I made a careful search of my tiny chambers before cleaning up and again crawling into the deliciously comfortable bed. I didn’t find any peep holes or slits in the walls, just a fresh set of clothes hanging in the wardrobe. It wasn’t unreasonable for the Captain of the Guard to talk to one of the most influential leanyodi, but he’d made such a big deal about rumors I found it irritating that an entire day hadn’t gone by before he’d blabbed.

Quill and I had lingered over the letters after Eliah had gone to bed. He sifted through them over and over, and I’d told him everything Galo had told me. Galo hadn’t anything about the young Empire to the north beyond Angareth’s desire to remain independent. But when I closed my eyes, I could almost feel its borders, far north and east, like an old sadness lingering at the back of my mind.

It took longer than I wanted to fall sleep, and when I awoke in the morning my fingers were curled around the hilts of Shiharr and Azzad. I itched for a fight but had to content myself with stretches before I dressed for the day. The clothes were the same cut as the day prior, but a deep purple. I had just finished applying generous kohl to my eyes when Galo arrived in the same purple clothes and applied the white streak across my cheeks to match hers. Another morning of audiences before we spent the afternoon preparing for the trip to Gar Morwen.

“Galo,” I said, as soon as she was putting the white paint away, “How did you know I used the Villaban salute? I have never saluted the Countess in that fashion.”

A faint red flush tinged her cheeks and she straightened her back, tucking the paint case into a pocket. “It’s my business to know.”

I arched my brow, “The Captain of the Guard reports to you?”

“Only when he’s been shut up in the chambers of one of the leanyodi,” retorted Galo with more bite than I’d expected.

I recoiled a bit, “Galo,” it was as unsettling as calming a spooked horse you’d previously found unshakable, “Captain Druskin insisted on testing my fighting skill. I insisted on not being the only leanyodi to train with him in the yard because I’m supposed to blend in. Sparring with the door open would have been worse.”

“Yes,” Galo sniffed, “I’m aware.” She pushed the bedroom door open and I followed her out, wondering what in Serrifis Quill had gotten me into. We were almost to the kitchens before I felt Galo’s hackles lower.

The kitchen was a long, bustling room with a stone floor and a ceiling of wooden beams. Pots, pans, and drying herbs hung from the beams, and long wooden table filled the whole center of the room. A fireplace flanked by a company of stone ovens took an entire wall. A doorway led to another kitchen on the other side of the fireplace wall. Servants were everywhere, either eating at the long table or tending the fires or chopping or stirring. The scent of onions and herbs tickled my nose. Three leanyodi also clad in purple were just finishing their breakfast at the table. I recognized two of them as having been with us in the hall yesterday. Both brunettes, the brown eyed one was Brell—who had said Ilya Terr was handsome—and the blue eyed one was Karolya. I did not know the third, who had black hair and was bent over a ledger, with a pile of papers and her half-finished breakfast beside her.

“Good morning,” said Galo, brightly, as if she hadn’t steamed at me the whole way down here.

“Galo,” smiled Brell as she stood up, “Karolya and I were just about to go to the hall to make sure everything is ready for the last of the audiences.”

“Perfect,” Galo sat at the table, and I slipped onto the bench across from her.

Karolya looked at me as she stood up, “How are you feeling after your first day of standing?”

“I’m well,” I gave her a small smile. I probably looked tired, but it was due more to fitful sleep than the prior day’s duties.

Karolya reached over and squeezed my hand, “You’ll get used to it. The first week is the hardest.”  She looked to Galo, “Galo.”

“I’ll see you in the hall,” replied Galo in acknowledgement.

As soon as Brell and Karolya walked away, a servant placed bowls of white mush in front of us. Galo bowed her head and I followed suit before digging in. I did not love the white mush, though it was rich in onion and bacon flavors for some mysterious reason. It was food, so I ate it.

“Hadella,” Galo turned to the remaining leanyod, “How are preparations for the journey?”

Hadella’s head snapped up as if she hadn’t even noticed we were here. “Galo, good morning.” Her eyes shifted to me, “Zephra, is it? Good to see you.”

“Good morning,” I replied.

“These are the accounts from yesterday, I’ve been working on them since audiences ended yesterday.” Hadella sighed heavily, “It’s always this way before a long journey, everything has to be done ahead of time and then new work appears where there wasn’t any.”

“Are there normally gifts when she holds audience days?” I asked, making myself start another bite of mush.

“No,” Hadella took a quick bite of her own food before turning back to the ledger, “Tribute is in the fall. This…this is sentiment.”

Galo put in, “These are wedding gifts, they are proper.”

“They are,” said Hadella, making a little mark in the book, “But I have a great many letters to write this morning once I’m done here, and before I review the steward’s preparations for the journey to Gar Morwen. If you wouldn’t mind.”

“Of course,” Galo shifted so she was turned slightly away from Hadella, signifying just how much she wasn’t going to interrupt the leanyod’s work. “Hadella runs most of the day-to-day for Wuhnravinwel,” Galo explained. “Brell has a gift for languages, Karolya understands farming and the needs of the earth…Each of us has a particular role to play for the Countess.”

“What’s yours?” I asked, before I could evaluate if that was a safe question.

“I manage the leanyodi,” answered Galo, “I make sure the Countess has everything she needs.” Her eyes flicked at me, “I’m in charge of you.”

I swallowed the last of my mush in a final effort and flashed her a smile. “Lucky you.” I tipped my head at Hadella, “What letters is she writing?”

“One of the reasons the Countess is so loved: they are letters of thanks for the gifts. Normally, at the time of Tribute, she sends one letter to each town. On good years, there is a gift with it of some sort—usually a cask of something intended for the Festival of Lights—but when even a lowborn family brings her a gift, she sends a letter saying thank you.” The leanyod’s face softened, “Even those who cannot read treasure her letters. What lord bothers to say thank you for his due?”



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.

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