The atmosphere in the feasting hall reminded me of the time my grandfather brought us out to watch him feed the sharks. The giant fish had known he was coming, and were milling restlessly near the ledge, the feel in the water so entirely different from when we’d met the sharks before. I sat with Karolya and Brell, but watched the high table where Hadella sat beside the Countess. Her sister.
They were ignoring one another.
Hadella hadn’t come with us from the Countess’s suite, but had entered and sat at the high table right before the food was served. I watched her hands, making sure they stayed in her own space and did not touch the Countess’s food or drink. I didn’t know if I could move fast enough if she did, but I was fully prepared to try.
“Zephra,” Brell’s tone was sharp, as if she’d been trying to get my attention for a while.
Reluctantly I dragged my eyes away from the table and look at Brell.
“What are you looking at?”
I looked back at the high table. Hadella was eating pieces of potato.
“Are you watching Hadella?”
I glanced at Brell. “Yes.”
Brell blinked at me. “Why?”
“Because she yelled at the Countess this afternoon?” asked Karolya, incredulous.
“Because she is the Countess’s sister.”
Both women scoffed. “She would never hurt the Countess,” Karolya poured herself some more wine. “Besides, what could she possibly do?”
“Well,” said Brell pragmatically, “There is poison. But she wouldn’t. She was just upset about Galo. We all are.”
I tapped my fingernails on the table, then decided to damn manners and just ask. “Are there more siblings?”
“No, it’s just the two sisters,” replied Brell.
“Who inherits if the Countess dies?”
“Hadella, of course, and she would be a wonderful Countess, she loves Wuhnravinwel dearly—” Brell stopped and gaped at me, “You can’t seriously think Hadella would hurt the Countess?”
“Keep your voice down!” hissed Karolya.
“Hadella?” repeated Brell, much quieter and leaning toward me. “Of all people?”
I pursed my lips and looked between the leanyodi. “I haven’t ruled her out.”
“Hadella was on the barge with us, and she’s no great archer,” said Karolya.
“Whoever it was hired someone,” countered Brell.
“Could she pull together six thousand gold?”
Both leanyodi stared at me. “Six thousand?”
“Only if she raided the coffers,” said Karolya, clearly equating raiding the coffers with stealing the moon.
“Who manages the coffers?”
They were silent for a long moment and looked at one another. “Hadella is the steward of Wuhnravinwel,” said Brell at last. “But she wouldn’t do something like that.”
I looked back to the head table in an attempt to hide how much I was unmoved by their assurances.
“I wouldn’t recommend asking the others about this,” Brell’s voice was low. “Everyone is upset, and I don’t think they’d handle it well.”
“Of course,” I agreed smoothly. I hadn’t meant to bring it up to them at all.
I might have been the only bodyguard who relaxed the moment Ilya Terr swept the Countess onto the dance floor. I’d seen his instincts with a knife on the trip here, and knew that he could and would take care of both of them.
I lurked on the edges a little removed from the dance floor, keeping a goblet of wine in my hand to dissuade anyone from asking me to dance. I saw Druskin come in, dressed in the evening’s deep red, and looking as if he were carved of wood. He checked in with the other guards and then left again.
“Do you not dance?”
I stiffened, then turned to flash a smile at Bel Valredes as he came to stand next to me. “I loathe dancing.”
“Really? Have you always?” Bel was dressed in black tonight, and it made his eyes darker and his hair lighter than they were. He was strikingly handsome.
“Always,” I lied brightly. With the Countess occupied I could hardly walk away from him without making it clear I was avoiding him. Fornern’s fists. Why did Bel Valredes have to seize every chance to improve his stable?
“I never got that impression when we danced.”
“We’ve never danced,” I said quickly.
He looked at me, saying nothing, until I looked at him. When our eyes met it was clear he knew. There was no doubt now. I faced him. “What gave me away?”
