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Osa's string tickled Nial's face, jerking her awake.

Wake up, sleepyhead! For a magically animated kite no larger than Nial's hand, Osa had quite the voice. You've got company.

Outside the tent, one of the rebels called out, "Kitemaster, you're needed at the observation post."

Osa fluttered her panels in a rude, raspberry sound. The Kitemaster is needed in dreamland. She's exhausted! And you need to leave her alone before I get angry.

Thankfully, the rebel couldn't hear the tiny kite. Nobody else could. Nial stumbled out of her bedroll and fumbled with the ties holding the tent flaps shut.

The Imperials on the other side of the Rionto Valley must have launched scout kites. It was the only reason for Captain Shalen to summon her so early.

The instant the tent flap opened, Osa shot toward the rebel soldier. He leapt back, nearly dropping his lantern.

Osa floated up and began to circle, like a hawk preparing for a dive. Nial could hear her giggling.

Osa, no!

Osa returned at once, her string coiling around Nial's right arm. The miniature kite floated a foot or so above Nial's head, a hexagon of faded blue and white linen on a fragile bamboo frame. Nial grabbed her blanket and wrapped it around herself to fight the night chill.

He's only a messenger, Nial added. Leave him alone. Do you want Shalen angry at me? She glanced at the rebel, noting the tarnished patches on his ill-fitting armor. The reversed curve of the knife at his waist marked him as a northerner, probably one of the fishermen Shalen had recruited last month. The brass shoulder guards had been taken from an Imperial soldier's armor and hand-stitched to a battered leather breastplate. The golden lions had been scraped from the shoulder guards, replaced by crudely painted tigers, the sign of the Emperor's traitorous brother.

"Captain Shalen said there were scouts," he said, confirming Nial's guess. But why would the Imperials fly scouts at night? The moon was a mere thumbnail. In the darkness, the men harnessed to the oversized kites would see little or nothing of use.

"I don't need an escort," Nial said.

His cheeks reddened. "I'm sorry. Captain Shalen's orders."

Osa floated beside Nial's ear, muttering.

No, Nial said. I don't think he trusts me either.

They walked through the small camp, ducking through the low, twisted trees that covered the valley.

The observation post was built between twin pines. The concealed platform held a spyglass and several spools of thick cable. It doubled as a launch point for the rebels' own kites. The valley provided a constant wind that whipped Nial's hair into her face and threatened to tear her blanket away.

"Nial, excellent." Captain Shalen climbed down the rope ladder of the platform, jumping the last few rungs. "Our men spotted three scouts flying from the Imp outpost."

"Four, actually," Nial said. She could sense them riding the updrafts from the valley.

Shalen's shaggy brows lowered, but he gave no other sign of annoyance. "Four, then." He pointed to the ladder. "You know your duty."

"What about Lin?"

He nodded. "You'll see your brother once those kites are taken care of."

Without another word, Nial climbed the ladder and hauled herself onto the platform. She could feel the Imperial scout kites straining in the night sky. To Nial, the bulky rectangular kites were alive, fighting to break free of their bonds and ride the wind, heedless of the men strapped to their bamboo frames.

Kind of like herself, she thought. Yearning to escape, but tied here by Shalen's hold on her brother Lin.

The Imperial outpost was on the opposite side of the valley. Nial could just make out the orange glow of the torches on the stone wall surrounding the outpost. Somewhere behind that wall, linemen stood by huge wooden spools, fighting to control the scout kites.

"Hurry, Kitemaster." Shalen's sneer twisted the title into an insult. They both knew she was no true Kitemaster. Nial was an untrained peasant. Her power was crude and clumsy. Shalen only kept up the facade because of the prestige he got from having a Kitemaster under his command.

Nial concentrated on the lines of the four scouts. They were taut as lute strings, and she could feel the wind strumming inaudible chords. She picked out the lead kite and imagined a puff of wind from the side, sending the scout into a spin.

The man harnessed to the kite remained silent, even as the ground rushed to meet him.

Nial felt the line tighten again as the kite's lineman reeled in slack, trying to catch the wind before the kite crashed. The kite began to rise. Nial blew it sideways, tangling the line in the trees and swinging the scout into the branches.

The second and third scouts followed quickly, and Nial turned her attention to the last. This kite was larger than the others, hovering perfectly still in the wind.

Nial, I don't like this, Osa said.

"I know." How did it float so precisely?

Nial tried to send it into a spin, as she had done with the others. The kite drifted lazily to one side, the only sign of Nial's power.

"How goes it, girl?" Shalen shouted.

Osa's line snapped from side to side. Give me two minutes, and I'll turn him into a girl!

