The Traitor's Kiss has been on my wishlist ever since I first saw it in a Valencian bookshop. Just published by Alfaguara. But I purchased it on my regular spot in Castellón.
Erin Beaty has written this epic tale, set in the early modern kingdom of Damora, of a military company and the young ladies they escort to the royal court for their matchmaking procedures. Young ladies to be married off for political alliances, and dashing officers of their military escort, to whom their protection has been entrusted. Intrigue, mystery, impending war, impending revolution, life or death decisions... caught in a dangerous balancing act that will determine the fate of this kingdom.
I mean, I need something to take my mind off Mr. Sanderson's excessive harshness and this dreadful headache.
And now feel free to squee OFFICERS!! so shrilly that all the windowpanes for five m around shatter, please. Ever since I read the preview, I found Lieutenant Casseck quite charming (not to mention reminiscent of a certain Shakespearean character -smirk!- in everything: rank and name and personality and appearance... iiii, why does he make me feel so flustered?)... He's blond, he's a lieutenant in this early modern kingdom, he's an all-round nice guy, a gentleman with the ladies, and a dutiful officer... Ever since before I purchased the Spanish translation and had to content myself with the Anglophone preview, I was feeling as dreamy as dreamy can be. When you are under so much pressure that you get a literal worry-wart, what better than a husbando who ticks all your boxes to shoulder off some of that pressure? And even more now that the pressure is collapsing over your head?
Here are the chapters of the preview where our officers are introduced:
CAPTAIN ALEXANDER QUINN peered over the jagged edge of a rock jutting from the hillside and squinted through the trees. The bright glade spread out below him, making it impossible for him to be seen in the shadows above, but he still crouched to stay hidden. His jacket creaked a little, and he flinched at the sound, though it wasn’t loud enough to give him away.
He’d pinned his gold bars inside his collar; they were too shiny—flawless—which declared how recently he’d been promoted and how little action he’d seen since. Once the awe of making captain a month before turning twenty-one wore off, the glare bothered him to no end, but at the moment he was more concerned with the enemy seeing the bars flash in the darkness.
To his right, twenty yards away, sat two of his lieutenants, both hooded—his oldest friend and second-in-command, Casseck, covering his head, and Luke Gramwell, hiding the ruddy tints in his . Quinn’s mother was from the far eastern region of Aristel, and he’d inherited her dusky complexion and , so he had no need for such precautions. Nor did Robert Devlin, positioned beside him. Rob had begged Quinn to pick him last fall. A new cavalry captain was granted his choice of officers so his first successes or failures were his own, but it had taken some smooth talking to convince the general to let the crown prince join a regular company.
At the moment Rob’s hazel eyes were wide and his face pale, his gloved hands clasped to steady their trembling. Other than in height and eye color—the prince was slightly taller and Quinn’s eyes were so dark they were nearly black—they looked so much , people often confused them. Quinn eyed his cousin, wondering if he’d worn the same terrified look just before his first battle. Probably. There was only one way to lose it, though, just like the shine on his gold bars, and that was experience.
Heavy snow and ice storms through March had confined the army to their winter camp in Tasmet, near the with Kimisara. Patrols had started up again only a few weeks ago, and Quinn had been eager to prove his new company’s worth. As the most junior commander, he had to wait his turn.
His opportunity came last week, and his riders picked up the trail of ten men almost immediately. While he wasn’t positive this group had come across the border, as far as Quinn knew they were the first potential Kimisar raiders anyone had seen this year. After two days of watching, he’d reached the point of needing to know more than just tracking could provide.
When the group of men came into view, walking—almost marching—down the road, every muscle in Quinn’s body tightened. They carried themselves like fighters, and he didn’t like the look of those staffs they carried. What if they smelled a rat? Beside him, Rob craned his neck to watch, going even paler, though Quinn hadn’t thought it possible.
At that moment, another figure came ambling from the opposite direction. He slowed his pace briefly, as was prudent for a solitary man suddenly faced with ten. The group of ten also looked at the stranger with caution, but they obviously didn’t feel threatened. Quinn’s mouse could take care of himself, but five crossbows were backing him up from other in the shadows, just in case.
Quinn’s tension increased as the men came together, and Ash Carter held up his hand in friendly greeting. The strangers offered few words from the looks of it, but seemed cautious. He turned and pointed back where he’d come from, probably describing the distance to some point ahead, or telling part of his story. Ash always said the trick to coming across as real was to change as few details as possible. Maybe that was why he was so good at this kind of scouting. Quinn would’ve had to change a lot more, starting with his name.
