The five of us fell in behind the servant. He hauled all our weapons in a roll of canvas as he led us down a different winding stair and down a long hallway lit by iron lamps faced with colored glass. A pair of heavy doors at the end of the hallway led to a long and relatively narrow chamber. Windows covered with heavy drapes lined one wall, a huge hearth flanked by four ornate doors dominated the inner wall. Cushioned furniture was arranged in little conversational groups throughout the glorified hallway. We filed in like ducks, and the servant deposited the roll of weapons on a narrow table by the entrance. He proceeded to the furthest doors and opened them, bowing saying, “Kimro Ruddybrook,” then opening a closer set, “Quilleran.” The servant bowed again and exited back the way he’d brought us.
As soon as the door closed Eliah looked at me, “Rabbit!”
I threw my arms around her. “Butcher.” Then I turned and embraced Jemin. “It’s good to see you.”
“And you, Zephra,” replied the burly man, his teeth flashing white behind his beard as we stepped away. He clasped hands with Quill and Ayglos. “Always good to see the Ruddybrooks.”
Jemin and Eliah both knew our real names, and why we weren’t using them.
Ayglos started to prowl around the room, looking at the furniture and tapestries. “You were not exaggerating when you said they treat the Countess like a queen.”
Quill crossed to a couch near the fire and sprawling across it. “My impression has been that the old clan chiefs—who are now Counts and Countesses—are treated like kings and queens in their own holdings. They serve the King with the same reverence they themselves command.” Quill looked at Eliah, “Anything interesting happen while I was away?”
I moved to the weapons and began picking out my knives and returning them to their hiding places. No one else moved toward the table, but no one else was moving to a different part of the castle. Rabanki left Ayglos’s shoulder to come alight on the table of knives, plucking at the pommels. I glared warningly at the bird. Rabanki cocked his head in innocence.
Behind me, Jemin said, “Eliah had a shooting contest with Druskin.”
“Rat,” quipped Eliah.
“Very low profile,” said Quill dryly. “Who won?”
Eliah gave an indignant snort. “I did!”
When I looked, Quill had his face in his hands.
“He started it,” continued Eliah, “he invited Jemin to spar and didn’t believe me when I said I was a good shot.”
“And being right is no fun if no one knows,” put in Jemin, then he laughed.
I turned in time to see the dark look Eliah had leveled at the burly man. The daughter of a king’s huntsman, Eliah had turned out to be a natural with a bow. A skill that had radically changed her life and made her an asset to any crew. In the three years I’d known the gregarious woman, archery was the only thing for which she had patience. I picked up my last, and finest, daggers, and slid them into the sheaths on my back, “How was the southern tip of the continent?”
“Hot,” said Eliah.
“Did you see any dinrodiles?” asked Ayglos, coming to sit in a nearby chair. Rabanki left the knives and alighted on the back of Ayglos’s chair.
“Only at dinner. Tastes like catfish scrambled up with boar,” said Jemin.
“That sounds disgusting.” I dropped onto the chair closest to the fire. It was undoubtedly stuffed with feathers, and I thought I might never get up.
“I liked it well enough,” shrugged Jemin, crossing to the fireplace and investigating the tea service that dominated a small table.
“While we’re all here,” interrupted Quill, collecting himself from his sprawl to an upright position that still, somehow, took up the entire couch, “And before Zare is swept away from us, we need to talk about a few things.”
“Yes, as it turns out there are great many things I don’t love about this job,” I crossed my ankles and folded my fingers across my stomach.
Eliah smirked. “Lucky you with the upbringing and language training to fit in with courtly functions.”
“I should have been a peasant.” But I smiled as I accepted a cup of hot tea from Jemin.
Quill ignored us. “Zare will be a leanyod, so we won’t be able to communicate freely with her. If anyone asks, we met her in Wuhnravinwel when we met the rest of the Countess’s people. Everyone at the court knows that the King hired me to snoop around—not that he asked in public—they also saw Eliah when we made our initial visit. So, Eliah and I will play the part of visitors at court, mingling, doing as much investigating as we can with everyone well aware of our purpose.” Quill paused to accept the cup Jemin offered him. “They have not seen Jemin or Ayglos, so they are our shadows in the city. I expect to be kept apprised of all the gossip in the taverns and alleys and marketplaces.”
Ayglos and Jemin both grinned.
“We need to find out who stands to gain from the death of the Countess,” I added.
“Or from a war with Terrimbir,” said my brother.
“That’s where we start,” agreed Quill. He turned to me, “Once you leave this room tonight, we’ll need to be very careful how we communicate with you. Only a handful of people here are to know about your connection to me, and no one at Gar Morwen does. We need to establish a time and place to meet daily, both here and at Gar Morwen.”
I nodded, “I’ll talk to the Countess tomorrow.” Then I doffed my tea, “Find out what they’re going to do with me.”
“It’ll be fun, Zare,” Ayglos steepled his fingers, “Code words and secret meeting places.”
“Just another day in the life, Fox,” I replied, “I meant, what sort of responsibilities they’ll give. There is always at least one leanyod with the Countess. They stand behind her chair in meetings, on judgement days, sit beside her at feasts…At night, two of them sleep in an antechamber should she need anything…they go to meetings and represent her to the farthest reaches of her holdings.” I paused to sip my tea, then added, “I might be chained to her side for the next while.”
“You’ll have to find some way to get away,” said Quill, “Otherwise, I’ll be forced to kidnap you.”
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