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Cloak

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Trying to focus on shadow and light.

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Trinh

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Trinh is one of my favorite heroes to paint, and one of the hardest to write. Enjoyed pushing myself with the watercolors, also.

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84-Visitor

 

Trinh had left by the time I got back. Before I could pester Namal for details or tell him about Domjoa’s little project, the King’s messenger rapped on the door to deliver our official invitation to the King’s Midwinter Ball. The invitation came with a large white box and a note in Tarr’s hand that read, As promised, in honor of what was.

If Tarr and Analie had truly been in love, she should stay far away from that ball. As it was, however, I couldn’t help the delight when I opened the white box and lifted out an exquisite green gown. The color was as deep as forest shade, and vibrant as emeralds. Tiny gems winked like wood sprites from the sweeping neckline and trailed from the waist like the tendrils of a willow. I resisted the urge to try on the gown immediately.

Under the dress and a layer of paper Tarr had included a coordinating ensemble for Namal, complete with a new set of shiny black boots. Namal was less thrilled than I was.

We just finished stashing the clothes in the sparse little bedroom above the office when another knock rattled the door. We froze, eyes meeting. That wasn’t the pattern Trinh used.

Namal cautiously descended to the door, me a few steps behind him, and opened it. “Can I help you?” asked my brother, mild like merchant who was only average.

“Is Analie Meredithe here?”

That voice.

Namal looked back at me. “You know this man?”

“Alban,” I stepped up to the door, “This is Lord Belledi Valredes.” I was too surprised to have any idea which manners to use or not use. I hadn’t seen Bel since I’d choked him unconscious in his rooms. Did he know?

Bel bowed quickly. His cheeks were pink from the cold, a small carriage stood in the street behind him. “May I come in?”

Namal looked like he would say no, but I said, “What do you want, Bel?”

“I heard you left the palace, I’ve been trying to find you. I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“I’m fine.”

Bel shifted on his feet uncertainly. “Good, I’m glad.”

I nudged Namal to get him to move away from the door, “We have only a few minutes.” Stepping back, I gestured for Bel Valredes to enter. “Sunset comes quickly these days, and they are quite serious about the curfew down here.”

He stepped in gratefully, looking around the room and hopefully missing the silent exchange Namal and I had before Namal growled, “I’ll be back down in five minutes,” and stalked up the narrow stairs.

I closed the door and turned to face Bel, crossing my arms.

“You look well,” said Bel.

“Thank you,” I replied.

Silence.

“I’m sorry about what happened,” Bel looked at me earnestly, “Between you and the King.”

Incredulous, I swallowed several responses before managing to croak, “Are you?”

There was more bite in the words than I had intended, and Bel’s features became more guarded; I turned away, lifting a hand to my face, hoping to hide just how much I knew about his involvement in Analie’s broken heart. “I was happy, you know,” I said thickly.

“I know, I’m sorry.” His hand brushed my elbow hesitantly. “But it wouldn’t have lasted. It’s not his way.”

“Is he with the Ambassador now?” I asked, lacing my tone with bitterness.

“Maybe,” replied Bel, gently turning me to face him and tugging my hand down. “I’m not sure. Analie, I know it is terrible right now,” he tipped my chin up so he could look into my eyes, “And I know you won’t believe me, but this pain will pass and you will find real love. You will feel whole again, alive again.”

I swallowed. Hard. Heat climbing my cheeks at his touch and the offer in his dark eyes. Either he was a truly world class liar…or I was. The thought made me look down, suddenly interested in his snow spattered boots. I’d been playing one role or another since Galhara burned, and in this moment, I was tired of it. What would Belledi Valredes think if he knew the truth about me? About Tarr? Which side would he be on if he thought he had a choice?

Bel, mistaking my silence, put a hand on my shoulder comfortingly. The touch was inviting, but not pushy, like a charming shop with an open door. But I was keenly aware of the knives still strapped to my back under my knit capelet. There could be no comforting embrace for Analie today, and it was just as well. I forced myself to look up at him, “I appreciate your concern,” my voice warbled as I cast a significant glance at the window, “But you should be going. Curfew.”

