We left as soon as the men could move. By some mercy we had not been descended upon by hordes of black clad soldiers, though we’d taken the time to thoroughly ransack the villa for supplies. There had only been a handful of horses in the stable, but Namal and most of the knights took them and blazed a trail leading away from the city. Something for the Queen’s soldiers to follow. When they were done being decoys, they’d send the horses on their way, meet up with Trinh’s marksmen, and circle around to the ruins of Rhydderhall to await our return.
I crouched under the bridge to the city between Quill and Trinh. One of Trinh’s knights, a black-haired man named Rakov, was crouched on Trinh’s other side. Ayglos had gone ahead to steal us a little boat, and there was nothing to do while we waited. My pack scraped against the stone behind us. It was a miracle we’d gotten this far, picking our way along the stone banks of the river, doing our best to not disturb the snow. The bridge above our heads was lit with so many torches it was one thin strip of day slashed across the river. It had taken a great deal of patience and timing to cross the patch of barren shoreline close to the bridge without being seen. Guards patrolled the road, and we’d heard two mounted companies pass overhead since we’d been here. At least the light above us made the darkness deeper where we hid.
I stared at the dark water of the Bandui, thinking of Tarr’s body, wrapped tightly in stolen sheets. He was strapped to the back of a horse, surrounded by bundles of damp clothes, and unable to enjoy participating in the adventure. So much had happened so quickly. Tarr would be entombed at Rhydderhall. For now, it was the best we could offer him. There hadn’t been time to mourn—or time to rejoice and find out how Ayglos had managed to show up at the right moment. I grimaced. There had been words tossed around while ransacking a winterized villa making frantic new plans, that was all. I’d had no trouble outfitting myself with warm clothes from the combined dressers of all the female servants. The men, though, had had a harder time of it, being as there were a lot more of them. I hugged the bundle of Ayglos’s clothes to my chest. We didn’t have spares, so Ayglos had left his clothes behind on his pirating mission.
The waves on the Bandui sloshed, evidence that boats were moving around somewhere nearby. The river would be busy tonight, especially by the palace. There were waters to search, bodies to dredge, shores to patrol…With my free hand, I caressed the water with my fingertips.
“Zare, are you alright?” Quill’s voice was low.
I looked back at him, not that I could see him in the darkness. “Are you?”
I heard the grimace as he said, “Fair point.”
“What happened in there?” I asked, “How did you get separated?”
The river filled the silence before Quill replied, “When we arrived at the anterooms,” his voice was so heavy, “She said she wanted to speak with him alone.”
Of course, it was that easy. She was the High Queen.
“I came as soon as I heard they’d entered the ballroom without summoning us. When I walked in she already had the knife.” The weight of his failure was tangible in every word, and I felt it gathering in my chest.
I shifted closer to him, cautiously reaching out to find his hand. “There wasn’t anything you could have done. She drew the knife pretty much immediately.”
Quill closed his hand around mine, and I felt myself growing warmer at the strength in his touch. After a moment he said, “Thank you for coming for me. I probably wouldn’t have survived if you hadn’t come charging over like you did.”
My mind immediately painted a vision of Quill lying dead in the ballroom. I shuddered, closing my eyes to shut out the image behind them. But to Quill I said, “You owe me again.”
“Owe you? I think that makes us even.”
He tapped his fingers on my arm to count, “You saved me in Gillenwater, I saved you at the Cymerie, then I saved you again after our little jailbreak, and now you’ve saved me here.”
I wrinkled my nose. “I’m not sure about the jailbreak.”
“Do you think your criminals would have brought you back to the palace where you could recover in style, in character, and with a proper doctor?”
“What about how I kept your wounds from rotting?” I replied, “You were not an easy patient.”
Quill scoffed, “I would have been fine.”
“Something’s coming,” Trinh interrupted.
I put my hand back in the river. He was right. A tiny boat crept along the city’s bank. We held our breath as it crossed the torchlit waters until it finally passed into the shadow of the bridge and disappeared. My spirit was lighter as I drew myself into a crouch and listened to the faint slap of the waves against the boat as it came directly across the river’s current. Moments later, the dark form of a rowboat nosed up to the bank, then Ayglos—a mere black shape himself—surfaced and propped his elbows on the stones. “Need a ride?” I didn’t need to see him to know the satisfied grin on his face.
“Did you have any trouble?” asked Trinh quietly.
“No,” replied Ayglos, “the wharfs are too extensive for them to have a strong net yet. But you’d better get in, the sooner we go, the better.”
We obeyed. Trinh and Rakov, first, then Quill and myself. The men lay down, feet to shoulders, in the bottom, squished together uncomfortably. I spread a blanket over them, and half over myself, curled up in a ball at the stern. If any eyes saw us, hopefully this dark mass would only be a shadow in the night. As soon as we were situated, Ayglos disappeared under the water and towed us into the current. The Bandui did most of the rest, carrying the boat swiftly away from the bridge and its light. I watched the city pass by; the faint glow of celebratory bonfires mingled with the lamplight from windows and carriages. I wondered how many were still celebrating, and how quickly word of the events at the palace would spread through the city.
Eventually, the lights thinned, and we reached the dark, low buildings of the warehouse district. Ayglos guided us in from the center of the river, choosing a smaller wharf full of fishing boats. I wondered if they all belonged to the Valredes family. As soon as we were close enough, I stood and hopped onto the dock, catching the side of the boat and pulling it in. The three men were quick to follow. In a moment Ayglos, too, was standing on the dock dripping puddles everywhere while he untied the rope from his waist that connected him to the boat.
I handed my brother a towel from my pack. He accepted and hurriedly dried off before dressing again with the clothes I handed him. The puddles were turning to ice when we left the docks and faded into the black of the desolate warehouses.