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67-The Chambers

 

Dust and cobwebs muted the colors in the room and everything was still. So very still.  “What did the queen do to Narya?” my whisper sounded loud in the quiet.

“I have no idea.”

We stepped further into the room, stopping as our toes scuffed a line of ash. I picked up my skirts and stepped over the line to walk to the center of the room. The ash formed a circle on the exposed wood floor. My skin began to crawl. Dark stains crisscrossed inside the circle and led to a large stain that marred the hardwood beneath my feet. “Oh, Eloi.” I turned slowly like a boat adrift in a lake. Wicked symbols had been painted in the same dark liquid, and small mounds sat at intervals along the ash rim. I recoiled.

Still outside the circle, Quill crouched to inspect one of the mounds. “Ravens. From the colony here. They were cut in half.”

A long, sad streak led like a beacon from the central, gruesome, stain to the chamber’s main door. As if evil had entered here, and then used the blood to escape. A shudder ran through me, along with the conviction that something was here. Watching. Waiting. Hungry. I shied away from the long dry gore, stumbling in my haste.

My feet cleared the circle of ash dust, but that did nothing to calm the shivers running down my spine. I took a gasping breath, then another. My skin prickled and I backed farther away, I wanted to turn and run by was too afraid I would find something behind me. I gasped for breath again.

This was an old scene; the carcasses were so far gone there was no stench. The streak was from the body of whoever was murdered being removed.

There was nothing here.

Nothing.

At least, not anymore.

Quill stood abruptly, breaking the spell, and with a few quick steps crossing to the window. He tore down one of the curtains and tossed it over the grim tableau, wiping the ash away and pushing the carcasses together into a pile.

I left the space in a rush, as if the ash circle might reform around me of its own accord and trap me forever. I found the washroom and began hunting through the cabinets until I found a handful of towels and a large pitcher that had escaped the destruction. The running water for the tub still worked, and though it was ice cold I let it run over my hands as I filled the pitcher. Water was comforting and my breathing slowly returned to normal. Eloi. The Nether Queen did have a deal with the devil. When the pitcher was brimming, I made myself turn off the water and return to the sitting room.

Quill was on his knees, folding up the curtain around the feathered remains of the ravens. The ash thoroughly scattered.

Striding to the center, I poured the water over the blood stains, offering a prayer to Eloi as the water splashed across the symbols, obscuring them. Ignoring the stiffness in my side, I knelt and began to scrub at them with the towels. The wood yielded some blood back to the towel, but not much, as I scrubbed. Still, I began to feel better. The fear dissipated.

“We should leave.” Quill caught my eye.

I nodded, spreading the damp towels out to cover as much of the floor as possible before allowing Quill to help me up. He had the bundle of raven bodies under his arm, and I tried not to think about them as we left the way we’d come in.

We made our way, slinking through the servant’s corridors at an unhurried pace, often diverting to avoid being seen.  It was a wonder to me that Quill didn’t get lost—though maybe he did, but simply got unlost again before it was an issue. By the time we returned to the King’s chambers it was getting dark and Trinh and Namal were in the sitting room eating dinner.

Namal stood when we entered, “There you are, Zare! Hesperide didn’t know where you had gone. I have been worrying.”

“I’m sorry. We didn’t go anywhere in particular.” I embraced my bother and eyed the couch, weighing if I wanted food, sleep, or a bath first. The smell of the stew reached my nostrils. Food. Definitely food first. “Where is Tarr?”

“Dinner with his ministers,” answered Trinh, setting down his bowl. “Please, join us.” Trinh was dressed in the uniform of the guard, and the dark blue cloth made his eyes seem stark as he looked between Quill and I.

Quill hesitated, but I sat down immediately and reached for a bowl. There was a pot of stew, thick with root vegetables and lamb, and a small stack of bowls and utensils. Another benefit of Hesperide’s confidence, it was easier to feed everyone. My stomach growled as I ladled the savory, steaming promise of glory into a bowl.

“Why do you have my mother’s curtains?” Trinh’s tone was sharp. I looked up to see him staring at the bundle under Quill’s arm.

The ravens.

Quill glanced at the bundle. “It seemed a fitting burial shroud for your father’s ravens.”

“What?”

