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Trickster's Choice, Page 2

Tamora Pierce

  “I said no,” George said flatly, hiding his alarm. The thought of his only daughter living in the maze of dangers that was ordinary spy work, with torture and death to endure if she were caught, made his hair stand on end.

  “So did Grandda,” Aly informed him. “I can take care of myself.”

  “It’s not the life we want for our only girl,” George replied. “My agents are used to living crooked—you’re not. And whilst I know, none better, that you can look after yourself, it’s those other folk who worry me, the ones whose business it is to sniff out spies.” To change the subject he asked, “What of young what’s-his-name? The one you wrote was squiring you about Corus?”

  Aly rolled her eyes as she sorted documents into stacks. “He bored me, Da. They all do, in time. None of them ever measures up to you, or Grandda, or Uncle Numy”—her childhood nickname for her adoptive uncle, Numair, the realm’s most powerful mage—“or Uncle Raoul, or Uncle Gary.” She shrugged. “It’s as if all the interesting men were born in your generation.” She scooped up another pile of documents from the desk. Soon she had the various reports, letters, messages, and coded coils of knotted string in four heaps: decode, important, not as important, and file. “So you can forget what’s-his-name. Marriage is for noblewomen with nothing else to do.”

  “Marriage gives a woman plenty to do, particularly the noble ones,” George said. “Keeping your lands in order, supervising the servants, using your men-at-arms to defend the place when your lord’s away, working up your stock of medicines, making sure your folk are fed and clothed—it’s important work, and it’s hard.”

  “Well, that lets that straight out,” she told him, her eyes dancing wickedly. “I’ve decided that my work is having fun. Somebody needs to do it.”

  George sighed. He knew this mood. Aly would never listen to anyone now. He would have to have a serious conversation at another time. She was sixteen, a woman grown, and she had yet to find her place in the world.

  Aly rested her hip on George’s desk. “Be reasonable, Da,” she advised, smiling. “Just think. My da and grandda are spymasters, my mother the King’s Champion. Then I’ve an adopted aunt who’s a mage and half a goddess, and an adopted uncle who’s a mage as powerful as she is. My godsfathers are the king and his youngest advisor, my godsmothers are the queen and the lady who governs her affairs. You’ve got Thom for your mage, Alan for your knight”—she named her oldest brother and her twin, who had entered page training three years before—“and me for fun. I’m surrounded by bustling folk. You need me to do the relaxing for you.”

  Despite her claim to studying the art of relaxation, Aly had sorted all of the documents on her father’s desk. She set the important pile in front of him and carried messages to be decoded to the desk that she used when she helped George. There she set to work on reports coded in the form of assorted knots in wads of string. Her long, skilled fingers sorted out groups and positions of knots in each message web. They were maps of particular territories and areas where trouble of some kind unfolded. The complexity of the knot told Aly just how bad the problem was. The knots’ colors matched the sources of the trouble: Tortallans, foreigners, or immortals—the creatures of myth and legend who lived among them, free of disease and old age. Most immortals were peaceful neighbors who didn’t seek fights, since they could be killed by accident, magic, and weapons, but some were none too friendly.

  George watched Aly with pride. She’d had an aptitude for codes and translations since she was small, regarding them as games she wanted to win. She had treated the arts of the lock pick, the investigator, the pickpocket, the lip reader, the tracker, and the knife wielder in the same way, stubbornly working until she knew them as well as George himself. She was just as determined a student of the languages and history of the realm’s neighbors. How could someone who liked to win as much as she did lack ambition? His own ambition had driven him to become the king of the capital’s thieves at the age of seventeen. Her mother’s will had made her the first female knight in over one hundred years, as well as the King’s Champion, who wielded the Crown’s authority when neither king nor queen was present. And yet Aly drifted, seeing this boy and that, helping her father, and arguing with her mother, who wanted her daughter to make something of her life. Aly seemed not to care a whit that girls her age were having babies, keeping shops, fighting in the war, and protecting the realm.

