As soon as I saw the messenger, I knew there would be trouble. Most letters came with Brant, ambling about on his elderly pony, his working clothes so faded from the sun it was impossible to guess the original colour. Anything more important came from the Kellona’s Hall, conveyed by a high-stepping horse, the rider clad in blue and orange.
This rider wore gold. Her trousers and jacket were trimmed with it, her smart hat bore a gold feather, and the clasp on her cloak shone like the sun. She could only have come from Kingswell, from the Drashona herself.
I was lying in the garden, my face to the sun, my hands restlessly poking holes through the grass to the soil beneath. I loved the feel of earth on my fingers, dry, crumbling, full of energy, just waiting to grow into flowers or apple trees or those strange plants that curl up when you touch them. I’d woken from my afternoon nap, and hadn’t yet summoned the energy to pick up my book.
Voices at the gate alerted me, then the gate creaking as the guards opened it, and a horse clip-clopping, and not disappearing to the kitchen yard, either, but getting louder, riding straight up to the front door. A knocking, some low voices, a long silence, more voices – my mother’s one of them – and a clunk as the door closed again. Then clip-clopping back to the gate.
A message that could only be handed over directly to my mother. This was very bad news. Rolling over, I watched the rider as she left.
I slipped into the house by the orchard door. My feet were bare, so I tiptoed soundlessly through the hall to the open study door, stopping just out of sight.
“She can’t go.” That was my mother, her voice firm, the way she spoke to the servants when they argued with her. “She’s not well enough. It’s too long a journey for her.”
Me? They were talking about me?
“That’s why she sends for her now, before the bad weather sets in.” That was Cal, who was not my father, was nothing like my father.
“She has the right to claim her. We’re lucky she’s waited so long.”
“But Kingswell! How will she manage in a place like that, among strangers? How can she—?”
They were sending me to Kingswell?
A cluck of irritation, then my mother’s head appeared round the door. She’d realised I was there. She always did, I don’t know how. “Don’t lurk, Drina! But you needn’t run away. This concerns you.”
Usually I liked to pretend I didn’t really care about whatever I was caught listening to, but this was all too serious for pretending. I couldn’t possibly go to Kingswell, surely they understood that?
“Sit down, Drina,” Cal said, patting the sofa next to him. That was bad, too. I generally had to stand when I was summoned to the study to be told off or given instructions.
I didn’t want to sit beside him, so I took the opposite sofa.
Mother sat next to Cal. They always looked odd, side by side, Cal tall and bone-thin, Mother short and plump. Even the mage marks on their foreheads were different, Cal’s sweeping and flamboyant, Mother’s neat and small. Their expressions were identical now, though – troubled. This was serious.
“We’ve had word from Kingswell,” Mother said. “The Drashona is claiming her rights over you. She wants to see if you’d make a suitable heir.”
Ah, that. Well, I’d always known she might try. “Can’t you explain?” I said. “It’s out of the question. I can’t possibly leave here.”
“We’ve told her all about your illness, Drina,” Cal said. “She understands it as well as we do, which isn’t a lot. You’re a mystery to us all, petal. But she promises to take great care of you.”
“I don’t want to go! I can’t go!” I jumped up and threw myself down next to Mother, grabbing her hand and lifting it to my face. “You can’t send me away! Please!”
Gently, she slid her hand out of mine. “We don’t want you to go, but we have no choice. The Drashona is your custodian, and she has the right to claim you at any time before you reach adulthood. That’s the law.”
“Well, it’s a stupid law! She’s no blood kin at all to me. Just because my father was once married to her… but he’s dead, and you’re my mother. I should stay with you.”
Mother sighed. We’d talked about it before, of course, about the contract she’d signed when she’d been drusse to my father, giving him the rights to me. And when he died, his wife had acquired the same rights and now she was reaching out her hand to snatch me away from my family.
It was too cruel for words. But Mother had that set look about her face, and Cal’s eyes were sad like a dog’s, so there wasn’t much point arguing. I would just have to convince the Drashona that I’d make a terrible heir so she’d send me home again.
Evening board was a solemn affair. Everyone was talking about practical things, like boxes and clothes and journey times. The Drashona was to send a carriage, and one of her waiting women to look after me, and a mage, in case I felt ill on the way. Cal offered to go with me, but I didn’t want him.
“Why can’t you come with me?” I asked Mother, but she sighed and shook her head.
“I’m needed here, Drina. Besides…” She looked at me oddly. “You belong to the Drashona now. You might as well get used to that.”
“You lucky thing!” Lathran said. “You’ll be able to live in the Keep, and have proper bodyguards.” He swished an imaginary sword about. Lathran was the mage guards’ son, and a great irritant to me.
“You’ll be so grand, Drina,” Markell said. “You’ll have jewels and everything.”
I ignored him. He was only eight, and never said anything worth replying to. Sallorna gazed at me with her blue eyes. She was easier to put up with, because she hardly said anything at all. Even silent, she was still irritating. They all were, my brother and sister, and Cal. They were all so slender, so pale. I was the odd one out, my father’s daughter, a sturdy oak amongst delicate silver birches.
It wasn’t that I minded being different, exactly. After all, my father was a great hero, a not very important man who had married one of the heirs to the realm, and led the army to a great victory in the south. He had brought us a peaceful settlement, and negotiated a fine treaty. And he was a Fire Mage, like Mother. That was a heritage to be proud of, and I always glowed when I thought of him. I was proud to have inherited his looks. But sometimes I felt very alone.
“I can go with her,” Tisha said. I perked up at that. Tisha was good fun, so a journey with her wouldn’t be so bad. “I could even stay at Kingswell for a while. Help Drina to settle in.”
“Actually, that’s not a bad idea,” Cal said. “Maybe you and Millan could both go. We can manage without you for a while.”
That was a kind way to put it. Tisha and Millan were mage guards, protecting Mother and Cal from any threats, but Tisha hadn’t worked much since the last pregnancy went wrong, and Millan’s bad leg had been getting worse for years. Well, this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Then Mother had to spoil it all. “How about you, Lathran? Would you like to go too? It would be good for Drina to have a friend with her.”
I rolled my eyes. “He’s not my friend.”
“Nonsense,” Mother said in that brisk, don’t-argue way of hers. “You’re almost the same age, the two of you. You ought to be friends. You can explore Kingswell together.”
Ought to be, perhaps. That would be logical – the daughter of the mage, and the son of the mage guards, growing up together in the same house.
But Lathran was one of those disgustingly energetic boys, always running about and climbing trees and covering himself with dirt. I got tired just watching him. If you gave him a book to read, he fidgeted and squirmed and told you exactly how many pages – how many words! – he’d read until someone got cross with him and took the book away. And it was usually me who got cross with him. He was my curse, and it seemed he was destined to curse me all the way to Kingswell.
Cal took me off into the garden for a little fatherly chat after evening board. He liked to play the father, and that was fine for Markell and Sallorna, since he really was their father. But he wasn’t mine, and it was always uncomfortable for both of us when he chose to do it.
“Well, this isn’t what we wanted,” he said with a sigh, sitting himself on the bench round the cherry tree, and patting it invitingly.
I sat on the grass, picking daisies and pulling the petals off one by one.
“It will be strange for you at first,” he went on. “I hated it when I first went to my father.”
I looked up sharply at that. He seldom talked about his childhood, or the time before he was a mage. I’d learned more about him from his brother, who was a saddler here in Zendronia, and from his mother and her family, who lived a sun’s ride down river.
