1-Dark Business

It had been so long since I’d worn rags they felt like a costume. Never mind that the dress, leached of color and shape, threadbare, and sporting two enormous tears, was a costume. I hunched against the wall of the bridge and pressed my hands against the stone, trying to inhabit the character of a poor harlot. My dress was arranged so one leg was bare to the night—clearly advertising my pretend profession. I’d been out here every night for almost a week, which was plenty of time to reflect on the irony of setting myself out as bait again so soon after the last job when I’d generally been opposed to anything resembling bodyguard work for most of my career.

This time, however, I wasn’t dressed as a countess and fishing for a high price assassin. This time, my prey was a murderous madman—which probably shouldn’t feel as unintimidating as it did. I kept my wry smile inside and sagged harder against the stones. Villaba didn’t get as cold as Angareth, but the wind was chill with the approaching winter. I was grateful for my nymph blood which meant the occasional shiver that wracked my body was entirely dramatics.

The city Falletta was about halfway between the border Villaba shared with Angareth and Cartahayna, the capital of Villaba. We’d stopped here on our way to Cartahayna. There was a shop in Falletta my family did business with, and my brother and I had stopped by as a matter of manners. Talk in the shop and all the taverns on that side of town was of women being murdered in the streets. No one was going to pay me ten thousand gold to swap places with a prostitute, but I wasn’t about to let this continue. There had been one murder every fourth week for the past three months. And once marked on a map, it was pretty clear where the next murder would be. Which was frankly concerning for other reasons. Having spent the last four months pouring over any books we could find on the ethereal plan, demons, and the old wars, it looked an awful lot like the kind of thing that might summon a demon. Especially given the stories we’d been told about the treatment of the bodies.

It hadn’t taken much to persuade my companions to stop and deal with this. It had taken much more to persuade the local duke to pay us for our trouble. He was definitely not paying us enough: I had drugged at least nine would-be customers over the past week, and knew Eliah, who was on the other side of the bridge, had done the same. Perhaps we should’ve tried using my name; see if he paid more for the infamous Princess Zare Ayglara Caspian of Galhara to clean up his city. I had half a mind to stake the duke out here tomorrow, see how he liked it.

A man was walking down the alley toward me, shoulders hunched against the cold. I straightened and put my hand on my hip. He moved like a slightly drunk cowhand, the strength in his build undercut by the shuffle of his feet and the way he held his limbs close. He stopped and made a big show of looking me over in the sad flicker of lamplight. Shaggy hair shadowed his face, and he was dressed in ill-fitting clothes that stank of sweat and cattle. He held out a coin, and I leaned forward for a better look at it, then snatched it out of his hand, tasted it, and tucked it into the sad little pocket at my belt. Thus invited, he stepped close, setting his hips against mine and pressing a kiss to my neck. I let my body melt against him, finding his scent beneath the clothes that weren’t his. Quilleran Rhydderick was always a welcome bulwark against the night.

“Only a few more hours before dawn, I shouldn’t stay long, but I wanted to check in. How are you?” Quill’s voice was a puff of warmth against my skin.

“Bored and even more ready to kill whoever this monster is.”

I felt his smile. “Fair enough.”

“Where did you find hair like this?” I touched the mop on his head, afraid I’d knock the wig off if I tried to run my fingers through the mess. Longer hair for men was common in Villaba, though it was typically restrained in a braid or tail. This catastrophe communicated much drinking.

“I told you, Valeria has been very helpful,” replied Quill.

Valeria was the proprietress of the shop for which my family smuggled—and for some unknown reason she had the keys to the theater. Being a woman living the Stone Quarter, Valeria had plenty of motivation to help as much as possible, so she’d been outfitting Ayglos and Quill with disguises to regularly check on Eliah and me without arousing suspicion. A couple hours ago he’d been dressed like a clerk and had managed to take up so much less space in the world I almost hadn’t recognized him. I pulled Quill back into a recess under the bridge. We’d picked this dank little bridge over a stinking little rivulet because it was close to where we expected the next body, and it had nice dark corners in which Eliah and I could drug unwanted customers without completely blowing our cover. It was also a hidden place for Quill to press me against the stone and kiss me until I forgot everything else. The only highlight of this week, truly. I would never get tired of being able to kiss Quill.

