Get the little pilfering prince!
The soldier’s wooden blade whipped towards Achan’s face. He lunged back a step in his heavy armor and threw up his guard. The wasters scraped overhead. His body ached, right thigh still sore from where Esek had stabbed him with Ôwr, right shoulder tender from the cham bear’s teeth.
Achan tensed his muscles anyway, pushing against his opponent’s blade. His elbow exploded with pain as a different waster slipped past his armor and struck true. Grinding his teeth at the fiery throbs shooting up his arm, Achan cut down from high guard at the man on his right and thrust his shield against the soldier before him.
Yet his attackers kept a steady pace. Dozens of boots pattered over the soft dirt around him. One waster clubbed his backplate. Another nicked his shoulder. He needed more space. They were crowding him. Even their thoughts and the cheers of the crowd seemed against him.
This was supposed to be a practice fight, not a real one. Good thing they were using wooden swords.
Achan stabbed one man’s chest, thrusting against chain armor. He stomped on another’s foot. Block to the left. Kick a man’s thigh. Parry with his shield. Left-guard to cut at open shins. Elbow to an exposed neck.
And just when he managed to push back the last man, four fresh soldiers advanced.
They bore down hard, slashing for Achan’s legs and head. He crouched, blocking his legs with his shield and parrying to high guard. Wood clubbed against wood.
Shung’s warrior cry bellowed from behind, but there was no time to see whether Shung needed aid.
There were too many.
But Shung’s yell reminded Achan that volume was strength. He released a hearty scream of his own and threw out his shield arm, knocking a soldier back. He cut across two men with his waster. One stumbled into the dusty soil. The other danced back and retreated to the benches. This won Achan a moment to breathe. He returned his blade and shield to middle guard and glanced at Shung.
His faithful Shield was surrounded by five foes. Shung blocked two strikes and caught a soldier square in the chest with his buckler shield.
The onlooking soldiers rooted for their comrades.
“Get ’em, men!”
Go low, Zin!
“Three cheers for Carmine!”
“Take him down, Grigio!”
Make him pay. For Rennan!
For Rennan? Shung? Did you hear that? Achan asked telepathically.
Shung glanced Achan’s way. Behind you!
Achan spun around just as a waster pounded the top of his head, slamming his teeth together. His knees buckled. His head rang against his helm like the clapper of a bell. He sank to his knees—head throbbing, elbow and thigh screaming—and raised his shield to protect his head.
Little Cham! Shung yelled. On guard!
But Achan couldn’t think. He needed a moment to—
A waster stabbed his left side. Another cracked against his shield. Achan cowered behind the slab of worn wood. He took several short breaths and jumped up. His shield struck his opponent’s again, but this time Achan rammed it outward. The soldier fell and skidded in the dirt.
That won’t do, Zin! We’ve got to show him a Carmine soldier is more man than he’ll ever be.
Shut up, Grigio. You’re distracting me.
Achan wanted to identify who Zin and Grigio might be, but he barely had time to crouch into position to deflect a blow from his latest opponent. This one came at his feet. He met it with his sword and lifted his shield high, then brought the edge of his shield down toward his opponent’s head.
Missed. The shields locked together. Achan’s opponent tugged him close, their faces inches apart. The man’s eyes were fierce, hateful. This was no training regimen for him. Why?
A shadow flitted across Achan’s vision. Too late he saw his opponent’s sword in high guard coming down. He jerked his head aside. The waster whipped the air beside his head, nicking his helm.
The helm twisted, blocking sight to his left eye. He ducked behind his shield as the weight of a man knocked against it. Leather scraped against wood. Achan fell. He kept his shield tight over his head and body. Kicked out a leg.
Someone stomped on his wrist and jerked his sword away. A tug on his shield wrenched his right arm out straight. His cham wounds burned. He held tight until a waster cleaved against his arm. His shield flew away.
Three dark outlines hovered overhead, the sky clear and blue above them. A kick to his ribs felt like a playful nudge through his armor. A mailed fist to his jaw, however…
The air stung the raw flesh where he’d been struck.
