The Traitor’s Kingdom – Erin Beaty

FOR SOMEONE WHO hated fighting, Clare was getting pretty good at it. Sage now had to break a sweat to defeat her friend, which was impressive today, given how cold it was. The massive stone walls of Vinova, Demora’s outpost fortress, offered shelter from the winter winds that swept across the eastern plain but did little to hold in warmth. Repelling invasion and resisting siege had been first in the builders’ minds. Now that the southern nation of Casmun was opening diplomatic talks, it was the location that mattered for Sage’s position as ambassador. Self-defense was important for life in general, however, and so Sage insisted her best friend and companion train in combat. Clare’s face contorted into a scowl of concentration as she gripped a lightweight sword in one gloved hand. Her eyes narrowed over the shield on her left arm, but that wasn’t what Sage was watching. Beneath her knee-length skirt, Clare’s boots shifted in the dirt, and Sage unconsciously leaned to the right, bracing her own feet on the frozen ground, still waiting for the movement that would give her friend away. Rare was even the most seasoned warrior who could attack without some warning in body language. At not quite seventeen, Clare was nearly two years younger than Sage, and she’d begun her training only a few months ago. It was a sharp, slight movement a split second before Clare lunged that gave her away, but it was enough. Sage met her on the left and blocked the swing with her shield before catching Clare’s sword with her own, lifting the blade up, around, and back down. The motion drew them up against each other as their hilts locked. This time Sage left herself open to a countermove.

“What are you forgetting?” she asked, bearing down until the tip of Clare’s sword touched the ground. In response, Clare pivoted and rammed her shield into Sage’s exposed side. Your shield is also a weapon. Sage grinned as she fell back, but her friend didn’t smile as she jerked her head to toss her thick braid over her shoulder. Her brown eyes flashed in silent challenge, and her slight frame trembled with something other than cold. “You don’t have to keep telling me,” Clare spat. She was angry now. Which meant things were about to get interesting. Rage was useful in a fight—Sage knew that firsthand. It heightened the senses and brought strength and endurance, but she’d also experienced the recklessness that easily took over.

Clare’s lack of control could force Sage to react in a way that might hurt one or both of them. “Anytime now,” taunted Clare, her words muffled behind the shield. Sage moved several careful steps to the right, forcing Clare to adjust her stance and give herself more time to think. What would Alex do? The thought of him brought an involuntary smile to her lips. Last year Sage had lashed out in anger while sparring with Alex, and he’d disarmed her and smacked her rear end with the flat of his blade in a single move. Alex wouldn’t escalate this. He would stay methodical, meeting her at her level, never forcing her back too much but never conceding ground, either. Clare was waiting for her to make a move. Sage shifted to walk to the left side, twisting her curved sword in a lazy arc, briefly reflecting a ray of sunlight that had escaped the blanket of clouds above. Her friend didn’t take the bait.

She was in control right now, but it wouldn’t take much to tip that balance. Sage began running through a series of basic arcs, slices, and parries, stripping her movements of the personal style she’d developed over the last year and a half. She imagined herself as the clock in the chapel tower—gears and pendulums and arms rotating but anchored firmly from the center and therefore restricted and predictable. The only sound was their heavy breathing and the steady clash of metal on metal. With only the slightest twitch in warning, Clare broke from the rhythm, countering a parry with a slash across Sage’s leg close enough to catch the fabric of her breeches. Clare’s eyes widened in shock, but Sage didn’t acknowledge it, refusing to leave enough time for fear to get ahold of either of them. Their sparring dropped all feel of formality and rote practice. Even if neither truly wanted to hurt the other, it suddenly felt real, and they danced around each other with intense concentration and vague smiles. Sage pressed Clare hard, slowly draining the reservoir of rage. Her friend managed to hold her temper in check, and there were no damaging hits to either side other than a few earsplitting shrieks as swords grazed across shields.

After nearly twenty minutes, the fire was spent. Sage rested on a bale of hay outside the horse paddock, fiddling with the hole in her breeches. The cold had begun to make itself known again, starting with her nose. Next to her, Clare’s breath frosted in the air between them as she slowly came back down from the exertion. Every few seconds she cast a guilty look at Sage’s leg, but Sage studiously ignored her concern. She didn’t think the skin was cut, though it was hard to tell with gloves on. Either way, her friend shouldn’t feel bad about it. “I think your clothes give you an advantage,” Sage said casually. “It’s harder to see what your upper legs are doing. Makes you less predictable.

