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91-The Tunnel

Before departing, we tossed the office. We left the windows open, and as a final touch Rakov smashed the lock on the door. If any of our people came back to the warehouse, they ought to see the door and windows and stay away. If they got all the way inside, they shouldn’t linger. I sent Domjoa off with a long list of tasks—including finding out what had become of my men who’d been distracting the garrison. The rest of us followed Trinh through the city.

There were still crowds in the streets, but the atmosphere had changed. It was only a matter of hours from the King’s death, but the column of smoke from the palace was much bigger and darker than the ones from the celebratory bonfires throughout the city. Rumors of soldiers on a manhunt poisoned the revelry and leached the joy out of the night.  The closer we got to the palace, the thinner and more furtive the crowds, until it was just the five of us slinking in the darkness between streetlamps.

Trinh took an unexpected turn down an alley to the left, then he stopped and shifted some garbage bins around. Rakov stepped up to help and I tried not to think about the smells in the alley around us. The men grunted and metal clanked as they hauled open a sewer grate. I moaned at the thought of the things found in sewers as I watched Rakov nimbly sit on the lip and then drop from view. I didn’t hear a splash, but maybe I was deaf. Ayglos approached the hole, then after only a second’s hesitation followed Rakov. I made myself step up to the hole and peer into the darkness, Rakov stood maybe eight feet below, holding a hooded lantern. I didn’t see water, but I did see a ladder, which the men had forgone. Not to be outdone, I sat on the lip and then jumped into the hole, bending my knees and tucking into a roll before I could think through the wisdom of such a move. I bounced back to my feet, still on dry stone. Mercy of heaven. The lantern splashed patterns on the cylindrical room, and revealed two dark passages, one leading north toward the palace, one leading west.

Quill dropped in, then Trinh climbed down using the ladder as he lowered the grate.

“It’s not connected to the sewer,” said Trinh, answering everyone’s unasked question. “Though it does drain into the sewer.” He took lantern from Rakov and started down the northbound tunnel at a brisk jog, Quill behind him, then me, then Ayglos and Rakov.

The air was dank, but not foul. The tunnel was so narrow that occasionally Rakov’s scabbard scraped against the stones. The walls were dotted with carvings. Kings, castles, hunting parties, dragons, knights…I wondered if they told one story or many. Trinh led us with unfaltering steps through several junctions, as if he knew these tunnels very well. This must be how he went in and out of the palace so readily. Perhaps also how he got into the city without being seen that first time after he woke up.

Trinh stopped abruptly, holding up his hand to hold back the rest of us. Quiet, inconsistent murmurs accompanied by the occasional shuffle drifted back from around the bend ahead. Dousing the lamp, we edged forward until we were close enough that Quill exclaimed, “It’s Vaudrin!” and slipped by Trinh before any of us could react.

Trinh turned up the lamp and moved forward as cries of joy greeted Quill. Around the bend, the tunnel was strewn with men in blue uniforms who were scrambling to their feet. They saluted Quill, but when they saw Trinh they whipped to face him instead. Hope lit their faces at the sight of a living Kegan. Their uniforms were splattered with blood, and almost all of them were bandaged one place or another. Several of the standing men were missing shirts under their blue coats. The shirts, I realized, had been sacrificed to bandage the wounded. My heart twisted as I remembered days traveling with these men. I flinched for my pack. I still had the satchel from Boitumelo—I hadn’t used it since leaving Rhydderhall—but there was no way I could treat this many.

At a word from Trinh the men sunk back to the floor, exhaustion evident in their every move. Trinh and Ayglos walked to join Quill and Vaudrin in the center of the tunnel. Rakov stayed behind me.

I stopped at the first man and crouched to inspect the bandage on his arm—I met his eye and smiled at him, as if there was anything I could do about his wounds. I smoothed his hair off his forehead and he smiled back at me. I stood and turned to another man before I could drown in the emotions rising inside.

Vaudrin bowed to his King, “I am glad to see you, your Majesty, and your Highnesses.”