That’ll teach the lily-livered geck.
What in all Er’Rets?
Achan tried to roll away, but the same mail glove gripped his throat. Squeezed. “You yield?” the soldier asked, his voice a faint breath.
Achan pushed against the man’s chest with his hands and managed to croak, “No.”
Stubborn little pip, he is.
You’ve got him, Grigio. Make him regret it.
So this was Grigio, at least. The one choking him. The pressure increased, crushing Achan’s throat until his cheeks tingled. The cheers of the Carmine soldiers warbled.
Shh-ung… a little help?
Achan’s vision spotted, but Shung’s battle cry bolstered his courage. In one motion, the hand released his throat and his attacker fell away.
He gasped and lifted his head to see Shung dragging the soldier away by the cape. Five fresh men approached from the benches.
Pig snout. Would this never end? Achan pushed up onto one elbow and searched the dirt for his sword.
Captain Tristan Loam stepped between the approaching Carmine soldiers and where Achan lay on the ground. The captain was tall and broad with reddish hair, a short beard, and a cushion of a belly, though Achan didn’t doubt he was a formidable swordsman.
Captain Loam peered down on Achan. “Are you well, Your Highness?”
Achan licked his bloody lip and panted. “Aye.”
“Take a moment before we go again.”
Achan let his head fall back on the ground. He swallowed a bit of blood and stared at the azure sky. It took several deep breaths to cleanse his strangled lungs. On his right, golden standards perched along the sentry wall, flapping in the wind, each marked with a bunch of plump red grapes. Achan watched their movement as his breathing returned to normal.
Captain Loam’s voice muted as he addressed his men. “We’ll give the prince a moment to rest, then get back to it.”
Aww. The knotty-pated baby needs a rest, a soldier said.
Can’t believe he’s fighting us at all, another said.
Half-trained lout don’t deserve Lady Averella.
Achan stiffened at the jeers, but then he finally understood. The soldiers were angry about his betrothal to Lady Averella. Bran Rennan, who had been engaged to her, was one of their number. In their eyes, Achan had taken Bran’s woman.
Aw, pig snout. Achan had hoped to bond with these men by coming here this morning. But he’d been naive, as always. There had been too many factors to anticipate. Half-trained, indeed. Achan wanted to go back to the peace of his chambers. Hide there. Or leave Carmine altogether.
But that was not what a sovereign should do.
A shadow stepped into view. Achan squinted until Shung’s hairy outline came into focus.
Shung extended an arm. They are merciless warriors. Very brave. Glad they’re on our side.
Achan reached up and grasped Shung’s forearm. They wanted to beat me.
Shung jerked Achan up. That’s the object of the lesson.
No. Achan straightened his helm and wiped his sleeve over his bloody lip. His jaw and thigh stung. He met Shung’s dark eyes and allowed anger to crush his self-pity. They wanted an excuse to beat me without the ramifications of beating the Crown Prince of Er’Rets. They’re cowards.
No man had been willing to speak his mind. To confront Achan for taking Lady Averella from Bran. For such an act would be insubordinate. Treason. Cause for discharge or at least a whipping. No. These men simply saw an opportunity to vent their anger without backlash.
Achan found his waster and shield on the ground and picked them up. His armor pulled on his shoulders and trapped heat against his body like a forge. The rivets in his chain armor tugged at strands of his hair and grated against his shoulder blades through his sweat-soaked hauberk.
“Ready to go again?” Captain Loam asked.
Bet I take the sorry piglet down, a soldier said.
Yer full of dung, Zin. Keep to the plan. I almost had him.
Achan searched the crowd for Grigio, but either he’d vanished behind the observers or Achan hadn’t gotten as a good a look at him as he’d thought. In hopes of luring the gifted soldiers into the open, Achan lowered the shields around his mind completely, as if he had forgotten everything he’d been taught. The act released the pressure of his bloodvoice. Anyone gifted would feel it like a blow.
