Genre: Coming of Age Fantasy / Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 502
A summons by the king turns Ayrion’s life upside down.
He’s being conscripted into the Lancer Corps . . . and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Just as Ayrion’s priorities are involuntarily split between the Elondrian Lancers and his tribe, Noph—the notably cunning chief of Sandstorm—calls for a secret meeting between himself and Hurricane. The outcome of that meeting forces Ayrion, Reevie, and Sapphire to make a decision that will not only affect their role within the tribes but will test the true strength of their friendship.
Whether they can survive the transition will hinge on which choice they make.
I SAT QUIETLY BEHIND the desk in the Temple office, blowing on my hands to keep them warm as I pored over the thick ledgers that Reevie had prepared the previous day, making sure nothing had been left out. It was a routine we had established sometime after Spats’s involuntary disappearance and Hurricane’s hard-fought mission to keep its status amongst the Tribal Guild.
It was hard to believe nearly two years had passed since Prince Dakaran had shown up with a fake copy of his father’s signet to save us. There were still times I found myself chuckling when I recalled the looks on the other chiefs’ faces when they saw the royal guard march into the Guild Hall.
That moment changed everything for us.
Hurricane was no longer viewed as the outcast. We were still just as hated by Kore and Cutter, even more so with my newly acquired friendship with the prince, but we no longer had to fear every time we sent out our pickers that they might not return.
Closing the leather-bound book, I set the quill back in the jar and stretched, finding my eyes had grown weary from staring at all of Reevie’s figures. There were records for incoming food and provisions, records for outgoing food and provisions, records for new recruits, records tabulating the month’s pickings, projections for what we would need the following month, records to show the ever-changing number of our members and the stations they’d been assigned to. There were lists for the watchers, for the pickers, for the cleaners, beaters, fixers, and even one for the Guard. Each of these lists gave a tally by name, along with any reassignments that had occurred over the course of the previous month. There were inventory records, including: medical supplies and herbs, weapons, clothing, bedding, food stores, cleaning utensils, and everyday items like candles and the stash of apples Reevie kept hidden somewhere inside the infirmary.
Who knew running a tribe of street kids could be so difficult? By the time I finished mulling over each and every column, I was ready to take a nap—or go join a traveling band of troubadours.
Yawning, I pushed my chair away from the desk just as the door to the office burst open and Mouse came running in, looking more worried than I’d seen him since the day I’d brought Tubby home. He was panting, hands on his knees, and barely able to catch his breath.
“What is it?” I asked. “Has something happened to the pickers?”
Ever since our excursion into the Rockslide compound to rescue our people from Kore, Mouse had been unofficially labeled the head of the pickers. They all looked up to him, even though he stood a head or two shorter than the rest. His charismatic leadership and talent for getting in and out of confined spaces without being spotted had earned him his place, not to mention greatly increased the tribe’s coffers.
“It’s Master Fentin . . . and Mistress Orilla!” Mouse managed between gasps of breath.
“What? Are they all right? Did something happen to the orphanage?”
After Lord Gerrick had sent his men to destroy Master Fentin’s book shop, following my midnight raid of Gerrick’s home, the king had ordered him to pay for the damages, including a rather hefty additional sum as a reprimand and warning against any further action. However, instead of rebuilding, Master Fentin and Mistress Orilla had decided to put the funds to better use and opened an orphanage to help keep as many children off the streets as possible by finding them good homes.
It had worked surprisingly well. Too well, in fact. Ever since its opening, there had been a noted decrease in tribal recruitment, and more than one workhouse had already voiced their complaints about a lack of raw labor. The worst of those was Master Sil’foren’s Workhouse, where they were known to treat their workers with the same respect as they did their animals: little rations and a long switch.
“I’m not sure what’s happened,” Mouse said, his breathing finally stable enough for him to speak in full sentences. “I think they’re in trouble. Bull told me to get you and be quick about it.”