Bel followed my look, “Curfew,” he repeated, his voice taking an edge and I could almost hear him blaming the King for the state of the wharfs. He started to turn toward the door, but paused, “Tell your brother to come to my office on Savlong Street, should he ever wish to pursue a trade deal.” Our eyes met again as Bel took my hand and pressed a small metal disc into my hand. “Or if you need to get away from the city for a while. Be far away from the festival.” He closed my fingers around the disc and brought my hand up to his lips. “Good evening, Miss Meredithe.”

He left with a swish of his cloak and I watched him climb into his carriage and disappear down the street. Only after I’d closed and locked the door did I look down at the disc in my hand. It was his brooch, his family’s crest of a leaping fish. I leaned my back against the door and rubbed my thumb over the brooch. If I needed to get away from the city for a while? Dread curled in my gut.

“You made quite an impression,” commented my brother, descending the stairs.

“I hope he doesn’t come back,” I growled.

We settled on chairs in the office, and I told Namal about the exchange, and showed him the brooch. My brother turned the brooch over in his hand, examining it in the lamplight. “It’s certainly fine workmanship. I wonder if he planned to give you the brooch, or if he was being impulsive.”

I rubbed my hands across my face. “Does it matter?”

“Well, if he was being impulsive that makes it feel rather less likely that he’s laying a trap for you.”

“What do you think he means by telling me to get out of the city for a while?”

Namal handed the brooch back to me and leaned back in his chair, “Everyone knows Narya is coming, that’s as good a reason as any to leave town. We prevailed upon our parents to leave Sinensis and get further away—even tried to get Ayglos to join them after scouting, though I doubt he will unless father explicitly commands it. But…Valredes sounds like he has experience with heartbreak. I think he just knows it will be easier for Analie to move on if she moves away.”

Our family was hardly a good example, but he was probably right. I tucked the brooch into my pocket, then remembered everything I wanted to ask Namal. “What were you and Trinh arguing about?”

“Arguing? We were having a stimulating discussion of tactics.”

I raised my brows.

“I’m serious. Trinh Kegan was—is—an excellent general.” Namal shrugged. “It’s also refreshing to talk to someone who has read the same tacticians, philosophers and military histories.”

“Oh.” I was glad that I had left rather than waste time eavesdropping on general debate. I was also glad for Namal to have a friend. Even if it was Trinh Kegan.

My brother picked up some ledgers and placing them on the desk. “I think that there is no chance of us being able to overwhelm the Nether Queen by force.”  He pointed to the ledgers, which he’d arranged in a line across the desk. “Ballroom,” then to the empty desk, “the Bandui,” he placed a ruler in the “river,” “Queen’s barge—most likely—” then scattered ink wells around the barge, “Small craft, lit up to make the river shine.”

I leaned forward, setting my elbows on the desk.

“The King’s guard is made up of men mostly picked and trained by Quill, they can be relied upon to protect the King of Dalyn—so inside the ballroom we have some support if everything really goes badly. The small craft will be crewed partly by the King’s Guard and partly by the Queen’s Guard.” We’ve found a spot we think will work for one or two marksmen to take position on the far side of the river,” here Namal pointed to a spot near my left elbow. “Hopefully no one else will notice that line of sight.”

“The men from Gillenwater are tasked with causing a distraction near the garrison—most of Narya’s force should be stationed there, and we would like to keep them away from the ballroom as long as we can.”

Picking up one of the inkwells I rolled it in my fingers. I knew the plan. “Do you think we should warn Quill that if they see someone sneaking onto the Queen’s barge it’s probably only Domjoa and they should leave him be?”

Namal stilled, blue eyes flicking to me as he growled, “What?”

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83-Scheme within Scheme

 

The second day after meeting with Mistress Cadenera, Trinh arrived at our little apartment and closeted himself in the office with Namal. My brother and I had just finished a couple hours of sparring in the desolate warehouse, and after I cleaned up I sat down at the top of the stairs to try to listen to the men’s discussion. Their voices were only a resonant hum with no definition. After a few minutes I gave up, brazenly walked down the stairs, grabbed my cloak and left. Namal saw me go but didn’t try to stop me.

