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89-Into Darkness

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

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

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

Quill scoffed, “I would have been fine.”

“Something’s coming,” Trinh interrupted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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88-Cold as Ice

 

My dress immediately became deadweight as we sank into the black water. For the moment, I didn’t mind, as I watched the light from the palace obscured by the figures chasing us. I was still holding onto Quill, pulling him into the depths with me. Quill didn’t fight me but shifted behind me to wrap his arms around my waist, freeing my arms.

We needed to get away from here, before Namal and the others started jumping in on top of us. I began to work at the laces on my dress, they were fat with water and resisted. In the darkness, I drew my stiletto and awkwardly pried at the laces. I plucked them into tatters until finally the bodice peeled away. I sheathed the stiletto and wiggled out of the heavy skirts, glad of the forethought which left me with breeches and a shirt under the dress.

Quill had to be running out of breath. I swiveled in his arms, pinched his nose, and before I could think or see the shock in his eyes, put my mouth over his. It took a second for him to open his mouth and accept the air I pushed into him, and another for him to close his mouth so I could pull back. Quill still looked stunned when I released him and started swimming.

I kicked away from the palace, angling toward the surface with Quill in tow. We had to get into the city, so I swam with the current, toward the docks. We hadn’t gotten very far before a dull roar came from the palace and the orange blur of fire radiated above and behind us.

Then bodies started hitting the water.

We broke the surface—Quill with gasp—and turned back to look. The ballroom was burning. Orange flames spread quickly through the tapestries and draperies until the guard boats on the river were bathed in light. I’d forgotten about those boats.

The people in the water appeared to be alive and swimming. For now, anyway. Armored figures crowded on the balcony, silhouetted by the flames, and aiming crossbows at the river. One dropped with a cry, an arrow in his shoulder. Then another fell from view. That marksman of Trinh’s was doing what he could, but quarrels were already flying into the river from the soldiers on the boats.

Only Namal was likely to dive far or fast enough to be safe from that hail of spikes. We needed to do something about those boats. Before I could say anything to Quill, a figure rose like a specter on the nearest boat and dispatched of one of the crossbowmen. The figure tossed the body at the other guards on the boat before falling on them with long knives. In another second he was diving off the now unmanned boat. I knew that dive. I gasped. “Ayglos!”

“They need help,” said Quill.

I needed no encouragement. We dove as one. I reached out to the Bandui. The current did not hinder us as we swam, and in seconds we reached one of the boats. The boat rocked violently, the rail coming low enough for me to grasp as I burst from the water. I vaulted onto the boat, Shiharr and Azzad singing from my back. Quill followed behind me and drew the fighting knives strapped to my thighs.

I didn’t hear the shouting, the roar of the fire, or the turmoil of the water. I just poured my fury into my knives. We were fast, we were silent, we were nothing but vengeful ghosts. They didn’t stand a chance against Quill and me. In moments, we were diving off the boat and swimming for the next, repeating our performance like seasoned dancers.

At the third boat I realized that the hands next to mine on the railing were striped with blue tendrils and I looked over to see Ayglos giving me a grim smile.

Beyond him, toward the prow, was Namal.

The three of us were together and alive. Some part of me noted that this was a cause of great joy.

Namal pointed down, then dropped back into the water instead of climbing aboard. We followed. When Namal laid his shoulder against the hull and began to push, we joined in. I felt the Bandui casually suck away from the far side. The boat groaned, then capsized in a wave of air bubbles, dumping its men into the icy water. I dove, prepared for the Nether Queen’s soldiers to learn just how terrible it was to fight a nymph in water, but Ayglos grabbed my shoulder.  He looked at me fiercely and gestured that it was time to go.

I blinked at him, for a moment confused by the change in purpose. Then I obeyed, swimming with the current again, toward our allies. They were headed to the far bank, and they were only making progress because of the goodwill of the river. Panic slammed into me as I realized I didn’t know where Quill was. I swam faster, get in among the retreating men before surfacing and hissing, “Quill? Are you here?”

