73-Belle of the Party


Khattmali was the perfect hostess. She put her arm through mine and led me from group to group, presenting me as only a socialite could. People who had never spoken two words to me out in the halls were now all smiles and bows. As if they hadn’t been painting me with disdain whenever they glimpsed me for the past few months.

Courtly parties had been just another pleasant memory of my pre-siege childhood. Now, facing a roomful of beautiful vipers, I felt that I must have always hated court life. Hated it. Perfectly and completely.

“How do you do, Miss Meredithe?”

“So pleased to meet you, Miss Meredithe.”

“Enchanted, Miss Meredithe.”

I smiled, blushed, and curtsied with just a touch of unpolished bounce. I also invented new curse words in my head. There were more men than women at this party. Most of them thirty or younger, though there were a few older. When Khattmali ran out of people, I realized that I hadn’t retained a single name, and had glazed over most of the faces, too. I started angling for the wing chairs near the fire, but Khattmali steered me toward the couch instead.

I accepted a tea cup from a passing servant and settled onto the couch, Khattmali beside me.

She lifted a jeweled hand, “Bel, darling, come sit with us!”

A good looking young man in a fine white shirt under a navy doublet redirected his path to sit in the chair across from us. He smiled, the expression brightening his face so much that I thought it might be a real smile. “My name is Lord Belledi Valredes,” he bowed slightly to me as he sat, his eyes sparkling in a way that made me think we’d just been introduced but he’d seen the utterly blank look in my face.

Valredes…one of the older families to survive the fall. “Analie Meredithe,” I said, narrowly keeping myself from offering him my hand like a princess. I made an effort to mark his features: High cheek bones, brown eyes. Short brown hair. Broad shoulders that hinted at active pass times. His coat had the faint shimmer of silk, and a gold brooch in the shape of a leaping fish sat over his heart.

He kissed my fingers and sat back in the chair. “How have you found the palace, Miss Meredithe?”

“It’s lovely,” I said. “Just…really beautiful.”

“I’m sorry we haven’t met before now, for surely the palace is made even more beautiful by your presence.”

I looked down demurely to keep from rolling my eyes.

“Bel, you charmer,” said Khattmali with a light laugh. “Oh, Lucius, come here!” she beckoned to another young man even as she stood up. “Keep Miss Meredithe company for me, I must greet the other guests.”

I thought it was a thin excuse, even if new people had just entered the chambers. How many people had she invited to this luncheon?

Lucius had blonde hair, and he smiled as he kissed Khattmali’s hand before taking her place next to me on the couch. “Miss Meredithe,” he flashed the same smile at me. “Lord Lucian Tene. I hope you won’t be too bothered by our company.” His doublet was a pale blue that intensified the blondeness of his hair and the blueness of his eyes.

“Oh, not at all!” I said quickly, wrapping my hands around my tea cup as I watched Khattmali disappear into the crowd. It was happy coincidence, that an irritated and sulking princess could so easily pass for a shy and overwhelmed common girl.

“The Ambassador told me your father is a spice merchant,” said Lucius, “She failed to mention that you were stunning, though.”

I blushed. “You’re too kind.” And I could easily take you in a fight.

“I heard that your family was rescued by the King’s men after being robbed on the road,” added Bel, leaning his elbows on his knees and taking a sip of his wine. “That must have been terrifying. I’m so sorry you had to experience that.”

“Yes, it was awful—I’m so grateful to the men who rescued us, I can’t even imagine what would have happened if they had not come along.” I kept my eyes wide and earnest.

“Bel,” Lucius interjected, “This is a party, don’t remind the lady of such things.”

“My apologies,” Bel dipped his head, apologetic.

“It’s alright,” I assured him. “Much good came out of it.” I flicked my lashes down. Love makes you stupid. I tried to imagine being in love, but instead thought of throwing a pillow at Tarr’s head. My neck heated, which worked well enough.

“Have you ever been to a party like this before?” Lucius asked.

“Yes—well,” I hemmed, “I’ve been to large parties—just not with so many lords and ladies, of course. And not in the palace.”

