The Flaming Phantom

I growled through the gag on my mouth, straining against the ropes chafing my wrists and scratching my arm on the bark of the tree I’d been propped against. My aching jaw only added to my bad mood. Beside me, Hale had on a long-suffering look that said only too clearly it was my own fault that I got boxed in the face by a Green. Maybe I shouldn’t have called him a puddle of poodle puke, but how else was I supposed to fight back when he had both my hands held tight in his monstrous one?

Huffing, I turned away from Hale. I should’ve just left him up the tree. Then I wouldn’t be in this mess.

At least Teek and the pegatiger hadn’t been recaptured. I’d worried that my vigilante pegapiglet would come swooping in and get caught in another net, but apparently her irrepressible sense of justice only extended to other pegas.

“I told you we shouldn’t have just left that kid in a net.” Bulldog spat on the ground and glared at Hale. “Let me take care of him the right way this time.”

“Are you stupid?” The Green smacked Bulldog in the shoulder, sending him stumbling sideways. “We go around killing kids and we’ll lose some of our highest paying customers.”

“No one will find a trace,” Bulldog said with a relish that made my stomach turn.

“And what about when his master comes looking for him?” the Green snapped. “Finch is already watching me. We need to come out the good guys in this story, and that means we’ve got to tell a good story.”

He went over to the cold remains of their campfire. Digging his hand into the ashes, he scattered a handful over me and Hale, then smeared a few dark gray streaks across our faces.

I wished I knew why Hale’s eyes went so wide and scared, or why the Green’s cronies laughed like they’d already won.

An hour later, Hale and I were trudging down the road I’d run on so quickly the day before. The four thugs surrounded us, Color-Clothes having woken up with a wicked headache that made him particularly spiteful. My shins were bruised and barked from his kicks.

A smoky smell hung heavy in the air as we drew nearer to the city. It made my throat burn and my eyes water, but with my hands tied and a gag in my mouth, I had no way to get away from it. Above the wooden stores and homes, a dark cloud spread across the sky. I began to have an inkling of what I was getting blamed for, and I didn’t like it at all.

“Perfect,” Ferret said gleefully. “Looks like the Flaming Phantom struck again last night.”

I glanced at Hale. Still gagged, he couldn’t give me any answers, and I couldn’t tell if the watery look in his eyes came from tears or smoke. He tracked the plumes of smoke in the sky down to their source, and his jaw tightened around the gag.

The town raged in chaos. People ran back and forth, some carrying water, some carrying news. I heard the words “barracks” and “food stores” traded between them. My stomach turned, and not just from the smoke.

“We caught them!” Bulldog roared, his words blending into the melee of shouts. “We have the phantom and her accomplice!”

At first, no one paid him any attention. Then his words sank into the harried crowds. One person took up his shout, then another and another. Before long, it seemed like the entire town was denouncing us as the Flaming Phantom, whoever that was.

We turned a corner, and the source of all the smoke came into view. A long, low building, obviously built to hold the local company of the king’s army, smoldered and glowed with fiery coals. Most of the roof had fallen in, and one of the walls was partially collapsed. Men and women ran back and forth with buckets of water. Steam hissed upward as they doused the remaining hot spots.

Directly ahead of us, a tall, trim man stood with hands behind his back as he spoke to a short and scrawny recruit. Color-Clothes stepped out in front of the rest of us. I got the feeling he fancied himself the leader, though I’d have put that role to the Green or Bulldog.

“Captain Finch!” Color-Clothes said dramatically. “We have found the arsonist!”

To my surprise, the tall, commanding-looking soldier stepped back with a neutral expression on his face, while the short, skinny boy in front of him turned toward us with his jaw working.

“I don’t have time for your theatrics right now, Gent,” the boy snapped. I couldn’t help staring. Captain Finch had to be only sixteen or seventeen, and barely taller than I was. Dark circles hung under his eyes. Ash coated his uniform. Light gray streaks stood out against his umber skin.