When three soldiers sitting on the benches cowered, Achan knew he’d succeeded.
Your Highness? Sir Caleb’s voice, panicked, burst in Achan’s mind. Are you injured?
Achan snapped his shields back in place. Sorry, Sir Caleb. Just a little experiment.
“Your Highness?” Captain Loam awaited his answer.
“I thank you, Captain Loam, for a vigorous practice, but I have other matters to attend to.” Achan returned his waster and shield to the racks, then walked to where his attackers sat, opening his mind to Shung. His heart hammered in anticipation. Stay close, Shung. This might go badly.
Shung walked alongside Achan. What do you mean?
Achan stayed open to Shung, but expanded his reach to the three soldiers, making sure Lady Averella’s maroon dress sleeve that was tied to his left arm was displayed before the men. Hey, you three. Did no one tell you the ‘half-trained baby’ could bloodvoice?
Two of the men hung their heads, but the third—Grigio, the man with the angry eyes and unforgiving mail gloves—looked up, face flushed. Achan had no way of knowing if he were embarrassed, angry, surprised, or merely fatigued.
“What is your name?” Achan asked.
The man stood. “Grigio Franc, Your Highness.”
Shung’s six foot plus inched closer to Achan, causing Grigio to shrink a bit.
“Master Franc,” Achan said. “You are loyal to your comrade, Bran. This is a deeply admirable trait. But have you bothered to ask his side of this…situation with Lady Averella?”
“I don’t need to ask. I can see it on his face.” Grigio glanced at Shung and added, “Your Highness.”
Achan paused, curious whether Bran’s broken engagement hadn’t been as amicable as Duchess Amal had claimed. “Nevertheless, you should speak to Master Rennan before risking your life for his honor. While that in itself is as admirable way to perish, it is a foolish sacrifice when done under mistaken assumptions. Don’t you agree?”
“I…” Grigio’s brows wrinkled. “Perhaps.”
Achan nodded. “Good enough.” He walked away from the benches and the practice field, forcing himself not to limp on his sore leg. Shung tromped at his side.
You will not punish us? Grigio asked.
Achan turned back and met Grigio’s wide eyes. Should I? You’re a worthy fighter, Master Franc, and fiercely loyal. Killing you would not help me take Armonguard. And I need such hearts as yours at my side. So I give you another chance to correct your misjudgment of me before I cast my final judgment upon you.
* * *
Once Achan had cleaned up and changed, he and Shung went to lunch in the great hall. They arrived early for the scheduled meal, but Achan preferred it that way. He’d done his duty by confronting the men on the practice field, so he figured he’d earned a reprieve from making small talk with Duchess Amal’s daughters and various other minor nobles.
Shung, as usual, stood against the wall behind Achan, staring ahead like a sentry guard.
“Sit with me, Shung. Surely no one here plans to threaten my life.”
“Soldiers on field had motives Shung did not see.”
“Don’t punish yourself. You are Sir Shung, now. The brave knight who rescued the Crown Prince from a cham bear.” Achan had knighted his friend their second day in Carmine. Shung was the first man he’d ever knighted.
“Shung did not slay the beast.”
“You slowed it down and have the burn to prove it. And now the title too.” Which would make Shung worthy to marry Lady Gali, should the man get up the courage to ask. “Now sit and eat with me.”
“Forgiveness, Little Cham, but Shung must do his duty.”
Achan slouched down in the chair and looked out over the elaborate great hall. They each had a duty, didn’t they? And Achan’s duty was to be king. King of all Er’Rets. If they won this inevitable war.
Sparrow had always sat with him for breakfast.
With his bloodvoice, he found her instantly, sensed thick walls around her mind. He wanted to speak, but she’d been ignoring his messages ever since she left Mitspah. Likely still angry over his blunder the last time they’d spoken.
He tried and failed to look through her eyes. He could break into almost any mind with his bloodvoicing power. But not Sparrow’s. Hers had always been impenetrable. He sighed. What good would any of this do? Pining away for Sparrow would not loosen the sleeve tied to his arm.