The talk concluded and both parties continued on their ways. A few glances were thrown back at Ash, but he never looked around. He didn’t need to—over a dozen pairs of eyes were already watching their every move. Quinn relaxed and sat back. He’d never get used to putting his friends in danger. With a series of hand signals, he gave the pair on his right some instructions, and the lieutenants eased back up over the ridge behind them and disappeared.
A few minutes later, Ash scrambled down the hill to join him and the prince, having looped around behind them once he was out of sight. “They gone enough?” he asked quietly.
Quinn nodded. “Cass and Gram went ahead to watch. What did you learn?”
“Definitely not from around here,” said Ash. “Most didn’t speak, but the two I heard were Kimisar. Not that uncommon in these parts, though.”
The province of Tasmet had belonged to Kimisara less than fifty years ago, and Demora had annexed it after the Great War, using it as a against invasion more than anything else. For many this far south, Kimisar was still the primary language. It made identifying raiders more difficult.
The prince, who’d been uncharacteristically silent for the last three hours, stared at nothing. Ash leaned over and punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Wake up, Lieutenant.”
Rob jerked out of his thoughts and scowled at his half brother. “Watch it, Sergeant.”
Ash grinned. “Yes, sir.” Ash had trained as a page and squire like the rest of the officers, but refused a commission last summer, never wanting to risk outranking his brother. Most soldiers treated him like an officer, though. He often joked that his position in the army reflected his life as the king’s bastard son: all the perks of rank, but none of the responsibility.
“Any distinctive metalwork?” asked Quinn, drawing the talk back to the matter at hand. Kimisar soldiers usually carried symbols to invoke their gods’ protection.
Ash shook his dark head. “Nothing visible.”
“Did you find out where they’re headed?”
“They asked how much farther the crossroad is. I told them they’d reach it by sunset,” Ash said. “They looked happy to hear that.”
“A few carried short swords—not long enough to draw attention, but bigger than knives. Couple , but that’s to be expected if you’re living off the land and traveling as light as they are.” He paused. “Those staffs didn’t look right, though. They looked hinged on the top.”
Quinn nodded grimly. “Folded pikes. We’ve seen those before.” It also pretty much proved the group had entered Demora with hostile intent, but in twelve years with the army, he’d never met or heard of any Kimisar who hadn’t. Raids had been especially numerous in the last two years as Kimisara had suffered some sort of that destroyed half their harvest. There wasn’t much in Tasmet to steal—the population was sparse, and the granaries were all the way north, in Crescera. “The bad news is that means they’re ready to repel horses. The good news is they’re not as strong as solid pikes.”
Ash smiled. “Also that we’re just as good on foot as on horseback.”
“I guess that settles it, then,” said Quinn, pushing to his feet. “It’s time.”
“Time for what?” said Ash.
Quinn wore a wicked grin as he dirt off his . “Time to welcome your new friends to Demora.”
THE ATTACK STARTED from ahead of the travelers, Quinn and his men taking advantage of the rocky landscape and a in the road to make noise that echoed around, confusing their prey. The strangers unfolded their pikes and dropped into a military formation to repel the riders coming at them, but ricocheting sound masked the second group, which was closing in from behind. By the time the strangers realized what was happening, the low sun obscured their view of the rear attackers. Half the group attempted to turn and face the new threat.
It was their first mistake.
Two of the foreigners went down with crossbow shots, but the other two held their aim, better as a constant threat than a couple more wounds. The riders passed on and swept around, dismounting while the group struggled to reorient themselves. Before they’d fully recovered, the riders closed in on foot.
Quinn created the widest hole in the defense by grabbing the end of one pike with his left hand and sweeping up with his sword, shattering another right at the hinge. With his arm high in the air, he was exposed, but Casseck came into the opening and took out the only man who could have struck a blow, not that he’d had time to realize his momentary advantage. The captain grinned over the success of the move and focused on the next threat.
Prince Robert to his right drove his sword into the gut of one of the Kimisar, and Quinn moved to his side, ready for what he knew was coming. Rob staggered back, eyes wide. Without looking away from his cousin, Quinn slashed and the weapons coming at both of them.
“Rob!” he yelled. “On your right!”
The prince recovered and pulled his sword from the body in front of him, but he was too slow for the weapon coming at him. Quinn had already switched his sword to his left hand to grab the dagger on his waist. In one move, he drew the knife and sent it into the neck of Rob’s attacker. With the sword in his left, he deflected a swinging pike, but not fast enough, and while he didn’t feel the wound, he couldn’t ignore the blood pouring into his left eye. He swung around to cover his weak side and switch sword hands again, but the man who’d wounded him collapsed with a spear in his back.
