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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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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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hoopskirt job

The more I write in the River Rebellion, the more of this story I learn. You might get it someday. I know I post about it often, but that’s because there is an absolutely outrageous dress and a massive headdress and veil. Such things are fantastic fun to imagine.


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55-Getting Acquainted

“So, you haven’t aged a day?” I asked. “You didn’t have an enormous beard when you got up?”

Trinh looked at me strangely. “I…did not. No one has asked that before.”

“And your horses didn’t wander off?”

“I told you, we were knocked to the ground, then we got up. Most of us never even lost our grip on the reins.”

“Shyr Valla was—is it really gone?”

“Do you think I didn’t look thoroughly?” growled Trinh, a bitter edge to his voice.

“I’m sorry,” I recoiled a little at his tone, “Many of the rumors I’ve heard about Galhara’s fall are so far from the truth that it’s hard not to believe the same is true for other cities.”

Turning his hard look to his brother, Trinh said, “I don’t like to tell my story because it doesn’t make sense. I would not believe it myself if I wasn’t looking at twenty-year-old version of my baby brother.”

“Sometimes not even then,” commented Tarr.

“My brother, Namal, should be here,” I said firmly. When they hesitated, I leaned forward, “He does not believe the Nether Queen is a sorceress because you will not provide him with evidence. You cannot expect us to follow your plans if you will not tell us the truth. Namal has met you in the past, Trinh, he would recognize you.”

Trinh scoffed. “Skipping six years in your twenties isn’t quite so visible as fourteen to twenty.”

“But why would you lie?”

“I don’t know, maybe I’m one of the Nether Queen’s agents.”

“If you were, you would have already captured my family.”

Tarr cut in, “I agree with Princess Zare.”

Trinh’s eyes flicked down to where Tarr still held my hand and my cheeks heated.

“Jemin,” continued Tarr, unmoved, “Please go invite Prince Namal to this counsel.”

Jemin bowed and left by way of the secret door. The room was silent except for the crackling fire for several long moments after he left. Trinh was angry, and I got the feeling he was only quiet because I was present. He stood and began to pace in front of the fireplace.

Tarr began tracing circles on the back of my hand, agitated by his brother’s pacing. “This is long overdue, brother.”

“We are wasting time,” replied Trinh with a growl.

“I am not a child and we need their help,” replied Tarr. This was an old disagreement, and Tarr had just forced his brother’s hand. I could appreciate such tactics. This room was going to be all kinds of fun when Namal arrived.

“You should not have brought her into this,” Trinh gestured to me without breaking stride.

He said it as if I had corrupted his brother and that was so entirely ridiculous that I scoffed and all the men turned to look at me. I lifted my chin, “I am Zare Caspian, daughter of Zam the Great of Galhara, I should have been brought in the moment I arrived.”

Trinh stopped and crossed his arms. “How old are you?”

Was that his problem? “Diplomacy isn’t your best skill, is it?” I retorted.

Trinh waited, unmoved.

Against my better judgement, I answered him, “I am seventeen.”

“You should not be involved in a war, much less leading one.”

Trinh apparently had a variety of objections to this meeting, and my impulse to kick his legs out from under him would very likely not help matters. “Tell that to the war, maybe next time it will skirt around me out of deference for my tender years.” Much better.

Tarr jumped in, “The Galhirim have already been thrust into the war, and they have stirred hope in the doing. She,” he tipped his head toward me, “has stirred hope in the doing.”  Standing, Tarr released my hand and moved back to lean on the fireplace. “Narya Magnifique is more now than the feuding queen you faced. Her latest command is most grievous. I can’t refuse her yet, and I can’t very well expect the city to rally around me while I’m giving orders to sift through my subjects to execute whomever the Queen wills.”

Trinh had no answer. He stood like stone with his arms crossed and his eyes fixed on his younger brother. Pain seeped into his face like it was overflowing from somewhere deep, then he sucked it back in again.

“How long ago did you…arrive back?” I ventured.

“Three months ago.”  He said the words as if he’d be back an eternity and was chafing that nothing had changed yet.

I looked at Tarr, who was again watching the fire with an alarming fascination. Quill was watching him, too, I noticed. I wondered suddenly if Trinh was the hope that Quill had mentioned so many weeks ago. I wasn’t so sure about pinning hopes on him. He seemed more like just another sign that we were up against someone with more and darker power than we could possibly imagine.

It felt like an eternity before the knocking pattern sounded and the hidden door slid open to admit Jemin and my brother—who had taken the time to dress. That left only myself and Tarr in less than public outfits, and that made my cheeks heat again. It didn’t matter, though, because Namal recognized Trinh immediately.

“Prince Trinh!” he exclaimed, striding forward and extending his hand in friendship. “You are alive! This is glad news.”

Turning, Trinh clasped my brother’s hand. “Prince Namal. I am sorry to hear of the loss of Galhara.”

Namal inclined his head, “We yet live.” No small thing. “I am eager to hear how you survived, and what you know of Narya’s plans.” He glanced around the room, noticing now who all was present. His eyes narrowed when he spotted me in my robe. I lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. He looked back to the Kegan brothers. “May I ask why we have been gathered, so quickly and so late?”

Tarr supplied wearily, “The Nether Queen has ordered all the nymphs in the city to be rounded up for questioning and execution. I cannot refuse. I have also decided it is high time that my brother meet with the Galhirim himself.”

Namal looked as I had felt at the news: Stunned and sick.

“I have a plan!” I said quickly, feeling the need to stand since everyone else was. “But we don’t have a lot of time.” I faced Tarr. “What if you…got drunk…and slept in tomorrow? How suspicious would that be?”

Tarr’s brows furrowed and he turned his head to evaluate me suspiciously. “Not terribly.”

I didn’t need to look to feel the burning skepticism of Trinh and Namal. “Good, and do you have any ravens?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is something wrong?” I asked quietly.

“Ravens came from Hirhel today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” said King Tarr, not turning.

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

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

A chill shuddered through me. “Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for Episode 54.

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Scribbling with watercolor crayons. I like the concept here…(don’t look so surprised, this reveals nothing that wasn’t revealed in the very first episode.) I suspect I would actually need acrylic or oil paints for it to look the way it looks in my head.


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your last prisoner

I was getting brave enough with my paint mixing to try to browns and burgundies…and I kind of love the way her hair came out with the blue overlaying the black.

This story is spooling into a much bigger story than I anticipated. Zare was always part of a bigger story, but the stories are turning out to be much more interwoven than I originally anticipated. It’s exciting. I’m excited, guys. I want to read it as much as you do. Maybe more.