"Not now," Nial said, trying to shut them both out. She summoned a gust to hit the Imperial kite head-on, but the kite twisted aside. Finally, Nial reached for the cord itself, hoping to disrupt the scout's lineman.

Nothing happened. The kite's line dangled free, unanchored. "How can he fly without a lineman?"

She concentrated harder, putting all her strength into a single wind, trying to batter the kite back to earth. She pounded it again and again, beating it from above and below.

Finally, the kite began to swoop gracefully back to earth, leaving Nial gasping for breath.

"Good work," Shalen said. The sky had lightened enough for him to see the other kite's descent.

Nial's stomach hurt. She knew the effort it took to control the oversized scout kites. The rebels often needed two or three linemen per kite, even with Nial's assistance. But that last kite had moved like a sparrow.

Nial, he flew with no lineman, Osa whispered. She sounded awed.

"I know," Nial said curtly. There was only one answer. After weeks of losing their scouts to Nial's untrained power, the Imperials had acquired their own Kitemaster. A real Kitemaster, strong enough to fly unassisted.

Fear followed Nial down the ladder. Shalen was bound to learn about the Imperial Kitemaster sooner or later. What would he do with her then? She found herself wishing again for the safety of a home that no longer existed.

* * *

Nial's mother had died giving birth to Lin. Their father died a little over a year ago, in the wave of sickness that washed through the village.

Nial spent a week building a spirit-kite for their father. She used his favorite cloak, the faded blue one with the white trim. She had painstakingly patched the rips and sewed the material to sticks of black-painted bamboo.

"It won't fly," Lin said. His clothes were damp and soiled. Only twelve years old, he had worked extra time in the grain fields so Nial could finish their father's kite.

"It will." Nial's fingers moved slowly and precisely through the knots. She had chosen a simple rectangular kite, to reflect their father's straightforward and honest manner. She looped the kite's line through the twin bridles and adjusted the knots.

"The cloak is too heavy." Lin shook his head. "It'll be like trying to fly a rock."

Heat flowed through Nial's hands as she worked. It had frightened her at first, feeling the unfamiliar power seeping through her fingers into the kite. Now the sensation was a comfort, bringing a sense of rightness. The material rustled at her touch, as if it could taste the winds outside the hut. When she stood to stretch her back, the kite glided to the dirt floor, toward the door.

"You need to rest," Lin said. "You can finish tomorrow."

"No." She picked up the kite, heading for the door. She hadn't realized how late it was. No wonder her eyes ached.

Insects chirped by the riverbank, falling abruptly silent as Nial and Lin walked down the trail.

"It's too dark," Lin said. "Unless you've suddenly gained the senses of a bat?"

"It will fly."

"Come to bed, bat-brain."

Nial kept walking. She could feel something stirring in her chest, power bubbling to life. All the grief was forcing its way upward, fighting for release. Fighting to fly.

"Nial, you'll ruin the kite. There's no wind, and..."

His voice trailed off as the spirit-kite leapt to life. Nial had wrapped the line around a piece of maple branch as thick as her forearm. Now that branch whirled like a spinning wheel as the kite soared skyward.

She Freedom. A giggle slipped past her lips.

"What have you done?"

She didn't answer. For the first time since losing her father, she felt alive. Her heart pounded, her breathing came in gasps, and tears blurred her vision. She ran toward the river, allowing the kite to choose its own path.

She sensed other kites, far downstream. Tiny kites, woven of expensive silver and gold thread that glinted in the moonlight. She could see them, not with her eyes, but with whatever power her father's spirit-kite had awakened within her. Caught up in the excitement, she called those kites to her. She felt the lines snap as the kites raced toward her, and she sent them skyward in tribute to her father.

The spirit-kite tugged her arms. The line was completely played out. Her bare feet sank into the muddy riverbank.

Lin grabbed her arms. "Nial, get back here before the water takes you."

"Let me go!" she yelled, struggling to wade deeper. Cold water pounded past her legs. All she could think of was the spirit-kite, tugging her onward.

"Think of father," Lin said. "That's his spirit-kite. How can his soul travel the skies in peace if you drown to send him there?"

Even that might not have broken through Nial's haze, but as Lin spoke, the kite swooped closer, and a familiar whisper echoed within her mind.

Nial relaxed her hands, allowing the branch to fall into the water. An instant later, the kite leapt skyward.

Nial swallowed. "The kite had a message for us."

It was a measure of the night's strangeness that Lin made no quip about his sister's madness. "What message?"

"From our father. He said thank you. He asked me to look after you." She wiped her eyes. "He says he loves us."

She watched the rectangle of blue ride away, carrying their father into the afterlife. The smaller kites she had stolen followed after, gleaming like shooting stars.

* * *

Osa's line tickled Nial's ear, drawing her back to the present. I'm okay, Nial said.

