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89-Into Darkness

 

We left as soon as the men could move. By some mercy we had not been descended upon by hordes of black clad soldiers, though we’d taken the time to thoroughly ransack the villa for supplies. There had only been a handful of horses in the stable, but Namal and most of the knights took them and blazed a trail leading away from the city. Something for the Queen’s soldiers to follow. When they were done being decoys, they’d send the horses on their way, meet up with Trinh’s marksmen, and circle around to the ruins of Rhydderhall to await our return.

I crouched under the bridge to the city between Quill and Trinh. One of Trinh’s knights, a black-haired man named Rakov, was crouched on Trinh’s other side.  Ayglos had gone ahead to steal us a little boat, and there was nothing to do while we waited.  My pack scraped against the stone behind us. It was a miracle we’d gotten this far, picking our way along the stone banks of the river, doing our best to not disturb the snow. The bridge above our heads was lit with so many torches it was one thin strip of day slashed across the river. It had taken a great deal of patience and timing to cross the patch of barren shoreline close to the bridge without being seen. Guards patrolled the road, and we’d heard two mounted companies pass overhead since we’d been here. At least the light above us made the darkness deeper where we hid.

I stared at the dark water of the Bandui, thinking of Tarr’s body, wrapped tightly in stolen sheets. He was strapped to the back of a horse, surrounded by bundles of damp clothes, and unable to enjoy participating in the adventure. So much had happened so quickly. Tarr would be entombed at Rhydderhall. For now, it was the best we could offer him. There hadn’t been time to mourn—or time to rejoice and find out how Ayglos had managed to show up at the right moment. I grimaced. There had been words tossed around while ransacking a winterized villa making frantic new plans, that was all. I’d had no trouble outfitting myself with warm clothes from the combined dressers of all the female servants. The men, though, had had a harder time of it, being as there were a lot more of them. I hugged the bundle of Ayglos’s clothes to my chest. We didn’t have spares, so Ayglos had left his clothes behind on his pirating mission.

The waves on the Bandui sloshed, evidence that boats were moving around somewhere nearby. The river would be busy tonight, especially by the palace. There were waters to search, bodies to dredge, shores to patrol…With my free hand, I caressed the water with my fingertips.

“Zare, are you alright?” Quill’s voice was low.

I looked back at him, not that I could see him in the darkness. “Are you?”

I heard the grimace as he said, “Fair point.”

“What happened in there?” I asked, “How did you get separated?”

The river filled the silence before Quill replied, “When we arrived at the anterooms,” his voice was so heavy, “She said she wanted to speak with him alone.”

Of course, it was that easy. She was the High Queen.

“I came as soon as I heard they’d entered the ballroom without summoning us. When I walked in she already had the knife.” The weight of his failure was tangible in every word, and I felt it gathering in my chest.

I shifted closer to him, cautiously reaching out to find his hand. “There wasn’t anything you could have done. She drew the knife pretty much immediately.”

Quill closed his hand around mine, and I felt myself growing warmer at the strength in his touch.  After a moment he said, “Thank you for coming for me. I probably wouldn’t have survived if you hadn’t come charging over like you did.”

My mind immediately painted a vision of Quill lying dead in the ballroom. I shuddered, closing my eyes to shut out the image behind them. But to Quill I said, “You owe me again.”

“Owe you? I think that makes us even.”

“How’s that?”

He tapped his fingers on my arm to count, “You saved me in Gillenwater, I saved you at the Cymerie, then I saved you again after our little jailbreak, and now you’ve saved me here.”

I wrinkled my nose. “I’m not sure about the jailbreak.”

“Do you think your criminals would have brought you back to the palace where you could recover in style, in character, and with a proper doctor?”

“What about how I kept your wounds from rotting?” I replied, “You were not an easy patient.”

Quill scoffed, “I would have been fine.”

“Something’s coming,” Trinh interrupted.

I put my hand back in the river. He was right. A tiny boat crept along the city’s bank. We held our breath as it crossed the torchlit waters until it finally passed into the shadow of the bridge and disappeared. My spirit was lighter as I drew myself into a crouch and listened to the faint slap of the waves against the boat as it came directly across the river’s current. Moments later, the dark form of a rowboat nosed up to the bank, then Ayglos—a mere black shape himself—surfaced and propped his elbows on the stones. “Need a ride?” I didn’t need to see him to know the satisfied grin on his face.

“Did you have any trouble?” asked Trinh quietly.

“No,” replied Ayglos, “the wharfs are too extensive for them to have a strong net yet. But you’d better get in, the sooner we go, the better.”

