Nawat stood against the wall, relaxed and alert. Before him two men-at-arms were preparing to shoot. Dove stood behind one archer with a handful of arrows, while the duchess held arrows for the second archer. Aly's mind told her that the duchess would hardly consent to murder just as the first man shot. The second man shot immediately after him. Then both set fresh arrows to the string and shot steadily, arrow after arrow, one at a time, until they had exhausted all the extras held by the duchess and her stepdaughter.
Nawat caught them all with grace and ease, snatching the arrows from the air as if he had all day to do so. When the archers finished, he gathered the heap of arrows at his feet and carried them back to their owners.
He's so fast, Aly thought in awe. I couldn't do it, and I'm no slouch! She sighed, wishing Da were here to see it. He'd taught her to catch daggers in midair, but this game was much more hazardous.
The game was not done. The men-at-arms repeated the experiment with javelins, then hunting and combat spears. Nawat caught them all, moving so fast Aly couldn't follow his hands. She cheered him and the men-at-arms on.
When the bell rang to remind the household it was nearly time for supper, he looked up at the applauding Aly and waved. "This is my favorite game," he called to her. "Do you want to play?"
"I wouldn't dare!" she cried, laughing, before she retreated into the room. She'd seen men catch knives before. She had seen the finest archers in the Queen's Riders draw an outline in arrows of someone positioned against a wooden fence or wall, just to show they could do it. She had never seen anything like this.
Sarai and Dove ran in. Sarai smiled at Aly. "You should have seen your face! Did you know he could do that?" she asked as she collapsed on her bed.
Dove unstrung her bow, shaking her head. "He's amazing," she said, coiling her bowstring.
"You know, maybe this horrible old place isn't so bad," Sarai told the ceiling. "Not if these wonderful men keep showing up."
Aly raised an eyebrow at her. "I wouldn't try kissing him," she warned. "It wouldn't be what you expect."
Sarai wrinkled her nose. "Aly!" she complained. "I found out he eats bugs! I'm not kissing a man with bug breath!"
Aly blinked. I don't remember him tasting of bugs when he kissed me, she thought. I'd better pay more attention next time.
Her mind promptly reined her up. This was highly improper. There would be no next time. Her task was looking after the Balitang children, not mooning over someone, particularly not a crow turned man.
Even if he could pluck arrows from the air.
The next morning Aly, still on a goatherd's hours, walked out of the keep into the dawn. The sun had just cleared the walls to light the inner courtyard and the young man who straddled a bench there. Aly stopped to watch him carefully glue pieces of feather onto the wooden shaft.
Nawat looked up at her with a smile that lit his eyes. "You are beautiful in the new light," he told her. "If I were the Dawn Crow, I would bring you the sun to hatch as our first nestling."
Aly blinked at him. Her heart felt strangely squeezed by some powerful emotion. She bit her lip to distract herself from a feeling that made her horribly unsure. "Have you been kissing anybody?" she asked without meaning to, and gasped. She had let words out of her mouth without thinking, which was not like her! Worse, they were such personal words, ones he might feel meant personal feelings she did not have! This was the kind of thing that other girls said, those girls who were not bored by all the young men who had courted them. How many handsome fellows had sighed compliments to Aly while, unconcerned, she had mentally wrestled with breaking a new code? At home she never cared about her suitors enough to worry if they kissed other girls. She scrambled to blot out what she'd said. "Not that it's any of my business, but you should understand, people have a way of kissing for fun, without it meaning anything serious, and I'd hate for you to think someone wanted you to mate-feed them just because they're kissing—" Stop babbling, her mind ordered. Aly stopped.
Nawat's smile broadened. That disturbing light in his eyes deepened. "I have kissed no one but you, Aly," he assured her, serious. "Why should I kiss anyone else?"
Aly gulped. You can continue this conversation, or you can talk about something less ... giddy, she told herself. Less frightening. "You know I won't always be around," she said abruptly. "I don't belong here, really."
"Then I will go with you," Nawat said. "I belong with you."
He doesn't know what he's saying, Aly told herself. He doesn't know what that means.
She looked at him, arms folded, trying to keep any extra feelings from leaping out. "What are you doing?" she asked, to change the subject to anything less dangerous. Then she grimaced. He was fletching arrows, as always.
She glanced at his bench, then bent down. He was fletching, but these arrows were heavier, and the feathers he used were not bird feathers, but Stormwing. "How did you cut them up?" she wanted to know, genuinely curious. More scraps of cut-up steel feathers lay on the bench.
Nawat pointed to a long piece of what looked like black, chipped glass. "Shiny volcano rock," he told Aly. "Chip the edge until it is sharp. That cuts Stormwing feathers. They come from the heat of the place where Stormwings were born."
Aly touched the glassy blade. "Obsidian," she said. "That's its name."
"Yes," Nawat replied. "Shiny volcano rock." He set a length of steel feather into a thin groove filled with glue and held it in place.
Aly didn't see a single cut on his hands, though the feathers were lethally sharp. "Won't they be too heavy for the glue?" she asked.
"I shaped the glue. It holds Stormwing feathers," Nawat answered.
"Stormwings really are born in volcanoes?" Aly inquired, curious.
"In the beginning time, when they were first dreamed," replied Nawat, setting another piece of steel feather in its slot. "Now, if carrying an egg does not kill the mother, they are born from steel eggs." He looked at Aly and sighed, his dark eyes wistful. "The eggs are too heavy for a crow to take."
"You've already taken enough from Stormwings," Aly told him, pointing to the small pile of glinting feathers beside his bench. "You could have been killed."
"There is a trick to it," he replied, and blew lightly on his fletchings. Holding the arrow shaft before one eye, he squinted down its length. "Perfect," he declared, and set the arrow down.
"It seems like a lot of trouble and risk when goose feathers are safer to work with," Aly remarked. "What is a Stormwing-fletched arrow for, anyway?"
"They are mage killers," replied Nawat. "No matter if the mage is powerful, if he has great spells to protect him. A Stormwing arrow will cut through illusion and magic."
Aly whistled softly, impressed. "Take very good care of those, then," she told Nawat. "We might find a use for them."
"I made them for you," Nawat said, giving her that radiant, innocent smile. "They are yours, for a day when they will help you." He offered a finished arrow shaft to her.
Aly smiled at him despite the goose bumps that rippled along her skin. "Keep them until they're needed, please," she told him. "My archery skills aren't very good."
"You could practice," Nawat pointed out.
"I'm a slave," Aly explained. "Slaves who are caught with weapons are killed."
"Then do not be a slave," he said matter-of-factly. "Fly free."
"Not just yet," she replied. "I'll see the summer out first."
Excerpted from Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce. Copyright 2003 by Tamora Pierce. Excerpted by permission of Random House.