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Authors: Anne Osterlund

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BOOK: Exile
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Could there be a greater danger than love?

Aurelia tried to say the words aloud to Daria, and they came out, “How could he leave without me?”

“Do you want to go?”

“Yes.” Well, there it was. The truth.

“Then go.” Daria crossed the room and opened the wardrobe. “Just”—she paused—“don’t hurt him, Aurelia.”

Aurelia felt numb. “What do you mean?”

Her friend returned from the wardrobe with wool stockings and Aurelia’s battered riding boots. She did not release them. “You must know.”

Know what?
“Daria.” Aurelia’s tone was threatening.

“He’s in love with you.”

The world stopped. For one long, outrageous moment, Aurelia let herself consider the statement. He had
her. Once. And saved her life. More than once.

But the idea that he could be in love with her did not—could not be true. “That’s nonsense.” She had tried to let Robert know she wanted to spend time alone with him on the way to Sterling. And he had rejected her. He was
rejecting her.

Daria handed her the stockings. “Honestly, Aurelia. There’s nothing wrong with being in love.”

Aurelia was not at all certain of that.


Published by the Penguin Group

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Registered Offices: Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England


Published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2011



Copyright © Anne Osterlund, 2011

All rights reserved



Osterlund, Anne.

Exile / by Anne Osterlund.

p. cm.

Summary: In exile, Princess Aurelia is free of responsibilities, able to travel the country and meet the people of Tyralt, but when her journey erupts in a fiery conflagration that puts the fate of the kingdom in peril, she and her companion Robert must determine whether they have the strength and the will to complete their mission.

eISBN : 978-1-101-51415-3

[ 1. Princesses—Fiction. 2. Voyages and travels—Fiction. 3. Interpersonal relations—Fiction.]
I. Title
PZ7.O8454Ex 2011
[Fic]—dc22 2010009645





The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

For Tease,
who I promised,
and Dance,
who made certain I followed through.


Thank you.
To Kristin Gilson for stepping in to help polish my previous book. To Amy and her team for putting on Sirens, a wonderfully inspirational conference on women in fantasy literature. To Michael Frost, Linda McCarthy, and Theresa Evangelista for their absolutely breathtaking covers. To all the people at Penguin who took yet another risk. To Maria, Dawn, Kelly, and Angelle for their outstanding support and time. To my dad, who answered three thousand questions about wagons, canvas tents, and threshing. And most of all, to the incredible readers who had faith in this story.

Chapter One


HOOFBEATS THUNDERED FROM BEHIND. IMMINENT. Aurelia flung herself farther forward, low against the neck of her mare.
Go, Bianca!
she urged. The muscles beneath her shifted into a smooth firing of movement, and the gray horse burst into a more rapid pace, soaring over the stones and sand. The spring air turned cold as it sheeted across the exposed section of Aurelia’s face, and the thinning fir trees along the road blurred into solid walls of forest green as the sounds of Bianca’s hooves blended to a single continuous roar.

But the other hoofbeats did not stop. Nor did they fade or mingle with Bianca’s. Instead, they pounded the road’s surface at an even faster rate, closer and closer. Aurelia knew she could not outrun them. They would reel her in, pull her down, overtake her. There was nothing she could do to stop the inevitable, only close her eyes, hang on, and refuse to give her pursuer the chance to breathe. Her heart pounded at the same pace as the hooves of her mount, and for one long spectacular moment she saw nothing.

Then the hand touched her shoulder.

She forced down the scream conjured by memory and reached for the reins.

Bianca resisted, pulling for release, then obeyed, and the roar of hoofbeats splintered to individual steps. Aurelia sucked in the fresh air and let her chest rise off the horse’s neck. Her eyes blinked away the tears formed by speed, and she smiled at the thrill of the ride.

Then she turned to her pursuer.

Robert did not smile. His hand held tight to the reins of his mount as Horizon reared, the muscles of the bay’s powerful chest rising. The stallion kicked out impatiently with deadly hooves, and Robert clung to Horizon’s back, legs gripping tight, torso tilted forward to maintain balance. He did nothing to battle the horse’s unbreakable will, just waited out the stubborn display until the stallion dropped once again to the ground. Not one bead of sweat shimmered on the magnificent red-brown coat.

“Satisfied?” Robert said, running a hand through the waves of his dark brown hair.

Aurelia raised her face to the sun and let herself glory in the moment: sunlight, horses, adventure.
for this one moment, she could describe herself as satisfied. Almost.

