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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.

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Nelia of Legend

I was in a mood for bold strokes of color, and ended up drawing three cover art concepts. This one is for the River Rebellion. I have this sort of idea that Zare’s swath of white from the Cymerie River will become her trademark in this war.

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62-Hesperide

Rawyn Drayk, the same doctor who had treated my father, poked and prodded me while I stared at the ceiling and tried not to hiss as his fingers moved across my left side. It had been nearly three weeks since the jail break and my side was now a spectacular array of color, bruising that ranged from yellow to green to purple. When I bathed, my blue nymph stripes blended right in with the mayhem.

I sucked in my breath and let it out, my eyes wandering around the King’s bedroom, which had been my bedroom since the jailbreak. The circular room was actually a little tower that swirled out from the palace like an eddy. The bedchamber had many doors, most of which blended into the wall—though none were quite so hidden as the secret passage. The closet, the washroom, and the rest of the suite all branched off where the circle joined the palace. A pair of large graceful windows came next to the doors, then the fireplace, two more windows and then after a space, the secret entrance. Now that I’d been here with the windows, I knew that we were two stories up. The king’s sitting room had a balcony overlooking the garden, and I’d spent a great deal of time these last week in the sitting room staring out the arched doorway.

“You are doing well,” the doctor announced at last, loudly enough for Namal to hear from where he sat by the fireplace. The doctor began to paint my side with a salve strong enough to sting my eyes. “If you can restrain yourself for another two weeks you’ll be well on your way to a full recovery. After that, you can start adding activities again. But slowly,” he added sternly, picking up strips of linen and beginning to wrap my torso. “I think all is well inside, and will continue to mend, but you must not tempt the fates by exerting too soon.”

I nodded, wondering what would be too much. Sparring? Probably. Riding?

As if he could see my thoughts, the doctor paused his work to glare at me. “You may walk over more difficult terrain. Then in two weeks, you may try running or picking up an encyclopedia to see if that causes pain.”

My mouth opened, “That’s it?” I asked, incredulous and horrified.

“Be glad you are alive, child,” grunted the doctor, stooping to wrap again. “A little stronger and that blow would be a good deal harder to recover from. If at all.”

“But…how will I pass the time?”

“I think most noble women read or sew,” replied the doctor.

I cast him a sidelong look. Quill and Jemin had brought me books, and I had read them. But I couldn’t only read dawn to dusk for weeks on end. I was bored out of my mind. I’d been out once in a carriage, early on to introduce Namal to my men, and assure them that I was alright. At least, mostly alright. Namal had also started taking me for short walks as soon as I could glide reasonably well. He wanted me seen walking around whole, to allay suspicion. I thought this precaution was paranoia. Who on earth would associate a jail break with the lowly merchants the King had taken a shine to? But, these walks at least got me out of the King’s suite. A couple times, on particularly sunny days, we had even walked in the gardens despite the cold bite of winter which had now truly arrived.

The doctor finished with the bandage, and straightened. “There. I will be back next week to check on you.”

“Thank you, doctor,” I sat up, genuinely grateful. The doctor had come several times in that first week since I’d been injured. His fears about internal bleeding outweighing the need to avoid suspicion from the court. He cut back visits as quickly as he could, relying on the meticulous devotion of the men surrounding me to follow his instructions.  No one had offered the doctor any explanation for my injury, and he hadn’t asked.

“I’ll send Hesperide in,” said Namal, standing to walk the doctor out of the king’s bedroom.

I nodded and kicked my bare legs slowly against the side of the bed. There was no point in putting the robe back on over my underclothes and bandages, since Hesperide was coming to help me dress. Tarr had turned out to be quite a capable nurse and handmaid, and I had been in too much pain to object to his help in the washroom and with clothes. Once I could see straight, though, I’d insisted that they find a woman to help. Namal disliked the idea of bringing our mother or sister inside the city limits, in fact he hadn’t sent word of the severity of my injury to them for fear they insist on coming. So Tarr suggested bringing in his most trusted servant. Quill hadn’t objected to the idea, and we had to do something because I was still far too stiff to successfully dress or bathe on my own.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that Tarr’s most trusted servant was an exquisitely beautiful woman about his own age. I had wanted to distrust her when we met the first time, but I hadn’t been able to manage it. She was kind, and had a sparkle in her eye which won me over far faster than I liked to admit. She had also taken over the care of Tarr’s rooms, so I had spent a great deal of time with her in the past weeks as she puttered around my prison.

