I was halfway to the palace library with its genealogies when Karolya found me. “There you are, Zephra!” she exclaimed, “I’m to take you to the Countess, she’s been asking for you”
Swallowing my chagrin, I said, “Lead on,” and followed her down the hallway at pace brisk enough to make our long coats billow.
When we arrived at the Countess’s chambers the Countess was in the sitting room. A handful of leanyodi were bustling around the chambers carefully not looking at or speaking to the Countess who sat like a statue in the center of the room. She looked like an entirely different person than the woman I’d held hours ago. Her make up had been redone in its formal, stark, glory, and she was arrayed in a blue so dark it was nearly black. The diamond brooch caught the light and shot it out again every bit as piercing as an arrow. I knew armor when I saw it.
Karolya announced, “I found her, Grofnu.”
“Good,” replied the Countess. I felt like a lost hound finally returned to the huntsman. She cast a critical eye over my plain clothes, “That will have to do, I suppose.” A muddy lost hound. “Come with me,” she stood. “The King wants to see us.”
King Keleman of Angareth joined us in a small audience chamber half a palace away. There were no windows, just tapestries and two chairs, one of which received King Keleman and the other remained empty as his retinue arranged themselves behind him. There weren’t as many people in it as I’d expected, two advisors and two bodyguards, but that was all. The Countess had entered the room with only me and Brell, leaving the other three leanyodi who’d come standing outside the chamber with the guards. The King’s face was painted gold again, probably in preparation for dinner. He looked like a statue. I thought it was unsettling.
After bows were made, the King and the Countess regarded each other for a moment, then the King gestured, “Bring her a chair.”
One of his advisors scurried off and returned with an ornate wooden chair, which he placed adjacent to the king, then stood back when the Countess stepped forward to sit in it. “Thank you, my uncle.”
“Adelheid,” said the King, startling me with her given name, “Are you all right?”
“I’m well,” replied the Countess.
The King looked skeptical.
I had already been inclined toward the Angari king, and now I liked him in earnest.
“I’m well enough,” revised the Countess. “I worry for Galo.”
“But not yourself?” asked the King, “I have asked much of you. More than I realized–”
The Countess cut him off, “It is my honor, Kiraly, I am not afraid.”
King Keleman hesitated a moment, then reached forward and took the Countess’s hand, “Adelheid, I love you like my own daughter.” He stopped, his eyes on their hands. I could see in his face that he had been frightened today, too. As much a devoted uncle as a king. “We could find a different way.”
“Uncle,” the Countess’s voice was soft, but steady, “Nothing will end a blood feud but a mingling of blood. It is my honor. I am not afraid. And I will not make Galo’s blood worthless by turning back now.”
The King nodded. He’d expected her answer as much as he’d needed to hear it. “I have spoken to Quilleran and High Lord Istvan’s men about the events on the river. It seems you were not entirely honest with me when you arrived.”
“You did not mention the rebellion of the Wuhn on your journey here. Nor the actions of young Lord Adorjan Bulgar.”
“I handled the insurrection and Lord Bulgar,” replied the Countess.
“Your own people,” he waved a hand, his voice growing hard, “Fine. But Lord Bulgar is my subject, Adelheid, and he interfered with my treaty and my family and the future of my country.”
They starred at one another. An entire conversation in silence. Finally, the Countess tipped her chin, eyes flicking down, “My apologies, Kiraly, I should have told you. Adorjan Bulgar is a bastard and an idiot, but he had nothing to do with the events today.”
“I’m well aware of the nature of Adorjan Bulgar,” replied the King. “I wanted to talk your leanyod,” his eyes slid over to me, “to get her part of today.”
The Countess looked at me, “Of course. Zephra.”
With both of them staring, I wasn’t sure which face to wear. But the mercenary, the professional, won. I summarized the attack the same way I had for Druskin and the Countess.
The King nodded gravely when I finished. “How did the elves seem when they interacted with Ilya Terr’s captain?”
“They appeared to hate him, Kiraly, they spat in his face.” Ah, he was checking for himself if these were rogue elves.
The King nodded again. “Thank you, Zephra. You may go.”
I glanced at the Countess as I bowed and left the room. She didn’t give me any indication what she wanted, so I stepped into the hallway and joined the three other leanyodi sitting on a bench a short distance away. They looked at me inquiringly but continued their conversation about the expected performers tonight. I didn’t have anything to offer to the conversation, just a raw edge of weariness and the burning desire to go do research. Eventually, the Countess and Brell stepped out of the audience room. We all rose and fell into formation behind the Countess as she led the way back to her rooms. At the doors, the Countess stopped and addressed the guards, “Have you seen Druskin?”
