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We both straightened at the sound of movement in the King’s bedroom, and then Namal entered the sitting room, having come from the hidden entrance. I scrambled to my feet in time for him to gather me into a crushing embrace. “Zare, you stupid, lucky girl,” his voice was muffled by my shoulder.

I crushed him back, then pinched him to get him to release me.  “I’m alright.”

“Thank Eloi,” Namal inspected me, his blue eyes bright with emotion “Are you hurt? You were gone for hours. What happened?”

“I’m not hurt,” I stood straight, aware that this time I wasn’t pale as a ghost, rumpled, or wracked with pain. Wild hair excepted.

Namal started to relax much more quickly than Quill had.  “Did she know who you were?”

“No, not at all. Khattmali was trying to make it look like Analie was with another man.”

Wariness came over my brother. “How?”

I put my hand on his arm, looking into his eyes, “Drugged me and set me to his rooms. But I escaped. I’m alright.” We had to sit down, then, and I had to relate the day’s events again. Quill gave his seat to Namal. Hesperide took Naran to bed. Namal got the shortest version yet.

I was just finishing when Tarr and Vaudrin came in through the suite’s main doors. Vaudrin gave me a smile, bowed to Namal, and, seeing Quill, left again without searching the suite. Tarr, handsome in dark green, dropped his swagger and found my gaze. I dipped my chin in assurance. His eyes cleared, and amusement flickered as he noticed I’d stolen his shirt. His questions answered, he nodded to Namal before crossing to the couch and lounging across it.

“Well,” said Tarr, “Analie certainly has some explaining to do.”

I swiveled in my chair to look at him better. “I was thinking about throwing your fourteen children in your face again, instead.”

Namal choked.

“To which I’d reply that at least my women were one at a time.”

“I would throw another pillow at your head.”

“And then,” said Tar, “We’d either devolve into insults about one another’s skills, or we’d make up.” Our eyes locked. Tarr inclined his chin. He’d hoped I would talk him out of it, but I could see that he agreed with me: It was time. “Should I throw you out tonight or tomorrow? Or should we stew a few days?”

“I think we could make any of those things work…it just depends how long my brother needs.”

Namal leaned forward, “To leave the palace? Domjoa could find us a place to live in a day or two, but money to feed us and keep feeding the men could become difficult.” He was plainly in favor of this plan.

“I’ll send a generous gift with my departing mistress, as usual. That should help,” put in Tarr. The conversation spun away into details, timing, and even got side tracked into discussion of the Nether Queen’s visit. Eventually, Namal and Quill left through the secret door, and Tarr and I retired to the bedroom. I crawled into the King’s bed while he went to change into nightclothes. I was so tired, but couldn’t sleep yet, so I sat, legs crossed under the covers. Tarr came out of his dressing room fluffing his hair. He’d mostly buttoned his night shirt this time. He paused when he saw me sitting up. “Is everything alright?”

“Tarr…” I started. I had no idea how to say this.

He came over and sat on the bed in front of me. “What is it?”

“Have you ever heard…voices?”

Tarr arched a brow, “What kind of question is that?”

“I mean a voice when no one is there. You’re alone, and someone talks to you…” I bit my lip, “and when you look, no one is there.”

Tarr’s blue eyes grew cautious. “My madness has never included voices in my head.”

“No,” I moaned and covered my face, “Not like that…I don’t think…Eloi, I hope not.”

The King peeled my hands off my face until I met his eyes. I wondered if I looked as terrified as I felt. “You hear voices?” asked Tarr.

“Someone woke me up,” I blurted. “In Bel Valredes’ rooms…I heard a woman yelling at me to get up—I even felt her slap my face. And then once I was up she told me where to find the washroom and comforted me while I threw my guts up.”

“But you didn’t see her?”

I shook my head. “I looked for her, but never saw her. And once I was done in the washroom, I never heard or felt her again…”

Tarr frowned. “Well, enough people have been killed here that she could have been a ghost.”

