When a princess’s commoner true love is kidnapped to coerce her into a political marriage, she doesn’t give in—she goes to rescue him.
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Sarah Henning’s The Princess Will Save You, a YA fantasy adventure inspired by The Princess Bride—available July 7th from Tor Teen.
When her warrior father, King Sendoa, mysteriously dies, Princess Amarande of Ardenia is given what would hardly be considered a choice: Marry a stranger at sixteen or lose control of her family’s crown.
But Amarande was raised to be a warrior—not a sacrifice.
In an attempt to force her choice, a neighboring kingdom kidnaps her true love, stable boy Luca. With her kingdom on the brink of civil war and no one to trust, she’ll need all her skill to save him, her future, and her kingdom.
The whisper and clang of steel rang out over the foothills of Ardenia, a princess and a pauper meeting swords.
Left. Right. Cross. High cut. Mid-cross. Hanging parry. Stab.
“You’ve been practicing,” the princess accused the boy with a laugh that played across the little meadow they called theirs. The palace grounds of the Itspi had plenty of rolling land but not much that provided privacy. But this patch of mostly flat earth surrounded on three sides by fragrant juniper trees was one they’d claimed long ago as children.
It was an open secret within the castle that Princess Amarande of Ardenia spent far too much of her time here and with this boy. Luca. It hadn’t been anything to worry about until recently.
“Simply trying to avoid a devastating injury.”
“Come, Luca, I think you want to do more than avoid injury.” She tilted her head as their swords met at chest height, their faces and flushed cheeks inches apart. They were dressed alike— training breeches, tunic, chest and wrist armor, but their heads bare. The princess’s auburn hair had already begun to abandon her hasty braid, swirling in curled wisps about her face. “I think you want to win.”
At this, Luca only grinned, dimples flashing as he lunged forward. His sword—blunt for practice but still hard-as-nails Basilican steel—tapped Amarande against the waist, right under the protection of her chest plate. A warning of what could be done for
“Then let’s make things more exciting, shall we?”
She’d phrased it as a question, but Luca knew better. Better than anyone. Luca, who ran her father’s stable. Who had as much a right to call the palace home as Amarande herself. He drew his sword back, high guard stance and ready to block—just as General Koldo had shown him in a moment of pity for the boy who dared tussle with the Warrior King’s daughter.
Still, he wasn’t quick enough.
Before his sword was in place, Amarande had bent to her boot and in a lightning strike launched a small knife straight for his face. It wasn’t a dull practice blade. It was real—the one she’d carried since before she’d learned her letters. Lessons from King Sendoa’s soldiers had always been just as important as anything her tutors managed to teach her. Blunt swords could bruise and hack, but this knife could split, slice, cut.
Luca moved just in time, sword useless and weak hand up, fingers quick enough to catch the last inch of the knife’s hilt. This he’d practiced, too.
In the space of a blink, he had the blade flipped in his palm and shot it right back at her. He aimed to miss, of course, but it was a left-handed throw and not as accurate. Thus, it came far too close, snagging the leather of her shoulder guard and sending her flat on her back in the grass.
“Ama,” he whispered, dropping his sword. Taking a tentative step toward her.
Again, a mistake.
From the ground, Amarande swung a leg hard, kicking his feet out from under him. Luca flew up and then back, landing in a heap, the wind and her name knocked out of him. Before he could even attempt to right himself, the princess was sitting atop his stomach, her knees locking his arms against his heaving ribs. One arm ran stiff across his chest plate, right under his collarbone, further pinning him in place; the other held the knife at striking distance.
Before his next breath, he could be dead.
“You have been practicing.”
She said it with admiration, but a tight-lipped type of triumph crossed the princess’s face. She examined her prey, trapped as he was—it was amazing what small but mighty could do to a boy even as strong as this one.
A smear of dirt streaked across Luca’s forehead and up into his short black hair. Sweat ran in a single rivulet from one temple, snaking around his long lashes and down his cheek, pausing only briefly to dip into the shadow of a dimple as he gritted his teeth in a smile. His eyes regarded the knife in the princess’s hand, an inch from his throat.
