Ilya Terr, Lord of Linden, took the news quietly. His second, Mihalak, stood behind him with his arms crossed while I explained the Countess’s pending absence from dinner, and that she had a bit of a shock this afternoon when she found out her sister had hired an assassin to kill her. An assassin we probably wouldn’t be able to call off and would have to thwart in other, messier, ways. An assassin, honestly, someone official should’ve told the elves about ages ago since Ilya Terr was spending a fair bit of time right next to the Countess in public.
When I finished, Ilya Terr let out a long breath. “Is that all?”
My eyes flicked up to Mihalak. “How much do you know about the criminal underworld?”
Mihalak’s lip twitched. “You assume I know anything?”
“We have reason to believe the assassin who took the job goes by the name Scythe, if you’ve heard of him?”
“I have not,” replied Mihalak, “but the name certainly sounds…ominous.”
“What do you know about him?” asked Ilya.
“He prefers knives, usually, but I believe he is the one behind the attempt with the bow yesterday. It was mere luck that he struck the wrong target.” Or divine intervention.
Brell stole a glance at me. This was clearly more information than she’d been told, and I saw her note my stance. Here, with Ilya Terr, I was not a leanyodi, but stood with my feet apart and my hands behind my back like a soldier. He had me pegged as a bodyguard, might as well let him have one at this point.
Ilya also studied me, “Should I be concerned?” he asked, measuredly, his deep brown eyes bored into me.
“If he killed you, you would be collateral, but you would still be dead,” I said.
He frowned. “And if not me, perhaps my bride, which pleases me no better.”
“Quilleran and I are working on a plan,” I said.
“What is Quilleran to this house?” asked Ilya Terr, suddenly. “I had thought he was one of the Countess’s men, but here in Gar Morwen he has been apart, and dresses like a Magadarian.”
Mihalak answered for me, “King Keleman hired him to find out who among his nobles was trying to kill his niece.” At Ilya’s surprised look, Mihalak said dryly, “I have not spent this week dancing with my betrothed, my lord.”
“You didn’t think to mention it to me?” demanded the Lord of Linden, showing the first bit of temper I’d seen since finding out he’d been lied to on the way here.
“I didn’t think it was a revelation that people were trying to kill her—or you, my lord,” replied Mihalak.
“And I thought dancing with my betrothed offered as much safety as it did pleasure.”
Brell and I looked at each other, Mihalak’s tone was laced with meaning. I asked, “Have there been…attempts on you? Since arriving in Gar Morwen?”
“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” said Mihalak.
Brell’s hand flew to her throat. “My lord, our apologies!” as if assassination attempts were like rats found in the wardrobe, something easily prevented by the host if only they looked after their house better.
Ilya made a dismissive gesture. “I am not naïve enough to be offended. I will not be turned aside from this marriage.”
This reminded me, and I produced the ornate little box. “My lord, the Countess also sends this gift.” I presented it to him, and he gently lifted it from my palm like it were a songbird.
His eyes widened a touch when he opened the gilded box and saw the enormous ruby. He uncurled the note and his entire face softened as he read it. I wanted to memorize it; the look of a male who had been trusted with the heart of Wuhnravinwel—undoubtedly the heart beating in a different part of the palace, not just the enormous rock in his hand. When he looked back at me our eyes met, and I could see his wonder that his noble duty could have brought him something so precious. It was a beautiful thing, and felt rare and precious, like the flowers that only bloomed after a fire. The Countess and Lord of warring houses had a real chance at lasting peace, strong alliance, and at real love. I would do all in my power to protect it.
When I opened the door to my chambers, I was surprised to see Quill still perched on my bed. I stepped into the room hesitantly, and saw that Druskin was standing by the window, clean and in a fresh uniform. Eliah was sitting on the desk, her feet on the chair. She caught my eye, and a knowing smile curled the corners of her mouth.
I closed the door behind me, deliberately ignoring Eliah’s look. “Good afternoon,” I addressed the room dryly. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Druskin said, “Hadella will never agree to call off her assassin.”
“No, we thought not,” I walked a few steps into the room and then propped my shoulder on my wardrobe, crossing my arms across my chest.