  Perhaps I should let her work, George thought, then hurriedly dismissed the idea. She was his only daughter. He would never let her risk her neck alone in the field. It was bad enough that he’d taken her to some deadly meetings in earlier years, meetings where they’d had to fight their way out. If she’d asked to try the warrior life as a knight, one of the Queen’s Riders, or one of the battle-ready ladies-in-waiting who served Queen Thayet, he would have found it impossible to refuse. His wife and Aly’s adoptive aunts would have had many things to say to him then, and none would be a blessing. But she wanted to be a spy in the field. That he could and did refuse. He’d lost too many agents over the years. He was determined that none of them be his Aly.

  He looked up, realizing that she had given him a weapon in her pursuit of fun. “What would you have done, mistress,” he asked sternly, “if you were a spy and I needed you to go out in the field, with that head of hair acting as a beacon?”

  Aly propped her chin on her hand. “It comes out in three washings, first of all,” she informed him. “Second, if I was in Corus or Port Caynn, it would make no never mind. The apprentices and shopkeepers’ young there pick up university fashions straightaway. Any other big city, I could just say it’s the newest style in Corus. Or I’d say that they’d remember the hair and never the face under it, just like you taught me.” George winced. Aly pressed on, “If none of that eased your flutterings, Da, I’d say that’s what razors and wigs are for.” She brightened. “I’ll wash it out right now if you’ve a field assignment for me.”

  George got to his feet. “Never mind. Leave your poor hair alone. It’s near suppertime.”

  When Aly stood, he came over to put an arm around her shoulders. At five feet six inches, she fitted just under her tall father’s chin. George kissed the top of her very blue head. “I’m glad you’re home, Aly.”

  She smiled up at him, all artifice and playacting set aside. “It’s always good to see you, Da.”

  That night they ate with Maude, the Swoop’s aging housekeeper and Aly’s former nursemaid. Maude clucked over her hair, as Aly had known she would. She loved to make Maude cluck. Then she could remind the old woman how much she had changed from the Maude who had once disguised her young mistress Alanna as a boy and sent her off to become a lady knight. Maude always got flustered by that. Alanna was now a legend and a great lady of the realm. Maude could say it was fate that had made her open-minded back then, but she knew she was being inconsistent when she said it.

  Aly liked to tease her nursemaid, not to mention everyone else. Her father knew her tricks and enjoyed catching her at them, which was fine. She knew most of his, too, because he’d taught them to her himself. She disconcerted most people, from the many boys who came calling once they’d noticed her mischievous eyes, ruddy gold hair, and neat figure to the hardened brigands and criminals who carried information to her father. She could even make her brothers yelp like puppies if she worked at it. Her twin, Alan, was particularly vulnerable, since she knew his mind nearly as well as her own.

  The only person she left alone was her mother. Lady Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop and Olau, King’s Champion and lady knight, known throughout the Eastern and Southern Lands as the Lioness, did not startle well. She had a temper and her own particular way of doing things. Alanna showed a sense of humor only around her husband. Aly knew her mother loved her two sons and lone daughter, but she was seldom home. She was forever being summoned to some crisis or other, leaving her children to be raised by her husband and Maude.

  Not that her children required any more raising. Aly was sixteen,
almost an adult and ready for adult work, as people were forever reminding her. Aly sometimes felt that everyone in her world had more exciting things to do than she did. She hadn’t seen her mother, Aunt Daine, or Uncle Numair since the Scanran war began a year before. In the last month, while Aly had been in the capital, her grandparents were constantly advising the king and queen, so much so that she couldn’t impose on their hospitality any longer. Her brother Thom, two years older, thought mostly of his studies. Her twin, Alan, who’d begun his page training three years late, was kept busy by the training master. She had seen him twice during her visit, and only for brief periods of time. She had felt left out, even as she had understood that for the time being, Alan belonged to his training master more than he did even to his twin sister. Rather than distract him from his training, she left him alone. Alan was like a cat: he would return to her when he was ready, and not one moment sooner.

