There were spells written deep within the walls that surrounded the Balitang home. They appeared as a shimmering silver blaze in Aly’s Sight. As the processsion passed through the gate, she saw magic sunk below the stones, wood, and carvings. It was partially covered by common magical signs for protection and health that any house possessed. They gleamed silver in the carving on the foundation stones and front steps. Unless someone else in Rajmuat had the Sight in the strength Aly had it, no one would see anything but the everyday spells. The raka mages were very good at keeping their work hidden.
Ornately carved pillars lined the long front porch and framed the front door of Balitang House. The roof was layered, each lesser roof sporting upturned ends. After the summer’s heat and rains, and the winter’s cold and rains, with no staff to keep the place up, the house should have looked run-down. But this house gleamed. Not one clay tile was missing from the roof. The stucco was the color of fresh milk. Gold and silver leaf glimmered on the eaves and on the carved wood above the posts.
The staff was lined up on either side of the flagstone road. They wore luarin tunics and breeches or hose, raka wrapped jackets and sarongs, or combinations of styles in an explosion of colors that made Aly blink. Housemaids wore white headcloths; the men wore round white caps. They all looked to be wearing every piece of jewelry they owned.
Aly counted. Nearly sixty people were here, not including the men-at-arms. Balitang House was as fully staffed as it had been the previous spring.
The duchess could not afford this. When King Oron had exiled them, he had made them show their loyalty with gold, emptying Duke Mequen’s coffers. Winnamine had drawn on her dowry to pay household costs. If Prince Rubinyan had not virtually commanded her to return to court, she would have remained at Tanair, which was affordable.
“Fesgao,” Aly murmured. The man had come to stand by her elbow. “Who’s paying for this?”
“Don’t worry,” the raka man told her. “It seems our situation has changed. Ulasim will explain.” He went to help the duchess out of the litter.
Aly looked at the steps. Ulasim waited there on the ground, smiling. He was a hard-muscled man, in his forties with the brown skin of a full-blood raka. His nose had been mashed against his face on several occasions by someone not kindly disposed toward him. A tightness in Aly’s heart loosened at the sight of the head footman. He was the leader of the far-flung raka conspiracy, wise and strong at every trial. He had drawn Aly from suspicion to respect. Back under Ulasim’s wing, the Balitang family seemed much less exposed. Back under Ulasim’s eye, Aly could turn to her specialty and leave him to deal with assassins and alliances.
The big raka bowed to Winnamine. As Aly watched, reading his lips, Ulasim told the duchess that they had not spent money they did not have. He reassured her that all would be explained to her satisfaction. once she’d had a chance to eat and rest. As he soothed her, Aly identified a familiar face at Ulasim’s elbow. Quedanga, the housekeeper since Sarai was born, had stayed in Rajmuat when the family left the city. She had now returned to Balitang House.
“How did they afford this?” Dove murmured as Aly handed her down from the litter.
“It will be a lovely tale,” Aly replied, her voice sweet. “Some parts may even be true.”
Dove looked up at Aly, smiling slightly. “You sound as if you wouldn’t put it past them to have raided the royal treasury.”
Aly raised an eyebrow at her mistress. “Do you think they wouldn’t, my lady?”
Dove sighed. “I hope not. It would complicate things.” Dove had understatement down to an art.
Hands folded in front of her, Aly followed Dove toward the house. They did not get far. A tall woman stepped out of the house. She was a silver-haired luarin with perfect posture. Her luarin-style gown was pale blue with a high collar. Instead of the traditional over robe, she wore a stole like the raka wrapped jacket, made of shimmering white lawn.
Sarai and Dove looked at each other. “Aunt Nuritin,”
they whispered in shock.
Aly had heard of Nuritin Balitang–or as Sarai and Dove called her, the Dragon. Though Duke Mequen had been technically the head of the family, it was his aunt who ruled it. When he had sunk into mourning for his first duchess, it was Nuritin who had badgered him into making a new marriage and a new life. Among the Balitangs, her word was law. Among the nobles of her generation, her opinion was the first they sought.
It did not bode well that she looked very comfortable in Balitang House.
Winnamine was the first to recover. She approached the old woman with outstretched hands and an apparently genuine smile on her face. “Aunt Nuritin, it’s wonderful to see you. Girls, come greet your great-aunt. Elsren, Petranne, come.”
Aly looked at Ulasim and made sure the nobles couldn’t see her before she hand-signed: Does she live here?
Ulasim nodded slightly.
Again Aly’s fingers flew. Are we safe with her in the house?
Ulasim came over to whisper, “As safe as anywhere in Rajmuat. We’re stuck with the old Stormwing, and that’s that. She will learn nothing we do not allow her to.”
Aly shook her head. “Well, then,” she said, “we’ll all just be one happy family. What harm could come of that?”
Once inside, the duchess looked at her late husband’s aunt. “Lady Nuritin, may we have some time to settle in before we talk? I’m not at my best so early in the morning, and this is quite a surprise.”
“Of course you need rest, all of you,” the old woman said. “Go. Bathe, change, unpack, take naps if you need to. We shall have our talk after lunch, and I can explain everything then.”
Copyright © 2004 by Tamora Pierce. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.