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The Glasswrights' Progress
The Glasswright Series: Volume Two
By Mindy L. Klasky
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Mindy L. Klasky
All rights reserved.
Rani Trader swung down from her tall bay stallion, taking a moment to pat the animal's muscled neck and catch her breath. The wind had torn at her lungs as she raced to the top of the rise, and she gasped for air, more than a little surprised that the past two years had given her the skill to ride so wildly. Behind her, several riders were strung out, flung across the tall grass like discarded chessmen. At the distant edge of the long, long plain, Rani could just make out the top of the City's tallest tower, already flecked with gold in the late afternoon light.
Rani's thoughts were not on Moren's towers, though. Instead, all of her attention was focused on Gry, the master falconer of Morenia. Rani's heart pounded as she stepped closer to the cadge that the falcon-master had set on the hilltop. Gry had left Moren early that morning, transporting by cart the sturdy birch enclosure and two prize falcons.
When Rani saw her kestrel's red and brown feathers, stark against the weathered supports of the cadge, she caught her breath. She was so pleased by Kalindramina that she scarcely spared a glance for the other raptor perched inside the enclosure. That bird was a peregrine, a falcon that merchant-born Rani would never be permitted to fly.
"Is she all right?" the girl asked the master falconer as she leaned over the kestrel. "Did the trip hurt Kalindramina?"
Gry snorted his gruff laugh and pulled at his right ear out of long habit. "Nothing will hurt that little falcon, my lady. She's too mean to be hurt. It's no wonder the king doesn't fly kestrels! I expected you to get here earlier in the day, though." He weakened the implied criticism with another laugh.
"I wanted to." Rani frowned. This was the first day in ages that she had managed to break free from her obligations in King Halaravilli's court, free from the endless parade of ambassadors and nobles, guildsmen and soldiers, all intent on bringing the greatest glory to the kingdom of Morenia. Rani could barely remember the time, only a couple of years before, when she'd been afraid to leave the City walls, when she'd feared bandits and plague and all manner of disaster outside Moren. Now, scarcely a morning passed that she didn't dream of escaping the palace and all her courtly obligations. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the sweet aroma of autumn grass.
And she wasn't even supposed to be free this afternoon. Rani had promised to work on her embroidery. Nurse frequently assured her that she'd never find a husband if she did not master neat, even stitches in her handwork. Bristling against the injustice that made her old enough to waste her days entertaining visiting nobles but young enough to be subject to Nurse's jurisdiction, Rani had nodded in reluctant agreement and promised to try harder. Promised, that was, until Nurse had bustled out of sight.
Of course, Rani justified, Nurse might have relaxed her vigil if she'd known that Kalindramina was ready to fly. Even though the old woman knew nothing of falconing, Rani might have convinced her that the small raptor was a needy creature in the world of the Thousand Gods, a poor soul that required human contact. Besides, Rani could have explained, she herself must learn to watch over man and beast if she were eventually to count herself a good guildmistress.
For Rani held the future of the glasswrights in her hands, as surely as she had recently gripped her stallion's reins. It would likely take decades, but the former apprentice intended to rebuild the guild that had been destroyed two years before. The stained-glass makers had fallen victim to rumors and lies, to the king's mistaken belief that the artisans had been responsible for the Crown Prince's assassination. The new king, Halaravilli, had held true to his word, though, and he had sent a notice throughout his lands that the glasswrights had been forgiven, that they could return to Moren. Unfortunately, few of the guildsmen had trusted the royal proclamation. They remembered bloodshed and torture; they remembered betrayal and death.
Rani was determined, though. Even if she had to temporarily leave the comfort of Morenia, even if she had to travel to some distant land to learn her craft, she would see the glaziers return to Hal's court. And years from now, Rani would be responsible for her own master craftsmen, for the journeymen and apprentices. Of course, she'd also need to watch over their horses, over the cats that she would keep in the granary to chase the mice, over the caged birds that would inspire the masters with their song. A kestrel would fit well into the menagerie.
If Rani learned to manage the wild raptor.
Drawing her thoughts back from the beasts that would eventually sleep by the hearth in her own guildhall, Rani stretched her fingers toward Gry's hound. Soon, she would learn how to hunt with her own dogs. For Kalindramina's first flight, though, Rani would rely on the falcon-master's experienced hound to flush autumn-fat grouse from the brush. The dog sniffed at Rani's hand curiously, but he jumped back toward his master as another horse gained the crest of the low hill.
A young woman clung to the reins, sawing back on her mount's mouth as if she would decapitate the poor beast. The girl's shoulder-length hair was whipped by the wind of her passage, and her narrow features were pulled into a grimace. "Ye might've waited fer me!" she squawked, before Rani could step forward to help her. "Ye might remember that some o' us aren't used t' perchin' on a cursed animal's back!"
