjusting to the dim lighting in the staff dining room. To his left, a boy backed out of the kitchen door, the sound of clanging pans and yells drifting in from behind him. He held a tray of pastries, and he came to an abrupt stop when he spotted the prince.
Cas nodded at the boy, striding past him through the far door and into the hallway. Sunlight streamed in from the wide windows to his right, and the walls in this corridor were almost pink in the afternoon light. Later, they would look red. Every corridor was painted a different color, and when he turned a corner he found two staff members arranging bunches of yellow flowers against the bright-green walls.
The castle buzzed with noise as he walked into the foyer. More flowers lined the banister of the staircase, and a staff member was wrapping blue ribbons around them. The air was full of anticipation and excitement as the castle staff prepared for the arrival of the new princess. Their bright faces just filled Cas with more dread.
His mother and father stood in front of the door at the main entrance, and he stopped next to them.
“You’re all dirty,” his mother said, taking his jacket from him. She beat at it with her hand, trying to remove lingering dirt. “Did you have to spar with that guard before she arrived?”
The king clapped his son on the arm. “He’s just nervous. Working off some energy.”
“I am not.” Yes, he was.
Maybe nervous wasn’t the right word. Cas had always known he’d marry someone his parents chose. He’d known, yet he hadn’t quite prepared himself for how it would actually feel. Like his stomach was going to drop into his feet and his head would explode from the pounding.
What was the word for that?
“This is as good as it’s going to get,” his mother said, handing him his coat. He slipped it on.
“Try and talk to her?” the king said. “It makes people uncomfortable when you just stand there quietly.”
“I don’t always have something to say.”
“Then think of something,” his father said, exasperated.
The queen walked to the door, gesturing for them to follow. “Come on. Both of you.” She let the king slip past her and put a hand on Cas’s arm. “Don’t worry, Cas. I know she will be quite taken with you.”
He shook her hand off but tried to smile like he believed her. Quite taken with you. How ridiculous. It was a treaty marriage, and Mary knew as much about him as he did about her. Nothing.
They marched outside into the sunlight, Cas trailing behind his parents. About ten staff members and several members of Cas’s guard were waiting in two neat rows.
He walked down the castle steps and took his place next to his father as the gate began to open. He clasped his hands behind his back, then pulled on each finger of his left hand until he felt the knuckle crack. His heart was pounding so loudly it vibrated in his ears. He tried to fix his face into a neutral expression.
A dirt path ran from the castle to the front gate, flanked on either side by lush green grass and perfectly trimmed square hedges. Two guards pulled open the iron gate, scurrying out of the way as Lera’s royal escorts came through on their horses.
Behind them was a small carriage that had seen better days. Dirt and mud stuck to the wheels, though that was to be expected after the journey through the Lera jungle. The body was plain gray, with a glass window on either side. The windows were open, and the one closest to Cas looked like it might fall off its hinges at any moment. A curtain had been pulled over the open space, obscuring the inside from view.
A young man in a Vallos uniform sat on the seat at the front of the carriage, reins in hand. Cas expected several more guards to follow him, but he was the only one in Vallos yellow. Strange. Cas always took several guards with him when he traveled.
The Vallos guard pulled the horses to a stop and jumped off the carriage, tugging on the ends of his jacket. His hands were covered in scars, like he’d been burned, and Cas tried not to stare as the man opened the door to the carriage. He’d never seen flesh that mangled before.
A hand emerged from the carriage first, and the guard took it, stepping back as a dark head appeared.
Princess Mary jumped out of the carriage, disregarding the step and kicking up some dirt in the process.
She was tall with long legs and wore a yellow dress that stretched tightly across her chest. It was also too short, revealing a bit of ankle, and Cas wondered if she’d recently grown taller or just had a terrible seamstress. A few strands of her dark hair had come loose from their tie, giving her a wild, disheveled look.
“Rumors of her beauty were . . . exaggerated,” his father muttered.
