I related our escapade to Eliah, both of us sitting on the desk like ruffians while we finished cleaning and sharpening my knives. Eliah made noises of crowing delight at each exciting moment. When I’d finished, Eliah said, “Eloi’shand is clear as day in bringing them together on the road. Just think how hard it would have been to rescue her without Lord Terr’s help.”
I stood and stretched, “We would’ve managed. But I must say having the help of the trees was incredibly nice.”
“Could you imagine if we’d had a gifted elf with us when we did that job just south of Kelphas?”
I moaned in agreement. “Perhaps I should recruit someone,” walking to the bed I stretched out on my stomach, facing Eliah. “Next time I’m up north—someone from Salionel.”
“What are you going to do, hold a tree charming contest?”
“And which of your secrets will you let that person in on?” asked Eliah, moving from the desk to sitting backwards on the carved chair, folding her arms across the top.
I made a face at her and changed the subject, “What about your quiet three-day ride through the countryside? Did you learn anything useful?”
“That the Countess’s people love her, and love their tribe, and they are surprisingly consistent in this. They support the treaty to support her—but they hate that there must be one, and they kind of hate Terrimbir for existing.” She stopped to rub her nose, “I think they’d happily kill Ilya Terr and take the consequences if they thought she wanted them to. We were all pretty bewildered when we arrived at the river and saw her sitting so relaxed with the elves. I don’t think they knew how to react.”
I smiled. “I suspect their sentiment will quickly shift to just being on call to avenge a broken heart if necessary.”
“Do you think she loves him?” asked Eliah, surprised. “Have they known each other long?”
I could almost see Eliah calculating, spinning a version of their story where they had met up north, fallen in love and come south to mend their countries. “No, don’t be silly,” I waved my hand to dispel the narrative, “I think that the seed has been planted. They will be quite happy together if they can live through this.”
Eliah gave me an evaluating look. “I’m not sure I could ever forget I didn’t choose him.”
“Ah, but she did choose. The considerations just weren’t romantic.”
“Alright, in her place, would you do the same?”
“You wouldn’t.” She leveled an accusing finger at me, “I bet you almost had to marry someone hideous and now you’re thinking of him.”
“Eliah!” I rolled to a sitting position, “Honestly. We didn’t even get to marry off my sister. If I could end centuries of warfare and secure an ally for my king by marrying a surprisingly good male who was also good looking and funny,” I matched Eliah’s accusing finger, “I would do it and probably also fall in love with him.”
“But,” I conceded, “I’m a little glad I don’t have to.” We fell silent. I had, in fact, thought of Quilleran Rhydderick’s brown eyes, and knew a choice like the Countess’s would be harder now than when I was a child. I drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Eliah gave me an amused look. “I can’t picture you doing what she’s doing. I mean…I’m sure you would if you had to…but I can’t picture it.” She reached over and picked up one of my knives.
“Times have changed somewhat.” For a moment we were quiet again, probably both wondering what the world would have been like if Narya Magnifique had not set out to build her empire—much less succeeded. The differences were too staggering to think on long—even if Eliah’s presence itself was reminder of the most terrifying reality: We were born ten years apart, but the age gap had been closed to a mere four years when the empress made her first conquest: She’d caused Shyr Valla, the jewel of the mountains, to disappear without a trace. We, of course, had no idea how the Empress had wiped an entire city out of existence, but apparently the fabric of time was involved because then-Prince Trinh Kegan and eight of his knights had been caught by the shockwave from the spell. When they got up, six years had passed. How could you fight a sorceress who had bent time? You couldn’t. The thought tasted bitter.
I stood up abruptly, “Got time to spar?”
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