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63-Hounds

The sun was out, but weak. As if it were far too cold to send sunbeams out for long. I didn’t mind. Swathed in a thick black cloak, my stiletto tucked in my bodice, I almost felt strong. Provided I didn’t move too quickly. It felt like ages since I’d been near an animal of any sort. I wished I could go check in on my horses, Hook and Sinker, but they were still at Sinensis so the hounds would have to do. Jemin walked beside me, looking entirely unaffected by the cold weather. He was wearing a cloak over the blue guard uniform, but he let it blow open as if it were worn only for show. His burly form had no need of additional warmth.

Jemin noticed my glance and returned it. “It’s good to see you looking well, Miss Meredithe,” he commented, his teeth flashing through his beard.

“Thank you, Jemin,” I replied. “You look well, also. Winter suits you.”

“Yes, it does,” his smile lingered as the sounds of hounds reached us. We rounded a bend and came upon the long, low building that housed the royal hounds. The side that faced us had one, double door entrance like a barn, and I could see that large fenced runs jutted from either side, and likely ran around the back of the building.

The doors were standing open, and we stepped inside, greeted by a round of baying and the overwhelming smell of dog. The kennels were dim, lit by the doors and the rows of small windows tucked high on the walls.

A middle-aged man in dark work clothes strode up to greet us, “Afternoon, milady.” He took off his hat, revealing thinning gray hair, and bowed. “How can I help ye?” His voice had the thicker accent of the mountain cities. His skin was wrinkled and weather beaten, and his eyes seemed caught in a permanent frown.

“Good afternoon, sir, I would like to meet your hounds,” I replied, inclining my head in greeting.

“Any type in particular, milady?”

“All of them, if you have the time. It’s been frightfully dull indoors.”

The man grunted, “Follow me.” and turned back into the kennel. He headed down the center aisle. Large kennels, the size of generous horse stalls, lined the back and sides of the building, and the hounds set to baying as Jemin and I passed. The man barked, “Quiet!” and a few of the hounds listened, but not many. The walls were wood till about the top of my head, then iron bars stretched up to the ceiling.

He stopped at the first door and pulled it open. A gaggle of calico foxhounds jumped up and swarmed us from where they’d been curled up on straw with the red-headed child. The child leapt to his feet, and cried “Heel!” and the wiggling swarm turned back on itself and converged instead on the child.

“Naran, give the lady a tour of kennels,” ordered the man. “She wants to meet the hounds.”

“Yessir,” said the boy, Naran.

The man grunted again, and without a word of farewell left Jemin and I standing in the doorway with the boy and the foxhounds.

“You can come in, if you want,” offered the boy, his eyes wide. “They won’t hurt you.”

I stepped in and gingerly crouched down, Jemin leaned on the doorframe. Naran approached, the hounds moved around him like his own personal cyclone.

Naran addressed the hounds, “Say hello.” Then he lifted his eyes to mine, pride gleaming as the hounds—working very hard to contain their energy—came to me with tails wagging vigorously.

I reached out both my hands, palms up in invitation and the hounds’ restraint faltered just a little and they surged closer and surrounded me. Wet noses crowded under my hands and I felt paws trampling my cloak. I managed to pat some heads, but there were far too many to give a really good scratching before another hound pushed into the coveted position. The little boy ran his hands affectionately over the hounds’ backs, moving through them as easily as a ship on the sea.

“You haven’t been in the garden in forever,” said Naran.

I looked up at him. “I have not.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” I paused, “It’s winter.” And I got broadsided by a sword a couple weeks ago.

“Oh,” he looked down. “I don’t mind winter.” He had his mother’s eyes, I decided, and her freckles. But where had he gotten the red hair?

“Did you train these hounds?” I asked.

Naran nodded.

“You’ve done a wonderful job.”

The child beamed. “I teach them manners. Mr. Ewald teaches them to hunt. You want to see the rest of my hounds?”

“Of course.”

With a word, the boy shooed the hounds away from the door and excitedly led the way back into the aisle, closing the door behind us. The baying from our entrance had quieted down, and with Naran as our guide it did not resume. All the hounds clearly adored him—some of the hounds were less sure about us, but most were eager and accepting. We met the coon hounds, the wolf hounds, the bird dogs, and the rat hounds. Muddy paws, inquisitive wet noses and tongues impossible to avoid as I patted and scratched as many hounds as I could while listening to Naran talk about the animals. I was going to need a clean gown by the time I got back to the suite. The thick boned bloodhounds were our last stop, and I was happy to find a bale of straw to sit on while Naran told me everything he knew about bloodhounds—in addition to the quirks of the individuals lolling at his feet. One of them, a gawky red-coated hound Naran called Hew, settled his bulk on the straw beside me and placed one oversized paw on my thigh. I took that as an invitation and obliged him by rubbing his head and his large, soft ears. His limpid brown eyes closed in pleasure and suddenly his head was in my lap. By the time Naran was winding down, Hew had both forelegs and his shoulders in my lap, his eyes closed as I stroked his short coat and ruffled his thick folds of skin.

