Jo Walton's first two novels,The King's Peace and The King's Name, earned her widespread praise and moved her to the front rank of contemporary fantasists. Now she returns with a powerful epic set in the same world.The Prize in the Game is the tale of the intertwined fates of four friends, destined for kingship but riven by rivalry and war. Gods stalk the island of Tir Isarnagiri, laying subtle and inescapable dooms upon the feuding kingdoms there. And to those gods, the cares of men and women are less than nothing--but still men and women strive to defy their fates and build destinies of their own.When a friendly competition leads to the death of a beloved horse and incurs the wrath of the Horse Goddess, the stage is set for a deadly game of politics, love, and betrayal. And as the goddess's curse chases them down the years, Conal, Emer, Darag, and Ferdia will find that ties of friendship, and even love, may not be enough to prevent their respective countries from attacking each other in a war that will devastate the island.The Prize in the Game takes us to a shining era of dark powers, legendary heroes, and passionate loves--all of them ruled by the hand of Fate. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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May 01, 2004
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Excerpt from The Prize in the Game by Jo Walton
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 herself, 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 mybrother 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 Conary," 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 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 flowerapart 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 ten and seventeen. He would have begged his uncle not to invite them if he had guessed how disruptive rivalry for a beautiful 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 grandfatheraway 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."
Conal grinned at her behind Inis's back. That was the way to ask Inis questions if you wanted information out of him. Conal hadn't taken much notice of Emer before. She was a year younger than the rest of them, only sixteen. She'd just gone through a growing spurt and seemed all eyes and legs. She hadn't caused disruption among the rest of them the way her sister had. He'd been concentrating on Elenn, and Darag, of course. But now it seemed that unlike her beautiful sister, Emer had more wit than hair.
"Some events have such weight that they cannot be changed," Inis said. "Most times we are free to choose, and if folk choose the same in other worlds, it is because they are much the same folk and so choice arises. But some things touch the way the worlds are held together and with them, it feels like choice but is not."
Conal frowned, wishing this riddle made sense. Emer drew breath to speak, let it out, drew it in again. "I don't think I can tell the difference between those events and any others," she said.
Inis laughed, the laugh Conal's mother Finca called his cracked cackle. Elenn and the others ahead turned to look,but Conal gestured them on and they started walking again.
"If I cannot tell after all these years of looking across the worlds, then how can you hope to, child?" he asked. "Being able to tell is part of what an oracle-priest must know. I cannot tell until afterwards, and that is only the second such time in my life."
"It would be very interesting to know the other time," Conal said.
Inis grinned at him, looking almost like any old man, except for the way his head was shaved in the front and the brightly colored shawl that would have marked him as an oracle-priest however sane he seemed. "It was when I got Conary on King Nessa," he said.
It was such an ancient scandal, from so long before Conal was born, that he was surprised to see Emer look shocked. Maybe it wasn't well known in Connat. Conal's parents didn't like to talk about it, but all the same, he had known since he was five years old.
"If only two events in all your length of life have been of such stature as to hold across all the worlds, then maybe there will be none in mine," Emer said.
"Such are lucky folk," Inis said. "And such are most folk, truth told. But I do not think either of you are so lucky."
"I know better than to ask," Conal said, looking ahead through the trees to where Elenn inclined towards Leary. They were holding hands. Nid had gone a little way ahead. "You know, Grandfather, though my mind is quick for the branches of learning, and though I love you, I hate learning from you. I have always learned songs and figuring fast enough, but this Oak Knowledge of learning to read luck and the way of other worlds makes my skin crawl. I don't even like thinking about it."
"You know the story of Curog the Oracle-priest?" Inis asked. "He prophesied that a certain lady would win the love of a certain lord. When the lord died, the lady came to himand reproached him for being wrong, for he had never loved her. Then Curog said that in the worlds he could see, where he had not spoken, she had acted to win his love and won it, but in our world, she had been sure she would win it without acting, and so nothing came of it."
Inis said no more. Conal glanced at Emer, who was frowning at nothing. They walked in silence for a while. Conal started running through arguments he would make to Conary. It was hideously unfair to let Darag and Ferdia take up arms early and on a fortunate day, and not the rest of them. But Conary always favored Darag of all his nephews. There were good reasons for that, of course. Though Conal was good, Darag was better. But Conal was sure that if he put in more effort, more time practicing, building up his strength, he would eventually catch up and even overtake Darag. Being strong and fast as a boy was nothing, what counted was when you were men. Even his father said so. If Darag had taken up arms today, then Conal would do the same, that's all there was to it. Anything else was unthinkable.
When they came out of the orchard, Elenn, Leary, and Nid were waiting for them at the foot of the mound. Nid was swinging on the gate. The bottom palisade was no ring of sharpened stakes but a tall fence of strong bog-oak, the oak that could break an iron ax. No enemies had ever breached it. No enemies were expected today however, which was fortunate as there was nobody guarding the lower gate.
"We thought we'd wait for you slowpokes," Leary said, sticking out his tongue at Conal. Conal smiled as if amused at how childish boys of seventeen could be, hiding all the pain. Leary had been his friend. They had always practiced together, each of them hoping to become as good as Darag. Now Leary hardly spoke to him except to jibe.
"It is unkind to mock my old bones, Grandson," Inis saidsharply. Leary jumped. He was used to the old man not paying any attention. Conal kept his face still, to show nothing.
Inis let go of Conal's arm, and then, a moment later, Emer's. He led a brisk pace past the stables and up the hill towards the dun. Here, where Conal would have guessed he'd want support, he decided to do without it. The rest of them followed him in a straggle, Conal first, quickening his pace, and Emer beside him. "I didn't know Leary was ap Fathag's grandson as well," Emer said quietly.
"You're getting really good at not asking questions," Conal said and smiled at her. This time, she smiled back, shyly, not at all like her sister. "But it's all right to ask me. Inis had four children. My mother, Leary's mother and Darag's mother by his wife, and Conary by King Nessa as he just told us."
"I had heard before," Emer said even more quietly. "Do you think he told us that last story to stop us asking questions?"
"Yes," Conal said. "Or maybe to tell us he isn't infallible, or that oracle-talent isn't infallible. He hates being asked questions. He can't help but look then, and he prefers to look in his own time."
"Can you see across the worlds?" Emer murmured. Conal had to lean close to hear her.
"Of course not!" he said quickly, surprised she would ask. "I'm not an oracle-priest, and you must have heard me saying just now how I hate to think about those things."
"That's what made me wonder whether you could," she said.
"Can you?" he asked.
Emer shook her head. "Sometimes when I talk to ap Fathag, or to ap Fial at home, I can almost see how to do it. They say I could learn. But I don't want to. Like you, I'd rather not know what might happen already. You know whatap Fathag said when I asked him whether I really would marry Darag the way my mother wants?"
"Your mother might want it, but it will be up to Conary just as much," Conal said.
"I know," Emer said. "I don't want to. He's in love with Elenn."
"Marriage is nothing to do with love," Conal said.
"I know that, too," Emer said. "But anyway, when I asked your grandfather, he said 'Often enough you do.' That's just so horrible. Even if I don't, even if I manage to get out of it, often enough other ones of me didn't and have to marry him. Ugh. I'd much rather not know that."
Inis was at the top gates, speaking to the guard, and they were almost on him. Conal was intrigued enough to stop. "Ugh? You don't like Darag?"
"He's horrible. I hate him," Emer said in a whisper. Then she went on, almost running to catch up with Inis. Conal followed more slowly, trying to smooth out the frown that wanted to come down between his eyes.