2-Blood and Ashes

A small crowd of figures in dark hoods almost blocked the form of a flailing woman being pinned to the ground. Fury burst through my veins and carried me forward. Quill reached the crowd first and hurled one man into another before hammering his fist into the temple of a man holding a knife. The man fell, driven to the cobbles with all the momentum of Quill’s charge. Angry cries rose from the crowd—which faltered when I hit their flank and dropped two more with my knives before they could think. There had to be fifteen or twenty people in this mob. Almost two dozen people who not only knew about the murders but helped. I ducked a punch from a big man and sliced Azzad across his chest without remorse. Their matching cloaks and—were those candles? —certainly confirmed our ritual theory. I spun and clubbed the next person on the head, “Eliah!” I shouted. I hoped she was already on her way.

I barely saw the jug before a cloud of ash hit me full in the face—it was enough to seal my nostrils and spare my lungs, but my eyes stung. I recoiled, softening the blow that immediately followed the jug. Someone else swung at me from behind but I dodged and, eyes closed, spun a knife into their midsection. The startled grunt was gratifying. Knife fighting blind was not ideal and relied hard on instinct and speed. So, I didn’t think—I daren’t think—I just moved. I heard the moans of the wounded, the slap of boots on cobblestones, the heavy breath and whoosh of air of someone furious swinging for me. I heard the sobbing of the woman—why hadn’t she fled yet? I heard shouts as Eliah and my brother, Ayglos, joined the brawl. And I moved. I moved, striking hard and fast, ducking and spinning and striking again, until I felt space clear around me.

I stood for several heartbeats, Shiharr and Azzad ready, waiting for something else to come at me.

There was nothing but moans and the last sounds of a scuffle some distance away.

“Zare, you alright?” Eliah’s voice.

Straightening, I shifted my knives to one hand and used the other to wipe at my face.

“Stop, stop!” Eliah’s voice was closer, and in a breath, she’d caught my wrist and pulled my hand from my face. I heard fabric tearing and then flinched as she—none too gently—began to wipe the ash off my face. “Your hand is bloody, you’ll just make a bigger mess if you try to clean yourself,” she said.

“Butcher,” I managed, with the last air from my lungs. I kept my nostrils sealed as Eliah worked, despite the fact that it severely limited my ability to complain.

“I’ve had hounds that wiggle less than you,” Eliah sounded quite cheerful. “Smells like someone cleaned their kitchen hearth for this murder.”

She stepped away and I inhaled at last. “Lovely: Greasy murder ash.” I lifted my eyelids, blinking away the sting.

Eliah was standing directly in front of me, her own harlot dress slipping off her shoulder, her face scrunched up critically. “You look awful,” she pronounced, then started using the rag to clean her own savage knife.

“Thanks,” I replied. My hands and knives were slick with blood, and I tried to wipe them clean on my dress—which was also filthy—while I looked around. Sad light from poorly maintained streetlamps illuminated a tableau of bodies—some of them dead, most of them wounded and moaning. My brother was prowling the carnage, dressed like workman but carrying a naked sword and looking terrifying as he pommel-clubbed anyone who tried to get up and run.

Quill was crouched over the prone woman.

“Find us some rope, Eliah. We’re going to need a lot more than we thought.” I crossed the battleground as Eliah snorted. When I reached Quill and the woman, I knelt at her shoulder, “Are you alright?” She didn’t have any enormous wounds I could see, at least.

She blinked up at me, her lips were trembling and she made no attempt to speak. Bruises mottled her pale skin. I felt an urge to stab more people.

“I think she might’ve been kicked in the head. Or she might be drugged. Or both,” said Quill, his glance turned into a frown as he took in my new ghoul-of-ash look, “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” I assured him. “They brought a bucket of ash their murder.”

Quill’s gaze sharpened. We were both remembering the grisly mess we’d found in the Queen’s chambers in Dalyn years ago.

“What about you?” I asked.

He lifted his hands to show me the blood on his knuckles—it was just dark splotches in this light, but I knew what it was.

“Aren’t you carrying knives?” I asked.

“I am. But I wanted to use my fists,” he let coldness into his voice, and it made me love him even more. Quilleran Rhydderick was not a vengeful man, but he was a just one. His righteous fury was something to behold. It probably shouldn’t make my heart beat faster. Perhaps I’d been a mercenary too long.

