When Daine is sent to Carthak as part of a Tortallan peace delegation, she finds herself in the middle of a sticky political situation. She doesn’t like the Carthaki practice of keeping slaves, but it’s not her place to say anything—she’s only there to heal the emperor’s birds. Her worries only expand once she learns that her own power has grown in a dark and mysterious way.
As the peace talks stall, Daine puzzles over Carthak’s two-faced Emperor Ozorne. How can he be so caring with his birds, and so cruel to his people? Daine is sure he’s planning something—a terrible, power-hungry scheme. And she knows that she must fight this powerful Emperor Mage; the life of her beloved teacher is at risk.
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His Royal Highness Kaddar, prince of Siraj, duke of Yamut, count of Amar, first lord of the Imperium, heir apparent to His Most Serene Majesty Emperor Ozorne of Carthak, fanned himself and wished the Tortallans would dock. He had been waiting aboard the imperial galley since noon, wearing the panoply of his office as the day, hot for autumn, grew hotter. He shot a glare at the nobles and academics on hand to welcome the visitors: they could relax under the awnings. Imperial dignity kept him in this unshaded chair, where a gold surface collected the sun to throw it back into his eyes.
Looking about, the prince saw the captain, leaning on the rail, scowl and make the Sign against evil on his chest. A stinging fly chose that moment to land on Kaddar’s arm. He yelped, swatted the fly, got to his feet, and removed the crown. “Enough of this. Bring me something to drink,” he ordered the slaves. “Something cold.”
He went to the captain, trying not to wince as too-long-inactive legs tingled. “What on earth are you staring at?”
“Tired of broiling, Your Highness?” The man spoke without looking away from the commercial harbor outside the breakwater enclosing the imperial docks. He could speak to Kaddar with less formality than most, since he had taught the prince all that young man knew of boats and sailing.
“Very funny. What has you making the Sign?”
The captain handed the prince his spyglass. “See for yourself, Highness.”
Kaddar looked through the glass. All around the waterfront, birds made use of every visible perch. On masts, ledges, gutters, and ropes they sat, watching the harbor. He found pelicans, birds of prey—on the highest, loneliest perches—songbirds, the gray-and-brown sparrows that lived in the city. Even ship rails sported a variety of feathered creatures. Eerily, that vast collection was silent. They stared at the harbor without uttering a sound.
“It ain’t just birds, Prince,” the captain remarked. “Lookit the docks.”
Kaddar spied dogs and cats, under apparent truce, on every inch of space available. Not all were scruffy alley mongrels or mangy harbor cats. He saw the flash of bright ribbons, even gold and gem-encrusted collars. Cur or alley cat, noble pet or working rat catcher, they sat without a sound, eyes on the harbor. Looking down, Kaddar found something else: the pilings under the docks swarmed with rats. Everywhere—warehouse, wharf, ship—human movement had stopped. No one cared to disturb that silent, attentive gathering of beasts. Hands shaking, the prince returned the glass and made the Sign against evil on his own chest.
“You know what it is?” asked the captain.
“I’ve never seen—wait. Could it be—” Kaddar frowned. “There’s a girl, coming with the Tortallans. It’s said she has a magic bond with animals, that she can even take on animal shape.”
“That’s nothin’ new,” remarked the captain. “There’s mages that do it all the time.”
“Not like this one, apparently. And she heals animals. They heard my uncle’s birds are ill—”
“The world knows them birds are ill,” muttered the captain. “He can lose a battalion of soldiers in the Yamani Isles and never twitch, but the gods help us if one of his precious birds is off its feed.”
Kaddar grimaced. “True. Anyway, as a goodwill gesture, King Jonathan has sent this girl to heal Uncle’s birds, if she can. And the university folk want to meet her dragon.”
“Dragon! How old is this lass anyway?”
“Fifteen. That’s why I’m out here broiling, instead of my uncle’s ministers. He wants me to squire her about when she isn’t healing birds or talking to scholars. She’ll probably want to visit all the tourist places and gawp at the sights. And Mithros only knows what her table manners are like. She’s some commoner from the far north, it’s said. I’ll be lucky if she knows which fork to use.”
“Oh, that won’t be a problem,” said the captain, straight-faced. “I understand these northerners eat with their hands.”
