In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind. One that had so far proven correct, as Oll's maps tended to do. Katsa ran her hand along the cold walls and counted doors and passageways as she went. Turn- ing when it was time to turn; stopping finally before an open- ing that should contain a stairway leading down. She crouched and felt forward with her hands. There was a stone step, damp and slippery with moss, and another one below it. This was Oll's staircase, then. She only hoped that when he and Giddon followed her with their torches, they would see the moss slime, tread carefully, and not waken the dead by clattering head- long down the steps.
Katsa slunk down the stairway. One left turn and two right turns. She began to hear voices as she entered a corridor where the darkness flickered orange with the light of a torch set in the wall. Across from the torch was another corridor where, according to Oll, anywhere from two to ten guards should be standing watch before a certain cell at the passage- way's end.
These guards were Katsa's mission. It was for them that she had been sent first.
Katsa crept toward the light and the sound of laughter. She could stop and listen, to get a better sense of how many she would face, but there was no time. She pulled her hood down low and swung around the corner.
She almost tripped over her first four victims, who were sitting on the floor across from each other, their backs against the wall, legs splayed, the air stinking with whatever strong drink they'd brought down here to pass the time of their watch. Katsa kicked and struck at temples and necks, and the four men lay slumped together on the floor before amazement had even registered in their eyes.
There was only one more guard, sitting before the cell bars at the end of the corridor. He scrambled to his feet and slid his sword from its sheath. Katsa walked toward him, certain that the torch at her back hid her face, and particularly her eyes, from his sight. She measured his size, the way he moved, the steadiness of the arm that held the sword toward her.
"Stop there. It's clear enough what you are." His voice was even. He was brave, this one. He cut the air with his sword, in warning. "You don't frighten me."
He lunged toward her. She ducked under his blade and whirled her foot out, clipping his temple. He dropped to the ground.
She stepped over him and ran to the bars, squinting into the darkness of the cell. A shape huddled against the back wall, a person too tired or too cold to care about the fighting going on. Arms wrapped around legs, and head tucked between knees. He was shiveringshe could hear his breath. She shifted, and the light glanced over his crouched form. His hair was white and cut close to his head. She saw the glimmer of gold in his ear. Oll's maps had served them well, for this man was a Lienid. He was the one they were looking for.
She pulled on the door latch. Locked. Well, that was no surprise, and it wasn't her problem. She whistled once, low, like an owl. She stretched the brave guard flat on his back and dropped one of her pills into his mouth. She ran up the cor- ridor, turned the four unfortunates on their backs beside each other, and dropped a pill into each mouth. Just as she was be- ginning to wonder if Oll and Giddon had lost themselves in the dungeons, they appeared around the corner and slipped past her.
"A quarter hour, no more," she said.
"A quarter hour, My Lady." Oll's voice was a rumble. "Go safely."
Their torchlight splashed the walls as they approached the cell. The Lienid man moaned and drew his arms in closer. Katsa caught a glimpse of his torn, stained clothing. She heard Giddon's ring of lock picks clink against itself. She would have liked to have waited to see that they opened the door, but she was needed elsewhere. She tucked her packet of pills into her sleeve and ran.
The cell guards reported to the dungeon guard, and the dungeon guard reported to the underguard. The underguard reported to the castle guard. The night guard, the king's guard, the wall guard, and the garden guard also reported to the castle guard. As soon as one guard noticed another's absence, the alarm would be raised, and if Katsa and her men weren't far enough away, all would be lost. They would be pursued, it would come to bloodshed; they would see her eyes, and she would be recognized. So she had to get them all, every guard. Oll had guessed there would be twenty. Prince Raffin had made her thirty pills, just in case.
Most of the guards gave her no trouble. If she could sneak up on them, or if they were crowded in small groups, they never knew what hit them. The castle guard was a bit more complicated, because five guards defended his office. She swirled through the lot of them, kicking and kneeing and hit- ting, and the castle guard jumped up from his guardhouse desk, burst through the door, and ran into the fray.
"I know a Graceling when I see one." He jabbed with his sword, and she rolled out of the way. "Let me see the colors of your eyes, boy. I'll cut them out. Don't think I won't."