Cas actually had known one thing about Mary, as her parents had written before they died, saying she was “beautiful” and “lovely” and “so pretty and delicate.” But the girl in front of them wasn’t any of those things. She was sharp angles and hard lines. Nothing about her seemed delicate at all.
The guard sort of waved his hand in Mary’s direction. He clearly wasn’t the one who usually introduced her. “Princess Mary Anselo of Vallos.” Cas had thought they might refer to her as “Queen Mary,” but technically she hadn’t ascended to the Vallos throne following her parents’ death. Vallos belonged to Cas’s father now.
Mary’s gaze immediately slid to Cas. She had dark, intense eyes, framed by long lashes. The skin beneath them was a bit dark as well, making her look either tired or angry. Maybe both.
Cas bowed his head slightly in greeting, then focused his attention on the trees in the distance. He was less likely to jump out of his skin if he didn’t make eye contact.
The herald stepped forward and swept his arm out toward the king. “His Majesty, King Salomir Gallegos. Her Majesty, Queen Fabiana Gallegos. And His Highness, Prince Casimir Gallegos.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, Mary,” his mother said, bowing her head, then stepping forward and clasping Mary’s hands in her own. The girl seemed surprised by this, and she leaned back, as if she wanted to run away.
Cas couldn’t blame her. He was contemplating running himself.
“It’s lovely to meet you as well,” Mary said quietly.
The king beamed at her in that way he always did with women. “A pleasure.”
One side of Mary’s mouth turned up in something like a smile. Or a grimace. Cas found it difficult to read the expressions on her face.
“This is my guard, Aren,” Mary said as the young man took a step forward.
“Did you bring only one?” The king’s tone held a note of suspicion.
“Many of the Vallos guards have been sent to hunt down the Ruined,” Mary said. “A few more escorted me to the Lera border, but I thought it best to send them back where they were needed.” Her lips did something that still wasn’t quite a smile. “You have so many excellent guards here in Lera.”
“How true.” The king grinned broadly as he beckoned to Julio, the captain of Cas’s guard. “Take Aren inside and show him his quarters.”
Aren threw his bag over his shoulder and followed Julio into the castle.
Both his parents turned to Cas, like they expected him to say something, and his mouth went dry.
Mary stared at him as if she expected something as well, and he had the sudden urge to never speak again. He squarely met her gaze and immediately felt as if they were having a competition to see who would become uncomfortable first. Cas was confident he would win that competition, every time.
“Excellent,” the queen said. The king widened his eyes at his son. His mother extended her arm, slipping it through Mary’s as she steered her toward the castle. “Will your things be along shortly?”
“Everything I have is in that carriage.” She didn’t say it like she was ashamed of it. Cas took another glance at the small carriage. There couldn’t have been more than one trunk in there.
“That’s all right, it’s nice to start fresh,” the queen said smoothly. “I’ll have someone sent up immediately to get your measurements. I heard you’re very fond of dresses?”
“Who isn’t?” Mary asked.
Cas watched as they climbed the front steps and disappeared through the massive wooden doors. He’d said nothing to her at all, he realized. Maybe he should have at least asked her how her journey was, or if she needed anything.
The king sighed. “I suppose you could have done worse than Mary.”
“We should ask the priest to say that at the wedding,” Cas said. “‘And now we unite Casimir and Mary. They both could have done worse.’”
A knock on the door made Em’s eyes fly open. She gasped and scrambled upright, the sheets tangled between her feet. She rolled off the bed, yelping and hitting the ground with a thud.
She winced, pushing her hair out of her face. She was surprised she’d fallen asleep at all. She’d still been awake when the sun started peeking through the curtains, unable to sleep in a castle full of her enemies. She’d spent almost a year planning to infiltrate the castle, but the reality of being surrounded by people who would kill her if they discovered her true identity was more unsettling than anticipated.
“Your Highness?” a voice called from behind the door.
She got to her feet, straightening her nightgown. “Yes?”
