The Glasswrights’ Progress
“Enter Mindy L. Klasky, to turn the genre on its ear. Or, at the very least, to shake it up a bit. Her Glasswrights’ series hinges on the actions of mere mortals — no elves, dragons or monsters need apply. . . . The strength of Klasky’s book lies in the emotion of its subjects. ” — Green Man Review
The Little Army… Rani Trader survived the destruction of her family, her glasswrights’ guild, and all that she held dear. When she is kidnapped from her new home in the royal palace, she must depend on her wits – fighting an enemy king in a distant land, a tyrant willing to use innocent children to fight his bloody battles. Will Rani defeat the Little Army? Or will she be forced to join it?
The Glasswrights’ Progress, the second volume in the Glasswrights Series, is available from Amazon Kindle | Amazon Print | Apple | Audible UK | Audible US | B&N Nook | B&N Print | Diesel Ebooks | Ebooks.com |E-reads | Google Play | Kobo | Sony. The Glasswrights’ Progress is published in German as Die Gesellenjahre der Glasmalerin.
<<< Chapter 1 >>>
Rani Trader swung down from her tall bay stallion, taking a moment to pat the animal’s muscled neck and catch her breath. The wind had torn at her lungs as she raced to the top of the rise, and she gasped for air, more than a little surprised that the past two years had given her the skill to ride so wildly. Behind her, several riders were strung out, flung across the tall grass like discarded chessmen. At the distant edge of the long, long plain, Rani could just make out the top of the City’s tallest tower, already flecked with gold in the late afternoon light.
Rani’s thoughts were not on Moren’s towers, though. Instead, all of her attention was focused on Gry, the master falconer of Morenia. Rani’s heart pounded as she stepped closer to the cadge that the falcon-master had set on the hilltop. Gry had left Moren early that morning, transporting by cart the sturdy birch enclosure and two prize falcons.
When Rani saw her kestrel’s red and brown feathers, stark against the weathered supports of the cadge, she caught her breath. She was so pleased by Kalindramina that she scarcely spared a glance for the other raptor perched inside the enclosure. That bird was a peregrine, a falcon that merchant-born Rani would never be permitted to fly.
“Is she all right?” the girl asked the master falconer as she leaned over the kestrel. “Did the trip hurt Kalindramina?”
Gry snorted his gruff laugh and pulled at his right ear out of long habit. “Nothing will hurt that little falcon, my lady. She’s too mean to be hurt. It’s no wonder the king doesn’t fly kestrels! I expected you to get here earlier in the day, though.” He weakened the implied criticism with another laugh.
“I wanted to.” Rani frowned. This was the first day in ages that she had managed to break free from her obligations in King Halaravilli’s court, free from the endless parade of ambassadors and nobles, guildsmen and soldiers, all intent on bringing the greatest glory to the kingdom of Morenia. Rani could barely remember the time, only a couple of years before, when she’d been afraid to leave the City walls, when she’d feared bandits and plague and all manner of disaster outside Moren. Now, scarcely a morning passed that she didn’t dream of escaping the palace and all her courtly obligations. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the sweet aroma of autumn grass.
And she wasn’t even supposed to be free this afternoon. Rani had promised to work on her embroidery. Nurse frequently assured her that she’d never find a husband if she did not master neat, even stitches in her handwork. Bristling against the injustice that made her old enough to waste her days entertaining visiting nobles but young enough to be subject to Nurse’s jurisdiction, Rani had nodded in reluctant agreement and promised to try harder. Promised, that was, until Nurse had bustled out of sight.
Of course, Rani justified, Nurse might have relaxed her vigil if she’d known that Kalindramina was ready to fly. Even though the old woman knew nothing of falconing, Rani might have convinced her that the small raptor was a needy creature in the world of the Thousand Gods, a poor soul that required human contact. Besides, Rani could have explained, she herself must learn to watch over man and beast if she were eventually to count herself a good guildmistress.
For Rani held the future of the glasswrights in her hands, as surely as she had recently gripped her stallion’s reins. It would likely take decades, but the former apprentice intended to rebuild the guild that had been destroyed two years before. The stained-glass makers had fallen victim to rumors and lies, to the king’s mistaken belief that the artisans had been responsible for the Crown Prince’s assassination. The new king, Halaravilli, had held true to his word, though, and he had sent a notice throughout his lands that the glasswrights had been forgiven, that they could return to Moren. Unfortunately, few of the guildsmen had trusted the royal proclamation. They remembered bloodshed and torture; they remembered betrayal and death.
Rani was determined, though. Even if she had to temporarily leave the comfort of Morenia, even if she had to travel to some distant land to learn her craft, she would see the glaziers return to Hal’s court. And years from now, Rani would be responsible for her own master craftsmen, for the journeymen and apprentices. Of course, she’d also need to watch over their horses, over the cats that she would keep in the granary to chase the mice, over the caged birds that would inspire the masters with their song. A kestrel would fit well into the menagerie.