Turning my focus back to the woman, I tried to look gentle and unthreatening. “I’m going to touch your head to see if you’re bleeding, alright?” I waited for her to acknowledge, and I was pretty sure she nodded. I put my hands on either side of her temple and carefully turned her head to examine the side and back. The darkness made it difficult to tell if the shadows in her hair was blood or grime, and I didn’t dare check with my grubby fingers lest I make her wounds worse. I gave up on her head and did a quick check for broken bones or big gashes on the rest of her. Rope hung loose around her wrists, someone—Quill, most likely—had already cut her free. “Can you sit up?” I asked.

Woodenly, she accepted my help to sit up. It was like moving an oversize doll and made me uneasy. Once upright, she looked around the street at the carnage of her attackers. Drawing up her knees, she hunched over herself, and started to cry. Relieved to see movement and emotion, I sat down on the cobbles next to her and looked over at Quill, “I’ll stay with her.”

He nodded and got to his feet. “I’ll finish this.”

By the time Eliah returned with rope and a few men from the Guard, Ayglos had brought over one of the dark cloaks to wrap around the woman’s shoulders and she’d also accepted my arm around her. While they were shackling the living, a cart arrived for the dead. The Guard were understandably taken aback by the situation. No one had expected a mob. But the cloaks, the ash, the wicked looking dagger Quill held up to the streetlight to inspect…it was enough to make anyone’s skin crawl.

Eventually, I persuaded the woman to her feet and steered her through the cobble streets of the Stone Quarter until I reached Valeria’s shop. It was close to dawn, and the few people who were about were either drunk, or on their way to work. Only one or two looked closely enough to even wonder at the state of two ill-dressed women spattered with blood. I was both irritated and relieved by the time I banged on Valeria’s door.

Valeria had dark, wrinkled, skin and hair that was white with age. Her eyes were sharp, though; she saw the blood immediately and was unsurprised. “Did you get the bastard?”

“Bastards,” I corrected. “Yes. Send for your doctor, though. We think she hit her head, or was drugged, or both.”

“Set her in the kitchen,” ordered Valeria, before disappearing to roust her assistants.

There was a long table with benches in the kitchen, and I helped the woman sit down. She lay her torso on the table and lay her head on her arms. Satisfied she wouldn’t fall off her seat, I turned to deal with the fire. Valeria entered the kitchen and watched, her arms crossed over her dressing gown. Fire building wasn’t my best skill, but I prevailed and coaxed a respectable blaze to life.

“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Valeria, walking forward. “I don’t want you touching it with those hands.”


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Favorite Reads

Hey everyone!

I’m working like a madwoman on River Rebellion. I need to let stories sit a bit before editing, so Hoopskirt goes on the shelf while I tackle River Rebellion and the Badlands Job. This past week I’ve been working on River Rebellion and testing out Scrivener–which is a writing tool much more nimble and complex than Word, for those of you unfamiliar. I think it’ll be really useful. It’s already been useful, helping me portion out chapters better.

River Rebellion was published entirely in 1000+ episodes, so I didn’t have it remotely grouped in chapters. (Badlands was in 500+ word chunks, so I’m growing bit by bit! Hoopskirt was published in 1000+ chunks, but written with Chapters in mind.)


While you’re waiting for me to turn out something new, you should go to Amazon or Kindle and check out T. Kingfisher.

T. Kingfisher is the vaguely absurd pen-name of Ursula Vernon, an author from North Carolina. In another life, she writes children’s books and weird comics. She has been nominated for the World Fantasy and the Eisner, and has won the Hugo, Sequoyah, Nebula, Alfie, WSFA, Coyotl and Ursa Major awards, as well as a half-dozen Junior Library Guild selections. This is the name she uses when writing things for grown-ups. Her work includes multiple fairy-tale retellings and odd little stories about elves and goblins. When she is not writing, she is probably out in the garden, trying to make eye contact with butterflies.

Amazon Author page

I have read four of her books now, and I love them. Deeply.

I started with Paladin’s Grace. Because the blurb just really got me.

A murder mystery. A perfumer. A paladin whose god has died.

It’s funny. It’s heart warming. It’s twisty and exciting.

