55-Getting Acquainted

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

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

“And your horses didn’t wander off?”

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

“Shyr Valla was—is it really gone?”

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

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

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

“Sometimes not even then,” commented Tarr.

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

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

“But why would you lie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinh waited, unmoved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

55-Trinh

 

I was next to the King now, and stopped as if I’d been struck. “All of them?”

“She hasn’t done anything like this since she hunted down the most loyal and the seers. It’s been taxes, monuments, rules and favors…people died undeserved deaths but they weren’t hunted like rabbits.”

“There must be hundreds of nymphs in Dalyn,” I said, still disbelieving.

“For generations, the River Folk have been part of the kingdom and commerce of Dalyn. A few hundred souls out of ten thousand…but a few hundred innocent souls in cold blood. A few hundred souls I should protect.” He kicked the grate in front of the fire, I flinched, then he continued, his voice hollow, “I was never going to be the figurehead of this rebellion, but I would have liked to have been a good king. Not remembered as Narya’s pawn.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. Not the figurehead? He was King. Who else would be the figurehead?

“I have to give the order, Zare,” Tarr finally looked at me, pleading, “If I do not, Khattmali will. They will all die brutally, and many in my household will die with them for my insurrection. I do not have the men to resist her, not yet.” His blue eyes were unguarded and radiating pain

I saw another fear in his eyes and whispered it, “And how will they trust you after you have done this?”

Tarr turned back the fire and looked at it as if he might crawl into it. “It’s alright, they don’t have to.” His voice was quiet and I realized suddenly that the Galhirim—that the ghostly girl claiming to be Nelia of legend—was the figurehead for this rebellion.

The thundering in my blood quieted into a smooth and deadly current. I reached out and peeled one of the King’s hands off the mantel then tugged him toward the couch. I perched on the edge and pulled him down next to me, still holding his hand. An idea was forming. It was probably an awful idea. I looked to Quill, he was already watching me as if he could sense what I was thinking.

Before I could say anything, however, a knocking pattern sounded on the secret door. The panel of the wall slipped aside and a man stepped in, followed by a palace guard. Quill and Jemin both bowed, and Tarr turned his head. I stared at the newcomer in shock: He was dressed in dark clothes of fine make, and was wearing a sword. He had blue eyes, light brown hair tipped with copper, and his face…was just like Tarr’s. He stopped short when he noticed me sitting with the King.

“Your Highness,” said Tarr, squeezing my hand. “I would like you to meet my brother, Trinh Kegan, King of Dalyn.”

I should’ve stood up and curtsied, but I sat and stared. Trinh looked a little taken aback himself, but he bowed slightly, “Princess Zare, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I wasn’t expecting you to be here tonight.” He gave his brother a sharp glance.

“Your army disappeared,” I said. “You disappeared.”

Trinh grimaced.

“You rode away and never returned.” I cast a sharp look of my own at Tarr, letting go of his hand, “My father was the only conquered king not personally killed by the Nether Queen.”

“That’s still true,” said Tarr, “It’s a long story.”

“I’m listening,” I growled.

Trinh came around to the front of the couch and Quill brought the chair from the desk for him. “It’s not a story I intended to be telling tonight,” Trinh gave his brother another hard look as he sat down. “We have more pressing matters.”

I was astonished at the sight of a long dead prince, and I was angry at him for being alive while Dalyn fell. He also looked so much like Tarr they could have been twins, though I knew that Trinh was several years older. “Give me the short version,” my tone was tart.

The brothers looked at one another, Trinh was irritated and Tarr was not sorry. My hearted warmed toward him a little. “The Galhirim deserve to know,” stated Tarr, coolly.

Trinh tipped his head and turned to me. “The short version is that I rode out at the head of the army to succor Shyr Valla, which was again under siege by the armies of Hirhel. When we arrived, the armies had withdrawn, leaving an empty camp before the city walls. Fearing something was afoot, I sent scouts into the hills, and myself turned back toward Dalyn with eight of my knights. We were thrown to the ground by wave of power that swept through the forest like a mighty wind. When we got up, we rode hard for Shyr Valla—for that’s whence the power flowed—we found no trace of our army, the camp, or the city. In dismay we turned back to Dalyn. By the mercy of Eloi we met a peddler on the road who told us that Narya had conquered Dalyn and Tarr had been her vassal king for six years.” Here Trinh paused and shook his head, while I tried to grasp what he’d just said. “So I did not ride through the city gates in my golden armor, but snuck in by ways known only to my family and sought to learn where my brother’s loyalties truly lay.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “You were knocked down…and six years passed?”

“Essentially,” replied Trinh.

“But how?”

“I don’t know, it wasn’t my doing.”

“My brother gave me quite a scare when he showed up,” cut in Tarr, picking up my hand again, a gesture of comfort. “I naturally assumed he was a ghost—not only did he look just as I remembered him, but he got past my guards.”

Quill cleared his throat, “He did not sneak past your guards, your Majesty, he convinced them.”

“She stopped time,” I whispered, remembering my first audience with Tarr Kegan.

“She is a petty and jealous human being,” there was a snarl of derision in Trinh’s voice that reminded me that he was perhaps the only living general who had defeated the Nether Queen in battle. I thought of my brothers’ skepticism and looked at Trinh and Tarr closely. Now that I studied, Trinh did look a touch older than Tarr, but certainly not by the ten-year margin he should have been. Either Trinh’s fantastic story was true, or the Tarr had gone through a great deal of trouble to find a look alike. But to what end? What could he possibly gain from such a bizarre story?

53-Messages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is something wrong?” I asked quietly.

“Ravens came from Hirhel today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” said King Tarr, not turning.

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

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

A chill shuddered through me. “Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for Episode 54.

52-In the Library

It took a good twenty minutes of walking to reach the library after lunch. Though I didn’t think Quill had taken the most direct route. We saw a few servants, and very few others on the walk. Quill maintained his military demeanor and I rounded my shoulders and tried to look awed by every graceful hallway instead of merely appreciative. Between the play acting and the stiffness setting in from the morning’s work, I was very relieved when we arrived. The library was so heavily shrouded in quiet that silence stretched into the surrounding halls. Carpet swallowed our footsteps when we entered the dim room. Long gauzy curtains covered the windows on the western wall while splendid chandeliers descended like angels from a vaulted blue heaven to cast a warm golden glow on the room.

I noticed alcoves niched in the walls, some with tables and chairs, others with wing chairs. It was a long room, though not as long as I had been expecting, with a fireplace roaring at the far end. There didn’t appear to be a single soul around. My heartbeat quickened as I took in each delightful detail—each curve of woodwork, the height of the ceiling, the white stone of the fireplace, and above all, the books.

Quill left my side and quickly checked every single aisle and alcove before returning. “We are alone at present.”

I turned slowly and surveyed the tall shelves full of beautiful books. “No librarian?”

