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Commanding the Princess by Korey Mae Johnson – Sample

Prologue

Some royals got to enjoy dances, great feasts, and lighted halls filled with merriment. Cruelly, in Hohenzollern, all Susanna seemed to get for entertainment was watching her uncle fight her battles for her with emissaries armed only with threats and warnings.

The man before her now was aggressively holding his stance. He was by far the angriest person she’d ever had in her presence. “Princess, many emissaries have come before me, and each has been sent away either with nothing or with empty promises. We can no longer allow your knights to maraud through our lands unchecked. If you are unable to control them, then you must cede the rule of these lands to someone who can!”

Her uncle stepping forward surely announced that she had already ceded control in all but name. He glanced her way as he was speaking, as if he were addressing her. “I hardly think, my lady, that you should allow this man to speak to you in this way!” snapped Lord Eberhard, his seething bark cutting off the emissary before he could continue. Eberhard turned to the man, not even giving his princess the opportunity to reply. “Go and tell your masters that Princess Susanna of Hohenzollern will not be ordered about by the rabble of the Free Cities.”

Susanna closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she once again silently cursed the fever which had taken her mother, the plague which had taken her brother, and the bowman whose arrow had taken her father on the battlefield six years past.

When she opened her eyes again, the emissary was still there. He seemed to hesitate before speaking his next words, and she could tell that he was struggling to control his anger. At last, he turned his shoulder to Eberhard and deliberately caught the eyes of Susanna. “Princess, if I have been informed correctly, you are the ruler here and this man,” he said, gesturing disgustedly toward Lord Eberhard, “is but an advisor. Those who sent me here bade me return with the answer of Princess Susanna of Hohenzollern, not the words of one of her lackeys.”

The words of her uncle, unfortunately, were the only words she could give this man—and everyone else that had come before her throne, for that matter. Susanna knew she could barely decide what to have for breakfast without her uncle overriding her. To be fair, though, her father had always been kept on his toes by his brother as well.

Her problem was simple enough; her own army was more loyal to her uncle than they were to her. Her words were only air, while his words carried weight.

The emissary’s threat seemed to carry weight as well, but even as he ranted on, Susanna’s attention was drawn not to him, but to the powerfully-built man standing a few feet behind him. His appearance puzzled Susanna. Though he wore the armor of a knight, his bearing was that of a great lord. At last, he stepped forward and covered the emissary’s shoulder with his large hand as if to calm him. The emissary was clearly prepared to let him speak the final word.

And speak it he did, even while holding her gaze. “Princess Susanna,” the big man began in a voice at once controlled yet still gruff like one who had spent most of his life shouting orders and expecting them obeyed. His measured tone evoked clouds holding a bolt of lightning. “When your father ruled these lands, there was peace between Hohenzollern and the Free Imperial Cities. Do not lightly throw that peace away. I assure you, princess, that if I am forced to return, it will be at the head of an army not even these mighty walls can withstand.”

Emissaries had arrived with threats before, but this threat made her stomach clench. She believed this man. There was nothing about him that said that he was a man who bluffed. She turned her head and stared at Eberhard, hoping that he was at least considering this, but the man stubbornly raised his chin.

She had no illusions about Eberhard’s loyalty—or lack of it—and if she defied him, he would have her own knights rising against her long before these men were able to journey home, let alone return with an army.

Eberhard, before she could open her lips, grated out a response, but she could barely hear it. Her uncle’s blustery words could not pull her attention from the big man’s eyes, which were fixed upon her. What she saw in them shocked her, because they held neither anger nor contempt. Instead, they were filled with pity.

Then his eyes left hers and caught those of her uncle. What Eberhard saw in the man’s eyes she would never know, but her advisor suddenly saw fit to bring his tirade to an instant end. As the warrior and the emissary turned to leave the audience hall, Susanna slumped in her gilded chair, wishing not for the first time that she had been born the daughter of a peasant.

Chapter One

Eight Months Later

Silence is meant to be broken. Unfortunately, it had taken far too long for Susanna to realize that, but when she did, she made up for it. At the top of her lungs, she cried, “Where in God’s name is Lord Eberhard!” Ladies, her mother once said, speak at volumes not far above a whisper. Today, however, she wasn’t a lady. She was a monarch who was completely unable to mask her fury. This was a time she actually needed her uncle’s advice, but he was nowhere to be found.