” “Finally, something I have over you,” Clare said, pulling her skirt down as far as it would go. The hose she wore underneath was thick enough to hide the shape of her legs, but she was still selfconscious. There was no bitterness in her voice, though, only weariness, which was good. Sage shivered and ran a hand over her head, pressing down the hair that had escaped the short horsetail in the back. She could tell by her shadow that she looked like a half-drowned cat. Clare’s mahogany braid was flawless, as usual. “We still have time for a bit of tashaivar,” Sage said, glancing at the angle of the sun. Just then the chapel bell tolled, its pulses echoing off the bare stone of the fortress and its surrounding walls, declaring three hours past noon. Clare hopped up, energy restored. “No, we don’t.

” Sage groaned inwardly, but a deal was a deal—Clare submitted to Sage’s combat training and Sage took lessons from her friend in diplomacy. Besides, a hot bath was what she needed now. Cold had seeped into her toes, and the dampness under the Casmuni-styled clothing she wore for sparring chilled her skin. The loose breeches and jacket were meant for desert wear and dispersed body heat quickly. Though her teeth had begun to chatter, Sage volunteered to put Clare’s weapons away so her friend could clean up first. Clare was done by the time Sage entered the dressing room connecting their suites. When they’d taken up residence at Vinova several months ago, Sage had worried at the cruelty of putting her friend in rooms meant for the wife of the ambassador stationed at the border stronghold. After all, Clare was supposed to marry the son of the previous ambassador, Lord Gramwell, who was expected to be an emissary in his own right someday. She’d spent nine months living with her betrothed’s family, preparing for the role. It would never happen now.

A Kimisar arrow may have killed Lieutenant Lucas Gramwell, but Sage could never forget that he’d taken it in protection of her. Clare didn’t blame her, except perhaps in her worst moments, which —thankfully—were becoming more rare. And it wasn’t as though Sage had come through the battle unscathed. She and Clare spent many nights sleeping in the same bed, comforting each other through nightmares. Now they occurred maybe once a week, and more often it was Sage who woke screaming and thrashing. In waking hours, Clare’s episodes of anger usually sparked over something trivial and then simmered below the surface until they burst forth in the middle of training, over dinner, or during a diplomacy lesson. It was a reaction Sage herself had experienced after her own father’s death six years ago, so she didn’t judge her friend harshly. Time was the only thing that could truly heal either of their wounds. Sage loosened the laces of her jacket with her right hand as she dipped her left into the bathwater. Just right.

She shed the rest of her sweaty clothes and hopped in. Clare rolled her eyes as water splashed onto the polished wood floor, but Sage barely noticed as she ducked under the surface and pulled her short, sand-colored hair free of its leather tie. The left side of her body tingled with a sensation stronger than an itch, but she ignored it and lifted her head out of the water, reaching for the bottle of hair tonic. “We’re almost out of this,” said Sage, pulling at the cork with her teeth to avoid taking her left arm out of the water. The scents of orange and jasmine wafted from the open bottle. “Let me get that.” Clare finished tying the bodice of her simple gray dress and moved to help Sage get the last of the hair tonic out. Rather than just dab it on Sage’s wet hair, she began to lather it, too. She often did such things, finding quiet ways to make up for losing her temper. Sage didn’t think the silent apologies were necessary, but they made her friend feel better.

“When did you last hear from Major Quinn?” Clare asked casually, as if she didn’t know. Bringing up Sage’s betrothed was another way of smoothing roughness between them. At the mention of Alex’s name, heat crept into Sage’s cheeks, and she tried to reply just as casually, “Two days ago.” “How is the training coming along?” Alex commanded the Norsari, Demora’s elite fighters. Last spring the army unit was reestablished twenty years after having been disbanded. As it turned out, the initial company had been ready just in time to face a Kimisar force coming through the southern nation of Casmun. Now the Norsari were being expanded to a full battalion. The increase had been planned from the beginning, but now it was a necessity. Kimisara’s king, Ragat, had been killed at the Battle of Black Glass, and no one in Demora knew what the combination of warm spring weather and a new ruler would bring. Whatever it was, the Norsari would be at the front lines.