Hesperide appeared in the doorway to the King’s bedroom and I brightened. “Good morning, Hess.”

Hesperide smiled back and crossed to where I sat on the bed, “The doctor says you are recovering well.” Even the servants’ gray clothes and restrained hair didn’t hide her beauty. She had raven hair, freckles dusted over her fair cheeks like the blush of a rose, and her eyes were blue. She was slender, except for the gentle roundness of a child in her belly.

“He also said I still can’t do anything fun,” I slumped my shoulders—though carefully not my ribcage.

“That will come, don’t worry,” assured Hesperide, compassion radiating from her blue eyes. “Let’s get you dressed, you’ll feel better.” She turned and walked into the king’s closet. From behind, you couldn’t really tell she was expecting a baby, much less halfway along. “What would you like to wear today?”

My entirely gifted collection of clothing had been wedged into a section of the king’s sizable closet. I shifted on the bed to look toward the closet. “I would like a riding habit,” I said, loudly.

Her laugh drifted out of the cavern of clothes. “I’m not dressing you in a riding habit.”

“I won’t sneak out to go riding,” I promised.

“I believe you mean that right now,” replied Hesperide, her voice muffled. “But in a few hours your heart will change.”

I sighed, both disappointed and amused. Relieved, even, to have banter in my life. Hesperide was not a normal servant, for certain. She was open and teasing with Quill and Jemin, also. Namal, less so, though I couldn’t imagine anyone teasing Namal except his siblings.

“And when the urge to ride hits, you won’t have yards of fabric between you and stealing a horse from the stables.” Hesperide emerged from the closet with a long, dark blue day dress. “You should wear this.”

I didn’t remember this one. “It’s a beautiful color,” I admitted, reaching out to finger the soft fabric.

She took that as a yes and laid the dress out on the bed while I pushed myself to my feet. Hesperide helped me step into the petticoat, and then slipped the dress deftly over my head and laced up the back. The dress was warm and its tailored lines transformed the stiffness of my bandaged torso into refinement and poise. Moving to the long mirror beside the closet, I was tempted to twirl, but didn’t dare. I’d probably lose my balance and fall over, breaking something else.

Hesperide made a pleased sound. “Now, let me do you your hair. You’ll feel even better about life, then.”

I allowed Hesperide to sit me on a stool in front of the mirror while she picked out my hair and then arranged it in a pretty pile on top of my head. I did feel better, but I also felt like going and doing something. I rolled my lips together in an attempt not to frown as Hesperide finished. “Such fine work and I can’t take it anywhere.”

Hesperide smiled, standing back to admire, “Perhaps you should persuade them to let you walk to the kennels today. You shouldn’t bump into many courtiers down there. Especially not in winter. And I think that being around furry creatures will brighten your mood.”

Not to have my boredom solved so easily, I grumbled, “They probably won’t allow it on the chance that a dog might knock me down.”

“My son will keep the hounds in line, don’t worry,” Hesperide gave me a look that said she knew I was being deliberately grumpy.

“Your son?” How on earth did she have a son old enough to train hounds?

“Yes, you’ve met him in the gardens. The red-headed child who takes the hounds for walks.”

I stared at her. “But…he’s…”

“A very mature five years old.” Pride beamed from her. “He’s tall for his age.”

I gaped, my mouth and eyes wide and distinctly un-ladylike. She propped her hands on her hips, amusement now mingling with her motherly pride. “Don’t tell me you don’t know where babies come from.”

My astonishment shifted into a glare as I felt my ears turn red. “That’s not what—” I was flustered and mumbling, “You’re not more than twenty!”