And then those eyes, the golden color of sun on snow at dawn, lifted to hers and Amarande felt her heart melt like wax near a flame. The fighting tension of her body fled until the knife was still an inch from his throat but not a threat. Luca’s fingers brushed her cheek, sweeping a lock of windblown hair behind her ear.
Growing up, the privacy of the meadow had given room for her to share lemon cake stolen from the kitchens and for him to calm her when the king went off on another journey with his regiments and beloved Koldo, keeping the kingdoms of the Sand and Sky safe by answering every ally’s call. But for the last year, there’d been this.
Something almost tangible sat between them—responsibility, expectations, rules. The same inescapable things that had rendered the amusement in their earlier words heavy and misshapen.
Amarande straightened, removing her arm from his chest. Luca raised himself onto his elbows. Their eyes remained locked as his lips parted, and Amarande wondered if he’d actually say it. That he felt it, too, and that she wasn’t the only one carrying an unspeakable hope thick in her gut.
Instead, he said, “Of course I practice—I fight you.”
As she found the words to answer him, a shout went up from well beyond their meadow, the call of welcome bells clanging across the grounds. Clearly Amarande’s father had returned from his solstice charity, empty-handed after delivering fruit and bread to mining families along the Ardenian border with the Torrent up to where it joined with Pyrenee. She would have to go soon—wash up for dinner by his side, listening to stories of sweet-faced mountain children running down dirt tracks after his horse, songs trailing. Someday, when the Warlord no longer reigned, maybe he’d let her go with him.
But for now, for this moment, she wanted to be nowhere other than with Luca.
Yet they were interrupted again—a rider coming over the hill. Amarande’s training came back to her in a rush, her father having engrained it in her since the day he put a tiny wooden sword in her hand and began to share the things all living warriors knew.
Beware or be dead.
Make the first mark.
A warrior made is a warrior alive.
The first tenet whispered in her ear, and the princess shot to her feet, the abandoned knife now clutched in her fingertips. The castle grounds weren’t dangerous, but preparation paid off.
The rider scrambled down the steepest part of the hill, a tough grade before hitting the flat of their meadow. Not armored—in riding gear only—he flew toward them on a dappled mare with wild legs. It was then that Amarande recognized that it wasn’t a he, it was a she—General Koldo, the king’s best friend and second. She was the leader of his army as much as she was Amarande’s surrogate mother, and the princess had never seen her with a note of fear on her sun-mottled face. And yet there it was as she came closer, braid flying out behind her as the horse’s hooves kicked up plumes of rust-dirt dust.
“Ama!” The dam broke on the panic rising within Amarande.
Koldo called her Ama in private, alone, but never in front of anyone else, even Luca, who used the nickname in the same way. With the general, she was always “Princess” in a space such as this.
The fact that Koldo broke her own protocol was just as terrifying as the fear that rode her tone.
Luca felt it, too, tensing at Amarande’s side. His fingers brushed hers as if he wanted to grab them, to give her an anchor for the blow that they both could see coming.
Koldo reached them and before she even dismounted, the princess registered tear tracks on her dusty cheeks. Amarande’s heart began to fail before the words were even out, breath seeping out of her lungs, until all of her had evaporated into the mountain air. She watched the words fall from Koldo’s lips outside of herself, above, shattered.
“The king is dead.”
In a single breath, everything had changed.
One moment King Sendoa was sipping from his ancient water-skin, the next a gruff cough, and death. The whole of it so quick, he fell from his horse’s saddle in a royal heap, no one fast enough to realize he needed saving, let alone catch him.
It was the king’s heart, some said, drumming to a stop. Maybe his blood, gone haywire in his brain. Or his lungs, an old illness creeping up in the altitude.
Amarande didn’t believe any of it.
When the dust and chaos of that day settled and the next came, General Koldo stood in the too-bright light of midafternoon in the sitting room of the princess’s chambers. Amarande was curled up, barefoot on the golden cushions of a long divan, still in the clothing she was wearing when it all crumbled. Only her chest plate and boots were missing, ripped off the second she’d thrown herself into her quarters.
