I was lying on something very soft and I didn’t want to move. I was just the right temperature, and there was a pleasant weight cocooning around me. Slowly I became aware of light. And throbbing pain. My left arm, my left side.
I jolted awake as everything rushed back: The jail break! The street! My eyes flew open and my mind reeled in confusion. I wasn’t in the street anymore. The ceiling vaulted high above the four-poster bed where I lay. Mesmerizing gold patterns laced across the dome and dripped down the walls of the round room. I could see the mantel of a large fireplace across from the bed. Sunlight blazed through a crack in the curtains along one side of the room. Gingerly, I drew my right arm up under me and tried to push myself up.
I startled, yelping in pain.
“Lie still, you’re safe.” A man was laying on top of the covers next to me. He put out his hand, palm down, to calm me, and I found myself looking at the gold touched hair and concerned blue eyes of King Tarr Kegan.
“Your Majesty,” my voice croaked. “What happened?”
“As it turns out, you’re not invincible.”
“I know. I was starting to believe you were—too long dealing with an invincible Nether Queen, I guess.”
Exhaustion hit me like a wave and I lay back. Not that I’d risen far. “Why are you in my bed?” Good heavens, I sounded awful.
A rakish grin tipped his lips as he sat up and inspected me. “Actually, your Highness, you are in my bed.”
I stared at him dumbly.
With a laugh, Tarr swiveled and hopped off the bed. “It’s the safest place for you, right now,” he explained, walking to a nearby table and pouring a steaming drink from a kettle. “If I keep you here I don’t have to explain your real injuries to the my less trusted servants, or deal with the rumors mysteriously smashed ribs might’ve started the day after a jail break. This will start other rumors, but those shouldn’t lead to your death.” He walked around the bed and set the mug on the side table next to me.
I eyed him. He was dressed, at least. His very fine shirt unbuttoned at the throat, as usual.
“Come on,” he leaned close, slipping one hand under my back. “I’ll help you. You should drink something.”
Tarr’s strength surprised me, though I wasn’t sure why, as he helped me sit up and then piled pillows behind me with the skill and care of a handmaid. Once he was satisfied he presented the mug to me. “Tea.” He said. “Drink.”
I sipped obediently. It was warm and pleasant, I felt my body relaxing as the tea curled through my core. “What happened?” I asked again.
“Quill brought you here after you collapsed,” explained Tarr, returning to the other side of the bed. “It seems that your criminals found your soldiers a safe place to hide, and Quill deemed them safe enough and carried you back here right away.” He hopped up, scooting to sit beside me. “You gave us quite a scare, you know. The doctor says you’ll recover, but you have to lay low for a while.”
I will have to thank him, I thought. Even I must’ve gotten heavy being carried all that way. I looked down at myself. Half of me was hidden beneath a dark blue coverlet. My armor was gone, I was dressed in loose trousers and a man’s shirt, the sort that buttoned down the front. One of Tarr’s shirts, I realized with a blush. Beneath it, the bandeau that covered my breasts blended into the bandages wrapped tightly around my torso. My left arm was bandaged also.
“It’s a good thing I made you armor,” continued Tarr, gravely. “You might be dead without it.”
“That fight did not go especially well,” I said, lifting my left arm and inspecting it. “That’s the second time I’ve been tackled to the ground from behind. What happened to my arm?”
Tarr narrowed his eyes, “You don’t know?”
I wrinkled my nose. “I was busy.”
“Judging from the gash in your bracers, I’d say you pretended it was a shield.” He shook his head, “Your arm isn’t bad, the bandages are mostly to keep the salve on the arm and not my sheets.”
“What about my side?” I remembered that blow well enough.
“Broken ribs. Some horrific bruising and a little broken skin. The doctor was afraid you might be bleeding inside, considering how far you went after injuring them, and how long you stayed unconscious.”
I looked at the king sharply. “How long have I been unconscious?”
“Well, then he gave you something to keep you sleeping so you could recover. It’s been almost a day and a half.”
“What?” I demanded, recoiling.
“Don’t get up!” Tarr put his hand on my shoulder, stopping me before my side could. His blue eyes commanding. “You might injure yourself.”
“Tarr,” I grasped his hand. “Where is my brother? What happened yesterday? The men…the nymphs!”
