Lucius Tene stood so very still that even with Quill’s confirmation, I doubted myself. He looked all wrong with the brown hair instead of blond, and the stillness instead of the laughing suavity of the lord I’d known in Dalyn. I remembered him as the perfect gentleman; smooth, charming, and content to support Bel’s efforts to seduce false-me. I remembered him as the man who’d confronted me in the middle of a dance when he’d recognized my brother as the crown prince of Galhara. The man I hadn’t seen since. He hadn’t been attending the parties much this week, we hadn’t noticed he was here until we’d searched the rooms of the party from Daiesen and seen his crest. I’d assumed he was here for the horses, same as Bel. “You’re the Scythe?” I asked.
He looked at me, then over my shoulder at nothing.
“He won’t answer,” said Quill.
“Take him away,” ordered King Keleman. “We’ll deal with him after the celebration.”
The guards pulled Lucius away. He looked more like himself when moving, even if he was being supported by guards. I would have stared after him until he was out of sight, but King Keleman spoke again.
“King Istvan, we were going to sign the treaty at twilight, as a symbol of change, but I begin to think that we should sign the treaty now, before anything else happens.”
The elven king smiled wryly. “This is agreeable to me. Keep our enemies on their toes.”
Our enemies. Word choice that reinforced their alliance.
Losoki and leanyodi bustled off to fetch and set up tables, pens, and the copies of the treaty. Any semblance of dancing and feasting stopped as everyone gathered to watch as the kings and queens swore vows of peace and signed their names to four copies of the treaty. I stood to the side by Druskin as the Countess and Ilya Terr also signed the treaty.
When they were finished, the Countess and I were bustled off to switch places again. Brell gave me a hug when she found me. The leanyodi were furious and relieved and furious some more about being excluded from the plan—it got out quickly that Brell and Karolya had known, and they were included in the disgrace. Three seamstresses and two wash women were summoned to repair the injured skirts while we were undressed, and I was freed from the infernal headdress. Most of the palace believed I was a bodyguard now, and I was tremendously relieved when Druskin delivered guard uniform. The day’s formal colors meant he could borrow a set from the Queen’s guard for me. I loved gowns, but today I felt quite done with them. I was more than glad to trade the headdress for braids.
When I rejoined the Countess’s retinue, the Countess pulled me aside. She looked far more comfortable in the headdress than I had felt. “Zephra,” she began, then hesitated meaningfully. She was speaking to Zare, not Zephra, “I can never thank you enough for the risks you took today.”
“There is no guarantee no one else will make a try today, or in the future,” I replied.
She gave me a look, “That you cannot save the whole world every moment of every day doesn’t strip your sacrifice of value. Say ‘you’re welcome’ and say that you will be my friend. For you will always have a place with me, under any name.”
I smiled at her. “You’re welcome. I would be honored to be your friend.”
No one else drew weapons for the remainder of the day. I stayed near the Countess, a respectful distance away from her as she danced, ate, and talked. I was tired, and glad that no one tried to talk or dance with bodyguards. I could brood and look forbidding and that suited me fine. The sun set and lanterns were lit, turning the esplanade and the river between into a field of glowing stars. Everyone gathered again for Ilya Terr and the Countess to perform another ceremony, this one sharing wine and then serving it to their families. Then there was a line dance with both families. It was beautiful, and I was glad beyond measure that the Terrim and Angari were dancing together. I was also anxious for answers, emotionally ragged, and eager for the evening to end. Was the Scythe two people, or was one a decoy? Or was the Scythe still out there and we’d foiled an Imperial plot? I’d met lots of men in the underworld, and it was entirely possible that Lucius Tene knew plenty of the same people in the underworld that I did…but he was friends with Bel Valredes. Bel who had brown eyes. Was it possible that Gentle Belledi Valredes was a notorious assassin as well as a cunning spy?
I watched for Bel, and saw him once or twice as the evening wore on. But he didn’t come close enough for me to talk to him, and I was an on-duty bodyguard now. I saw Quill, Eliah, and Rakov periodically, but couldn’t speak with any of them either.
At last, there was a final dance, and the Countess and her Lord left the party and retired into the palace. The leanyodi, along with Mihalak and some of Ilya’s elves, followed, escorting them back to the Countess’s chambers. Where they were left, with one elf and one man guarding the doors. Everyone else scattered to their own rooms. When I got to my chamber door, I leaned my forehead against it, trying to think past the tiredness to decide what to do next.
“Am I interrupting?”
I startled, then turned to see Quill walking down the hall toward me. Here, mostly alone, the feelings I’d been holding at bay since his fall on the esplanade threatened to overwhelm me. “I’m busy conversing with the door,” I managed, but my voice choked.
Quill saw me waiver and practically ran the last few feet, pulling me into his arms. I clutched at him, burying my face in his shoulder as if he were air and I were fire.
My voice was muffled by his clothes as I said, “I saw you fall from across the esplanade. I thought I’d lost you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Quill, his breath warm on my ear, his hand making soothing circles on my back, “I didn’t mean to scare you. He was very good, and almost got past me into the palace, throwing him over the ledge was the first thing I thought of.”
I pulled away enough to look up at him, “That was a terrible idea.”
“It actually worked very well for me; I knew we were over the water and if you recall I grew up on a river…” He paused, a grin tipping his lips at the dark expression that had crept up my face. “I’m touched.”
“If you recall,” I snapped, “you were nearly drowning the first time we met.”
“I was also bleeding from numerous places.”
After all that fear, finding him safe—and unruffled—made me want to punch him.
He clearly knew that because he tightened his hold. Which made me extremely aware that I was in his arms. Sharing breath. With my soul exposed, and feelings boiling up everywhere. We were so far away from light flirtation I wasn’t sure anymore how long ago we’d left it behind. I looked down at the face sized smear of gold on his shoulder and fingered the paint. He went very still, watching me as I collected myself. How had I lost my heart and soul to this man so completely? “Quill,” I began, “I…” I can’t live without you. I love you. “When I thought I’d lost you it was like dying only far, far worse.”
“Zare,” he said my name very softly, as if it were other words, and then he lowered his mouth to mine. I felt all the terror and conviction of leaping from a cliff into the ocean. The kiss was gentle, unhurried, but oh so intent. We’d kissed before—a peck of triumph or breath of life before it’d meant anything. But this…How long had this kiss been waiting? It was like the sea after a storm, or the deepest part of a river. I wound my arms around his neck and buried my hands in his hair. Quilleran. Rhydderick. My dearest friend. My deepest love.
I don’t know how long it was before he pulled back, cupping my face in both hands, and resting his forehead against mine. We didn’t speak or move at first. Eventually, he said, “I wasn’t sure how you felt. I was starting to be sure, but I really wasn’t until the past day or so, and that was no time to bring it up.”
“How I felt about you?”
“I have loved you for years. Surely, you’ve noticed. And while you were obviously fond of me…Well, ‘fond’ and,” he kissed me again, “are different things. Especially for us.”
“I…didn’t know…” I have loved you for years. It was never just light flirtation, was it? “I thought you were off limits, given all the givens.”
“What,” he dropped his voice, and I remembered there were guards down the hall, “different kings? Yes, that could be a bit delicate, what with the tenuous diplomatic relations. Really, though, it just makes major feasts awkward. I think it’s worth the trouble if you do.”
It was an understatement. Both of us had been playing with something we thought we couldn’t have for years. But somewhere along the way the risks became worth it. Our eyes met. His were raw and open with the question in the air. I pulled his head down and whispered against his lips, “I love you. I don’t care about the rest.”