The day for the Queen’s arrival dawned and Ayglos had still not returned. Anxious, Namal and I watched the Queen’s arrival from the warehouse rooftop with spyglasses, having avoided the soldiers sent to round up a welcoming crowd. Green pennants bearing her black dragon lined the main thoroughfares and people waved handkerchiefs and cheered as she stepped from the barge to the docks where Tarr and Khattmali awaited her. From the distance, I couldn’t really see the Queen, just a long green cloak and dark head that barely paused to greet the King before stepping into her waiting carriage. The garrison had turned out in full dress uniform to escort the High Queen to the palace. I wondered where in the group Quill and Jemin were. The Captain of the Guard would scarcely miss such a ceremonial occasion, and I figured Quill would be keeping his most trusted men close to Tarr the whole time the Queen visited.
When the procession was over, the crowd dispersed but we lingered on the rooftop to watch the debarkation of the Queen’s troops. Four barges disgorged soldiers in orderly rows. Namal swore softly as he counted. “There must be eight hundred of them, at least.”
“We were already outnumbered,” I commented.
“Yes, but now we are hopelessly outnumbered,” replied my brother.
“Only if it were an open attack.”
“Yes,” he conceded, not looking comforted.
“If they’d caught Ayglos wouldn’t we be arrested by now?”
Namal’s mouth twisted and he shook his head. “He could be dead. Or resisting torture.”
The thought made me feel sick. I turned back to watch the soldiers and search for any indication of a prisoner among them. There was nothing. Once the soldiers disappeared from view, we returned indoors. Far too tense to sit, we spent the rest of the afternoon sparring in the warehouse. We didn’t talk. The only thing on our mind was what was keeping Ayglos–and talking about that wouldn’t help anything.
Trinh and his hulking second, Baldric, joined us for our unimpressive dinner. I did miss the food at the palace, that was certain. With the Ball the day after tomorrow, all the pieces already in motion, no one felt like talking. Trinh looked even more grim than usual. I wondered if he was thinking about his arch enemy eating a splendid meal in his palace while he hid in a tiny apartment in the warehouse district eating day old bread and stew from the dumpy tavern two streets down.
Domjoa arrived a little after dinner. He’d brought Haystack the vandal with him. Taking off his gloves and cloak, Domjoa bowed first to me, then to the princes. He wasn’t smiling.
“Haystack brought word,” he began, approaching the desk where we all sat, “There is an army coming from Gillenwater, and another from Charispol.”
“Moonie an’ I almos’ didne make back int’ th’ city,” said Haystack, his accent making me blink as I struggled to parse the words.
“Whose armies?” asked Trinh. As if there could be any question.
“They carry her banner,” replied Domjoa with a glance at Haystack, who nodded.
“This is her show of force,” Namal pushed inkwells around on the desk. “Whether she intends to use the armies, camping them around the city flying her banner is sufficient to remind people that even if one or two succeed in defying her, that she is far too strong to unseat.”
I grunted, “We haven’t even properly rebelled yet.”
“It changes nothing,” said Trinh, firmly. “The men in those armies are from Gillenwater and Charispol, they will not fight for her once she is dead.”
Namal nodded, his mouth a thin line.
It was a gamble. We all knew it was a gamble.
Leaning forward, I asked, “Domjoa, has there been any word of Ayglos?”
The black-haired thief shook his head. “Nothing. His raven has not returned…and neither have any of my contacts heard of a prisoner in the Queen’s party.”
Baldric spoke, his voice deep and resonant, “The prince is smart, I expect he is having to move more slowly than any of us anticipated to avoid detection.” I looked at him, surprised he’d used words. He continued, gently, “There are significantly more troops in play than we expected. It would be foolish to send up a raven anywhere in sight of the river.”
“That’s true,” agreed Trinh, casting a quick glance from Baldric to me. “We must assume for the present that he is merely delayed and proceed.”
“Eloi,” muttered Namal, rubbing his hand across his face. An entire prayer encapsulated in a single name.
“Did,” Trinh hesitated, “did Zam and his queen move farther away?”
“They did,” replied Namal.
“If there is nothing else, your highnesses,” Domjoa gestured to Haystack, “Haystack and I will be on our way.”
“That’s all, thank you,” replied Trinh.
Domjoa put on his cloak and turned for the door.
“Domjoa,” Namal raised his eyes to the black-haired thief.
Domjoa paused. I sucked a breath in, waiting for Namal to order him off his heist and for Domjoa to refuse. And then what?
“Don’t get caught,” said my brother gravely.
Domjoa’s lips tipped up in a half smile. He touched his forehead in salute, then walked out with Haystack behind him.
Midwinter Day dawned with skies gray with cold and the promise of snow. The day dragged by like a plow in tough soil. We sparred for a couple hours in the morning, serenaded by the lilt of distant music. At lunch, we ate and reviewed the plan for the millionth time. As the day went, the music and voices that drifted around the city grew louder. As if for a time everyone decided to forget they were turning their neighbors in for coin just a few days ago. It was Midwinter, time to celebrate that each day brought us closer to spring.