I walked with my hood up, and a scarf swathed across half my face. A light coating of snow still covered everything but wasn’t enough to slow down the carriages on the streets. The sun was out, and the air was cold enough that I felt as though I glittered like the snow. A few blocks of bleak warehouses gave way to the stores and open-air markets of the shopping district. The markets were crowded. So close to the Midwinter Festival, everyone who had money to spend was out to prepare. It was the biggest festival of the year, as many spent the whole winter planning it. There would be parties all throughout the city, from the highest to the lowest. Entertainment often started early in the day, with musicians and dancing anywhere there was space big enough, and parties continued on into the night and even the morning following. Almost all the nobility and wealthy would start the evening at the palace for the King’s Ball, then later adjourn to parties at the surrounding homes. I wondered what would happen this year. After we interrupted.

The market bustled around me and I enjoyed how normal it felt…except for the fact that I was fairly certain I had never been alone on a city street before. Even with the circus I had always gone places with others. I spied Domjoa flirting with a pretty milliner and stopped by a cart of squash to watch. The squash vender was haggling with someone and paid me no mind as I lingered, watching the black-haired knave over the round vegetables. I wondered who Domjoa had been before becoming a master thief—where had he learned his manners? Was he a rich man’s bored son, or a noble blooded survivor like Quill?

The woman selected a broad brimmed hat and settled it on Domjoa’s head, clucking in admiration. Domjoa postured for a moment, to her delight, before she showed him a hand mirror and he took time to seriously evaluate the hat. This was hardly the weather for a broad brimmed hat, even if it looked like it was made of wool. He bought the hat but had the woman box it up for him. I shook my head and peeled away to follow him just as the squash vender was starting to notice me.

Domjoa stopped at several venders, sometimes buying, sometimes not. He steered clear of the guardsmen who happened through the market on patrol. I took the time to practice being inconspicuous. Jemin would have been proud of me slipping through the crowd and examining wares like someone bored and waiting for someone else. Eventually, Domjoa entered a clothier with a display of ball gowns in the window. I paused at a cart of sweets in sight of the door. I really had no particular reason to follow Domjoa, or to hide from him. I walked up the steps and into the store. Inside, there were a handful of gowns and men’s clothes on display, but mostly the room was tables lined with bolts of fabric of all colors and textures. At the back, there were tall mirrors and a little platform, for fittings. A pair of decorative screens cordoned off the back corners and a long counter graced one wall. A young girl sat behind the counter, her hands full of some dark material she was stitching. An apprentice, most likely. A reedy little man was fussing over a gown on a dress form by the mirrors. I couldn’t see Domjoa.

The apprentice looked up, “Good afternoon, miss. What can we do for you?”

I smiled and approached the counter, wishing I could order a gown or set of clothes or something. It looked like they did excellent work. “I was looking for my friend, a tall man with black hair? I thought I saw him come in here?”

The apprentice’s expression remained warm, but something shifted in her manner. “Black hair?” she asked, setting down her sewing, “I’m not sure if we have had anyone like that in here today.”

The reedy tailor had stilled.

“Oh,” my suspicion thoroughly aroused, I filled my voice with disappointment. “Well, would you mind if I browsed your fabrics?”

“Of course not,” the apprentice smiled. Relieved? “Please, look, my name is Rading if you have any questions.”

“Thank you.” I moved off slowly, taking my time to examine every brocade, silk, cotton and wool to admire the weave, sheen or color. The tailor and apprentice appeared to relax as I browsed, not caring that I made my way closer to the screens at the back of the store. When I reached the end of the tables I slipped behind the screen. As suspected, it was a changing area, with a couple chairs and a clothing rack. A long mirror stood cock eyed from the wall, and I blinked at it for a second before I realized it was a door standing ajar. I stepped forward and eased the mirrored door open enough for me to peer through. A second dressing room opened up before me, and my heart stammered as I saw a man in a black uniform with a black dragon curling across the chest.  A heartbeat later I recognized Domjoa.