It gave her some pleasure to knock him on the head with the hilt of her knife. She grabbed his hair, dragged him onto his back, and dropped a pill onto his tongue. They would all say, when they woke to their headaches and their shame, that the culprit had been a Graceling boy, Graced with fighting, acting alone. They would assume she was a boy, because in her plain trousers and hood she looked like one, and because when people were attacked it never occurred to anyone that it might have been a girl. And none of them had caught a glimpse of Oll or Giddon: She had seen to that.
No one would think of her. Whatever the Graceling Lady Katsa might be, she was not a criminal who lurked around dark courtyards at midnight, disguised. And besides, she was supposed to be en route east. Her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, had seen her off just that morning, the whole city watching, with Captain Oll and Giddon, Randa's underlord, escorting her. Only a day of very hard riding in the wrong di- rection could have brought her south to King Murgon's court.
Katsa ran through the courtyard, past flower beds, foun- tains, and marble statues of Murgon. It was quite a pleasant courtyard, really, for such an unpleasant king; it smelled of grass and rich soil, and the sweetness of dew-dripped flowers. She raced through Murgon's apple orchard, a trail of drugged guards stretching out behind her. Drugged, not dead: an im- portant distinction. Oll and Giddon, and most of the rest of the secret Council, had wanted her to kill them. But at the meeting to plan this mission, she'd argued that killing them would gain no time.
"What if they wake?" Giddon had said.
Prince Raffin had been offended. "You doubt my medi- cine. They won't wake."
"It would be faster to kill them," Giddon had said, his brown eyes insistent. Heads in the dark room had nodded. "I can do it in the time allotted," Katsa had said, and when Giddon had started to protest, she'd held up her hand. "Enough. I won't kill them. If you want them killed, you can send someone else."
Oll had smiled and clapped the young lord on the back. "Just think, Lord Giddon, it'll make it more fun for us. The perfect robbery, past all of Murgon's guards, and nobody hurt? It's a good game."
The room had erupted with laughter, but Katsa hadn't even cracked a smile. She wouldn't kill, not if she didn't have to. A killing couldn't be undone, and she'd killed enough. Mostly for her uncle. King Randa thought her useful. When border ruffians were stirring up trouble, why send an army if you could send a single representative? It was much more eco- nomical. But she'd killed for the Council, too, when it couldn't be avoided. This time it could be avoided.
At the far end of the orchard she came upon a guard who was old, as old, perhaps, as the Lienid. He stood in a grove of yearling trees, leaning on his sword, his back round and bent. She snuck up behind him and paused. A tremor shook the hands that rested on the hilt of his blade.
She didn't think much of a king who didn't retire his guards in comfort when they'd gotten too old to hold a sword steady.
But if she left him, he would find the others she'd felled and raise the alarm. She struck him once, hard, on the back of the head, and he slumped and let out a puff of air. She caught him and lowered him to the ground, as gently as she could, and then dropped a pill into his mouth. She took a moment to run her fingers along the lump forming on his skull. She hoped his head was strong.
She had killed once by accident, a memory she held close to her consciousness. It was how her Grace had announced its nature, a decade ago. She'd been a child, barely eight years old. A man who was some sort of distant cousin had visited the court. She hadn't liked himhis heavy perfume, the way he leered at the girls who served him, the way his leer followed them around the room, the way he touched them when he thought no one was watching. When he'd started to pay Katsa some attention, she had grown wary. "Such a pretty little one," he'd said. "Graceling eyes can be so very unattractive. But you, lucky girl, look better for it. What is your Grace, my sweet- ness? Storytelling? Mind reading? I know. You're a dancer."
Katsa hadn't known what her Grace was. Some Graces took longer than others to surface. But even if she had known, she wouldn't have cared to discuss it with this cousin. She'd scowled at the man and turned away. But then his hand had slid toward her leg, and her hand had flown out and smashed him in the face. So hard and so fast that she'd pushed the bones of his nose into his brain.
