Chapter One

I had had the tune stuck in my head for months. I could never remember the words, so I hummed it as I sat in the largest orange tree the city courtyard had. The courtyard was beautiful, surrounded by the main market in York. It was trading season, and usually I would sit in my tree and watch the people come and go as they bought and bartered. They had a whole assortment of things: coffee, livestock, fruits, silks, and pottery, artworks even. But today all I could think of as I sat was the song. It had haunted my dreams for a year now. I'd say plagued, but it was just too pretty. It was strengthening: awe-inspiring even.

"Amir! Amir get out of that tree!" Papa yelled from the cobble stone ground so far below me.

I grinned. Papa and I had been living together for four years, and I had learned to love him very quickly. Despite what anybody thought, the man was my best friend. He was a good-natured man, and I wouldn't give him up for the world. He was my father more than anyone had ever been.

The old blacksmith had been working on another piece, and had soot smudges all over his face. His old leather apron was askew, and his breeches were blackened. I giggled, and he, knowing what I had been laughing at, chuckled back. I had always admired his level head, and that deep, happy chuckle. I jumped out of the tree and landed in his arms, just to get another muffled laugh out of him. He swung me around a bit, and set me on the ground at last.

"Amir, you know you aren't supposed to be climbing trees." He scolded. His voice was angrier than his big gray eyes.

"I'm also not supposed to talk too loud, bounce when I walk, wear pants, learn anything, do physical labor, learn swordsmanship, get dirty, have a life." I listed, smiling. "And you don't complain when I do any of those things. well, except the getting dirty maybe."

He cut me off with yet another deep laugh. "Ah, Princess. come inside, a new package has arrived. It's on the mail table waiting for you." He smiled, knowing what I would do.

I did not disappoint him. I shrieked my happiness and galloped through the crowded city streets all the way back to the smithy, through the forge, and to our little living room and the mail table without slowing for carriage, wagon, tourist, or local.

Not one, but two books waited on the mail table.

My face went blank as I stared at the heavy leather bound volumes on the table. To any who didn't know me, I might have looked disappointed. In reality, I was amazed beyond expression.

"Whoosh. All right? Just whoosh," I said in a shocked voiced as Papa walked in. I lifted one of the books, barely able to keep from bouncing off the walls. "Look! It's Mister 'you will never have half the knowledge I do' Marquis Telaus's book on world history! He may be sour, but can you believe what he's written about! Spectacular! And look!!! The first, and probably only magic book ever to come out of Dragon Spire!!! I didn't even know this was published yet!!!" I wasn't bouncing off the walls, per se. More like the furniture. Somehow I stepped on my braid, I say somehow because my hair only reaches my lower back, and I careened face first into the unbelievably large pillow I sat in to read.

Papa laughed. "Straight from the printers. It hasn't been published yet." He lifted me out from my pillow and set me on my feet. "Comes out in three days. Look, I even had Grand Master Shevralin sign it for you." Papa was obviously pleased with my reaction.

I dropped the book, caught it, and stared at him open mouthed. "You mean, you bought..? But, but! It must've been expensive! I mean-"

"Joyous birthday to you, dear girl." He cut me off, smiling. I put the books down, threw up my hands, and ran him over with a hug.

"I can't believe you. I just can't believe you." I sighed happily.

"Well Miss 'not supposed to learn anything', you deserve it! And no where in your list did it say you weren't to have a birthday." He grinned. "Oh! And Dragon Spire sent another letter to the esteemed mage-in-training to attend their school this year."

"That's the third one this week!" I exclaimed. I ripped open the seal on the letter he handed me, and read it quickly. "They really want me there! This one's personally written by one of the Dragon Halves!" This was unbelievable. The Dragon Halves don't write to their mothers, and I got a letter from them, asking me to practically become one of them! What a birthday! And I got two books scholars who had studied years and years longer than me would die to have! Like I said before: whoosh.

"Why don't you consider going, Amir?" Papa said quietly. All my other letters had been ignored because, well, just because.

My head snapped up when I heard the remark. "Ha! Like their supreme highnesses my parents would ever let me do something like become a mage, and actually learn something from people who know what they're talking about." I spat, toying with the overlarge sleeves of my blouse.

"They let you come here and keep learning your sword." Papa shrugged. I shrugged in response, putting down my hands.

"Yes, that's true. But," I hesitated. The questioning look in his eyes prompted me to continue. "But they can also just pick me up and send me back to Court whenever they choose while I'm here. I'm destined to become a Court Lady, one way or the other." I sighed and sank down onto the huge pillow I had recently fallen face first into. Papa sighed as I fingered my braid. Cursing the hopelessly thick black rope for being so tempting, I threw it over my shoulder and waited for Papa to speak.

"There's none left to do but ask, girl." He patted my back and walked out of the room, leaving me biting my lip and running outrageous plans through my head. I fingered my braid again, threw it over my shoulder again, and stood. Papa was right. I didn't know anything until I tried.