My daggers came out almost of their own volition as I stepped in and closed the door behind me. Domjoa looked up and our eyes met in the mirror. Surprise flashed across his face before he smiled. “Your highness, I did not expect to see you here.”

“Explain this.” I let my gaze rake down his body.

“It’s a little side project,” replied the thief, dismissively.

“Side project?”

“Yes,” Domjoa straightened the already straight jacket and fussed with the collar before again admiring himself in the mirror.

“Explain, or I will get blood on your new suit.”

He met my eyes again, this time noticing the violence in them. “It’s nothing that will harm your little scheme.”

I tilted my chin down. Not enough.

With a heavy sigh, the thief continued. “I am not required at the ball, utterly useless in a fight. So, I’ve thought of something productive to do while I wait.”

I waited.

Domjoa shifted, “Narya Magnifique is a monster, and she is incredibly rich and has some of the finest jewels this side of Kelphas. She is obviously going to bring some to wear while she’s here.” Domjoa spread his hands, “I’m going to steal them.”

I should not have been surprised, but for a moment I stared mutely at the thief before throwing my hands in the air, “Domjoa!”

Stepping away from the knives still in my hands, Domjoa said “Don’t shout!”

I sheathed Shiharr and Azzad, readjusting my warm cloak overtop, still glaring at my thief. “Firstly, those jewels will belong to my family or the Kegan’s if we succeed in our mission. Secondly, don’t you think we have enough going on that night?”

“That’s what’s so perfect about this,” replied Domjoa, “No one will be the slightest bit worried about the Queen’s jewels.”

“Domjoa, you’re stealing from me,” I put my hands on my hips.

He held up a finger, “I really don’t see it that way.”

“If you get yourself caught and jeopardize our plans…”

“I won’t be caught,” broke in the thief, “and even if I was, your plans would already be underway. When you succeed, you can set me free at your leisure.”

I shook my head. Domjoa waited a moment before turning again to face the mirror. I watched him adjust the collar, then bend his body this way and that, trying the flexibility of the outfit. I wondered if ordering him to stay would have any affect. It seemed so unlikely that I was too proud to try. “Do you know for a fact this is what her guard’s wear?”

“I do,” Domjoa looked down at himself. “I have connections.”

“Could we get more of these?”

“No.” His tone was firm. “It was a great risk getting this one. You do not want to know what I’m paying the tailor. Additionally, we haven’t the time.”

A knock sounded at the mirrored door, I spun to see the tailor poking his head in. Chagrin spread over his face at the sight of me in his secret dressing room, “Master Domjoa, I apologize for this intrusion,” he pointed at me with his chin.

“It’s alright, Hardy,” replied Domjoa, “She’s one of mine.”

I shot Domjoa a dark look, and he winked.

The tailor nodded. “Is everything to your liking?”

“Yes, it is. You’ve outdone yourself.”

The tailor nodded again, casting a critical eye up and down Domjoa’s dashing figure. “I agree,” he said, without emotion. “Is there anything else?”

“No, thank you.” Domjoa sent him a charming smile, which was ignored as the tailor disappeared back into his shop. The thief turned to me, “Was there anything else, your highness?”

I crossed my arms. “Would you like me to leave?”

“I would like to change out of these clothes.”

I swiveled on my heel and marched out the door after the tailor. I didn’t bother sticking around in the shop, instead slipping into the streets and eventually making my way back to the apartment.

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82-Plots and Plans

 

 

“We’re going to kill Narya Magnifique,” replied Trinh, mildly.

My breath caught, but Mistress Cadenera didn’t choke or recoil. She met Trinh’s stare with such knowing it was evident she’d guessed our purpose already and had simply wanted to know what we’d say. Then she smirked. “I like you. They say you’re the lost prince.” Her eyes flicked to Namal, “Course, they say you’re the lost prince, too. I find that a touch confusing.”

“It seems the Nether Queen leaves a trail of lost princes,” said Namal with a shrug. “Conquest has consequences.”