“I feared there would be no one,” Trinh was talking, “How many did you save?” Not, ‘how many did we lose.’

“I have forty here, only the men who could run were able to escape when we withdrew from the ballroom. The Queen must have expected the guard to react violently to the King’s murder, for she had us outnumbered at least three to one, and her army was clearly ready and waiting for the order to move in.” Vaudrin shook his head. “Jemin and I were lucky to pull out this many.”

Jemin.

I hadn’t gotten very far down the tunnel—stopping at each man to wish I could help him with more than a gentle touch—but now I stood and looked for the burly form of the guard with whom I’d stormed Gillenwater’s garrison.

“There is a chance the men in the barracks were able to escape to one of the other tunnels.” Vaudrin continued. “I have sent two of my men through the tunnels to see if they can find any others.”

I spied a hulk on the floor just past the conference of princes and hurried forward. Quill and Ayglos made room for me to pass and I dropped to my knees next to Jemin. He smiled wearily at me. Alive.

“Your Highness,” his voice was tired but lacked the rasp of death.

Tears pressed on my eyes and choked my breath, it took me a moment to manage, “Are you hurt?” I didn’t know why I felt so overwhelmed to find a friend survived even when I’d forgotten to worry for his life.

“I’ll look like a spotted cow tomorrow I’ve got so many giant bruises,” replied the guard. “But I’ll be alright.”

“We have returned for Naran and Hestria,” explained Trinh, and I blinked at Hesperide’s real name.

Vaudrin nodded, his expression turning grim. “I wish I could tell you where they were.”

“I believe they are still in the palace; we will find them or find where they are.” Trinh looked around the company, then said, “Focus on getting these men out. Fade into the countryside. Head for Magadar. If you find the men from Gillenwater, tell them the same.”

Vaudrin looked surprised. “My King, we’re leaving?”

“I will not lose more men in this fight,” replied Trinh, the blankness of his expression more frightening than anger, “You’re leaving. That’s an order.”

I waited for someone to argue with him, but no one did. Our plan for Naran’s rescue hadn’t factored them in, they were battered and had suffered heavy losses. Magadar seemed far for a regroup, but perhaps it was best given the Queen’s armies closing in on the city.

“Are we ready to go, then?” asked Ayglos after a moment’s silence.

Trinh nodded, and after clasping Vaudrin’s hand, he turned and led the way again down the tunnel.

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88-Cold as Ice

 

My dress immediately became deadweight as we sank into the black water. For the moment, I didn’t mind, as I watched the light from the palace obscured by the figures chasing us. I was still holding onto Quill, pulling him into the depths with me. Quill didn’t fight me but shifted behind me to wrap his arms around my waist, freeing my arms.

We needed to get away from here, before Namal and the others started jumping in on top of us. I began to work at the laces on my dress, they were fat with water and resisted. In the darkness, I drew my stiletto and awkwardly pried at the laces. I plucked them into tatters until finally the bodice peeled away. I sheathed the stiletto and wiggled out of the heavy skirts, glad of the forethought which left me with breeches and a shirt under the dress.

Quill had to be running out of breath. I swiveled in his arms, pinched his nose, and before I could think or see the shock in his eyes, put my mouth over his. It took a second for him to open his mouth and accept the air I pushed into him, and another for him to close his mouth so I could pull back. Quill still looked stunned when I released him and started swimming.

I kicked away from the palace, angling toward the surface with Quill in tow. We had to get into the city, so I swam with the current, toward the docks. We hadn’t gotten very far before a dull roar came from the palace and the orange blur of fire radiated above and behind us.

Then bodies started hitting the water.

We broke the surface—Quill with gasp—and turned back to look. The ballroom was burning. Orange flames spread quickly through the tapestries and draperies until the guard boats on the river were bathed in light. I’d forgotten about those boats.

The people in the water appeared to be alive and swimming. For now, anyway. Armored figures crowded on the balcony, silhouetted by the flames, and aiming crossbows at the river. One dropped with a cry, an arrow in his shoulder. Then another fell from view. That marksman of Trinh’s was doing what he could, but quarrels were already flying into the river from the soldiers on the boats.

