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68-Late Night Talking

 

It had no face, but It had seen me.

I wanted to run but there was a wall behind me covered in black feathers. Turning, I ran along the wall, even though It could see me. It was getting closer. No matter how hard I ran, I didn’t move faster. My legs slowed to molasses even as my heart thundered in desperation. It was close. I wasn’t going to be fast enough. I scrunched up my eyes. Eloi. I would not be caught. I would escape. It would not end this way. Eloi wouldn’t allow that, would he?

I jolted awake. My fingers clasped the hilts of my daggers and there was lightning in my veins. The dying fire cast a soft orange glow around the King’s bedroom. I was snug beneath the thick covers. Shiharr and Azzad held tight beneath the pillow. Sucking in a deep breath, I willed my heart to slow and my fingers to unwind. There was no blood. There was no monster. I was safe.

Then, I sensed movement. My grip tightened again before Tarr walked across my vision and dropped like a sack of flour onto his couch in front of the fireplace.

I almost drowned in relief. Just Tarr returning at last from his dinner with ministers. I hadn’t seen him since leaving him with Hesperide, and I’d gone to bed shortly after dinner with my brother. Tarr draped his arm over his face, obscuring his silhouette. Not ready to close my eyes again, I pushed back the covers and got to my feet. With a shiver I reached for the robe I’d left by the bed and slipped it on before walking to put another log on the fire.

“You were gone a long time,” I grabbed a blanket from the chair and came to the couch.

“So were you.”

“How as dinner?”

“Scintillating.” His eyes were closed under his arm, and he didn’t move when I spread the blanket over him. He’d changed into his night clothes, but hadn’t buttoned his shirt, put on a robe, or made any other move to stay warm. I could see the goosebumps on his exposed skin and clucked disapprovingly, tugging his shirt closed before tucking the blanket closer. After weeks of close quarters, I had finally stopped blushing because of Tarr’s winks and unbuttoned shirts. I had begun to think that his carelessness of dress and decorum was because he used up all his care dealing with his precarious kingship and had none left for other things. I also rather thought he wouldn’t mind catching his death of cold.

“Have you seen your brother since dinner?” Pushing his legs to one side, I perched on the edge of the couch. Ramrod straight due to my side.

One eye opened a slit, “Yes.”

I was afraid to ask, “He wasn’t…captured…was he?”

“No, he was not.”

Quill had assured us that the rightful king had been given a royal uniform for this precise purpose, and he would be sensible and go by the servant’s passages. But it wasn’t as though the uniform covered his face, and given the way he’d left I wasn’t sure he’d be thinking clearly enough to sneak. Now to the next question I dreaded.  “Did he…tell you about the…” I trailed off, unable to find a gentle way to say “murderous evil ritual performed in your mother’s sitting room.”

“He was as angry as I have ever seen him,” Tarr closed his eye again. “Perhaps even more angry than when word came that Narya was marching on Shyr Valla right after signing a peace treaty.” He let out a shuddering breath, and I could smell alcohol. “I’m grateful to you for cleaning it up. I could not bring myself to go back there.”

“You’re—wait …back?” When he didn’t answer, I plucked his sleeve. “Tarr…back?”

“Yes, back,” he moaned.

I feigned a huff in an effort to get him to look at me. “Here and I was worried about telling you what we’d found.”

Grimace twisting his face, he dropped his arm and opened his eyes. “Sorry,” he said dryly.

I studied Tarr for a moment, his blue eyes were fogged with exhaustion and possibly drink. An awful weight slipped around my shoulders. “You were there when she did it. You know who she killed there.”

Nothing sparked in his face. His eyes wandered to the fire, then he sighed. “As soon as the city was secure she gathered prominent nobles, myself, and my mother, to witness her homage to the fiend who granted her power. She made a grand speech, performed a weird ritual….and then she thanked it with the blood of my mother and her servants.”

“Oh, Tarr.”

He shook his head slightly, dropping his limp hand on my knee. “Stop. So you learned my mother was killed in her room instead of the Cathedral Square. It changes nothing.”

I picked up his hand, wanting to impart comfort without being irritating. And also, consumed with curiosity. “Did you see it? The fiend?”

His eyes were still on the fire. “I saw a rip in the air made of darkness,” he whispered. “And I felt darkness. Not darkness like night, or when a fire goes out—but darkness like your worst thought, your worst feeling.” A sigh shuddered out of him, “It’s not one of my fonder memories.”

I opened my mouth to say “I’m sorry,” but stopped myself.

“Trinh takes it all very personally. As if she picked that room just to spite him.” Tarr sounded so tired. “Maybe she did.”

“Doesn’t she think he’s dead?”

“Sure, but,” he twirled his fingers, “Haven’t you ever done something out of spite?”

“I suppose.”

“You know what I would do out of spite?” he raised his eyes to mine, the fire danced in them, “I would bury her in a casket lined with mirrors. So she would be able to watch herself decay into nothingness.”

I shuddered, “That’s…fair, I suppose. But what if she got out?”

“Heavens, I’d kill her first. I’m spiteful, not stupid.”

A wry smile tipped my lips upward.  “Does she hate mirrors very much?”

Tarr scoffed. “No, she adores gazing at her own beauty. I’m told there are mirrors in every room at Hirhel.”

“Have you ever been to Hirhel?”