It has people with middle-aged bodies. It has complex relationships, strong women (some with weapons, some without), a sweet romance, light exploration of grief and purpose. It has consent and people being kind to one another. It has strong men (some with weapons, some without). It has the wit and compassion that is Zale, the priest advocate. It has a holy order devoted to fixing things–which includes an army of priest lawyers instead of sword wielders.

I have also read Paladin’s Strength, Swordheart, and the Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, and they are all excellent. Full of people that feel real, and lines that make me laugh out loud, mystery, peril, and lots of charm.

I read them all on Kindle, and have been strictly pacing myself so I don’t read everything all at once. Gotta spread out my T. Kingfisher fixes.

I hope to collect them all in physical form eventually, because I want those books on my shelf so I can look at them and smile, and page through to laugh at Brindle’s opinions and Zale’s humor, and the incessant knitting of a certain paladin.

17-Change of Plans

The fighting was over when we walked into camp, but they were still quelling the fire. Quill and Eliah entered the orange light with the horses and their unconscious captive. I slipped into camp from the other direction. The leanyodi knew I wasn’t one of them, but the guards and servants might not. Should not, if at all possible. My claim to the horses would just have to go unmade.

I went straight to the leanyodi tent, which was empty, and stripped off my bloodstained and stream-soaked clothes. As soon as I found a fresh pair of breeches and a shirt I went back out, leaving Shiharr and Azzad, my best knives, on my bed hidden under my soiled clothes. Outside, a tight cluster of servants and leanyodi stood between the tents and the campfires. Guards were moving the dead to the edge of the camp, and I saw a few people tending wounded by one of the fires. Druskin and Quill were standing over three bound and kneeling prisoners.

Druskin had found a shirt for his chest, but his sword was still naked and in his hand. He thrummed the rage. Quill stood beside him; arms crossed, feet apart, a rock in a stormy sea.

I slipped up the edge of the group, still barefoot because my boots and socks were on the stream bank. Mercifully, almost everyone in the crowd was half-dressed or clutching a robe. I didn’t stand out.

As I got closer, I could hear Druskin snarling, “You traitorous, sniveling worms. How dare you raise a hand against your liege lady!”

“She’s whoring—” the man didn’t get to finish the sentence. Druskin backhanded him so hard he fell to the ground.

“I would be within my right to kill you right here.” It was the Countess’s voice.

The men flinched as Druskin raised his sword. I flinched, too. Everyone turned to stare at the Countess, who had donned long black robe over her nightgown. Her long black hair was hanging loose down her back and her face was pale in the firelight, but every trace of her earlier trauma was gone. Galo was at her elbow, looking imperious and unimpressed.

The prisoners shifted, I could just a sliver of fear niggling into the hate and disgust on their faces.

“Who sent you?” asked the Countess.

“No one sent us,” said the man in the middle, “We are Wuhn. We are defending the honor of our clan.”

“She is the honor of your clan,” barked Druskin, sword still high.

“You whore us to our enemies!”

“You disgrace Angareth with your treachery,” replied the Countess coolly.

“It was his idea,” one of the men jerked his chin at the man in the middle.

The man’s lip curled. “Coward.”

The Countess lifted her eyes to Druskin and tilted her head just a breath.

Druskin’s sword fell and some of the women screamed. The Countess didn’t flinch as the man in the middle tumbled face first into the ground, unconscious.

The Countess’s voice rang out in clear order, “Bind them and tie them to the remaining carriages.” She turned on her heel and strode back into her tent as her men leapt to obey.


In the churning activity that followed, I tried to slip away to grab my boots from the stream but Druskin saw me and stopped me just on the edge of the firelight, “I want you to stay in the Countess’s tent tonight.”

I blinked at him. “I told you, I’m not a bodyguard.”

“No, but you’re a good person. You killed for her. She needs protection. I’ll have men at the four corners of her tent, but…” he looked away. “I would feel better if you were inside.”

I wanted to say no, mostly because I wanted to sleep and was irritated that he couldn’t just put a guard inside the tent. “How do you know I’m a good person?”

“Maybe I’m wrong about your motives.” He dragged his eyes to mine, “I don’t know how you got to her so quickly, or why, but I know she is still alive because of you.” He knew how close a thing it’d been, and it terrified him. It was none of his doing that the Countess was still alive. He had failed.

