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The Charmed Sphere
By Catherine Asaro
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One Chime hid when the king came to town.
Everyone in Jacob's Vale knew the royal party would arrive today. Fast messengers traveling the country kept citizens apprised of the king's progress through the realm of Aronsdale. Chime had hoped he might skip a hamlet as small as Jacob's Vale, but apparently she wouldn't be so lucky.
A pack of boys raced into town, hair flying, yelling that King Daron was coming. So Chime hid. She ran to her family's orchard and climbed her favorite apple tree. At her age, almost eighteen, she was supposedly too mature for such pastimes, ready instead to settle down and bring a husband into the household. She had no wish to marry, however, and didn't care in the least about her supposed lack of interest in climbing trees. She scrambled up the trunk, dressed in tunic, leggings, and kneeboots, all the hue of yellow apples, her favorite color. She didn't stop until she was deep into the leafy cover of the branches, screened by spring foliage from curious eyes. Royal eyes.
Actually, it wasn't the king who inspired Chime to flee the town and stash herself in a tree. She feared a far more imposing person - Della No-Cozen, one of Daron's top advisors. Della served as the Mage Mistress for Castle Suncroft.
"Pah," Chime muttered. Although the idea of a castle being a croft for the sun appealed to her sense of whimsy, she had no wish to go there. She knew why Mistress No-Cozen was searching the countryside, visiting towns large and small. Oh, yes, she knew. They were looking for shapemages, the adepts who used circles, cubes, spheres, and other shapes to create spells. Well, they wouldn't find any here, not if she had any say in the matter.
Although Chime's parents realized she carried the shapemage gifts, neither had ever pressured her to reveal her talents. Besides, if she left Jacob's Vale and went to Suncroft, her family would have one less person to help in the orchards. Chime loved her family and she loved tending the trees, especially when they blossomed and brought forth fresh, succulent apples.
Thinking of fruit, Chime spotted a particularly juicy apple. She plucked it and settled herself more comfortably in the branches. Then she peered through the leaves at the dusty road beyond the trees, and past it to the hills. In the distance, the first riders of the king's party had appeared over a ridge outside the town. Taking a bite of her apple, she sat back to watch them arrive.
The stately procession crested the ridge like a wave of people. Chime had to admit they made an impressive sight. Warriors rode great horses with golden bridles. Their pennants snapped in the breeze, dyed the king's colors, indigo and gold on a white background, showing a castle silhouetted on the disk of the sun. An honor guard rode with them, officers in blue uniforms. As they drew nearer, riding at the edge of the trees and even under some of them, Chime saw the gold insignia of military officers.
Then King Daron appeared. At first Chime mistook him for a royal advisor. He made a spectacular sight, to be sure, tall on his great black charger, his gray hair swept up from his brow. And his chiseled features certainly had a kingly aspect. But he seemed so old. She had seen his image on the hexagonal coins people used to buy the apples, quinces, and pears her family grew. It made her expect a much younger man, one hale and hearty, full of vigor. This man's advanced age suggested his era of rule might end sooner than she, and most people, expected.
The thought perturbed Chime. King Daron had been a constant all her life, a good sovereign her parents said, steady and certain. He had no son to assume his crown; the prince had died years ago, lost in an orb-carriage accident with his wife and their young child, a boy named Jarid. Rumor claimed their loss had destroyed the king. He had been widowed himself years before, and he had never remarried. Instead he had chosen his nephew, the son of his brother, as his heir.
Chime took another bite of her apple, studying the king's retinue. Several nobles rode with him, the men in gold trousers and white shirts under brocaded vests; the women in pale tunics and leggings tucked into riding boots.
As the procession drew near, a woman looked up at the tree. Her full cheeks had a ruddy color and gray curls framed her lined face. Chime could see her eyes, gray perhaps, though she was too far away to be sure. What struck Chime most was their intelligence. The woman stared straight at her hiding place as if she saw the truant girl.
Chime held still, praying to escape notice. It seemed to work. The woman rode on with the king's party,passing below the tree with no more indication she knew someone was watching them. Chime hoped that were true, because she had no doubt who she had just seen - Della No-Cozen, ShapeMage Mistress of Suncroft.
* * *
Chime climbed in a window at the back of her house, sneaking into her mother's workroom. It was here that Bell recorded the sale of fruit from their orchards, writing the numbers on parchments in beautiful inks with designs of vines around the edges. Bell had gone to the village earlier, so this entrance was safer for Chime than going in the front door, where someone might catch sight of her and prod her to go greet the king's party.
She was clambering over the sill onto a rickety wooden chair when a young voice said, "Hey!"
Chime jerked around and lost her balance. As she flailed her arms, she jumped off the chair and landed with a thump on the plank wood floor. Stumbling, she grabbed the wall shelves to keep from falling. Knickknacks rained over her, wooden harvest dolls that clattered all over the floor. She managed to avoid the ignoble fate of sprawling on the floor herself, but she winced at her undignified entrance.
Drummer, the younger of her two brothers, stood in the doorway smirking, his gold curls tousled over his ears and collar, his blue eyes full of delight at embarrassing her. Chime knew people thought she and Drummer resembled each other, both in appearance and behavior, but at this moment she had no doubt about the truth: imps had taken her true brother at birth and put this vexing creature in his place, leaving him to bedevil his poor sister.
Chime drew herself upright and brushed out her tunic. "Well, so why aren't you doing your chores?"
He stopped grinning long enough to glare. "Why aren't you doing yours?"
She spoke with dignity. "I was busy."
Drummer crossed his arms, for all the world resembling a nine-year-old version of their father, though Drummer had far less brawn. "Busy climbing trees?"
"Hah." She thought hard and fast for an excuse, or at least hard, anyway. Fast thinking had never been her forte. At a loss for good response, she fell back on sisterly disdain. "Little do you know."
Curiosity flashed in his gaze. "Know what?"
She brushed a leaf off her sleeve. "Oh, nothing."
She had to relent, seeing his eyes bright with excitement. "The king's party has arrived."
"Hai!" With no more ado, he spun around and took off. After two steps, though, he skidded to a stop and swung back to her. "Well, come on!"
Chime smiled at his enthusiasm. He had always been that way, full of energy. "You go and see, Drummer. I really do have chores to finish."
"Mother and Father won't mind." His eyes were as round as the moon. "This is special."
"I'll come soon."
"See you there!" He whirled and dashed off. A crash came from somewhere, a chair falling over it sounded like, following by a breathless apology from Drummer, either to a person or the chair. The front door opened and slammed, and then it was quiet again.
Excerpted from The Charmed Sphere by Catherine Asaro Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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