“How old were you?” I asked.
“A bit older than you – just about twelve. I knew my mother had been his drusse and that he could claim me at any time, but when year after year goes past, you begin to think you’re safe. And then – bam. Out of nowhere, there’s a summons. So I understand how you feel. But it worked out fine for me. I liked being in town, at the Hall, being the Kellon’s son. He had other children, so I wasn’t alone.”
That was something I hadn’t considered. The Drashona, too, had other children. “How many does she have? The Drashona?”
“Five altogether, besides you. The two eldest are eleven, like you, and you all have the same father. A son and a daughter. Then there are three younger.”
“Do they look like me? The two eldest?” Oh, how badly I wanted that! I was tired of being the oddity, the one who stood out at gatherings amongst the fair hair and the red and the drab brown. No one else had my black curls.
Cal thought about that. “I would say that you favour your father more than they do.”
Hmm. That wasn’t quite as positive as I’d hoped. I turned back to my daisies.
“Drina, I know you don’t want to go, but this is a wonderful opportunity for you. You’ll get the very best education, and you’ll have far more choices than you would have here.”
“Choices? What kind of choices?”
“Careers. Husbands. Or drusse, if you don’t want a husband. Zendronia has been good for us, but it’s a very small town.”
“It’s not even finished!”
He laughed, although it was an old joke. “Well, the bridge will be finished one sun, and the Kellona’s Hall, but stone work takes time. It’s more finished than it was when we arrived. At least we have a proper mages’ house now. But being the Drashona’s daughter will open doors for you, Drina, even if she doesn’t choose you as her heir.”
“I don’t want to be chosen!”
“I didn’t, either. Fortunately, I became a mage, so the question never arose.”
That was interesting. “Could I become a mage?”
“Well… possibly. It’s a lot of hard work. Five years of study to become a law scribe. Then, maybe, a mage, if you have the ability to work with magic directly. Do you want to? You’ve never shown any interest before in what your mother and I do.”
“I might. Because then I couldn’t be the Drashona’s heir, and I’d be able to come back here to Mother, wouldn’t I?”
“That’s hardly a good reason, Drina. Being a mage is a serious responsibility.”
It was a promising idea, but there’d be five years of work and no guarantee at the end of it. I could surely think of a quicker way home.
The journey to Kingswell was a nightmare. I was lethargic and spiritless the whole way, and the weather didn’t help. We had barely an hour of sunshine, and a dreary amount of rain. You would hardly know it was summer.
If I’d felt better, I’d have quite enjoyed the impression we made as we swept through villages and small towns. The Drashona had sent a fine carriage for me, large enough that I could lie down if I wished, which I often did. The waiting woman sat in the carriage with me, and chattered on a great deal, but if I closed my eyes she said nothing at all, and that was fine.
She dressed in a very grand style – floaty gowns with frills and flounces everywhere. Kingswell style, I supposed. I had a box full of new clothes in fine wools and soft linens, with delicate embroidery and tiny frills of lace, but all comfortable tunics and trousers. No gowns. Mother never wore a gown, and I wasn’t going to, either.
Then there was a mage, and her two guards, who rode behind us with Millan and Tisha, and an escort of eight of the Drashona’s own guard, who rode in front in their gold-trimmed uniforms. And most important of all, a driver and his wife, who took Lathran under their wing and – praise all the gods! – let him sit at the front with them, and thereby kept him almost entirely out of my way.
At last we reached Kingswell. I’d never imagined such a vast place, with buildings reaching to the sky, and great, wide streets full of people and carts and mules and wagons and so much bustle and movement. When we clattered through the archway into the King’s Keep, where I was to live, I felt energised by all the liveliness going on around me, and able to sit up and look about me.
The King’s Keep was the most famous building in the whole realm. Everyone knew of the eight octagonal towers and the great, red outer wall, which had never been breached by enemies. I’d never imagined anything so vast. Each tower was several times larger than the Kellona’s Hall at Zendronia, and the whole inner wall was dotted with windows, with washing hanging from lines and colourful boxes of flowers in vivid reds and yellows and purples.
The inside of the Keep was just as busy as the town outside. Around the inner wall squatted stalls and low buildings – bakeries, stables, shops, board houses, craft workshops, taverns and other places I couldn’t identify. I caught glimpses of gardens in the centre of the Keep, with flowers in straight lines, shrubs trimmed into balls and even the trees in neat rows. That was promising. I would have to explore when I was settled, and feel the earth on my fingers.
As soon as we pulled up outside the Drashona’s Tower, hordes of servants emerged to receive us. To receive me. There was a chair contraption, with four men to carry it, so that I didn’t have to walk at all. It was rather pleasant to sit in my chair and be lifted up the many stairs and along wide corridors, while the others scuttled along in my wake. I’d not thought much about the benefits of high rank, because in truth nothing at all had changed, but if I were forced to swear by the Moon God, I’d have to admit that I liked it.
The Drashona was at some kind of formal reception with ambassadors or some such, so we were taken to a room to wait for her. The chairs were hard and uncomfortable, covered with a slippery kind of silk. I’d never seen such elaborate furniture, all carved and decorated and painted in washed-out blues and greens. Even the ceiling had a picture on it. Another horde of servants brought out food and drink for us, so we sat and nibbled and gazed around in awe. Nobody spoke, except the waiting woman, who was used to it all, I supposed.
Eventually, the Drashona came. She wasn’t what I’d expected. Even though I knew she had children younger than me, still I’d imagined her quite old, grey and stooped, like the two sisters who came every spring to help with the festival cleaning, who called me ‘dear one’ and gave me sweeties one sun, and shouted at me the next, for unfathomable reasons. In the stories I’d read, rulers of realms were always elderly. The Drashona was not elderly at all. She wasn’t much older than Mother, although slimmer, with fair hair smoothed away under a lace cap and a silk gown trimmed with a lot more lace.
“Axandrina! Here you are at last,” she began, but as I slithered off my chair and stood, her face changed, hands lifted to her mouth. “Oh, my poor child! You are so like your father.”
I was so taken aback that I forgot to make my bow. I only remembered when I saw the others bobbing down.
“But how are you, my dear? Are you exhausted? We will take great care of you, be assured of that.”
“I’m fine, thank you… um, Most Powerful.”
She turned to the waiting woman. “Marshalia? How has she been on the journey?”
“Quite tired, Highness. She seems a little better just now.”
“Good, good. Jayna? Have you examined her?”
Jayna was the mage. She had indeed examined me, more than once, and tried to heal me, too, muttering incantations over me and touching me here and there. As if that would help. My mother was the most powerful mage in the whole of Bennamore, a natural mage, with magic inside her, and if she couldn’t heal me, no ordinary mage would help.
“I have a confession to make, Axandrina,” the Drashona said. “I sent Jayna to accompany you because she has the power to detect when a person is lying. I wanted to know whether your illness is real or not.”
“It’s real,” I said, outraged. How horrible, to trick me like that! I’d thought Jayna was so nice, too.
“She certainly is not lying, Highness. When she says she feels weak or tired, that is the truth. I could not find any abnormality that would account for it, but I hardly expected to. If Lady Mage Kyra could not find the root of the problem, no one could.”
I warmed to Jayna again. But it was still insulting to suggest that I’d been malingering all these years and had even fooled my own mother.
“Of course,” the Drashona said. “So, Axandrina, you will have a sun or two to settle in and recover before you go to the mages’ house for testing.”
That sounded ominous. “Testing?”
