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Lioness Rampant (Song of the Lioness), Page 2

Tamora Pierce

  Alanna shook her head. “Not for longer than I can help.” She filled his glass. “I’d forgotten how noisy cities are. I’ve been with the Bazhir.”

  “So I heard. It took some asking to find out what happened after you killed the Conté Duke.” He spoke with a peasant’s broad vowels and nearly skipped r’s.

  She frowned. “You make it a habit to follow my doings?” She wasn’t sure she liked the idea.

  He nodded. “People like you change the world; a smart man keeps track of such folk. It was a great thing, killing your king’s nephew and proving him a traitor. Duke Roger was a powerful man.”

  Alanna looked away, feeling cold. “He deserved to die. He tried to murder the queen.”

  “It bothers you still?”

  Looking at him, Alanna saw understanding. He knows, she thought. He knows about things like betrayal, and being afraid, and the looks on people’s faces when they know you did something they thought impossible. “Sometimes. Everyone admired him. It all happened at once: me finding what he planned; him revealing that I’m a girl in front of the court. I wanted to have time for people to get used to who I really am!

  “Then I killed him. I don’t even like killing. So I wonder, sometimes.”

  “Don’t fret.” He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “He was rotten clean through—take my word for it.”

  “You knew him?”

  He nodded, his eyes a distant green. “We met—a long time ago.”

  “How? Why did you hate him? I mean, it seems as if you hated him. Everyone I knew liked him, nearly everyone.” She sat up eagerly. “It isn’t fair. You know everything about me.”

  He chuckled, his eyes warming. “I’ll tell you someday, kitten—if you’re very good.” He smoothed his mustache.

  She blushed. A cautious thought warned, You’ll be in trouble if you don’t watch out! You don’t know anything about him, and he’s got you half into his arms! She drew back. “You’re flirting with me,” she told him sternly.

  “Fun, isn’t it?” he grinned.

  “Who are you? What do you do?” Alanna wanted to know. “Fair’s fair!”

  She stopped, hearing a commotion at the door. A familiar voice caroled, “Such sights the Princes never did see/And they honor the Beggar to this very day!” She winced.

  “That’s my friend Coram,” she told Liam, rising. “If I don’t stop him, he’ll sing the verse with the merchants and the fishwives, and we’ll all be in for it.”

  Liam’s grin flashed. “I know the song.” He kissed her hand. “You’ll see me again—my word on it.”

  With persuasion and bullying she got her boisterous man-at-arms to his chamber, where he collapsed on the bed. “Jendrai is back from his country house today,” he yawned. “He’ll see us tomorrow evenin’.” Within seconds he was snoring.

  Alanna let herself out of his room, planning to go to bed rather than look for the unsettling Liam again. She had unlocked her door when the innkeeper came up the stairs, rubbing his hands delightedly. Seeing her, he asked, “Be there anything else you need?”

  “I’m fine,” she reassured him. Nodding toward the noisy common room downstairs, she added, “It sounds like you have more than enough to do.”

  Windfeld beamed. “It’s a good house tonight—a very good house. No surprise, with you and the Shang Dragon here.”

  “The Shang Dragon?” She’d never had a chance to talk with one of the fabled Shang warriors. She’d always wanted to; now the gods had put her in the same inn with the best of them. “He’s here? Will you introduce me?”

  Windfeld looked at her strangely. “I didn’t think you needed introducin’, not with you and him talkin’ like you were.”


  “Liam Ironarm, the Dragon of Shang. He didn’t tell you?” Alanna shook her head. “And you didn’t know? He knows of you—he told me so this mornin’.”

  “I don’t know anyone in the Order of Shang,” she informed him. “They don’t associate much with nobles or with the Bazhir.”

  “Well, you seem to be on good enough terms with the Dragon,” the man said slyly. Alanna blushed a beet red and went into her room with a hasty “Good night.”

  To give Windfeld and the Wandering Bard credit, it was not her bed or her room that kept her awake. The bed was comfortable; the walls were thick enough to muffle the common room’s noise. At first it seemed as if little things kept her awake. First it was her cat, scratching on the door for admittance. Then it was the light of the full moon falling across her eyes, until she got up and drew the curtain across her window. Then she found the room stuffy. With a sigh she rose again to open the window only a crack, because the weather was still raw.