“So nice to have friends aboard,” replied the prince tartly.
The captain surveyed the docks through his glass. “A power over animals, and a dragon . . . If I was you, Highness, I’d dust off my map of the tourist places and let her eat any way she wants.”
At that moment the girl they discussed inched over as far on the bunk as she could, to give the man beside her a bit more room. The dragon in her lap squeaked in protest, but wound her small body into a tighter ball.
The man they were making room for, the mage known as Numair Salmalín, saw their efforts and smiled. “Thank you, Daine. And you, Kitten.”
“It’s only for a bit,” the girl, Daine, said encouragingly.
“If we don’t wrap this up soon, I will be only a ‘bit,’” complained the redheaded woman on Numair’s other side. Alanna the Lioness, the King’s Champion, was used to larger meeting places.
At last every member of the Tortallan delegation was crammed into the small shipboard cabin. Magical fire, a sign of shields meant to keep anything said in that room from being overheard, filled the corners and framed the door and portholes.
“No one can listen to us, magically or physically?” asked Duke Gareth of Naxen, head of the delegation. A tall, thin, older man, he sat on the room’s only chair, hands crossed over his cane.
The mages there nodded. “It’s as safe as our power can make it, Your Grace,” replied Numair.
Duke Gareth smiled. “Then we are safe indeed.” Looking in turn at everyone, from his son, Gareth the Younger, to Lord Martin of Meron, and from Daine to the clerks, he said, “Let me remind all of you one last time: be very careful regarding your actions while we are here. Do nothing to jeopardize our mission. The emperor is willing to make peace, but that peace is in no manner secure. If negotiations fall through due to an error on our parts, the other Eastern Lands will not support us. We will be on our own, and Carthak will be on us.
“We need this peace. We cannot match the imperial armies and navy, any more than we can match imperial wealth. In a fight on Tortallan soil, we might prevail, but war of any kind would be long and costly, in terms of lives and in terms of our resources.”
Alanna frowned. “Do we have to bow and scrape and tug our forelocks then, sir? We don’t want to seem weak to these southerners, do we?”
The duke shook his head. “No, but neither should we take risks—particularly not you.”
The Champion, whose temper was famous, blushed crimson and held her tongue.
To the others Duke Gareth said, “Go nowhere we are forbidden to go. Do not speak of freedom to the slaves. However we may dislike the practice, it would be unwise to show that dislike publicly. Accept no gifts, boxes, or paper from anyone unless they come with the knowledge of the emperor. Offer no gifts or pieces of paper to anyone. I understand it is the custom of the palace mages to scatter listening spells through the buildings and grounds. Watch what you say. If a problem arises, let my son, or Lord Martin, or Master Numair know at once.”
“Kitten will be able to detect listening spells,” remarked Numair. “I’m not saying she can’t be magicked, but most of the common sorceries won’t fool her.”
Kitten straightened herself on Daine’s lap and chirped. She always knew what was being said around her. A slim creature, she was two feet long from nose to hip, with a twelve-inch tail she used for balance and as an extra limb. Her large eyes were amber, set in a long and slender muzzle. Immature wings that would someday carry her in flight lay flat on her back. Silver claws marked her as an immortal, one of many creatures from the realms of the gods.
Looking at the dragon, the duke smiled. When his eyes moved on to Daine, the smile was replaced with concern. “Daine, be careful. You’ll be on your own more than the rest of us, though it’s my hope that if you can help his birds, the emperor will let you be. Those birds are his only weakness, I think.”
“You understand the rules?” That was Lord Martin. He leaned around the duke to get a better look at Daine. “No childish pranks. Mind your manners, and do as you’re told.”
Kitten squawked, blue-gold scales bristling at the man’s tone.
“Daine understands these things quite well.” Numair rested a gentle hand on Kitten’s muzzle and slid his thumb under her chin, so she was unable to voice whistles of outrage. “I trust her judgment, and have done so on far more dangerous missions than this.”
“We would not have brought her if we believed otherwise,” said Duke Gareth. “Remember, Master Numair, you, too, must be careful. The emperor was extraordinarily gracious to grant a pardon to you, and to allow you to meet with scholars at the palace. Don’t forget the conditions of that pardon. If he catches you in wrongdoing, he will be able to arrest, try, even execute you, and we will be helpless to stop him.”