He grimaced. “We have one who tends the books, but he doesn’t have much to do.”

“But who answers questions about history, land, and philosophy?”

“There are not many questions that are safe to ask.”

I walked forward, “Do you know where the histories are, at least?”

Quill spread his arms, “The Library of Dalyn is arranged chronologically, you will find history on every shelf, as well as philosophy, economics and literature from the same period.”

My brows shot up in wonder and I picked an aisle at random. Trailing my fingers along the spines of the books as I walked. “Why?”

“Do you arrange yours differently?”

“By subject…you know, history, in one place, philosophy in another…”

“Why would you do that? You can’t truly understand Beltrain’s Treatise without knowing about the wars and famine that led to his writing it?”

“I’d never thought about it. I read the history, and if I want to know what Beltrain wrote I’ll go find that in the philosophy section.”

“But what if someone started in the philosophy section?”

“Then I suppose they find out of Beltrain’s ideas work without context.”

“They don’t. But that person would likely think Beltrain a fool, which he was not.”

I paused, “What on earth did this man write?”

“Satire.”

I stared at Quill.

“It’s brilliant, but makes no sense at all unless you know the story behind it.”

“Maybe I should read that.”

“You’d have to read two hundred years of history first, possibly more.”

“I’m not completely ignorant of history, you know. I had an excellent library and tutors.”

“An excellent library that was organized wrong.”

An excellent library that burned. I pulled a book off the shelf at random and gave Quill an arch look. “Don’t you have work to do?”

“I told your brother I would accompany you. Paperwork can wait.”

I headed for one of the alcoves with comfy chairs and Quill grabbed another book and followed behind me. I settled into one of the chairs, deciding that a merchant’s daughter would certainly pull her feet up under her—something a princess would never do in public. I’d gotten fifteen pages into my book before I realized I wasn’t actually reading, and this was an economics book. I closed it.

Quill looked up and watched me rise and stiffly march down the aisle to put the book back. I returned with Dalyn 2100c-2400c. Amusement glittered in his eyes.

I snuggled back into the chair. “This should be more interesting.” I waved the book.

He dipped his chin. “Most likely.”

“Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking about me getting in my history so I can read that satire.”

“I didn’t say anything.” A moment of silence passed before Quill added, “Anyway, that’s the wrong era of history.”

I shot him a glance, and then deliberately turned the page and made a great effort to actually read the words on the page while looking as stately as possible. I was aware of him smirking and returning to his own book. Then I did truly get drawn into the history book. The eight cities of Daisen Bay had had their share of wars over the ages, and I lost myself in the politics, skirmishes, weather and trade deals of two hundred years ago.

I was reading about a dispute centering on renovations to the cathedral when Quill cleared his throat. “I should bring you back to your rooms.”

I looked up. The dim light from the windows had faded to black, leaving the library to the golden lamps. “What time is it?”

“Dinnertime.”

That hardly seemed possible, but I when I examined my book I was a third of the way through. Come to think of it, I was hungry. I closed the book and uncurled slowly. My body protested and I winced. “What were you reading?” I asked, filling the time as I coaxed myself to stand.

Seven Swords, a novel,” he replied.

“You read novels?”

“Surprised?”

“I was expecting military history…or satire.”

“I read those, too.” He shrugged. “But today, a novel.”

I stretched and almost shook my head, but my neck was sore also. “May I take my book back with me?”

Quill rose, “Of course. You may take as many as you wish, no one will mind.”

We turned and made out way out of the deserted library. There was a bit more of a bustle in the palace halls—people on their way here or there to dine. I wondered how far the gossip had gotten—that the king had given me gifts, and sent for me to join him somewhere for a few hours. Quill seemed to sense my thoughts and moved closer to me. I made myself small and unnoticeable beside him and we made it to my chambers without a single person looking me full in the face, even though a few had greeted the Captain of the Guard.

In my chambers, Quill strode in and habitually checked the entire suite for intruders before coming back to the sitting room where I had stopped to set down my book.

“I have rung for Amantha,” he said, pausing by the settee.

“Thank you.” I shifted, “Should I be expecting the king tonight?”

He shook his head. “The King is not planning to come tonight.”

“Good, because after dinner I’m going to take a long, hot bath. Something I would prefer to do alone.” My cheeks reddened but I continued with just a touch of umbrage, “So unless his Majesty has something truly urgent to discuss, I’m not available this evening.”

Quill bowed slightly at the waist. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought I saw a smile cross his face before he said, “As you wish, milady. I’ll see you in the morning, then.” He turned to go.

“Quill.”

He turned back.

“Thank you—for lessons, and the library.”

“You’re welcome.” He bowed again, then left.

51- Lessons

 

The door opened with a groan and Quill stood behind it. “Come in,” he bowed and stepped out of the way.

We entered and were greeted by a delightful breath of warm air from a cheery little fire. The inside of the building had been carved to resemble the sweeping innards of a gnarled tree. The windows were scattered at irregular heights and sizes, and shaped like knots.  Shelves and a counter ran along the far wall, completely cluttered with bottles, bowls and jars. Most of which looked full, and had labels. The dry, earthy smell of drying herbs made me look up to see the ceiling lined with hanging bunches of rosemary, sage, thyme, and plenty of other plants I didn’t recognize. There was a table shoved against the far wall, and pair of chairs by the fire. A decorative screen, painted with a hunting scene, looked very out of place walling off one corner. Quill’s second in command, Vaudrin, was standing by the fireplace, but the King was nowhere to be seen.

“The King sends his regrets, he will not be joining us today,” said Quill, closing the door behind us.

I could feel Namal’s displeasure and absolutely didn’t look at him.  

“Your Highness,” Quill looked at Namal, “Did the Princess tell you about the training we have to offer you?” He and Vaudrin were both dressed in plain trousers and tunics that allowed for free movement. The matching muted blues suggested this was standard issue military clothing. Except they weren’t wearing shoes.

“She mentioned it,” replied Namal. He was using his schooled, diplomatic tones now. Probably reminding himself that he was upset at the King, not at the guards.

“It is good to keep in training, especially with the coming conflict,” continued Quill, picking up on the diplomatic tones, “Vaudrin and I will teach you some grappling—things learned in dark times and dark places when blades were not practical.”

 “With me in a dress?” I touched the long green skirt of my winter day dress.

“I did think of that,” Quill gestured to the screen. “You’ll find what you need over there. We have clothes for your brother, also.”

I went straight for the screen, smiling in greeting to Vaudrin, who bowed. Behind the screen was another chair, on top of this, folded neatly, were two sets of clothing just like Quill and Vaudrin’s. The buttons on my dress had me calling for Namal, but once freed I changed quickly and left my dress and cloak carefully draped over the back of the chair, shoes and stiletto underneath. I emerged barefoot and Namal headed behind the screen to change also.

Quill and Vaudrin had just finished tossing thick mats across the floor. “Milady,” Quill gestured invitingly at the mat immediately in front of him.

