There’s a coolness to the air. A lightness in the breeze despite the clouds in the distance heralding a storm—and by the feel of it, it’s a big one.
In this moment, I think it’s the only thing keeping me sane and calm too.
I stare down at the six men below me. One of these six is my future. My fate.
I scrunch my nose for a second, wrinkle it in disgust, then quickly catch myself hoping against hope that Emet hasn’t seen me.
“Which one?” Cali whispers into my ear and I fight the scowl that I so desperately want to make.
My brother tenses. “Cali,” he mutters a warning.
“I’m just curious, Emet,” she says. “Which one would she want to fuck?”
“Cali,” Emet snaps.
She hangs off his arm, batting her eyelashes at him.
Not for the first time, I wonder if she’s really as stupid as she seems or if she’s just playing a game, playing my brother. I almost admire her grit if this is a pretense.
She’s lasted longer than the others—a lot longer—so she must have some sort of game plan, but my brother will not marry her.
She has nothing to offer him but a warm bed and a convenient hole to stick his dick in, and she’s a fool if she thinks otherwise.
“Princesses do not just fuck,” Emet hisses. “They do as they’re told.”
“It sounds a dull life to me,” she mutters.
Internally, I roll my eyes. But I keep my face passive. I’m not stupid enough to do anything more with my brother beside me watching my every move.
“I decide who she marries,” Emet says, leaning on the balustrade and staring down. “Who makes the best ally for me.”
“Pick the one on the right. He’s handsome. She deserves a handsome husband,” Cali says.
Emet’s eyes flash and I wonder if she’s pushed too far and he’s about to flip.
“She doesn’t deserve anything,” he snaps. “She is here to do her duty, to marry who I pick and be happy about it.”
I feel his eyes on me and I don’t dare look at him or any of the men before me. I just stand there, mute, obedient, wondering when I’m going to wake from this nightmare and when my prayers will be answered.
“Your Highnesses,” Manox says behind us and Emet turns. “Everything is ready for the audience.”
“Good,” Emet says, more to himself than to any of us.
He snaps his fingers and I know the signal is for me.
He wants me by his side; this is a negotiation after all. All these men have come to offer a gift that might secure my brother’s throne, and if my brother chooses them, they will receive a great prize indeed: me.
The only issue is I’m technically already betrothed, but no one wants to let that little fact get in the way. Because I am a Princess, I have royal blood pumping through my veins and such a prize as me is too tempting to resist.
Even if it risks the wrath of one of the most feared men in the land.
I walk behind my brother, staring at his back. For a king, he lacks the build, the bulk he should have.
Even those around us whisper it when they think we cannot hear.
He should be the biggest man here, the tallest, the most powerfully built.
And yet, he blends in beside every other man to the extent that he has taken to wearing an ermine-lined cloak with thick concealed padding and a golden crown to highlight his status.
The cloak is beautiful, the crown far too shiny, and they do nothing to detract from the issue of Emet’s bearing. If anything, they highlight it more.
Because Emet is not the only king of these lands. Our lands. Our father’s lands.
There is another. And as his strength and power grows, my brother’s stature diminishes. It is the way of this world.
The way of kings and warlords.
The usurper is stronger, more dominant, and more than that, he has been anointed king, accepted by our people and the Great Council, so now we are made the impostors.
Emet hangs on by what little power he has, but we both know this can’t go on. That soon the usurper will come for us both.
He will kill Emet, butcher him the way he butchered our father, and then, he will turn his attention on me.
I shudder at the thought of that man, that monster, having me within his grasp. He has haunted my every step these last five years. Pursued me. Hunted me down. Only by the sheer luck of the gods have I escaped him.
He is my betrothed. The man my father agreed to marry me to when he’d been just a warlord and stormed the castle and defeated him in battle, taking his throne right from under him.
And yet here we are, pretending in this moment that it never happened, that I am free to marry, and that Emet can choose a suitor for me as if there won’t be dire consequences.
Because Kaldan will come.
I know it.
Deep down, I know this man. This monster will find us both and it feels like with every day that passes, I hurtle faster toward this inevitability.
“King Emet and Princess Arbella.”
We are announced.