If Rani learned to manage the wild raptor.
Drawing her thoughts back from the beasts that would eventually sleep by the hearth in her own guildhall, Rani stretched her fingers toward Gry’s hound. Soon, she would learn how to hunt with her own dogs. For Kalindramina’s first flight, though, Rani would rely on the falcon-master’s experienced hound to flush autumn-fat grouse from the brush. The dog sniffed at Rani’s hand curiously, but he jumped back toward his master as another horse gained the crest of the low hill.
A young woman clung to the reins, sawing back on her mount’s mouth as if she would decapitate the poor beast. The girl’s shoulder-length hair was whipped by the wind of her passage, and her narrow features were pulled into a grimace. “Ye might’ve waited fer me!” she squawked, before Rani could step forward to help her. “Ye might remember that some o’ us aren’t used t’ perchin’ on a cursed animal’s back!”
“And you might remember that you’re supposed to be a lady, Mair.” Rani grinned. “You promised His Majesty that you would stop squawking like a Touched hen every time you speak.”
“And you promised His Majesty that you would stay within sight of the city walls when you go out riding. There’s a whole lot of lying going on in the royal palace, isn’t there?” Mair’s retort was quick, but Rani noted that her companion slipped back into the cultured tones of the court. Two years of living in the palace had smoothed Mair’s rough brogue, but Rani was still a little surprised every time she heard the Touched girl speak in the round, soft tones of Morenia’s nobility.
Of course, Mair was a quick student. That skill had kept her alive for more than sixteen years, years that had been astonishingly rough in the City streets. Mair refused to talk about her childhood, about the parents who had abandoned her to her life among the City’s teeming population of lawless, casteless children. All that Rani knew was that Mair had gathered a group of loyal Touched around her, children who were willing to lay down their lives for their leader. In exchange for that devotion, Mair had kept her troop safe and warm and fed, even when the king’s guard had tried repeatedly to drive out the group of casteless urchins.
“Cursed beast! Stand yer ground!” Mair swore at her mount as it shied away, and she sawed at the animal’s tough mouth with arms that trembled on her reins. Rani’s falcon, Kalindramina, shifted her talons on her bow-shaped perch, ruffling her feathers at the disturbance. The peregrine, though, remained aloof beneath its buckskin hood.
“Mair,” Rani chastised. “Don’t frighten Kali. You know you won’t get anywhere if you manhandle your horse like that. Hold the reins firmly, and don’t pull sideways.”
“Mind your own horse,” Mair snarled, and Rani swallowed a laugh as she turned her attention back to the falcon-master, who had watched the entire exchange with an indulgent smile. “Gry, can we fly Kali now?”
The old man’s eyes darted to Rani’s hand as she pulled on her heavy buckskin falconing glove. He tugged at his ear and gazed out across the plain toward Moren. “We’d best wait for the prince, my lady. He’ll be offended if we start without him.”
“He could have been here already, if he didn’t ride like a noble reviewing his troops,” Rani grumbled. “Besides, the prince already knows that his Maradalian will fly well. Please, Gry! I don’t want to look like a fool in front of him.”
The falcon-master glanced at the hooded peregrine, perched next to Kalindramina on the sturdy cadge. He tugged at his ear again, and a frown creased his forehead. “It’s not a contest, my lady. You must respect the bird, as she’s learned to respect you. You’re not competing with Prince Bashanorandi today.” Shaking his head in rebuke, the falconer stepped away from the two girls, becoming unusually interested in the raptors’ jesses, the strips of leather that tethered them to their perches.
“She’s always competing with Bashi,” Mair noted dryly to the back of Gry’s head as she finally slipped to the ground from her jittery mount. “You know, Rai, you were wrong to speak so harshly to the soldiers when we rode through the city gates.”
“They were taking too long to pass us through. They know we’re allowed to come and go. They were only dragging their feet because Bashi was there too.”
“They were doing their job.”
Rani glared at Mair. “So, it’s come to this? You’re going to tutor me in being kind to soldiers?”
Mair grimaced at Rani’s sharp tone. “I’m telling you to be kind to people. I don’t care what caste the men are, they don’t deserve the cheek you offered them.”
“Cheek! I haven’t been cheeky a day in my life!”
“Call it what you will. Some of us adapt better to our life in the castle than others.”
“You take that back, Mair! I didn’t do anything wrong with the soldiers!”
“Of course not.” Mair paused. “My lady,” she added sweetly.
“Mair, if you want to criticize me, do it outright.”
“You’ll know when I criticize you, Rani Trader.”
The words bit hard, spiced with deep-rooted anger, and Rani blinked back sudden tears. “You used to call me Rai.”
“You used to act like one of the Touched.”
Rani spluttered, digging for an answer, but no retort came easily. Instead, she glared at Gry’s back, taking in the falcon-master’s supposed interest in one of the joints of the portable cadge. Gry had been born one of the casteless Touched, like all of the nobles’ servants. Through the years, he had worked hard to gain his employers’ trust, to earn his success as master falconer. Rani looked away from the silent condemnation of his still back, turning her attention to the four soldiers who finally drew near the top of the gentle rise. “My lady,” called the captain, bowing slightly from his saddle. “It’s dangerous for you to ride alone.”
