“I don’t like him,” growled Namal, as much to his tea as to me.

I was almost done with my breakfast, and Namal was sitting across from me. His hands were wrapped around the mug of tea he’d poured himself the moment he’d sat down at my table and he was staring into it as if doing so would solve everything. He was tired, and definitely irritable. He also hadn’t appreciated my opening question about his bathing habits.

Alone. Incidentally. As I’d suspected. I finished my biscuit and washed it down with some of my own tea before asking. “Any reason in particular?”

“He’s uncouth, disorganized, and possibly mad,” replied my brother.

I raised a brow. “That’s all?”

“Even with our current—situation—appearing as he did without warning, in the night, through hidden doors, in his night clothes, was rude and inappropriate at best. Given our history, it was also reckless.”

I wondered if no one had gone before the King in Namal’s chamber, since Quill had stayed behind with me. That would have been reckless. Surely the royal guards would not have allowed that.

“He said he came to see you first,” continued my brother, his voice rising, “Most rude and ungentlemanly conduct, surprising a maiden at night.” Namal lifted his mug as if to drink, then set it down again, “Children should never be crowned. It destroys them.”

“I sincerely doubt that Narya’s goal in crowning Tarr Kegan so young was to raise a sane and wise ruler,” I replied, leaning back in my chair. Maybe Namal had been in the bath when the King unceremoniously entered his room.

Namal’s frown remained, but he inclined his head. “Even so.”

“So, you don’t want to ally with him?”

Namal looked out the window and growled again. For a moment, I thought all I would get were unhappy noises, but at last he said, “I don’t want any of this. But I think he’s sincere.”

“Worth considering, then?” I asked.

Namal turned his blue eyes to me, evaluating. “I know you’re already in this fight body and soul, Zare. I think we should fight Narya, but I’m not yet sure of the best way.”

I swallowed. “Worth considering, then.”

He tipped his head, “I’m uncertain of method and timing. The King is not compelling with his arguments. He is scattered, and either hiding something or incompetent. I haven’t seen enough to know which.” My brother shook his head. “He’s also convinced the Nether Queen is a sorceress.”

“You’re not?” I asked carefully.

“Just because something is unexplained doesn’t mean it is magic.” Namal’s gaze sharpened. “Don’t tell me you believe him.”

I shifted in my seat, toying with my own mug of tea. “They say Shyr Valla and Dalyn’s army are gone without a trace—no bones, no weapons, no stones. Just grass and an eerie feeling in the air.”

My brother scoffed. “They said Caedes the Pirate King was a god who controlled the sea.”

He hadn’t been, just a very skilled seaman who had found a way to make fog—which he used to blind and terrify his enemies.

“But a city, Namal,” I protested, “How do you hide a city? Such that people can ride through the empty meadow where it once sat?”

“Pay off a few scouts,” replied Namal. “That’s all it takes.”

I slumped back, unhappy but unwilling to argue more. I was still certain that Quill had seen the spot for himself. Though I didn’t feel like bringing that up in case Namal decided to believe Quill had been bribed. Then the person I trusted most in the city would be deemed untrustworthy.  I changed the topic. “Did the king tell you about our grappling lessons?”

“Our what?”

“Grappling lessons, Quill has arranged for us to have them.” Perhaps the King didn’t know. Or if he did, he seemed preoccupied enough to either forget to say or just assume someone else would.

Namal’s expression showed he was annoyed at being the last to find out. “How are they justifying grappling lessons for a spice merchant?”

I shrugged. “He didn’t say.”

A soft knock on the chamber door sounded, and then Amantha entered. “Message for you, Miss Meredithe.” She handed me a folded paper, sealed with blue wax stamped with the King’s seal.

“Thank you.” I broke the seal, very aware of Namal’s territorial bristle and Amantha’s lingering presence. I read the note, a blush touched my cheeks. Oh, people would talk alright. Turning to Namal, I infused my voice with breathless excitement. “His Majesty has invited me to join him in the garden!”

I saw several responses storm by in Namal’s eyes, but he schooled his face into delight at his sister’s good fortune. “That’s wonderful, my sister. I will walk you out.”

“Amantha, would you fetch our cloaks? And the broach from my nightstand.”

“Yes, Miss Meredithe.” Amantha hurried off. I was certain she’d been close enough to read the note. At least enough to see that it started with “Sweet Analie.” Amantha hadn’t asked any questions this morning when shed opened the blinds, though she’d noticed the broach on the nightstand immediately. Doubtless she’d found the stiletto under my pillow when she’d made the bed. The knife was now tucked in my bodice, and I folded the note and tucked it in my bodice also.

As soon as she was gone, Namal growled. “Broach?”

“A gift from the king. It’s our cover, Namal,” I scolded.

“I don’t like it.”

I rolled my eyes and stood. “It’s not as though I’ll ruin the family name.”

“That’s not the point.” Namal stood and had to swallow the rest of his lecture because Amantha returned with a dark winter cloak for him. As soon as his was clasped she retrieved a cloak for me from the dressing room, and then pinned the broach over the clasp. I touched the flower admiringly.

“That’s a lovely gift,” said Namal brightly, entirely for Amantha’s benefit.

“Isn’t it?”

We left the room and made our way through the palace and out to the gardens. It was colder today, and there was a wet bite in the wind. I pulled the cloak close. “The note said to take the center path all the way back to the pergola, then turn left.”

Namal didn’t reply.  The center path wound through a maze of evergreen shrubs and trees that hid us from most prying eyes. Even walking quickly, it was ten or fifteen minutes before we reached the pergola. Then we turned left and kept walking. I didn’t tell Namal the note’s directions had ended there, and was grateful when he didn’t ask any questions. We came to a copse of poplar trees, and nestled among these was a wooden building. Its walls were carved to resemble an extremely large and…boxy…tree trunk, and it was completely surrounded by the tall many-fingered poplars. In summertime, I imagined the building would be almost invisible until you were right on top of it.  It had a chimney, and a thin wisp of smoke was curling out of it. This had to be the place. I turned off the path and went to the door of the strange little building—which was painted a dull green—and knocked.

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