Numair smiled crookedly, long lashes veiling his brown eyes. “Believe me, Your Grace, I don’t plan to give Ozorne any excuse to rescind my pardon. I was in his dungeons once and see no reason to repeat the experience.”
The duke nodded. “Now, my friends—it is time we prepared to dock. I hope that Mithros will bless our company with the light of wisdom, and that the Goddess will grant us patience.”
“So mote it be,” murmured the others.
Daine waited for those closest to the door to file out, fiddling with the heavy silver claw that hung on a chain at her neck. Once the way outside was clear, she ran to the tiny room below decks that had been granted to her. Kitten stayed topside, fascinated by the docking preparations.
In her cabin, Daine shed her ordinary clothes, changing to garments suitable for meeting the emperor’s welcoming party. They wouldn’t see the emperor himself until that night—the palace lay three hours’ sail upriver—but it was still important to make a good impression on those sent to welcome them.
First came the gray silk shirt with bloused sleeves. Carefully she tucked her claw underneath, then slid into blue linen breeches. She checked the mirror to fasten silver buttons that closed the embroidered neck band high on her throat. Over all this splendor (as she privately thought of it) went a blue linen dress tunic. It was hard to believe that back home the leaves were turning color. Here it was warm still, warm enough that the palace seamstresses had kept to summer cloth while making her clothes for the journey.
A few rapid brush strokes put her curls in order, and a pale blue ribbon kept them out of her face. Carefully she put sapphire drops, Numair’s Midwinter gift, in her earlobes and sat on the bunk to pull on her highly polished boots.
From a hole in the corner emerged the ship’s boss rat. He balanced on his hindquarters there, his nose twitching. So you’re off? he asked. Good. Now my boat will get back to normal.
“Don’t celebrate yet,” she advised. “I’ll come back soon.”
What a disappointment, he retorted. When do I get to see the last of you for good?
Silver light filled the cabin; a heavy, musky smell drifted in the air. When the light, if not the smell, faded, a badger sat on the bunk where Kitten slept. —Begone, pest— he ordered.
The rat was brave in the way of his kind, but the smell of this friend of Daine’s sent the rodent into his hole. He had not known Daine was on visiting terms with the badger god.
Daine smiled at the first owner of her silver claw. “You look well. How long’s it been?”
The badger was not in the least interested in polite conversation. —Why are you here?—he demanded harshly. —What possessed you to leave your home sett? You are a creature of pine and chestnut forests, and cold lakes. This hot, swampy land is no country for you! Why are you here?—
Daine made a face. “I’ll tell you, if you’ll stop growling at me.” She sat on the bunk opposite him, and explained what the Tortallans in general, and she in particular, were doing this far south.
The badger listened, growling softly to himself. —Peace? I thought you humans were convinced Emperor Ozorne was the one who tore holes in the barriers between the human realms and the realms of the gods, to loose a plague of immortals on you.—
Daine shrugged. “He says it wasn’t him or his mages who did that. Renegades at the imperial university stole the unlocking spells. They were caught and tried last spring, and executed.”
The badger snorted.
“Well, no one can prove if it’s the truth or not. And the king says we need peace with Carthak more than we need to get revenge.”
—No one needs to talk peace or any other thing here. This is the worst possible place you can be now. You have no idea . . . Turn around and go home. Convince your friends to leave.—
“I can’t, and we can’t!” she protested. “Weren’t you listening? The emperor knows I’m coming to look at his birds. If I go home now, when he expects me—think of the insult to him! And it’s not the birds’ fault they live here, is it?”
With no room for him to pace, he was forced to settle for shifting his bulk from one side to the other as he muttered to himself. —I must talk them out of it, that’s all. When they know, even they will have to understand the situation. It’s not like a mortal girl has the freedom they do, after all.—
“Who will understand?” Daine asked, intensely curious. In all the time she had known him, she had never seen him so uncertain, or so jittery. Like all badgers, he had rages, and would knock her top over teakettle if she vexed him; but that was very different from the way he acted now. “And what’s going on here? Can’t you tell me?”
—It’s the Great Gods, the ones two-leggers worship,— the badger replied. —They have lost patience with the emperor, perhaps with this entire realm. Things could get very—chancy—here soon. You are sure you cannot make your friends turn back?—
Daine shook her head.