Bel drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was tense, but not the way he should’ve been while facing a notorious outlaw he’d just unmasked. “Your laugh.” His lips curved up just a little ruefully. “It was enough for me to want to keep an eye on you, and then when you went overboard…I caught a glimpse of you on the other little barge. Wreaking havoc.”
Yes, that would’ve done it.
I grimaced and did a quick scan of the room. None of the other members of the Daiesen delegation were nearby. I didn’t see Quill, either. Rakov was on the other side of the dance floor. I slipped my arm through Bel’s and tugged him toward one of the little alcoves. He probably shouldn’t have come with me, but he did. When we were safely tucked inside, I set my wine on the table and said, “So, do you plan to bring me back to your Empress and collect my bounty?”
“You must hate me.” He sounded…tired.
This irritated me. “I can’t say I’m wildly fond of you,” I replied dryly. “Life would be a touch easier if the wanted placards weren’t quite so accurate likenesses.”
“I’m not the only one who knew you in Dalyn, and not the only one to give a description,” testiness slipped into his voice, which suited me better, “I could hardly get creative without endangering myself and everyone I hold dear.”
I snorted. “You mean to say you would have gotten creative?”
“I have never wished you ill,” snapped Bel.
“Really?” I was incredulous.
Bel picked up my wine glass and put it down again, frustration driving every movement. “All I ever did was try to protect you—when I thought you needed protecting—” he glared as I rolled my eyes, “You shocked me.”
“You told them who I was.”
“You told me in a crowd. Was I supposed to pray no one else had heard? I’m sorry, the risk was too great—and it doesn’t seem to have made a difference anyway.”
I felt savage at that, and pushed the sleeve up on my left forearm. The only scar easily accessible. “No difference at all,” I hissed. Bel blinked at the scar and I pushed the sleeve back down. “Serve your Empress, but don’t pretend that you can do that and have any claim on my regard.”
Bel was silent a moment. He picked up my wineglass again, swirled the wine and set it back on the table. “You’re right,” he said quietly, “I cannot make any claims. But I would have you know that everything I did, everything I do, is to protect my people. And I think that you are the same.”
“The same?” the words came out too loudly, I lowered my voice and tried to paste on a smile for the benefit of the Magadarian couple passing the alcove,“Tell that to all the nymphs in your fleet.” The Valredes fishing fleet had many nymphs, before the Purge.
His lips thinned. “You know I had no part or joy in that.”
“Do I?” I turned to leave, forgetting for a moment in my anger that leaving Bel Valredes at my back was a terrible idea.
My name in his mouth was alarming and I felt it like a blow. I came back. We regarded each other across the little table. Beyond the alcove the dancing continued, and the hum of the crowd provided an undercurrent to the music. It was both like and unlike the last ball we’d spoken at. It wasn’t comforting.
“I have no plan to tell anyone who you are,” said Bel at last.
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because,” pain crept into his voice, “I will tell you a secret: As soon as I learned of the Purge, I sent messages to the boats that were out, warning them not to return. The nymphs in the city were more difficult, but any that could get to my warehouses I’d hide and smuggle out overland. They weren’t all good people, but they didn’t deserve what they got. They were under my protection and I could do nothing for the ones taken, despite the loyalty of house Valredes. And I thought I was saving one innocent soul back then—with you—with Analie. I thought Dalyn would be safer without Tarr Kegan messing with Narya Magnifique, and I thought things would get better once she felt secure.” He stepped closer to me, leaning in, “And before you snap something else about my nymphs, I saved as many as I could, and not a day goes by that I don’t hate myself for all the ones I couldn’t save.”
I stared. I’d known Bel Valredes had a heart, but I hadn’t suspected a backbone. I hadn’t suspected he’dcommitted treason at the same time he was cozying up to the ambassador and helping her with a plan to which he saw no significant downside. “You helped them flee?”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I know who you are, Zare Caspian, and I know that you care. And I would have you think well of me.” His eyes slid down the luminous wine dress. “You could destroy me with that knowledge, if you so choose.”