“You don’t think they’re upset about me going overboard?” I whispered.
Quill’s expression was grim, “As upsetting as that was, I think this is something else.”
The sailors leapt to the docks the instant the barge was in range, pulling it in far too quickly. Everyone on board stumbled as the barge bumped the docks, but their gasps were muted. As if a shroud rested over the entire vessel swallowing all sound. My skin prickled as I felt again the sensation from my nightmare when my city appeared on the cliff, only to face destruction a second time. Something thick and horrible coiled inside me, bringing terror of what awaited on the boat.Quill’s hand settled into the small of my back. I leaned into it, still clutching his coat over my knives.
The instant the barge was secure, two of the king’s guards jumped off and began shouting for a carriage. There were more guards clustered on the barge, and I thought they were arranged a bit like pall bearers. Eloi, God Overall. They moved carefully, but urgently, as they disembarked. A large blue cloth between that was clearly carrying a body.
I ran to catch up to the guards—they didn’t stop for me, but I got a good look in the makeshift stretcher. Blood bloomed across a pale bodice. Her elegant dark hair was mussed, her skin pale. I fell back to stand beside Quill as they loaded her into a waiting carriage. “It’s Galo,” I said. My stomach was churning with relief and horror. Not the Countess. Not the Queen.
“Is she alive?” asked Quill.
Before I could answer one of the guards shouted, “The infirmary, quickly!”
Alive, then. However direly hurt.
The carriage leapt away with a clatter of hooves and roar of wheels on cobbles. More people were bustling off the barge. We moved to the side as the kings and queens of both countries were rushed into carriages. I noticed a couple soldiers mount horses and ride off at speed.
“There’s Druskin,” said Quill.
A knot of leanyodi and guards were coming toward us, and we moved quickly to join them. The Countess Adelheid Wuhn was in the center, grim faced. But alive and apparently unhurt.
“Zephra, Quilleran, I’m glad you’re alright.” Druskin was tight lipped, his face pale. “We have to get back to the Palace immediately.”
“Of course,” I squeezed Quill’s hand and stepped into the leanyodi. Our eyes met for a moment before the Countess’s retinue hurried away. The retinue bundled into two carriages, with myself, Hadella, and Brell in the carriage with the Countess. The carriage lurched into motion as soon as we were seated. I looked around. Everyone was pale, Hadella looked sick.
The Countess looked at me, “What happened?” her voice was measured, as if it took great effort to keep her tone even.
“There was a small craft of armed elves approaching the royal barge. I pretended to faint so I could prevent them from reaching the barge without alarming the nobles.” I smoothed my still-drying trousers. “The King’s guard should have them now. What happened after I left?”
“Quilleran went in after you, as did one of the elves, and the rest took comfort that the nymphs would find you—as the River Folk do,” said Brell. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
“I’m fine—but what happened on the barge?”
“Just a short while ago I asked Galo to get me some fruit,” said the Countess, “When she reached to place the bowl in front of me—” her voice hitched, she cleared her throat and went on, “She collapsed with an arrow in her.”
“She’s still alive,” said Brell, reaching for the Countess’s hands, “They are rushing her to the palace physicians. They will save her. She’ll be alright.”
My eyes locked with the Countess’s. The arrow had been meant for her. It was dumb luck—or divine intervention—that she wasn’t the one on that cloth.
“What did the arrow look like? Does anyone still have it?” I asked.
“Druskin,” said the Countess. “It was in her back…he had to take it out so they could move her.”
I glanced at the covered carriage window, as if I could see Druskin riding outside. My heart panged for him. I was pretty sure he loved Galo. Hadella made a choking noise and I recoiled as she vomited on the carriage floor between us. I cursed inwardly and fought down my own bile. All the blood in the world was easier to cope with than this.
The Countess reached for Hadella, “It’s alright, it’ll be alright.”
Pressing myself against the far side of the carriage, I barely saw Hadella flinch violently at the Countess’s comforting touch.
When we finally arrived at the Palace of Domes, Druskin rushed us up to the Countess’s chambers. There were already guards there, and they looked as if they’d just finished going through the chambers searching for intruders. Druskin made us wait in the hall while he went through and checked the chambers himself. He came back out a moment later and nodded for everyone to enter. I hung back and, once the others had disappeared into the dressing chambers, we faced one another.
Druskin’s eyes swept over me, taking in the horribly rumpled clothes, the borrowed coat and missing shoes. “What happened?” asked Druskin, his voice quiet.
“Kimro Ruddybrook spotted armed elves, zealots by the look, approaching the royal barge looking like they were going to kidnap or kill, I was the closest, so I handled it.”
He sighed heavily, “They said you fainted. I wasn’t worried about you in the water.” He gave me a significant look, “But when Galo…I was afraid you’d been shot, too.”
I shook my head. “No. But it appears there were two attacks today.”
“Do you think them separate?”
“They were uncoordinated if they were connected.” I paused, then asked gently, “Do you have the arrow?”
“I sent it with Galo—in case the physicians needed it. In case of poison. Or…anything else…” a bit of emotion slipped into his voice.
“Can you go to her?” I asked.
“No, it wouldn’t be proper.”
I restrained the urge to say, “Damn propriety” and instead nodded sympathetically. Who was I to judge him for keeping his love a secret? “Quilleran should see the arrow as soon as possible. So, you should go get it to him or I will after I’ve changed.”
For a moment, Druskin hesitated. His eyes went to the ornate door behind which his Countess was being fussed over by her leanyodi. Except, his leanyod was not among them. He looked, for a moment, like a very young man who was very frightened. Then he collected himself and turned back to me, “Please, stay close to the Countess.”
