Read an Excerpt
The Five of Stars: the quest.
A search for something of value, or aspiration toward a significant goal.
Silken skirts floated like bubbles as the ladies swayed through the stately measures of the dance. Music swirled over the conversation. Candlelight glowed on polished wood and highdressed hair, and glittered in the jewels.
Arisa hated it.
She hated the jewels, just one of which could have kept a struggling farm family for a year. She hated the sycophantic laughter that rippled around the bored-looking prince. But most of all, she hated the fact that she was wearing one of those never-to-be-sufficiently-accursed ball gowns.
She wasn’t certain which aspect was worse, the corsets that kept her from bending or the big hoop and the layers of petticoats that kept her from moving. The ridiculously high heels on her shoes came in a close third.
Her mother didn’t care about clothes. The Falcon danced through the set, partnering some old man who was probably politically important. Her movements were as easy and graceful as if she were teaching a new recruit to fire a pistol, or mounting a horse to flee the law. As if she belonged in this overheated ballroom as much as she did in the woods, or on the moonlit high road.
Arisa could barely walk in her gown, much less dance. And she was trying, whatever the dancing master said. It was just—
Another burst of laughter rose from the group around the prince. Louder now, because he was smiling too. Her friend, Weasel, laughed with them.
Hang it. She’d been here long enough to claim that she’d “attended” evening court. Arisa turned abruptly, stepped into another set of billowing skirts, and bumped the body beneath them hard enough to make Lady Danica stagger into Lady Ronelle.
Arisa also hated all the girls who swarmed around the court, hoping to catch Prince Edoran’s eye. Danica and Ronelle were the worst of them. Still…
“I’m sorry,” said Arisa. “I didn’t mean—”
“I’m all right.” Danica reached up and patted her hair, making sure her curls were in place—though to Arisa they looked as if they’d been glued there.
She was suddenly aware that her hair was slipping out of its pins. Again. Her hands twitched, but Arisa refused to reach up and confirm it. Her thick chestnut hair was the only thing about her that her maid approved of. In a ballroom, Arisa thought that her ordinary face made her look like a weed in a bouquet of roses, but she didn’t mind. Very few court ladies qualified as pretty, and only the Falcon was beautiful. And Arisa was leaving, anyway.
“Well, if you’re all right, I’ll just—”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’ll learn to walk in heels… eventually.”
Arisa felt heat rise to her cheeks. “I only tripped once. Anyone can trip. Besides, that was weeks ago.”
“While making your first curtsy to the prince.” Ronelle’s voice oozed pseudo-sympathy. “You poor thing. I’d have died of embarrassment.”
That’s because you want the royal runt to notice you. But the Falcon had asked Arisa to befriend the prince, so she didn’t say this aloud.
“I’m sure you would have,” Arisa said instead. “But I was just leav—”
“It’s not your fault, dear,” Danica chimed in. “You’re only fourteen, and growing up in a bandit camp, surrounded by common thieves… Well, we make allowances.” Her smile was pure poison.
Danica and Ronelle were only a few years older, but Arisa knew she should leave. Just turn and go. Her feet seemed to stop of their own volition. “My mother was a rebel leader. And she’s never been common in her life. You two are common.” She gestured to the crowded room. “Dozens just like you. My mother is one of a kind.”
Several of the people near them had broken off their own conversations to listen.
Ronelle’s face flushed, and Danica glared. “Common” was a serious insult in their circles. That was why Arisa had used it.
“You don’t deny she’s a thief,” said Ronelle. “And before that she was a whore.”
Someone gasped, and Arisa smiled. “No, she was a courtesan, which is what you aspire to be. At least, you act and dress like you want to be courtesans. But I expect you’ll fall short of the mark and end up whor—ah, not courtesans.”
She couldn’t deny that her mother had been a thief.
“Revolutions need money,” Arisa continued aloud. “When you can’t work within the law, you have to—”
“Your mother wasn’t some kind of rebel hero.” Now temper reddened Danica’s cheeks. “She was a road bandit. A common road bandit.”
Several of the bystanders winced. Whatever she’d been, the Falcon had power now. For just a second Arisa wished she’d use it to crush these stupid girls, but her mother was above that kind of pettiness.
“She had to steal, to support the cause.”
The smooth, rich faces in the crowd around her were either politely blank or titillated. They didn’t understand. They would never understand. She really should go.
Danica snorted. “So you say. But she turned in her cause for a soft appointment at court the first chance she got! If it wasn’t for the shield, she’d have—”
Arisa froze. “You take that back.”
“Take what back, dear?” Danica smirked. “If it wasn’t for that clerk finding the shield, she would have been hanged. On a common gallows.”
