Wimshel was four weeks from the borders of Angareth, but we made the journey in three. Our horses were fit, and Quill was in a hurry to get back. Our longest waking stop was to deposit our cash from the last few jobs and for Ayglos to dye his hair dark again. He dyed his hair nearly black, so he could more easily blend in amongst the dark-haired peoples of Angareth. I was glad of the travel days to get used to the new color when I looked at him.
We kept the Mountains of Imbir always on our right, the monstrous Mount Anlor at the end of the range coming closer with every stride. We spent the whole trip going over everything we knew about Angareth, Terrimbir, their customs, history and powerful players. When we were alone, we spoke in Angari. Brushing up on a tongue my brother and I hadn’t needed much since we’d been taught as children.
Quill explained that his arrival at the court of Angareth had been public, and he suspected half the nobility knew the King had hired him. Ayglos and I would not be known to the court or associated with him or his mission and could more easily spy. He had, in fact, been avoiding the Angari merchants on the off chance that they’d recognize him, or me if they if they returned to Angareth during our job. I’d tossed my hair and warned him that his plan would never work because I was nothing if not memorable.
Once we rounded the tip of the mountain range and cut west, the land before us rose and shifted into rolling hills that were shrouded in heavy mist every morning. We were in Angareth, headed for Wuhnravinwel, the seat of the Wuhn clan. It was a small fortified enclave near the Juni River situated between the contested hot springs and the capital city, Gar Morwen.
“Will we see the famous hot springs?” I asked.
“No time,” Quill replied, “We’d have to cut back north and head for the border with Terrimbir. It’d add at least a day to our journey, maybe two.”
“Pity, I wouldn’t mind a soak in magic healing water,” I stretched my arms and arched my back, reins abandoned on the saddlebow as our horses jogged.
Quill glanced at me and arched a brow, “What do you need healing for?”
“I have this awful sore spot where my money used to be.”
Occasionally, we saw herds of sheep in the distance, or a tendril of smoke from a homestead, but we managed to avoid people even when we crossed roads. When the stone walls of Wuhnravinwel rose on the horizon we held back and spent the afternoon sitting in a dell playing cards and waiting for Rabanki to return. The raven rejoined us just as our refuge dropped into twilight and I started to wish for a warm fire. Ayglos received the canister in Rabanki’s claw and withdrew a tiny scroll. He read it and looked up, “They’ll be in the observatory,” he said, handing the scroll to Quill. “Instructions for getting in.”
We saddled up our horses and waited until the hills were truly black, illuminated only by the faint glow of the city lights and the spectacular spread of stars above. Then, wrapped and hooded in cloaks, we crossed the grasslands. We circled wide around the stone walls until we reached the fortress rising from the walls in a glorious array of towers. A guard was waiting for us by a narrow door cut directly into the stone, I saw the gleaming teeth of a portcullis above our heads as the guard exchanged a few words with Quill. We dismounted when instructed and led the horses right through the wall and down a tight little hallway which dumped us into the stables. The horses stayed behind with a couple stable hands while we followed the guard.
He led us through a very tidy stable, then turned up a narrow stone stair that climbed in circles up into the keep. We passed narrow arched doorways looking into stone rooms and stone halls, all hung with tapestries I wished I had time to examine. My legs were starting to wobble when the guard stopped, moved aside and motioned to an archway. Quill nodded and stepped through, I followed and Ayglos came behind me. A short hallway, where we were received by a pair of guards who made us disarm, then we were in a circular chamber with a domed roof. Bookshelves lined the walls and several tables with chairs were scattered around the room. I saw a telescope by the window on the far side of the room. That was another thing I would like to examine further given the chance.
There were six people waiting for us. I grinned when I saw the familiar barrel-chested, full-bearded, form of Jemin and the choppy blonde hair of Eliah. Eliah’s answering grin was a wicked white slash while Jemin simply dipped his chin. Proper greetings would come later.
My eyes skipped to a young woman with dark hair, standing ramrod straight in a long burgundy gown. A collar of dyed red feathers swooped up and fanned behind her head like a peacock’s tail. She was beautiful, or I thought she would be under all the cosmetics. Her face was powdered an unnatural white, kohl lined her eyes in exaggerated swoops and her lips, which were pressed in a thin line, were painted as dark as her dress. She was flanked by two men, one of which had a long white beard and long collared coat, while the other had a long black ponytail and a sword strapped to his waist. Behind them, a few steps away, was another young woman, clad in a sweeping collared coat in a similar style to that of White Beard, but burgundy like the Countess’s gown, most likely one of her leanyodi, her handmaidens.