“Of course, child. You are the daughter of two Fire Mages. Naturally we want to find out what powers you have inherited.”
Well, that was promising. If I failed the mages’ tests, perhaps she would send me home again.
The testing was very tedious. One mage after another came and poked and prodded me, gave me objects to hold, or asked me to do impossible things – as if I could make fire! Then they shook their heads and tutted and muttered together and shook their heads some more. But in the end they agreed that I had no innate magical ability at all.
The Drashona took it well when the mages had to go to her and admit defeat. “It is not important. No doubt you have other talents, Axandrina.”
“So you aren’t going to send me home then?” I couldn’t keep the disappointment out of my voice.
She laughed merrily. “By no means. It would have been useful… but you are here because you are a possible heir for me. Kingswell is the only place where you can be properly trained for such a role, and where I can get to know you and you can get to know your family.”
That stung. “But you’re not my family! You aren’t my mother, and my father is dead. It isn’t fair to take me away from my real family.”
“It must indeed seem strange,” she said equably. “But in this case, the law is being fair to me, if not to you. Claiming my husband’s children allows me many more potential heirs. Women would be greatly disadvantaged otherwise, and we would have male rulers constantly.”
“What if I don’t want to be your heir?” I said. “I could never run the whole realm, like you do.”
She wasn’t deterred. “Not yet, of course, but in ten years’ time—”
Ten years! I didn’t hear the rest of what she said. It was too appalling for words. I had to find a way to make her see I was quite unsuitable so she would send me home.
I had a grand apartment all to myself. There was a bedroom bigger than the one Mother and Cal had at home, with its own bathing room and separate water bucket room, some rooms for the servants, and a huge sitting room with a big table and comfortable chairs – much softer than the slippy ones in the Drashona’s formal rooms. There were bookshelves, too, but they were all empty.
“Where can I get books to read?” I’d asked Marshalia, as she was showing me round.
“Oh – I have no idea. I expect your tutors will give you books to read.”
“Isn’t there a library? I’m sure there must be one somewhere in a great building like this.”
“Oh, of course, but… you should ask your tutors.”
Not a great reader, Marshalia.
My apartment – what fun to say that! A whole apartment to myself! My apartment was on the very top floor of the Drashona’s Tower. Actually, she had two of the eight towers in the Keep all to herself, but one was only formal rooms for receiving petitioners and visiting dignitaries, and the other was for her and all her relations to live in. The Drashona’s own rooms were very grand, but up there near the sky, the rooms were smaller and plainer.
All the children lived there. They were brought to meet me one at a time, a sun apart, so as not to tire me out. None of them said a word to me. The two I’d had such hopes of, Zandara and Axandor, who had the same father as me, were plain, wilting little things, stick-thin and so pale you’d never know we were related at all. The other three were babies, and as yellow-haired as a cornfield. So that was a disappointment.
But one afternoon, when I was supposed to be resting, the bedroom door creaked open and a head peeped round. Pressing a finger to her lips, she crept in and quietly closed the door behind her.
“I knew you would not be sleeping! I am not disturbing you, am I?”
I shook my head. In truth, I could hardly be more glad to see her, for here at last was someone like me, someone else who was an oak amongst the birches. Although, to be honest, she was more delicate than I was, and prettier, with sparkling chestnut eyes and plump lips.
“Who are you? Why haven’t I met you before?”
“My turn is supposed to be tomorrow, but I could not bear to wait! I am Vhar-zhin, and we are cousins. Well, in a way. My father is the Drashona’s brother.”
“But who is your mother?” I blurted. “Is she Icthari, like my father?”
“No, no, she came from the Nyi-Harn. Do you know of them?”
“Of course. The hill tribes to the north of the sun-blessed lands.”
“Oh. No one else knows where it is. You must be very clever. My father travelled from one coast to the other to find a wife, but he chose my mother,” she said proudly. But then her face filled with sorrow. “He was so sad when she died.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I expect everyone was sad about my father. He’s dead, too.”
“I know,” she said, looking at me oddly for a moment. Then, jumping onto the high bed beside me, she picked up the book I’d been reading. “ ‘The History of the Plains of Kallanash: Volume 2’.” She flicked through the pages. “This looks very dull. Have the tutors been setting you work already?”
“No, I wanted to read it. It’s all about the Petty Kings and their wars. It’s very exciting.”
She stared disbelievingly at me. “Really? Tell me something exciting from it, then.”
“Very well. I’ll tell you the story of Prince Ronnard and Princess Callinnia. That’s my favourite.”
She rearranged the pillows so she could sit beside me, and settled down happily to listen.
Once I was deemed well enough, I was allowed to join in the normal activities of the King’s Keep. It was an odd thing, but as soon as I’d arrived, almost the instant the carriage had driven through the archway under the walls, I’d begun to feel more energised. I’d expected to fade away to nothing, as I had every other time I’d been separated from Mother, but it didn’t happen, and I felt better than I had for an age.
I was to take lessons each morning, then a nap after the noon board, and the afternoons I spent with Millan and Tisha and, sadly, Lathran. We went to the gardens in the centre of the Keep, which was wonderfully restful, or wandered around the many stalls and shops lining the walls. When it was wet, we went to the mages’ house, and played games of stones or bones, or calling games. Lathran was very bad at all of them. He hated sitting still.
On rest-suns, we went out into the town beyond the Keep walls. Millan was river-born, but Tisha had hordes of kin at Kingswell, so we went to see a different branch of her family each time. They were fun, and there were generally enough fidgety boys to scoop up Lathran for some pretend fighting, and leave me with the girls. They didn’t play games much, but I kept them quiet by telling them stories.
All my lessons, I discovered, were to be held in the children’s library. This had me very excited, until I saw it. A single room, not much bigger than my own sitting room, with the centre filled with individual desks and two walls lined from floor to ceiling with books.
“Is this all there are?” I said, on my first morning there. “I thought there would be a lot more books than this.”
“This is more than enough for now,” said Magister Abranda. She was quite young for a tutor, about Mother’s age, but stern-faced. She had a nasal voice, and breathed through her mouth, which made her gape like a fish. “You can read any of these that seem interesting to you. Would you like to choose one to read now, Lady Axandrina? Then you might read aloud to us, so that we can assess your current level?”
With my old tutors, I would no doubt have accepted that for the time being, and wheedled what I wanted out of them later, when I’d softened them up a bit. Tutors were easy enough to manipulate, if you were good at the work they set. But here I could be as rude as I wanted. With luck, they would report to the Drashona that I was obnoxiously uncooperative, and she would send me home in disgust.
I pulled a few volumes at random from the shelves. “These are children’s books.”
“Well, of course.” The Magister tittered. “This is the children’s library.”
“At Zendronia, I had access to the Kellona’s library. It was quite small, though. You must have a bigger library somewhere. Can’t I use that?”
“Children are not permitted in the Keep library,” she said repressively. “No one is, without demonstrating a need. We cannot have just anyone looking at the books, you know.”
“Why ever not? And how do I demonstrate my need?”
She looked me up and down, and I could see her mind scratching round for a way to deny me, without an outright refusal. Then she smiled. “When you have read every volume of ‘The Child’s Complete Description of The World’ in this room, then you may ask to use the Keep library.”
“Where may I find these volumes?”
“In the appropriate sections, naturally.”
“Which are— Oh, it’s a game! Excellent!”
I would have rushed off at once to begin the search for these mysterious volumes, but that would have been too much fun for Magister Abranda to allow me, so I had to read out loud, and then do number work for the rest of the morning.