I set the ladle back in the pot and settled back on the couch, cradling my bowl and refusing to shiver at the memory of the bloodstained floor. “We found some kind of evil ritual in the queen’s chambers.”

The two princes looked at me blankly, as if I’d spoken a foreign language.

“I knew your mother’s chambers had been abandoned since the fall, but had not been there myself until today,” explained Quill, “It appears that they were ransacked, and someone…” he paused, his face grim. “Someone performed some dark ritual.  It was long ago—we found the remains of four ravens—and evidence that something much larger was killed there.”

Trinh’s face was ashen. Namal sat down beside me.

“Everything was all dried up and decayed,” I offered, needing the emphasis that the ritual was long done and any power would be long since dissipated.

“I gathered the ravens to give them a burial.” Quill shifted the bundle in his arms. “They bear the gold rings of Dalyn on their legs, and their deaths seem evidence enough that they were loyal to Dalyn.”

Trinh leaned forward, his eyes staring into nothingness, his jaw clenched. He was angry. Not at Quill, but at her. Abruptly, Trinh stood up. “Please excuse me, Namal,” he muttered, then strode out the main door of the chamber before any of us could move to stop him.

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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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64-Intriging

 

She was just as beautiful as I remembered from our first dinner at the palace, with her black hair, dark eyes, and smooth skin. She moved gracefully, almost floating across the ground, her velvet cloak swallowing the sunlight in a billowing void. She was too close for us to turn back, and she was looking directly at me.

I stopped walking, my soul crying to return to the hounds and hide in the straw with Hew. Jemin’s steadying hand fell from my elbow. I felt exposed and had never been less pleased with propriety.

“Miss Meredithe, is it?” Khattmali called as soon as she was near enough for it to be ladylike. “What a surprise seeing you here.”

I stammered, “Lady Khattmali—how good to see you.”

Khattmali glided to a stop, the guards and servant halted a few steps behind her. Her expression was pleasant, but I caught her eyes flit down my body, no doubt taking in the disheveled state of my gown. The smell of hounds hadn’t bothered me until that moment, but suddenly I was extremely aware of how dirty I was and it took tremendous effort to remember this was alright. I was Analie Meredithe—just a common girl, no courtly graces, or perceived courtly power. And this was a good thing.

“How are you enjoying your stay at the palace?” asked Khattmali.

“Quite well, thank you, my lady,” I answered, glad I remembered to tag her honorific on the end. It was harder than I thought it would be, since I both outranked her and disliked her.

“Good,” a smile warmed her features, and she became even more stunning with her high cheekbones and full lips. “I’m very glad. Our dear king is most generous, and takes keeping the High Queen’s peace so seriously. It was kind of him to honor your family so after saving you from those horrible brigands.”

I nodded, she sounded so sincere that I almost believed her. But then I remembered what she was dong to the nymphs of the city and my guts writhed. “Yes, the King is—very kind.”

“I must say, though, that I’m jealous! His Majesty has been keeping you so sequestered, I haven’t had the chance to get to know you!” Khattmali gestured, a light twirl of her jeweled fingers. “I should like to hear about your childhood in Dalyn. I am not from Dalyn, of course, and I do so love this city. I want to know everything I can about it. Especially from a commoner’s point of view.”

“There isn’t much to tell, my lady.” I hoped I sounded overawed, and not horrified. “I’m sure you would find it boring.”

“I should like to hear it anyway. Perhaps tomorrow, I will send for you.” She smiled again, and I dipped my head bashfully for fear of meeting her eyes and betraying just how much I didn’t want this “honor.”

“Thank you, my lady.”

Khattmali inclined her head in a regal tilt, her entire bearing regal and magnanimous, “Until tomorrow, Miss Meredithe.” She glided on down the path, her retinue in her wake. The sunlight lost in a swirling pit of velvet.

We waited in the silence of shrubbery until she was out of sight before Jemin’s hand came up to support my elbow again. “That was unfortunate,” he said softly, steering me back toward the palace.

“Do you think she’ll really send for me? And which chambers will she send to?” I leaned into his support and warmth, even more tired than before and now feeling a bit cold.

Jemin grunted. “She undoubtedly knows you’re staying with the king.”

“Should I go?”

“Analie couldn’t really say no,” replied Jemin.