We obeyed. Trinh and Rakov, first, then Quill and myself. The men lay down, feet to shoulders, in the bottom, squished together uncomfortably. I spread a blanket over them, and half over myself, curled up in a ball at the stern. If any eyes saw us, hopefully this dark mass would only be a shadow in the night. As soon as we were situated, Ayglos disappeared under the water and towed us into the current. The Bandui did most of the rest, carrying the boat swiftly away from the bridge and its light. I watched the city pass by; the faint glow of celebratory bonfires mingled with the lamplight from windows and carriages. I wondered how many were still celebrating, and how quickly word of the events at the palace would spread through the city.

Eventually, the lights thinned, and we reached the dark, low buildings of the warehouse district. Ayglos guided us in from the center of the river, choosing a smaller wharf full of fishing boats. I wondered if they all belonged to the Valredes family. As soon as we were close enough, I stood and hopped onto the dock, catching the side of the boat and pulling it in. The three men were quick to follow. In a moment Ayglos, too, was standing on the dock dripping puddles everywhere while he untied the rope from his waist that connected him to the boat.

I handed my brother a towel from my pack. He accepted and hurriedly dried off before dressing again with the clothes I handed him. The puddles were turning to ice when we left the docks and faded into the black of the desolate warehouses.

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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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74-Intoxicating

 

“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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Nightrage Rising

A friend of mine just released book two in his series, The Unseen Chronicles. It’s another delightful fantasy adventure, aimed at younger readers than Zare, but the quality of story the whole family will enjoy.

Zare is 17 in her current story, and Essie’s more like 13 in hers, but I imagine they’d get along handsomely.

Alright, here are the details:

Nightrage Rising will release this next Saturday, on December 9th. During this Christmas season the Amazon Kindle e-book will be available for .99 and will be free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. The paperback should be available that same day. Here’s the direct link: http://amzn.to/2AsFwIa
Nightrage Rising is a street-level fantasy-adventure novel with a healthy splash of Nancy Drewish mystery—mixed with a dollop of wit and snark. It is a fast paced, first-person, present-tense story of a girl discovering self-worth, courage and friendship in the face of an unstable kingdom, magical inequality, and a dangerous, seductive cult. If you grab a copy off the shelf and flip to the back cover, here’s what you’ll find:
“Essie Brightsday is blind. But that hasn’t kept her from curses, dragons, or rock basilisks in the past. Now her family lives in the bustling capital of Plen, a far cry from their small farm tucked against the Valley of Fire. Little does she know that a secretive cult is growing in the city, guaranteeing this adventure will be just as eventful as the last…”
 


While Nightrage Rising is the sequel to A Hero’s Curse, it was written to stand on its own. If you missed the first book, don’t worry, you can still jump in, right now. (You can find out more about a A Hero’s Curse here www.psbroaddus.com/a-heros-curse/).
Also, head over to Facebook on Saturday, December 9th, for the launch party. There are always cool guests and giveways. I’ll be on at 4pm, come by!
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68-Late Night Talking

 

It had no face, but It had seen me.

I wanted to run but there was a wall behind me covered in black feathers. Turning, I ran along the wall, even though It could see me. It was getting closer. No matter how hard I ran, I didn’t move faster. My legs slowed to molasses even as my heart thundered in desperation. It was close. I wasn’t going to be fast enough. I scrunched up my eyes. Eloi. I would not be caught. I would escape. It would not end this way. Eloi wouldn’t allow that, would he?

I jolted awake. My fingers clasped the hilts of my daggers and there was lightning in my veins. The dying fire cast a soft orange glow around the King’s bedroom. I was snug beneath the thick covers. Shiharr and Azzad held tight beneath the pillow. Sucking in a deep breath, I willed my heart to slow and my fingers to unwind. There was no blood. There was no monster. I was safe.

Then, I sensed movement. My grip tightened again before Tarr walked across my vision and dropped like a sack of flour onto his couch in front of the fireplace.

I almost drowned in relief. Just Tarr returning at last from his dinner with ministers. I hadn’t seen him since leaving him with Hesperide, and I’d gone to bed shortly after dinner with my brother. Tarr draped his arm over his face, obscuring his silhouette. Not ready to close my eyes again, I pushed back the covers and got to my feet. With a shiver I reached for the robe I’d left by the bed and slipped it on before walking to put another log on the fire.

“You were gone a long time,” I grabbed a blanket from the chair and came to the couch.

“So were you.”

“How as dinner?”