I padding over I could hear Remko’s gruff voice barking “Counterattack!” so clearly it nearly took my breath away. He had taught all the royal children how to use a sword. He’d allowed us to choose the order we learned other weapons, Ayglos had gone straight for the quarterstaff, and I for the knives. Namal the mace, Nadine the bow. We’d learned to use our fists, too. But grappling was new. I pushed aside the memories as I arrived in front of Quill. “He bathes alone,” I announced—quickly, before Namal could finish changing and come out. “You’re welcome.”

Amusement flickered in Quill’s eyes. “Good. Would you like to try a punch again?” he asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

I eyed him distrustfully. “Not especially.”

He grinned. “Turn around.”

I turned slowly. When my back was to Quill he stepped close and snaked his arm around my neck, drawing me against him and squeezing. I gasped and my hands flew to his arm—the sudden panic to breathe distracting me from being snug against his chest. “How do you get out?” his voice was right next to my ear. I threw an elbow back into his ribs, but the angle prevented a good hit. “That’s not how.” If he tightened his arm I would black out, but he was waiting for me to get myself free. I forced my whole body to go limp, deadweight in his arms. Quill’s laugh chuffed in my ear, “Clever, but I might let go and stab you before you could do anything.” I picked up my weight again and lifted a foot as if to stomp on his. “Might work in the right circumstances. Not reliable, though.” He released me and stepped back. I turned to face him, panting, and again irritated at his ability to ask the exact questions I couldn’t answer.

He turned his back and slouched. “Choke me.”

Reluctantly I approached and put my arm around his neck like he had done with mine. He positioned my arm just so, gagged when I squeezed, and then nodded in satisfaction. “Now, pull me back a little so you’re not standing on your toes.”

I did. Then he neatly stepped back and flipped me onto the mats. Flat on my back, I stared up at him in surprise, “What did you do?”

“I’ll show you.” He tugged on my arm and I accepted the help up.

Quill patiently walked me through the movement—deceptive in its utter simplicity—until I could confidently fling him on the ground as easily as he’d tossed me. I barely noticed Namal and Vaudrin working just a few feet away as we worked on chokes and getting out of them for the better part of the morning. When we stopped, I was sweaty, thirsty, hungry, and heady from the work. We sat on the floor and sipped at water that Vaudrin poured for us.

“What’s next?” I asked, after draining my cup.

“Lunch, like as not. Vaudrin is on duty in an hour, I’ve got some work of my own this afternoon,” replied Quill. “There is a library in the palace, if you would like a pleasant way to pass the afternoon.”

“That sounds better than trying to make friends in court,” I replied.

“I don’t think we should be trying to make friends in court,” said Namal. “There are a thousand ways that could go very badly very quickly.”

“True enough,” concurred Quill.

“You won’t find many people in the library,” Vaudrin added, refilling our cups from a large pitcher.

“Where is it?” I wouldn’t mind wandering around the king’s library.

“In the wing opposite the one where you’re staying.”

“I would like to write to my father,” said Namal. “You may go, Zare, if Quill or one of his men will accompany you.”

“I will go with her,” replied Quill.

Not minding the chance to talk with Quill, I decided not to bring up that one of his men was always shadowing us. Instead, I stood, “Well, I guess I’ll go put on something a little more appropriate for lunch.” The heat from the fireplace was oppressive when I passed close to it, and it took some effort to get into my dress with my skin still sticky from the workout. I again had to call for Namal to deal with the buttons. When I was dressed, the building was far too hot, so I stepped outside to wait for Namal. The wet bite in the wind had become a light rain, and I raised the hood of my cloak. I breathed in the cool air and the scent of wood smoke letting the quiet cement the morning’s lessons.

In a few moments, all three men stepped out. “I will come to escort you to the library in an hour, miss,” said Quill, returning to formality in the open air.

I nodded, “Thank you.” Then Namal offered me his arm and we turned to head back up the path toward the palace.

50-Possibly

“I don’t like him,” growled Namal, as much to his tea as to me.

I was almost done with my breakfast, and Namal was sitting across from me. His hands were wrapped around the mug of tea he’d poured himself the moment he’d sat down at my table and he was staring into it as if doing so would solve everything. He was tired, and definitely irritable. He also hadn’t appreciated my opening question about his bathing habits.

Alone. Incidentally. As I’d suspected. I finished my biscuit and washed it down with some of my own tea before asking. “Any reason in particular?”

“He’s uncouth, disorganized, and possibly mad,” replied my brother.

I raised a brow. “That’s all?”

“Even with our current—situation—appearing as he did without warning, in the night, through hidden doors, in his night clothes, was rude and inappropriate at best. Given our history, it was also reckless.”

I wondered if no one had gone before the King in Namal’s chamber, since Quill had stayed behind with me. That would have been reckless. Surely the royal guards would not have allowed that.

“He said he came to see you first,” continued my brother, his voice rising, “Most rude and ungentlemanly conduct, surprising a maiden at night.” Namal lifted his mug as if to drink, then set it down again, “Children should never be crowned. It destroys them.”

“I sincerely doubt that Narya’s goal in crowning Tarr Kegan so young was to raise a sane and wise ruler,” I replied, leaning back in my chair. Maybe Namal had been in the bath when the King unceremoniously entered his room.

Namal’s frown remained, but he inclined his head. “Even so.”

“So, you don’t want to ally with him?”

Namal looked out the window and growled again. For a moment, I thought all I would get were unhappy noises, but at last he said, “I don’t want any of this. But I think he’s sincere.”

“Worth considering, then?” I asked.

Namal turned his blue eyes to me, evaluating. “I know you’re already in this fight body and soul, Zare. I think we should fight Narya, but I’m not yet sure of the best way.”

I swallowed. “Worth considering, then.”

He tipped his head, “I’m uncertain of method and timing. The King is not compelling with his arguments. He is scattered, and either hiding something or incompetent. I haven’t seen enough to know which.” My brother shook his head. “He’s also convinced the Nether Queen is a sorceress.”

“You’re not?” I asked carefully.

“Just because something is unexplained doesn’t mean it is magic.” Namal’s gaze sharpened. “Don’t tell me you believe him.”

I shifted in my seat, toying with my own mug of tea. “They say Shyr Valla and Dalyn’s army are gone without a trace—no bones, no weapons, no stones. Just grass and an eerie feeling in the air.”

My brother scoffed. “They said Caedes the Pirate King was a god who controlled the sea.”

He hadn’t been, just a very skilled seaman who had found a way to make fog—which he used to blind and terrify his enemies.

“But a city, Namal,” I protested, “How do you hide a city? Such that people can ride through the empty meadow where it once sat?”

“Pay off a few scouts,” replied Namal. “That’s all it takes.”