Naran came and plopped on the straw beside me. “Hew likes you!” announced the child with a grin.

“Seems so,” I replied. Hew groaned.

“He’s really just a puppy,” said Naran.

“This huge thing?” I asked, touching a too-big paw and realizing that the hound had probably not grown into them yet.

Naran nodded vigorously. “He’ll get bigger—much bigger.” He spread his hands to demonstrate. “His sire was wolfhound. It was an accident.” The child was very matter of fact.

I arched a brow. Hew’s coat was longer than a normal bloodhound’s, now that I was paying attention, and his face was more angular. I had assumed his gawkiness was youth, but perhaps some of it was the conflict of bloodhound bones and wolfhound build.

Naran continued, “His littermates were sent to some of the other estates to learn to be guard dogs. Hew stayed here. The Hound Master wants to see if it’s an accident worth repeating.”

Leaning back against the wall I dedicated my fingers to stroking Hew’s soft ears. I could feel weariness seeping into me. Just last month I had been walking and jogging for hours over rough terrain, and today a tour of the kennels made me want a nap.

“Miss Meredithe,” Jemin spoke up from the doorway. “Perhaps we should be on our way.”

I looked up at him, hating to leave and hating that I was relieved he’d spoken. “Yes, we should.” I nudged Hew. “Off with you.” The hound moaned in protest. “Hew,” I commanded, “Off.” I shifted my legs so his weight was now slipping toward the floor. Hew picked up his head, gave me a look, then jumped to the ground. Before I could try rising without assistance, Jemin stepped forward and offered his hands. I accepted, and relied much more on them than a lady should.

“Will you come again Miss Meredithe?” asked Naran, standing with his hand on Hew, both watching me with huge, imploring eyes.

I smiled, dusting off my skirts as best I could without bending over. “I would love to. Goodbye, Naran, Hew.”

Jemin set his hand on my elbow and guided me out of the kennels. The air outside felt especially cold after the warmth of the house of hounds, but it was refreshing also. We started up the path back toward the castle. It was uphill, and we walked slowly, Jemin keeping his hand on my elbow. I took careful, deep breathes and I was pleased to find that no searing pain greeted me, just stiffness and a dull ache if I moved wrong.

Jemin’s step faltered and I looked up at him in surprise. His eyes were fixed on the path ahead so I turned to look. Coming down the path toward us, arrayed in a dark green velvet cloak, two guards and a servant in her train, was the Nether Queen’s ambassador, Khattmali.

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Nelia of Legend

I was in a mood for bold strokes of color, and ended up drawing three cover art concepts. This one is for the River Rebellion. I have this sort of idea that Zare’s swath of white from the Cymerie River will become her trademark in this war.

watermarked-102.jpg

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62-Hesperide

Rawyn Drayk, the same doctor who had treated my father, poked and prodded me while I stared at the ceiling and tried not to hiss as his fingers moved across my left side. It had been nearly three weeks since the jail break and my side was now a spectacular array of color, bruising that ranged from yellow to green to purple. When I bathed, my blue nymph stripes blended right in with the mayhem.

I sucked in my breath and let it out, my eyes wandering around the King’s bedroom, which had been my bedroom since the jailbreak. The circular room was actually a little tower that swirled out from the palace like an eddy. The bedchamber had many doors, most of which blended into the wall—though none were quite so hidden as the secret passage. The closet, the washroom, and the rest of the suite all branched off where the circle joined the palace. A pair of large graceful windows came next to the doors, then the fireplace, two more windows and then after a space, the secret entrance. Now that I’d been here with the windows, I knew that we were two stories up. The king’s sitting room had a balcony overlooking the garden, and I’d spent a great deal of time these last week in the sitting room staring out the arched doorway.

“You are doing well,” the doctor announced at last, loudly enough for Namal to hear from where he sat by the fireplace. The doctor began to paint my side with a salve strong enough to sting my eyes. “If you can restrain yourself for another two weeks you’ll be well on your way to a full recovery. After that, you can start adding activities again. But slowly,” he added sternly, picking up strips of linen and beginning to wrap my torso. “I think all is well inside, and will continue to mend, but you must not tempt the fates by exerting too soon.”

