Read The Shadow Cats Online

Authors: Rae Carson

The Shadow Cats

 

THE SHADOW CATS

RAE CARSON

Dedication

F
OR
H
OLLY
M
C
D
OWELL,

FELLOW ADVENTURER AND AUTHOR, SISTER OF THE HEART

Prologue

I
crouch hidden among the boulders, my body broken and bloodied. Below me, someone is about to murder my best friend, the one person who understands me.

If I act, I will likely lose my own life. If I don’t, I’ll lose so much more.

A chorus of aches and injuries scream at me to stop, but I creep forward. My fingers close on a rock, the only weapon at hand.

1

I
despise open carriages, even in the finest weather or upon the smoothest road, and this journey offers neither. The air in the mountains is brisk with cold, as though spring is reluctant to visit here. The mule path we follow shows little evidence of human care; it’s ragged with rocks and roots and steep switchbacks. My rear aches from the constant jolting. It’s a wonder we haven’t lost a carriage wheel yet.

But during the last few days, we’ve passed through remote villages that no representative of the royal family has visited in more than a decade. And I find myself grateful for the one advantage an open carriage provides: it allows me to observe.

What I see fills me with dread.

People line the road as we pass. They are crusted with dirt and weathered by sun and wind, wearing clothes so ragged I would not dress my scullery maids in them. They clutch their children to their chests and watch our procession with curiosity, maybe a touch of misgiving. But as my carriage approaches, the heralds call out, “Her Royal Highness Juana-Alodia de Riqueza, Crown Princess of Orovalle!” And the curiosity I read in their faces turns to outright hostility.

Some kneel and bow their heads in proper supplication. But others stand stubbornly until my guards rest their hands meaningfully on their scabbards and bark the order to show respect.

I hold my head high and school my features into bland pleasantness. It’s the expression Lord Zito, my personal steward, says often causes him trouble, because he knows it means I’m hiding something.

And right now, what I don’t want the world to see is how angry I am with my father, the king. The situation is even worse than I feared. Papá has neglected this district dreadfully since the end of the last war with Invierne. Now the wealthiest here ignore the capital, preferring to trade with Joya d’Arena, the kingdom across the border, while the poorest flee into the jungle-choked Hinders to join the Perditos, bandits who steal whatever they can from whoever they find. It’s the perfect recipe for rebellion.

When I am queen, I will put a stop to it all. I will regain the loyalty and trust of our people. I will make this region strong again. And to do it, I will need the help of Paxón, the conde who rules this region.

Which is why, when we received an invitation to the wedding of Conde Paxón and a certain Lady Calla, I
insisted
to Papá that I be allowed to attend. Furthermore, I insisted on bringing wedding gifts fit for a royal ally—with well-armed soldiers to deliver them.

According to my informants, his bride-to-be is a lovely young woman with a wealthy father. But it would not matter to me if she were a crofter’s daughter. It’s past time for the conde to marry. He was a tremendous soldier in the last war. Afterward, he pursued hunting and drinking with the same ruthless tenacity—until he met his match in a giant boar who gored him. If it were up to me, I would knight the boar for putting an end to Paxón’s wild ways and making him look to his legacy. A conde with a family is a man with something to lose, and a man with something to lose is always more eager to stand behind the shield of a strong king. Or queen.

I intend to know his measure and show him mine before he becomes my vassal.

A ruckus from behind causes me to whirl in my seat, and my temper flares. My fifteen-year-old sister, Elisa, follows me in her own carriage, accompanied by her nurse, Lady Ximena. She always carries a bag full of pastries when she travels, and now she throws bits of bread to the scrawny children lining our rocky road.

Mothers urge them toward the carriage, knowing the guards will be reluctant to draw blades against them. Emboldened, the children slip through their formation and bang on the sides of the carriage, thrusting up dirty hands for more. A baguette drops onto the dusty earth. Three small boys scramble for it, pulling it to shreds.

My sister is delighted. She grins enormously and breaks her bread into pieces as fast as she can. I signal to Zito, but he already moves toward her carriage, barking orders. That’s the exact moment Elisa realizes her predicament, that her naive generosity has created a mob. The smile dies on her face as she recoils against her nurse.

