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Women have never been instructed to train, in fact, most were punished if they tried, but an order from the king must be carried out, and that’s exactly what my guard has done.

There were times when I was younger that I was jealous of my brother, Prince Ramiro, for being able to train and defend the kingdom in a way I couldn’t. Now is my opportunity to make up for that, even if I’m several years late to the game.

My brother and grandmother, the queen dowager, had much to say about my father’s demands, but nonetheless, the royal guard follows my father, not the two of them.

In fact, I’ve heard many whispers roaming about the castle with people having much to say regarding the matter. The only guards to hold their tongue and do as the king said are the four men surrounding me here in the Blackwood Forest.

I haven’t made their job easy. I’ll be the first to admit to behaving like a brat for the first few days of training.

My muscles were weak, and I grew weary very quickly. Dominic and Greyson were irritated with my complaints, but Callum continued to teach me in new ways. Even Tristan has stepped up in a manner I didn’t know he was capable of.

Don’t get me wrong, Tristan’s still an asshat in knight’s armor, but he means well. Most of the time.

“Pick up the pace, Princess. You’re wasting daylight.”

Right on cue, Tristan. It’s like he could read my mind and wanted to solidify my thoughts.

“I’m right behind you, asshole.”

“You have quite the dirty mouth, Your Grace. Let me know if you need me to make it dirtier,” Tristan snipes.

Greyson hurries alongside me. Callum shoves him away, giving me space to breathe again.

Each day, we start by running several miles in the Blackwood Forest surrounding the castle, then combat training until dusk. It’s easy to say that my loyal guards have turned into quite the masochists, taking the request of the king very seriously.

The only rest I’ve been allowed is for food to replenish my strength and energy, also fulfilling my responsibilities in my father’s absence attending court, which is a different type of exhaustion.

With King Rian being away, Ramiro and I have stepped in to fill his shoes. Prince Ramiro has taken quite a liking to his newfound power and authority.

Unlike our father, King Rian the Brave, Rami has decided his way of ruling is with an iron fist. The first order he made was sending the knights of IronHaven to do his dirty work, increasing taxes across the land under the pretense of paying for the war. Which is something my father would have never approved of, and the order has been met with a ton of backlash from our people.

IronHaven is prosperous. The people have always paid their fair share to the throne to ensure protection of their lands, but Ramiro has taken things too far. It’s customary for the men to pay a yearly tax to the kingdom, but Rami insists on sending out the knights once a month for the past three months since King Rian and his army went to secure our borders in the northlands.

Anyone with eyes can see that Rami is abusing his power, but no one has dared to oppose him—not even me. I’ve spent too much time worrying about his state of mind and the influence my grandmother has over him. One wrong move is all it wouldtake to push him over the edge. He’s been teetering the line between good and evil for far too long, and I’m afraid anything I do against him will cause a shift in the wrong direction. Then we will all pay the price.

Rami is the dark to my light. We may be twins, but everything about us is the complete opposite. Ramiro takes after my father with his looks, but his demeanor comes from our grandfather and grandmother. His dark, raven hair, obsidian eyes, and tall, muscular frame give him an ominous presence about him.

On the other hand, I’ve inherited the appearance of my mother’s family. My bright golden locks, emerald eyes, and short stature have always been the opposite of my brother. Even as children, we were nothing alike. My playful and light-hearted banter could never melt Rami’s glacier exterior. But I was brave, just like my father.

When I was little, my mother would tell me stories about my father, King Rian, the fierce and sound warrior. Fighting every battle from the front line, never sending his men to defend a cause that he himself was not prepared to die for. His warriors drew strength from his confidence and determination.

King Rian, the just and loyal ruler of the people. He didn’t rule with an iron fist but with dignity and compassion. Only collecting taxes yearly, making sure no soul in our kingdom went without. My father knew that we could all prosper if we held one another to the same standards. No one person was above another. From lords to servants, every voice was heard in his court, and every complaint was dealt with to the best of his abilities.

His favorite saying in court was, “United we prosper, divided we fall.” Many others flocked to our lands to escape the unjust ways of other realms, which is why we are now in the position of being invaded. King Barouk did not agree with my fatherallowing people from other kingdoms to roam free. He thought my father was weak, but he will learn the truth soon enough of who my father is. The weeks have turned into months of fighting. The Kingdom of Eros made a bold move on my father by trying to take the northern parts of our lands for himself.

“Let’s go, little bird. We don’t have all day,” Tristan teases. I ignore the butterflies swirling in my stomach and level him with a steely glare.

I hate that nickname.Little bird. Does he think I’m some weak animal waiting to have my feathers plucked or to be shot down from the sky?

“I am not a little bird. One day, I’ll be your queen, and it would do you good to remember that, Sir Tristan of nowhere,” I snark, sounding full of myself.

Tristan struts toward me until he has me pressed against the tree. His close presence sends a flood of heat to my core, then he opens that awful, condescending mouth of his.

“One day you will be queen—just notourqueen. While you run off to another kingdom in the realm to rule, we will be stuck here in IronHaven with your sniveling brother as our king and whatever whore he decides to take as his wife. You will be singing our praises for teaching you how to wield a sword and shoot a bow because no other man alive would put up with your wailing.” Tristan turns and walks away, leaving my heart hardened by his words. The thought of leaving my home one day is heartbreaking, but I know it’s inevitable.

My father has never mentioned it before, but I’m not blind to the customs and traditions of our lands. Women are married off to broker peace and ensure loyalties between families. One day, I will be forced to wed, but not today—today I learn to fight.

“Enough! Get back to your training, Princess. The king will have our heads if he returns from his crusades and you cannot hit the target more than a single time,” Greyson cuts in.