  She couldn’t clear her mind of thought. Partly it was the excitement of having a chance at last to talk with a Shang warrior. What she knew of the legendary order of warriors she’d learned piecemeal. Warriors named after mythical beasts—unicorn, griffin, phoenix—were the best of their order: The Dragon was the best of the best. Each Shang warrior received an animal’s name after passing an ordeal and then living in the world a year. She knew that Shang accepted boy and girl children, no older than seven years of age and as young as four, to study their hard way of life. They were required to master many kinds of weapons and, more interestingly, a number of barehand techniques of fighting.

  So Liam was the Shang Dragon. That explained why he was bold enough—or uncaring enough—to go weaponless. He had little to fear from human predators. He has dragon’s eyes, she thought, remembering how they changed color. Pale green when he doesn’t want to share anything with you, and—she grinned—blue-green when he’s flirting.

  She finally gave up on sleep and dressed, thinking maybe a ride would settle her. Within moments she, Faithful, and her gold-colored horse Moonlight were galloping out of Berat. They rode on and on while Alanna remained deep in her thoughts, not noticing how much ground they covered. She paid little attention to the road or the fog that closed in. She was too preoccupied.

  All her life she’d planned to be a knight-errant, roving the world to do great deeds. But now she was learning that such a life included periods of boredom, riding through countryside that seldom changed. Not every village had a cruel overlord; few crossroads were held by evil knights.

  At home, if the king wished it, he could put her on border patrols like the other knights she knew, hunting bandits and raiders. But she didn’t think the king would give her such work. Roald was most displeased that she had lied about who she truly was. A quiet man who preferred harmony at his court, the king said little, but he left Alanna no doubt that he disapproved of her.

  In any case, she knew Tortall. She wanted to go places she didn’t know. She wanted to see places left off most Tortallan maps—the lands south of Carthak; the Roof of the World and what lay beyond it. Surely there would be things for her to do once she’d left the more civilized areas behind.

  Moonlight stopped, tossing her head nervously, and Alanna had to take notice. By then the fog was so thick she couldn’t see the road beneath the mare’s feet. The knight dismounted, taking the reins to lead her mare, but they had plodded only a few yards when Moonlight halted, ears flat with alarm. No amount of urging would make her go forward, which worried her mistress. Moonlight was careful, but not timid. If she thought something was wrong, Alanna paid attention. She looked at Faithful. The cat sat calmly in his saddle-cup, ears pricked forward. Fog held them; it muffled even the clink of the harness.

  Now Alanna felt something odd. She sneezed. The emberlike stone she wore at her throat burst into fiery light, growing warm against her skin. In front of them the fog wove and braided itself to form a tall woman. She was green-eyed and black-haired, shining in her own magic light. The fog was her dress, glittering with drops of water.

  Alanna had only seen her once before, when the woman had given her the ember-stone. Now she released the reins and dropped to her knees, bowing her head. “Goddess,” she whispered.

  “Where do you ride, my Daughter?” The immortal’s voice was beautiful and terrible, carrying echoes of the wind and of hounds in a pack. “Is it not late for a ride for pleasure?”

  “I couldn’t sleep, my Mother.”

  A cool hand cupped Alanna’s chin, making her look up. She met the Great Goddess’s eyes without flinching, even though her body was quivering. “You have achieved all you desired, have you not? A shield is yours, rightfully won. You have slain your greatest enemy. What do you seek now, Alanna?”

  Alanna shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel there’s something important I should be doing, but I have no idea what it is. I’m just—drifting. That’s why I brought the map here to be translated. Maybe it’ll point me toward—Unless you need me for something?” she asked, hopeful.

  The Goddess smiled. “I do not plan mortals’ lives for them, Alanna. You must do that for yourself. However, if you follow the map, you will find its path interesting. But think as you ride.” She picked up Faithful, who’d been waiting at her feet. “What will become of you? Will you drift all your days?”

  Faithful chirped to the Goddess, his tail waving, and she smiled at him. Now that he had the Mother’s attention, he addressed her at length. Try though she might, Alanna couldn’t tell what he said.