My brother walks in first. Struts in. In all his finery, he looks absurd to me. He looks like a play king, a pretender. And I can see it in some of the people’s faces around us; they think it too.
I take a deep breath then walk in to follow him. Compared to his rich attire, I must look shabby. My dress is plain. A fine enough fabric considering, but it is not the opulence one would expect a princess to wear.
The dress hangs a little too loosely, giving away the fact that it was not made for me. The style is older too. It’s not the latest fashion—it’s not even close, and the ladies around me are torn with their wardrobe choices.
Half adopt similar styles, mimicking mine as if in a show of solidarity while the others wear the most beautiful materials, dresses that cling to them, that make them look so desirable I wonder why anyone would ever look at me.
And then, I remind myself that I have one thing these women don’t, one thing men would kill for: royal blood.
Unlike my brother, I don’t have a crown. I don’t even wear a coronet.
He does it to make a point. That he is the sole ruler, and just because my hand is being offered in marriage, it doesn’t mean that any of the six men before me will get a crown out of it.
I look at them, all six.
I study their faces for a quick moment and then I drop my gaze.
I want no part of this. If I could, I would run from this room, from this castle too. Run and disappear entirely, but my brother would never let that happen.
He has me closely guarded. Watched almost every second of the day. I am a trophy to him. A great bargaining chip, and he is determined to sell me for the highest price possible.
“Your Highnesses,” one of the men says.
I barely listen. His words are not for me. They’re for my brother.
I am here to simply stand and look pretty.
My brother steps down from the dias and welcomes each of them in turn. Most of them are warlords. Two are knights.
When my brother announced this contest, he was very careful in who he selected. Any kings that answered were politely declined.
He doesn’t want any competition, and for all the power and advantages a king bring would bring him as an ally, the risk he would outshine Emet is too great.
Emet explains the contest.
He wants it to sound fair, to make these men believe they have a sporting chance, but in truth, I think he’s already decided the victor.
One of these men already know that in three days’ time, I will be standing by them at an altar and they will call me theirs.
I feel their glances. Without thinking, I look up and they’re all staring at me.
I wonder what I must look like. Do I look willing? Do I look content or can they see the fear behind my expressionless face?
Emet smiles at me and it sends a shiver right to my spine.
“Of course,” he says.
“You will all be granted a little time with the Princess. Chaperoned of course.”
Of course, I think.
Because my virginity is as closely a guarded thing as my very being is. Emet has made sure of that.
It’s part of the bargain, the offer. They’ll be getting an untouched Princess. Unspoiled. Untainted by another man’s hands.
I fight the scowl. These men are hypocrites.
They fuck when they want, take whoever catches their fancy; they rape too, force themselves on women who want nothing from them… And yet they are obsessed with virgins, with purity and chastity.
It makes my stomach turn, but this is the world I live in, and as captive as I am, there is little I can do to change it.
Emet converses some more and finally we are done.
He dismisses the court and lets these men rest before tonight’s festivities.
“Sister,” Emet says once we are alone. Even Cali has been kicked out of the room.
“Brother,” I reply.
“You seem…” He hesitates as if he cannot think of the word. “Complacent.”
“Not complacent,” I reply. “I am as obedient as always.”
He smirks slightly running his eyes over me. “You better be,” he mutters before walking out and leaving me alone.
As soon as he’s gone, it’s like I can breathe, like the air around me is finally clear and no longer toxic.
I pace about the space.
Beyond, I know my guards are waiting, and the minute I leave, they will escort me back to my room. They’ll already be wondering what’s keeping me, but I don’t think about it.
I look around, at all the regalia and our banners that hang from the ceiling. The throne Emet had carved when ours was lost.
I look at the furs too and the rugs, everything stolen away before the raging warlord who was coming for us could get his hands on it.
It looks shabby now, old. What was once great symbols of power look faded.
It feels like an omen. A prophecy.
Our family has ruled this land for more than a thousand years and now it’s almost over. I’d like to say we were good rulers, that my father was a good king, but I’d be lying.
He was a selfish man, like his father before him. Emet is the same.
And yet no one had ever challenged them or even tried.
He came out of nowhere.
From what they say, my father completely underestimated him.
