Messing around with monochromatic watercolor, got a lot to learn! You sure can’t hide from light and dark when you limit yourself to one color.
Messing around with monochromatic watercolor, got a lot to learn! You sure can’t hide from light and dark when you limit yourself to one color.
A full week went by before I found myself seated on a plush chair in Khattmali’s suite, sipping tea which I could only hope wasn’t poisoned. I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of poison until the moment she was handing me a gilded tea cup, but now it was the only thing I could think about.
I’d spent the last week going on walks with Naran and his hounds, and was just starting to feel like maybe I could really start moving again. Namal had said it was about time to take me out to my men who were hidden in the city. He even mentioned something about a side trip to meet Ayglos somewhere…The last thing I wanted was to be laid low by poison. Though, I supposed poison generally killed you outright. No need to worry about being an invalid. Especially since, though Jemin had walked me here, there were no servants or guards in the room with us. No chance of an antidote. I took another tip of the tea. It tasted normal, so if it were poisoned she’d done an excellent job. I’d expect nothing less.
“You must be simply starving for female conversation,” said Khattmali, taking a ladylike drink of her tea. So, the pot wasn’t poisoned, anyway. She was dressed in an exquisite emerald day dress and jeweled necklaces. The embroidery which trailed along the sleeves and dripped down her neckline glinted with a metallic sheen. “The King keeps you all to himself all the time.”
“Oh,” I smiled over my steaming cup. Maybe there was poison on the inside of the cup only. Activated by the heat from the tea. Did poison need to be activated? “I’ve been alright. I wouldn’t know what to say to the ladies at court.” I gave a shy little laugh. If my experiences in the hallways were any indication, no one would talk to me anyway.
Khattmali smiled, the rings on her fingers glittered as she set down her cup. “Nonsense, I’m sure you’ve got all sorts of interesting things to say.”
“Haim is the best place to buy paprika,” I said with what I hoped was an adorable arch of my shoulders. I didn’t feel poisoned. No shakes, pain, or light headedness. Poison usually had symptoms like that, right?
“There you are, very useful,” Khattmali was quick to praise. “Though, with comments like that I can see why men take to you so readily.”
My curious look was not feigned.
“Let me teach you how to talk with women,” she leaned close, her dark eyes squinting conspiratorially. “Women love news,” she whispered.
I made myself lean forward, eyes wide with innocence. “News?”
“Yes—and I don’t mean the latest price of cinnamon,” Khattmali thought of her loophole the same moment I did. “I mean what the families are doing; who is joining the army, courting a wife, going into this or that business, planning a trip, planning a party…” she trailed off suggestively.
“Ohhh,” I dragged the word out. “I’m afraid I don’t have any news like that. I don’t know anyone at court.” It was mostly true. I’d learned some in the weeks we’d been here, but before that Dalyn’s nobles hadn’t mattered to me. They still didn’t matter to me because everyone had agreed it was far too dangerous for the Galhirim to try mixing with them.
“Sure you do, you know the king.”
My cheeks heated. At least they could be relied upon. “He’s very kind,” I said, ducking my head.
Out of the corner of my eye, Khattmali’s eyes rolled before she could stop them. She was quick to smother the look with a beautiful smile. Kind was certainly one way of putting it.
“He’s quite charming,” said Khattmali, her tone implying that she had intimate knowledge of his charms. She picked up her cup again.
My eyes flew to her face, my lips parted in surprise. Innocent, but not totally stupid.
Khattmali shifted delicately, “Analie, my dear, where are you hoping this relationship will go?”
“Relationship? With…the king?”
“Yes, dear, the king.” Amusement crinkled the corners of her eyes. “I’m well aware that the servants fetched you from his chambers.”
“Oh,” I took a sip of tea. Hiding beneath my lashes demurely. If I died of poisoned tea, I would die firmly in character.
“Many of us have been in your position, you know.”
I didn’t look up.
“The king is…” Khattmali hesitated, “known for being very forward with women.”
She was going to play the kind friend straight to the core. Alright. I reached forward and poured myself some more tea.
“It’s nothing for you to be ashamed of, you know. He is very charming. And how could you know?”
How could I know? I was a peasant. What on earth would possess me to think this would end with me queen? Love makes you stupid. Hesperides’ words from this morning came back to me. When the summons from Khattmali came and I gave Hesperide what must have been a completely desperate look. The King’s actual mistress then gave the King’s pretend mistress a quick course on human emotion while she fixed my hair. I had become convinced as she talked that I had never been in love. Balleck was probably as close as I had gotten, but not even then.
“You seem like such a kind girl, Analie, I just don’t want you to be hurt when he moves on.” Khattmali sipped her tea, then set her cup down on the golden tray between us. Her kohl lined eyes met mine, earnest. “And he will move on, my dear.” Her voice dropped, “He has fourteen children to prove it.”