Only Namal was likely to dive far or fast enough to be safe from that hail of spikes. We needed to do something about those boats. Before I could say anything to Quill, a figure rose like a specter on the nearest boat and dispatched of one of the crossbowmen. The figure tossed the body at the other guards on the boat before falling on them with long knives. In another second he was diving off the now unmanned boat. I knew that dive. I gasped. “Ayglos!”

“They need help,” said Quill.

I needed no encouragement. We dove as one. I reached out to the Bandui. The current did not hinder us as we swam, and in seconds we reached one of the boats. The boat rocked violently, the rail coming low enough for me to grasp as I burst from the water. I vaulted onto the boat, Shiharr and Azzad singing from my back. Quill followed behind me and drew the fighting knives strapped to my thighs.

I didn’t hear the shouting, the roar of the fire, or the turmoil of the water. I just poured my fury into my knives. We were fast, we were silent, we were nothing but vengeful ghosts. They didn’t stand a chance against Quill and me. In moments, we were diving off the boat and swimming for the next, repeating our performance like seasoned dancers.

At the third boat I realized that the hands next to mine on the railing were striped with blue tendrils and I looked over to see Ayglos giving me a grim smile.

Beyond him, toward the prow, was Namal.

The three of us were together and alive. Some part of me noted that this was a cause of great joy.

Namal pointed down, then dropped back into the water instead of climbing aboard. We followed. When Namal laid his shoulder against the hull and began to push, we joined in. I felt the Bandui casually suck away from the far side. The boat groaned, then capsized in a wave of air bubbles, dumping its men into the icy water. I dove, prepared for the Nether Queen’s soldiers to learn just how terrible it was to fight a nymph in water, but Ayglos grabbed my shoulder.  He looked at me fiercely and gestured that it was time to go.

I blinked at him, for a moment confused by the change in purpose. Then I obeyed, swimming with the current again, toward our allies. They were headed to the far bank, and they were only making progress because of the goodwill of the river. Panic slammed into me as I realized I didn’t know where Quill was. I swam faster, get in among the retreating men before surfacing and hissing, “Quill? Are you here?”

“Here.”

I swung left, recoiling at the sight of a body floating in the river. Then I saw heads on either side of the corpse and realized that the body was Tarr…guided by Trinh and Quill. I swam beside them, and when we reached the far shore I climbed out first and helped them lift Tarr’s body over the stone bank onto the snow-covered shore.

Trinh hauled himself out of the water and immediately pulled Tarr into his arms. Laying his forehead against Tarr’s, the orange glow from the palace painting his face in agonized strokes. Quill hoisted himself onto the bank and sat watching the burning palace, his legs dangling over the edge. I didn’t know where to look or how to feel. Trinh’s eight knights were all here, scattered around the snow in various poses like toy soldiers discarded by a child. Namal and Ayglos were standing nearby. I really hadn’t expected to be here again, watching another life burn to the ground. Three lives in less than a year. How had this happened?

And Tarr…my friend…I reached out to the dead king, my fingertips brushing his clothes, which were already turning to ice.

Ice.

I recoiled and looked around. They were all going to freeze to death if we didn’t find them someplace warm and dry.

My brothers had the same realization. “Zare, get them up—Ayglos, with me!” Namal was already jogging away from the shore. “We’ll clear the way.”

Standing, I put my hand on Quill’s shoulder. “We have to go.”

He blinked, tearing his eyes off the palace to look at me.

“Quill,” my voice firm. “We have to go.”

Quill nodded, his shoulders sagged a little and I realized that he’d been watching the palace to see if anyone else escaped by the balcony. We didn’t know what had become of the King’s Guard. He got to his feet and turned to Trinh. “Your Majesty.”

I left Quill to deal with the kings while I rounded up Trinh’s knights. It was a sad procession that struggled up the hill rising from the river. A lawn, I realized. Probably belonging to the summer villa of whoever was richest in this court.