She’d begged Luca to stay, and he did, with her at every moment, only leaving to tend to the horses. He greeted Koldo with a nod from his spot on the other end of the divan.
“The Royal Council requests your presence, Ama.” Koldo’s voice wasn’t what one would call soft or gentle. It was battle tested and measured. But just the drop of her nickname at the end of the sentence made the princess want to run into Koldo’s arms and stain her full garnet-and-gold regalia with tears. The word “Ama” on the general’s lips would forever sound different, no matter how many times she’d said it before. “If you do not feel well enough, I can propose a time tomorrow.”
The princess swallowed, willing her parched tongue to work. She wasn’t accustomed to the way so many tears could leave a person with nothing left.
“No, no, I’ll go.”
Koldo had met with the council only an hour after returning to the castle with the news of Sendoa’s death on her lips. In many ways she was closer to the king than even Amarande herself—if she could discuss castle business after such a shock, so could Amarande.
It was what leaders did.
Though Amarande wanted Luca to come with them, it was not allowed, and so he departed to ready the stable for the hordes of equine funeral guests. When he was gone, the maids appeared, and the princess shrugged on a clean dress: shiny black with a lace bodice and long sleeves, as was the style. Rather than dainty slippers, she strapped on her boots, the knife she kept there pressed into her skin in a way that grounded her. The scuffed toes of each boot peeked out from the dress’s hem, but comfort and preparation trumped fashion.
The Royal Council of Ardenia met in the North Tower of the Itspi, the whole northern wing set aside for matters of state. The glittering sandstone walls of her home pressed in on Amarande as she walked shoulder to shoulder with Koldo. The familiar corners and edges felt like both too much and not enough. She could relish the Itspi’s embrace or be crushed under the weight of the walls— either was possible. Nothing felt right without her father here.
The great garnet-studded doors of the council room were thrown open. As the princess and the general entered, they were greeted by Councilor Satordi, de facto leader of the council and the Warrior King’s top advisor.
“Princess Amarande, General Koldo, welcome,” Satordi said from his seat. Amarande had always seen all members of the council stand when her father entered the room. Yet Satordi and the other two councilors, silver-haired Garbine and rosy-cheeked Joseba, stayed seated at the table that dominated the room. The three of them were the image of melted candle tapers at the great table, with their gold-and-white silken robes weeping from their shoulders. Behind them, tapestries of kings past covered the walls in dark-woven judgment. The only illumination was backlight from windows, ringing the council in the halo of late afternoon.
The councilor gestured before him. “Please, sit, and we shall begin.”
There were chairs carved with the thick tracing of a tiger’s head— Ardenia’s sigil—meant for guests, but they were apart from the table, not pulled up as for equals to the council. Amarande’s stomach dropped at the implications. Still, she didn’t make a statement by pulling a chair close to the table, nor did she stride over to the chair reserved for her father, on the north curve of the oval.
In her estimation, no man would ever be worthy of sitting there.
Though deprived of sleep and sustenance, Amarande willed herself to stand before them, rather than sit apart as a guest. Koldo stayed pin straight by her side but slightly behind, much like she did when accompanying Sendoa into any lion’s den.
When Satordi realized they weren’t going to sit, he folded his fingers and continued. “We have much to discuss.”
Yes, they did.
First and foremost: succession.
The laws had it that in the Kingdom of Ardenia, succession fell along the male line, but that possibility had ended with her father. There was no male heir of which to speak—no uncles, cousins, nephews. Only the sixteen-year-old girl King Sendoa had raised in his image in the years since Amarande’s mother gained the nickname the Runaway Queen.
Because of it, with Sendoa’s last breath, Amarande had not only lost her father; she’d also lost her independence.
The laws were clear: To rule, she must be wed.
Meaning her title and Ardenia itself were now items to be bought, bartered, stolen.
For the good of her people.
For the gain of valuable pastures and stunning mountains, for diamonds mined for trade and gold pieces, for armored men and women whose only peer was death itself.
And no king in the Sand and Sky could let such a prize go to another.
On the great table that sat between the council and its princess lay a scroll, its wax seal crumbling, freshly opened but as recognizable as it was predictable. A marriage contract, likely from their closest neighbor, Pyrenee.