Ladies in the court had screamed; one had fainted. When they'd lifted him from the pool of blood on the floor and he'd turned out to be dead, the court had grown silent, backed away. Frightened eyesnot just those of the ladies now, but those of the soldiers, the sworded underlordsall directed at her. It was fine to eat the meals of the king's chef, who was Graced with cooking, or send their horses to the king's Graced horse doctor. But a girl Graced with killing? This one was not safe.
Another king would have banished her, or killed her, even if she was his sister's child. But Randa was clever. He could see that in time his niece might serve a practical purpose. He sent her to her chambers and kept her there for weeks as punish- ment, but that was all. When she emerged, they all ran to get out of her path. They'd never liked her before, for no one liked the Graced, but at least they'd tolerated her presence. Now there was no pretense of friendliness. "Watch for the blue-eyed green-eyed one," they would whisper to guests. "She killed her cousin, with one strike. Because he complimented her eyes." Even Randa kept out of her way. A murderous dog might be useful to a king, but he didn't want it sleeping at his feet.
Prince Raffin was the only one who sought her company. "You won't do it again, will you? I don't think my father will let you kill anyone you want."
"I never meant to kill him," she said.
Katsa sent her mind back. "I felt like I was in danger. So I hit him."
Prince Raffin shook his head. "You need to control a Grace," he said. "Especially a killing Grace. You must, or my father will stop us seeing each other."
This was a frightening notion. "I don't know how to control it."
Raffin considered this. "You could ask Oll. The king's spies know how to hurt without killing. It's how they get information."
Raffin was eleven, three years Katsa's senior, and by her young standards, very wise. She took his advice and went to Oll, King Randa's graying captain and his spymaster. Oll wasn't foolish; he knew to fear the quiet girl with one eye blue and one eye green. But he also had some imagination. He wondered, as it had occurred to no one else to wonder, whether Katsa hadn't been just as shocked by her cousin's death as everyone else. And the more he thought about it, the more curious he became about her potential.
He started their training by setting rules. She would not practice on him, and she would not practice on any of the king's men. She would practice on dummies that she made out of sacks, sewn together and filled with grain. She would practice on the prisoners that Oll brought to her, men whose deaths were already decreed.
She practiced every day. She learned her own speed and her own explosive force. She learned the angle, position, and intensity of a killing blow versus a maiming blow. She learned how to disarm a man and how to break his leg, and how to twist his arm so severely that he would stop struggling and beg for release. She learned to fight with a sword and with knives and daggers. She was so fast and focused, so creative, she could find a way to beat a man senseless with both arms tied to her sides. Such was her Grace.
In time her control improved, and she began to practice with Randa's soldierseight or ten at a time, and in full suits of armor. Her practices were a spectacle: grown men grunting and clattering around clumsily, an unarmed child whirling and diving among them, knocking them down with a knee or a hand that they didn't see coming until they were already on the floor. Sometimes members of the court would come by to watch her practices. But if she caught their gaze, their eyes would drop and they would hurry on.
King Randa had not minded the sacrifice of Oll's time. He thought it necessary. Katsa wouldn't be useful if she re- mained uncontrolled.
And now in King Murgon's courtyard, no one could criti- cize her control. She moved across the grass beside the gravel paths, swiftly, soundlessly. By now Oll and Giddon must al- most have reached the garden wall, where two of Murgon's servants, friends of the Council, guarded their horses. She was nearly there herself; she saw the dark line ahead, black against a black sky.
Her thoughts rambled, but she wasn't daydreaming. Her senses were sharp. She caught the fall of every leaf in the garden, the rustle of every branch. And so she was astonished when a man stepped out of the darkness and grabbed her from behind. He wrapped his arm around her chest and held a knife to her throat. He started to speak, but in an instant she had deadened his arm, wrenched the knife from his hand, and thrown the blade to the ground. She flung him forward, over her shoulders.
He landed on his feet.
Her mind raced. He was Graced, a fighter. That much was clear. And unless he had no feeling in the hand that had raked her chest, he knew she was a woman.
He turned back to face her. They eyed each other, warily, each no more than a shadow to the other. He spoke.
"I've heard of a lady with this particular Grace." His voice was gravelly and deep. There was a lilt to his words; it was not an accent she knew. She must learn who he was, so that she could know what to do with him.