A shudder ran through me. “She didn’t feel…evil.” I suppose that didn’t necessarily rule out ghost. But who stuck around if they could be in paradise?

“You don’t think it was the poison.” Not a question. Tarr searched my eyes.

“Since when is poison helpful?” my voice trembled.

“Have you ever heard anything before? Had premonitions? Known things you shouldn’t?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so.” I spread my hands helplessly. “Not that I know of.”

The King looked thoughtful. “Well…you might be a seer. Not, you know, a terribly gifted one. But a seer nonetheless.”

I stared at him.

“Seers see what most people cannot—the spiritual world, the past, the hearts of men, sometimes the future—”

“I know what a seer is,” I cut him off.

“You looked confused.”

“That doesn’t help me know what I heard!” I didn’t think it was accurate, either.

It was Tarr’s turn to spread his hands, though he was much less distressed than I was. “Could have been anything: An agent of Fornern, or Tirien, or of Eloi himself, or even the real Nelia. Or a ghost.” He shrugged. “She was helpful, though, keep your ear out for more.”

Fornern was the spirit who had been charged by Eloi with protecting the north and the seas, and Tirien was his consort, who protected the south and the lands. I sighed.

“Hearing things while drugged doesn’t make you mad, if that’s what’s worrying you,” continued Tarr, “Remember, my brother fell down and got up six years later…I’m just glad to hear of a good supernatural occurrence.”

A sort of comfort, I guess.

Tarr laid back on the bed, his leg still dangling off the side. “You should probably start with what could she be. You’ve got a long list of names to choose from. And without a physical description…” he trailed off.

I’d told Tarr about the voice because he’d believe me, but it was still surprising to have it taken so in stride. My lips tipped up, “I will miss you, you know.”

He looked over at me, his expression tender. “I’ll miss you, too.” Then he lifted a hand to gesture at the couch, “I won’t miss my couch.”

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Sounds of a door opening and closing, then of Bel moving around and muttering to himself. Lightning coursed through me as I realized he might, at any moment, decide to come check on me. I spun, looking around the bedroom for anything useful. There was a small table by the sofa. A sideboard held a selection of wine and liquor against one wall. There was a fireplace with a nearly dead fire.  Spying the dressing room door, I headed for it. Maybe all the dressing rooms had secret passageways. The room was dark, and Bel’s clothes hung in neat rows, his collection nowhere near as large as the king’s. The room was much smaller, also, and it didn’t take long to tap on the walls and pry at moldings with no results. Swearing softly, I reentered the bedroom.

This was complicated. I didn’t want to go with that handsome snake. I wasn’t worried about my relationship with the king, except that was the main excuse for our being in the palace. Apparently, failing at turning Analie against the king, Khattmali was trying to turn the king against Analie. She must be in a terrible rush to be taking such bold, drastic measures. I returned to the couch and lay down. I rubbed my temples to ease the ache that lingered, and contemplated my next move. By the time the door to the bedroom opened, letting in a widening spray of light, I had a plan. I dropped my hands, closed my eyes, and lay still. Bel’s shadow crossed the light and as he drew near I could hear his muttered stream of curses. Had he been swearing since Khattmali left?

I sensed him approach the couch, then felt him sit on the edge. I shifted, then moaned very softly.

“Analie?” he asked, sounding very concerned. His fingers brushed against my cheek. It was all I could do not to flinch. “Are you alright? Can you hear me?”

I fluttered my eyes, then brought my hands to my face, wincing as if the light hurt. I squinted at him through my fingers. His brown hair was mussed, as if he’d been running his hands through it, and he looked so blasted worried.

“What happened?” I asked, not having to fake the croak in my voice.

“The wine,” he explained, “It was drugged. I was so frightened you wouldn’t wake up. I brought you here to recover.”

“You drugged me?”

