The door opened with a groan and Quill stood behind it. “Come in,” he bowed and stepped out of the way.
We entered and were greeted by a delightful breath of warm air from a cheery little fire. The inside of the building had been carved to resemble the sweeping innards of a gnarled tree. The windows were scattered at irregular heights and sizes, and shaped like knots. Shelves and a counter ran along the far wall, completely cluttered with bottles, bowls and jars. Most of which looked full, and had labels. The dry, earthy smell of drying herbs made me look up to see the ceiling lined with hanging bunches of rosemary, sage, thyme, and plenty of other plants I didn’t recognize. There was a table shoved against the far wall, and pair of chairs by the fire. A decorative screen, painted with a hunting scene, looked very out of place walling off one corner. Quill’s second in command, Vaudrin, was standing by the fireplace, but the King was nowhere to be seen.
“The King sends his regrets, he will not be joining us today,” said Quill, closing the door behind us.
I could feel Namal’s displeasure and absolutely didn’t look at him.
“Your Highness,” Quill looked at Namal, “Did the Princess tell you about the training we have to offer you?” He and Vaudrin were both dressed in plain trousers and tunics that allowed for free movement. The matching muted blues suggested this was standard issue military clothing. Except they weren’t wearing shoes.
“She mentioned it,” replied Namal. He was using his schooled, diplomatic tones now. Probably reminding himself that he was upset at the King, not at the guards.
“It is good to keep in training, especially with the coming conflict,” continued Quill, picking up on the diplomatic tones, “Vaudrin and I will teach you some grappling—things learned in dark times and dark places when blades were not practical.”
“With me in a dress?” I touched the long green skirt of my winter day dress.
“I did think of that,” Quill gestured to the screen. “You’ll find what you need over there. We have clothes for your brother, also.”
I went straight for the screen, smiling in greeting to Vaudrin, who bowed. Behind the screen was another chair, on top of this, folded neatly, were two sets of clothing just like Quill and Vaudrin’s. The buttons on my dress had me calling for Namal, but once freed I changed quickly and left my dress and cloak carefully draped over the back of the chair, shoes and stiletto underneath. I emerged barefoot and Namal headed behind the screen to change also.
Quill and Vaudrin had just finished tossing thick mats across the floor. “Milady,” Quill gestured invitingly at the mat immediately in front of him.
I padding over I could hear Remko’s gruff voice barking “Counterattack!” so clearly it nearly took my breath away. He had taught all the royal children how to use a sword. He’d allowed us to choose the order we learned other weapons, Ayglos had gone straight for the quarterstaff, and I for the knives. Namal the mace, Nadine the bow. We’d learned to use our fists, too. But grappling was new. I pushed aside the memories as I arrived in front of Quill. “He bathes alone,” I announced—quickly, before Namal could finish changing and come out. “You’re welcome.”
Amusement flickered in Quill’s eyes. “Good. Would you like to try a punch again?” he asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
I eyed him distrustfully. “Not especially.”
He grinned. “Turn around.”
I turned slowly. When my back was to Quill he stepped close and snaked his arm around my neck, drawing me against him and squeezing. I gasped and my hands flew to his arm—the sudden panic to breathe distracting me from being snug against his chest. “How do you get out?” his voice was right next to my ear. I threw an elbow back into his ribs, but the angle prevented a good hit. “That’s not how.” If he tightened his arm I would black out, but he was waiting for me to get myself free. I forced my whole body to go limp, deadweight in his arms. Quill’s laugh chuffed in my ear, “Clever, but I might let go and stab you before you could do anything.” I picked up my weight again and lifted a foot as if to stomp on his. “Might work in the right circumstances. Not reliable, though.” He released me and stepped back. I turned to face him, panting, and again irritated at his ability to ask the exact questions I couldn’t answer.
He turned his back and slouched. “Choke me.”
Reluctantly I approached and put my arm around his neck like he had done with mine. He positioned my arm just so, gagged when I squeezed, and then nodded in satisfaction. “Now, pull me back a little so you’re not standing on your toes.”
I did. Then he neatly stepped back and flipped me onto the mats. Flat on my back, I stared up at him in surprise, “What did you do?”
“I’ll show you.” He tugged on my arm and I accepted the help up.
Quill patiently walked me through the movement—deceptive in its utter simplicity—until I could confidently fling him on the ground as easily as he’d tossed me. I barely noticed Namal and Vaudrin working just a few feet away as we worked on chokes and getting out of them for the better part of the morning. When we stopped, I was sweaty, thirsty, hungry, and heady from the work. We sat on the floor and sipped at water that Vaudrin poured for us.
“What’s next?” I asked, after draining my cup.
“Lunch, like as not. Vaudrin is on duty in an hour, I’ve got some work of my own this afternoon,” replied Quill. “There is a library in the palace, if you would like a pleasant way to pass the afternoon.”
“That sounds better than trying to make friends in court,” I replied.
“I don’t think we should be trying to make friends in court,” said Namal. “There are a thousand ways that could go very badly very quickly.”
“True enough,” concurred Quill.
“You won’t find many people in the library,” Vaudrin added, refilling our cups from a large pitcher.
“Where is it?” I wouldn’t mind wandering around the king’s library.
“In the wing opposite the one where you’re staying.”
“I would like to write to my father,” said Namal. “You may go, Zare, if Quill or one of his men will accompany you.”
“I will go with her,” replied Quill.
Not minding the chance to talk with Quill, I decided not to bring up that one of his men was always shadowing us. Instead, I stood, “Well, I guess I’ll go put on something a little more appropriate for lunch.” The heat from the fireplace was oppressive when I passed close to it, and it took some effort to get into my dress with my skin still sticky from the workout. I again had to call for Namal to deal with the buttons. When I was dressed, the building was far too hot, so I stepped outside to wait for Namal. The wet bite in the wind had become a light rain, and I raised the hood of my cloak. I breathed in the cool air and the scent of wood smoke letting the quiet cement the morning’s lessons.
In a few moments, all three men stepped out. “I will come to escort you to the library in an hour, miss,” said Quill, returning to formality in the open air.
I nodded, “Thank you.” Then Namal offered me his arm and we turned to head back up the path toward the palace.