  Finally the Goddess put him down. The edges of her form grew indistinct, blending with the fog once again. “For a while longer, my friend,” she told the cat. “Do not disappoint me.” Faithful returned to Alanna, who held him close. The immortal was now a shadow, her voice distant. “Who will you be, Alanna?” She was gone.

  For the first time since she’d saddled Moonlight, Alanna paid attention to her surroundings. She was in a forest, and that was baffling. This was the same road she and Coram had taken on their way to Berat. That morning they’d left the woods just after dawn, entering farm country. How could she have done a day’s ride in a few hours?

  The fog was still too thick for safe riding. Finding a rock, the knight sat to await the dawn, feeling cold, damp, and tired. She was beginning to nod off when the breezes came to scatter the mist, unveiling the road. Yawning, she mounted up and urged Moonlight into a trot. Faithful went to sleep without a word. Alanna envied him. Her jaws cracked every time she yawned, and her eyelids felt heavy. At last she dozed.

  A jolt—then a burst of pain as she struck the road—woke her. Like the stablemen and troopers who’d taught her, she filled the air with curses. There were words for people who fell asleep and dropped from their saddles!

  Moonlight stared at her mistress, wondering why Alanna had chosen to dismount and sit in the mud.

  Swearing doesn’t help, Faithful remarked. Besides, you woke me up.

  “Does your worship want me to pull the curtains so the light won’t hurt your eyes?” Alanna yelled, beet red with embarrassment. “Shall I call you for the noon meal, or will you sleep the day out?”

  There’s no talking to you when you’re like this, was the cat’s smug reply. He went back to sleep.

  Moonlight nudged her. With a groan, Alanna rose. “I can only blame myself,” she growled. “I could’ve gone to a convent, never learned to wrestle and be dumped on my head, never have broken any bones or fallen in the dirt. I’d be clean and wear pretty dresses. By now I’d be married to a buffle-brained nobleman with a small fief. I’d probably have clean, pretty, buffle-brained children.” Trying to wipe her hands before taking the reins, she found her breeches were as muddy as her hands. “Don’t remind me I picked this life. I’ve no one to blame but myself.” Moonlight shook her head as if to say she wouldn’t. “I always knew there was insanity in my family.”

  Alanna heard hoofbeats and froze. She didn’t want a passerby to see her in this fix! Determinedly, she looked away as the other horse came closer. Her hands tightened on Moonlight’s reins as her face went a darker red. If a stranger sees me, that’s bad, she told herself. The worst that can happen is for this to be Liam Ironarm, and me falling off my horse like an incompetent. She turned.

  It was Liam. He was not trying to hide his grin. “Nice morning for a ride,” he greeted her. “A little wet, though.”

  Alanna swallowed, fighting her temper. “I don’t normally do this, you know!”

  “Nor for a moment did I think it.”

  “Why are you here, anyway?” she demanded, too embarrassed to be polite. “It’s a long way for a morning ride!”

  “I saw you go out. When you didn’t come back, I thought I’d check.” Too kindly, he added, “Oh, don’t think I figured you’d run out on Windfeld’s bill. You left your man and your bags, so I knew it wouldn’t be that.”

  Alanna gasped with fury. “How dare—”

  “Don’t like to be teased, is that it?” Relenting, he said, “Hitch the mare to a lead and ride double with me. I’ll keep you a-horse.”

  “I’ll be fine!”

  With a sigh the redheaded man dismounted. “Didn’t your mamma teach you to speak polite to strangers on the road?” He put Moonlight on a lead with his big-boned gray. “I could be a sorcerer and turn you into a mouse.”

  “You’re the Shang Dragon. You won’t turn me into anything.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” he said cheerfully. “I pull on my breeches one leg at a time, same as you.” Unstrapping a blanket from his saddle, he wrapped it around her. “There now. You’re tired and wet and grumpy—in no condition to ride. I fell asleep once, Alanna the Lioness. A tree knocked me from the saddle into a ditch, right in front of the men I was to command. Bless their hearts, they didn’t tease me about it—not much. Up with you.” He threw her into the saddle as easily as if she were a child, mounting behind her and settling her in the circle of his arms.