I crossed my arms. “Yes, where were you? And what were you doing without a shirt on? With Galo right on your heels with her clothes all askew.” Druskin turned red, as I’d expected, but I wasn’t done. “Are you sleeping with Galo?”

If possible, Druskin got redder, staring down at me with his eyes wide and his mouth open.

“Oh,” I said, surprised, “You are sleeping with Galo.” I’d wondered, given their looks and whispers, but it had been a leap. A leap I’d made mostly just to get under Druskin’s skin.

“Not so loud!” hissed Druskin, glancing around to see if anyone had been close enough to hear. There was a smoldering carriage, prisoners, and wounded men moaning as they were treated. No one in the camp was paying attention to us.

No wonder he’d told Galo immediately about being in my room. And no wonder she’d been so touchy about it. I grinned at him. “Can the leanyodi marry?”

“Yes, they can, but they take a yearlong sabbatical to do so,” he stopped, irritation filling his face, “That’s not important—” Druskin’s jaw clenched as he looked away again. When he spoke again, his voice was pained, “Please stay with the Countess. She is strong, but she has had a terrible fright, and I know your presence would comfort her.”

“Alright. Fine,” I said, “I’ll stay in the Countess’s tent. But I think that you should make it a priority to find and train female guards for your female nobles in the future.”

“It’s been awhile since the Wuhn had need for elite female guards.” Druskin looked relieved, “I didn’t have any who were skilled enough and…” he hadn’t thought he needed them.

I sighed. “I’ll get my knives.”


In the morning, the Countess summoned Druskin, Pontikel and the mercenaries before she had even finished dressing. Brell and Hadella were bustling around the tent packing and Galo had just finished brushing out the Countess’s hair when they all arrived. I was, of course, already there, having spent the night dozing on the ground between the Countess’s cushions and the tent entrance. By the sandy look to everyone’s eyes, no one had really slept the rest of the night, least of all the Countess, who had startled awake frequently.

Druskin looked about as sunny as usual when he walked in, his eyes skipping over the room to inspect the Countess and Galo. The gray bearded Pontikel was so grave he didn’t bother giving me a disapproving look. I’d only just finished dressing in the clothes Galo had brought me from the leanyodi’s tent, and was sitting on a cushion drinking tea. I still didn’t have my boots. Quill and Eliah arrived looking better rested than anyone else. It was not their world which had been upended by violence.

The Countess began, “I will not bring prisoners to Gar Morwen in my wedding train.”

Everyone nodded.

“I will not,” she continued, “waste their execution on an empty moor. Nor will I mark my wedding week with blood. It is to be a time of celebration, and executions in the square will not help with tensions. Druskin, you will send as many men as you must to safely transport them back to Wuhnravinwel. Send a messenger ahead for relief forces, so your men can return to the retinue as soon as possible.”

“But, my lady, this will leave us ill equipped to protect you from another attack,” said Druskin.

Eliah spoke up, “I kept close to the prisoners all night, they spoke of other…dissidents…who might harass the caravan.”


“These are mobs, not assassins,” said Eliah, “They are angry and unpredictable, and if we had time, we could look for the rabble-rousers and contain them.”

“And without time?”

“An overwhelming show of force might be the only way to dissuade night attacks,” said Quill, quietly.

“It’s a little late for that,” snorted Pontikel, “They have already attacked our caravan fully outfitted.”

“And lost soundly,” put in Druskin.

“True, but we don’t want to fight our way to Gar Morwen if we can avoid it.”

“Do you have a specific suggestion, Quilleran?” asked the Countess.

“I propose that we split up the caravan and travel separately. Everyone leaves their ceremonial clothes packed and wears the least distinctive things they can, to look like simple travelers heading to Gar Morwen for the festivities. The caravan can reconvene on the outskirts of Gar Morwen to make a grand entrance, but not before then. This has the added benefit of confusing any real assassins who might seek to murder the Countess on the road.”

A moment of silence met Quill’s proposal. By their faces, everyone hated the idea. But no one offered a better one.

“One of the carriages is badly burnt,” said Druskin. “It will take some time to get it cleaned out.”

“We’ll have to cover crests on the carriages anyway,” added Pontikel.

“It is decided,” declared the Countess, “Focus efforts on one carriage at time. Carriages may leave as they are ready.”