Hesperide was enjoying my discomfort, but she turned to gather up the brushes and pins. “True, but I was in love.” She paused, her hands full, a distant look in her eyes.

“Did he…die during the siege?” I asked.

Distance dissolved back into amusement as she looked at me. “Just how long do you think pregnancies last?”

“It’s possible!” I defended. I hadn’t tried hard on the math, and frankly didn’t want to.

Hesperide laughed outright and brushed imaginary lint off my dress.

“He’s a fine lad,” I said. To say something. Anything. Then I added, “I would enjoy a trip to the kennels.”

Hesperide’s eyes were still dancing when I left her to join Namal, who was waiting in the sitting room. He was dressed like a wealthy merchant, with a burgundy embroidered waistcoat and matching jacket. He looked up from his reading and smiled when he saw me. “That’s a lovely dress,” he said.

“Thank you,” I lifted the hems and tucked one foot back in the tiniest of curtsies. “Hesperide picked it.”

“I heard,” replied my brother, brow arched.

“Did you also hear her promise it was safe for me to visit the kennels?”

“Yes,” Namal exhaled, I could see him weighing the possibility.

I sat on the edge of the settee where he had been reading and tried to look both imploring and incredibly healthy. I was intensely envious of his activities the past three weeks. He was out in the city every day, meeting people and working to build an underground for getting nymphs out of the city before they could be captured. All under the guise of building trade deals for the family business, of course.

“I guess that’s alright, Zare,” he was reluctant, “I have a meeting in a couple hours, but I believe Jemin is on duty this morning and could take you.”

“I could go alone,” I said.

Namal gave me a look, “You’ve never been seen wandering alone before, why now?”

“I really don’t think people pay that much attention to me.”

My brother stood. “Even if that were the case, I want you to take Jemin with you. He can protect you from boisterous dogs, and possibly keep you from doing anything too strenuous.”

“Alright,” I huffed. Irritated at my restraints. But not too irritated, because this still involved a trip to the kennels and I liked Jemin.

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61-Soup

 

The next time I woke up it was dark except for the fireplace and a lamp flickering on the wall. Tarr was gone. Ache still laced through my body when I tried to move, but overall I felt better than the first time I’d woken. Except I was very hungry. Possibly even ravenous. Carefully I pushed myself into a sitting position.

Movement by the couch caught my eye, I stopped. Quill.

He had been watching the fire, but heard the covers and swiveled. Seeing me, he rose and came to the bedside, his face earnest. “Your Highness, it’s good to see you awake.” He was dressed in the blue uniform of the royal guard, but the first several buttons were undone, declaring him off duty. He was not quite so rakish as the King always appeared, but the overall effect was startlingly disarming.

“Thank you for bringing me back,” I said. “Tarr—the King said you brought me back here.” As if I could have gotten back another way.

He smiled. “How do you feel?”

“Hungry.”

His smile broadened a bit. “That’s good. I will send for food. Everyone else is at dinner, keeping up appearances and all that.” He turned and walked to a door I had never noticed and, opening it, he stepped out, leaving me alone. Before I could be surprised he’d left, he returned and closed the door again. “Food is on its way.”

“Thank you.”

He picked up the chair from the desk and carried it over to the side of the bed. “I guess we’re even, then.” He sat down.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, still feeling like all my energy committed to tasks one at a time.

“You have carried me through a city wounded, and now I have carried you.”

“Oh.” That was…deflating, somehow. As if it were just a score settled. Then I noticed the glint in his eye and growled at him.

The glint blossomed into another smile. “Glad to see you’re not entirely in a fog.”

“You are impossible.”

“So are you,” he leaned back. “Breaking out the King’s prisoners, any old prisoner you wanted. As if they all belonged to you.”

I rolled my eyes, I didn’t think he was really upset with me, but apparently my expansive jailbreak had caused some irritation all around. “What was I supposed to do, leave them behind?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Quill sighed. “Because they were in prison and you didn’t know why they were there.” He lifted a finger, “Their word doesn’t count in this instance.”

