We found the Countess in the center, near the dais where the royals were gathered. There were royal guards surrounding the dais, and everyone except Domonkos was on it. Princess Sarika, standing and watching us approach, looked as if she’d been plucked out of a dance and summoned behind the guard wall. Of course, the guard had collected the royals when things started happening. Most of the leanyodi and losoki serving the royals were also close, looking alert as they milled. They made way for us, parting in a path that led directly to the kings and queens. The Countess broke from them, however, and came to greet us. Catching up my hands she exclaimed, “Are you alright? What happened? Where is Brell? Druskin said Lord Jozzi attacked you, but what happened just now?”
I squeezed her hands, nodding to Ilya Terr who was, indeed, two steps behind her. Mihalak and Druskin were hovering nearby. “He did. Then someone else did. I’m fine, Brell was getting hairpins, I don’t know where she is now.”
“Was it the Scythe?” she asked.
“I believe so.”
“Did you kill him?”
I shook my head. “He was too skilled. But he fled. Better to leave than risk capture. He didn’t expect resistance and will probably not be back.”
“Are you certain?”
“If it were me, the information provided in the contract was bad, and it isn’t worth the risk to continue.”
That was enough for her, which was both gratifying and terrifying. She looked at her cousin, then, seeming to remember that he hadn’t been in on our ruse and obviously knew about it now. “Domonkos.”
“Adelheid, which one of you married Ilya Terr?” he asked.
“I did!” replied the Countess, “Come now, Domonkos, you know I did. We only switched for the afternoon because of the assassin.”
The prince looked at the elf lord, apparently noting Ilya’s utter lack of concern. “You knew about this?”
“I did,” confessed Ilya, not looking the least bit sorry.
“Did my father?”
The Countess looked a little abashed. “No.”
“But fewer than a dozen people did,” said the elf, “It seemed the best way to protect my bride.”
I felt the prince bristle, “Did you not trust my king?”
“Domonkos, don’t be ridiculous,” broke in the Countess, “After—after Hadella…” after her sister betrayed her so deeply, “we didn’t know if we could trust just any of the leanyodi or losoki, either. And you know they would’ve known if we’d tried to tell Uncle.”
Domonkos considered her point and inclined his head. “It’s over now. The king is waiting.”
“Kings,” corrected Ilya.
It was pretty safe to assume that there would be no more successful place swapping with the Countess. The kings were not amused, and the whole story came out right there on the esplanade while we waited for the guards to fetch Quill and his quarry from the river. The immediate audience was entirely leanyodi, losoki, and guards, but the rest of the guests weren’t blind and were watching avidly even if they couldn’t hear everything.
Finally, guards arrived, conducting Quill and half carrying another man. Quill had dried off a little, but his clothing clung and he looked uninjured, strong, and utterly breathtaking. My limbs went weak when I saw him, and I couldn’t look away as he approached and bowed. He found me, even before he bowed to the kings, and I saw him note the disarray, and that I, too, was uninjured. Our eyes met for an instant, exchanging something dark and intense.
“Quilleran, what happened?” said King Keleman.
“It appears, your majesties, that you’ve learned of our plan to keep the Countess safe,” he tilted his head toward where the Countess and I stood. When the royals nodded, he continued, “I was on the riverbank, keeping an eye on the crowd and watching the balconies. I saw a glint of light that seemed like steel, so I went into the palace to see closer. It appears that I missed some excitement on the esplanade while I was inside.” Here he tossed a significant glance at me, I had recovered myself and gave him what I hoped was a droll expression, “It took me some time to find the balcony I was looking for and I found a man with a crossbow who was not one of the Guard. When he tried to kill me and flee, he failed.”
The guards towed the other man forward and propped him up in front of the dais. He was clearly injured but didn’t appear to be bleeding. Olive skin, brown hair, he could be from any number of places. He was stoic, and perhaps slightly dazed, as he regarded the dais full of royalty.
“Who are you?” demanded King Keleman.
The assassin said nothing. One of the guards struck him, but he still didn’t reply. Professional.
The guard held aloft a black mask. “He was wearing this, your majesties.”
I blinked. The mask looked just like the one worn by the assassin I’d fought. There was no way the man I had fought could’ve gotten over to the other balconies in time to fall off them with Quill. Dread curled inside me. There shouldn’t be a way. There also shouldn’t be a way to erase cities, but that had happened in my lifetime. Feeling a sudden need for a closer look, I left the Countess’s side, and approached the assassin. No one stopped me. I got as close as the hoops let me. His clothes were black. Reinforced across the chest, thighs, and forearms. It certainly looked like the same clothing as the man I’d fought. But there was no tear across his chest, where I knew I’d struck him. The assassin grew rigid as I lingered, and I tilted my head to look at his face. Blue eyes. I’d gotten a good look at the other’s brown eyes, so it couldn’t be the man I’d fought. It was a thin reality to cling to, I supposed, when I was entertaining the notion of teleportation. There was still something familiar about him. His hair was a sort of muddy brown, slicked down by the river and…smelling of coffee. I…knew him…The hair was the wrong color, but…I took a step back, “Quilleran.”
Quill stepped up to us, question in his eyes.
I looked from Quill to the man, and back to Quill, hoping he’d catch on without me needing to say anything. I needed to know if he saw what I saw. The assassin twitched, almost as if he were shaking his head, telling us to be silent.
Slowly, Quill followed my gaze, and then he glanced sharply back at me. “Lucius Tene.”