The door opened to reveal Davina, one of her maids, carrying a tray of food. One of her maids. The life these people led was ridiculous. Em’s mother hadn’t employed maids.
A maid is a potential spy, her mother used to say.
Davina held up the tray. “I brought your breakfast, Your Highness. And the queen has requested your presence.” She put the tray on the table in the corner and turned back to Em, a smile on her young, pretty face. There was one knife on the tray, and Em studied it, trying to judge how sharp it was. Three quick steps across the room and she could reach around Davina for the knife to jab it in her throat before she knew what was happening. Five seconds, tops.
Em shook the thought away. She didn’t need to kill her maid at the moment. “Requested my presence for what?”
“The wedding dress fitting, Your Highness.”
“Oh. Right.” She tried not to look like the thought of her wedding dress made her want to throw up.
“And the Union Battle is this afternoon,” Davina said. “The queen wants to do the fitting first.”
Was she supposed to know what the Union Battle was? It didn’t sound good, whatever it was.
“Of course,” Em said. “I’ll get ready quickly.”
Davina made a move like she was going to stay and help, and Em shook her head.
“I’m fine for now. I’ll call you in when I’m almost ready?”
Davina hesitated, then walked to the door. “I’ll wait right outside?”
“Yes, please,” Em said.
Em sighed as Davina disappeared through the door. The maid had left tea and a thick slice of oddly colored bread on the tray. Em broke off a chunk and popped it in her mouth. It was sweet and delicious, and she quickly finished the whole piece. She hadn’t had much good food for the past year.
She looked around her room. She’d rarely even had a bed for the past year, and now she had a sitting room, an office, and a bedroom. The large window on one wall showed off a lovely view of the gardens. The room had been decorated in blue, Lera’s official color. The chair in the corner was blue, the tapestry on the wall was blue, and the sheets on the bed were blue.
It was all pristine and beautiful, and Em wanted to rip it to shreds. They lived like this while the Ruined were forced out of their homes and had to move camp every few days just to stay alive?
She’d have to make sure to burn down the castle before she was done. She could still smell the smoke from the day the king had burned her home to the ground, killed her mother, and taken her sister. It was only right to repay the favor.
She drained her tea and pulled out a hideous pink dress of Mary’s. The weather in Vallos was much cooler than Lera, and the people were often completely covered from neck to toe. Mary’s dresses were long-sleeved, stiff, and made more for function than fashion. They were wildly depressing.
Like the dress she’d worn yesterday, this one felt too short and tight as she pulled it on. But the fullness of the skirt hid the ill fit well enough.
Her necklace hung in the center of her chest, and she closed her fingers around it for a moment. The silver O was for Olivia, and she’d considered leaving it behind when she became Mary. But she’d worn the necklace every day since returning to the remains of her castle and finding it among the rubble. If she ever found Olivia, she would return it to her.
When she found Olivia. She didn’t know why the king had taken her sister instead of simply killing her, but nothing would stop her from figuring it out and rescuing Olivia.
She let go of the necklace, the pendant falling against her chest. If anyone asked, she could simply say it was a circle. A gift from her parents.
She pulled her hair back, looping it into a simple knot behind her head. Davina returned and buttoned the back of the dress, then escorted her out of her rooms.
Aren stood near her door with two guards, outfitted in a blue-and-white Lera guard uniform. She had to resist the urge to rush over to him. Aren had been by her side constantly for the past year, and she felt as though she’d lost a limb without him nearby.
Em wanted to ask him how he was settling in, if he’d found out anything, if anyone suspected something odd, but Davina quickly brushed past him and the other guards. The maid did take a quick glance over her shoulder at Aren, a blush creeping over her cheeks when he smiled at them. Em suppressed a laugh. The list of girls blushing over Aren never ended.
Em and Davina rounded several corners, and Em immediately lost track of where they were. The hallways were all the same except for the vibrant colors on the walls that changed each time they turned. The castle was laid out in a square, so at least it was a comfort to know that when she inevitably got lost, she could keep turning corners and end up back where she started.
