Trinh had left by the time I got back. Before I could pester Namal for details or tell him about Domjoa’s little project, the King’s messenger rapped on the door to deliver our official invitation to the King’s Midwinter Ball. The invitation came with a large white box and a note in Tarr’s hand that read, As promised, in honor of what was.
If Tarr and Analie had truly been in love, she should stay far away from that ball. As it was, however, I couldn’t help the delight when I opened the white box and lifted out an exquisite green gown. The color was as deep as forest shade, and vibrant as emeralds. Tiny gems winked like wood sprites from the sweeping neckline and trailed from the waist like the tendrils of a willow. I resisted the urge to try on the gown immediately.
Under the dress and a layer of paper Tarr had included a coordinating ensemble for Namal, complete with a new set of shiny black boots. Namal was less thrilled than I was.
We just finished stashing the clothes in the sparse little bedroom above the office when another knock rattled the door. We froze, eyes meeting. That wasn’t the pattern Trinh used.
Namal cautiously descended to the door, me a few steps behind him, and opened it. “Can I help you?” asked my brother, mild like merchant who was only average.
“Is Analie Meredithe here?”
Namal looked back at me. “You know this man?”
“Alban,” I stepped up to the door, “This is Lord Belledi Valredes.” I was too surprised to have any idea which manners to use or not use. I hadn’t seen Bel since I’d choked him unconscious in his rooms. Did he know?
Bel bowed quickly. His cheeks were pink from the cold, a small carriage stood in the street behind him. “May I come in?”
Namal looked like he would say no, but I said, “What do you want, Bel?”
“I heard you left the palace, I’ve been trying to find you. I wanted to make sure you were alright.”
Bel shifted on his feet uncertainly. “Good, I’m glad.”
I nudged Namal to get him to move away from the door, “We have only a few minutes.” Stepping back, I gestured for Bel Valredes to enter. “Sunset comes quickly these days, and they are quite serious about the curfew down here.”
He stepped in gratefully, looking around the room and hopefully missing the silent exchange Namal and I had before Namal growled, “I’ll be back down in five minutes,” and stalked up the narrow stairs.
I closed the door and turned to face Bel, crossing my arms.
“You look well,” said Bel.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“I’m sorry about what happened,” Bel looked at me earnestly, “Between you and the King.”
Incredulous, I swallowed several responses before managing to croak, “Are you?”
There was more bite in the words than I had intended, and Bel’s features became more guarded; I turned away, lifting a hand to my face, hoping to hide just how much I knew about his involvement in Analie’s broken heart. “I was happy, you know,” I said thickly.
“I know, I’m sorry.” His hand brushed my elbow hesitantly. “But it wouldn’t have lasted. It’s not his way.”
“Is he with the Ambassador now?” I asked, lacing my tone with bitterness.
“Maybe,” replied Bel, gently turning me to face him and tugging my hand down. “I’m not sure. Analie, I know it is terrible right now,” he tipped my chin up so he could look into my eyes, “And I know you won’t believe me, but this pain will pass and you will find real love. You will feel whole again, alive again.”
I swallowed. Hard. Heat climbing my cheeks at his touch and the offer in his dark eyes. Either he was a truly world class liar…or I was. The thought made me look down, suddenly interested in his snow spattered boots. I’d been playing one role or another since Galhara burned, and in this moment, I was tired of it. What would Belledi Valredes think if he knew the truth about me? About Tarr? Which side would he be on if he thought he had a choice?
Bel, mistaking my silence, put a hand on my shoulder comfortingly. The touch was inviting, but not pushy, like a charming shop with an open door. But I was keenly aware of the knives still strapped to my back under my knit capelet. There could be no comforting embrace for Analie today, and it was just as well. I forced myself to look up at him, “I appreciate your concern,” my voice warbled as I cast a significant glance at the window, “But you should be going. Curfew.”
Bel followed my look, “Curfew,” he repeated, his voice taking an edge and I could almost hear him blaming the King for the state of the wharfs. He started to turn toward the door, but paused, “Tell your brother to come to my office on Savlong Street, should he ever wish to pursue a trade deal.” Our eyes met again as Bel took my hand and pressed a small metal disc into my hand. “Or if you need to get away from the city for a while. Be far away from the festival.” He closed my fingers around the disc and brought my hand up to his lips. “Good evening, Miss Meredithe.”
He left with a swish of his cloak and I watched him climb into his carriage and disappear down the street. Only after I’d closed and locked the door did I look down at the disc in my hand. It was his brooch, his family’s crest of a leaping fish. I leaned my back against the door and rubbed my thumb over the brooch. If I needed to get away from the city for a while? Dread curled in my gut.
“You made quite an impression,” commented my brother, descending the stairs.
“I hope he doesn’t come back,” I growled.
We settled on chairs in the office, and I told Namal about the exchange, and showed him the brooch. My brother turned the brooch over in his hand, examining it in the lamplight. “It’s certainly fine workmanship. I wonder if he planned to give you the brooch, or if he was being impulsive.”
I rubbed my hands across my face. “Does it matter?”
“Well, if he was being impulsive that makes it feel rather less likely that he’s laying a trap for you.”
“What do you think he means by telling me to get out of the city for a while?”
Namal handed the brooch back to me and leaned back in his chair, “Everyone knows Narya is coming, that’s as good a reason as any to leave town. We prevailed upon our parents to leave Sinensis and get further away—even tried to get Ayglos to join them after scouting, though I doubt he will unless father explicitly commands it. But…Valredes sounds like he has experience with heartbreak. I think he just knows it will be easier for Analie to move on if she moves away.”
Our family was hardly a good example, but he was probably right. I tucked the brooch into my pocket, then remembered everything I wanted to ask Namal. “What were you and Trinh arguing about?”
“Arguing? We were having a stimulating discussion of tactics.”
I raised my brows.
“I’m serious. Trinh Kegan was—is—an excellent general.” Namal shrugged. “It’s also refreshing to talk to someone who has read the same tacticians, philosophers and military histories.”
“Oh.” I was glad that I had left rather than waste time eavesdropping on general debate. I was also glad for Namal to have a friend. Even if it was Trinh Kegan.
My brother picked up some ledgers and placing them on the desk. “I think that there is no chance of us being able to overwhelm the Nether Queen by force.” He pointed to the ledgers, which he’d arranged in a line across the desk. “Ballroom,” then to the empty desk, “the Bandui,” he placed a ruler in the “river,” “Queen’s barge—most likely—” then scattered ink wells around the barge, “Small craft, lit up to make the river shine.”
I leaned forward, setting my elbows on the desk.
“The King’s guard is made up of men mostly picked and trained by Quill, they can be relied upon to protect the King of Dalyn—so inside the ballroom we have some support if everything really goes badly. The small craft will be crewed partly by the King’s Guard and partly by the Queen’s Guard.” We’ve found a spot we think will work for one or two marksmen to take position on the far side of the river,” here Namal pointed to a spot near my left elbow. “Hopefully no one else will notice that line of sight.”
“The men from Gillenwater are tasked with causing a distraction near the garrison—most of Narya’s force should be stationed there, and we would like to keep them away from the ballroom as long as we can.”
Picking up one of the inkwells I rolled it in my fingers. I knew the plan. “Do you think we should warn Quill that if they see someone sneaking onto the Queen’s barge it’s probably only Domjoa and they should leave him be?”
Namal stilled, blue eyes flicking to me as he growled, “What?”