The Green stepped forward. “Then maybe you’ll have time for this.” He held out his hand. All I could see was that he held some sort of small trinket, a white, flat stone with a leather string threaded through a hole at the top.

Finch went the kind of still that happens on the edge of an explosion. His eyes flicked from the trinket to the Green’s face. “Is this a confession, Markel?”

“It’s not mine.” The Green—Markel—jerked his head my direction and spewed lies without blinking. “Found it around her neck. You’ve been saying it for days, Finch: the Phantom had to have a contact in the town. Who’d have thought it would turn out to be the healer’s boy?”

Hale stood pale and still, not even trying to defend himself. I jerked against my ropes. I couldn’t talk, but I did my best to make enough noise through my gag to get the boy captain’s attention. I shook my head hard, until Bulldog smacked me.

Finch walked over to us. Close up, he looked even more exhausted. “My men were nearly burned in their beds tonight,” he said, his voice gravelly with smoke and with anger. “I’m not going to let that go easily. Hale…” Finch sighed and looked away. “I wouldn’t believe it of you, except that Colormaster Freesia came to me yesterday. She said you’ve been sneaking out at night ever since the attacks began. She told me what you said when she confronted you.”

My gagged protests choked in my throat. I glanced sideways at Hale. He stared at Finch, a blank sort of horror in his face. No way—Hale? Sheepish, clumsy Hale? He couldn’t actually be involved in this. Before I could get over my shock, Finch barked an order at the soldier standing just behind him. “Take these two to the holding cell. I’ll question them later.”

3. Pegaprey

Teek flew straight up to the boy in the net. He poked an arm out through a hole, and Teek settled onto his palm, squealing happily. The boy—Hale—grinned delightedly.

“A pegapiglet! It’s so tiny and cute!”

His upbeat, squeaky voice contrasted so starkly to his bearlike build that I had to laugh. “How’d you get stuck in that trap?” I asked, walking to the foot of the tree where the net hung.

“I didn’t exactly get stuck. I mean, I am stuck, obviously, but it wasn’t my fault. Well, I guess it was my fault, but—”

“Cut to the chase.”

“Oh.” Hale cleared his throat. “I stole a pegatiger cub from some merchants. They got kind of mad about it.”

I paused. “So you deserve to be up there?”

“I don’t know. Maybe? From a certain point of view. They stole the pegatiger first, though, from a zoo out west. I heard them bragging about it while they were throwing peach pits at her.”

A burning sensation zinged down my spine. “They were throwing things at the cub?”

“And kicking it.”

My teeth clenched, hot anger circling through my veins. “They’re lucky you found them before I did. At least you got the pegatiger out before you got caught.”

Hale squirmed. “Well, I did, but they caught her again.” He offered an apologetic smile. “I’m not a very good thief.”

It took a fraction of a second for a plan to unfold in my head. I wasn’t about to let a gang of thieves get away with kicking around a helpless cub. Circling the tree, I stretched out my arms and cracked my knuckles. “Well, you’re in luck, Hale Up-A-Tree. You happen to be talking to a freshly minted Red named after an insect that can jump fifty times its body length. I’ll have you down in a second, and then we can go find that pegatiger cub.”

I bent my knees a couple times, trying not to wince at my tired muscles. Gathering my strength, I leaped up and caught a branch. My grip slipped a time or two as I hauled myself upward. Sloppy. Teacher Andu would have made me climb all afternoon if he’d seen it.

Sloppy or not, I made it to the branch holding Hale’s net. The branch swayed under me, but I had no trouble keeping my balance as I tugged my knife out to saw at the ropes. One rope snapped, then another.

“Actually,” Hale said timidly, “I’m not sure—”

The third rope snapped, dumping him out. Luckily, he hit a branch on the way down. If the branch hadn’t slowed him down, he probably would have broken both legs. I slapped a hand to my face, then shimmied down the tree to land next to him.

“Why weren’t you holding onto the net?” I reached down and hauled him off the ground. “You could’ve broken your neck!”

