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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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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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83-Scheme within Scheme

 

The second day after meeting with Mistress Cadenera, Trinh arrived at our little apartment and closeted himself in the office with Namal. My brother and I had just finished a couple hours of sparring in the desolate warehouse, and after I cleaned up I sat down at the top of the stairs to try to listen to the men’s discussion. Their voices were only a resonant hum with no definition. After a few minutes I gave up, brazenly walked down the stairs, grabbed my cloak and left. Namal saw me go but didn’t try to stop me.

I walked with my hood up, and a scarf swathed across half my face. A light coating of snow still covered everything but wasn’t enough to slow down the carriages on the streets. The sun was out, and the air was cold enough that I felt as though I glittered like the snow. A few blocks of bleak warehouses gave way to the stores and open-air markets of the shopping district. The markets were crowded. So close to the Midwinter Festival, everyone who had money to spend was out to prepare. It was the biggest festival of the year, as many spent the whole winter planning it. There would be parties all throughout the city, from the highest to the lowest. Entertainment often started early in the day, with musicians and dancing anywhere there was space big enough, and parties continued on into the night and even the morning following. Almost all the nobility and wealthy would start the evening at the palace for the King’s Ball, then later adjourn to parties at the surrounding homes. I wondered what would happen this year. After we interrupted.

The market bustled around me and I enjoyed how normal it felt…except for the fact that I was fairly certain I had never been alone on a city street before. Even with the circus I had always gone places with others. I spied Domjoa flirting with a pretty milliner and stopped by a cart of squash to watch. The squash vender was haggling with someone and paid me no mind as I lingered, watching the black-haired knave over the round vegetables. I wondered who Domjoa had been before becoming a master thief—where had he learned his manners? Was he a rich man’s bored son, or a noble blooded survivor like Quill?

The woman selected a broad brimmed hat and settled it on Domjoa’s head, clucking in admiration. Domjoa postured for a moment, to her delight, before she showed him a hand mirror and he took time to seriously evaluate the hat. This was hardly the weather for a broad brimmed hat, even if it looked like it was made of wool. He bought the hat but had the woman box it up for him. I shook my head and peeled away to follow him just as the squash vender was starting to notice me.

Domjoa stopped at several venders, sometimes buying, sometimes not. He steered clear of the guardsmen who happened through the market on patrol. I took the time to practice being inconspicuous. Jemin would have been proud of me slipping through the crowd and examining wares like someone bored and waiting for someone else. Eventually, Domjoa entered a clothier with a display of ball gowns in the window. I paused at a cart of sweets in sight of the door. I really had no particular reason to follow Domjoa, or to hide from him. I walked up the steps and into the store. Inside, there were a handful of gowns and men’s clothes on display, but mostly the room was tables lined with bolts of fabric of all colors and textures. At the back, there were tall mirrors and a little platform, for fittings. A pair of decorative screens cordoned off the back corners and a long counter graced one wall. A young girl sat behind the counter, her hands full of some dark material she was stitching. An apprentice, most likely. A reedy little man was fussing over a gown on a dress form by the mirrors. I couldn’t see Domjoa.

The apprentice looked up, “Good afternoon, miss. What can we do for you?”

I smiled and approached the counter, wishing I could order a gown or set of clothes or something. It looked like they did excellent work. “I was looking for my friend, a tall man with black hair? I thought I saw him come in here?”

The apprentice’s expression remained warm, but something shifted in her manner. “Black hair?” she asked, setting down her sewing, “I’m not sure if we have had anyone like that in here today.”

The reedy tailor had stilled.

“Oh,” my suspicion thoroughly aroused, I filled my voice with disappointment. “Well, would you mind if I browsed your fabrics?”

“Of course not,” the apprentice smiled. Relieved? “Please, look, my name is Rading if you have any questions.”