“The Ambassador means well,” said Bel, kindly. “Though I fear a party of this size might not have been the kindest way to introduce you to people.”

I titled my head, uncertain what to make of even the gentlest criticism of Khattmali. Also, uncertain if he actually believed she meant well.

“Though, we’re certainly glad to meet you at long last,” said Lucius, leaning back and lifting a hand to wave over a servant carrying a decanter. “The palace is much improved by your presence. And I believe your brother is here, also?”

I didn’t want to talk about my family. “He is, yes. But he’s often out working the family business. It pleases the King for him to continue on restoring trade.” In the economy your High Queen shattered. I looked at Bel, “Lord Valredes…your family owns half the fishing boats, doesn’t it?”

“We do, yes,” he nodded, “Please call me Bel, Lord Valredes is my father.”

“Bel,” I smiled at him. I almost asked how they were affected by the purging of the nymphs but thought better of it just in time. I also almost asked how in Serrifis he’d managed to keep his parents through the fall, but I knew the answer to that already thanks to Quill and Tarr preparing me for this luncheon. Some hadn’t been given a choice to bow to the new Queen; Yet others had, and most took it after watching the executions and rituals.

Bel continued, “Lucius’s family owns hundreds of acres along the Market Road.”

“It’s a spectacular amount of work, but has some excellent soil and beautiful views,” said Lucius.

“Sounds wonderful,” I took a sip from my tea.

72- Armor

I was delirious with exhaustion by the time Namal and I made it back to the palace. It was a long walk to start with, but add in avoiding patrols and making certain we weren’t followed and it became a lengthy, predawn walking tour of the city. One of the royal guard, one we’d traveled with from Gillenwater, was waiting to bring us back through the tunnels to our chambers. Once I’d shucked that blasted armor I found Quill waiting in the sitting room to hear how our little meeting had gone. I told him everything and felt better for it. The sky was turning gray when I finally crawled into bed—after checking on the king who slept on the couch.

The sun woke me up hours later. I stared at the huge arching windows, feeling as if all the sand in Daisen were in my eyes and piled on my body, making it far too heavy to move. I had gotten used to sleeping at night. I liked sleeping at night.

The winter light was bright and cold, and I felt it wasn’t high enough in the sky for me to be awake yet. This wasn’t a fair exchange of hours. Perhaps I could close my eyes again and convince the bone crushing weariness to leave. Something moved in my peripheral, I turned my head to see Hesperide laying out a deep burgundy gown. With a groan, I rolled over and buried my face in the pillow.

“Good morning, my little owl,” I could hear the smile in Hesperide’s voice.

I lifted my head enough to squint at her. “Is it good?”

“It is good that it’s still morning, because you have that luncheon today.”

Right. I rolled onto my back and starred at the gilded ceiling.  Khattmali hadn’t wasted any time pulling together a little lunch party to introduce Analie to people. Everyone was unhappy about me mingling with the nobility, but short of faking illness I didn’t know how to get out of it. I had been a small child the last time I’d been to Dalyn, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would recognize me. The Midwinter Ball was mere weeks away and I was certain Khattmali wanted me out of the King’s bed by then. Did a second visit make poison more or less likely? What hideous thing would she tell me about Tarr today? I rubbed my hands across my eyes and tried to reconcile myself to being up. “Next time I’m impersonating someone of higher rank, so I can say no to more people.”

Hesperide snorted. “The King is out already, and your bath is ready for you,” she headed back into the closet and returned with a couple pairs of slippers, which she then set next to the gown and eyed critically. “You should probably get started on that.”

A bath made getting up more tolerable. Mostly because it bore so many similarities to staying bed with the added perk of being in water. Hesperide yelled through the washroom door at least twice to hurry me along. Finally, I presented myself to her, clean, dry, and un-striped, and she helped me get into the gown. It was a different look than the others, the long skirt a separate piece from the fitted brocade bodice that buttoned down the front. The embroidery of the brocade had a metallic blue sheen that caught the light. A collar swooped down into a flattering point that showed off the gold necklace which hung around my neck. Another gift from the king. I touched the pendant—a gold disc imprinted with ships traveling in the gilded circle of trade. He’d tried to give me a sapphire surrounded by a river of gold, but I’d argued that giving a mistress jewelry that mimicked his seal did, perhaps, send too strong a message. I found Hesperide’s eyes in the mirror.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I feel like this is really yours,” I tapped the necklace before letting my hands drop into my lap.