After a few moments he shifted us so his back was against the cold bridge and he could fold me into his arms, sharing his warmth. “Do you think we’ve scared them off?” My voice was muffled by his shoulder, but I wasn’t inclined to move. “Having two women so close? The chance of a witness being too great?”

“Doubtful,” replied Quill. “If it isa ritual, they will find a way.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when a strangled sound bounced across the water and stones. We both stiffened, listening. There were muffled voices coming from the street—the one where we expected a corpse.

I stepped back from Quill and reached for my knives; Shiharr and Azzad felt incredible in my hands after so many days waiting. Quill stepped out of the nook, stumbling like a drunk and starting toward the sound to investigate—but subtly—just in case it was nothing. I moved behind him, lightly and quietly. We made it all of five steps before Quill picked up a run. Then I saw what he saw: We weren’t dealing with one murderer; we were dealing with a mob.

*

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You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

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*

64-The End

When I was a child, messengers had arrived at my father’s palace gasping out desperate news of Dalyn’s fall. It was shocking, entirely unexpected, but at least reasonably explainable by ordinary things like armies. The messengers who had arrived later, bearing news of Shyr Valla, had been white faced, shifting on their feet with the impossibility of their news. The jewel of the Magron Mountains was just…gone. All her people and the armies arrayed at her feet vanished into thin air. No bodies. No camps. No giant hole in the ground or volcanic eruption. The entire ruling family, including crown princess A’rora Wynn, were inside the city at the time. Trinh Kegan and eight of his knights were at the edge of the valley and turned up six years later, no time at all having passed for them.

“She’s alive?” I demanded, “Is she like you?” I looked at the twins, then Eliah, who were among the time-passed knights.

“No,” said Rakov, grimly.

“She’s incorporeal,” said Quill.

“A ghost?”

“Not exactly.”

“Not exactly?”

“I suppose we really have only her word that she isn’t a proper ghost,” put in Eliah.

“That,” added Rae’d, “and the fact that we all saw her, and some of us have no Sight to speak of. Ghosts can’t just make you see them like that.”

Eliah huffed, “Can. Can’t. How much do we really know about ghosts?”

Quill raised a hand in a gesture of peace, “She appeared to us last time we were working near the Empire and told us that the entire city and the lost army are on the ethereal plane and have been this entire time. She has been trying to break through between the planes—and is apparently finally strong enough to do so.”

I stared at Quill. I knew very little about the planes that made up Serrifis. I knew only what was taught broadly, partly due to my focus on physical pursuits and partly due to the wars that cut short my formal education. There were several planes of existence, according to thinkers. The material world was ours, then there was the ether, which belonged to sprites and pixies and anything else that Seers saw drifting through walls, then there were heaven and hell. I remembered being told you had to pass through the ether to reach either heaven, or hell, and ghosts were people who got lost on the way. An old memory surfaced, and I bit my lip as I began to wonder.

Eliah and Quill both perked up. “You know something,” said Eliah.

“Not really,” I said slowly, “But I think I encountered her, or someone else from Shyr Valla. I didn’t understand at the time. Ayglos did, too. It’s how we realized we had some human giftings after all.”

“What happened?” prompted Quill.

“Back in Dalyn, before Tarr died…remember when the ambassador drugged me?”

He nodded, his mouth thinning to a grim line.

“Someone woke me up before the drug wore off. Slapped me and yelled until I woke up…I never saw her. I can’t even swear I heard her properly. Tarr said there were so many ghosts in Dalyn it could’ve been anyone,” I shook my head, “But Ayglos saw her. When he was pursued by the Huntsmen a golden woman was keeping watch for him, warning him when they got close…I don’t know if he would’ve made it without her help. He always thought it was Lady Tirien.”

“A’rora does look a bit golden these days,” said Rakov. “She had red hair, before.”