My hand flies to my bodice where my dagger lies hidden. The guards shout at everyone to disperse, but one boy tries to climb inside the carriage. Lady Ximena shoves him back into the waiting arms of a guard. A woman shrieks—the boy’s mother?—as, finally, the guards draw their swords.

And just like that, the children slink away. Most melt into the leafless trees, until only a few remain to observe our procession from a cautious distance.

The horses pulling Elisa’s carriage swish their tails and toss their heads nervously, which makes it difficult for me to discern if she’s all right. I crane my neck, rising up from my seat.

Our eyes meet. She gazes at me sullenly, as if daring me to scold. Slowly, deliberately, I turn away from her and settle back onto my bench.

She’s wrong—I don’t want to scold her. Now that I know she’s unharmed, I want to smack her. Of all the stupid things to do.

Papá insisted she come along, that a wedding celebration would get her away from the musty books and rotting manuscripts she loves so much, give her a chance to see more of the kingdom. “She is your heir, after all,” he said. “Until you produce one of your own. She could use the experience of a diplomatic journey.”

But Elisa has shown as much interest in ruling as the team of horses pulling her carriage, and Papá is at a loss about what to do with her. No matter that she is God’s chosen, the first in a hundred years to bear his sacred stone. God nested it in her belly, like a berry shoved into a soft muffin, as a sign that she will one day perform an act of heroic service.

It’s laughable. And a little bit sad. People like the ones we’ve seen on this journey, who have been harried by poor harvests and enemy skirmishes, could use a hero. The servants mutter that maybe God picked the wrong sister.

These thoughts swim in my head as our procession continues, eating away at my heart and mind like deadly poison. I must get them under control. This state visit is the important thing, and I have to be at my best.

I search my entourage for Lord Zito, the man who taught me much of what I know about the conde and this region, for he has not returned to my side after leaving it to aid my sister. His horse is easily recognizable by the spear jutting from a guidon cup attached to his saddle, and I spy it off to the side in a plowed field. I watch, puzzled, as Zito dismounts and crouches in a furrow. He grabs a handful of soft dirt, crumbles it between his fingers, sniffs it,
tastes
it.

“Stop,” I tell my driver. The command echoes up and down the line. The stamp of boots ceases, and the wheels of the carriage creak to stillness.

“Lord Zito,” I call out. “Does mountain dirt taste better than dirt in the capital?”

But Zito does not smile. “What do you see here, Your Highness? Look around you.”

His voice is high-pitched and girlish. During the last war with Invierne, he was barely more than a boy when his service brought him an injury that left him a eunuch. But it also brought him the king’s favor, which resulted in his appointment as my steward. I haven’t had a nurse since Elisa was born. Papá knew by the time I could walk that I would be like a son to him, and only a personal steward would do.

I look around, trying to see what Zito sees. Though he is prone to these impromptu teaching moments, he has never been so graceless as to instruct me within hearing of my entire entourage. Whatever he has noticed must be very important indeed.

The fields are plowed but barren, with only a few sickly sprouts poking from the soil. The pastures are still brown from winter. On the terraced slopes that rise beyond, orchards that should be covered in blossoms show only stunted blooms. The trees covering the hills are a web of bony branches, yet to bud.

“Spring is a tardy guest to its mountain home,” I say.

“Spring does not arrive
this
late,” he says, and his words would not alarm me were it not for the deadly seriousness in his voice.

“A drought?” I say.

He straightens and brushes the dirt from his hands, then holds his palms out so I can see the muddy streaks. It is far from drought-dusty.

“The last time I saw fields like this, it was damage of my own doing,” he says. “I salted a village the Inviernos settled on our side of the mountains. But there is no taste of salt here.”

“So what is causing it?”

He shrugs, but I know it is not the casual gesture it appears. “We should discuss it later,” he says. Privately, he means.

My gaze sweeps the mountainsides again, and now the rocky outcrops and dense stands of naked trees seem ominous.

Zito remounts and gestures the column forward, commanding them toward Khelia Castle with all haste. I sit back on the bench, lost in thought. No wonder the people seem so desperate and distrustful. How long have their fields been bare? Perhaps they’ve been feeling the sting of the king’s neglect even more than I realized. And maybe open carriages, which provide access even to small children, were a bad idea after all.

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