17-The Other Side of the Matter

*

In spite of the burning energy that coursed through me at the prospect of our spy mission, I was asleep as soon as I laid my head down. The turmoil and sleeplessness of the past few days left me senseless until the gray of dawn filled the glen. In the morning, the numbers in the glen were much reduced, and I learned over breakfast that Quill had sent most of the party out to scout the land and keep watch.

My breakfast was also filled with Namal’s litany of reminders about blending in and not taking chances. He seemed to forget that Nadine and I both had fought by his side when the siege of Galhara had become dire. Besides that, I’d been a fugitive exactly as long as he had. I was hardly a naïve child any longer. However, I was glad he had agreed to let me go, so I let him talk.

Once I was done eating I went to the stream to freshen up. The morning sun made the water look like spun gold. The stream lazed through a wide pool over yellow sandstone pebbles, giggling softly to itself at its morning finery. It reminded me of the gold inlays of my father’s throne room walls—before they melted off in the inferno. I shed my shoes and rolled up my homespun trousers before wading into the cold of the stream. Its source was definitely high in the Magron Mountains, and it welcomed me gladly. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed living water. Weariness fled the touch of the icy water as I splashed it on my face and arms, trying to get a little clean without soaking my clothes. Not that pilgrims tended to be very clean. I stopped splashing and lingered ruefully in the running water.

“Zare…”

I turned and saw Balleck standing awkwardly a few feet away. The generous sun piled gold on his head, too, tinged with red. I stepped out of the stream, shaking water off and inwardly mourning that I had to leave its friendly touch. “Yes?”

“The donkey is loaded up, and they are waiting for you,” he said, shifting.

I stared at him, not sure why he looked like a child caught with sweetbread. It wasn’t as if wading in a stream was a scandalous thing to find a girl doing. “Is something wrong?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to call you.” Balleck bowed slightly at the waist, looking very uncomfortable and silly.

“Oh—Lady Zare, perhaps,” I offered. It seemed too presumptive to reclaim “Princess”—as if we’d already won our little rebellion. “Though, obviously not if we’re in disguise somewhere.” I sat down to put on my shoes. “Why are you so nervous?”

Balleck hesitated, then crouched next to me as I rolled down my trousers. “I don’t know…one minute you’re a stunt rider, the next you’re a princess, and twenty fighting men are deferring to you and jumping to their feet when you move.” He smiled, “I’m a circus rat. Born to it. If Lord So-and-so’s son, who’s made it into an important branch of the army stands and bows when you enter, shouldn’t I?”

I rolled my lips together. In a less complicated world, the answer would be yes. But I wanted to say no. So I avoided the question. Until now I hadn’t really thought about the other part of regaining our royal life—the part that meant losing this one. “I was never just a stunt rider—I thought it was obvious we were refugees of some title.”

“Sure,” replied Balleck, “But refugees of some title is not the same as the exiled royal family of Galhara. Rumor said the royal castle burned with supernatural fire taking the royal family with it.”

A joyless smile twisted my lips. “Well, that rumor is mostly true. And serves us well enough.” I had finished with my shoes, but didn’t get up.

“They say,” continued Balleck, “that the Nether Queen herself rode out to Galhara when she decided the siege was taking too long. They say that she lifted her hands and called fire from heaven and it fell upon the castle. That the fire burned for days and was high and hot—as if the entire castle were in the same fire that consumes the Fallen in hell.”

I looked at my shoes. “We saw her standard.”

Fire had rained from above—flaming wreckage from catapults—and it had burned for days. The catapults hit a storehouse that contained a gift from the nymphs of Daiesen; the secret to fire that burns on water was set aflame. An unlucky shot. The barrage of fire from the catapults continued until the burning could not be stopped. We could not breathe, we could not fight.

Some of our people were able to flee down the cliffs. We, and those closest to us, were too deep inside the castle to escape by going out. We had to go deeper into the heart of the citadel to the little underground river that fed our fortress, and burst in a waterfall from the cliffs to the bay below. Those of us who could hold our breath like the dolphins of Daisen helped those who could not. Five people to save fifty. It was a wonder any of us survived. We had huddled at the foot of the cliffs, expecting at any moment to die in a hail of arrows, but none came. The plume of smoke from Galhara blackened the sky and covered our flight—we concluded that they did not know about our river, or about our half-blood. Once word reached the nymphs they came and spirited us away to the bottom of Daisen Bay and the halls of my grandfather.

To Balleck all I said was, “There were siege engines, nothing more.” After a pause I added, “I will teach you courtly manners if you teach me more fire spinning.”

Balleck smirked. “Maybe I’ll just teach you fire spinning and leave the spoons and forks where they may.”  He stood up and offered me his hand.

I accepted Balleck’s hand up and we walked to where the others were waiting with Jemin and Line, the donkey. Jemin was dressed differently than he had been yesterday. Today he was in un-dyed homespun and a worn out leather jerkin that barely fit over his burly frame. His belt was tattered and his shoes flapped a bit at the soles. Even the military bearing was gone. If I hadn’t seen him yesterday I would’ve guessed he was a blacksmith, out of work, like as not. Line was loaded with a modest bag or two—presumably food and clothes for the look of the thing.

Namal gave me a quick embrace, “Please be careful, Zare.”

“I’m always careful,” I replied, and gave Ayglos a kiss on the cheek before moving to Jemin’s side.

“I will take care of her, your highnesses,” Jemin bowed.

We moved off, our walking pace draining any drama or excitement from the moment. Down the gulley, through the woods, back to the road, back to Gillenwater.

**

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