Mistress Cadenera snorted. “Consequences? That witch doesn’t get consequences near enough.” She leaned forward, “Look here—my son-in-law died in the Cathedral Square and my poor daughter and her babes haven’t stopped weeping since. I like that you’re straight forward, and I like what you aim to do. But if you fail, more heads than yours will roll.”

Trinh remained relaxed in his chair, fingering the handle of his tankard. I had to admire his composure. “We’re aware of that, that’s why I told you our goal.”

She pursed her lips and studied Trinh, then Namal, then Trinh again. She fished a handkerchief out of her pocket and mopped the sweat off her face. “How many of you need in?”

“Four,” replied Namal.

She nodded. “Strapping fellas like you?”

Another nod.

“I could use a few stage hands, to set up beforehand. But, normally most of the hands clear out of the Ball before the performance.”

“That’s fine, if we can get in, we can slip away inside,” replied Trinh, then, seeing the Mistress’s frown he quickly added, “—after we help set up, of course.”

“For this to work,” said the woman, sternly, “I need you and whoever else to report to my theater tomorrow, and every day between. You need to be trained as a hand, and paid as a hand, and work as a hand. I am innocent of your treachery, should you fail.”

“Of course,” said Namal, “They can also perhaps disguise themselves while they work at your theater, and then change at the Ball, so they perhaps won’t be connected to you at all.”

“They?” the woman looked at him sharply, “You’re not one of them?”

Namal inclined his chin slightly, “I have another way into the Ball.”

She chuffed, “Pity.”

I smirked.

Namal looked uncomfortable for a heartbeat before sliding back into his easy bearing. “There is little we can offer you in payment.” Namal slid a slip of paper across the table to the theater mistress.

She looked at the paper, then slid it back. “Pay me double if you succeed. If you fail, I don’t want anyone looking my way or asking where I got my extra money.”

The princes exchanged glances. Then Namal said, “You have our word.”

“Is this agreeable to you, Mistress Caderena?” prompted Trinh.

She drew a deep breath and let it out. Her face burned with intensity. “Yes.” She nodded, as if to herself, then said again. “Yes.” She raised hard eyes to the princes. “Tomorrow, one hour after dawn, I expect your four at my theater ready to work. The other extra hands are reporting at the same time.”  Mistress Cadenera finished the ale in her tankard and stood up, “May Eloi guide your steps,” her voice was gruff, somehow turning the traditional farewell into a raw wish. She turned and made her way back through the crowded room and out through the little door.

“There’s one piece,” said Namal. He looked at Trinh, “You’ve picked your men already?”

“Yes, Baldric and I are too likely to be recognized, so we will sneak in through the tunnels and join the nobility in disguise,” Trinh tipped his head at Baldric, “I’m sending the twins, Rakov and Rae’d, and also Elaer and Jasem, to the theater.” Four of the eight knights who’d been with him when he struck out for Dalyn and arrived six years later. “Have you heard from your brother?”

“Yes,” Namal flicked his eyes to me, “I sent the captain back to him with a raven to go with him. He is leaving tonight to scout up the river.”

Alone. Worry niggled through me, and I reminded myself that one half-blooded prince would be hard to detect, much less catch. Even if his only back up was a bird. Ravens were exceptional birds, many of which would speak human language and they were unparalleled as scouts and messengers. But they were still just a small ball of wings and feathers if you got into a fight.

“Good,” Trinh lifted his tankard. “I’ll pass word to my men tonight. I sent them to find out what barges would be on the river providing lights for the ball. My hope is to set up my marksmen on the river if any of the barges will be tall enough this year.”

“I would get your other two men into the ball, also, if at all possible,” said Namal. “We need as many bodies as we can get, if anything goes wrong I don’t want to be relying on the King’s personal guards to get us out.”

“Moonie knows which bakers are coming in to help the night before,” put in Domjoa. “Perhaps they might need someone to carry bread…”

I leaned out of my shadow, “If we are open to smuggling them in early, couldn’t they take the tunnels, and get someone to steal servant uniforms for them so they can get into the ballroom?” The men looked me. I shrugged, “Assuming, they aren’t all so huge people would get spooked…”

Trinh looked to Baldric, who looked thoughtful. I wondered if he ever spoke. After several long seconds Trinh said, “I’ll talk to Tarr.”