“That’s a lie,” Arisa snapped. “Running the army’s not a soft appointment. She’s still fighting, still working to—”
“To get rid of Pettibone?” Ronelle sneered. “But he’s dead now. She’s dancing in court, and taking the prince’s coin, so—”
Words weren’t going to work. Arisa punched Ronelle in the stomach. Not too hard, and Ronelle’s corset robbed the blow of even more strength, but she still wobbled back.
Childhood in a bandit camp was good for some things. Arisa grinned, even as Danica shrieked and leaped at her. Arisa stepped aside and tried to trip the girl, but two sets of fluffy petticoats got in the way. Arisa stumbled instead, and Danica’s nails raked over her neck. There was a reason to grow them so long and sharp. If the manicurist had pointed that out, Arisa might have cooperated instead of—
Danica reached in again and Arisa scowled, ducked, and punched her in the stomach. This time she didn’t pull the blow, and corset bones snapped like twigs. Danica doubled over, and Arisa was turning to leave when Ronelle slammed into her from behind.
If she hadn’t been wearing high heels, she might have pivoted with the blow and recovered. But in heels and hoops she toppled, with the larger and heavier girl on top of her.
Impact with the floor was stunning, but a sharp pain in her scalp roused her. Ronelle was pulling her hair—a girl-fighting move, but it still hurt!
Arisa rolled over, more encumbered by her own skirts than by Ronelle’s flailing limbs. The corsets were the worst, Arisa decided as she freed her right arm. Hoops kept you from moving, but corsets kept you from breathing.
Ignoring the fists still yanking at her hair, Arisa punched Ronelle’s nose. Blood spurted in a satisfactory fashion. Ronelle shrieked and let go of Arisa’s hair, hands flying to her face. When she saw the blood on her fingers, she began to scream in earnest. Arisa shoved at her.
“Get off of me, you cow! I can’t brea—”
Ronelle levitated off her as if by magic. Then a strong hand under her arm hauled Arisa to her feet and steadied her.
“What’s going on here?” the Falcon demanded.
“She started it!” Ronelle and Danica wailed, in perfect chorus.
Arisa shrugged. The courtiers around them rustled and chirped like a flock of birds.
“Is that true?” her mother asked.
“I did punch her,” Arisa admitted.
“Why?” the Falcon asked calmly.
“It doesn’t matter why!” Ronelle’s father, Lord Ethgar, burst through the crowd and pulled his daughter out of the Falcon’s grip. “If your daughter cannot restrain her savagery, Mistress, then I shall have to… to…”
The Falcon waited. Lord Ethgar was a handsome man, with his powdered hair and high-nosed aristocratic face. Most of the courtiers would consider him a powerful man as well, for he was the master of the royal household and essentially ran the court. But the Falcon was lord commander of the army and navy of Deorthas, and her expression said more plainly than words that she didn’t care what he might do.
“Let’s all calm down here, shall we?” The man who now pushed his way through the crowd looked like a clerk beside the fashionable lord. His unpowdered hair showed gray, and spectacles winked in the candlelight. But the courtiers stepped back, giving him space, and Ronelle chose that moment to burst into tears and huddle in her father’s arms. Justice Holis, now Regent Holis, was unimpressed.
“It appears there’s been little harm done,” he began.
“My nose!” Ronelle whimpered.
“She hit me, too!” Danica exclaimed. “She started it.”
The regent looked at Arisa. “I threw the first punch,” Arisa admitted. “But I didn’t start it. And I finished it.”
His expression remained grave, but she thought there was a twinkle in his eyes. “I hope that’s sufficient to console you,” he said, “when your mother has finished with this matter.”
“It won’t be,” said the Falcon.
Arisa sat in the chair in front of her mother’s desk, scowling. That shimmering ball gown should have looked ridiculous in the office of the lord commander, but it didn’t. Not when the Falcon wore it.
“They were fighting too,” Arisa complained. “And Ronelle wasn’t the only one who was hurt. See?”
She pressed her fingers against the scratches on her neck— they came away red, though the bleeding had almost stopped.
“That’s not the point. And you know it.”
“Ronelle’s nose wasn’t broken,” Arisa went on. “And Danica was barely bruised. No one was hurt,” she concluded. “Not really.”
“That’s not the point either,” said the Falcon. “I’m not even too concerned that you started it.”
“You’re not?” Arisa blinked. “Lord Ethgar won’t like that. Justice Holis might not like it either.”
“I don’t care what Ethgar likes,” said the Falcon. “And neither does Holis. But you can’t solve all your problems with fighting!”
It certainly simplified things. But that wasn’t what her mother wanted to hear.
“Maybe not with fists,” Arisa conceded. “But one way or another, you always have to fight.”