“No,” Tar shifted deeper into the couch. “She didn’t start taking young royals to Hirhel until after I turned into a drunken embarrassment.” His lips twisted, “By the time she realized that having a fool for an vassal-king wasn’t always to her advantage it was a little late to form me after her own image—so she sent Khattmali. Spies must have told her I like brunettes—which—” he shrugged, “is true.”

I flicked his wrist.

“I’m actually not sure how much longer I can stall on that front—I don’t have a reputation for being restrained. Khattmali is doing everything in her power to be irresistible, it’s very difficult to cross her without showing how very much I despise her.”

“She wants to be queen?”

A dip of his chin. “Mercifully she knows I’m fickle and prone to moods. Analie Meredithe is a welcome distraction,” he draped his arm over his face again. “Except when I’m trying to sleep after a miserable day.”

I sighed and swiveled to face the fireplace. The crackling of the flames was the only other sound as Tarr’s breathing became deep and regular. “I wonder if we’ll have to fight a demon when we fight her.” I said the words aloud, though Tarr seemed asleep. He didn’t answer. “Does it possess her, do you think?” I asked. Still no answer. “Or did she just…convince it to help her? I wonder what she gave it.” A pause. “What does she want, anyway?”

“An empire,” Tarr’s mumble startled me. “and eternal youth. What else?” Leaving his arm across his face he reached his other hand blindly for my head, awkwardly attempting to push me against the back of the couch, “And I want to sleep.”

I batted his hand away, but stopped talking. Wrapping my arms around myself, I watched the fire creeping along the log in little orange curls until my eyes started to get heavy. Then I dragged myself back to the bed and crawled in.

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65 -Dark Gathers

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I blinked. “He’s…your son? But…Hess said…” I trailed off.

The rakish twinkle returned fully to the King’s eyes and he finished his tea, watching and waiting for me to understand.

A blush crept up my cheeks. “But that means, you and Hess…she’s your…are you still…?” I was far more flummoxed by this than I ought to be. Though, that did explain Naran’s red hair.

“Yes,” Tarr sat up and set his empty cup on the tray. “She is, and I’ve gotten to see much more of her than usual thanks to you.”

I shifted on the couch, trying to readjust my perception of Hesperide. I’d assumed he liked having her around because she was beautiful and kind—somehow her pregnancy had made me think that there was nothing else. An absolutely ridiculous assumption. I turned to Tarr with a start, “Does she think we—that you and I—like the rest of the palace does?”

Tarr gave me an amused look and tugged on his doublet. “You can ask her if you like.”

I stared at him, he couldn’t possibly mean that. “Tarr.”

The King met my eye for a moment then relented with a smirk, “She does not.”

I slumped with relief, and then cringed at the stiffness of my torso. “The baby is yours?”

He nodded, pride warming his features.

Quill returned from his circuit of the chambers the same moment Hesperide returned with a bottle of wine and a glass. They both relaxed a little as they noticed Tarr’s brighter mood. Quill paused behind one of the large chairs in the sitting room and Hesperide came to the couch. She set down the glass and started to pour wine but Tarr reached out. He snagged her hand and tugged her toward him. Hesperide started and stared at him in confusion.

“It’s alright,” he assured her, “Zare knows.”

Hesperide looked at me apologetically, and then allowed herself to be pulled into Tarr’s lap, his arms circled around her. I scooted away to make room for her knees. She snuggled closer to Tarr, settling one arm behind his neck and twining her other hand in his doublet. Tarr closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on her shoulder. A shudder ran through him, not unlike tremors of a wounded man receiving treatment for an awful injury. My insides cringed with foreboding. Hesperide felt the shudder and immediately looked over her shoulder at Quill, a question in her eyes. What had happened today?

The grim look returned to Quill’s handsome face, he gripped the back of the chair. “Thirty nymphs were executed in the Cathedral Square today.”

My stomach grew heavy.

Hesperide began to stroke Tarr’s face. “Oh, Tarr…” her voice was soft.

“Khattmali ordered it this morning; they were charged with attacking the Queen’s forces on the Cymerie River,” continued Quill.

“But they weren’t involved,” I whispered.

“That hardly matters to the Nether Queen.” Quill lifted a shoulder.

“Men and women. I couldn’t do anything to save them,” mumbled the King. “They begged. They all died because I could do nothing.”

Hesperide pulled him close.

“They died,” Quill’s voice was sharper than I’d ever heard it, “because the Nether Queen ordered a public execution to make the people think we’d caught the ones who defied her.”

Tarr didn’t answer.

“They are not the first, and won’t be the last,” Quill snapped. “Not until we can get out from under her.”

“Everyone is dying,” said Tarr, his voice dull.

Hesperide tossed a glance at Quill that said ‘let me handle this’ if ever a look did. Quill grimaced and turned to go. I rose to follow him, giving Tarr’s shoulder a pat as I went. Tarr had become my friend, but with Hesperide there I felt like an intruder. I was also pretty confident she could handle his despair much better than I could. The quiet of her face assured me I was right.

Quill saw me coming and waited for me at the door. “Where can I take you, my lady?” he said wearily.

I looked back at Hesperide and the king. She had taken his face in both her hands and was whispering something to him. “Anywhere you like.”