“If we don’t catch him in the act, or on the way to act…” Druskin trailed off. He started again, “Hadella was trying to prevent the wedding. I can only assume the Countess must be killed before the day is out tomorrow. The wedding takes all day: The vows are in the morning, and then there is a presentation, and the rest of the day is spent feasting and dancing, at dusk they retire, and the wedding is ceremonially completed,” He paused for breath, “I know that the King hired you to find out who hired the assassin, and you’ve done that. But please, I would have your help protecting the Countess, if you’d lend it.”
We all looked at Quill, though Eliah and I knew the answer. He crossed his arms, then lifted one hand to rub his jaw, as if considering. “I had assumed that preventing the assassination was one of the goals of this investigation.”
Druskin drew a deep breath and released it, the relief evident in his shoulders. “Thank you.” He looked at me, “I would like you by the Countess’s side all day.”
“I would, of course,” I said, “but I can’t, really, every moment.”
Eliah, though, understood, “You will be close, but obviously not while she’s dancing or being presented or any of that.”
With a nod I continued, “It is a waiting game, the Scythe has only to wait for the moment I’m out of reach, and that moment will inevitably come.” I had a plan. This wasn’t a great plan, but it was the best I had. “The only solution I see is to take her place.”
“Zephra,” said Druskin, “That is more than I could ask.”
“You didn’t ask,” I replied.
Eliah put in, “Both the Countess and Lord would need to agree to this. There would be nothing good in swapping out Ilya Terr’s bride for most of the day without telling him.”
“I have already spoken with Lord Terr about this, and he is amenable,” I felt Quill’s eyes on me, and I couldn’t look at him. I’ve been having dreams. Nightmares. They are different each night, sometimes the knife comes from behind, sometimes above. Sometimes from the side. “I can’t take her place for the vows, of course, but everything after…”
“We must keep this as quiet as possible,” said Druskin, “Even from the leanyodi.” Caution finally learned, and well learned. “The traditional make up for the wedding is the same from the bride to her attendants. It’s meant to confuse evil spirits and demons and serves us well enough. Normally the dresses would be similar, also, but for the elven wedding dress in the morning—the red dress, though, each leanyod will be wearing a similar but less ornate gown.”
I fingered the sleeve of my dressing gown. “Brell was at my meeting with Ilya Terr, and I would trust Karolya, also. I would that Galo could be among us, but she shouldn’t be walking around just yet. We’ll need to make sure that Karolya, Brell and I are the ones who attend the Countess for the change of clothes after vows.”
Druskin nodded. He looked troubled still but energized as he moved toward the door. “I will go speak with the Countess.”
“I’ll come in a moment to help you persuade her,” I said over my shoulder as he let himself out. She would be harder to persuade than Ilya Terr had been. The door closed and I turned back to face Quill and Eliah. I looked at Eliah first, she looked grim but the kind of grim about to charge right into the fray, regardless of odds.
Quill stood up. “Zare.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Alright, come up with a better plan.” I met his eyes then. Always a knife. Always…at someone who turns out to be you. “I have been sleeping in her place since we arrived in Gar Morwen. We cannot let her die—I don’t want to let her die. I have far more practice than she does not-getting-killed. This is our best chance.”
“You’ve been sleeping in her place? A princess for a countess?” asked Eliah, an incredulous bite in her voice.
“A shark for a dolphin. This is not a trade, it’s a trap,” I said. “I have no intention of dying.”
Rubbing his hand over his face, Quill sighed, “You’re right. Taking her place is the best shot we have.”
I nodded at him. “The real problem is that I don’t know Angari dances.”
Laughs coughed out of both Eliah and Quill.
“Persuade your lady then come back. I can teach you some,” Quill looked over at Eliah, “Though several are line dances, we might need Druskin or even Lord Terr to help after dinner.”
“Where are we going to have space to practice line dances?” I asked. Part of me wanted to say I would just refuse to dance the line dances…but a line dance might be a decent time to knife someone, so I really should learn for the sake of the trap.
Eliah hopped off the desk. “I’ve been snooping around, there is a space on the palace roof between the two largest domes. It’s a garden, but there is plenty of open area. Everyone goes there often in the winter, but it’s quiet now.”
I wondered how often my favorite huntress had fled up there to hide away from the city and the palace and the people.
Eliah continued, “I can have Rakov bring Ilya Terr, up there after the banquet tonight and we can spend the rest of the evening perfecting your dance skills.”
“That’s settled, then,” I tightened the cinch on the red dressing gown, “I have only to persuade the Countess.” I turned and walked out of my room.