Betrothed to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift in a land where magic is forbidden.
Now Denna has to learn the ways of her new kingdom and her teacher is the prickly Princess Amaranthine, sister of her betrothed.
When an assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces and discover there is more to one another than they thought. And soon their friendship threatens to blossom into something more.
WHEN I WAS SEVEN WINTERS OF AGE, MY MOTHER caught me in the hearth stacking red-hot coals with my bare hands.
That evening had found Spire City chilled to the core with the kind of cold that only Havemont knows, when early sunsets leave the afternoon dark as midnight and the sky swirls with relentless snow. My sister, Alisendi, and I knelt in the High Adytum, the most sacred temple in the four Northern Kingdoms, the two of us small beneath the cavernous apse depicting the aspects of the fire god. Flames dancing in the hearth brought the walls to life, from the forge and cookfires painted at the bottom clear up to the ceiling, where sunbeams gave way to a dusky sky streaked with falling stars. We were supposed to be spending a few minutes at prayer after our studies until our mother, the queen, came to fetch us.
Instead, we flicked wooden offering chips as far as we could over the warm stones, giggling as the temple cat pounced on the skittering pieces. But then the fire settled, and one of the burning logs toppled out of the hearth in a shower of sparks. Alisendi screamed and leaped back. Yet something held me in place as a tingle raced through my fingertips. When I grasped the log and shoved it back into the fire, the flames felt like no more than a whisper against my skin even as the ends of my woolen sleeves smoldered.
"Look, Ali," I said, picking up one of the cinders that had tumbled out. In my still-tingling palm it lit again, glowing bright as the heart of the fire. A thrill hummed through me as I watched it burn. I had no idea it was possible to hold fire in one's hand, but it answered a question in me to which I had never been able to put words.
"You shouldn't do that," Alisendi said, tracing the symbol of the fire god in the air before her.
"But it's like the tales about the great mages," I said. "What if people still have those powers? And what if the other stories are real, too? The dragons and the fae? And the people who take on the shapes of animals?" It made me giddy to imagine that the world could truly be filled with such incredible things—and exhilarated to think that I might be one of them.
"Those tales are made up to put us to sleep," Alisendi said. "We're nearly too old for that nonsense."
I scowled and held out the ember in my palm. "So this isn't real?"
"I don't know," she said, and stepped back. Her uncertainty was strange to see. One day she would be queen of Havemont, and she already carried herself as though she knew everything. I had always wanted to be like my perfect older sister but always seemed to fall short—too shy, too bookish, too impulsive to be a true leader. But finally I could do something that she could not.
"It's real," I insisted, and stuck both hands into the fire, showing her that the flames did not harm me. I pushed a log aside, built a tower of coals, and drew the crest of our kingdom beside it in the ashes.
That was when our mother arrived.
She shrieked and pulled me out of the flames, her panic turning to fear when she brushed away the cinders and found unblemished skin beneath the soot.
"Princesses don't play with fire," she scolded me.
Frightened by the tears in her eyes, I promised never to do it again—a promise that would prove impossible to keep.
Later that night, my mother told me that the fire god must have bestowed a gift upon me because our kingdom held the fire god closest to our hearts. She said perhaps my prayers in the High Adytum had been answered with magic because the temple was so high on the mountain that the Six Gods barely had to bow their heads to hear us pray. By then it was too late to rescind my betrothal to the prince of Mynaria, even though the people of his kingdom believed the use of magic was heresy. Mother insisted that ignored and untrained, my Affinity for fire would fade away as many people's small gifts did. She forbade Alisendi and me to tell another soul.
In the years that followed, I tried to ignore the lure of flame. But the desire to indulge the tingles that danced through my hands or cheeks was more insistent than a nagging itch. Between my lessons in history, etiquette, and politics, I brought out the magic when alone and played with it like a parlor trick. By age ten I could make a fire burn more brightly or a few sparks dance across the f loor. My magic was small and quiet, like the rest of me, and easy to keep hidden.
My daily life remained a rehearsal for the moment I met my betrothed, and my secret seemed like a trivial thing. I believed that as long as I followed my training, nothing could go wrong.
But some things are stronger than years of lessons.
The draw of fire.
A longing for freedom.
Or a girl on a red horse.
SUMMER HUNG HEAVY OVER MYNARIA THE DAY I arrived to meet my future husband. As my carriage clattered over the cobbled streets toward the castle west of the city, I couldn't say whether nervousness or the constricting bodice of my dress made it more difficult to breathe. Citizens lined the roads, cheering and waving squares of colored cloth, and the clamor rang in my ears long after my maid and entourage split off at the gates of the castle and my lone carriage drew to a halt in the innermost courtyard.
"May the Six give me strength," I whispered to steady myself as the footman opened the velvet-lined door.
I stepped out onto pale flagstones, greeted by a line of horses in full barding. Their armor glinted in the sun and embroidered silk fluttered from their reins. Colorful banners hung from the battlements above them, alternating the plum of my homeland with the deep blue of Mynaria. Behind the gatehouse the castle loomed, a massive structure with square towers jutting into the sky. It looked naked without the twisting spires that had crowned the palace where I grew up, and the strangeness of it made my throat tighten with homesickness.