He followed my glance, his lips turned up wryly, but not enough to chase the sadness from his eyes. He looked back to me, evaluating my muddy dress. “Come on,” he pushed open the door and led the way out of the king’s chambers. The guards at the door saluted him as he passed. They didn’t even look at me.

We didn’t get far down the main corridor before Quill pulled aside a sweeping blue drapery to reveal a dim servant’s passage through the stone. The passageway was barely wide enough for Quill’s shoulders, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Jemin could even fit through these crannies. They weren’t meant for guards, or even food service beyond small plates. These passages were so staff could be ever present, ever invisible, and able to accomplish errands quickly. And indeed, Quill moved swiftly through the little maze and I, already tired from my trip to the kennels, was soon struggling to keep up. Sweat dripped down my back and I concentrated on breathing as I trundled after him, using my hands like another pair of legs propelling me along the walls.

It wasn’t until Quill darted into a side passage to avoid voices ahead that he looked back at me. One glance and worry painted itself across his face and he quickly closed the distance between us. He took my hands, brushing my hair off my sticky forehead and inspecting me. “You’re pale,” his voice was low as he bent close. My heartbeat quickened and I stood very still, finding it very hard to catch my breath with Quill standing so close. “Can you keep going?” he asked.

I nodded quickly. “Just, slower,” the words came out in a gasp.

He grimaced. Keeping hold of my hand, he led the way again, but at a much gentler pace. We took a couple more abrupt turns to avoid servants, and then we came to a narrow stair that smelled dusty and deserted. Quill hauled me up billions of stairs, until we came to a small landing with a window. The landing was only about four feet wide, but after the staircase it felt spacious. A bench sat under the window, and a door opposite. A tiny side table sat beside the bench. The stair continued on after the landing, but Quill directed me to the bench, I sank down gratefully.

He peered out the window for a moment before sitting beside me. “This is a servants’ alcove for what used to be the queen’s chambers. They have not seen use since the fall. We should not be disturbed or heard here.”

I leaned back against the wall, the cool of the stone felt good after our climb. “Thank you.”

Quill grunted, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “The king trusts you a great deal, he doesn’t let many people see him with Hesperide.”

Rolling my head on my neck, I frowned. “You mean, that they are lovers?”

Quill shook his head. “That they are equals. He’s had other women, but Hesperide is special—for a number of reasons.”

“She said something about being in love,” I stopped rolling my neck and leaned my head back against the wall. “She also doesn’t act like any of the servants I’ve met in the palace.”

“Yes, true,” Quill passed his hand over his face, “She is excellent at reading people, and has behaved more like the Hess I remember these past weeks than I have seen…” he trailed off.

The silence stretched for several minutes. I was vaguely aware that I should be feeling more—between the news of executions, my pending interview with the Nether Queen’s ambassador, and of course the curious hints about Hesperide. But I didn’t feel. I was just very, very tired.

Quill’s strained voice interrupted my weary musing, “One moment, I see Hess joking and teasing like when we were kids, and I cannot help but believe we will succeed. The next, I’m watching my king preside while innocent heads roll in the Cathedral Square.”

I looked at him. One hand still covered his face and his shoulders drooped. I was reminded of how he’d looked when we finally got him to Boitumelo’s tent, months ago now. A handsome ragdoll dropped on a bench and left in a desolate posture. Except now instead of black armor he was wearing the blue uniform of the guard.

He continued, “How have we not defeated her yet? How does she take what she wants with barely a fight?” He gestured limply with his free hand, “We have the King of Dalyn—both of them—shouldn’t they be able to just declare us free from her rule? Should not the army rally and push her authority out of the city?”

“The army she built?” I reminded gently. Dalyn had nothing after Shyr Valla fell. The garrison was full of men hired by Narya Magnifique.

“Ah, yes. Her army.” Quill straightened and unfastened the buttons at his throat before leaning against the wall.

“We’re working on building an army of our own,” I reached out and touched his shoulder, “Namal is in the city now meeting with people. You said yourself we have hope now. They will rally around Trinh.”

“Even if they do, history will not be kind to Tarr Kegan.” He paused, his face twisted, “The Nether Queen’s pawn.” He laughed hollowly. “Did he tell you we’re now offering a reward for the capture of nymphs? We’ve had forty souls turned in already and it’s only been a few days. We’re going to have to start building more prisons at this rate—Some have turned out to not be nymphs, and the King had them released. Small comfort.”

No one told me anything, it seemed. I closed my eyes. Tarr’s moodiness was completely justified.

“He gives Namal and Trinh all the information he can, and they save as many as they can before the King’s dragnet sweeps through. It’s like fighting a barn fire with one bucket. A barn fire you’re forced to stoke with your other hand.”

Tarr was the ultimate spy, playing a horrific role in an unreal drama. If he was discovered, he would die, and his efforts would be wasted. If he wasn’t discovered, he would be reviled by the people he strove hardest to protect. I straightened and looked into Quill’s eyes, “Then we just have to make sure we are the ones writing the history.”

He smiled, then. Just a small one. “These will be dark chapters.”