"I can't think what that lady would be doing so far from home, running through the courtyard of King Murgon at midnight," he said. He shifted slightly, placed himself between her and the wall. He was taller than she was, and smooth in his movements, like a cat. Deceptively calm, ready to spring. A torch on the path nearby caught the glimmer of small gold hoops in his ears. And his face was unbearded, like a Lienid.
She shifted and swayed, her body ready, like his. She didn't have much time to decide. He knew who she was. But if he was a Lienid, she didn't want to kill him.
"Don't you have anything to say, Lady? Surely you don't think I'll let you pass without an explanation?" There was something playful in his voice. She watched him, quietly. He stretched his arms in one fluid motion, and her eyes unraveled the bands of gold that gleamed on his fingers. It was enough. The hoops in his ears, the rings, the lilt in his wordsit was enough.
"You're a Lienid," she said.
"You have good eyesight," he said.
"Not good enough to see the colors of your eyes."
He laughed. "I think I know the colors of yours." Common sense told her to kill him. "You're one to speak of being far from home," she said. "What's a Lienid doing in the court of King Murgon?"
"I'll tell you my reasons if you'll tell me yours." "I'll tell you nothing, and you must let me pass."
"If you don't, I'll have to force you."
"Do you think you can?"
She faked to her right, and he swung away, easily. She did it again, faster. Again, he escaped her easily. He was very good. But she was Katsa.
"I know I can," she said.
"Ah." His voice was amused. "But it might take you hours." Why was he playing with her? Why wasn't he raising the alarm? Perhaps he was a criminal himself, a Graceling criminal. And if so, did that make him an ally or an enemy? Wouldn't a Lienid approve of her rescue of the Lienid prisoner? Yesunless he was a traitor. Or unless this Lienid didn't even know the con- tents of Murgon's dungeonsMurgon had kept the secret well.
The Council would tell her to kill him. The Council would tell her she put them at risk if she left a man alive who knew her identity. But he was unlike any thug she'd ever en- countered. He didn't feel brutish or stupid or threatening. She couldn't kill one Lienid while rescuing another.
She was a fool and she would probably regret it, but she wouldn't do it.
"I trust you," he said, suddenly. He stepped out of her path and waved her forward. She thought him very strange, and impulsive, but she saw he'd relaxed his guard, and she wasn't one to waste an opportunity. In an instant she swung her boot up and clipped him on the forehead. His eyes opened wide with surprise, and he dropped to the ground.
"Maybe I didn't have to do that." She stretched him out, his sleeping limbs heavy. "But I don't know what to think of you, and I've risked enough already, letting you live." She dug the pills out of her sleeve, dropped one into his mouth. She turned his face to the torchlight. He was younger than she'd thought, not much older than she, nineteen or twenty at most. A trickle of blood ran down his forehead, past his ear. The neck of his shirt was open, and the torchlight played along the line of his collarbone.
What a strange character. Maybe Raffin would know who he was.
She shook herself. They would be waiting. She ran.
They rode hard. They tied the old man to his horse, for he was too weak to hold himself up. They stopped only once, to wrap him in more blankets.
Katsa was impatient to keep moving. "Doesn't he know it's midsummer?"
"He's frozen through, My Lady," Oll said. "He's shiver- ing, he's ill. It's no use if our rescue kills him."
They talked about stopping, building a fire, but there was no time. They had to reach Randa City before daybreak or they would be discovered.
Perhaps I should have killed him, she thought as they thun- dered through dark forests. Perhaps I should have killed him. He knew who I was.
But he hadn't seemed threatening or suspicious. He'd been more curious than anything. He'd trusted her.
Then again, he hadn't known about the trail of drugged guards she'd left in her wake. And he wouldn't trust her once he woke to that welt on his head.
If he told King Murgon of their encounter, and if Murgon told King Randa, things could get very tricky for the Lady Katsa. Randa knew nothing of the Lienid prisoner, much less of Katsa moonlighting as rescuer.
Katsa shook herself in frustration. These thoughts were no help, and it was done now. They needed to get the grandfather to safety and warmth, and Raffin. She crouched lower in her saddle and urged her horse north.