I nodded, wondering what would be too much. Sparring? Probably. Riding?

As if he could see my thoughts, the doctor paused his work to glare at me. “You may walk over more difficult terrain. Then in two weeks, you may try running or picking up an encyclopedia to see if that causes pain.”

My mouth opened, “That’s it?” I asked, incredulous and horrified.

“Be glad you are alive, child,” grunted the doctor, stooping to wrap again. “A little stronger and that blow would be a good deal harder to recover from. If at all.”

“But…how will I pass the time?”

“I think most noble women read or sew,” replied the doctor.

I cast him a sidelong look. Quill and Jemin had brought me books, and I had read them. But I couldn’t only read dawn to dusk for weeks on end. I was bored out of my mind. I’d been out once in a carriage, early on to introduce Namal to my men, and assure them that I was alright. At least, mostly alright. Namal had also started taking me for short walks as soon as I could glide reasonably well. He wanted me seen walking around whole, to allay suspicion. I thought this precaution was paranoia. Who on earth would associate a jail break with the lowly merchants the King had taken a shine to? But, these walks at least got me out of the King’s suite. A couple times, on particularly sunny days, we had even walked in the gardens despite the cold bite of winter which had now truly arrived.

The doctor finished with the bandage, and straightened. “There. I will be back next week to check on you.”

“Thank you, doctor,” I sat up, genuinely grateful. The doctor had come several times in that first week since I’d been injured. His fears about internal bleeding outweighing the need to avoid suspicion from the court. He cut back visits as quickly as he could, relying on the meticulous devotion of the men surrounding me to follow his instructions.  No one had offered the doctor any explanation for my injury, and he hadn’t asked.

“I’ll send Hesperide in,” said Namal, standing to walk the doctor out of the king’s bedroom.

I nodded and kicked my bare legs slowly against the side of the bed. There was no point in putting the robe back on over my underclothes and bandages, since Hesperide was coming to help me dress. Tarr had turned out to be quite a capable nurse and handmaid, and I had been in too much pain to object to his help in the washroom and with clothes. Once I could see straight, though, I’d insisted that they find a woman to help. Namal disliked the idea of bringing our mother or sister inside the city limits, in fact he hadn’t sent word of the severity of my injury to them for fear they insist on coming. So Tarr suggested bringing in his most trusted servant. Quill hadn’t objected to the idea, and we had to do something because I was still far too stiff to successfully dress or bathe on my own.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that Tarr’s most trusted servant was an exquisitely beautiful woman about his own age. I had wanted to distrust her when we met the first time, but I hadn’t been able to manage it. She was kind, and had a sparkle in her eye which won me over far faster than I liked to admit. She had also taken over the care of Tarr’s rooms, so I had spent a great deal of time with her in the past weeks as she puttered around my prison.

Hesperide appeared in the doorway to the King’s bedroom and I brightened. “Good morning, Hess.”

Hesperide smiled back and crossed to where I sat on the bed, “The doctor says you are recovering well.” Even the servants’ gray clothes and restrained hair didn’t hide her beauty. She had raven hair, freckles dusted over her fair cheeks like the blush of a rose, and her eyes were blue. She was slender, except for the gentle roundness of a child in her belly.

“He also said I still can’t do anything fun,” I slumped my shoulders—though carefully not my ribcage.

“That will come, don’t worry,” assured Hesperide, compassion radiating from her blue eyes. “Let’s get you dressed, you’ll feel better.” She turned and walked into the king’s closet. From behind, you couldn’t really tell she was expecting a baby, much less halfway along. “What would you like to wear today?”

My entirely gifted collection of clothing had been wedged into a section of the king’s sizable closet. I shifted on the bed to look toward the closet. “I would like a riding habit,” I said, loudly.

Her laugh drifted out of the cavern of clothes. “I’m not dressing you in a riding habit.”

“I won’t sneak out to go riding,” I promised.

“I believe you mean that right now,” replied Hesperide, her voice muffled. “But in a few hours your heart will change.”

I sighed, both disappointed and amused. Relieved, even, to have banter in my life. Hesperide was not a normal servant, for certain. She was open and teasing with Quill and Jemin, also. Namal, less so, though I couldn’t imagine anyone teasing Namal except his siblings.

“And when the urge to ride hits, you won’t have yards of fabric between you and stealing a horse from the stables.” Hesperide emerged from the closet with a long, dark blue day dress. “You should wear this.”

I didn’t remember this one. “It’s a beautiful color,” I admitted, reaching out to finger the soft fabric.

