The next time I woke up it was dark except for the fireplace and a lamp flickering on the wall. Tarr was gone. Ache still laced through my body when I tried to move, but overall I felt better than the first time I’d woken. Except I was very hungry. Possibly even ravenous. Carefully I pushed myself into a sitting position.
Movement by the couch caught my eye, I stopped. Quill.
He had been watching the fire, but heard the covers and swiveled. Seeing me, he rose and came to the bedside, his face earnest. “Your Highness, it’s good to see you awake.” He was dressed in the blue uniform of the royal guard, but the first several buttons were undone, declaring him off duty. He was not quite so rakish as the King always appeared, but the overall effect was startlingly disarming.
“Thank you for bringing me back,” I said. “Tarr—the King said you brought me back here.” As if I could have gotten back another way.
He smiled. “How do you feel?”
His smile broadened a bit. “That’s good. I will send for food. Everyone else is at dinner, keeping up appearances and all that.” He turned and walked to a door I had never noticed and, opening it, he stepped out, leaving me alone. Before I could be surprised he’d left, he returned and closed the door again. “Food is on its way.”
He picked up the chair from the desk and carried it over to the side of the bed. “I guess we’re even, then.” He sat down.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, still feeling like all my energy committed to tasks one at a time.
“You have carried me through a city wounded, and now I have carried you.”
“Oh.” That was…deflating, somehow. As if it were just a score settled. Then I noticed the glint in his eye and growled at him.
The glint blossomed into another smile. “Glad to see you’re not entirely in a fog.”
“You are impossible.”
“So are you,” he leaned back. “Breaking out the King’s prisoners, any old prisoner you wanted. As if they all belonged to you.”
I rolled my eyes, I didn’t think he was really upset with me, but apparently my expansive jailbreak had caused some irritation all around. “What was I supposed to do, leave them behind?”
Quill sighed. “Because they were in prison and you didn’t know why they were there.” He lifted a finger, “Their word doesn’t count in this instance.”
“Didn’t one of them find the men a safe place to hide?”
“Yes,” he inclined his head, “For the moment, it seems they are honoring their vow to you. In fact,” the smile was back, “they were extremely distressed when you collapsed. I think they were worried what I would do to them without you.”
I moaned, “I’m very embarrassed about collapsing.”
“I’m supposed to be this inspiring figure but made a stupid mistake and then fainted in the street before finishing the mission.”
Quill studied me.
I continued, “Then I slept for two days while everything went on without me.”
He folded his arms. “I believe,” he said at last, “they found your toughness while wounded inspiring.”
“I got tackled from behind again—caught by the cloak, then tackled.”
“Stop letting that happen.”
“It’s definitely not something I enjoy.”
“Don’t give up your back—” he leaned forward, “And perhaps we need to get you a cloak that tears off easily.”
“That wouldn’t have helped last night. We were wearing them for disguise.”
“Night before last,” Quill corrected and I grimaced.
There was a knock on the bedroom door, Quill rose and opened it, accepting a tray from a servant and closing it again. He returned to the bedside. I scooted to make room for the tray on top of the covers.
The smell of food made me even hungrier. It was some sort of chicken and vegetable soup, with generously buttered slabs of warm bread on the side. I barely remembered to bless it before starting in on the deliciousness. The soup curled into me, gently filling up the gaping emptiness inside—and much faster than I could have anticipated. “It’s very good,” I commented to Quill, then stopped. “Have you eaten?”
“I had lunch,” he shrugged.
I offered him some bread, “Please…eat something.”
“That’s not necessary,” he said, but accepted the bread. “I’ll eat in the mess hall later.”
I was skeptical but as soon as I was full I pushed the bowl toward Quill. “You can finish this, it must be better than what’s in the mess hall.”
Quill quirked an eyebrow, glancing from the soup to me. “Someone has been in the circus too long. I could have called for food for me, also.” But he picked up the bowl and sampled the soup. Still steaming, and by his look, still delicious.
“I suppose I have been away from this life a while,” I smoothed the blue coverlet over my legs. Between the siege, the circus, and the long days on the road, it had been a long while of seeing food as finite. In the palace of the victor’s pet, there was no need to share food, but I found satisfaction in it anyway. I settled back on the pillows. “What was your life like, before the fall?” It was something I had wanted to ask for weeks, and now—aching, tired, and full—I was finally able to ask.
Quill swallowed his soup, his brown eyes growing distant. “Life was good.”
I waited a moment as he took another spoonful of soup and then realized he thought he had answered the question and wasn’t going to say more. “But what was it like,” I asked again. “What did you do? How did you live?”
He looked at me. “I did what noblemen’s sons did. I learned etiquette, history, strategy, and combat. I served in the palace, but also had plenty of time to be a child climbing trees—and walls, and buildings,” he caught my eye and winked. “l was a very good climber.”
“Were you close to the royal family?”
“You mean, did I know the King well, before all this?”