I slumped back, unhappy but unwilling to argue more. I was still certain that Quill had seen the spot for himself. Though I didn’t feel like bringing that up in case Namal decided to believe Quill had been bribed. Then the person I trusted most in the city would be deemed untrustworthy.  I changed the topic. “Did the king tell you about our grappling lessons?”

“Our what?”

“Grappling lessons, Quill has arranged for us to have them.” Perhaps the King didn’t know. Or if he did, he seemed preoccupied enough to either forget to say or just assume someone else would.

Namal’s expression showed he was annoyed at being the last to find out. “How are they justifying grappling lessons for a spice merchant?”

I shrugged. “He didn’t say.”

A soft knock on the chamber door sounded, and then Amantha entered. “Message for you, Miss Meredithe.” She handed me a folded paper, sealed with blue wax stamped with the King’s seal.

“Thank you.” I broke the seal, very aware of Namal’s territorial bristle and Amantha’s lingering presence. I read the note, a blush touched my cheeks. Oh, people would talk alright. Turning to Namal, I infused my voice with breathless excitement. “His Majesty has invited me to join him in the garden!”

I saw several responses storm by in Namal’s eyes, but he schooled his face into delight at his sister’s good fortune. “That’s wonderful, my sister. I will walk you out.”

“Amantha, would you fetch our cloaks? And the broach from my nightstand.”

“Yes, Miss Meredithe.” Amantha hurried off. I was certain she’d been close enough to read the note. At least enough to see that it started with “Sweet Analie.” Amantha hadn’t asked any questions this morning when shed opened the blinds, though she’d noticed the broach on the nightstand immediately. Doubtless she’d found the stiletto under my pillow when she’d made the bed. The knife was now tucked in my bodice, and I folded the note and tucked it in my bodice also.

As soon as she was gone, Namal growled. “Broach?”

“A gift from the king. It’s our cover, Namal,” I scolded.

“I don’t like it.”

I rolled my eyes and stood. “It’s not as though I’ll ruin the family name.”

“That’s not the point.” Namal stood and had to swallow the rest of his lecture because Amantha returned with a dark winter cloak for him. As soon as his was clasped she retrieved a cloak for me from the dressing room, and then pinned the broach over the clasp. I touched the flower admiringly.

“That’s a lovely gift,” said Namal brightly, entirely for Amantha’s benefit.

“Isn’t it?”

We left the room and made our way through the palace and out to the gardens. It was colder today, and there was a wet bite in the wind. I pulled the cloak close. “The note said to take the center path all the way back to the pergola, then turn left.”

Namal didn’t reply.  The center path wound through a maze of evergreen shrubs and trees that hid us from most prying eyes. Even walking quickly, it was ten or fifteen minutes before we reached the pergola. Then we turned left and kept walking. I didn’t tell Namal the note’s directions had ended there, and was grateful when he didn’t ask any questions. We came to a copse of poplar trees, and nestled among these was a wooden building. Its walls were carved to resemble an extremely large and…boxy…tree trunk, and it was completely surrounded by the tall many-fingered poplars. In summertime, I imagined the building would be almost invisible until you were right on top of it.  It had a chimney, and a thin wisp of smoke was curling out of it. This had to be the place. I turned off the path and went to the door of the strange little building—which was painted a dull green—and knocked.

49-Fists

 

Quill made no move to follow his King. He was still behind me, beside the settee, even after the King disappeared into the darkness of the closet. I waited a heartbeat and whirled with my fist flying. Quill ducked the blow, barely. Surprise flashed across his face, but was replaced quickly by wariness. I swung again with a snarl. He ducked again and stepped back, taking a fighting stance. The blue robe slipped from my shoulders as I followed him, “How could you let him surprise me like that?” I demanded, trying the right hook again.

Quill dodged, but understanding dawned. “I apologize,” he threw a fist of his own and energy thrilled through me as I leapt aside, “He is the King.”

“He defers to you,” I swung again, almost grazed him.

Quill scoffed, “When he likes.”

“You could have warned me,” I said, “Tossed me a robe when you came in.” I advanced a few steps and he retreated, carefully avoiding furniture.

“I did give you a robe.” He jabbed twice.

“Later!” I ducked and tried to slide a punch under his guard.

Quill twisted and caught my wrist. “I’m glad the King is negotiating with your brother; do you settle all disputes this way?”

I hissed and threw my other fist at his gut.

He leapt back, softening the hit, but approval glimmered in his eyes when he looked back at me. “Better. Now, how do you get your wrist back?”

I tried to wrench free and failed. I swiveled and pulled some more. His fingers were like a noose, the more I struggled the tighter they got. I stopped and glared at him, thinking of all the fights I’d survived before this one, and hating him for being better than I was.

“Find the thumb, that’s the gap you’ll escape through, there you are, now rotate your elbow toward the mine and step into me.”

Grudgingly I followed his instructions, and my wrist ripped out of his grasp easily.

“Good!” He wasn’t the slightest bit ruffled by all this.

“Neat trick,” I said, rubbing my wrist, which stung from the intensity of his grip. “But I’m still angry with you,” it came out as a mumble as I walked back to the spot my robe fell, picked it up and slid my arms through the sleeves.

Quill was watching me, face of a schoolmaster, his thumbs hooked on his belt casually, as if he sparred with princesses in their nighties on a regular basis. Which couldn’t be true—Dalyn had no princesses.

“You’re lucky, you know,” I flourished the collar of the robe, “What would you have done if I’d been taking a bath when you walked in?”

His brown eyes softened. “I am sorry, your Highness, for allowing the King to sneak up on you.”

I lowered my chin. “I forgive you.”

“I thought Jemin told you about your cover for seeing the King.”

“He told me people would assume—he didn’t tell me the King would show up in my room in the dead of night! Through my closet, no less!”

“I’m sorry,” he said again, “Next time I will try to give warning, and if I cannot manage that, a robe immediately.” He spread his hands, placating. He was dressed in the dark blue, gold trimmed uniform of the palace guard. It fit him impeccably well, and made him look rather dashing. The sword at his waist had a plain hilt, and I noted the glinting of a couple knives on his belt. I studied him for a moment longer, then let out a breath and relaxed. “May we sit?” he asked, noticing.

The relief I’d felt when I’d first seen him came back as I returned to the chair by the fireplace where I had been curled up earlier. Quill sat on the edge of the chair opposite and removing one of his knives, presented the hilt to me. “I stayed to give you this.”

I accepted the small stiletto, examining the filigreed scabbard and then the blade itself.

“It’s small enough to be tucked into a boot or bodice, you are to wear it at all times.” His dark eyes were deadly serious. “This broach,” he held out something small and glittering, “opens, here, like this.”  Two silver leaves covered in engraving cupped a flower with round petals. Engraving swirled on the petals also, and tiny diamonds winked in the lamplight. Quill gripped the flower and pulled it away from the leaves, revealing a savage looking push knife. “You should be able to wear it with all your cloaks, an obvious gift showing the king’s favor.” He closed the broach and laid it on my palm. “I always have one man assigned to you, and one to your brother. More would cause more harm than good. They are dressed as servants, and will not approach you unless you are in danger.”

