Five nymphs surfaced, swimming for the boat and elves, and another surfaced alongside me. A female with blue-green swirls gracing her face, her hair dark and short, slicked back by water. “Alright now, friend,” she said, cheerfully, reaching out to grab the elf’s other arm. “We’ve got you.”
Eloi, I was not used to this much company in the water. Had they seen me drag all those elves into the river? Had everyone on the royal barge seen? I hadn’t bothered about any audience once I was overboard. “That pier,” I said, trying to match her bright tone and jerking my head toward the one where Rabanki and Jemin waited.
The pier loomed up quickly, two nymphs and a helpful river were more than a match for an elf who—if he could swim—wasn’t swimming. The others weren’t far behind. Jemin was crouched on the edge, and as soon as we were in reach, he caught the elf’s cuirass and hauled him up.
“Keep hold of him,” I said, pulling myself onto the boards. “So we’ll have at least one.”
Jemin grunted, already looping rope around the elf’s wrists. “You’ve got Quill in the water. And another”
I swiveled back to the river.
The nymph pulled herself up next to me, “Why are you binding him?”
I glanced at her. “The King wants them for questioning.”
“What happened?” she asked, “We saw the boat in trouble, somehow, on our placid Juni.”
“Yes, thanks for the help, I was a little short-handed.” I removed the elf’s sword belt and did a quick search which revealed three more knives.
She gave me a sideways look, then turned to include Jemin, “You’re not in the King’s livery.”
“I’m Zephra Ruddybrook, leanyodi of Countess Adelheid Wuhn,” I said, “We are about business for the crown.”
She looked me over, taking in the embroidery that emanated from every hem of my very fine—if soaking wet—clothes, the complex hairstyle, and…my bare feet. My slippers had not survived my plunge into the water. “I’ve never seen a leanyodi wet before. I suppose it’s possible you are who you say.”
My lips twisted into a smirk, and I turned to help haul the other elves out of the water. The elves started to struggle and heap curses on us when they noticed what was waiting for them, but with the help of the nymphs and the river we kept them contained until Jemin could bind and disarm them. The elf on the boat was the most difficult to subdue, as he leapt off and ran down the pier as soon as the boat arrived. I gained a few scratches in the scuffle after I tackled him to the boards, but that was all. The nymphs said little after hearing our explanation, but they stayed close and watched us. Three males and two females dressed in the close fitting and minimal clothes of nymphs working on water. Their skin was a touch darker than mine, and their stripes greener.
I was standing over my captives when Quill pulled himself onto the dock and to his feet, his chest heaving from the swim. Behind him, a dark-skinned, broad shouldered, elf pulled himself up and I recognized Mihalak, Ilya Terr’s second. They were barefoot, and quickly stripped their soaked and clinging coats, flinging them to the boards with prejudice. They both surveyed the scene on the pier, and Mihalak’s eyes flickered with surprise. At the elves. At me.
“What do we have?” Quill asked.
I stepped close to them, lowering my voice, “Rabanki revealed them getting into position to assault the barge. I handled it.”
Mihalak cursed under his breath.
I glanced at the four bound elves; they were glaring at Mihalak. “What did the barge see?” I asked.
Quill looked me over, then finding no wounds, relaxed a touch. “I’m not sure. I heard shouting about someone overboard, then Rabanki found me. No one was talking about a boat when I jumped overboard. They were all looking at the water.”
“I followed him,” Mihalak managed a strained smile, “It seemed important for a Terrim elf to help rescue an Angari maiden. Though it appears I misread the situation.” He gestured at me—striped blue, wearing knives.
I inclined my head. “As I hoped. I pretended to faint. I think we should keep this quiet if we can. We can meet the royal barge at the docks downriver—dry and bedraggled—and let them think you rescued me.”
Quill nodded. “We can certainly try and see what the reaction is.”
“I’m more concerned about the attack than folk learning my real purpose,” I said. “Though one secret certainly unravels the other.”
“My ideal is preserving both secrets,” replied Quill. “You should have every advantage as long as possible.”
Mihalak gave us an odd look. Then, turning, he walked to the elves and crouched in front of one of them. For a long moment they stared at each other. Mihalak was chillingingly impassive as he asked “Who do you serve?” in Terrim. He was met with thin lipped silence. He tipped his head, “You look like one of Oak’s. What were you here to do?”
The elf met his gaze, eyes blazing, “To do what our High Lord would not—protect the Springs of Tirien.”
“Who sent you?” prodded Mihalak.
The elf spat, “That doesn’t matter, heathen-loving scum. You will burn in hell for what you’ve done.”
