My feelings were a storm. His confession meant that my capture would almost certainly lead to his. Even the shadow of suspicion could be enough to destroy a man in the Empire, especially if that shadow was thrown by me. I snapped at Bel, “Why risk this? Why approach me if you didn’t mean to capture me? Are you just eager to thrust your life into my hands?”
“I wanted,” he broke off and looked at the crowd, “I don’t know what I wanted. I wanted to talk to you again. As you. Not…as her…Maybe to see how much I had really known you back in Dalyn.” He shrugged dismissively, but the gesture was obviously untrue. “I also thought I should tell you I knew, before you knifed me as a precaution.”
“Now if I knife you, at least you’ll know?”
Bel gestured palm up with one hand, surrendering the point. Perhaps also showing he was unarmed.
“You’re a fool, Bel Valredes,” I said.
But something in my tone caused Bel to smile, just faintly. “I’ve no doubt.” He bowed, and taking my hand, lightly kissed the back.
Then he left the alcove.
And I let him. Partly because I was stunned. Partly because knifing him, or even kidnapping him, from the banquet would be difficult to explain. I could always find his rooms later if need be. And yet…I traced my fingers around and around my wineglass and tried to sort my thoughts. My carefully boxed and ordered feelings had received so many kicks of late that I was scrambling to catch first this and then that before it splashed out over everything. I did not have time for feelings.
Eventually, at a moment when a dance was in full swing and I stood very little risk of being asked, I left the shelter of the alcove and I strolled through the room looking for the Countess. I found her with Ilya Terr still, standing a little aside from the dancing, wineglasses in their hands and their heads bent close.
Finding a spot by a pillar to stand where I could see them but not hear them, I settled in to wait out the night. I watched the faces of the people who looked at the happy couple. I didn’t think about anything in particular. I watched the servants and the guards. I watched the elves and the Angari lords and ladies. I watched the delegation from the Empire. As my emotions subsided, I felt again the deep sense of betrayal from my dreams and a clawing certainty hooked deep inside. I couldn’t prove anything, but I could lay a trap.
Eventually I saw Quill exiting the dance floor, bowing gracefully to the lady he’d partnered and then excusing himself. He snagged a drink from a servant and strolled to my spot next to a pillar. He stopped and sipped from his glass, merely a ship at the same dock. “Leanyod.”
Fornern’s Fists I had a lot to tell him.
He bent close—far too close for Angari comfort, I was sure—and whispered, “Anything?”
I slid a false smile into place and tipped closer to him, beads clacking, “Hadella inherits. And Hadella controls the Wuhn treasury.”
The Countess left the ball after midnight again, though there was still a large crowd dancing, and we trailed her back to her rooms. Hadella wasn’t among us. As before, we handed the Countess off to other leanyodi and retired to our own chambers. It took much less time to remove the beaded headdress and step out of the gown than it had to put them on. With the clacking of the headdress gone the world felt delightfully quiet. I washed off the white make up methodically, enjoying the sensation of warm water and oil cleaning the powders off my face. When I was finished, I smelled faintly of nuts and roses and I looked like myself again. For a few long moments I stared at my face in the glass, as if it held the answers I wanted if only I looked hard enough.
With a sigh, I braided back my hair and went to find my own clothes—my darkest breeches and shirt, a leather jerkin, and over that the familiar weight of my knife harness. I left behind my boots for the sake of stealth, and threw a dressing gown over everything. If the palace was to have rumors, perhaps they could be only of a promiscuous leanyod.
I left my rooms, nodding to the guards outside the Countess’s doors, and padded through the halls.
Quill wasn’t in his rooms yet, but Eliah was in hers. I was startled when she opened her door wearing a wrinkled nightgown, blonde hair mussed prettily, looking softer and gentler than I’d ever seen her—but then she opened the door wider to show that she was standing like a warrior, a large hunting knife naked in her fist.