When the ale was finished, we left. Buttoning shirts and over shirts as we ascended the stairs and wrapping up in cloaks when we entered the relief of the cool crisp night and lost ourselves in the swirl of snowflakes.

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81-Heat

We slipped through the dark, silent streets. Three shadows, soon joined by another, Trinh’s Hand, a quiet hulk of a man named Baldric. Our goal was in the food district, which was several long blocks away—longer because of the checkpoints we had to skirt around. Once or twice I looked up at the roofs and wondered if we might just be better off climbing up a building and jumping from one roof to the next. Most of the buildings were close enough to one another. Though, I supposed, such a path would carry us further out of our way. And…Baldric’s close-trimmed beard was gray. He might not be in favor of such endeavors.

The night air was crisp, and flurries of snow began to spiral down from the heavens; Catching light from mysterious places and passing it from one glittering flake to another.

Warehouses turned to row houses, then to buildings with awnings, some with large glass windows. In an alley that reeked so much I tried to hold my breath, Namal knocked on a narrow door. A pair of eyes appeared in the peephole, then disappeared. For a long moment, we waited in silence, listening to the snow. Then, there was a scrape, and a clink, and the door opened. A narrow man stepped back for us to enter. I recognized Shayn, the murderer, and nodded in greeting before following Namal.

Namal led the way down a cramped hall to an even more cramped stair. The smell of pipe smoke, sweat and alcohol reached us only a step before the lilt of a fiddle and the sound of voices. I struggled not to cough as smoke tickled my nose and filled my lungs. The next moment we reached the cellar, which had been converted into a proper tavern. Tables and chairs filled most of the room, and people filled most of the chairs. A tall counter shielded the room from the kitchen which had been set up around the iron stove which normally heated the building above. Between the stove and the number of people, the room was unbearably hot—especially bundled as we were. Most of the people were half undressed, like field hands on an unexpectedly brutal summer day. Namal had already shucked his cloak and unbuttoned his collar. I scrambled to follow suite before I suffocated. This was why we had forgone armor tonight.

A few men and women were dancing in a corner as far from the heat of kitchen as they could get. The fiddler played a jaunty tune—but quietly. Indeed, the whole scene should have been louder—a room full of people drinking, eating, and dancing…but everything was hushed. People talked and laughed in the hushed tones of a library. The cloaks of the revelers lined the room and soaked up the low sounds before they could get far. No patrols would stumble on this place because they heard noise, for sure.

Domjoa, the master thief, swaggered out of the crowd to meet us. “My lords, milday,” he bowed, that smooth, rakish smile on his lips as he kissed my hand. Even sweaty, with his sleeves rolled up and his hair ruffled as if he’d been dancing, Domjoa was handsome. “This way, I’ve got a table for us.”

Trinh and Baldric had also shed their winter cloaks and we all followed Domjoa to the table furthest from the kitchen, positioned against the wall. We were scarcely seated before a young woman delivered two fistfuls of tankards to the table, smiling at Domjoa, who winked at her when he thanked her. Domjoa passed the tankards around. Ale wasn’t my favorite, but it was a cold drink in a hot room. I sat back from the table, sinking into the shadows with my tankard to watch and listen. I was between Namal and Baldric and would be easily overlooked in the shadowy corner.

The lamps lining the room and hanging from a handful of simple chandeliers were hardly enough to pierce the smoke hazed room. It was too hot for hoods, but the underground tavern wasn’t interested in us. Even so, we had each shifted our chairs slightly to angle our backs to wall. Trinh sprawled comfortably, one hand fingering the tankard on the table while the other elbow hooked over the back of the chair. His manner so similar to Tarr’s. Baldric, the gray bearded hulk, hunkered down over his tankard as if it could provide relief from the heat. I thought it disguised his size a little, too. Namal and Domjoa sat nearest the door, both relaxed and angled to watch the room with amused disinterest. I wondered when Namal had mastered this character who oozed lazy charm.

