Poor boy. He had such a rough beginning. But with Alejandro for a father and Rosaura for his mother, life ought to get a lot better for him. At least I hope so.
Lucio and Fernando cheer with everyone else. "I guess we missed all the important stuff while we were away in Puerto Verde," Lucio says to me. "What happened with Lady Isadora? Miria said you got her away safely."
"Yes. Everything turned out well for her," I say.
"Good. Though it was probably all for nothing, since her father ended up killing himself anyway."
"Yes," I say. "All for nothing."
SO here we stand, nine recruits in the training yard of the palace. Lucio and Fernando stand beside me.
The morning sun beats down on our scalps as Interim Lord-Commander Mandrano enters the yard.
"Lord-Commander Enrico has been given a new assignment," he says. "So I've been instructed to start the recruiting season over from scratch. I will oversee your training until the king appoints a new lord-commander."
I'm sure Miria has something to do with how everything has played out, but if I were a gambling man, I'd lay odds that Miria and I will never speak of it.
"The only thing a recruit gets for free is the opportunity to prove himself," Mandrano continues. "Anything you get after that, you earn. Are you ready to earn the title of Royal Guard?"
"Yes, my lord!" we shout in unison.
Mandrano twitches at the word "lord," but he doesn't protest. He walks down the line, asking the recruits about the items they've brought with them. When he comes to me, he discovers that my hands are empty.
"Did you bring three personal items, recruit?" he asks.
"Yes, my lord!" I say.
"What are they?"
"Love for my kingdom, love for my king, and love for my queen, my lord!"
He pauses for a long time before he nods. "I can work with that," he says finally.
It's all a Royal Guard, a true Royal Guard, will ever need.
Excerpt from The Bitter Kingdom
READ ON FOR A SNEAK PEEK OF.
THE EPIC CONCLUSION TO RAE CARSON'S ACCLAIMED FANTASY TRILOGY
My heels crunch sandy shale as my legs pound a steady rhythm. With every fourth step, I suck a lungful of dry air. My chest burns, my thighs ache, and the little toe of my left foot stings with the agony of a ripped blister.
Ahead, Belen glances over his shoulder to check on the rest of us. His boots and his tunic and even his leather eye patch are tinged brownish orange with the dust of this desert plateau. We've fallen too far behind, and it's my fault. He checks his stride, but I wave him on.
My companions-an assassin, a lady-in-waiting, and a failed sorcerer-are all more accustomed than I am to hard travel, and I dare not slow us down. We must take advantage of this flat, easy terrain while we can, for we have less than two months to cross the Sierra Sangre, sneak into enemy territory, free Hector, and escape. Otherwise he dies, and the country we've sacrificed so much to save descends into civil war.
I unclench my fists, relax my shoulders so my arms swing loose, and spring a little harder off of my toes. The burn in my thighs intensifies, but it's only pain, and not nearly the worst I've felt. I'm stronger than I've ever been.
Iron clatters behind me, brittle and sharp. I stop cold and spin, anger bubbling in my chest. But Storm's uncannily beautiful face is so furrowed with frustration that I soften toward him immediately.
His chains have come loose again. They drag in the dust now, streaming from his manacled ankles, each about the length of my forearm. They are magic forged, impossible to remove. The best we can do is wrap them in his leggings so they don't interfere with his stride or, worse, announce our passage.
Mara, my lady-in-waiting, hitches her quiver of arrows higher up onto her shoulder and wipes sweat from her eyes with a filthy sleeve. She sets her bow on the ground and crouches beside Storm's boots. "Maybe if we weave the ties of your boots through the chains . . ."
Storm stretches out an ankle for her. I scowl to see my friend bowed at his feet like a supplicant while he accepts her ministrations with an air of supreme boredom.
"Mara," I say.
She turns a dirt-smeared face to me.
"Storm will be responsible for his own chains from now on."
"Oh, I don't mind!" she says.
"I do." Sometimes it's up to me to keep my companions from giving too much of themselves. I wave her off with her a mock glare. She rolls her eyes at me, but she grabs her bow and steps away. Storm looks back and forth between us, and I half expect him to protest, but then he shrugs and hunkers down to tend the chains himself.
"We can't go on like this." The low voice in my ear makes me jump. Belen skims the ground like a ghost, even when stealth is unnecessary.
"The next village will have horses that haven't been conscripted," I tell him. "It has to."
"And if it doesn't?"
I turn on him. It's bad enough knowing I'll have to mount one of the horrible creatures. But it's worse to consider what I must to do in order to accomplish it. I say, "If the conscription has reached this far east, we'll steal some."
"We're at the very edge of the kingdom!" Mara protests.
Storm straightens and shakes a leg experimentally. The chain stays put. "Conde Eduardo has been planning his rebellion for a long time," he says. "Maybe years. We won't find available transportation until we're in the mountains."
My blood boils, from heat and from anger. Eduardo is one of Joya's most powerful and trusted lords. A member of the Quorum of Five, no less. But he has robbed hundreds, maybe thousands, of their livelihoods to feed his ambition. He has taken their horses and camels, their carriages and food stores, even their young men, for military use. And he has done it so that he can divide my country and crown himself a king.
I grab my water skin from its hook at my waist and take a much deeper draft than I should. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and toss the water skin to Mara, who catches it deftly.
"A queen shouldn't have to steal her own horses," Mara says.
"Do you have a better suggestion?" I ask. "Announce our mission, maybe?"
"Stealing will attract attention too."
I nod. "But better than parading in full regalia into the next village and commandeering what I need. With luck, the conde won't hear of the theft for a long time. And if he does, it might not occur to him that it was his queen."
Storm chuckles. "Queen, chosen one, horse thief. Let it never be said that you are not accomplished."
My attempt to glare at him fails when my lips start to twitch.
"In that case . . ." Belen says, a slow grin spreading across his face. "We need a plan."
The sun is low on the horizon, painting the plateau and its toothed outcroppings in fiery shades of coral. The breeze picks up, flinging hair that has loosened from my braids into my eyes and mouth. Though we skirt the great sand desert to the south, the evening wind will kick up enough dust to make travel almost impossible. Not much time left today. "A plan will wait until we've camped for the night," I say.
From habit, I turn to look for Hector, seeking his quiet approval. I don't catch myself until it's too late, until I've lost him all over again.
"Elisa?" Mara says.
I clench my hands into fists. "Let's run," I say. And we do.
About the Author.
Rae Carson is the author of The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom. Locus, the premier magazine for science fiction and fantasy, proclaimed, "Carson joins the ranks of writers like Kristin Cashore, Megan Whalen Turner, and Tamora Pierce as one of YA's best writers of high fantasy." The Girl of Fire and Thorns was a finalist for the Morris YA Debut Award and one of ALA's Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults. Rae Carson dabbled in many things, from teaching to corporate sales to customer service, before becoming a full-time writer. She lives with her family in Columbus, Ohio. You can follow her on Twitter.
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