"And you might remember that you're supposed to be a lady, Mair." Rani grinned. "You promised His Majesty that you would stop squawking like a Touched hen every time you speak."
"And you promised His Majesty that you would stay within sight of the city walls when you go out riding. There's a whole lot of lying going on in the royal palace, isn't there?" Mair's retort was quick, but Rani noted that her companion slipped back into the cultured tones of the court. Two years of living in the palace had smoothed Mair's rough brogue, but Rani was still a little surprised every time she heard the Touched girl speak in the round, soft tones of Morenia's nobility.
Of course, Mair was a quick student. That skill had kept her alive for more than sixteen years, years that had been astonishingly rough in the City streets. Mair refused to talk about her childhood, about the parents who had abandoned her to her life among the City's teeming population of lawless, casteless children. All that Rani knew was that Mair had gathered a group of loyal Touched around her, children who were willing to lay down their lives for their leader. In exchange for that devotion, Mair had kept her troop safe and warm and fed, even when the king's guard had tried repeatedly to drive out the group of casteless urchins.
"Cursed beast! Stand yer ground!" Mair swore at her mount as it shied away, and she sawed at the animal's tough mouth with arms that trembled on her reins. Rani's falcon, Kalindramina, shifted her talons on her bow-shaped perch, ruffling her feathers at the disturbance. The peregrine, though, remained aloof beneath its buckskin hood.
"Mair," Rani chastised. "Don't frighten Kali. You know you won't get anywhere if you manhandle your horse like that. Hold the reins firmly, and don't pull sideways."
"Mind your own horse," Mair snarled, and Rani swallowed a laugh as she turned her attention back to the falcon-master, who had watched the entire exchange with an indulgent smile. "Gry, can we fly Kali now?"
The old man's eyes darted to Rani's hand as she pulled on her heavy buckskin falconing glove. He tugged at his ear and gazed out across the plain toward Moren. "We'd best wait for the prince, my lady. He'll be offended if we start without him."
"He could have been here already, if he didn't ride like a noble reviewing his troops," Rani grumbled. "Besides, the prince already knows that his Maradalian will fly well. Please, Gry! I don't want to look like a fool in front of him."
The falcon-master glanced at the hooded peregrine, perched next to Kalindramina on the sturdy cadge. He tugged at his ear again, and a frown creased his forehead. "It's not a contest, my lady. You must respect the bird, as she's learned to respect you. You're not competing with Prince Bashanorandi today." Shaking his head in rebuke, the falconer stepped away from the two girls, becoming unusually interested in the raptors' jesses, the strips of leather that tethered them to their perches.
"She's always competing with Bashi," Mair noted dryly to the back of Gry's head as she finally slipped to the ground from her jittery mount. "You know, Rai, you were wrong to speak so harshly to the soldiers when we rode through the city gates."
"They were taking too long to pass us through. They know we're allowed to come and go. They were only dragging their feet because Bashi was there too."
"They were doing their job."
Rani glared at Mair. "So, it's come to this? You're going to tutor me in being kind to soldiers?"
Mair grimaced at Rani's sharp tone. "I'm telling you to be kind to people. I don't care what caste the men are, they don't deserve the cheek you offered them."
"Cheek! I haven't been cheeky a day in my life!"
"Call it what you will. Some of us adapt better to our life in the castle than others."
"You take that back, Mair! I didn't do anything wrong with the soldiers!"
"Of course not." Mair paused. "My lady," she added sweetly.
"Mair, if you want to criticize me, do it outright."
"You'll know when I criticize you, Rani Trader."
The words bit hard, spiced with deep-rooted anger, and Rani blinked back sudden tears. "You used to call me Rai."
"You used to act like one of the Touched."
Rani spluttered, digging for an answer, but no retort came easily. Instead, she glared at Gry's back, taking in the falcon-master's supposed interest in one of the joints of the portable cadge. Gry had been born one of the casteless Touched, like all of the nobles' servants. Through the years, he had worked hard to gain his employers' trust, to earn his success as master falconer. Rani looked away from the silent condemnation of his still back, turning her attention to the four soldiers who finally drew near the top of the gentle rise. "My lady," called the captain, bowing slightly from his saddle. "It's dangerous for you to ride alone."
"I'm not alone!" Rani exclaimed, and her voice was sharper than she intended. She swallowed hard and forced her words into a less shrill register. "I rode with my lady-in-waiting, Mair. And I rode to the king's own falcon-master. Besides, we were never out of your sight, Farantili."
"Much good it would do me, if I had to watch enemy troops ride out of those trees and carry you off." Farantili nodded his grizzled head toward the copse that bled across the bottom of the hill.
