I walked beside Ilya Terr, my hand resting in his. The dress rustled with every step, shockingly light for all its glory. The gift from Quill sat in the slim pocket of the skirt, just small and light enough to fit with the handkerchief. Elves and Angari trailed behind us like the tail of a great beast. We followed the steward as he led us down through the Palace of Spires toward the River Esplanade.
The steward announced us on the stairs and the crowd roared with enthusiasm that made me think they’d already partaken deeply of the wine.
It was a splendid place for a party. Tiered balconies dripped from the palace walls and leaned out over the river in the places where the esplanade narrowed. Bridges spanned between the palaces at either end of the esplanade. There were tables spread with food and people everywhere already eating and drinking. There was another esplanade across the river which looked equally full of revelers.
We descended the stairs, and the crowd cleared an open space for us. No one gasped when we got closer. No one shouted, “That’s not the Countess!” Quiet fell, and everyone watched us expectantly.
We stopped in the center of the open space and faced each other. Ilya Terr’s hand settled on my waist and we began the first steps of the wedding dance in the silence. Music started, softly at first but then building strength in time with our steps. I let myself sink into the dance, letting my subconscious manage the movements. I was afraid if I paid attention my body would forget, and I would falter. With each spin I scanned the faces on the edge of the crowd, then returned my gaze to the elf lord. I saw Adorjan Bulgar, nymphs from Azulimar, Menrellos of Daiesen, and Eliah, looking serious as she watched.
The music came to a crescendo and Ilya Terr spun me one last time, pulling me into his arms as the last notes died. He kissed my hand in the moment of silence that followed. “My lady,” he bowed.
Music was starting again, and others moved onto the dance floor. Elves and humans alike tossed smiles at us as they lined up to dance. These dances were more slow and methodical, as delicate and beautiful to watch as they were soothing the dance. We stayed for two more dances before breaking away and going to pay our respects at the dais where the kings and queens sat. I did not dare to meet Prince Domonkos’s eye at all. Wisely or not, trading places with the Countess hadn’t exactly been spread around, and I felt the thinness of the ruse acutely.
Ilya must’ve felt the tension through my hand, because he steered us away as soon as King Istvan and King Keleman nodded their greetings.
“Where to now?” asked Ilya softly.
“You don’t know?” If he didn’t know, this day might be memorable for gross disregard of protocol.
Ilya smiled, “We are free to celebrate for a time before we sit down for the ceremonial first meal. Where should we fish for assassins?”
I glanced back at the dance floor and then turned us toward the edges of the esplanade. I was hungry and would prefer the tables of food as a hunting ground, but… “In the dark places.”
I turned and a middle-aged lord I didn’t recognize was standing a few feet away. “Grofne,” I said.
“May I speak with you a moment?” He glanced at Ilya, “Alone.”
I exchanged a quick look with Ilya and then said, “Of course.” Leaving Ilya behind I followed the lord a short distance away toward the riverbank. He stopped at the railing and I joined him, facing the river. The Juni was busy today, full of boats and people using the wedding as a chance for a party. I could feel her pleasure even without touching her. She was so inviting I stuck my hands in the thin pockets of the gown to ensure I didn’t reach for her.
For a long moment, the lord said nothing. Then he said, “Have you considered my letter?”
I had no idea which letter he was referring to, but it was a safe bet he hadn’t been writing to support the treaty. Taking on the Countess’s voice, I replied, “I believe this treaty is the best thing for Angareth.”
He nodded, unsurprised, his mouth a grim line. “Walk with me.” Turning he began to stroll along the river. I followed. “I cannot fathom how an intelligent woman such as yourself can embrace the idea that handing one of our strongholds to the elves is not treachery,” his tone was deceptively mild, considering his words, “I would not have taken you for an elf-lover.” His eyes flicked over my shoulder to where Ilya trailed us at a careful distance.
“What beautiful words on my wedding day,” I remarked coldly. The esplanade narrowed here, and the balconies overhead reached almost to the river, enveloping us in noonday shade. We were quite apart from the crowds, most everyone clustered around the tables of food and the dancing in the wide center.
The lord stopped walking and turned to face me, his arms at his sides. He looked stone-faced. “I am not a violent man.”
Lightning jolted through my veins. Peaceful people didn’t need to say things like that.
“But I will do whatever is necessary to protect Angareth.” He lunged at me, knife flashing in his hand.
I reacted on instinct, stepping into the hammer blow, my arms coming up to deflect and then twist to gain control of the knife-arm. Thrown off balance, the lord recoiled in shock—his weight enough that we both stumbled. The hoops bucked as our bodies lurched, but I had locked my elbow above his and had his upper arm trapped, the knife useless behind my back.
“Elven whore!” cursed the lord. He swung his other hand at my face. I turned my head away and his hand struck the spikes of the headdress. He cursed and the headdress twisted painfully.
And then he went to his knees with a gasp.
Ilya stood behind him, his hands clenched, his golden face the image of an angry god. “Count Jozzi.”
