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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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While Quill was gone, I changed into a billowy pair of pajama trousers and one of Tarr’s night shirts. I picked the softest and thickest robe from the dressing room, not caring which of us it belonged to, and pulled all the pins from my hair and pulled at the braids until it tumbled around my shoulders in a frenzy. Hesperide procured me a tray of cheese, bread, and dried fruit, which I took to the chairs by the fire in the sitting room.

Reluctant to leave me alone, Hess nestled on the couch with Naran tucked under an arm. She settled into reading; the boy fell sound asleep. I wondered if she had spent many hours like that when I’d been injured. Naran acted as if the room was familiar and unremarkable, though I had only ever seen him in the gardens. I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised. Tarr would have found some way to see his son. I wondered if the boy knew who his father was. Or who I was.

I lost myself in my own thoughts while I slowly ate the food from Hess. I was very hungry but didn’t dare rush the meal for fear of spooking my stomach into a panic. The food helped my headache—which was a relief. Hess had offered to find me a painkiller, but I wasn’t in the mood to take tonics. By the time Quill returned I had mostly cleaned the plate and was staring at the fire, sipping wine and feeling fairly well, if tired.

“You look much better,” Quill said, sitting in the wing chair opposite.

“Thank you, so do you.”

He rolled his eyes and unbuttoned the first few buttons of his blue captain’s uniform. I tried not to notice. “I’m suitably relieved to have not lost a princess today. Especially on the heels of yesterday’s disappointments.”

“Two armies in as many days would be rather crushing,” I smirked. It was a terrible joke in so many ways. Only half true. Not remotely funny.

But he laughed, poured himself some wine, and said, “Tell me what happened.”

I related my story in hushed tones, just in case Naran wasn’t as asleep as he looked—and again left out the voice that had awoken me.

Quill listened quietly, tension evident in his jaw and shoulders. When I finished, he said, “I should hang Bel Valredes from the wall by his toes.”


“He deserves it.”

“Maybe. At least he has more class than Khattmali—if barely.” I leaned my head against the chair, “It turned out alright.” I looked at him sideways, “And I’m counting on you to help me keep Namal from exacting revenge in a reckless manner.”

Quill’s eyes sparked with mischief. “Namal is never reckless.”

No. I was the reckless one. I shook my head and turned away with an exasperated sigh.

After a moment Quill asked, “What was in the note you left him?”

“I said I was sorry to leave him while he was sleeping, but I needed to get back before the king wondered where I was.”

“Clever. Do you think he’ll believe it?”

“I hope so. I wanted him to think he had a chance with me. It’s certainly in his best interest to believe he does. Khattmali’s revenge is probably more frightening than the King’s.” I tucked my feet under me in the chair. “If I’d had more time I might have added a line about how much I enjoyed his kisses…”

Quill stiffened.

“…but I wasn’t sure that would be wise. All sorts of ramifications from that I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to.” I arched a brow at Quill, whose face had grown dark, then I added, “There were no kisses, Quill.”

He grunted and took another drink of his wine. “Hopefully we can keep Khattmali and her wolves at bay with that chance.”

“Maybe…” I stole a glance at Hesperide reading on the couch, “It might be time for Tarr to show a little more interest in the Ambassador…”

“With you living here?”

“It might be time for me to move out, too.” I set down the glass, “You brought me here to keep me safe, giving Tarr a distraction was an extra benefit. And now the safety is over. Maybe the distraction has run its course, too.”

Quill grimaced. “You’ll probably have to leave the palace entirely if you move out of these chambers.”

“Yes, I agree. It wouldn’t make sense for us to stay, and Namal and I are a liability inside the palace.” I took a deep breath, “Originally we were only here to treat directly with the King about an alliance, and I think we’re rather past that now. Obviously, we’re all committed to this thing—the purging of the nymphs made that decision for us. Outside the palace we can be helpful; Namal can keep after the underground, and I’ve got my men and criminals to look after.”