“Eloi will be the judge of that.” Coldly, Mihalak wiped the spittle from his face and stood, returning to Quill and me. “My High Lord and my Lord have a right to these prisoners.”
“Then tell them. I have no wish to hide them from your Lord, only the crowd,” I said. “The last thing we need is for the nobles to get up in arms.”
Quill raised his voice. “Jemin, where is Kimro?”
“Aloft still,” replied Jemin. “Keeping eyes on the river.”
“Good. We need to find some of the King’s guard to collect these, and quietly.”
“You need someone to run to the guard?” asked one of the nymph males, stepping forward. “I can go.”
“Please do,” said Quill, “Tell them Quilleran has four prisoners he has detained as part of his investigation for the King.”
The nymph nodded and trotted up the pier toward the city. Mihalak eyed Quill shrewdly. “Do you think that this is tied to the threat on the Countess’s life?”
Of course, basically everyone know why Quill was here.
“It certainly appears to have been an attempt on her life, whether it’s connected to the threat inside her own court, I do not yet know.” Quill turned back to study the elves. “There is certainly enough hate here that it need not be.” I thought of Adorjan, and the scarecrow, and the men who’d attacked us on the road. This treaty was only the beginning of the fight for peace.
We left our captives with Jemin and the nymphs, and took the elves’ boat further downriver, keeping as far from the royal barge as we could when we passed it. I asked the Juni to speed us along, and Quill and Mihalak used poles to help. We spread their coats out to dry, and I stripped down another layer and tried to sun both myself and my clothes to dry out. Mihalak watched with keen-eyed interest. “They don’t know you’re a nymph?” he asked at last.
“They do not,” I said, “And your rescue will look more gallant if that remains the case.”
Mihalak was quiet for a moment, then said, “That’s very unusual. Keeping your race a secret. Or,” he gestured to his pointed ears, “So thinks one who cannot hide so easily.”
“I’m sure we could find you a headdress that hid your ears,” I replied with a smile.
He had more questions. I could feel it. But most of them were sort of personal to ask someone you didn’t know well, and Mihalak apparently wasn’t the type to pry. I spread my harness of knives out on the floor of the boat and made a note I’d need to clean and oil it, and all the knives, tonight.
As we drew close to the dock where the royal barge would end its journey, I dressed again in uncomfortably damp clothing, and Quill wrapped his damp coat around my shoulders. I clasped it closed around me, as a modest Angari would after a thorough dunking in pale clothes. Handily, it covered my knives.
The servants waiting at the docks gasped and fussed over us when we docked and disembarked. I told them I’d fainted and fallen overboard, and they accepted the explanation.
They fetched us water and juice to drink, and chairs to sit on, and we settled in to wait for the royal barge.
Sitting between Quill and Mihalak, I found myself leaning into Quill and was sorely tempted to rest my head on his shoulder. I doubted, however, even a nearly drowned leanyodi would make such a display. Instead, I asked Mihalak, “Does Terrimbir have much contact with the Empire? I noticed the Empire’s delegation seemed friendly with Ambassador Balint.”
Mihalak shrugged. “Balint was in the Empire for a time. Last year the High Lord recalled him and sent him to Angareth as part of the delegation who negotiated the marriage treaty.”
“Do you know Balint well?”
The elf shrugged again. “I know of him, and have met him from time to time.” He narrowed his eyes, “Why? Do you think he has something to do with those traitors?”
“I don’t know,” I looked at Quill, who was watching us, “I know he doesn’t approve of the treaty.”
Mihalak snorted, “Almost no one approves of the treaty. At least not in public.”
“Fair,” I conceded.
“Balint has served the High Lord well for decades. He would not do anything to harm Terrimbir.”
“But,” I said carefully, “would he take matters into his own hands if he believed the High Lord was harming Terrimbir?”
“Or, could he be persuaded? By those who might want Angareth and Terrimbir to shred each other?”
He gave me a sharp look. “Like who?” His eyes fell on Quill, silent beside me. “Why are you really here? You are not Angari, either of you.”
Quill met his gaze, “We’re here to preserve the treaty, Mihalak. We work for King Keleman, even if our blood isn’t Angari.”
“And you think Balint is trying to undermine it?” demanded Mihalak, anger seeping into his voice.
I lifted a placating hand, “I’m only asking, Mihalak. We have to ask questions in order to get answers.”
Mihalak opened his mouth to say more, then stopped and stood. “The barge is here. And something is wrong.”
Quill and I also got to our feet. The barge was approaching slowly, with the sailors waiting with the mooring ropes. There was a crowd of people waiting to disembark already…and there was no music.
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