“But I could be pretentious and self-important.”

“Was that the social interaction of a pretentious girl just now?” retorted my guardian.

I snorted. Point. “I was a withering violet.”

“Withering violets do as they are told.” He stated it matter of factly, as if agreeing with me rather than winning his own point.

We fell quiet as we drew closer to the palace, and did not speak as we moved inside. I was relieved when we finally attained the king’s chambers without anyone else approaching to speak with me. Though, I was certain I was garnering more looks than before. Was it the king’s attention or the mud?

Jemin left me in the sitting room, after receiving assurance that I would be alright without him. He promised to send Hesperide in. I lowered myself to the couch and stared out the balcony doors trying to sort out how I felt about the encounter with Khattmali. We had been hoping I could go unnoticed, as an unimportant mistress, but apparently that wasn’t going to work. I didn’t know what sort of women Tarr usually wooed, however I was willing to bet that any known mistress would become interesting to someone at some point. I had attracted the attention of the Nether Queen’s ambassador—which was bad, but still not the same as attracting the attention of the Nether Queen. In fact, it could be good. If we were very clever.

Hesperide appeared carrying a tray that glittered with a gilded tea kettle and cups. Her smile sparkled like the splash of spring water on a hot day, “How were the kennels?”

I turned to greet her, “Full of affable creatures eager to be my friend.”

She set the tray on a side table and began pouring tea. “Was Naran there?”

I nodded. “He gave me a tour.”

“He loves the hounds,” said Hesperide, her voice warm with love. She handed me the cup and I cradled it, soaking in the warmth.

“Does…” I hesitated, “Does Lady Khattmali often go to the kennels?”

Hesperide froze, the color draining from her face, leaving her freckles like dark stars on a pale sky. “Lady Khattmali?”

I nodded, lifting the cup to take a sip. “Yes…we ran into her on our way back.”

Sitting back, Hesperide shook her head slowly. “I’m sorry, I don’t think she’s ever gone to the kennels before.” She set out another cup absently.

I watched curiously as she put a dash of sugar in the cup and poured tea, her eyes distant and worried. I half expected her to drink, but she set the cup on a saucer and stood up to fluff the decorative pillows around the room. I was about to ask who the tea was for when the door to the chamber opened and Quill stepped in, holding the door as King Tarr Kegan strode in.

He was dressed in black, shirt unbuttoned beneath his black doublet, as usual. His face was ashen. I moved to stand, and Tarr, without even looking at me, gestured for me to stay put. Quill closed the door while Tarr approached and lolled onto the couch next to me, picking up the tea Hesperide had poured the moment before. He didn’t look at me until he’d drunk the entire cup and Hesperide appeared to refill it. “How is your side?” he asked, his voice weary, eyes empty

“It’s getting better,” I said, studying him. “The doctor says that I can start moving around more.”

Tarr nodded, accepting the new cup from Hesperide and taking a long drink. “Good.”

I watched him for a moment, then turned to look at Quill, who was making his customary circuit around the suite. It didn’t matter to him that the suite was never unguarded, he always went through when he arrived. He felt my glance, however, and met my eyes, he looked grim. Something had happened. I looked at Tarr again. “Is everything alright?”

He didn’t answer, “Hess,” he looked up at Hesperide. She was hovering nearby, her face filled with concern. “Wine.”

Her concern deepened, but she left quickly.

I touched the King’s arm. “Tarr,” I ventured. Sometime during my week of delirium he’d become Tarr to me. “What happened?”

He shook his head slightly, refusing to raise his eyes to my face. “Please, tell me about your day.”

“Alright,” I studied him carefully, but obliged, and told him about the walk to the kennels and meeting all the hounds. Given his mood, I decided to skip the encounter with Khattmali for now.

He listened, fingering the cup of tea. “Who gave you the tour?” he asked, endeavoring to clear the emptiness from his face.

“A little boy named Naran,” I answered, smiling, “He’s quite a child.”

Finally, some light returned to the King’s eyes, “Yes, he is.”

“You know him?” I asked.

“I should say so,” the corners of Tarr’s mouth tipped up. “He’s my son.”

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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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60-Waking

I was lying on something very soft and I didn’t want to move. I was just the right temperature, and there was a pleasant weight cocooning around me. Slowly I became aware of light. And throbbing pain. My left arm, my left side.

