Today we’re super excited to celebrate the cover reveal for
The Sweetest Berayal (Natalie Mae),
releasing February 14, 2023!
Before we get to the cover, here’s a note from Natalie Mae:
Ready to see?
Scroll, YABCers! Scroll!
Here it is!
** If you choose to share this image elsewhere, please include a courtesy link back to this page so others can enter the giveaway. Thank you! ***
Title: The Sweetest Betrayal
Author: Natalie Mae
Release Date: Feb 14, 2023
Cover Designer/Artist Credit: Theresa Evangelista
About the Book: The Sweetest Betrayal
War has come to Orkena.
Zahru has risen as Mestrah, and she is determined to peacefully end the escalating tensions with Wyrim, her country’s long-time enemy. Yet diplomacy proves to be futile, and when Zahru turns to Orkena’s allies for help, she finds that none are willing to come to her aid—not without Kasta ruling at her side.
As Wyrim advances on the capital, Zahru is desperate to protect her people, even if that means accepting Kasta’s help. But her enemy is merciless. And as ambushes and betrayals push Zahru to increasingly dark tactics, she wonders if perhaps Kasta had it right all along: maybe peace was never an option … and maybe she was never meant to do this alone.
Can Zahru spare her enemy without sacrificing her kingdom? Or will Orkena’s salvation only come if Zahru becomes the monster her people need?
About the Author: Natalie Mae
Natalie Mae is the critically acclaimed author of The Kinder Poison trilogy. She has also been a freelance editor and Pitch Wars mentor, and she feels it notable to mention she once held a job where she had to feed spiders. When not writing, Natalie can be found exploring the Colorado wilderness with her family. Visit her online at nataliemaebooks.com.
~And without further ado, here are readers’ most burning questions for book 3~
Q: Can you refresh our memories on how things left off in The Cruelest Mercy – and where we’re starting in The Sweetest Betrayal? (SPOILER ALERT for book 2!)
So, I kind of left things a HOT MESS in book 2, in which Zahru has risen as Mestrah after both publicly kissing and then immediately forcing Kasta to abdicate, believing him too dangerous to rise as king even though he was also marked by the gods to rule. The threat of war is also right at their doorstep, with Orkena’s long-time enemy getting increasingly aggressive despite Zahru’s attempts at peace.
Book 3 picks up just a couple of weeks later, where things are only worsening for Zahru. She’s confused about and avoiding Kasta, she and Jet are tiptoeing around each other, and the war has officially begun: the enemy is marching on Orkena’s capital. Zahru is counting on Orkena’s allies to come to their aid, but something she did in book 2 is about to come crashing down on her in the worst possible way …
Q: Has Zahru gone as morally grey as she’s going to? Or will we see her go even further in book 3?
It’s a lot of pressure leading a country in times of war. Especially for someone new to it. Especially for someone trying to show she’s capable of ruling alone. Zahru also possesses incredible magic she’s only just learning to wield … magic that has already proven more effective than diplomacy. And her enemy is directly threatening her family and friends. I’ll let you surmise from this what you will.
Q: It’s the series finale … please tell us it ends happily and no major characters die!
I’d just like to note that this is a book about war and the lengths people will go to protect what they love. That doesn’t necessarily mean death. Or does it? You’ll have to read to find out …
Q: Whose character arc is your favorite?
Oh, man. This is a hard question because while Zahru continues to be my favorite over all three books, Kasta also goes through a very interesting arc in this one. So does Jet. So does Hen and one other character I can’t even tell you about right now. So … all of them? All of them.
Q: Does a Valentine’s Day release mean more romance? Will #TeamKasta finally triumph? Will #TeamJet??
I’ll admit I did choose Valentine’s Day as both a nod of appreciation to my #team fans, and as an indication that the romance will finally come to a head in this book. I would not go in expecting lots of cute kissy scenes and giggly walks on the beach, however. Zahru is as stressed as she’ll ever be in this book, but yes, in comparison to the first two books, the romance is much more present, and the heat level quite a bit higher. As to the winning #team – Zahru will make her choice very clear in this one.
Q: Speaking of #Teams, how do you feel about comparisons between Kastazahru and Reylo/Darklina, and do you think the fanbase will be satisfied by The Sweetest Betrayal?
Though #TeamKasta is definitely meant to be its own thing, I’m not opposed to comparisons like Reylo and Darklina, and I’m flattered those fanbases are connecting to Kasta and Zahru’s chemistry! Without giving too much away, I can say that everything #TeamKasta fans love about their dynamic—the intensity and the constant push/pull between dark and light—is a BIG part of book 3, and plays a huge role in how Zahru’s journey ends. As to what that ending looks like… well, you’ll have to read and see!
