The rooms where Galo brought me were just down the hallway from the Countess’s chambers. They were small…but luxurious after weeks on the road. The walls were covered in tapestries depicting horsemen, falconers, and rolling hills of grass. Heavy curtains covered tall windows. The bed was set into the wall, and when I tested it, definitely stuffed with feathers. There was a bookshelf filled with books, an exquisitely carved desk and chair, then a chair with wings by the fire. I noticed my saddlebags had been delivered and were sitting on the floor by the chair. A wardrobe stood to one side, already hung with clothes in the same style that Galo wore, but blue, and a nightgown. A large oval mirror adorned the wall beside the wardrobe and a narrow door on the other side led to a tiled washroom. Mosaics in pale blue patterns outlined the large sunken tub that was fed by two copper spigots. There was a pile of thick towels folded neatly beside the bath, and a tray bearing an assortment of soaps and oils in colored glass bottles. “Private hot baths,” I smiled, leaning on the doorframe and admiring the set up. “You do know the way to a girl’s heart.”
Another narrow door on the other side of the washroom led to a toilet. I could only hope the palace at Gar Morwen was as perfectly appointed. I wasted no time turning the spigots and grinning stupidly as water began to pour into the tub. Steam rose from one of the streams, and I noticed the mineral scent of the water. Were they piping in from the hot springs or was all the water around here mineral rich? I adjusted the knobs until I was satisfied with the temperature and then wandered out of the washroom to look at the bookshelf while the tub filled. The books were mostly philosophy and economics. One or two were in Terrim, the language of the elves. There was a whole section devoted to political theory and another to geology. I ran my finger over the spines before returning to the washroom empty handed. I probably shouldn’t dunk one of those fine volumes in the bath, though I might have dared if there had been an epic.
Listening to the comforting rush of water, I unbuckled my harness of knives and set it on the desk. The belt of knives was next, then the sleeve sheathes. My two finest knives, curving beauties named Shiharr and Azzad, I tucked under the pillows of the bed. I shucked my boots and breeches, then my shirt and underthings. Leaving the boots by the desk, I dropped the clothes, and the clothes from my saddle bags, in a basket near the door for the servants to collect in the morning. I returned to the washroom and slipped into the tub before it was even finished filling. My gold pendant gleaming, I laid my head on the rolled lip of the tub and watched the blue tendrils bloom across my body. Here, so far from the Empire, nymphs were safe and the privacy was less essential. But I was so accustomed to keeping my heritage a secret that the locked door was comforting.
I closed my eyes, letting my mind wander. I was curious about the job that had brought Quill and his crew to the south in the first place. We’d been so busy preparing for this job there really hadn’t been an opportunity to pry on our trip down here. When the water was dangerously close to the lip of the tub, I turned off the spigots and started to soap. I was curious…but patient. I’d get my chance to wheedle at Quill. Maybe even Eliah.
I dawdled my way through washing and rinsing. Mulling over the evening conversation with the Countess and pondering the coming wedding. It was quite late and the water was noticeably cool by the time I set the tub to draining. I made only a cursory attempt at drying off with the towels before pulling on my nightgown and burrowing under the feather coverlet to lose myself to sleep, skin still laced with blue.
I awoke early, my body aware of the sun graying the horizon even if the curtains blocked it out. I threw the curtains open and admired the view of the hazy gray ramparts of the fortress. I donned the set of clothes I’d found hanging in the wardrobe the night before. Under the collared coat there were fitted trousers and a silk shirt that closed with a thousand tiny buttons. My sleeveless undershirt, a thick second skin designed by a friend, was invisible under the blue silk and kept the harness of knives from pinching. I buttoned the three ornate buttons of the long, collared coat overtop it all. Everything was the same deep blue, and I found a pair of matching blue silk slippers on the floor of the wardrobe. I found a little tin of hairpins in the drawers on the left side of the wardrobe and was standing in front of the mirror restrain my curls in a bun when a knock sounded at the door. Half my hair tumbled down when I lowered my hands, I sighed.
Sliding the lock back and I opened the door, stopping in surprise. “Captain Druskin.”
The Captain of the Guard looked stunned, taking in my blue silk and then staring at my half loose curls as if he’d never seen hair before. “You’re dressed.”
I arched a brow. “Disappointed?” I asked dryly.