“Scintillating.” His eyes were closed under his arm, and he didn’t move when I spread the blanket over him. He’d changed into his night clothes, but hadn’t buttoned his shirt, put on a robe, or made any other move to stay warm. I could see the goosebumps on his exposed skin and clucked disapprovingly, tugging his shirt closed before tucking the blanket closer. After weeks of close quarters, I had finally stopped blushing because of Tarr’s winks and unbuttoned shirts. I had begun to think that his carelessness of dress and decorum was because he used up all his care dealing with his precarious kingship and had none left for other things. I also rather thought he wouldn’t mind catching his death of cold.

“Have you seen your brother since dinner?” Pushing his legs to one side, I perched on the edge of the couch. Ramrod straight due to my side.

One eye opened a slit, “Yes.”

I was afraid to ask, “He wasn’t…captured…was he?”

“No, he was not.”

Quill had assured us that the rightful king had been given a royal uniform for this precise purpose, and he would be sensible and go by the servant’s passages. But it wasn’t as though the uniform covered his face, and given the way he’d left I wasn’t sure he’d be thinking clearly enough to sneak. Now to the next question I dreaded.  “Did he…tell you about the…” I trailed off, unable to find a gentle way to say “murderous evil ritual performed in your mother’s sitting room.”

“He was as angry as I have ever seen him,” Tarr closed his eye again. “Perhaps even more angry than when word came that Narya was marching on Shyr Valla right after signing a peace treaty.” He let out a shuddering breath, and I could smell alcohol. “I’m grateful to you for cleaning it up. I could not bring myself to go back there.”

“You’re—wait …back?” When he didn’t answer, I plucked his sleeve. “Tarr…back?”

“Yes, back,” he moaned.

I feigned a huff in an effort to get him to look at me. “Here and I was worried about telling you what we’d found.”

Grimace twisting his face, he dropped his arm and opened his eyes. “Sorry,” he said dryly.

I studied Tarr for a moment, his blue eyes were fogged with exhaustion and possibly drink. An awful weight slipped around my shoulders. “You were there when she did it. You know who she killed there.”

Nothing sparked in his face. His eyes wandered to the fire, then he sighed. “As soon as the city was secure she gathered prominent nobles, myself, and my mother, to witness her homage to the fiend who granted her power. She made a grand speech, performed a weird ritual….and then she thanked it with the blood of my mother and her servants.”

“Oh, Tarr.”

He shook his head slightly, dropping his limp hand on my knee. “Stop. So you learned my mother was killed in her room instead of the Cathedral Square. It changes nothing.”

I picked up his hand, wanting to impart comfort without being irritating. And also, consumed with curiosity. “Did you see it? The fiend?”

His eyes were still on the fire. “I saw a rip in the air made of darkness,” he whispered. “And I felt darkness. Not darkness like night, or when a fire goes out—but darkness like your worst thought, your worst feeling.” A sigh shuddered out of him, “It’s not one of my fonder memories.”

I opened my mouth to say “I’m sorry,” but stopped myself.

“Trinh takes it all very personally. As if she picked that room just to spite him.” Tarr sounded so tired. “Maybe she did.”

“Doesn’t she think he’s dead?”

“Sure, but,” he twirled his fingers, “Haven’t you ever done something out of spite?”

“I suppose.”

“You know what I would do out of spite?” he raised his eyes to mine, the fire danced in them, “I would bury her in a casket lined with mirrors. So she would be able to watch herself decay into nothingness.”

I shuddered, “That’s…fair, I suppose. But what if she got out?”

“Heavens, I’d kill her first. I’m spiteful, not stupid.”

A wry smile tipped my lips upward.  “Does she hate mirrors very much?”

Tarr scoffed. “No, she adores gazing at her own beauty. I’m told there are mirrors in every room at Hirhel.”

“Have you ever been to Hirhel?”

“No,” Tar shifted deeper into the couch. “She didn’t start taking young royals to Hirhel until after I turned into a drunken embarrassment.” His lips twisted, “By the time she realized that having a fool for an vassal-king wasn’t always to her advantage it was a little late to form me after her own image—so she sent Khattmali. Spies must have told her I like brunettes—which—” he shrugged, “is true.”

I flicked his wrist.

“I’m actually not sure how much longer I can stall on that front—I don’t have a reputation for being restrained. Khattmali is doing everything in her power to be irresistible, it’s very difficult to cross her without showing how very much I despise her.”

“She wants to be queen?”

A dip of his chin. “Mercifully she knows I’m fickle and prone to moods. Analie Meredithe is a welcome distraction,” he draped his arm over his face again. “Except when I’m trying to sleep after a miserable day.”

I sighed and swiveled to face the fireplace. The crackling of the flames was the only other sound as Tarr’s breathing became deep and regular. “I wonder if we’ll have to fight a demon when we fight her.” I said the words aloud, though Tarr seemed asleep. He didn’t answer. “Does it possess her, do you think?” I asked. Still no answer. “Or did she just…convince it to help her? I wonder what she gave it.” A pause. “What does she want, anyway?”