“It will make coordination harder.”

“But I’d be much less interesting to everyone here.”

Quill was silent for a long time. He was watching the reflection of the fire in his wine glass—and he was thinking. I waited, content to study the way the firelight fell across his face and lit his eyes. Melancholy rested on him, deepening with each breath. I felt it spreading over me, also, as I realized that if we left the palace, then I would no longer see Quill. Or Tarr, or Hess, or Naran. Probably not Jemin or Vaudrin either. They were not just my friends, they weren’t even my subjects. They would stay with their King and I would miss them. Even as my heart thrilled to think of doing something other than trying to be underestimated.

At last Quill spoke, “I don’t like especially like it, but you may be right. Besides putting you in a better place to build the rebellion, the Nether Queen is due to arrive three days before the Midwinter Ball. If she took any interest at all in you, as Khattmali has, we’d have a whole lot of trouble on our hands.” He put down the wine glass and looked at me. “The King could still invite you to the ball so you wouldn’t have to sneak in on the big night. And should we fail, there is a chance, however slim, that it won’t come back on him.”

I nodded. “It’s worth considering, at least.” If we failed, I doubted anyone would survive whatever tortures awaited, much less have one of us escape entirely. Though, perhaps with the underground refusing to help with the assassination, they would be hidden enough to help us vanish if we needed to. If they were so inclined. “I wish,” my voice was a whisper, “They had found Trinh’s speech more compelling.”

“More compelling than vanished cities, hell fire, and lost time?” Quill’s voice was wry. “I suppose it was a fool’s hope. They’ll come alive when she’s gone.”

We fell quiet again. I curled up in the chair and pulled the blue robe close around me. Quill undid another button on his uniform, the white of his shirt peeking through, and finished what was left of the dried fruit on my plate. We were comfortable. It was strange to think that this might be the last time that we would sit together like this. Even if we defeated the Nether Queen at the Midwinter Ball, raised an army and defeated any remaining of her minions…Quill was Tarr’s Captain of the Guard, and a noble holding lands in Dalyn if all were put right. This camaraderie would not be repeated.

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77-Lost and Found

My headache returned and my stomach wobbled as I walked purposefully through the halls, head high, having no idea where I was going. I’d never been in this part of the palace before, and didn’t know where I was in relationship to anything else. I didn’t look at any of the people I saw, didn’t dare speak to anyone to ask for directions. I just walked, hoping I’d eventually find something familiar. When I finally came upon the heavy doors to the library, my heart leapt. I quickened my pace. From here, I knew my way to the guest quarters from those weeks spending afternoons in the library. I at last slipped into my old rooms—they were cold and pristine—and went straight to the dressing room. With some effort, I managed to trigger the secret door and step into the dark, cobwebbed passageway. I closed the door behind me and refused my body’s begging to stop. I vaguely remembered the way to the King’s chamber from here and felt my way forward in the blackness. A long, straight, walk. Then a right…a left…a narrow stair, then I was at the hidden door.

I entered the familiar gilded bedchamber. The bedroom was silent, but still warm from the fire dying on the hearth. I found the bell cord and leaned on it again and again until Hesperide walked in, her eyes wary.  When she saw me, she clapped her hands over her mouth and started to cry, then she ran forward and pulled me into her arms. She held me so tight that her baby kicked me. I clung to Hess, breathing in her comforting lavender scent and absorbing the fact that I’d made it back.

After several long moments she held me at arm’s length and used her thumbs to wipe the tears off my face. “I will send for them,” she squeezed my shoulders and rushed off.

I went into the sitting room and sank onto the couch. Exhausted.

My stomach hurt. My head hurt. But still…I’d gotten out. Without betraying any of my secrets. The thought filled me with immense satisfaction.

