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His Royal Highness Kaddar, prince of Siraj, duke of Yamut, count of Amar, first lord of the Imperium, heir apparent to His Most Serene Majesty Emperor Ozorne of Carthak, fanned himself and wished the Tortallans would dock. He had been waiting aboard the imperial galley since noon, wearing the panoply of his office as the day, hot for autumn, grew hotter. He shot a glare at the nobles and academics on hand to welcome the visitors: they could relax under the awnings. Imperial dignity kept him in this unshaded chair, where a gold surface collected the sun to throw it back into his eyes.
Looking about, the prince saw the captain, leaning on the rail, scowl and make the Sign against evil on his chest. A stinging fly chose that moment to land on Kaddar’s arm. He yelped, swatted the fly, got to his feet, and removed the crown. “Enough of this. Bring me something to drink,” he ordered the slaves. “Something cold.”
He went to the captain, trying not to wince as too-long-inactive legs tingled. “What on earth are you staring at?”
“Tired of broiling, Your Highness?” The man spoke without looking away from the commercial harbor outside the breakwater enclosing the imperial docks. He could speak to Kaddar with less formality than most, since he had taught the prince all that young man knew of boats and sailing.
“Very funny. What has you making the Sign?”
The captain handed the prince his spyglass. “See for yourself, Highness.”
Kaddar looked through the glass. All around the waterfront, birds made use of every visible perch. On masts, ledges, gutters, and ropes they sat, watching the harbor. He found pelicans, birds of prey—on the highest, loneliest perches—songbirds, the gray-and-brown sparrows that lived in the city. Even ship rails sported a variety of feathered creatures. Eerily, that vast collection was silent. They stared at the harbor without uttering a sound.
“It ain’t just birds, Prince,” the captain remarked. “Lookit the docks.”
Kaddar spied dogs and cats, under apparent truce, on every inch of space available. Not all were scruffy alley mongrels or mangy harbor cats. He saw the flash of bright ribbons, even gold and gem-encrusted collars. Cur or alley cat, noble pet or working rat catcher, they sat without a sound, eyes on the harbor. Looking down, Kaddar found something else: the pilings under the docks swarmed with rats. Everywhere—warehouse, wharf, ship—human movement had stopped. No one cared to disturb that silent, attentive gathering of beasts. Hands shaking, the prince returned the glass and made the Sign against evil on his own chest.
“You know what it is?” asked the captain.
“I’ve never seen—wait. Could it be—?” Kaddar frowned. “There’s a girl, coming with the Tortallans. It’s said she has a magic bond with animals, that she can even take on animal shape.”
“That’s nothin’ new,” remarked the captain. “There’s mages that do it all the time.”
“Not like this one, apparently. And she heals animals. They heard my uncle’s birds are ill—”
“The world knows them birds are ill,” muttered the captain. “He can lose a battalion of soldiers in the Yamani Isles and never twitch, but the gods help us if one of his precious birds is off its feed.”
Kaddar grimaced. “True. Anyway, as a goodwill gesture, King Jonathan has sent this girl to heal Uncle’s birds, if she can. And the university folk want to meet her dragon.”
“Dragon! How old is this lass anyway?”
“Fifteen. That’s why I’m out here broiling, instead of my uncle’s ministers. He wants me to squire her about when she isn’t healing birds or talking to scholars. She’ll probably want to visit all the tourist places and gawp at the sights. And Mithros only knows what her table manners are like. She’s some commoner from the far north, it’s said. I’ll be lucky if she knows which fork to use.”
“Oh, that won’t be a problem,” said the captain, straight-faced. “I understand these northerners eat with their hands.”
“So nice to have friends aboard,” replied the prince tartly.
The captain surveyed the docks through his glass. “A power over animals, and a dragon . . . If I was you, Highness, I’d dust off my map of the tourist places and let her eat any way she wants.”
At that moment the girl they discussed inched over as far on the bunk as she could, to give the man beside her a bit more room. The dragon in her lap squeaked in protest, but wound her small body into a tighter ball.
The man they were making room for, the mage known as Numair Salmalín, saw their efforts and smiled. “Thank you, Daine. And you, Kitten.”
“It’s only for a bit,” the girl, Daine, said encouragingly.
“If we don’t wrap this up soon, I will be only a ‘bit,’” complained the redheaded woman on Numair’s other side. Alanna the Lioness, the King’s Champion, was used to larger meeting places.
At last every member of the Tortallan delegation was crammed into the small shipboard cabin. Magical fire, a sign of shields meant to keep anything said in that room from being overheard, filled the corners and framed the door and portholes.
“No one can listen to us, magically or physically?” asked Duke Gareth of Naxen, head of the delegation. A tall, thin, older man, he sat on the room’s only chair, hands crossed over his cane.
The mages there nodded. “It’s as safe as our power can make it, Your Grace,” replied Numair.
Duke Gareth smiled. “Then we are safe indeed.” Looking in turn at everyone, from his son, Gareth the Younger, to Lord Martin of Meron, and from Daine to the clerks, he said, “Let me remind all of you one last time: be very careful regarding your actions while we are here. Do nothing to jeopardize our mission. The emperor is willing to make peace, but that peace is in no manner secure. If negotiations fall through due to an error on our parts, the other Eastern Lands will not support us. We will be on our own, and Carthak will be on us.
“We need this peace. We cannot match the imperial armies and navy, any more than we can match imperial wealth. In a fight on Tortallan soil, we might prevail, but war of any kind would be long and costly, in terms of lives and in terms of our resources.”
Alanna frowned. “Do we have to bow and scrape and tug our forelocks then, sir? We don’t want to seem weak to these southerners, do we?”
The duke shook his head. “No, but neither should we take risks—particularly not you.”
The Champion, whose temper was famous, blushed crimson and held her tongue.
To the others Duke Gareth said, “Go nowhere we are forbidden to go. Do not speak of freedom to the slaves. However we may dislike the practice, it would be unwise to show that dislike publicly. Accept no gifts, boxes, or paper from anyone unless they come with the knowledge of the emperor. Offer no gifts or pieces of paper to anyone. I understand it is the custom of the palace mages to scatter listening spells through the buildings and grounds. Watch what you say. If a problem arises, let my son, or Lord Martin, or Master Numair know at once.”
“Kitten will be able to detect listening spells,” remarked Numair. “I’m not saying she can’t be magicked, but most of the common sorceries won’t fool her.”
Kitten straightened herself on Daine’s lap and chirped. She always knew what was being said around her. A slim creature, she was two feet long from nose to hip, with a twelve-inch tail she used for balance and as an extra limb. Her large eyes were amber, set in a long and slender muzzle. Immature wings that would someday carry her in flight lay flat on her back. Silver claws marked her as an immortal, one of many creatures from the realms of the gods.