“I’m not alone!” Rani exclaimed, and her voice was sharper than she intended. She swallowed hard and forced her words into a less shrill register. “I rode with my lady-in-waiting, Mair. And I rode to the king’s own falcon-master. Besides, we were never out of your sight, Farantili.”
“Much good it would do me, if I had to watch enemy troops ride out of those trees and carry you off.” Farantili nodded his grizzled head toward the copse that bled across the bottom of the hill.
Rani covered a shiver of concern with scornful words. “What enemy would come so close to Moren? We’re near enough to hear the Pilgrims’ Bell from here. By all the Thousand Gods, you worry too much, Farantili.”
“I’m paid to worry, my lady.” The soldier’s words did nothing to ease Rani’s roiling temper, especially when he edged his horse between hers and the trees. “I’ll send one of my men down to check out the woods, before you fly the kestrel.”
“Farantili, that’s ridiculous. It’s already getting late in the day. If we have to wait for your scout, we won’t get back to the city until after dark.”
“Of course, my lady. We should turn back now. You can practice your falconry another day.”
Mair did not bother to disguise her smirk of amusement as Rani yelped in frustration and whirled on Gry, ready to plead her case to the master. Before she could speak, though, the last handful of horsemen rode up. Farantili bent low in his saddle and Gry swept into a deep bow, but Rani scarcely inclined her head.
“Bashi,” she murmured, and she watched anger flare across the prince’s pale face. Prince Bashanorandi had no use for childish nicknames, particularly names that had been bestowed by the current king, when both boys had lived in the royal nursery.
“You had no right to leave me back there!” Prince Bashanorandi scowled as he fought to rein in his feisty brown stallion. “You know that Hal would not want us riding this far from Moren’s walls. He’d have your hide if he saw you jump that creek! When will you stop to think, Ranita? You’re not a merchant brat any longer.”
But you’re a brat, all the same.
No, Bashi was not fool enough to utter those words, not in front of the master falconer and the soldiers. Nevertheless, he thought them so clearly that Rani’s hands curled into fists as expressive as Kali’s talons. She bridled at the bitterness in Bashi’s superior tone, even as she tried to remind herself that the past two years had not been easy for the bastard son of two proven traitors.
Bashi had been indirectly implicated in the plot to assassinate Morenia’s Crown Prince. Many thought that the bastard should have been executed like his scheming mother and father. King Shanoranvilli, though, had mandated from his death bed that the boy he had always known as his youngest son should live. Even after the heartbroken old man died, Halaravilli had not withdrawn that sanctuary. In fact, Hal had left Bashanorandi the title of “prince,” figuring that the appellation might help rein in the rebellious youth.
But Bashi had continued to be difficult, refusing to assume any responsibility in administering the kingdom. Hal had rapidly found himself snared in a paradox: he could have forced his so-called brother to act as a councillor, to be responsible for Moren’s day-to-day administration, as was typical of a Crown Prince. But everyone knew that Bashi wasn’t the Crown Prince. He wasn’t of Morenian royal blood at all.
The situation was frustrating, and Hal took out his aggression with his sometime brother in a thousand ways, berating Bashi in the dining hall when the youth arrived late for supper, ridiculing Bashi’s notions for a feast-day honoring all the Thousand Gods.
And Bashi took out his anger in ways that were safe, especially by tormenting the lower-caste Rani. The prince had arranged for her apartments to be on the darker, southern side of the palace compound, and he had snagged the best palace seamstress for himself. He had even managed to snare the treasured dinner place at Hal’s right hand.
Rani was forced to grit her teeth and accept the ignominy. She was, after all, a merchant girl who only teetered on the edge of the noble caste. Now, painfully aware of all the limits on her rights, Rani harnessed her self-control. “I didn’t leave my escort ‘far behind,’ my lord. You must not have noticed that we’re at the top of a hill. The soldiers could see Mair and me, as we rode to this vantage point.”
“A lot of good it would have done, if you’d been attacked.”
“And who’s going to attack us, this close to the City?”
“Ranita, you know there’ve been tales of marauders,” Bashi sneered. As his face twisted around his superior words, he looked younger than his fifteen years. “Even if you haven’t been allowed in Council meetings, you can’t have missed the stories in the streets.”
“You may be frightened by tales meant for children, o prince, but I am not. I know the difference between a monster that lurks beneath a child’s bed and an invading army.”
“No one said that it would take an army,” Bashi answered hotly. “A single soldier with a sharp blade could kill you, before you even knew that you’d been taken.”
Mair cut in before Rani could spit out a reply. “Aye, Prince Bashanorandi. A single blade is all it would take to cut down any of us. That’s why we all must stay united. Against our true enemies.” Mair accented her pious declaration by settling her right hand on the hilt of the dagger she wore at her waist, contrary to the delicate customs of the noble caste. There were, after all, advantages to being one of the casteless Touched.