Bull, the former Avalanche beater who’d been rejected by his own tribe because of injuries sustained during battle, was now the head of the Hurricane Guard, which was a position of respect in the tribe.
Those who wished to be on a tribe’s Guard normally had to undergo a test of skill in the Pit. Once every six months, the tribes would get together to hold combat trials, letting their warriors try out for the privilege of wearing the coveted black vest. Bull had won his easily enough, having spent months training with me, but after the other tribes’ fighters attempted to single him out, we decided to no longer participate in the ritual fight and instead elect our Guards based on who we believed would best fit the task.
I didn’t care what the other chiefs’ might have thought about it. I wasn’t about to let them dictate who I wanted to promote in my own tribe.
I ran to the side wall where I kept my rack of weapons and quickly strapped my sword to my waist, grabbing a second sword and slinging it over my shoulders to hang on my back. Ever since our battle at the Pit, I found I preferred using two swords. One was a typical shortsword, the other a bit smaller, almost short enough to be considered a long dagger. What I didn’t like, though, was strapping them both to my waist. It cut down on my mobility and made running with them more cumbersome.
Thankfully, Sapphire came up with the idea of wearing one on my back and had even gone so far as to sew me a carrying sleeve to wear over my shoulders.
The flush in Mouse’s cheeks was starting to fade when I raced by and out the door. “Wait for me!” he shouted, chasing me down the hall and out onto the veranda of the main building.
Snow covered most of the walk as it fell faster than the sweepers could keep up with, which was somewhat rare this late in the winter. We were reaching the end of Sòl, and with Nùwen just around the corner, it would hopefully be one of the last flurries we saw for a while.
The inside of the compound seemed empty. Master Fentin and Mistress Orilla’s orphanage had taken its toll on us as well. Not that I was complaining. I was always happy to see a child find a new mother and father, but even still, the place seemed unusually quiet this late in the afternoon.
“Protector, is everything all right?” Muriel hurried up the steps to meet us on the wide veranda in front of the building, her freckled face covered by long strands of disheveled brown hair that cupped her cheeks like a couple of curtains just starting to open. She was holding Redwing on her gloved hand. The hawk gave me and Mouse a sharp looking-over, then shrieked out a greeting.
“I’m not sure, Muriel. There might be trouble at the orphanage. Do you think you and Redwing can guard the Temple while we’re gone?”
She nodded eagerly. “We will make sure no one sneaks in. And if they try, Redwing will pluck out their eye.” She smiled. “Hey, that rhymed.”
“That’s good,” I said as I took off down the steps, not having the time or patience to stop and chat about her gift of verse. I ran through the garden, past the frozen pools and snow-covered shrubs, toward the main gate.
It had taken us nearly a year, but we’d managed to bring the Temple’s gardens back to their former glory. Before, there had been nothing but gnarled branches, withered shrubs, and dried-up fountains. Now, each spring the gardens would burst to life.
Petal and Squeaks, and even Muriel, had had a lot to do with the transformation, having spent almost every day working in it, doing their best to mimic the landscaped images of what the gardens had looked like from the carvings found in several of the doorways around the Temple, including the chiefs’ office.
“Where is everyone?” I called back to Mouse, whose short legs were struggling to keep up.
“Out, I guess.”
Well, that isn’t helpful. We stopped just in front of the gate, and I shouted up at the top. “Is anyone up there?”
A curly-haired boy stuck his head over the top of one of the two gate towers we’d built beside the main doors. “Protector?”
“Toots. You mind opening the gate for me?”
Toots saluted with a quick bump of his fist to his chest and shouted at the others to release the pulleys. Soon enough, the weights were dropped, and the arm lifted. I darted through the crack between the doors as soon as it was wide enough to fit through, Mouse right behind me.
“Should we leave it open for you?” Toots shouted down from the wall as I raced up the brick drive for the street ahead.
