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Authors: Jo Walton

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The Prize in the Game

BOOK: The Prize in the Game
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Tor Books by Jo Walton

The King's Name

The King's Peace

The Prize in the Game


This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are either fictitious or arc used fictitiously.

THE PRIZE IN THE GAME Copyright © 2002 by Jo Walton

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

This book is printed on acid-free paper. Edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden A Tor Book

Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

175 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY 10010

Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, IXC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Walton, Jo.

The prize in the game / by Jo Walton.mdash-1st ed.

p. cm.

"A Tom Doherty Associates book." ISBN 0-765-30263-2 (acid-free paper) 1. FriendshipmdashFiction. 2. GoddessesmdashFiction. 3. IslandsmdashFiction. I. Tide.

PR6073.A448 P75 2002 823'.92mdashdc21



Edition: December 2002

Printed in the United

States of America


This is for Kate Nepveu,for asking the right question.

I'd like to thank Emmet O'Brien, Lucy Kemnitzer, David Goldfarb, Mary Lace, Carl Dersham, Edward

Shoenfeld, Janet Kegg and David Starr for reading this novel in manuscript.

Additional thanks to Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Fred Herman for being wonderful to me about Chapter 31, Sasha Walton for being forbearing and helpful when I was stuck, and Emmet O'Brien (again and always) for synergistic idea bouncing.

When you light a candle, it casts light and shadows in both directions. It is the same with telling a story. This novel is set in the same world as The King's Peace and The King's Name. Most of it takes place during the first few paragraphs of Chapter 12 of The King's Peace. It is not necessary to have read that book before

reading this one, it shouldn't do any harm either way. The characters in this story who appear in that one do so before their appearance there. The illumination and the shadows will fall in both directions just the same.

When I was first doing research on the Celts, years ago, I found the Horslips album The Tain remarkably inspiring. It continues to be an influence. My whole conception of Darag and Ferdia and their relationship in this novel would be very different without that music.

Page 1

There is a reconstructed dun much like the ones in this story at Castell Hen-leys in West Wales, not terribly far from Cardigan.

The poem at the end of section 7 was first published in my collection Muses and Lurkers, Rune Press, 2001.

I have been a prize in a game I have been a queen on a hill From far and far they flocked to see me.

White am I, among the shadows, My shoulder is noted for its fairness The two best men in all the world have loved me.

My crown is of apple, bough and blossom. They wear my favor but my arms are empty. The boat drifts heedless down the dark stream.





"My parents are always fighting," Elenn said. Conal looked at her. She really was a distractingly beautiful girl.

He had thought so even when she had first arrived in the king's hall, wet and bedraggled, with her huge-eyed little sister standing beside her.

Here in the sunny orchard with the blossoms around her she was the loveliest thing he had ever seen. His father, the poet Amagien, had already written about her looks in extravagant terms.

But it was very hard to look at her and deny that her hair was reminiscent of black night or her eyes of stars. She looked like Nive herself come down to walk among men for a season. It was a pity she didn't have wit to match her looks. All she seemed to care about was having everyone adore her. This was the first time she had said something that wasn't directly about her, and even this wasn't far away. "Always?" he asked.

"All the time," she confirmed, smiling a little as if she could see something Conal couldn't.

"What about?" he asked, mildly interested despite himself. He knew she was walking with him only because

Ferdia and Darag couldn't be found and she didn't want to walk alone.

"Everything," she said. "Anything at all. What weapons the three of us should be taught.

What color my sister should wear for the Feast of Bel. What crops the farmers should plant and in which fields. Whether the hall needs new rushes yet. If we are to go to war with Muin this summer. If my brother should marry Atha ap

Gren. Who is the father of the white cat's kittens."

Conal swallowed hard. He was glad they were alone. He knew that if anyone were to catch his eye at that moment, even Darag, he wouldn't be able to keep himself from laughing aloud.

Elenn looked as serious and as beautiful as ever. In the month she had been at Ardmachan she had already reproached him for laughing at her at least a dozen times. "Some of those matters are of great import, and others are very trivial," he said as calmly as possible.

"I know," Elenn said composedly. "Sometimes they will fight about whether this is the way a king should behave."

"My uncle Conary would say that it is not," Conal said definitely. He had heard Conary's lectures on kingship often enough. They were always made to all the royal kin, though it was Darag he always looked at, and

Darag whose questions were answered first.

"My parents have very different ideas about kingship from King Con-ary," Elenn said, looking up at him under her lashes in a way he would have found enchanting if he could have believed for a minute that she liked him.

"Which of your parents is the king of Connat anyway?" he asked, realizing that he did not know
Page 2

for sure. "I

think I have always heard them mentioned together."

"Both of them are of the royal kin," Elenn said. "My mother, Maga, is the daughter of the last king, Arcon. My father, Allel, is her cousin. When the kindred came to choose, many of them wanted Maga, for her wisdom, and others Allel, who was reknown as a warleader when he was young. So it was agreed that they should marry and give each other the benefit of their skills."

"And they've been arguing ever since?" Conal asked.

"Oh, yes," Elenn said. They were almost through the orchard. Conal could already see the oak tree his grandfather used for a school. Emer was there already, pulling a flower apart intently. Leary and Nid were playing fidchell with leaves in the dust. There was no sign of Darag, or Ferdia and Laig, or of Inis himself. "I think marriage of cousins is very wrong, do not you? I think marriages work better when people know each other much less well to begin with."