It didn’t take me long to work out the system. There were more than twenty children being tutored, aged from seven or eight up to twelve, and only three or four tutors at any one time. Each of us would be set some work to do, the slate examined by one or other of the tutors, and then we’d be given another problem to work on. But inevitably there were periods of inactivity waiting for a tutor to be free. In those times, we were allowed to read, or to choose a book.
Naturally, I tore through my work and then dashed off to search for the volumes that would give me the key to the wonderful library for adults. Vhar-zhin was my enthusiastic aide in this enterprise, either helping me search, or keeping the tutors occupied to give me more time. I suspected that one or two of the other tutors were furtively assisting me, too, when they could, by distracting Magister Abranda, or, once, actually pointing to one of the volumes lurking on a low shelf. It would have been an easy task if I could have searched the room at other times, or taken the books away to read, but perhaps that would also have spoiled the fun somewhat.
I don’t suppose Magister Abranda intended it that way, but setting me such a challenge was exactly the right way to help me settle in. If I hadn’t burned with the desire to win the game, I would have been desperately unhappy for those first few moons at Kingswell. I’d never been so far from home before, or away for so long, and I missed my family with a passion. I even thought fondly of Markell and Sallorna, which shows how bad things were. Mother and Cal both wrote to me regularly, and several of Cal’s family, too, and I wrote back, filling sheet after sheet with trivial details that must have cost a fortune to send.
Vhar-zhin was my saviour, a friend who listened uncomplainingly to every whiny rant of mine, and there were a lot of rants. She explained Keep customs to me, showed me the secret ways to get about or to hide, taught me how to manage the supercilious servants and often crept into my bed at night and hugged me when I cried myself to sleep. I don’t know what I’d have done without her.
It was well into autumn when I finished reading the final volume. I went triumphantly to Magister Abranda. The whole room fell silent, a score of faces turned to watch, like sunroses following the sun.
“And how many volumes did you find?” she asked sweetly.
An easy question. “Nineteen, Magister.”
“I think you will find that there are twenty volumes in the set, Lady Axandrina.”
“That is correct, but the volume on languages and scripts is missing.”
Her eyes narrowed. “If it is missing, how do you know what is in it?”
“It is referenced more than once in the two volumes on societies and customs.”
“Well, then, you still have one more book to read, I believe.”
“But it is not in this room, Magister, and you only said that I had to read every volume that was in this room.”
“How dare you answer back!” She caught her temper quickly, and gave me a sickly smile. “But I suppose we must make allowances for one with your background. The matter is closed. When you have read all twenty volumes, you may raise this subject again.”
With a look of exultation, she turned away.
I could hardly breathe. It was so unfair! But she was not likely to be swayed by tears or pleading. Perhaps there was another way?
I cleared my throat, and said loudly, “I wish to appeal to a higher authority.”
She turned back to me with a face like a storm-cloud. “Only criminals have that right.”
“And petitioners, Magister. I am a petitioner whose petition has been denied. I claim the right of appeal to a higher authority.”
“I believe that I am the highest authority there is, Lady Axandrina.”
“Higher than the Drashona?”
She laughed harshly, like a frog croaking. “You may appeal to the Drashona, for all the good it will do you.”
So I decided I would do just that.
All six of the Drashona’s legal children spent an hour with her most suns, after her afternoon duties were over and before she dashed off to prepare for some grand banquet or ceremony or other. She was always busy, but for that hour she made it seem as if she had all the time in the world for us.
She would settle the three babies first, getting down on the floor to show them a game, or cuddling the littlest one on her knee. Then she would ask the three eldest what we’d been doing. We were almost the same age, the three of us, and had the same father, but we could hardly have been more different.
Zandara, the Drashona’s own daughter, was always quick to recite a list of her lessons. She never said a word to me, although I often caught her watching me, her face as impenetrable as her mother’s. She was quiet with the tutors, too, although she did her work quickly and was much praised by them. But when her mother was there, she became voluble, describing her accomplishments without embellishment, as glibly as if she had rehearsed them.
Axandor was Marshalia’s son, and he was an idiot. He had no accomplishments to describe, other than broken slates and grazed elbows and torn books, so he lied openly, as if the Drashona wouldn’t know. And when he was caught out, he wasn’t at all ashamed.
On one of these occasions, I explained what had happened with Magister Abranda.
The Drashona listened solemnly. “I think perhaps Magister Abranda does not like to be challenged by her pupils, Axandrina. You will be able to use the Keep library when you are an adult, and the Imperial Library, too, if you wish and the mages permit. Patience is a wonderful quality to develop.”
There was still a year before I turned thirteen and became an adult. I wasn’t going to wait that long if I could help it. Besides, with any luck I’d be home by then.
“I should like a legal ruling, that is all, Highness. The Magister made a contract with me, and now I believe she is… is reneging on that.”
She smiled, and for one ghastly moment, I thought I’d used the wrong word. I’d heard it often enough, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. But she went on, “A legal ruling? I can give you my opinion, if you wish. I will attend your lessons when I can spare the time, and you and Magister Abranda may each present your case. Then I will give you my opinion. But it will not have the force of law. Magister Abranda must make the rules in her own domain, just as I do in mine.”
“Thank you, Highness, that is all I ask,” I said demurely, trying not to appear too exultant.
“And, Axandrina, perhaps you might like to call me something less formal? My own children call me Mother, of course, but Axandor calls me Yannassia. You may, too, if you wish.”
I looked at her, trying to judge the implications of that. I could never call her Mother, any more than I could call Cal Father, but using her name seemed a little casual to me. She was the supreme ruler of the realm, after all. And she was still being formal with me.
“Perhaps when you call me Drina, I will call you Yannassia, Highness.”
It was more than a ten-sun before the Drashona appeared in the children’s library, creating a bit of a stir, and some crowding, for she always had a retinue with her. Her bodyguard was never more than two paces from her side, and then there were a couple of mages and some scribes and several waiting women.
A chair was found for her, and the others were shuffled to the back of the room, apart from the bodyguard, who stood eyeing us all suspiciously in case a child or a tutor produced a knife. I suppose a bodyguard can never afford to relax. The moment you stop watching might be the moment an assassin appears.
The Magister graciously allowed me to present my case first. I suspect she thought that would flummox me, but I’d watched any number of petitions, and worse things, at the Kellona’s Hall at home. My mother or Cal always had to be there, because, just like Jayna, they could tell when people lied. Since the sessions were public, I’d often gone along too.
So I told my tale, just the plain unembroidered facts, and then listened while Magister Abranda tried not very successfully to control her temper at having to submit her actions to the Drashona’s judgment.
“It is a most interesting case,” the Drashona said at the end of it. “Not least because of the matter of the missing book. If it is not in this room, then where can it be?”
The Magister smirked. “There are a great many books here. I have no doubt it will be found in this room somewhere, Most Powerful.”
“No, I believe not, for Axandrina has examined every book. I feel that we should institute a more extensive search. Do you not agree, Magister?”
The Magister was silent. She licked her lips, but could find nothing to say. Strangely, until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that she might have hidden the book herself. I’d just assumed that she knew it was missing and so had set me a deliberately impossible task.
But if there was a search, and the book was found in her room, that would be a very serious offence. Thievery in a Magister would cause her to lose her position. I looked from the Drashona to the Magister and back again. The Drashona’s face was unreadable to me. Was she serious about this?