He had left her to her own devices only now when the castle was under siege. She was angry at her own surprise. She should have expected this.

“Princess…” began Ulrich, the captain of the guard, a title whose meaning was somewhat lessened by the fact that Ulrich had held the position for less than an hour. The previous captain of the guard—who himself had served in the role for all of two days—had fallen defending the breach in the south-east wall, and unless Susanna missed her guess, Ulrich was barely more than twenty years of age. Ulrich visibly gathered himself—he wasn’t experienced enough to know how to hide his nervousness—then continued, “Lord Eberhard was last seen half an hour ago, heading into the cellars.”

He meant to hide, Susanna knew, or perhaps flee through the underground passages that served as the castle’s escape route of last resort. He would leave her to face the end alone. “We can spare no men to search for him, but if he is seen,” she commanded with cold contempt in her voice, “he is to be executed immediately and his head put on a spike on the walls.” She meant it. It wasn’t a punishment her uncle had spared his enemies in the past, and she would not spare her own enemy, either.

She paused for a moment to gather herself, then asked the question whose answer she most feared. “Can our defenses hold, Ulrich?” When Ulrich shifted his weight from foot to foot, she realized he was trying to decide on his answer—whether or not to let her in on the reality of the situation. “Do not seek to spare me the truth.”

Ulrich’s ashen face provided all the answer she needed, but dread filled her nonetheless when he spoke. “In truth, my lady, they cannot hold but a few more hours, even if the men fight to their last breath… and I fear there aren’t many who will do so. We must seek to get you out, princess. If we sortie from the west gate with all the men we have left, we might break through their lines long enough to get you to the forest beyond. Or we could take you through the passages in the cellars. Those passages end in the forest, and once you are out, I could send a few men with you while I stay behind with the rest to throw off any pursuit.”

His loyalty only deepened the pain which tore at her heart. She could not be blamed for what Eberhard had done as regent before she came of age, perhaps, but she had ruled this castle, at least in name, for two years now. Every life lost defending those walls and gates had been lost because of her failure to stand up to Eberhard in all that time.

If she was to do anything at all as their ruler, now was her last chance. She had family here, and she still had lives to protect. Knowing this, she pulled her shoulders back, took a deep breath for courage, and spoke with soft resignation. “No more men will die in my name, Ulrich. Raise a white flag over the keep and order the archers on the walls to hold their arrows. Leave the gates closed for the moment, and let us hope that whoever leads the enemy will see fit to treat with me.”

Ulrich looked stunned, and he did not move for a moment. “But princess, if you surrender, I do not know what their leader will have done with you. He is rumored to be a fearsome man.”

“Too long have I lived in fear and let others speak in my name. Today, I will speak for myself, come what may. Now obey this, my final command, and pray that the Lord will grant that mercy be shown to us this day.”

After only a moment more of hesitation, Ulrich bowed and left hastily.

There was a stillness after the white flag was raised, and everyone was tense and restless, waiting for what would happen next. The surrender had brought hoots of merriment from his army, but he and the men close about him were more experienced, and all knew that a white flag was only the beginning of a surrender.

Gerhard kept glancing expectantly at the battered gate of the great keep, wondering who the princess would send out to treat with them. It had to be a high-ranking official, and Gerhard hoped that she wasn’t silly enough to send out Eberhard—that is, if that oaf had the balls needed to come out and face him. He was probably somewhere in the castle, stuffing his pockets with whatever of value he could find.

There was a great stretching in the air and many expectant grunts from the men about him. He whipped his head toward the gate and saw that it was slowly opening. A white-cloaked figure was approaching the gate, a stark contrast against the blood-soaked snow and grime of war all around. Slowly it dawned on him that he was looking at a porcelain-skinned woman who had her head held high as she slowly walked through the mass of men now hemming her in on all sides.

Then Gerhard realized who it was, and he felt like someone had just thrown ice water over his head.

This was no lady-in-waiting or minor noblewoman sent to beg for favorable terms of surrender, although it should have been. He would have never guessed that the princess would come out herself.