“It could’ve been her. We didn’t exactly have time for a long chat about her activities the past six years before she faded again,” said Quill. “But that’s why we’ve been tasked with research. To learn everything we can about the ether, and the magics that could push a city into it. And maybe pull it back out again.”

*

When the others left, I flopped back on the pillows and stared at the ceiling while Quill locked the door again. “You know,” I said, “You promised me private hot baths and a lot of money on this job.”

“So I did.”

“Your room is much nicer than mine,” I felt the bed shift as he came to lay down beside me again. “I’ve been waiting on someone else this entire time.”

“You got some hot bathes, didn’t you?” he said, snuggling close and planting a soft kiss on my temple.

“Yes, but I’m a princess and require lots—” my words cut off as Quill kissed the sensitive spot under my ear and I forgot language.

“You do require lots,” agreed Quill, amiably.

“What happens now?” I managed.

“Right now? Whatever you want.”

My entire body tingled, but I said, “Longer term.”

Quill propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at me, his expression serious. “If King Keleman gives us access to his library, I’ll be staying here to research for the next few months. After that, returning to the farm with whatever we find. What about you?”

Reaching up, I traced the neckline of his shirt with my fingertips.  “We were headed to Cartahayna when you found us.”

He nodded. “A visit home, or do you have another job lined up?”

“Just circling back. As we do.” I chewed my lip. “Finding a way to bring Shyr Valla back could change everything.”

He nodded again.

“Absolutely everything.”

“I’m aware of the significance.”

Staring at the stitching of Quill’s shirt, I struggled to sort through the idea that A’rora Wynn and the armies of Dalyn and Shyr Valla were in the ethereal plane. In theory, that meant that Seers would be able to see them. Which…air whooshed out of me in a soft gasp. “That’s why she killed all the Seers she could find.”

“That was our conclusion.”

“I need to tell Ayglos about this. And Namal needs to know.”

“Will he believe it?” asked Quill.

“I think so. Namal needs evidence, and likes logic, but consequently he can be persuaded. You have a lot of witnesses.”

“Yes, but these witnesses are all sworn to a man he hasn’t spoken to in years.”

Shaking my head, I said, “I don’t think he’d hold that against you under these circumstances. Such a bizarre thing to lie about.”

“So, you’re going to Cartahayna, then?” Quill’s voice was neutral, carefully so.

I looked up at his face, poignantly aware again that we were laying in his rooms, on his bed, in his clothes…That he loved me, and I loved him. That I could ride away with my brother this afternoon and not see him for months and months, and when we met again, I could leap into his arms and kiss him like I’d always wished I could.

But that didn’t mean I wanted to leave.

Besides which, if the Lost City of Shyr Valla really was in the ethereal plane, bringing it back would be a tremendous blow to the Empress who had taken so much from us. It was a blow I wanted to be a part of. I thought it wasn’t a stretch to assume my kingly brother would feel the same. Tracing the line of Quill’s lips with my fingers, I said, “Ask me to stay.”

A smile curled across his face and he bent close, whispering against my mouth, “Stay.”

The End

Zare Caspian will return.

*

Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

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63-Ghost Stories

There was a knocking sound at the door. Quill bolted upright, I came fully awake as I tumbled off his chest and caught myself before landing face first in the pillows. The knock came again, a little pattern that sounded familiar to me.

“Fornern’s fists,” muttered Quill. He rubbed his hand across his face. “It’s probably Rakov.”

Sunlight was streaming in through a gap in the curtains. I wasn’t sure which way Quill’s rooms faced offhand and had no idea what time it was. Apparently, we’d slept quite hard and quite well. I realized with a jolt that Shiharr and Azzad were on the trunk at the foot of the bed with my other knives. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept without a knife under my pillow.

Quill turned to me, “If I don’t answer he’ll probably pick the lock to see if I’m dead or if he should look elsewhere.”

“I would do the same,” I conceded, sitting up and stretching. I made no move to get out of the bed as he threw back the covers and stood up.

Pausing on his way to the door, Quill asked, “Are you ready for them to know?”

The knocking pattern rapped out more insistently. Then the door handle rattled.

“No time like the present,” I said, fluffing my hair, which was almost certainly a colossal mess.