“Now, now,” interrupted Farantili. The grizzled soldier had let his wards argue among themselves, accustomed by now to their squabbles. When hand touched steel, though, he apparently deemed it time to intervene.
“Lady Rani, Lady Mair,” Gry took advantage of the broken hostilities to regain the young people’s attention. The master falconer added the noble title to the girls’ names, as if he were accustomed to following the polite form of address with only a few syllables, instead of a noble’s long name. “It is getting late in the day. If these falcons are going to fly, they should do it now, before dark. It can be hard enough finding them at noon, once they’ve taken their prey in the high grass.”
Rani bit back a sharp reply, swallowing her inclination to claim that she had been ready to fly the falcons hours before. Instead, she turned her back on Bashi, stepping toward the falcon-master with a nervous energy. “Do you really think Kali’s ready, Gry? Do you think she’ll come back?”
The old falcon-master shrugged, and his brows beetled ominously. He tugged again at his ear. “If I didn’t think she was ready, I wouldn’t have brought her out here. There’s no way of knowing for sure, though, until you try.”
“You’ve trained her, haven’t you? You’ve been around my mews long enough to understand that this kestrel won’t be acting like a dog. She won’t come back out of love for you. She’s still a wild beast.”
“I know that!” Rani protested, fighting the hot blush that stole across her cheeks as she heard Bashi choke on a guffaw. “It’s just that after all the time and energy we’ve put into training her….”
The master falconer squinted as he settled a hand on the cadge. “She flies to your lure, doesn’t she?”
“And she’s stopped bating when you hold her on your fist?”
“Yes.” Rani fought back a grimace, remembering her frantic struggle the first time the falcon had tried to fly away from her gloved hand, even though the bird had been held close by the leather jesses around her talons. Rani’s face had been batted by the tips of the falcon’s wings, and she had waved her arm in reflexive fear, upsetting the poor kestrel even more. Rani had been grateful for the thick cuff of her buckskin glove as Kali dug in her talons above her would-be mistress’ wrist.
The master falconer persisted. “And you know your kestrel’s hunting weight?”
“Yes.” Rani struggled to keep doubt from her voice. Hunting weight – that had proven to be the hardest part of the discipline of falconry. Rani had held Kalindramina within minutes after the bird was first caught in Gry’s snare. The little falcon had fought with the power of all the Thousand Gods, desperate to be free. Rani, though, had followed the master falconer’s instructions with trembling hands. She had slipped a long band of leather about the wild bird’s body, pulling the noose tight to cinch in the kestrel’s desperately flapping wings. With Gry’s help, Rani had managed to settle a hood over the falcon’s head, barely cinching the soft buckskin tight before the bird’s cruel beak could slash through the leather.
Kalindramina had quieted then. She had stopped thrashing her wings, and her talons had ceased their frantic opening and closing. Nevertheless, the kestrel’s heart had pounded, quivering faster than an infant’s as Rani pressed her fingers against the bird’s breast-bone. “Aye,” Gry had crooned. “You feel that? D’you feel the meat on her? We’ll let her lose a little of that flesh, so that she’ll fly when we ask her. A hungry falcon is a trapped falcon. A hungry kestrel stays to eat. A hungry bird can be recaught.”
Rani had checked the breast-bone again, and one more time, before she was certain that she knew the feel of Kalindramina’s full fed weight. Then she had nodded, and Gry had taken the kestrel away to the mews.
Now, a breeze picked up on the hilltop as Rani pressed a gentle finger against her bird’s chest. The girl had grown accustomed to the miniature thunder that pounded behind the deceptively fragile cage of bones. Kali’s heart yearned to fly free, to soar above the grasslands. The falcon longed to bank against the wind, spying the ground, watching for prey. Rani nodded to Gry, registering the weight of the hungry kestrel. “Aye. She’s ready to fly.”
“Let’s fly her then.” The bow-legged falconer waited for Rani to step up to the cadge. The girl took a deep breath before settling the falcon on her gloved fist. She fumbled with the hood for a moment, but then Kalindramina was blinking in the late afternoon light, cocking her head to the side as she looked at Rani. The girl drew in her breath sharply, snared as always by the beauty of the tiny feathers that fanned out from the falcon’s eyes.
Bashi pushed past Rani to the cadge. As he reached for Maradalian, he grunted, “Aye, let’s go.”
Rani squealed her protest. “No!”
“Gry.” Bashi’s single word held an entire argument.
“Bashi, you can’t!” Rani complained. “You know Maradalian will catch the prey. She’s faster than Kali, and larger. It’s not fair!”
“The Thousand Gods favor the fast.” Bashi stripped off his peregrine’s hood, settling the bird on his gloved fist with brutal efficiency.
“My prince,” Gry began, clearly uncomfortable. “You know how important it is that Kali succeed on this first flight. The bird is too valuable to break on a whim.”
