I know I'm dreaming even as I stare down at the ashen dirt of the castle's training pit, the warm, mellow aroma of horses filling my nose. The clank of castle-forged armor and the barking cacophony of true soldiers is still new to me, each sound sharp and startling. 


I'm thirteen years old again — and the wrapped leather handgrip of the sword responds to my touch like a living thing as I launch myself at the blonde-haired boy who was foolish enough to insult me.


The people here whisper things about those of us from the mountains and forests beyond these cold stone walls, and he was no different. Was it something about my hair that he mocked, or my nose? —even in the dream I can't remember. There's only the painful gritting of my teeth as I clench my jaw, and the answering pain that runs up my arm in a wave as I slash at him and our swords collide.


The boy's azure eyes are wide with terror as his gaze flits to my weapon. His responses are instinctive, leaden, his limbs flooded with fear. He's my own age or thereabouts, and his fine clothes betray him as no warrior but a nobleman's son.


I remember this even as the waking part of my mind knows who he is, who he will become to me so many years from now. 


The guards at the barracks back home at the Godsfall thought nothing of sparring with their captain’s daughter, even if she was just a slip of a child. Now I'm practically a warrior, capable of defeating two of them at once if they're old and sluggish. I could probably even hold my own with a royal guardsman if my life was on the line.


The blue-eyed boy is no challenge. I'm only toying with him, humiliating him in repayment for whatever insult is now lost to time.


Then I see my father from across the courtyard, the vividness of his sad features transfixing my heart like a lance. He's in the prime of his life, years from taking sick, and there's no mistaking his disappointment as he sees me closing in to destroy the blonde boy once and for all.


Father shakes his head.


Astonishment at his wordless command is enough to make my fingers go numb as I stare at him, the moment frozen in amber as my golden blade arcs toward my enemy. 


Father's never told me to pull a blow before, and I'm not even going to hurt the boy. Surely he can see that. The flat of the sword will catch his knuckles, forcing him to drop his own weapon and thus shaming him before the bodyguards that are skulking around this pit somewhere like distracted ghosts.


But not now. Now I have to lose.


I drop my shoulder, opening my body up to the blundering attack the boy was trying to level at me. For a moment I'm unsure if he'll stop the weapon in time, and I flinch as he finally yanks his blade to a stop, the metal cool against my neck.


Nailed boots shout against cobblestones as the boy's bodyguards finally realize what's happening and come running. They make up for their tardiness in bluster, rattling their weapons and shouting as though to raise half the army. Still, they stand aside like chastened pups as the boy waves an imperious hand. 


I'm grudgingly satisfied to note the sheen of sweat beading my opponent’s forehead. Now there's a healthy spark of respect in his blue eyes as he steps away from me.


Father is next to arrive, and I gape as he bows deferentially to my towheaded enemy. "I apologize, Your Grace — my daughter's still not used to the manners of court." He glances askance at me. "Or manners at all."


The boy shrugs. "With even a girl of your mountains being such a savage fighter, it's a small wonder our borders are so well protected." The words are haughty, but he trips over the clumsy syllables, betraying his youth.


Father inclines his head as though the boy’s some great lord. "Your Grace is too kind."

I chew my lip to hide my anger. Everyone here has some title or other, some way they need to be addressed lest a careless word wound their tender feelings. I still can’t be bothered to remember half of them.


The boy doesn't say anything more. His blue gaze returns to me as he sheathes his sword and snaps his fingers, indicating for his men to follow as he strides away toward the castle proper. It's only as he turns his back that I see the royal crest embroidered between his shoulder blades, and my blood turns to meltwater.


Father plucks the sword from my hands and slips it through his belt, peering down at me hawkishly. His voice is dry, but I can hear a glint of real amusement buried deep. "Not many can boast of trying to kill a prince and living to tell about it."


"Fuck," I enunciate distinctly.


"That's not the sort of language a daughter of mine should be using."


"You didn't care when Old Sutter said it.”


"Old Sutter wasn't living under my roof at court," Father counters, his voice brimming with reproach. "At any rate, you've no business picking fights with anyone, let alone a member of the royal house."


"He insulted me," I fume. "Maybe if he was a better prince he wouldn't need a lesson in manners!"


Father's hand darts out faster than a serpent, fingers closing painfully on my upper arm. He drags me to the edge of the pit, beneath the overhanging walkway where we won't be seen by prying eyes, and his grey gaze flashes with fury.


"Never say anything like that again, do you hear me? Not within these walls. Not within this kingdom."


"Yes, sir," I mumble, instantly penitent before the full force of his anger.


Father sighs, deflating, and suddenly I see how tired he is again. "Sometimes you don't know what's best for yourself, Khthonia. It's that damned mouth of yours — one of these days it'll bring down a world of hurt. Gods know I'm trying to protect you, but I swear, it's a losing battle."


"I'm sorry," I manage around the diamond-hard lump coalescing in my throat. 


I know he wants me to be one of the painted, perfect ladies of the court, like the one who's been taking up so much of his time lately, but I can't bring myself to even imagine it. I always thought I'd be like Mother, a woman of the forests — but now she's cold in the ground a hundred miles away, entwined in the roots of the pines she so loved.


"It's miracle enough that I've been promoted from gatehouse captain to royal swordmaster," Father says as though hearing my thoughts. "Someday you could marry to an even higher position, a title of your own, but you certainly won't do that by attacking the crown prince."


"I don't want any of that," I growl — and fury sears the back of my throat as he chuckles.


"When you really love someone, Khthonia, as I love you, you'll make sacrifices for them." His voice is unbearably kind all of a sudden, and it makes his words even harder to hear because I know he's right. "That's what the Untarnished Empress did for us. That's what I'm doing for you. And someday, not today but when you find the right person, you'll understand what I mean and do the same for them."


There's no time to ask more questions, to figure out what Father truly meant that day.


Someone calls him from the opposite side of the courtyard, and we look up to see the sallow-looking man I've been seeing with Father more and more, the one who talks to the king. Father thinks he's kept their designs locked away secret in the cabinet with the good china, but from time to time a stray paper gets left behind — and though what I've seen on them is practically incomprehensible, I know it must be terribly important.


I think it’s the reason we came here, but Father won’t speak of it. By this time I think to ask, it’s years too late.


The two men don't even exchange words, but Father turns back to me, regret darkening his careworn face. "We'll speak more of this later. For now, think on Empress Aerona. Try to behave as she and your mother would've done."


Father moves away, and my gaze finds the statue at the gates, her graven head and shoulders just barely visible from where I'm standing. 


Aerona the Untarnished, holy empress and conqueror of the kingdoms of Char: Vana and our sisters, Khet, Samunder, and Pahara. For the past three hundred years we've been safe from the barbarian tribes that live in the untamed wilderness beyond, four kingdoms united as one. Even in death, she protects us still.


I stare up at her cool, timeless face, watching as she silently defends the castle from the ancient forest. Memories of the blonde prince's face nag at the corners of my mind — and as my gaze wanders over the angular, alien walls of our new home, I can only wonder what my future holds.