She took that as a yes and laid the dress out on the bed while I pushed myself to my feet. Hesperide helped me step into the petticoat, and then slipped the dress deftly over my head and laced up the back. The dress was warm and its tailored lines transformed the stiffness of my bandaged torso into refinement and poise. Moving to the long mirror beside the closet, I was tempted to twirl, but didn’t dare. I’d probably lose my balance and fall over, breaking something else.

Hesperide made a pleased sound. “Now, let me do you your hair. You’ll feel even better about life, then.”

I allowed Hesperide to sit me on a stool in front of the mirror while she picked out my hair and then arranged it in a pretty pile on top of my head. I did feel better, but I also felt like going and doing something. I rolled my lips together in an attempt not to frown as Hesperide finished. “Such fine work and I can’t take it anywhere.”

Hesperide smiled, standing back to admire, “Perhaps you should persuade them to let you walk to the kennels today. You shouldn’t bump into many courtiers down there. Especially not in winter. And I think that being around furry creatures will brighten your mood.”

Not to have my boredom solved so easily, I grumbled, “They probably won’t allow it on the chance that a dog might knock me down.”

“My son will keep the hounds in line, don’t worry,” Hesperide gave me a look that said she knew I was being deliberately grumpy.

“Your son?” How on earth did she have a son old enough to train hounds?

“Yes, you’ve met him in the gardens. The red-headed child who takes the hounds for walks.”

I stared at her. “But…he’s…”

“A very mature five years old.” Pride beamed from her. “He’s tall for his age.”

I gaped, my mouth and eyes wide and distinctly un-ladylike. She propped her hands on her hips, amusement now mingling with her motherly pride. “Don’t tell me you don’t know where babies come from.”

My astonishment shifted into a glare as I felt my ears turn red. “That’s not what—” I was flustered and mumbling, “You’re not more than twenty!”

Hesperide was enjoying my discomfort, but she turned to gather up the brushes and pins. “True, but I was in love.” She paused, her hands full, a distant look in her eyes.

“Did he…die during the siege?” I asked.

Distance dissolved back into amusement as she looked at me. “Just how long do you think pregnancies last?”

“It’s possible!” I defended. I hadn’t tried hard on the math, and frankly didn’t want to.

Hesperide laughed outright and brushed imaginary lint off my dress.

“He’s a fine lad,” I said. To say something. Anything. Then I added, “I would enjoy a trip to the kennels.”

Hesperide’s eyes were still dancing when I left her to join Namal, who was waiting in the sitting room. He was dressed like a wealthy merchant, with a burgundy embroidered waistcoat and matching jacket. He looked up from his reading and smiled when he saw me. “That’s a lovely dress,” he said.

“Thank you,” I lifted the hems and tucked one foot back in the tiniest of curtsies. “Hesperide picked it.”

“I heard,” replied my brother, brow arched.

“Did you also hear her promise it was safe for me to visit the kennels?”

“Yes,” Namal exhaled, I could see him weighing the possibility.

I sat on the edge of the settee where he had been reading and tried to look both imploring and incredibly healthy. I was intensely envious of his activities the past three weeks. He was out in the city every day, meeting people and working to build an underground for getting nymphs out of the city before they could be captured. All under the guise of building trade deals for the family business, of course.

“I guess that’s alright, Zare,” he was reluctant, “I have a meeting in a couple hours, but I believe Jemin is on duty this morning and could take you.”

“I could go alone,” I said.

Namal gave me a look, “You’ve never been seen wandering alone before, why now?”

“I really don’t think people pay that much attention to me.”

My brother stood. “Even if that were the case, I want you to take Jemin with you. He can protect you from boisterous dogs, and possibly keep you from doing anything too strenuous.”

“Alright,” I huffed. Irritated at my restraints. But not too irritated, because this still involved a trip to the kennels and I liked Jemin.

Art, concept art, Creative Juices, fantasy, horse, ink pencils, Uncategorized

archer

I found a picture of a mounted archer and decided to practice with the intense ink sticks–big unwieldy things–forcing myself to rely on bigger, sweeping strokes of vivid color. After I accidentally dumped out my–carefully arranged and color coded–case and having to painstakingly find each stick’s proper home, I got to work.

It was good practice for me. Didn’t come out too awful, either.

watermarked-4.jpg

 

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61-Soup

 

The next time I woke up it was dark except for the fireplace and a lamp flickering on the wall. Tarr was gone. Ache still laced through my body when I tried to move, but overall I felt better than the first time I’d woken. Except I was very hungry. Possibly even ravenous. Carefully I pushed myself into a sitting position.

Movement by the couch caught my eye, I stopped. Quill.

