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Tamora Pierce

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  Title Page


  Beyond the shifting haze of green and white lights that veiled them, Kel saw the hillmen draw back a little.






















  Copyright Page

  To Julia Niederhut Muche

  Beyond the shifting haze of green and white lights that veiled them, Kel saw the hillmen draw back a little.

  Four of their number were down, maybe dead— three in the pileup Jump had caused, one with an arrow in his throat. Others were rubbing their eyes, flailing at the attacking sparrows, or squinting as they tried to see the pages’ exact location. Most were still mounted, except for one man who’d jumped clear of his arrow-shot horse. All were wary.

  A pair of bony and scarred dogs crept forward, bellies to the ground. The magic veils affected them less. Jump snarled a challenge.

  "Stay with me," Kel ordered him softly. To her unmoving friends she hissed, "Fall back! Bows and mages first. Get against the cliff— archers, be ready to shoot!"

  This time they obeyed, Faleron pausing only long enough to blow the alarm call again. Kel whispered, "You’ll take command?" when he lowered the horn.

  Faleron shook his head. "You’ve got the cool head, Kel," he replied.



  Fall that year was warm. Heat lay in a blanket over the basin of the River Olorun, where the capital of Tortall covered the banks. No breath of air stirred the pennants and flags on their poles. The river itself was a band of glass, without a breeze anywhere to ruffle its shining surface. Traffic in the city moved as if the air were thick honey. No one with sense cared to rush.

  Behind the royal palace, eleven-year-old Keladry of Mindelan stared at the rising ground that led from the training yards to the pages’ wing and decided that she had no sense. She felt as if she’d let people beat her with mallets all morning. Surely it was too hot for her to do as she normally did—run up that hill to reach her rooms and bathe. After all, she would be the only one to know if she walked today.

  Who would think this cursed harness would make such a difference? she wondered, reaching under her canvas practice coat to finger broad leather straps. At some point during her first year as page, she had learned that second-, third-, and fourth-years wore weighted harnesses, and that more weights were added every four months, but she had never considered it in terms of herself. Now she wished that she had donned something of the kind in the empty summer months, when she made the daily trek to the palace to keep up her training. If she had, she wouldn’t ache so much now.

  She wiped her sleeve over her forehead. It’s not even like you’re carrying a lot of weight, she scolded herself. Eight little disks—maybe two pounds in lead. You trained last year and all summer with lead-weighted weapons, just to build your strength. This can’t be that different!

  But it was. Hand-to-hand combat, staff work, archery, and riding took extra effort with two pounds of lead hanging on her shoulders, chest, and back. I’ve got to run, she told herself wearily. If I don’t move soon, I’ll be late to wash and late to lunch, and Lord Wyldon will give me punishment work. So heat or no, I have to go up that hill. I may as well run it.

  She waited a moment more, steeling herself. She hated this run. That slowly rising ground was torture on her legs even last spring, when she’d been running it off and on for more than half a year.

  No stranger, looking at her, would have thought this disheveled girl was the sort to cause a storm of argument at court. She had a dreamer’s quiet hazel eyes, framed in long lashes, and plain brown hair that she wore cropped as short as a boy’s. Her nose was small and delicate, her skin tan and dusted with freckles. She was big for a girl of eleven, five feet three inches tall and solidly built. Only someone who looked closely at her calm face would detect a spark in her level gaze, and determination in her mouth and chin:

  At last she groaned and began to trot up the hill. Her path took her behind the mews, the kennels, and the forges. Men and women in palace livery and servants’ garb waved as she ran past. A woman told some kennel workers, "Looka here — tol’ ya she’d be back!"

  Kel smiled through pouring sweat. No one had thought that the old-fashioned training master would allow the first-known girl page in over a century to stay after her first year. When Lord Wyldon surprised the world and allowed Kel to stay, many had assumed Kel would "come to her senses" and drop out over the summer holiday.

  You’d think by now they’d know I won’t quit, she thought as she toiled on up the hill.