She had made her choice, and so had he.
Achan turned his chair sideways so he could talk to Shung as he ate. “I can think of no engagements set for this afternoon, can you?”
Shung tipped his head, and the circle of carved bone he always wore in his ear rocked. “I cannot.”
Finally, some time to himself. One of the knights would find him soon enough, make him study or drag him into another meeting. But if he could get out now, he might fill part of this day with his own will.
“We shall go to visit Gren and her family,” Achan said, pleased with the idea. Months had passed since he’d seen his childhood friend.
For the next fifteen minutes, Achan ate his fill, and then he pushed his plate away. “I’m ready but will not leave this chair until you eat, Shung.”
“Shung cannot shield when eating.”
Achan switched strategies. “But a warrior must eat. At least carry some grapes with you as we walk.”
The Shield shook his head. “Shung cannot wield sword with handful of grapes.”
Achan blew out a long breath and stood. “Very well. I suppose you can eat at the Fenny home, though they are peasants and likely have little food to spare.”
Shung looked over Achan’s head, scanning the near-deserted great hall, then stepped toward the table and picked up a hard-cooked egg. “Will eat this.”
After Shung ate the egg, Achan led him across the great hall to the foyer. His body ached with every movement, sore from his injuries and his exercise on the practice field.
“Good day, Your Highness.”
To Achan’s left Lady Nitsa Amal, the Duchess of Carm, stood at the foot of the brownstone staircase, her auburn hair sculpted up under a ruby-beaded caul. She wore a blood-red gown trimmed in black and gold embroidery. Her skin was ivory porcelain in the dim light.
He bowed. “Good day, my lady. Has your daughter returned yet?”
She fixed her moss-colored eyes on Achan. “She has not, Your Highness. You are not joining us for lunch?”
“I just finished. I planned to explore the grounds a bit, if you don’t mind.”
The duchess’ small mouth curved into a smile. “Not at all. I shall not keep you from your schedule.”
Achan bowed. “Thank you, my lady. Enjoy your meal.”
“I am sure I will, Your Highness.”
Achan and Shung exited Granton Castle. The sunny afternoon, chirping birds, and his destination made his burdens lighter. The blended smells of fresh-cut wood, dung, animals, and flowers tickled his nose.
“You ask Duchess Amal same question whenever you see her,” Shung said.
Achan shot Shung a quick smile. “I want to meet Lady Averella if I’m to marry her. Is that so shocking?”
Shung grunted. “Duchess will tire of you.”
“Good. Perhaps her fatigue will encourage her to draw Lady Averella out long enough to shake my hand.” Achan couldn’t stand not knowing what this woman looked like. He wasn’t about to give up his quest to find out.
They passed through the gate to the outer bailey and into a throng of peasants, soldiers, and every sort of barn animal imaginable. Disdain from those around him flooded his senses. Achan met one soldier’s frowning gaze and staggered at the hatred pouring from the man. He considered reading the man’s thoughts, but Shung tugged his arm, pulling him aside. He narrowly missed treading on a boy carrying a basket of berries.
“Pardon, my lord.” The boy bowed and scurried past as if Achan might beat him for being in the way.
Achan couldn’t blame him. He’d been cuffed upside the head for the same many times in his youth.
They wove through the outer bailey. Disapproval continued to seep into Achan. He caught sight of two middle-aged women carrying buckets of water, scowling and whispering between themselves. Achan looked into the mind of the one whose eyes he met first and the words she whispered to her counterpart filled his head.
…has no right to come here and take over. I don’t care if he’s rightful king or not.
And when you consider— Her friend gasped. Gods, no. Look who it is. There’ll be a fight now, Kera, just you wait. Who you think’ll win?
Achan turned to where the women had focused their attention. A squadron of Carmine soldiers drew near, accompanied by more feelings of animosity. Perhaps Grigio Franc was among them.
A familiar set of eyes met Achan’s from within the squadron. Bran Rennan. The squire left the formation, and the soldiers halted. One man glanced at the sleeve on Achan’s arm but seemed content to wait and watch.