“Oh, all right!” Bashi exclaimed. “You have my word. I’ll keep Maradalian on my fist until after Kali has flown.”
“But –” Rani began to protest.
“Surely Gry has taught you enough about falconing that you understand Maradalian won’t have a chance? Your kestrel will have the advantage of height and speed as she drops toward the prey.”
“I know that!” Rani snapped, irritated that Bashi was instructing her as if she were a child. “It’s just that –”
“What? You think that Kalindramina is too weak to hunt, even with the advantage of height?”
“No! I only…. Please –” Rani began again, but this time she was cut off by the soldier, Farantili.
“Perhaps, Your Highness, we should simply wait for another day.” The guard addressed his comment to Prince Bashanorandi as he looked morosely at the lengthening shadows.
“Ranita?” Bashi bowed toward the former apprentice, ceding her the choice with a twisted smile.
“No,” she answered miserably. “Let’s get this over with.”
Gry waited a moment for her to confirm her decision with an unhappy nod, and then he whistled at his hound. The little dog had watched the exchange with growing excitement, whining softly as both falconers settled their birds on their wrists. Now, he understood his mission, and he coursed out over the grassy hillside, nose low to the ground as he ranged back and forth. Rani followed, taking long strides in her riding leathers, remembering to croon softly to Kalindramina. The little kestrel was fast enough to get the prey, even if Maradalian were competing. Rani knew that. She just had to repeat it to the falcon a few times.
Bashi crashed behind them, the grass rustling loudly against his legs. Gry came next, then Mair and the soldiers.
An excited hush fell over the humans as they watched the dog. The sun was visibly lower in the sky, and the hound had covered half the distance to the shadowy copse of trees before he found his prey. Just as Rani was preparing to offer up a special prayer to Fairn, the god of birds, the little dog finally snapped to attention, all of his canine energy focused on a large tuft of grass. Gry nodded tersely and waved his hand, indicating that Rani should move around to the far side of the tussock.
Rani complied, aware that her heart was beating almost as fast as her falcon’s. She watched the hound, hoping, praying that the beast would remember its training, would wait until Kali was ready. The dog quivered with excitement, but he stayed low in the grass, head pointing at the hidden grouse like an arrow.
Rani’s fingers were slick with sweat as she loosened Kali’s jesses. She clenched the muscles in her arms and tossed the falcon gently skyward. The kestrel did not hesitate; instead, she caught a puff of breeze and began to climb above Rani, circling to use the wind to her best advantage. Rani caught her breath. This was the moment when Kali could choose to fly away, could choose to find her own meal, her own prey to satisfy the hunger that burned in her belly.
The kestrel did not flee, though. Instead, she reached a comfortable height above her mistress, banking into the wind and settling her wings against the draft, managing to stay even with scarcely any effort. Rani watched for only a moment, until she was certain that the kestrel was waiting on, and then she shouted a harsh command to the dog.
The hound leaped forward as if propelled by a spring, barking as grouse exploded from the tussock of grass. The birds flapped their wings desperately, struggling to clear the ground, to escape the slashing canine teeth. Rani’s heart leaped into her throat, almost strangling her with its sudden pounding. Her glance flashed from the dog to the grouse to Kalindramina.
As if Rani were staring through a tunnel, she saw the falcon’s wings pull in toward its body. The sleek red and brown feathers moved with precision, calm and quiet despite the turmoil on the ground below. Rani imagined she could see the kestrel’s sharp eye; she felt it measure the distance to the grouse, calculate how far the slow prey could travel while the falcon plummeted. Then, Kali’s talons were extended, and the kestrel plunged from the crystal sky.
Kalindramina never caught her prey.
Even as Rani watched, an ebony lightning bolt flew from the earth into the sky. The grey and white arrow caught Kali in the middle of the kestrel’s plunge, knocking the bird aside. Feathers exploded in mid-air, and Rani’s heart was sheared by her falcon’s furious cry. Even as the grouse fluttered to safety, Rani tried to decipher the scene before her. The hound took up an excited barking as Rani ran forward. The girl ignored the dog, ignored the rough grass, ignored everything except the whirlwind that tore across the ground.
Maradalian, Bashi’s peregrine, screamed from the tall grass, struggling to lift its prey to safety. That kestrel prey, though, thrashed about, shrieking its own desperate cry. “Kali!” Rani added her panic to the melee. “Gry! Stop them!”
The old falconer, though, understood the danger of getting between two fighting raptors. He knew too well their razor talons, their tearing beaks. Gry held his ground. Maradalian was the larger bird by far, and more experienced in flying with jesses attached. Kali was struggling to fight her way free, screeching her rage, flapping her red and brown wings.
Rani reached into the avian whirlwind, leading with her buckskin glove. Maradalian slashed at her with a sharp beak and Rani swore, grasping at the bird with both hands. Before the peregrine could react, Rani sucked in her breath; Kali had caught her unprotected left palm with a dagger-sharp talon. “Gry!” Rani panted again, desperate for assistance.