Her gaze returned to the young man before her. Robert’s face was drawn, and its typically animated lines had gone sharp. His hand slid to his recently wounded shoulder, and she felt a twinge of guilt for forgetting he might not yet be up to a full-blown race. She considered an apology, but his deep blue eyes ignored her, instead scanning the haphazard firs and barren patches of the dwindling Kryshan Forest, where there was positively nothing, Aurelia thought, worthy of appreciating those eyes.

“You realize we might have more than an hour’s ride back to the expedition party,” he continued.

“And wouldn’t that be tragic?” she teased, sweeping the loose strands of her brown hair out of her face. “A whole hour without the company of six guards.” Not to mention a horseman and two wagon drivers. The pride of her escape filled her chest. Not that she did not appreciate the expedition. It was her dream—had been her dream since she was a small girl: to travel and see all the people and places she had heard about from the poets, playwrights, and tale-spinners who came to court. And at last she had the freedom to make that dream a reality.

But freedom was relative. A week the expedition party had been on the road, and not once had she and Robert been alone together. Until now.

Horizon jerked his head, and Robert tugged on the stallion’s reins. “I have responsibilities, and so do you.”

Responsibilities? Now that was humorous. “For what?” she replied, unable to suppress the self-satisfied tone in her voice. “I don’t have to marry an old vulture stuffed in his Anthonian wedding garb. I don’t have to swelter in silence through another state speech. And I don’t have to attend a single royal function. What possible responsibilities could I have in exile?”

“Staying alive,” he said. And the blue eyes finally settled on hers, their depths piercing her confidence. He reached for the reins of her horse.

Aurelia swerved away. Why couldn’t he just enjoy the expedition instead of bringing up problems she wanted to forget? She did not want to think about her sister’s failed attempts to assassinate her. Or her father’s failure to acknowledge the crime. “I am perfectly
Robert. And I have no intention of spending this entire trip under the supervision of the royal guards. If you miss their company so much, why don’t you just hurry back to all those armed men? I’m sure they couldn’t possibly make their way down this road without you.”

Again the blue eyes fled, this time inspecting the opposite side of the road, as if a couple of gorgeous lady’s maids might materialize in the distance to rescue Robert from her dull company. A chill wave of disappointment skittered down her chest. Two weeks ago, he had been just as happy to spend time alone with her as she was with him. What had she done wrong?

The answer to her question seared her mind:
I need you at my side
. She should never have told him that—back at the palace when she had asked him to come along as her expedition guide. Though he had said
and foolishly, she had interpreted that as meaning something more.

After all,
was the one who had kissed

But that had been before.

I need you.
The phrase taunted her again. She did not need him. Of course not.

“You did not have to come after me!” she snapped, urging the mare forward in the opposite direction of the expedition party.

Robert blocked her path, and for a moment, she anticipated the challenge of a worthy retort. At least now she had his full attention. But before he opened his mouth, the sound of approaching hoofbeats interfered.

A tall horseman rode into view, the rider’s silver bandanna glistening in the sunlight, a ruby red stud decorating his left ear. He wore a black vest over a crimson shirt, and an eagle feather sliced brazenly through his hatband. A wide grin creased his dark face as he pulled up alongside Aurelia. “Nice day for a ride, Your Highness.”

She shot him a look that could have warped iron.

“Drew.” Robert acknowledged the horseman, then rode past him, heading back the way they had come.

Aurelia felt the heat of her disobedient temper storm through her face as she watched Robert pull away.

“I take it the ride didn’t go as well as planned.” Drew chuckled.

Her temper snapped. “You couldn’t handle a few hours without us,” she accused.

He held his palms up in mock innocence. “Hey, this wasn’t my idea. He’s the one who told me to come.”

“And you’re taking orders from Robert now?”

The horseman had the wisdom to let that comment fall. Everyone on the expedition had started looking to Robert for advice: where to camp, when to stop, when to head out. Not that Aurelia wanted to control every mundane aspect of the trip. It was fine with her if they wanted to organize their lives around his suggestions. But that did not mean she had to.

She wanted to go north, to travel at least as far as the desert, and to see and learn everything she could on the way there. She did not want to live as though she were still at court, with every moment of her life planned by someone else. “If he wanted you to escort me back,” she said, “why didn’t he just send you instead of coming himself?”

Drew raised an eyebrow. “I’m thinking because he knew he had the only mount fast enough to catch Bianca, as you’re well aware, Your Highness.”

She set her jaw.

The horseman grinned. “Don’t be too hard on him, lass. Sometimes a lad needs a little help interpreting the lay of the land.”