It was a land of seven kingdoms. Seven kingdoms, and seven thoroughly unpredictable kings. Why in the name of all that was reasonable would anyone kidnap Prince Tealiff, the father of the Lienid king? He was an old man. He had no power; he had no ambition; he wasn't even well. Word was, he spent most of his days sitting by the fire, or in the sun, looking out at the sea, playing with his great-grandchildren, and bother- ing no one.
The Lienid people didn't have enemies. They shipped their gold to whoever had the goods to trade for it; they grew their own fruit and bred their own game; they kept to themselves on their island, an ocean removed from the other six king- doms. They were different. They had a distinctive dark-haired look and distinctive customs, and they liked their isolation. King Ror of Lienid was the least troublesome of the seven kings. He made no treaties with the others, but he made no war, and he ruled his own people fairly.
That the Council's network of spies had traced King Ror's father to King Murgon's dungeons in Sunder answered noth- ing. Murgon tended not to create trouble among the king- doms, but often enough he was a party to the trouble, the agent of another man's crime as long as the money was good.
Without a doubt, someone had paid him to hold the Lienid grandfather. The question was, who?
Katsa's uncle, Randa, King of the Middluns, was not in- volved in this particular trouble. The Council could be certain of this, for Oll was Randa's spymaster and his confidant. Thanks to Oll, the Council knew everything there was to know about Randa.
In truth, Randa usually took care not to involve himself with the other kingdoms. His kingdom sat between Estill and Wester on one axis and between Nander and Sunder on the other. It was a position too tenuous for alliances.
The kings of Wester, Nander, and Estillthey were the source of most of the trouble. They were cast from the same hotheaded mold, all ambitious, all envious. All thoughtless and heartless and inconstant. King Birn of Wester and King Drowden of Nander might form an alliance and pummel Es- till's army on the northern borders, but Wester and Nander could never work together for long. Suddenly one would of- fend the other, and Wester and Nander would become ene- mies again, and Estill would join Nander to pound Wester.
And the kings were no better to their own people than they were to each other's. Katsa remembered the farmers of Estill that she and Oll had lifted secretly from their makeshift prison in a cowshed weeks before. Estillan farmers who could not pay the tithe to their king, Thigpen, because Thigpen's army had trampled their fields on its way to raid a Nanderan village. Thigpen should have been the one to pay the farmers; even Randa would have conceded this, had his own army done the damage. But Thigpen intended to hang the farmers for nonpayment of the tithe. Yes, Birn, Drowden, and Thig- pen kept the Council busy.
It had not always been like this. Wester, Nander, Estill, Sunder, and the Middlunsthe five inner kingdomshad once known how to coexist peacefully. Centuries back they had all been of the same family, ruled by three brothers and two sisters who had managed to negotiate their jealousies without resorting to war. But any acknowledgment of that old family bond was long gone now. The kingdoms' people were at the mercy of the natures of those who rose to be their rulers. It was a gamble, and the current generation did not make for a winning hand.
The seventh kingdom was Monsea. The mountains set Monsea apart from the others, as the ocean did for Lienid. Leck, King of Monsea, was married to Ashen, the sister of King Ror of Lienid. Leck and Ror shared a dislike for the squabbles of the other kingdoms. But this didn't forge an al- liance, for Monsea and Lienid were too far removed from each other, too independent, too uninterested in the doings of the other kingdoms.
Not much was known about the Monsean court. King Leck was well liked by his people and had a great reputation for kindness to children, animals, and all helpless creatures. The Monsean queen was a gentle woman. Word was she'd stopped eating the day she'd heard of the Lienid grandfather's disappearance. For of course, the father of the Lienid king was her father as well.
It had to be Wester or Nander or Estill who had kid- napped the Lienid grandfather. Katsa could think of no other possibility, unless Lienid itself was involved. A notion that might seem ridiculous, if it hadn't been for the Lienid man in Murgon's courtyard. His jewelry had been rich: He was a noble of some sort. And any guest of Murgon's warranted suspicion.
But Katsa didn't feel he was involved. She couldn't explain it, but it was what she felt.
Why had Grandfather Tealiff been stolen? What conceiv- able importance could he have?
