In my dream, my knife was just out of reach. She was standing in front of me, black robes and hair, her red lips smiling as she lifted a single finger and with it pushed my entire city off my beautiful white cliffs into the surging water below. I could do nothing to stop her. I could only watch the stones fall and feel the deaths of my people. I strained for my knife, panting. If not salvation, revenge. But every time my finger brushed the hilt, the knife turned to smoke. The city materialized on the cliff top again, and she looked at me, taunting. She was going to do it again. She was going to destroy my home again. I felt betrayed. As if she had violated some pact between us with her actions. I gasped, in an effort I willed my knife into my hand and lunged.
My heart hammered as I stared into the darkness of the Countess’s chamber. Azzad glinted in the moonlight, the tip trembling. I was trembling. I lowered Azzad to the coverlet, sucking in deep breaths and letting them out again deliberately as I tried to regain control. I’d dreamed of Narya Magnifique, Empress of Daiesen, the Nether Queen, many, many times. But I had never awoken with a deep sense of betrayal. My skin crawled. I scanned the room. It was empty. My heartrate slowed finally, but I didn’t put away my knife. Pushing up on my knees I moved to the foot of the bed to check on the Countess. She was breathing evenly; in the dim light I couldn’t see any wounds. Gingerly I felt around the covers for any sign of blood. I found none, and startled back when she shifted and sighed. I waited, heart racing again, but she didn’t wake. I crawled back to the head of the bed and slipped under the covers, returning Azzad to her resting place under the pillow. I didn’t sleep.
Lunch the following day was a party on the royal barge in the river. It was a fine day of unabashed sunshine and big soft clouds rolling through a blue sky. The barge was enormous, garlanded with heather and flowers, bursting with people wearing vibrant colors and ornate headdresses, both men and women. I guessed it was all the same people as that first banquet, including the foreign guests. The Countess and her retinue were in light purple, our collars were made of white feathers and the Countess was wearing an enormous beaded headdress that flashed and glittered in the warm sun. We each had feather crowns and I’d had to work hard not to laugh at them. There were more bare shoulders than I’d yet seen in Angareth, spring in the valley much further along than spring on the moors. On the banks of the river, the people of Gar Morwen had gathered in a street festival of sorts. There were venders and flower garlands and people picnicking where they could see the barge drift past and catch the music of the royal musicians. Other folk were out on the water, some working, some clearly out to gawk. I noticed people in the water, too, and thought there was a blue cast to their skin. Nymphs.
I was on the upper level of the barge, my hands resting lightly on the railing as I watched people milling about below. Rabanki had been in my rooms when I’d returned to them this morning. The bird was trying to get into the wardrobe, I had thrown a shoe at him. I’d missed—on purpose—but Rabanki was so indignant that he almost didn’t give me Ayglos’s note. I didn’t feel bad, though. There was evidence he’d rifled through the vials of tonic and soap in the bathing room before I’d arrived, and who knows what he would’ve taken from the wardrobe if he’d gotten it open. Fingering my gold pendant, I turned my eyes to the buildings on the western bank. I could see the bell tower of a church dedicated to Tirien slowly edging toward us. Ayglos’s note, short and sardonic, had indicated that’s where he’d be. The tower commanded a sweeping view of the curve of the river, and an archer like Eliah would be tremendously dangerous in a perch like that. So, Ayglos would guard it. Just because the Scythe preferred knives didn’t mean he’d use them. If it was the Scythe we were dealing with.
Brell appeared at my elbow. “Zephra, look down and to the left, you can see the entire delegation from here.”
I didn’t need to ask which delegation. Brell was far to canny to point, but I followed her gaze to the group standing on the starboard side of the barge. Now that I knew he was here; I didn’t have any difficulty picking Bel Valredes out from the group. There were five others, two women and four men.
“Which one knew you?” asked Brell.
“The one closest to the vase—brown hair, brown eyes—Lord Belledi Valredes, if you got his name.”
“I did,” Brell made an appreciative noise. “I will happily keep him distracted from you if he wanders too close,” she smiled at me.
I restrained the urge to tell her to be careful. She didn’t strike me as stupid, and it was very likely Bel posed no danger to her.
“How’s the investigation?” she asked.
“Well, we haven’t caught anyone yet.” I wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep, my dreams were getting worse, and I was mostly relying on the other members of our team to track down money trails and rumors in the city.
Brell gave my hand a reassuring pat. “You will. You have to.”
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