10-Letters

At the end of the audiences, my muscles ached from standing and the only thing I wanted was the gorgeous sunken tub. And dinner, of course. The Countess also looked tired, and left the great hall immediately to have a private dinner in her chambers. A different set of leanyodi went with her while the six of us who’d been with her all day scattered. Before I could sneak off to find the kitchens, Galo caught my eye and beckoned me to follow. She led me through the fortress and back up the winding stairs to the chamber with the bookshelves and the telescope where we’d met the Countess the night before.  Galo went to a little desk tucked behind one of the bookshelves and unlocked a drawer. She handed me a stack of letters ten deep, tied with a ribbon. I untied the ribbon and thumbed the stack. “This seems excessive.”

Galo crossed her arms, “It’s a blood feud.”

I looked up at her in surprise, “Some of these have seals!”

She nodded.

As if she’d misunderstood me, I held up the stack, pointing to red wax pressed deep by a signet ring.

“It’s a blood feud,” repeated Galo. “Many of the lords were very angry when they heard what the King had agreed to.”

I walked to one of the narrow tables and sank into one of its chairs, flipping through the letters more slowly this time. “This really doesn’t seem like…the sort of thing one does if actually contemplating treason.” Fully six of the letters had seals.

“It is unlikely any of these lords will take further action,” said Galo, closing and locking the drawer again and coming to sit in a chair across the table from me. “They have made their statement.”

I tapped one of the letters, “This one isn’t very threatening—Adorjan Bulgar sounds more like a disconsolate lover.”

Galo pursed her lips. “Well, he’s disconsolate. Certainly.”

“‘The flower of your beauty should not be uprooted and flung on the ungrateful elves,’” I read, “Or further on, ‘Do not waste your heart so,’ then ‘it would pollute the springs.’”

“As if she could deny our king,” muttered Galo, plucking lint off her sleeve.

I turned to study her. Though we’d been standing a few feet from one another most of the day, I hadn’t had much chance to evaluate or speak to Galo. I knew from our first meeting that she was direct, at least. She had thick, straight hair that was almost black. It was currently twisted into an elaborate pile on her head but strands were escaping after so many hours. Her skin was olive, darker than mine, and the white streak painted across her cheekbones stood out starkly in the fading light. “How do you feel about the treaty?”

She returned my measuring look. “I support my lady.”

I waited.

With a sigh Galo continued, “The treaty is difficult for her, but she has been expecting it for some time. Neither Angareth nor Terrimbir can face the Empire of Daiesen alone, and neither wishes to forfeit their freedom. We need more than uneasy peace, we need alliance. This marriage binds the royal families and settles the oldest part of their dispute. My lady understands its importance, as do I and the other leanyodi. Lord Ilya Terr seems noble enough, but even if he was not, my lady would bear it.”

Nodding, I turned back to the letters.

After a moment of silence, Galo asked, “How did you become a mercenary?”

When I looked up, Galo was watching me closely, and it took great effort not to stiffen.

She continued, leaning forward, “Female mercenaries are usually the daughters of knights, but you are not just the daughter of a knight. You speak Angari with the accent of a noble, and carried yourself all day as a lady of breeding. You have clearly studied our customs but they are not your customs, and you use the Villaban salute. You are of marriable age—probably should be married already—yet wear no ring.”

I swallowed.  So, Galo had talked to Druskin. The man would start rumors himself.

“Are you a bastard?”

My mouth opened in surprise.

Galo’s lips tipped in a satisfied smile.

Recovering, I sucked in a breath and asked, “Why are you not in charge of this investigation?”

She snorted. “I am a leanyod. Answer the question.”

I looked at the letters, measuring my response before I looked back at her. “My father is a lord in Cartahayna.” Smuggling lord. “I have not been home in some time.” Not to any of the places I’d called home.

Galo sat back, pleased with herself. Then she said, “Has anyone told you what prompted the King to hire Quilleran?”

“No, but I’m interested.”

“Someone tried to drop a roofing tile on my lady when she was walking in the King’s garden. Druskin barely pulled her away in time.”

“It wasn’t an accident?”

“Of course not. No one was supposed to be working on the roof that day, and when the guards made it to the roof there was no sign of anyone. Two days later, there was a venomous snake left in a basket outside the Countess’s door.”

“Did no one tell Quilleran when he was hired?”

Galo shook her head.

“He was hired to find who wants to kill her, and not told there had been attempts made—just a stack of mean-spirited letters that are signed?”

“He was hired in public; the King did not see fit to tell the public everything.”

I bit my tongue. Galo didn’t need to hear me snarling about how there were plenty of opportunities to give Quill information in private.

“Besides,” continued Galo, “It is Druskin who needs to keep guards on the rooftops now. Not Quilleran.”

My scoff slipped out, but before Galo could respond the door opened and a servant came in carrying a tray of steaming food. I brightened. The servant set the tray on the table next to us, and left when Galo thanked and dismissed her. There were two bowls of stew, along with two cups and a decanter of wine. I moved the letters aside, breathing in the sage and rosemary scent of the stew. “Tell me about the lords who sent these letters, Galo. And anything you know about the treaty negotiations.”

*

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