“An empire,” Tarr’s mumble startled me. “and eternal youth. What else?” Leaving his arm across his face he reached his other hand blindly for my head, awkwardly attempting to push me against the back of the couch, “And I want to sleep.”

I batted his hand away, but stopped talking. Wrapping my arms around myself, I watched the fire creeping along the log in little orange curls until my eyes started to get heavy. Then I dragged myself back to the bed and crawled in.

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66-SOULS

His deep brown eyes opened straight to his soul. How had I forgotten that? I had meant to sound confident, but now as our souls met, I knew he could see the fear deep inside me. Because I could see his.  I looked away, brushing at the dried dirt on my dress. “I’ve never seen this side of you before.”

“What side?”

“The dark side.”

“This is not my dark side,” Quill scoffed. “Trust me.”

“Alright,” I conceded, “the side that feels.” He didn’t contradict me as I brushed the last of the dirt off and started picking at another spot. I stole a glance at him and continued, “I’ve been meaning to ask you how you’ve managed to not be bitter about everything that has happened. This is the closest I’ve ever heard you come to being angry.”

Taking a breath, Quill paused before answering. “It’s a choice. Bitterness only takes the luster off my life, not hers.”  He picked up his head, I knew he was looking at me but I wasn’t ready to let him look into my soul again. “Eloi knows some days are easier than others.”

I nodded, admiring his outlook, and carefully scraping at the dried mud instead of meeting his eyes. I thought of life in Galhara, before the siege. The first time I’d smelled battle, the first time I put Remko’s training to use. The sickening sounds of death, a hospital slick with blood, and the reality of rationed food.  Then of life in the circus, as we snuck through the Nether Queen’s realm hoping only to reach exile in Magadar. I thought of Balleck’s strong hands over mine, teaching me how to spin poi and dance with fire. Of Balleck hiding me when I panicked in the Market Square of Gillenwater. Then of Remko, thrashing and unconscious as Boitumelo stitched up his side and I tried to hold him down.  Of happy, gentle Olena standing over the flaming corpse of her first kill. I remembered crying uncontrollably into Hook’s mane on Ironsides’ farm. The first time I’d cried since leaving my grandfather’s kingdom under the sea. The last time I’d had time to cry at all. I pictured the prison, full of nymphs languishing without water, the Cathedral Square wet with their blood.  I hadn’t had time to think about bitterness, to evaluate how much I hated the woman who had caused all the death in my life. I was busy trying not to be crushed by the weight of everything that needed doing, and everything I could not do. How could I fix this? I, with my injured ribs was not Nelia of Legend.

“Stop that.” Quill’s voice interrupted.

“What?” I was surprised into looking up at him.

“I can see you spiraling, don’t do it.” He was stern. “You’re not despairing by nature, don’t wallow because it seems like the thing to do.”

“I’m not despairing,” it came out as a grumble, “I was just telling you not to despair.”

“Yes,” chuckled Quill, “and then you tripped as you tried to shoulder the sole responsibility of fixing everything yourself.”

I stared at him, wondering how he’d gotten all that from me sitting in silence picking at the dirt on my dress and marveling at the fact that he was right. “I do have a fair amount of responsibility, here,” I said, sounding much more pathetic than I had intended.

“But not alone,” he reminded firmly.

I looked at him, at that soul whose strength ran deep. Part of me wanted to argue, to remind him of all the news he’d just given me, but I smothered that thought. We would be the ones to write the history of this war. Which meant we had to win. We. Warmth bloomed inside, and I let it spread, allowing myself to be buoyed.

Quill smiled. “That’s better.”

I shook my head, trying to stifle my own smile so he wouldn’t see just how soundly he’d succeeded. My mind helpfully reminded me of something else I had to worry about. “So,” I hesitated, “I ran into Khattmali today.”

He stiffened. “What?”

“She came down to the kennels…I’m worried she may have come specifically to meet me.”

“Me too.”

“She said she wants to meet with me to get to know me better, and hear a commoner’s perspective on growing up in Dalyn—because she loves the city so much.”

Quill rested his head against the wall again. “That’s a bit of a joke. She just wants to know what the King sees in you, and how she can use that to her advantage.”

“I know, but…I don’t think I can avoid it.”

“Heh, probably not.” He paused. “Have you ever been a spy, your Highness?”

I scrunched up my face. “No, I don’t think so. Not unless you count infiltrating the circus.”

He smirked.

“The secrets of performance are no small matter.” I tipped my chin up and sniffed with affected pride. “No one guards their secrets like the magician—never did learn how he made doves appear.”