“Here.”

I swung left, recoiling at the sight of a body floating in the river. Then I saw heads on either side of the corpse and realized that the body was Tarr…guided by Trinh and Quill. I swam beside them, and when we reached the far shore I climbed out first and helped them lift Tarr’s body over the stone bank onto the snow-covered shore.

Trinh hauled himself out of the water and immediately pulled Tarr into his arms. Laying his forehead against Tarr’s, the orange glow from the palace painting his face in agonized strokes. Quill hoisted himself onto the bank and sat watching the burning palace, his legs dangling over the edge. I didn’t know where to look or how to feel. Trinh’s eight knights were all here, scattered around the snow in various poses like toy soldiers discarded by a child. Namal and Ayglos were standing nearby. I really hadn’t expected to be here again, watching another life burn to the ground. Three lives in less than a year. How had this happened?

And Tarr…my friend…I reached out to the dead king, my fingertips brushing his clothes, which were already turning to ice.

Ice.

I recoiled and looked around. They were all going to freeze to death if we didn’t find them someplace warm and dry.

My brothers had the same realization. “Zare, get them up—Ayglos, with me!” Namal was already jogging away from the shore. “We’ll clear the way.”

Standing, I put my hand on Quill’s shoulder. “We have to go.”

He blinked, tearing his eyes off the palace to look at me.

“Quill,” my voice firm. “We have to go.”

Quill nodded, his shoulders sagged a little and I realized that he’d been watching the palace to see if anyone else escaped by the balcony. We didn’t know what had become of the King’s Guard. He got to his feet and turned to Trinh. “Your Majesty.”

I left Quill to deal with the kings while I rounded up Trinh’s knights. It was a sad procession that struggled up the hill rising from the river. A lawn, I realized. Probably belonging to the summer villa of whoever was richest in this court.

The villa wasn’t far from the river, and it was deserted, all the windows dark. Any servants who kept the place in winter were likely in the city celebrating. My brothers had broken into the kitchen and already had the fires going in both the kitchen’s fireplaces. Trinh’s knights filed inside. After a moment’s hesitation Quill and Trinh laid Tarr in the garden, folding his hands on his chest as if he were sleeping.

Trinh lingered over the body, his arms hanging helplessly at his sides.

I stepped close, “I’ll stay with him for a little while.”

He raised his eyes to me, “Thank you,” his voice was a rasp. With a final look at his brother, he turned away and entered the kitchen.

Quill stood a moment longer before reaching out tentative fingers to brush my arm. I looked at him and saw wonder in his face. My eyes dropped to my arm, where my blue nymph stripes still spread from fingertip to shoulder. I blushed.

As if the blush made noise, his eyes flicked to mine and he managed a faint smile. “They’re beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“Will you be alright out here? In the cold?”

I nodded. “Yes. For a while. It’s not comfortable or anything, but I’ll be fine.”

Quill nodded, he almost looked like he would say more, but he turned and went inside.

I knelt in the snow beside Tarr’s body. The river had washed most of the blood from his shirt. Now it looked as though he’d rubbed mud on his shirt, given it a cursory rinse, then put it back on soaking wet. He looked like at any moment his chest would rise and fall, then his eyes would open. He’d wink at me and make a joke about both of us sitting outside in the cold.

But he didn’t. His skin was cold. His chest motionless.

I straightened his collar—that rakishly unbuttoned collar—and combed his hair as best I could. Then I sat back and drew my knees up to my chin, my fingers twisted in the hem of his shirt. Tears blended with river water, and then crackled into ice.

I don’t know how long I sat before Ayglos came out to get me. I was quite cold and didn’t argue when he practically lifted me to my feet and guided me into the kitchen.

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87-Breath

 

“What did she do to him?” I hissed.

Bel didn’t answer.