The falcon-master could not move, though, before the kestrel fought its way free from the ground. Even as Rani grasped at Maradalian’s jesses, Kalindramina took to the sky. The red and brown bird pumped her wings hard to gain height, and Rani thought that she must be injured to labor so hard. “Kali!” she gasped, but the kestrel only circled once before she flew off to the east, pushing toward the copse of trees.
Rani raised her bleeding hand to her mouth, sucking at the jagged wound even as she watched her treasure disappear into the sky. Blood flowed freely from the slash, and the salty taste on her tongue made her stomach tighten.
Even as she fought the urge to gag, Gry stepped forward, managing to slip a hood over Maradalian’s frantic eyes. The falcon-master stood still for a moment, blinking in disbelief, and then Prince Bashanorandi stepped forward to claim his falcon. His face was pale as he settled the bird on his gloved fist, and he sucked breath between his teeth when he saw the jagged slash across Rani’s hand. For just an instant, he looked precisely like a fifteen-year-old boy, caught breaking the rules.
“Bashi!” Rani spat. “You did that on purpose!”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“You wanted to kill Kali!”
The prince’s tongue darted over his chapped lips. “I never wanted any such thing! I held back until Kalindramina had the height.” His gaze followed the course that the kestrel had flown, and he shook his head. He swallowed hard before adding plaintively, “I assumed she’d have the skill to catch her prey.” Bashi settled a protective hand against the dark grey feathers of his now-calm peregrine, then he reached into a pouch at his waist and pulled out a kerchief. “You’re bleeding all over. Wrap your hand with this.”
Rani wanted to throw the cloth at his feet, but she dared not. Mair stepped forward to bind up her wound, not bothering to disguise a hateful glance toward the prince. Bashi became absorbed with his peregrine’s feathers, and he muttered, without looking up, “You have to admit, Rani, Maradalian didn’t have much of a chance, flying from my fist.”
“I don’t have to admit anything, you bastard!” Rani sucked in her breath as Mair knotted the kerchief across her palm.
Prince Bashanorandi paled still further, and his lips turned to grim stone. Maradalian sensed his tension and the peregrine bated, trying to fly from his gloved fist, only to be pulled up short by her jesses. Bashi soothed the bird mechanically before he turned back to Rani. When he spoke, the words were pulled out of him like wool thread stretched on a spindle. “So you would remind me, merchant girl. Every single day, you would remind me.”
Rani saw the raw anger in Bashi’s eyes, recognized that the better part of his rage was because Mair and the soldiers had witnessed their altercation. For just an instant a chill crept up Rani’s spine. Before she could reply, Bashi spun on his heel and marched up the hill toward the cadge. Gry followed close behind, but the soldiers waited until the girls were ready to make the climb. Rani lingered for a long moment, staring east into the gathering night-time gloom, toward the copse where Kali had disappeared.
Mair whispered, “Don’t even think about it, Rai.”
“She might be there.”
“Why would she? She’s frightened and hungry. And free.”
“That kestrel is my responsibility, Mair. She might get tangled by her jesses. I trained her for four months –”
“Lady Rani,” Gry called from the cadge. Even in the dim twilight, Rani could make out the falconer’s impatience as he helped Bashanorandi settle Maradalian on a perch. The stocky man’s voice was harsh as he spat out his frustration with Rani, with the royal prince, with the loss of one of his birds. “It’s not likely that Kalindramina stopped at the trees. She’ll be far away by now.”
“I have to find out for sure.”
“It’s getting late, Lady Rani!” The falconer tugged at his ear as if he would rip it away from his skull. “King Halaravilli will be angry!”
“Aye, Gry. Bashi should have thought of that before he flew Maradalian.”
The falcon-master shrugged. “Bashi wasn’t thinking.”
The prince moved before Rani could realize what was happening. Pulling a curved dagger from the top of his boot, Bashi slashed his blade across the side of Gry’s throat. “My name is Bashanorandi, you Touched dog!”
Gry cried out and sank to his knees, even as Rani shouted the falcon-master’s name. In a glowing ray from the setting sun, Rani could see Bashi’s face, could make out the momentary horror etched across his eyes. The prince was clearly astonished by his own action, and his right hand trembled on his curved knife. Bashanorandi looked up at Rani, reaching toward her with his empty hand, grasping like a child.
“In the name of Fen, what have you done?” Rani croaked the question before she could think.
She saw Bashi register her words, saw him absorb the name of the god of mercy like a slap across his face. His cheeks flushed crimson beneath his ginger hair, and before Rani could speak again, he had whirled on the stricken falcon-master, drawing back his fine leather boot to sink his toes hard into the falconer’s side. The stocky man curled up reflexively, the action making blood spurt from his throat. He pleaded with the prince, making a horrible gurgling sound.
“Your Highness!” barked Farantili, sprinting to the hilltop. “Leave him be!”