—No, of course not. You said it was impossible, and you never mislead me.— Suddenly he cocked his head upward, as if listening to something, or someone. He growled, hackles rising, and snapped at the air. Then—slowly—he relaxed, and nodded. —As you wish.—
“As who wishes?” asked Daine.
He looked at her, an odd light in his eyes. —Come here, Daine.—
“What?” she asked, even as she obeyed.
—I have a gift for you. Something to help you if all goes ill.—
His words made her edgy. “Badger, I can’t misbehave while I’m here. There’s too much at stake. You ought to talk to Duke Gareth of Naxen. You know every time you teach me a lesson or give me a gift or anything, there’s always an uncommon lot of ruction, and I’ve been told not to cause any!”
She had thought to refuse, but her knees bent, and she was face to face with him. Opening his jaws, the great animal breathed on her. His breath came out visible, a swirling fog that glowed bright silver. It wrapped around Daine’s head, filling her nose, mouth, and eyes, trickling under her shirt, flowing down her arms. She gasped, and the mist ran deep into her throat and lungs. She could feel it throughout her body, expanding to fill her skin.
When her eyes cleared, he was gone.
Stunned and trembling, Daine got to her feet. What was all that about?
The door opened and Kitten entered. “You just missed the badger,” Daine informed her.
Kitten, who had met the animal god before, whistled her disappointment.
“I’m sorry. He was being very strange, and he left in a hurry.” Worried both about what he had said, and about what he didn’t say, she picked up Kitten and steadied her on one hip, then walked out on deck. When they reached the ship’s rail, the animals awaiting her on the docks burst into an ear-piercing welcome. Dogs howled; birds cried out in their many languages. Only the cats welcomed her quietly, purring as hard as they could. The girl listened with a smile. She was so lucky to have friends wherever she went!
Thank you for meeting me, she called silently, her magic carrying the words to her listeners. It is very kind, and I liked it so much! I hope I’ll have a chance to get to know some of you while I’m here. For now, though, please stop calling, and go home. We’re making the two-leggers nervous!
They knew she was right. Birds took flight by groups, careful not to bump into one another; dogs and cats left the docks. Only the rats stayed, their attitude of decided unwelcome a steady itch in her mind.
Piffle to you, she told them, and went to join Numair at the rail. He was dressed simply, but well, for their arrival. His soft, wavy black hair was tied in a short horsetail, accenting a long nose and full, sensitive mouth. A black silk robe that buttoned high on the throat billowed around his powerful frame. Long, wide sleeves covered his arms to the wrists; the hem stopped short of the toes of his boots. That robe was donned by only a handful of mages, the most powerful in the world. Not even the famed Emperor Mage was allowed to wear it. Numair always played it down. He said the learning needed to win the black robe was not worth much in the real world, but Daine knew better. Once, when Numair was pressed by an enemy sorcerer, she saw him turn the other man into a tree.
“Are you all right?” she asked, squinting up at him. The effort strained her neck: he was a foot taller than her five feet five inches. His dark eyes were emotionless as he watched the dock. Only his big hands, white-knuckled as they gripped the rail, showed tension. She had wanted to talk about the badger’s visit, but she could see that this was not a good time. “Is something wrong?”
“No, magelet,” he said, using his private name for her. “And I am as well as may be expected. I can’t say which prospect makes me more apprehensive—that of meeting old enemies, or old friends.” His voice was unusually somber.
“Old enemies, surely?” She understood his concern. Carthak’s great university had been his home for eleven years. Shortly before his twenty-first birthday he had fled, accused of treason against his best friend—the emperor. Now, almost thirty, he was, in a way, coming home.
“I don’t know,” was his quiet reply. “I was very different then. And you know what the wise men say—‘Only birds can return to old nests.’” He shook his head, and smiled down at her, white teeth flashing against his swarthy face. “Mithros bless. You look very pretty.”
Kitten chortled while Daine blushed. “You think so really?” she asked, feeling shy. “I know I don’t hold a candle to Alanna, or the queen—”
He held up a hand. “That isn’t strictly accurate. The Lioness is one of my dearest friends, but she is not an exemplar of female beauty. Years and experience have given her charm, and her eyes are extraordinary, but she is not beautiful. Queen Thayet is astoundingly attractive, it’s true, but you have your own—something.” He scrutinized her as she giggled. “You should wear blue more often. It brings out matching shades in your eyes.”