The next morning, I brought out my one and only court gown, put it on, and had one of the city boys cart me up to the palace in an inn carriage. I walked by myself up the great steps to the gigantic double doors, which were heaved open by servants, and ordered someone to escort me to wherever my parents were at the time. A servant jumped to the job, and in minutes I was in my parents' quarters, trying desperately to control my shaking and keep a straight face. My mother stood behind the chair my father sat in. She was dressed stunningly as always, with her hair undone in loose, dark brown waves. Tempted to finger my braid again, which I always feared was too much like hers; I held my head up and straightened my back. I was not my mother, and I would get what I wanted. I would not let her gaze, or the overly gaudy golden room I was in get to me. I had to be proud, and not care what they thought of it.

"Father, Mother, I've come to ask your permission of something." I said, keeping my voice even. I fisted my hands in my skirts, which I realized were very, very plain. Too late now though.

My mother raised an eyebrow, and father just waited for me to get on with it. His brown eyes were bored and agitated, though his face remained calm. I hated that expression, and had always sworn never to use it.

"I've been personally invited to attend the Dragon Spire's school, and I plan to attend." I said firmly.

"That's fine." My father's eyes were trained on me now. I had to think fast to keep from saying, "WHAT? What gives!" and keeping my proud and hopefully distinguished face.

"I'll be leaving on the first of September, in two weeks. If there's nothing else?" I prompted.

"One thing, Amei dear. There is a condition." My father's expression was elusive, and I could not tell what horrid plan he had for a condition.

"Yes, Father?" I had to work to meet his eyes.

"When you return, you return to Court. You will make a formal apology to all the ambassadors and courtiers for your absence and explain your selfish reasoning, without mentioning anything to disgrace your family." He grinned, knowing I understood. I was to apologize for the fact my parents hated me, without actually saying they hated me. I'd have to place all blame on myself. I'd be digging myself into the hole of a lifetime. I nodded though, and left.

I would show them.

Without another word, I exited the room, walked the shortest way back to the palace's main entrance, and sent the boy with the carriage home. I made my way to the stables, which were not too far, and waited. My dress was indeed plain, and barely passed as more than commoner's garb, so I was not noticed and sent away. Most of the hostlers were 'busy' anyway. There was a great gambling sport going on just behind the stables, and apparently someone, somebody young, my age even, with very hazel eyes, was beating the heck out of someone else at a game of cards. I only looked for a second but the someone else was a lot older, and a lot bigger. I was worried for all but a minute, before I realized I had much more dangerous and immature things to do. You wonder why I say immature? Well, I certainly classify stealing a horse just to indirectly get back at your parents immature. I snuck into the stable, and looked around for the prettiest, fastest looking horse of them all. Despite being only eleven years old and a blacksmith's daughter, I did have quite an eye for horseflesh. The first horse I set my eyes on, I decided, was the one. You didn't even need an eye to know she was perfect. Her coat was like gleaming midnight. She had a brown-gold blaze on her forehead, and the ends of her main and tail were the same gold. The gold color also surrounded the hair just above her hooves, making it look like she was standing in flames. Her eyes were the most beautiful gold ever seen on any horse, anywhere. There aren't too many gold-eyed horses around anyway. She whinnied, and I knew her name at once. She was Dark, and now she was mine.

In all my days, I don't think I've ever ridden with a saddle. It was always easier to just, well, jump on. By the end of the ride back to the smithy, I almost wished I'd had one. Just to separate human-flesh from horseflesh, ya know?

"Amir!" Papa was working, as usual, in the front at the forge.

People don't just hire a carriage one way and come back the other on a horse that just appeared out of thin air. He knew I'd stolen Dark, I knew I'd stolen Dark, hells, Dark knew I'd stolen her. But shoot me if you think I was going to turn around and give her right back.

"If they come looking I'll pay for her," I said, stroking the mares neck as I dismounted. I didn't look at Papa the whole time as I brushed, curried and tethered Dark.

A pair of hazel eyes watched me the whole time.

The next day, Dark and I went for a ride. It was really weird. I woke up at dawn, which never happens on purpose, and decided I needed to go outside. Then I heard Dark whinny in the back, so I went to go feed her. She turned her golden eyes on me, and I couldn't let them go.

"Do you wanna go for a ride, girl?" I stroked her nose and grabbed a sugar cube from the bowl I'd stored not far from the tiny paddock where we kept all our animals. The horse lipped the sugar into her mouth and whinnied again, stomping her hoof and bowing her head. I smiled. "I guess I'll take that as a yes." I smiled and went to get the saddle we kept for Emma, our cart pony.

I'll tell you one thing about Dark. She can run. As soon as you exit the main urban area, Roann turns into farmland and flat expanses. We trotted and walked through the city, Dark heeding every minute thing I did to guide her, but when we got to the open land, she flew.

Dark didn't care if I was off or on, on that ride. She moved straight from trot to full on gallop, and didn't stop there. I swear her feet barely touched the ground as we flew. Luckily for me, I had the brains enough to lean forward, and I just stayed down, once again becoming part of the horse. After a few minutes I dared to look up, and I smiled. Roann countryside is gorgeous. I love everything about the reds and golds and purples of the long grass that grows there, and the endless expanse of blue sky that streams above.