Bashi drew back, trembling with rage. Rani stared at the prince in amazement, unable to comprehend what he had done. Mair’s eyes blazed in the twilight, and she rushed to the master falconer, tugging at her cloak in a futile attempt to rip it into bandages.
“Stand back!” Bashi ordered. He snatched at Mair’s arms, dragging her away from Gry. “Don’t get near that Touched dog!” Even as Mair fought against the prince’s grip, Farantili stepped forward. “Soldier! Don’t even think about helping him!”
“He’s a finer man than you’ll ever be,” Farantili grunted, falling to one knee beside the stricken falconer. Gry’s hands and feet twitched, and his body began to spasm.
“Leave him!” Bashi’s throat tore on the shout, and he fumbled for his curved blade. “That’s an order, man!”
For just an instant, Farantili stared up at his liege, his eyes dark with unspoken emotion. Then, the soldier turned back to the falconer, and he began to mutter soothing words, trying gently to view the wounded man’s gaping throat. Bashi gasped in disbelief, and then he raised his curved blade. “To me!” he cried, flashing a glance over his shoulder at the other guards.
There was a moment’s hesitation, while loyalties fought among themselves, and then a tempest broke over the hillside. Metal clanged against metal. Horses whinnied in panic, the sound high and chilling on the twilight breeze. Maradalian bated from her perch, fighting her hood and jesses. One of the soldiers crashed into the cadge, splintering the birch supports.
As Rani watched, Farantili was shoved to the ground amid the shambles of the cadge. Another soldier stepped up, menacing the fallen fighter with a short sword. Rani cried out, desperate to stop the bloodshed, but before she could make herself heard, another guard was cut down, bellowing as his hamstring was sliced by one of Bashi’s loyal men.
Across the now-trampled grass, Rani could make out the sound of bones crunching. Two soldiers pinned Farantili to the ground, pressing his spine against the shattered birch uprights from the cadge. One of the pair straddled Farantili’s chest and began to pummel the man’s head, starting with closed-fist blows and ending with a simple rhythmic pounding. Farantili’s limp neck hit the earth again and again and again.
Even in her shock, Rani realized that she was in danger. She knew that she needed to escape from these rebellious soldiers, from men who would attack their own sworn brothers, who would sanction the murder of a defenseless master falconer. She was not safe among men who would beat one of King Halaravilli’s soldiers to a pulp and butcher another like so much meat.
Rani whirled toward her stallion, desperate to remount and escape.
“Stop!” Bashanorandi’s order flamed across the twilight chill. In a flash, Rani saw that he held Mair close to his chest; she could make out a steel dagger leveled against the Touched girl’s throat. As if to emphasize the command, Mair dropped her own blade. The prince kicked it into the high grass.
“Let her go, Bashi!”
“She’s not going anywhere, and neither are you.”
Even in these dire circumstances, the words rang falsely. “Are you going to keep us on the plain all night then? Like children lost in the countryside?”
“You may pretend this is a joke, Rani, but I assure you it is not.” Bashi twisted Mair’s arm behind her back, and the girl’s lips tightened over her teeth. She refused to cry out, but her look spoke volumes to Rani. “You will not go running to Hal with stories of what happened here. I don’t want my men to hurt you, Ranita, but I’ll let them if they must.”
“Your men? Those are King Halaravilli’s soldiers.” Rani tried to force certainty past the image of Farantili’s bloody head, past the moans of the hamstrung guard.
“These soldiers are loyal to me, Ranita.” Even as Bashi made his pronouncement, one of his guards grabbed for Rani’s arm. Without thinking, she spat in the man’s face. He bellowed in rage, snatching for his sword, but his fellow grabbed Rani and pulled her, hard, against his chest. Through the Morenian livery, she could feel a hardened leather breastplate, a foreign design that poked against her spine. The full armor was stranger still because there was no reason for the soldier to be wearing it, not for an afternoon ride within sight of the City. The man she had spat at swore and wiped at the mess on his face.
For just an instant, Rani thought that her eyes deceived her in the twilight gloom. When the man pawed at his face, he left behind a tracery around his eyes. Only when Rani blinked did she realize that the man had not covered his face with the strange design. Rather, his wiping motion had removed a layer of color, a coating of flesh-colored paint like the cosmetics that Nurse was always thrusting at Rani. Beneath that false color, Rani could now make out a distinct tattoo, the careful outline of a lion beneath the man’s left eye.
She caught her breath. She’d heard enough in Hal’s court for the past two years to know that the northern soldiers tattooed themselves at birth, dedicating their lives to their warrior existence. A northern soldier, then, from Amanthia. From the executed Queen Felicianda’s homeland.
“What have you done, Bashi?”
“That’s Prince Bashanorandi to you!” Bashi nearly screamed his rebuff, pulling hard on Mair’s arm. The Touched girl tried to bite back her cry of pain, but a little of the sound leaked into the clearing.
“My lord Bashanorandi,” Rani forced herself to say.