He had been watching the fire, but heard the covers and swiveled. Seeing me, he rose and came to the bedside, his face earnest. “Your Highness, it’s good to see you awake.” He was dressed in the blue uniform of the royal guard, but the first several buttons were undone, declaring him off duty. He was not quite so rakish as the King always appeared, but the overall effect was startlingly disarming.

“Thank you for bringing me back,” I said. “Tarr—the King said you brought me back here.” As if I could have gotten back another way.

He smiled. “How do you feel?”

“Hungry.”

His smile broadened a bit. “That’s good. I will send for food. Everyone else is at dinner, keeping up appearances and all that.” He turned and walked to a door I had never noticed and, opening it, he stepped out, leaving me alone. Before I could be surprised he’d left, he returned and closed the door again. “Food is on its way.”

“Thank you.”

He picked up the chair from the desk and carried it over to the side of the bed. “I guess we’re even, then.” He sat down.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, still feeling like all my energy committed to tasks one at a time.

“You have carried me through a city wounded, and now I have carried you.”

“Oh.” That was…deflating, somehow. As if it were just a score settled. Then I noticed the glint in his eye and growled at him.

The glint blossomed into another smile. “Glad to see you’re not entirely in a fog.”

“You are impossible.”

“So are you,” he leaned back. “Breaking out the King’s prisoners, any old prisoner you wanted. As if they all belonged to you.”

I rolled my eyes, I didn’t think he was really upset with me, but apparently my expansive jailbreak had caused some irritation all around. “What was I supposed to do, leave them behind?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Quill sighed. “Because they were in prison and you didn’t know why they were there.” He lifted a finger, “Their word doesn’t count in this instance.”

“Didn’t one of them find the men a safe place to hide?”

“Yes,” he inclined his head, “For the moment, it seems they are honoring their vow to you. In fact,” the smile was back, “they were extremely distressed when you collapsed.  I think they were worried what I would do to them without you.”

I moaned, “I’m very embarrassed about collapsing.”

“Why?”

“I’m supposed to be this inspiring figure but made a stupid mistake and then fainted in the street before finishing the mission.”

Quill studied me.

I continued, “Then I slept for two days while everything went on without me.”

He folded his arms. “I believe,” he said at last, “they found your toughness while wounded inspiring.”

“I got tackled from behind again—caught by the cloak, then tackled.”

“Stop letting that happen.”

“It’s definitely not something I enjoy.”

“Don’t give up your back—” he leaned forward, “And perhaps we need to get you a cloak that tears off easily.”

“That wouldn’t have helped last night. We were wearing them for disguise.”

“Night before last,” Quill corrected and I grimaced.

There was a knock on the bedroom door, Quill rose and opened it, accepting a tray from a servant and closing it again. He returned to the bedside. I scooted to make room for the tray on top of the covers.

The smell of food made me even hungrier. It was some sort of chicken and vegetable soup, with generously buttered slabs of warm bread on the side. I barely remembered to bless it before starting in on the deliciousness. The soup curled into me, gently filling up the gaping emptiness inside—and much faster than I could have anticipated. “It’s very good,” I commented to Quill, then stopped. “Have you eaten?”

“I had lunch,” he shrugged.

I offered him some bread, “Please…eat something.”

“That’s not necessary,” he said, but accepted the bread. “I’ll eat in the mess hall later.”

I was skeptical but as soon as I was full I pushed the bowl toward Quill. “You can finish this, it must be better than what’s in the mess hall.”

Quill quirked an eyebrow, glancing from the soup to me. “Someone has been in the circus too long. I could have called for food for me, also.” But he picked up the bowl and sampled the soup. Still steaming, and by his look, still delicious.

“I suppose I have been away from this life a while,” I smoothed the blue coverlet over my legs. Between the siege, the circus, and the long days on the road, it had been a long while of seeing food as finite. In the palace of the victor’s pet, there was no need to share food, but I found satisfaction in it anyway. I settled back on the pillows. “What was your life like, before the fall?” It was something I had wanted to ask for weeks, and now—aching, tired, and full—I was finally able to ask.

Quill swallowed his soup, his brown eyes growing distant. “Life was good.”

I waited a moment as he took another spoonful of soup and then realized he thought he had answered the question and wasn’t going to say more. “But what was it like,” I asked again. “What did you do? How did you live?”

He looked at me. “I did what noblemen’s sons did. I learned etiquette, history, strategy, and combat. I served in the palace, but also had plenty of time to be a child climbing trees—and walls, and buildings,” he caught my eye and winked. “l was a very good climber.”

“Were you close to the royal family?”

“You mean, did I know the King well, before all this?”

“Either of them.” I waved a hand. I wasn’t just interested in Tarr.

