Thorn (Dauntless Path #1) - Intisar Khanani

Chapter

1

“Try not to embarrass us,” my brother says. “If you can.”

I look out at the empty courtyard and pretend not to notice Lord Daerilin smirking to my left. He has always enjoyed my brother’s barbs, especially so these past three years. The other nobles around us shift, though I can’t tell if they’re amused or impatient. Mother frowns, gaze trained on the gates. Perhaps she’s preparing herself for the king’s visit, or perhaps she’s only thinking that there’s little hope I won’t embarrass her.

The thud of approaching hooves grows louder. It sounds like a storm drawing near, a steady, dull rumble that warns of heavy rains and lashing winds. I clasp my hands together tightly and wish this moment over.

The party trots through the open gates, the wooden walls echoing back the clatter of hooves on cobblestones, the jingle of tack. The first riders pull to the side, allowing those behind through. And through. I glance worriedly toward Mother, then back at the riders. I count a score of men, all in light armor, before I realize there must be at least double that. At their center ride five men, all dressed in similar finery.

With no audible command, the whole crowd of horses and men resolves into formation, the mounted guards lining up two deep to form an aisle between us and the five men at their center. The noblemen dismount in fluid leaps, as if they have no use for hands or stirrups. I catch a glimpse of our stable master waiting to arrange for the horses, his brows shooting up, eyes bright with admiration.

“His Majesty, the king of Menaiya,” one of his men announces as the nobleman who must be their king steps forward from their midst and bows slightly. I ignore the rest of his introduction, long lists of titles, and genealogy. Instead, I study the king. Though he must be older than my mother, the years have treated him well. He is tall and slim. He wears the traditional summer cloak of his people: a flowing, unhooded affair with arms and an open front, silver embroidery cascading along the edges and accenting the midnight-blue cloth. Beneath, he wears a knee-length tunic lightly embroidered with silver and stones, and the curious loose pants of his people. His hair falls free to his shoulders, black laced with silver, setting off the gentle brown of his face and softening an otherwise hawklike countenance. A fine tracery of wrinkles gathers at the corners of his eyes. He glances over our little crowd of nobles and smiles and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in that smile.

“Her Majesty, queen dowager and regent of the kingdom of Adania,” Steward Jerash announces in turn. Mother offers her own curtsy to the king, and we follow her lead. Even though she wears her finest brocade dress—too warm for this early in the fall—she still possesses barely half the majesty the king projects. But then, our kingdom is nothing compared with theirs, a patch of forest fortuitously protected by encircling mountains. Menaiya is a land of sweeping plains, southern farms, and northern forests. And soldiers. I swallow hard, training my eyes on the ground. We only have fifty men in our whole hall. The king has brought enough seasoned warriors to take our hall and add our kingdom to his as easily as a spare coin to his purse.

Although, if the kitchen rumors are true, he isn’t here for that at all. Or if he is, it’s a longer game he’s playing.

Jerash introduces my brother next, who bows a little lower than the king did. And then