Trinh looked to Namal. “Is she coming?”

My brother nodded, “She said she would.”

“She’s coming,” said Domjoa.

As if in response, a thickset woman entered the dim, hazy room. She already had her cloak over her arm, and she waved the smoke out of her face with a frown.

“Here she is!” Domjoa was already on his feet weaving through the crowd to meet the woman. I watched her approach with interest. She wore plain clothes, dark, but faded, and the cloak over her arm was lined with fur. She was plump, gray haired, and already sweating—and I felt she ought to be a kind cook, beloved of children, instead of the owner of one of the finest theaters in Dalyn with a face lined by heartache.

Domjoa greeted her respectfully, not even gaining a smile in response before leading her to the table. A hard woman indeed, to be unwarmed by Domjoa’s greeting. The woman sat down without waiting for introduction, and immediately claimed one of the tankards. She swept critical eyes over Trinh, Baldric, Namal, and then me in the shadows.

“So, you’re them?” she asked, taking a swallow from the tankard. Sweat beading on her brow.

Namal recovered first, “Mistress Cadenera?”

“I think I expected someone older,” she replied. “Though, I’m not sure why. It’s not as if your ambitions are especially wise.  Stories favor the young and reckless.”

My brother chose to ignore the comment, “Mistress Cadenera, you run the theater which is providing entertainment for the King’s ball, is that correct?”

Mistress Cadenera lifted her chin, “One of them.”

“My associates and I need to get into the ballroom on that day,” Trinh’s blue eyes caught the lamplight, his expression measured and sure, “Perhaps you could help us?”

The Mistress decided to drink half her ale in one swallow before answering. “What are you going to do there?”

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80-Simple

 

Our new little apartment was situated in a warehouse, above the tiny office, in the heart of the warehouse district by the wharfs. Normally, it would’ve housed the clerk or bookkeeper who staffed the office, but we’d stuffed two cots into the tiny room. The apartment’s solitary window looked out on a dirty street, dirty buildings, then a long dirty wharf lined with sad, empty, ships. Beyond the crowded anchorage I could see the mighty Bandui River; strong, wide, deep, and gray as the darkening winter sky above. There were not many people about the wharfs, partly due to winter, partly due to the setting sun, curfew, and the nightly checkpoints that choked the warehouse district.

I turned away from the window and surveyed the bare little bedroom. There was a fireplace and two cots made up with linens far finer than had any right being in this part of town. A door led to a tiny washroom with a toilet and small tub. There was running water…but not warm water. I was glad for my nymph half, which made cold water relatively insignificant. We had no kitchen, but Domjoa had turned up this morning with a small icebox and ice, which he put in the warehouse to help reduce trips out to buy food. Not that we intended to stay past the Midwinter Ball.

Two days had passed without incident while Namal made preparations for this move and Hesperide spread whispers that the King and his mistress were fighting. I had sparred with Quill and Jemin in the King’s chambers and walked morosely through the frozen gardens in hopes that spies would confirm that Analie was unhappy.

Then, on the third morning, Analie had left the palace, sniffling into a handkerchief with her brother in tow. A carriage with three trunks had followed a couple hours later. Gifts for a departing lover.

It was probably the first time the King’s gifts had included sheets, blankets and pillows. Or armor. He’d also sent all the clothes and jewelry I’d worn while living at the palace, most of which we’d sold on the fourth day. Most, but not all. I touched the spot where the gold pendant stamped with ships sat against my skin underneath my tunic.  I had also saved Tarr’s nightshirt—I couldn’t part with it once I’d found it in the trunk tucked beneath my armor. We’d used some of the money to purchase much less conspicuous clothing, as well as some additional…tools. The rest we would dole out slowly and carefully—probably for food, bribes, and possibly even wages.