Ash Carter stepped up on the man at Quinn’s feet to wrench the spear free. The man groaned, but he wouldn’t be getting up soon.
Quinn looked around with one eye. The fight was over.
Ash raised an eyebrow at Quinn. “You’re bleeding.”
Quinn wiped his left eye and looked at his friend. “So are you.”
The sergeant swept bloody away from his forehead. “I’ll live.” He looked to his brother. “Are you all right, Rob?”
Robert’s complexion had gone a pasty green. “No.”
Quinn stepped closer and put a hand on his shoulder. “You hurt?”
“No,” Rob gasped. “I’m just … going to be sick.”
Ash appeared under Rob’s other arm, propping him up. “Let’s go for a walk.” He led his brother away. Though Ash was significantly shorter, Rob leaned on him heavily.
Quinn watched them go before turning back to the pile of . Rob’s first taste of combat wasn’t quite as glorious as the prince expected, but it never was. Quinn felt no , only sympathy. Lieutenant Casseck offered him a pungent-smelling rag, and he wiped his face and forehead.
“That’ll have to be sewn up,” Cass said, squinting at the cut.
“Later,” said Quinn. “I want to talk to the survivors.”
“I don’t think there are any.” Casseck shook his head. “It’s like they didn’t even try once they saw our numbers.”
Quinn frowned. “Explains why it was over so quick.” He walked over to the man Ash had speared. “What about this one?” Quinn pushed his sword under the man’s chin to make him lift his face. “Why are you here?” he asked him in Kimisar.
The man raised up on his arms to look at Quinn and grinned as he whispered something Quinn couldn’t hear.
Quinn squatted beside him, looking for hidden weapons before leaning closer, keeping his sword a few inches under the man’s throat, and now upward. “What was that?” he asked.
“Go to hell,” the man said, throwing his arms wide. His weight came down on the point of Quinn’s sword, impaling him through the neck. Blood gushed over Quinn’s hand, and he swore and released the weapon, but it was too late.
Quinn rolled the shuddering body over with his foot and pulled his sword free. He searched the dying man’s face for a clue as to why he’d done such a thing, but the dark eyes only stared blankly as an expanding pool of red formed on the gravel road beneath him. Quinn had seen death before, had dealt it plenty of times, but there was something horrifying about a man who took his own life. He shivered and drew his left thumb diagonally across his chest, whispering, “Spirit, shield me,” as several men around him did the same.
He was more careful as he prodded the rest of the bodies for signs of life, but none still , meaning he had no prisoners for questioning.
THE ROCKY LANDSCAPE made burying the Kimisar bodies time-consuming, but Quinn insisted on doing that rather than burning them or leaving them to rot. His company returned to the main army camp five days later, where word of their confrontation had already been carried by courier. Quinn tried not to smile too much as heads turned and faces gathered to greet them. No one could doubt he’d deserved his promotion now.
Quinn led his company down the wide path between rows of wooden shelters set up for storage and smithing through the winter. Within a few weeks, they’d all be dismantled and the army itself would begin to move like a awakening from hibernation. The stables were already half down with cavalry patrols . He drew his brown mare to a halt outside the structure and signaled for everyone to dismount.
A small body crashed into him as his feet touched the ground. “Alex!”
Quinn gave his younger brother a squeeze, glad he was surrounded enough that only his friends could see him. “Hey there, Charlie.”
The page stepped back, looking embarrassed. “Sorry, sir. I forgot.” He brought his hand to his forehead in a proper salute, which the captain solemnly returned.
When Quinn lowered his hand, he brought it down on Charlie’s dark hair. “You’re getting shaggy, kid.”
Charlie grinned, revealing he’d lost another tooth in the last two weeks. He’d turned nine last month, but to Quinn he’d the wide-eyed toddler who followed him around when he visited their home in Cambria. As he’d joined the army before Charlie was born, Quinn had been almost a mythical figure for the majority of Charlie’s life. “I heard you were in a battle,” said Charlie. “Were you hurt?”
“Just a scratch.” Quinn lifted his own over-long hair and tipped his head so Charlie could see the stitches over his eye. Cass had done a good job and the swelling was down, but it still itched like hell. “You should see Ash’s. Much more impressive.”
Charlie looked around for the other faces he knew before seeming to remember he had a purpose. “I’m here to take Surry for you, sir. You’re requested in the general’s tent for debriefing.”