He was just a warlord after all. My father was a king. By the laws of nature, he should have been easily defeated; only he wasn’t.
A war raged between them.
I don’t know how long it lasted, but Kaldan was smarter and more strategic. My father made serious mistakes, and in the end, his ineptitude cost him his crown.
Kaldan was victorious and I was signed over on a piece of parchment as if I were another piece of the Royal Treasury, another jewel in the crown for him to possess.
And yet, it didn’t end like that. Something happened.
My father grew a conscience, or more likely he thought he could outplay Kaldan, but either way Kaldan reacted without mercy or restraint. He destroyed my father’s capital and annihilated his army.
I don’t know how he killed him, but I know he did it with his own hand.
And then he came for us. For me and Emet.
I blink, turning round, coming back from wherever my head has gone to.
It’s the maid. One of Emet’s spies, though I can’t be hundred percent sure.
“We have to get you ready for the feast,” she says, smiling what looks like a genuine smile.
I nod quickly following her. I don’t blame her for betraying me.
She is as much a victim in all this as me. Emet is not a man you can refuse, not a man you can bargain with. In doing his bidding, she is just trying to survive, just as I am, just as everyone in Emet’s court is.
We walk out of the room and instantly my two guards are up and right at my back, so close I can hear their breathing. My room is next to my brother’s, though I am crammed in and he has a sprawling suite.
The guards remain outside and the maid shuts the door before walking into the tiny bathroom that was once a closet and runs a bath.
I sit on the hard wooden chair, my only furniture beyond the small bed and a wardrobe that’s been repaired so many times we’ve given up trying. So now it leans alarmingly into the wall, threatening to collapse any day.
When the bath is ready, the maid calls out, and I pull off my dress and clamber in. It’s not a full-size bath. It’s a round tub that I have to sit with my knees pressed to my chest while I’m scrubbed.
I hate every minute of it.
I feel exposed, vulnerable too, but the maid knows this and she’s kind enough to make these moments as quick as possible. To get it over with as efficiently and mercifully as she can.
I have to stick my legs over the side and lay my head right under the water for her to wash my hair. This is the worst part.
When it’s finally over, I spring up quickly, jump from the tub, and dry myself.
I used to let her dry me, but now I can’t bear it. She holds out a dress for me and my eyes widen. It’s new. Fancier than the others. I guess Emet wants to make a big impression with these suitors.
The dress is white. Pure white, with intricate gold embroidery. It’s beautiful. As she holds it for me to step into, I can feel the weight of it.
It’s heavy. Really heavy.
It feels like it’s weighing me down, restricting me.
She does it up, button by button, and I can feel from the fit that this dress isn’t new. It’s second-hand just like the rest.
Then she does my hair. She dries it with the towel before spending ages twisting it into a great braid that goes around my head like a crown.
I stare at myself in the mirror and my heart stops because for once I can see it: my beauty. I clench my fists, hating it.
I don’t want to be beautiful; I don’t want to be alluring because in being so I’m only increasing my desirability, making myself more of a goddamn prize than I already am.
“Are you ready?” My brother’s voice rings out and I jump.
“Yes,” I say.
He runs his eyes over me. He’s wearing a new cloak too. The fur on it looks so soft it makes me want to reach out and touch it, but I don’t dare.
“You understand what this is all about?” he says as we walk. The guards are behind us, walking three steps back ready to protect their king should they need to.
“I understand,” I reply.
He stops, grabbing my wrist, and I wince at the tight grip. “If you mess this up,” he says. “If you do anything that puts my plan at risk.”
“I won’t,” I say quickly.
“You better not because if you do, I will make you pay,” he snarls.
He glances ahead and there are people there watching us.
“Play your part, Arbella. Smile, be charming, show these men you’re worth something.”
I grit my teeth, but nod.
“And whatever you do, do not behave as a whore,” he adds.
I shut my eyes. As if I’ve ever been like that. As if I’ve ever even been near a man.
“Your virginity is a prize. Make yourself worth winning.”
I pull my arm free, sickened by his words, and from the look on his face, I know if we weren’t being watched, he would probably hit me for my insolence.
