Sticky, sweet juice trickled down Meg’s chin as she bit into the fuzzy skin of the peach, the tang of summer tingling on her tongue. She gripped the bark on the willow trunk to steady herself as she leaned forward on the branch. Another bite and more juice dribbled down, this time dripping to the grass beneath her instead of on her embroidered blouse.
Her face was sticky enough now. No need to dirty the rest of her too.
She’d snatched the peach from her little sister’s bushel basket after chores were done and retreated to the solitude of her favorite tree to enjoy the soft breeze and mild temperatures.
The warm June afternoon smelled like freshly cut grass and cold, clear streams. Bright blue skies stretched beyond the limits of human vision in a perfect sphere, interrupted only by the Forbidden Mountains to the north and the volcanic smudge of Centaur Mount to the south, which jutted violently into the sky like a broken thumb oozing black smoke.
Once she’d scraped as much peach flesh from the pit as she could, she reclined against the trunk and smiled at the white-shining sun as it began its long descent toward the western horizon. The drooping branches of Meg’s favorite willow tree cast lengthening shadows on the garden lawn beneath her.
Meg touched her face and frowned at the feel of peach juice still clinging to her cheeks and chin.
“So much for keeping my shirt clean.” She wiped the sleeve of her blouse across her face. It helped some. “At least Danny and Jenny didn’t see that.”
How many times had she told them not to use their clothes as napkins? Yeah. Her younger brother and sister would never let her live it down.
She tossed the pit into the air and caught it in her hand, sneering at its rough, slimy texture from the remaining gobs of peach flesh still stuck to it.
The mellow call of a chatarh horn warbled in the peaceful air, and Meg froze against the trunk.
One long, low blast, followed by three short, powerful ones. The horn of friendship. The Josharon sentries at Prism Castle had spotted someone approaching who was to be welcomed.
Still holding the pit in one hand, she scaled the main trunk of the willow, firmly planting the slick soles of her handmade boots into the crevices between limbs. She poked her head out of the thick canopy of willow leaves, and she focused her gaze on the eastern turret of Prism Castle.
The iridescent-stone castle sparkled in the late-afternoon sunlight, glittering as though made from diamonds. Clearly visible from the lower gardens, the eastern turret, which connected to the Josharon High Council chamber, boasted a royal blue banner with bright chevrons of goldenrod.
“The standard of Arasa Village,” Meg murmured. Her face broke into a bright grin. “Malaka!”
Malaka, a Josharon from the Avi Clan, had been long expected among the ministers on the Josharon High Council. Apparently her new duties as sahiba had finally allowed her to make the long flight from her home in Arasa Village on Overseer Peak down to Rainbow Valley.
Meg checked her grip on the willow fork and lifted her eyes to the sky.
Josharons of the Nibe Clan kept their paws on the ground, and their antlered cousins in the Harna Clan did too, except for the notable exceptions who climbed trees like monkeys. But the winged Avi Clan never walked anywhere.
Why walk when you could fly?
There. A hundred yards out. Three graceful bird-like figures glided toward the lawns from the heights of the blue sky.
Malaka led, her brindled fur evident even from a distance while her white-and-brown speckled wings flapped in the clear summer air. Flanking her were two Avi Clan escorts, one with brown wings and the other with black.
Malaka swooped down lower to the green of Rainbow Valley.
The peach pit in Meg’s hand suddenly felt very heavy, and Meg let herself smirk. The last time she’d seen Malaka, the Avi Josharon had led her into one of the Arasa Village stables. As Meg pushed the stable door open, an entire bucket of ice water tumbled down on her head.
A peach pit for a bucket of ice water? Hardly a fair exchange. But it would have to do.
Meg braced herself and waited until Malaka was nearly overhead, and she lobbed the peach pit directly at the Avi Josharon’s fox-like face.
Malaka yelped as the peach pit smacked her squarely on her canine nose, and she jerked, wings rushing forward with a gust of wind that shook the treetops as she halted her flight.