The men milled about yet made a clear path between himself and the princess as she approached, and upon reaching him she did not wait for him to speak first. “I am Princess Susanna of Hohenzollern,” she told him with a clear, smooth voice. “I’ve come to beg mercy for the suffering of my people.”

He could hear the fear in her voice, but just barely. He had not expected this. He had expected her to bargain, not to beg. Nonetheless, he had to act quickly, before the crowd of soldiers got it in their heads to exact their own justice upon her person. They were a rough bunch, and he didn’t want to have to do any more killing today. He could tell by the way some of them growled that he needed to claim a quick hold on this situation.

“Mercy?” he replied loudly so that his men could hear him. “What mercy did your knights show to those whose farms they pillaged and whose daughters they ravished, as you did nothing to stop them?” His orders were to bring her alive to Vienna to face the imperial court, but if he wanted to keep these men—many of them recruited from the very villages her knights had ransacked—from trying to kill her here and now, he needed to let them know he shared their anger.

He expected a defense of her actions, or perhaps even pleas for his mercy, but her response stunned him. “I do not beg mercy for myself, but for my people. I stand before you prepared to accept whatever justice you see fit, if only you will spare the innocent women and children of this castle, and the men who fought bravely to defend it.”

Gerhard paused, considering. This rabble of an army the nobles of the Free Cities had cobbled together was going to sack this castle, take everything that they could carry, and probably try to burn the rest, that much was certain, and he would be hard pressed to keep them from having their way with any woman they could lay hands on. Men like these thought women to be little more than the spoils of war.

The princess looked at him through glistening eyes, but no tears spilled down her cheeks. Still, his heart began to clench and a part deep inside him demanded that he acquiesce. When he spoke at last, he spoke loudly again so that everyone could hear him.

“I am Gerhard of Bavaria, and you have my word that the lives of your people will be spared. If women are taken from this castle, they will be taken as wives, and they will be treated well by the men who take them.” He paused again, before speaking directly to his army. “You may take whatever plunder you can find, but if any man among you commits rape or murder, I will have him hanged!”

The relief on the face of the princess filled Gerhard with a strange joy, though he knew his next words would bring the fear back to those beautiful eyes. He had to deliver the emperor’s message, something he had been dreading since he’d first caught sight of her eight months before. “As for you, princess, you will be brought to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, where you will stand trial for your life.”

Susanna was accustomed to the feeling of fear. For the past several years she had wondered each morning if Eberhard would choose that day to put an end to her by some nefarious means, thus removing the only remaining obstacle to his absolute rule over Hohenzollern. How she’d lived one-and-twenty years without being poisoned was beyond her, and in a way she had grown used to thinking of herself as living on borrowed time.

It wasn’t the decree itself that rattled her. She had expected that much since she looked out her windows over a week ago and saw the army marching toward the castle. What made her bones feel like they were about to crumble was the hard-jawed gaze of the army’s commander, the same man who had warned her that this would happen all those months ago. He was impossible not to recognize with his dark brown eyes, the color of wet soil, and the untrimmed chestnut curls which fell over his eyes.

She was going to beg to see her little sister and to say goodbye to her cousins… but now she thought better of it. She had asked enough favors from this enemy, and she was fortunate to have been granted as much as she had, because he did not look like he was in good humor.

A soldier reached to touch her from behind, but even as she turned to jerk herself away, the commander—who was apparently known as Gerhard—stepped forward and cuffed the man across the cheek so hard that she heard a loud, meaty crunch. With a sharp intake of breath, she spun and watched the two face off.

“Touch her, and die,” she heard Gerhard state coldly. “Anyone touches her, and they will answer to me,” he decreed. “She will be brought to justice in safety. She is property of the Holy Roman Empire now!”

She frowned at this and tried to keep her chin raised. Property of the Holy Roman Empire. What a phrase with which to end her rule. She took a deep breath, trying to gain courage, trying not to think about the days ahead, or about her kin who were still in the castle. She would have given anything just to look up at her home one last time, to see the people who were left watching her from the ramparts… but she knew she couldn’t. She had to stay strong. She had to remain proud and royal.

“Rennio!” the commander suddenly boomed, turning behind him, looking past what seemed to be his personal guard. “Where is Bishop Rennio?”

“He’s drinking,” the man replied, rolling his eyes. “Already.”

