“If she won’t call off the assassin, we still have the difficulty of either finding or thwarting the Scythe,” I said to Quill. We were in my rooms. After the confrontation with Hadella, Quill had left to bring the others up on the latest, and I had left to finally bathe off the street grime. The Countess was safe in her chambers undergoing skin treatments and massages in preparation for the wedding day. Enjoying them rather less than she might have before she found out her sister wanted her dead in the sincerest way. The leanyodi were all reeling, and I’d been eager to leave the maelstrom of emotions behind for my own chambers.
I lingered in the tub savoring the heat, the clean, and the solitude. Grasping at the solitude, really. I could almost feel the Countess’s hollow pain even with rooms between us.
Now I was sitting on the desk in a puddle of afternoon sun, letting it dry my hair. I’d donned my undyed skin-tight clothes in anticipation of arming myself to the teeth for dinner. At Quill’s knock I’d grabbed a fresh red dressing gown embroidered with a herd of rampant unicorns. But now I let it hang open carelessly while I filed my nails and delayed re-entering the storm of betrayed women.
“I do not envy anyone in this family,” I said, reaching back to check the wetness of my hair. “What a miserable day for them.”
“Indeed,” agreed Quill. He lay on his back on the bed with his legs hanging off the side. He’d sat on the bed when I took the desk, and then he’d succumbed to the siren call of the feather mattress almost immediately, though I didn’t think he’d meant to. He was as tired as I was. “Did you see the Queen’s face?”
“Did you see the King’s?” I glanced over at him. Why did it make my heart skip to see him on my bed when I’d never slept in it? And what made a bed so different from a bedroll? Was it the addition of walls and a door? I rolled my lips and refocused. “Do you think they are torturing her?”
“King Keleman knows that the future independence of Angareth depends on this treaty.” Quill’s voice was heavy, “But I think not. Hadella thinks she can still accomplish the part of her goal conviction most demands—she can deprive the treaty of its lynchpin and save the springs from elven taint. She will not yield though she won’t inherit. I think the King knows this. Conviction is a powerful foe.”
“The Scythe is also a powerful foe,” I said.
“The Scythe is skillful. I don’t know about powerful.”
“The difference, in this case, is negligible.”
“Conviction is the difference between fighting to the death and running when you start to lose.”
“Fair,” I ran my thumb over my nails and then inspected their shape. “So, the real question becomes; how much conviction does the Scythe have about his reputation for finishing jobs?”
Quill didn’t say anything. We both knew the quality of the Scythe. He was like the Breaker. Like us. He didn’t take jobs and not finish them.
I set down the file. “Have you set Jemin and Ayglos on that dirty tavern in case anyone shows up for that meeting Hadella wanted?”
“I did. I wish Hadella wore a mask or the ceremonial make up for these meeting, then I could send you as her.”
“That would have been convenient.”
I heard the amusement creep into Quill’s voice as he said, “I can’t believe you walked through the entire city barefoot this morning.”
“Me neither,” I groaned, shuddering. “I thought about asking Hadella to wait a moment for me to grab shoes, but decided against it.”
A heartbeat, then I plunged, “I can’t believe I kissed Druskin.”
He sat up, then, humor still curling his lips, but something hot and dangerous sparkled in his eyes. “Me neither. Was it good?”
“Well, it was better than walking that tavern barefoot,” I smiled crookedly. Even distracted, Druskin was a competent kisser. “Galo is a lucky woman.” And I was a reckless idiot.
“Such high praise,” said Quill. “Should I ask him the same question?”
“You could,” I hummed, aware of his eyes on me, full of something I didn’t dare name. What had the Countess said about being a lunatic and taking chances? “Or—”
A knock sounded at the door. We both looked at it blankly. Quill slowly slid off the bed and rolled beneath it. We hadn’t even gotten close to each other and my heart was hammering and my skin was hot. I took a deep breath and cinched up the dressing gown, then I answered the door.
Brell, eyes red-rimmed, stood in the hall. “The Countess summons you,” she said, her voice lacking the energy that usually filled Brell’s every word.
She was also in a dressing gown, so I said, “Of course,” and stepped into the hall, closing the door behind me.
I used the short walk to breathe and search for the deep well of calm inside I could usually rely on. The deep well was not calm. It churned and the best I could manage was to slow the current. We entered the Countess’s chambers and they were a hive of activity.
Several wooden racks had been dragged in from somewhere and the sleek green wedding gown and voluminous red presentation gown were each hung to air. They’d already had their traveling wrinkles steamed or pressed out of them and each had a pair of leanyodi going over them to make sure they were perfectly clean and not a stitch or bead out of place.
“The Countess is not going to the banquet tonight,” said Brell as we passed through the sitting room. “Normally she would make a brief appearance, but with—everything—she has chosen not to go.”
“Understandable,” I said, relieved. One fewer watchful night watching for knives and dodging acquaintances.
“I’m relieved, myself,” Brell paused at the door, “I can’t bear the thought of being in the crowd and fielding the gossip. Not yet.” She looked at me, “I can’t believe you were right about Hadella. How did you know?”
I gave her a sad smile. “It was a hunch. Hadella loves Wuhnravinwel. More than anything else.” And love makes you stupid, an old friend’s words flashed in my mind, making my smile a little sadder. That it did.
“I keep comforting myself that Galo, at least, will be alright,” said Brell, “But it’s like saying ‘at least I have my right foot’ when someone cuts off your left.” She opened the door and led the way into the bedchamber.
The Countess was sitting on the window seat, wrapped in a robe, a little folding table covered in food in front of her. She gave us a weak smile. “Karolya brought this a bit ago and insisted.” She picked up a piece of bread and looked at it blandly. “I have no heart for it.”
“Why did you call for me, Grofnu?” I asked.
“I would like you and Brell to go to Ilya Terr and bring him a gift, and explain why I won’t be at dinner tonight.”
“As you wish.”
She handed me a small square box made of polished bone and inlaid with gold.
“What am I telling him?”
She shrugged. “The truth. I cannot hide it from him, and have no wish to. Though I wish the truth were other than it is. I’m asking you because you traveled with us here, and fought by his side. He knows you a little more than the others. And I cannot ask Galo…”
“I’ll take it to him,” I curtsied.
The Countess turned away in dismissal and I left, Brell at my heels. Once the door closed behind us, I opened the box. Inside lay a brooch, a silver falcon with diamonds for eyes clutching a ruby the size of a robin’s egg in its talons. I exhaled; it was impressive. There was a paper rolled in the box, and I unfurled it; I shall treasure your glittering tree and in return give you the Heart of Wuhnravinwel. I believe I can trust you with it. -Countess Adelheid Wuhn.
Brell gave me a disapproving look—it wasn’t my place to look in the box or read the note, except that I was leaving nothing to chance I didn’t have to. I wasn’t about to deliver a letter that bade fond farewell, or something poisoned. I rolled the paper back inside and closed the box. “Shall we?”