The Traitor’s Ruin – Erin Beaty

KNITTING NEEDLES WEREN’T very effective weapons, but they were better than fencing with feather quills. Sage lunged at her pupil, and the princess blocked her smoothly but stopped short of where she ought to have finished the move. “No, no,” said Sage. “Carry that around and force my blade away so you can move in.” She took a step back. “Let’s try that again.” “Do you mind?” snapped eleven-year-old Carinthia from across the schoolroom. “I can’t concentrate with combat knitting in the background.” Princess Rose lowered her “blade” and rolled her eyes, but Sage gestured for her to stay quiet. “Sorry, Cara. How many problems do you have left?” “Five.” “That’s good enough for today. You can go.” The princess was out the door almost before Sage had finished speaking. “Would you like me to look over her paper for you, Sage?” Arithmetic was easy for Rose, but she’d also do anything to delay needlework.

“No, thank you.” Sage picked up the page and scanned it. Twelve of the fifteen finished were correct. Carinthia had made a lot of progress in the nine months since Sage had become her tutor. “Are you going to the training yards this afternoon?” Rose asked, idly twirling her knitting needle. Sage tried to act like it hadn’t been on her mind for hours as she nodded. “They’re having a double ring fencing match today. Master Reed says I’m ready.” A glance around the room told her it was tidy enough. She offered Rose the knitting needle she still held.

“Don’t forget this.” The princess made a face before accepting it. Together they walked into the adjacent room, where Rose’s mother and sister sat working on an elaborate tapestry near the hearth fire. The queen was a fair-skinned northerner, with bright, wheat-colored curls that Rose had inherited. Sitting by her side, Princess Cara was in her element at last, stitching scarlet designs into the heavy fabric. Rose groaned. Knitting she disliked, but embroidery she hated. Sage curtsied. “We’re done for the day, Majesty,” she said. “Is there anything else you need of me?” The queen was slightly farsighted, and Sage had taken on the additional duties as her private secretary a few months ago.

“Any new correspondence?” “I suspect you are really asking if there is anything for you,” the queen said. “But no, there is nothing.” Sage frowned. This was the second week in a row there was nothing from Alex. As he was the king’s nephew and she was employed in the royal household, their private letters were often included in official dispatches going to and from the capital—more reliable delivery, but still sporadic. Orianna looked up from her sewing with a gentle smile. “The Tegann Pass has already opened for the year, so communication will increase in the next few weeks. If anything does arrive, rest assured I will forward it to you immediately.” Sage wasn’t sure when she’d stopped feeling awkward when members of the royal family showed such consideration for her feelings. “If there’s nothing, then Your Majesty will excuse me.

” “May I go with her, Mother?” asked Rose. The queen’s tone became more formal as she addressed her elder daughter. “Twice already this week you have skipped embroidery to watch Sage. Both times you promised to make up your work, and both times you have failed to do so.” “But, Mother—” “The answer is no.” Orianna squinted into the magnifying glass over the cloth. Close work and reading strained her eyes and gave her headaches, but sewing was something Her Majesty would not give up. “You need not ask again.” Sage shrugged apologetically at the thirteen-year-old, but privately she was glad not to have an audience today. Rose stomped to her sewing basket and plopped down, slouching against the back of her chair.

Orianna glared at her, and Rose immediately straightened. With a sigh, the queen sat back and rubbed her eyes before looking up to Sage with a weary smile. “You’ve gone down to the training yards every day this week, if I’m not mistaken. If it weren’t for Captain Quinn, I’d think you had your eye on someone.” Sage flushed. “It helps me feel closer to him in a way.” The conflict in Tasmet had started at the end of last spring and was now entering its ninth month. No amount of writing could make up for all the time they’d lost. “I also enjoy it. And with all the new soldiers arriving lately, there’s so much more I can learn.

” Orianna’s expression clouded over. “Yes, well, I’m sure you don’t want to be late today.” She turned back to her sewing and jabbed her needle into the fabric. The mood shift was puzzling, but Sage didn’t have time to unravel it right now. She curtsied and departed the queen’s sitting room, already mentally wielding a sword. She’d have to hurry if she wanted to claim one of the padded armor suits small enough to fit her slight frame. In her excitement, she’d taken twenty steps before she remembered she was still wearing a dress. Sage whirled around and trotted back in the direction of her room, loosening the laces of her bodice as she went. Five minutes later she was taking shortcuts through the servants’ passages, dressed in breeches and a linen shirt. More soldiers than ever filled the yards, shouting greetings to old friends and making new ones.

Sage wove through the crowds, focused on getting to the main arena. She’d long ago cured herself of automatically searching every group of soldiers for Alex’s face, hoping against hope he’d returned to Tennegol before he could tell her he was coming. She had been only partly honest with the queen. Coming here did help her feel closer to Alex, but her reasons went deeper. Ever since Father died five years ago, Sage’s life had been ruled by others. Her aunt and uncle may have had good intentions, but her guardians had set her on a path of relying on a husband for her safety and well-being. When she worked for the matchmaker, Darnessa was better at letting her have independence, and Sage might have found herself after a few years, but last spring changed everything. She’d never felt more helpless, more of a liability than she did at Tegann. Alex’s soldiers had needed to get packets of red blaze—powders that created massive columns of red smoke when burned—to the scouts outside the fortress so they could signal for help. Sage was the only one who could squeeze out of the sewer grate to escape, but she was caught by a sentry.