“They were with us today, then,” I said. I hadn’t noticed them, but they were likely the ones reporting our movements to the king. I would look for them tomorrow.

“I have also arranged for you both to receive grappling instruction, starting tomorrow, because I would greatly prefer that you not leave puddles of blood or a body behind should you have to fight while you are in hiding here.”

I remembered the soldiers in Gillenwater from whom I’d rescued the girls and thought that grappling would have been useful to know then. “I look forward to it.” My eyes drifted to the golden river insignia on Quill’s shoulder, then trailed down his once injured arm. “How are your wounds?”

“Nearly whole,” he replied, looking down at his arm and leg. “You’ll be glad to know that Rawyn Drayk has seen them and applauded their care.”

I swelled a little. Boitumelo would be proud.

“Of course,” continued Quill, mischief gleaming in his eyes, “I told him they were only a few days old instead of two weeks old.”

“Of course you did,” I snorted. “And it’s nearly true, too, considering how rough you were on them.”

He shrugged. “I did what was necessary.”

I looked at him, turning the broach over in my hand. “I’m sorry for punching you earlier.”

A smile touched his eyes, “I forgive you.”

“Does the King know your real name?”

“We knew each other before.”

“What about the general?” The young general who’d been at dinner.

“Not that I’m aware of. It’s a big city, a large court, and I’ve never told him.”

“Can we trust him?”

“The general? If the King and Khattmali issued opposing orders, I think he would follow Khattmali.”

“Why?”

“You are full of questions. Her word is the word of the Nether Queen,” replied Quill, simply. Then he added, “She ordered a manhunt when the caravan showed up without your father. It is one of those search parties we credited with rescuing Alban and Analie.”

“Oh.” I sunk deeper in the chair.

“They are still looking, combing the land. This evening reports came back that they found the smashed carriage—with no bodies inside. I think Khattmali suspects that nymphs were involved—or she will, when it is revealed for certain that your father yet lives. We have some nymphs living in Dalyn—on the water, of course, fishermen and navigators mostly. I fear Khattmali will turn on them. Jemin told me of your stripes…Do the servants…have they seen you?” his face reddened slightly, “Have they seen you wet?”

I shook my head. “No, I’ve been insisting on bathing alone.”

“What about Namal?”

“I doubt it, he has a handmaid.”

Quill’s brow furrowed, as if puzzled by the inference, but he said, “Please find out for sure. I would prefer to know if the staff know.”

I arched a brow at being given a task.

He didn’t notice. He was looking at the book I’d discarded to arm myself with the statuette. He picked the volume up from the side table. “Dioreth and the Dragon. I haven’t read this in a long time.”

“Is it good?” I asked.

“Only if you enjoy stories about adventures, honor and romance,” he set the book back down and I squinted at him, unable to tell if he was recommending the book or not. “Don’t stay up too late, Princess.” He stood to his feet and bowed. “I will see you tomorrow.”

48-Tarr Kegan

48- Tarr Kegan

 

The King? Here? Now? I could have throttled Quill. But instead, I put down the statuette, lifted the skirts of my nightie and curtsied as the handsome King emerged from my closet also in his night clothes. Dear heaven.

“Your Majesty,” I said, willing the flames off my cheeks.

“Your Highness.” He had a long blue robe—which he let hang open over his loose pants and half-open tunic as he bowed slightly in return. When he straightened, he gestured to the settee. “Please, sit with me.”

“Of course.”

He sat, or lolled, into the settee as if this was his sitting room—which, I suppose it was—and indicated for me to sit beside him. Dear heaven. I could play his game. I tucked one leg under me and lounged across the other half of the settee as if it belonged just as much to me as it did to him. I lazily combed my fingers through my hair and pretended I was wearing a fine silk gown rather than a nightie. I was going to slug Quill first chance I got.

“I must apologize for dinner last night,” said the King.

The sincerity in his voice surprised me into meeting his graze. I was doubly surprised to find nothing of the flirting idiot from the night before.

“And also,” he continued, his blue eyes grave, “for sneaking up on you like this. It is not the way I would have preferred to meet either daughter of King Zam the Great of Galhara.”

There was more unsaid—much more. He was every bit as aware as I was that without Narya the Nether Queen, Tarr would not be King, and he and I probably would have met at a state dinner. Perhaps courting me, perhaps Nadine. Though, she was older than him, so it might have been me. What a strange thought: We might have hit it off, gotten married, and then I’d be living in some villa like Sinensis—a living bond between two states. Our greatest danger: Boredom.

We stared at one another for a long second before Tarr continued. “The Captain has seen to it that we will not be disturbed,” Tarr nodded to Quill, who was still standing by the dressing room door, “But I’m certain that the entire palace will know I have been here before tomorrow ends. People may even speak to you if you go out exploring again.” His tone was dry.

“What a pity, your majesty,” I smiled ruefully, “I so enjoyed the quiet.”  I wasn’t surprised he knew about our movements, though I hadn’t noticed anyone in particular monitoring us.

Tarr smiled back, it was like pulling a blanket off a lantern, the change in his face was so encompassing. “My Captain speaks highly of you, and he is never impressed by anyone, so naturally I had to meet you for myself. Anyone valiant enough to defy the Nether Queen with such cheek is well worth the risk.”

I felt a blush spread up my neck and cheeks. “The captain is doubtless downplaying his role.”

“That is likely,” agreed the young King, “but even so. It may be that the rumor of your deeds will spread hope. Rumor is already spreading freely among soldier and servant, and I know that some among the nobility are whispering.” Here a wicked light gleamed in his eyes and I wondered if he were spreading the rumors himself. “Khattmali was furious when the caravan arrived without its carriage or prisoners, and with stories of a ghostly girl claiming to be Nelia of legend…I ordered the men flogged and confined for a time so she wouldn’t have them killed. I don’t envy her having to tell the Queen that her prisoners were lost.”

“No, indeed,” I replied, containing a shudder.

“Some recent discoveries have caused me to believe the Nether Queen can be stopped.” Tarr rolled his head back and looked at Quill before looking back to me. “Not the least of which being the discovery that Zam the Great somehow escaped her clutches. Do you realize, Princess, that your father is the only conquered King not to be personally killed by the Nether Queen?”

I swallowed. “I didn’t know that.” We’d seen the queen’s banner among her troops during the last days, the banner that said their queen was among them. Perhaps the only thing that had saved Namal or Ayglos from Tarr’s fate had been the unlucky explosion of the nymph’s fire. “Is she really a sorceress?” the question popped out before I could stop it.