I jolted awake as everything rushed back: The jail break! The street! My eyes flew open and my mind reeled in confusion. I wasn’t in the street anymore. The ceiling vaulted high above the four-poster bed where I lay. Mesmerizing gold patterns laced across the dome and dripped down the walls of the round room. I could see the mantel of a large fireplace across from the bed. Sunlight blazed through a crack in the curtains along one side of the room. Gingerly, I drew my right arm up under me and tried to push myself up.

“You’re awake!”

I startled, yelping in pain.

“Lie still, you’re safe.” A man was laying on top of the covers next to me. He put out his hand, palm down, to calm me, and I found myself looking at the gold touched hair and concerned blue eyes of King Tarr Kegan.

“Your Majesty,” my voice croaked. “What happened?”

“As it turns out, you’re not invincible.”

“What?”

“I know. I was starting to believe you were—too long dealing with an invincible Nether Queen, I guess.”

Exhaustion hit me like a wave and I lay back. Not that I’d risen far. “Why are you in my bed?” Good heavens, I sounded awful.

A rakish grin tipped his lips as he sat up and inspected me. “Actually, your Highness, you are in my bed.”

I stared at him dumbly.

With a laugh, Tarr swiveled and hopped off the bed. “It’s the safest place for you, right now,” he explained, walking to a nearby table and pouring a steaming drink from a kettle. “If I keep you here I don’t have to explain your real injuries to the my less trusted servants, or deal with the rumors mysteriously smashed ribs might’ve started the day after a jail break. This will start other rumors, but those shouldn’t lead to your death.” He walked around the bed and set the mug on the side table next to me.

I eyed him. He was dressed, at least. His very fine shirt unbuttoned at the throat, as usual.

“Come on,” he leaned close, slipping one hand under my back. “I’ll help you. You should drink something.”

Tarr’s strength surprised me, though I wasn’t sure why, as he helped me sit up and then piled pillows behind me with the skill and care of a handmaid. Once he was satisfied he presented the mug to me. “Tea.” He said. “Drink.”

I sipped obediently. It was warm and pleasant, I felt my body relaxing as the tea curled through my core. “What happened?” I asked again.

“Quill brought you here after you collapsed,” explained Tarr, returning to the other side of the bed. “It seems that your criminals found your soldiers a safe place to hide, and Quill deemed them safe enough and carried you back here right away.” He hopped up, scooting to sit beside me. “You gave us quite a scare, you know. The doctor says you’ll recover, but you have to lay low for a while.”

I will have to thank him, I thought. Even I must’ve gotten heavy being carried all that way. I looked down at myself. Half of me was hidden beneath a dark blue coverlet. My armor was gone, I was dressed in loose trousers and a man’s shirt, the sort that buttoned down the front. One of Tarr’s shirts, I realized with a blush.  Beneath it, the bandeau that covered my breasts blended into the bandages wrapped tightly around my torso. My left arm was bandaged also.

“It’s a good thing I made you armor,” continued Tarr, gravely. “You might be dead without it.”

“That fight did not go especially well,” I said, lifting my left arm and inspecting it. “That’s the second time I’ve been tackled to the ground from behind. What happened to my arm?”

Tarr narrowed his eyes, “You don’t know?”

I wrinkled my nose. “I was busy.”

“Judging from the gash in your bracers, I’d say you pretended it was a shield.” He shook his head, “Your arm isn’t bad, the bandages are mostly to keep the salve on the arm and not my sheets.”

“What about my side?” I remembered that blow well enough.

“Broken ribs. Some horrific bruising and a little broken skin. The doctor was afraid you might be bleeding inside, considering how far you went after injuring them, and how long you stayed unconscious.”

I looked at the king sharply. “How long have I been unconscious?”

“Well, then he gave you something to keep you sleeping so you could recover. It’s been almost a day and a half.”

“What?” I demanded, recoiling.

“Don’t get up!” Tarr put his hand on my shoulder, stopping me before my side could. His blue eyes commanding. “You might injure yourself.”

“Tarr,” I grasped his hand. “Where is my brother? What happened yesterday? The men…the nymphs!”