The look Quill gave me was as good as a kiss, then he opened the door, revealing Rakov on his knees with lock-picking tools in his hands.  Eliah and Rakov’s twin, Rae’d, were standing behind him.

Rakov stood and pocketed the tools. “Finally.” His eyes skipped over Quill’s bed clothes. “Were you…sleeping?” he sounded surprised. How late was it?

“I was,” said Quill, “May as well come in.” He stepped aside and motioned for them to enter.

Eliah noticed me first and a huge grin spread across her face. I felt heat spread across my cheeks and I quirked a smile at her.

Rakov and Rae’d both froze when they saw me. Pushing past them, Eliah walked right in and plunked on the bed, pushing me so there was room for her against the pillows. “At last. And it’s so much more efficient to have you both in one place.”

Rae’d recovered before Rakov, and walked over to the desk, pulling out the chair and facing it into the room before sitting. “It’s good to see you again, your Highness.”

“Your pretty lies please me,” I replied, drawing my legs up and folding them as Eliah reached across me to steal pillows from Quill’s side of the bed. Fornern’s fists, one night and I’d claimed half his bed as mine.

“They aren’t lies from me,” Rae’d smiled, “If Rakov said it, it might be a lie.”

This shook Rakov to action, and he crossed the room to glare more effectively at his brother. “That is not true. I was merely surprised to find you in our good Captain’s rooms.”

“Because you’re not very observant, Rakov,” said Eliah, brightly.

“I’m observant,” growled Rakov. “That doesn’t mean I expected her here.”

Rae’d folded his arms. “Quill is one of the best men I know. If I trusted anyone to sleep with a foreign princess, it would be him.”

“Am I a foreign princess anymore if we’re all exiles?” I asked.

Quill locked the door and returned to sit on the end of the bed. He gave me a longsuffering look, then addressed the others, “What news of the hunt for Lucius Tene?”

“Gone as if he never existed,” announced Eliah.

“Not even the hounds found any trace.” Rakov sounded grim.

I blew out a breath. “That is most impressive.”

Rakov continued, “Belledi Valredes left this morning, quite openly and leisurely, with one of the Angari lords. The guards apparently also caught someone else who tried to break into the palace and others who defaced a wall with some obscene objections to the treaty…so they had a very busy night.”

Eliah took up the narrative, “The Imperial Ambassador has already spent some time groveling to both Kings and distancing himself from Tene. I’m told he seems quite genuinely horrified.”

“That’s quite a lot that’s happened already today, what time is it?” I asked.

“Nearly noon,” answered Eliah.

Had I ever slept till noon without being wounded? “Fornern’s fists.” I had an instinctive flinch that the leanyodi would be looking for me. Except they all knew I wasn’t really one of them, and probably deduced that I’d stop showing up after the wedding.

“I need to clean up, then,” said Quill, sounding just as surprised that we’d slept so late, “and seek an audience with King Keleman. Rakov, have you been to King Balint?”

“Not yet,” Rakov folded his arms, looking strikingly like Rae’d, beside him. “I was going to approach him after his lunch meetings.”

I bit my lip to keep from commenting. Quill looked at me as if I had said something. I spread my hands, “Alright, I’ll ask. Is there something special about these audiences?”

No one spoke for a long moment. The members of the Breaker’s team looked at one another.

Then Eliah said, “Well, I’ll say the words on Quill’s face: I think we should tell her, because she may know something that can help.”

Rakov sighed. “There it is.”

“We haven’t shared intelligence with the Galhirim in years,” Quill pointed out.

Everyone was looking to Rakov, now. I got the impression that while this mission had been Quill’s, Rakov still held a higher rank in overall company.

“Should I leave so you can discuss?” I asked dryly, starting to push back the covers so I could climb off the bed. I knew it was a serious issue for them, and I knew I was touchy about Trinh Kegan.

Eliah slapped her hand down on my knee so forcefully I jumped. “Stay.”

“Ouch,” I glared at Eliah. She was unaffected, patting my knee with affection.

“If we tell her,” said Rakov measuredly, “She will tell her brother. I will have to tell Trinh that we made the decision to bring the Galhirim into this.”