And each minute brought us closer to reckoning. Second by dragging second.
Finally, finally it was late enough in the afternoon to reasonably start getting dressed.
The celebrations felt very far away as I slipped into the black trousers from our light armor. Instead of the long sleeved black shirt that normally went with it, I wore an undyed sleeveless shirt of the same cloth between my skin and the leather straps and scabbards which held my knives. The emerald dress settled overtop and laced up the front. The back of the dress swooped with graceful folds that casually hid Shiharr and Azzad from view. My stiletto slipped into a loop in the bodice between my breasts, disguised in boning and embroidery that swept down my ribs and ended in the gems trailing from the waist. The dress had deep pockets, though they hadn’t been sewn across the bottom so I could access the slim knives strapped to my thighs. My boots, intensely practical knee-high leather, had fine jeweled toes to disguise just how utilitarian they were. Each boot held a long fighting knife.
Domjoa had procured some cosmetics for me, and I carefully lined my eyes, powdered my nose, and tinted my lips. My curls I piled on my head and secured with pins. A glittering emerald comb completed the look. After some consideration, I pinned Valredes’s brooch to the trousers inside of on of the dress pockets. Just in case. Last, the gold pendant with the sailing ships hung around my neck. Calm settled around me, and I felt myself slipping into the narrow and clear focus of battle.
I found Namal in the office looking dashing in his dark green doublet. My brother looked up when I reached the bottom of the stairs, “You look beautiful, Zare. It’s almost like old times…except with knives in every cranny.” Dry humor twisted his lips as he patted his own ribs where an assortment of blades hid beneath the doublet. Alban Meredithe wouldn’t be embracing anyone at this party, for certain.
“I like knives,” I smiled, then curtsied with all the grace of my breeding.
With that, we donned our winter cloaks and stepped out into the street. A few blocks brought us to busier streets where we hired a carriage to take us the rest of the way to the palace. It took the carriage a long time to wend its way through the streets which were crowded with revelers. We watched the twilight deepen and lamps spring to life all through the city as we went. One of the squares we passed even had a bonfire surrounded by dancers. I remembered the bonfire at Gillenwater’s Harvest Festival, so long ago.
The crowds thinned as we reached the fine houses nearest the palace and joined the line of carriages depositing nobles and the wealthy at the doors to the magnificent stone palace. A weird unreality surrounded me as we approached. The palace’s beauty was scored by the green and black banners of Hirhel. A footman in blue livery opened the carriage door and gave me a hand down. The courtyard had been cleared of snow and the path to the palace doors was lined with a dozen ice sculptures, each the size of a pony but carved like a dragon. Countless tall lamps illuminated the ice sculptures with an eerie glow. Namal showed the footman our invitation, then offered me his arm. At the entryway, another servant took our invitation and our cloaks, and we joined the procession of arriving guests walking down the lamp lit hall to the ballroom.
The ballroom doors were wide open, flanked on one side by the blue clad King’s guard, and on the other by the black clad Queen’s guard. I didn’t dare look at them as we passed into the ballroom and lost ourselves in the crowd of glittering people. The last time I’d been in a crowd had been Khattmali’s soiree. But this crowd…this crowd had to be every single soul in Dalyn who had anything resembling a title or fortune.
Chandeliers dripped from a vaulted ceiling, casting so many shards of light that the room was entirely bathed in an otherworldly glow. Huge arching doorways filled the entire side which faced the river, these doors were open also, each guarded by a large ice sculpture which was backlit by the torches on the balcony beyond.
At one end of the ballroom was a stage—currently occupied by dancers performing a duet—the other end housed the dais, with a solitary throne in the center. It must be the High Queen’s throne, and she must intend Tarr to stand in his own palace.
Namal guided us through the throng, slipping around clusters of laughing people and making our way toward both the balcony and the dais.
I let go of Namal and snagged two wine glasses off a tray carried by a passing servant. Handing a glass to Namal, I said, “Beautiful party.” A reminder to blend in. He accepted the glass and slowed his pace. We had time. And we’d look much more natural loitering near the dais with drinks in our hands. I looked around. There were a few faces that sort of looked familiar, but I didn’t see Bel Valredes or Lucian Tene, the only two people I really remembered from the soiree. If all had gone according to plan, eight of the men in this crowd were Trinh and his knights. Though, I did not know any of them well and was unlikely to recognize any of them through their disguises.
I sipped my wine, one hand on Namal’s elbow as I turned to take in the splendor of the room…and count the guards. At intervals along the wall, as expected, stood stone faced guards in full dress uniform. There were two in black for every man in blue. It was a good thing we only need to hold off the ones nearest the dais. Namal continued moving through the room and I relied entirely on him to keep me from walking into anyone. I caught the attention of young men here and there, but I glazed over them, keeping my eyes large and flitting around the room as if enthralled with the beauty everywhere.
We were almost to our position by balcony nearest the dais when a voice called behind me, “Analie!”