Home > The Bitter Kingdom (Fire and Thorns #3)

The Bitter Kingdom (Fire and Thorns #3)
Rae Carson

PART I

1

WE run.

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, Belén 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 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. Belén 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 . . .” Belén 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.

2

THE afternoon pours heat onto our backs. The four of us lie on our bellies on a small rocky ridge, peering through the twisting red branches of a manzanita bush to the village below. It’s comprised of a smattering of adobe hutas and an inn with a stable, all surrounding a cobblestone plaza with its resident well. Date palms rise between buildings, bent eastward from the constant wind. Camels are tethered at the village’s southern edge, chewing calmly on a thorn bush. But camels won’t take us where we must go. We need horses.

Like all the other villages we’ve encountered, it’s crawling with Eduardo’s soldiers. Except this time they wear typical desert garb—linen blouses and sturdy pants, utility belts and long desert cloaks—rather than the red-and-black uniform of Eduardo’s countship. Were it not for the red ribbons tied around their arms or pinned to their cloaks, no one would know they were Eduardo’s men.

“They’ve run out of uniforms,” Belén whispers. “A good sign.”

“Maybe they’re short on resources in general,” I say hopefully. “Even their weapons look shabby.” I peer closer. “Fewer than half carry swords.”

“So, what’s the plan?” says Mara.

“The horses are stabled behind the inn,” says Belén. “That’s good. The area isn’t visible from the center of the village.”

Several men pour from the inn’s entrance, laughing and clapping one another on the back. It’s an alarming contrast to the regular residents, who scurry from building to building, eyes downcast, trying to look small. “Eduardo’s soldiers are using the inn as a temporary barracks,” I observe.

“If so, the stable behind it is well guarded,” Belén says.

“These are conscripted men,” Storm says. “Not regular soldiers. But even if they were trained fighters, they’d likely be as pathetic as the rest of Joya d’Arena’s military.”

“Our pathetic military defeated yours in a single battle,” I snap, before remembering that Storm is probably goading me for personal amusement.

“No, my dear queen, you did,” he says. “You and your Godstone.”

He’s right, but I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of conceding. Ignoring him, I reach out and push a branch aside to get a better view.

“Careful, Elisa,” Belén says. “We’re within sight.”

Mindful of his warning, I absorb every detail of the inn below—its awning made of crosshatched branches that cast patterned light on the men beneath it, the small arched windows, the adobe stairway that wraps around the building and leads to a second floor with a dry palapa roof. We are just high enough on our ridge to glimpse the stable behind it. It’s very small. No more than eight stalls. There must be direct entry from inside the inn, as well as a larger egress for the horses in back.

“It could catch fire easily,” Belén says, too eagerly.

“No!” Two months ago we burned down an inn in Puerto Verde—just to create a distraction. Countless livelihoods were lost. Maybe even a few lives. I promised myself it would never happen again.

“We could take rooms for the night,” Mara says. “And sneak out before sunrise with the horses. Belén might have to . . . dispatch a guard or two, but it would be better than burning the place down.”

“They might recognize their queen,” Belén says.

“This far from the capital?”

“Miniatures with my likeness were sent all over the kingdom on the day of my coronation,” I say. “Painters copied and recopied it, and . . . wait, maybe you’re right.” I never did sit for a new portrait—there was no time. Instead, they used an old one from when I was a bored, sedentary princess of Orovalle. And just like with ancient manuscripts, scribed again and again over the years, mistakes invariably creep in until it is nearly impossible to tell which parts are original text. Any likenesses that made it this far are bound to be a confused version of an Elisa who doesn’t even exist anymore.

“By reputation, you are portly and unattractive,” Storm points out.

“Thank you for the kind reminder,” I say.

“But you are neither of those things,” he adds, and I whip my head around to stare at him. Did he just pay me a compliment?

Mara pinches off a green manzanita leaf and puts it in her mouth. As she chews, she mumbles, “I could fix your hair in two braids, one on each side like the nomads wear. Smudge your face with dirt.”

I’m not sure I need any more dirt on my face than I have already. I scratch at my hairline, where sweat has started to drip tiny mud trails down my face. It itches abominably. Everyone is silent as we consider the thing no one is saying—that Eduardo has commanded his men to kill me on sight.

“They’re looking for a group of four travelers,” Belén says finally.

“Which means someone must stay behind,” I say.

As one, we shift on our stomachs to face Storm. “Yes, yes,” he says wearily. “A party of four, one of whom is an Invierno, would mark you as clearly as your Godstone crown.”

“We’ll find a good rendezvous point for you to wait,” I tell him. “I won’t leave you behind.”

He nods. “I know.”

We belly crawl backward, then skid down the graveled hillside into the narrow arroyo below. As we weave toward our campsite, following the arroyo’s meager trickle of water, I wonder at my lack of uneasiness. I should be terrified at the prospect of walking into an enemy barracks, stealing their horses, and riding away into the night. But I feel nothing except raw determination, with a bit of anger for spice.

It’s possible I’ve been through too much, lost too much. War damages different people in different ways; Hector taught me that. King Alejandro became spineless and incapable. His father before him was rash and unpredictable, if I’m to believe court gossip. Perhaps this is my damage. Maybe I am numb to fear because I am broken.

Our campsite lies in a copse of cottonwoods, elevated just enough to stay dry during a flash flood. We retrieve our packs from where we stashed them behind a deadfall. Mara starts putting ingredients together for a soup while Storm leaves to gather firewood. It will be a while yet before we eat; Mara will let the mix soak but won’t start a fire until the black of night hides our smoke.

I find an open space and begin the slow, dancelike warm-up exercises of my Royal Guard, exactly the way Hector taught me. It’s always difficult at first, because it brings to mind his memory, so vivid and startling that I have to swallow against tears. His callused fingers on my arm, guiding my movement. His breath in my ear as he gives clear, patient instructions. The scents of oiled leather and aloe shaving gel.

But as always, it passes. The movement takes over, the memory fades, my mind clears. When my focus is as sharp as one of Mara’s arrowheads, I review everything I observed: the layout of the village around a central plaza, the surrounding ridges and low brush, the young men at the inn who played at soldiering . . .

“Belén.” A wicked smile stretches my lips.

He pauses from his sharpening, knife and whetstone hovering in the air. His one good eye narrows. “I know that look,” he says.

“What if we used Storm as a decoy? Convince the village it’s under attack by Inviernos? The inn would empty of soldiers. We could take the horses easily. Then, when word reached the conde that our old enemy is attacking again, he’d have to send troops to protect his border. It would thin his resources even further.”

His face turns thoughtful. Wind whistles through the scrub brush, and he whisks his knife against the whetstone in sharp counterpoint. At last he says, “Storm’s hair. You made him cut it and dye it black. From a distance, they might not recognize him for an Invierno.”

“He’s tall,” I insist. “If he remained cowled and wore his Godstone amulet visibly . . .”

“They’d never believe he was attacking,” Mara says from her place at the still-cold fire pit. “Not if he can’t throw fire from his amulet.”

Mara is right. Storm is not only an enemy defector, he’s a failed sorcerer, one of the few Inviernos born with a Godstone. When he was four years old, it detached from his navel, and he began training to become an animagus. But he was never able to call the zafira, the living magic that creeps beneath the crust of the world, never learned to bring its fire. So he was exiled in disgrace to my late husband’s court as an ambassador.

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