  All of the young men she had not flirted with and discarded were as busy as her brothers were. They prepared to march north when the mountain passes opened, as they would any day, or else they had left to guard the realm’s other borders. None of her family would allow Aly within coughing distance of the war. So back home Aly had gone, feeling restless and in the way. At least Da would use her for paperwork, which was something.

  Sometimes she thought she might scream with boredom. If only Da would let her spy! As she decoded reports and summed them up for him, she tried to work out a plan to change his mind.

  On Aly’s third day home more reports arrived. One of them was sealed in crimson, for immediate review. She deciphered it: the code was one of many she had memorized, so she required no book to translate it. Once done, she read what she had written and whistled.

  George looked up. He sat at his desk, reading letters from Tyra. “Somebody would tell you that’s unladylike,” he pointed out. “Not your dear old common-born Da, for certain.”

  “No, not my dear old common-born Da,” she replied, smiling at him. “But this is worth whistling over. Somehow our man Landfall’s made it to Port Caynn. He’s hiding out there, with important messages for you.”

  George’s brows snapped together. “Landfall’s supposed to be in Hamrkeng, keeping an eye on King Maggot,” he replied slowly, using the Tortallan nickname for Scanra’s King Maggur.

  Aly reread the message, noting the apparently insignificant marks that marked it as coming from one of their agents, not a forgery. “It’s Landfall, Da,” she said. “I taught him this code myself, before we got him into Maggur’s capital four years back. He kept saying it was a hard day for the realm when a little girl was teaching code.”

  George thought it over, rubbing his head. “Landfall. Either he was found out and escaped in time, or . . .”

  Aly finished the sentence for him. “Or what he has is so important he could only carry it himself. Maybe both. He must have come down by ship.”

  George got to his feet. “Well, I’d best see what it’s about.” Landfall was one of a handful of agents smuggled into Scanra in the years before the war. He was vital enough that he reported only to Aly’s grandfather Myles or to George. “Be a good lass and handle these papers for me? I shouldn’t be gone more than a day or two—I’ll fetch him back here. Have Maude get one of the hidden bedchambers ready.”

  Aly nodded. “You’ll get muddy, riding to Port Caynn now,” she pointed out.

  George kissed her forehead. “It’ll do me good to get out in the field, even if it means getting some of the field on me. I’m that restless.”

  Aly waved goodbye from the castle walls as her father rode out of Pirate’s Swoop, two men-at-arms at his back. The ride would do him good. She only wished he could go all the way to her mother’s post at Frasrlund in the far north, where he clearly longed to be.

  Aly returned to his office in a gloomy mood. Would she ever find someone to love as much as her parents loved each other? She would miss such a partner dreadfully if they were separated, she supposed, just as her parents did. At least she would have someone to talk to, someone clever who didn’t gawp at her and ask her what she meant or, worse, be shocked by her. It wasn’t much fun when the only people who could keep up with her were either related or at least ten years older than she was.

  The day after her father’s departure Aly heard the horn calls that signaled the arrival of a friendly ship in the cove. Normally she would have run to the castle’s observation platform to see who the new arrivals were, but she was in the middle of a particularly difficult bit of translation: code entered as pinholes in a bound book. If she was not careful, she would flatten the delicate marks, ending up with gibberish instead of a message. She stayed at her task until she heard hooves in the inner courtyard. Gently she set the book aside and went into the main hall, then out through the open front door.

  Whatever she had expected, the scene in the inner courtyard was not it. Hostlers gently led her mother’s warhorse, Darkmoon, toward the stable. The big gelding limped, favoring his left hind leg. Aly eyed the rest of the arrivals. Ten Swoop armsmen who had gone north with her mother the year before helped the servants to unload their packhorses before taking them to the stable. The horses looked thin and salt-flecked, as if they’d been at sea. The men-at-arms looked much the same. So did Aly’s mother.

  Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop and Barony Olau, King’s Champion, watched Darkmoon as he was led away. The Lioness wore loose, salt-stained buckskin. There was salt in her copper hair, and she had lost more weight than the men. Aly knew her mother hated ships. She would have been sick throughout the voyage.