“Fists aren’t the only weapon.” Her mother leaned forward over the desk. “Words can be a weapon. Even clothing can be a weapon.”
Arisa looked to one side at the portrait of King Regalis, which had hung on the wall behind the desk until the shield had taken its place.
“You want to turn me into a withless peacock, like him.”
The king in the portrait wore green velvet, so richly embroidered she could barely see its color through the masses of gold. Emeralds were embedded in the heels of his shoes, and his short cloak was trimmed in ermine fur.
“Am I a withless peacock, Ris?” her mother asked.
Arisa looked back at the Falcon. Satin gleamed. Jewels flashed.
“No,” Arisa admitted. “You couldn’t be. It doesn’t matter what you wear.”
“That’s the point,” said the Falcon. “One of them, anyway. Why do you think I keep that portrait here?”
“How should I know? It’s pretty?”
Her mother snorted. “No, not because it’s pretty. Or maybe it is, in a way. Look at those clothes, Arisa. Look at that handsome, kingly man. He looks the part. But he was the most useless king in Deorthas’ history. Worse even than Pettibone, and that’s saying something. I keep that portrait to remind me that it’s not what you wear that matters. It’s what you do. Clothes are just a tool, to help you reach your goal.”
“If you have a goal,” said Arisa.
“I assigned you a task when we first came here,” said the Falcon. “Remember?”
“To befriend the prince.” And she’d been avoiding him ever since.
“We’ve been here almost a month,” the Falcon continued. “So why is Holis’ clerk standing beside the prince at court, while you watch the dancing and pick fights?”
“Weasel likes him,” Arisa protested. How he could stomach the foppish little toad she had no idea, but he did.
Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “So Holis’ clerk has the prince’s ear, and you don’t.”
Arisa squirmed. She knew her mother regarded Justice Holis as a political rival, but Arisa liked the man—even if he did bore her with lectures on politics and law. Besides…
“Justice Holis doesn’t need Weasel to talk to the prince. He’s Edoran’s regent and guardian. If he wants to say something to Edoran, he just says it. And you’re the lord commander of Prince Edoran’s army. If you want to say something to him, you can.”
“Don’t pretend to be stupid, Arisa. There’s a huge difference between something that comes from a friend your own age and something that comes from an adult in power.”
“But if you already have power,” Arisa argued, “why do you need to influence Edoran? He won’t become king for another seven years, when he’s twenty-two.”
The political rivalry between her mother and Justice Holis worried her. Her mother had saved the justice from Regent Pettibone’s dungeons, and shot Pettibone herself. Then Weasel had given her the shield, and she and Justice Holis had agreed to work together. Arisa thought Justice Holis was keeping that agreement, but she wasn’t entirely certain about her mother.
On the other hand, it probably made sense to try to gain some influence with Edoran before he became king. Half the shareholders in the realm seemed to think so, anyway. All of their daughters did.
Arisa sighed. “If I don’t have anything to do but wear gowns and befriend that… prince, I’ll go stark mad from boredom. Next time I’ll probably kill someone. I can think of several people who’d be the better for it.” More than several, actually. She could make a list, and work her way down.
Her mother laughed. “Are you telling me you started that fight because you were bored?”
Could she get away with saying yes? Arisa had been praying her mother wouldn’t ask what the fight had been about.
“In part, I think it was,” she said truthfully. “They made me angry, and I don’t like them. But I don’t think I’d have punched them if I hadn’t… If I wasn’t… I feel like there’s a corset around my entire life! And it keeps getting tighter, too.”
The cause they had fought so hard for had triumphed—she should rejoice. But who could have predicted that victory would turn out to be so wretched? Arisa rose from the chair, kicked off the clumsy heels, and began to pace.
“It’s not just the clothes, and the dancing, and embroidery; it’s me. I feel all out of balance, like a piece of me is missing. I hate this! I’m bad at it too,” she finished glumly.
“You have to learn to be a lady.” The Falcon’s voice was gentle. “That’s our rank now. That will be your status for the rest of your life.”
The Falcon’s chuckle held a note of sympathy. “Would you rather go back to banditry, Ris? Always in hiding, everything you own stolen from others?”
“Yes!” said Arisa.
Her mother waited.
“Oh, all right, I wouldn’t. Not really. But at least I had a job then. A real job,” she added, before her mother could nag her about Edoran again. “One that mattered.”
She waited for her mother to tell her that influencing Edoran did matter, but the Falcon sat in silence, watching her pace.
“Then maybe I should give you another job,” the Falcon murmured finally. “A real one. It will be hard. It might not be possible. Though if you could bring it off… It’s certainly important.”
“What?” Arisa asked warily.