The villa wasn’t far from the river, and it was deserted, all the windows dark. Any servants who kept the place in winter were likely in the city celebrating. My brothers had broken into the kitchen and already had the fires going in both the kitchen’s fireplaces. Trinh’s knights filed inside. After a moment’s hesitation Quill and Trinh laid Tarr in the garden, folding his hands on his chest as if he were sleeping.

Trinh lingered over the body, his arms hanging helplessly at his sides.

I stepped close, “I’ll stay with him for a little while.”

He raised his eyes to me, “Thank you,” his voice was a rasp. With a final look at his brother, he turned away and entered the kitchen.

Quill stood a moment longer before reaching out tentative fingers to brush my arm. I looked at him and saw wonder in his face. My eyes dropped to my arm, where my blue nymph stripes still spread from fingertip to shoulder. I blushed.

As if the blush made noise, his eyes flicked to mine and he managed a faint smile. “They’re beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“Will you be alright out here? In the cold?”

I nodded. “Yes. For a while. It’s not comfortable or anything, but I’ll be fine.”

Quill nodded, he almost looked like he would say more, but he turned and went inside.

I knelt in the snow beside Tarr’s body. The river had washed most of the blood from his shirt. Now it looked as though he’d rubbed mud on his shirt, given it a cursory rinse, then put it back on soaking wet. He looked like at any moment his chest would rise and fall, then his eyes would open. He’d wink at me and make a joke about both of us sitting outside in the cold.

But he didn’t. His skin was cold. His chest motionless.

I straightened his collar—that rakishly unbuttoned collar—and combed his hair as best I could. Then I sat back and drew my knees up to my chin, my fingers twisted in the hem of his shirt. Tears blended with river water, and then crackled into ice.

I don’t know how long I sat before Ayglos came out to get me. I was quite cold and didn’t argue when he practically lifted me to my feet and guided me into the kitchen.

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87-Breath

 

“What did she do to him?” I hissed.

Bel didn’t answer.

“Good evening, lords, ladies, and honored guests,” the Queen’s voice filled the room, she was standing in front of her throne now, her gown pooled at her feet. “I would like to say that I’m pleased to honor you with my presence at the Midwinter Festival. But I do not like to lie to my subjects.” Her voice was resonant, but sweet, giving unsettling dissonance to her words, “I’m here because of the reprehensible behavior of some of your citizens, killing my soldiers and impeding my justice—and the incompetence of your king in rooting out those who commit such senseless crimes against us.” The faintest edge crept into her voice, and she looked at Tarr.

Tarr looked back at her, rolling his head on his neck indolently. He didn’t look the least bit afraid of her, despite the blood on his lip.

“It’s partly my fault,” she continued, her voice silky again, “I gave you this king, and I did not train him as I should have. But,” she lifted her hand to beckon to Tarr, he stepped up to her side, “Your King has been productive in other ways. And I shall make it up to you.” She raised her other hand and it took a heartbeat to see that the thing flashing in the light was a knife.

Time stretched thin as she plunged the blade into Tarr’s chest. The air swept from my lungs. Swept from the room.

Color drained from Tarr’s face and spread across the front of his shirt. Crimson. Bright against his white shirt. He looked down, surprised, as his legs buckled beneath him and he slumped to his knees.

“Tarr Kegan,” the Queen was still speaking, “your service is ended. Your insolence is ended. It is time for one of your many heirs to take your place. I will raise them as my own, as I should have raised you. You should be pleased that your bloodline is permitted to continue.”

Tarr’s eyes lifted from the hilt sticking out of his chest and roamed the crowd until they found mine.

Naran.

I saw his order plainly, but I couldn’t move. My mouth opened as I choked on his blood as if it were my own.  I will. I willed him to understand. I will save Naran.

A blade flashed through the air and struck the Nether Queen as she stood over Tarr. She roared in pain, rearing away from the King, the knife protruding from her shoulder.

