When I was admitted to the Countess’s chambers, she shifted her burning glare from Druskin to me. “You cannot be serious.”
“I’m perfectly serious.” I walked up, crossing my arms, and looking from a harried Druskin to a furious Countess.
“I will not hide and let others take the risks meant for me!” She was wrapped in a purple robe and her dark hair was hidden in a towel. She looked like she’d been pulled from a bath though I suspected that wasn’t the case—because this was Angareth and this was Druskin. “This is my duty, my honor!”
“You will hide,” I planted my feet and leveled my gaze at her, “You will hide in plain sight—risk enough for your honor—and let someone take care of the problem for you.”
“This isn’t your burden!” snarled the Countess.
My rage rose to meet hers and I snarled back, “Yes, it is.”
Surprise flickered across the Countess’s face—when was the last time someone had snapped at her? She stormed closer to me, “I’ll not have you die! Nor be gruesomely wounded, as Galo was! I don’t want that blood on my hands!”
“And what of your own when you die with a knife between your ribs in front of a crowd, your new husband crying over you because you didn’t sense the blow coming nor have the instincts to block it?” I was hissing now, barely able to contain my fury, “What of the blood of thousands when the treaty falls apart and your countries go to war and then the Empire comes and snaps up your land, your springs and what remains of your people?”
Druskin was watching wide-eyed, but the Countess stopped moving, shock and fury rolled across her normally stoic face.
I continued, “Would you rather the Juni ran with the blood of her nymphs like the Bandui and the Tryber? Your uncle beheaded in the central square of Gar Morwen like the kings of Daiesen were? You do not owe anyone risks or misery or blood because you like your betrothed. Your duty is to live, your duty is to be a bond between states, and your duty is to allow a shield in front of you so you can be a shield for your people.”
The Countess had been glaring at me, but as I spoke her face grew pale and her mouth gaped open like she was in pain. As I finished, she slumped onto the bench at the foot of her bed, Druskin diving to catch her.
“Grofnu!” Druskin searched frantically for wounds, running his hands down her back and sides.
She shook her head, patting Druskin’s arms reassuringly as tears rolled down her cheeks. “You saw it,” she said, her voice watery, “You saw the blood in Daiesen.”
My fury banked, leaving me wobbly. Seers.
I sank onto a chair.
Druskin looked over his shoulder at me sharply.
“She’s fine,” I managed.
“She’s gifted, what did you show her?” he demanded.
I sorted through my mind. I hadn’t meant to, but I’d been angry and the memories had risen like the tide…blood-soaked field hospitals in a besieged Galhara, raging fires reflected on dark water as we fled for our lives—time and time again—the light leaving Tarr Kegan’s eyes as he bled out in his own ballroom, nymphs hanging on gallows outside Charispol…I’d flung the memories at her as surely as I’d flung my words. “I showed her Daiesen,” I said, feeling choked.
The Countess looked up at me, her eyes shining with tears, “You saw with your own eyes.”
“Who are you? You’re from a noble house, I saw the palaces…the weapons…the soldiers reacting to you…”
I sucked in a breath. She’d seen even more than I’d thought. More than just the blood-soaked bandages, but also the men saluting as I passed. Our eyes locked. I hated using fake names anyway. Letting the air out of my lungs, I said, “Caspian.”
Druskin, still on his knees, stared at me for a long moment before connecting the name and springing to his feet. “Zare Caspian?” he said, “The outlaw?”
“The princess,” corrected the Countess, meeting my eye again. “At last I know why your Angari is so good and your manner is so…insubordinate.” She smiled, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “Your Highness.”
“Outlaw, princess,” I shrugged, “Both true depending on where you are. I’m also a decent bounty hunter and a reasonably accomplished rider.”
Druskin eyed me. “Have you done all the things they say you have?”
I snorted. “Certainly not.”
The Countess finished wiping her face and said, “Who is Quilleran?”
I stiffened. His secrets weren’t mine to share. Had he been in any of the memories the Countess saw? I thought of dragging him off the balcony of the burning palace in Dalyn and then pushed the thought away quickly. “An old friend.”
“He’s not a Kegan, is he? Or a Temmis, or a Konig? Or even a Wynn, Tirien save us?” she asked.
“No, he is not.” A smile tipped my lips at the thought of Quill as a prince. He might as well be. The Rhydderick’s had been a powerful family, and he remained hopelessly entangled with royalty.
The Countess caught my smile and concluded, “He is also from Daiesen.”
I said nothing, but she nodded as if I had. “You must not reveal me to anyone else,” I said. “Do not call me ‘highness,’ I am Zephra Ruddybrook here, and nothing more.”
“Of course, as you wish,” replied the Countess.
After a moment of silence—in which I very carefully didn’t look back at the memories spread across the floor of my mind—she said, “Very well. I will do as you say and allow you to take my place after the ceremony tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Grofnu,” said Druskin, relieved.
“Good. I have one more thing to ask of you, Grofnu,” I stood up, smoothing the wrinkles out of the dressing gown. “I never learned Angari dances, so we are going to the roof tonight to work on them. Are you able to come help?” She hesitated, so I added, “I believe Quilleran is asking Ilya Terr to join us, since he’ll be the one dancing with me. I thought, perhaps, you would want to help, and the chance to dance the traditional dances with him…”
Color climbed her cheeks and brightened her eyes. “Ilya Terr cannot possibly teach you the Angari dances by himself. I will come”
A night dancing under the stars, surrounded by the golden domes of the palace was actually quite lovely. I liked dancing, and Ilya and the Countess were good teachers. They were also a great deal of fun to watch with Ilya’s flirting and the Countess’s flushing cheeks. Brell, Karolya,Quill, and Mihalak joined us for the line dances—it was a small group for line dances but we managed. Eliah and Rakov provided music, I had forgotten they both played.
It was easy to forget the reason we were all there. Easy to forget that in the morning I would be waiting for a knife blow. Even as I danced mostly with Ilya Terr while the Countess corrected my posture.
But when we changed partners, I danced with Quill, and remembered only how close we’d come to admitting something, so many times, this past week. Felt only where our bodies touched and only the rhythm of the music and the beating of our feet on the stones. I imagined myself Ayglara of myth, dancing with Benedek, the human king. Our bond bringing peace to the land and the waters.