“I heard that about my looks,” Lady Alanna said, joining them. “I’ll get you later.” Like Daine, she wore a tunic and breeches. Hers were violet silk trimmed with gold braid, over a white silk shirt. At her waist hung her sword. She grinned at Daine. “You do look good.”
“Thanks,” Daine said, blushing once more. “So do you.”
The others, clad in daytime finery, joined them now that the ship was about to dock. Under their conversation, Daine tugged Numair’s sleeve. “I need to talk to you as soon as you can manage,” she whispered as the sailors made the ship fast. “It’s really, really important.”
He nodded, but his eyes were on the ships around them. She couldn’t be sure he’d even heard.
Across the harbor a gong crashed three times. The Carthakis on the docks knelt and touched their heads to the ground as slow, regular drumbeats sounded. A path had opened from their ship across the busy harbor to what appeared to be a canal lock. Down that path came a high-prowed boat rowed by shaved-headed slaves. Its gilded surfaces threw off painful flashes as it swept along.
Daine peered at the man seated on a thronelike chair on the deck. He wore a crown like a cap, one covered with diamonds, that glittered fiercely. “Who is that?”
Gareth the Younger said, “Probably a lesser prince, one of the imperial court.”
“This prince isn’t a lesser one.” Numair’s stage whisper carried to those behind him. “See the lapis lazuli rod in his left hand? That is an attribute of the heir—what’s his name?”
“His nephew Kaddar,” one of the others said. “Age sixteen. Studies at the university.”
The Tortallans got into the ship’s boat and were rowed to the galley, where a heavy ladder was dropped to them. Daine waited for the senior members of her party to board, then followed. Kitten lost patience with her slow progress up the ladder and scrambled up past her, beating her onto the deck. Their order, as they gathered before the prince, was roughly that of importance, with Duke Gareth, Lord Martin, and Lady Alanna in front, Numair and the other officials behind them. Gareth the Younger, Daine, Kitten and the Tortallan clerks kept to the back.
Someone called orders. A drummer sounded a beat. Sunburned and tanned backs on Daine’s left stretched forward. The left bank of oars dipped; the boat began to turn.
Standing by the prince was a herald. He wore a gold robe cut like those Daine had already seen on other Carthakis, a knee-length tunic with short sleeves. Thumping his staff of office on the deck, he cried, “His Imperial Highness, Kaddar Gazanoi Iliniat, Head of House Khazoi, Prince of Siraj—”
Daine lost track of the rest. She was interested in the boat: once it had turned, both sets of oars rose and fell on drumbeats, and the vessel raced across the harbor. On either side of the deck the rowers sat at their benches. Each time they stretched forward or pulled back, she heard a clatter under the drum’s thud and the men’s grunts of effort. It took her a moment to realize that it was the noise of the chain that linked their ankle cuffs.
Her skin prickled. She made herself look away and listen to the herald. “—His Most Serene and Imperial Majesty, Ozorne Muhassin Tasikhe, Emperor of Carthak—”
Kitten went to the end of a bench, chirping and peering at the man seated there. The girl went after her. “I’m sorry,” she told the man, who watched the dragon from the corner of his eye. “She doesn’t know not to interrupt when folk are working—” The slave looked up at her, startled.
“Eyes to your oar!” snarled a voice nearby. A lash snaked out to flick the man on the cheek. The slave hardly blinked, though the whip had come dangerously close to his eye. Daine bit the inside of her cheek and went back to her place, hoisting Kitten onto her hip.
Someone passed a handkerchief to her as the herald began to name their company to the prince. She quickly wiped her eyes. By the time she was under control, Gareth the Younger and the dean of mages at the Tortallan royal university were bowing to the prince, who greeted them both with distant courtesy. They bowed again, and stepped to the side so that Daine and Kitten were revealed.