She turned to Brell, “Please find Druskin.”
The leanyodi bowed and hurried off. I hoped she knew to check the infirmary.
“Zephra,” the Countess turned to me, “We are wearing wine red tonight. I had Karolya put a gown in your room.” Her eyes flitted over me, and one corner of her mouth kicked up a little bit, “I’ll send her to help with your hair. Hurry.”
“Grofnu,” I resisted the urge touch my hair, bowing before heading to my room. I nearly walked past to go back to the library but caught myself at the last moment. It would have to wait. I was wearing brown, my makeup hadn’t survived the river, and my hair was in a simple braid after its dunking. I closed the door behind me and nearly knifed Quill where he stood behind the door. He stepped back, hands poised to block, eyes bright.
I slipped the knife back into its sheath, willing the lightning out of my veins. I felt like the lightning shifted form rather than going away. “I was looking for you earlier,” my tone came out dry, “How’d you get in here without the guards seeing?” I shucked the light coat and tossed it at him harder than necessary as I walked deeper into the room.
He caught the coat. “Who says the guards didn’t see?”
“And they just let you?”
“Royal guards let people do a lot of things and don’t say a word.” He followed me a couple steps. “There are few secrets unknown to them, I think. Besides. A couple of them were on the road with us.”
Ah yes. With all the talk. I snorted and shrugged out of my harness of knives, leaving it on the desk. I needed to talk to Quill. I needed to get ready. I looked at him appraisingly, wondering what message letting him stay would send. “I have to wash my hair. The Juni is apparently not an acceptable dinner scent.”
His lips quirked. “Unimaginable.”
“I know.” I spread my hands, moving toward the washroom and hoping I looked casual. “But stay. Since you’ve gone through the trouble of alerting the guards to our secrets. I need to talk to you.”
He smiled in earnest, coming to lean on the doorframe of the washroom while I turned on the water and piled towels on the floor by the tub. “I heard you were looking for me earlier?”
“Because I wanted to talk to you.” I knelt on the padding, looping another towel around my neck to keep it dry and unstriped. Nonchalant. “Do you know who inherits the Countess’s title and lands if she died.”
Quill’s brows furrowed. “Is it the prince? Her cousin?”
“Doubtful.” I tested the water, unbraiding my hair and bending awkwardly to run the water over my scalp.
“Why not ask one of the leanyodi you’re around all day?” Quill raised his voice to be heard over the water.
“No good,” I grunted as the towel slipped and I grabbed it before it could fall in the tub.
“Here,” Quill knelt next to me, the heat from his body roaring into me. “Hold the towel, I’ll deal with the water and keep you dry.”
I stilled, bent awkwardly and completely unable to move as Quill’s hands stroked over my hair, working the water in. No one had washed my hair since Galhara. He lathered the little bar of soap and began to work the suds through my hair. Eloi. Quill’s hands were in my hair. They felt large, and warm, and luxurious. He was so gentle I didn’t have the heart to tell him that wasn’t the right soap. I caught glimpses of his arms, sleeves rolled up and showing his yellowing bruises and the bandage from his knife wound. The bandage was splashed wet. Water, right. I covered my face with one end of the towel to keep my skin as dry as possible. He guided my head under the water again and rinsed the lather out. Before he could move away, I pointed at the bottle of proper hair tonic, and he willingly took it and began to work it into my hair. Quill began to rinse my hair again and I closed my eyes, reveling in the feel of his fingers on my scalp and running through my hair. It was intoxicating. The more so because it didn’t take that long to rinse hair. He lingered, combing his hand through the curls and letting the water sluice through his fingers. Each touch ached. When he reached across me to turn off the water, I realized that I wasn’t breathing, probably hadn’t been since his hands had touched my hair. I made myself take a breath, not looking at him as I shifted the towel from my neck to my hair. “Thank you,” I sounded breathless, nymph blood notwithstanding.
I looked at him from under my arm, drawn by the thickness of his voice.
He leaned his arms on the sides of the tub, letting water drip off his fingertips, and looked over his shoulder at me. His eyes were burning and unguarded. “Your hair is exquisite.”
“Your hands are exquisite.” The words came out before I could gauge their wisdom.
A surprised grin licked up his face and he stood, offering me his hand. “Next time you can wash my hair.”
I took the help up, my other hand propping the towel. Next time. I looked at him, trying to come up with something to say, having a hard time caring about wisdom and wondering why in Serrifis he didn’t seem to care about wisdom either. The knock at the chamber door made us both jump. My eyes went wide. Karolya was here to help me get ready.