The commander grunted his disdain and then turned to a young boy and ordered that Rennio be found and brought to him. As the boy hopped off, the commander turned back to Susanna and stepped toward her. He put his hand around her forearm and tugged her close to him. “I will not harm you as long as you do not attempt to escape,” he said in a tone which almost seemed gentle.

She blinked at him. “Where would I go?” she asked defensively.

“Just don’t try anything. You’ll be guarded, and the men outside are not gentlemen. They’re not loyal. They’re not your subjects. Do I need to frighten you with details of what might happen, or are you going to be a good girl and stay where I put you?”

She pressed her lips together in anger. If she were an empress of ancient Rome, she would have thrown this man to the lions. “I will stay wherever I am led, my lord. You have no need to worry on that account.”

A drunken, cloaked man stumbled out of the rabble just as Gerhard’s lip actually curled up slightly into a smile. She was lucky for the distraction, because that small grin Gerhard had failed to hold back made her want to slap it off of his face, and she couldn’t. He still had the power to take back the mercy she had come out to beg him for.

She turned, and since she’d heard the ‘bishop’ before his name, she had expected Rennio to look something like a priest or even a monk. Instead, this man had long, not-particularly-clean-looking hair, a messy beard, and a bright nose. He was probably in his early thirties but had the bearing of a much older man. He looked like he was barely holding down his drink.

Gerhard turned from her and put his arm around Rennio, who immediately soured at whatever Gerhard was saying into his ear. Just as Rennio appeared about to complain, Gerhard grasped his shoulder hard and continued speaking to him so quietly that she could barely make out even the smallest word.

“Fine,” Rennio huffed, and then stepped forward and grabbed her arm far too hard and without apology. “Come with me, princess.”

Gerhard bowed his head when she looked at him in the hopes that he would explain why she was being taken away by the drunkest man in attendance, and merely said, “I will see you later this eve, Your Highness.”

She had no time to respond with anything as sarcastic as she’d have liked, or anything at all for that matter. Rennio, once he started moving through the sea of men, was surprisingly steady for a drunkard and very, very fast. He had the feet of a mountain goat as he stepped down the hill over stones and objects, guiding her seamlessly out of the way, nearly so quickly that she couldn’t keep up with him. She realized that she hadn’t moved as quickly as she was now since she was a child, and she wondered why he’d decided that this sort of speed was necessary.

She had expected, because of the gruff surliness of the men she’d encountered so far and the yells and insults of random soldiers around her, that she was going to be put into a stockade where men could throw rotting food or dung at her. She was very surprised, and happily so, when Rennio slowed down outside of a tall, red-canvas pavilion that was one of the largest in the entire camp. She imagined it might have suited a king just fine, and the fact that it was apparently going to be her jail cell was more than surprising. She imagined this was like her family’s liberal tradition of giving the soon-to-be-executed an extra blanket and a nice meal before they were hanged.

He pulled open the flap of an entrance wide enough for her to enter and finally let go of her arm. “After you, Your Highness,” he said, although there was a cheeky lift in his voice. She ducked her head under the heavy curtain and walked inside.

The pavilion was covered floor to ceiling in thick tapestries and heavily lighted with several hanging lanterns. It almost seemed cozy, with open trunks filled with books and what seemed to be personal belongings. She eyed a large pallet of goose down as a place to curl up into the fetal position and wish for this to all be a bad dream.

Just as her eyes were adjusting to the light within the pavilion, she heard a rough man’s voice say from behind them, “Do you plan on protecting her, bishop?”

Slowly, Rennio turned and stepped back out. She tiptoed toward the door as he answered smoothly, “Why would I have to protect her? You heard the orders—she’s not to be harmed until we get her to Vienna.”

“She’s ours. We fought for the right to the women in that castle!” a new voice hissed on the other side of the curtain.

“You want the women like a whore wants a husband. Just because that was your hope doesn’t mean it was what you were paid for,” Rennio replied in an unconcerned manner, like a man talking about the weather. “You have full rights to go and claim any of the beautiful ladies within the castle walls for wives, as the commander said.”

“That ain’t fair!” another man growled.