Quill was running from the direction of the entrance. The crowd recoiled from his passage, another knife was already in hand, his sword in the other. The Queen’s guards charged. Half converged around the Queen, pulling her back the way they’d entered, the rest ran to meet Quill.

Time thinned again, and then steel shattered the silence as the Captain of the King’s Guard carved a blue gore into the tide of soldiers. I stared, trying to make sense of the madness: At the perimeter, blue and black uniforms tore into one another. The crowd of revelers began to churn in a panicked effort to flee. Namal was running for the dais, and I thought I recognized Trinh doing the same. Some nobles were also attacking the Queen’s guards. Trinh’s knights, perhaps.

I became aware of Bel trying to drag me away with the rest of the people, and I turned on him. “You knew!” I snarled.

Bel stopped, taken aback by my anger.

“You knew she would kill him!” I was yelling now. Sweet Analie long gone.

“I tried to keep you away!” he snapped in frustration, “I didn’t want you to have to see it.”

“You should have stopped it!” I had never been this angry.

Still holding my arm, Bel raised his other hand placatingly, though his face showed he was starting to get angry himself. “Analie, listen to me—”

“Let go of me, traitor,” I rotated my arm and wrenched it out of his grasp. Bel stared, stunned, as I drew Shiharr and Azzad from my back, and spat, “I am Zare Caspian of Galhara,” and turning away I ran for Quill.

Quill was surrounded by a dark swarm of soldiers, more than should have been in the room.  I came at their backs, dropping three before they knew I was there. Someone grabbed my shoulder, I spun like lightning, whipping my arm under the soldier’s elbow and breaking it in one fluid motion. He cried out and I dropped his arm and moved on. Another tried to grab my neck, I ducked and flipped him over my head, ripping a swath in my skirts. The air whooshed out of his lungs and never returned as Shiharr sank into his neck. I yanked the knife out and kept going. The dress was like camouflage, they rarely saw me until I was upon them.

And I was nearly to Quill’s side.

I glanced to the dais. Tarr was all alone, slumped in front of the throne. For a heartbeat, our eyes locked again. The young King dipped his chin, his lips tipped up even as life pooled out of him. His expression was a benediction, shining with pride and…hope…Not for himself, but for us.

I gasped for breath, as if I could breathe for him. But the light in his eyes guttered.

Eloi.

I tucked my tears deep and shanked a soldier who was going for Quill’s back.

Then I made it to Quill. I sheathed Azzad, and reached for him, “Quill!”

He didn’t respond, but he didn’t kill me either. He plunged his sword into a soldier.

“Naran and Hess!”

Quill spared me a glance, then. He knew. His eyes were hard, his soul locked behind yards of stone, but I saw it anyway. I put a hand onto his back, moving with him as he spun and ducked. I pressed him toward the balcony, using Shiharr to block blows as we moved. Kicking out knees and stomping on feet that came too close to us.

I was vaguely aware of Trinh, Namal and the others, gaining the dais—but the Queen was already gone. They picked up Tarr’s body and, like us, started fighting for the balcony.

There shouldn’t be this many of the Queen’s guard here. Had they all been hidden in the ballroom?

Quill’s sword caught in someone’s armor—he abandoned it—and in that moment, I grabbed him around the waist and lunged at the balcony.

An arrow pierced the throat of the soldier who followed us into the night, and we leapt over the railing and into the icy river below.

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86-Crescendo

 

I spun to see Lucius Tene smiling at me, a glass of wine in his hand, blue eyes sparkling. “I did not expect to see you here tonight.”

I managed a smile, “Lord Tene,” and dipped in a hasty curtsy.

“Is this your brother?” Lucius looked over my shoulder at Namal.

“Yes,” I fumbled, “Alban, this is Lord Lucius Tene.”

Namal grimaced.

“Lord Tene, this is my brother, Alban Meredithe,” I finished the introduction, grateful that my halting delivery could be attributed to my simple persona, and not to how very much I hadn’t wanted to bump into him.