“Either of them.” I waved a hand. I wasn’t just interested in Tarr.
“Trinh is much older than Tarr, though you wouldn’t know it now. He knew me only peripherally. He was often gone, because Shyr Valla and Hirhel were always fighting sporadically, and Dalyn, as you know, supported Shyr Valla in those conflicts.” Quill finished the soup and set the bowl down. “Tarr is only a year older than me. We were playmates, a few of us were, but we weren’t extremely close.” He shrugged. “The city wasn’t expecting Narya’s army, there was no flight of the women and children as there might have been. When my mother saw that the gates would fall before Dalyn’s army could return, she hid as many of us courtly children as she could get in an orphanage in the city. Clothed in rags so no one would give us a second look.” For the first time, sadness seeped into his posture, permeating even the air around him with weight. My chest tightened just looking at him. “In so doing she preserved the lines of several families, because by day’s end we were orphans in truth.”
“I’m sorry.” The words were inadequate. In a sea of ill fate, I felt untouched. I had lost everything but my family, and so I had lost nothing. How many in Galhara and Dalyn had the same story? My eyes smarted. “I’m so sorry.”
Quill met my gaze and dipped his chin, graceful acknowledgement, before continuing; “When Tarr was crowned, we older boys joined the guard under new names. Tarr, of course, knew who we really were and did not betray us to the queen’s agents.” Sadness pulsed off him again, “The King was in the same situation we were, except in many ways much worse. As captain, I have done my best to fill the King’s personal guard with men who serve the Dalyn, not Hirhel.”
“The King is lucky to have you,” I said.
“Yes, he is.” Hints of a smile played around Quill’s eyes.
Then I asked, “Were you always intending to rebel? Or did this start because of Trinh’s return?”
Quill set the soup bowl on the tray, and then moved the tray to a side table. “She took everything from us, left the greatest houses in ruin.” He said the words without malice. “The tribute she requires is too much, it is stripping the city resources just as surely as a leech. We have never thought of ourselves as serving her. We serve the Kegan line. Everything we do undermines her power. If only a little.”
I watched him appreciatively. I would have expected bitterness. Revenge, or maybe even defeat. But he sat, pensive in the glow of the fireplace, handsome and emitting only strength, sadness, and surety. “What would you be doing now if Dalyn hadn’t fallen?” I was apparently feeling very bold.
“Heavens, I have no idea.” He straightened, extinguishing the mourning that surrounded him. “Enough about me, your Highness. What was your life like before all this?”
“Oh,” I replied, “it was good.”
Quill arched a brow, amused.
Rewarded, I continued, “I don’t remember a time when Hirhel wasn’t warring. But generally, it didn’t really matter. It was frightening, but far away until I was fourteen or so and she started moving toward Galhara. I had school, of course, lots of school. Plenty of court functions, and regularly training with Remko and the guard…and I was teaching my horse, Aurum, to sit. He could already come when called, and rear on command…” I looked down at my hands and absently smoothed the coverlet again. “Nadine was starting to court the prince from Charpolia, Gebbert. He seemed nice, I think they would have been a good match. Father was after Namal to prioritize marriage, too, but Namal resisted for the very reason Father pressed—Hirhel’s rise had them both worried. It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Namal didn’t marry. Otherwise he might have had a wife and infant to get out of the palace when it fell.”
“How did you get out?” asked Quill, quietly.
I looked up, “The same way I got the girls out at Gillenwater.”
Understanding sparked in his eyes and spread across his features. “Of course. But,” his brow furrowed, “Shouldn’t the Nether Queen have known that was a possibility? Didn’t she know Zam the Great married Ayglara of Daisen?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “But Galhara sits atop a cliff, or it sat atop a cliff, and we didn’t have a cistern like Gillenwater’s. Just an underground river that leads to the bay in a fall. The way we left was difficult, even for half-nymphs.” Grueling, really. I shuddered. “We saved only fifty of our household.” My voice was small.
“Fifty!” exclaimed Quill. “All the stories say there were no survivors from the palace. None.”
“All the stories say she called fire upon us from hell, also.” I retorted.
He inclined his head. “Even so. She wiped Shyr Valla off the face of the earth. Before your father climbed up in that wagon, I had no reason to think there were any survivors. Much less fifty.”
Despite the topic, the memory of Quill arguing with Boitumelo in the doctor’s wagon made me smile. It seemed so long ago. “You took it in stride,” I said.
“Good news isn’t hard to take in stride,” he replied.
I smiled again. “I suppose.” I was feeling tired again, which hardly seemed fair since I hadn’t been up that long.
Quill studied me, and I could see in his eyes that he’d noticed my weariness. He leaned forward and handed me a small cup from the side table. “The doctor left this, to help with the pain. Drink, sleep, heal.”
“Please don’t leave me,” I said, surprised at how pathetic I sounded.
“I won’t,” he assured, his voice tender. “Don’t worry.”