But she backed away from it. “Perhaps you can take the necessary steps, Magister.”
The Magister bowed, but her hands were shaking. At that moment, I felt sorry for her, even though she’d brought it on herself.
“Here is my opinion,” the Drashona went on. “I believe that Lady Axandrina correctly met the standard of the test as it was set – to read every volume in this room. This she did.”
I glowed with triumph. I had won!
Is there any word more depressing to hear? My heart sank to the floor in an instant.
“However… this would only entitle her to ask to be admitted to the Keep library. That was the arrangement, I believe. So you may ask, Axandrina, but it is for the Magister to decide whether to make the request on your behalf, since you are not yet adult.”
“And I have no intention of doing so,” the Magister crowed.
“Couldn’t you ask for me, Highness?” I said. “The librarians would have to do it, then.”
“Which is exactly why I cannot. I, of all people, must conform to the rules. No special cases.”
It was a huge disappointment. I’d done everything I could, and proved my case to the Drashona, but it hadn’t been enough.
“Never mind,” she said to me in a low voice as she was preparing to leave. “The next year will pass very quickly, and then you will have all the books you could want.”
But I had no intention of staying around for so long. The game had been fun, but now it was time to think seriously of a way to get myself sent home.
“I have some news for you,” the Drashona said to us at one of her afternoon hours with the children. “There is a group of Icthari arriving soon, and I shall be receiving them formally in the assembly room. They would be pleased to meet you, I believe, so I should like you all to attend.”
Axandor looked at the baby, who was chewing a wooden horse and dribbling. “Even Yussia?” He was such an idiot.
I rolled my eyes at his stupidity, and even Zandara shook her head, but the Drashona never showed any impatience with him. “No, just Zandara, Axandrina and you. The little ones are of no consequence to the Icthari. You three are different. Your father was Icthari, so it will interest them greatly to see how you are growing up. I am afraid it will be quite dull for you, since they only speak Icthari, so everything will be done through an interpreter. You will have to wear a gown for the occasion, Axandrina.”
“May I wear an azai? My mother always does, for formal things.”
“I remember that. Yes, it would be acceptable, on this occasion, but if the Icthari invite you to any of the evening feasts, a gown would be more appropriate. You need to accustom yourself to managing skirts for when you are adult.”
I hoped I wouldn’t be around long enough for that.
To my delight, we were allowed to be present for the entire assembly. We sat on chairs on the lowest step of the dais, saying nothing, while a long procession of petitioners and delegates came and went. The Drashona was the same to everybody, from the new High Priest to the Sun Temple down to the apprentice stablehand who felt she’d been dismissed unfairly. She never made anyone feel rushed or inadequate or unimportant.
That was why she was Drashona, I suppose, by being good at such things. I could never have been so patient with the merchant who was obviously not telling the whole truth, or the smith who was too terrified to say anything at all. The Kellona at Zendronia was very short-tempered, and if she got an awkward case, with a petitioner who argued or got flustered, she would flounce out and then everyone would have to come back another sun. Cal used to get so cross about it. “As if we have nothing better to do,” he’d storm.
The Icthari should have been seen first because of their importance, but they were late, so there was a new Durshalon first, and then an ambassador from Ghar’annish, then one of our ambassadors just returned from the Blood Clans where she’d been witness to the crowning of their new god. Crowning or whatever they do when they find a god living amongst them. Exaltation, I think it was called. And the god sounded just like an ordinary boy to me. They had some kind of ceremony for the children when they became adults – something involving blood, naturally – and this particular boy, who was perfectly normal before, became a god. It all sounded very peculiar. I made a mental note to ask the tutors about it.
Then the Icthari turned up, drifting through in a straggling group, chattering amongst themselves, very rudely, I thought. I’d read about the Icthari, of course, and even seen a few pictures in books, but I’d longed to see some in the flesh. These were my kin! Well, perhaps not these exact people, but they came from the same place as my father. At last I’d get some idea of what he looked like.
They were not what I’d expected. My mother had told me that my father was handsome and always perfectly dressed. He’d had great style, she said. These people were neither handsome nor stylish. Their clothes looked like rags, slashed and torn, although perhaps that was the fashion where they came from. And their faces were harsh, with thin noses like beaks. They looked a bit like crows, their fluttering clothes raggedy feathers.
But the Drashona was wrong about one thing, they weren’t speaking Icthari at all. I could understand everything they said.
When they reached the foot of the dais, they stopped chattering and made small bows to the Drashona.
“You are welcome to Kingswell and to Bennamore,” she said in her pleasant way.
“She welcomes you… but quite coldly,” one of the Icthari said.
“Say we are happy… the usual things,” one of the others said.
“We are very happy to be in your delightful country,” the first one said, more loudly.
“Tell her the weather here is shit.”
“Our accommodation is exceptionally comfortable. The Great One is most pleased.”
I couldn’t make it out at all. It was the oddest conversation I’d ever heard.
The Drashona spoke again. “These are the three children of your kinsman, Most Powerful Axandrei, son of the Hal Morinth deshat Shernfashat.”
“These are the traitor’s spawn,” the first Icthari said.
The Drashona again. “The eldest is Lady Axandrina, daughter of Lady Mage Kyra abra Dayna endor Durmaston.”
Traitor? My father? I was so flummoxed that I almost forgot to rise and make my bow.
The second Icthari spoke. “This one is well-grown. She will have fine tits in a year or two.”
Then the first. “Your daughter will be a great beauty when she is fully grown.”
Then Axandor and Zandara were introduced, with the same rude comments from one man, while the other made the sort of bland diplomatic noises that were usual on such occasions. Yet nobody seemed shocked or surprised by any of it.
I was very slow to work it out. It was only when I remembered that there was supposed to be an interpreter that I realised. The bland comments came from him. And the other man was speaking Icthari, yet somehow I could understand him.
I sat rigid with shock for the rest of the assembly, as petitioners came forward, were dealt with and vanished again. Afterwards, when there was food and drink served for the high-ranking visitors, I crept near enough to the Icthari to listen in to their conversation. They were standing in a line along one wall, looking out over the room.
“That one is not bad.”
“Which one? The one in red?”
“No, no! Too skinny and a face like a donkey. No, the one in gold. Look at the tits on that! Find out if she will lift her skirts, will you? Or her friend with the red hair. She looks lively.”
I didn’t stay to hear any more.
I had a letter from Cal to tell me that he was coming to see me. I supposed he had business in Kingswell, but he made it sound as if I was the sole purpose of his visit.
This galvanised me into action. There could hardly be a better time to get myself sent home, for then I could travel with him and not have to wait for an escort. A mage with his own guards was more than adequate.
The difficulty was to find some way to prove myself unsuitable to be the Drashona’s heir.
I was very glad to see him. Cal was not my father, but he had never been anything but kind to me. So when I saw his beaming face and he opened his arms to me, I flew into them and hugged him enthusiastically.
“Well, now, petal, it’s so good to see you!” he said, as soon as I stopped squeezing the breath out of him. “And you have splendid rooms. What a fine view from up here, right down to the gardens.”
“And a balcony, so I can get plenty of sunshine.”
“True. But are you really well? Your mother and I could hardly believe it when we read your letters. And Yannassia’s reports, too. You’re not overdoing it, are you?”
“No, not at all. I don’t run around as much as Lathran does, but I feel fine.”
“Kingswell must be good for you.”
While Cal went off to do magely things, I pondered my problem again. What would make me unacceptable to the Drashona? Stupidly, I had been very well-behaved so far. It would be tricky to change my attitude now.
