Authors: Tamora Pierce
By Tamora Pierce
In a time of fear, the One Who I Promised Will come to the raka, bearing glory in her train and justice in her band, She will restore the god to his proper temple and his children to her right band. She will be twice royal, wise and beloved, a living emblem of truth to her people. She will be attended by a wise one, the cunning one, the strong one, the warrior, and the crows. She will give a home to all, and
the kudarung will fly in her honor.
From the Kyprish Prophecy, written in the year 200 H.E.
The Copper Isles
In the winter of 462-463 H.E., the brown-skinned raka people and their many allies, part-bloods and white-skinned luarin, prepared for revolution against the luarin ruling house, the Rittevons. The raka plan was to replace the Rittevons with one who had the bloodlines of both the raka queens and the luarin rulers, a passionate girl named Saraiyu Balitang.
The leaders of the raka rebel conspiracy did not spend the winter months dozing. Throughout the Isles, Crown tax collectors vanished from their beds, never to be seen again. Even more baffling, all the suspects who were questioned in their disappearances swore under truthspell that they had last seen the missing officials alive and well. Property damage on luarin estates that winter far exceeded that expected from heavy rains. Dams collapsed, sweeping away acres of rice fields. Blackrot invaded grain silos, destroying winter stores. Bridges fell. Overseers and a few nobles were murdered. When the Crown sent soldiers to kill the people of the nearest raka village, as the law required, the troops found that the inhabitants had vanished. Many people reported hearing war gongs sounding from deep within the lowland jungles.
Life for the Balitang family in the highlands of Lombyn Isle had two sides. One was that of a family that had just lost its patriarch and had to get through the winter months before they could return to the capital city of Rajmuat at the behest of the ruling family. Duchess Winnamine Balitang took solace from her two older stepdaughters, Saraiyu and Dovasary, and her own children, six-year-old Petranne and five-year-old Elsren. She conducted lessons, had snowball fights, told stories, and did her best to keep everyone from screaming with boredom. She also helped train Sarai's maid, a twenty-three-year-old raka woman named Boulaj, and Dove’s maid, the former slave Aly Homewood from the kingdom of Tortall.
Beneath this comfortable domestic life lay a second, less visible and more directed. Many of the leaders of the hoped-for revolution were servants to the Balitangs. They guarded the two older girls and perfected their plans. They sent and received information through a network of mages called the Chain, who used their powers to pass messages from island to island. The members of the household practiced fighting arts, from unarmed combat to sword and spear work, in the outbuildings at Tanair Castle. They had an unusual teacher for new ways of fighting: Nawat, a young man who had once been a crow. The duchess saw this practice as much-needed exercise, and both she and her daughters joined in. To the raka's regret, Sarai refused to continue her lessons in sword-craft after she fought and beheaded her would-be lover, Prince Bronau, the night he slew her father.
Busiest of all the members of the rebel conspiracy was the newest to join, seventeen-year-old Aly Homewood. She was in reality Alianne of Pirate's Swoop, the daughter and granddaughter of Tortall's spymasters, raised from the cradle to compete in the world of international espionage. During the previous summer she had acted as chief bodyguard to the Balitang children. With the arrival of spring and the move to Rajmuat, Aly knew she would become the rebellions spy-master. Although the Balitangs' former housekeeper, Quedanga, has remained in Rajmuat to collect information from long-standing networks of spies, Aly's specially recruited spies and those they will train have their own unique work ahead. They will collect information for the rebel leaders to use against their enemies, and conduct whatever actions of sabotage and psychological operations required to put the raka's enemies at odds with each other. For sixteen years she studied such work under her father's eye. Now she would do it herself, for the promise of better leadership for the Isles.
In preparation, Aly used the winter to build a cadre of trained spies, people among the household who could learn and use all she had to teach. The lessons of these raka and part-raka in their twenties and thirties included written and spoken codes and code breaking, lock picking, and climbing. She also taught them sign language, thorough searches, medicines and herbs, and the detection of other spies. Because she was younger than many of her trainees, Aly treated them in a teasing, grandmotherly way, while they awarded her the raka nickname of
or "boss lady." Aly also spent time with the raka mage Ochobu, creating suicide spells and magic detection charms, and with the rebels' armorer, choosing weapons for her pack and for herself.
Aly dared not tell anyone why she was so eager to take up the mantle of spymaster. To do so, she would have to reveal her true parentage. The raka would see her as a tool of the Tortallan Crown, while the forces loyal to the Rittevon king and his regents would see her as a spy. Only one being knew her true history: the deposed god of the Copper Isles, the trickster Kyprioth. It was he who had brought Aly to the service of the rebellion that would return him to his seat of power. Although responsible for her presence, Kyprioth did not speak to Aly throughout the long winter. She assumed he was hiding from the god brother and goddess sister who had cast him from his Isles: Mithros and the Great Mother Goddess.
Luckily, Aly had the crow fighter Nawat to entertain and delight her through the long months. His courtship grew more passionate throughout the winter, and he finally stopped offering her bugs to eat.
At the beginning of April, most of the household traveled south to ready the family's home in the capital, Rajmuat. The family and the remainder of the servants, including Aly, took the following few weeks to prepare for the move that would change all of their lives completely and irrevocably.
April 23,463 H.E.