Bashi nodded, apparently placated. With a curt gesture, he passed Mair to one of his soldiers. “Kill her, if that one takes a single step amiss.”
“Yes, my prince.” The soldier locked his arm across Mair’s windpipe, settling a long, curved dagger against her side. A curved dagger, Rani finally registered. Curved like the knives of the northern troops.
“What are you doing, Bash –, Prince Bashanorandi?”
“Once, I thought I’d wait to show my strength, but you’ve made that impossible. Get on your horse.”
“I know you’re not stupid, Ranita. Get on your horse.”
“I’m not riding anywhere with you.”
“I’ll kill you here and now, if I have to.” Watching the pulse beat fast in his throat, Rani understood that Bashi was not making an idle threat. “I’m not going back to Moren, back to Hal. But if I sent you back to Moren directly, I’d never have time to get to Amanthia, before you’d have Hal’s soldiers after us. I just might convince my brother to ransom you two sorry excuses for courtiers, though. Parkman, get the creances.”
The lion-tattooed soldier strode over to the toppled cadge, swearing as the frantic Maradalian flapped her grey and white wings. The man extracted two long leather leashes from the collapsed structure. He snapped the creances between his fists, testing their strength as he turned back to his liege.
Bashi’s eyes glinted in the last of the sunlight. “I don’t want to do it, Ranita. I don’t want to order you killed, but I will if I have to.” The girl had no doubt that he would follow through on his threat. “Mount up now. We have a long ride ahead of us.”
With a warning glance toward Mair, Rani turned back to her stallion. She grunted as she pulled herself onto her high saddle, trying to ignore the slash of crimson that painted the leather as her wounded hand opened again. Somewhere in the struggle of the last few minutes, she had lost her rough bandage.
Bashi jutted his chin toward Rani, and the soldier snapped the creances once again. “Lash her to the stirrups.”
Rani immediately set her heels, ready to kick the horse and flee back to Moren. Before she could act, though, Bashi barked a command to the soldier who held Mair. The man tightened his grip on Mair’s arm, twisting hard and pulling the limb high behind the Touched girl’s back. The crack of splintering bone was audible above the rustle of the high grass, and Mair cried out through her clenched teeth. “Don’t even think about riding off, Ranita. I’ll kill her before you’re out of earshot.”
Certainly Bashi would use more violence to gain his way. The prince’s face was coated with a sheen of sweat, and his hands clenched and unclenched repeatedly in the twilight. Mair began to moan softly, although she tried to swallow her pain. Rani sat still as Parkman tightened the falcon’s leash about her, lashing first one foot to her stirrup then passing the leather beneath her stallion’s belly and binding the other. “Get her hands, too,” Bashi barked, and the soldier complied, using another length of leather.
Staring at Bashi with bitterness, Rani only just remembered to hold her tongue as the prince nodded and ordered Mair released. It was a simple matter for Bashi to have the Touched girl bound, to have her tied to her own mount. Then Bashi’s soldiers seated themselves on their own horses. The prince glanced around the plain nervously, his eyes lingering on the dead falcon-master, the murdered soldier, the maimed one. The falcons’ cadge was crumpled on the ground like a skeleton. Maradalian stood amid the ruins, blinded by her hood, uncertain of the disaster around her.
Bashi nodded to Parkman and pointed his chin toward the hamstrung soldier. “Get rid of that one, and let’s get out of here. We can get to the coast by sunset tomorrow and find a ship to sail north, to Amanthia. With any luck Hal won’t find this till then. We can demand ransom for the girls when we arrive in my mother’s homeland.”
Before Rani could protest, the soldier dispatched his one-time brother, slashing the man’s throat with one even motion. Then the guards fell into formation, one riding at Rani’s left side, one riding at Mair’s right. Two of the armed men followed behind, flanking their prince. When Rani hesitated to spur her stallion, the soldier beside her drew his sword. Before she could decide whether she would take a stand, Mair swayed in her own saddle, moaning as the movement jarred her injured arm.
“You’ve got to help her!” Rani cried to Bashi. “At least let me put her arm in a sling.”
“After we’ve ridden. You can help her after we cross the Yman.”
“The river is two hours from here!”
“Then it will be two hours before her arm is set.”
Rani heard the determination in his voice. In a flash, she remembered the Bashi she had first met when she arrived in the palace. That prince had been a spoiled boy, a noble who accepted his royalty with an unseemly arrogance. He had manipulated nurses and guards, played upon his supposed father’s heartstrings. Now, he had these four soldiers bound to him, and nothing would convince him to take pity on two low-caste girls.
Sighing, Rani touched her spurs to her stallion’s flanks. Mair moaned through lips that were grey in the twilight, but she jigged her own horse forward. As the riders moved east into the unfolding night, a breeze picked up, blowing from the distant city walls. Rani could just make out the rhythmic clang of the Pilgrims’ Bell, summoning the faithful to Moren’s safety, to the haven of King Halaravilli, to the lost comfort of home and hearth.