Sure you are. And I'm a hummingbird.

That earned a small smile. Nial had created Osa from the leftover scraps of her father's cloak, hoping to hear his voice again. It hadn't worked.

I beg your pardon! I think it worked beautifully.

Nial grimaced. "Yeah. The one thing I did right."

The glittering kites she had stolen to send after her father belonged to Captain Shalen, who was using them to signal the other rebel groups. Shalen and his rebels had come to the village, seeking the one who had controlled their kites. I led them right to us. I practically handed Lin and myself to Shalen.

Osa drew a long double-circle in the air, trying to distract her.

I know, I know, Nial said. Concentrate on the moment.

Osa settled behind Nial's head as they neared her brother's tent. A single guard sat by the entrance. Lin's tent was at the center of camp. Even if he somehow got past the guard, he would have to fight through half the camp to escape. The guard nodded respectfully as Nial ducked inside.

Lin lay sleeping in the straw, an old blanket pulled over his shoulders. Osa tapped the canvas to wake him.

"Nial?" Lin rolled over, rubbing his eyes.

"The Imperials flew scouts. Shalen said I could see you again."

Lin nodded. "Hi, Osa." The little kite whirled. "What did you do to them?"

"They soft-landed." I didn't have to kill anyone.

Lin glanced at the open tent flap. Lowering his voice, he said, "What's Shalen doing? We've been here for weeks."

"I don't know."

"They won't wait forever," he said. He lay back, wadding the blanket into a crude pillow. "The Imperial palace is only a day's march away. Why stop here? Why this outpost?"

"Lin, they had a Kitemaster. A real one. It was all I could do to bring him down."

Lin grunted. "They've started taking you seriously."

"I don't know how long I can keep Captain Shalen from finding out. Once he does..." She left the thought unfinished. Lin's life depended on her service to the rebels. If she failed, what would happen to her brother?

So don't fail, Osa said.

Easy for you to say.

"But you did bring him down?" Lin asked.

"Easier to crash to earth than to soar among the clouds," she quoted. "I had the advantage, but he still almost beat me. I think it was a test to see what I could do, and it exhausted me. Now they know I'm not strong enough to fight their Kitemaster."

"Shalen would have killed me sooner or later anyway," Lin said bitterly. He turned away. "I'll almost be glad to get it over with."

"Lin, don't." She squeezed his arm, searching for words. She wanted to promise to protect him, to find a way for them to survive. But Lin would see right through the lie.

"At least you're useful," Lin said. "Even if you're not trained, they might keep you around."

"I won't let them hurt you," Nial said.

"Oh, good. I feel so much safer." Lin rolled, jerking the blanket over his head so it muffled his next words. "Maybe you can turn your baby kite loose on Captain Shalen."

Osa fluttered indignantly. I'm not afraid of old turnip-brains. I could strangle that overgrown—

Osa, no, Nial interrupted. You can't. Lin's right. She stared at the tent wall. It's only a matter of time.

* * *

Shalen's coming, Osa said. Nial swallowed the last of her mud-textured oatmeal and stood. Shalen was smiling. He looked almost cheerful. It made her nervous.

The men around Nial saluted or bowed. Nial deliberately kept her hands at her sides.

"There's my little Kitemistress," Shalen said, chuckling. "I hope you had an enjoyable chat with your brother last night."

Osa buzzed near her ear.

You're right, Nial agreed silently. He's too happy.

Osa projected a mental picture of a tiger pouncing from the trees. Slowly the image changed, and the tiger's face took on Shalen's wide features. Then Osa crossed Shalen's eyes and allowed the tongue to loll out one side of his mouth. It was all Nial could do to keep from laughing.

The real Captain Shalen clapped a hand around Nial's shoulders, dragging her away from the log where she had sat. "I have a special assignment for you. No more of these clumsy scouts. In a few days, you're going to fly nightwings."

"Assassins?" Several men glanced up, until Shalen's scowl made them look away.

"That's right," he said, his voice low. "Five of them. You're going to drop them right into the middle of the Imp camp."

"Captain Shalen, I—" She bit her lip. Controlling normal scouts would be all but impossible, given the presence of the other Kitemaster. Nightwing kites were little more than thin sheets of silk and string. More symbolic than practical, they relied entirely on the strength of the Kitemaster. Nial had never flown one. Even unopposed, she wasn't sure she could do it. With an Imperial Kitemaster fighting her...

"Don't worry," Shalen said. "I don't expect you to get them all across the valley. But for an untrained whelp, you've done well so far. Get even a single nightwing across, and I'll let you see your little brother again."

His smile grew, and he gestured back toward the other rebels. "My men say it's a blessing to have a Kitemaster among us. The rumors have spread throughout the country. 'The rebels have a Kitemaster,' the people whisper. 'Surely their cause is blessed by the gods.' You wouldn't want to disappoint everyone, would you?"