Anger kindled in the King’s eyes, “Oh, yes. She is. Most of the stories are true.” All languor vanished from his body as he sat up, “My brother, the crown prince and general of our armies, was in the mountains with the bulk of our forces to protect our ally Shyr Valla from the jealous Queen of Hirhel. They’d been fighting off and on for four years. The only thing different about this battle is it came on the heels of a treaty we all thought would end the conflict.” He scoffed. “We all thought she was just a jealous queen. Until she swallowed our armies in darkness, then took our city as easily as buying a box of sweets. She doesn’t waste energy on small magic—no parlor tricks from Narya Magnifique. No,” He was talking quickly now, “She saves her magic for things like destroying cities without a trace, and stopping time. Shyr Valla is gone as if it has never been. We are lucky, I suppose, she didn’t do the same to Dalyn. But she needs us, needs our trade, needs our command of the river. Why rebuild what’s already here? It doesn’t take magic to terrorize a city—she threw a few things in, fire that burns on water—soldiers who materialize out of thin air.” the King leaned into me, eyes narrow with intensity, I stood my ground waiting for him to notice how close he was. “But she has secrets, things the seers could tell us. I know because she hunted them down and slaughtered them in the city square, just as she slaughtered my father and his advisors.”

A shiver ran down my spine. I wasn’t sure how much was terror at the reality of Narya’s power and how much was due to having the King’s face inches from mine, his eyes blazing. “Your Majesty,” I lifted a hand and dared to press it against his shoulder, “Please.”

Tarr blinked, his eyes cleared and he seemed to notice for the first time that he was practically in my lap. He slumped back, suddenly drained, and turned his face to the fire. “She crowned me the same day.” His voice was hoarse now. “I was fourteen.”

Fourteen.  “I’m sorry.”

“She promised to take care of me, but also to kill everyone I loved if I ever turned against her.” He said the words mundanely, as if mentioning an errand completed.

I shivered again, and then Quill was draping a thick robe around my shoulders. Our eyes met, he dipped his chin ever so slightly. His assuring look made tangible by the weight and warmth of the robe. I took a deep breath and turned to the King. “My brother, Namal, is supposed to meet with you to discuss an alliance.”

“Yes,” Tarr waved a hand, “I will meet with your brother next.”

“You know Galhara burned,” I said. “Our entire palace, and a fair portion of the city is nothing but cinders now. We do not know what remains of our surrounding lands, or most of our court. We may not bring much to your rebellion.”

“Anything is not nothing,” replied Tarr Kegan. “A rebellion has to start somewhere. Since the Queen lost the entire royal family and most of the nobility in that fire, Galhara is ruled by a sniveling weasel she dug out of the merchant’s guild.”

I hadn’t heard that. We hadn’t exactly mingled outside the circus, and never asked after our city for fear of being discovered.

“Once word spreads that the rightful heirs of Galhara live, that Zam the Great lives, then your surviving court will gather.” He tore his gaze from the fire and looked at me again. “Thirty years ago, your father defeated Caedes the Pirate King and his armada, thereby freeing the coastal regions from the terrors of Caedes brutality.”

I was well familiar with the story.

“He became the first king to also hold lands under the sea,” continued Tarr, “I loved his history when I was a child. And now he is also the first king to escape the clutches of Narya Magnific.”

I shifted uncomfortably. The province that came with my mother’s hand in marriage had been no secret–which made our escape that much more incredible because the Nether Queen’s forces should have known to look for a waterway under Galhara; should have known to hunt us in the waves under the cliff. They hadn’t known, somehow, and neither had Quill’s men. Now it felt like a secret, and hearing it so freely referenced made me feel exposed.

Tarr’s voice grew soft, “People would rally, if they knew…” He opened his mouth again as if to say more, then closed it.

We were silent for a few minutes. I fingered the thick robe—blue, like the King’s, I noticed—and wondered how Namal would react to the King’s story about Narya’s power. If he would brush it off like Ayglos had. If it would push our father into alliance or away from it. Tarr Kegan stared into the fire, his face brooding. He just a year older than Ayglos, and he’d spent the last six serving the ruler who had destroyed his brother and murdered his father.  I could imagine myself in his place all too easily, and I pulled the robe closer to ward off the thoughts. “Why now, your majesty?” I asked. “Why rebel now?”

Tarr glanced at me, “I have been rebelling every day since she murdered my parents.”

“What did you mean when you said she stopped time?”

The King didn’t react to my question and I began to wonder if he’d heard me.

“Captain? What time is it?” he said at last.

“It is eleven, your Majesty,” replied Quill, he was still standing close to me.

The King stood and stretched, “I should go meet with your brother, before it gets too much later. My men will stay guarding your rooms so it appears I am still here, with you.”

I stood also, irritated that he hadn’t answered my question and not certain whether or not I should show it.

Tarr Kegan took my hand and kissed it. “I will come tomorrow night if I can, or send for you if possible. I enjoyed our visit. Good night.” He turned and strode to my dressing room and vanished with a swish of his blue robe.

47-Dinner with the King

Ambassador Khattmali from Hirhel was not the man who had been ambassador to Galhara. For starters, she was a woman. She was perhaps in her thirties, raven haired and breathtakingly beautiful in her evening gown of gold silk. Her long fingers flashed and glittered with rings in the candlelight. She moved like honey, smooth and without waste. Her eyes, which raked over me sharply when we were introduced, were dark and cunning. I didn’t like when she looked at me, as if she were peeling back each layer of my skin to learn everything about me. She was seated on the king’s left and often touched him possessively. Her presence motivated me to keep quiet unless spoken to.

King Tarr Kegan of Dalyn, however, lounged in his gilded chair and threw smiles around like rose petals at a wedding. His hair was light brown, and looked reddish in this light. He was handsome, of slighter build than Quill, or even my brothers, and left the throat of his very fine shirt unbuttoned for a rakish look. After we’d been presented—and he’d gushed about the bravery of his men who’d happened upon our trouble—Tarr didn’t say much to us. He also didn’t seem to mind the petting from Khattmali—even once picking up her hand and kissing it. But he kept catching my eye and winking, and I had no difficulty at all blushing like a merchant’s daughter. Which I hated.

The general and chief advisor were there, also. The advisor was a gray-haired man, but the general was baby faced and looked about the same age as the king. Neither man was eager to talk with Namal and I present. It was a mercy when the king called for musicians, and their music filled the many voids in conversation. The food was excellent, but it was difficult to enjoy it in this strained company. It was also so much more food than I was accustomed to, especially of late, that I was dangerously full and feeling awful far before we reached the end.

I wished I dared examine the royal guards who were tucked unobtrusively in the shadows. I would dearly love to see a friendly face, and wondered if I knew any of the men present.

Finally, dinner ended, the king and his courtiers left, then Namal and I were guided back to our chambers by a servant dressed in gray. I walked into my rooms, glad of the fire, and glad of the open door leading to a welcoming canopy bed. I didn’t bother undressing, just kicked off my shoes and crawled under the covers. Wrapping my arms around my poor stomach I wished I felt well enough to truly appreciate my first night back in a good bed.