Rani covered a shiver of concern with scornful words. "What enemy would come so close to Moren? We're near enough to hear the Pilgrims' Bell from here. By all the Thousand Gods, you worry too much, Farantili."
"I'm paid to worry, my lady." The soldier's words did nothing to ease Rani's roiling temper, especially when he edged his horse between hers and the trees. "I'll send one of my men down to check out the woods, before you fly the kestrel."
"Farantili, that's ridiculous. It's already getting late in the day. If we have to wait for your scout, we won't get back to the city until after dark."
"Of course, my lady. We should turn back now. You can practice your falconry another day."
Mair did not bother to disguise her smirk of amusement as Rani yelped in frustration and whirled on Gry, ready to plead her case to the master. Before she could speak, though, the last handful of horsemen rode up. Farantili bent low in his saddle and Gry swept into a deep bow, but Rani scarcely inclined her head.
"Bashi," she murmured, and she watched anger flare across the prince's pale face. Prince Bashanorandi had no use for childish nicknames, particularly names that had been bestowed by the current king, when both boys had lived in the royal nursery.
"You had no right to leave me back there!" Prince Bashanorandi scowled as he fought to rein in his feisty brown stallion. "You know that Hal would not want us riding this far from Moren's walls. He'd have your hide if he saw you jump that creek! When will you stop to think, Ranita? You're not a merchant brat any longer."
But you're a brat, all the same.
No, Bashi was not fool enough to utter those words, not in front of the master falconer and the soldiers. Nevertheless, he thought them so clearly that Rani's hands curled into fists as expressive as Kali's talons. She bridled at the bitterness in Bashi's superior tone, even as she tried to remind herself that the past two years had not been easy for the bastard son of two proven traitors.
Bashi had been indirectly implicated in the plot to assassinate Morenia's Crown Prince. Many thought that the bastard should have been executed like his scheming mother and father. King Shanoranvilli, though, had mandated from his death bed that the boy he had always known as his youngest son should live. Even after the heartbroken old man died, Halaravilli had not withdrawn that sanctuary. In fact, Hal had left Bashanorandi the title of "prince," figuring that the appellation might help rein in the rebellious youth.
But Bashi had continued to be difficult, refusing to assume any responsibility in administering the kingdom. Hal had rapidly found himself snared in a paradox: he could have forced his so-called brother to act as a councillor, to be responsible for Moren's day-to-day administration, as was typical of a Crown Prince. But everyone knew that Bashi wasn't the Crown Prince. He wasn't of Morenian royal blood at all.
The situation was frustrating, and Hal took out his aggression with his sometime brother in a thousand ways, berating Bashi in the dining hall when the youth arrived late for supper, ridiculing Bashi's notions for a feast-day honoring all the Thousand Gods.
And Bashi took out his anger in ways that were safe, especially by tormenting the lower-caste Rani. The prince had arranged for her apartments to be on the darker, southern side of the palace compound, and he had snagged the best palace seamstress for himself. He had even managed to snare the treasured dinner place at Hal's right hand.
Rani was forced to grit her teeth and accept the ignominy. She was, after all, a merchant girl who only teetered on the edge of the noble caste. Now, painfully aware of all the limits on her rights, Rani harnessed her self-control. "I didn't leave my escort 'far behind,' my lord. You must not have noticed that we're at the top of a hill. The soldiers could see Mair and me, as we rode to this vantage point."
"A lot of good it would have done, if you'd been attacked."
"And who's going to attack us, this close to the City?"
"Ranita, you know there've been tales of marauders," Bashi sneered. As his face twisted around his superior words, he looked younger than his fifteen years. "Even if you haven't been allowed in Council meetings, you can't have missed the stories in the streets."
"You may be frightened by tales meant for children, o prince, but I am not. I know the difference between a monster that lurks beneath a child's bed and an invading army."
"No one said that it would take an army," Bashi answered hotly. "A single soldier with a sharp blade could kill you, before you even knew that you'd been taken."
Mair cut in before Rani could spit out a reply. "Aye, Prince Bashanorandi. A single blade is all it would take to cut down any of us. That's why we all must stay united. Against our true enemies." Mair accented her pious declaration by settling her right hand on the hilt of the dagger she wore at her waist, contrary to the delicate customs of the noble caste. There were, after all, advantages to being one of the casteless Touched.
"Now, now," interrupted Farantili. The grizzled soldier had let his wards argue among themselves, accustomed by now to their squabbles. When hand touched steel, though, he apparently deemed it time to intervene.
Excerpted from The Glasswrights' Progress by Mindy L. Klasky. Copyright © 2010 Mindy L. Klasky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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