Awed, the girl saw that the odd shape of the prince’s eyes came from dark lines drawn on both lids and extended to his temples. He was a light-skinned black, with thin lips and long, thick eyelashes, dressed in a calf-length tunic of crimson silk. His jewels shimmered in the sun. He boasted three gold rings in his left ear, a gold bangle shaped like a many-flamed sun, and a ruby drop in the right. Another ruby served him as a nose button. He wore a collar-like necklace of gold inlaid with mother-of-pearl strips. Rings decorated fingers and thumbs; bracelets hung on both wrists. A flash drew her eyes to his feet, where she found rings on toes bared by his sandals. It occurred to her that she might not possess as much jewelry in her entire lifetime as the prince wore right now.
“Veralidaine Sarrasri,” the herald proclaimed. “The dragon Skysong.”
“I greet you in the name of my august kinsman, the Emperor Mage of Carthak,” the prince said formally. Then he leaned forward, eyes sparkling with interest. “It’s a true dragon?” His voice was light and fast. “Not a basilisk, which we’ve seen, but maybe a young basilisk—”
Kitten walked to the raised chair and rose, balancing on her hindquarters as she gazed at the young man. “She’s a true dragon, Your Highness,” replied Daine. She saw intelligence in his eyes, paint or no. “Basilisks have pebbled skin, almost like beading. Kit—her name’s Skysong, but mostly folk call her Kitten—she has scales. Her ma was the same.”
The prince frowned. “A mother? We were told there is only one dragon in the mortal realms.”
“There is. Her ma was killed by—” She almost said “Carthaki raiders,” but stopped herself. As she had been told over and over, no one could prove they were Carthaki. “Pirates,” she went on. “She gave birth to Kitten a week before she died, and I’ve been raising Kit ever since.”
“Is it hard? What does she eat? Does she hunt live prey, or—”
The herald coughed. “Your Highness, the ambassadors have yet to greet the delegation.”
The prince looked like any of Daine’s Rider friends caught in a misstep. He made a noise that sounded like a sigh and eased back in his chair, holding the blue stone rod and gold fan crossed on his chest once more. “It is my hope that, should you have idle hours during your stay with us, you will permit me to show you some of Carthak’s wonders.”
Duke Gareth had told her such an offer would be made by a Carthaki noble, so Daine had an answer ready. She bowed. “I’d be honored, Your Highness,” she said, while thinking, He sounds so thrilled.
“May I present you of Tortall to your colleagues and fellow ambassadors,” intoned the herald, more as a command than a request. He led their group to the spot where men, some dressed like the prince, some in robes cut in the same fashion as Numair’s, waited under a canopy. Most of their names escaped Daine, at the rear of the Tortallan delegation. She would have to deal with almost none of these dignitaries, and saw no reason to memorize alien names and titles.
Once, a mage, did make an impression. He was a different fish among so many black-, brown-, and olive-skinned southerners—a tall northerner, tan and weathered from sun and wind, with earnest blue eyes and silver streaks in his flyaway blond hair. He stood with lesser mages and nobles, wearing a scarlet robe with earth-brown cuffs and hem. He wore his robe unfastened, over a northern-style shirt and breeches made of undyed cotton. When the herald gave his name—Lindhall Reed—he and Numair embraced. Daine smiled. Ever since she had met Numair two years ago, she had heard much of his old teaching master.
“Arram,” Lindhall said, using Numair’s birth name, “welcome, if that is the proper word.”
Numair’s eyes were overbright. “I’m surprised you remembered our arrival,” he replied, voice scratchy. “I thought I’d have to root you out of your workroom.”
“No, no.” Reed’s voice was quiet, cultured, and fast, as if he fought to breathe. “I have a good assistant, better than you were. She keeps track of everything. Unfortunately, she’s about to go live with the merfolk and study their culture. I hear they’re moving in all along the Tortallan coast. I’d thought they’d live in rookeries, like sea lions, but their nature appears to be more tribal. And you are Arram’s student,” he said without a break, looking at Daine. She jumped at the change of topic. “He wrote me so much about you. He says you know how bats avoid objects and catch prey. When I was a student I incurred censure when I hypothesized that they do it with manipulation of sound, and Arram said you proved that to be true.”
Daine smiled up at this man, who was nearly as tall as Numair. “Well, yes. They squeak at things. Their ears move separately, to gather in what they hear, and each sound has a meaning—”
“I don’t like to interrupt,” Numair said apologetically, “but, Lindhall, I have questions that require answers. Forgive me, both of you.”