“Ah,” she was braiding my hair, but she freed a hand to reach forward and tap my heart. “This is what’s mine of his. You, and that,” she looked at the reflection of the pendant, “Are armor to protect us. They are all armor.”

I started to nod, but couldn’t with her grip on my hair. I tried a grim smile instead.

“Be careful with Khattmali today,” Hesperide returned to braiding. “She got Tarr drunk last night after dinner, but he didn’t even try to kiss her. In her ideal world, she’d drive him so mad with desire that he’ll think her proposition of marriage is wonderful—or, even better, he’ll come up with the idea himself.”

“I know, I know…I’m in the way.”

Hesperide nodded, “After so many failures in recent months, I suspect the ambassador is eager to have a success to show her mistress when she arrives for the ball.  It’s becoming an urgent need.” Finished with the braid she began to coil it on my head, pinning as she went.

It seemed a little unfair to have to deal with intrigue of this nature without any of the intoxicating feelings of being in love to give it dazzle. Then again, it had to be a miserable situation for the people in love, so I shouldn’t feel too left out. There was a distant look in Hesperide’s eyes and I wondered if she was thinking of a version of her life where she didn’t need decoy lovers to protect her life and the lives of her children. “How do you know all these things, anyway?” I asked.

“I’m a servant,” Hess scoffed, “Servants know everything.”

“Oh. I’d forgotten.”

“If you want to know what’s happening in a palace, befriend the cooks, or the washer women.” Hesperide stepped to the front and eyed my hair. She pursed her lips, plucked at a curl, then nodded to herself.

“Not the maidservants?” I asked.

“No,” Hesperide shook her head, turning to collect the remaining pins, “Too much politics there.”

I grunted. “I’ll steer clear, then.”

“Wise.” She smiled at me as she left the room, “Jemin will be here soon to take you to the ambassador’s chambers.”

I thanked her and moved to the sitting room to pick up a book. There was a tray with tea, muffins, and a few pieces of fruit sitting by the fire and I happily dug into them with one hand—the other held the book. I was very hungry and hadn’t realized it. As I ate, I felt sleepiness returning to remind me that I’d been out most of the night.

When Jemin entered the sitting room, I jolted awake, book tumbling to the floor.

The burly royal guard was smiling. “Good morning, my lady.” He bowed slightly. “Are you ready to go?”

I straightened from being curled up in the wing chair and made a few faces, as if stretching and scrunching my face would wake it up more quickly. Blinking, I stood, and said primly, “Of course.” Then my lips quirked up in a dubious half smile, which Jemin rewarded with a matching one. Ready or not, it was time to go. There wasn’t anything either of us could do about it.

“Should you drink another cup of tea before we go?” asked Jemin, kindly.

I shrugged. “The ambassador has tea.” But I did pick up my cup and finish the last sip, now cold.

Jemin held the door open and then guided me to the ambassador’s chambers. The ambassador’s guards opened the door for me, and the sound of music and voices greeted me. The ambassador’s opulent chambers were even more spectacular today. Had she brought in more chandeliers? The crystal chandeliers cast splintered gold light and occasional rainbows everywhere through the main room. The windows were open, making up for the monstrous fire in the fireplace and the heat from the thirty men and women milling about in beautiful clothes. A few tables sat about, laden with meats, breads and fruits, and gray-clad servants bustled here and there carrying tea pots and decanters to ensure that no one saw the bottom of their cups. Four musicians sat in a corner playing stringed instruments.

Khattmali was in the center of it all, resplendent in a blue gown with a neckline that swooped deeply from one shoulder to the other, showing off both her skin and the layers of sparkling jewelry. She saw me immediately and came to greet me with a sweet smile on her face. As if greeting a favorite pet. “Analie! Darling! I’m so glad you’re here. I have so many people I want you to meet.”