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that one job

That job we’ll always refer back to. It was exotic. It was risky. It was when we stopped lying to ourselves. It’s also when you made me wear that ridiculous dress. #hoopskirtjob

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Nelia of Legend

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

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57-Role: Persuade

 

No one stirred at my proclamation. Who could possibly be sleeping in the middle of the night? I gestured to Quill and he picked a cell and unlocked it. The scrape of metal elicited some shifting among the men stretched out on the stone floor. Quill held the barred door open and I stepped inside, pausing while he closed and locked it behind me, then approaching one of the sleeping forms. I prodded the man with my foot. His uniform was dirty, but when he rolled over I saw the rumpled black dragon of the Nether Queen.

He blinked in the lamp light. “Is it time?” he asked, wearily.

“Yes,” I replied.

Confusion filled his face. “You’re a woman.”

“How keen you are,” I said drily.

“Lady Khattmali?”

“No, I am not your hangman. I have come to offer you your lives.”

He rubbed his hand across his face. “What?”

“Wake up the others, I’m only going to explain once.”

He looked bewildered, but thwacked the man nearest him, who grunted in protest. “Someone’s here,” said the first, turning to kick another. “Hey, someone’s here.” Slowly, the prison filled with the sounds of sleepers groaning and cursing to wakefulness. I waited, breathing and willing peace and authority into my body. It had been my idea, but I still didn’t want to be here. We gathered more attention than just the four cells full of Gillenwater’s disgraced men, but that was alright. As long as no one saw Quill’s face we’d be fine. When I judged that most of the doomed detachment was awake, I asked, “Where is your officer?”

“I am their captain,” a man in the back of my cell struggled stiffly to his feet and I turned to him. He was chained to the wall, unlike the others, and his face was bruised and bloodied. All the men in the cells were suffering from prison-hair and a couple weeks without shaving…or bathing, for that matter. I imagined this man was probably in his thirties and not horrible to look at when he was clean and his face wasn’t mottled purple.

“You will all be killed in the morning by order of Narya Magnific.”

“We know that.”

“I’m not overly fond of any of you, given your treatment of my family,” I let venom fill the words easily enough, “But while the Nether Queen wants to stop the rumors of the Galhirim, I don’t.” I tossed back my hood and shook my curls free, letting the light from Quill’s lantern illuminate the likeness they all knew so well from weeks on the road with my sister. I turned to make sure that all four cells got a good look.

The men stared at me with wide eyes.

“You!” said one of the men in the next cell.

It was the man who’d tackled me in the woods by the Cymerie. I looked directly at him, my eyes cold, and tilted my head to one side, “Didn’t I tell you I was your last prisoner?”

He blanched.

Raising my voice, I continued, “I want the rumors of the Galhirim to grow,” I drifted my gaze around the cells, lingering on any man who met my eye. “So, I give you a choice: Swear fealty to the Galhirim, and I will do everything in my power to get you out of Dalyn safely.” I paused.  “Or, you can stay here and die.”

Silence swallowed long seconds before one man protested, “Fealty? What about Gillenwater?”

I bit back a snort. Barely. “Right now, you serve your oppressor, not your city. I would see all the cities freed. But if you want an assurance; when the Nether Queen is defeated, your debt to me is paid and you may return your troth to your city.”

The captain crossed his arms. “What’s to stop us from overpowering you here and trading you for our lives?”

That had been Namal’s objection, too. I shrugged one shoulder, hopefully emoting complete unconcern, “Then my guard will kill each of you like fish in a barrel.”

All eyes shifted to the hooded and silent figure at my back.

“How will you get us out?” asked the first protestor.

“They know who we are,” said another, “we can’t go home.”

“We’d never get out of here alive,” scoffed a third.

“You’re right. You can’t go home. With the Nether Queen in power you will never go home. Come fight with me and there is a chance you someday might.” I leveled my gaze on the captain, “What say you?”

Their captain regarded me for a moment before saying, “A chance is better than nothing.”

Tension released in my chest. “Swear fealty to me.”

He hesitated. Then, collecting himself, he met my eye, “In sight of Eloi, I swear my loyalty to the Galhirim.”

Stepping back to the door, I extended my hand to Quill. He handed me a key and I walked through the men—most of whom were still sitting—to the captain.

I stopped in front of him and held aloft the key. “Know that if you break this oath and betray me—even if the Nether Queen somehow spares your life—Eloi will know what you have done. And,” I added darkly, “my brothers will find you.” Then I crouched and unlocked his shackles.

As soon as he was free, he stepped away and bowed. “Princess.” Then he surveyed the men under his command. “Make your choice,” he said gruffly.

Shuffling sounds filled the prison as the men around us got to their feet. I moved to the door of the cell. Quill allowed the captain to step out, then I planted myself in the doorway. The men approached hesitantly. The man I had first awoken came first, bowed, then made the same pledge the captain had made. Then they came one after another, each making the same pledge before I would let him step out into the aisle. It was exhausting. I stared each man in the face as he pledged, holding my chin high and trying to read their souls. Some were more sincere than others. Some admired me. Others did not. They were all grim. When they stepped past me, Quill took over. I heard him behind me, his voice deeper than I remembered as he gave terse instructions to my new soldiers.

We had just finished emptying all four cells when one of the other prisoners, not one of the men from Gillenwater, piped up. “Hey! What about us?”

I felt Quill stiffen even as he gave the last soldier an order. I looked over at the speaker. He was a lanky man, utterly disheveled with a long scrappy black beard that testified to months in prison. He leaned on the bars as if he were in a tavern, not a prison. Stepping closer I asked, “Why are you in prison?”

