Once I made it back to the family tent I of course had to tell everyone exactly what happened after Ayglos and I were separated. I made Ayglos tell his considerably less exciting story, too. I wanted to ask my father his opinion on finding one of Dalyn’s soldiers so far from home, but I didn’t get the chance. When it was all said and done, I got less than four hours of sleep. It hadn’t seemed too bad at the time, but now, with the caravan inching along the road and the rush of packing over, I started to feel like death.
Dalyn was first among the Bay Cities—it controlled the Bandui River, a much bigger and deeper river than the Tryber, which was the primary trade route connecting the mountain cities to Daiesen Bay. Dalyn had been conquered five years ago. It was Narya Magnific’s most important conquest; after the mysterious destruction of Shyr Valla that started this whole Nether Queen thing. I had been eleven when Dalyn fell. The whole Bay had quailed when their champion city buckled under the weight of the Nether Queen’s army. With Dalyn’s conquest, all felt it was only a matter of time before the other cities fell to her also. So far, she had taken six of eight.
Gillenwater and its red fence were a few hours behind us, at a wagon’s pace. The road to Magadar skirted through the wooded foothills of the Magron Mountains, cutting north around the range rather than straight west through it. It was longer as the hawk flies, but easier going for a caravan. It was pretty, too, the road was practically lined with vineyards and horse farms. I started looking for a spot to ride on a wagon. When we were on the move, the circus folk sometimes walked, sometimes rode. Now seemed like a very good time to ride and maybe sleep for a day. I found myself looking for Boitumelo’s wagon.
I spied the red canopy of Boitumelo’s wagon the same moment that Ayglos jumped out of it. He saw me immediately and beckoned. I picked up my pace, my sleep deprived fog clearing a bit. What was Ayglos doing there? I caught up with the moving wagon, “Is something going on?”
“Your soldier is awake, keep him put till I can bring father and Remko,” Ayglos explained, boosting me up into the cart. He jogged off the moment I was secure. I pushed back the flap and entered the covered wagon.
My archer was very awake and arguing with Boitumelo. The lanky brown doctor looked fully prepared to tackle the archer if the man dared rise from his cot, and the archer looked like he was fully prepared to take that risk.
I let the red canopy close behind me and demanded, “What is going on here?”
Their words died and they looked at me. The archer’s face softened slightly when he saw me. “You pulled me out of the river, right?”
I nodded, “I did.”
“I am very grateful. But I must go back to my unit.”
“You are in no condition to go slinking around the countryside on your own,” I retorted.
Boitumelo pointed at me, “Maybe you will listen to Mbali!” he snapped in frustration. The doctor’s eyes were wide and his veins stood out in his neck. The archer had sure offended the physician’s professional sensibilities.
“I have to go back to my unit,” repeated the archer, more slowly, as if I might understand better if he enunciated.
“How do you expect to get back to your unit?”
“I would ask to borrow ragged clothes, put my armor in a pack, and travel on foot as a beggar or a pilgrim,” replied the archer. Evidently he had thought this through.
A pilgrim…pilgrims still went to the Cathedral in Dalyn, even though it was under Narya’s stiff rule. I walked across the swaying wagon and crouched by the archer’s cot. He watched me expectantly. Boitumelo watchfully took a seat a couple feet away. “You are going to Dalyn?” I asked.
A guarded look settled in place of the expectant one.
“I have seen their insignia on your armor,” I added, “You are either a thief or one of Dalyn’s soldiers. Judging from the skirmish on the bridge over the Tryber, I doubt very much that you are a thief.”
He grimaced. “You would be better to forget that insignia for now, and forget where I am going.”
Royal ire rose unbidden, but the next heartbeat replaced it with amusement. He had no idea who I was. My face twisted as I fought a smirk and tried to determine what I should tell him and how.
“I will decide what’s better for me, thank you,” I replied, finally regaining myself. “What is your name?”
The archer studied me. He was curious now, in spite of his reserve. “Call me Quill.”
“Is that your name?”
“It’s what I’m called.”
I wrinkled my nose. “How very elucidating.”
“Indeed,” a smile teased the corners of Quill’s mouth. “What’s your name?”
My mouth opened to reply and then I balked. Our eyes met and his sparked with a victorious knowing look. My education betrayed me. I was not a common circus girl who took pity on a wounded soldier. And, realistically, how many noblewomen knew how to swim? If he had been around the palace in Dalyn for any length of time he would know the most likely place to find noble swimmers were the cities on the shoreline. And a noblewoman swimmer hiding in a circus that choked when asked her name? The silence was getting painful as I opened and closed my mouth like a beached fish. “The doctor calls me Mbali,” I managed at last, red faced. I wished I could take the seconds back and know ahead of time how I wanted to answer his question.
“I noticed,” he dipped his chin. “The one who left right before you came in—a relation?”
Better prepared this time, I replied, “Is there a resemblance?”
“Chin, nose,” he replied.
“His name is Ayglos,” continued Quill, watching me closely, mouth still tipped in a smirk.
“What a nice, strong name.”
Before the game could continue, the wagon swayed with the weight of someone jumping on the back. The flap opened and Ayglos climbed in, followed by my father and my oldest brother, Namal. Quill straightened on the cot immediately. “Your majesty.” His eyes were on my father.
Game over, I guess.