As would Alex. Sage tried not to think of the added distance and danger as she gently rubbed a washcloth over the pink-and-white scars on her leg. “They’ll be finishing up their seventh week now.” Clare used a small pitcher to rinse Sage’s hair. “Will he be able to visit?” Sage shook her head and wiped suds from her eyes. “He can’t afford to be away that long.” The training camp was over a hundred and fifty miles to the west. At best, it was four days of hard travel to Vinova and another four back, and the winter weather didn’t help. “Maybe when they’ve finished in another six weeks.” Yet she knew he wouldn’t.

Alex couldn’t justify such a trip in the face of his responsibilities, especially considering they weren’t married—and he was restricted from marrying until age twentyfour. Sage frowned thoughtfully and counted the days from midwinter in her head. Then she smiled. His birthday was tomorrow. They had only a year left to wait. 2 AN HOUR LATER it was Sage’s turn to scowl. How could eating be so complicated? “Today you have an earl from Reyan on your left, a lower Casmuni prince on your right, and I am a Demoran countess,” said Clare from her seat across the table, which was spread with more dishes, utensils, plates, and goblets than Sage could keep track of. “The earl only speaks his own language. I speak Reyan and Demoran, and the prince speaks Kimisar and Casmuni. Whom do you address first and in what language?” Diplomacy gave Sage headaches and even a few nightmares.

At least Kimisar weren’t in the mix. The best Demora could ever hope for with them was an uneasy truce and constant denials that any of the raids in Tasmet were from their country. Reyan was a longtime ally, but the relationship with Casmun was still new. The nations’ royal families wanted it to succeed, but the common people on both sides were slower to change after generations of hostility. The process was delicate, especially after last summer’s events. “Have I shared water with the prince before?” Sage asked. Casmuni didn’t think it polite to fully address or use names with a person they hadn’t been formally introduced to. “Yes, but it was years ago, and you aren’t sure if he remembers.” Dammit, her friend was crafty. But ambassadorship could be that complicated, and not being prepared could cause disaster on a national scale.

Sage never felt more in over her head than she did during these lessons. She suddenly grinned. “I’ll leave you to chat with him while I address the messenger who just walked in.” Clare turned around to see Master Finch approaching with a scroll bound by a violet ribbon. “That looks unusual,” she said. Sage untied the ribbon and unrolled the parchment, then spent several minutes silently studying the words. Clare kicked her under the table. “It can’t take that long to read,” she scolded. A slow smile had spread across Sage’s cheeks. “I think we should change the prince on my right to a princess.

” She flipped the page around to show Clare it was written in Casmuni. “Lani is coming to visit.” “When?” Her friend seized the official-looking parchment, drawing her brows down as she scanned it, reading slower than Sage had. “Sooner than this summer?” “Tomorrow.” The lesson forgotten, Clare jumped to her feet. “Spirit above, we’ve got to get ready!” “Can’t we at least finish eating?” Sage gazed longingly at the covered dishes and their still-empty plates. Time in the tilting yards always made her hungry. Sometimes the promise of food was the only thing that made etiquette lessons bearable. “Are you kidding?” Clare was halfway to the door, casting a look over her shoulder that indicated that if Sage didn’t come along, she would drag her. “We won’t have time to sleep tonight.

” With a sigh, Sage pushed her chair away from the table and followed her friend, but not before grabbing a bread roll. Or three. Sage had once seen a Norsari company march into battle on a moment’s notice. That was the only thing she could compare the activity around the Vinova Fortress to over the next hours. Clare took charge of the kitchens and household matters, having food and rooms prepared. Alaniah Limistraleddai would be the first Casmuni to set foot in Demora in over two hundred years, and she wasn’t an ordinary emissary; she was the king’s sister and the highest-ranking chessa—princess—in the nation. “How many in her retinue?” Clare asked again. “Twelve,” Sage answered without looking at the note. “Plus sixty soldiers.” That wasn’t very many, considering Lani’s status.

.

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