Hearing it said aloud left everything in me brittle and heavy. I was sure that all of my blood drained from my head and into my feet. I scolded myself: It was not as if the confirmation was a surprise. My family would very likely be taken to Hirhel within days. How long would it be before they were executed? Days? Months? Perhaps years, I supposed, depending on the Nether Queen’s mood. Jemin set his hand on my leg and squeezed while he asked another question of our knowledgeable tradesmen. I tried to listen: I focused intently on each word, but when they stopped speaking I had no idea what had been said.
Suddenly Jemin was standing up, “Thank you, sir. We’re a mighty bit tired, is there a room we could let to stay the night?”
I slipped off my stool, paying attention now.
The tavern keeper eyed us—probably thinking about the pathetic coins we’d laid out for our lunch—and then nodded. He gestured for us to follow him and then led the way down a long hallway. All the way at the end of the hall he stopped and opened a door to a room so small that the thin mattress took up most of the floor. There was a solitary oil lamp hanging on the wall, and a narrow window at the back of the room. Jemin thanked the tavern keeper and I think they exchanged words about the price but I was too busy scanning the room for rats to know for sure.
The tavern keeper left us and Jemin shooed me into the room and closed the door. I watched as he gave the room a quick once over—checking the walls for peep holes and the like. Strange homesickness welled inside: Exile made even intrigue a reminder of home. I grimaced.
“Are you alright?” Jemin asked once he finished checking the room.
I nodded, “Hearing about their capture as a juicy morsel of interesting gossip just caught me by surprise.” The bitter edge in my voice startled me.
He looked at me closely.
Changing the topic, I dipped my chin toward the walls, “Can you even put your arms out?”
Jemin smirked and spread his arms—sure enough, he could touch both sides of the room. “Being poor and simple makes us appear powerless–nonthreatening. Besides,” he added with a shrug, “it’s not as if we travel with the wealth of Dalyn in our pocket.”
“Is there yet wealth in Dalyn?” I asked, surprised.
“Not especially, no.”
I gestured to the bed. “We’re staying the night?”
“Yes,” replied Jemin. “But probably not here. The cobbler says they are closing the gates at night now, and I want to get a look at the garrison to see what I can learn about it”
“We can’t do that in daylight?”
“We can, and we will. But if I want a closer look I need darkness. I doubt we will spend much time in this room, my lady. And if we do, the bed, such as it is, is yours.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted the bed—uncertain as I was about its prior tenants—but I appreciated Jemin’s deference.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
I nodded, and wasn’t really surprised when he opened the window. He slipped his hulking frame through the narrow window with care and precision. I climbed out after him lightly. He closed the window most of the way behind us and then we set out. Gillenwater was not a small city, and our tavern was located just west of the center.
We wound our way northwards and uphill through the city until we reached the castle and its garrison at the highest and furthest point. A ten foot wall wrapped around both, ending at the northernmost city walls. The houses in that part of the city were bigger, and most had walled gardens. There were not many people about, and I felt conspicuous as we casually worked our way around the wall using side streets and alleys for cover. The wall was built from smooth cut stone—probably from quarries of a vassal in the Magron Mountains. There wasn’t much in the way of hand holds, but it was short enough to boost someone over if we needed to.
We stopped when we reached the Tryber. The river flowed right next to the garrison, and while Jemin gazed at the wall, I crouched on the steep stone banks and reached for the water. My fingers just brushed the river, but it was enough to exchanged pleasantries. It remembered me. Lazy and tinged with filth, the Tryber was still the life of the city. It passed under the city walls at the northwest and the southeast, and waterways had been cut in a few places to bring water to other parts of the city. Including the castle.
“What are you doing?” Jemin’s voice made me jump and yank back my hand.
I stood up and wiped my hand on my tunic. “Checking the river,” I said slowly. “There is a water way that leads into the garrison and castle grounds.”
Jemin gave me a curious look, then stepped to the edge and looked out at the wall, “I don’t see any sign of this water way.”
“It must be under the surface,” I replied, leaning out to look for myself. “The Tryber said it was there.”