Soon there would be three, the other kingdoms of the union— Basilica and Myrcell—sending riders ahead of their royal funeral processions, jockeying to gain the council’s attention. Stars, she nearly expected a contract from the mysterious Warlord who ran the Torrent, because the windfall was too delicious—no kingdom on the continent of the Sand and Sky had left a sole female heir in a thousand years.
The king had not invited her to the council room for much of her childhood, but he’d made it a point to bring her along in the past year, extending her leadership training beyond the sparring arena and weapons armory and into the political landscape. Therefore, the council knew her better now than ever, and she them. Still, Satordi’s demeanor, though respectful, had the quality of a mentor who wished for his student to listen, not participate. That, combined with the certitude that the council had purposefully not stood or placed a chair at the table for her, set a particular tone.
And so, despite her exhaustion, Princess Amarande decided to set her own.
The princess’s eyes swept from the marriage contract to Satordi’s face. “Before we discuss matters of succession, I believe we first must address the formation of an investigation into King Sendoa’s murder.”
The shoulders under each of the councilors’ robes stiffened. As usual, Satordi spoke for the group. In Amarande’s time in this room with her father, it had become clear to her that proximity to power had made this man believe he had more of it than he truly did.
“Princess Amarande,” Satordi began, that tone of his sharpening. “You are well aware that the exalted Medikua Aritza has examined the king’s body and has found no evidence of foul play, as seconded by General Koldo, who was by his side the entire day and did not witness anything untoward.”
Amarande didn’t bother to spare a glance toward the general. Yes, she knew that a natural death was Koldo’s official estimation, and that she had been the one who watched the king’s life leave him in real time. The councilor was using Koldo here, dangling their love for each other in front of the princess and hoping she’d bite.
He should’ve known better.
“Medikua Aritza is a gifted healer and indeed exalted, but she is not aware of all the possible methods of attack.” This was true— the highest medicine woman in the land made it a point not to know about political intrigue purely for the sake of wanting to be completely unbiased when someone threw gold pieces at her for a potion. “General Koldo is a gifted warrior, but that doesn’t mean she’s always correct. Even to her experienced eye, the stoppage of a heart from poison would appear the same as the stoppage of a heart from natural causes.”
Koldo nodded, her long brunette braid slithering across her garnet cloak broach. “Council, that is an accurate assessment. I have never witnessed a man die from natural causes. I agree with the princess on this matter.”
The general took a slight step forward so that she and the princess stood precisely shoulder to shoulder before the table, a front.
“I realize that both of you were closer to the king than I.” Councilor Garbine stood, the fire within her a low, ever-present boil. “And therefore I realize it may be as difficult as his death itself to admit to yourselves that sometimes devastating moments happen in unspectacular ways.”
Amarande and Koldo said nothing.
The gray-haired woman smiled at the princess, all the heat in her eyes, her hands brought in front almost as if in prayer to the stars. “Your Highness, did you want your father to come home with a sword run through his back? Relieved of his head? Or not at all, turned to ashes in a Torrent fire pit?”
Amarande swallowed. “No, but I find any of those scenarios easier to believe than that the strongest man in the Sand and Sky keeled over in his saddle from nothing at all.”
Garbine’s lips parted in reply, but Satordi held out a hand to stop her, standing himself with an impatient sigh. “We cannot afford to upset every kingdom on the continent chasing down something we cannot prove. It will disturb our allies.”
Garbine and Joseba nodded, the long game playing out in their minds. The contract on the table seemed to catch all the windows’ light.
“Are we to simply accept what happened?” Amarande’s voice was still calm and polite, but something was lit from the ashes of who she’d been since the news, and it burned beneath.
“Yes, Princess,” Satordi answered, clipped. “At this moment in time we will accept it because we have much more pressing matters to discuss.”
Amarande hadn’t thought her request a difficult one—in fact, she’d believed it would be the natural course—and therefore hadn’t planned for a fight. But her body was suddenly ready for one. The princess drove her heels into the marble tile, strong legs grounding her further, all muscles rigid from her calves—the right one tense against the knife in her boot—to the curve of her jaw. “I see nothing more important.”