Lucius grinned, bowing slightly at the waist. “It’s my pleasure to meet you.” He lifted his wine glass, looking at me over the rim, “Have you seen Bel yet?”

I shook my head. “No, is he here?” Dumb question.

“Of course he is, anyone who’s anyone is here,” Lucius smiled again, “I left him watching the performance.” He plucked my wine glass out of my hand and deposited both our glasses on the tray of a passing servant. “But I tired of watching dancing and wanted to do some dancing myself. Do me the honor.” He bowed slightly and offered his hand.

In the center of the room, there was a space left open by the crowd, in which twenty or so people were twirling to the very same music to which the professionals at the other end of the room performed.

I cast Namal a glance, his lips were thin, but he nodded. Perhaps if I danced with Lucius he would leave us alone before the Queen came out. She would come, here would be a ceremonial dance, then she would return to the dais and attention would shift away from her and we would make our move. We had plenty of time. I smiled at the handsome lord and put my hand in his, “If you insist.”

Lucius led me to the dance floor and twirled me as we stepped into the open. His hand settled on my waist as I came back in and we smoothly joined the rest of the revelers. I was painfully aware of how his hand sat right underneath the tips of my daggers.

“You know,” whispered Lucius conspiratorially, “Your brother looks very familiar.”

I cocked my head, “Does he? Have you been down at the wharfs?”

“No, I have not,” replied Lucius, the sparkle still in his eyes.

Lightning bolts of panic started to crackle through my veins, but I kept my tone light, “Have you been thinking of me very often, perhaps? My brother and I do look alike.”

“You are enchanting.” Lucius spun me again. “I don’t think that’s it, though.”

“Perhaps he just reminds you of someone,” I suggested.

“Yes, someone I saw once, many years ago. At large event something like this. Foreign dignitaries.”

I met Lucius’s gaze. He knew. He recognized Namal. I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but a figure stepped up to us.

“Excuse me.”

“Bel!” Lucius paused our motion and grinned at Bel Valredes.

“May I?” Bel gestured to me.

“Of course,” Lucius released me and bowed. I stared at him as he kissed my hand. A gestured normally reserved for royalty. “It was lovely, Miss Meredithe.”

“Lucius…” the protest died on my lips. I could hardly go running after him. Could I?

“Analie,” Bel stepped close, settling his hand on my waist to dance, but he was not nearly as committed to the dancing as Lucius had been. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s the Midwinter Ball,” I said, trying to look at Bel and keep track of Lucius at the same time.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Bel bent close as we turned slowly in a distracted version of the dance.

“What do you mean?” I’d lost Lucius. He’d stepped away from the dancing and I couldn’t tell where he’d gone. I cursed inwardly and colorfully.

“Please,” Bel was shaking his head. I dragged my eyes back to him. “Analie,” he hesitated, tension creasing his brow, “you should leave.”

“What?” He had my attention now. “Bel, I’m fine, it’s just a party.”

“I can’t explain. Please leave.” The song ended, and we stopped moving. Bel let go of my waist but kept my hand. Our eyes met, “Trust me. You don’t want to be at this party.”

My gut tightened. This was more than broken heart business. “What’s wrong?”

“Just go.” He started to turn me toward the door, but a fanfare began to play. Bel cursed. I spun to face the dais. Four black clad guards marched from the king’s entrance and arranged themselves across the back of the dais. The fanfare continued, and the entire assembly turned toward the front of the room and drew closer to the dais. I tugged my hand away from Bel and started to make my way toward back toward where I’d left Namal.

Then she entered.

I’d never seen the Nether Queen before. My steps slowed as I tried to get a good look. She looked younger than I’d imagined. She had to be at least twenty years older than my parents, but looked the same age, and just as well preserved. Her gown was black that shimmered green in the light. A high collar framed her sculpted neck and shoulders. A crown with tall, thin spires sat on black curls, shining in the lamplight like every bit of it was covered in gems. Her face was oddly familiar with high cheekbones, startling blue eyes. Her lips curved up in a faint smile laced with cruelty.