  She was lurching when she reached the kitchen gardens, her shortcut to the pages’ wing. There she had to catch her breath. An upended bucket did for a seat. She inhaled the scents of marjoram, sage, and thyme, massaging her calf muscles. For the hundredth time she wished she could use the palace baths as the boys did, instead of having to go all the way to her room to wash up.

  "Hi! You!" cried a male voice from the direction of the kitchens. "Come back with those sausages!"

  Kel got to her feet. A cook raced out of the kitchen, waving a meat cleaver. Empty beanpoles, stripped after the harvest, went flying as he crashed through them. Metal flashed as the cleaver chopped through the air. The man doubled back and ran on, plainly chasing something far smaller than he. Once he stumbled; once he dropped the cleaver. On he came, cursing.

  The dog he pursued raced toward Kel. A string of fat sausages hung from his jaws. With a last burst of speed, the animal ducked behind Kel.

  The cook charged them, cleaver raised. "I’ll kill you this time!" he screeched, face crimson with fury.

  Kel put her hands on her hips. "Me or the dog?"

  "Out of the way, page!" he snarled, circling to her left. "He’s stolen his last meal!"

  As she turned to keep herself between the man and his prey, Kel glanced behind her. The dog huddled by her seat, gobbling his catch.

  "Stop right there," Kel ordered the man.

  "Move, or I’ll report this to my lord Wyldon," he snapped. "I’ll get that mongrel good and proper!"

  Kel gathered dog and sausages up in her arms. "You’ll do no such thing," she retorted. The dog, knowing what was important, continued to gorge.

  "You’ll hand that animal over now, my lad, if you know what’s right," the servant told her. "He’s naught but a thieving stray. He’s got to be stopped."

  "With a meat cleaver?" demanded Kel.

  "If that’s what it takes."

  "No," she said flatly. "No killing. I’ll see to it the dog doesn’t steal from you."

  "Sausages is worth money! Who’s to pay for them? Not me!"

  Kel reached instinctively for her belt and sighed, impatient with herself. She didn’t wear her purse with training clothes. "Go to Salma Aynnar, in charge of the pages’ wing," she said loftily. "Tell her Keladry of Mindelan requests that she pay you the cost of these sausages from my pocket money. And you’d better not overcharge her," she added.

  "Kel ... Oh, Mithros’s"—he looked at her and changed what he’d been about to say—"shield. You’re the girl. Being softhearted will do you no good, mistress," he informed her. "Be sure I’ll get my money. And if I see that animal here again"—he pointed at Kel’s armful—"I’ll chop him up for cat-meat, see if I won’t!"

  He thrust
his cleaver into his belt and stomped back to the kitchens, muttering. Kel adjusted her hold on the dog and his prize and headed for the pages’ wing. "We aren’t allowed pets, you know," she informed her passenger. "With my luck, all those sausages will make you sick, and I’ll have to clean it up." She passed through an open door into the cool stone halls of the palace. As she trotted along, she examined her armful.

  The dog’s left ear was only a tatter. He was gray-white for the most part; black splotches adorned the end of his nose, his only whole ear, and his rump. The rest of him was scars, healing scrapes, and staring ribs. His sausages eaten, he peered up into her face with two small, black, triangular eyes and licked her. His tail, broken in two places and healed crookedly, beat her arm.

  "I am not your friend," Kel said as she reached her door. "I don’t even like you. Don’t get attached."

  She put him down, expecting him to flee. Instead, the dog sat, tail gently wagging. Kel put her key in the lock and whispered her name, releasing the magic locks that protected her from unwanted visitors. The year before, the boys had welcomed her by ruining her room and writing on her walls, making such protections necessary. While she had made friends among the pages since that time, there were still boys who would play mean tricks to make her leave.

  She followed the dog into the two rooms that were her palace home and halted. Two servants awaited her before the hearth. One she knew well: Gower, the long-faced, gloomy man who cleaned her rooms and fetched hot water for washing up and baths. The other was a short, plump, dark girl with crisp black hair worn neatly pinned in a bun. She was quite pretty, with huge brown eyes and full lips. Kel didn’t know her, but she was dressed like a servant in a dark skirt and a white blouse and apron. On that hot day she wore the sleeves long and buttoned at the wrist.