“Come in!” said Eliah, stepping back to let me past. Her room was much like Quill’s. Sparse, but elegant with a bed, a couch and a wardrobe and floors covered in thick woven rugs.
I walked in and sat on the little couch at the end of her bed, my dressing gown falling open to show my sleek dark clothes that were very much not for sleeping. “You retired early,” I said, eyeing the rumpled bed.
Eliah closed and locked the door, then crossed the room to retrieve the knife sheath from the bed where she’d left it. “I did.” I could hear the sleep in her voice now, and noticed that the fire was quite low. She’d been in bed a while. I got up and tossed another log on the embers.
“I skipped the ball,” explained Eliah, tossing the knife on the bed and rubbing her eyes, “but you’re here, so that means it’s time for me to get up.” At my questioning look she continued, “I’m going to prowl. See what Hadella does at night.”
“You’ve spoken with Quill, then.”
She nodded. “Right after he spoke with you this afternoon.” Turning, Eliah opened her wardrobe and started pulling out clothes, “Did something happen at the ball? Why are you here?”
I sighed heavily. I was here because Quill and I were going to talk to Druskin about our suspicions and how to prove it. But… “Bel Valredes says he helped nymphs escape the Purge. As many as he could.”
Eliah stopped in the middle of pulling on breeches under her gown. “Bel Valredes? Isn’t that the man who fell in love with you that infamous winter in Dalyn?”
“He didn’t fall in love with me,” I said.
She flapped a hand dismissively and finished pulling on her breeches. “You. Pretend you. Why were you talking to Bel Valredes? And why were you talking about that?”
I opened my mouth and closed it again.
Eliah propped her hands on her hips, the gown bunched weirdly over the breeches. “You didn’t approach him, did you?”
“I didn’t! I’ve been avoiding him. He’s here with Ambassador Menrellos. Invited to the wedding.”
“But…he approached me.”
“He recognized you under all that paint?”
I grimaced. “He saw the fight on the river.”
“So, we’re going to kill him tonight, then? Do you want help? What do we do with the body?”
“Eliah. He claims he has no plan to reveal me.”
Eliah snorted. She turned away and shucked the nightgown, pulling a dark tunic on in its place. “I’d claim the same if I were facing your glare.”
“The fool sought me out and told me he’d been smuggling nymphs out of Dalyn, offered it as assurance that he wouldn’t reveal me. ‘To avoid being killed,’ he said.”
She was buckling on her belts now and paused to give me a pained look. “How can you know he’s not important enough to be safe even if you labeled him a traitor? All part of an elaborate entrapment.”
I rubbed my hands across my face. My life was so orderly before this damn job. “I can’t.”
“Did you come here for my advice?”
“No. I’m waiting for Quill, we have to talk to Druskin and convince him to go along with our plan.”
“Ah,” Eliah picked up the hunting knife. “No advice, then. And no night stalking of Dark Empress Lackeys for me. Cruel princess, getting my hopes up.”
Now I snorted. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about Bel, yet, Eliah. I’m already being as careful as I can. Besides, I think watching Hadella is a better idea tonight.”
Sitting on the bed, Eliah pulled on her boots—soft leather meant for sneaking, not riding. “You know, if he’s telling the truth, he might be useful.”
“Maybe,” I kept my tone reserved. There was a big gap between inaction and action when lives were at stake.
“Have you told Quill?”
Eliah finished with her boots and studied me. “You didn’t fall for Valredes back then, did you?”
I shook my head. “I was so young, and there was far too much going on. Night raids and broken ribs and rebellious activities…I was concerned with staying alive.”
She looked at me a moment longer. I couldn’t tell if she was waiting for a confession or just sorting through her own thoughts on the matter. Then the corner of her mouth kicked up in a half smile, “Just staying alive? There wasn’t an enigmatic kingling or a charmingly competent guard captain?”
She headed for the door as I snapped, “You weren’t there!”
Her grin was a wicked slash.