I felt her presence only a heartbeat before her voice slivered through the darkness, “Well, well, well. Look who we have here.”
I turned, fighting the irrational terror that assaulted my senses. Lamplight was already brushing her clothing as she approached, and I shifted my grip on my knives. I didn’t dare look over my shoulder where I could hear the clang and shuffle of Ayglos’s fight still going. Seconds, only seconds had passed since the fight started.
“Ambassador,” I said.
She stopped just as the light illuminated her eyes. She was dressed in leather armor, not the gown and layers of jewels that I’d expected. Her dark hair was pulled back in a braid and she carried two wicked fighting knives. My skin crawled at her aura even as thoughts of revenge thrilled through me.
“Regent, now,” corrected Khattmali. “I confess I’m surprised to see you here, Analie Meredithe…or should I say Zare Caspian.”
So, Bel had told her. The brooch felt like it might burn a hole through my armor.
“Is that betrayal I see in those eyes?” She laughed softly, “All my warnings about the charms of men, and you don’t heed a single one. Valredes is exceptional, isn’t he?”
I forced my lips to tip knowingly. Inside, I hated her for talking about him that way, and hated myself for caring.
She continued, “…and I almost didn’t believe Valredes when he told me. After all this time I’d started to think Gillenwater had been lying about their catch, despite our problems with rabble rousers.” A measured glance behind me at the Huntsman slumped against the wall, dying. At the fight still going on beyond that. “How many are you?”
I didn’t answer.
Her eyes returned to me, coldly taking in the Galharan albatross emblazoned across my breastplate. “Did Kegan know who you really were?”
“You don’t know? That must gall you,” I purred.
Khattmali’s lip curled, “To think I had a Galharim drugged and helpless in my control. You certainly convinced Valredes you were a harmless doe when that sap sent you back to your lover.” She struck, quick as a viper, but I dodged.
“Just Valredes?” I crooned back to her, throwing a strike of my own.
Khattmali blocked and countered.
“When did you sleep?” Khattmali asked, following up her strike with another which I barely parried, “Out all night causing trouble, then a king to please, and then making appearances around the palace—though,” she tipped her head, “Is that why we never saw Kegan’s little lover at court? Why you never bothered to politic?” Her dark eyes glinted, “How did you stomach sleeping with him after he ordered all those nymphs—your people—killed?”
Your order. “You’re just jealous,” I replied, trying a quick one-two attack, managing to rip her sleeve. “Do Regents usually prowl around doing their own dirty work?” I asked, “Or are you in trouble for failing to control the King?”
“I was first of the Huntsmen and awarded my assignment here; It was a privilege to manage the wayward oaf of Dalyn, to rule in his place,” she moved closer again, “I would have seduced him eventually, but you interfered, and my Queen was done waiting. I was done waiting.”
My gut tightened at her inference that it was my fault they’d resorted to killing Tarr Kegan. “You’ll pay for what you did to him,” my voice was low as I again saw the light wink out of Tarr’s eyes.
“Unlikely,” Khattmali shrugged, her lips turning up at anger in my face. And then she struck so quickly I didn’t dodge fast enough. Her blade bit into my arm as I tripped over the fallen Huntsman. I pushed off the wall and ducked to strike low. Khattmali dodged easily and slashed back. She taunted, “How did it feel to watch your king die?”
It felt like hell, thanks for asking. Snarling I caught her knife with Azzad and slipped Shiharr though her defenses to leave a bleeding tear across her right arm. I would finish this. Blood trickled down from the gash above my bracers, I ignored it.
She spared her arm a glance and advanced on me again. A cruel sneer curled her lips, “You cared for him.”
We met in storm of blows, steel ringing with every strike until I feinted high with my knives and aimed a kick at her knee. Khattmali cried out as her knee cracked and buckled under the blow. Her guard waivered and I struck again, landing a hit on her good leg before realizing the trap. Her bared teeth were the only warning before her knife slammed into my chest, the force of the blow knocking my breath from me.
I stumbled back, stunned, and gasping down at the knife sticking out of my breastplate.
Khattmali watched me reel, then she straightened and took a step toward me on her smashed knee.
Holy Heaven. That shouldn’t be possible. I gaped, struggling for air like a fish on land.
Our eyes met, she said, “You won’t die. Yet. I have so many questions for you, we’ll spend a lot of time together these coming weeks.”
Shiharr and Azzad slipped from my fingers and I grasped the hilt of the knife in my chest. Gritting my teeth, I tried to yank it out but Khattmali launched herself at me, slamming my body against the wall. I couldn’t help the strangled cry as we both toppled to the floor with Khattmali on top. The knife in my chest was slammed aside by her weight. Instinctively, I wrapped my legs and arms around her before she could pull back and stab me again. I would not be staked to the floor until her minions came to help her. I would die here or not at all. Lessons from Quill in the squat little house in the garden came flooding back as Khattmali struggled to escape my grasp. I didn’t feel pain as I trapped one of her arms with both hands and shifted my legs, using her attempts to pull back to shift until I was controlling her shoulders and head in a vice. A vice that closed slowly, crushing Khattmali’s neck against her own shoulder until she stopped trying to free her hand and clawed at my legs trying to free her head. I laid both my hands on her hair and pulled down. Her fingers on her free hand fumbled with the knives strapped to my thighs. I let her.
I breathed slowly, surprised at the calm pulsing through my veins as I focused every last ounce of energy into holding her in place. Moments passed, her struggling subsided and her body sagged, but I kept holding. I needed to be sure. Breathing hurt. My chest hurt. My energy began to fizzle out like kindling on wet wood. I wanted to sleep. I didn’t dare let go in case Khattmali was pretending. Or in case she wake up when I let go. I would not let go. I would hold until the world faded for me, too.