Hale groaned, rubbing his ribs where the branch had hit him. Teek landed at his feet and starting nuzzling his shins. “I didn’t think about that. Probably would’ve been a good idea.”

“No kidding.” A flash of color on his wrist caught my eye. “You’re a Pink? With three twists already? How old are you?”

Hale’s face turned the same color as his twists. “I turned fifteen last month. I’ve met some great Colormasters. And there’s always plenty of healing work to be done. Speaking of…” He pointed at me. “You look like someone who could use a day’s rest. What’d you do?”

Now it was my turn to redden. “I don’t know what I did. I’ve spent years building my endurance. One day on the road and I feel like an old lady.”

Hale nodded, a knowing smile on his face. “You traveled all day?”



“Well, yeah.”

“Did you give yourself a break now and again?”

I bristled. “A couple times for food. I’m a Red! I don’t need breaks! I’m a high-energy, constant motion machine!”

“Uh huh. I’m sure you’ve spent the whole day working out before, but have you ever spent a whole day just running?” He reached down and scooped up Teek. “Particularly with a full load of supplies and a pegapig on your back?”

I opened my mouth to protest. Nothing came out. Our daily workouts at the gym were carefully orchestrated to work every muscle in turn, not to work the same muscles for twenty hours straight. I felt like an idiot. “How’d you know?”

“You’re not the first new Red I’ve seen limping around. Did your parents really name you Flea?”

The jolting change of subject gave me whiplash. “What? No! That’s terrible! Why would you think that?”

“Well, you said…the whole insect thing…”

“Cricket! My name is Cricket!”

“Oh.” Hale hesitated, then added, “Crickets jump more like thirty times their body length.”

Seriously? “I’m starting to wonder whether I should’ve left you in that tree,” I growled.

With another sheepish grin, Hale gave Teek one last pat and tossed the pegapiglet back into the air. “I’ll make it up to you. Come on, I’ve got chilled snowdrop paste already made back in town. You’ll be back to running yourself into the dirt in no time.”

Teek settled himself into my pack. Shaking my head, I dug him back out. “You got a free ride all day yesterday,” I said, lifting him up to eye level. “Use your own wings now.”

Snorting, Teek took off. He flapped in lazy circles around our heads as we walked back to the road.

We hadn’t even made it to the road when Teek lost his feathered mind. Squealing madly, he zipped off into the trees.

“Teek!” My heart stopped. “Get back here, feather-brain!”

But Teek wasn’t listening. I charged after him, twigs and leaves whipping against my face. Leaping high, I snagged his hind hoof and pulled him down. He strained against my grip, squealing so loudly I almost didn’t hear the gruff voice from the trees ahead of us.

“Listen to that pitch! That’s another pega, boys.”

Cracking, shuffling sounds warned me that whoever had just spoken was headed our way. I clamped Teek’s snout shut, muffling his squeaks, and leaped into the nearest tree. From between the spring foliage, I saw three men pass beneath us. One was a scrawny, oily man who looked exactly like the ferret sitting on his shoulder. Another was short and thick as a bulldog, and the third was flat-out enormous. I caught a glimpse of green on his forearm. Great. A Green Master was strong enough to hurl an aspen across a field.

Teek squirmed desperately in my arms. I pinned his wings down. “Quiet down, you screwy swine! Do you want them to find you?”

He let out a squeal that would have certainly been heard, if Hale hadn’t chosen that moment to come crashing through the trees with all the subtlety of a concussed rhinoceros. He plowed into Bulldog, knocking him to the ground. I thought he’d done it on purpose, until he scrambled off the guy and started apologizing.

“Hey!” The Green grabbed Hale by the shoulders. Hale’s eyes went wide. “How’d you get out of that net?”

Great. Up to me to save Hale’s neck again. “Go create a distraction,” I whispered to Teek, turning him loose. His wings spread wide—and then he flew off in the opposite direction. Cursing the line of swine that had resulted in this stubborn little pegapiglet, I hung there in the tree, torn between chasing down this final gift from my parents and saving the hapless healer I’d stumbled across.