~ And here it is! Read on for the first chapter of The Sweetest Betrayal! ~
It’s far too peaceful a night to start a war.
I stand atop one of the desert’s many low plateaus in the darkness, my white Mestrah’s cloak snapping in the wind, orange sand twining around my sandals like rattlesnakes. Crystalline stars glitter between bladed clouds. Crickets sing in the shadowed reeds of the river below, though no cranes line the shore, the only ripples in the dark water stirred by crocodiles, as if anticipating a feast.
On the horizon, the torches of the enemy warships grow closer, brightening like the start of a wildfire.
I flex my hands, gooseflesh working up my arms despite the lingering heat.
“How long do we have?” I ask.
Marcus lowers his brass telescope, his towering silhouette blocking me from the moon. “Maybe a quarter of an hour. They’re at full speed.”
“Zahru . . .” Jet shifts on my other side, the wind tugging the ends of his blue night cloak. “I still don’t see them.”
I don’t follow his gaze toward the northern desert, where Greka and Amian’s reinforcements were supposed to have arrived this morning. Or toward the east, over the hundreds of dark, hexagonal tents that make up my army, where Nadessa’s soldiers should be appearing between the plateaus. I can’t look and see the desert empty again.
We’re going to stop this war before it starts. We spent weeks on every detail.
“Mestrah,” Marcus says, quieter. “The moon is at half. Oka’s Scythe is directly beneath it.” He gestures to the constellation. “We gave our allies the right time. If help was coming . . .”
I don’t want him to finish that sentence. I turn on my heel. “They’ll come. The blood contracts are still intact, they must be near.”
I push through the golden-edged flap and into my tent. Light potions string between the spacious white walls, casting a silver-blue glow over the feather mattress, the polished stone desk where the blood contracts and listening scrolls cast shadows, the claw-footed chair where Melia sits, a little jar of tonic glowing as she infuses it with Healers’ magic. Jade, the size of a large jackal now and in training to protect me, raises her spotted head from a woven sleeping pad.
Worried? she thinks, her golden leopard eyes soft. Zar? Need me?
My stomach twists as my Whisperer magic translates her thoughts. What I need is a miracle. An army of thousands will be on us in minutes, their armor imbued with forsvine that can neutralize all magic within three meters, rendering useless every one of our close-range fighters—like our many Dominators with their superior strength and all six of the army’s Shifters. My seventh Shifter, whose identity I’m still keeping secret from the world, would remind me he’s just as deadly without his magic; that he should be here. But despite the tentative new truce between us, I’m still working out just how much I can trust Kasta, and so he’s at the palace.
My soldiers are only a backup anyway. If all goes to plan, there will be no battle, just us marching out to join our allies with their warships and calvaries and legions, wherein the Wyri queen will realize she’s hopelessly outnumbered and finally yield to a negotiation. She never needs to know only half my soldiers can attack from a distance. She never needs to know that without our allies, we are the ones hopelessly outnumbered.
“Still no one?” Melia asks, her surprise making the glow fade from the tonic. An icy breath of her dread knifes my skin, and I wish, not for the first time, that I could turn my Influence off. My nerves are electric enough already without everyone else adding to them.
I round the desk and force a smile. “Maybe there was a sandstorm. I’m sure it’s just a temporary delay.”
Melia rises to join me, her platinum armor casting daggers of light around the tent. Marcus and Jet stop on the other side of the table. Marcus snatches up the listening scrolls one by one to check for responses, but Jet watches me, one hand on the hilt of his sword.
His gaze searching, anxious as it is now when he looks at me, like he’s always on the verge of a question. It’s been three weeks since I kissed Kasta in a very public setting right before blackmailing him into abdicating. Three weeks that Jet and I have pretended that kiss never happened, letting the war distract us, happily and silently agreeing that if we ignore it long enough, everything will go back to normal. That I will remember what we gave up for each other; that he’s the one I’m supposed to need.
If I keep avoiding Kasta as I have, I can make it true.
Jet thumbs the silver advisor’s band on his bicep. “We need to start assembling the soldiers. Hopefully Nadessa will be here soon.”
“All right,” I say. “Marcus?”
“Mestrah.” He bows with his fingertips to his pale forehead, even though I’ve told him a thousand times he doesn’t need to, and goes to alert the commanders.
Armor clanks as Melia shakes her head. “I don’t understand. A moon ago they rushed to sign these contracts. Do you think Wyrim has promised them something greater?”
“They can’t have.” I smooth the corners of the first contract, all three of them laid before me, each ruler’s signature sharp and red with their blood. “We would know. The contracts would bleed. They’re just late.”