"No," Nial whispered.

"So what's wrong? You cower like a frightened child. Is there a problem, girl?"

"No," she said again.

It was the wrong answer. The muscles in Shalen's neck tightened like cords. "Is that so?" he asked, yanking her behind the cover of the trees. "You weren't even going to mention the new addition to the Imp camp?"

"What addition?"

He struck her on the face. It wasn't a strong blow, but it was enough to knock her to the ground.

Osa streaked toward Shalen's eyes, making him stumble back. He waved his hands, like a man trying to swat an insect. Osa's string flicked out of reach as she dove again. Don't touch her, you walking pile of—

Osa, no! The kite hesitated, and in that instant, Shalen caught her line.

Get your greasy hands off me! Osa struggled, but Shalen's thick fingers dragged Osa closer.

"Captain Shalen, please," Nial said. Tears of pain and fear filled her eyes. She could imagine Shalen crushing the fragile spars in his hands and tearing the old material into scraps. "I need Osa. She helps me control the kites. She helps me sense the winds. Please."

She held her breath, hoping he would believe her lies. She hated herself for begging, but she couldn't let him destroy Osa. With Lin trapped in his tent, the little kite was the only friend she had in the camp. Maybe in the world.

Shalen flung the kite away. Osa swooped along the ground and hid behind Nial.

"Keep the toy, if it serves you. I wouldn't want to deprive you of your resources. Especially with Edo's arrival at the Imp outpost."

"Edo. The Kitemaster?"

"The Emperor's Kitemaster," he said. "Only a handful of people have your gift, girl. The Emperor commands four. Three are scattered along the borders. The fourth, Edo, lives at the palace. Once the Emperor heard the rumors, it was only a matter of time before he sent his beloved Edo to handle the situation." He smiled. "And you're going to help us kill him."

* * *

For several days, Nial was kept under guard as Shalen flew scout after scout. He and his linemen flew them without her assistance, and one after another they tumbled into the trees. Sometimes she heard the men cursing and crying out as they fell, knocked down by Edo's power. Some never even made it off the launch point, dropping like the air had been sucked from beneath them.

Even within her tent, Nial could feel Edo's touch, reaching across the valley to tangle lines and drag scouts from the sky. He did it effortlessly, with a skill Nial envied. The slightest touch, and the rebel kites fell like stones.

Nial, what's Shalen doing?

I don't know. I didn't realize he had so many kites. This must be costing the rebels a fortune.

Have you heard the men? They know you're not helping, and they're not happy.

Nial nodded. She had overheard the muttering. Still, nobody dared disobey Captain Shalen.

Where is he getting the men? Nial wondered. The camp held two-hundred rebels at the most.

He's reusing them. Most crash so quickly they escape without injury, and Shalen flings them right back in the air. I hope Edo starts crashing those kites into Shalen's ugly nose.

Maybe I should talk to him again, Nial thought. Offer to—

Why, so he can laugh at you?

The day before, Nial had gone to Shalen, offering to help with the scouts. Not out of any desire to help, but because she wanted to earn another visit with Lin. Shalen had smiled that broken-toothed smile and ordered her back to the tent.

She thought of her last conversation with Lin. He's waiting for something. She wished she could figure out what it was.

* * *

Rebel soldiers woke her early that morning. Dew from the brush and scrub dampened her legs as she followed them to the observation post. Captain Shalen and several guards stood waiting.

"It's time," Shalen said. He tossed a long, leather satchel to one of the soldiers who had escorted Nial. The soldier untied the end and handed out five black-rolled bundles.

"These are the men you will fly into the Imp camp," Shalen said. "Once they're ready, launch them across the valley. Forget stealth. Forget style. Speed is your only concern."

Osa fluttered overhead, echoing Nial's surprise. "All five at once?"

"That's right." A hungry grin dominated Shalen's face. "Edo hasn't slept in three days. Even if he hasn't collapsed in exhaustion, he'll be too drained to stop five nightwings. All you need to do is get them into the outpost."

Nial swallowed her protests and turned to study the assassins. Superstitious fear made her shiver. Guild assassins were trained to kill quickly and silently, using any available means. Their bodies were weapons, as effective as any blade.

I don't think so, Osa said. The one on the end is the same one who got drunk last week and stumbled into the privy trench. Remember?

So? Nial asked.

The kite looped a tight, impatient circle. You think a trained assassin would walk around with one boot covered in dung? It messes up the whole "inconspicuous" bit.

Osa was right. Nial stared at the nearest "assassin," a young man with weary brown eyes. He had already looped ribbons of black silk around his wrists. He flexed his shoulders, testing the nightwing's fit. He looked tired and afraid. Hardly the look of a hardened killer.