“I believe that,” he rubbed his hand across his face again, the smile lingering. “Do you have a plan?”

“Well, I’ve been playing the invisible merchant girl for weeks, now I just have to add words.” I looked over, “Right?”

“Basically.” After a pause he added, “People see what they want. You have to figure out how to work that to your advantage.”

We fell silent. I began to feel sleep tugging at my eyes. It probably wasn’t safe to return to the King’s chambers, and if we stayed here I would probably fall asleep and keel off the bench. As a child, I would have fallen asleep on my guard’s shoulder without a second thought, but that didn’t seem appropriate anymore. I tended to forget Quill was Captain of the Guard, anyway. “I don’t suppose we could go into the queen’s chambers and find a couch for me to nap on?”

Quill eyed the door for a moment. “I…guess we could…it’s probably very dusty in there.” Turning, he evaluated me. I gave him a bleary look. After a moment’s hesitation, he stood up and tried the door. It stuck, then with a tremble and creak it popped open. A rail crossed the doorway, Quill stepped under it and gingerly crept out of my sight into the chambers beyond. He returned a moment later and offered me his hand, his face unreadable.

Stiffly, I followed him through the tiny door, ducking under the rail and stepping onto a pile of torn cloth. The rail was a curtain rod, one side ripped out of the wall, the other still mounted, so it hung haphazardly, the curtain in a shredded heap beneath it. This chamber was round, like the King’s, but it was in ruin. Images of Rydderhall flashed before my eyes as I followed Quill further in. The bed linens had been tossed around the room, the mattress battered and disgorging feathers.

My foot caught on a broken table leg, I kicked it out of the way. A desk with all the drawers ripped out, an overturned chaise, doors hanging akimbo. We stepped out of the bedroom into the sitting room, where the slaughter of furniture had continued with no mercy. By the balcony doors, a couch lay on its back, with its cushions disemboweled.  There was a pile of shattered wood and glass against one wall, as if someone had practiced throwing chairs like a game of darts—the target had been a large oval mirror with a gilded frame. The frame remained on the wall, bits of glass rimmed the inside like shark teeth

“I’m afraid we won’t find a place for you to rest here,” said Quill.

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65 -Dark Gathers

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I blinked. “He’s…your son? But…Hess said…” I trailed off.

The rakish twinkle returned fully to the King’s eyes and he finished his tea, watching and waiting for me to understand.

A blush crept up my cheeks. “But that means, you and Hess…she’s your…are you still…?” I was far more flummoxed by this than I ought to be. Though, that did explain Naran’s red hair.

“Yes,” Tarr sat up and set his empty cup on the tray. “She is, and I’ve gotten to see much more of her than usual thanks to you.”

I shifted on the couch, trying to readjust my perception of Hesperide. I’d assumed he liked having her around because she was beautiful and kind—somehow her pregnancy had made me think that there was nothing else. An absolutely ridiculous assumption. I turned to Tarr with a start, “Does she think we—that you and I—like the rest of the palace does?”

Tarr gave me an amused look and tugged on his doublet. “You can ask her if you like.”

I stared at him, he couldn’t possibly mean that. “Tarr.”

The King met my eye for a moment then relented with a smirk, “She does not.”

I slumped with relief, and then cringed at the stiffness of my torso. “The baby is yours?”

He nodded, pride warming his features.

Quill returned from his circuit of the chambers the same moment Hesperide returned with a bottle of wine and a glass. They both relaxed a little as they noticed Tarr’s brighter mood. Quill paused behind one of the large chairs in the sitting room and Hesperide came to the couch. She set down the glass and started to pour wine but Tarr reached out. He snagged her hand and tugged her toward him. Hesperide started and stared at him in confusion.

“It’s alright,” he assured her, “Zare knows.”

Hesperide looked at me apologetically, and then allowed herself to be pulled into Tarr’s lap, his arms circled around her. I scooted away to make room for her knees. She snuggled closer to Tarr, settling one arm behind his neck and twining her other hand in his doublet. Tarr closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on her shoulder. A shudder ran through him, not unlike tremors of a wounded man receiving treatment for an awful injury. My insides cringed with foreboding. Hesperide felt the shudder and immediately looked over her shoulder at Quill, a question in her eyes. What had happened today?

The grim look returned to Quill’s handsome face, he gripped the back of the chair. “Thirty nymphs were executed in the Cathedral Square today.”

My stomach grew heavy.

Hesperide began to stroke Tarr’s face. “Oh, Tarr…” her voice was soft.

“Khattmali ordered it this morning; they were charged with attacking the Queen’s forces on the Cymerie River,” continued Quill.

