She was just as beautiful as I remembered from our first dinner at the palace, with her black hair, dark eyes, and smooth skin. She moved gracefully, almost floating across the ground, her velvet cloak swallowing the sunlight in a billowing void. She was too close for us to turn back, and she was looking directly at me.
I stopped walking, my soul crying to return to the hounds and hide in the straw with Hew. Jemin’s steadying hand fell from my elbow. I felt exposed and had never been less pleased with propriety.
“Miss Meredithe, is it?” Khattmali called as soon as she was near enough for it to be ladylike. “What a surprise seeing you here.”
I stammered, “Lady Khattmali—how good to see you.”
Khattmali glided to a stop, the guards and servant halted a few steps behind her. Her expression was pleasant, but I caught her eyes flit down my body, no doubt taking in the disheveled state of my gown. The smell of hounds hadn’t bothered me until that moment, but suddenly I was extremely aware of how dirty I was and it took tremendous effort to remember this was alright. I was Analie Meredithe—just a common girl, no courtly graces, or perceived courtly power. And this was a good thing.
“How are you enjoying your stay at the palace?” asked Khattmali.
“Quite well, thank you, my lady,” I answered, glad I remembered to tag her honorific on the end. It was harder than I thought it would be, since I both outranked her and disliked her.
“Good,” a smile warmed her features, and she became even more stunning with her high cheekbones and full lips. “I’m very glad. Our dear king is most generous, and takes keeping the High Queen’s peace so seriously. It was kind of him to honor your family so after saving you from those horrible brigands.”
I nodded, she sounded so sincere that I almost believed her. But then I remembered what she was dong to the nymphs of the city and my guts writhed. “Yes, the King is—very kind.”
“I must say, though, that I’m jealous! His Majesty has been keeping you so sequestered, I haven’t had the chance to get to know you!” Khattmali gestured, a light twirl of her jeweled fingers. “I should like to hear about your childhood in Dalyn. I am not from Dalyn, of course, and I do so love this city. I want to know everything I can about it. Especially from a commoner’s point of view.”
“There isn’t much to tell, my lady.” I hoped I sounded overawed, and not horrified. “I’m sure you would find it boring.”
“I should like to hear it anyway. Perhaps tomorrow, I will send for you.” She smiled again, and I dipped my head bashfully for fear of meeting her eyes and betraying just how much I didn’t want this “honor.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
Khattmali inclined her head in a regal tilt, her entire bearing regal and magnanimous, “Until tomorrow, Miss Meredithe.” She glided on down the path, her retinue in her wake. The sunlight lost in a swirling pit of velvet.
We waited in the silence of shrubbery until she was out of sight before Jemin’s hand came up to support my elbow again. “That was unfortunate,” he said softly, steering me back toward the palace.
“Do you think she’ll really send for me? And which chambers will she send to?” I leaned into his support and warmth, even more tired than before and now feeling a bit cold.
Jemin grunted. “She undoubtedly knows you’re staying with the king.”
“Should I go?”
“Analie couldn’t really say no,” replied Jemin.
“But I could be pretentious and self-important.”
“Was that the social interaction of a pretentious girl just now?” retorted my guardian.
I snorted. Point. “I was a withering violet.”
“Withering violets do as they are told.” He stated it matter of factly, as if agreeing with me rather than winning his own point.
We fell quiet as we drew closer to the palace, and did not speak as we moved inside. I was relieved when we finally attained the king’s chambers without anyone else approaching to speak with me. Though, I was certain I was garnering more looks than before. Was it the king’s attention or the mud?
Jemin left me in the sitting room, after receiving assurance that I would be alright without him. He promised to send Hesperide in. I lowered myself to the couch and stared out the balcony doors trying to sort out how I felt about the encounter with Khattmali. We had been hoping I could go unnoticed, as an unimportant mistress, but apparently that wasn’t going to work. I didn’t know what sort of women Tarr usually wooed, however I was willing to bet that any known mistress would become interesting to someone at some point. I had attracted the attention of the Nether Queen’s ambassador—which was bad, but still not the same as attracting the attention of the Nether Queen. In fact, it could be good. If we were very clever.
Hesperide appeared carrying a tray that glittered with a gilded tea kettle and cups. Her smile sparkled like the splash of spring water on a hot day, “How were the kennels?”
I turned to greet her, “Full of affable creatures eager to be my friend.”
She set the tray on a side table and began pouring tea. “Was Naran there?”
I nodded. “He gave me a tour.”
“He loves the hounds,” said Hesperide, her voice warm with love. She handed me the cup and I cradled it, soaking in the warmth.
“Does…” I hesitated, “Does Lady Khattmali often go to the kennels?”
Hesperide froze, the color draining from her face, leaving her freckles like dark stars on a pale sky. “Lady Khattmali?”
I nodded, lifting the cup to take a sip. “Yes…we ran into her on our way back.”
Sitting back, Hesperide shook her head slowly. “I’m sorry, I don’t think she’s ever gone to the kennels before.” She set out another cup absently.
I watched curiously as she put a dash of sugar in the cup and poured tea, her eyes distant and worried. I half expected her to drink, but she set the cup on a saucer and stood up to fluff the decorative pillows around the room. I was about to ask who the tea was for when the door to the chamber opened and Quill stepped in, holding the door as King Tarr Kegan strode in.
He was dressed in black, shirt unbuttoned beneath his black doublet, as usual. His face was ashen. I moved to stand, and Tarr, without even looking at me, gestured for me to stay put. Quill closed the door while Tarr approached and lolled onto the couch next to me, picking up the tea Hesperide had poured the moment before. He didn’t look at me until he’d drunk the entire cup and Hesperide appeared to refill it. “How is your side?” he asked, his voice weary, eyes empty
“It’s getting better,” I said, studying him. “The doctor says that I can start moving around more.”
Tarr nodded, accepting the new cup from Hesperide and taking a long drink. “Good.”
I watched him for a moment, then turned to look at Quill, who was making his customary circuit around the suite. It didn’t matter to him that the suite was never unguarded, he always went through when he arrived. He felt my glance, however, and met my eyes, he looked grim. Something had happened. I looked at Tarr again. “Is everything alright?”
He didn’t answer, “Hess,” he looked up at Hesperide. She was hovering nearby, her face filled with concern. “Wine.”
Her concern deepened, but she left quickly.
I touched the King’s arm. “Tarr,” I ventured. Sometime during my week of delirium he’d become Tarr to me. “What happened?”
He shook his head slightly, refusing to raise his eyes to my face. “Please, tell me about your day.”
“Alright,” I studied him carefully, but obliged, and told him about the walk to the kennels and meeting all the hounds. Given his mood, I decided to skip the encounter with Khattmali for now.
He listened, fingering the cup of tea. “Who gave you the tour?” he asked, endeavoring to clear the emptiness from his face.
“A little boy named Naran,” I answered, smiling, “He’s quite a child.”
Finally, some light returned to the King’s eyes, “Yes, he is.”
“You know him?” I asked.
“I should say so,” the corners of Tarr’s mouth tipped up. “He’s my son.”