The nightwing kite was a simple black diamond of dull silk. The men themselves would provide the spars. In the air, they kept their arms outstretched and their bodies rigid. A thin black line provided a symbolic connection to the earth. So long as that line remained, the nightwing was a true kite, and a true Kitemaster should be able to keep it aloft. Nial bit her lip, wondering if she'd even have the strength to get them off the ground.

Osa giggled. A false Kitemaster, false you'll tell me Shalen's actually a flatulent boar who learned to walk upright.

"Fly them low," Shalen said. "Close to the treetops. Try to keep the Imps from spotting the nightwings. Edo will have less time to stop you, and he'll have to push himself even harder." He sneered. "He is a loyal subject of the Emperor. He'd die before letting a single rebel nightwing into the camp. Do you know what that means?"

Nial took a step back at the sudden challenge. "I'm not sure."

"If a single nightwing makes it, Edo is unconscious, or even dead."

Suddenly things began to make sense. Shalen didn't plan to assassinate Edo. He meant to use Nial to drain Edo's strength.

But what would that accomplish, and why go to such lengths? There had to be more to Shalen's plan.

Are you sure? Osa asked. Shalen doesn't strike me as the cunning type.

Nial shook her head. Someone had to pay for all of those scout kites. They wouldn't have invested so much just to inconvenience the Emperor's Kitemaster.

"You know your duty," Shalen snapped.

Nial jumped. The five men had already climbed onto the observation platform and now stood ready, their arms outstretched. Long coils of line sat on the ground beside them.


Nial glimpsed fear and resignation on the lead rebel, and then he was leaping from the platform. Nial barely caught him, imagining a powerful updraft lifting him above the treetops.

The second man followed, and then the third. Seconds later, all five were in the air, gliding down the valley.

Nial couldn't breathe. It was like all five men were pressing down on her body, grinding her bones against the earth. She cried out, and the rightmost nightwing spun away, crashing roughly into a treetop.

"Concentrate," Shalen said. He slapped the back of her head.

Like that's going to help me concentrate. From the corner of her eye, she saw Shalen cut the line of the fallen kite.

Tension made the remaining four lines quiver. Other rebels held the lines, feeding out more and more as the wind carried the nightwings deeper into the valley.

They were almost to the bottom when Edo responded. Before she could react, one of the nightwings fluttered downward. No matter what Nial did, she couldn't control it. It was like Edo had created a bubble of stillness around the kite.

"Let it go," Shalen said. "You still have three kites. Fly them. Keep Edo on the defensive."

Nial blinked. He was right. She was doing it. Three nightwings at once! Excitement bubbled through her chest, but passed quickly as the kites reached the bottom of the valley and began to climb.

Regaining lost height was harder, and the effort sobered her. Nial dropped to her knees, gritting her teeth as she fought to fly the kites uphill, skimming the trees.

She pitied the soldiers strapped to the nightwings, helpless and unable to see what was happening. All flew facing backward, the strings tugging their chests as her winds carried them higher.

They've got it easy, Osa said. You're the one doing the work.

She sensed Edo reaching for another kite. Instinctively, she stilled the air, allowing all three kites to dive before scooping them up and pushing them onward.

It worked. At least, it was several seconds before Edo recovered, and she managed to gain a bit more ground. But now Edo was ready, and when she repeated the trick, he warped the line itself, tangling it into the tip of a pine tree. The nightwing dropped gently into the branches and hung there, leaving the soldier flailing helplessly.

Nial was over halfway up the far side.

"Our Kitemaster is strong!" Shalen pronounced. "She will succeed."

She heard others muttering in agreement, and wondered if any of them heard the unspoken "or else" in Shalen's words. Osa's line gave Nial's arm a comforting squeeze.

Edo sent his winds to buffet both kites, choosing brute force over the subtlety of his earlier attacks.

"You can destroy him," Shalen said.

The lust in his voice sickened her, but she pushed those feelings aside. Even after three days, Edo was still stronger. She crouched, knees bent as she braced herself against the winds.

If he's stronger, stop fighting him head-on! Osa fluttered sideways, cutting through the air like a blade.

Thank you! Nial turned the kites sideways, mimicking Osa's movements. Before the nightwings could fall, she flipped them in the opposite direction, zig-zagging closer to the Imperial outpost. The rebel on the nearer nightwing doubled over as the chaotic ride cost him his lunch. His motion bent the kite itself, wrenching it free of Nial's control. Edo pounced before Nial could recover, dragging the nightwing softly to the ground.

But the final nightwing had reached the ridge atop the far side of the valley. Edo made one last effort, but his winds were weaker than before. Edo was nearly spent.

