Chapter 1 1
IT’S BEEN YEARS since I was small enough to ride Buttermilk, but she’s still the best pony in this whole town.
Buttermilk is who you lead out when a kid isn’t sure he wants a pony ride. She is round and soft with big, dark eyes under a shaggy white forelock, her back so broad it’s like a nice, sturdy chair. Her step is so even that kids forget they were scared and start pretending they’re rangers, or bandit hunters, or fleet riders.
When the ride is over, kids hug her goodbye. Sometimes mothers have to drag them by the hand off the town common while they bawl and plead for another turn.
Hazy likes to kick up her heels. You put an adventurous kid on her back, or one who’s a little older, or who’s ridden before. Boris is strong enough to carry two kids at once and sweet enough to be willing to do it. I love all three of our ponies, but Buttermilk is the one that keeps bringing in kids.
This is why she’s the best pony in Mael Dunn. It’s definitely not her attitude. She breaks wind like a dockhand and enjoys nabbing hats off passersby. She’ll eat apples and candy sticks right out of the hands of children who aren’t paying attention to their treats.
But every time I put a kid on Hazy or Boris or Buttermilk and lead them in a well-trodden circle on the common, we earn a copper piece.
More kids mean more coppers, which means every pony ride puts me a little closer to making Ricochet my own.
Greta and I are supposed to trade off every other day, one of us giving pony rides and the other going to school, but Father found out she was letting me have her turns on the common because she’d rather go to school and I’d rather be with the ponies. We both got in trouble, and there were extra chores and a lecture about honesty, but that’s when Father started giving us one copper out of every twenty that each of us earned from rides.
My sister puts her coppers aside to buy books.
I’m saving for Ricochet.
Mother and Father can only afford the half-day school session, so the instant that noon creeps near and Mistress Crumb reaches for the handbell on her desk, I’m already gathering my copybook and pencil stub.
Before the ringing stops, I’m out the schoolroom door and galloping through the lanes. I duck into our house just long enough to dump my copybook and change into trousers, then it’s a quick canter to the royal stables where they spread out like a crescent hugging the steep mound topped by the castle.
There’s an armed guard at the entrance, of course. A ranger who drew the short straw. They’re used to me, though, and I’m always waved inside with a bored flick of the hand.
To my right is where the royal family’s personal mounts are housed. I’ve never been through that door, but I like picturing the king’s beautiful stallion and his daughters’ ponies content in giant box stalls.
Straight ahead are the cavalry horses: big standardbreds that are all muscle and Arabians that can run forever. If a soldier’s going to ride it, it lives down that straight-ahead hallway.
But I turn left, into the long corridor lined with stalls where the fleet horses live.
They’re not called fleet simply because of their speed. These are the working horses of the royal household. If a message must be sent to a neighboring kingdom, the courier gets a mount here. If one of the princesses needs a coach-and-six, these are the stalls they’ll clip-clop out of.
These horses are a fleet, like a fleet of ships.
I’m counting. Sixteen stalls down. Face left. And there he is. Shining chestnut coat. Beautiful brown eyes. Four white stockings up to his knees.
I let myself into his stall and press my face against his neck. He smells clean, like someone just rubbed his coat with fresh straw.
So far I own roughly one of his hooves. I did the figuring on a day when Greta and I were cleaning pony stalls out behind our house. Ricochet is worth fifty gold dinars. There are one hundred coppers in a dinar. So to buy him, I will need five hundred coppers.
Right now I have twenty-two coppers. I keep them in a small linen bag that I drew a horseshoe on with berry ink.
We scrubbed walls and floors that day and tried to decide how to divide Ricochet into parts so I’d know when I earned what part.
“I don’t think it matters,” I tried to tell her. “Master Harold says I can’t have him until I can pay all fifty dinars.”
“No, it does,” Greta assured me. “You’ll need to earn a lot of coppers, and there’s going to be a point when you get discouraged. You’ll want to spend all your money on candy sticks just to have something now. But this way, you can tell yourself: Look, I already own one hoof. Twenty more coppers and I’ll own two. Buying Ricochet will seem possible, and when something seems possible, it’s that much easier to make it happen.”
Greta is pretty smart for someone who’s only ten. I’d say it was all the school, but she was this way long before either of us started going.
I kneel and put a hand over Ricochet’s left front hoof and whisper, “I won’t let you down.”
There’s an echo of bootsteps, and I leap to my feet in time to see the royal stablemaster rounding the corner. Master Harold is big like a draft horse, with the same powerful, deliberate strides and shaggy mane. He waves, then makes his way down the aisle toward me.
I’ve known Master Harold since I was tiny. He’s laughed at our hearth and eaten at our table and shared more than one mug of cider with Father. But he goes home to a four-story townhouse with real glass panes in the windows and eats meat at every meal, and when he stops outside the stall, I curtsy with the ends of my shirt.
“Time for our ride,” I say, patting Ricochet’s neck, and even though Master Harold has told me hundreds of times that I don’t have to ask permission if Ricochet is in the pasture or his stall, I add, “If that’s all right.”
“Yes. About that.” Master Harold strokes his whiskery chin. “Ricochet is in top form largely because of you. All that time on the exercise course. The extra attention—grooming, bathing, fussing. And that’s on top of his sweet, calming nature.”
My heart goes still. “You’re selling him.”
“Sonnia.” Master Harold puts a big hand on my shoulder in some version of a hug from an old man with no kids of his own. “It’s not my choice what the king decides to do with his horses. But I meant it when I said I’d do what I could to keep Ricochet from being sold to anyone but you. Besides”—he’s teasing now—“you’re the only one who wants him.”