The man smiled, “Lots of reasons.” He straightened and pointed at one of the others in his cell, “I’m a master thief. Shayn killed a guard, Haystack vandalized a statue, Moonie stole a horse or six.” He swiveled back to me, still smiling. “And that’s just my cell. There are a few others down here I haven’t had the pleasure of making acquaintance.”

I arched a brow. “Why should I release the likes of you? You had better talk fast. I don’t have a lot of time.”

His smiled faded and he stepped close to the bars again. “You’re starting a rebellion, right? I should think you’d need as many men on your side as you can get. We’re smart—well, some of us are—and able bodied.  Most of us don’t expect release anytime soon—if ever.  We have very little to lose by following you, and a lot to gain–potentially.”

“You must swear fealty to me,” I replied coldly. “And do not think that freedom from this cell means you can do whatever you like. If you leave this prison, your life is mine to direct. If you betray or desert me, it will be better for you to have stayed here.” I could sense the disapproval rolling off Quill and could only imagine what Namal’s reaction would be.

The scrappy man inclined his head, “A chance is better than none.”

“Very well.” I stepped forward, my eyes boring into him. “Swear.”

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No Trace

Spring is such a time of travel madness it puts a serious damper on writing time and energy. Zare will return as soon as I can manage! In the meantime, I’ve done a little painting. Not, you know, a LOT, since I’ve been rather busy, but a little!

I’m not sure this piece is done, but it’s Trinh approaching the spot where Shyr Valla, the Eighth City, used to be. Trinh is actually one of my favorite characters in the big story. The big story, of which River Rebellion is only the beginning.

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Trinh approaches Shyr Valla…or what should be Shyr Valla
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55-Trinh

 

I was next to the King now, and stopped as if I’d been struck. “All of them?”

“She hasn’t done anything like this since she hunted down the most loyal and the seers. It’s been taxes, monuments, rules and favors…people died undeserved deaths but they weren’t hunted like rabbits.”

“There must be hundreds of nymphs in Dalyn,” I said, still disbelieving.

“For generations, the River Folk have been part of the kingdom and commerce of Dalyn. A few hundred souls out of ten thousand…but a few hundred innocent souls in cold blood. A few hundred souls I should protect.” He kicked the grate in front of the fire, I flinched, then he continued, his voice hollow, “I was never going to be the figurehead of this rebellion, but I would have liked to have been a good king. Not remembered as Narya’s pawn.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. Not the figurehead? He was King. Who else would be the figurehead?

“I have to give the order, Zare,” Tarr finally looked at me, pleading, “If I do not, Khattmali will. They will all die brutally, and many in my household will die with them for my insurrection. I do not have the men to resist her, not yet.” His blue eyes were unguarded and radiating pain

I saw another fear in his eyes and whispered it, “And how will they trust you after you have done this?”

Tarr turned back the fire and looked at it as if he might crawl into it. “It’s alright, they don’t have to.” His voice was quiet and I realized suddenly that the Galhirim—that the ghostly girl claiming to be Nelia of legend—was the figurehead for this rebellion.

The thundering in my blood quieted into a smooth and deadly current. I reached out and peeled one of the King’s hands off the mantel then tugged him toward the couch. I perched on the edge and pulled him down next to me, still holding his hand. An idea was forming. It was probably an awful idea. I looked to Quill, he was already watching me as if he could sense what I was thinking.

Before I could say anything, however, a knocking pattern sounded on the secret door. The panel of the wall slipped aside and a man stepped in, followed by a palace guard. Quill and Jemin both bowed, and Tarr turned his head. I stared at the newcomer in shock: He was dressed in dark clothes of fine make, and was wearing a sword. He had blue eyes, light brown hair tipped with copper, and his face…was just like Tarr’s. He stopped short when he noticed me sitting with the King.

“Your Highness,” said Tarr, squeezing my hand. “I would like you to meet my brother, Trinh Kegan, King of Dalyn.”

I should’ve stood up and curtsied, but I sat and stared. Trinh looked a little taken aback himself, but he bowed slightly, “Princess Zare, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I wasn’t expecting you to be here tonight.” He gave his brother a sharp glance.

“Your army disappeared,” I said. “You disappeared.”

Trinh grimaced.

“You rode away and never returned.” I cast a sharp look of my own at Tarr, letting go of his hand, “My father was the only conquered king not personally killed by the Nether Queen.”

“That’s still true,” said Tarr, “It’s a long story.”

“I’m listening,” I growled.

Trinh came around to the front of the couch and Quill brought the chair from the desk for him. “It’s not a story I intended to be telling tonight,” Trinh gave his brother another hard look as he sat down. “We have more pressing matters.”

I was astonished at the sight of a long dead prince, and I was angry at him for being alive while Dalyn fell. He also looked so much like Tarr they could have been twins, though I knew that Trinh was several years older. “Give me the short version,” my tone was tart.

The brothers looked at one another, Trinh was irritated and Tarr was not sorry. My hearted warmed toward him a little. “The Galhirim deserve to know,” stated Tarr, coolly.

