The night air was tipped with ice, but I breathed it in gladly. It calmed the adrenaline zipping through my body and helped me focus as I slipped from shadow to shadow behind Quill. Tarr was the only one who’d liked my plan, and truth be told even I was unenthusiastic about it. But no one had anything better, and with only a few modifications we’d agreed. Then, as if he’d been expecting this, Tarr produced neat piles of dark clothes and black leather armor for Namal and me. The clothes were thick, fitted and supple, a second skin. The black leather greaves, vambraces and breastplates also fit perfectly. It was some of the finest light armor I’d ever seen and I could move almost as freely as in my leafy circus clothes. I recognized the make, the same Quill’s raiding party had worn. Only this had been custom made for us and the emblem of Dalyn was not tucked inside. Rather, in plain view of any close enough to see, the albatross of Galhara spread its wings over the breastplates. Namal was displeased with the presumption, but I could see him swell to be wearing our crest again. My vambraces were also embossed with the geometric blossoms of mountain laurel. “The symbol of Nelia,” explained Tarr, his eyes alight. He had clearly embraced the stories.
Jemin had kept my pack, with Ironside’s old leathers and my knives, so Shiharr and Azzad were now snug against my back. They were comforting, as if I had Remko again.
Quill put out his hand and I stopped, one foot poised to step. Ahead, and to the left, a blue-cloaked guard walked on one of the winding garden paths, his lantern swinging with each step. The palace grounds were a stark landscape of silver moonlight and deep shadows. If we could have picked the night for this madness, we would have waited a week for the moon to wane. The only benefit of the great silver orb in the sky was that the light which lit our path also showed us where the sentries walked. We waited, motionless, until he passed, and then waited some more. Finally, Quill lowered his hand and moved forward. I followed on his heels. We weren’t trying to leave the palace grounds—at least not yet—just cross them unnoticed. The secret hallways had provided us with an exit in the gardens, sparing us from crossing any of the open lawns or courtyards that ringed the palace. I would have considered the gardens lush, even for winter, if I hadn’t been relying on the trees and shrubs for cover. But Quill was the Captain of the Guard, and picked us a twisting path far from the sentries on their patrols. We only saw one more before we reached the great hedge that separated the palace gardens from the training grounds outside the garrison.
Here Quill hesitated, moving slowly along the hedge as if he didn’t know exactly where to go next. Behind him, I tried to stay in the thin dark shadow cast by the hedge. I was just starting to worry when he stopped and reached into the bush, beckoning to me with his other hand. There was a hole in the hedge, not a big one, and he was holding back several branches to make it wide enough to squeeze through. I slipped past him and thought thin thoughts as I slipped through the opening and shrunk against the hedge on the other side to wait. The training yard was a wide rectangular expanse. Thick poles for weapon practice lined the perimeter and a strange tower strung with rope ladders stood at one end. The rest was horrifying open space. With a rustle of branches Quill joined me. He was wearing a black mask that hid everything but his eyes. We couldn’t very well have anyone recognize him and I worried that even his eyes would give him away. I hadn’t wanted him to come—the last thing we needed was the Captain of the Guard being fingered as a rebel—but he’d insisted. And no one knew the grounds or patrols like he did.
Quill slung a bundle off his back and shook it out into two cloaks. He handed one to me, and put on the other. I slung the cloak around my shoulders and lifted the hood. It was the dark blue cloak of the guard. Hunching our shoulders against the cold as if coming in off a long patrol, we stepped away from the hedge and walked across the training yard and into the garrison side by side.
It was an hour or two after midnight, and there was no one about. The only souls who should be stirring were those who had guard duty. I was reminded of my venture into Gillenwater’s garrison and reflected how much nicer it was to have help and be disguised as a soldier rather than a captive. We made our way quickly through the barracks and came at last to the entrance to the prison. There were two guards, and they stood up when we approached.
“What’s your business?” asked one.
This part…I had wanted it to go differently. I had suggested a thousand different cons for getting in but each one required one or both of us to show our faces, which we could only do if we were fleeing Dalyn after this. I stepped forward and held out a folded piece of paper. The guard accepted it, squinting to see my face under the shadow of the hood. When he looked down to read the paper I struck his temple hard with the flat of my palm the way Quill had taught. The guard reeled as he lost consciousness and I caught him, vaguely aware of Quill lowering the other guard to the ground as I panted under the weight of this one. Quill propped first his guard, then mine, against the wall, before snagging the keys off their belts and unlocking the iron gate. I followed him into the prison. It had the dank cold and the disgusting smell, the iron bars and the darkness.
I would be glad when we could leave.
Quill took a lit lamp from the wall and walked steadily down the center hallway. There were tiny horizontal slits of windows close to the ceiling, they mostly showed that the moon made it brighter outside than in. Most of the prisoners were asleep, or trying to be. All we saw were the pale limbs that caught the lamp light, and occasionally a face. One or two had open eyes that watched us blankly, not at all surprised to see two guards in the prison. We reached the end of the hallway and took the stairs down one level. This part of the prison was even darker. The cells were still large, and held multiple people in each. Now Quill paused every couple steps and showed his lamp into the cells to see who was inside. He gestured to me to wait, so I stopped while he walked the entire length of the hall and then returned to me.
Leaning close he breathed in my ear, “These four cells,” and pointed to four cells on my left.
I centered myself between the cells, drew in a deep breath and announced loudly, “Well, well, well. Looks like I’m just in time.”