Hesperide returned, carrying a pitcher and cup. “I’ve sent for tea—do you need dinner? You’re so pale—are you alright? What happened?” She sat down on the couch beside me and poured a cup of water for me. I accepted it, but only managed a few small sips. “We were so worried,” she continued, “Everyone is out looking for you as quietly as they can. The guards are sending word that you’re back safe.”

“Mafeisan,” I said, “I woke up in Belledi Valredes rooms.”

Hess went still. “Are you alright?” she asked, more softly this time.

I nodded. “I’m fine, I woke up earlier than they expected.” I summed up the adventure—leaving out the voice that woke me—and Hesperide gave me another hug.

The door opened and Naran walked in carrying a tea tray. I smiled at the red-headed boy. He smiled back, his blue eyes bright. He deposited the tray on a side table, Hesperide gave him a proud look. “Naran was with me when you rang,” she explained.

“Are you well, Miss Meredithe?” asked the child.

“I’m quite well, thank you, Naran. How are you? And how’s Hew?” I replied, trading my water cup for a mug of tea.

“Hew is fast, and has a good nose,” replied Naran. “I’m learning the hunt commands with him.”

“That’s wonderful, I’ll try to come see you soon.”

Naran beamed.

“Off with you now, Naran, I’ll send for you in a little while,” Hesperide pulled her son close for a kiss before shooing him on his way.

A moment later, Quill stepped in, tension swirling from him like a cyclone. He found my gaze immediately. A breath stretched between us, then he was striding across the room and dropping to a knee at my feet. He reached out his hands to my face, the gentle touch a sharp contrast to the storm in his eyes. “Are you hurt?” he asked.

I shook my head, putting my hands over his, trying to catch the breath that he’d stolen with that look. “I’m fine.”

“I got word you were back just as I was heading to Valredes’ rooms—heard a rumor that you’d been cozy with him at the party…” he trailed off, as if the words burned up before he could get them out. He took my hands and started again, his voice deadly low. “Zare…did he hurt you?”

“No, he didn’t.” I shook my head again, more firmly, then winced from the headache.

Quill caught the wince and narrowed his eyes.

“Honestly, Quill, he said they gave me a drug called mafeisan—it’s a sedative, I remember Boitumelo used it for surgeries when he could get it—I woke up earlier than I should have and I feel awful, but I’m alright. I just need to eat something and sleep it off.” I paused, and allowed myself a wicked grin, “He’ll feel awful when he wakes up, too.”

Quill inspected me; studying me for any sign that I was lying to him. He took in my rumpled clothes, my pale skin, messy hair…I produced the stiletto dagger from my bodice to answer his next question before he could ask. I was still armed.

Finally, almost reluctantly, the cyclone of tension lessened and relief started tickle at his features.

“I promise I’ll tell you all about it. You’ll be proud. But please, sit down, you’re making me tired.”

“I can’t,” he squeezed my hands, then released them and stood up. “I have to go tell the King. And make sure that someone gets word to your brother before he burns down any buildings looking for you.”

“How long was I gone?”

“It’s nearly nine,” said Hess, quietly. “Naran was just about to go to bed.”

“The party wrapped up a couple hours after noon—you never came out of the Ambassador’s rooms that Jemin saw.” Quill turned to go, “He was turned away when he tried to go in to fetch you. We’ve been trying to track you down, since.”

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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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73-Belle of the Party


Khattmali was the perfect hostess. She put her arm through mine and led me from group to group, presenting me as only a socialite could. People who had never spoken two words to me out in the halls were now all smiles and bows. As if they hadn’t been painting me with disdain whenever they glimpsed me for the past few months.

Courtly parties had been just another pleasant memory of my pre-siege childhood. Now, facing a roomful of beautiful vipers, I felt that I must have always hated court life. Hated it. Perfectly and completely.

“How do you do, Miss Meredithe?”

“So pleased to meet you, Miss Meredithe.”

“Enchanted, Miss Meredithe.”