The Great, the large river that separates Amendethal into two halves, running across the middle, has many creeks and rivers that branch off into this countryside, and leave it to Dark to find a perfect, crystal clear pool from one of them. After running just long enough to get me stiff, not too bad but stiff, she stopped; almost too quickly, too. I had to catch myself before I went flying over her head. She began to trot again, and soon enough we were in a little, tree-covered, well, ditch is the best word I guess, that had a gorgeous pool at the bottom. Now, I'm no lady, and I'm not exactly one for forethought, so what do I do? Strip and jump in. The water was wonderfully cold, and soon enough my stiff limbs were limber once more. I watched as Dark, elegant as could be, just dipped her head and drank, and then lie down. I don't know any horses that lie down, unless they're about to give birth, but Dark just folded herself up, and watched me as I finished my swim. I wondered about that the whole way home.

Once we finally got home, Dark and I were sufficiently bonded. It was clear that that pool had been no mistake. She knew when I was tired, she knew what I was thinking, and she could all but talk to me with gestures and whinnies. I had no doubt she knew exactly what I said whenever I spoke to her. Papa agreed, the horse and I were one, and nobody was going to be taking her back any time soon.

In the days that followed, I commenced packing, roaming the streets one last time, and helping Papa as much as I could.

Packing was a disaster. I would be riding the whole way to the Spire, which lay across the continent in the mountains of Califor, on horseback, and there's only so much you can fit into a saddlebag. First priority was my books. All my volumes on world history and politics and religion and fantasy were shoved into one, monstrous pack, which I almost felt sorry to make Dark carry. She didn't fidget or complain at all when I tested it on her though, so I left it. In two more, much smaller packs went my sword, my clothes, and a few trinkets. You can see I'm really a material person, can't you.

After I had successfully gotten everything in order (mostly fit all my books into the saddlebag), I wandered Roann. I've lived in Roann all my life, whether it be in the palace or in the city itself. I know every girl and boy that lives there, and many of them are friends of mine. I could never know every adult, if only because none of them are ever here constantly. I loved them all, though. The city itself was a friend of mine. The streets, the alleyways, I knew them all like the back of my hand. So I spent my days, re-exploring every last one of them. I climbed every tree, stood on every roof, danced in every empty square. Leaving this was going to be hard. Especially leaving Papa.

Papa had just gotten the order for enough horseshoes to refit the cavalry. His apprentice, a particular friend of mine by the name of Ryan, was help enough, I suppose, but it had always been easier, and more fun, when the three of us went at large projects like this together.

"Amir, ye're really gonna go?" Ryan asked me one day while the two of us worked on a smaller order of swords together.

"Of course I'm going! This is the chance for me to get some brains in my head!" I said.

He laughed, "'Mir, ye've more brains than anyone I e'er met already, I'm shocked ye think yeh need any more!" He tugged my braid.

I giggled, and we went back to work on the quickly cooling steel. "Ah, I will miss Roann though." I sighed.

"And Roann will miss ye, 'Mir. Ouch!" The sincerity of the moment was ruined when he dropped one of the hammers we were using on his foot. We both laughed, and didn't say anything about going again for the remainder of my days in Roann.

"Amir, dear, are you sure you've all your books?" Papa worried as the escort that would take me to Dragon Spire approached.

"Yes, Papa, and I'm sure if I don't you'll send them up." I smiled. "I'll come visit every holiday and over the summers, all right?"

"Yes, and if you don't I'll take you for kidnapped and send a search party." He chuckled and kissed my forehead. "Have a good time, my dear."

"I promise I will." I grinned.

"And ye with yer knew brains should well remember to write!" Ryan called, chuckling.

"I will!" I couldn't hold in my happiness. I was going to learn all about everything, and become a mage. There would be books and books and books to read, and so much to learn! Bliss. Pure bliss.

The escort halted in front of our smithy, and I hugged my Papa fiercely before scrambling on to Dark while trying to avoid my saddlebag luggage. "Are you ready, Miss Smith?" he asked me. I nodded vigorously and smiled once more at Papa as we began to trot away. I waved until the smithy was out of sight, and didn't look ahead until I saw all of Roann disappear over a hilltop.

"You ever been to Summerland, girl?" the escort asked.

I nodded, trying to find my voice. For all my cheery appearances, I was devastated to have to leave my Papa behind. "I've been to the summer palace before," I croaked.

"The palace! How is it there?" The small talk was not helping much.

"Dingbats and fools, everywhere. I've met every single person in that palace, and they're all idiots." I said truthfully. The man chuckled.

"Well we'll be in an inn there for only a night, we reach Dragon Spire in Califor tomorrow evening."

"Tomorrow evening? How is it we can cross the continent in two days?" I asked, disbelieving.

"There's a Door not far from the inn at Summerland. It's a shame there isn't one closer to Roann." He explained.

I nodded, stifling a yawn. "Forgive me." I said, before yawning again. The escort only smiled.

"It's a long trip, you might as well sleep." He said. "If you can get comfortable on a horse, that is. Beautiful horse you have there, by the way. Does she have a name?"

I never heard him, for I was already curled up on Dark's neck, asleep.