"They're shooting at our scout," Shalen commented. He could have been remarking on last night's dinner.

Nial couldn't see the arrows, but she heard the occasional thud as they buried themselves in the earth. Nightwings were meant for stealth, but thanks to Edo's presence, the entire outpost knew what was coming. Orange streaks colored the sky as the Imperials began shooting flaming arrows, hoping to burn the kite out of the sky.

Edo couldn't stop her, but the rebel strapped to that kite was still doomed.

Nial...Edo could have stopped you, Osa said. She sounded uncharacteristically serious. It took a moment for Nial to understand why.

You're right. All four downed soldiers still lived. Edo had wasted his own strength to save them. Nial hesitated, floating the nightwing a bit higher. "Captain, the archers..."

"You know your duty. Force Edo to respond, if he still can."

Nial wanted to weep. If Edo hadn't weakened himself, the rebel on the nightwing might have survived. Instead, he would die, and the nightwing would become his spirit-kite.

Don't blame yourself, Osa said. It's not your fault.

I can't just let him die.

Fists clenched, Nial allowed the nightwing to glide lower. It touched down amidst the scrub, well short of the Imperial outpost.

She turned to face Captain Shalen, bracing herself. "I'm sorry. Edo...he was too strong."

Shalen didn't appear angry. "So, the old man still has some life left in him." He glowered as one of the false-assassins limped past, carrying the ruined remains of a nightwing.

Shalen shook his head. His satisfied look made her think of a cat after a good meal. "Your mistake was saving the ones who fell. Let them die, and concentrate your strength on the survivors."

Nial said nothing. He thinks I saved the soldiers.

"Thinks" is a bit generous, wouldn't you say? Osa asked innocently.

With a laugh, Shalen continued. "Still, you did well enough. I had my men launch a scout from the far side of the camp several minutes ago, and he flies without interference. Edo is unconscious. Possibly dead."

"No..." The word slipped out before Nial could stop it. Osa's string tightened around Nial's arm, a not-so-subtle warning.

"What's that?"

Nial blinked. The fear had hit so suddenly, stronger than anything she had felt since her father's death. "I...I don't think he's dead. I think I would have known." She searched her feelings, recognizing it as the truth. Edo had chosen to let go at the end, when Nial saved the scout.

Shalen studied her closely, then shrugged. "It doesn't matter. He's no longer a threat. Even if he lives, he'll need several days to recover. That's all that matters."

"What do you mean?" Nial said. "The assassins failed. I failed."

"Of course you did," Shalen snapped. "Stupid girl. Edo's death would have been a gift, but what do we care about one old man?" He grabbed her by the neck of the robe, no longer bothering to hide his contempt. She heard the other rebels whispering. "Who is the tyrant keeping us in chains?"

You are, Nial thought bitterly. But she gave the answer he wanted. "The Emperor."

"That's right. And you're going to help us put his brother on the golden throne."

She thought of the Emperor's palace, a day's ride through the mountains. "We're going to the capital?"

Shalen began to walk, leading her past the observation post to a pile of broken rock and boulders. The dusty smell of seed and droppings told Nial what was hidden here. Cages of wood and wire sat stacked behind the rocks. Pigeons fluttered their wings as Shalen approached. Their beaks opened, but no sound emerged.

Looking closer, Nial saw tiny pink scars on their necks, and realized their vocal cords had been cut to keep them silent.

A spindle-armed woman stood beside the cages. At Shalen's curt nod, she opened a pot of blue dye and set it on the ground. Reaching into one of the cages, she snagged a pigeon and dipped its tailfeathers into the pot. She held it close, cooing softly and blowing on the birds feathers while the watery dye dried.

Nial, what's going on? Osa asked.

"I don't understand," Nial said.

"It's a signal for the rebels hidden in the hills to the east. It tells of our success, and orders the men to prepare for the arrival of our Kitemaster."

"So we are going to the capital," Nial said.

Shalen shook with laughter. "I said a Kitemaster, girl. A real one. Not some useless commoner from the villages."

He began to pace, glancing at the birds to check whether the blue-dyed pigeon was ready for flight. The old woman shook her head.

"When the Emperor's brother heard about you, he devised the plan himself," Shalen said. "We already had a Kitemaster, but he wanted to wait for the right time to use him. Already the rumors were spreading. The Emperor knew about our Kitemaster, and he feared us. So we used you, dangling you like a worm before the Emperor's nose. The fool sent Edo running here to deal with you, leaving the palace unprotected.

"If we were to march on the capital in force, the Emperor's army would overwhelm us. But he thinks he has our Kitemaster trapped here. He won't expect nightwings to approach from the east. Thanks to you, this war will be over within days."