When I woke up, Amantha was tending the fireplace at the end of the bed and sun was streaming through a window that had been covered yesterday. I was hungry.

“Good morning, Miss Meredithe.” Amantha walked to the bed. “May I help you out of that gown?”

I pushed back the covers and sat up slowly. The dress would recover, I supposed, looking at the horrible wrinkles. I’d slept quite well and had no regrets. “Good morning.”  I slid my feet to the floor and stood blearily.

“I came to help you change last night, but you were already asleep.” Amantha began unbuttoning the dress. “I did not wish to disturb you.”

“I was very tired,” I replied, stepping out of the dress and into the robe she had ready.

She draped the dress over her arm, and I caught curiosity in her eyes before she said, “The bath is ready for you.”

“I bathe alone,” I announced. Then, wondering if I’d been to assertive, added, “If that’s alright,” and dropped my eyes shyly.

“As you wish,” Amantha turned away. “I will get your clothes ready.”

We parted ways in the sitting room; she to the dressing room and I to the steam filled washroom and closed the door. Someday, I promised myself, I would have a slow bath. Today, however, I rushed through the washing and got to the drying quickly enough that my stripes barely had a chance to bloom before fading. Then I presented myself to Amantha who quietly slipped a chemise over my head and then helped me into a sumptuous dark green overdress. This one had gold embroidery about the cuffs and throat instead of black, and was as flattering as it was comfortable. I had missed clothes like this. Amantha fussed with the frothy cuffs and part of me wanted to tell her about the wildly uncomfortable dinner the night before. Part of her obviously wanted to know. Instead, I asked, “What is happening today?”

Amantha shrugged and walked me to the stool so she could start fixing my hair. “Breakfast is ready for you in the sitting room. After that you are welcome to explore the palace and gardens as much as you like.”

“That’s all?” I asked.

“You are here at the king’s disposal,” replied Amantha, “You are free to entertain yourself until he sends for you or releases you.”

I squelched the offense rising inside me. I am a merchant’s daughter. Not a girl who, under different circumstances, would have been presented with pomp and ceremony and courted as a potential queen. It’s an honor to be here at all. That thought reminded me of the real cover for any meetings I had with Tarr. “I didn’t know the king was so handsome.”

Amantha smiled faintly. “That he is, Miss Meredithe.”

So ended our conversation for the time being. She finished with my hair—a loose but complex braid—and left me to eat alone.

A knock sounded at the door, and Namal entered. He had also been dressed in green, with black pants and boots. He pulled up a chair across from my little table. “Good morning,”

“Good morning,” I replied, “Did you sleep well.”

My brother grunted. “May I have a biscuit?”

I nodded and he began to spread butter on a still-warm biscuit. Despite my hunger, I hadn’t gotten far in the breakfast Amantha had left. “So…”

Namal looked at me, arched brow.

“So…now we wait?” I asked.

“We are permitted to explore, it would behoove us to do so.” He bit into the biscuit and rolled his eyes up in pleasure. “I think your handmaid likes you more than mine likes me.”

“You have a handmaid?” I was surprised. In Galhara, the men had manservants, the women had maidservants—at least in the palace and among most of the nobility. An older tradition aimed at keeping the peace.

He nodded. “I do. It’s very awkward.” Namal leaned back and looked out the window. His hair was darker than mine, almost black, and he had our mother’s blue eyes. Like our father, he had a natural presence and authority to go with his extensive education and skills. “What did you think of the ambassador?”

I wrinkled my nose. “She’s stunning, smart, and dangerous. And she didn’t like me.”

Namal nodded. “I would wager that she was chosen as ambassador to Dalyn because she is beautiful, and Tarr Kegan is known to like women.”

“Do you think she is angling to be queen?”

“Probably. Though if it is her own ambition or her queen’s, I can’t say.”

“A merchant’s daughter is hardly a threat to that ambition.”

“Zare, what woman wants to share?”

I inclined my head. “Point.”

“Be careful, is all,” said my brother.

“You’d better get used to calling me Analie. Who were you again?”

Namal smirked. “Alban.”

“Alban,” I repeated. Then I leaned forward and grabbed his hand excitedly.  “Alban, dearest, I should dearly love to see every inch of this palace. It’s so exciting to be here!”

He huffed, “It’s disgusting how good you are at this.”

“Civilization is all playacting,” I retorted.

“To you, maybe,” Namal rolled his eyes and offered me a hand up.

We spent the entire morning exploring the palace. No one spoke to us, though we saw many courtiers and many more servants. The servants paid us no mind, though some of the courtiers looked at us with varying degrees of interest and archness. It didn’t take long to find the limits of our movement indoors, the parts of the palace where the real governing happened were barred by grim looking royal guards with spears. After lunching in our rooms, we took winter cloaks and spent the afternoon exploring the gardens behind the palace. Since it was winter, there weren’t many people in the gardens, and we both breathed easier. We saw some servants running errands, and met a few of the king’s young hounds and their keeper—a boy of about seven with reddish brown hair.

The day’s exploring was perhaps the most time I had ever spent with Namal. He told me little things about the spice industry while we wandered around learning the layout of the grounds, and I was sort of surprised how pleasant his company was. Namal was eight years my senior, the crown prince—always away or busy with work or study. I was the baby—my world had been entirely different from his. Nadine was almost as old, but we shared the bond of sisters—and all the unique travails of both women and princesses. Ayglos and I were alike enough in temper and age that we were natural conspirators. I blamed Ayglos. None of this had really changed during the siege, or at the circus.

Namal and I shared a quiet dinner in my rooms, served by the silent Amantha. I was not the least bit surprised or disappointed that we hadn’t received an invitation from the king.  Namal didn’t linger after dinner, he looked exhausted, but his blue eyes were softer than I had ever seen them when he bid me goodnight. Impulsively, I hugged him before he left. I stared at the door for a minute, then went to my dressing room and hunted for a nightgown. There were several, I picked the softest—a long white gown that skimmed my body and pooled at my feet deliciously. I grabbed a book off the shelf next to the fireplace and curled up in a wing backed chair to read and watch the flames. I would bask in this luxury as much as I could before it ended.

I wasn’t four stanzas in—some epic poem about something—when a knock sounded. I was on my feet and armed with the dancer statuette the second I realized the knock had been on the dressing room door.

The door opened slowly, and Quill stepped cautiously in to the room. He saw me, didn’t bat an eye at the statuette poised for defense, and bowed, “Your highness.”

“Captain,” I lowered the statuette, relieved and happy to see a friend. “Do come in.”

He stood aside from the door, “Princess Zare Caspian, may I present Tarr Kegan, King of Dalyn.”