Hale was big enough to hold his own. I had to save Teek from these pega-thieves.

Grimacing at the pain in my sore legs, I leaped from my tree to the next. My jump nearly came up short. In my current sore state, I’d travel faster on the ground. I dropped to the ground, guiltily grateful that Hale kept the thugs distracted, and ran in the direction of Teek’s squeaks.

Teek’s squeals were joined by another sound, high and mewing. Great. Teek was trying to save the same pegatiger Hale had gotten trapped in a tree over. He was going to get us both in a scrape, and it would be that much longer before I got my first twist.

The tone of Teek’s squeals changed. High and fast, they went straight to my heart and set it racing. I sprinted through the trees. Something was wrong. I’d never heard Teek so scared before.

The thugs’ camp came into sight. I slowed, my eyes darting every which way for any sign of Teek. He wasn’t hard to find, not with all the noise he was making.

There! My blood boiled at the sight of his wings caught in a net, being dragged across the ground by a sneering fool in brightly colored clothes. Not far from them, I saw the tiny pegatiger cub cowering, her orange and black wings drawn up close to her face as if she were trying to hide. The thug with the net roared with coarse laughter, and the pegatiger flinched, taking to the air. She only made it up a couple of feet. A thick rope dragged her tiny paws back down to the ground, where she cowered with her wings over her eyes. The man kicked at her carelessly. The little cub skidded across the dirt, her cries tearing at my heart.

“Two pegas for the next market!” Color-Clothes reached into the net and drew Teek out roughly. “We’ll get a fine price for your little pink wings, piggy.”

He flicked her snout. My fury exploded. Scooping up a decent-sized rock, I slung it at the man’s head. The rock connected with a dull thunk that made me wonder if he’d even feel it through his thick skull. My answer came half a second later when he slumped to the ground with Teek still in his hand.

I sprinted into the campsite and kicked the meathead’s grubby hand off my pegapiglet. Teek leaped into the air, flapping around my head so enthusiastically that I could barely see anything but a pinkish-gray blur.

“All right, all right.” I grinned and reached out to pluck Teek out of the air, extra gently. “Let’s take care of our friend, here.”

The pegatiger cub shied away as we drew near. She was bigger than Teek, but still small for a tiger cub.

“Hold still, buddy.” I reached for the rope slowly to keep from startling the already-terrified cub. “We’ll get you free in just a second.”

Pulling my knife from my belt, I sawed through the rope as close to the cub’s foot as I dared. The cub stared at me, wide-eyed, as if she weren’t entirely sure what to do next. Teek pushed at her with his snout, poking the pegatiger’s wings until she spread them out and took a hesitant flap.

The cub’s green eyes lit up. She launched into the air, disappearing into the treetops with Teek right behind her. I could hear them playing above the branches, squeals and mewing rolling together high above me. I grinned upward. I’d saved Hale, Teek, and the pegatiger. Not bad for a brand-new Red.

A bony hand grabbed my shoulder and jerked me around. Shoving the hand away, I leaped back—right into Bulldog. He twisted my arms behind me. Ahead, the Green held Hale, bound and gagged, with a grip that looked like it could crush the boy’s collarbone. Ferret-Man stood beside them, his gaze darting from me to his unconscious buddy to the cut rope. His eyes narrowed to slits.

“We don’t take kindly to thieves around here,” he snarled. The Green tossed Hale to the ground like a stuffed teddy bear, and the three of them closed in around me. “Particularly snot-nosed girls who’ve already gotten between us and revenge.”

