Quill made no move to follow his King. He was still behind me, beside the settee, even after the King disappeared into the darkness of the closet. I waited a heartbeat and whirled with my fist flying. Quill ducked the blow, barely. Surprise flashed across his face, but was replaced quickly by wariness. I swung again with a snarl. He ducked again and stepped back, taking a fighting stance. The blue robe slipped from my shoulders as I followed him, “How could you let him surprise me like that?” I demanded, trying the right hook again.
Quill dodged, but understanding dawned. “I apologize,” he threw a fist of his own and energy thrilled through me as I leapt aside, “He is the King.”
“He defers to you,” I swung again, almost grazed him.
Quill scoffed, “When he likes.”
“You could have warned me,” I said, “Tossed me a robe when you came in.” I advanced a few steps and he retreated, carefully avoiding furniture.
“I did give you a robe.” He jabbed twice.
“Later!” I ducked and tried to slide a punch under his guard.
Quill twisted and caught my wrist. “I’m glad the King is negotiating with your brother; do you settle all disputes this way?”
I hissed and threw my other fist at his gut.
He leapt back, softening the hit, but approval glimmered in his eyes when he looked back at me. “Better. Now, how do you get your wrist back?”
I tried to wrench free and failed. I swiveled and pulled some more. His fingers were like a noose, the more I struggled the tighter they got. I stopped and glared at him, thinking of all the fights I’d survived before this one, and hating him for being better than I was.
“Find the thumb, that’s the gap you’ll escape through, there you are, now rotate your elbow toward the mine and step into me.”
Grudgingly I followed his instructions, and my wrist ripped out of his grasp easily.
“Good!” He wasn’t the slightest bit ruffled by all this.
“Neat trick,” I said, rubbing my wrist, which stung from the intensity of his grip. “But I’m still angry with you,” it came out as a mumble as I walked back to the spot my robe fell, picked it up and slid my arms through the sleeves.
Quill was watching me, face of a schoolmaster, his thumbs hooked on his belt casually, as if he sparred with princesses in their nighties on a regular basis. Which couldn’t be true—Dalyn had no princesses.
“You’re lucky, you know,” I flourished the collar of the robe, “What would you have done if I’d been taking a bath when you walked in?”
His brown eyes softened. “I am sorry, your Highness, for allowing the King to sneak up on you.”
I lowered my chin. “I forgive you.”
“I thought Jemin told you about your cover for seeing the King.”
“He told me people would assume—he didn’t tell me the King would show up in my room in the dead of night! Through my closet, no less!”
“I’m sorry,” he said again, “Next time I will try to give warning, and if I cannot manage that, a robe immediately.” He spread his hands, placating. He was dressed in the dark blue, gold trimmed uniform of the palace guard. It fit him impeccably well, and made him look rather dashing. The sword at his waist had a plain hilt, and I noted the glinting of a couple knives on his belt. I studied him for a moment longer, then let out a breath and relaxed. “May we sit?” he asked, noticing.
The relief I’d felt when I’d first seen him came back as I returned to the chair by the fireplace where I had been curled up earlier. Quill sat on the edge of the chair opposite and removing one of his knives, presented the hilt to me. “I stayed to give you this.”
I accepted the small stiletto, examining the filigreed scabbard and then the blade itself.
“It’s small enough to be tucked into a boot or bodice, you are to wear it at all times.” His dark eyes were deadly serious. “This broach,” he held out something small and glittering, “opens, here, like this.” Two silver leaves covered in engraving cupped a flower with round petals. Engraving swirled on the petals also, and tiny diamonds winked in the lamplight. Quill gripped the flower and pulled it away from the leaves, revealing a savage looking push knife. “You should be able to wear it with all your cloaks, an obvious gift showing the king’s favor.” He closed the broach and laid it on my palm. “I always have one man assigned to you, and one to your brother. More would cause more harm than good. They are dressed as servants, and will not approach you unless you are in danger.”
“They were with us today, then,” I said. I hadn’t noticed them, but they were likely the ones reporting our movements to the king. I would look for them tomorrow.
“I have also arranged for you both to receive grappling instruction, starting tomorrow, because I would greatly prefer that you not leave puddles of blood or a body behind should you have to fight while you are in hiding here.”
I remembered the soldiers in Gillenwater from whom I’d rescued the girls and thought that grappling would have been useful to know then. “I look forward to it.” My eyes drifted to the golden river insignia on Quill’s shoulder, then trailed down his once injured arm. “How are your wounds?”
“Nearly whole,” he replied, looking down at his arm and leg. “You’ll be glad to know that Rawyn Drayk has seen them and applauded their care.”
I swelled a little. Boitumelo would be proud.
“Of course,” continued Quill, mischief gleaming in his eyes, “I told him they were only a few days old instead of two weeks old.”
“Of course you did,” I snorted. “And it’s nearly true, too, considering how rough you were on them.”
He shrugged. “I did what was necessary.”
I looked at him, turning the broach over in my hand. “I’m sorry for punching you earlier.”
A smile touched his eyes, “I forgive you.”
“Does the King know your real name?”
“We knew each other before.”
“What about the general?” The young general who’d been at dinner.
“Not that I’m aware of. It’s a big city, a large court, and I’ve never told him.”
“Can we trust him?”
“The general? If the King and Khattmali issued opposing orders, I think he would follow Khattmali.”
“You are full of questions. Her word is the word of the Nether Queen,” replied Quill, simply. Then he added, “She ordered a manhunt when the caravan showed up without your father. It is one of those search parties we credited with rescuing Alban and Analie.”
“Oh.” I sunk deeper in the chair.
“They are still looking, combing the land. This evening reports came back that they found the smashed carriage—with no bodies inside. I think Khattmali suspects that nymphs were involved—or she will, when it is revealed for certain that your father yet lives. We have some nymphs living in Dalyn—on the water, of course, fishermen and navigators mostly. I fear Khattmali will turn on them. Jemin told me of your stripes…Do the servants…have they seen you?” his face reddened slightly, “Have they seen you wet?”
I shook my head. “No, I’ve been insisting on bathing alone.”
“What about Namal?”
“I doubt it, he has a handmaid.”
Quill’s brow furrowed, as if puzzled by the inference, but he said, “Please find out for sure. I would prefer to know if the staff know.”
I arched a brow at being given a task.
He didn’t notice. He was looking at the book I’d discarded to arm myself with the statuette. He picked the volume up from the side table. “Dioreth and the Dragon. I haven’t read this in a long time.”
“Is it good?” I asked.
“Only if you enjoy stories about adventures, honor and romance,” he set the book back down and I squinted at him, unable to tell if he was recommending the book or not. “Don’t stay up too late, Princess.” He stood to his feet and bowed. “I will see you tomorrow.”