I choked on my tea.
I thought I saw satisfaction flit through Khattmali’s eyes, though her face remained compassionate. “I didn’t think you’d know,” she said sadly.
I looked down, allowing confusion and pain to show on my face while I tamped down indignation. The man had only been king for six years, how did he have fourteen children? What about loving Hesperide? Love makes you stupid. “He…said he loves me,” I whispered, infusing the words with just a breath of defiance.
“I’m sure he did, dear,” said Khattmali. She reached for the tea pot and refilled her cup. Knowing laced her every movement. “If you like, I can ask him to start bringing you to some of the court functions. That way, you can meet people.”
What? I set my cup down and sniffed loudly as Khattmali refilled it also.
“You can make some friends, have some fun.” She winked, “Maybe not have to give up this life when he gets bored.” Her eyes skimmed over my body and I instinctively put a hand to the jewels at my throat, to the shimmering blue dress Hesperide had picked for me.
“Alright,” my voice was small, squelched with emotion. I was going to kill Tar when I saw him next.
“If nothing else, he simply must let you come to the Midwinter Ball.”
I looked up.
“Everyone who is anyone will be there, especially because the High Queen is coming.”
My heart stammered. Narya Magnifique. Here.
Khattmali continued, “Though, I feel we should get you out in society a little beforehand. Your beauty should not be sequestered any longer than necessary. I will hold a soiree and invite you specifically.” She smiled, and I managed a tentative smile in response. “Yes, that will be perfect. A small gathering, so as not to overwhelm you.”
“Alright,” I agreed, not seeing another answer. There really wasn’t a world where court connections wouldn’t be a good thing for a merchant. Even if Analie was still devoted to the King. I took another drink of tea. If it was poisoned, I was definitely doomed.
Khattmali kept talking about ideas for her soiree, and I did my best to listen and smile. A simple girl awed by favor. I was relieved when a servant appeared to announce Khattmali’s next appointment. Not only was I sick of this conversation, but I’d gone through so much tea I was in dire need of the washroom.
A friend of mine just released book two in his series, The Unseen Chronicles. It’s another delightful fantasy adventure, aimed at younger readers than Zare, but the quality of story the whole family will enjoy.
Zare is 17 in her current story, and Essie’s more like 13 in hers, but I imagine they’d get along handsomely.
Alright, here are the details:
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.”
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?”
“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.
Dust and cobwebs muted the colors in the room and everything was still. So very still. “What did the queen do to Narya?” my whisper sounded loud in the quiet.
“I have no idea.”
We stepped further into the room, stopping as our toes scuffed a line of ash. I picked up my skirts and stepped over the line to walk to the center of the room. The ash formed a circle on the exposed wood floor. My skin began to crawl. Dark stains crisscrossed inside the circle and led to a large stain that marred the hardwood beneath my feet. “Oh, Eloi.” I turned slowly like a boat adrift in a lake. Wicked symbols had been painted in the same dark liquid, and small mounds sat at intervals along the ash rim. I recoiled.
Still outside the circle, Quill crouched to inspect one of the mounds. “Ravens. From the colony here. They were cut in half.”
A long, sad streak led like a beacon from the central, gruesome, stain to the chamber’s main door. As if evil had entered here, and then used the blood to escape. A shudder ran through me, along with the conviction that something was here. Watching. Waiting. Hungry. I shied away from the long dry gore, stumbling in my haste.
My feet cleared the circle of ash dust, but that did nothing to calm the shivers running down my spine. I took a gasping breath, then another. My skin prickled and I backed farther away, I wanted to turn and run by was too afraid I would find something behind me. I gasped for breath again.
This was an old scene; the carcasses were so far gone there was no stench. The streak was from the body of whoever was murdered being removed.
There was nothing here.
At least, not anymore.
Quill stood abruptly, breaking the spell, and with a few quick steps crossing to the window. He tore down one of the curtains and tossed it over the grim tableau, wiping the ash away and pushing the carcasses together into a pile.
I left the space in a rush, as if the ash circle might reform around me of its own accord and trap me forever. I found the washroom and began hunting through the cabinets until I found a handful of towels and a large pitcher that had escaped the destruction. The running water for the tub still worked, and though it was ice cold I let it run over my hands as I filled the pitcher. Water was comforting and my breathing slowly returned to normal. Eloi. The Nether Queen did have a deal with the devil. When the pitcher was brimming, I made myself turn off the water and return to the sitting room.
Quill was on his knees, folding up the curtain around the feathered remains of the ravens. The ash thoroughly scattered.
