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Emperor Mage

Tamora Pierce


  Chapter 1: Guests in Carthak

  Chapter 2: Imperial Welcome

  Chapter 3: Hall of Bones

  Chapter 4: Strange Conversations

  Chapter 5: Palace Tour

  Chapter 6: Carthaki Magecraft

  Chapter 7: Waking Dreams

  Chapter 8: The Badger Returns

  Chapter 9: Daine Loses Her Temper

  Chapter 10: Steel Feather


  Excerpt from The Realms of the Gods

  About Tamora Pierce

  To those who took a struggling young writer, cushioned her in her early months in the Big Apple, and agreed that no idea was too crazy:

  Ellen Harris-Brooker

  P. J. Snyder

  Craig Tenney


  Robert WeHe

  How could I forget?

  I couldn’t have done it

  without you!


  Once again I would like to express my thanks to those people without whose expert help I would have been hard pressed to get things right:

  Mr. Ford Fernandez of Bird Jungle, on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, for advice on how tropical birds get sick;

  Mr. James Breheny, the head camel mahout of the Bronx Center for Wildlife Conservation, for his aid in tracking down the ills to which camels are prey (and for the knowledge that there are very few diseases to which camels are prey), even though I had to cut the camel diseases in the final draft (!);

  Usborne Publishing Limited of London, England, whose many reference books on classical and medieval times gave me invaluable help in visualizing Carthaki life and society;

  Craig Tenney, who introduced me to metal and hard rock;

  MTV and the Headbanger’s Ball; and

  Richard McCaffery Robinson, whose timely advice regarding galleys kept me from venturing into rough waters, and who owes me a freebie or two when his own work gets into the stores.



  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 ot
her 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 hea
d 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!”

  —Enough! Kneel!—

  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!