I smiled, blushed, and curtsied with just a touch of unpolished bounce. I also invented new curse words in my head. There were more men than women at this party. Most of them thirty or younger, though there were a few older. When Khattmali ran out of people, I realized that I hadn’t retained a single name, and had glazed over most of the faces, too. I started angling for the wing chairs near the fire, but Khattmali steered me toward the couch instead.

I accepted a tea cup from a passing servant and settled onto the couch, Khattmali beside me.

She lifted a jeweled hand, “Bel, darling, come sit with us!”

A good looking young man in a fine white shirt under a navy doublet redirected his path to sit in the chair across from us. He smiled, the expression brightening his face so much that I thought it might be a real smile. “My name is Lord Belledi Valredes,” he bowed slightly to me as he sat, his eyes sparkling in a way that made me think we’d just been introduced but he’d seen the utterly blank look in my face.

Valredes…one of the older families to survive the fall. “Analie Meredithe,” I said, narrowly keeping myself from offering him my hand like a princess. I made an effort to mark his features: High cheek bones, brown eyes. Short brown hair. Broad shoulders that hinted at active pass times. His coat had the faint shimmer of silk, and a gold brooch in the shape of a leaping fish sat over his heart.

He kissed my fingers and sat back in the chair. “How have you found the palace, Miss Meredithe?”

“It’s lovely,” I said. “Just…really beautiful.”

“I’m sorry we haven’t met before now, for surely the palace is made even more beautiful by your presence.”

I looked down demurely to keep from rolling my eyes.

“Bel, you charmer,” said Khattmali with a light laugh. “Oh, Lucius, come here!” she beckoned to another young man even as she stood up. “Keep Miss Meredithe company for me, I must greet the other guests.”

I thought it was a thin excuse, even if new people had just entered the chambers. How many people had she invited to this luncheon?

Lucius had blonde hair, and he smiled as he kissed Khattmali’s hand before taking her place next to me on the couch. “Miss Meredithe,” he flashed the same smile at me. “Lord Lucian Tene. I hope you won’t be too bothered by our company.” His doublet was a pale blue that intensified the blondeness of his hair and the blueness of his eyes.

“Oh, not at all!” I said quickly, wrapping my hands around my tea cup as I watched Khattmali disappear into the crowd. It was happy coincidence, that an irritated and sulking princess could so easily pass for a shy and overwhelmed common girl.

“The Ambassador told me your father is a spice merchant,” said Lucius, “She failed to mention that you were stunning, though.”

I blushed. “You’re too kind.” And I could easily take you in a fight.

“I heard that your family was rescued by the King’s men after being robbed on the road,” added Bel, leaning his elbows on his knees and taking a sip of his wine. “That must have been terrifying. I’m so sorry you had to experience that.”

“Yes, it was awful—I’m so grateful to the men who rescued us, I can’t even imagine what would have happened if they had not come along.” I kept my eyes wide and earnest.

“Bel,” Lucius interjected, “This is a party, don’t remind the lady of such things.”

“My apologies,” Bel dipped his head, apologetic.

“It’s alright,” I assured him. “Much good came out of it.” I flicked my lashes down. Love makes you stupid. I tried to imagine being in love, but instead thought of throwing a pillow at Tarr’s head. My neck heated, which worked well enough.

“Have you ever been to a party like this before?” Lucius asked.

“Yes—well,” I hemmed, “I’ve been to large parties—just not with so many lords and ladies, of course. And not in the palace.”

“The Ambassador means well,” said Bel, kindly. “Though I fear a party of this size might not have been the kindest way to introduce you to people.”

I titled my head, uncertain what to make of even the gentlest criticism of Khattmali. Also, uncertain if he actually believed she meant well.

“Though, we’re certainly glad to meet you at long last,” said Lucius, leaning back and lifting a hand to wave over a servant carrying a decanter. “The palace is much improved by your presence. And I believe your brother is here, also?”