Satordi rapped a knuckle on the table and blinked at Amarande.
“Because you refuse to see. There is much more to ruling than what is right in front of your face.” He threw his arms wide, dark brows pulled tight. “Your father’s death is in the past. The future of Ardenia needs your focus now. I implore you. You want to be a ruler? Act like it. Hear me.”
Amarande’s jaw clenched. She said nothing. Koldo stood silent at her side.
After a pause long enough to ensure he’d regained control, Satordi continued, immediately addressing the matters he thought more pressing. “We have received a generous proposal for your hand from Pyrenee. It is simply a preliminary offer and more will likely come. The real negotiations will begin once each royal party arrives for King Sendoa’s funeral.”
The princess took a thin breath through her nose before delivering her stony reply. “I’m not marrying.”
“Why resist marriage, Princess?” Garbine asked. “That is your responsibility as princess of the Sand and Sky—it must happen eventually. Why not now, when your kingdom needs you?”
Easy for Garbine to say, when she’d chosen those robes over the ability to wed. Purposely giving up one’s freedom to love was completely different from being born with it already stolen away. Even worse—what if acceptance of an offer meant not only no chance at love but also aligning herself with the nobility who had killed her father?
“Yes, my kingdom needs me. Not some usurper king, who may have had a hand in the death of his predecessor, all the while forcing his queen into a relationship that benefits only him. How is that good for Ardenia? How can a man chosen via contract and council have the best interests of Ardenia closer to his heart than myself? Surely my father worked with you to account for that—he wouldn’t have allowed it.”
Now Joseba stood—thick eyebrows knitted together, fingers twisted in a calm knot. He was barely older than the princess herself, and he’d only been a councilor since the death of his great-uncle two years hence. He was baby-faced and his innate kindness still intact, yet to be completely dismantled by Satordi. “Your father did not… object to the process, Princess.”
“Because he didn’t expect to be murdered,” Amarande spat. Satordi gave an exasperated sigh, but the princess ignored it and continued. “I want time. I want what is best for my people. Change the law and allow me to rule outright, not rush into some marriage that will hand my father’s beloved land and his daughter over to someone who only wants it for personal gain. Diamonds and soldiers and location—we all know what is so attractive to outsiders about our home.”
Joseba pursed his lips before continuing, measured. “Time is a pleasant notion, Your Highness, but it doesn’t shield Ardenia from its current vulnerability. Without a contract in place soon, Ardenia will be seen as headless—”
“‘Seen’ being the operative word, Councilor. Others’ lack of vision is not our problem,” the princess said, and then turned to the rest of the group. “We all know the Itspi’s foundation consists of laws, decrees, and directives mixed with mortar and stone. Surely there’s precedent for who rules after a king’s death and before the marriage of his daughter? If not his own blood, then whom? If there’s not precedence for that in enough statutes to swallow a millennium, surely my father had a plan. He always had a plan.”
She looked each one of them in the eye. “What is his plan?”
After a long pause, Joseba’s tongue stumbled over the words, though he knew the answer. “It’s designated in the king’s will that General Koldo be the regent.”
The eye contact the three councilors made with Koldo told the princess that this was not a surprise to the general. It was, however, a surprise to her. This must have been discussed in the meeting they’d had in those hours after the news, while she was a wreck of shock, haunting her chambers with Luca by her side.
And no one, not even Koldo, had thought to tell her.
Amarande swallowed, face placid, not daring to give herself away with a sideways glance to the general. Still, she angled herself toward Koldo and reached up to give her a hearty pat on the back. “See there? We’re far from headless. And with a female in charge of the throne. Was that so hard?”
She said it with all the confidence she could muster, thick with irony, though a tiny voice in her head wondered why her father hadn’t simply assigned her regency and circumvented the whole succession problem. There had to be a reason, but at that moment Amarande was too relieved by Koldo’s new reality to care.
The princess addressed the general. “General Koldo, as regent, you must agree that an investigation into King Sendoa’s death is warranted before we rush into a marriage contract with possible suspects?”
“Of course. I will see to it at once.”
