The Countess retired from the pageantry around midnight, and I was very glad to escape the glittering halls in favor of her quiet chambers. She’d danced the whole night with Ilya Terr, and talked with him when they weren’t dancing. The court could barely function for staring. Brell, Karolya and I handed the Countess off to other leanyodi and headed down the hallway to our own rooms. When I stopped at my door, Brell stopped, too.
She tossed me a conspiratorial look, “I met the entire delegation.”
“Some handsome men in that group,” she said, arching a brow, “I’m dying to know which one you know and why. But they were invited. Which, is hardly a surprise since our King invited everyone within two month’s journey. The Ambassador’s companions claim they volunteered to come because of the horses.”
I looked at her skeptically, my hand on the doorknob. “Here for the horses?”
“Some of the families will sell or give horses to those who ask,” explained Brell. I knew that already. I also already knew that Valredes was a connoisseur of horseflesh.
“Is that all?”
She shrugged. “That’s what they said. Do you think they’re lying?”
I met her eyes, “I don’t know.”
Brell gave me a nod, coquettishness fading. “I’ll keep an eye on them,” she said, seriously, before turning and continuing down the hallway.
I changed into the loose-fitting trousers and tunic and washed the silver and kohl of my face. I slipped Shiharr and Azzad over my shoulders, and a dressing gown over that. Then I padded barefoot down the hall and back to the Countess’s chambers. The guards nodded to me and let me pass. They would have orders from Druskin about me.
One of the leanyodi had just finished spreading blankets on the couch in the sitting room. She nodded at me and headed out the door. I waited a few moments, absorbing the silence of the room until two more leanyodi exited the bedroom. They both nodded to me. The moment they were gone, I walked into the bedroom. The Countess was sitting on the bed in night clothes similar to mine, her long hair hanging loose down her back. Her face was pink from scrubbing off all the paint. One lamp sat lit on a table beside the bed.
She looked at me in surprise. “Zephra? What are you doing in here? Is something wrong?”
I crossed my arms, “Nothing’s wrong. But I have bad news.”
“What is it?” she was deadly serious.
“I’ll be sleeping in the bed.”
She stared at me. “What?”
“I haven’t decided yet if you can sleep in the bed, too,” I continued the bedside and fluffed the pillows. “Though, with two bodies any assassin would have a solid chance of making the wrong choice, and I can keep a closer eye on you than if you were on the couch.”
“Yes,” I decided, “you can stay in the bed. Some assassins would be all too happy to slit the throat of an attendant on a couch.”
“Zephra!” she lurched backwards, hand to her chest in horror.
It was probably a little callous to tell her this way, but I’d had time to think while she was dancing and I was carefully dodging a piece of my past through the ballroom. I’d had time to remember knives in the dark, assassins and Huntsmen alike. I’d taken on several through the years. I wasn’t taking chances with the Countess.
“Druskin mentioned he’d asked you to stay in my chambers,” said the Countess, “I didn’t realize he meant in my bed.” Her tone conveyed that she knew perfectly well Druskin hadn’t meant her bed. I was pretty sure Angari spoke about beds as little as possible and thought about them constantly.
I tossed two pillows to the foot of the bed, “We’ll put your head at the foot of the bed, it’ll be safer down there.”
“Zephra!” the Countess objected again, jumping to her feet and snatching up one of the pillows. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“My lady,” I turned to face her, one hand propped on my hip, “I would rather sleep in my own bed than yours.”
“This can’t really be necessary.”
“Do I need to remind you that several people want you dead?” I fixed her with a stare, hard enough that her indignation faded.
She took a deep breath and nodded, “Of course. Nothing has changed.”
Her perspective on the wedding had shifted. The threats to her life had not. Putting my hand on her elbow, I said, “If anyone were to try violence in the night, better they find a paranoid knife fighter instead of a politically gifted Countess.”
She gazed at me, looking through me like she had once or twice before. I looked away quickly, uprooting the sheets and blanks from the end of the bed so she could climb beneath them more easily. She didn’t say anything as she crawled into bed, or as I turned down the lamp, shed my dressing gown, and tucked my knives under one of the feather pillows. Once I’d gotten into bed myself, and we’d arranged ourselves carefully so our legs didn’t touch, the Countess asked, “How many people have you killed?”
I sighed, letting my body practically soak into the feather mattress and pillows. I thought of her face when I’d killed the man in her tent. “Many,” I said at last.
“Mechanically? Not really, people are fragile things.”
“You know what I mean.”
I closed my eyes. There were parts of my mind where I did not dwell. I did not dwell on the feel or smell of blood, nor the sound of breath leaving a body. I did not dwell on what the stories of the dead might have been. I had accepted that I was a blade. And it was never a difficult choice. “I do not enjoy killing,” I said softly.
She was quiet for a while. Long enough that I thought she might be sleeping when she said, “I have killed many also—by my word, not by my hand—I do not enjoy it either.”
Even though it was dark, I propped myself up on my elbows to look at her.
“I don’t think I’ve ever shared a bed before.”
“You were wedged between Galo and I on the road,” I said.
“That was different. Now my head is at the wrong end and I can’t sleep.”
I could hear the rueful smile in her words. “Are you sure it’s the bed, and not a certain elf-lord who’s keeping you up?” it was grossly impertinent to say, but it came out anyway.
She actually laughed. “I feel very silly, but…it was…delightful…to spend the evening with him.”
“That’s probably a good sign,” I replied, laying down again.
“I forgot people were trying to kill me,” her voice was small.
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