Trinh tipped his head and turned to me. “The short version is that I rode out at the head of the army to succor Shyr Valla, which was again under siege by the armies of Hirhel. When we arrived, the armies had withdrawn, leaving an empty camp before the city walls. Fearing something was afoot, I sent scouts into the hills, and myself turned back toward Dalyn with eight of my knights. We were thrown to the ground by wave of power that swept through the forest like a mighty wind. When we got up, we rode hard for Shyr Valla—for that’s whence the power flowed—we found no trace of our army, the camp, or the city. In dismay we turned back to Dalyn. By the mercy of Eloi we met a peddler on the road who told us that Narya had conquered Dalyn and Tarr had been her vassal king for six years.” Here Trinh paused and shook his head, while I tried to grasp what he’d just said. “So I did not ride through the city gates in my golden armor, but snuck in by ways known only to my family and sought to learn where my brother’s loyalties truly lay.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “You were knocked down…and six years passed?”

“Essentially,” replied Trinh.

“But how?”

“I don’t know, it wasn’t my doing.”

“My brother gave me quite a scare when he showed up,” cut in Tarr, picking up my hand again, a gesture of comfort. “I naturally assumed he was a ghost—not only did he look just as I remembered him, but he got past my guards.”

Quill cleared his throat, “He did not sneak past your guards, your Majesty, he convinced them.”

“She stopped time,” I whispered, remembering my first audience with Tarr Kegan.

“She is a petty and jealous human being,” there was a snarl of derision in Trinh’s voice that reminded me that he was perhaps the only living general who had defeated the Nether Queen in battle. I thought of my brothers’ skepticism and looked at Trinh and Tarr closely. Now that I studied, Trinh did look a touch older than Tarr, but certainly not by the ten-year margin he should have been. Either Trinh’s fantastic story was true, or the Tarr had gone through a great deal of trouble to find a look alike. But to what end? What could he possibly gain from such a bizarre story?

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53-Messages

Three weeks passed pleasantly enough. I certainly didn’t mind having a hot bath every night, and a seemingly endless supply of fine dresses. We snuck out to the gardens to spar in the mornings, then usually spent the afternoons lying low in our rooms or the library. Most of the time it was Quill and Vaudrin with us in the little house under the poplar trees, but sometimes one of them was on duty and Jemin filled in. Namal and I thrived under their instruction; besides grappling, we also practiced with swords, knives and staves. I was thrilled to be getting stronger again, having both good food and several hours of training time every day. It was good that we already insisted on bathing alone, however, as the bruises from our sparring would have certainly raised eyebrows.

We learned the way to and from the library on our own, though Namal still insisted that someone accompany me if he wasn’t going. I didn’t mind since I found Quill, Vaudrin and Jemin to be good company. There is nothing like a companion with whom you can sit in silence. This was especially important since, even though the library was generally deserted, we couldn’t very well talk about the Nether Queen or our pasts, and eventually the list of things you can’t discuss drowns out the things you can.

The atmosphere of the palace, overall, was not friendly. We avoided courtiers, and when we did encounter them I felt their looks drag down me with disdain so tangible I checked my dress the first time it happened. They had no doubt heard that the King had taken…interest…in a humble spice merchant’s daughter. I was an otherwise unimportant object of derision, and I did not enjoy it. I tried to focus on the fact that there was great safety in this perception, but that didn’t help as much as I hoped it would. The red-headed child who walked the young hounds was the only soul at the palace who was warm toward us, and we sometimes played with the hounds when we came upon him in the garden.

I did not see the King—though each morning another note arrived with his seal, bearing a sweetly worded invitation to join him for a few hours in the morning. I took to keeping these notes in a drawer, tied with a ribbon–figuring that’s what a girl in love would do. I knew Amantha had found them, and doubtless read them.

My father and Namal exchanged a few coded letters which covered the high points of the negotiations with Tarr and also dropped little tidbits about the family. Father was recovering from his wounds, Mother was doing well. Nadine and Ayglos were keeping themselves occupied. Which I hoped meant someone had worked out a way for them to spar in secret.  I didn’t press Namal for details, but I knew he’d met with Tarr at least once more to discuss strategy and alliance. It didn’t seem to be a question of friendship between our kingdoms, but more a dispute about how to move forward with subversion.

It was evening, and I was curled up in front of the fire in my rooms, finishing the epic poem I’d started the first day, when a knock came from my dressing room again. I didn’t lounge about without a robe anymore, so I looked up and called, “Come in.”

The door opened and Jemin stepped in. “Good evening,” he managed. “The King wishes an audience with you, in his chambers.”

“Alright,” I said slowly, surprised. I closed my book and rose. “Like this? Now?”

He nodded. He looked grim, and that made my stomach tighten.

“Alright,” I said again, moving uncertainly toward him. “Through the dressing room?”

“Yes, your Highness,” Jemin stepped aside and held the door for me as I walked into my dressing room. At the back of the room, part of the wall had swung back into a dark hallway. A lamp hung on a hook just inside the hallway. I stepped forward and Jemin followed, swinging the door closed behind us. He took the lamp off the hook and led the way down the hall. It was a narrow space, but I could stand and move comfortably. Jemin barely fit.

“Is something wrong?” I asked quietly.

“Ravens came from Hirhel today.”

I balked. Hirhel. The Nether Queen’s seat.

Jemin looked at me, “She has not discovered your hiding place,” he guessed my worst fears easily enough.

But it wasn’t good news. How could it be? The hall curved, and here and there other narrow passages opened up. After a while Jemin turned right and, then left, and then went up a narrow flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs was another door, on which he knocked a little pattern.

