I was growing bored, and over-warm in the sun, when my eyes snagged on none other than Adorjan Bulgar moving through the crowd below. He’d made it at last. He saw the Countess in the prow of the ship, sitting with the Queen and Aurel Terr, and changed his course to avoid her. Apparently, he wasn’t ready for that confrontation. Galo was with the Countess, and Druskin nearby, and I could see them staring daggers at him.
I smirked and left the railing to find a shady spot where I could watch the proceedings. Brell had left me a bit ago in favor of talking to some of the Princess’s leanyodi. I strolled toward the middle of the barge where there was a pavilion set up. I walked most of the way around the barge only to discover that all the seats in the pavilion were taken, so I took the stairs down and started my circuit on the lower level. From down here, I could clearly see nymphs and men working the boats on the shore and I stopped to lean on the railing and watch them. I turned away when my eyes started to prick.
Rounding one of the giant vases of heather, I nearly walked into a man. When I looked up, I choked. Cleanshaven, high cheek bones, brown eyes. Bel Valredes hadn’t changed that much in the past few years.
Zephra. I’m Zephra, I reminded myself, fluttering my hand to my chest as I stepped back. I sputtered in Angari, “My apologies, I wasn’t watching where I was going.” Our make-up was lighter today, in anticipation of the warm sun, but my kohl was still thick, I was six years older, and tremendously out of context. He might not recognize me.
Bel smiled. By Fornern, I’d forgotten how handsome he was. “The fault is mine, hian,” his reply was in equally fluent Angari. “Are you alright?”
It wasn’t as though he’d knocked me over, but it was courtly to ask, I supposed. “I’m alright, thank you.” I smiled at him—which was easier than it should have been.
“I’m Lord Belledi Valredes of the Empire of Daiesen.” He bowed.
“Hian Zephra Ruddybrook, I am one of the Countess Adelheid Wuhn’s leanyodi.” I gave a little bow in return.
His eyes sharpened then, and a panic darted through me wondering if that was recognition. But he said, “You must be incredibly busy with the wedding.”
“Indeed,” I replied. I almost excused myself, but Bel was accustomed to being charming, brushing him off too quickly might excite his interest. “You speak Angari very well.”
“Thank you, Hian.” He hesitated as if he would say something, then instead he turned slightly and gestured behind him to the cluster of people from Daiesen. It was smaller now, I noted, some had apparently broken off to mingle, “I’m here with Lord Menrellos, the Ambassador from the Empire and his family. We came to wish the Countess and Lord well on their wedding.”
For all the titles in my past, the many roles I’d played, I was better with knives than situations like this. “We are honored by your presence.” That sounded about right. “Do you often travel with the good Ambassador?”
“Sometimes,” he replied, “When I am not needed at home, and when he is dispatched to a land such as this, which has incomparable horses.”
“You will not find another as nimble or hearty,” I agreed. This man, I thought, would probably know exactly from whence our horses hailed if he got a look at them. He was also the sort to go strolling through any stable he saw just to see if there was anything he wanted to buy.
“Do you ride, hian?” he asked.
“All Angari ride,” I laughed.
Something flickered in his face—confusion?—and panic shot through me again. Fornern’s fists. I needed to get away from this conversation. Bel had known me not as me but as a simplistic merchant girl besotted with an ill-fated king. What mannerisms or tones had I assumed when I played a sweet girl? Were they the same every time?
“Point,” agreed Bel, after just a heartbeat longer than was natural, “But some ride more than others.”
“I do not ride as much as I did before coming to the Countess’s service,” I replied, letting wistfulness into my tone. “But I dearly love riding.”
He smiled. “Should you have any spare moments while we’re here, I’ve contracted for two mares and a stallion from Yagyar’s bloodlines. They are in the palace stables if you want to see them.”
“You must have a silver tongue, indeed, if you persuaded Yagyar to part with two mares,” I didn’t have to fake being impressed, “But I’m afraid my duties won’t leave me time for such visiting. Indeed,” I seized the chance, “I need to go to my lady now.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Hian Ruddybrook,” Bel bowed.
I dipped in a quick bow in return and headed toward the prow. My heart was pounding. I had no idea if Bel had recognized me. I found the Countess still sitting with the Queen and Aurel Terr. I slipped up to stand beside Galo. Galo gave me a sideways look, questioning. I shook my head slightly. Nothing was wrong. Yet.
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