Dear heaven.

71-Lamp in the Night


The warehouse smelled like fish and fresh water. Huge empty crates sat in rows awaiting the morning’s catch, though no catch had come for weeks. I was perched on top of a desolate crate, swathed in a fur lined cloak, watching shadowy figures arrive by ones and twos, and listening to the siren call of the river.  Most of Dalyn’s fishermen had been nymphs, and they had been everyone’s first thought when the Nether Queen’s order had come. Most had fled, and those who hadn’t were caught or in hiding. Winter deadened the blow to the economy, and the king had seized and consolidated many of the icehouses and their contents. Time would fill the demand for more fishermen, but for now everyone was too frightened to go near the wharves, with their checkpoints and patrols, if they didn’t have to.

Namal stood in front of me, also cloaked and hooded, arms crossed, a dark looming figure against the small lantern on the floor. Under the cloaks, we were in our black leather armor—Tarr had commissioned an entire new set for me with chain link sewn inside. When I’d protested the weight, he’d given me a withering look and made a comment about only pretending to be a vengeful ghost. I’d worn the armor a couple hours a day for the past three days in an effort to get used to it. I still felt like I tired quickly, and I was more than happy to sit behind Namal and watch people arrive. These were the people he’d spent the last two months talking to. The people who helped him get people out of the city. Mostly men, and mostly dock workers of various social strata. There were a few people from other trades, and at least one or two very fine cloaks in the mix.

My eyes wandered over to Domjoa, the black-haired thief who had persuaded me to take some criminals in my jailbreak. He was standing nearby, silent and cloaked. He was clean-shaven now, and had lost the pallor of prison. I guessed he was in his thirties, and must have been a successful thief, because under that cloak were clothes just as fine at the King’s. According to Namal, Domjoa helped them choose a warehouse, and had generally been quite helpful when it came to finding places to hide or stage. He had, after all, found a safehouse for us the very first night, outside of which I’d collapsed in a heap. He’d bowed and kissed my hand when I arrived with Namal, “Your Highness, it’s good to see you out and about.”

“It’s good to be out,” I replied, meaning it. “I trust you have been well, and well behaved.”

He’d smiled, looking positively dashing, and bowed again. “Of course, your Highness.”

I wondered how many people he’d robbed since I’d released him. But I thought it was significant that neither Domjoa, nor Moonie the horse thief, Haystack the vandal, nor Shayn the murderer, had fled. Namal grumbled that he wished they had. But they were with the rest of my men—the ones from Gillenwater who owed me their lives—stationed around the perimeter of the warehouse, keeping watch. They were a comfort, ironically, considering that just a couple months ago we’d been trying to kill them. But Namal and I had come alone from the palace, and it felt strange to be out without Quill or Jemin nearby.

Trinh arrived, slipping in to my right and lingering in the darkness with a couple of his men. According to Tarr, eight knights had awoken with Trinh, and none of them had aged since the day Shyr Valla disappeared. I’d never seen them before, and tried to get a good look at them without openly staring. They stayed too far from the sad pool of lantern light for me to learn anything interesting.

Another shadow moved into the circle of lamplight with the grace of a dancer. I jumped off the crate and turned quite a few heads as I bounded into the arms of Ayglos.

Ayglos grunted at the impact, but laughed softly as he wrapped his arms around me. “Hey, Little Zare.”

Armor doesn’t make for the warmest hug, but I didn’t care. I grinned. I hadn’t seen Ayglos—or the rest of the family—since coming into the city. I was happier than I could have imagined to have my accomplice brother back for a couple hours. Ayglos held me at arm’s length and we inspected one another. He looked good, dressed in black armor exactly like Namal’s, with the albatross emblazoned across the chest. His muscles were hard, and the armor was not pristine. He had been busy, spiriting Nadine around the surrounding towns to do small good deeds in the night and spread the rumor of the ghostly armored girl who might be Nelia of Legend. Or who might be an heir of Galhara. . “You look good,” I said.