He throws me one last look then walks ahead, leaving me to rush to catch up.
We enter the hall and everyone rises for us. The six suitors are placed around the hall, spread out, but everyone has a clear uninterrupted view of where my chair is.
Emet guides me to my place and pulls the chair for me to sit.
I tuck my skirts under and sit as obediently as a dog would. Emet then walks away, moving to take his throne and leaving me surrounded by his most trusted advisers.
He’s dangling me in front of these suitors, holding me up like a jewel to shine in the sunlight yet all the while keeping me far enough that they can’t yet get close enough to quench their thirst.
I eat quietly, half listening to the conversations around me. Normally, Emet makes me eat alone, so this is not only overwhelming, but unfamiliar too. I have nothing to say.
Besides, no one cares for a princess with opinions and my brother has spent years beating this fact into me.
“What do you think, Princess Arbella?” someone asks and I look up, meeting the gaze of a man I don’t know.
He’s one of my suitors. Vesak is his name. I feel my brother’s eyes instantly shift to me.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t following the conversation,” I say quietly.
A few people smile.
It feels insincere, like they’re patronizing me, the little princess who is too simple to even pay attention.
“About hunting. Do you enjoy it?” he says, watching my face.
I put my hands in my lap, digging my nails into my palm.
“I’ve never been to hunting,” I admit.
“Never?” he replies. “It’s embarrassing that a person of my rank has never participated in one. Shocking even.”
“The Princess is too precious to risk with such pursuits,” my brother says quickly.
“If she were to be injured…”
“Would you like to go? Chasing a stag is a thrilling thing,” Vesak says.
I look to my brother then look away.
“If the opportunity was offered in the right circumstances, I would not refuse, but I respect my brother’s want to protect me, to keep me safe.”
I was diplomatic, all the while knowing that we all know it’s not for any concern of my well-being.
Everyone smiles. Apparently, I’ve satisfied them, and even my brother’s lips curl.
I make a mental note to follow the conversation more.
I don’t want to get caught out again and I’m sick of everyone thinking I’m a simpleton, that I’m just a pretty face to look at with nothing else, no brains, no opinions, nothing to contribute except what’s between my thighs.
When finally the meal is done and Emet nods his head for me to retire, I slip from the room, and with my guards haunting my every step, I walk quickly back to the relative solitude of my bedroom.
I shut the door, internally screaming, and before I can stop it, the tears are streaming down my face.
I rip my hair out of the braids. I want to rip the dress off me too, but the way it does up, I can’t get it off, and I feel trapped in it, imprisoned, trussed up like a turkey.
I can hear the thunder rumbling outside, the lightning flashing, and the rain is coming down so fierce.
It’s as if the very gods feel my pain, as if they too are showing their fury at all of this, but I know it’s not true.
I know I’m imagining it.
The gods won’t save me. No one is going to save me. This is my future, my life.
I will always be this, a girl dressed up for the world, not seen as me, not seen for me, just wanted for what my blood is and what can be gained.
By the time the maid comes, my tears are gone, my face is stoic.
I’m the perfect, obedient princess my brother wants me to be once more.
And tomorrow, the contest over who gets to own me will begin.
We’re out in the stands.
The silk curtains around us do little to shelter from the wind that is still high from the storm.
In the arena below, my suitors are all stood, adorned in their finest armor, strutting around, prancing.
If it wasn’t so serious, I think I might laugh at the bravado of all these men. It’s like they’re peacocks, flashing their colors, their tails, determined to be the best.
My brother watches each of them with his lip curled ever so slightly. I think he is amused too by all of this. Beside him, Cali leans across the arm of his throne. She’s bored already.
The maid told me that last night she annoyed him so much he had her sent to bed.
And I heard them all night, him fucking her and her god-awful screams.
“Sit up,” Emet snaps and she immediately responds.
She’s annoying him; he wants to present himself as a king, the greatest of kings, and he can hardly do that while she drags herself over him with little decorum or concern.
I’m standing only because I can’t bear to sit beside my brother for another minute. I’m not really watching the men below. My attention is on the mountains that snake across the landscape, tempting me, calling to me.
In my naivety, I sometimes believe if I can reach them, if I can get that far, I would be safe.