Deep blue rugs ran down the center of the floors, and light spilled across the floors from the large windows. The windows were open and faced the east, so the ocean was barely visible. A cool, salty breeze blew through the hallways. Lera was much warmer than Vallos or Ruina, the sky completely cloudless. She could see why the people of Lera had forced out the Ruined generations ago so that they could remain. She wouldn’t want to leave this place either.
Davina stopped and rapped on a large wooden door. It was quickly opened by a young woman, and the maid scurried away.
The woman escorted Em inside. The queen stood in the center of the room, her bright-red gown in contrast to the cream-colored outfits the two women next to her wore.
The large room featured racks of dresses, pants, blouses, and a wall entirely of shoes. The queen’s closet. She couldn’t help but hope that she’d get to experience that kind of wardrobe during her stay. If she had to deal with these people, she could at least wear some beautiful clothes while doing it.
Em scanned the room for weapons. A mirror was attached to one wall, but it was too large for her to break. There was a large platter of fruit on the table, and the white ceramic plate was likely sturdy enough to do some damage when smashed against a skull. One, three, six steps and she could weave around the maids to get to the far corner of the room—grab the plate, duck a maid, smash it against the queen’s head, spin around and push a maid away, use an edge of the broken plate to cut a jagged line across the queen’s throat. Dead.
“Mary,” the queen said, extending her arms to her.
Em clenched her fingers into a fist, fighting back the urge to scream. She hadn’t counted on how difficult it would be to stand in the presence of the people who had destroyed her life. When she’d stepped out of the carriage yesterday, she’d almost grabbed Aren’s sword and swung it at the king’s head.
She took in a slow breath. Calm. Steady. Her mother was the scariest woman she’d ever known—the scariest woman most people had ever known—and it was partly because she never lost her temper. If she wanted to kill you, you didn’t know it until the knife was already in your gut.
Em needed to be like her mother right now.
Perhaps the queen realized Em didn’t want to be hugged, because she took both of Em’s hands instead and squeezed them. When she smiled, the small half-circle scar on her left cheek moved. It was the only interesting thing on an otherwise boringly beautiful face.
“How was your first night? Were your rooms adequate?”
“They were perfect, Your Majesty,” Em said.
“Please, call me Fabiana,” the queen said, dropping Em’s hands. “We’ll be family soon.”
“Of course.” Fabiana was a terrible name, so Em would be happy to call her by it.
“What do you think of Lera so far?” the queen asked. “Different than Vallos, isn’t it? Less dreary.”
“Much less,” Em said, noting the subtle dig at Vallos. “And how does Lera compare to Olso? I hear it’s cold there.”
Fabiana barely lifted one eyebrow. “Lera is less . . . rigid.”
“I’m sure it is.” Em had never visited Olso, but she knew the warriors—the group of men and women who protected the country—well. Fabiana used to be one of them, before she defected to Lera, bringing secret information with her. She was probably the most famous traitor in all of Olso. Em had reminded the warriors of Fabiana’s betrayal when she approached them about partnering with her. They’d happily agreed to join Em’s mission.
The door opened, and a dark-haired girl stepped into the room.
“Jovita!” the queen exclaimed. “I’m glad you could join us.”
Em took a long look at the king’s niece. She was second in line to the Lera throne. Though she was around the same age as Em, something about the way she carried herself made her seem much older. She was a little shorter than Em but still had a formidable look about her. Her shoulders were broad and strong, her arm muscles rippling beneath her thin gray tunic every time she moved, and she didn’t smile much, though Em didn’t think it was because she was unhappy. She just seemed like the kind of girl who didn’t smile simply to make others feel comfortable.
“I thought I’d stop by and see how our new princess is settling in.” She strode across the room to the tray of fruit and popped a grape in her mouth. Em frowned. It would be very difficult to get to her weapon of choice with Jovita standing in front of it.
“Perfect timing. She’s about to try on the dress.” The queen gestured to the maids and one of the women scurried away, returning with a pile of blue material so high it almost covered her face.
