The guard took off down the hall, taking the lantern with him, and moments later we heard the clanging of the prison bell. Quill and I stood in the darkness, listening to the bell, the prisoners rousing, and the shouts of the guard. My eyes adjusted to the dim and I could see the blacker dark of the bars and the pale of the stones.
“Well,” I said dryly, “We can be assured Lucius wasn’t simply a decoy.”
“Indeed.” Quill moved to the cell door, and I could feel urgency in his steps. “He probably had help.”
We turned as one and started out of the prison. We met guards carrying torches heading into the prison, likely to search every nook and cranny, but we passed them and picked up a run as we re-entered the main palace. Quill knew this part of the palace better than I did, but we still snagged a servant to direct us to the guest wing. Once there, we already knew where Bel Valredes roomed. The door was as oak and ordinary looking as ever. We stopped, and exchanged a look. I drew Shiharr and Azzad, as Quill pulled out lock picks. A gentle thunk signaled his success, he put the picks away and then drew a knife of his own. He eased the door open onto total darkness. I slipped inside first, Quill followed and closed the door softly beside us. We waited, allowing our eyes to adjust. There was a gentle light from the window. I could just the see the outline of the bed, and faint hints of chairs and a couch to the far side of the room. The covers were rumpled, and there was someone under them.
It was so quiet.
Creeping close, I leaned over the bed, knife ready.
A lamp flared to life behind me, illuminating Bel Valredes with a golden tinge. He was here, I hadn’t expected him to be. His dark hair mussed, his face young and innocent in sleep. The covers only covered half his chest, and the rest was utterly naked. Of course, it was. A glance over my shoulder showed Quill with the lamp in one hand, a blade in the other.
Sheathing Shiharr, I sat on the edge of the bed and laid the cold metal of Azzad against Bel’s neck.
He startled awake, his eyes wide and dark, flicking from me to Quill. “Have you come to kill me?”
I didn’t answer immediately, letting the knife sit flat against him, a twist away from cutting. “Where is Lucius Tene?”
Bel blinked up at me. “The prison?”
“Really?” I squinted at him.
“Where else would he be? I heard he tried to kill the Countess.” Bel looked between us again. “Did something happen?”
Quill started to move around the room, lighting another lamp as he did so. “Keep him there.”
“What’s he doing?” asked Bel. He flinched as if to sit up, but I pressed the knife against him and he subsided, turning his attention to me. “What are you doing here?”
I tipped my head and studied him closely. “Have you heard of the Scythe?” I asked.
“Like…the harvest tool?”
“Just like. But it’s a person.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Our eyes locked for a moment, then, with my free hand, I peeled the covers down to show a bit more of his chest. Fornern’s fists, the man was lean and muscular. I brushed my fingertips across his chest, looking for broken skin, but unable to feel anything but the heat of his body under the brush of chest hair.
Bel shifted coquettishly. “I’m not opposed, Zare, but we aren’t exactly alone.”
“Please, Belledi,” I scoffed, “I’m looking for something.”
“Well, don’t look too low.”
I stopped; he gave me an entirely male grin. I frowned back. “The man I fought today, I think I nicked him once or twice.”
“And you think that was me?” Bel sounded incredulous.
I looked at him hard. “Yes,” I said slowly, “I think it was you.”
He laughed. “I’m…flattered?”
Quill returned to my side.
Bel, entirely too comfortable under Azzad, looked at Quill and commented, “You look familiar.”
Ignoring him, Quill said, “There’s nothing here. He has the sword and dagger you’d expect for a traveling gentleman, but that’s all.”
“No black armor?” I kept my eyes on Bel, “No splendid knives, or soft black boots? No blond-haired men masquerading as brown-haired men?”
Bel’s brows arched, interested.
“No, not here.”
Slowly, I removed Azzad from Bel’s neck and sheathed her. Bel stretched, putting his hands behind his head. With Quill close, the lamplight illuminated the corded strength of Bel’s arms, and the lean strength of his abdomen scattered with dark hair. There were a few pale scars here and there. Bel caught my eye and winked. I was tempted to stab him for being so relaxed. Instead, I took his arm and pulled it toward me. He allowed the motion, with an infuriating tilt to his lips, as I examined the callouses on his fingers. A man who rode, practiced often with the blade…I brushed my thumb over the rough skin of his fingertips…one who climbed.
Bel pulled his hand back, taking mine with it and tucking my palm briefly against his check before releasing it. “If you’re not here to kill me,” said Bel, “and you’re not planning to stay as a social call, I wouldn’t mind being left to get my rest. I’m planning to leave in the morning to pick up my new horses.”
I leaned forward, unable to deny how gratifying it was to watch his eyes get large and his chest rise in a sharp intake of breath. “I’ll leave you in peace,” I said, “But if you or Lucius Tene harm even a hair of Adelheid Wuhn’s head, I will hunt you down and kill you. I don’t care who you are or where you go.”
Bel inclined his head. “I wasn’t planning to. But, noted.”
Standing, I gave him one last look before I turned and stalked from the room. Quill doused the lamp and followed, closing the door behind us with a soft click. We walked down the hallway, but slowly, the purpose leached from our stride. “I don’t know what to do now,” I confessed. “I couldn’t get a read on him, but I am so sure it’s him. I can’t recommend that King arrest a man on the sole basis that he has calluses on his fingertips and my gut says it was him.”
“Evidence enough for me, but probably not here, with other diplomatic considerations,” concurred Quill. “If he is the Scythe, or half of him, he’s at least smart enough to not keep anything in his room. I’d search the rest of the party’s rooms but it’s a bit soon to provoke the Empire.”
“Could he have really broken Lucius out and gotten back to his rooms so quickly?”
“Depending on when he left the party, of course. It’s also possible Tene broke himself out.”
“Possible,” I allowed, “But unlikely. Should we join the search for Lucius?”
Quill seemed to consider for a moment before answering, “We can check in with the search, but there isn’t much we can do to help them. They have hounds and if he’s to be found the King’s Guard knows the palace far better than we do. I think your threats are the best service we could’ve offered tonight.”
“Bel Valredes didn’t seemed all that frightened by them,” I said.
“He’s terrified of you,” said Quill, matter-of-factly, “And attracted to you. And I think he wants something from you. That means you have power over him.”
I made a noncommittal noise. “I have to trust Ilya Terr to keep her safe, now.”
“He’s even more invested than you are.”