  “Go to sleep, kitten,” he murmured. His voice rumbled in his deep chest. “You’re all right now.”

  * * *

  Coram awoke late, with a head he would not wish on his worst enemy. For a long time he waited for his knight-mistress to arrive with her hangover cure. When she did not appear, he went in search of her. It hurt even to dress. It would be worth her heartless quips to rid himself of the headache and nausea.

  After the pain of dressing, he was in no humor to find a stranger letting himself out of Alanna’s room. Hadn’t she been talking to this redheaded fellow in the common room the night before? Coram couldn’t remember.

  He barred Liam’s path. “I suppose ye’ve excellent reasons for bein’ in there, all of which ye’ll tell me without delay.” Alanna had friends to protect her name and person, as this man was about to learn!

  The Dragon grinned, recognizing the older man. “You must be Coram.”

  “I am. That tells me nothin’ about ye.”

  Liam eyed the burly man-at-arms. “It seems to me the young lady takes care of herself.”

  “I suppose ye had that from her,” snapped Coram. “She’s wrong. Is there someone in the city who’ll speak for ye?” His hand shifted warningly to his dagger hilt.

  “The Shang Dragon needs nobody to speak for him.” Liam’s eyes went a pale green. “I understand your wanting to protect her, but I don’t like threats.”

  Coram frowned. “I’m t’believe ye’re Liam Ironarm?”

  “Come downstairs, before she hears you,” Liam sighed. “Windfeld knows me.”

  The host’s verification of the Dragon’s identity told Coram it was time to change tactics. So he invited Liam to share his morning meal, and the food eased his hangover. He could concentrate better on quizzing the redheaded man.

  “Does she know?” he asked. “Lady Alanna?”

  A slow grin spread across Liam’s face. “She knows.”

  “No doubt she’s in a dither tryin’ to decide what she wants to ask ye first.” Coram thought for a moment, then met the Dragon’s now-gray eyes. “What’s the likes of ye want with Alanna of Trebond?”

  The big man shrugged. “She’s a pretty thing—different, and full of fight. I never heard that she avoids men.”

  Remembering P
rince Jonathan and the thief, George, Coram flushed. “She’s still not a woman without all virtue.”

  Liam chuckled. “She’s too good a warrior to have a bad reputation as a woman. At least, no one will call her bad when she might hear.”

  “I’d think the Shang Dragon had his pick of pretty ladies,” growled Coram.

  Liam rose. “Maybe. But she’s not just that, is she? She’s as known in her way as I am in mine.” He put a massive hand on Coram’s arm. “I’m not a village lad wanting to boast of having the Lioness’s pelt in my hut, Master Smythesson. I like her. I’d probably like you, if you stopped glumping about my being in her room.”

  He left a coin for his food and strolled out as Coram sank his face into his hands. “Life used to be simple,” he told his palms.

  Faithful jumped up to sniff at Liam’s plate. Probably more boring, too.

  After running errands until noon, Coram returned to find Alanna dressed and cleaning her weapons. “Don’t scowl,” she told him. “I’m not awake.”

  “The chambermaid says yer clothes were all over mud. What kind of larks were ye kickin’ up last night without me to keep an eye on ye?”

  “I wasn’t ‘kicking up any larks,’” she yawned. “I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a ride out of the city.”

  “We’re ye ridin’ under the horse’s belly, then?”

  Alanna could feel a blush creeping up her cheeks. “It’s too embarrassing to talk about.”

  Coram wasn’t to be so lightly dismissed. “Does this have anythin’ to do with that Liam bein’ in your room this mornin’?”

  “I got tired and fell off my horse,” Alanna said grumpily. “I met Liam on the road. He just made sure I got back all right. He never touched me.”

  “Maybe he didn’t,” Coram rumbled, as red as she was. “And maybe he’s plannin’ to.”

  Closing the door, he heard Alanna murmur, “Nothing wrong with that.”

  They reached House Jendrai as the sun touched the horizon, to be greeted by Nahom Jendrai in person. Alanna had expected him to resemble Myles of Olau—quiet, unkempt, and absentminded. Instead, she and Coram found a trim man in his early thirties, surrounded by children, servants, pack animals, dogs, and baggage. He waved to Coram and waded out of the mess.