Khattmali entered, looking pale. Behind her, Tarr walked into view flanked by two guards in black. The fanfare ended and the room became very quiet. Was that blood on his face? A gasp swept through the room as the crowd also noticed the red trickle coming from the King’s nose. I took a step toward the dais.

Bel’s hand closed around my arm. “Analie, don’t.”

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84-Visitor

 

Trinh had left by the time I got back. Before I could pester Namal for details or tell him about Domjoa’s little project, the King’s messenger rapped on the door to deliver our official invitation to the King’s Midwinter Ball. The invitation came with a large white box and a note in Tarr’s hand that read, As promised, in honor of what was.

If Tarr and Analie had truly been in love, she should stay far away from that ball. As it was, however, I couldn’t help the delight when I opened the white box and lifted out an exquisite green gown. The color was as deep as forest shade, and vibrant as emeralds. Tiny gems winked like wood sprites from the sweeping neckline and trailed from the waist like the tendrils of a willow. I resisted the urge to try on the gown immediately.

Under the dress and a layer of paper Tarr had included a coordinating ensemble for Namal, complete with a new set of shiny black boots. Namal was less thrilled than I was.

We just finished stashing the clothes in the sparse little bedroom above the office when another knock rattled the door. We froze, eyes meeting. That wasn’t the pattern Trinh used.

Namal cautiously descended to the door, me a few steps behind him, and opened it. “Can I help you?” asked my brother, mild like merchant who was only average.

“Is Analie Meredithe here?”

That voice.

Namal looked back at me. “You know this man?”

“Alban,” I stepped up to the door, “This is Lord Belledi Valredes.” I was too surprised to have any idea which manners to use or not use. I hadn’t seen Bel since I’d choked him unconscious in his rooms. Did he know?

Bel bowed quickly. His cheeks were pink from the cold, a small carriage stood in the street behind him. “May I come in?”

Namal looked like he would say no, but I said, “What do you want, Bel?”

“I heard you left the palace, I’ve been trying to find you. I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“I’m fine.”

Bel shifted on his feet uncertainly. “Good, I’m glad.”

I nudged Namal to get him to move away from the door, “We have only a few minutes.” Stepping back, I gestured for Bel Valredes to enter. “Sunset comes quickly these days, and they are quite serious about the curfew down here.”

He stepped in gratefully, looking around the room and hopefully missing the silent exchange Namal and I had before Namal growled, “I’ll be back down in five minutes,” and stalked up the narrow stairs.

I closed the door and turned to face Bel, crossing my arms.

“You look well,” said Bel.

“Thank you,” I replied.

Silence.

“I’m sorry about what happened,” Bel looked at me earnestly, “Between you and the King.”

Incredulous, I swallowed several responses before managing to croak, “Are you?”

There was more bite in the words than I had intended, and Bel’s features became more guarded; I turned away, lifting a hand to my face, hoping to hide just how much I knew about his involvement in Analie’s broken heart. “I was happy, you know,” I said thickly.

“I know, I’m sorry.” His hand brushed my elbow hesitantly. “But it wouldn’t have lasted. It’s not his way.”

“Is he with the Ambassador now?” I asked, lacing my tone with bitterness.

“Maybe,” replied Bel, gently turning me to face him and tugging my hand down. “I’m not sure. Analie, I know it is terrible right now,” he tipped my chin up so he could look into my eyes, “And I know you won’t believe me, but this pain will pass and you will find real love. You will feel whole again, alive again.”

I swallowed. Hard. Heat climbing my cheeks at his touch and the offer in his dark eyes. Either he was a truly world class liar…or I was. The thought made me look down, suddenly interested in his snow spattered boots. I’d been playing one role or another since Galhara burned, and in this moment, I was tired of it. What would Belledi Valredes think if he knew the truth about me? About Tarr? Which side would he be on if he thought he had a choice?