Achan’s own feelings of anger and distrust mingled with those around him, not certain how to feel about Bran Rennan, especially after this morning’s altercation.
Bran bowed low and smiled. “Nice to see you again, Your Majesty. Where are you off to?”
Not a shred of the animosity Achan sensed came from Bran. “I plan to visit Grendolyn Fenny,” Achan said. “Sir Caleb keeps me busier than a squirrel in fall, and this is the first opportunity I’ve had since my arrival.”
Bran’s face tinged pink—at the mention of Gren’s name, perhaps?—but he went on as if nothing were amiss. “Do you know the way? If not, I would be happy to take you there.”
Achan glanced at Bran’s companions and found their disdainful expressions fixed on him. Bran might not be angry, but everyone else seemed to be.
“You’re not due elsewhere?” Achan asked.
“I ate in the barracks and was heading to my post.”
“And your post is?”
“In the great hall, Your Majesty.”
“Lead the way, then, Master Rennan.”
Bran waved to the squadron. “I’ll be along in a bit.” He started toward the southeastern gate. His posture seemed to swell, as if walking alongside Achan were some sort of treat.
Shung followed on Achan’s left.
“I’m glad to see you’ve embraced your calling since last we met, Your Majesty,” Bran said.
“If I did not, someone else would have.” Achan glanced at Bran. “When do you leave for Armonguard?” For this was one of the first orders Achan had given, that Jax mi Katt, Sir Rigil, and Bran return to Prince Oren to assist the southern troops and the Mârad rebels.
“In the morning.” Bran led them over the drawbridge of the southeastern gate and followed a wide path through the surrounding vineyard. The nearly ripe grapes made the air smell sweet. Bees gathered around the bunches of fruit, helping themselves to a taste. Achan followed Bran past three women carrying baskets of grapes. All three glared at Achan.
“For Lightness sake!” Achan stopped and turned to stare after the women. “What is the matter with everyone?”
“It’s my fault, I’m afraid, Your Majesty,” Bran whispered. “The people have heard whose token you wear and they feel you have…um…stolen my intended.”
“Yes, I am aware of this.” Achan huffed a dry laugh. “But Bran…I stole?” He set his hands on his hips.
Soldiers were one thing, but the peasants too? After all the debate over the best match for Achan—to find the lady who could unite the biggest army, the lady Achan was betrothed to nearly against his will—now the people of Carmine thought he had stolen Bran Rennan’s love? It was almost funny, especially since Bran had broken his own engagement and stolen the heart of another. Gren Fenny’s, to be exact, whom Achan had once longed to wed.
“Well,” Achan said, “this is awkward.”
Bran looked at his boots. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“I understood you severed your relationship with Lady Averella amicably. Was that not the case?”
“As well as I could. But the people were not told.”
For who would tell them? Nobles did not make a habit of announcing their decisions to every peasant in their manor. Still. “Rumor has not circulated?”
“It has, but…” He lowered his voice. “Forgive me. The people think I’m covering for the duchess. That she withdrew her consent to make a better match for Averella.”
Averella. So informal. A long history of friendship, likely. Similar to what Achan and Gren shared, perhaps. Achan struggled for words that would not insult Bran or Lady Averella. “It is not my wish to marry anyone. I—”
“Completely understood, Your Majesty,” Bran said. “I know you did not choose Averella for yourself.”
“I would never knowingly take another man’s love.”
Bran’s complexion darkened. The comment had been cruel, perhaps. An unnecessary stab. Achan had no future with Gren Fenny—Hoff. He shook the thought away. But Bran had courted Gren, ignorantly perhaps, but still knowing that Achan had loved her.
Bran took a long breath and bowed his head. “You are a noble man, Your Highness.”
In word alone. If Bran could bloodvoice, he’d sense how ignoble Achan’s thoughts were at present. Oh, pig snout. He did not want an enemy in Bran. He had few friends, as it was. Maybe asking Bran’s aid could soften this awkwardness between them. “I should like to meet Lady Averella. She has not returned from her latest hideaway, and the duchess thinks it a dangerous time for her to travel. Tell me, is she comely?”