“But they weren’t involved,” I whispered.

“That hardly matters to the Nether Queen.” Quill lifted a shoulder.

“Men and women. I couldn’t do anything to save them,” mumbled the King. “They begged. They all died because I could do nothing.”

Hesperide pulled him close.

“They died,” Quill’s voice was sharper than I’d ever heard it, “because the Nether Queen ordered a public execution to make the people think we’d caught the ones who defied her.”

Tarr didn’t answer.

“They are not the first, and won’t be the last,” Quill snapped. “Not until we can get out from under her.”

“Everyone is dying,” said Tarr, his voice dull.

Hesperide tossed a glance at Quill that said ‘let me handle this’ if ever a look did. Quill grimaced and turned to go. I rose to follow him, giving Tarr’s shoulder a pat as I went. Tarr had become my friend, but with Hesperide there I felt like an intruder. I was also pretty confident she could handle his despair much better than I could. The quiet of her face assured me I was right.

Quill saw me coming and waited for me at the door. “Where can I take you, my lady?” he said wearily.

I looked back at Hesperide and the king. She had taken his face in both her hands and was whispering something to him. “Anywhere you like.”

He followed my glance, his lips turned up wryly, but not enough to chase the sadness from his eyes. He looked back to me, evaluating my muddy dress. “Come on,” he pushed open the door and led the way out of the king’s chambers. The guards at the door saluted him as he passed. They didn’t even look at me.

We didn’t get far down the main corridor before Quill pulled aside a sweeping blue drapery to reveal a dim servant’s passage through the stone. The passageway was barely wide enough for Quill’s shoulders, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Jemin could even fit through these crannies. They weren’t meant for guards, or even food service beyond small plates. These passages were so staff could be ever present, ever invisible, and able to accomplish errands quickly. And indeed, Quill moved swiftly through the little maze and I, already tired from my trip to the kennels, was soon struggling to keep up. Sweat dripped down my back and I concentrated on breathing as I trundled after him, using my hands like another pair of legs propelling me along the walls.

It wasn’t until Quill darted into a side passage to avoid voices ahead that he looked back at me. One glance and worry painted itself across his face and he quickly closed the distance between us. He took my hands, brushing my hair off my sticky forehead and inspecting me. “You’re pale,” his voice was low as he bent close. My heartbeat quickened and I stood very still, finding it very hard to catch my breath with Quill standing so close. “Can you keep going?” he asked.

I nodded quickly. “Just, slower,” the words came out in a gasp.

He grimaced. Keeping hold of my hand, he led the way again, but at a much gentler pace. We took a couple more abrupt turns to avoid servants, and then we came to a narrow stair that smelled dusty and deserted. Quill hauled me up billions of stairs, until we came to a small landing with a window. The landing was only about four feet wide, but after the staircase it felt spacious. A bench sat under the window, and a door opposite. A tiny side table sat beside the bench. The stair continued on after the landing, but Quill directed me to the bench, I sank down gratefully.

He peered out the window for a moment before sitting beside me. “This is a servants’ alcove for what used to be the queen’s chambers. They have not seen use since the fall. We should not be disturbed or heard here.”

I leaned back against the wall, the cool of the stone felt good after our climb. “Thank you.”

Quill grunted, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “The king trusts you a great deal, he doesn’t let many people see him with Hesperide.”

Rolling my head on my neck, I frowned. “You mean, that they are lovers?”

Quill shook his head. “That they are equals. He’s had other women, but Hesperide is special—for a number of reasons.”

“She said something about being in love,” I stopped rolling my neck and leaned my head back against the wall. “She also doesn’t act like any of the servants I’ve met in the palace.”

“Yes, true,” Quill passed his hand over his face, “She is excellent at reading people, and has behaved more like the Hess I remember these past weeks than I have seen…” he trailed off.

The silence stretched for several minutes. I was vaguely aware that I should be feeling more—between the news of executions, my pending interview with the Nether Queen’s ambassador, and of course the curious hints about Hesperide. But I didn’t feel. I was just very, very tired.

Quill’s strained voice interrupted my weary musing, “One moment, I see Hess joking and teasing like when we were kids, and I cannot help but believe we will succeed. The next, I’m watching my king preside while innocent heads roll in the Cathedral Square.”

I looked at him. One hand still covered his face and his shoulders drooped. I was reminded of how he’d looked when we finally got him to Boitumelo’s tent, months ago now. A handsome ragdoll dropped on a bench and left in a desolate posture. Except now instead of black armor he was wearing the blue uniform of the guard.