“So do you,” he rapped his knuckles on my pauldrons. “New armor?”

Namal intervened, clasping Ayglos’s arm in greeting before motioning us back to the spot behind the lantern. Now was not the time to catch up. We settled in place flanking him, leaning against the empty crates. I wondered if Namal had told Ayglos about my injuries or not. They had seen each other at least once since the jail break.

Namal stayed in the light of the lantern and addressed the small crowd grouped in its penumbra. “Friends, thank you for coming tonight. I’ve gathered you because we all share a common interest in protecting the innocent, and the future of Dalyn.” He paused, “I wanted to tell you about an opportunity which is before us: The Nether Queen will be coming to Dalyn for the Midwinter Ball.”

Silence stretched a few heartbeats too long before one of the men coughed. “What?”

Air released, another said, “She’s coming to crush us.”

“We’ll hide.”

Namal held up a hand to stop the fear from mounting. “She has undoubtedly decided that it’s time for a show of force, to remind Dalyn why she is Queen.”

“What kind of show of force?” someone asked.

“She’ll wipe us off the earth like she did to Shyr Valla.”

“Stop,” Namal’s voice was sharp, and powerful. I was glad it was not directed at me. “If she intended to wipe Dalyn off the map, she would have six years ago. She needs this city. This is an opportunity. For us. She will be more vulnerable on this journey than she is in her palace. She will leave her stronghold at Hirhel and travel through the mountains to the river,” Namal continued, “then she will board a barge and come straight to our shores. We have an opportunity to take the head off the snake and see what becomes of her empire.”

“Fat lot of good it will do to be rid of the High Queen when we still have her lackey, King Nymph’s Bane,” grunted one of the dock men. “What’s to save us from him?”

I cringed.

“He will be no trouble,” Trinh stepped into the light of the lantern, tossing back his hood, causing the gathered to gasp and recoil. He’d not been to any of these meetings of Namal’s, though a few of those present had heard Namal speak of the returned prince. Trinh, grim faced, with burning blue eyes and broad shoulders, filled the space with his presence. And looked so much like his brother.

For a moment, I feared they would mistake him for Tarr and tear him to pieces.

If they could, that is.

I needn’t have worried.

“By Fornern…Trinh Kegan!” said a gray-haired man with nicer clothing.

“How is this possible?” demanded another, a dock worker.

“You died!”

“Where have you been?”

“Is this a trick?”

“No trick,” growled Trinh. “I was laid low, but now I have returned and I will take back my city.”

Laid low was certainly one way of putting it. Simpler than explaining the truth. Less frightening, too.

“Prince Namal told me you were alive,” said the gray-haired man. “I did not really believe him—though perhaps I should have, since he also should not be alive.”

“The Queen’s conquest is not as thorough as she would have you believe,” said Namal dryly.

“Narya Magnifique is a tyrant and an oath-breaker,” Trinh’s voice filled the room. “She has long waged war for her own ends, seeking to conquer all eight cities and set herself up as empress over all of Daiesen Bay. And I opposed her.” He began to pace slowly around the lantern, his burning gaze sweeping over the faces, “Her taxes are severe, her brutality unacceptable, her armies a plague. Entire cities turned to rubble or enslaved, an entire race hunted without provocation. She seizes their riches for herself.” He paused, his chest heaved, his face filled with intensity. “There is blood in the Cathedral Square. And it’s spreading. Her influence corrupts everything that is good. Neighbor turns in neighbor for coin. Betrayal is the only thing to be trusted. Orphans are made, maidens are kidnapped, young men are beaten. Children are forced to watch their own parents killed. Slaughtered in profane rituals to whatever demon she worships.”

Suddenly he wasn’t talking about recent events anymore. I felt my heart pounding, drawn by his passion. His terrible, thrumming passion.

He continued, reining himself in. “The Queen won’t bring a full army to the Midwinter Ball, compared to Hirhel, she will be unprotected. This is our chance to end her reign. With your help, the cities will be free again.”