Shalen watched as the old woman released the pigeon and grabbed a second. Shalen waved his hand, and two soldiers grabbed Nial's arms.

"Don't worry, girl. I'm sure our new Emperor will be happy to repay your services once he takes his place on the throne."

* * *

Osa buzzed around Nial's head like an angry wasp, drawing nervous glances from the two men escorting her back to her tent.

"I want to see my brother first," she said.

One guard shook his head. "Captain Shalen's orders. I'm sorry."

Nial looked back. In the pink-orange light of the rising sun, she could just make out the gray speck that was the second pigeon.

It's my fault, Nial said. I let him use me. I wasn't strong enough to—

Do you think the self-pity could wait? Osa interrupted. If we're going to do something, it has to be soon. Those birds are fast. They'll reach the other camp by sundown.

Yes, they're fast. Fast for birds, at least. An idea began to form. But what about Lin?

Her father had asked her to watch over her brother. If she fought back, she would put them both at risk.

You heard your brother, Osa said. This is destroying him.

I can't leave him here.

So don't.

Slowly, Nial nodded. I can't do this alone. You know what I need?

Child's play.

"Go," Nial whispered.

Osa's string slid free of Nial's arm so fast it burned, and then the little kite was darting through the air like an arrow.

One of the rebels tugged Nial around. "What's it doing?"

Nial ignored him and concentrated. An instant later, several battered kites exploded from the observation post. The first one crashed into the rebel's back, wood splintering from the impact. He dropped, barely conscious.

Her second guard ducked a silver signal kite. Nial caused the line to loop round his legs, yanking him to the ground. And then she was sprinting toward Lin's tent, praying she got there before the rebels figured out what was happening.

* * *

Several rebels rose as she neared Lin's tent. She summoned more kites, sending them ahead to clear the way. These men hadn't heard Shalen's words. They hesitated to fight back against Shalen's "precious Kitemaster."

Nial didn't hesitate. Her kites smashed themselves apart as they bludgeoned rebels out of her way. By the time she reached the tent, the rebels had all fallen or fled.

"Lin!" She ducked into the tent and hauled her brother to his feet. "We have to go."

"What happened?" Barefoot, he followed her outside, where he stopped in shock. Torn kites lay scattered about. Nial could hear Captain Shalen's angry shouts, and she saw rebels regrouping by the observation post. "Nial, did you do this?"

"Come on," Nial shouted. She called more kites, slowing their pursuers. She smiled grimly. If not for Shalen, she wouldn't have known she could command this many kites at once.

Confusion reigned as they raced for the edge of camp, dodging more rebels. Behind, Shalen's men were beginning to gain on them. A few others had stayed at the observation post, shredding the remaining kites to stop her from using them as weapons.

Nial seized one of the scout kites, lifting it free before they could damage it.

She studied the kite as it neared. One edge was torn, and the bridles were tangled, but it was otherwise intact. "Get in," she said.


The kite's line had snapped. She had maybe two hundred feet, but that was enough to drop Lin down the valley. It would give him a head start on his pursuers, who would have to climb down the treacherous slope.

Lin didn't move. "I know what you're thinking, and I won't do it. Both of us or neither one. We're small. The kite can support us both."

"But I can't fly it!" She called the kite around so it bumped Lin from behind. "Shalen was right. I'm no Kitemaster. I need an anchor for the line. If I try to fly us both, we'll probably crash."

So you crash. Better than sticking around here!


The little kite clutched several blue-tipped feathers in her line. Those poor birds will have nightmares for years, she said, giggling. They won't be flying anytime soon, though. Hard to steer without tailfeathers.

Osa, I can't do it, Nial protested. Maybe Edo can fly without an anchorman, but I'm no Kitemaster.

Excuse me? Osa asked indignantly. You're my master, and last I checked, I was a kite. Besides, what do you have to lose?

Nial whispered a quick prayer to her father and mother, then slipped one arm through the leather ties of the scout kite. They seemed to tighten on their own, pressing her elbow against the bamboo spar.

Already the wind threatened to pull her off balance. She called a broken kite from the branches and sent it hold off the approaching rebels. "Lin, tie my ankles, then wrap the waist strap around us both. You'll need to hold on to me."

Lin obeyed, pulling the ties so tight it hurt. He stepped onto her feet as he knotted the last tie around his waist. He stretched out, grabbing the horizontal spar with both hands.

" do we do this?" he asked.

Nial pushed onto her toes and imagined a gentle wind raising them from the ground. The kite lifted a few inches, then veered to one side, toward a low, twisted pine.

Osa, grab the other end!

Osa's string twined with the line of the scout kite, and she tugged back with all of her strength, providing enough of an anchor for Nial to control her flight. The kite rose higher.