He continued, “How have we not defeated her yet? How does she take what she wants with barely a fight?” He gestured limply with his free hand, “We have the King of Dalyn—both of them—shouldn’t they be able to just declare us free from her rule? Should not the army rally and push her authority out of the city?”

“The army she built?” I reminded gently. Dalyn had nothing after Shyr Valla fell. The garrison was full of men hired by Narya Magnifique.

“Ah, yes. Her army.” Quill straightened and unfastened the buttons at his throat before leaning against the wall.

“We’re working on building an army of our own,” I reached out and touched his shoulder, “Namal is in the city now meeting with people. You said yourself we have hope now. They will rally around Trinh.”

“Even if they do, history will not be kind to Tarr Kegan.” He paused, his face twisted, “The Nether Queen’s pawn.” He laughed hollowly. “Did he tell you we’re now offering a reward for the capture of nymphs? We’ve had forty souls turned in already and it’s only been a few days. We’re going to have to start building more prisons at this rate—Some have turned out to not be nymphs, and the King had them released. Small comfort.”

No one told me anything, it seemed. I closed my eyes. Tarr’s moodiness was completely justified.

“He gives Namal and Trinh all the information he can, and they save as many as they can before the King’s dragnet sweeps through. It’s like fighting a barn fire with one bucket. A barn fire you’re forced to stoke with your other hand.”

Tarr was the ultimate spy, playing a horrific role in an unreal drama. If he was discovered, he would die, and his efforts would be wasted. If he wasn’t discovered, he would be reviled by the people he strove hardest to protect. I straightened and looked into Quill’s eyes, “Then we just have to make sure we are the ones writing the history.”

He smiled, then. Just a small one. “These will be dark chapters.”

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that one job

That job we’ll always refer back to. It was exotic. It was risky. It was when we stopped lying to ourselves. It’s also when you made me wear that ridiculous dress. #hoopskirtjob

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63-Hounds

The sun was out, but weak. As if it were far too cold to send sunbeams out for long. I didn’t mind. Swathed in a thick black cloak, my stiletto tucked in my bodice, I almost felt strong. Provided I didn’t move too quickly. It felt like ages since I’d been near an animal of any sort. I wished I could go check in on my horses, Hook and Sinker, but they were still at Sinensis so the hounds would have to do. Jemin walked beside me, looking entirely unaffected by the cold weather. He was wearing a cloak over the blue guard uniform, but he let it blow open as if it were worn only for show. His burly form had no need of additional warmth.

Jemin noticed my glance and returned it. “It’s good to see you looking well, Miss Meredithe,” he commented, his teeth flashing through his beard.

“Thank you, Jemin,” I replied. “You look well, also. Winter suits you.”

“Yes, it does,” his smile lingered as the sounds of hounds reached us. We rounded a bend and came upon the long, low building that housed the royal hounds. The side that faced us had one, double door entrance like a barn, and I could see that large fenced runs jutted from either side, and likely ran around the back of the building.

The doors were standing open, and we stepped inside, greeted by a round of baying and the overwhelming smell of dog. The kennels were dim, lit by the doors and the rows of small windows tucked high on the walls.

A middle-aged man in dark work clothes strode up to greet us, “Afternoon, milady.” He took off his hat, revealing thinning gray hair, and bowed. “How can I help ye?” His voice had the thicker accent of the mountain cities. His skin was wrinkled and weather beaten, and his eyes seemed caught in a permanent frown.

“Good afternoon, sir, I would like to meet your hounds,” I replied, inclining my head in greeting.

“Any type in particular, milady?”

“All of them, if you have the time. It’s been frightfully dull indoors.”

The man grunted, “Follow me.” and turned back into the kennel. He headed down the center aisle. Large kennels, the size of generous horse stalls, lined the back and sides of the building, and the hounds set to baying as Jemin and I passed. The man barked, “Quiet!” and a few of the hounds listened, but not many. The walls were wood till about the top of my head, then iron bars stretched up to the ceiling.

He stopped at the first door and pulled it open. A gaggle of calico foxhounds jumped up and swarmed us from where they’d been curled up on straw with the red-headed child. The child leapt to his feet, and cried “Heel!” and the wiggling swarm turned back on itself and converged instead on the child.

“Naran, give the lady a tour of kennels,” ordered the man. “She wants to meet the hounds.”

“Yessir,” said the boy, Naran.

The man grunted again, and without a word of farewell left Jemin and I standing in the doorway with the boy and the foxhounds.

“You can come in, if you want,” offered the boy, his eyes wide. “They won’t hurt you.”

I stepped in and gingerly crouched down, Jemin leaned on the doorframe. Naran approached, the hounds moved around him like his own personal cyclone.