2. Up a Tree

Once the graduation celebrations wound down, I raced home, letting the speed burn off my annoyance with Bascom. Instead of opening the gate to Mucmath Home of Companion Pigs, I gathered my Red energy and leaped, easily landing at the top of the six-foot gate. I swung over it and hopped back to the ground. The usual chorus of grunts and squeals greeted me. My parents specialized in raising and training miniature pigs to help people. Guide pigs for the blind, companion pigs for the lonely, assistant pigs for those who couldn’t move easily—you get the picture. Mom and Dad were known far and wide for having the cleanest, sweetest, best-trained pigs.

Of course, the pigs never started out that way.

When I went inside, Teek squealed gleefully and dive-bombed me once again. I ducked and grabbed him, carefully pinning his pink-and-gray wings down. “You are nothing but trouble,” I groused, but I couldn’t put my heart into it. Teek tilted his little head to the side. The little piglet really was cute, and he had been absurdly attached to me from the day he was born.

Dad appeared from around the corner, wringing his hands. “I’m so sorry about the ceremony, Cricket! I locked Teek in the barn this morning, I don’t know how he got out!”

I tossed Teek back into the air. He fluttered for a moment, then plopped onto my shoulder. Most pegas grew much smaller than their non-winged family members. As a winged miniature pig, Teek likely wouldn’t grow much longer than a foot. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It was Bascom.”

“Bascom?” Dad’s eyebrows pulled together. “Why would Bascom let Teek out of the barn? He’s not turning into one of those free-the-animals people, is he?”

I rolled my eyes. Two years on, Dad still talked like Bascom and I were best friends, like we hadn’t been since we were twelve. “Where’s Mom?” I asked, ready to change the subject.

Dad winced a little. “She might be hugging Gretel and crying in the back room.”

Gretel was one of the very first pigs my mom had trained. They’d kept her for breeding at first, then out of sheer sentimental attachment. The pig was half-blind and stiff with age now, but still utterly devoted to my mother. The feeling was mutual.

I knocked on the door of the back room before letting myself in. Mom sat on the floor with Gretel in her lap. Her face was dry, but her sleeves were wet where she had wiped her tears away.

“Mom,” I said helplessly. That was enough to start her tears flowing again. I sat next to her, and she wrapped her arms around me tightly. Gretel snuffled sleepily at my knee.

“I know you have to leave,” Mom said, her voice thick with emotion. “And I’m so proud of you, Cricky. But that doesn’t mean I won’t miss you.”

“I know, Mom.” I hugged her back. “I’ll miss you too. But it won’t be long before I have my six twists and I come back to open my own gym.” And force Bascom to scrub it top to bottom every day for a year.

I’d meant the thought to be smug, but somehow it poked a hole in my confidence. What if Bascom was right and no Red Masters would train me? What if I couldn’t even get my twists, let alone get them first? What if everyone had been right, and I really couldn’t be a Red master? My chest tightened at the thought. I’d made it my mission to prove all the naysayers wrong, to show them I could have the kind of Red energy that propelled me to new heights. But what if I wasn’t enough? What if, instead of proving that girls could be Red masters, I turned into a failure to be held up as a warning to any other girls who dared to dream outside of what the world expected them to do?

As if she had heard my sudden slew of doubts, Mom sat up straight. She pressed her hands against my cheeks and looked me in the eye. “Promise me you won’t forget what it means to be a Mucmath.”

“Mucmaths help people,” I recited automatically. The familiar saying cut through the fear binding my lungs tight, and suddenly I could breathe again. That was what I planned to do. My Colorquest was going to help people, and helping people was in my blood. I couldn’t fail at that.

Mom smiled and brushed my cheek with her thumb. “Good girl. You remember that and you’ll be just fine.”

The sky dawned in brilliant red the next morning—a sign, I thought with a grin. I’d already been up for an hour, gathering the last of my supplies and packing them into my bag. Mom kept trying to sneak more warm clothes into my pack. I kept pulling them out and reminding her that I had to travel light. Dad didn’t show up until the sun streaked the sky in its dawning glory. He entered the kitchen silently while I tried to tell Mom that I really didn’t need another sack of dried meat.

“I have something for you,” Dad said abruptly.