“No!” he recoiled in horror, “I don’t know who drugged you—a rival, maybe? One of my enemies, or one of yours.”

How close he skated to the truth.

He drew a hand over his face then blew his breath out. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

I let my hands curl under my chin. Defensive, but no longer covering my face. “I feel awful.”

“I’m sure you do. My physician said it was mafeisan—just a small amount, so not deadly, just knocks you out and makes you wake up with a hell of a hangover.”

“How would I have enemies? I don’t know anyone—hadn’t met anyone before today.”

Bel’s face twisted with…sadness? I hadn’t been expecting that look. “Unfortunately, that’s not how the court works.” He paused. “Are you feeling well enough to try sitting up?”

I nodded, and he took my arm, standing to support me as I shifted into a sitting position, then reseating himself next to me at an angle, so close his knees touched mine and he could look into my face. I looked down, pretending the world was spinning and wondering if he could smell the bile on my breath. Bel watched me for a few moments before reaching to a nearby side table to retrieve a glass of water. The tray with glasses and a pitcher hadn’t been there before, he must’ve brought it in with him. I allowed myself a quick sniff of the water before drinking it. It was fresh, clear—not poisoned—and it soothed my bile scorched throat.

“You’re staying with the king?”

I nodded again, lacing my fingers around the cup.

“I’ll take you back there as soon as you feel you can walk.”

Eyes wide, I stared at him. “Thank you,” the words came out a whisper.  This was his way of convincing Analie to stay with him? But, then again, as I looked at his handsome, concerned, face, I did feel a part of me warming to him. Desiring him, even. Bastard.

He turned away and poured himself some water. When he turned back he asked, “Do you love the king, Analie?”

“I do.” I blushed.

“Why?” he asked, his voice sharper than I expected.

I looked up at him, surprised.

He shook his head, as if he regretted his tone. “I’m sorry…I can easily see why the King wants you. But why would a kind girl like you be taken in by a cruel, womanizing profligate like him?”

With great effort I swallowed my incredulous retort. Inside, I chanted love makes you stupid, and said meekly, “He said he loves me.”

Chuffing out a bitter laugh, Bel stood up abruptly and crossed to the sideboard to pour himself something stronger than water. I watched him, fascinated. The best lies are mostly true, and I didn’t think this bitterness was faked.

“Analie, I know you don’t want to hear this, and I know you might not believe me, but I have to tell you: You’re sweet and beautiful, and the smartest thing the king ever did was enthrall you. But he doesn’t know how to love. He’s mad, vicious, and petty.  He will make you think you are the center of the world, and you will be,” Bel stopped and tossed back his drink. “Until he’s done with you, and then you’re nothing.”

I just watched, wide-eyed.

“He’s king, and he takes whomever he pleases to his bed. He should be courting a woman of rank and nobility, not seducing her.”

By the time he turned to face me again I had tears glistening in my eyes. “Is that why you’re angry?” I whispered, choking on the words, “Because I’m not noble?”

It took a split second for him to trace his mistake, and he hurried back to the couch, contrite. He sat beside me and took my hands; I scooted away and sniffed loudly. “No, Analie, no…” he moaned, “That’s not it at all.”

I stood up quickly, the world only tilted a little, “I’ve been in this palace for months and not one soul made any attempt to be my friend except the king.” I started pacing erratically through the room. “No one wanted to be my friend, or talk to me, or anything like that. I was nothing to everyone—” I paused and glared at Bel, “Except him.”

Bel looked at me helplessly. “I’m sorry.”

“And now you tell me that he doesn’t really care for me?” I moved behind the couch, pacing between the couch and the bed so Bel had to swivel to watch me. “Why should I believe you? Who are you? Why do you care?”

“A few years ago, he took an interest in my sister.”

Oh dear.

“I’d never seen her so happy…but then, just like that it was over,” Bel snapped his fingers. “For him, anyway. She cried for months.”