She bristled at the innuendo and whirled Bianca around. “He doesn’t want my help. Apparently, he doesn’t even want to talk to me.”

Drew’s large hand came down on her shoulder. She flinched, and the horseman pulled away. “He’s scared.”

“Of me?” she scoffed.

you.” Drew’s voice was low, scolding. “We’ve had no word that policies have changed at the palace. Which means there is still a threat—”

She did not want to hear about the palace. “I went. For a ride. It’s not. A crime.”

His head turned as he made one swift scan of the area. “You went off for a ride ... alone, less than a day outside of Sterling, the second-largest city in the country and the closest to the capital. Anyone seeing us leave Tyralt City would know where you were headed next. Which makes Sterling the most obvious place for another assassination attempt.”


Aurelia refused to allow Drew’s warning to spoil her anticipation as she rode into the Central Valley at dawn the next morning. True, word would have spread, passed along by travelers heading in either direction. The people would know she was coming. But surely the benefits outweighed the risks. And at last Aurelia would have others with whom she could share her enthusiasm.

As she dipped deeper into the valley, however, her confidence faltered.

Eyes watched her. From behind pitchfork tines and around morning glory trellises, through the gnarled apple trees, and under the long, crisscrossed shadows of orchards that would soon bear the cherries, plums, peaches, and nectarines of the coming season. She tried smiling at the onlookers, but they ducked beneath their leafy screens and sank to darker slate-gray depths. She bit her lip, kicked her heels, and urged Bianca on down the road. Perhaps the imminent welcome would come as she neared the city.

But she could feel the anxiety heighten in the six guards around her. Their swords came out of their scabbards and turned upright in their hands, surrounding her like the points of a fence. Why was the feeling around her so hostile?

She longed to ask for an explanation, but Drew had ridden ahead to arrange lodging. And Robert was riding just far enough away to avoid conversation. His sword remained in its scabbard, but the muscles in his left arm stood out in tense cords, and his hand clenched in a fist. His profile shifted as he swept his gaze along the periphery.

Taking in all those eyes.

They were growing in number.

As the deep reds and oranges faded in the eastern sky, the empty fruit stands lining the road were replaced by wooden shacks, then houses: first in twos and threes, now fours and fives. The powerful odor of horse manure emanated from a roadside livery, and the clang of a blacksmith’s forge announced the transition from farmland to city outskirts. Up ahead, a stone structure soared into the air and curved over the roadway. The Southern Arch. Aurelia felt her heart speed up.
The first test of her journey.

If she could not succeed here, only a week’s ride from the capital, perhaps her entire expedition would fail.

Around her the onlookers had grown more brazen, no longer hiding but staring openly. And when she looked back, they did not flinch.

They did not smile either.

At last she understood that her expectations had been flawed. There would be no cheers and shouts of excitement. In fairness, she could not blame these people for their lack of zeal. After all, she had never done anything for them. She had not transformed their modest village into a thriving trade center. They had done that themselves, without king or command. Sterling’s inns and taverns, now usurping the roadside houses, had sprinted past the Southern Arch that marked the site of the town’s ancient stone wall. The people had torn down their boundary, defying Tyralian tradition.

As did the barren flagpole on the closest establishment. The royal standard was not flying, a detail that dug into her mind like a hook and began to work its way back and forth in her brain. The citizens of Sterling, now lining the highway in solid rows, had a right to be wary. She would not bet their future on the strength of her father’s decisions. And she, herself, had nothing to offer them. Nothing but questions and curiosity and the support of someone with no real power.

Was the purpose of her expedition really to earn accolades?

The real purpose was to know her country. And her people.

But then why was she riding above them? Coming into their city under the auspice of being crown princess? With a fence of armed guards around her? She was not here to represent the palace. She did not speak for the throne. She would not and could not make any promises to these people beyond her own desire to understand them: their hopes, their plans, their dreams.

The buildings blurred around her as she crossed through the shadows of the Southern Arch and entered the city’s heart. She could not see the streets, only the crowd: beneath her, behind her, stretching out away from the road, and up ahead, filling the central plaza in a shifting throng.

Of tension.

She could not stay as she was.

She had no right. She would not enter that plaza as the crown princess.

Her hands tightened on the reins, pulling slack. Fingers brushed her arm. Robert’s. When had he gotten so close? But she did not have time to explain to him. She had to do this now, while it was right, while she was still setting the stage for this expedition and who she would be during it: a citizen of Tyralt.

She wrapped the reins around her saddle horn.

Swung her leg over Bianca’s back.

And descended into the crowd.

BOOK: Exile
13.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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