Bran opened his mouth but did not respond. Then he blinked. “She is beautiful, Your Highness. But I do not know her whereabouts.”
They walked again. Bran’s claim of Lady Averella’s beauty did not mollify Achan. Lady Jaira was beautiful. On the surface. “May I ask what happened between you?”
“We? Don’t you mean you?” In all his time spent protecting Gren.
“No, Your Majesty.” Bran met Achan’s eyes briefly. “It turns out, absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. Sometimes the opposite is true. Averella… She found someone else.”
Wonderful. So Achan was now betrothed to a lady who loved another. “A lot of that going around.”
“Yes,” Bran said. “I…”
Achan waited, but Bran seemed reluctant to say what was on his mind. “You what?”
Bran swallowed and shuffled his feet on the dirt path. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I have no understanding with…” He glanced at Achan, then off into the vineyard, cheeks flushed worse than a scandalized maiden. “I made no promise to Madam Hoff. Though I may have unintentionally encouraged her affection, and for that I beg your forgiveness. It was never my motive to woo her.”
Achan’s jaw stiffened. He glanced at Shung, who stared at the castle as if Achan and Bran didn’t exist. “And now?”
Bran straightened, full of courage. “Only with your blessing, Your Highness.”
Achan had not expected Bran to be so courteous. Yet as much as he once wanted to strike him for his carelessness toward Gren’s life and heart, his anger no longer burned. “I’ll give no such blessing until I speak with Gren.”
Bran’s expression softened. “Thank you, Your Majesty.” They continued along the dirt path as it passed into a vineyard. “What of the lady who traveled with you? I heard she dressed as a man.”
Achan’s eyes narrowed. “What business is that of yours?” Though even as he said it he saw Bran’s intention. Bran had as much claim to protect Lady Averella’s heart from Achan as Achan had claim to try and protect Gren’s.
Bran shrugged. “I only point out that sometimes, when two people spend so much time together, it is difficult not to grow attached, despite how inappropriate the dynamics may be. I simply thought you might understand.”
Achan smiled wryly. Bran was a clever one with his tongue. Achan might appoint him an ambassador to somewhere if he ever had peace in the land. “Point taken.”
The path cut through the hedge wall that grew around the perimeter of the vineyard. It stretched across a grassy plain toward a group of cottages at the foot of a small hill. The sweet smell of grapes was replaced by that of grass and dust from the path. Asters sprinkled the green landscape in purple and yellow. More bees buzzed from blossom to blossom.
“Duchess Amal assured me that Lady Averella had no attachments. But you suspect she has a suitor?” Achan had believed every word of Duchess Amal’s letter in which she had accepted Achan’s—or rather Sir Caleb’s—proposal. She had assured him her daughter’s heart was free. He did not relish the idea of marrying anyone who would be pining for another man. It was bad enough he still longed for Sparrow.
His chest tightened at the thought. Sweet Vrell Sparrow. How he missed her.
Bran stumbled over a pebble on the path and barely managed to catch his footing. “I-I spoke in haste, Your Majesty, and perhaps out of my own chagrin. I beg you forgive me. I’ve no proof Averella loves another. I suppose my pride clung to such a scenario in hopes that someone had wooed her from me, rather than her simply losing interest.”
Achan could certainly relate to a woman’s rejection. “Peace, Master Rennan. If you still love the lady Averella, I’ll reject the alliance this moment.”
Bran flushed all the way down his neck. “’Tis valiant of you to offer, Your Majesty, but…” For several steps neither spoke. Finally, Bran shook his head. “I do not think I loved Averella as much as I loved the idea of her.” He took a deep breath. “I wish you both every happiness.”
They had closed half the distance between the vineyard and the cottages when two women and a man stepped out onto the road. One of the women squealed and started to run toward them. As she neared, her short, curvy form and chestnut hair came into view.