Tarr squeezed my hand. “Namal is safe. Last I knew your men were safe. The nymphs, well,” his face darkened. “They aren’t all safe. But Namal was able to give them advance warning, and I have been quite studious in overseeing the Queen’s decree personally. I’m sure the garrison commander would prefer I left him to manage the search himself as he would be much more efficient without my help,” a wicked light brightened his face for a moment before he sighed and passed his hand over his face. “Which has been exhausting in every way imaginable. I had just come back for a nap. Sent Quill away, since he could use a nap, too.”

“Quill was here?” I asked.

Tarr nodded. “He was quite worried about you, and no doubt feels responsible.”

“That’s silly. I wasn’t anywhere near him, I neglected to watch my back and I’m paying for it.”

“Yes,” Tarr arched a brow, “I suspect it is the ‘nowhere near him’ part he finds distressing. Also, the part where no one else saw you get injured—though, I’m not sure I would have confessed seeing it if he was asking me. And someone needed to stay with you, and my most trusted servants can’t actually be here constantly without arousing suspicion from my less trusted servants.”

This was a great deal to take in, so I fell silent and sipped my tea. Tarr leaned back and lounged comfortably next to me. “The escape was magnificent, by the way,” he said, looking at the ceiling. “We’re searching everywhere for those men, and haven’t found them. The commander thinks they are heading for Magadar.”

I smiled, even as a stab of worry shot through me. The circus, carrying what remained of the Galhara household, was on its way to Magadar. But they were taking a much different route, there shouldn’t be any way for Narya’s soldiers to stumble on them again.

“We’ve gotten the raven back from Sinensis,” continued the King, almost absently. “Your brother and sister have already started missions into the countryside to warn the nymphs and maybe recruit support.” He turned to look at me, “I’ve been told your sister looks a great deal like you. I’ve asked that she give your name if asked—this hides how many of you there are and makes you seem larger than life.”

Nodding, I wrapped my hands around the mug and breathed in the steam. My ribs made the breath slow and careful. I wasn’t sure what I thought about being turned into a legend, but it didn’t feel that different from playing a wild spirit in the circus. Except, in the circus most people didn’t really believe I was a wild spirit. “Where is Namal now?”

“At the wharfs. I gave Alban Meredithe an escort and a letter of recommendation to help him expand his spice business.”

I turned my head to look at the king. He’d hooked one arm behind his head and was still looking at the gilded ceiling. This was the same room we’d made all our plans in before the mad jailbreak, but I hadn’t noticed the gold in the ceiling then.

Tarr looked over at me, “Ostensibly, anyway. He’s probably really looking for nymphs to hide.”

“Is he angry with me?”

‘No, but I am. You let out a bunch of criminals, one or two of which were very difficult to catch the first time!”

I opened my mouth to defend myself before noticing that Tarr was smirking. “He might be a little angry with you for getting hurt,” said the King, after a pause, “Not nearly as angry as my brother is with me for bringing a seventeen-year-old girl into such war.”

I bristled. “Your brother needs to grasp that you had nothing to do with it. There is a wicked would-be-empress who burned my home to the ground! Besides, there are plenty of girls my age raising children and ruling kingdoms. They hold lives in their hands just as I do.”

“It’s probably their regents doing most of the ruling, and children are, if complex, an arena in which most consider women to have an advantage.” Tarr shrugged dramatically to dissuade me from arguing. “You’ll have to forgive Trinh. He’s a good man. Much has changed in the last six years, and it’s difficult for him to adjust. He has much to mourn, and he doesn’t want to accept that Narya is so strong—I’m also certain he doubts my sanity and fears for his own.”

A wry smile tugged me out of my huff: King Tarr Kegan was definitely unsettling. However, I felt as though I were already catching the rhythm of his moods. Or at least, that’s how I felt at this moment, with him calm.

“I’m not sane,” announced Tarr, reading my face. He shook his head and looked back at the ceiling. “I’m definitely not sane.”

“Doesn’t thinking that way mean you are sane?”

“Then it is the only thing keeping me sane in these times of madness and sorcery.”

“Please, don’t be upset by that,” I wasn’t sure the plea made sense, but if he got up and started looking like he’d jump in the fire, I’d have to stop him. Somehow. If I could get up.