  Aly trotted down the steps and kissed her mother’s thin cheek. “What brings you here so unexpectedly?” asked Aly. “Is Darkmoon all right?”

  Her mother looked up at her: even wearing boots, she was slightly shorter than her daughter. Fine lines framed the Lioness’s famous purple eyes and her mouth, marks of long weeks in the open air, summer and winter. There were a few white strands in her mother’s shoulder-length copper hair that Aly could not remember seeing before.

  “He pulled a tendon,” Alanna replied wearily. “Our horse healers did their best with him, but he needs rest. His Majesty gave us a month’s leave. Where’s your father?”

  “Off,” replied Aly. It was the family’s code phrase that meant her father was on spymaster’s business. “He should be back soon—it was just a quick trip to Port Caynn.”

  Her mother nodded, understanding, and gave Aly a brief hug.

  “Why didn’t Aunt Daine heal Darkmoon?” Aly demanded. Daine, the Wildmage, spoke with and healed animals as easily as she took their shapes.

  “Your aunt is having a baby shape-shifter within the month,” replied her mother as the men carried her packs into the castle. “If she doesn’t change below the waist whenever the child does, it might kick its way out of her womb.” Alanna shuddered. “It wasn’t even worth asking her, not to mention it made me queasy to see her go from bear to donkey to fish every now and then, while her upper half remains the same. Darkmoon will be fine with rest.” She walked toward the castle steps, limping slightly.

  “What happened to you?” Aly demanded, keeping pace. “You’re hobbling like . . .” She’d been about to say, “You’re old,” but her throat closed up. That wasn’t so. Forty-two was not old, or at least not that old.

  “I took a wound to the thigh last autumn,” Alanna said tersely. “It troubles me some yet.”

  “But you’re up to your ears in healers!” Aly protested. “You’re one yourself!”

  Alanna scowled. “When you’ve been healed as much as I have, you develop a certain resistance. You know that, or you should. What have you done to your hair?”

  Aly tossed her head. “It’s the latest fashion in Corus,” she informed her mother. “It’s the height of sophistication.”

  “It’s as sophisticated as a blueberry,” retorted Alanna. “Aren’t you a little old for this kind of thing?”

  “Why? It’s fun, and it washes out. It’s no
t like the world revolves around my hair, Mother,” Aly said sharply. Why did this always happen? Home not even half a day, and her mother had already found something to criticize about her.

  “Fun,” Alanna said, her voice very dry. “There ought to be more to your life than fun at sixteen.”

  Aly rolled her eyes. “Someone has to enjoy themselves around here,” she pointed out. “It certainly isn’t you, forever riding here and there for serious work. You’re always so grim!”

  “You’re sixteen,” retorted Alanna. “When I was your age, I was two years from earning my shield. I knew what I wanted from my life, I knew the work I wanted to do—”

  “Mother, please!” cried Aly. They hadn’t seen each other for a year, but already they had returned to the last conversation they’d had before Alanna left. “Must you be so obsessed? I know all of this already. When you were my age you’d killed ten giants, armed only with a stick and a handful of pebbles. Then you went on to fly through the air on a winged steed, to return with the Dominion Jewel in your pocket and the most beautiful princess in all the world for your king to marry. I’m not you. If you were here more, you might have seen that much for yourself.” She wished she hadn’t made the accusation, but if anyone could make Aly lose control over her tongue, it was her mother.

  Guilt pinched the girl as Alanna’s shoulders slumped. “That’s not what I meant,” Alanna said. “That’s not what I want. At least, it would have been nice, to have you do as I did, as far as getting your shield is concerned, anyway. But the whole point to doing as I did was so you could do something else, if you wanted to. It’s just that you don’t seem to want to do anything.” She massaged one of her shoulders, watching her daughter. “Look, hair is, is hair, I suppose. If you want it blue, or green, or leopard-spotted . . . Who am I to say what’s fit for a girl?”