No, I needed to do something outrageous, like starting a fire. Well, that could be dangerous, so perhaps not. But water – that was a possibility.
A flood, perhaps? Just a small one, nothing too drastic. There were water pipes in the bathing room with valves that opened to fill the tub. If they were left open, the tub would overflow and the water would flow out of the bathing room and down the servants’ stairs. There would be no damage to the stone stairs, but it would cause so much disruption! The servants would not be able to get up or down, and all the apartments served by those stairs would get evening board late, if at all. Everyone would be cross with me! Yannassia would have to realise I was too badly behaved to stay with her.
So as soon as the servants left to have their meal, I went through to the bathing room and opened all the valves on the water pipes. As the tub slowly filled, I quietly left the apartment.
“Do you see what you have done, Axandrina?” The Drashona’s voice was calm, as if I hadn’t just sent a waterfall cascading through eight floors of the Keep. “Do you see how much damage there is?”
In truth, I was appalled. I’d imagined gentle streams running quietly through the corridors and down the stairs, which wouldn’t have suffered one bit. A nuisance, no more than that.
But this… entire ceilings had crashed down. Carpets were ruined, and wall hangings and furnishings. Books had been washed away in the tide, to my great grief. It was a miracle no one had been hurt.
The Drashona had brought me and the even more appalled Cal to see the army of servants beginning the task of cleaning up. “Do you see how much work you have caused?” she said sadly.
“I am very sorry,” I whispered. I’d have preferred it if she’d shouted at me, stamped about and waved her arms and ranted a bit, as any normal person would. This calmness was unnatural.
She took us back to her private apartment, with only her bodyguard as witness, and offered me sweetmeats which I was too choked with misery to eat. For herself and Cal, she poured wine.
“Now, Axandrina, I want you to answer me one question, and you must tell the truth, do you understand?”
I nodded mutely.
“Good. The truth, then, and I shall know if you lie. Did you leave the water to run deliberately, or was it an accident?”
“Deliberately, Highness. But I am very sorry. I never meant to cause so much harm.”
“But why? What did you hope to achieve?”
I chewed my lip, but there was no point in prevarication. If nothing else, I wanted her to know how determined I was about this.
“I thought if I did something bad, you wouldn’t want me as your heir. And then I could go home to Mother.”
“Oh, Drina,” Cal said sorrowfully.
But the Drashona smiled. “Do you know what qualities I am looking for in my children, Axandrina? What makes one or another of you interesting to me as a potential heir?”
I shook my head.
“Well, it is not good behaviour, that much is certain. It is not docility. I have no interest in a child who is meek and always does exactly as she is told.” Did she mean Zandara? I wasn’t sure she was quite as meek as she appeared, but she was certainly well-behaved.
“Nor am I interested in foolishness,” she went on. Well, that was Axandor out, as well. Bother. That left me, of the three eldest. “If you had simply forgotten the water – that would have been foolish. No, I look for intelligence. Not just book-cleverness, but the sort of mind that looks for alternative ways to solve problems. Diplomatic ways. Most of all, I am looking for someone with spirit, someone who makes things happen. Even if that might be quite unconventional. Can you see why you interest me, Drina?”
So she was choosing to interpret my bad behaviour as creativity, the work of an original mind. I sighed.
“But Highness, I don’t want to be your heir.”
It was Cal who answered. “But what is it you object to? Don’t you like it here, Drina? You sound very settled from your letters. You have a friend, you like the book-work, you’ve always enjoyed the formal aspects. And you’re so well here.”
“Yes, that is most encouraging,” the Drashona said. “I do not understand it, but it is a good sign, I think. Drina’s health was always my greatest concern.”
“Kyra thinks it may be the magic here,” he said. “The whole town is steeped in it, emanating from the Imperial City, but the Keep has some magical properties too. It may be that Drina is benefiting from that.”
“Whatever the cause, she is well here, and for that reason alone she should stay. But I cannot have the Keep half destroyed because you miss your mother, Drina. You like challenges, so here is another one for you. You can exclude yourself from consideration as my heir by making yourself indispensable to the realm in some other way.”
I sat up straighter. “I could be a mage!”
“That would certainly be one way. Mages renounce their inheritance rights when they achieve that status, so you could not possibly be my heir.”
“And I could go home to Zendronia?”
“That would be one option. But it will be hard work. Kingswell has no scribery with organised training, so you would have to study with tutors and books. Five years of such study.”
“I don’t mind that. Will you let me try?”
“Of course, if you wish it. You will have to wait a year until you reach thirteen, but then you may try.”
Finally, something I could work towards that would, in time, get me away from the Drashona’s clutches. I didn’t notice at the time how cleverly she’d manoeuvred me into staying quite happily in Kingswell.
And in all the excitement, I forgot to mention my unexpected ability to understand Icthari.
FIVE YEARS LATER
The Master’s eyes were wide with fear. “It is quite true, Most Powerful. I am so sorry, but… but I had to tell you.”
“It is a lie!” I hissed. “How can such a thing even be possible? It cannot be true!”
Yannassia raised one hand to placate me. “Drina, calm yourself. No one would invent such a tale. Please, sit down. You too, Master. Let us discuss this rationally.”
She threw me a worried glance, as if doubting my ability to be rational just then. Perhaps she was right. How could I be calm at such a moment? My entire future was at stake.
The Master perched on the edge of her chair, quivering with distress. Poor Luciana! She had taken me under her wing in my very first moon of study, had encouraged my zeal and glowed with pride at my successes.
I’d enjoyed it, too. The legal side was all book-learning and I had no trouble with that at all. It was a delight to spend so much time in the library, books heaped up around me, my fingers inky from taking copious notes. And the spellpages were easier than I’d expected, just a matter of careful attention to detail to be sure the variances and additional symbols were correctly scribed.
In my four years of learning, I’d never failed the Master before. Now she insisted that I had failed so spectacularly that there was no place there for me any longer.
For what was the purpose of a scribe whose spellpages lost their magic?
I took a deep breath. There was no point in anger, and it was not Luciana’s fault, after all. She was the bearer of bad tidings, not the cause of them. It was the two mages sitting quietly across the room who had identified the problem.
“Good,” Yannassia said, watching me master my emotions. “Now, Lady Mage Jayna, would you be so good as to explain it to me, from the beginning?”
“Of course, Most Powerful. It was the Scribing House where Highness Axandrina practised which first alerted us to the problem. They found customers for spellpages started to avoid her. Sometimes, they even went away and came back when she was not there, to be sure of getting a different scribe. When asked, they said that her spellpages did not work.”
“Is that common? To have a favourite scribe, or to avoid a particular one?”
“Oh yes. People are very superstitious. If one spellpage fails, they will choose a different scribe next time, or sometimes a different Scribing House. And it is not uncommon for spells to fail, or work less well than expected. With magic, nothing is guaranteed.”
“But this was more than that?”
Jayna nodded, throwing me a sympathetic glance. I had noticed it myself, to be honest. When I’d first started working at the Scribing House in my free time, customers had flocked to buy spellpages scribed by the Drashona’s daughter. But lately, the stream of silver had slowed to a trickle. I hadn’t taken much notice at first, since I hardly needed the money and only went there to practise my skills. But lately I’d passed hours at a time without a customer, even when the other scribes were busy.
“So we checked Highness Axandrina’s spellpages, and that was when we discovered that they had no magic in them.”