They reached Randa City before the sun did, but only just. When the horses' hooves clattered onto the stones of city roads, they slowed their pace. Some in the city were already awake. They couldn't tear through the narrow streets; they couldn't make themselves conspicuous.
The horses carried them past wooden shacks and houses, stone foundries, shops with their shutters closed. The build- ings were neat, and most of them had recently been painted. There was no squalor in Randa City. Randa didn't tolerate squalor.
When the streets began to rise, Katsa dismounted. She passed her reins to Giddon and took the reins of Tealiff's horse. Giddon and Oll turned down a street that led east to the forest, leading Katsa's horse behind them. This was the arrangement. A grandfather on horseback and a boy at his side climbing to the castle were less likely to be noticed than four horses and four riders. Oll and Giddon would ride out of the city and wait for her in the trees. Katsa would deliver Tealiff to Prince Raffin through a high doorway in a defunct section of the castle wall, the existence of which Oll kept carefully from Randa's notice.
Katsa pulled the old man's blankets more firmly around his head. It was still fairly dark, but if she could see the hoops in his ears, then others would be able to see them as well. He lay on the horse, a huddled shape, whether asleep or uncon- scious she did not know. If he was unconscious, then she couldn't think how they were going to manage the last leg of the journey, up a crumbling staircase in Randa's wall where the horse couldn't go. She touched his face. He shifted and began to shiver again.
"You must wake, Lord Prince," she said. "I can't carry you up the steps to the castle."
The gray light reflected in his eyes as they opened, and his voice shook with coldness. "Where am I?"
"This is Randa City, in the Middluns," she said. "We're al- most to safety."
"I didn't think Randa the type to conduct rescue missions." She hadn't expected him to be so lucid. "He isn't." "Humph. Well, I'm awake. You'll not have to carry me.
The Lady Katsa, is it?"
"Yes, Lord Prince."
"I've heard you have one eye green as the Middluns grasses, and the other eye blue as the sky."
"Yes, Lord Prince."
"I've heard you could kill a man with the nail of your smallest finger."
She smiled. "Yes, Lord Prince."
"Does it make it easier?"
She squinted at his form hunched in the saddle. "I don'tunderstand you."
"To have beautiful eyes. Does it lighten the burden of your Grace, to know you have beautiful eyes?" She laughed. "No, Lord Prince. I'd happily do without both."
"I suppose I owe you my gratitude," he said, and then settled into silence.
She wanted to ask, For what? From what have we rescued you? But he was ill and tired, and he seemed asleep again. She didn't want to pester him. She liked this Lienid grandfather. There weren't many people who wanted to talk about her Grace.
They climbed past shadowed roofs and doorways. She was beginning to feel her sleepless night, and she would not rest again for hours. She replayed the grandfather's words in her mind. His accent was like the man's, the Lienid man's in the courtyard.
In the end, she did carry him, for when the time came she couldn't wake him up. She passed the horse's reins to a child crouched beside the wall, a girl whose father was a friend of the Council. Katsa tipped the old man over her shoulder and staggered, one step at a time, up the rubble of the broken stairway. The final stretch was practically vertical. Only the threat of the lightening sky kept her going; she'd never imagined that a man who looked like he was made of dust could be so heavy.
She had no breath to produce the low whistle that was to be her signal to Raffin, but it didn't matter. He heard her approach.
"The whole city has likely heard your approach," he whis- pered. "Honestly, Kat, I wouldn't have expected you to be capable of such a racket." He bent down and eased her load onto his own thin shoulders. She leaned against the wall and caught her breath.
"My Grace doesn't give me the strength of a giant," she said. "You Ungraced don't understand. You think if we have one Grace, we have them all."
"I've tasted your cakes, and I remember the needlework you used to do. I've no question a good number of Graces have passed you over." He laughed down at her in the gray light, and she smiled back. "It went as planned?"
She thought of the Lienid in the courtyard. "Yes, for the most."
"Go now," he said, "and safely. I'll take care of this one."
He turned and crept inside with his living bundle. She raced down the broken steps and slipped onto a pathway leading east. She pulled her hood low, and ran toward the pink sky.