“No!” I shouted back without slowing, leaving a clear trail behind me in the fresh snow. Toots needed to keep the gates closed. Even in as remote a place as the Temple, one could never be too careful.
Once we reached the main road that ran along the bottom of the Temple compound, I followed it left past the Temple’s outer wall before slowly turning north for King’s Way East. Master Fentin’s new orphanage was located on the opposite end of the city’s main thoroughfare. Thankfully, it fell within Sandstorm’s territory, and Noph, Sandstorm’s chief, had seen to it that none of his people bothered the orphanage or those coming or going from it.
It was a safer district than the one Master Fentin’s bookstore had been in, but it was also farther away, which meant unless we were willing to spend good coin on a sedan chair or carriage that would be willing to travel through the Maze, which bordered the Temple, then we were stuck running. As much running back and forth as we seemed to do, I needed to talk to Reevie and Sapphire once more about setting aside some funds to purchase a horse for the tribe. However, talking Reevie into additional expenses often proved difficult.
We reached the top of the Maze in good time, and I turned to find Mouse was no longer there. Once again, my mind had wandered off, and I hadn’t thought to slow my pace for the little picker to keep up. I found I was distracted more often of late. It seemed the responsibilities of keeping up with a tribe were beginning to weigh heavily on my shoulders. There were times I found myself dreaming of being back aboard the Wind Binder, loosening the sails with the crew, standing alongside Captain Treygan and Ismara as we coursed the rivers.
“I’m coming, Protector. I’m coming.” Mouse rounded the corner and hobbled over to where I was waiting. His face was flush and his legs wobbly. I had to keep reminding myself that the little picker had already made this trip once.
“I can’t wait long,” I said, taking the time to blow some warmth back into my hands. “If they are in trouble, we need to go.”
“I can do it,” he said, gasping. “Don’t worry about me.”
I nodded and started back up again, doing my best to keep a slower pace this time. My earlier exhaustion while studying the ledgers had dissipated, replaced with a nervous energy that grew the closer we got to the orphanage. I couldn’t imagine what might have happened that would have had Bull sending for my help. I ran through the possible scenarios I could be facing, the worst of which had my feet pounding the cobbles all the harder, afraid that by the time I arrived the orphanage would have burnt down.
It wouldn’t take much. A single candle being tipped over had been known to do serious damage.
We crossed over King’s Way East. It was as busy as ever with throngs of people, most heading either to the East Gate or from it. I could see the city’s white walls in the distance rising high above the buildings.
I reached the other side of the main thoroughfare and turned to see if Mouse was still on my heels. It seemed he was struggling just to keep his feet under him as he dodged and weaved through the wagons and carriages.
“Look out!” I shouted, and my heart leaped into my throat as a carriage with four horses swerved to miss a vegetable cart, putting Mouse directly in its path.
Mouse squealed and dove underneath, somehow managing to miss the wheels as the carriage rode straight over him. He scrambled back to his feet and dashed to where I was standing on the corner of the next road, his face white as a sheet. Mine probably was as well. “Always wondered what one of those things looked like underneath,” Mouse said, his voice trembling as he wiped the sweat from his brow and brushed the snow from his ragged cloak. “Now I know.”
I took a moment to slow my own heart, as it was racing harder than it had my entire run through the city. “I just lost three years of my life.”
Mouse looked up at me. “Imagine how many I just lost.”
I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him after me. “Come on.”
We headed north up Circle Drive. It was one of the only roads to run a complete loop around Aramoor. Starting at King’s Way East, it ran north all the way to the white cylindrical towers that held the Guild meeting hall, then cut west through the Business District. Once it passed the Senate, the road slowly curved south over King’s Way West, skirting Bayside before turning toward Cheapside and the Maze. From there it ran as far south as the Temple before turning back north once again to complete the loop at King’s Way East.
By the time we left Circle Drive and were jogging east down Bailey Street toward the wall, the sky had already begun to fill with color. Getting from one side of town to the other was no swift task. I pulled us to a stop a few buildings down from where we were heading, which was a large four-story residence on the right side of the road.