Meg slid down the trunk to a thick branch and swallowed her giggles. Had Malaka seen her? With a shout and a rustle of feathers, the two escorts touched down on either side of the willow tree’s protective curtain of leaves.
The one with black wings bellowed a threatening phrase in the snarling rattle that composed the Josharon native tongue, but neither charged past the leafy willow curtain. Because Malaka was laughing.
Yep. Malaka saw me.
Malaka landed lightly on the grass outside the leaves, her musical laughter ringing throughout the garden.
“Calm down, both of you.” She thrust a clawed hand into the curtain of leaves and pulled them back. “Who else would throw something like this at someone like me?” The Avi Josharon stepped into the rough circle of draping willow leaves.
Malaka paused with her wings spread and her hands on her hips, her two tails swinging like pendulums beneath her robes and her canine face curled into a grin that showed her sharp teeth.
She turned in a circle. “Do I presume correctly, bhaina?”
Meg hooked a leg around her branch and let herself fall. She caught the edge of Malaka’s robes and pulled them over the Josharon’s head as she swung past.
“You do!” Meg twisted in air, twisting the robes with her and tangling Malaka up in them.
Malaka roared with laughter as she lost her balance, but she yanked on her robes and dragged Meg off the branch.
They both collapsed in a heap on the dewy grass, a mount of giggles, claws, fur, and hair.
“Sahiba?” one of the escorts called uncertainly.
Malaka snorted with laughter. “Stay, Ameht. All is well.” She convulsed with giggles as she tried to sit up and found her scarf trapped beneath Meg’s backside. She flopped back on the grass, and Meg sprawled beside her.
“Hi, didi.” Meg snickered.
“There are better ways to get my attention than assaulting me with a peach pit, Margaret.” Malaka poked her in the ribs.
Meg swatted her clawed hand away. “Hey, it worked, didn’t it?”
Malaka groaned, her ash-blond mane spread across the grass. “More’s the pity. Wait until word of this debacle reaches my village. Their great and mighty sahiba—defeated by a wretched human and a piece of fruit.”
“Wretched human I may be.” Meg punctuated each word with a jab to Malaka’s furry side. “But I’ve got killer aim.”
“And not an ounce of humility.”
“None at all.”
“Sahiba?” the other escort spoke, his frame a dark blur on the other side of the leafy curtain.
Meg and Malaka exchanged a glance.
“They won’t leave me alone,” Malaka whispered.
“I figured.” Meg winked.
Malaka’s canine face split in a huge grin. “In that case, you may assault me with a peach pit at your every convenience.”
“If it gets you away from your escorts, I will!”
They burst into giggles, pressing their foreheads against each other, the cold bare skin of Meg’s brow brushing against the warm fur of Malaka’s.
“Sahiba, your presentation to the high council—”
Malaka snarled under her breath and stood up. “I know,” she snapped and strode to the curtain of leaves, pulled it back and curling her lips up to show her teeth. “Don’t nag me, Ameht.”
Meg rolled to her feet and brushed herself off.
“It is my duty to nag you, sahiba.”
Malaka rolled her sky blue eyes. “That’s what I was afraid of.” She reached her clawed hand to Meg, and Meg took it. Malaka dragged her out of the curtain of leaves and flung an arm around her shoulders. “Ameht.” Malaka glanced at the Avi Josharon with black wings. “Mehir.” She eyed the Josharon with brown wings. “This is my sister.”
As though their spines had turned to iron, both escorts straightened. A quiet whisper escaped their lips. Begani, they both had said.
Meg smothered a chuckle. So her Josharon name had spread even to the heights of Arasa Village. She didn’t know whether to be impressed or embarrassed.
“Walk on.” Malaka shook her hand at the two escorts.
“Sahiba?” Black-winged Ameht lifted bushy eyebrows on either side of a startling thatch of silver hair.
“Walk. On.” Malaka pointed to Prism Castle. “I must be presented to the Josharon High Council. You are here to be my escorts. Escort me.” She pulled Meg tighter.