“Thank you, General Koldo. You display such loyalty and leadership. The Kingdom of Ardenia is in debt of your service.”
Three thin sighs came from behind the great table.
“Your Highness, we’re still vulnerable,” Joseba continued in his soft way, cheeks a ripe red. “Regency is meant to be a temporary solution. Not to mention outsiders will see this as martial law— unstable.”
Amarande nearly laughed. “Was my father not called the Warrior King—the ruler of the most powerful army on the continent? Was that martial law?”
Satordi ignored the princess, continuing Joseba’s argument. “Not to mention primitive. Reckless. Weak.”
“Weak,” Amarande echoed, no longer able to hide her anger and disappointment. Every spark within her had become a flame, the haze of the past day burned off, her grief reinforcing her words, her stance, the directness of her tone. “The law is what makes us vulnerable, Councilor. Change the law. Allow a queen to rule in her own right.”
Satordi couldn’t allow that statement to stand. “Princess, you must marry. This is not up for discussion.”
“My mother married for position and left. Left my father and me and never returned.” All three faces behind the table closed up—the Runaway Queen was never spoken of. The king hadn’t allowed it. Amarande speaking of her in front of them trotted a piece of King Sendoa into the room that his advisors never saw. To her surprise, Koldo tensed, too, though she knew all of this and more.
“Though he’d learned to love her, she’d never learned to love him. And it broke his soul to know that she couldn’t bear life with him. He was not enough. I was not enough.” Amarande’s voice had become too loud in her own ears. She swallowed and reset, her tone quieter yet still fierce. Sharp. Splitting. “Never mind what her absence did to my childhood, because she taught me something. I will not give anyone my hand without love on both sides of the contract. I refuse to be broken for status or prodded by duty. I deserve that—Ardenia deserves that.”
She took a step forward and wiped the contract off the polished table, letting it flutter to the marble tile. “If my father’s fine choice of a regent is seen as weak, then change the law and let me lead. Marriage can wait.”
Joseba scuttled around the table and lunged for the fallen contract, as if it would lose its validity if it sat discarded too long. Satordi spoke again as soon as the parchment was safe in the councilor’s soft palms. “Your Highness, to amend the law, we must have the approval of the entire union of the Sand and Sky. It can’t simply be changed on a whim.”
“Stars, Satordi! You’ve had fifteen years of a ruler without a wife. Fifteen years of knowing a male heir wasn’t in Ardenia’s future. Fifteen years to get the union votes and rewrite the laws. Yet you didn’t.”
Yet my father didn’t.
A new tendril of anger snaked up from the pit of Amarande’s stomach, cold water on her flame. She took a deep breath.
“My father’s blood flows in my veins—that’s what is so precious to this kingdom. To this line. To these contracts. I have that blood—what does it matter if I’m a girl? What’s more important? The blood or the law?”
Satordi stuttered, standard answer not getting the strongest start. “The laws of the paternal line were written centuries ago to fortify—”
“‘Fortify’ means to strengthen, does it not? How does this law strengthen the Ardenian position by handing our throne to someone who may have had a hand in murdering our king, rather than delivering it to a ruler of his own blood?”
Amarande let that sit for a moment, watching the council fumble for an answer that didn’t come. “My father commanded the largest army in the Sand and Sky, and you’re saying that, though I am his child, I can’t do so because of my sex? Never mind the fact that my father installed a woman as my regent.”
“Men do not have a monopoly on strength. My father believed that—Koldo was his second-in-command for a reason. And he made sure I knew that—or have you forgotten that my father trained me from the time I could walk to hold a sword, throw a knife, track prey?”
Satordi stiffened. “No one has forgotten that, Princess.”
“Good. Then you know what you’re up against if you want me to agree to this contract or any of the others you’re awaiting. I will always fight for the future of Ardenia. And I expect this council and its regent to fight, too.”
And with that, Princess Amarande turned on her boot heel—meeting adjourned. She nodded at Koldo, who tipped her chin back, and took for the now-closed doors while leaving the regent and the council with the only words she truly wanted them to remember.
“Change the law.”
Excerpted from The Princess Will Save You, copyright © 2020 by Sarah Henning.