Emet comes to stand next to me and his arm rests beside mine.
In his fur cloak, he is probably quite warm, but the dress I’m in gives little protection. But I look beautiful and I guess that’s all that counts.
“Today you will have ten minutes with each of them,” he says quietly.
“This is not an opportunity for you to pick, do you understand that?”
“Yes,” I say, dropping my eyes.
“We are going to give them a brief moment, to let them see the prize before I make my decision.”
He’s even referring to me as a prize now. What a prick.
“Manox will be in the room the entire time,” he says. I don’t react. I’m happy it’s Manox and not someone else.
I feel safer with him though I have no reason to. He feels less of a vulture, less of a snake ready to attack.
The sounds of swords grab Emet’s attention and we look to see the six men faux-fighting, demonstrating their prowess, their swordsmanship against the six soldiers of Emet’s army.
He stands beside me for an annoyingly long time before he thankfully grows bored and sits back on his throne.
Once the fighting is done, Emet has them prance about on their horses.
I think this is a game; he’s teasing these men, only they don’t see it. All they see is me.
He’s set up a race across the plains for the afternoon’s pursuit.
We all take our seats and watch as they spur their horses, gallop as fast as they can, desperate to prove that they are worthy, that they are the best, that they deserve to win.
A warlord wins by a few yards.
His name is Tonath, I think.
He meets my eyes and a shiver runs through me.
I think I might fear him the most, though in truth, all these men scare me. He’s the biggest of these men. His presence dwarfs everyone around him, even my brother.
When I look at him, my blood runs cold and my breath catches in my throat as though my body is trying to give me some sort of message I can’t understand.
And even if I did, it wouldn’t make any difference. If Emet chooses him, I will be forced to marry him, forced to fuck him too when the time comes.
My brother has them meet with him next. Each one individually.
No one else is in the room. No one else can hear what is spoken. I know my brother is negotiating with them, finding out what they’re willing to pay.
This here is where the real contest is, not the fake-fighting, not the horsemanship, not even the grand tournament he has for tomorrow.
They talk so long that everyone at the feast is left waiting.
We sit patiently, watching as the food grows cold. No one dares to eat, no one dares to even drink until Emet is here.
He is with a warlord called Luxley; apparently what he has to say is of great interest, enough to snub the entire court.
I can feel the five other suitors watching me though I don’t look up.
I don’t do anything.
I just sit there, tolerating their looks, playing the perfect princess while inside I am crumbling utterly into despair.
When Emet finally waltzes in, everyone rises quickly and bows.
He waves them off with a smirk and his eyes find mine. I fight so hard to hide the tremble that runs through me. He’s triumphant. Whatever has been spoken between him and this Luxley has made him happy.
He sits beside me tonight, putting on a great show of brotherly love.
Perhaps yesterday my comments made him uneasy and today he is going to control the conversation, making sure I don’t reveal any more shameful facts about my existence under his so-called protection.
Emet motions for everyone to eat and no one hesitates. The sound of metal clashing against ceramics echoes and an eruption of chatter fills the hall.
Emet doesn’t speak to me.
He chats to the people around us and I focus on eating the cold meat that would have been delicious when hot. When the first course is done, Emet nods his head at a servant and the two double doors open.
Dancers spring into the room.
They twist and turn and everyone’s attention snaps to them. They’re beautiful. Each couple is one man and one woman, dancing in perfect unison. I’ve never seen anything like such entertainment.
It’s clear Emet is pulling out all the stops to seduce these men, to beguile the right one into joining his cause.
I feel eyes on me and the only man not watching the couples is Tonath.
He scans my face as I look at him and I feel myself flush with shame before looking away.
The desserts are served and Emet makes a big play of giving me a cake.
He really is playing the doting brother tonight and for all the newcomers to this court they’d be hard-pressed not to believe it.
I eat, not because I want to, but because I can’t snub him. I can’t refuse him. I know the consequences too well.
The cake sticks in my throat and it takes all my effort not to choke it back up.
When the feast is done, he stands and everyone springs up.
He bids them good night and makes a big play of escorting me out.
This is it, I realize. My audience with each of these men is about to happen.
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