He smiled at the ceiling. “I don’t mind very much. Most of the time.” After a moment he added, “I was serious about taking a nap. Do you need anything before I do?”

It didn’t surprise me at all that he fully intended to sleep on his bed still. I was certain the propriety of it hadn’t so much as crossed his mind, though I supposed we were long past propriety. I looked down at my tea. It was nearly gone, and I was feeling the pull of sleep even though I’d just awoken. “Help me lay back?”

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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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59-One Foot in Front of the Other

 

I discovered that I could, in fact, walk. As long as I breathed carefully and kept my hand pressed against my side—which was fine, I wasn’t ready to know more about the wound anyway. I followed the soldiers to the alley and considered sheathing Shiharr but the movement to reach my back was far too much. The dagger stayed in my hand, useful for nothing but catching the light of the moon.

Quill joined me, “That’s all of them.” His voice was low, “How many wounded?”

I looked at the men, two of them were heavily leaning on their peers. “At least two.”

He nodded. “Not bad. Let’s go, then.”

I realized suddenly that I was still supposed to be leading, so I started down the alley. My ambitious steps were quickly tempered by the pain in my left side and my shoulders hunched. But I kept moving. The men followed, trailing behind us like the train of a gown…only louder and more grim. By the time we reached the end of the alley I’d sort of found my stride, perfecting the art of moving around whatever blasted betrayal was going on down there. “Hoods up, fall in formation, best you can,” I tossed the command over my shoulder, and was aware of it being passed behind me. Then I stepped into the deserted street and marched. Or. Tried to march. Shiharr still bare in my hand.

I felt Quill’s touch on my elbow, “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I replied. But the word came out like a gasp.

He did not remove his hand, and I didn’t say anything else. Talking would only mean having to refill my lungs sooner.  I hoped Quill was right that the garrison would divide its forces between the city and the land directly outside the city walls. We had exited quite close to a city wall, but instead of making a break for the countryside we were wending through the city, toward the slums near the warehouse district and the river. We had a head start, of course, but were moving more slowly than a search party ought. And a few of the soldiers were being carried, which was certainly not very search party like. I tried not to think of how much walking we had to do. Instead, I wondered how things were going for Namal: Had the Bandui River been agreeable, and had he been able to persuade any of the prominent nymphs to trust him? Though, I didn’t know what he could possibly gain by lying to them. We were relying on the nymphs to find us a safe place in the slums, and also to start spreading the word to get out before the Nether Queen could take her revenge. Had the ravens reached our father and Ayglos? Would the messenger birds even be discovered before morning? Would that be soon enough? It would have to be. Just like my hand holding my side was enough. One foot in front of the other—not too fast. Breathe, not too deep—not too fast.

The prison bell grew faint behind us, and the city grew less fine. Dogs barked here and there, and there were undoubtedly legitimate squads of soldiers pouring out from the garrison to search the surrounding area. I struggled to keep caring.

“Oy!” a voice stage whispered behind us.

Quill stiffened and I slowed hesitantly.

“Oy! There’s a group of soldiers coming behind us.”

I ventured to look over my shoulder. The speaker was the bearded thief. I couldn’t see anything behind us, but if he was right we needed to hide. I didn’t want to fight again—one, everything hurt already, and two, I didn’t want them to know we’d stayed in the city, or which direction we’d gone.

The thief came a step closer, “I have a place we can hide.”

“Alright.” I inclined my head. I was certain Quill would disagree, but he said nothing.

The thief didn’t hesitate. He took the lead and turned us down an alley so narrow we had to pass single file. On the other side, he turned right and trotted directly to the third house on the left and knocked. Nothing happened. He knocked again. When there was still no answer he stepped back and started eyeing the window. My feet slowed to a halt in front of the house. I could feel myself losing will. I wouldn’t mind going back to that alley and laying down.

Or maybe just laying down here.

I could lay down right here.

The thief stooped and gathered something off the ground and started chucking things at the windows. A light flickered to life inside.

I wobbled.

“Zare!” Quill sounded far away.

I tried to say I was alright, but the air just slipped away and I wasn’t sure where my legs were anymore. They couldn’t have gone far, though. Could they?

I heard Quill curse, and was vaguely aware of his arms around me. Then everything got very peaceful.