“Rape isn’t fair, either. Plenty of people will get fucked today, and this is just your turn. Stop stomping your feet like surly children. And if you even look at this tent again I will pluck out your eyes, I promise to God!” Rennio’s voice suddenly got extremely fierce. “And I will not perform your last rights, either.”

She blinked at the cloth in front of her eyes, then stepped toward the entrance with curiosity, wondering if she should try to leave the pavilion and race back up the hill and toward Gerhard, since it seemed impossible that Rennio could stop three men from taking anything they wanted.

The language outside soon became so foul that she wondered if they were really speaking the same language any longer, and she lost track of the argument. Her attention was grabbed again when she heard the clang of steel against steel. Then the tent flap fell aside a little and she saw a black boot step inside only to be pulled back out a moment later.

There was swearing outside now like she had never heard before in her whole life. Every word was absolutely vulgar. “Dip your wick somewhere else, or I’ll make sure it doesn’t dip into anything else again!” Rennio was now threatening, sounding like he was gritting his teeth. Again, he wasn’t sounding very… well, churchy…

She stepped forward and pulled the flap of the tent open to watch as the sword fight went on not eight feet from her. She had never seen real swordplay anywhere near this close up before, and she watched, fascinated. Despite the fact that she was almost certainly going to be sent to her death one day soon anyway, Rennio was braving three men at once on her behalf.

Rennio held the sword with such ease, and with such skill. She knew less than nothing about swordplay, but she could tell that he was vastly more skilled than any of the three men he was fighting. The men tried to hold him back several times to gang up on him, but Rennio’s quick feet paced away from them. Then he lunged dangerously and quickly toward them, parrying and slashing as if the sword were an extension of his own arm.

One of his lunges took one of the men off guard, and the man fell back onto the ground, trying desperately to scramble away to safety. But there was no escape from Rennio’s sword and the man was soon pinned to the ground by the tip of the blade. “I promised you, didn’t I?” Rennio gritted with a cruel smile at the man.

Her heart flying into her chest, she pushed herself out of the tent. “Rennio, no—don’t hurt him.”

The other men—who had paused in shock to see their friend about to be gored—jumped back in response to her scream. They stood, puzzled. Rennio, however, didn’t even flinch. “Princess, it is vital for your health that you turn about and walk back into the tent,” he said, not drawing his eyes off of the pinned man.

“Please, Your Excellency… There’s been enough blood spilt. They’re angry, and they’ve had too much to drink.” This she was merely guessing—their body odor was so strong that she couldn’t smell the scent of ale or mead over it, but they looked unsteady on their feet as she glanced at them. “Spare him, I pray you.”

Rennio finally glanced at her and then heaved a loud, heavy sigh that she supposed was to signify how much not killing the man had put him out of sorts. “Fine. Be on your way. Lady or no, the commander would not be as forgiving as I,” he told the man in low, firm tones, and then pulled the tip of his sword away.

The man and his friends scurried quickly away before Rennio could turn his body toward her. “Do you have a death wish?” he said, the corners of his eyes scrunching with skepticism and his mouth taking an unpleasant twist. He put his sword back in his sheath and then walked toward her. “I ought to take a birch to you!” he chastised, and for a moment she feared he would actually do it. His expression was that of an angry parent whose child had stepped in the way of an excited horse. He gave her arm a violent jerk. “What were you thinking? Never step out of the tent. This is the only time I will tell you. If those men had a brain between them, they would have taken you then as I had the other man pinned. I cannot fight and protect at the same time.” He grabbed her upper arm and again forced her toward the pavilion.

She hadn’t thought of that, and she couldn’t now. Her knees felt shaky, and as he entered the tent with her, the only thing she could think of was how dearly she wanted to sit down and collect herself. That brief episode had moved too quickly, and though she hadn’t exerted herself much, she still felt short of breath.

As if he had read her mind, he brought her toward the down pad she had eyed earlier and let her collapse upon it. “You’re already showing yourself to be more trouble than you’re worth. You’ll be the death of us yet, mark my words.”

He marched over to where she noticed a whole cask of mead was standing. She frowned as she watched him take a mug and place it under the lever before yanking on the wooden tog, quickly filling up his mug. He stepped toward her and crouched down, passing the mug into her hand. “Drink some of this,” he ordered, then added with a grunt, “I made it myself.”