“Trinh is much older than Tarr, though you wouldn’t know it now. He knew me only peripherally. He was often gone, because Shyr Valla and Hirhel were always fighting sporadically, and Dalyn, as you know, supported Shyr Valla in those conflicts.” Quill finished the soup and set the bowl down. “Tarr is only a year older than me. We were playmates, a few of us were, but we weren’t extremely close.” He shrugged. “The city wasn’t expecting Narya’s army, there was no flight of the women and children as there might have been. When my mother saw that the gates would fall before Dalyn’s army could return, she hid as many of us courtly children as she could get in an orphanage in the city. Clothed in rags so no one would give us a second look.” For the first time, sadness seeped into his posture, permeating even the air around him with weight. My chest tightened just looking at him. “In so doing she preserved the lines of several families, because by day’s end we were orphans in truth.”

“I’m sorry.” The words were inadequate. In a sea of ill fate, I felt untouched. I had lost everything but my family, and so I had lost nothing. How many in Galhara and Dalyn had the same story? My eyes smarted. “I’m so sorry.”

Quill met my gaze and dipped his chin, graceful acknowledgement, before continuing; “When Tarr was crowned, we older boys joined the guard under new names. Tarr, of course, knew who we really were and did not betray us to the queen’s agents.” Sadness pulsed off him again, “The King was in the same situation we were, except in many ways much worse. As captain, I have done my best to fill the King’s personal guard with men who serve the Dalyn, not Hirhel.”

“The King is lucky to have you,” I said.

“Yes, he is.” Hints of a smile played around Quill’s eyes.

Then I asked, “Were you always intending to rebel? Or did this start because of Trinh’s return?”

Quill set the soup bowl on the tray, and then moved the tray to a side table. “She took everything from us, left the greatest houses in ruin.” He said the words without malice. “The tribute she requires is too much, it is stripping the city resources just as surely as a leech. We have never thought of ourselves as serving her. We serve the Kegan line. Everything we do undermines her power. If only a little.”

I watched him appreciatively. I would have expected bitterness. Revenge, or maybe even defeat. But he sat, pensive in the glow of the fireplace, handsome and emitting only strength, sadness, and surety. “What would you be doing now if Dalyn hadn’t fallen?” I was apparently feeling very bold.

“Heavens, I have no idea.” He straightened, extinguishing the mourning that surrounded him. “Enough about me, your Highness. What was your life like before all this?”

“Oh,” I replied, “it was good.”

Quill arched a brow, amused.

Rewarded, I continued, “I don’t remember a time when Hirhel wasn’t warring. But generally, it didn’t really matter. It was frightening, but far away until I was fourteen or so and she started moving toward Galhara. I had school, of course, lots of school. Plenty of court functions, and regularly training with Remko and the guard…and I was teaching my horse, Aurum, to sit. He could already come when called, and rear on command…” I looked down at my hands and absently smoothed the coverlet again. “Nadine was starting to court the prince from Charpolia, Gebbert. He seemed nice, I think they would have been a good match. Father was after Namal to prioritize marriage, too, but Namal resisted for the very reason Father pressed—Hirhel’s rise had them both worried. It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Namal didn’t marry. Otherwise he might have had a wife and infant to get out of the palace when it fell.”

“How did you get out?” asked Quill, quietly.

I looked up, “The same way I got the girls out at Gillenwater.”

Understanding sparked in his eyes and spread across his features. “Of course. But,” his brow furrowed, “Shouldn’t the Nether Queen have known that was a possibility? Didn’t she know Zam the Great married Ayglara of Daisen?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “But Galhara sits atop a cliff, or it sat atop a cliff, and we didn’t have a cistern like Gillenwater’s. Just an underground river that leads to the bay in a fall. The way we left was difficult, even for half-nymphs.” Grueling, really. I shuddered. “We saved only fifty of our household.” My voice was small.

“Fifty!” exclaimed Quill. “All the stories say there were no survivors from the palace. None.”

“All the stories say she called fire upon us from hell, also.” I retorted.

He inclined his head. “Even so. She wiped Shyr Valla off the face of the earth. Before your father climbed up in that wagon, I had no reason to think there were any survivors. Much less fifty.”

Despite the topic, the memory of Quill arguing with Boitumelo in the doctor’s wagon made me smile. It seemed so long ago. “You took it in stride,” I said.

“Good news isn’t hard to take in stride,” he replied.

I smiled again. “I suppose.” I was feeling tired again, which hardly seemed fair since I hadn’t been up that long.

