I felt as if I balanced on a high wire, trying not to fall. Could I watch for trouble and have fun at the same time? I didn’t know, but was determined to try.
“Which competition would you have entered?” Rand asked.
Before I could answer, he waved his hands in front of me. “No! Don’t tell me! I want to guess.”
I smiled. “Go ahead.”
“Let’s see. Small, thin and graceful. A dancer?”
“Okay. You remind me of a pretty bird, willing to sit on the windowsill as long as nobody comes too close, but prepared to fly away if somebody does. A songbird. Perhaps you’re a singer?”
“You’ve obviously never heard me sing. Are all your guesses going to come with a lengthy discussion of my personality?” I asked.
“No. Now be quiet, I’m trying to think.”
The glow from the festival was growing brighter. I heard the distant buzz of music, animals and people blended together.
“Long, thin fingers. Maybe you’re a member of a spinning team?” Rand guessed.
“What’s a spinning team?”
“Usually there’s one shearer, one carder, one spinner and one weaver in a team. You know, sheep to shawl. The teams race to see who can shear a sheep’s wool and turn it into a garment first. It’s pretty amazing to watch.” Rand studied me for a while. I began to wonder if he had run out of guesses.
“Do you really think I could afford to buy a racehorse?” I asked in amazement. Only the very wealthy citizens had horses to race for sport. The military used horses for the transportation of high-ranking officers and advisers only. Everyone else walked.
“People who own racehorses don’t ride them. They hire jockeys. And you’re the perfect size, so stop looking at me like I’m daft.”
As we arrived at the first of the massive multicolored tents, our conversation ceased as we absorbed the frenzied activity and panoramic sights that assaulted us. When I was younger, I used to stand amid the chaos and feast on the energy of the fire festival. I had always thought the name of the festival was perfect, not because it occurred during the hot season, but because the sounds and smells pulsated like heat waves, making my blood sizzle and pop. Now, after spending close to a year in a dungeon, I felt the force slamming into me as though I were a brick wall. A wall whose mortar threatened to crumble from the overload of sensations.
Torches blazed and bonfires burned. We walked into a slice of captured daylight. The performance and competition tents were scattered throughout the festival, with small open stands tucked in and around them like children clinging to their mothers’ skirts. From exotic gems to flyswatters, the merchants sold an array of goods. The aroma of food cooking made my stomach grumble as we passed several barbecue pits, and I regretted having skipped dinner in my haste to get here.
Entertainers, contestants, spectators and laughing children ebbed and flowed around us. Sometimes the press of people hurried us along from behind and sometimes we struggled to go forward. We had lost track of the others. If he hadn’t linked his arm in mine, I probably would have been separated from Rand as well. Distractions peppered the festival. I would have followed the lively music to its source or lingered to watch a skit, but Rand was determined to see the results of the baking contest.
As we moved, I examined faces in the crowd, searching for green-and-black uniforms even though Valek had said Brazell wouldn’t be a threat. I thought it prudent to avoid him and his guards altogether. Unsure of who I was looking for, I watched for unusual faces. It was the wrong way to detect a tail. Valek had taught me that the best agents were unremarkable in appearance and didn’t draw attention to themselves. But I figured if a skilled spy followed me, my chances of spotting him or her was small.
We met up with Porter and Liza in a small tent filled with a sweet aroma that made my stomach ache with hunger. They were talking to a large man in a cook’s uniform, but they stopped when we entered. Surrounding Rand, they congratulated him on his first-place win. The heavy man declared that Rand had broken a festival record by winning five years in a row.
While Rand examined the array of baked goods lining the shelves, I asked the man who had won in Military District 5. I was curious if Brazell’s cook had won with his Criollo recipe. The man’s brow creased with concentration, causing his short, curly black hair to touch his thick eyebrows.
“Bronda won it with a heavenly lemon pie. Why?”
“I thought General Brazell’s chef, Ving, might win. I used to work at the manor.”
“Well, Ving won two years ago with some cream pie and now he enters the same pie each year, hoping it’ll win again.”
I thought it odd that he hadn’t entered his Criollo, but before I could deduce a reason, Rand jubilantly swept us out of the tent. He wanted to buy everyone a glass of wine to celebrate his victory.
We sipped our wine and wandered around the festival. Sammy materialized on occasion from the crowd to report some wonder with great delight, only to rush off again.
Twice I spotted a woman with a serious expression. Her black hair was pulled into a tight bun. Wearing the uniform of a hawk mistress, she moved with the grace of someone used to physical exercise. The second time I saw her she was much closer, and I made eye contact. Her almond-shaped, emerald eyes narrowed, staring boldly back at me until I looked away. There was something familiar about her, and it was some time before I figured it out.