48- Stalking

Hadella went first to her rooms, when she emerged, she was carrying a dark bundle. I kept a distance, moving at a hopefully innocuous pace but keeping just a glimpse of Hadella in sight around this corner or that. I picked my hair out of my night braid in case she’d noticed me in the Countess’s chambers. I’d look a little different out of the corner of her eye. Druskin wasn’t far behind me. He made more noise than I did since I was still barefoot and he was wearing boots. I was also still wearing the dressing gown cinched closed over my rumpled night stalking attire. Thankfully, though, the entire Palace was making up for their late night of dancing and lack of lunch entertainment, we saw very few people and mostly servants.

Hadella left the Palace through the main gate. I hesitated in sight of it. Here I wished for shoes and a coat or cloak. But if I lost her now, I had no way of finding her again. Druskin caught up with me where I stood, peering around a corner at the courtyard and gates. “Did she go out?”

“She did.”

“Come with me.” Druskin strode out toward the gate, heading directly for the guard house. I followed him, dressing gown and all. He said something to the guard and the man disappeared into the guard house and then reappeared a moment later with two cloaks. When I reached Druskin he handed a cloak to me and donned the other. The guard watched wide-eyed as I shrugged out of the dressing gown, my knives catching the late morning sun. It was barely cool enough for a cloak, but I slung the cloak over my shoulders to hide the knives and my un-Angari clothes. I handed the dressing gown to the guard, “Thank you.”

He nodded, dumbstruck.

When we stepped out of the gates, I couldn’t see Hadella. Druskin pointed and said, “There.” I followed his gaze to a dark hood moving steadily down the paving stone street away from the palace. Hadella’s dark bundle must’ve been a cloak of her own. We set out after her.

The city was awake and bustling, and I was grateful for Druskin’s height and ability to pick Hadella out in a crowd. My own ability to find Quill immediately was rather less useful in this moment. We left the sweeping architecture of the palaces and surrounding buildings behind, heading into more modest parts of town.

Hadella pressed on at a brisk pace. She knew where she was going, and she was in a hurry. The modest homes and businesses gave way to narrower streets with buildings that had seen better repair. This was a part of Gar Morwen I hadn’t yet seen, the part with the poor and the toughs. And the trash. I became even more grateful for Druskin’s bloodhound focus as I could pay more attention to my unshod feet than where the dark hood bobbed off to.

Abruptly, Druskin’s hand snaked out to grab my elbow. I stopped mid-step; I’d been avoiding a pile of refuse. “What is it?”

He jerked his chin at the building across the street. A sign painted with a boar with an apple in its mouth hung over a wooden door. With a glance at the people in the street I crossed and entered the tavern like I belonged there.

*

The tavern was reasonably well lit by the late morning sun, and thanks to the wedding not as quiet as it should’ve been at this hour. Most of the people lounging around were Angari and armed. Some hooded. One or two were half sprawled across tables as if they’d slept here. Steeling myself against the tackiness of the floor, I prowled further in like I was searching for just the spot to nurse a drink and watch the door. Hadella was sitting at a table in the darker recesses, her back to the entrance. There was a man sitting across from her with long gray hair combed neatly over his shoulders. Beside his empty plate and tankard was a spread of papers that suggested he’d been here for hours. Or possibly owned the place.

I stole a glance over my shoulder to make sure Druskin was close and took a seat with my back to the man so I could see the entrance. We were close enough to overhear if we strained. Druskin sat across from me, face grim.

“…need to speak to him.” Hadella was saying.

Hian,” said the man, measuredly, “At best I could only introduce you to the broker—and that is highly irregular.”

“I don’t care—” her voice dropped too low for me and I studied Druskin’s face.

If possible, he looked even more grim. He hadn’t really believed us when Quill and I had told him our suspicions last night. It had been particularly difficult to persuade him to lie about Galo being poisoned and I’d been worried he’d back out.

“For a fee I will set up a meeting for you,” said the man, his voice hard and irritated.

I couldn’t make out Hadella’s words.

“Today?” the man—it had to be the intermediary Jemin’s broker had mentioned—snorted incredulously.

“Yes, today!” snapped Hadella.

My eyes drifted around the room, noting the others present before coming back to Druskin. He was drumming his fingers on the table with pent up anger. A large bald man approached our table, wiping his hands with a sad looking towel. “What’ll you have?”

“Breakfast,” I said, and the man nodded and walked away.

Druskin tossed me a look and I shrugged at him. I’d blended in, got rid of the man, and procured food. I hoped he carried coin in that outfit because I hadn’t exactly had the chance to grab a money purse this morning.

“Someone dying is a normal consequence of hiring a killer, hian,” the gray-haired man’s voice was cold. “I will reach out today and you may come back here this evening. Maybe he will be here. Maybe not. Good day.”

There was rustling as Hadella got to her feet and I could see Druskin’s eyes tracking her movement. She would recognize Druskin and I had no idea what she’d do, but I wasn’t ready to be given away to the intermediary. I grasped Druskin’s hand hard enough that he looked at me, and then I leaned across the table—he leaned closer, unsuspecting. Tipping my head so my hair fell like a curtain, I cupped his face with my other hand and kissed him. He didn’t react for a solid breath, which gave me the chance to get a grip on the back of his head. I felt the tremor of a restrained flinch, then his other hand came up to my face, and he embraced the ruse. Or, at least, gave in to it. I was highly aware of Hadella behind me, then as she moved past and back through the tavern toward the door. Apparently ignoring the couple seated nearby, too lost in each other to bear looking at. I released my grip on Druskin and we pulled away from each other.

Flustered, Druskin snapped, “Why?”

“Because the game isn’t over,” I said, again leaning across the table so I could lower my voice.

He twitched to look toward the door, then back. “You were right,” he growled, “I can’t believe you were right. And you would just let her walk free?”

“She’s headed back to the palace, we’ll catch her there.” I scanned the room again, Quill was standing by the bar, and Prince Domonkos’s guard captain was elsewhere in the room dressed in plain clothes and looking like someone had spat in his drink. The King had been skeptical of our suspicions and our plan but sent a witness with us who could read lips, which was fortuitous. Getting both Druskin and the other captain close to the table would’ve been difficult to do without being suspicious. I laid my hand on the table. Druskin looked at it with distrust, “Besides, if we leave without eating breakfast the intermediary might think we were following her and then we’ll lose our chance at that other meeting.” I narrowed my eyes at him, and he got the message.

Placing his hand in mine he said, “Is this necessary? Displays like this aren’t civilized.”

“Does this look like a terribly civilized place?” I asked, amused. “Trust me. And try to look less like I’m forcing you to do this. Pretend I’m Galo.”

He looked pained, but then he shifted, unfurling his limbs a bit so he took up most of the table space. His legs brushed mine. “Quilleran is going to kill me.”

My eyes flicked inadvertently to the bar where Quill sat. He wasn’t looking at us. He had undoubtedly seen the kiss and the idea of him being jealous was too much to think about. It made me think about kissing Quill instead. My body grew warm. “Hardly,” I said to Druskin, “Subterfuge is a professional hazard.”

The bodyguard regarded me for a long moment. “Your world is foreign,” he pronounced, as if he was the nicest thing he could find to say.

*

Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. mumcarol says:

    yeah, i knew “the kiss” would be a ruse…pretty clever!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Clare S-B says:

    Niiice one!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Deanne says:

    Her acquaintances’ comments are making her stuffed feelings creep out more and more. How unruly!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Not the kiss I expected. LOL. Great episode!

    Liked by 1 person

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