I stopped pacing. “I’m sorry.” It didn’t even matter if he was lying. There was almost certainly a girl with that story, even if she wasn’t his sister.

Bel turned away, facing front. “It’s not your fault.”

I came up to the back of the couch, hesitated, then leaned down and slipped my arms around Bel. I smoothed my hands down his muscular chest before wrapping my arms across his front and putting my head on his shoulder. He relaxed into my touch, and I felt just a twinge of guilt as I kissed his cheek so he wouldn’t notice my arms shift toward his throat. “I’m sorry, Bel. It’s just…I’m so confused. He’s been so kind. But now you tell me these things about him, and I just don’t know what to think. I thought he loved me.” I kept whispering in his ear, and if Bel ever noticed my tightening arms on his neck, he didn’t move. He didn’t move till he sagged slightly and I released the pressure on his neck. He slumped over. Quickly, I pressed my fingers to his neck, and was relieved that he was still alive.

I didn’t have much time.

Moving round to the front of the couch I struggled to reposition Bel so he was laid out on the couch, head on a pillow, as if he’d chosen to take a nap.

I found a writing set in the sitting room, and left a hastily scrawled note tucked under his hand. Then, straightening my skirts and taking a deep breath, I walked out of his chambers.

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I was waiting for my cue, but something was wrong. I couldn’t hear the music. The horses shifted under me, eager to run into the darkened tent. The tent shouldn’t be dark. The show didn’t go that way—or had I missed my part? Where was the music? Without waiting, the horses surged forward, charging into the darkened ring. Suddenly Balleck was there, spinning his burning poi. He smiled broadly, offering me his hand. I took it, stepping into the light as if I wasn’t standing on galloping horses. He spun me into a dance, the poi spinning around us, and then spinning away from us to become the glass tree in the Market Square in Gillenwater. We danced alone, without music, without other people…and he pulled me close for a kiss.

But something was wrong.

Wake up.

A woman’s voice slipped through the darkness. Hess?

I was falling, the roar of a waterfall and the crush of water tore us apart. The water turned to fire, and I was running. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see through the darkness and flame. I could sense her, though. I could feel the weight of the Nether Queen’s presence—of that thing she worshiped—it was hunting me and I ran, walled in by flames. I would die here. I would drown in fire.

Damn it, Zare, wake up.

I slowly became aware of my body, someone was shaking my shoulders. I still had a body, that was good. Probably not dead, then.

Come on.

She was urgent.

I was laying on something cushioned and velvety, my head propped on something stiffer than a bed pillow. A couch? Was I back in the king’s chambers again? My head was pounding as I tried to sort through the mud and find something firm.

The wine.

The poison.

Wake up!

The voice was commanding, and a hand slapped my face.

I forced my eyes to open. My vision swam, and I grabbed my head immediately, stifling a moan. I felt like I was going to be sick. I closed my eyes again, and only reopened them once I’d convinced my stomach to reconsider its plans. The walls were creamy, and the drapes were navy blue. I saw a bed draped in a burgundy coverlet. This was not one of the King’s personal chambers. It wasn’t any part of Khattmali’s chambers that I’d seen, either.

And I was alone.

My heart hammered.

What in Serrifis? Who had awakened me? Where was I? I struggled to breathe deeply. To calm the roaring of my blood. Slowly, carefully, I pushed myself into a sitting position. My shoulders hunched, as if they could protect my head from the awful pounding. I looked around, trying to ascertain if my other senses were right. How was I alone?

I was on a velvet couch, one lamp burned by a door on the other side of the room. The deepness of the shadows spoke of evening. There were voices on the other side of that door.

I took some more deep breathes and gathered my strength to rise. I wouldn’t have called myself tall, but suddenly my full height felt so very far from the ground. My stomach reeled. I covered my mouth with one hand and took a step forward.

There is a washroom through that door to the right.

My spine tingled. I looked to my right and saw another door.