Tarr squeezed my hand. “Namal is safe. Last I knew your men were safe. The nymphs, well,” his face darkened. “They aren’t all safe. But Namal was able to give them advance warning, and I have been quite studious in overseeing the Queen’s decree personally. I’m sure the garrison commander would prefer I left him to manage the search himself as he would be much more efficient without my help,” a wicked light brightened his face for a moment before he sighed and passed his hand over his face. “Which has been exhausting in every way imaginable. I had just come back for a nap. Sent Quill away, since he could use a nap, too.”
“Quill was here?” I asked.
Tarr nodded. “He was quite worried about you, and no doubt feels responsible.”
“That’s silly. I wasn’t anywhere near him, I neglected to watch my back and I’m paying for it.”
“Yes,” Tarr arched a brow, “I suspect it is the ‘nowhere near him’ part he finds distressing. Also, the part where no one else saw you get injured—though, I’m not sure I would have confessed seeing it if he was asking me. And someone needed to stay with you, and my most trusted servants can’t actually be here constantly without arousing suspicion from my less trusted servants.”
This was a great deal to take in, so I fell silent and sipped my tea. Tarr leaned back and lounged comfortably next to me. “The escape was magnificent, by the way,” he said, looking at the ceiling. “We’re searching everywhere for those men, and haven’t found them. The commander thinks they are heading for Magadar.”
I smiled, even as a stab of worry shot through me. The circus, carrying what remained of the Galhara household, was on its way to Magadar. But they were taking a much different route, there shouldn’t be any way for Narya’s soldiers to stumble on them again.
“We’ve gotten the raven back from Sinensis,” continued the King, almost absently. “Your brother and sister have already started missions into the countryside to warn the nymphs and maybe recruit support.” He turned to look at me, “I’ve been told your sister looks a great deal like you. I’ve asked that she give your name if asked—this hides how many of you there are and makes you seem larger than life.”
Nodding, I wrapped my hands around the mug and breathed in the steam. My ribs made the breath slow and careful. I wasn’t sure what I thought about being turned into a legend, but it didn’t feel that different from playing a wild spirit in the circus. Except, in the circus most people didn’t really believe I was a wild spirit. “Where is Namal now?”
“At the wharfs. I gave Alban Meredithe an escort and a letter of recommendation to help him expand his spice business.”
I turned my head to look at the king. He’d hooked one arm behind his head and was still looking at the gilded ceiling. This was the same room we’d made all our plans in before the mad jailbreak, but I hadn’t noticed the gold in the ceiling then.
Tarr looked over at me, “Ostensibly, anyway. He’s probably really looking for nymphs to hide.”
“Is he angry with me?”
‘No, but I am. You let out a bunch of criminals, one or two of which were very difficult to catch the first time!”
I opened my mouth to defend myself before noticing that Tarr was smirking. “He might be a little angry with you for getting hurt,” said the King, after a pause, “Not nearly as angry as my brother is with me for bringing a seventeen-year-old girl into such war.”
I bristled. “Your brother needs to grasp that you had nothing to do with it. There is a wicked would-be-empress who burned my home to the ground! Besides, there are plenty of girls my age raising children and ruling kingdoms. They hold lives in their hands just as I do.”
“It’s probably their regents doing most of the ruling, and children are, if complex, an arena in which most consider women to have an advantage.” Tarr shrugged dramatically to dissuade me from arguing. “You’ll have to forgive Trinh. He’s a good man. Much has changed in the last six years, and it’s difficult for him to adjust. He has much to mourn, and he doesn’t want to accept that Narya is so strong—I’m also certain he doubts my sanity and fears for his own.”
A wry smile tugged me out of my huff: King Tarr Kegan was definitely unsettling. However, I felt as though I were already catching the rhythm of his moods. Or at least, that’s how I felt at this moment, with him calm.
“I’m not sane,” announced Tarr, reading my face. He shook his head and looked back at the ceiling. “I’m definitely not sane.”
“Doesn’t thinking that way mean you are sane?”
“Then it is the only thing keeping me sane in these times of madness and sorcery.”
“Please, don’t be upset by that,” I wasn’t sure the plea made sense, but if he got up and started looking like he’d jump in the fire, I’d have to stop him. Somehow. If I could get up.
He smiled at the ceiling. “I don’t mind very much. Most of the time.” After a moment he added, “I was serious about taking a nap. Do you need anything before I do?”
It didn’t surprise me at all that he fully intended to sleep on his bed still. I was certain the propriety of it hadn’t so much as crossed his mind, though I supposed we were long past propriety. I looked down at my tea. It was nearly gone, and I was feeling the pull of sleep even though I’d just awoken. “Help me lay back?”