Druskin reddened, opened his mouth, closed it, and then said. “Change.”
“You can’t spar in those, and I want to see exactly what you’re capable of before I trust you with the Countess.”
I considered the man, dressed in leathers with his long black hair braided. “Do you practice with all the leanyodi?”
“No.” Druskin crossed his arms, “In order to get my support in making you a leanyod, Quilleran said you had skills. I want to know if I made a mistake.”
I folded my arms, mirroring Druskin. “I’d be delighted to give you a demonstration, but I very much doubt I’d have time to change, spar, bathe, dress again, and still be on time for my first day serving the Countess.”
His features creased into a frown. “Hian Ruddybruck…”
“It would also be unwise to train with me in a public place unless you also train with the other leanyodi.”
“Train with the other leanyodi?” Druskin exclaimed…then after a hesitation, “I will send word to the Countess to expect you later.”
“Alright. Then I’d suggest you fetch practice weapons while I change clothes. We can spar in my chambers.”
For a moment, I thought Druskin would just stare at me. Then he said, “Well, you are not Angari.”
I smiled and stepped back to close my door. Fishing the pins out of my hair I braided it instead. It only took me a moment to shed the fine blue clothes and don my breeches, shirt and my leather jerkin. I pulled on my boots, buckled on my knives, and waited for Druskin to return. I was sipping water and wondering how I would get breakfast when a knock sounded at the door.
Druskin was standing in the hallway holding several wooden practice weapons. His eyes went to my harness of knives. I stepped aside, “Please, come in.”
Hesitantly, Druskin stepped into the room and watched me close the door behind him. “Don’t make a habit of shutting men into your rooms,” said the Captain, tossing me one of the practice swords. “It would easily create scandal. Especially in Gar Morwen.”
I tested the weight of the sword, grateful the Angari preferred curved blades. I’d encountered broadsword fighting in the past, and it did not play well to my advantages. “Noted. Perhaps in the future you should train all your leanyodi to fight so that we can practice in a more conventional setting.” I made the first strike without warning.
Druskin blocked and parried with ease, tossing a couple shorter wooden sticks onto the bed as he advanced. The space was tiny to start with and seemed to shrink the moment swords started swinging. We were careful and calculating. Swords weren’t my best weapon, and I noticed a rhythm to the match which suggested Druskin was playing with me. At least we could establish that he was no slouch with a weapon. It wasn’t long before I was sweaty and ready end it. On my next attack I feinted, he moved to block and I darted inside his guard. I abandoned my sword to block his sword arm from swinging back and drove my left fist into Druskin’s diaphragm. Druskin stumbled back as the air whooshed from his lungs.
“Are you alright?” I asked, dancing back out of reach just in case.
The Captain of the Guard grunted, “I’m fine.” He looked up, a glint in his eyes, “And you’re unarmed.” He lunged forward, swinging for my ribs. I twisted away, knocking into the wardrobe but reducing the strength of his blow. His eyes flashed in triumph, and I grinned back, I was next to the bed now. I caught up one of the short sticks and threw it. He tried to dodge, but the stick still struck him in the thigh. The next stick hit him in the shoulder before clattering harmlessly to the ground.
“If those were blades, you’d be in a lot of pain,” I said.
“If this were a blade,” he saluted with the wooden sword, “You’d be dead.”
I snorted as I touched two fingers to my heart, the salute of Villaba. “Merely wounded.”
“Where did you learn to fight?” asked Druskin, bending to pick up the various sticks, including my sword, from the floor.
“Anywhere anyone would teach me.”
“Sacrificing your weapon was unwise.”
“Normally I’d use a knife instead of my fist.”
Druskin looked down at himself. “I appreciate your restraint.”
“I thought you might,” I crossed my arms and watched him bundle all the weapons under his arm. “I’m not a bodyguard, Captain. You should not think of me as such. My life is not sworn to the Countess, nor will it be.”
“I appreciate your honesty, Hian Ruddybrook.”
“Please, call me Zephra.” Even that pained me, but it was better than the formality of Hian Ruddybrook.
“Zephra,” continued Druskin, “I will not rely on you as one of my guard, but I now know your worth in a fight.”
“Do you expect there to be a fight?” I asked.
“I hope so,” growled the captain, moving toward the door, “Swords and knives I can handle.”
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