Lindhall looked wistfully at Daine. After friendship with Numair, she recognized someone who would rather talk about learning than anything else. “Duty calls,” the older mage commented. “And I know we shall have other chances to confer, since you are here for the emperor’s birds, and I help him to care for them. Very well, Arram, I am yours, for the time being. Unless—” His face brightened. “I know you’ve also had encounters with whales. It is true, their songs are communication, not merely noise? Or communication in the sense of birdcalls, proclaiming territory, and so forth? I—”
“Lindhall,” Numair said firmly, and dragged his old friend away.
I didn’t even get to ask him what’s wrong with the emperor’s birds, Daine thought, and sighed.
“Daine,” called Alanna, “can you spare Kitten? Duke Etiakret and Master Chioké would like a closer look at her, if she doesn’t mind.”
Kitten whistled an inquiry to Daine, who smiled. “Go on. They want to admire you.” Kitten, always open to admiration, galloped off.
Trying not to look at the slave rowers, Daine went to the prow of the boat, where she could see the riverbank. During the introductions, they had left the port city of Thak’s Gate behind, following canals that led finally into the River Zekoi. As the oars tugged the barge south, the city on Daine’s side of the boat gave up its claims to the riverbank.
An army replaced it. From here she saw barracks in long rows, taking up hundreds of acres. Companies of soldiers stood side by side on the riverbank, each soldier with a bright, rectangular shield on one arm, a spear in the opposite hand. Looking at them, she swallowed hard. She was no stranger to military camps. Since her arrival in Tortall she had visited home bases for the army and the Queen’s Riders alike, but none of them were as big as this.
As the imperial vessel passed the first company of soldiers, Daine heard a shouted order. As one man, the soldiers banged their spears three times on their shields, then thrust the spears into the air with a roar. The second company followed suit, then the third, then the fourth. It seemed to go on forever, drowning out all conversation and making Daine’s ears ring. Duke Gareth is right, she thought, feeling ill. Even if we could beat so many, what would be left afterward?
The gods are up to something, she remembered abruptly. Something that might put a crimp in the style of this army. If only I could find out what’s going to happen!
“That is just the Army of the North.” The prince joined her at the rail as they sailed past the last soldiers. “My uncle has three other armies of identical size, all in combat readiness.”
It was hard to read his face, but he sounded as if he wasn’t proud of the imperial forces. “What’s over here?” she asked, turning. They now had a good view of the far bank also. This side of the Zekoi was untamed. Reeds grew head-high; a web of streams emptied into the river. The loglike shapes on the far bank were not dead wood, she realized, but animals.
“Crocodiles.” The prince had seen what she looked at. “Do you have them in the north?”
“No,” she replied, calling with her magic. They stirred, drunk with the sun. “They’re giant lizards, aren’t they? I have a book that tells of them.” She called again, and felt a soft reply.
“Giant, water-swimming, vicious lizards,” replied the prince.
Daine counted to three, then said politely, “There’s few animals that’re ‘vicious’ by nature, if you’ll forgive my saying so. Usually there’s a good reason for them acting nasty—like you’re stepping in their nests, or you’re stealing their food.”
Food, agreed a low voice in her mind. Hungry, commented another. A third voice added, Waiting for food.
“Like all females, you are sentimental about animals,” the prince replied, his tone superior. “If you had a croc after you in the water, you wouldn’t be so quick to stand up for them.”
“They came after you personally?” She couldn’t see this painted fellow doing anything that might wrinkle his clothes.
“Well, no, but everyone says they do.”
Someday I must read this scholar Everyone, she thought as she bit her tongue to keep from giving a rude answer. He seems to have written so much—all of it wrong.
She called to the crocodiles again. I’m Daine, she told the great creatures. I come from the north.
You are odd, replied the one who had spoken last. You smell of frozen water and too many trees. Do not scold that two-legger. If he enters our water, we will eat him gladly.
A private boat, brightly painted, floated by. A man in a low-backed chair read under a canopy; a slave chased a boy who ran with something that struggled in his arms. Cornering the child at the rail, the slave tried to make him release his prize. The child leaned away. Suddenly he screeched. His arms flew open, and his captive tumbled into the water.