Striding to the center, I poured the water over the blood stains, offering a prayer to Eloi as the water splashed across the symbols, obscuring them. Ignoring the stiffness in my side, I knelt and began to scrub at them with the towels. The wood yielded some blood back to the towel, but not much, as I scrubbed. Still, I began to feel better. The fear dissipated.
“We should leave.” Quill caught my eye.
I nodded, spreading the damp towels out to cover as much of the floor as possible before allowing Quill to help me up. He had the bundle of raven bodies under his arm, and I tried not to think about them as we left the way we’d come in.
We made our way, slinking through the servant’s corridors at an unhurried pace, often diverting to avoid being seen. It was a wonder to me that Quill didn’t get lost—though maybe he did, but simply got unlost again before it was an issue. By the time we returned to the King’s chambers it was getting dark and Trinh and Namal were in the sitting room eating dinner.
Namal stood when we entered, “There you are, Zare! Hesperide didn’t know where you had gone. I have been worrying.”
“I’m sorry. We didn’t go anywhere in particular.” I embraced my bother and eyed the couch, weighing if I wanted food, sleep, or a bath first. The smell of the stew reached my nostrils. Food. Definitely food first. “Where is Tarr?”
“Dinner with his ministers,” answered Trinh, setting down his bowl. “Please, join us.” Trinh was dressed in the uniform of the guard, and the dark blue cloth made his eyes seem stark as he looked between Quill and I.
Quill hesitated, but I sat down immediately and reached for a bowl. There was a pot of stew, thick with root vegetables and lamb, and a small stack of bowls and utensils. Another benefit of Hesperide’s confidence, it was easier to feed everyone. My stomach growled as I ladled the savory, steaming promise of glory into a bowl.
“Why do you have my mother’s curtains?” Trinh’s tone was sharp. I looked up to see him staring at the bundle under Quill’s arm.
Quill glanced at the bundle. “It seemed a fitting burial shroud for your father’s ravens.”
I set the ladle back in the pot and settled back on the couch, cradling my bowl and refusing to shiver at the memory of the bloodstained floor. “We found some kind of evil ritual in the queen’s chambers.”
The two princes looked at me blankly, as if I’d spoken a foreign language.
“I knew your mother’s chambers had been abandoned since the fall, but had not been there myself until today,” explained Quill, “It appears that they were ransacked, and someone…” he paused, his face grim. “Someone performed some dark ritual. It was long ago—we found the remains of four ravens—and evidence that something much larger was killed there.”
Trinh’s face was ashen. Namal sat down beside me.
“Everything was all dried up and decayed,” I offered, needing the emphasis that the ritual was long done and any power would be long since dissipated.
“I gathered the ravens to give them a burial.” Quill shifted the bundle in his arms. “They bear the gold rings of Dalyn on their legs, and their deaths seem evidence enough that they were loyal to Dalyn.”
Trinh leaned forward, his eyes staring into nothingness, his jaw clenched. He was angry. Not at Quill, but at her. Abruptly, Trinh stood up. “Please excuse me, Namal,” he muttered, then strode out the main door of the chamber before any of us could move to stop him.
His deep brown eyes opened straight to his soul. How had I forgotten that? I had meant to sound confident, but now as our souls met, I knew he could see the fear deep inside me. Because I could see his. I looked away, brushing at the dried dirt on my dress. “I’ve never seen this side of you before.”
“The dark side.”
“This is not my dark side,” Quill scoffed. “Trust me.”
“Alright,” I conceded, “the side that feels.” He didn’t contradict me as I brushed the last of the dirt off and started picking at another spot. I stole a glance at him and continued, “I’ve been meaning to ask you how you’ve managed to not be bitter about everything that has happened. This is the closest I’ve ever heard you come to being angry.”
Taking a breath, Quill paused before answering. “It’s a choice. Bitterness only takes the luster off my life, not hers.” He picked up his head, I knew he was looking at me but I wasn’t ready to let him look into my soul again. “Eloi knows some days are easier than others.”
I nodded, admiring his outlook, and carefully scraping at the dried mud instead of meeting his eyes. I thought of life in Galhara, before the siege. The first time I’d smelled battle, the first time I put Remko’s training to use. The sickening sounds of death, a hospital slick with blood, and the reality of rationed food. Then of life in the circus, as we snuck through the Nether Queen’s realm hoping only to reach exile in Magadar. I thought of Balleck’s strong hands over mine, teaching me how to spin poi and dance with fire. Of Balleck hiding me when I panicked in the Market Square of Gillenwater. Then of Remko, thrashing and unconscious as Boitumelo stitched up his side and I tried to hold him down. Of happy, gentle Olena standing over the flaming corpse of her first kill. I remembered crying uncontrollably into Hook’s mane on Ironsides’ farm. The first time I’d cried since leaving my grandfather’s kingdom under the sea. The last time I’d had time to cry at all. I pictured the prison, full of nymphs languishing without water, the Cathedral Square wet with their blood. I hadn’t had time to think about bitterness, to evaluate how much I hated the woman who had caused all the death in my life. I was busy trying not to be crushed by the weight of everything that needed doing, and everything I could not do. How could I fix this? I, with my injured ribs was not Nelia of Legend.