Cautiously, I walked to the door and put my free hand on it. I had the sense to put my ear to it and listen before pushing it open. It was, in fact, a washroom. I went to the sink and turned on the water, allowing it to run over my wrists, and splashing it on my face. After a few moments of indecision, my stomach twisted and I retched into the sink. I thought I felt a comforting hand on my back as I gave the meager contents of my stomach back to the world, but I felt too awful to care about the impossibility. I’d been poisoned, Eloi only knew what it was doing to my senses.

At last, the nausea finished, leaving me weak and sweating. My cheeks were wet with tears. My ribs ached from the effort of heaving. The water was still running and had washed the bile away. I splashed more water on my face. My head still hurt, yet my vision was clear, and I could move more easily. Finding a towel, I dried my face and inspected myself in the long mirror beside the sink. My long skirts and embroidered bodice were wrinkled, and even in the dim light I could see that I was pale as death. Otherwise…I looked unscathed. I checked, and my stiletto was still in my bodice. Brushing at the wrinkles out of habit, I cautiously stepped back into the room where I’d awoken.

“Are you still there?” I whispered to the empty bedroom, feeling ridiculous.

The voice in my head didn’t answer. No invisible hands touched me in response.

I didn’t want to push it. Not when there were still voices behind that other door. Perhaps my waker had been a figment of the poison. Though, that seemed insufficient. Since when did poison provide helpful hallucinations? That wasn’t important at the moment: I needed to find out where I was, and why. I went to the window and looked out: Gardens, barren from winter, a few levels below me. To the side, I could see the undulating gray walls of the palace. So, I was still in the palace. Good. I crept across the room toward the door by the lit lamp. Light streamed from the other side. Stopping, I laid my fingertips and then my ear to the door to listen.

“It’s not a difficult task, darling.” Khattmali’s voice was lazy. “Why do you look so put out?”

“Your grace,” a man’s voice. Bel’s voice. My lips curled in a snarl. “I am merely hurt that you felt the need to drug the girl. I could have seduced her.”

“That may be true, but I don’t have time for uncertainty.” Khattmali paused, then continued with an edge to her voice, “Today, dozens of courtiers saw the King’s mistress in the arms of another man. By tonight, the rumors will be all over the palace and the King himself will have heard. When she is not there to answer his call, he may move on—or at worst send men looking for her. You should be able to get her out of the palace tonight, but if not, he’ll still find her with you.”

“And what if she tells him that she was drugged, and he believes her?” Bel’s voice was laced with tension. He really was upset.

“She will only be out another hour or so, you should have time to address her feelings.” A pause, “There will be no evidence that she was drugged if he investigates—and even if he does, somehow, believe her anyway, I will protect you. The king has no stomach for violence.”

Silence. I doubted that Bel was convinced.

I had to strain to hear Khattmali purr, “You did excellently today. I was watching you.”

“Were you?” Bel was smooth as honey, “Enthralled by my charms?”

“Belledi,” She laughed softly. I wanted to throw up again. “I will remember you, when I am queen.” She sounded like she was moving away—toward the chamber exit?

“How long should I keep her? If the King doesn’t look for her?”

“As long as you like, darling. It makes no difference to me.” Her voice was careless, self-assured, even bored. She truly didn’t care. She believed I was a merchant’s daughter, and she’d just given me to one of her pets to be used however he saw fit. This was better than being found out and handed over to her Queen, but anger began to burn inside me.


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“Do you like to ride, Miss Meredithe?” Lucius asked.

“Oh, I love riding whenever I can.”

“Then you must come out to our estate sometime, because it’s truly spectacular territory.”