“Didn’t one of them find the men a safe place to hide?”

“Yes,” he inclined his head, “For the moment, it seems they are honoring their vow to you. In fact,” the smile was back, “they were extremely distressed when you collapsed.  I think they were worried what I would do to them without you.”

I moaned, “I’m very embarrassed about collapsing.”

“Why?”

“I’m supposed to be this inspiring figure but made a stupid mistake and then fainted in the street before finishing the mission.”

Quill studied me.

I continued, “Then I slept for two days while everything went on without me.”

He folded his arms. “I believe,” he said at last, “they found your toughness while wounded inspiring.”

“I got tackled from behind again—caught by the cloak, then tackled.”

“Stop letting that happen.”

“It’s definitely not something I enjoy.”

“Don’t give up your back—” he leaned forward, “And perhaps we need to get you a cloak that tears off easily.”

“That wouldn’t have helped last night. We were wearing them for disguise.”

“Night before last,” Quill corrected and I grimaced.

There was a knock on the bedroom door, Quill rose and opened it, accepting a tray from a servant and closing it again. He returned to the bedside. I scooted to make room for the tray on top of the covers.

The smell of food made me even hungrier. It was some sort of chicken and vegetable soup, with generously buttered slabs of warm bread on the side. I barely remembered to bless it before starting in on the deliciousness. The soup curled into me, gently filling up the gaping emptiness inside—and much faster than I could have anticipated. “It’s very good,” I commented to Quill, then stopped. “Have you eaten?”

“I had lunch,” he shrugged.

I offered him some bread, “Please…eat something.”

“That’s not necessary,” he said, but accepted the bread. “I’ll eat in the mess hall later.”

I was skeptical but as soon as I was full I pushed the bowl toward Quill. “You can finish this, it must be better than what’s in the mess hall.”

Quill quirked an eyebrow, glancing from the soup to me. “Someone has been in the circus too long. I could have called for food for me, also.” But he picked up the bowl and sampled the soup. Still steaming, and by his look, still delicious.

“I suppose I have been away from this life a while,” I smoothed the blue coverlet over my legs. Between the siege, the circus, and the long days on the road, it had been a long while of seeing food as finite. In the palace of the victor’s pet, there was no need to share food, but I found satisfaction in it anyway. I settled back on the pillows. “What was your life like, before the fall?” It was something I had wanted to ask for weeks, and now—aching, tired, and full—I was finally able to ask.

Quill swallowed his soup, his brown eyes growing distant. “Life was good.”

I waited a moment as he took another spoonful of soup and then realized he thought he had answered the question and wasn’t going to say more. “But what was it like,” I asked again. “What did you do? How did you live?”

He looked at me. “I did what noblemen’s sons did. I learned etiquette, history, strategy, and combat. I served in the palace, but also had plenty of time to be a child climbing trees—and walls, and buildings,” he caught my eye and winked. “l was a very good climber.”

“Were you close to the royal family?”

“You mean, did I know the King well, before all this?”

“Either of them.” I waved a hand. I wasn’t just interested in Tarr.

“Trinh is much older than Tarr, though you wouldn’t know it now. He knew me only peripherally. He was often gone, because Shyr Valla and Hirhel were always fighting sporadically, and Dalyn, as you know, supported Shyr Valla in those conflicts.” Quill finished the soup and set the bowl down. “Tarr is only a year older than me. We were playmates, a few of us were, but we weren’t extremely close.” He shrugged. “The city wasn’t expecting Narya’s army, there was no flight of the women and children as there might have been. When my mother saw that the gates would fall before Dalyn’s army could return, she hid as many of us courtly children as she could get in an orphanage in the city. Clothed in rags so no one would give us a second look.” For the first time, sadness seeped into his posture, permeating even the air around him with weight. My chest tightened just looking at him. “In so doing she preserved the lines of several families, because by day’s end we were orphans in truth.”

