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HIGH in the mountains of Ardenia, a princess and her love stood at a crossroads.
It was time to say good-bye.
Tears hung in the corners of Princess Amarande’s eyes as she summoned the strength it would take to part. Standing before her, Luca’s jaw worked as she drew a shaky breath. When the words didn’t come, unable to rise past her heart, she took one last look at him.
Luca stood there, clean, tall, broad shouldered, but dressed almost as if in mourning—a boy in black.
Her boy in black.
Amarande, meanwhile, was a bedraggled confection in the bloodstained tatters of her wedding dress. The lifeblood of Prince Renard of Pyrenee never had rinsed clean, the vestige of her murderous decision running the length of the entire bodice in a rusted chocolate brown. Still, Amarande wore the gown—it was evidence of the wedding she’d been forced into and then ended by taking Renard’s life. If she had truly brought war to Ardenia’s doorstep via regicide, she needed proof of what had actually happened.
“Come with me, Princess.”
Luca pressed the back of her hand to his lips. His eyes, golden and as fierce as the summer sun above, never left her face.
Oh, and she wanted to go with him. To the Torrent, this time of his own volition—not tied to the back of a horse, blackmail to force her hand into a marriage with Renard that would’ve made that cruel boy king of Pyrenee. She had him back. Alive, hers, their love out in the open under the wide sky. The last thing she wanted to do was to leave him.
But to be together forever, they both knew they must part.
There was no other way. He would go west to the Torrent—the land that should by all rights be his. She would go north to the Itspi, the Ardenian castle they called home.
That was how it must be.
They’d been over it for the last few days in the close quarters of the pirate ship Gatzal. Running through every scenario as they charted a course from the Port of Pyrenee, through the Divide and into the East Sea, sweeping around the lip of the continent of the Sand and Sky to the Port of Ardenia.
Every facet of possibility, probability, exposed to the light and considered as they ate their fill of saltwater fish, cleaned their wounds, and lay on the deck, letting the same sun that had drained them in the Torrent recharge their spent muscles and creaking bones.
No matter how they approached it, no matter how many questions they raised, no matter how many reactions they predicted from each of the players—Ardenia, Pyrenee, Basilica, Myrcell, the Torrent—this plan always emerged the strongest.
Amarande first to Ardenia, tasked with stabilizing the throne after the death of her father and shoring up its defenses from Pyrenee’s retaliation for the murder of Prince Renard. Next, she’d join Luca and the pro-Otxoa resistance in the Torrent, overthrow the Warlord, and restore peace and sovereignty to the Kingdom of Torrence. And then, finally, the Princess of Ardenia and the Otsakumea Luca, the rightful heir of Torrence, would stare down the remainder of the Sand and Sky, hand in hand.
Never to be apart again.
Her eyes met his—her best friend, her love, her future. Amarande’s father, King Sendoa, whose murder had ignited all of this, always had the words for a moment such as this one—just like he always had a plan. Survive the battle, see the war.
The princess drew a breath, this time not so shaky. “I will come to you.”
Luca smiled, dimples flashing. “Of that, I have no doubt.”
She closed the sliver of space between them. Mindful not to apply pressure to his bandaged chest, she drew her arms around Luca’s neck. His lips met hers halfway. Amarande’s eyes closed as she let the rest of her senses record this moment.
The slip of his hands down the small of her back.
The beat of his heart, sure and steady to her ear.
The solid warmth of him bolstered by the spicy scent of the clove oil applied twice daily to the horror slashed across his chest. The damage Prince Taillefer created with tinctures and madness had been sewn up on the ship, but healing had only just begun.
For a moment, Amarande was back in the foyer of Pyrenee’s glittering Bellringe castle, Renard staring daggers at her as she whispered a very similar good-bye. A different crossroads, that—Luca to confinement under the watch of Taillefer, Amarande to dress for a marriage to Renard she did not want.
What had come next had not gone well.
Torture. Apparent death. Revenge in the form of murder and actual, irrevocable death.
But they’d survived. They were still standing. So was their love.
And so Amarande whispered nearly the same words she’d said to Luca in that foyer, a plan crafted for success shaping their separation rather than one forged around surrender.
“I love you. Our time apart will not change that.”
“I love you, too, Ama. Always, Princess.”
With that, Amarande kissed Luca one last time—hard. As hard as she wished she had before he was kidnapped. As hard as she did when it was clear they’d escaped Pyrenee alive. As hard as she could—this kiss would have to hold her for days, if not weeks, or months.
“You can turn around now,” she told the crew, when the kiss was finally done. Amarande met each of them with a parting nod. Ula, a pirate with a gaze as sharp as her Torrentian sword; Urtzi, the big Myrcellian brawler with a soft spot for his fellow pirate; Osana, the Basilican orphan Amarande had accidentally acquired in her escape from the Warlord—and then entrusted with her father’s sword, Egia, twin to the one on her back, Maite. “Keep him safe.”
At the order, Ula’s gold eyes flashed. “With my life, Princess.” She nodded to her companions. “And theirs, too.”
Osana and Urtzi didn’t object. Amarande imagined General Koldo, the current regent of Ardenia and leader of the Ardenian army—would relish immediate loyalty so unwavering. That was something that couldn’t be trained into a person.
Amarande mounted her horse—one stolen from Pyrenee in their escape. She pointed the frost-coated gelding toward the Itspi. The sun was falling toward the jagged mountain horizon, but she’d make it to the castle well before full darkness. The sooner she got there, the sooner she could return to Luca’s side.
Luca mounted his similarly pilfered steed and drew up alongside her—opposing directions, but still close enough to touch. Amarande’s eyes met his—blue-green on his gold—and her heart lurched, desperate to go with him. Luca seemed to sense this. “As soon as we connect with the resistance, Ama, we will send word to the Itspi.”
It was a promise as much as it was a plan.
Amarande reached out and touched his face—one she knew as well as her own—his skin warm and true under her fingers. “I shall see you soon, my love.”
Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Henning