  Kel waited, uncertain. Gower would surely report the dog to Salma. Kel was trying to decide how much to bribe him not to when he coughed and said, "Excuse me, Page Keladry, but I—we— that is..." He shook his head, ignoring the dog, who sniffed at him. "Might I introduce my niece, Lalasa?"

  The girl dipped a curtsy, glancing up at Kel with eyes as frightened as a cornered doe’s. She was just an inch taller than Kel, and only a few years older.

  "How do you do," Kel said politely. "Gower, I’m in a bit of a rush—"

  "A moment, Page Keladry," Gower replied. "Just a moment of your time."

  In the year he had waited on her, Gower had never asked for anything. Kel sat on her bed. "All right." She took off her practice jacket and harness as Gower talked.

  His voice was as glum as if he described a funeral. "Lalasa is all alone but for me. I thought she might do well in the palace, and she might, one day, but..."

  Kel looked at him under her bangs as she pulled at one of her boots. Suddenly Lalasa was there, her small hands firm around the heel and upper. She drew the boot off carefully.

  "She’s country-bred, not like these bold city girls," Gower explained. "When city girls act shy, well, men hereabouts think they want to be chased. Lalasa’s been... frightened." Lalasa did not meet Kel’s eyes as she removed the other boot and Kel’s stockings. "If it’s this way for her in the palace, the city would be worse," Gower went on. "I thought you might be looking to hire a maid."

  Kel blinked at Gower. Pages and squires were allowed to hire their own servants, but having them cost money. While Kel had a tidy sum placed with Salma, against the day that she might get enough free time to visit the markets, she wasn’t certain that she could afford a maid. She could write to her parents, who had remained in Corus to present two of Kel’s sisters at court that fall. Kel wasn’t sure their budget, strained by the costs of formal dresses and the town house, held spare money for a daughter who would never bring them a bride-price.

  She was about to explain all this when Lalasa turned her head to look back and up at her uncle. Kel saw a handspan of bruise under her left ear.

  Suddenly Kel felt cold. Gently she took Lalasa’s right arm and drew it toward her, pushing the sleeve back. Bruises like fingerprints marked the inside of her forearm.

  Lalasa refused to meet her eyes.

  "You should report this," Kel told Gower tightly. "This is not right."

  "Some are nobles, miss," replied the man firmly. "We’re common. And upper servants? They’ll get us turned out."

  "Then tell me the names and I’ll report them," she urged. "Salma would help, you know she would. So would Prince Roald."

  "But his highness is not everywhere, and others will make our lives a misery," Gower replied. "In the end it’s Lalasa’s word against that of an upper servant or noble. It’s the way of the world, Page Keladry."

  Kel heard a whisper and bent down. "What did you say?" she asked.

  Lalasa met her eyes and glanced away. "They meant no harm, my lady."

  "Grabbing you by the neck so hard it bruised? Of course they meant harm!" snapped Kel.

  Gower knelt. "Please, Lady Keladry," he said. "If she’s your maid, she’ll be safe. Your family is in great favor since they brought about the Yamani alliance."

  "Please get up," Kel pleaded. No one had knelt to her since she was five. Then the tribute had been to her mother, standing beside her. "Gower, stop it!" I’ve enough pocket money to pay her for the quarter, she thought hurriedly as she stood and tried to tug the man to his feet. If I explain to Mama and Papa, they’ll help, I know they will. "She’s hired, all right? Please stop that!"

  He stared up into her face. "Your word on it?"

  "Yes, my word as a Mindelan."

  "You won’t be sorry, miss," Gower told her as he rose. "Ever."

  Kel heard footsteps pound in the hall outside. "Oh, I’m going to be late!" She scribbled a note for Salma, asking for an extra magicked key to Kel’s door, a silver noble as a month’s wages, and a spare cot for Lalasa to sleep on. She waved the note to dry the ink and gave it to Gower. ’’About the dog," she began.