“Which brother are you worried about, the Fox or the King?” I asked, “Because the Fox will find out soon, but you have at least a few weeks before the King finds out. And at this point, they are all going to find out you’re acting cagey as demons.”

“Trinh did say he’d do whatever was necessary,” said Quill, his eyes on Rakov. “It’s not as if we’re telling an enemy, or even someone whose interests aren’t aligned.”

Rakov looked at Rae’d, who inclined his head. “Quill’s right, he did say that. And sharing intelligence with the Galhirim doesn’t mean he and Namal have to speak ever again.”

“Alright,” Rakov spread his hands. “Alright. Tell her.”

Now all eyes shifted to me as Quill said, “As I told you in Wimshell, the King of Angareth now owes me a favor. But…we’re here to gain access to the King’s libraries.”

“His libraries? Why?”

“Because we are trying to find any and all writings about demon magic…and the ether.”

I stared at him, struggling—visibly, I’m sure—to not jump to uncharitable conclusions. “What in Serrifis does Trinh Kegan want with demon magic?”

Quill rubbed his hand across his face, “This is going to sound really crazy.”

“Try me,” I said archly.

“We’ve seen A’rora Wynn.”

*

Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

You can support Zare’s adventures and the overthrow of the Nether Queen on Patreon for as little as $1/month.

62- Safe

The King’s Guard had the search well in hand, and though they were all happy to see Quill and complain to him about the escape, the hour of the night, and professional criminals in general, they waved off his offers of help. We must’ve looked tired, because one or two of them told us to get some rest. As we trudged back through the palace a fourth time, I reached out and laced my fingers through Quill’s.

Because I could.

He glanced at me and squeezed my hand. When we reached the end of the hallway, he stopped walking, and I turned to face him. “Stay in my room tonight,” he said softly, adding, “Just to sleep. Eloi knows we need sleep, and I will sleep better if I know you’re safe, and you’re not where anyone knows to look for you.”

My heart quickened at the thought of spending the night with Quill. Even if the intent was just sleep. He’d been so tired he’d fallen asleep on the floor under my bed—was that just yesterday? —and I’d been barely sleeping at all in the Countess’s place. The thought of spending the night with a friendly warrior at my back was just as seductive as the thought of that friend being Quill. “Alright.”

*

When the door closed and locked behind us in Quill’s suite, I felt my exhaustion deeply. I also felt intensely aware of Quill as he moved around the room and rooted in the wardrobe. I toed off my boots and began removing knives. Shiharr and Azzad first, then a handful of others. Not as many as usual, since I’d only taken what I could hide in the hoopskirt gown. Unbuckling the jacket, still the ceremonial red coat from the Queen’s Guard, I laid it on top of the knives with exaggerated care. It felt right, being here with Quill, but it was also new and alarming in its own way.

“Here,” Quill emerged from the wardrobe and handed me a tunic and loose trousers meant for sleeping. His.

“What are you going to wear?” I blurted.

He grinned. “I have another set.”

My cheeks burned, but I took the bed clothes and minced to the washroom with as much dignity as I could gather. Grown woman. Feared outlaw. Legend. Blushing fool. I took the time to take down the elaborate braids in my hair and re-braid in a single plait, and when I returned, Quill was already in bed. “What changed?” I asked him suddenly.

“What?”

“Something was different about our flirtation from the very beginning of this job—you’ve loved me for years, we’ve always flirted…but since the first time I saw you in Wimshell…”

Quill propped himself on his elbow, “That obvious?”

“As obvious and hair-raising as riding without a saddle or bridle for the first time,” I answered.

Sighing heavily, he picked at the bedspread, “Don’t laugh. But when we were south last autumn, I got sick.”

“Why would I laugh at that?”

“Because for four horrible days I had control of neither my stomach nor my bowels and I felt like I was dying a slow, ignoble, death—with ample time to review all my regrets. There’s not normally time for that when I face death.”

“Oh,” I nearly choked on the laugh that escaped.