Rajmuat harbor, Copper Isles
As the ship
glided through the entrance of Rajmuat harbor, a young woman of seventeen years leaned against the bow rail, taking in her surroundings through green-hazel eyes. Despite her white skin, she was dressed like a native raka in sarong, sash, and wrapped jacket. The sarong displayed her neat, if thin, figure—one with the curves that drew male eyes. The calf-length garment also showed muscled legs and trim ankles protected by leather slippers. Her jacket, worn against the chill of the spring air, covered her muscular upper arms, while the loose areas of her clothes hid an assortment of flat knives designed for her needs. She had a small, delicate nose, inherited from her mother, just as her eyes were her father's. The wide mouth, its lower lip fuller than the upper, was all hers, with smiles tucked into the corners. Her reddish gold hair was cut just below her earlobes to fit her head like a helmet.
Aly looked the soul of repose as she lounged against the rail, but her eyes were busy. She swiftly took in the panorama of Rajmuat as the city came into view. It sprawled over half of the C-shaped harbor, arranged on the rising banks like offerings laid on green steps. Steam rose from the greenery as the early-morning sun heated damp jungle earth. Patches of white and rose pink stucco marked newer houses, while the older houses, built of wood and stone, sported roofs that were sharply peaked and sloping, like the wings of some strange sitting bird. The higher the ground, the more complex the roof, with lesser roofs sprouting beneath the main one. The roofs of the wealthier houses blazed with gilt paint in the sun. Strewn among the homes were the domed, gilded towers of Rajmuat's temples.
Above them all stood the main palace of the Kyprin rulers. Its walls, twenty feet thick, patrolled by alert guardsmen day and night, gleamed like alabaster. The rulers of the Isles were not well liked. They required the protection of strong walls.
In the air over the great harbor, winged creatures wheeled and soared, light glancing off their metal-feathered wings. Aly’shaded her eyes to look at them. These were Stormwings, harbingers of war and slaughter, creatures with steel feathers and claws whose torsos and heads were made of flesh. They lived on human pain and fear. In the Copper Isles, ruled by the heavy-handed Rittevons and their luarin nobles, the Stormwings were assured of daily meals. Aly hummed to herself. There had been plenty of Stormwings when she and the Balitangs had sailed north a year before. Now there were a great many more. From the news she had gathered on their voyage to Rajmuat, she wasn't surprised. The regents, Prince Rubinyan and Princess Imajane, had spent the winter rains executing anyone who might give them trouble, in the name of their four-year-old king. Aly nodded in silent approval. It was so useful when the people in charge helped her plans along.
The Stormwings reminded her that she was not on deck to sightsee. Aly turned her head to the left. Here a fortress guarded the southern side of the harbor entrance. Beyond it, on a short stone pier, stood the posts called Examples. Each harbor had them, public display areas where those who had vexed the government were executed and left on display. In Rajmuat, the capital of the Isles, the Examples were reserved for the nobility. They were surrounded on land by a stone wall broken by a single gate. Over the gate, a banner flapped on the dawn breeze, a rearing bat-winged horse of metallic copper cloth, posed on a white field with a copper border— the flag of the Rittevon kings of the Copper Isles.
Guards streamed through the gate and onto the pier. At the foot of one of the posts men were arguing, waving their arms and pointing. They wore the red-painted armor of the King's Watch, the force charged with keeping the peace, enforcing the law, and conducting executions. Aly narrowed her eyes to sharpen her magical Sight. The power was her heritage from both parents, and allowed her to read the lips of the men and take note of their insignia. She identified four lieutenants, one captain, and a number of men-at-arms who did their best to pretend they were invisible.
Someone sniffed behind her. "Carrion crows," Lady Sarai Balitang remarked scornfully. "What, are they fighting over who gets the 'honor' of displaying the next wretch? Or just over who does the mopping?" Sarai moved up to stand beside Aly at the rail, her brown eyes blazing with dislike as she watched the men. A year older and an inch taller than Aly, Sarai had creamy gold skin and tumbles of braided and curled black hair under a sheer black veil. An excellent horsewoman, she held herself proudly straight, catching the eye of anyone who saw her.
"They seem to be missing something." Thirteen-year-old Dovasary Balitang moved in to stand on Aly’s free side, and pointed. Where the Example pier joined the mainland stood a large wooden sign painted stark white. On that sign were three names and the words
Executed for treason against the Crown, decreed by His Highness Prince Rubinyan Jimajen and Her Highness Princess Imajane Rittevon Jimajen, in the name of His Gracious Majesty King Dunevon Rittevon.
The date was that of the previous day.
"What happened to their poor bodies?" whispered Sarai, brown eyes wide. "They should be here for weeks."
"Perhaps Stormwings dropped down and carried them off," Dove suggested quietly. Aly’s mistress was different from her beautiful older sister, shorter and small-boned. She had the self-contained air of someone much older. She had a catlike face and observant black eyes. Like Sarai, her skin was creamy gold, her hair black, and her lips full. She also wore a black gown and veil in mourning for the father who had been killed six months before.
Aly knew exactly what had happened to the dead, because she had created a plan for anyone executed and displayed here. The absence of dead Examples was her declaration, as the rebellion's spymaster, that she would turn the Rittevon Crown and its supporters inside out. The spies she had sent ahead with Ulasim three weeks before the family's departure had been charged with putting her declaration into action.
Body thieves were expected to attack from the land. No one would expect people to swim to the pier in the foul harbor water. Her people had done just that, to remove the bodies, weigh them down with chains, and sink them in the harbor. The plan worked on many levels. The Crown officials lost the Examples they had made, and the Kings' Watch was left with a mystery. Aly knew quite well that mysteries frightened people, particularly those people who were not supposed to allow them to happen. Sooner or later word of the vanishing Examples would leak out. People would start to see that the Crown was not as powerful as it claimed to be.
"Last autumn Prince Rubinyan told Winna that there would be no more unnecessary executions," Sarai commented.