“Stop that.” Quill’s voice interrupted.
“What?” I was surprised into looking up at him.
“I can see you spiraling, don’t do it.” He was stern. “You’re not despairing by nature, don’t wallow because it seems like the thing to do.”
“I’m not despairing,” it came out as a grumble, “I was just telling you not to despair.”
“Yes,” chuckled Quill, “and then you tripped as you tried to shoulder the sole responsibility of fixing everything yourself.”
I stared at him, wondering how he’d gotten all that from me sitting in silence picking at the dirt on my dress and marveling at the fact that he was right. “I do have a fair amount of responsibility, here,” I said, sounding much more pathetic than I had intended.
“But not alone,” he reminded firmly.
I looked at him, at that soul whose strength ran deep. Part of me wanted to argue, to remind him of all the news he’d just given me, but I smothered that thought. We would be the ones to write the history of this war. Which meant we had to win. We. Warmth bloomed inside, and I let it spread, allowing myself to be buoyed.
Quill smiled. “That’s better.”
I shook my head, trying to stifle my own smile so he wouldn’t see just how soundly he’d succeeded. My mind helpfully reminded me of something else I had to worry about. “So,” I hesitated, “I ran into Khattmali today.”
He stiffened. “What?”
“She came down to the kennels…I’m worried she may have come specifically to meet me.”
“She said she wants to meet with me to get to know me better, and hear a commoner’s perspective on growing up in Dalyn—because she loves the city so much.”
Quill rested his head against the wall again. “That’s a bit of a joke. She just wants to know what the King sees in you, and how she can use that to her advantage.”
“I know, but…I don’t think I can avoid it.”
“Heh, probably not.” He paused. “Have you ever been a spy, your Highness?”
I scrunched up my face. “No, I don’t think so. Not unless you count infiltrating the circus.”
“The secrets of performance are no small matter.” I tipped my chin up and sniffed with affected pride. “No one guards their secrets like the magician—never did learn how he made doves appear.”
“I believe that,” he rubbed his hand across his face again, the smile lingering. “Do you have a plan?”
“Well, I’ve been playing the invisible merchant girl for weeks, now I just have to add words.” I looked over, “Right?”
“Basically.” After a pause he added, “People see what they want. You have to figure out how to work that to your advantage.”
We fell silent. I began to feel sleep tugging at my eyes. It probably wasn’t safe to return to the King’s chambers, and if we stayed here I would probably fall asleep and keel off the bench. As a child, I would have fallen asleep on my guard’s shoulder without a second thought, but that didn’t seem appropriate anymore. I tended to forget Quill was Captain of the Guard, anyway. “I don’t suppose we could go into the queen’s chambers and find a couch for me to nap on?”
Quill eyed the door for a moment. “I…guess we could…it’s probably very dusty in there.” Turning, he evaluated me. I gave him a bleary look. After a moment’s hesitation, he stood up and tried the door. It stuck, then with a tremble and creak it popped open. A rail crossed the doorway, Quill stepped under it and gingerly crept out of my sight into the chambers beyond. He returned a moment later and offered me his hand, his face unreadable.
Stiffly, I followed him through the tiny door, ducking under the rail and stepping onto a pile of torn cloth. The rail was a curtain rod, one side ripped out of the wall, the other still mounted, so it hung haphazardly, the curtain in a shredded heap beneath it. This chamber was round, like the King’s, but it was in ruin. Images of Rydderhall flashed before my eyes as I followed Quill further in. The bed linens had been tossed around the room, the mattress battered and disgorging feathers.
My foot caught on a broken table leg, I kicked it out of the way. A desk with all the drawers ripped out, an overturned chaise, doors hanging akimbo. We stepped out of the bedroom into the sitting room, where the slaughter of furniture had continued with no mercy. By the balcony doors, a couch lay on its back, with its cushions disemboweled. There was a pile of shattered wood and glass against one wall, as if someone had practiced throwing chairs like a game of darts—the target had been a large oval mirror with a gilded frame. The frame remained on the wall, bits of glass rimmed the inside like shark teeth
“I’m afraid we won’t find a place for you to rest here,” said Quill.
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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.”
“Remember that time we had to cross a wasteland?”
“You mean the one with man-eating lizards the size of a horse…why?”
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