“If you could take your clothes off, please, Mary,” the queen said with a wave of her hand.
One of the girls began unbuttoning her pink monstrosity, and Em ducked her head to hide her flaming cheeks as the dress fell to the ground. Perhaps these women often undressed in front of total strangers, but Em had never been in her underwear in front of anyone but her mother and sister.
“We’ll take your measurements and have some more clothes brought to you,” the queen said as the girls took away Mary’s dress. Em detected a hint of disdain as the queen examined the garment. She was suddenly very fond of it.
The girls held open the blue dress for Em and she quickly stepped in, eager to be covered again. The fabric was cool and smooth against her skin, and it flared out from her waist extravagantly. The ruched bodice hugged her torso, and a beautiful chain of beads wrapped around the waistline. It was elegant in its simplicity, and Em gingerly touched the soft fabric.
“Oh yes, that’s lovely.”
Em looked up to see the queen standing next to the mirror. She stepped in front of it and her reflection stared back at her. The dress was even more stunning when she could see it in its full glory. It was the most beautiful dress she’d ever seen. Olivia would have clapped and done a happy dance if she’d been there.
Tears pricked her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said as one slipped down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away.
“You wish your mother were here?” the queen guessed.
Em nodded. The real Mary probably would have cried for her dead family too. Perhaps any girl in this situation would have cried, regardless of the status of her mother. She had to marry Casimir, after all.
Cas. The name made her insides clench. They’d barely spoken yesterday, and she really hoped he planned to ignore her entirely. His parents had arranged this marriage; maybe he had a girl somewhere who he loved, and he would pretend Em didn’t exist.
When she’d concocted this plan, she’d known, in the back of her mind, that she’d have to deal with the wedding night. Sex was generally expected immediately following a wedding, which meant that tomorrow night she’d have to be in Cas’s bed. She’d never been in anyone’s bed.
She just wouldn’t think about it. She still had another day until the wedding, and pretending the issue didn’t exist seemed the best course of action.
Perhaps she’d focus on her plan to kill him instead. She needed Cas, at least for a little while, but she hoped to dispose of him before leaving Lera. She’d kill him before the king and queen, so they could experience a bit of the pain she’d felt when her family died.
“I’m sorry,” Em said, trying to compose herself. “I love the dress.”
“Of course you do,” the queen said. “I have excellent taste.”
Em laughed despite herself, which earned a smile of approval from the queen.
The women took some measurements and put pins in the garment, then helped Em out of it.
“Have you spoken to Cas much since arriving?” the queen asked as Em slipped the pink dress back on.
“Only a little,” Em replied. If him saying hello to her yesterday at dinner counted.
“Don’t worry, you’ll warm up to each other soon.” The queen’s lips twitched, as if she was thinking something she didn’t want to share. “Have you been told about the Union Battle?”
“Not that I recall,” Em said carefully, not sure if Mary was supposed to have that information. A maid pulled her dress tighter, trying to button it, and she sucked in a breath.
“It’s a traditional part of a royal Lera wedding,” the queen said. “The royal’s intended battles someone of his or her choice for the entertainment of everyone. With dull blades, of course.”
Em tried to hide a smile. That sounded exactly like her kind of wedding festivities.
“The point is to prove your worth and skill in battle,” Jovita said. “I, for one, am looking forward to it. You know, the queen beat the captain of the king’s guard at her battle. It was a very tough choice of competitor, and she demolished him. Everyone still talks about it.”
“Jovita, stop,” the queen said lightly. “You’ll make her nervous.” She patted Em’s hand. “You’re allowed to pick whomever you want, dear.”
The condescension was so thick Em almost laughed. It was just like the Lera royal family to think they had everyone beat.
“I was ordered to kill the Ruined king in order to marry Cas. You don’t think that proved my worth and skill in battle?” Em lied, swallowing down a wave of nausea. Mary murdering her father had been nothing more than a test to these people.