“I don’t smell any smoke,” I said as I slowly started down the sidewalk, passing the other homes without giving them a second glance. The residences on the north side of the city were in much better shape than those on the south, albeit nothing compared to those in the northwest quarter, and certainly not compared to the grand estates in Bayside.
“Smoke?” Mouse looked at me funny. “Why would there be smoke?”
“I was afraid one of the kids might have accidentally set the place on fire by the way you were talking.” I stopped at the corner of the next residence and stared at the orphanage. “I don’t see any movement inside.”
“That is strange,” Mouse said.
I looked down the single alley leading between the two homes. “Let’s go in through the back.”
“But don’t you want to—”
I pulled Mouse along with me as we kept to the shadows, moving around to the back of the house. So far, I’d seen nothing amiss, but I also hadn’t seen any of the orphans, which had me even more worried. If there was one thing I’d learned from being the head of a tribe of street kids, it was that they were never just not around. They were certainly never quiet. And so far, there wasn’t a single sign that a child even lived in the building. Normally, they were all over the place.
I put my ear to the back door leading into the kitchen and waited. No sound coming from inside. “I don’t like this.”
I drew the sword from my waist and tried the handle. It was open. Quietly, I slipped inside, nearly landing on my backside as my snow-covered soles hit the smooth floor and began to slide. I grabbed the table before I went down completely. Mouse was on my heels, and I pushed him back. It wouldn’t do me any good to swing my sword and accidentally take his arm or head off in the process.
“Maybe the sword is a bit much,” Mouse whispered with a nervous gulp.
I put my finger to my lips, and he nodded.
We crossed through the kitchen, which was messier than normal, flour and sugar all over the countertops and table. Mistress Orilla would have never left the kitchen in such a state. We stopped just inside the hallway leading toward the front of the house. I thought I heard movement ahead: the squeak of boards, a slight grunt. But other than that, the place seemed completely deserted.
We started down the hall, keeping to the outer edges where there was less chance of causing the boards to creak. Thankfully, so far, we’d seen no bodies. I was half afraid the place had come under attack by one of the rival tribes and we would find the orphanage littered with dead children.
We reached the corner of the stairs, and I looked up toward the second level. There was no one here. What happened to everyone? I tightened the grip on my sword and motioned for Mouse to follow. He had his belt knife out and at the ready, eyes darting. I hoped he didn’t startle easy and stab me in the back with it.
Without a sound, we slid by the stairs and over to the doorway leading into the main sitting room, where I thought I had heard the sounds coming from. There was a faint light coming from inside. I was almost afraid to go in, afraid of what I might find, my imagination getting the better of me once again. Raising my blade, I glanced over my shoulder at Mouse with a nod, then charged into the room with a shout.
The entire room turned into utter chaos as kids screamed, running in all directions. Master Fentin shouted, and Mistress Orilla went down with a cake in her hands, taking out three kids as she did.
Bull charged in from a side room with lanterns. “What’s going on? Did I miss it?” It took me a moment to realize who it was. I still wasn’t used to seeing him with short hair.
Everyone turned and looked at me and then glared at Mouse.
Mouse gulped at all the angry faces. “Don’t blame me. You just told me to get him here.”
I lowered my blade. “What in the flying faeries is going on here? I could have killed someone.”
“Surprise!” Bull said, a little late, his smile looking awkward against his nearly shaved head. I had to admit, though, it did make him look older and tougher.
“You were supposed to come in through the front door,” Master Fentin said, shaking his head in frustration. He turned and looked at his wife, who was now wearing a rather large hunk of cake on her own head, and burst out laughing. The other kids started laughing as well. The whole room was shaking with laughter by the time they managed to get Mistress Orilla back to her feet.
Sapphire walked over to stand beside me. “It was supposed to be a surprise to celebrate your birthyear.” She turned and looked at the mess. “I guess the joke’s on us.”