Surprised, I turned to him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mom slip the dried meat into my pack, but Dad looked so serious that I let it go. He glanced at Mom, then held out his hand. In his palm lay my training whistle—the same one Bascom had stolen the day before.

Puzzled, I said, “I don’t think I’ll be training many pigs along the way.”

“No. Just one.” Dad put the whistle to his lips and blew it. Although the pitch was too high for me to hear, I recognized the pattern—short-short-long, long, short. My stomach dropped.

A second later, Teek blew into the room and smacked into the side of my face in his excited effort to land on my shoulder. I got his wings out of my face in time to see Dad tuck the whistle into my pack beside the dried meat.

“Dad—I—you—really?” I said weakly. Teek squeaked happily.

“Really.” Dad nodded firmly. “You need to take a bit of home with you.”

“But Dad, he’s a pegapig. With some training he’d be worth—”

“I know what he’d be worth. But you’re worth more than that. Besides, with you gone, he’d probably just pine away and be no good to anyone. This pegapig adores you, Cricket, and I think you’re kinda fond of him, too.”

Kind of, but not enough to want to take him with me. He was too small to fly as fast as I could run, so that was another ten pounds of weight for me to carry, and more as he grew. Not to mention that he was a winged little ball of mischief.

But I could tell that Dad had given this a lot of thought, and I couldn’t see any way to turn him down without hurting his feelings. That was the last thing I wanted to do right before I left for who knew how long. So, swallowing my objections, I smiled. “Thanks, Dad.”

Ten minutes later, with the last of dawn’s color fading as the sun came into the sky, I stepped out of the house with a pig in my pack and my pack on my back. I turned around at the gate one last time and waved at my parents standing there, Gretel at their feet. For half a second, I wished Bascom were there—the Bascom who had believed in me when I’d first wanted to train as a Red, the Bascom who had helped me survive the brutal beginning at Teacher Andru’s gym.

But that Bascom didn’t exist anymore. I had all the support I needed right here, from my family, my own determination, and a ridiculously adorable pegapig who was currently nibbling the end of my braid from his perch in my backpack. I took a deep breath and blew it out between my teeth.

And then I set off at a run.

Running had always been my favorite part of the Red gym. As I gained speed over the years, running felt as close as I could get to flying. Even jumping couldn’t quite match the feeling, because no matter how high I jumped, I always had to come back down. But running…running felt like it never had to end.

Out on the open road, I let my five years of Red training fly. I pushed my speed and endurance to the max, whipping past wagons and horses. Mile after mile of road fell behind me. I paused only twice to rest and to let Teek stretch his wings; otherwise, I ran on, eating as I traveled. Even when the sun went down, the full moon provided enough light for me to keep on for hours after dark. When I finally stopped to make camp, a delicious exhaustion permeated my muscles. I’d done Teacher Andru proud. I was a Red, through and through. I was fast, I was agile, I was enduring.

And when the next day dawned, I was in pain.

I groaned pitifully as I dragged myself into a sitting position. Everything hurt. My legs, my shoulders, my back, my head. What was wrong? I was a Red! I’d trained for years to gain the energy and endurance I’d used the day before. I hadn’t been this sore since the earliest days of my training.

 Teek popped out of his little nest of leaves beside me, grunting cheerily.

“Shut up or I’ll eat you for breakfast,” I growled irritably. Teek ignored me and bounced through the air, chirping like an overgrown bird.

I dragged myself to my feet. The night before, I’d crossed a stream, and its gurgle could still be heard through the rustling of trees off the side of the road. Cold, fresh streamwater would go a long way toward improving my mood.

The walk through the trees limbered up my muscles a little bit, though my shoulders and quads still complained when I knelt beside the stream. Teek plummeted into the water, spraying me with icy droplets. I splashed the cold water on my face and neck. Some of the sticky travel grime fell away, but my disappointment didn’t. What kind of Red was I, to be hobbling around after only a day of travel?

“You know, a chilled snowdrop poultice does wonders for sore muscles.”