I’ve known the rhyme since I was a little kid. White on his forehead, white on his feet, grind up his bones and throw away the meat. I don’t say it aloud, though. I don’t want to hurt Ricochet’s feelings.
“Ricochet’s been chosen to be a companion for the king’s newest racehorse,” Master Harold goes on. “Perihelion is supposed to tear up the track this season, but he’s high-strung and skittish. He needs a good calm friend to walk beside him before the starting bell and settle him down.”
Only Master Harold hasn’t yet looked me in the eye. He’s still blocking the door of Ricochet’s stall.
I bite my lip and ask, “What does that mean?”
“Well… Ricochet will have to live at the racetrack all season. So he’s not going to be here for you to fuss over till winter.”
I study the ground. Pet Ricochet’s nose again, once, twice, to keep the tears back. Of course he’s been chosen to walk with a skittery racehorse. Ricochet is the best, most peaceful and happy gelding in this whole stable.
“Well.” I lift my chin. “The track is pretty far, but I’ll figure out a way to get over there to exercise him. It won’t be every day, but—”
“There’s a rider already chosen.” Master Harold still isn’t quite looking at me. “The boy’s name is Paolo. He’ll be riding Ricochet exclusively while he’s there. Not really a job for a girl, is it? Even a horsey one like you.”
Master Harold laughs uncomfortably, but my mouth falls open.
“I can’t even ride him? I’ve been coming here every other day for more than three years and—”
“I beg your pardon!” snaps the royal stablemaster, and I startle and drop my eyes and curtsy again because I forgot for a moment who I am and who he is.
Master Harold shuffles awkwardly, and I can tell that he feels bad for raising his voice, but also that he doesn’t. Still, his tone is careful and precise when he says, “Perihelion has all the makings of a champion. Ricochet can help him achieve that, and this decision is final. Approved by the king. Do you understand?”
I nod, then whisper, “Can I visit him there?”
“You can, but you should know Ricochet will have handlers and trainers who’ll need him to be in certain places at certain times.” Master Harold looks away. “You won’t be able to just walk in like you can here.”
Ricochet whuffles. He really is in top form. A silky coat that shines like a newly minted copper. Strong shoulders, graceful haunches. Smart, too.
I helped him get this way. It’s like he’s partly mine already.
Master Harold is in charge of the royal stables. I can come and go here because he and Father have known each other a long time. I don’t know what I’d do if I turned up one day and the guardsman on duty refused to let me in.
“I understand.” I make myself smile. “I can still ride him today, right?”
“He was supposed to be at the track this morning,” Master Harold replies gruffly. “I kept him here this long so you could say goodbye.”
I stand close to Ricochet so he can put his nose on my shoulder. I’m going to miss his warm breath on my cheek as we say hello. I’m going to miss seeing the world from his back. I’m going to miss the way he’ll wait till I’m not paying attention, then lick my whole face from chin to eyebrow, just like a dog.
“Paolo should be here soon to ride Ricochet over,” Master Harold says as he walks away. “A stablehand will be along to get him ready to travel, so now’s your chance to fuss over him.”
I’m allowed to ride Ricochet on the exercise course anytime he’s not on a fleet mission, but the stablehands are the only ones who can groom and feed him. They put on his saddle and bridle while I watch. I can’t even adjust the stirrups.
It doesn’t seem glamorous to be a stablehand, but everyone connected to the royal stables receives free room and board on top of a portion of the income from everything the horses do. The king gets twenty shares. Master Harold gets twelve. Fleet riders get three and grooms get one. Stablehands get a quarter share.
Master Harold may be in charge of the royal stables, but the king loves horses and personally approves every man or boy who so much as lifts a shovel here.
They don’t come from the lanes, either. They come from families who have been taking care of royal horses for generations.
All but Torsten. My brother has a position here because Master Harold has no kids of his own and his years of service have earned him a single big ask.
Torsten appears in the aisle, grinning and holding a lead rope. The royal stables are huge, and even though I’m here a lot, we don’t always run into each other. Sometimes it’s because he’s so busy, but other times I avoid him on purpose.
I’m supposed to be happy for my brother. The royal stables offer an incredible opportunity for an unremarkable boy from the lanes of Mael Dunn. It’s a future that can be counted on, one that will let him escape the hand-to-mouth scrabbling for hiring fair contracts that last just a year, that everyone in the lanes must take to make a living.
I’d be happier for him if such a thing were possible for girls.
Torsten asks how Mother and Father and Greta are doing, and I fill him in as he leads Ricochet out of his stall. The faint shadow of the moustache he’s so proud of looks less like a smudge of dirt than it did last time, and when I tell him so, he musses my hair till I shove his hands away, giggling like we did when he lived at home.
The stable aisle opens into the sprawling paddock full of horses being curried and having their hooves picked. It’s sunny, and there’s a nice breeze that blows the fresh green smell of the pastures beyond. Nearby, a sturdy bay mare is standing saddled while a fleet rider checks his message bag.
At some point growing up, every kid in Mael Dunn wants to be a fleet rider. You hear about brave couriers rushing urgent trade agreements to neighboring kingdoms and outriding bandits and arriving just in time with medicine or vital news. Then you learn they mostly do boring things like deliver invitations to royal cotillions.
I can’t think of anything better than spending whole days in the saddle, just you and your horse. Whatever the message.
A boy I don’t recognize is leaning against the tack shed. His gray riding jacket and breeches look new, but he’s rangy like a quarter horse and his brown wrists stick out well beyond the cuffs. He’s smiling as if he’s among old friends.
I know pretty much everyone at the royal stables, so he must be Paolo.
Master Harold said a rider had been chosen. He didn’t say the rider would be a kid my age. If the rider was going to be a kid my age, there’s no reason it couldn’t be me.
Except for all the reasons it couldn’t be me.