Quinn nodded, trying to ignore the flutter in his stomach. Reporting after a patrol was standard for a commander, whether or not he’d seen action, but this would be his first. He handed the reins over to his brother and patted the mare on the neck before pulling a small bundle from his saddle. “Take my to my tent when you’re done brushing her down.”
Quinn straightened his uniform as he turned away, brushing road dust off his jacket. He caught Casseck’s eye, and his second-in-command nodded in acknowledgment that he would take over until Quinn returned from his meeting. As he headed for the general’s tent, rising over the others several rows away, Quinn tried to strike a balance in his pace. He didn’t want to look too eager, but he didn’t want to keep his superiors waiting, either.
The sentry outside the tent saluted, and Quinn returned it as he ducked inside. He kept his hand up, rendering the gesture to the officers gathered around the wide table. His immediate superior, Major Edgecomb, was there as expected, and the regimental commander stood beside him. The general looked up from his seat, his close-clipped gray and hair looking as though they were made of iron themselves. Behind him stood his staff officer, Major Murray, and another man Quinn didn’t know.
“Captain Alexander Quinn reporting as ordered, sir,” Quinn said.
“At ease, Captain,” the general said. “We’d like to hear your .”
No pleasantries or congratulations on a successful engagement with the enemy. Quinn didn’t know that he expected much, but the five stern faces were a little unnerving. He cleared his throat and approached the table, which had a map laid out on it. Without flourish, he described his company’s on station and how they discovered the trail of men headed north and then east.
“We tracked them for two days. They set sentries in the evening and appeared to have a hierarchy. Before attacking, I sent Sergeant Carter to intercept them and make close contact.” Quinn unrolled the bundle he had with him and laid several silver medallions and a roll of parchment on the table. “We recovered these from the , and this map, which is too vague to determine anything from.”
The general looked up sharply. “You make it sound as though you made your decision to attack before making contact.”
“Well, yes, sir,” Quinn said. “But I obviously would have called it off—”
“Describe the attack, please.”
Quinn swallowed. “We ambushed them here.” He pointed to the spot on the map. “I used a scissor sweep, taking advantage of the angle of the sun—”
“What time was it?” Major Edgecomb interrupted.
“About an hour before sunset, sir.”
All eyes went back to the map, and Quinn felt he’d made a mistake, though he couldn’t see how … unless this was about Robert. The general must be upset Quinn had put the crown prince in danger, but he’d conceded months ago when Quinn had requested his cousin as one of his lieutenants, saying that keeping Robert away from action made him look weak. With winter weather cutting off communication with the capital, it was doubtful King Raymond knew of his son’s new duties, and it was the general who would have to answer to the king and council if something happened to the prince.
Quinn cleared his throat. “There were only three injuries. All minor. Prince Robert wasn’t among them—”
“Yes, we know,” Edgecomb snapped. His eyes drifted to the general, who frowned back.
The unknown officer picked up a medallion and traced the raised design of Kimisara’s four-pointed star with his thumb. “You have no prisoners for questioning.”
It was a statement, not a question. Quinn knew better than to make excuses. “The survivor killed himself. It’s not something I’d ever seen before, but yes, sir, I failed in that respect.”
Every man shifted uncomfortably.
The general seemed to make a decision. “I would speak to the captain alone.”
Sweet Spirit, this was bad.
The four other officers saluted and disappeared. After several seconds of silence, the general sat back in his chair and looked up at him. “This was our first potential raid in months. You can understand my disappointment.”
Quinn silently cursed the dead Kimisar. “Sir, a man who wants to die will find a way.”
“The suicide is secondary. Your primary mistake was timing.”
“Timing, sir?” Heat rushed to his face. “The was perfect.”
The general shook his head in exasperation. “I’m not talking about your tactics—those are fine. You attacked too soon.”
“Sir, we tracked them for days. We knew who they were, and their weapons proved they were hostile. There was nothing left to learn.”
“Think, Captain.” The general leaned forward and tapped his forefinger on a junction on the map. “A few more hours and they would’ve been at Crossroad. We’d have a better idea of whether they were headed north or east. We’d know if they were splitting up or meeting someone. As it is we know nothing. Because you couldn’t wait to take them down.”
Quinn reddened and said nothing in his defense.
The general sat back again. “You’re in a command position now. These aren’t mistakes you can to make.” His voice gradually became less harsh. “You must see the bigger picture. Acting quickly has its merits, but so does patience. It’s a delicate balance, and not everyone who walks it makes the best decision every time.”
Quinn looked down at his feet, trying not to sink into himself.
“Son,” General Quinn said, “you must learn patience.”