“And my beloved bhaina.”
Ameht and Mehir exchanged a glance and started walking toward the main path that cut through the garden. The path would lead to Prism Castle, but walking it likely didn’t appeal to them.
But Malaka didn’t care. She tucked her arm into Meg’s and set a leisurely pace toward the towering turrets of Prism Castle.
“So what are you doing lounging in a tree, bhaina? Don’t you have work to do?” The fur on Malaka’s arm tickled the inside of Meg’s elbow.
“Work’s done,” Meg said. “Tolan and Danny are finishing the shearing at the south barn. I started it yesterday, so I got the afternoon off.”
“Making jam with Yasira.”
Malaka snickered. “Let me guess. Peach jam?”
“You’re a mind reader, didi.” Meg blinked innocently.
Malaka pressed her cold nose against Meg’s ear, and Meg giggled and tried to squirm away. But Malaka caught her with one wing and held her in place.
Meg tugged on one of Malaka’s feathers with a smirk. “And you? You’ve been avoiding summons from the high council for a month.”
Malaka rolled her eyes again and pulled her restraining wing back from Meg’s shoulders, folding it against her back. “Not avoiding.” She smirked. “Pro-actively ignoring.”
Meg arched her eyebrows.
“One day you’ll have to report to the high council, bhaina.” Malaka tapped her on the nose. “You won’t enjoy it either.”
Meg scoffed. “No, I won’t.” She kicked at a tuft of grass as she passed it. “Only important people report to the high council.”
“That is true. And you are only a flea.” Malaka winked at her.
“A particularly pesky flea, at least?” Meg smirked.
“A flea destined for great flea-things.” Malaka laughed and pulled her down the path. Her smile faded slowly. “The truth is, I fear what the council will say to me when I am presented.”
Meg tightened her grip on Malaka’s warm arm. “You shouldn’t.”
“Perhaps.” Malaka sighed. “But I am the first female sahiba over Arasa Village. And I am certainly the youngest ever elected.”
“That’s because you’re brilliant.”
“It is because the village trusts me.” She shook her head, her white-blond mane tumbling down between the roots of her wings. “And their trust frightens me.”
“The responsibility is enormous.”
Meg pulled her arm closer. “Malaka, the village elected you, yes, but you know the high council has influence over the elections.”
“And all the elders vouched for you.”
“Also true.” She grimaced, the soft pink line of her lips drawing tight over her teeth. “And their trust frightens me more than the village’s.”
“The high council and the elders wouldn’t have placed trust in you if you weren’t worthy of it,” Meg said. “And I believe in you.” Meg nudged her with her shoulder. “So you shouldn’t worry.”
Malaka’s eyes crinkled as a smile brightened her face.
“Of course, you can worry if you want to.” Meg elbowed her and stepped to the side. “But that must makes you look silly.”
Malaka jabbed a claw into Meg’s left hip, and Meg squeaked in surprise.
“At least I don’t squeal like a mouse.”
“You do too. Hit you in the face with a peach pit, and you squeal like a piglet.”
Malaka unfurled her wings and gave a mighty flap, the force of the downthrust stopping Meg in her tracks as the Josharon streaked into the sky.
“Sahiba!” both Ameht and Mehir gasped from in front before they followed Malaka in flight.
“Come, escorts,” Malaka bellowed. “Escort me to my meeting. I’m done being silly.”
She threw a look over her shoulder and winked at Meg.
Meg chuckled to herself and watched the three Josharons soar to the roofline of Prism Castle. Meg slipped her hands into her pockets as she walked up the path and froze.
She pulled the slimy peach pit out of her pocket. Malaka must have planted it on her.
Meg rolled the pit around in her palm and smiled. Then, she dropped it back in her pocket and continued up the garden path toward the rear entrance to Prism Castle, a cheerful whistle on her lips while blue-and-gold standard of Arasa Village flapped in the wind overhead.