Bel, mistaking my silence, put a hand on my shoulder comfortingly. The touch was inviting, but not pushy, like a charming shop with an open door. But I was keenly aware of the knives still strapped to my back under my knit capelet. There could be no comforting embrace for Analie today, and it was just as well. I forced myself to look up at him, “I appreciate your concern,” my voice warbled as I cast a significant glance at the window, “But you should be going. Curfew.”

Bel followed my look, “Curfew,” he repeated, his voice taking an edge and I could almost hear him blaming the King for the state of the wharfs. He started to turn toward the door, but paused, “Tell your brother to come to my office on Savlong Street, should he ever wish to pursue a trade deal.” Our eyes met again as Bel took my hand and pressed a small metal disc into my hand. “Or if you need to get away from the city for a while. Be far away from the festival.” He closed my fingers around the disc and brought my hand up to his lips. “Good evening, Miss Meredithe.”

He left with a swish of his cloak and I watched him climb into his carriage and disappear down the street. Only after I’d closed and locked the door did I look down at the disc in my hand. It was his brooch, his family’s crest of a leaping fish. I leaned my back against the door and rubbed my thumb over the brooch. If I needed to get away from the city for a while? Dread curled in my gut.

“You made quite an impression,” commented my brother, descending the stairs.

“I hope he doesn’t come back,” I growled.

We settled on chairs in the office, and I told Namal about the exchange, and showed him the brooch. My brother turned the brooch over in his hand, examining it in the lamplight. “It’s certainly fine workmanship. I wonder if he planned to give you the brooch, or if he was being impulsive.”

I rubbed my hands across my face. “Does it matter?”

“Well, if he was being impulsive that makes it feel rather less likely that he’s laying a trap for you.”

“What do you think he means by telling me to get out of the city for a while?”

Namal handed the brooch back to me and leaned back in his chair, “Everyone knows Narya is coming, that’s as good a reason as any to leave town. We prevailed upon our parents to leave Sinensis and get further away—even tried to get Ayglos to join them after scouting, though I doubt he will unless father explicitly commands it. But…Valredes sounds like he has experience with heartbreak. I think he just knows it will be easier for Analie to move on if she moves away.”

Our family was hardly a good example, but he was probably right. I tucked the brooch into my pocket, then remembered everything I wanted to ask Namal. “What were you and Trinh arguing about?”

“Arguing? We were having a stimulating discussion of tactics.”

I raised my brows.

“I’m serious. Trinh Kegan was—is—an excellent general.” Namal shrugged. “It’s also refreshing to talk to someone who has read the same tacticians, philosophers and military histories.”

“Oh.” I was glad that I had left rather than waste time eavesdropping on general debate. I was also glad for Namal to have a friend. Even if it was Trinh Kegan.

My brother picked up some ledgers and placing them on the desk. “I think that there is no chance of us being able to overwhelm the Nether Queen by force.”  He pointed to the ledgers, which he’d arranged in a line across the desk. “Ballroom,” then to the empty desk, “the Bandui,” he placed a ruler in the “river,” “Queen’s barge—most likely—” then scattered ink wells around the barge, “Small craft, lit up to make the river shine.”

I leaned forward, setting my elbows on the desk.

“The King’s guard is made up of men mostly picked and trained by Quill, they can be relied upon to protect the King of Dalyn—so inside the ballroom we have some support if everything really goes badly. The small craft will be crewed partly by the King’s Guard and partly by the Queen’s Guard.” We’ve found a spot we think will work for one or two marksmen to take position on the far side of the river,” here Namal pointed to a spot near my left elbow. “Hopefully no one else will notice that line of sight.”

“The men from Gillenwater are tasked with causing a distraction near the garrison—most of Narya’s force should be stationed there, and we would like to keep them away from the ballroom as long as we can.”

Picking up one of the inkwells I rolled it in my fingers. I knew the plan. “Do you think we should warn Quill that if they see someone sneaking onto the Queen’s barge it’s probably only Domjoa and they should leave him be?”

Namal stilled, blue eyes flicking to me as he growled, “What?”