Quill bowed deeply, Ayglos and I followed suit behind him, Rabanki spread his wings to keep his balance on Ayglos’s shoulder. I thought I saw the eyebrow of the black-haired man twitched upward. I held his gaze when I straightened. He was probably in his late thirties, with black eyes and a scar on his jaw. Druskin, the captain of her guard, judging from Quill’s descriptions.
“Grofnu Adelheid,” said Quill, in Angari.
The woman inclined her head, replying in Angari “Quilleran, we’re glad to see you returned, and in good time.” Her eyes swept over me and Ayglos. “I trust these are the crew members you were seeking?”
“Indeed. Allow me to introduce Kimro Ruddybrook, my new shadow,” Quill gestured to Ayglos, “and Zephra Ruddybrook, your new leanyod.”
Her eyes flicked back to me in surprise. “New leanyod?”
“That’s preposterous!” barked the man with the white beard. Pontikel, her Chief Advisor.
The girl in robes, the real leanyod, looked like she agreed.
“Leanyodi are always with the Countess, always female, and no one would expect one so trained in combat,” Quill explained.
“You were not hired as a bodyguard,” reminded the Countess, her tone unruffled, as if she had no stake in the exchange.
“I was hired to find out who is trying to kill you,” Quill continued carefully, “The best way to do so involves someone I can trust close enough to you watching what’s going on.” Quill’s eyes flicked to Druskin, the captain of the guard, “And I’m sure you can see how having someone without entanglements in Angareth or Terrimbir, whose only priority is this mystery and the Countess’s safety, is valuable. Even without considering her fighting ability.”
Druskin was stone faced.
“Leanyodi are her most trusted advisors and servants,” Pontikel shook his head, “They carry out her most sensitive errands.” He shook his head again, “It’s a tremendous honor. You cannot desecrate the tradition in this manner! It’s an affront! An abomination!”
“Pontikel,” the Countess lifted a hand and the white beard cut off his tirade. But he threw up his hands, snarled, and spun on his heels like he was going to leave, then he thought better of it and circled back. When he stopped moving the Countess gestured to her captain of the guard, “Druskin?”
Druskin looked at the Countess, then turned an appraising eye on me. I lifted my chin. If there was anything I could stand under, it was the critical eye of a warrior. After a moment he said, “Quilleran’s idea is a good one.”
Pontikel threw up his hands again.
The Countess turned to the leanyod, “Galo?”
Galo looked at the Countess, rolled her lips together, and looked at me. I met her eye. She looked back at the Countess, “Can she read?”
My mouth opened.
“Because,” continued Galo, “If she can’t read it doesn’t matter what I think.”
Quill turned to me, brow arched. “Can you?”
I was filled with an overwhelming desire to slug him. Instead, I took a step forward, “My Lady,” I said in Angari, “I can read, and I would be happy to demonstrate.”
“Please do,” said Galo, pulling a book off a random shelf and walking up to me. She offered me the leather-bound volume.
I accepted it, “You could have picked something more scintillating than The History of Ink.”
Galo’s lips twitched.
I flipped open the book, “‘Chapter One: Cephalopods,’” I glanced up, “More interesting than I expected.” Then I began, “‘The cephalopod family of sea creatures is most known for its tentacles and for the ability some have to secrete a cloud of black or blue ink when attempting to confuse predators so it can—’”
“Stop.” The Countess held up her hand.
I stopped, closed the book and handed it back to Galo. Any feeling of smugness was tainted by the ridiculous.
“Very well, Quilleran,” the Countess dark lips tipped upward ever so slightly, “Your Zephra Ruddybrook will be one of my leanyodi, starting tomorrow. If she succeeds while here in Wuhravinwel, then she may stay in that position in Gar Morwen, also. Galo, make sure she is provided with clothes and a room near the other leanyodi.”
Galo nodded, expressionless as she tucked the book under her arm and returned to her place behind the Countess.
“Is there anything else?” the Countess was looking at Quill.
“I’m sending Kimro and Jemin ahead of us to Gar Morwen, they will leave tomorrow.”
“Very well. Your quarters are the same, I will have a servant bring you there. Galo will fetch Zephra when her rooms are ready.” The Countess turned and glided out of the room, her back straight and her gown trailing behind her, her captain of the guard just a step beyond it. The white-bearded counselor spared me a sour look as he, too, followed the Countess. Galo was the last to leave, pausing to the re-shelve The History of Ink before heading to the arched doorway. The moment she stepped out, a servant stepped in and gestured for us to follow.
Special thank you to my Patrons, I am so grateful for your support! Thanks for coming on this journey with me.
Share Zare with your friends and we will be a merry company.