Before I could step forward, a bay mare tossed her head and bumped her hindquarters into the horse next to her, sending a ripple of pinned ears and fidgeting hooves through the line. The prince sat astride her, wearing a welcoming smile. My stomach fluttered with nerves.
"Quit," muttered the person on the chestnut horse beside him.
I fought the urge to shrink back from the horses and instead plastered on a confident smile, drawing myself up to make the most of my diminutive stature. My first impression needed to be one of poise and dignity, not anxiety and resignation. If Alisendi had been in my place, she would have already swept into the castle and won over half the court. I felt like a meager offering in comparison.
"Her Royal Highness, Princess Dennaleia of Havemont!" a herald announced. The riders dismounted in unison and bowed. I answered with a curtsy. The prince handed his reins to the person beside him and stepped forward. The portraits I'd seen back home hadn't done him justice. Every seam of his doublet was perfectly tailored to his body. His blond hair gleamed in the sunlight, just long enough to curl behind his ears, and his bright-blue eyes matched the cloudless sky.
I waited to feel something, for some spark to light in my chest at the sight of his broad shoulders and strong jawline. Even after the years of inevitability surrounding my marriage, part of me hoped we might fall in love.
Nothing happened, and my confidence wavered.
"Welcome to Lyrra, the cresthaven of Mynaria, Your Highness," the prince said, and bowed. "I am Prince Thandilimon, at the service of the crown and the Six."
I curtsied formally in response. Another man stepped up to flank him, wearing the robes of a steward. They shared the same straight nose and fair coloring, though the steward's hair was more silver than blond. He had to be the king's brother.
"Lord Casmiel, steward to the crown," he said with a wide smile, and then took my hand and kissed it in the old-fashioned way, much like my father sometimes did. The familiar gesture comforted me. But before I could complete my curtsy, the prince's mare snapped her teeth at the sleeve of the girl holding her.
"Quit!" the girl said, bumping the horse's nose away with an elbow. The mare flattened her ears, swung her hind end over again, and landed a solid kick on the chestnut horse.
Chaos erupted as the big chestnut reared and lurched away from the others, heading directly toward me. Sparks flew beneath the horse's iron-shod hooves as he scrambled over the stone. Panic rose in me, and my magic surged with it as my control faltered in a way it never had before. I tried to step out of the way of the oncoming horse, but his shoulder slammed into mine. All the air rushed out of my lungs as I hit the ground flat on my back.
"Catch him!" a voice shouted.
Boots scuffled around me and bridles jangled as people steadied their horses and tried to regain control of the situation while I gasped for breath.
Someone dropped down beside me and placed a gentle hand beneath my ribs. I looked up into a pair of long-lashed gray eyes, surprised to see the face of the girl who had been holding the horse that ran me over. She had a scattering of delicate freckles across her nose and auburn hair that stood out in sharp contrast to her dark-blue livery.
"It's all right," she said. "Try to relax. Use these muscles to let the air in."
The melody of her voice soothed me, and the muscles in my stomach unwound. I took a few shuddering breaths, each one easier than the last. She pulled me carefully to my feet, steadied me, and left my hand filled with the pins and needles of barely suppressed magic when she dropped it and walked away. In the past my gift had sometimes seemed closer to the surface when I was upset or afraid— but never like this. Then again, I'd never had an important occasion like today turn into a catastrophe so quickly. But I had to stay calm.
The girl took the chestnut horse's reins from a footman holding the animal warily at arm's length. The horse yawned as if entirely bored.
The prince strode past me and stopped in front of the girl.
"Get that filthy cull out of here now," he said. Behind him, the liegemen eyed one another uneasily. Casmiel hurried toward them, ushering everyone back into line.
"If you bothered to correct your horse when she kicks, it probably wouldn't have happened," the girl replied. Her blithe tone and lack of deference surprised me.
"I don't care whose horse did what. You were to keep the horses in order for Princess Dennaleia's arrival. I swear to the Six Gods, I ask you to do one thing for me and—"
"Yes, yes, because this is all about you." She snorted, a sound that probably would have been better suited to her mount.
The prince's face reddened. "You can't expect to have that animal of yours run over an honored guest—a soon-to-be member of the royal family—without any repercussions."
I pressed my hand to the place where the girl had touched me. She had come so swiftly to my rescue. Mother had always said that servants needed more kind words than harsh ones. As the prince opened his mouth to unleash another round of castigation on her, I stepped between them.
"Let's not make too much of it," I said. "It was merely an accident." Though my voice stayed steady, my magic seethed within me, and I couldn't fathom why. I swallowed hard and stared down at the hem of my dress, trying to regain control.
"Are you all right, my lady?" Prince Thandilimon asked.
Before I could respond, a flame sprang from the bottom of my skirt, power pouring from me in an uncontrolled rush.
"Your Highness!" the footman shouted. He dove toward my feet, scrambling on the ground to snuff out the fire with his gloved hands.
I watched in horror, afraid to move or speak.