Quill studied me, and I could see in his eyes that he’d noticed my weariness. He leaned forward and handed me a small cup from the side table. “The doctor left this, to help with the pain. Drink, sleep, heal.”

“Please don’t leave me,” I said, surprised at how pathetic I sounded.

“I won’t,” he assured, his voice tender. “Don’t worry.”

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60-Waking

I was lying on something very soft and I didn’t want to move. I was just the right temperature, and there was a pleasant weight cocooning around me. Slowly I became aware of light. And throbbing pain. My left arm, my left side.

I jolted awake as everything rushed back: The jail break! The street! My eyes flew open and my mind reeled in confusion. I wasn’t in the street anymore. The ceiling vaulted high above the four-poster bed where I lay. Mesmerizing gold patterns laced across the dome and dripped down the walls of the round room. I could see the mantel of a large fireplace across from the bed. Sunlight blazed through a crack in the curtains along one side of the room. Gingerly, I drew my right arm up under me and tried to push myself up.

“You’re awake!”

I startled, yelping in pain.

“Lie still, you’re safe.” A man was laying on top of the covers next to me. He put out his hand, palm down, to calm me, and I found myself looking at the gold touched hair and concerned blue eyes of King Tarr Kegan.

“Your Majesty,” my voice croaked. “What happened?”

“As it turns out, you’re not invincible.”

“What?”

“I know. I was starting to believe you were—too long dealing with an invincible Nether Queen, I guess.”

Exhaustion hit me like a wave and I lay back. Not that I’d risen far. “Why are you in my bed?” Good heavens, I sounded awful.

A rakish grin tipped his lips as he sat up and inspected me. “Actually, your Highness, you are in my bed.”

I stared at him dumbly.

With a laugh, Tarr swiveled and hopped off the bed. “It’s the safest place for you, right now,” he explained, walking to a nearby table and pouring a steaming drink from a kettle. “If I keep you here I don’t have to explain your real injuries to the my less trusted servants, or deal with the rumors mysteriously smashed ribs might’ve started the day after a jail break. This will start other rumors, but those shouldn’t lead to your death.” He walked around the bed and set the mug on the side table next to me.

I eyed him. He was dressed, at least. His very fine shirt unbuttoned at the throat, as usual.

“Come on,” he leaned close, slipping one hand under my back. “I’ll help you. You should drink something.”

Tarr’s strength surprised me, though I wasn’t sure why, as he helped me sit up and then piled pillows behind me with the skill and care of a handmaid. Once he was satisfied he presented the mug to me. “Tea.” He said. “Drink.”

I sipped obediently. It was warm and pleasant, I felt my body relaxing as the tea curled through my core. “What happened?” I asked again.

“Quill brought you here after you collapsed,” explained Tarr, returning to the other side of the bed. “It seems that your criminals found your soldiers a safe place to hide, and Quill deemed them safe enough and carried you back here right away.” He hopped up, scooting to sit beside me. “You gave us quite a scare, you know. The doctor says you’ll recover, but you have to lay low for a while.”

I will have to thank him, I thought. Even I must’ve gotten heavy being carried all that way. I looked down at myself. Half of me was hidden beneath a dark blue coverlet. My armor was gone, I was dressed in loose trousers and a man’s shirt, the sort that buttoned down the front. One of Tarr’s shirts, I realized with a blush.  Beneath it, the bandeau that covered my breasts blended into the bandages wrapped tightly around my torso. My left arm was bandaged also.

“It’s a good thing I made you armor,” continued Tarr, gravely. “You might be dead without it.”

“That fight did not go especially well,” I said, lifting my left arm and inspecting it. “That’s the second time I’ve been tackled to the ground from behind. What happened to my arm?”

Tarr narrowed his eyes, “You don’t know?”

I wrinkled my nose. “I was busy.”

“Judging from the gash in your bracers, I’d say you pretended it was a shield.” He shook his head, “Your arm isn’t bad, the bandages are mostly to keep the salve on the arm and not my sheets.”

“What about my side?” I remembered that blow well enough.

“Broken ribs. Some horrific bruising and a little broken skin. The doctor was afraid you might be bleeding inside, considering how far you went after injuring them, and how long you stayed unconscious.”

I looked at the king sharply. “How long have I been unconscious?”

“Well, then he gave you something to keep you sleeping so you could recover. It’s been almost a day and a half.”

“What?” I demanded, recoiling.

“Don’t get up!” Tarr put his hand on my shoulder, stopping me before my side could. His blue eyes commanding. “You might injure yourself.”

“Tarr,” I grasped his hand. “Where is my brother? What happened yesterday? The men…the nymphs!”

