His deep brown eyes opened straight to his soul. How had I forgotten that? I had meant to sound confident, but now as our souls met, I knew he could see the fear deep inside me. Because I could see his. I looked away, brushing at the dried dirt on my dress. “I’ve never seen this side of you before.”
“The dark side.”
“This is not my dark side,” Quill scoffed. “Trust me.”
“Alright,” I conceded, “the side that feels.” He didn’t contradict me as I brushed the last of the dirt off and started picking at another spot. I stole a glance at him and continued, “I’ve been meaning to ask you how you’ve managed to not be bitter about everything that has happened. This is the closest I’ve ever heard you come to being angry.”
Taking a breath, Quill paused before answering. “It’s a choice. Bitterness only takes the luster off my life, not hers.” He picked up his head, I knew he was looking at me but I wasn’t ready to let him look into my soul again. “Eloi knows some days are easier than others.”
I nodded, admiring his outlook, and carefully scraping at the dried mud instead of meeting his eyes. I thought of life in Galhara, before the siege. The first time I’d smelled battle, the first time I put Remko’s training to use. The sickening sounds of death, a hospital slick with blood, and the reality of rationed food. Then of life in the circus, as we snuck through the Nether Queen’s realm hoping only to reach exile in Magadar. I thought of Balleck’s strong hands over mine, teaching me how to spin poi and dance with fire. Of Balleck hiding me when I panicked in the Market Square of Gillenwater. Then of Remko, thrashing and unconscious as Boitumelo stitched up his side and I tried to hold him down. Of happy, gentle Olena standing over the flaming corpse of her first kill. I remembered crying uncontrollably into Hook’s mane on Ironsides’ farm. The first time I’d cried since leaving my grandfather’s kingdom under the sea. The last time I’d had time to cry at all. I pictured the prison, full of nymphs languishing without water, the Cathedral Square wet with their blood. I hadn’t had time to think about bitterness, to evaluate how much I hated the woman who had caused all the death in my life. I was busy trying not to be crushed by the weight of everything that needed doing, and everything I could not do. How could I fix this? I, with my injured ribs was not Nelia of Legend.
“Stop that.” Quill’s voice interrupted.
“What?” I was surprised into looking up at him.
“I can see you spiraling, don’t do it.” He was stern. “You’re not despairing by nature, don’t wallow because it seems like the thing to do.”
“I’m not despairing,” it came out as a grumble, “I was just telling you not to despair.”
“Yes,” chuckled Quill, “and then you tripped as you tried to shoulder the sole responsibility of fixing everything yourself.”
I stared at him, wondering how he’d gotten all that from me sitting in silence picking at the dirt on my dress and marveling at the fact that he was right. “I do have a fair amount of responsibility, here,” I said, sounding much more pathetic than I had intended.
“But not alone,” he reminded firmly.
I looked at him, at that soul whose strength ran deep. Part of me wanted to argue, to remind him of all the news he’d just given me, but I smothered that thought. We would be the ones to write the history of this war. Which meant we had to win. We. Warmth bloomed inside, and I let it spread, allowing myself to be buoyed.
Quill smiled. “That’s better.”
I shook my head, trying to stifle my own smile so he wouldn’t see just how soundly he’d succeeded. My mind helpfully reminded me of something else I had to worry about. “So,” I hesitated, “I ran into Khattmali today.”
He stiffened. “What?”
“She came down to the kennels…I’m worried she may have come specifically to meet me.”
“She said she wants to meet with me to get to know me better, and hear a commoner’s perspective on growing up in Dalyn—because she loves the city so much.”
Quill rested his head against the wall again. “That’s a bit of a joke. She just wants to know what the King sees in you, and how she can use that to her advantage.”
“I know, but…I don’t think I can avoid it.”
“Heh, probably not.” He paused. “Have you ever been a spy, your Highness?”
I scrunched up my face. “No, I don’t think so. Not unless you count infiltrating the circus.”
“The secrets of performance are no small matter.” I tipped my chin up and sniffed with affected pride. “No one guards their secrets like the magician—never did learn how he made doves appear.”
“I believe that,” he rubbed his hand across his face again, the smile lingering. “Do you have a plan?”
“Well, I’ve been playing the invisible merchant girl for weeks, now I just have to add words.” I looked over, “Right?”
“Basically.” After a pause he added, “People see what they want. You have to figure out how to work that to your advantage.”
We fell silent. I began to feel sleep tugging at my eyes. It probably wasn’t safe to return to the King’s chambers, and if we stayed here I would probably fall asleep and keel off the bench. As a child, I would have fallen asleep on my guard’s shoulder without a second thought, but that didn’t seem appropriate anymore. I tended to forget Quill was Captain of the Guard, anyway. “I don’t suppose we could go into the queen’s chambers and find a couch for me to nap on?”
Quill eyed the door for a moment. “I…guess we could…it’s probably very dusty in there.” Turning, he evaluated me. I gave him a bleary look. After a moment’s hesitation, he stood up and tried the door. It stuck, then with a tremble and creak it popped open. A rail crossed the doorway, Quill stepped under it and gingerly crept out of my sight into the chambers beyond. He returned a moment later and offered me his hand, his face unreadable.
Stiffly, I followed him through the tiny door, ducking under the rail and stepping onto a pile of torn cloth. The rail was a curtain rod, one side ripped out of the wall, the other still mounted, so it hung haphazardly, the curtain in a shredded heap beneath it. This chamber was round, like the King’s, but it was in ruin. Images of Rydderhall flashed before my eyes as I followed Quill further in. The bed linens had been tossed around the room, the mattress battered and disgorging feathers.
My foot caught on a broken table leg, I kicked it out of the way. A desk with all the drawers ripped out, an overturned chaise, doors hanging akimbo. We stepped out of the bedroom into the sitting room, where the slaughter of furniture had continued with no mercy. By the balcony doors, a couch lay on its back, with its cushions disemboweled. There was a pile of shattered wood and glass against one wall, as if someone had practiced throwing chairs like a game of darts—the target had been a large oval mirror with a gilded frame. The frame remained on the wall, bits of glass rimmed the inside like shark teeth
“I’m afraid we won’t find a place for you to rest here,” said Quill.