He glared at me, but it was obvious he didn’t mean it. “They told me it was an insect bite. Which seemed especially cruel. But in that time, the things that kept me from pursuing you—kings and secrets and miles of distance—began to feel incredibly small in the grand scheme of things.”

They did feel small, now. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t loved Quill before, it’s just that now he knew I loved him. A tiny change that changed everything. The lamp by the bed was the only light, gilding his face with such tenderness. I wanted to do the same, so I crossed the room and crawled onto the bed.

Quill watched me slip under the covers and went entirely still as I traced the places the light touched his face. Eloi. I could hardly believe I could.

“I love it when you look at me like that,” his voice was thick. The light glinted off the green in his eyes. Such a beautiful soul.

Leaning close, I kissed him, lingering and gentle. “Good night, Quill,” I breathed against his lips. Then I rolled down onto the pillows, turning my back to him. I felt the bed shift as he turned down the lamp. Then he pulled me close against his chest, one arm wrapped around my middle, the other under my head. He was warm against my back and it felt luxurious and safe with his body curled around mine. My heart raced as I felt him nuzzle my neck, a line of soft kisses covering the exposed skin before he settled where his breath touched my ear. We lay unmoving, and in a few moments his breathing became even.

It felt entirely unfair that his breathing was even already. But as I listened to the steadiness of his heart and his breath, I felt myself slipping away into sleep.

*

Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

You can support Zare’s adventures and the overthrow of the Nether Queen on Patreon for as little as $1/month.

61- Cat and Mouse

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.”

“Bel.”

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.”

*

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60- The Dungeon

Quill pressed me back against my door and kissed me as if he could capture the words from my lips and swallow them whole. His hands moved from my face to my sides, spreading heat, making me feel delicate. I ran my hands over his chest, feeling ridge after ridge of thin throwing knives under his coat.

A pointed cough from one of the guards down the hall called us back to reality. Quill’s mouth was pinked and swollen from kissing, and it shimmered with the bronze from mine. I touched his lower lip with my forefinger. “You have paint…” I said.

He grinned, then tilted his head and surveyed me. “You have paint, too.”

Twisting, I looked down to where his hands still rested on my ribs, leaving little metallic smears on in their wake. I laughed. “How?”

He cupped my face again, “That’s how.”

Wrinkling my nose, I sighed, “I will not miss the make-up.”

“I kind of like it.” Quill swirled his thumbs across my cheeks. “It’s fun.”

I snorted. Then the guard coughed again and reluctantly we stepped away from each other. The Angari and the Terrim were both openly watching with bemused expressions. I put my hand on the doorknob. “Come in while I get cleaned up?”

He nodded, following me into the room and waiting while I closed the door and lit a lamp. “I originally came up here to get you so we could go interrogate the prisoner.”

“This won’t take long,” I replied, heading toward the bathing room. “I just need to not scandalize the entire palace.” I’d been alone with Quill thousands of times. Just, not right after baring my soul and kissing him passionately. But I ignored the bed and the walls and closed door and found a towel so I could wash my face. The cool water eased the heat in my cheeks and neck. Raising my voice to be heard in the other room I said, “You heard about the assassin I fought, I assume?”

“I did,” Quill’s voice floated from the bedroom, “Do you think the Scythe is a team of assassins, rather than one?”

“Lucius’s clothes and mask looked the same as the man I fought,” I replied. For a short time, the only sound was the gentle splashing as I finished removing the gold make up. I tried to rub it out of the coat, but I mostly managed to spread it, so the coat took a faint glimmer in the lamp light. That would have to do. I inspected myself in a mirror, deciding the faint touches of gold lingering around my eyes could stay, then wandered back into the bedroom rubbing oil into my skin. Quill was perched on the desk, staring at his boots, but he looked up when I entered. Fornern’s fists, that look. As if I were the only thing he ever wanted to look at. I tossed a clean, damp, towel to him. “For your hands.” With a casualness I did not feel I said, “The other assassin recognized me.”

Quill’s gaze sharpened.

“And his eyes were brown, but that’s really all I got beyond his truly impressive climbing ability. He scaled the palace walls like they were nothing. And…once he recognized me, he started trying to get away, rather than kill me.” I paused, mood thoroughly dampened, “Bel has brown eyes.”