Tarr squeezed my hand. “Namal is safe. Last I knew your men were safe. The nymphs, well,” his face darkened. “They aren’t all safe. But Namal was able to give them advance warning, and I have been quite studious in overseeing the Queen’s decree personally. I’m sure the garrison commander would prefer I left him to manage the search himself as he would be much more efficient without my help,” a wicked light brightened his face for a moment before he sighed and passed his hand over his face. “Which has been exhausting in every way imaginable. I had just come back for a nap. Sent Quill away, since he could use a nap, too.”

“Quill was here?” I asked.

Tarr nodded. “He was quite worried about you, and no doubt feels responsible.”

“That’s silly. I wasn’t anywhere near him, I neglected to watch my back and I’m paying for it.”

“Yes,” Tarr arched a brow, “I suspect it is the ‘nowhere near him’ part he finds distressing. Also, the part where no one else saw you get injured—though, I’m not sure I would have confessed seeing it if he was asking me. And someone needed to stay with you, and my most trusted servants can’t actually be here constantly without arousing suspicion from my less trusted servants.”

This was a great deal to take in, so I fell silent and sipped my tea. Tarr leaned back and lounged comfortably next to me. “The escape was magnificent, by the way,” he said, looking at the ceiling. “We’re searching everywhere for those men, and haven’t found them. The commander thinks they are heading for Magadar.”

I smiled, even as a stab of worry shot through me. The circus, carrying what remained of the Galhara household, was on its way to Magadar. But they were taking a much different route, there shouldn’t be any way for Narya’s soldiers to stumble on them again.

“We’ve gotten the raven back from Sinensis,” continued the King, almost absently. “Your brother and sister have already started missions into the countryside to warn the nymphs and maybe recruit support.” He turned to look at me, “I’ve been told your sister looks a great deal like you. I’ve asked that she give your name if asked—this hides how many of you there are and makes you seem larger than life.”

Nodding, I wrapped my hands around the mug and breathed in the steam. My ribs made the breath slow and careful. I wasn’t sure what I thought about being turned into a legend, but it didn’t feel that different from playing a wild spirit in the circus. Except, in the circus most people didn’t really believe I was a wild spirit. “Where is Namal now?”

“At the wharfs. I gave Alban Meredithe an escort and a letter of recommendation to help him expand his spice business.”

I turned my head to look at the king. He’d hooked one arm behind his head and was still looking at the gilded ceiling. This was the same room we’d made all our plans in before the mad jailbreak, but I hadn’t noticed the gold in the ceiling then.

Tarr looked over at me, “Ostensibly, anyway. He’s probably really looking for nymphs to hide.”

“Is he angry with me?”

‘No, but I am. You let out a bunch of criminals, one or two of which were very difficult to catch the first time!”

I opened my mouth to defend myself before noticing that Tarr was smirking. “He might be a little angry with you for getting hurt,” said the King, after a pause, “Not nearly as angry as my brother is with me for bringing a seventeen-year-old girl into such war.”

I bristled. “Your brother needs to grasp that you had nothing to do with it. There is a wicked would-be-empress who burned my home to the ground! Besides, there are plenty of girls my age raising children and ruling kingdoms. They hold lives in their hands just as I do.”

“It’s probably their regents doing most of the ruling, and children are, if complex, an arena in which most consider women to have an advantage.” Tarr shrugged dramatically to dissuade me from arguing. “You’ll have to forgive Trinh. He’s a good man. Much has changed in the last six years, and it’s difficult for him to adjust. He has much to mourn, and he doesn’t want to accept that Narya is so strong—I’m also certain he doubts my sanity and fears for his own.”

A wry smile tugged me out of my huff: King Tarr Kegan was definitely unsettling. However, I felt as though I were already catching the rhythm of his moods. Or at least, that’s how I felt at this moment, with him calm.

“I’m not sane,” announced Tarr, reading my face. He shook his head and looked back at the ceiling. “I’m definitely not sane.”

“Doesn’t thinking that way mean you are sane?”

“Then it is the only thing keeping me sane in these times of madness and sorcery.”

“Please, don’t be upset by that,” I wasn’t sure the plea made sense, but if he got up and started looking like he’d jump in the fire, I’d have to stop him. Somehow. If I could get up.

He smiled at the ceiling. “I don’t mind very much. Most of the time.” After a moment he added, “I was serious about taking a nap. Do you need anything before I do?”

It didn’t surprise me at all that he fully intended to sleep on his bed still. I was certain the propriety of it hadn’t so much as crossed his mind, though I supposed we were long past propriety. I looked down at my tea. It was nearly gone, and I was feeling the pull of sleep even though I’d just awoken. “Help me lay back?”