46-Dalyn

 

The sun was setting when we crossed the bridge to Dalyn and drove through the sprawling city to the king’s palace. Namal and I were silent, listening to the wheels on cobblestones and trying to internalize everything Jemin had told us on the journey. Jemin prodded the doctor, who opened his eyes, and pulled the cotton out of his ears. Rawyn Drayk looked bleary eyed, like he had really fallen asleep in his self-imposed isolation. He nodded to us. We nodded back. In a short while the carriage halted, we heard voices and Jemin leaned forward to open the curtains. A helmeted guard appeared at the door. “Jemin, doctor, we have been expecting you for hours, is all well at the villas?”

“Better now that I’ve been there,” said the doctor brightly, “It is good the Clanor family wished me out today, for the king also found work for me through his generosity.” Here the doctor gestured to Namal and I.

The guard peered in at us, “Ah, yes, the captain told us to expect the king’s visitors.” Stepping back, he called to someone else and I heard the clang of a gate’s locking mechanism. “Come ahead,” called the guard, walking back toward his post.

The carriage rolled forward again. Jemin left the curtain ajar. “It will be all over the palace by the end of the evening,” he said, “No point in making it spread faster by keeping the curtains drawn.”

Through the crack I glimpsed ornate sills and glass panes on the many windows, and gargoyles hunched on corners, watching everything. The carriage halted and a footman leapt down to open the door. Jemin climbed out and waited as the doctor and then Namal alighted. Namal turned and offered his hand to me as I exited the carriage. It took conscious effort not to step out with my head high and my back straight with the easy assurance of my rank. I tried to shrink in awe in my green traveling dress—which was difficult as the dress made me feel beautiful. I looked around, widening my eyes as I admired the impressive stonework. The palace was magnificent. It appeared to be carved out of one solid piece of gray stone—though I didn’t understand how that was possible since we weren’t even in the foothills of the Magron Mountains. Scrolling patterns were painstakingly carved around the doors and windows, and I realized with a start that they were portraying the currents of the Bandui River. The patterns were beautiful, and flowed from opening to opening, giving the palace a molded, wind-driven look. A white canopy covered the arching entrance and two servants were waiting. Jemin led the way to the archway. Straight ahead was a courtyard, but there were doors on either side under the archway that must lead into different wings.

Here, the doctor excused himself. “It was a pleasure,” he said, bowing slightly to me and then took the door on the right.

Jemin stopped by the servants, “Here are the king’s guests.” His tone was military: direct and disinterested.

The servants, a man and a woman dressed in the same gray as the palace, bowed. “Follow us.”

We fell into step behind them, leaving Jemin behind at the door as they took us through the left-hand door and into the palace. I didn’t look back for the bearded guard, as much as I dearly wanted to, and I felt very alone even with Namal walking beside me. The hallways were wide, and smooth archways adorned every junction. The windows on this side faced east, and the fading daylight was surrendering to the golden light of lamps. We passed mostly servants, going to and fro, but there were a couple people dressed in fine clothes who looked at us with pointed interest as we passed.

“This is the guest wing,” announced the man, when we had turned down another corridor. We said nothing, and neither servant looked back at us as they led the way down what felt like miles of gray stone, dotted with occasional tapestries depicting scenes of trade and ships. Finally, the servants stopped.

The woman pushed open a sturdy wooden door, “This way, miss.” She stood back, waiting for me to enter. I looked at Namal, and then went inside.

Thick carpet silenced my steps. It was a sitting room with red woven carpets, carved wood furniture scattered with colorful cushions, and a fireplace. After the endless, smooth gray of the palace this room exploded with warmth and color. Gold laced up the lampstands and around the legs of chairs and tables, a gem encrusted statuette of dancers stood on a side table nearby. The finery reminded me of the home I had lost.

Another gray clothed servant girl was tending the cheerful fire. I noticed two doors off to one side—bedroom and washroom perhaps? And a third door on the other side. I walked into the chamber slowly, aware of the other servant closing the door behind me. “This is Amantha,” said the woman who brought me here, motioning to the girl by the fire, “She will be your servant while you are the King’s guest.”

The girl turned to us and curtsied. “Miss.”

I nodded at her. “Hello.”

“The king requests your presence at dinner,” the woman looked at Amantha and I severely, “We haven’t got much time to get you cleaned up.” She walked to the pair of doors and pushed one open, revealing the washroom. It was gray stone, like the rest of the palace, but reed mats covered the floor and the tub was carved out of olive wood. There was a fireplace in here, also, and a long counter down one wall. I noticed incense on the counter, and the toilet just beyond.

“I have just had a bath,” I managed. If she was in a hurry she was not likely to stand for my insistence on bathing alone, or how long it would take me to dry.

She took my elbow and turned me around, appraising me. If I had not spent a year in the circus before coming here, I would have had a very hard time restraining my indignance. “Very well, it appears Sinensis isn’t entirely devoid of civilized manners.” Releasing my arm, she pointed to the pitcher and bowl on the countertop. “Freshen yourself, and then go to dressing room. Amantha will help you dress.”

She turned on her heel and left me alone in the washroom. I took a deep breath, quickly washed my face, and returned to the sitting room. The dressing room was next to the washroom, the door was standing open and Amantha was inside laying out a gown. She looked up when I entered. She was younger than me, I guessed. Her hair was blonde and pulled back into a tight bun. The gray clothes made her eyes look gray. There seemed to be no trace of the openness of Caraca in this palace.

“My name is Analie Meredithe,” I said, hoping to thaw the reserve in Amantha’s face.

Amantha stepped forward and began unlacing the traveling dress. “Miss Meredithe.”

“This place is beautiful.”

“That it is, miss,” replied Amantha. She was kinder than my guide had been, but her mask would not budge.

I fell quiet as she helped me into a burgundy evening dress with a high lace collar that then swooped down my back in a graceful cowl. I swiveled in the full-length mirror, admiring. Amantha had brought out high heeled shoes of the same color and I sat down on the dressing room stool to put them on, trying to remember the last time I’d worn high heeled shoes and wondering if I would be able to walk in them.

Amantha watched me for a moment, then said, “You’ll be joining the king in his hall for dinner. It is not a full court dinner, those are once a week, and not for three more days.”

I looked up at her, openly surprised that she was talking to me.

“The general, the ambassador from Hirhel, and the king’s chief advisor are often at the king’s table, along with whatever noble or dignitary who is being courted for one reason or another,” she continued, her eyes very serious, “You are to be seated across from the king with your brother, because he is very interested in your story. Your rescue is a diversion to him, an escape from the pressures of court. But you are not to speak unless spoken to, not to him or any of the others present.”

I nodded and wondered if our servants gave this same talk to middle class visitors to my father’s court. I hadn’t really expected to meet Tarr Kegan in public, actually. Much less at the same dinner where I met the ambassador from Hirhel. I couldn’t even imagine the terrible things that would happen if it was the same man who’d been the ambassador to Galhara before the war.