Chapter I: Zira
The princess' bare feet padded across the cool stone floor. She had never needed shoes in the comfortable Antithean heat, but, she reminded herself, for the past few years the heat had been anything but comfortable. Her eyes strayed to the window; the trees outside were dry, their leaves brown and crinkled in the sun. She instinctively reached out to grasp the small hand by her side. Shae, the princess' constant companion from almost the moment of their birth, squeezed the proffered hand, her dark serious face glowing from perspiration. No breezes ruffled their still salwars; they walked in complete silence. As they approached the great wood door Shae turned to the princess and kissed her on the cheek then Zirabehti Kouré, heir to the Antithean throne, turned with a wan smile and opened the door.
The room was large with high ceilings and stone floors to keep the intense summer heat at bay. Zira's eyes rested on the man at the end of the room, his back was to her, and she could see how painfully thin he was. Her ten-year-old heart cried to see him in this state. She wanted to run up to him, wrap her arms around his neck, but she was a princess, and so she waited for her father to notice her. He turned slowly and his tired eyes met her young ones.
"Zira. My little one," he beckoned and suddenly Zira was running. She threw herself into her father's arms. He stroked her smooth hair and sighed. "Zira, what is going to happen to us? To Antitheos? I am under house arrest by order of the Tortallian King and you…" he broke off and looked down into her large amber eyes, which she had inherited from him.
"Yes father," she said. He father let go of her and turned away.
"Tortall has demanded in feudalism knights from Antitheos. Zira I am sending you to become a knight. You must go into the lion's den, eat and drink with the enemies of Antitheos, talk with them, befriend them." Zira's eyes grew wide. She started to back away, then stopped, mindful of her duty to her father.
"Father, if I go I would be declaring my allegiance to another country and another king. I thought the Book of Lore spoke against such things."
"The Book of Lore was written to keep Antitheos safe, not to restrict it so it would not be able to move." King Lari paused "Zira, you must go, for there is another thing you must do. You must find It for Antitheos. If you don't we will never be free. As long as Tortall has control of us, It shall never be free." King Lari shook his head. "Abi did not understand Tortall's power; he used his gift to try and recover It. They have destroyed us for trying to take what is ours."
"Abi wanted It to prove he could be king, father. He wanted to stop this drought. There is no kingdom left though. Abi's gone, and Mama…" Her young voice grew tight. "Those barbarians destroyed everything."
"Zira, never call another people barbarian, for you become barbarian by saying such things. You are stronger than your brother, and you do not have the gift so they cannot trace you. You will only claim what is ours nothing more." He cupped her face in his hands and pushed a wisp of hair away from her cheek.
"Yes father," she said meeting his eyes. He smiled at her a moment, and then walked over to his desk where a ring lay, a tiny chip of a stone gleamed in its setting. He beckoned Zira over and slid it on her hand. It lolled impotently to the side of her childish finger. His amber eyes glowed, and the ring drew itself tightly in fitting her perfectly. She touched it with reverence, eyes wide; it sparkled on her scarred hand.
"This ring is a part of It. It will help you." He smiled. "You will do our people proud, Zira." An amber tear formed in the corner of his eye as he looked at her. "You will do me proud. Eimar be with you."
"Eimar be with you too, father." She kissed him on the cheek and he turned away from her, hiding his tears. Slowly she left the room.
As soon as the doors closed behind her she sank to the floor and began to sob. Shae knelt by her side and took her in her arms. She rocked her gently; their jet-black hair intermingled making it impossible to tell which hair belonged with which head.
Jonathan IV of Conté faced Lord Wyldon of Cavall, who was studying a letter carefully.
"So we have a new female applicant." Lord Wyldon said cautiously as he folded the letter and placed it on the table before him.
"You're not going to refuse again, Wyldon?" Jonathan said. "After Kel I thought you'd be game for another."
"If you remember correctly I originally retired after Kel," Lord Wyldon said. King Jonathan looked at Wyldon's weary face anxiously.
"Wyldon, you don't mind that I pulled you out of retirement do you? When Padraig died, along with so many others in the Antithean Wars we needed someone. Timothy of Filds will be ready soon to take over many of the training duties. Besides it wasn't because of Kel that you resigned."
"No, Kel was a good page and an excellent squire. She wasn't a princess though." Wyldon said dryly. "And she wasn't a barbarian either. Highness, we conquered this girl's lands why should we trust her."
"Why should we trust any of them? Men or girls, yet you have accepted the men which King Lari has sent. Her father says that she is accomplished at knife fighting and archery." He paused. "Also there was a time when you felt that Kel was a barbarian."
"It is not because she is a girl that I am wary. It's because she's a princess. You should keep her under house arrest like her father, not bring her down here with her foreign ideas."
"But I have to accept," Jonathan sighed and picked up the letter scanning it for the hundredth time. "Ruling is about compromise. We cannot afford to have another war."
"Let her come for the interview I will say no more until then."
The king frowned.
"If we turn her down it may create more friction between our nations. They are ready to rise at any moment." Jonathan said.
"No country would dare face you, and Antitheos is unlikely to be so foolish as to try it twice. You have the Dominion Jewel." Wyldon said.
"Yes." Jonathan stated carefully. "We do."
The journey from Antitheos to Tortall was difficult, but after three years of war and famine Zira was used to hardship, and did not complain. Her companions were surprised by her endurance, for outwardly she was a slender little thing with thin wrists and long fingers. She was very beautiful, but had a hard quality to her that tended to come with royalty; she held her head high and set her lips firmly, daring the others to patronize or condescend to her. Shae was a softer, more sympathetic presence, with darker skin and warm brown eyes. The two girls spent most of the journey in each other's company, talking with the men and listening to their stories from the war. When the evening's entertainment was knife fighting they were always among the first to come to the ring and watch, which in the beginning caused much consternation among the men.
"This is not fit entertainment for little ladies like you." A man remarked one night in the first week of travel. At that Zira had stood up and pulled her own knife out of its sheath hidden in her hair.
"I challenge you to a battle of knives and wits, may Eimar grace this fight." As she spoke the ceremonial words she had stepped into the ring and tied a ribbon round her neck. She had looked more queenly than ever standing there, and a hush came over the spectators.
"I cannot fight you. You are my princess." The man had said.
"Then your princess commands you."
The man had had no choice. He drew his knife and entered the ring, looking as he did so at Zira's thin ankles. He sighed, there were no scars.
According to the Antithean rules of knife duels not one drop of blood may be shed, but in order to be victorious one must cut the ribbon from the neck of the opponent. If one breaks the skin though, the punishment is a cut made on the ankle of the attacker healed in a way that creates a permanent scar. Zira's smooth ankle either meant that she had never fought before or had never drawn blood before, he hoped fervently that it was the latter.
The man, wishing to end it quickly lashed out immediately, but she easily blocked it and circled around him, and then suddenly like lightning her arm reached out and a snow-white ribbon had fluttered to the ground. In that way she earned the respect of her men, and after the fight none of them ever doubted her abilities or bravery again.