“Do you think Bel Valredes is the other half of the Scythe?” asked Quill, evenly.

I finished with the oil and sat down on the bed. “I wouldn’t have thought it of him. Then again, I didn’t think he’d do anything as subversive as smuggle nymphs out of Dalyn, either.”

Quill made a skeptical noise. “People are rarely straight forward. I saw Valredes at the wedding after you switched back. If he is who you fought, he’s very smart.”

“I saw him, too,” I agreed. “We know the Scythe is very smart.”

After another silence, in which we both turned over our own thoughts, Quill said, “I think the Scythe being a two-man team makes more sense than the Empress sending two of her own lords to kill the Countess. It could too easily be blamed on her, and then she runs the risk of Angareth and Terrimbir uniting over a common enemy.”

“I agree.” How strange to be relieved we were dealing with the Scythe. I sighed. “There’s another thing, Quill. Lucius is good with faces, even if Bel didn’t tell him, he probably knows me. Back in Dalyn, he recognized Namal at the Midwinter Festival. He also apparently never did anything with that information since there aren’t detailed wanted posters for Namal everywhere.”

Arching a brow, Quill asked, “Are you saying you don’t want him rotting in a dungeon?”

“Capture is a professional hazard,” I allowed.

Quill’s brow climbed higher. “But.”

“But one good turn deserves another?” I rubbed my temples and was momentarily pleased that I could without smearing anything. “I don’t know.”

“We’re not breaking him out,” said Quill, firmly. “I came here to build an alliance with Angareth and Terrimbir, myself, and I am not going to undermine that.”

“Did you? Is that endorsed by your king? How fascinatingly proactive.”

“A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell, your Highness,” he replied, unfazed by my snark.

“Perhaps there simply hasn’t been enough kissing.”

“Undoubtedly. I’m at your disposal should you wish to conduct experiments.”

“Some other time,” my lips twisted in a smirk for a breath before I made myself return to the subject at hand. “I don’t know that there is anything we can do for him. I don’t see the kings being lenient under the circumstances. Though I suppose it’s possible the Imperial Ambassador will try to help him.”

“It’s possible,” agreed Quill. “We should go talk to him now, before kings and ambassadors have a chance to do anything irreversible.”

*

It didn’t take long for Quill to find an off-duty guard who knew him and was willing to detour to show us to the dungeons. I could hardly be surprised that Quill had put time and effort into building rapport with the royal guards. They were his people in a way that I didn’t have people.

I’d never been anywhere near the dungeons before. We’d crossed the river to the Palace of Domes, and from there went through the palace until we came to a long windowless corridor with two guards at the end of it.

Our guide left us with a smile and an exchange of jokes with the guards on duty. Quill and I found ourselves in a dark corridor, the only light from the lantern one of the guards carried. I paused, letting my senses adjust to the dim and the smell. It was the rank of unwashed bodies and chamber pots. Stone cells with iron bars and gates lined the walkway. Several were occupied, and some of the prisoners eyed us as we passed, but it was late, and most were sleeping on pallets. I felt my senses reaching out to them and reeled them back. I didn’t wish to know what my gifting would make of their souls. The corridor turned left, and the guard stopped a few cells down. His face went white in the pale lamplight. He began to fumble with the keys.

Quill and I came alongside him just as he got the door open and rushed in. He kicked at the straw and caught up the blanket on the pallet, shaking it vigorously.

“What’s wrong?” asked Quill, his tone suggesting he knew already.

“This was his cell,” said the guard, turning in a helpless circle. “He was in here when I came on shift.”

Quill stepped in and made a quick survey of the clearly empty corners of the cell. Straw. Pallet. Chamber pot. He tapped the stones of the wall as if he’d find a hidden passage. I moved back and looked in the cells on either side, the cells across the aisle…nothing.

Quill cursed softly.

Lucius Tene was gone.

*

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If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

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59- And Other True Things

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.

Alive.

Not crushed.

Not drowned.

Alive.

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.”

*

Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

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