Sadly, I had forgotten all about it. “Mouse acted as though the orphanage was under attack.” I put my sword away, feeling more than a little stupid and half ready to strangle the little picker for getting me so worked up.
“Hey, I never said any such thing. I just said that Bull told me to run get you, and that something might be wrong.” He thought a moment. “I guess I can see how that could have been taken differently.”
“What do you mean taken differently? There’s only one way to take that.”
“Regardless of how he got you here, Ayrion,” Master Fentin said, retrieving his fallen spectacles. “We are glad you’re here.”
He turned to all those gathered and raised his hands as if directing a choir and started to sing. Everyone joined in, belting out a couple rounds of birthyear blessings before having me sit to open some gifts. While I did, Mistress Orilla and Sapphire busied themselves scraping what remained of the cake off the floor and the top of her head.
“That one’s from me,” Reevie said, limping over with a piece of unspoiled cake in his mouth and pointing to a small package.
I opened the wrapping paper and pulled out a new set of quills. I looked up. “How thoughtful. You shouldn’t have.”
“And this is from all of us,” Mistress Orilla said, handing me a large package to unwrap. I opened the wax paper to find a new black leather coat. It was one of the nicest coats I’d ever seen, not a single stitch from mending previous rips or tears. The color was still fresh, no fading from age. The five straps that buckled along the front had even been embellished with an embroidered design.
“We all pitched in,” Reevie said.
“Even me,” Mouse chimed in, helping himself to some smooshed pieces of frosting from the cake tray.
“And me,” a voice growled from the next room just before a large head stuck itself through the doorway. Tubby smiled with a childlike grin that would have frightened most because of his unusual size, but for those of us who knew and loved the huge boy, it was heartwarming.
I stood and tried it on. It fit perfectly. It hung loose, stopping just below the waist, leaving plenty of room for my sword. It also had several pockets inside, which I was sure to make good use of as well. I smiled. “I love it! It’s exactly what I needed.”
“We know how much you enjoy your nightly trips around the city.” Reevie grunted. It was one of many activities he wished I would give up. “So, we figured a black coat to help hide your comings and goings would be the right choice.”
“I couldn’t have asked for better,” I said, running my fingers over the soft leather. It was a very nice coat and wouldn’t have been cheap, even if it had been secondhand, which it didn’t look like it was. I wondered how much it had cost them. Then I wondered how Sapphire and the others had talked Reevie into purchasing it.
Bull lit the rest of the candles around the room and the hall outside, then joined us and the rest of the orphans as we finished off the leftover pieces of Mistress Orilla’s hard work. She chuckled as Master Fentin dipped out a glob of frosting from her hair with his finger and stuck it in his mouth.
“You are very tasty, my dear. Very tasty indeed.”
“It would have been a whole lot tastier if I hadn’t tossed it on my head.”
I couldn’t help but smile as I sat in the special seat in front of the fire, usually reserved for Master Fentin or honored guests, which Master Fentin had insisted I take. I studied the faces of all those gathered around. Petal, Squeaks, Mouse, and Tubby sat together in the corner. Their little group had not changed since the day Tubby arrived at the Granary. They were as close as me, Reevie, and Sapphire.
Bull helped Mistress Orilla dish out plates of flattened dessert before taking a seat himself. Most of the orphans sat on the floor around the room chatting quietly, and some not so quietly, as they relived the excitement of my surprise entrance.
It truly was one of the best parties I’d had.
After I finished my slice of the cake, I stepped outside on the front porch to get a breath of fresh air. My breath misted in front of my face before rising into the air to join the hundreds of streams of chimney smoke up and down the lane. A little while later, the door behind me opened, and Sapphire stepped outside. “Fifteen going on thirty,” she said as she shut the door and walked over to join me on the bench.
“I feel thirty,” I agreed. “I feel like I’ve aged at least twenty years since first arriving in the city.”