She’d been barely competent enough to defend herself, and it had almost cost her her life. She would never be helpless again. Sage managed to snag the last suit small enough to fit her, beating out a palace squire who had wasted time picking out a sword first. She tried not to look too triumphant as she shoved her arms into the sleeves and buckled the top half to the bottom. Even luckier, this particular outfit was designed to also wear on horseback, meaning the rear and back of the thighs were looser and not padded. Frankly, her backside needed the extra room. Once the practice armor was secure, Sage selected a training sword, opting for one heavier than squires normally worked with. She would tire quicker, but she’d learned the extra weight behind her swings somewhat compensated for her weaker arm strength. It also made her stronger. She pinned the sword between her knees as she tucked her sandy braid inside her helmet and lashed it down.

Then she stood straight and hefted the weapon in her hand, trembling with sudden nervousness. Today she would find out just how good she was. 2 SAGE TOOK A place in the inner circle of fighters, facing outward. A ring formed around them, matching up one-to-one. She saluted her first partner and took a guard stance, idly wondering if she knew the man. With the bulky and often misshapen padding, there were only three or four men she could positively identify once helmets were on—and one of them because he was missing an arm. It worked both ways, however. Due to her size, most assumed she was a squire, which suited Sage just fine. The regular guards had gotten used to her presence over the last few months, but with all the new soldiers lately, things tended to get awkward if they realized she was a woman. When the bell rang out, Sage and her opponent quickly fell into a rhythm of attacking and defending.

As it was the first round, they both were more interested in warming up than scoring points. They lunged and blocked with increasing intensity until the bell signaled the end of the round after seven minutes. Both lowered their swords and saluted each other again. Her partner took several steps to his right so another fighter could move in front of her. She saluted the new man and set her feet for the next round. After four rotations, Sage was sweating heavily under her armor but feeling confident in her performance. A few fencers slid in or out of the formation, one pair inserting themselves two positions to her right. She didn’t recognize either of them, but it felt like the one in the outer ring was watching her. Had he seen signs she was a girl? Hopefully not. As the man rotated closer, she watched him, too.

The scruff of a black beard showed under the padded helmet, so he was likely in his twenties at least. He was taller than her, but most men were, well-built without being bulky—though the padding made him look slightly hunchbacked—and his sword … It was a standard practice weapon, not a personal one, yet he handled it like an extension of his arm, with swift and smooth efficiency. Not a movement was wasted. A clip across her shoulder reminded her to pay more attention to her current opponent. Sage shook sweat from her eyes and refocused on her own match. At the next bell, the man stepped before her. His helm exaggerated the movement of his head as he looked her up and down. Assessing her, no doubt. Though she couldn’t see anything—not even his bearded neck from this angle—when he saluted she got the feeling he was smiling. He plainly did not see her as a challenge.

Well, she would show him she was no novice. But in less than a minute, his superiority was obvious. Master Reed described her as advanced for her time and with promising grace of form, but her new opponent anticipated her every move and countered effortlessly. When he went on the offense, she could tell he moved slowly for her benefit. Part of her felt angry at being patronized; another part was grateful he hadn’t merely disarmed her in the first three seconds. After a time, she realized he was testing her, letting her show what she could do, and she began to appreciate him—until she leaned too far to the right in a parry. His sword whipped around and smacked her rear end. Through the slit in the helm she caught the glint of his teeth as he grinned. Rage flashed through her —he knew she was a girl! Why else would he have done that except to mock her? Nearly blind with fury, she recovered her balance and attacked, which he easily blocked. Sage shoved away and stepped back, and he shook his head in warning.

She struck out wildly, but he knocked her sword to the ground and laid the flat of his blade across her backside again. Tears of humiliation blurred her vision. While she stood clenching her fists and trying to decide what to do, he retrieved her sword and offered it back to her. There was no sign of a smile behind the mask this time, and she understood. He’d warned her not to attack in anger and taught her a lesson when she didn’t heed him. Humbled, she accepted her weapon and assumed the guard position. He nodded approvingly, and they began again. The bell clanged, ending the round, but the man gestured for the next fighter to go around. The other swordsman shrugged and moved past them. Her mysterious partner had taken an interest in her.

Given his skill, it was somewhat puzzling—he gained nothing by staying. Then the bell rang again, and she dismissed her confusion to concentrate on the fight before her. After a few exchanges of blows, her partner stepped back and motioned for her to lower her blade. Cautiously, she did, and he shifted his sword to his left hand and approached to stand behind her. Without a word, he placed his hand on her wrist and corrected what she’d been doing, guiding her arm in a more efficient arc and slice. The man’s directions were better for her height and arm strength than what she’d learned. “Thank you,” she said, the words echoing in her helm. The man nodded and took up his position again. When he switched his sword back to his right hand, he flexed his left several times, like it was numb. Her eyes widened.

No, it couldn’t be. But the more she watched him, the more sure she became. When the round ended, once again her partner waved for the next fighter to skip them. The man at the bell called out that this would be the last round. Their sparring changed. Her opponent became aggressive, forcing her back almost constantly. He plainly intended to make her yield by the end, though she knew he could do it at any point. Winning this fight would require something other than skill. She waited until the right moment, then faltered. As she knew he would, the man took advantage of the opening, but she was ready to move into it.

Making it look like he stabbed her, she collapsed with a cry. Her partner dropped his sword and dove to catch her. He rolled her onto her back and knelt over her, pushing her helmet off and feeling along her ribs. “Where?” he gasped. “Where are you hurt?” Sage grinned up at him. “I’m fine, Captain, but you’re dead.” She jabbed him in the stomach with the dull point of her practice sword, and he glanced down. Scrambling to take off his helm, he looked back at her with a mixture of pride and vexation in his brown eyes. “You’re a cheater, you know that?” “As I recall, you taught me to use every advantage I could.” Alex laughed.

“So I did. I yield to my lady.” All the padding made it difficult for him to kiss her, but he managed.

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