“That is the part that makes no sense,” I said, forcing myself to speak in reasonable tones. “I always used the spelled paper, ink and quill. I scribed each spell correctly, I am certain. How can there be no magic in them?”
“We do not understand it ourselves,” Jayna said. “Our archivists are looking for precedents, but no one can ever recall hearing of such a thing before.”
“And you are quite certain?” Yannassia said. “The spellpages have been thoroughly examined?”
“Quite certain. There are several of us who can detect the magic directly. We can give Drina… Highness Axandrina the spelled materials and watch her scribe the spellpage, and when we take it from her, there is no magic.”
“Then where does the magic go to?”
But the mages had no answer.
That was the end of my scribing studies. There was no longer any purpose to it. I was still officially a contract scribe, no one could take that away from me, and in theory I could complete the full five years to become a law scribe, but what would be the point? My sole objective had been to make myself a mage and so put myself beyond Yannassia’s reach, and that was now impossible.
It was Vhar-zhin who bore the brunt of my bewilderment and frustration. Vhar-zhin, my friend and confidante, my supporter in all things. I stormed back to the apartment we shared, and she held me while I wept and raged and wept again.
“We will find something else for you to do,” she whispered into my hair. “There must be something we can think of.”
But I could not. For five years I had worked tirelessly towards this one end, and now I found I had wasted my time. I might as well have sat with Vhar-zhin and her waiting women, embroidering and weaving and painting and practising complicated music.
I missed the mages’ house, where I’d had my own little study room, full of books. I missed the mages, bustling in and out to discuss a difficult set of variances, or the tricky sub-clauses of a trading agreement. Mostly, I missed having my hours full, each with its appointed task, and none of it to do with ruling Bennamore.
What was I to do now? The need to go home, to be back where I belonged, burned in me brighter than ever. When I could absorb myself in my studies, and work towards my release, I could push the longing to the back of my mind. But now I was reminded of the great void in my life. It was not Zendronia I yearned for, I knew that; it was the very heart of my life, my mother. I was like a plant uprooted and tossed aside. Without that basic connection to her – to her magic – I would fade away and die.
Yannassia left me alone for a few suns to cool my temper before summoning me. She saw me in one of her private chambers between formal engagements, wearing her ruler’s attire, a gown so layered in lace and gold trimming, it was a wonder she could move. Yet she was alone, apart from her bodyguard, and from her manner you would have thought she had all the time in the world. It was an art, the way she did that, her focus so intent that you felt you were the only person she cared about. And perhaps that was her secret: for that small fraction of time, you were indeed all she cared about, everything else set aside.
She made no attempt to console me. “It is very disconcerting, to be sure, since no one seems to know the cause of this difficulty. However, the mages are investigating and if there is a solution, they will find it, you may be sure. Or if not, then you will in time find some other occupation which suits you. In the meantime, we must find a way for you to fill the hours. You are very welcome to attend me whenever I have business that appeals to you. Your advice is always refreshing.”
That sounded too close to training for heirdom to me, and therefore something to be avoided.
“Or you might find the mirror room interesting,” she went on, ignoring my silence. “All the important messages pass through there.”
The mirrors were a means of communicating between the scriberies in different towns. Pairs of mirrors were magically linked, so that a message from Ardamurkan or Yannitore would appear on a mirror in Kingswell, to be copied by a scribe. Then a reply could be written onto another mirror to be read at once many marks away.
Kingswell’s mirrors had come from the Imperial City’s scribery, now empty and unused. The Imperial City was full of such curiosities, lingering from an age lost in history. The whole place was steeped in magic far beyond our present skills. Mother and Cal talked of its many wonders – the fountains which played just for them, the flowers that bloomed and released their perfume as they passed by, and lamps that brightened and darkened all by themselves. But it was full of traps for the unwary. Only mages were safe there, and even they had to be careful.
So the mirrors had been brought to the safety of the Keep. There were still a few mirrors left behind in the Imperial City, though. Broken, the mages said, but Cal thought they communicated with scriberies now lost to us. I liked to think of them hidden deep in the southern forests, known only to deer and foxes.
The mirror room was of interest to me, and I brightened at the thought. It was so full of magic, the air practically crackled with it.
But there were other sources of magic. “Might I take a trip away? It is two years since I have been to Zendronia to see my mother.”
She hesitated. “Perhaps, but without some reason to return, you might linger on and be caught by the snows.”
“We are several moons away from the worst weather,” I said.
“It is a long journey for you, Drina. You were exhausted after your last visit home.”
That was true. I fell silent, chewing my lip, struggling to find a reason to go home.
She went on, “Some time away from Kingswell might do you good, but what is needed, I believe, is something more constructive. I have had an approach from the Blood Clans. Their boy god is making friendly overtures to us, and there is a hint that he would consider a Bennamorian wife.”
She heard the horror in my voice, for she smiled. “No, not you. Unless you take a fancy to him, of course. He is said to be a handsome boy, and very charming. But then, he has his own people crawling at his feet, so I suppose a certain magnetism is to be expected.”
I tried to reconcile this pleasant image with the bloodthirsty ways of the Clans, and failed.
“No, I was thinking of Vhar-zhin,” she went on. “She is seventeen now, and has no interests beyond the refined arts. To be truthful, I cannot imagine what we are to do with her. What do you think? Would such a husband suit her, do you suppose?”
“These people are savages, Highness. I cannot see Vhar-zhin stitching away at her tapestry or playing the querolo in such a setting.”
“The reports we get are mixed, on the matter of savagery. They are not quite running around the hills in blue paint and feathers.”
“But illiterate, and they live amongst half-wild animals. Their customs are… bizarre.”
“I daresay they think the same of us.” But she raised her hands to concede the point. “I should like you to go anyway, you and Vhar-zhin. They have asked for an official delegation to meet them at the northwestern border fortress. They have a permanent camp there, for trading purposes and formal celebrations. Discuss the matter of a wife for the boy god, but without making any commitment. See what type of people they are, what they want from us, what we might want from them. Their inner lake is surrounded by mineral-rich hills which would be most useful. They have the black-bark tree, which grows nowhere else. Or fishing, furs – you know the sort of thing.”
I did. It was depressing how much of Yannassia’s teaching I had absorbed over the years, when I’d had no idea that there was any teaching going on. Sitting on my chair at the foot of the dais, listening and watching, and discussing it afterwards with her, I’d become the diplomat I’d been determined never to be.
Even now, when I was fully aware that I was being quietly manoeuvred into a more active political role, I was still energised by the prospect of the trip. The Blood Clans, like all our more primitive neighbours, were fascinating. And it would only be a matter of suns, and then I could get back to plotting my escape.
“Do you think he will like me?” Vhar-zhin said, as we prepared for bed that evening.
“How could he not?” I said, and laughed as she blushed prettily. I couldn’t imagine any man not liking her, sweet and dainty and shy as she was. And pretty, too, much prettier than me, with her glossy black hair that fell like a waterfall to her waist, without a wayward curl anywhere. I loved brushing her hair, letting it run through my fingers like silk.
“He might like you more,” she said.
“He had better not!”
“But you might like him. He is a god, so he must surely be handsome beyond the mortal range, and tall, with lots of manly muscles and a twinkle in his eye when he looks at you. Like a certain bodyguard.”
She giggled, and I tapped her with the hairbrush. “Stop it, you wicked girl. You know he never meant anything to me.”
