Chapter Three

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THE PRINCE

I cinched the buckle on my pack. I had enough to get me by for two weeks, and enough coin in my bag if it should take me longer. Surely there would be an inn or two along the way. She probably hadn't gotten much farther than a day's ride from the citadelle.

"I can't let you do this."

I smiled at Sven. "You think you have a choice?"

I was no longer his young ward to keep out of trouble. I was a grown man, had two inches and thirty pounds on him, and enough pent- up frustration to be a formidable foe.

"You're still angry. It's only been a few days. Give it a few more."

"I'm not angry. Amused maybe. Curious."

Sven snatched the reins of my horse from me, causing him to skitter. "You're angry because she thought of it before you did."

Sometimes I hated Sven. For a battle- scarred curd, he was too perceptive. I grabbed the reins back. "Only amused. And curious," I promised him.

"You already said that."

"So I did." I placed the saddle blanket on my horse's back, sliding it down the withers and smoothing out the wrinkles.

Sven didn't see anything amusing about my venture and continued to present arguments as I adjusted the saddle. I hardly heard any of them. I was thinking only about how good it would feel to be away. My father was far more put out than I was, claiming it to be a deliberate affront. What kind of king can't control his own daughter? And that was one of his more reasoned responses.

He and his cabinet were already deploying entire brigades to key outlying garrisons to fortify them and to flaunt in Morrighan's face what decisive strength really was. The uneasy alliance had toppled on its head, but worse than the cabinet's chest- beating and conspiracy theories were the sorrowful looks from my mother. She was already broaching the subject of finding another bride in one of the Lesser Kingdoms, or even from among our own nobility, missing the entire point of the match in the first place.

I put my foot in the stirrup and swung up into the saddle. My horse snorted and stamped, as eager as I was to be gone. 

"Wait!" Sven said, stepping into my path, a foolish move for someone with his considerable knowledge about horses- especially mine. He caught himself and moved aside. "You don't even know where she ran off to. How will you find her?"

I raised my brows. "You have no confidence in your abilities, Sven. Remember, I've learned from the best."

I could almost see him cursing himself. He had always rubbed that in my face when my attention wandered, pinching my ears when I was still two heads shorter than he was, reminding me I had the best teacher and I shouldn't squander his valuable time. Of course, we both knew the irony of that. He was right. I did have the best. Sven taught me well. I was given to him as apprentice at eight, became a cadet at twelve, pledged at fourteen, and was a fully appointed soldier by sixteen. I had spent more years under Sven's tutelage than I had with my own parents. I was an accomplished soldier, due in no small part to him, excelling in all my training, which only made it all the more biting. I was probably the most untried soldier in history.

Sven's lessons had included drills on royal military history-the accomplishments of this ancestor or that- and there were many. The royals of Dalbreck had always had military credentials, including my father. He rose legitimately to the rank of general while his own father still sat on the throne, but because I was the only heir to the only heir, my soldiering had been greatly limited. I didn't even have a cousin to replace me. I rode with a company but was never allowed on the front lines, the heat of battle long cooled by the time I was brought onto any fi eld, and even then they surrounded me with the strongest of our squad as extra insurance against flares. 

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