"I believe it's out, Your Highness." The footman stood up, panting, his white gloves covered in dirt and singe marks.
"I don't know what happened," I lied. My surging emotions since my arrival must have been to blame. Regardless, I had to make sure no one guessed the truth.
"It's been a dry summer," Thandilimon said. "The sparks from the horse's shoes must have kindled it." He stepped closer, regarding my charred skirt with concern.
"Well, this has certainly been an eventful reception," I said. "Perhaps I could have my maid change me into a new dress?"
"Of course," he said, as though suddenly remembering his manners. He waved a dismissal to the servant girl.
Her face remained unusually calm given the circumstances. She caught my eye over the prince's shoulder and smiled the tiniest bit before turning on her heel and sauntering out of the courtyard, her horse following placidly.
"Days like this make me wish I could ship her and that ugly horse somewhere far enough south that the seasons come in reverse," the prince muttered as they disappeared from the courtyard. He offered his arm and I took it. Four delicate bracelets peeked out from the bottom of the prince's jacket sleeve—cachets. Like all Mynarians, he wore braided bracelets made from the tail hairs of each horse he had started under saddle.
Having restored order to the welcome party, Casmiel reappeared at the prince's side. "My lady, I apologize for such an inauspicious welcome to our kingdom. Please allow us to escort you into your new home."
"There was no harm done," I said as we entered the castle. The hall arched above us, made of the same sandy stone as the exterior. Sconces in the shape of horse heads lined the walkway, unlit, sunbeams warming the polished brass.
"Pardon me for asking, my lords, but the girl whose horse got away—why do you keep her employed if she's so incompetent?" I asked. My father would have dismissed her on the spot.
The prince sighed, and I could have sworn Casmiel smirked.
"No choice," the prince said. "Mare is unsuited for anything else at this point, so Father lets her train horses. She's good at it, and it's about the only useful thing she's willing to do."
"Is she a liegeman?" I asked.
"I apologize. We should have made a proper introduction," Casmiel said, eyeing Thandilimon meaningfully.
The prince sighed. "Mare is my elder sister—Amaranthine, Princess of Mynaria. I assure you she is not an accurate reflection of our people or the royal family."
My mind raced. Princess Amaranthine had been mentioned so little in my schooling that I had assumed she was already married off. At age eighteen—two years older than me—she should have been. Most of what I knew about the Mynarian royal family beyond King Aturnicus and Prince Thandilimon was about how they interacted with the Directorate, the group of representatives who helped govern the kingdom. But even if Amaranthine wasn't involved in politics, or married, playing horse trainer seemed like the last thing a princess should have been doing. I was puzzled—and curious.
"Shouldn't she have taken on the duties of lady of the house when Queen Mirianna passed away?" I asked.
"Mare can be difficult to persuade—" Casmiel began.
"Stubborn as a mule, more like," Thandilimon interrupted.
Casmiel shot him a warning look, but the prince continued in spite of it. "She has no idea what it means to serve the crown. If she had any sense, she'd pick someone to marry and get it over with before my father makes the decision for her. At least right now she has a choice."
"It is nice to have choices," I said softly. His words stung. There had never been a choice for us. If he resented me as a result, I didn't know how we would survive. Hopefully we could find something besides duty over which to bond, like books, or a particular style of music, or even something as simple as the sour fruit candies that came up from Sonnenborne in winter.
"Indeed," he said, his expression resolute. "At least the alliance will force Mare to do something with herself. I have no intention of continuing to let her run wild once it's up to me."
After we ascended a flight of stairs, two liegemen stepped aside for us to enter the chambers that had been prepared for me. A receiving room with a fireplace and a spacious seating area opened into the bedroom through another set of doors. Large windows overlooked the grounds and the fields beyond. In the far distance, I imagined that I could see the mountains of my homeland shrouded in faraway clouds, even though I knew they were half a moon's journey to the northeast.
Beside one of the plush chairs in the receiving room, my maid, Auna, curtsied in greeting. Her familiar face made the room feel a little more like home.
A page rapped on the door and delivered a whispered message to the prince.
"I'm sorry, but I have some business to attend to," Thandilimon said after the page dashed away. "Casmiel will show you around the castle grounds, and I'll see you later tonight at the welcoming feast. Tomorrow we'll have a breakfast at which you can meet some of my father's most important advisers in a more private setting."
"I look forward to it, Your Highness." I curtsied.
"As do I, my lady." He bowed and left the room, the liegemen closing it quietly behind him.
After an entire life of preparation, our first meeting had been too brief and too filled with calamity, leaving me unsure what I should feel. Mostly, I wanted to go home.
I excused myself to have Auna help me into a fresh, unsinged dress, all too conscious of Casmiel waiting on the other side of the door. The surprise of Amaranthine's presence had me worried about what other gaps might exist in my knowledge of Mynaria, but her unconventional role intrigued me. Decorum suggested that it would be polite to seek her out and properly thank her for coming to my aid, and it sounded like there was only one place she'd be. I stared out my windows to where the royal stables lay on the hillside. I knew the first place I'd ask Casmiel to take me.