  "What dog?" Gower asked. He bowed; Lalasa curtsied. They left Kel to get ready for lunch.

  Shaking her head at her folly—she didn’t need another complication in her life—Kel looked around until she saw the dog. He had jumped onto her bed to nap. "Good for you," she said, and stripped off the rest of her clothes.

  A real bath was impossible. She wet her head and scrubbed her face and under her arms, mourning the proper soak that would have eased her aching muscles and made her feel less sticky. Perhaps she could visit the women’s baths that night, though it meant she’d have to take time from her after-supper exercises and classwork.

  "First day and I’m already behind," she remarked as she struggled into hose and tunic. "Oh, how splendid."

  Kel raced into the mess hall that served the pages and squires. All eyes turned toward her; some boys growled. Lunch was the pages’ most anticipated meal of the day after a morning’s rough-and-tumble in practice. Since none could eat until everyone had arrived, latecomers were never greeted pleasantly.

  "I suppose she thinks she’s one of us now, so she doesn’t have to be polite anymore." Joren of Stone Mountain’s cultured voice was clear over the boys’ low mutter.

  "Page Keladry." Lord Wyldon of Cavall, the training master, could pitch his voice to carry through a battle or across the hall easily. Kel faced his table, placed on a dais at the front of the room, and bowed. "A knight who is tardy costs lives. Report to me when you have eaten."

  Kel bowed again and went to get her food.

  "Joren of Stone Mountain." Lord Wyldon’s level tone was the same as it had been for Kel. "Good manners are the hallmark of a true knight. You, too, will report once you have finished."

  Kel sighed. She and Joren had not gotten on during her first year as a probationer. She’d hoped that would change now that she was a true page. If Joren was to be punished on her account, she didn’t think it would improve his feelings about her.

  Once her tray was filled, Kel looked around. Hands waved from a table in the back. She walked over and slid into place among
her friends. Nealan of Queenscove poured her fruit juice while other boys passed the honeypot and butter.

  "So, Keladry of Mindelan," said Neal, his slightly husky voice teasing, "not even a full day in your second year, and already you have punishment work lined up. Don’t leave it to the last minute, that’s what I say!" He was a tall, lanky youth who wore his light brown hair combed back from a widow’s peak. His sharp-boned face was lit by green eyes that danced wickedly as he looked at her. He was sixteen, older than the other pages, but only in his second year. He had put aside a university career to become a knight. Neal had taught Kel to know the palace the year before, assisting her with classwork and cheering her worst moods with his tart humor. In return she tried to keep him out of trouble and made him eat his vegetables. It was a strange friendship, but a solid one.

  "Neal’s just disappointed because he thought he’d be first." The quiet remark had come from black-haired, black-eyed Seaver. He, too, was a second-year page.

  "I’m surprised he didn’t dump porridge on Lord Wyldon this morning, just to get the jump on the rest of us," joked Cleon. A big, redheaded youth, he was a fourth-year page. "Guess you’ll have to wait till next fall, Neal." He smacked the top of Neal’s head gently, then went for seconds.

  Kel looked to see who else had joined them. There was redheaded Merric of Hollyrose, whose temper was as quick as Cleon’s was slow; dark, handsome Faleron of King’s Reach, Merric’s cousin; and Esmond of Nicoline, whose normal powdering of freckles had thickened over the summer. All were her friends and members of the study group that had met in Neal’s room the previous year. With them were three new first-year pages, boys that Cleon, Neal, and Merric had chosen to sponsor. She wasn’t sure if they were friends or not. They would have been rude to refuse to sit with their sponsors, and thus with The Girl.

  Only one of their company was missing, Prince Roald, but that was expected. Roald, now a fourth-year page, was always careful to slight no one. He had eaten with Kel, Neal, and their group the night before. Today he and the boy he had chosen to sponsor sat with some third-year pages.