I staggered to my feet. The timid, squeaky voice seemed to have come from right behind me, but I didn’t see anyone among the trees. “Who are you?” I demanded.

“Oh, right, um, hi. I’m Hale. Up here.”

With the new spring leaves growing in so thick, it took me another minute to locate the boy who had spoken. He was tall—I could tell in spite of his crouched position. Tall and broad. His face was tanned, but lighter than my own copper skin. He looked close to my age, maybe a year older, but he was built like a bear. His size would have been intimidating if not for the sheepish grin on his face. That, and the fact that he was firmly trapped in a hunter’s net.

1. In Case of Pegapiglet Attack

Most people make it through their graduation ceremony without getting divebombed by a flying piglet. But, as it turns out, I am not most people.

Due to a trick of the alphabet, I got stuck behind Bascom in the graduation lineup, which meant he got his loop first. To my disappointment, he didn’t so much as blink when the inked needles poked through the skin of his forearm, leaving behind a small loop of red, like a little ribbon.

He brushed past me on his way back to his seat, just hard enough that I knew he’d done it on purpose.

“Cricket Mucmath,” Teacher Andru called before I could retaliate. His gray eyes, framed with aged wrinkles and bags, watched me intently the way he always did. After five years, I still wasn’t sure why he watched me so closely. He’d never stepped in to defend me when the other Red trainees gave me a hard time. But he’d never singled me out for extra punishment, either. I never knew for sure whether he was on my side or not.

But no matter his feelings about the only girl in his gym, I’d mastered every skill I needed to graduate. Exhaling my nervousness, I walked to the front and knelt on the vibrant crimson cushion at Teacher Andru’s feet. I bowed my head respectfully and lifted my right arm. My jaw set. I couldn’t flinch when the needles bit through my skin. It didn’t matter that half the boys who graduated from the Red gym last year had winced at the procedure. If I did it, it’d be because I was a girl, and I’d hear about it the rest of my life.

Teacher Andru’s heavy robes, deep red with gold embroidery around the hem, rustled and swayed. With my head still bowed, I pictured him moving as I’d just seen him with Bascom, cleaning the needles and carefully re-inking them. My ears itched. I tried to ignore it. Papery skin touched my hand, then tightened firmly around my wrist to hold it steady. Twenty-eight sharp little needle points entered my skin at once. Distracted as I was by my itching ears, I hardly noticed the brief pain.

Master Andru motioned for me to stand. Pride swarmed through me at the sight of that dark red loop on my wrist. I couldn’t hold back a grin as I turned to face the crowd—any number of whom had told me plainly and repeatedly that I didn’t belong in a Red gym. I couldn’t wait to see their expressions.

I didn’t get the chance. I’d barely turned when something collided with the side of my face. Gray and pink feathers slapped my head again and again, noisy, high-pitched grunts and squeals ringing in my ears.

With practiced speed, I reached out and snatched the tiny, winged piglet out of the air.

“Teek,” I hissed. Teek blinked innocently back at me, his eyes ringed by a masklike gray spot.

We were so having bacon for dinner.

Dad must have read the murderous intentions on my face, because he suddenly appeared on the platform and tugged the pegapiglet out of my hands. The frantic squealing grew quieter and quieter as he made a mad dash out the door.

Everyone in the gym sat in silence, listening to the faint squeaks, while I stood frozen on the stand, wishing the ground would swallow me up.

Teacher Andru came to the rescue. In his calm, unflappable tone, he simply called the next name. “Rhys Bosain.”

Rhys jumped to his feet. The shock gluing my feet to the floor snapped away, and I walked off the stage with my chin in the air. Though I did my best to look unmoved, inside I seethed. How could Dad have forgotten to lock up that rotten pegapiglet? It had been nothing but trouble since it came zipping out of an otherwise normal litter two weeks earlier.