But even I hear the uncertainty in my voice. More and more time has been passing between my letters and our allies’ responses lately, though always their replies have been favorable, apologetic. I wrote them last week that Wyrim had started their march on us. They would be here, they said.
Something has changed.
Melia lets out an uneasy breath. “We may need a new strategy.”
“No,” I say, while outside, armor clinks and captains shout, and soldiers heft shields and weapons they’ve had only a few moons to train with. “I’m not plunging us into a war when I could have stopped it with a conversation. I have to try.”
“But the Wyri have not answered even one of your letters.” Her voice softens. “They have bombed your hometown. They have tried to assassinate you. I’m not sure—”
“I’m going out there,” I snap, though my anger is for their queen, for the disbelief that this night is even happening, not for Melia. “I’m asking the queen to talk.” I look to Jet. “You still think I should try, right?”
He doesn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely. Whatever you think is best, we’ll support in full.”
Melia opens her mouth, green eyes narrowing—and purses her lips around words she doesn’t say. Jet hasn’t once disagreed with me since he accused me of going to the same extremes as Kasta during our debut party last moon. And his agreeability has been a relief, really, with all the stress of the war, and especially since I’ve decided it means he regrets that accusation and realizes I only did what had to be done. But it’s getting harder to tell whether he actually agrees with me or if this is just more of the careful dance we’re doing around each other.
I wouldn’t have to wonder with Kasta. Kasta would tell me if this was a terrible idea, and thoroughly.
“Zahru, look!” Jet’s excitement jerks me back to the table. “Amian is answering!”
He shoves the scroll at me so fast I nearly drop it. Melia slides closer, and even Jet forgets the space he usually leaves between us, both of them crowding my shoulders. My pulse ticks up as the Amian king’s sharp, tight script fills the parchment. My reading ability has vastly improved with another three weeks of lessons, but it still takes me awhile to finish a paragraph and I don’t recognize all the words, especially with rougher handwriting like this.
Which makes it all the worse that I’ve only gotten as far as “Esteemed Mestrah, I apologize for the delay” when a flash of Jet’s anger and Melia’s shock jab my arms.
“No,” Jet says, leaving my side to sort through the other listening scrolls.
I grip Melia’s elbow. “What does it say?”
She raises a trembling finger to the letter. “‘Esteemed Mestrah, I apologize for the delay in answering. But after coming across a troubling new witness account that Prince Kasta’s abdication was not voluntary, which I have discussed at length with Greka and Nadessa . . .’” She swallows. “‘The three of us have decided that until these claims are properly investigated, we no longer feel confident in the promises made to us for this alliance. Or in the type of leadership we might expect from you, considering the intimate nature of your and Prince Kasta’s relationship. Thus it is with much regret that I inform you we’ve decided to remain neutral—’”
“Oh my gods.” I drop the scroll.
“Witness account?” Jet looks to Melia. “But that’s not possible. No one outside of us and Marcus and Hen know we made Kasta step down—”
“It has to be the Wyri.” Melia angrily clucks her tongue. “Someone spreading lies to separate us from our allies, and they happened to make a lucky guess. But whatever evidence they have, it can’t be real . . .”
I don’t hear the rest of what she says. I’m back in the armory three weeks ago, the Runemaster chaining me to that table, saying he knew what I’d done. That he’d verified the animal pelts I’d brought him were fake. That he knew I was trying to frame Kasta as a Shifter so I could rule alone. That was adamantly not the reason I was doing it, not that the Runemaster would believe me at that point.
I still see him marching out like a hero, handing Kasta the controlling collar that he was supposed to make for me.
My advisors don’t know about that part. And especially not what I did to Kasta after.
“Oh my gods,” I groan, sinking on my elbows over the letter.
“No, no, none of that,” Jet says, his touch light—and brief—on my arm. “We’ll get this worked out. That witness won’t have anything we can’t disprove. But right now we need to focus on what we can do, and that’s calling for a retreat.”
“Yes,” I say, numbly. “Yes, I guess we should.”
Melia squeezes my shoulder. “This is still much better than meeting them with Kasta’s war knives. You did the right thing, Mestrah.”
I can only return a small, uneasy smile as she follows Jet out. Leaving me with the sound of soldiers packing. With Jade nudging my hand. With the contracts I can only stare at with a gathering sense of dread. I can’t even begin to count the hours I’ve poured into these. All the sleepless nights I’ve spent stressing and negotiating, but always knowing that as long as I had them, we would survive this war.
And I would be able to prove Kasta wrong.
The wind tears at the tent flaps.
My stomach sinks as Amian’s words thicken in front of me, and the scrolls begin to bleed.