“I’m sorry.” The words were inadequate. In a sea of ill fate, I felt untouched. I had lost everything but my family, and so I had lost nothing. How many in Galhara and Dalyn had the same story? My eyes smarted. “I’m so sorry.”

Quill met my gaze and dipped his chin, graceful acknowledgement, before continuing; “When Tarr was crowned, we older boys joined the guard under new names. Tarr, of course, knew who we really were and did not betray us to the queen’s agents.” Sadness pulsed off him again, “The King was in the same situation we were, except in many ways much worse. As captain, I have done my best to fill the King’s personal guard with men who serve the Dalyn, not Hirhel.”

“The King is lucky to have you,” I said.

“Yes, he is.” Hints of a smile played around Quill’s eyes.

Then I asked, “Were you always intending to rebel? Or did this start because of Trinh’s return?”

Quill set the soup bowl on the tray, and then moved the tray to a side table. “She took everything from us, left the greatest houses in ruin.” He said the words without malice. “The tribute she requires is too much, it is stripping the city resources just as surely as a leech. We have never thought of ourselves as serving her. We serve the Kegan line. Everything we do undermines her power. If only a little.”

I watched him appreciatively. I would have expected bitterness. Revenge, or maybe even defeat. But he sat, pensive in the glow of the fireplace, handsome and emitting only strength, sadness, and surety. “What would you be doing now if Dalyn hadn’t fallen?” I was apparently feeling very bold.

“Heavens, I have no idea.” He straightened, extinguishing the mourning that surrounded him. “Enough about me, your Highness. What was your life like before all this?”

“Oh,” I replied, “it was good.”

Quill arched a brow, amused.

Rewarded, I continued, “I don’t remember a time when Hirhel wasn’t warring. But generally, it didn’t really matter. It was frightening, but far away until I was fourteen or so and she started moving toward Galhara. I had school, of course, lots of school. Plenty of court functions, and regularly training with Remko and the guard…and I was teaching my horse, Aurum, to sit. He could already come when called, and rear on command…” I looked down at my hands and absently smoothed the coverlet again. “Nadine was starting to court the prince from Charpolia, Gebbert. He seemed nice, I think they would have been a good match. Father was after Namal to prioritize marriage, too, but Namal resisted for the very reason Father pressed—Hirhel’s rise had them both worried. It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Namal didn’t marry. Otherwise he might have had a wife and infant to get out of the palace when it fell.”

“How did you get out?” asked Quill, quietly.

I looked up, “The same way I got the girls out at Gillenwater.”

Understanding sparked in his eyes and spread across his features. “Of course. But,” his brow furrowed, “Shouldn’t the Nether Queen have known that was a possibility? Didn’t she know Zam the Great married Ayglara of Daisen?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “But Galhara sits atop a cliff, or it sat atop a cliff, and we didn’t have a cistern like Gillenwater’s. Just an underground river that leads to the bay in a fall. The way we left was difficult, even for half-nymphs.” Grueling, really. I shuddered. “We saved only fifty of our household.” My voice was small.

“Fifty!” exclaimed Quill. “All the stories say there were no survivors from the palace. None.”

“All the stories say she called fire upon us from hell, also.” I retorted.

He inclined his head. “Even so. She wiped Shyr Valla off the face of the earth. Before your father climbed up in that wagon, I had no reason to think there were any survivors. Much less fifty.”

Despite the topic, the memory of Quill arguing with Boitumelo in the doctor’s wagon made me smile. It seemed so long ago. “You took it in stride,” I said.

“Good news isn’t hard to take in stride,” he replied.

I smiled again. “I suppose.” I was feeling tired again, which hardly seemed fair since I hadn’t been up that long.

Quill studied me, and I could see in his eyes that he’d noticed my weariness. He leaned forward and handed me a small cup from the side table. “The doctor left this, to help with the pain. Drink, sleep, heal.”

“Please don’t leave me,” I said, surprised at how pathetic I sounded.

“I won’t,” he assured, his voice tender. “Don’t worry.”

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hoopskirt job

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

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