As I sat in my seat plotting to feed Teek to my friend’s dog, Bascom reached over from his seat and put a hand on my knee. I stiffened. Once upon a time, a sympathetic gesture like that wouldn’t have been surprising from him. But now…

Bascom drew his hand back, a smirk twisting his face. I glanced down at my knee and saw—my pig whistle! The one I’d been using to train—or at least try to train—that stinking pegapiglet. Had I dropped it?

One hand flew to my ear as the truth clunked into place. Pig whistles were inaudible to humans, but they always made my ears itch. Bascom had stolen my whistle. He’d probably opened my family’s barn door before he’d come to the ceremony. Then, right as I’d gotten my loop, he’d called for Teek. He’d carefully, purposefully planned to humiliate me on the most important day of my life so far.

He was so dead.

I endured another half an hour of sitting next to Bascom while Teacher Andru droned on and on. Any other day, I’d have been soaking in his wisdom, seeking any tidbit of advice to give me an edge. Today I was too angry. I couldn’t wait to give Bascom the kind of thank-you he deserved.

Once the ceremony had finally ended, Bascom headed over to show off for the younger students. I glanced around. My gaze landed on the refreshment table—as good place as any to begin my revenge.

I grabbed two glasses and filled them with water. With a quick glance to make sure Bascom was fully occupied with his adoring fans, I took a healthy pinch from the salt dish and threw it into the glass on the left. Then, for good measure, I tossed a few more pinches in. I swirled the water around. Once the salt vanished, I waded into the crowd surrounding Bascom.

“Congratulations, Bas,” I said, holding out the salted water with a smile. “We finally made it!” I held up my own glass. Rolling his eyes, Bascom tapped his glass against mine and took a drink.

It took half a second for his eyes to bug. The water sprayed back out of his mouth into the cup, and he coughed and spluttered.

“Thanks for returning my whistle,” I said sweetly.

Bascom scowled. “Hope your parents’ pigs enjoy your sense of humor. All those years of Red training will come in handy chasing around that pegapiglet your dad can’t keep under control.”

Anger zinged through my stomach, but I flipped one of my braids casually over my shoulder. “Are you still jealous that all the girls at market paid more attention to that adorable pegapiglet than you? He’s ten times cuter, you have to admit.”

“Glad you think so. You two will make the perfect couple.”

“You think I should take him on my Colormastery quest?” Not in a million years, I vowed silently. “He would make an adorable sidekick.”

Bascom snorted. “Get real, Cricket. No Red Colormaster is going to train you. You shouldn’t have wasted your time here.”

The words sliced deep; not because I hadn’t heard them before, but because I’d never heard them from Bascom. Even after we’d shifted from friends to rivals (my stomach clenched at the memory), he’d never stooped to brushing me off just because I was a girl.

“They’d be better off teaching me than trying to get anything through your thick skull,” I snapped.

Bascom’s face flushed a deep red. “You don’t have to get nasty. You know I’m telling the truth. Teacher Andru let you in, but how many Red Colormasters are going to take on a girl? Girls are supposed to be Blues and Pinks and Purples. Quiet, gentle—” his eyes flashed—“sneaky. You’ll be lucky if you can get one twist, let alone six.”

The same thought had kept me awake and anxious for hours the night before. To become a Colormaster, I’d have to train with four different Colormasters and earn four twists added onto the loop on my wrist. To open my own Red gym—one where girls would be treated with the same respect as boys—I’d need six.

With hot blood pulsing in my ears, I said, “I’ll get my twists, and I’ll get them faster that you. And then I’ll come back. I’ll open my own gym, and I’ll fill it with so many girls they’ll make their own battalion in the king’s army.”

“You’re on.” Bascom leaned in, a familiar gleam of competition in his eyes. “Let’s make it interesting. First one back with six twists opens a new gym. The loser cleans all the blood and sweat off the place for a year—for free.”

He stuck out a hand. Without hesitation, I reached out and shook. I would beat him, I knew it. And the triumph of the moment doubled when Bascom forgot himself and took another drink from the glass in his hand.