Naran addressed the hounds, “Say hello.” Then he lifted his eyes to mine, pride gleaming as the hounds—working very hard to contain their energy—came to me with tails wagging vigorously.

I reached out both my hands, palms up in invitation and the hounds’ restraint faltered just a little and they surged closer and surrounded me. Wet noses crowded under my hands and I felt paws trampling my cloak. I managed to pat some heads, but there were far too many to give a really good scratching before another hound pushed into the coveted position. The little boy ran his hands affectionately over the hounds’ backs, moving through them as easily as a ship on the sea.

“You haven’t been in the garden in forever,” said Naran.

I looked up at him. “I have not.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” I paused, “It’s winter.” And I got broadsided by a sword a couple weeks ago.

“Oh,” he looked down. “I don’t mind winter.” He had his mother’s eyes, I decided, and her freckles. But where had he gotten the red hair?

“Did you train these hounds?” I asked.

Naran nodded.

“You’ve done a wonderful job.”

The child beamed. “I teach them manners. Mr. Ewald teaches them to hunt. You want to see the rest of my hounds?”

“Of course.”

With a word, the boy shooed the hounds away from the door and excitedly led the way back into the aisle, closing the door behind us. The baying from our entrance had quieted down, and with Naran as our guide it did not resume. All the hounds clearly adored him—some of the hounds were less sure about us, but most were eager and accepting. We met the coon hounds, the wolf hounds, the bird dogs, and the rat hounds. Muddy paws, inquisitive wet noses and tongues impossible to avoid as I patted and scratched as many hounds as I could while listening to Naran talk about the animals. I was going to need a clean gown by the time I got back to the suite. The thick boned bloodhounds were our last stop, and I was happy to find a bale of straw to sit on while Naran told me everything he knew about bloodhounds—in addition to the quirks of the individuals lolling at his feet. One of them, a gawky red-coated hound Naran called Hew, settled his bulk on the straw beside me and placed one oversized paw on my thigh. I took that as an invitation and obliged him by rubbing his head and his large, soft ears. His limpid brown eyes closed in pleasure and suddenly his head was in my lap. By the time Naran was winding down, Hew had both forelegs and his shoulders in my lap, his eyes closed as I stroked his short coat and ruffled his thick folds of skin.

Naran came and plopped on the straw beside me. “Hew likes you!” announced the child with a grin.

“Seems so,” I replied. Hew groaned.

“He’s really just a puppy,” said Naran.

“This huge thing?” I asked, touching a too-big paw and realizing that the hound had probably not grown into them yet.

Naran nodded vigorously. “He’ll get bigger—much bigger.” He spread his hands to demonstrate. “His sire was wolfhound. It was an accident.” The child was very matter of fact.

I arched a brow. Hew’s coat was longer than a normal bloodhound’s, now that I was paying attention, and his face was more angular. I had assumed his gawkiness was youth, but perhaps some of it was the conflict of bloodhound bones and wolfhound build.

Naran continued, “His littermates were sent to some of the other estates to learn to be guard dogs. Hew stayed here. The Hound Master wants to see if it’s an accident worth repeating.”

Leaning back against the wall I dedicated my fingers to stroking Hew’s soft ears. I could feel weariness seeping into me. Just last month I had been walking and jogging for hours over rough terrain, and today a tour of the kennels made me want a nap.

“Miss Meredithe,” Jemin spoke up from the doorway. “Perhaps we should be on our way.”

I looked up at him, hating to leave and hating that I was relieved he’d spoken. “Yes, we should.” I nudged Hew. “Off with you.” The hound moaned in protest. “Hew,” I commanded, “Off.” I shifted my legs so his weight was now slipping toward the floor. Hew picked up his head, gave me a look, then jumped to the ground. Before I could try rising without assistance, Jemin stepped forward and offered his hands. I accepted, and relied much more on them than a lady should.

“Will you come again Miss Meredithe?” asked Naran, standing with his hand on Hew, both watching me with huge, imploring eyes.

I smiled, dusting off my skirts as best I could without bending over. “I would love to. Goodbye, Naran, Hew.”

Jemin set his hand on my elbow and guided me out of the kennels. The air outside felt especially cold after the warmth of the house of hounds, but it was refreshing also. We started up the path back toward the castle. It was uphill, and we walked slowly, Jemin keeping his hand on my elbow. I took careful, deep breathes and I was pleased to find that no searing pain greeted me, just stiffness and a dull ache if I moved wrong.

Jemin’s step faltered and I looked up at him in surprise. His eyes were fixed on the path ahead so I turned to look. Coming down the path toward us, arrayed in a dark green velvet cloak, two guards and a servant in her train, was the Nether Queen’s ambassador, Khattmali.