“Of course. Though, you will have to either admit Quilleran to her chambers or cope with me leaving for a few hours later,” I said.
“I’ll let you know what I decide,” replied Druskin, turning to leave.
I stared after him. I hadn’t really thought he’d consider allowing Quill into the Countess’s chambers. Apparently, the afternoon’s events had changed things. I waited only a moment before heading to clean up in my own rooms. I hadn’t been dismissed, but I was the only one whose outfit was thoroughly ruined, and I wanted out of the damp clothes. I cleaned up with a wet towel—dried off thoroughly—and changed into fresh, plain, clothes. I collected my knives and harness and my small cleaning kit and rolled them in a cloak, along with a long tined comb for my hair, and returned to the Countess’s chambers. The guards moved aside to let me in, but before I could enter the door opened and Hadella blew out like a storm on the Great Sea. I sidestepped in time to only get clipped in the shoulder. Her expression was rigid and when her eyes met mine, they were burning with unrestrained rage. She continued down the hallway without saying a word. I looked at the guards, but their faces were very, very carefully blank. Well, then.
Once inside, the sitting room was packed with leanyodi. It looked like most of them, actually. Even the ones who had been off duty. A couple were pacing, and the ones who sat nearly vibrated with pent up feeling—even the air felt fretful. I turned for the Countess’s bedchamber. Karolya called after me, “We’re not to disturb her!” Ignoring her, I opened the door as softly as I could and slipped inside.
The Countess was sitting in the window, alone. She wasn’t in her lavender dress any longer, just a deep red dressing gown, but her hair was still piled on her head and jeweled pins still winked in the sunlight. She’d thrown everyone out before they finished undressing her.
I closed the door behind me, letting it make a soft thump.
The Countess turned her head slightly, then turned back to the window. “Zephra.”
I walked to the bench at the end of the bed, unrolled the cloak and began arranging my knives and cleaning supplies. “Hadella left in a rush,” I said.
“Did you not hear her yelling at me?”
I paused. “I did not. I was changing out of my soaked clothes.” Picking up the comb, I walked over and settled at the Countess’s feet in the window. She turned her face away. I started working my hair free from its intricacies. “Why was she yelling?”
“She blames me for Galo getting hurt,” said the Countess, “She said that if Galo dies, her blood is on my hands. She said it should have been me.”
I stopped, a braided loop half-undone and hanging loose. “Thank Eloi and all the gods it wasn’t you.”
The Countess let out a wet sniffle.
Reaching out, I touched her hands. She pulled away and wiped her face. “I’m alright.”
“My Lady, you don’t have to be brave to me,” I began working on my braids again. “You were nearly shot, you saw your leanyod shot, you’ve had a bit of a harrowing week that included kidnapping and more attempted murder. You’re getting married in a couple days—to someone you were probably raised to consider an enemy. And let’s not forget sleeping with your head at the wrong end of the bed.”
That earned a pained laugh. She turned to look at me finally, her cheeks were wet with tears and her eyes were already swollen from crying. “She’s right, Galo is dying because of me.”
“No, Galo is dying because someone doesn’t want this treaty to succeed. This isn’t on you.” One braid finished, I started picking at the other side of my head.
“She was mine to protect,” managed the Countess, tears still freely flowing down her face.
“And you were hers. Don’t think for a moment Galo wouldn’t have thrown herself in front of that arrow on purpose given the chance.”
A sob escaped the Countess, and I stopped with my hair. Standing, I moved so I could edge my hip onto the ledge beside her and pull her into my arms. She shuddered, but then clung to me and began to sob into my shoulder. They were violent, wracking, sobs. I held her and stroked her back until eventually the tears stopped and she stopped shaking. She sat up and wiped her face and nose with the silk sleeves of her dressing gown. I didn’t know where to find her handkerchiefs, so I just moved to the other side of the sill and sat down across from her again.
She drew a shaky breath, “I am doing this for my country and my people. I know this is the right thing to do—ending the bloodshed, turning and enemy into an ally. Yet I feel like I’m betraying them because I like my betrothed. And now, Galo…” she choked off, and a few more tears escaped. “My sister never yells. I had no idea how strongly she felt.”
I blinked. “Your…sister?”
“Hadella’s your sister?”
The Countess nodded, dabbing her cheeks with a different section of her sleeves. “Yes, she’s always been my right hand. She argued against the treaty when it was first discussed, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised she’s angry that Galo got hurt.”
“She’s a leanyod?” I asked.
“Would you expect a lesser position for my sister?” replied the Countess, looking amused.
There was a tentative knock at the bedroom door. The Countess stilled, then lifted her head and said, “Come.”
The door opened and Brell stepped in cautiously. “Grofnu, I’m sorry, but this was delivered for you.” She lifted a little wooden box in one hand. “By one of the elves.”
“Thank you, Brell,” The Countess extended her hand and Brell came forward to place the box in her grip.
Brell looked at the Countess, then looked at me, and then backed several steps away. The Countess didn’t dismiss her, and there was no way she was volunteering to leave without seeing what was in the box.
The Countess ran her fingers over the smoothed wood, then opened the lid. There was a note inside, which she read, a faint blush creeping up her cheeks. Beneath the note was an enormous brooch of silver metal shaped like a tree whose leaves were diamonds. The Countess held it up, laughing ruefully as it caught the afternoon sun and sparkled blindingly. “It’s from Ilya. He says his sister told him armor at a ball was unfashionable, so he founded the largest, hardest stones he could on short notice.” Her voice lowered, “He suggests wearing it over my heart, if possible.”
I smiled, wondering if he’d had other things to say about her heart in that note, “I’ve heard worse ideas. I wouldn’t want to rely on it, but it certainly won’t hurt.”