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100 – The Road Ahead

At dusk, we laid the King of Dalyn to rest in an over grown walled garden beside the ruined house. The knights had slowly gathered stone rubble on their patrols throughout the day, and now we all helped raise a cairn over Tarr Kegan’s body. We had nothing to bury with him to indicate rank or honor besides the thin circlet he’d worn in the ballroom. We had no flowers. No tapestries. Not even a sword we could spare. Just broken stone. Hess watched us work from nearby, Tarryn in her arms and Naran clutching her skirt. The other four children clustered around her, watching solemnly as the cairn rose higher. I wondered if any of them had met the man assumed their sire. The man whose generosity and craftiness had backfired on them and torn them from their mothers. Would they hate him if they did understand?

Rock after misshapen rock passed from one calloused hand to another until Tarr’s form was entirely protected by the shattered pieces of Rhydderhall. Nothing but starlight and the glow from the rising moon illuminated Trinh as he climbed up our little mound and set a white piece of marble at the pinnacle. The marble was part of a carved frieze, but all that remained was a ship with three masts riding a wave. Trinh stepped back down and stood facing the cairn, his hands hanging at his sides. For a moment, I could almost see his thoughts: They swirled around him, condemning ghosts crushing him with the enormity of his defeat. It was as if he finally believed, for the first time, that his family had died six years ago and his beloved had not been seen or heard from since. He finally believed, and it would tear him apart.

Hesperide approached the cairn and sank to her knees, putting one hand on the stones. Naran, still at her side, did the same, bowing his little head. Her presence calmed the chaos radiating from Trinh with a leaden blanket of sorrow.

No one said anything.

After several long moments, Trinh put his hand on Hess’s shoulder. She looked up at him, then accepted his help up. Time to mourn was another thing we didn’t have to give Tarr.

We had miles to go tonight, to get as far as we could in different directions and fade into trade routes from different cities. Eventually, we’d all flee west. West, to bright Magadar. To lick our wounds, and to hide Tarr’s heirs. And for my brothers and me, to find our court.

Trinh led Hess back into the ruin where our carefully portioned packs and supplies waited. The rest followed one by one; knights, children, and my brothers each laying a hand on the cairn in farewell before filing back into the desolate villa. I heard one knight mutter, “May the immortal Breath bear you swiftly to Eloi in paradise.” Traditional words.

When it was only Quill and I left in the walled garden. I approached the cairn, stopping at the base and staring at it while I fingered my gold pendant with the sailing ships. How could this cold white pile of rocks contain the red tipped hair and burning blue eyes of that mad, brave, king?

I felt Quill stop beside me. The few hours we’d both been up had been busy dividing the supplies and the money from Tarr’s gifts between the four traveling groups. We’d talked just enough for me to learn that he had barely a scratch after last night’s battles, and that he and the doctor’s son were going with Hess and her children tonight. The children were divided among Trinh’s knights. The Galhirim would be entirely on our own for the first time in our lives. Strange to think we’d made it this far without experiencing that.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you we were staying to face the Huntsmen,” I said, eyes on the cairn, “I wanted to thank you for coming back for us.”

Quill nodded, “It’s what we do, come back for each other.”

I looked at him, then. The moon touched the angles of his face, and I found myself wanting to do the same as he gave me a small smile. I didn’t, but my answering smile felt like a promise. Even as I said, “You still owe me.”

He scoffed, “I don’t think the doctoring counts as many times as you think it does.” He plucked my sleeve right above my stiches. “And stop using your arm to block blades.”

My lips quirked. “I learned from the best.” I tugged his sleeve where he’d taken a sword in Gillenwater, so long ago.

His eyes sparked. Then he asked, “Which of you killed Khattmali?”

I drew a breath and let it out, “I did.”

A pause as satisfaction painted itself across every line of his face.

I continued, “She said she was the foremost of the Queen’s Huntsmen. That she had been rewarded the position in Dalyn to woo Tarr.”

“Huntsmen,” repeated Quill. “Ayglos mentioned them. Said they hunt without hounds.”

I thought of the golden woman who’d helped both Ayglos and I; who had undoubtedly been the one to keep Ayglos from being hit squarely in the spine when the Huntsmen first caught up with us. “I think they hunt,” I hesitated, “…by magic. And I don’t think we killed them all.”

Quill looked thoughtful. “I will find out more about them. Once Hess is safe.” He looked over his shoulder at the villa.