I didn’t want to talk about my family. “He is, yes. But he’s often out working the family business. It pleases the King for him to continue on restoring trade.” In the economy your High Queen shattered. I looked at Bel, “Lord Valredes…your family owns half the fishing boats, doesn’t it?”

“We do, yes,” he nodded, “Please call me Bel, Lord Valredes is my father.”

“Bel,” I smiled at him. I almost asked how they were affected by the purging of the nymphs but thought better of it just in time. I also almost asked how in Serrifis he’d managed to keep his parents through the fall, but I knew the answer to that already thanks to Quill and Tarr preparing me for this luncheon. Some hadn’t been given a choice to bow to the new Queen; Yet others had, and most took it after watching the executions and rituals.

Bel continued, “Lucius’s family owns hundreds of acres along the Market Road.”

“It’s a spectacular amount of work, but has some excellent soil and beautiful views,” said Lucius.

“Sounds wonderful,” I took a sip from my tea.

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72- Armor

I was delirious with exhaustion by the time Namal and I made it back to the palace. It was a long walk to start with, but add in avoiding patrols and making certain we weren’t followed and it became a lengthy, predawn walking tour of the city. One of the royal guard, one we’d traveled with from Gillenwater, was waiting to bring us back through the tunnels to our chambers. Once I’d shucked that blasted armor I found Quill waiting in the sitting room to hear how our little meeting had gone. I told him everything and felt better for it. The sky was turning gray when I finally crawled into bed—after checking on the king who slept on the couch.

The sun woke me up hours later. I stared at the huge arching windows, feeling as if all the sand in Daisen were in my eyes and piled on my body, making it far too heavy to move. I had gotten used to sleeping at night. I liked sleeping at night.

The winter light was bright and cold, and I felt it wasn’t high enough in the sky for me to be awake yet. This wasn’t a fair exchange of hours. Perhaps I could close my eyes again and convince the bone crushing weariness to leave. Something moved in my peripheral, I turned my head to see Hesperide laying out a deep burgundy gown. With a groan, I rolled over and buried my face in the pillow.

“Good morning, my little owl,” I could hear the smile in Hesperide’s voice.

I lifted my head enough to squint at her. “Is it good?”

“It is good that it’s still morning, because you have that luncheon today.”

Right. I rolled onto my back and starred at the gilded ceiling.  Khattmali hadn’t wasted any time pulling together a little lunch party to introduce Analie to people. Everyone was unhappy about me mingling with the nobility, but short of faking illness I didn’t know how to get out of it. I had been a small child the last time I’d been to Dalyn, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would recognize me. The Midwinter Ball was mere weeks away and I was certain Khattmali wanted me out of the King’s bed by then. Did a second visit make poison more or less likely? What hideous thing would she tell me about Tarr today? I rubbed my hands across my eyes and tried to reconcile myself to being up. “Next time I’m impersonating someone of higher rank, so I can say no to more people.”

Hesperide snorted. “The King is out already, and your bath is ready for you,” she headed back into the closet and returned with a couple pairs of slippers, which she then set next to the gown and eyed critically. “You should probably get started on that.”

A bath made getting up more tolerable. Mostly because it bore so many similarities to staying bed with the added perk of being in water. Hesperide yelled through the washroom door at least twice to hurry me along. Finally, I presented myself to her, clean, dry, and un-striped, and she helped me get into the gown. It was a different look than the others, the long skirt a separate piece from the fitted brocade bodice that buttoned down the front. The embroidery of the brocade had a metallic blue sheen that caught the light. A collar swooped down into a flattering point that showed off the gold necklace which hung around my neck. Another gift from the king. I touched the pendant—a gold disc imprinted with ships traveling in the gilded circle of trade. He’d tried to give me a sapphire surrounded by a river of gold, but I’d argued that giving a mistress jewelry that mimicked his seal did, perhaps, send too strong a message. I found Hesperide’s eyes in the mirror.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I feel like this is really yours,” I tapped the necklace before letting my hands drop into my lap.