She looked into the liquid and then sniffed it. In the end she was unimpressed and put it down. She wasn’t thirsty, nor was she hungry. She was cold, and lost, and already lonely despite her company. Out of habit, she looked around for her ladies in waiting to exchange an expression and maybe a whisper or two, but then realized that of course there were none here.

She no longer had a court. She had no ladies, she had no servants, she had no castle, and she had no lands. She was an exile who would journey to Vienna, where she would die. Susanna felt as though her heart had dropped and was now beating in the pit of her stomach.

“You’re not going to cry, are you?” Rennio asked, sounding like if she cried then he would surely judge her for it.

If only she could cry. She felt like tears had been either trained or bred out of her; the last time she remembered shedding a tear was when she was ten years old. “No,” she replied, keeping her voice steady and her bottom lip stiff.

“You might as well get your crying over with. No doubt you’ll start doing it eventually and it will be awkward for everybody involved. There’s no handmaidens to clean up your tears for you and whisk you away or whatever it is they do. Now that it’s only you and myself, and I plan to ignore you in any case, cry to your heart’s content.”

Her heart still panged, her stomach still clenched, and even the smell of the mead was making her stomach roil. “I’m not going to cry,” she replied firmly. She was far more likely to vomit first, since every time she realized where she was, what had happened over the last week, and that she’d never see any of her friends again, her stomach clenched and rolled.

She lifted her chin, trying desperately to find her voice and strength again. Despite the fact that her uncle had given most of the orders, she had still been the ruler of this whole region. She had honed a regal bearing since birth, and she decided she would keep her dignity. Trying to muster her most authoritative tone, she asked, “I heard that you are a bishop. How is this possible?”

“Are you… ordering me to tell you?” he drawled, looking confused.

She supposed that it might have sounded like that. She was a princess—that’s how she was supposed to sound. In control and confident. “No, I am not,” she admitted. “But I am curious nonetheless.”

“Good. Just as long as you’re not ordering me. You’re not my princess, you know… You’re not a ruler at all anymore. You have about as much power as one of the pigs tied to the meat wagon,” he said, gesturing his own freshly-poured mug in what seemed to be a random direction.

It was then that she found herself scrambling toward the entry to the pavilion, where she vomited. The image of being slaughtered like a pig was simply too much.

Her reaction had surprised even herself. She had thought she was doing a fine job of choking down her nerves, but her stomach had apparently decided that it was under far more pressure than it had been in the past.

“Oh, damn it,” she heard in her ear somewhere as she was heaving, well aware that there were dozens of soldiers staring at her. She felt a warm hand on her back as she continued to empty her stomach. Finally, she collapsed on the ground, where she remained for a moment before she was picked up with a mighty groan into Rennio’s arms and carried back to her pallet of cushions. “Women!” he huffed to himself, as if he had predicted that she’d do this.

She didn’t respond, but instead merely curled up with a groan and a shudder, feeling like she was facing misery unlike any she could have imagined.

He left the tent, and in about an hour, she felt him return. He pressed some leaves into her hand. “I had the mess cleaned up. Take this, the mint will help the feeling and the bad taste,” he promised. “Mint helps the stomach.”

“Thank you,” she wheezed, weakly pressing the leaves into her mouth and chewing on them tentatively. The sharp taste of the mint was welcome in her mouth, making her feel slightly refreshed.

“I am a bishop,” he admitted out of nowhere after he watched her for a few long minutes.

She had no idea what he was talking about until she realized, with a trickle of annoyance, that he was keen just to pick up the conversation where it had left off more than an hour ago when he had made her ill with his cruel words.

“At least… I was. The pope decided I would be more valuable on the battlefield than behind the pulpit. Now… I’m more of a soldier than I am a man of God.” He grumbled then pressed back onto his feet, apparently to rediscover his tankard of mead. “Since then, I’ve owed my life to Gerhard more times than I care to count. All I know is I’m not doing what I thought I was going to do a decade ago. Believe it or not, my goal was to be pope by the age I am now.”

“Thirty?” she guessed, then raised an eyebrow. “Well, that was quite optimistic.”

He snorted out a laugh. “I’m an optimistic person!” he said, as if the statement itself was the punchline to a joke.