But only because he’d never had the chance. He was a fine-bodied man, with a smile to melt my heart, and he’d been my bodyguard for one all-too-brief period until we were caught kissing in the poetry translations section of the Keep library. To my sorrow, I’d had a female bodyguard since then, but I still had certain dreams of him.
Whatever this boy god was like, I was sure he couldn’t compare to my lovely bodyguard.
Our journey to the northwest was on horseback, since the paved roads petered out into rutted tracks a few suns’ ride beyond Kingswell. We passed two substantial towns, then a succession of ever-smaller settlements before reaching the remains of the High Citadel, the home of the Three Princes who had first settled Bennamore so many generations ago. They had come from the far north for reasons lost in history, and driven out the nomads and wild men of the hills, building their towers and keeps on fertile land along the river. Both river and princes were long gone now, their great town empty and silent.
There was a substantial inn just beyond the Citadel, enclosed by a high wall and manned by watchful guards, and here we stopped for our last night on Bennamore soil.
I slid thankfully off my horse, my legs heavy and stiff. We had not been riding hard, but I was exhausted. I’d forgotten how tired I got whenever I left Kingswell.
“I am going to see if this place can drum up enough hot water for a bath,” Vhar-zhin said. “Coming?” Then she caught sight of my face as I unwound my scarves. “Drina, you poor thing! You look shattered. Here, lean on me. You there! Where is our room?”
The inn manager led us up stairs and along erratic passageways, spinning round every three steps to be sure I hadn’t expired. She threw open a door and waved us through. A bed! I collapsed onto it in relief.
“Send up some food,” Vhar-zhin told the manager. “Fruit, something light. Soup, perhaps, with meat in it. And hot wine, if you have some.”
A tap on the door, followed by murmured voices, someone talking to my bodyguard.
Then Vhar-zhin’s gentle tones. “Drina? Will you let Jayna look at you?”
I didn’t mind that. A burst of magic from a mage always helped a bit, even if it didn’t last, and Jayna’s magic was strong, almost as strong as my mother’s.
She bustled in and picked up my hand. With Mother, there was always an immediate warmth, but then she was a natural mage, with her magic inside her, coiled up in readiness like a snake. Other mages had to summon magic from a vessel, so it took time. But Jayna was quick, and I was soon sitting up again.
“Ah, now you have a better colour,” Vhar-zhin said. “Does travelling always have this effect on you? Perhaps we should rest here for a couple of suns, until you are recovered.”
“It makes no difference,” I said. “I will not recover fully until we return to Kingswell.”
“Then we must continue as planned,” she said. “But we will keep our visit as short as possible. And when we return, I will tell Aunt Yannassia that you must not be sent away again. I cannot bear to see you like this.”
The next sun, we reached the border fortress, with its solid walls and guards patrolling at all hours. The last outpost of the Drashona’s realm, her flags snapping bravely atop each corner tower.
On the near side, a square of land was given over to a disorganised market, a place for Bennamorian merchants to trade with the Blood Clans. There was not much trading going on this sun, all activity suspended, faces turned in silence to watch as we rode slowly past. Just beyond the fortress, a deep ditch and high earth bank marked the limit of Bennamore. We filed through the single gap and dismounted, gazing down into foreign territory. The domain of the Blood Clans.
The ground sloped gently away from us, unmarked by trees or bushes, the single brown gash of the track meandering through scrubby grass. There in the distance was the curve of the lake, the last remnant of the river which had once flowed here. In the centre, a tree-covered islet. I saw no boats on the water, but perhaps there were no fish here. On the nearest shore, our destination: a scattered collection of skin tents, the trading settlement of the clans.
The fortress commander came out to meet us. “There is someone waiting to take you down to the village.” He inclined his head towards a man sitting on top of the earth bank not far away, ankles crossed, arms wrapped round his knees.
“He is one of them?” I said. “One of the Blood Clans?” The commander nodded. “I had expected a larger reception. Well, he looks quite harmless.”
“We have checked him for weapons, of course.”
“Do they have magic?”
He shook his head. “Just an unnatural affinity with their beasts. They are said to ride into battle on lions and the like, but I have never seen one with anything larger than a fox.”
“I have heard such tales. Do they give you any trouble?”
“None at all. We hardly know they are there.”
The man on the earth bank had been watching us composedly, but now he jumped up and came over to us. As he walked, he bounced on the balls of his feet, as if he had too much energy to burn. He was quite young, now that I could see him properly, not much older than me, rather slender, with softly curling brown hair. His clothes were the nondescript type that any farmer might put on for fieldwork. Only a leather necklace with an amber pendant at his throat distinguished him from thousands of other labourers.
He smiled at us as he drew close, a relaxed smile as if he were enjoying a private joke. He bowed, one hand touching his forehead, his eyes skipping from one to another of us. They came to rest on Vhar-zhin, then jumped back to me.
“I am Highness Axandrina,” I said. “I am the leader of this delegation. And this is Highness Vhar-zhin.”
He bowed again, specifically to me this time. “And I am Ly-haam. I will take you to the village. You would be best to leave your horses here.”
His accent was excellent, with only a slightly odd emphasis here and there to prove that Bennamorian was not his first language.
The fortress commander called over some of his soldiers to lead the horses away.
The young man eyed the multitude of people and horses milling about. “You have need of so many people?”
“If we are to stay amongst your people, as agreed, then we must have some attendants.”
For an instant, I pondered whether to leave some of our escort at the fortress. We had a full troop of Elite Guards with us, the mages with their own guards, bodyguards for Vhar-zhin and me, a cluster of experienced advisors and law scribes, plus various helpers and waiting women and servants. It was a lot of bodies to be accommodated and fed. But that was the custom for our rank, so the Blood Clans might as well accept it.
There was an interpreter in the group, too. Even if Ly-haam offered to interpret for us, she would watch and listen, reporting any discrepancies later. It was possible I would have the same skill, but there was no way to know if I could do the same with the Blood Clans’ language, since I had never encountered it. No Blood Clan people had visited Kingswell in recent years.
In addition, I had never confessed my ability to understand Icthari. Once the moment of discovery had passed, it would have seemed odd to mention it later. Besides, I rather liked having a secret talent. I may not have had magical powers like my mother, but this was something special I alone could do. So little of my life was secret that it gave me surprising pleasure to keep this little trick to myself.
Ly-haam led us down the track towards the village, bouncing along as if on springs, and spinning round to grin at us periodically. He hummed as he went.
Vhar-zhin raised her eyebrows at me. “Strange boy!” she whispered. “Perhaps he is simple. I hope they are not all like that.”
What an unnerving prospect. I had spent endless hours reading everything I could find about the Blood Clans, and I was no wiser for it. They were superficially a simple people, fishing or herding or hunting, apart from the beasts they shared their lives with. But there were rumours of secret ways, much darker ways.
“He may seem simple,” I said, “but he very likely knows this god-child well. They must be much of an age. So have a care.”
The village seemed as innocuous as our smiling guide. The skin tents were large enough to sleep several families, or to provide workspace as well for one family. Open flaps in the roofs allowed smoke to ooze out. I heard voices from within some of them, but no one was about. I’d expected to see people going about their daily chores, perhaps weaving or woodcarving, two skills they were famous for. But we saw no one.
“This way,” said Ly-haam. “I will take you to meet my mother.”
“Your mother?” I said, stopping dead. “Is she a leader, perhaps? I thought we would be greeted by a formal reception. We are here on official business, after all. We are here to see your byan shar.”
His smile widened, and he looked bashfully at his feet. “Oh, did I not mention it? You see, I am byan shar.”