"No doubt," Conal said politely. Then he thought of his own parents, who had known each other since his father had been fostered here as a boy. "Definitely. But as for your parents, which of them holds the kingship from the land?" he asked. "Only one person can hold it, that I'm sure about." They passed the last of the apple trees and slowed their steps to salute the trees as they passed through the grove.

"My mother does," Elenn said, bowing to the birch tree. "But it is something else they argue about incessantly. My father says that the kingdom would be nothing if not for his leading armies, and my mother says it would be nothing if not for her alliances."

"Are those two paths?" Inis asked.

Conal jumped and Elenn gave a little squeal. His grandfather had a habit of doing that and it never failed to disconcert him. Conal tried to be aware of people and movement. Inis was the only person who had managed to surprise him in half a year, but he managed it almost every time. He strove not to let his surprise show on his face or in his movements. Most of a year ago, he had asked Inis for advice on how to deal with Darag, and Inis had told him that he had already learned how. That meant his way of taking things lightly and not showing when he was wounded. He had learned that from his father's constant prodding, not from Darag. He had a shrewd idea that Inis knew that, too. Now he tried to keep his reactions to himself as much as he could, while smiling and speaking airily. He bent his mind to what Inis had said as if it were a riddle he was using to teach them. Were Maga's alliances and Allel's war-leading two paths?

"I think you mean that Connat needs both their strengths to be strong, Grandfather," he said, phrasing his answer carefully.

Inis looked pleased and began to walk with them towards the others. "Do you see it, girl?" he asked Elenn.

She raised her chin affirmatively, but Conal didn't think there was room for much thought behind her pretty face.

"Where are Ferdia and Darag?" she asked.

Most of a month in Oriel and she hadn't learned yet not to ask Inis questions. Not to mention how much that one gave away. Even the order of names revealed her hidden preference, Conal would guess. Elenn had spent most of the month letting Ferdia and Darag act as rivals for her favors, offering each of them the hero's portion in turn, with an occasional shred of meat thrown to Leary and Conal. She hadn't managed to spoil the friendship between Darag and Ferdia. There was no friendship between them and Conal to spoil, even if he had cared, but he hated to watch what it was doing to Leary.

Conal had originally thought it might be a good thing for the two princesses of Connat to be fostered with them for a while. He remembered the time he had spent at Cruachan fondly.

But he had forgotten the great distance that stretched between eight and seventeen. He would have begged his uncle not to invite them if he had guessed how disruptive rivalry for a beautiful
Page 3

girl could be. Conal realized that Elenn's question had fallen into silence, which meant that his grandfather was looking for the answer across the worlds. Conal turned to him in concern, just in time to see the emptiness in Inis's face before he spoke.

"Acting on what I taught you this morning," Inis said. His voice sounded different, full of the echoes that meant he was speaking from the depths of his oracle-knowledge. His eyes met Conal's without recognition for a moment.

Conal felt disgusted with Elenn for pushing his grandfather away from sanity. Then he took in what Inis had said, so suddenly that his head spun. "This morning we were learning how to recognize a fortunate day," he said.

"And you said that all days were fortunate, but there is an art to telling for what they are fortunate, for some day fortunate for one thing might be unfortunate for another," recited Elenn in a monotone as they came up to the oak tree where the others were sitting.

"And you read the signs for today and said that it would be a good day for a great warrior to take up arms for the first time," Emer said enthusiastically, jumping up and taking Inis's arm. "Sit down now, sir, and teach us how to read the signs. I could almost see it, but not quite."

Inis blinked at the girl, rubbed his eyes and sighed. "You would have made a fine oracle-priest,"

he said.

Emer looked down, smiling.

"I have to go," Conal said. It had never occurred to him that Darag would have acted on Inis's divination. They were seventeen; it would be a year before any of them could take up arms. A year, which Conal had been counting off by months and days. How could anyone . . . how could Darag and Ferdia and Laig have gone off to defy that? He felt stricken. They all spent as much time as they could practicing, but even so, they would not be ready to take up arms until they were eighteen, six threes of years, nobody was. It was a law of Oriel, of the whole island of Tir Isarnagiri, of the whole world as far as Conal knew.

"I must go too," Elenn said.

"We must all go," Inis said, sounding as if he knew where he was again. "I have acted without thought." He hesitated, looking from Emer to Conal, then he sighed. "Come back to the dun, we must see the king."

"What? All of us? Why?" Nid looked up from her game for the first time, pushing her hair out of her eyes.

"Darag has gone to take up arms," Elenn explained to them.

Nid and Leary exchanged a startled glance, then got to their feet as Inis gestured to them.

Then, without looking, he put out his hands and held back Emer and Conal, one on each side of him, and let the others go ahead. Leary and Nid at once flanked Elenn, one on each side, Leary offering her shy compliments. She did not so much as glance back at Conal.

Inis sighed again as he held Conal back. "I did wrong, but I could not have done other; so I did in all the worlds."

"You said in 'all the worlds,' ap Fathag," Emer said. "I don't understand how it would be possible to know without looking into every world there is."

BOOK: The Prize in the Game
9.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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