“I’d planned to assign one of my men to this,” said the Falcon. “But you might do better. You have access, if you choose to use it. And you’re not stupid, even if you sometimes act that way.”
Arisa blushed with shame and anger. “So, what is this job?”
“I’d like you to find the sword for me. Do you think you could handle that?”
Arisa’s heart leaped, but… “No,” she answered reluctantly. “The sword’s been lost for centuries, just like the shield was.”
“The shield was found.” The Falcon gestured at the wall behind her.
“Every item in the storeroom where the shield was found has been examined ten times over,” Arisa reminded her mother. “And every other storeroom, and passage, and cellar, and stable, and closet in the palace has been searched and searched again. When Justice Holis decreed that the five-hundred-blessing reward for the sword still stood, the servants were crazy to find it. And they know this palace better than I ever could.”
“So what does that tell you?” the Falcon asked.
“That it’s not in the palace,” said Arisa, working it out as she spoke. “But if it’s not here, it could be anywhere in Deorthas. Anywhere in the world by now!”
“I don’t think it left Deorthas,” said the Falcon.
Arisa didn’t either. The sword and the shield were bound to Deorthas… unless Justice Holis was right, and they were only symbols, after all. Still… “Deorthas is a pretty big closet.”
“So?” Mischief glinted in the Falcon’s eyes. “If it wasn’t harder than embroidery, it wouldn’t be a real job.”
“Real isn’t the same as impossible,” Arisa grumbled. “And nothing’s harder than embroidery. Except that cursed pianoforte.”
“I thought you liked your embroidery class. And you do like music,” the Falcon added.
“I like listening to music,” said Arisa. “Not plunking out wrong notes. And I like my embroidery teacher, but that’s not the same as liking embroidery.”
“How do you feel about historical research?” the Falcon asked softly.
Arisa wasn’t stupid. “The prince. You think I’ll have to ask the prince for help, to access old records and things to find out what happened to the sword. You think this will force me to make friends with him.”
“He has access to more records than anyone else,” the Falcon pointed out. “And you can’t deny that finding it is important.”
She couldn’t. When Weasel had given the shield to the Falcon, it had granted an ex-bandit rebel leader enough legitimacy that the army had agreed to accept her as their commander. In fact, Arisa had once told Weasel that they should look for the sword themselves, promising to give it to Justice Holis since he’d given her mother the shield.
Of course, that had been before the servants turned the palace inside out, and pretty much proved that the sword wasn’t there. But if it could be found…
“This really is important,” the Falcon echoed her thoughts. “And I think you’ve got a better chance than any of my men. Will you try?”
“Yes,” said Arisa. “Though I might not find it.” A wonderful thought struck her. “And it will take time. Lots of it. So I won’t have time for dancing lessons, or singing, or—”
“No.” The Falcon’s voice was firm, even though her lips twitched. “You have to learn to be a lady, and putting it off will only make it harder. On the other hand…”
Arisa waited hopefully.
“On the other hand, it might be a good idea to give your aggressive impulses some target besides the court ladies. Would you like to share the prince’s fencing lessons?”
“With the prince? It’s not enough if he helps me find the sword? Besides, ladies aren’t supposed to fence with men. It would cause a scandal if I shared his lessons.”
“Ladies aren’t supposed to fence at all,” said the Falcon. “Or shoot, or fight with knives. But that didn’t keep you from begging lessons from every man in my camp. You don’t care about scandal any more than I do.”
Arisa had begged lessons from her mother’s men, learning to use every weapon she could lay hands on. But the sword was a nobleman’s weapon, and the countrymen who had joined her mother had known little about it. In fact, it was her weakest weapon, which made lessons with the foremost master in the realm a tempting bribe.
“All right,” said Arisa. “Fencing lessons with the prince, and I’ll try to find the sword in my free time. Though I can’t guarantee I’ll succeed.”
“I know you might not find it,” her mother said soberly. “All I ask is that you try. And free time means afternoons, and when there’s no evening court scheduled. You’re not getting out of coming to court by punching a couple of girls. You’d enjoy it more if you talked with your friend, Weasel.”
“Weasel is usually with the prince, and that’s the most boring part of a really boring crowd,” Arisa told her.
“Then why isn’t Weasel bored?” the Falcon asked.
Arisa grinned. “He says he uses the time to practice picking pockets, but I think he’s bluffing. Mostly.”
“Then get him to teach you to pick pockets,” said her mother. “Maybe he’ll teach the prince as well, and you can all practice together. Do we have a deal, Ris?”
She’d gotten fencing lessons out of it. And trying to find the sword, even if it proved impossible, was more interesting than anything she was doing now.
“Deal,” said Arisa.
© 2008 Hilari Bell