“Thank you.” I moved off slowly, taking my time to examine every brocade, silk, cotton and wool to admire the weave, sheen or color. The tailor and apprentice appeared to relax as I browsed, not caring that I made my way closer to the screens at the back of the store. When I reached the end of the tables I slipped behind the screen. As suspected, it was a changing area, with a couple chairs and a clothing rack. A long mirror stood cock eyed from the wall, and I blinked at it for a second before I realized it was a door standing ajar. I stepped forward and eased the mirrored door open enough for me to peer through. A second dressing room opened up before me, and my heart stammered as I saw a man in a black uniform with a black dragon curling across the chest.  A heartbeat later I recognized Domjoa.

My daggers came out almost of their own volition as I stepped in and closed the door behind me. Domjoa looked up and our eyes met in the mirror. Surprise flashed across his face before he smiled. “Your highness, I did not expect to see you here.”

“Explain this.” I let my gaze rake down his body.

“It’s a little side project,” replied the thief, dismissively.

“Side project?”

“Yes,” Domjoa straightened the already straight jacket and fussed with the collar before again admiring himself in the mirror.

“Explain, or I will get blood on your new suit.”

He met my eyes again, this time noticing the violence in them. “It’s nothing that will harm your little scheme.”

I tilted my chin down. Not enough.

With a heavy sigh, the thief continued. “I am not required at the ball, utterly useless in a fight. So, I’ve thought of something productive to do while I wait.”

I waited.

Domjoa shifted, “Narya Magnifique is a monster, and she is incredibly rich and has some of the finest jewels this side of Kelphas. She is obviously going to bring some to wear while she’s here.” Domjoa spread his hands, “I’m going to steal them.”

I should not have been surprised, but for a moment I stared mutely at the thief before throwing my hands in the air, “Domjoa!”

Stepping away from the knives still in my hands, Domjoa said “Don’t shout!”

I sheathed Shiharr and Azzad, readjusting my warm cloak overtop, still glaring at my thief. “Firstly, those jewels will belong to my family or the Kegan’s if we succeed in our mission. Secondly, don’t you think we have enough going on that night?”

“That’s what’s so perfect about this,” replied Domjoa, “No one will be the slightest bit worried about the Queen’s jewels.”

“Domjoa, you’re stealing from me,” I put my hands on my hips.

He held up a finger, “I really don’t see it that way.”

“If you get yourself caught and jeopardize our plans…”

“I won’t be caught,” broke in the thief, “and even if I was, your plans would already be underway. When you succeed, you can set me free at your leisure.”

I shook my head. Domjoa waited a moment before turning again to face the mirror. I watched him adjust the collar, then bend his body this way and that, trying the flexibility of the outfit. I wondered if ordering him to stay would have any affect. It seemed so unlikely that I was too proud to try. “Do you know for a fact this is what her guard’s wear?”

“I do,” Domjoa looked down at himself. “I have connections.”

“Could we get more of these?”

“No.” His tone was firm. “It was a great risk getting this one. You do not want to know what I’m paying the tailor. Additionally, we haven’t the time.”

A knock sounded at the mirrored door, I spun to see the tailor poking his head in. Chagrin spread over his face at the sight of me in his secret dressing room, “Master Domjoa, I apologize for this intrusion,” he pointed at me with his chin.

“It’s alright, Hardy,” replied Domjoa, “She’s one of mine.”

I shot Domjoa a dark look, and he winked.

The tailor nodded. “Is everything to your liking?”

“Yes, it is. You’ve outdone yourself.”

The tailor nodded again, casting a critical eye up and down Domjoa’s dashing figure. “I agree,” he said, without emotion. “Is there anything else?”

“No, thank you.” Domjoa sent him a charming smile, which was ignored as the tailor disappeared back into his shop. The thief turned to me, “Was there anything else, your highness?”

I crossed my arms. “Would you like me to leave?”

“I would like to change out of these clothes.”

I swiveled on my heel and marched out the door after the tailor. I didn’t bother sticking around in the shop, instead slipping into the streets and eventually making my way back to the apartment.