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The year before, the pages had camped in the Royal Forest. This year the training master took them south and east, into the hilly country that lay between Lake Tirragen and the Drell River. Part of Kel’s sparrow company, eighteen birds in all, came along while the rest stayed at the palace. No one raised an eyebrow at the small birds’ presence: they had followed Kel the previous summer and had proved useful.

In addition to Sergeant Ezeko, the two Shang warriors, Hakuin Seastone and Eda Bell, rode with them. Kel had the idea that Eda, the Shang Wildcat, was her chaperon, just as she had been the year before. When she mentioned it to the older woman, the Wildcat laughed. “Maybe I just want to get out of the palace for two months,” she said. “I’m a hill woman, you know. Born and raised just south of Malven, till I ran off to the Shangs.” She grinned, showing teeth like small white pearls. “I’m my lord Wyldon’s local expert.”

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