“If you can’t hold on to pets, you don’t deserve to have any,” scolded the slave. The child screamed as she dragged him away without another look at the animal in the river. The crocodiles did not share her disinterest. They slid into the water from their riverbank.
“No, don’t!” Daine cried to them aloud, forgetting her companion. “Let it be!”
Hungry, said a voice. Food is food.
It will die anyway, replied the one who spoke most. Look at it.
The crocodile was right. The tiny creature, whatever it was, couldn’t swim. It fought to stay up, but the current dragged on its fur and limbs.
Stripping off her boots, Daine jumped over the rail and into the river. Swimming against the current, she struck out for the drowning animal. Please stop, she told the crocodiles silently. It isn’t more than a mouthful! One last pump of her arms, and she had reached the sufferer.
I hope you do not interfere in too many meals, remarked the talkative crocodile as the reptiles swam off. We do not have enough food as it is.
I’ll try not to, Daine promised. Treading water, she pumped liquid from the pet’s lungs. He gasped. “Shh,” she said. “It’s all right. I’ve got you.” He was a monkey, tiny enough to sit on her palm, with huge gray-green eyes. Around his neck was a jeweled collar. “No wonder you couldn’t swim.” She unbuckled the thing and let it fall. “That was probably too heavy dry, let alone wet.”
Black, sparkling fire yanked them from the river and pulled them through the air. Daine soothed the frantic monkey until Numair’s magic deposited them on the deck of the imperial barge.
The Carthakis, from prince to slaves, gaped at her and her new friend. Kitten began to scold as Daine blushed. Muddy water formed a pool on the polished deck; her hair dripped. Her linen and silk were ruined. Someone—a female—giggled. A man snorted. Daine glanced at Duke Gareth and saw that he had covered his face with one hand as his son’s broad shoulders quivered with suppressed laughter. More than anything at the moment, she wished she had the power simply to vanish.
They went from their quarters to the women guests’ baths soon after their arrival, to Daine’s relief. Not only was she able to wash, but maids brought a basin and extra mild soap so that she could bathe her new friend. They even gave her towels for him. She dried him quickly there, then returned with him and Kitten to her room to do a more thorough job.
She used the work to get acquainted with this odd creature. Lindhall had called him a pygmy marmoset. Imported from the Copper Isles, he’d been the pet of the child he called the Monsterboy, the one who had let him fall into the river. His fur was strange—a mix of yellow, brown, gray, and olive green, which looked as if it might turn its wearer invisible in a proper forest. The marmoset gave his name, but it was in whistles and clucks, impossible for her to pronounce. She asked if he would mind if she called him Zekoi, or Zek, after the river she had taken him from. He seemed quite taken with that, even trying to pronounce it on his own.
Finished with Zek’s grooming, Daine got to her feet. “I need to change,” she told the marmoset when he clung to her. “Hold on to Kitten.” Zek eyed the dragon with misgiving. Kitten chirped, and offered her forepaw. He clutched it and watched Daine’s every movement.
Drawing on a shift, the girl surveyed her room. It was simple, elegant, and costly. Walls, floor, and ceiling were polished marble. Carved cedar window screens gave off their famous scent. The bed was delicately carved, the sheets fine cotton. Over it lay a silk comforter in autumn colors. The clean, sweet-scented privy lay off a small dressing room. That chamber, a few feet from the bed, was furnished with a table and matching chair, a long mirror, and a number of tiny jars which held various cosmetics, salves, and perfumes.
There was but one feature she disliked—a tiger-skin rug. Its jaws were open in a snarl; yellow glass eyes glared at the world. “I have to ask them to move this,” she told her audience. “I can’t sleep with it here.” Kneeling, Daine touched it sadly. She had seen tigers in the king’s menagerie. They were magnificent cats, and she preferred the ones whose skin was still attached.
Her palms felt hot, itchy. Suddenly they pulsed. White fire spilled from her hands onto the tiger. Slowly the eyelids fell, and rose again. The jaw relaxed; the great mouth closed.
She thrust herself away so quickly that she fell over. “Did you see that?” she demanded of Kitten and Zek. “What was it?” Both stared at her, plainly as bewildered as she was.
Although she waited, the skin did not move again. Using a long-handled brush, she shoved it under her bed, poking it repeatedly to keep any part from sticking out. At last it was securely tucked away, and she could dress.