A full week went by before I found myself seated on a plush chair in Khattmali’s suite, sipping tea which I could only hope wasn’t poisoned. I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of poison until the moment she was handing me a gilded tea cup, but now it was the only thing I could think about.
I’d spent the last week going on walks with Naran and his hounds, and was just starting to feel like maybe I could really start moving again. Namal had said it was about time to take me out to my men who were hidden in the city. He even mentioned something about a side trip to meet Ayglos somewhere…The last thing I wanted was to be laid low by poison. Though, I supposed poison generally killed you outright. No need to worry about being an invalid. Especially since, though Jemin had walked me here, there were no servants or guards in the room with us. No chance of an antidote. I took another tip of the tea. It tasted normal, so if it were poisoned she’d done an excellent job. I’d expect nothing less.
“You must be simply starving for female conversation,” said Khattmali, taking a ladylike drink of her tea. So, the pot wasn’t poisoned, anyway. She was dressed in an exquisite emerald day dress and jeweled necklaces. The embroidery which trailed along the sleeves and dripped down her neckline glinted with a metallic sheen. “The King keeps you all to himself all the time.”
“Oh,” I smiled over my steaming cup. Maybe there was poison on the inside of the cup only. Activated by the heat from the tea. Did poison need to be activated? “I’ve been alright. I wouldn’t know what to say to the ladies at court.” I gave a shy little laugh. If my experiences in the hallways were any indication, no one would talk to me anyway.
Khattmali smiled, the rings on her fingers glittered as she set down her cup. “Nonsense, I’m sure you’ve got all sorts of interesting things to say.”
“Haim is the best place to buy paprika,” I said with what I hoped was an adorable arch of my shoulders. I didn’t feel poisoned. No shakes, pain, or light headedness. Poison usually had symptoms like that, right?
“There you are, very useful,” Khattmali was quick to praise. “Though, with comments like that I can see why men take to you so readily.”
My curious look was not feigned.
“Let me teach you how to talk with women,” she leaned close, her dark eyes squinting conspiratorially. “Women love news,” she whispered.
I made myself lean forward, eyes wide with innocence. “News?”
“Yes—and I don’t mean the latest price of cinnamon,” Khattmali thought of her loophole the same moment I did. “I mean what the families are doing; who is joining the army, courting a wife, going into this or that business, planning a trip, planning a party…” she trailed off suggestively.
“Ohhh,” I dragged the word out. “I’m afraid I don’t have any news like that. I don’t know anyone at court.” It was mostly true. I’d learned some in the weeks we’d been here, but before that Dalyn’s nobles hadn’t mattered to me. They still didn’t matter to me because everyone had agreed it was far too dangerous for the Galhirim to try mixing with them.
“Sure you do, you know the king.”
My cheeks heated. At least they could be relied upon. “He’s very kind,” I said, ducking my head.
Out of the corner of my eye, Khattmali’s eyes rolled before she could stop them. She was quick to smother the look with a beautiful smile. Kind was certainly one way of putting it.
“He’s quite charming,” said Khattmali, her tone implying that she had intimate knowledge of his charms. She picked up her cup again.
My eyes flew to her face, my lips parted in surprise. Innocent, but not totally stupid.
Khattmali shifted delicately, “Analie, my dear, where are you hoping this relationship will go?”
“Relationship? With…the king?”
“Yes, dear, the king.” Amusement crinkled the corners of her eyes. “I’m well aware that the servants fetched you from his chambers.”
“Oh,” I took a sip of tea. Hiding beneath my lashes demurely. If I died of poisoned tea, I would die firmly in character.
“Many of us have been in your position, you know.”
I didn’t look up.
“The king is…” Khattmali hesitated, “known for being very forward with women.”
She was going to play the kind friend straight to the core. Alright. I reached forward and poured myself some more tea.
“It’s nothing for you to be ashamed of, you know. He is very charming. And how could you know?”
How could I know? I was a peasant. What on earth would possess me to think this would end with me queen? Love makes you stupid. Hesperides’ words from this morning came back to me. When the summons from Khattmali came and I gave Hesperide what must have been a completely desperate look. The King’s actual mistress then gave the King’s pretend mistress a quick course on human emotion while she fixed my hair. I had become convinced as she talked that I had never been in love. Balleck was probably as close as I had gotten, but not even then.
“You seem like such a kind girl, Analie, I just don’t want you to be hurt when he moves on.” Khattmali sipped her tea, then set her cup down on the golden tray between us. Her kohl lined eyes met mine, earnest. “And he will move on, my dear.” Her voice dropped, “He has fourteen children to prove it.”
I choked on my tea.
I thought I saw satisfaction flit through Khattmali’s eyes, though her face remained compassionate. “I didn’t think you’d know,” she said sadly.
I looked down, allowing confusion and pain to show on my face while I tamped down indignation. The man had only been king for six years, how did he have fourteen children? What about loving Hesperide? Love makes you stupid. “He…said he loves me,” I whispered, infusing the words with just a breath of defiance.
“I’m sure he did, dear,” said Khattmali. She reached for the tea pot and refilled her cup. Knowing laced her every movement. “If you like, I can ask him to start bringing you to some of the court functions. That way, you can meet people.”
What? I set my cup down and sniffed loudly as Khattmali refilled it also.
“You can make some friends, have some fun.” She winked, “Maybe not have to give up this life when he gets bored.” Her eyes skimmed over my body and I instinctively put a hand to the jewels at my throat, to the shimmering blue dress Hesperide had picked for me.
“Alright,” my voice was small, squelched with emotion. I was going to kill Tar when I saw him next.
“If nothing else, he simply must let you come to the Midwinter Ball.”
I looked up.
“Everyone who is anyone will be there, especially because the High Queen is coming.”
My heart stammered. Narya Magnifique. Here.
Khattmali continued, “Though, I feel we should get you out in society a little beforehand. Your beauty should not be sequestered any longer than necessary. I will hold a soiree and invite you specifically.” She smiled, and I managed a tentative smile in response. “Yes, that will be perfect. A small gathering, so as not to overwhelm you.”
“Alright,” I agreed, not seeing another answer. There really wasn’t a world where court connections wouldn’t be a good thing for a merchant. Even if Analie was still devoted to the King. I took another drink of tea. If it was poisoned, I was definitely doomed.
Khattmali kept talking about ideas for her soiree, and I did my best to listen and smile. A simple girl awed by favor. I was relieved when a servant appeared to announce Khattmali’s next appointment. Not only was I sick of this conversation, but I’d gone through so much tea I was in dire need of the washroom.