“You look older, Ayrion,” she said. “I remember when you first walked through the Temple’s gates.” She chuckled. “I was taller than you. Now you’ve outgrown me.” She bumped my arm with hers.
“And yet, you will always be older and wiser.”
“I don’t call sixteen being that much older.”
“Sixteen.” I shook my head. “You’re an old woman, indeed.”
She punched my arm playfully, then looked out at the snow-covered street in front of the orphanage. The colors in the sky had faded, stars filling their place. There was a freshness in the air that said winter was almost over and spring was just around the corner.
I pulled out my father’s ring from its chain around my neck and held it up, staring at the glistening white crest around the center of the black onyx. The rune symbolized clan Orpa, my Upakan heritage. I sighed as I slid the ring around my finger, and it slid right back off without any help from me.
“Fifteen, and still not old enough to keep it on.” I remembered my father’s last words the day I left the Lost City: “Every time you see this ring, I want you to remember your family. I want you to remember who you are. No matter what the council says, you are an Upakan. And the day this ring fits your finger is the day you’ll be old enough to claim your right as an Upakan warrior.”
Claiming my own ring had always been my dream.
Sapphire smiled. “It’ll fit soon enough, don’t you worry. Oh, I almost forgot. I was hoping to get you alone to give you my gift.”
I tucked the ring back inside my shirt. “Your gift? You bought me this coat,” I said, hugging it to me. “What more could I ask for?” It really was warm. Much better than the threadbare cloak I’d been wearing.
She pulled out a small package from under her own coat and handed it to me. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with a colored ribbon. I untied the bow on top and pulled back the paper.
“It’s not much,” she said as I pulled a dark piece of cloth out and held it up to the moonlight. “It’s to tie around your head to hold your hair out of your eyes when fighting.”
She leaned forward and tucked my shoulder-length hair back behind my ears, then tied the cloth strap around my head. The material was soft, almost to the point I didn’t even realize it was there.
“That should do it.” She smiled. “Give it a try.”
I stood and drew one of my swords and ran through one of my routines across the porch, flinging my head around as much as I could to test how well the band worked. It worked very well. Not once did my hair block my sight when spinning from one side to the other. Finally, I sheathed the sword and walked over to the bench and sat down. “It’s perfect. Kept my hair out of my eyes the whole time. Thank you.”
“Oh, I almost forgot. Here’s the other half of your gift.”
“The other half of my—”
Before I could finish, she leaned forward and kissed me, stealing my breath as she did. My heart felt ready to beat out of my chest by the time she finally pulled away.
She gave me one of her cheeky grins. “Now you can’t say I never give you anything.”
I barely had time to catch my breath, let alone speak when she leaned forward and fiddled with the ends of the headband.
“I figured it would come in handy tomorrow during your training session at the palace.”
My head shot up. “Training session. Tomorrow? Drat! I forgot what day it was.”
Sapphire smiled as she stood and walked to the front door. “You usually do. Better get some sleep tonight. You’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
The door shut behind her, and I stared out at the road. I couldn’t believe it had already been two weeks. Ever since I had sneaked into the king’s study to filch the royal seal and found myself battling a couple dozen armed men for my troubles, the prince had requested I be his personal trainer. Most would have jumped at the opportunity, but over the last year and a half, I’d found Dakaran to be quite the demanding handful. Worse was Captain Tolin’s ever watchful eye. He had never forgiven me for using him as a way to gain entrance into the king’s study, or at the least, having him show me where it was.
However, the generous amount of compensation I received for my services was enough to keep me coming back, not that an order from the royal family wouldn’t have been enough, but it helped to know that I was getting something in return.
Standing, I took a deep breath and adjusted the strap down a little further on my forehead. Sapphire was right. I was going to need to get plenty of rest, which meant spending the night at the orphanage so that I didn’t have to walk back across town. With one final glance down the street, I turned and headed back inside.