“You’re coming back?” I asked. No one had discussed coming back yet, and I feared he would say no. That he’d stay with Hess, wherever she holed up, and leave this fight for good. For me, the only road away from Dalyn curved right back to it.

Our eyes locked, the moon brightening his gaze with white fire. He was angry. I realized with some surprise that I’d never seen his anger before. Not like this. Quilleran Rhydderick was angry. Not at me, but at Narya Magnifique. Perhaps at himself, too. His voice was low, “We still have to be the ones to write the history.” To tell the real story of Tarr Kegan.

Something in me unfurled, like someone breathed on kindling at just the right moment to give life to fire, and I nodded. Then, crouching, I placed my hand on the stones. My fingers curling around a jagged edge as if I were holding Tarr’s hand. “We’re not done here,” I said half to Quill, half to the silent cairn and the man underneath. “We will be the ghosts who haunt the Nether Queen. The ones she could not catch. Could not kill. The light she could not smother.”


This is the end of The River Rebellion. Zare Caspian will return.

Special thanks to my Patrons, you help make the Legend possible!




“Eloi,” muttered Trinh.

I just stared back at the children who were staring mutely at us. Dark cloaked strangers carrying weapons filled the doorway and they did not move or cry out. Naran was the eldest at six years, the others were clearly younger, two were only just toddlers. I wondered if they could see the blood staining our gear or knew the violence that had swept through the palace. Poor things.

Hess peeled back from Quill, and wiped her eyes, “What are you doing here?” Then, noticing his blood-spattered clothes and weapons, “How did you get in?”

“We’re here to rescue you,” replied Quill.

“Did Tarr send you? They told me he…” she trailed off. Quill said nothing, but his face must have conveyed the truth. Hess bowed her head, her grip tightening on Quill’s biceps till her knuckles turned white.

Quill squeezed her shoulders, “He was brave.”

“He died thinking of you and Naran,” I offered quietly from the doorway.

Hess’s eyes flicked to the door, noticing Trinh and me for the first time. “You’re alive, too,” she managed a weak smile, her eyes bright with tears. “He would be glad.”

“Did they hurt you?” asked Quill.

Hess shook her head. “No,” her lips gave a bitter twist and she laid a hand on her belly, “Too valuable. But these poor babies would be here alone if it weren’t for this child.”

Trinh took a step forward, “We have to go now.”

One of the children on the bed whimpered. Hess looked over and quickly went to them, reaching assuring hands to caress each, “It’s alright, little ones, these are friends.”

“I want momma,” sniffled one child, a little girl with wispy blonde hair.

“No, baby, I’m sorry.” Hess reached out and pulled the little girl close. “I can’t bring you to momma.”  She raised her eyes to Trinh, “I can’t leave them to her.”

Trinh hesitated, then he walked to the bed and sat on the edge. He opened his arms invitingly, addressing the little girl with a tenderness I found surprising from the taciturn prince, “You’re alright, I’ll keep you safe.”

The child looked into his eyes, and then, ignoring the blood on his clothing, reached for him. Trinh picked her up and snuggled her close. He looked at Hess, “There are five of us: We’ll carry them all out.”

One of the other children crawled toward Trinh, reaching to be picked up too. I turned to the closet as Trinh shifted the girl to one arm and scooped up the other child. These babies were not dressed for the cold outside, and if we got out of the palace they were in for a long night and a long cold day. After that, if we were still alive, who knew how far we’d go before sleeping indoors. The closet was about the size of Bel’s, and about as well stocked. Probably belonged to one of Khattmali’s entourage. I managed to find one fur lined cloak and three fine winter weight dresses. When I emerged, Rakov had joined the group in the bedroom. Hesperide had wrapped two of the children in the blanket from the bed, and these were in Rakov’s arms. There had been another blanket on the couch, and this was now wrapped around the children Trinh carried.

“Where is the nearest entrance to the servant’s passages?” asked Trinh as Hess finished tucking the blanket around his charges.

“The Ambassador’s rooms,” replied Hess, “But the next is in an alcove down the hall.”

I extended the fur cloak to Hess, who caught my hand and squeezed it before taking the cloak. I met her eye only briefly, not knowing what to say on this terrible night of terrible things.