I agreed that this would be a simply wonderful thing. The conversation continued; amiably discussing horses, hounds, tack and terrain. It was a pretty safe topic. I pretended to know less than I did and listened raptly to Bel and Lucius discuss the finer points of choosing a saddle horse. They were ideal young gentlemen; polite, charming, and funny. I wondered if Khattmali had picked them for these qualities or if there were other reasons. Other young men joined us, a Bekren Derren, Touli Hasreda, and a few others whose names I quickly forgot. Someone handed me a plate of food which I gratefully ate. I was aware of being entirely surrounded by young lords, and receiving some arch looks from the ladies and older men in attendance. That, at least, was something genuine in this farce of a luncheon. I would have enjoyed the attention if I didn’t know I was notorious and this crowd was Khattmali’s doing.  I was just finished eating when Khattmali clapped her hands and drew everyone’s attention to her, “Friends, it’s time for the afternoon’s entertainment, please adjourn to the music room.”

Her suite had a music room?

Bel stood and offered me a hand up, which I accepted. To my surprise he then tucked my hand in the crook of his elbow and guided me with the rest of the crowd through a set of double doors with fantastic molding, into a large room with a stone floor and vaulted ceilings. The other young men of my entourage scattered into the crowd. The room was dim, the windows were covered with heavy drapes and the only light came from a glittering chandelier above a dais at the far end. There were alcoves down either side, and semi circles of comfortable chairs throughout, all pointed to the dais.

This had been a shrine.

Once the open space had been full of long benches—the windows were probably full of intricate patterns and scenes in colored glass, and the front had once had a small altar for burning incense to Eloi. The alcoves had been for prayer and meditation.

The crowd had swelled to fifty or more, and people started looking for places to sit in small groups. Some pairing off into couples and snuggling down on the heavily cushioned seating. Bel headed for one of the alcoves toward the middle.

I was relieved that Lucius came with us. The alcoves had been well equipped with cushions that invited lounging. Lucius sprawled out across half the cushions on the other side, I tried to sit as upright as possible as Bel languidly arranged himself across far more space than he needed. “Have you heard Vivianne Deroliedes sing, Miss Meredithe?”

I shook my head, “No.”

He smiled. “Then you are in for a delight.”

A servant appeared at the entrance to the alcove and set up a little table with wine. The servant filled three wine glasses and presented them to each of us before leaving the open bottle of wine behind on the table.

The musicians had set themselves up on the dais and started to play again. A soft, ethereal tune that built strength as people settled into seats and talking ceased. A large, black haired woman in a shimmering dress of gold silk stepped onto the dais. She folded her hands in front of her, swept her gaze around the room, and opened her mouth to sing. Her voice…I gasped as if punched, the beauty was so startling. She sang with the accent of the mountain cities, and the resonance was haunting, the sounded laced with an achingly lovely mourning. The song was about merchant sailor and the lover left behind—a fitting story for the city that controlled the commerce between the bay and the mountains—but I felt as if the music reached inside me and pulled out my own griefs, making the song about them instead.

When the song ended I flinched as Bel touched my cheek. It was wet with tears. He smiled, his own eyes brighter than usual. I quickly wiped my cheeks with my hand, giving him a quick, embarrassed smile. He handed me a handkerchief. “Thank you,” I patted my cheeks dry just as the music started again, a lighter tune this time. Mercifully.

Maybe mingling with the nobility wouldn’t be so bad, if it came with music. I sipped at my wine, focusing again on the enchanting nightingale on the dais. Her hands were poised in the air now, floating on the rivers of music, dancing on the sound of strings as her voice filled the old shrine and reverberated off the stone floor. I thought Eloi wouldn’t mind his shrine being a music room…even if it had been made so out of spite. I watched Vivianne Deroliedes, enraptured, allowing the music to carry me far away, till the darkened shrine fell away, swallowed in the golden dress. The golden dress became the sun over the blue green sea and I felt myself rocked by the kindly waves.

I was vaguely aware of the music ending, but I couldn’t come back. The sea and the sun faded to blackness and I felt my fingers release the wine glass. It fell.

I cursed.

Damn wine was poisoned.

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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.”

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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



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.”