Anya pressed her forehead to the cool, curved window of the school library and looked down at the earth, a kilometer below. She felt safe here, although she was no longer a child. Unfortunately, the feeling of peace was an illusion. Soon her protector, the current Baron of Donetsk Territory, would find her and she would have to face her future.
If only she could escape. If only she could ride down the slender metal umbilical cord elevator which anchored the sky city of Astana to earth, and flee what was coming.
The glass felt cool against her skin, and the room behind her lay silent, as it was nearly time for supper. Quiet, too, was the vast wasteland of ice and snow which stretched out as far as her eyes could see—land that had been ruled by her family, the Dubrovnyks, until her father had died ten years ago. The frosty view remained the same all year round. Spring and summer were too cold to melt the snow. On a clear day, she could see the great Tien Shan mountain range far to the south. Her uncle lived south of the Tien Shan, and her territory had been engaged in a bloody war with his for her entire life. To the east, Donetsk Territory fought a different, but equally vicious war with Altai Territory. Altai’s leader, Onred, was Astana’s special guest this weekend.
“Anya.” Joshua’s deep, quiet voice startled her.
She drew a dismayed breath.
Footfalls noiseless, Joshua Van Heisman appeared by her side. Her nerves prickled up in awareness of him. Nos-trils faintly flaring, she surreptitiously inhaled, savoring the clean scent of his pressed uniform, and the warm, faintly spicy scent of his skin. His physical presence, as always, filled Anya’s senses. She was always aware of him—too aware of him. She didn’t have to look to see how his solid, muscular shoulders filled out his cream baron’s uniform. Also etched forever into her mind were his tanned skin, flashing white teeth, and his barely tamed tawny hair, which was the exact color of the extinct lion.
In her mind, he was her lion. He had been her protector since she was thirteen, and he’d been the interim Baron of Donetsk Territory ever since her father had died. She had hero-worshipped him with all of her devastated young heart at thirteen, after losing both of her parents. Now, at twenty-three, his close presence made her feel something entirely different…something completely forbidden. She swallowed the lump in her throat. She had always wanted to make him proud of her, but this…
With a determined turn to her head, she met his gaze. His dark eyes were devoid of their usual warmth, and were instead a commanding brown. Not a good sign. He’d come to give her orders, and she was to obey—for the peace of Donetsk Territory. To save tens of thousands of lives.
“It is decided.” His voice sounded impersonal. “Onred has agreed to take you as his bride, for peace. The bride price is set.”
Only Joshua’s steady gaze kept her knees firm, and prevented her from bolting from the room in sickened horror. Onred made her flesh creep. When she had met him this af-ternoon, he had been polite, and had bowed over her hand with great chivalry. But she didn’t trust the bloodthirsty baron.
Anya wondered briefly if this was a horrible nightmare. It couldn’t be happening. And yet she had known it would happen. Her fate had been set. And if she wanted to forge a peace that would save the lives of thousands of her citizens, she would agree to marry Onred.
Joshua’s gaze continued to hold hers. The force and strength of his personality shored up her horrified, collapsing dreams. It felt like her very soul was shattering. As if she had been ordered to marry the devil.
“I can’t,” she breathed. It was unlike her to flounder, but her world was imploding. Joshua was ejecting her from his life. She would have to abandon her brothers and sisters and live in Onred’s capitol city of Bogd for the rest of her life. Tears threatened. “I can’t.”
Joshua’s strong, steady hand closed around her upper arm. “You must. For the peace of Donetsk Territory.”
Silently, she stared at him. Did she have a choice?
Under the Old Barons’ Law, the answer would be no. Joshua’s order alone, as Baron of Donetsk Territory, would be enough to seal her fate. But Joshua had come to seek her compliance…or maybe this was only a token gesture. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure of anything anymore. Had he already accepted the bride payment? Although the bride price was largely a symbolic gesture, if Joshua had accepted the payment, it would mean that both the marriage and peace contracts were already signed. It would mean that she already belonged to Onred in all ways except for one. The marriage ceremony would put the last, pretty flourish on the contracts, finishing the vow before God, and sealing the peace agreement for the rest of her life. And it would grant Onred his final right—conjugal visits. Panic beat in her breast. Surely Joshua hadn’t accepted the bride price. Not without talking to her first.
She managed, “Have you…accepted it?”
Her swift feeling of relief didn’t last long. A decision still needed to be made. She wondered what would happen if she refused to accept her duty.
Joshua watched her intently, as if able to read into her soul—an uncomfortable, perceptive quality that she had rued as a teenager. His grip on her arm gentled. “You are a brave woman, Anya. And I know that with you in Altai Territory, I can trust a permanent peace with Onred.”
Of course, Anya wanted to protect her people from Onred’s bloody hordes, and to save thousands of lives. And she wanted to make Joshua proud. But more than any of that, she wanted her life to have meaning and purpose. She was a Dubrovnyk. Her family had ruled Donetsk Territory for al-most two hundred years. She must give her life to serve the territory. If marrying Onred was her fate, then so be it.
Unfortunately, although her mouth opened and closed, she could not choke out the words to accept her fate.
His grip tightened when the silence uncomfortably lengthened. Voice a gravel rasp, he said, “Do you understand?”
So, it was an order after all. She was to be given no choice.
Mutely, she stared at him, in silence accepting her duty, although her very soul revolted against it. Something bleak and black flashed in Joshua’s eyes, and then vanished. “Good.” Another silent moment passed, and she sensed conflict waging within him. But when his fingers released her arm, she felt his emotional withdrawal at the same time he stepped back. “I am proud of you, Anya.”
When he strode from the room, leaving her behind, Anya’s heart felt like it crumbled to nothing.