“We’ll go there, then,” said Trinh. “Get out of sight as quickly as we can.”

Turning away, I moved where Quill was crouched by Naran. The little boy had one arm around Hew and was listening seriously to whatever Quill was telling him. Naran smiled when he saw me, “Miss Meredithe,” his voice was watery from crying.

“Call me Zare,” I replied, kneeling to wrap the dresses around him. I used their sleeves to tie them around his waist and crisscrossing his chest. Hopefully they would keep him reasonably warm.

“Zare,” Naran tried the name on his tongue. “That’s a funny name.”

I smiled. “No funnier than yours.”

“My name isn’t funny.”

“Exactly,” I patted the bulky knots. It would do.

“Ready, Naran?” asked Quill.

The boy nodded, and Quill picked him up. I collected Hew’s leash and got to my feet. With a glance at the others I led the way out of the room. The door to the hallway was cracked open, letting a thin beam of light slice the room. I could see Ayglos’s shadow shift as we approached, and the door pushed open slowly.

“Are you ready?” asked my brother, without turning to look at us.

“We are,” I replied, pulling the door open just a little further.

“Come quickly, then.”

“Turn right,” said Hess from behind me.

I strode out with Hew, my fingertips brushing the knives on my thigh for comfort. The others followed, Trinh, Hess, Rakov and then Quill. I could imagine the double take as my brother noticed the number of children. Other than Hew’s panting and the occasional sniffle, we were surprisingly quiet. It felt as though we were all holding our breath, and we certainly weren’t moving as quickly as on our trip in. We passed the hallway we’d taken to get here, continuing straight for an excruciating time before Hess whispered, “See those alcoves ahead? Just before that junction? We want alcove on the right.”

I nodded and angled for it. My steps slowed as we got closer to the junction, my skin starting to crawl. It took a second to place the feeling, but it was the same I had felt in the Queen’s rooms when Quill and I had found the remnants of that evil rite. Lightning crackled through me. I scanned the halls, looking for any sign, expecting to see ash, blood, and black feathers. There was nothing. I couldn’t hear anything over Hew’s breathing and my own heartbeat. Gingerly, I approached the alcove and peered inside. It was empty. A couple chairs and a table framed a tapestry. Hess touched my elbow and I jumped, “Behind the tapestry,” she offered, kindly not commenting on my spook.

I stepped into the alcove, every breath expecting something to jump out. I drew a knife before approaching the tapestry and lifting it aside. The passageway was dark. I hooked the tapestry over a knob in the wall and stepped in enough to look for a lamp. There was one, just inside, hanging on a hook just within my reach. Lifting it down, I lit it with a match stored in the base.

The lamp cast yellow light on the wooden walls of the passage, showing it was empty and devoid of dark rituals. Comforted, I handed the lamp to Hess. “Do you know the way?” I asked.

“Yes,” she looked at Trinh, he nodded. Hess took the lead, the men filing in behind her, each heavy laden with wide eyed and silent children.


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90-the apartment

Trinh led the way as we skulked through the darkest shadows. Once or twice we cut through buildings to avoid passing near a patrol. There weren’t as many as I’d expected. Perhaps we’d left the palace in more disarray than I’d thought…or else things had been relaxed for the festival and the military had yet to mobilize fully. It wouldn’t last, but for now we moved quickly. At least until we reached the warehouse where our little apartment was.

Then we waited.

After a few eternities standing in the cold watching for movement or patrols, we scouted the alleys and rooftops. Then, when we found nothing, Quill and I crossed the street. I unlocked the door and Quill stepped in first. He quickly searched the office, then darted upstairs to search up there. I closed and locked the door behind us.

Doubtless, we would have employed this caution regardless. After all, we didn’t know what had become of Lucius Tene, the King’s Guard, or even Domjoa. However, I’d told Bel Valredes my name, and Bel knew where we lived. I could still see the utter incredulity in Namal’s eyes when I’d confessed. As if I’d instead told him I’d decided to marry the noble.

I had spread my hands defensively, “I was angry. He knew what she was going to…that she would…” I couldn’t say it.

“So you decided to trust him with your big secret?” Namal had retorted, aghast.

“No!” I exclaimed, then took a deep breath, trying to be measured, “I called him a traitor. I was angry.”

“Damn it, Zare, he was always a traitor—why did you think differently?” my brother’s voice rose in frustration.