"Stop!" Captain Shalen held a cocked crossbow in his hands. He was breathing hard, but his mouth twisted into a triumphant smile. "It was a nice try, girl. But I can't have you running off to warn the Imps."

He still thinks his birds got through, Osa said, a nasty edge to her voice. Won't he be surprised?

"I don't mind shooting children," Shalen warned. "It's your choice. Surrender and live, or find out what it feels like to take a crossbow bolt in the belly."

Osa vibrated her line, producing a rude noise.

Nial found herself thinking of Edo, who had risked his own life to save rebel soldiers.

"Come down," Shalen said. "I wager we can still find a use for you."

"No," she said softly. She twisted her head to see the agreement in Lin's eyes. "We're through being used."

"Suit yourself." Shalen fired.

Osa's string sliced through the air, knocking the bolt aside. Weren't expecting that, were you? Osa crowed. She flew in tight circles, her own triumphant dance. So much for the rebel Captain and his big, bad crossbow!

Nial's kite began to fall. Osa!

Whoops! Osa caught the line and tugged, helping them fly once again. Sorry about that.

They flew higher, moving as fast as Nial could push them. Another bolt shot past her legs. Lin buried his face in her shoulder, but Nial felt nothing but joy. After launching so many scouts for Shalen, finally she got to experience it herself. She was flying!

Concentrate, Osa snapped.

Nial nodded, fighting to create another updraft. She was upside down now, her arms spread like wings as she stared down at the valley. The leather ties cut harshly into her ankles and wrists.

The kite shuddered and dipped to the side. Nial saw a small hole in the material. Shalen was still shooting, and it was hard to control the damaged kite.

"I can't keep us up here much longer." Already she could see Shalen's men hiking downhill, hoping to intercept them when they crashed. She closed her eyes. Osa, I need your help.

What do you think I've been doing?

Not that. She explained as quickly as she could.

You're crazy!

Do you have a better idea?

Grumbling, Osa released her hold on the kite and shot away. Without the tension Osa provided, the scout kite was like a boat adrift in a typhoon. Lin groaned as they twisted and jerked from side to side. It took all of Nial's strength to keep from dropping.

"What are you doing?" Lin yelled.

"Just hold on," she snapped. "We're not going back."

Nial struggled to control the kite. They kept listing to one side, and it was hard to balance the winds. They were probably out of crossbow range, but what good did that do if they crashed to their death?

The kite's wooden frame creaked with the strain. They slipped a good ten feet before Nial managed to create a new wind. That sent them twisting head over heels toward the other side of the valley.

Lin's hands slipped free. He flailed about until he managed to regain his grip on the main spar. The tie around his waist kept him from falling, but he still gasped like a child after a nightmare.

"Hold on," Nial said. "A little longer." She tried not to think about what would happen if Osa failed.

They dropped again. She glimpsed Shalen standing with his hands on his hips as he watched them fall. Anger gave her a brief burst of strength, and she managed to lift them a bit higher. Then the hole in the kite ripped, becoming a gash. A triangle of material flapped like a flag.

Nial fought to control the fall, pushing them farther from the rebels. If she was going to crash, she was going to do it as far from Shalen as she could.

Did you miss me? Osa snagged the line, doing her best to steady the dying scout kite. The choppiness diminished slightly. Then a second wind began, like a cushion rising beneath their feet.

"What's happening?" Lin said. Sweat covered his pale face.

"Edo. Osa was able to rouse him." Nial grinned. "She can be more than a little obnoxious. It's impossible to sleep through."

Is that any way to talk about the kite who just saved your life?

She could sense Edo's weariness. The extra breeze was weak and unsteady, but she could feel him fighting to save her, the same as he had done with the rebel scouts. It wasn't much, but it was enough.

The kite began to rise, pulling them toward the Imperial outpost. Toward safety. Her stomach tightened at the thought.

"How did you know Edo would even be able to hear her?" Lin asked.

"He's a Kitemaster," Nial said. Bound to the kite, she couldn't see where she was going. She had to trust Edo to lead them into the camp. Nial watched as Captain Shalen and the rebels began to shrink from the distance. "Like me."


Author's Note: This story, along with "Gift of the Kites," came about due to a single line in a Robert Zelazny book. One of Zelazny's characters flew fighting kites for a hobby. It felt like a throwaway line, and I was disappointed that we didn't get to see more. So I started researching kites...

Around that same time, Julie Czerneda invited me to write a story for her anthology Fantastic Companions. I knew she probably wouldn't want a lot of overlap in the companions, so I looked for something unique. Thus was born Osa, a tiny kite with attitude.

I learned that historically, kites had been used for measuring wind, sending messages and signals, and even lifting men into the air to scout the terrain. Once I had Osa and those details, the rest of the story came together fairly quickly.

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