I made myself move away from Valredes and the ambassador at a leisurely pace. Just a reveler who hadn’t found whoever she was looking for. I did not want to attract the attention of the man who’d described me so very well to whoever drew the wanted posters that dotted the Empire. Finding the staircase to the next level, I climbed to the third floor. There were much fewer people on this level, and I realized that I was older than everyone I saw. Apparently, this was where all the youths came to loiter if they weren’t dancing. Young men leaned on the balcony railing, some mixed groups talked in clusters in the walk or the alcoves. I was out of place up here. I noticed the princess, Sarika, in a nook with a couple other finely dressed girls. They were laughing. It was startlingly ordinary and my chest tightened at the sight. How many young royals had started out laughing and ended watching their people and families murdered before they forced to swear fealty to the murderer? My lips twisted in a grimace. If I tried, I could come up with an exact count. I kept walking until I came to the stairs halfway around the hall and could descend again to the lower levels.
I still didn’t want to risk dancing, so I found a spot along the balcony where the curve of the room hid me from where Valredes and the ambassador stood. I watched the main floor, noting that Ilya Terr had asked the Countess to dance, and they were making quite a good showing. I spied Quill in the dance, too. My surprise faded when I remembered he’d been to Angareth before, and as I watched I could see the faintest hesitation in some of the movements. He mostly knew the dances. I wondered if Bel Valredes would recognize the Captain of Tarr Kegan’s Guard in this setting, in this form. Quill was still dressing in the style of Magadar; his purple brocade had enough silver thread to catch the light from the chandeliers, and he was much more expressive than he’d been as Captain. Guards were mostly scenery. Surely, he’d be unrecognizable. The real question remained, why was Bel Valredes here? An idea niggled to life in the back of my mind, curling my lips into a smile. I knew just who could find out.
Brell was dancing, but I made my way down to the main floor and waited in the shadow of a pillar for the dance to end. I had to move quickly when it did, catching Brell by the elbow before another young lord could pounce on the vivacious leanyod.
“Zephra! What is it?” asked Brell, still smiling and pink cheeked under the silver paint.
I pulled her into an alcove. “Brell, do you know the man from the Empire?”
“Not personally. I’ve heard there were men from Empire here for the wedding.”
My thoughts stumbled. “Men?”
She nodded. “I think there were two or three, I only just heard they were here before the banquet. I haven’t met them yet.” Her brown eyes sparked, “Why?”
I dropped my voice, leaning close to her ear, “I know one of them from a past job.” At least one of them. “I need to know why they are here, but I need to keep my distance.”
“Leave it to me,” said Brell, patting my hand where it rested on her elbow.
“Subtly, Brell,” I cautioned.
The look she gave me was the picture of angelic incredulity. “Zephra, honestly, it’s like you don’t know me at all.”
I smiled, in spite of myself, as I watched Brell wink and turn back into the crowd. Having seen her take on the much more difficult targets of Quill and Eliah, I was confident she would do quite well with Belledi Valredes. I folded my hands into my sleeves, lingering at the edge of the alcove. Ilya Terr and the Countess were still dancing, and I noticed with some surprise that Prince Domonkos was dancing with Hadella. It looked like their conversation was quite serious. The dance ended and I faded back into the alcove, making myself below notice. Domonkos and Hadella lingered in the edge of the dance floor. I couldn’t see Hadella’s face, but the prince looked annoyed. He walked away abruptly, and Hadella turned away from the dance floor, her lips tight as she left the glittering light of the chandeliers. Curious.
My eyes snagged on Quill, goblet in hand, walking toward me. The cut of his coat highlighting the strength in his shoulders, and I thought it was a bit unfair how well Magadar’s clothes suited him. When he was close enough to speak, he said, “Not dancing tonight?”
“These dances do not suit me,” I said lightly, moving deeper into the alcove. Quill followed and set his goblet on the tall, thin, table against the wall.
“It is well, for I am in need of a rest,” he said, pulling a kerchief out of a pocket and wiping his brow.
“Are the ladies of Angareth wearying?” I asked.
“Immensely,” he blew out a longsuffering breath, and I noticed him scanning our surroundings as he did. No one was overly close to the alcove. I stepped closer to him, opening my mouth to speak, but he said, “The Duchess of Yagyar informed me there is a party here from the Empire.”
He looked at me in surprise.
I dropped my voice, “I saw Bel Valredes.”
There was the faintest stiffening of his shoulders, “Did he see you?”
“No, but he’s on the second floor…with Ambassador Balint from Terrimbir. They were talking as if they were familiar. Did you know that the Ambassador thinks this marriage is abominable?”
“There are a number here who do,” replied Quill. “Though, plenty of those think it’s the delicious sort of abomination, since it’s happening to the Wuhn and not them.”
I picked up Quill’s goblet and held it poised to drink, blocking my words from traveling far, “Even among the leanyodi, apparently. But, perhaps it was a well-placed elf who hired the assassin. One with connections across borders and intimate knowledge of the treaty.”
“I can find out if Balint was the one in Angareth when the attempts started, and if he’s reached out to the underworld at all,” Quill folded his kerchief and tucked it in his pocket. His eyes found mine, they were dark in dim of the alcove, “I don’t need to tell you to be careful.”
“Nor I you,” I replied. But our eyes conveyed it, just the same.
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