A bolt slid and the door opened, Jemin stepped in and offered me a hand. I accepted and with a deep breath crossed the threshold into the King’s chambers.

The door, disguised as a panel of the wall, slid closed behind us. The room itself was round, and it had with a vaulted ceiling. A huge four poster bed covered in rich blue covers was to the right. There was an ornate writing desk in the middle and a monstrous stone fireplace on the left. A long couch tossed with furs faced the fireplace.

The King was leaning both hands on the mantel and staring into the fire. He was wearing fine trousers, and an open collared white shirt that had clearly gone under a doublet of some sort. He looked as if he’d gotten distracted while getting ready for bed. Standing to the right of the fireplace, clearly intent on the King, but now looking at me, was Quill. Our eyes met, he dipped his chin.

“Your Majesty,” said Jemin, “Princess Zare is here.”

“Hello,” said King Tarr, not turning.

Hesitance wouldn’t accomplish anything, so I walked forward until I reached the couch. “Your Majesty.”

“They will all die tomorrow,” said Tarr, so quietly I almost didn’t hear him.

A chill shuddered through me. “Who?”

“The soldiers from Gillenwater who lost the King of Galhara.”

I actually wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Those soldiers hadn’t been the best to my family, and we had killed a few in the rescue…but still this was different.

“Narya is angry,” continued Tarr, “because even if the men from Gillenwater were wrong about who they caught, it’s sown doubt that her conquest was complete.” The King lifted his head, looking up at the empty wall above the fireplace. “So she ordered me to have them killed. Immediately.”

“Oh.” He’d have to give the order. I moved around the couch and ventured closer to him. He still hadn’t looked at me. My eyes flicked to Quill, his mouth was a thin line and the look in his face warned me there was more.

“She also,” the King’s voice strangled, then he continued, “wants the nymphs in the Dalyn and the surrounding towns rounded up for questioning and execution.”

Click here for Episode 54.

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48-Tarr Kegan

48- Tarr Kegan

 

The King? Here? Now? I could have throttled Quill. But instead, I put down the statuette, lifted the skirts of my nightie and curtsied as the handsome King emerged from my closet also in his night clothes. Dear heaven.

“Your Majesty,” I said, willing the flames off my cheeks.

“Your Highness.” He had a long blue robe—which he let hang open over his loose pants and half-open tunic as he bowed slightly in return. When he straightened, he gestured to the settee. “Please, sit with me.”

“Of course.”

He sat, or lolled, into the settee as if this was his sitting room—which, I suppose it was—and indicated for me to sit beside him. Dear heaven. I could play his game. I tucked one leg under me and lounged across the other half of the settee as if it belonged just as much to me as it did to him. I lazily combed my fingers through my hair and pretended I was wearing a fine silk gown rather than a nightie. I was going to slug Quill first chance I got.

“I must apologize for dinner last night,” said the King.

The sincerity in his voice surprised me into meeting his graze. I was doubly surprised to find nothing of the flirting idiot from the night before.

“And also,” he continued, his blue eyes grave, “for sneaking up on you like this. It is not the way I would have preferred to meet either daughter of King Zam the Great of Galhara.”

There was more unsaid—much more. He was every bit as aware as I was that without Narya the Nether Queen, Tarr would not be King, and he and I probably would have met at a state dinner. Perhaps courting me, perhaps Nadine. Though, she was older than him, so it might have been me. What a strange thought: We might have hit it off, gotten married, and then I’d be living in some villa like Sinensis—a living bond between two states. Our greatest danger: Boredom.

We stared at one another for a long second before Tarr continued. “The Captain has seen to it that we will not be disturbed,” Tarr nodded to Quill, who was still standing by the dressing room door, “But I’m certain that the entire palace will know I have been here before tomorrow ends. People may even speak to you if you go out exploring again.” His tone was dry.

“What a pity, your majesty,” I smiled ruefully, “I so enjoyed the quiet.”  I wasn’t surprised he knew about our movements, though I hadn’t noticed anyone in particular monitoring us.

Tarr smiled back, it was like pulling a blanket off a lantern, the change in his face was so encompassing. “My Captain speaks highly of you, and he is never impressed by anyone, so naturally I had to meet you for myself. Anyone valiant enough to defy the Nether Queen with such cheek is well worth the risk.”

I felt a blush spread up my neck and cheeks. “The captain is doubtless downplaying his role.”

“That is likely,” agreed the young King, “but even so. It may be that the rumor of your deeds will spread hope. Rumor is already spreading freely among soldier and servant, and I know that some among the nobility are whispering.” Here a wicked light gleamed in his eyes and I wondered if he were spreading the rumors himself. “Khattmali was furious when the caravan arrived without its carriage or prisoners, and with stories of a ghostly girl claiming to be Nelia of legend…I ordered the men flogged and confined for a time so she wouldn’t have them killed. I don’t envy her having to tell the Queen that her prisoners were lost.”

“No, indeed,” I replied, containing a shudder.

“Some recent discoveries have caused me to believe the Nether Queen can be stopped.” Tarr rolled his head back and looked at Quill before looking back to me. “Not the least of which being the discovery that Zam the Great somehow escaped her clutches. Do you realize, Princess, that your father is the only conquered King not to be personally killed by the Nether Queen?”