Now, it was the evening of the fifth day, with five days left before the Nether Queen’s arrival. Seven before the Midwinter Ball. I walked to the only trunk that we’d kept and checked the lock before heading downstairs to the office.  Namal was sitting behind the desk. Bookshelves full of ledgers lined the little room. The ledgers belonged to whomever owned the warehouse before the purge, and they added a feel of legitimacy to the room. The desk, was covered on one side with paper full of numbers which didn’t matter to us, and the rest was spread with maps of the city and surrounding countryside. The room was illuminated by one sad little lamp hanging over the desk, as Namal had already covered the window with thick canvas, tied down tight to keep light from escaping.

Namal looked up when I reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped into the office. “Trinh will be here soon.”

“I can hardly wait.”

My brother gave me a look. ­

I shot the look back at him. “I don’t have to like him.”

“I’m sure he says the same thing about you.”

“Don’t worry, I’d still pull him out of a burning building,” I grumbled, checking my knives. I had a new harness for Shiharr and Azzad that crossed them higher on my back and kept them much better hidden than before. Especially with my thick knit capelet around my shoulders. My stiletto still hid in my bodice—though this bodice was all cotton and wool, rather than silk or taffeta. I’d traded dresses for brown wool trousers that tucked into my tall boots. It wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for a middleclass girl to dress this way for work, sans the knives, and I was happy to embrace the freedom. I dropped into the worn leather chair across from Namal and put my feet on the desk. “Any news from Ayglos?”

Namal nodded. “The captain just left. Says that last night they delivered game to some farmers, rang a bell so they would come out and see Nadine’s silhouette leaving.” My brother paused to roll up the maps. “Your dysfunctional horse has been quite useful for their little project.”

I smirked. “Hook? Glad to know someone’s keeping him moving.” Besides helping to smuggle people farther from the city, Nadine and Ayglos had taken most of the men from Gillenwater to do small good deeds to keep hope alive. Nothing too dangerous, with Namal and I so deep in Dalyn, it would be foolish to have all of the royals in extreme danger at once. Nadine and I, with our matching physical descriptions, played the part of one person. I’d conflated myself and Nelia at the Cymerie, and we’d determined that we didn’t mind confusion on that point. One ghost or another, as far as the world was concerned.  My skin prickled as that voice came to mind and I wondered if Nelia minded her name being used in this fight. I pushed the thought away. “How long will they stay at Sinensis, do you think?”

“Everyone in court has probably forgotten all about them, and it’s not a stretch that the King would have forgotten them as well. They should be perfectly fine to stay put until the ball. Although, Father is considering moving Mother farther away,” Namal’s eyes dropped, “in case the worst should happen.”

“He should. And Nadine. And himself. Maybe Ayglos, too.” Since the worst would be pretty incredibly bad.

A wan smile teased at Namal’s lips, “We need Ayglos.”

“What if,” I leaned forward, “Narya dies in an avalanche on the way here?”

“If she’s arriving in five days then she’s already passed the highest parts of the mountains.”

“A miraculous avalanche.”

“Probably should have started praying for that weeks ago.” Namal bent and retrieved a pair of short swords from under the desk and belted them on. Then he produced another long knife from a drawer and passed it to me. I strapped it to my waist. “Do you have everything you need?” he asked.

“Everything I have.” Which was different, and truer.

“I don’t expect trouble tonight, but it’s best to be prepared.”

“Domjoa set up this meeting, right?”

My brother nodded, “He’s been tremendously free with advice, contacts, and ideas. Makes me suspicious.”

Arching a brow, I said, “He owes me his life.”

“Which is why I am working with his contacts at all,” replied my brother. “I don’t know how much fealty means to a man like Domjoa. Just…keep to the shadows and keep watch, will you?”

I would forgive my brother’s paranoia. It made him rely on me like he would on Ayglos, and I liked that. The sun should be well down by now, I was eager to be off. A little knocked pattern sounded at the door. Finally.

Namal stood and turned down the lamp while I palmed the knife and answered the door.

Trinh stood on the doorstep, face shrouded in the shadows of his cloak. I stood back and he entered. “Are you ready?” he was talking more to Namal than me.

I closed the door and grabbed our cloaks off the hook by the door, tossing Namal his.

Namal smothered the lamp, and then we left. Locking the little office behind us.

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79-Gifted

 

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.”