“Take the knife,” I snapped.
Stepping around Count Jozzi and the hoopskirt, Ilya pried the knife out of the lord’s fingers. The Count resisted, but I squeezed his trapped arm, putting pressure on his elbow and shoulder until he cried out and released the knife. Ilya held the knife aloft by two fingers as if it were contaminated. He was furious. The knife was curved and inlaid with an oak leaf motif. Obviously elven.
The sound of booted feet running announced the arrival of Druskin and another guard. “Count Jozzi!” exclaimed Druskin. “What have you done?”
“What you should have done if you had any honor in you!” The Count’s face was red with fury and, I thought, embarrassment, for his failure. He struggled and I squeezed again. He cried out and struck again for my face with his bloodied hand, but Druskin caught his other arm.
I looked at Druskin. “Take him away.”
More people were looking our way, now, and I could feel the storm of human emotion as whispers started. I released the Count’s arm and he thrashed at me as I stepped away, his face contorted into something ugly. Druskin caught his other arm and pulled it behind him roughly.
“You will doom Angareth!” the Count’s voice rose and cracked.
Druskin hauled him backwards and the other guard stepped in to take over.
I walked away from the Count, toward the river, as if I couldn’t hear him as he struggled, yelling curses until someone silenced him. I stopped at the rail and looked out at the boats calmly, well aware of the eyes of the nobles on me. More guards were converging behind me, and I thought it was only a matter of time before lords and ladies in turn converged on me. I didn’t want that. Someone was bound to notice I wasn’t Adelheid Wuhn.
Ilya stepped close to me. “Are you alright?”
Gingerly, I touched the headdress. Its pins pulled painfully at my hair. I winced. “Yes…Did he break anything on the headdress? Is it bloody? Fornern’s fists, it feels all wrong now.”
Ilya’s lips twitched. “It felt right before?”
I made a face at him. “It felt better.”
Leaning in, Ilya examined the spikes of the headdress without touching either it or me. “There might be blood,” he said after a pause. “But you’d have to look for it.”
“Grofnu!” Brell emerged from party and hurried toward us.
I turned away from the river and walked to meet her, Ilya a step behind me. “The headdress needs re-pinning,” I said, relieved to have an excuse to get away from the hungry gaze of the nobility.
“Come with me,” said Brell, she cast a look at the guards who were now bustling away with a limp Count carried between them, then turned resolutely back toward the party.
There were screened alcoves nestled against the palace like pearls against a shell. Potted plants and chairs made each a pleasant little escape for anyone who wanted a break from the party. Or anyone who had to have their headdress repined because someone very committed to his misguided cause had tried to kill her in broad daylight mere yards from witnesses. Brell led me to an alcove and quickly tucked me inside, shooing Ilya Terr away with a hiss that it wouldn’t be proper for him to join us.
“I can’t believe Count Jozzi did that,” said Brell, positioning me by a footstool so she could stand over me and begin pulling out all the headdress pins. “Even if he had succeeded, he would never have gotten away.”
“He never intended to get away,” I said. He had led me away from the crowd but hadn’t taken any action until he’d seen Ilya was also away from the crowd. And he’d used an elven dagger. “He was going to kill me and then himself and hope it all got pinned on Ilya Terr.” No one had been paying close attention, it was easy enough to imagine Ilya Terr bending over both bodies with the bloodied knife in his hand by the time anyone turned to look. A desperate plan, but a devastating one if it had succeeded.
Brell’s fingers paused as she digested this, “Is it over, then?”
“No.” I closed my eyes. “He was not the assassin Hadella hired.”
Brell adjusted the headdress and began pinning again in silence.
I kept my eyes closed, listening to the music, the party behind the screen walls, and the Juni beyond. They had plenty to talk about. Rumors swirling from the river edge all through the crowd about a scuffle by the river and then someone being removed by the guards. Such a turmoil of souls. I didn’t know how the Countess could stand gatherings like this with a Seer’s gift of sight.
Brell stepped away. “I’m going to need more pins…that will be faster than re-doing your hair entirely.”
“I’ll be here,” I said, not bothering to open my eyes. I heard Brell leave in a rustle of silk and I immediately wished I had asked her how to sit down in the hooped skirts. I was reasonably sure it was possible, but the low chair in the alcove didn’t look like it was going to be a modest option. I slipped my hand into my pocket and closed my finger around the folding knife from Quill. I wondered where he was. I hadn’t seen him on the esplanade at all, though I supposed there were tiers of balconies to patrol. He wouldn’t be far away. You are not allowed to die. How strange to have survived so much, spent so much time doing dangerous work on opposite sides of the continent, to be so frightened for one another on a job. As if time had finally eroded away the thick veneer of bravado and we were left only with the truth between us.
My senses tingled at the same moment I felt my skirts shift. I was spinning, the dwarven knife flashing in my hand before I formed conscious thought. A man in a smooth black mask blocked the blow, the shock reverberating through our forearms as he struck with his other hand.