Jemin looked at me sharply. “The Tryber tol…” he paused, “You’re a nymph!”
“Half,” I corrected. “It isn’t common knowledge, either.”
Jemin shook his head, “Well, that changes the game a bit. I’ve never met a half-nymph before, though I did see the ambassador from Daiesen once—from a distance. Is it true that you can hold your breath for an entire day? Or does that not come with half-blood?”
I grimaced, “It’s not exactly true. And anyway, I should think this tunnel is barred—we barred ours. Nymphs aren’t exactly rare in these parts.”
Jemin clearly wanted to ask more questions, but had better sense than to do so here in the street. “We shall have to come back tonight to investigate,” he concluded. Having done all we could in daylight, he led the long walk back to the tavern. We climbed back through the window into our closet of a room. He took a seat on the floor by the door, blocking the entrance. His legs didn’t have space to stretch out all the way. “We should get some sleep,” he said. “Eloi knows we won’t get much tonight.”
I settled gingerly on the mattress. When nothing scuttled away my misgivings were outweighed by weariness. In the dulled light of our closet, I was asleep within minutes.
The room was completely dark when I woke up. The sun had set, and no one had lit the lamp. I heard movement by the window and saw Jemin’s silhouette “Lady Zare?” he whispered.
“I’m up,” I croaked, pushing myself to my feet and trying to shake the thick sleep from my head.
“I’m sorry to wake you, my lady,” Jemin offered me some way-bread, “But I didn’t think you would like to be left behind.”
I accepted the food gratefully. “You’re right, and thank you.”
“It is past curfew now—and nearing midnight,” Jemin explained while we ate, “we must be extremely careful crossing the city. Stick to shadows, avoid patrols. If we are seen, our best hope is to play drunken fools—if that fails we pray we win the fight quickly and can flee.”
I smirked, wondering how often the drunken stumble had been used by these soldier spies.
“Can you fight, my lady?” asked Jemin. The faint light from the window glinted off the hilt of the small knife he was offering to me.
“I can,” I replied, accepting the knife and trying to find a place to hide it on my person. My shoes weren’t tall enough, so I ended up tying it to the belt for Shiharr and Azzad, but in front, and tucked inside my trousers.
We finished our food quickly and left the tavern. The hike to the castle felt even longer than it had earlier as we darted from shadow to shadow listening for patrols. We heard no fewer than five as we crossed the city. We were always able to get down an alley and behind cover before they passed. At last we reached the place the garrison wall met the Tryber.
I slipped out of my vest and handed it to Jemin. “I’ll go.”
“Just see if the tunnel is barred, and how big it is,” said Jemin.
I nodded and sat on the stone bank to slip myself into the cold water. I drew a deep breath, let the murky water close over my head and started to swim upriver along the wall. I was cautious. Waters and nymphs were friends by default, but waters also sometimes had opinions about the lands and peoples that surrounded them. It wouldn’t do for me to offend the Tryber with my intentions. Yet the river seemed untroubled by me and led me quickly to the big grate which marked the large waterway into the garrison. It was roughly centered from the edge of the garrison wall to the edge of the city. I hooked my fingers through the grate. The bars weren’t thick, but the grate was relatively fine—designed to keep out fish and junk, in addition to ambitious nymphs. It was a long water way—I suspected it went all the way to the castle. Stretching out my fingers I felt the currents and asked the Tryber to tell me more. There was a cistern in the heart of the garrison, and another in the castle. The Tryber didn’t mention air in the tunnels, but there was a good chance I would be able to get in this way, even if Jemin couldn’t. I shook the grate and it wiggled. I wondered if Jemin would be strong enough to tear it off.
Turning, I swam back to Jemin. He was crouched in the shadows, waiting anxiously. I puffed out the stale air in my lungs and drew a deep breath of the fresh night.
“What did you find?” asked Jemin.
“It’s a long tunnel, goes to a cistern in the heart of the garrison—and another in the castle. I think it is five feet across, give or take. There is a grate across the opening, but if you can get it off—or mostly off—I think I could get into the garrison.”
Jemin considered this a moment, and then swung his legs over the bank. “Let’s find out.”