“Then I guess today won’t be a challenge at all,” Jovita said. Her smile didn’t falter, but her eyes flicked to the queen’s.
“Are you done?” the queen asked the maid who was fastening the last button. “Let’s call for Cas.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” Em said quickly.
“We’ll just have him escort you back to your room,” the queen said with an amused expression. “He can’t avoid you forever, after all.” She told one of the maids to fetch him.
Em sighed and ran a hand over her hair. A glance in the mirror confirmed that she appeared tired and pale (and utterly ridiculous in the too-small pink dress), and she hoped Cas found her exceedingly unattractive.
The door opened only a few moments later to reveal Cas, wearing an expression like someone was poking him in the back with hot knives. He appeared angry, bored, or both. He glanced at her briefly but said nothing, and she shifted uncomfortably. She suspected he made everyone uncomfortable.
But he was handsome in a way that was hard to ignore, unfortunately. He had his father’s dark hair but his mother’s blue eyes, and together the effect was striking. The king had an olive complexion much like Em’s; the queen had slightly paler skin. Cas fell somewhere in the middle, his skin tanned from the constant Lera sun. He wore a thin white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and she could see muscle definition through the material. She quickly averted her gaze.
“You requested my presence, Mother?” When he finally spoke it was stiff, almost angry.
“I thought it would be nice if you escorted Mary back to her room. We’ve finished fitting her wedding dress.”
Cas didn’t glance at Em for even a moment. “Of course.”
“Lovely talking with you, dear,” the queen said. Jovita smirked, obviously still pleased with herself for throwing the new princess off balance.
Em murmured a polite reply as she stepped away from the mirror. Cas extended his arm out to her, and she took it, trying not to grimace at the contact.
Cas turned to the door so suddenly that Em almost stumbled when he tugged her forward. She grasped his arm tighter, quickly regaining her footing before she embarrassed herself by falling down at his feet.
“How was your journey to Lera?” he asked as he steered her down the hall.
“It was fine, thank you.” Honestly, she was exhausted and her body still ached from days on the back of a horse. After her meeting the Lera guards at the border, it had taken several days to get to the castle with that stupid heavy carriage in tow.
“And your rooms are adequate?” he asked.
“They’re very nice.”
He nodded once, and then didn’t attempt any further conversation. Em didn’t know whether to be relieved or think he was incredibly rude, so she kept her mouth shut as well.
Two guards and one maid passed them in the hallway, and she eyed the swords at the guards’ hips. Disarming a member of the Lera guard wouldn’t be easy. She’d probably have better luck yanking a rope off the curtains and using it to strangle Cas. Strangulation took awhile, so she’d have to pull him into a deserted room or corner for at least a full minute.
He stopped in front of her door, and she slipped her arm out of his. “Thank you,” she said, grasping the door handle.
“You’ve been told about the Union Battle this afternoon?” he asked.
“I have. Sounds like fun.”
He lifted one eyebrow, a hint of amusement crossing his face. “I’m glad you think so.” He lowered his voice. “I have it on good authority that one of the guards drank too much last night and isn’t feeling very well today. He has a red beard and a lot of freckles, if you’re looking for an easy choice.”
She blinked, unsure if this was some kind of trap. “Am I supposed to want the easy choice?” The queen and Jovita had just given her the opposite impression.
“Well, it will make you look good.” He took a step back. His face was far less annoying when he smiled. “I won’t tell, I promise.”
“Th-thank you?” This felt like a trick. King Salomir seized every opportunity to prove Lera was the best, and it seemed this was no exception. They wanted her to fail so they could all laugh about her lack of skills in battle.
The edges of Cas’s mouth twitched, further convincing her that this tip was his way of trying to embarrass her in front of everyone.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” She wrapped her fingers around his arm and gazed at him steadily. “How kind of you to help me.”
He took a step back, clearing his throat. “Uh, sure. I’ll see you later.” He turned on his heel and strode down the hallway.
She smirked at his back. He was going to have to work much harder to fool her.
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