47- The Shadow of Death

When I finally returned to the Countess’s chambers, I was exhausted. We had done what we could, and now there was nothing but to wait till morning. The guards let me past, and the female guards in the sitting room nodded to me as I knocked on the Countess’s bedroom door and then let myself in.

There was a single lamp lit by the bedside, and the Countess was still awake, sitting up against the pillows, a book open in her hands. She watched me enter and close the door. One of her brows climbed as I crossed the room and shrugged out of my dressing gown. I glanced down at myself. I’d entirely forgotten to go to my room first and change into night clothes. I sighed, unbuckling the harness and continuing to the bed. “I apologize, Grofnu, I had much to do.” At least it wasn’t splattered in gore.

The Countess pushed back the covers and swung her feet the floor. “Were you marauding the palace, Zephra?” she grabbed two pillows and moved to the foot of the bed.

I grimaced, unbuckling my jerkin. “Something like that. There may be new rumors about me providing you the chance to dismiss me from your service after this is all settled.”

The Countess grimaced. “What have you been about?”

Pausing my search for a place to put the jerkin and dressing gown, I turned back to her. “I reported to Quilleran, visited the infirmary, tried to follow up on a lead.” I’d told Quill about Bel’s confession. He’d looked at me hard and then we’d tracked down the rooms of the Daiesen delegation—many in the delegation had already returned to bed, so we uncovered nothing but the fact that Lucius Tene, another man who knew both our faces and true names, was also in attendance. He was probably here for the horses. “Galo is still alive,” I said. The doctors said if she made it through the night, she’d recover.

I saw from the Countess’s face that she knew this already. She looked about as willing to hope as Druskin had. He’d been by Galo’s bedside in his finery, his ruddy face eerily pale with the terror only love brings. It was a despair I knew well, and I turned away to deposit the jerkin and dressing gown on a chair.

“Tirien have mercy,” murmured the Countess. Then, as if forcefully changing the subject she said, “I heard that one of the men from the Empire kissed your hand at the ball tonight.”

I looked up at her as I tucked my entire harness of knives under the pillows. “Word gets around.”

She tossed a grin at me and crawled under the covers at the foot of the bed. “Did you know him before, or did you just make an impression?”

I sighed again, “Both, apparently.” I doubted the kiss had been meant to convey Bel’s continued attraction. I wondered how much the Countess knew of Daiesen’s customs.

“But not mutual.”

I doused the lamp.

The Countess’s voice floated from the darkness, bodyless and smiling, “No, of course not. Not with Quilleran walking the world.”

 I slipped under the covers. Talk, indeed. Though not—I thought of Quill standing close enough to share breath, the campfire throwing deep shadows around us—unfounded.

“You lied to me when you said you’d never been in love.”

“I don’t have time for love.” My words lacked conviction and even I could hear it. The lie was rote and lacking the cavalier flip that sold it in taverns around the continent. My scalp tingled with the memory of Quill’s hands in my hair this afternoon.

The Countess hummed skeptically, then cut off as if startled.

I tensed. “Grofnu?”

“…When I look at you…” she began speaking slowly, “…I see fire, and darkness, and water.”

Instinct roared me to wakefulness before I could rationalize. Reeling myself back, I forced dryness, “Salt water or fresh?” As if it mattered.

“Fresh.” She said with complete confidence. “There is an underground river that ends in a beautiful cavern of white stone and hewn pillars. It is an homage, and a heartsore, and there the veil between planes is very thin.”

Now I didn’t know what she was talking about and it chilled me.

“Does any of that sound familiar?” asked the Countess.

“I…have more than one memory of fire, darkness, and water,” I answered, trying to choose my words carefully, “But the cavern is unknown to me.” Not connected to a river, anyway. There were white caverns Under Daiesen, and I’d been in a few really fancy cisterns over the years.

“If you find it someday, be careful. Death waits there.” After a pause where I probably should’ve said something brave, the Countess continued, “Zephra, I know that I’m the lunatic giddy with new affection, and I can see that there is much more to you than perhaps I have a right to know, but I think that you should give love a chance. Despite everything. Perhaps because of everything.”

“I’ll think about it.” I stared at the darkness above our heads. Eloi. It was as if the gods themselves were personally invested in shattering the control I’d had for years. Quill. The Breaker. Bel. Seers spouting incomprehensible pieces of time and space that connected to you.

I had a job; I was a blade. Here, I was also a shield. That was more than enough work for me.

*

I slept lightly. My mind drifted on the currents of the river, darting like a fish at imagined sounds and shadows. Morning was a relief, and I felt far more awake than I expected when the sun finally grayed the room. The Countess didn’t stir, but I got up. I moved quietly, warming up my body and then putting myself through stretches and then the forms of swordplay and knife work. I kept my breathing even, losing myself in the technique and movement. Eventually, I grew tired and sat down on one of the chairs. The sun had warmed to gold and the Countess was still sleeping. I checked to make sure she was breathing and looked well, then returned to sit.

Today was the last day before the wedding. I couldn’t remember all it entailed but I thought it started later and involved luxurious baths and extensive preparations for the ceremony to follow.

I woke with a start to a knock on the door. I scrambled to my feet and snatched up my dressing gown, then belatedly rushed to the bed for my knives. The Countess stretched, waiting for me to slip on the knives and the gown, before calling, “Enter.”

My eyes fell on my jerkin still draped over the back of the chair. There was nothing I could do as the door opened and Brell came in. “Good morning, Grofnu,” she said, recovering quickly from any surprise at me standing next to the Countess’s bed. She was carrying a tray with a silver tea set and quickly set about pouring tea for the Countess. “Did you sleep well?”

“As well as I could,” replied the Countess, accepting the tea.

She had barely taken a sip when a commotion rose in the outer rooms. I headed straight for them, arriving in time to see Druskin, still wearing the clothes from the banquet last night, standing limply in the center of a knot of leanyodi. I noticed Hadella, and Karolya both among them. When he saw the Countess he said, “Grofnu,” and his voice broke.

The Countess put her hand to her mouth.

“She has taken a turn. They found poison on the arrow…they don’t know what it is…her wound is…she is feverish and raving. If they could find the antidote she might be saved, but her life is wasting away.” His face crumpled. “She’s dying.”

I felt a similar crumpling in my chest. The leanyodi around us stood stunned, then slowly the horror hit them. They reached for one another, burying faces in shoulders. Brell put her arms around the Countess. Hadella accepted an embrace from Karolya, her mouth hung open a little, but the rest of her face was blank as the dead.

I thought she might yell at the Countess again, but she didn’t. She looked like she was going to be sick. I looked away quickly at the thought. Druskin was excluded from the churn of comforting gestures. I walked to him and brazenly reached out to squeeze his hand. He dropped his head, his dark braid shifting over his shoulder. He was shaking a little, and when our eyes met I could see a cool, righteous, anger growing inside him. He shifted and I just caught the edge of Hadella’s long coat as she left the room. I squeezed his hand again and went after her.

*

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