“Ah,” she was braiding my hair, but she freed a hand to reach forward and tap my heart. “This is what’s mine of his. You, and that,” she looked at the reflection of the pendant, “Are armor to protect us. They are all armor.”

I started to nod, but couldn’t with her grip on my hair. I tried a grim smile instead.

“Be careful with Khattmali today,” Hesperide returned to braiding. “She got Tarr drunk last night after dinner, but he didn’t even try to kiss her. In her ideal world, she’d drive him so mad with desire that he’ll think her proposition of marriage is wonderful—or, even better, he’ll come up with the idea himself.”

“I know, I know…I’m in the way.”

Hesperide nodded, “After so many failures in recent months, I suspect the ambassador is eager to have a success to show her mistress when she arrives for the ball.  It’s becoming an urgent need.” Finished with the braid she began to coil it on my head, pinning as she went.

It seemed a little unfair to have to deal with intrigue of this nature without any of the intoxicating feelings of being in love to give it dazzle. Then again, it had to be a miserable situation for the people in love, so I shouldn’t feel too left out. There was a distant look in Hesperide’s eyes and I wondered if she was thinking of a version of her life where she didn’t need decoy lovers to protect her life and the lives of her children. “How do you know all these things, anyway?” I asked.

“I’m a servant,” Hess scoffed, “Servants know everything.”

“Oh. I’d forgotten.”

“If you want to know what’s happening in a palace, befriend the cooks, or the washer women.” Hesperide stepped to the front and eyed my hair. She pursed her lips, plucked at a curl, then nodded to herself.

“Not the maidservants?” I asked.

“No,” Hesperide shook her head, turning to collect the remaining pins, “Too much politics there.”

I grunted. “I’ll steer clear, then.”

“Wise.” She smiled at me as she left the room, “Jemin will be here soon to take you to the ambassador’s chambers.”

I thanked her and moved to the sitting room to pick up a book. There was a tray with tea, muffins, and a few pieces of fruit sitting by the fire and I happily dug into them with one hand—the other held the book. I was very hungry and hadn’t realized it. As I ate, I felt sleepiness returning to remind me that I’d been out most of the night.

When Jemin entered the sitting room, I jolted awake, book tumbling to the floor.

The burly royal guard was smiling. “Good morning, my lady.” He bowed slightly. “Are you ready to go?”

I straightened from being curled up in the wing chair and made a few faces, as if stretching and scrunching my face would wake it up more quickly. Blinking, I stood, and said primly, “Of course.” Then my lips quirked up in a dubious half smile, which Jemin rewarded with a matching one. Ready or not, it was time to go. There wasn’t anything either of us could do about it.

“Should you drink another cup of tea before we go?” asked Jemin, kindly.

I shrugged. “The ambassador has tea.” But I did pick up my cup and finish the last sip, now cold.

Jemin held the door open and then guided me to the ambassador’s chambers. The ambassador’s guards opened the door for me, and the sound of music and voices greeted me. The ambassador’s opulent chambers were even more spectacular today. Had she brought in more chandeliers? The crystal chandeliers cast splintered gold light and occasional rainbows everywhere through the main room. The windows were open, making up for the monstrous fire in the fireplace and the heat from the thirty men and women milling about in beautiful clothes. A few tables sat about, laden with meats, breads and fruits, and gray-clad servants bustled here and there carrying tea pots and decanters to ensure that no one saw the bottom of their cups. Four musicians sat in a corner playing stringed instruments.

Khattmali was in the center of it all, resplendent in a blue gown with a neckline that swooped deeply from one shoulder to the other, showing off both her skin and the layers of sparkling jewelry. She saw me immediately and came to greet me with a sweet smile on her face. As if greeting a favorite pet. “Analie! Darling! I’m so glad you’re here. I have so many people I want you to meet.”

Dear heaven.

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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.”