I swallowed. “I didn’t know that.” We’d seen the queen’s banner among her troops during the last days, the banner that said their queen was among them. Perhaps the only thing that had saved Namal or Ayglos from Tarr’s fate had been the unlucky explosion of the nymph’s fire. “Is she really a sorceress?” the question popped out before I could stop it.

Anger kindled in the King’s eyes, “Oh, yes. She is. Most of the stories are true.” All languor vanished from his body as he sat up, “My brother, the crown prince and general of our armies, was in the mountains with the bulk of our forces to protect our ally Shyr Valla from the jealous Queen of Hirhel. They’d been fighting off and on for four years. The only thing different about this battle is it came on the heels of a treaty we all thought would end the conflict.” He scoffed. “We all thought she was just a jealous queen. Until she swallowed our armies in darkness, then took our city as easily as buying a box of sweets. She doesn’t waste energy on small magic—no parlor tricks from Narya Magnifique. No,” He was talking quickly now, “She saves her magic for things like destroying cities without a trace, and stopping time. Shyr Valla is gone as if it has never been. We are lucky, I suppose, she didn’t do the same to Dalyn. But she needs us, needs our trade, needs our command of the river. Why rebuild what’s already here? It doesn’t take magic to terrorize a city—she threw a few things in, fire that burns on water—soldiers who materialize out of thin air.” the King leaned into me, eyes narrow with intensity, I stood my ground waiting for him to notice how close he was. “But she has secrets, things the seers could tell us. I know because she hunted them down and slaughtered them in the city square, just as she slaughtered my father and his advisors.”

A shiver ran down my spine. I wasn’t sure how much was terror at the reality of Narya’s power and how much was due to having the King’s face inches from mine, his eyes blazing. “Your Majesty,” I lifted a hand and dared to press it against his shoulder, “Please.”

Tarr blinked, his eyes cleared and he seemed to notice for the first time that he was practically in my lap. He slumped back, suddenly drained, and turned his face to the fire. “She crowned me the same day.” His voice was hoarse now. “I was fourteen.”

Fourteen.  “I’m sorry.”

“She promised to take care of me, but also to kill everyone I loved if I ever turned against her.” He said the words mundanely, as if mentioning an errand completed.

I shivered again, and then Quill was draping a thick robe around my shoulders. Our eyes met, he dipped his chin ever so slightly. His assuring look made tangible by the weight and warmth of the robe. I took a deep breath and turned to the King. “My brother, Namal, is supposed to meet with you to discuss an alliance.”

“Yes,” Tarr waved a hand, “I will meet with your brother next.”

“You know Galhara burned,” I said. “Our entire palace, and a fair portion of the city is nothing but cinders now. We do not know what remains of our surrounding lands, or most of our court. We may not bring much to your rebellion.”

“Anything is not nothing,” replied Tarr Kegan. “A rebellion has to start somewhere. Since the Queen lost the entire royal family and most of the nobility in that fire, Galhara is ruled by a sniveling weasel she dug out of the merchant’s guild.”

I hadn’t heard that. We hadn’t exactly mingled outside the circus, and never asked after our city for fear of being discovered.

“Once word spreads that the rightful heirs of Galhara live, that Zam the Great lives, then your surviving court will gather.” He tore his gaze from the fire and looked at me again. “Thirty years ago, your father defeated Caedes the Pirate King and his armada, thereby freeing the coastal regions from the terrors of Caedes brutality.”

I was well familiar with the story.

“He became the first king to also hold lands under the sea,” continued Tarr, “I loved his history when I was a child. And now he is also the first king to escape the clutches of Narya Magnific.”

I shifted uncomfortably. The province that came with my mother’s hand in marriage had been no secret–which made our escape that much more incredible because the Nether Queen’s forces should have known to look for a waterway under Galhara; should have known to hunt us in the waves under the cliff. They hadn’t known, somehow, and neither had Quill’s men. Now it felt like a secret, and hearing it so freely referenced made me feel exposed.

Tarr’s voice grew soft, “People would rally, if they knew…” He opened his mouth again as if to say more, then closed it.

We were silent for a few minutes. I fingered the thick robe—blue, like the King’s, I noticed—and wondered how Namal would react to the King’s story about Narya’s power. If he would brush it off like Ayglos had. If it would push our father into alliance or away from it. Tarr Kegan stared into the fire, his face brooding. He just a year older than Ayglos, and he’d spent the last six serving the ruler who had destroyed his brother and murdered his father.  I could imagine myself in his place all too easily, and I pulled the robe closer to ward off the thoughts. “Why now, your majesty?” I asked. “Why rebel now?”

Tarr glanced at me, “I have been rebelling every day since she murdered my parents.”

“What did you mean when you said she stopped time?”

The King didn’t react to my question and I began to wonder if he’d heard me.

“Captain? What time is it?” he said at last.

“It is eleven, your Majesty,” replied Quill, he was still standing close to me.

The King stood and stretched, “I should go meet with your brother, before it gets too much later. My men will stay guarding your rooms so it appears I am still here, with you.”

I stood also, irritated that he hadn’t answered my question and not certain whether or not I should show it.

Tarr Kegan took my hand and kissed it. “I will come tomorrow night if I can, or send for you if possible. I enjoyed our visit. Good night.” He turned and strode to my dressing room and vanished with a swish of his blue robe.