My anger mingled with shame and helplessness. “He might not be evil” really didn’t feel sufficient as an explanation. Nor did “I’m tired of lies.”

“It’s clear,” Quill called from the top of the stairs.

Brought back to the present, I ran up the stairs. Quill had lit the lamp which hung on the wall, the flame was turned down quite low, but it felt bright after the night. I had the trunk unlocked in a moment, and we started pulling out the armor, clothing and bags of money and heaping them on the closest bed. Quill started packing and I grabbed my clothes and armor and went behind him to change. “Don’t look,” I said.

“My lady,” acknowledged Quill, sorting the bounty.

Tarr’s pendant with the sailing ships swung as I stripped off my daggers and ill-fitting clothes.  I shivered as the cool damp of my hair—now contained by a braid—touched my back. Then my fingers touched the cold metal of Bel’s brooch. I nearly threw it across the room. I had thrown it when I’d found it at the villa, still pinned to my trousers. Then I’d wasted several minutes hunting for it on the floor. The brooch might be useful, and it would be silly to get rid of it now.  I pinned the brooch to my shirt before pulling it over my head.  It might as well be within easy reach.

Behind me, Quill said, “Don’t look,” and I heard his shoes drop to the floor, “Namal’s got a lot of clothes in here.”

I narrowly restrained the reflex to look over my shoulder. “Probably not enough to dress all twelve of you, though,” I replied, “Will his armor fit you?”

I slipped on my boots and started buckling on my thigh scabbards.

Quill snorted, “No, that armor was custom made for him.” His feet thunked to the floor again and he walked around the bed to stand in front of me. “The rest of his clothes fit, though.” He was dressed in a shirt and pants that might have been black, and while they weren’t fancy, they were nicer, better fitting, and darker than what he’d had on before. He hadn’t buttoned the collar and he looked like a rogue. It was a good look for him.

“Help me buckle?” I said, turning away to pick up my breastplate. Quill stepped forward, stopping when the lamplight flashed on the brooch.

“Don’t you start,” I growled. “The Valredes crest might be useful. That’s all.”

“I didn’t say anything,” he replied, reaching to help guide the breastplate over my head.

“Out loud.”

He started with the buckles and I contorted to don on my vambraces.

“Why did you tell him your name?”

“I was angry.”

“Do you always spill your guts when you’re angry?”

I shot Quill a look. He shot it back.

“I wanted to hurt him with what he’d done,” I said tersely. “It was stupid and I regret it.”

“You think he really cares for you?”

“I think he probably cared for Analie.”

Quill finished with the buckles and stood back to survey me.

I resisted the urge to cross my arms. “I don’t think he’s all bad.”

“I don’t think many of the men we’ve killed tonight were.” Quill looked me in the eye, “I wouldn’t worry about Valredes. He would have figured out something was up when you started stabbing people, anyway.”

A crash reverberated in the office below. Quill was faster than I was, whipping out a knife and darting down the stairs. I paused to grab the lantern off the hook before following him. Two men were struggling in the office, one was clearly the better fighter and had his opponent pinned to the desk—the ledgers were scattered across the floor. I recognized both men, “Domjoa!” I exclaimed.

“Rakov! It’s alright!” cried Quill at the same moment, sheathing his knife and rushing to intervene before Rakov plastered Domjoa’s face with his fist.

The knight stepped back reluctantly. “We saw him pick the lock and enter the warehouse, I was sent to make sure he didn’t get the jump on you.”

“Thank you,” said Quill.

I hurried to help Domjoa peel himself off the desk. “Are you alright?”

Domjoa straightened his collar, “I’m fine, no thanks to this gentleman.”

“Rakov, this is the Princess’s Thief, Domjoa.” Quill gestured between them, “Domjoa, this is Rakov of the King’s Knights.”

The men eyed each other, then Domjoa turned to me. “What happened at the palace, your Highness?”

“The Queen killed the King before the ball even started, we did not kill her, the palace caught fire, and now we’re racing to rescue the King’s true heir from her before she brings him to Hirhel.” Might as well get it all out.

The thief took a breath, “Is that all?”

“So far. Were you successful?”

A sparkle entered Domjoa’s blue eyes. “Perhaps, your Highness.”

“Good, I need your uniform.”

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.

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.