She felt herself, even if very faintly, truly smile for the first time in days. The man seemed much too dark and surly to feel happiness, let alone optimism. She couldn’t imagine anyone who looked less likely to become pope. “Are priests allowed to kill?”

“The response to that is not as simple as you might think,” he replied simply, in the same tone she had overheard used in a war room, when one of her father’s knights was explaining something to her that her mother didn’t seem to consider important to teach a young woman. “I wouldn’t worry your pretty little head on these matters,” Rennio continued.

This made her pull herself back up into sitting. “Pretty little head, indeed! If you think you have an answer that would sail above my head, then you are sorely mistaken. As my father once said, respice, adspice, prospice. I do not fear learning.” She regretting quoting Latin as soon as she remembered that he was a bishop and he surely spoke it as well. He would not be impressed.

“Oh, so there is fire in your gullet, eh?” he said with a laugh. “Though examine the past, present, and future,” he translated, “are very pretty words for someone who just lost their country, I must admit.”

Her stomach roiled again, and she clapped her hand tightly to her gut. He was right, after all—she had just lost her country. She had lost her kin—her wonderful cousins, her little sisters, and all without a suitable goodbye. She might have lived under the control of a tyrant, but at least she had known happiness with her other company. She had been so proud to have the respect so many other women would have died for. Yet, that was all a memory now; it had passed her by…

She cuddled back down on her pallet. “I keep forgetting I’m a prisoner.”

“Surely I would as well. Gerhard does have you in his private tent and not outside in the stockade, after all…” He hummed thoughtfully. She couldn’t tell any longer if Rennio was being serious or not.

“Why doesn’t he?” she huffed, tired of being bullied by a smelly drunk who just happened to be good at swordplay and insulting princesses who had just lost everything. “Why doesn’t he just tie me to a block and have done with me?”

“Maybe if you ask him nicely,” he retorted, then finished his mug of mead and refilled it.

She sighed, done with talking to him and shaking her head silently as she reflected how her whole life had been tossed into complete madness. The good news about being guarded by a drunk, however, was that he was only horrible when he was awake, which wasn’t for very long. Before long, he was snoring loudly from his high-backed chair with his chin tilted up, his mouth open, and a half-full tankard of mead still resting on his lap as he slept.

She pulled herself up into standing, looking around the pavilion and getting attracted by a trunk that was overflowing with books and papers. She knelt in front of it and sat back on her feet as she began to peruse the pages and covers.

Gerhard must be extremely rich, she realized. He had more than fifteen books with him, all with perfect, handwritten pages in delicate script.

She knew she didn’t have long on this earth, but she was chomping at the bit for anything, absolutely anything, that could distract her in the few short days she had left. She would even settle for being distracted for a few short hours. Her mind was crowded with thoughts and worries, and she had no power to fix any of the problems that ailed her.

As she was pulling out books, two in French and one in Latin, she dropped a scroll out onto the floor. She carefully picked it up, but before she put it back into the trunk again, she noticed an outline that made her realize that she wasn’t holding writing or even a letter, she was holding some sort of charcoal sketch that had been blurred slightly from touch and movement.

It was the portrait of a girl, with long robes and braided hair, looking out with large, doe-like eyes, with freckles stretched across the nose. The character looked all too familiar. It looked like her, but… it couldn’t be. Then she noticed that atop the girl’s head was a crown.

Her eyes widened with awareness, and then she looked skeptically down at the portrait. There had to be a reason that he had a portrait of her, she thought. Perhaps there had been spies trying to teach him what she looked like so that he could apprehend her when he took the castle…

And then she found a rolled up painting, unrolled it, saw that it was a portrait of her that her father had once sent to the emperor when he was alive and trying to find a husband for her, and rolled it up just as promptly. She opened up another piece of paper. A drawing of just her eyes. Then one of her face, then one of her face from the side. And then one of just her hands.

She closed the trunk as if a fire had caught inside of it. She understood that her life had gone mad, but she couldn’t fathom this.

She picked up one of the books at random and brought it along with her to a nearby lantern, determined to ignore everything she saw. Any infatuation Gerhard might have had with her simply didn’t matter. He had said himself that she was his prisoner, and that she would be taken to Vienna, and the time between now and then was too short to care about anything, particularly whatever her enemy had seen in her eyes.

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