“Good evening, lords, ladies, and honored guests,” the Queen’s voice filled the room, she was standing in front of her throne now, her gown pooled at her feet. “I would like to say that I’m pleased to honor you with my presence at the Midwinter Festival. But I do not like to lie to my subjects.” Her voice was resonant, but sweet, giving unsettling dissonance to her words, “I’m here because of the reprehensible behavior of some of your citizens, killing my soldiers and impeding my justice—and the incompetence of your king in rooting out those who commit such senseless crimes against us.” The faintest edge crept into her voice, and she looked at Tarr.

Tarr looked back at her, rolling his head on his neck indolently. He didn’t look the least bit afraid of her, despite the blood on his lip.

“It’s partly my fault,” she continued, her voice silky again, “I gave you this king, and I did not train him as I should have. But,” she lifted her hand to beckon to Tarr, he stepped up to her side, “Your King has been productive in other ways. And I shall make it up to you.” She raised her other hand and it took a heartbeat to see that the thing flashing in the light was a knife.

Time stretched thin as she plunged the blade into Tarr’s chest. The air swept from my lungs. Swept from the room.

Color drained from Tarr’s face and spread across the front of his shirt. Crimson. Bright against his white shirt. He looked down, surprised, as his legs buckled beneath him and he slumped to his knees.

“Tarr Kegan,” the Queen was still speaking, “your service is ended. Your insolence is ended. It is time for one of your many heirs to take your place. I will raise them as my own, as I should have raised you. You should be pleased that your bloodline is permitted to continue.”

Tarr’s eyes lifted from the hilt sticking out of his chest and roamed the crowd until they found mine.

Naran.

I saw his order plainly, but I couldn’t move. My mouth opened as I choked on his blood as if it were my own.  I will. I willed him to understand. I will save Naran.

A blade flashed through the air and struck the Nether Queen as she stood over Tarr. She roared in pain, rearing away from the King, the knife protruding from her shoulder.

Quill was running from the direction of the entrance. The crowd recoiled from his passage, another knife was already in hand, his sword in the other. The Queen’s guards charged. Half converged around the Queen, pulling her back the way they’d entered, the rest ran to meet Quill.

Time thinned again, and then steel shattered the silence as the Captain of the King’s Guard carved a blue gore into the tide of soldiers. I stared, trying to make sense of the madness: At the perimeter, blue and black uniforms tore into one another. The crowd of revelers began to churn in a panicked effort to flee. Namal was running for the dais, and I thought I recognized Trinh doing the same. Some nobles were also attacking the Queen’s guards. Trinh’s knights, perhaps.

I became aware of Bel trying to drag me away with the rest of the people, and I turned on him. “You knew!” I snarled.

Bel stopped, taken aback by my anger.

“You knew she would kill him!” I was yelling now. Sweet Analie long gone.

“I tried to keep you away!” he snapped in frustration, “I didn’t want you to have to see it.”

“You should have stopped it!” I had never been this angry.

Still holding my arm, Bel raised his other hand placatingly, though his face showed he was starting to get angry himself. “Analie, listen to me—”

“Let go of me, traitor,” I rotated my arm and wrenched it out of his grasp. Bel stared, stunned, as I drew Shiharr and Azzad from my back, and spat, “I am Zare Caspian of Galhara,” and turning away I ran for Quill.

Quill was surrounded by a dark swarm of soldiers, more than should have been in the room.  I came at their backs, dropping three before they knew I was there. Someone grabbed my shoulder, I spun like lightning, whipping my arm under the soldier’s elbow and breaking it in one fluid motion. He cried out and I dropped his arm and moved on. Another tried to grab my neck, I ducked and flipped him over my head, ripping a swath in my skirts. The air whooshed out of his lungs and never returned as Shiharr sank into his neck. I yanked the knife out and kept going. The dress was like camouflage, they rarely saw me until I was upon them.

And I was nearly to Quill’s side.

I glanced to the dais. Tarr was all alone, slumped in front of the throne. For a heartbeat, our eyes locked again. The young King dipped his chin, his lips tipped up even as life pooled out of him. His expression was a benediction, shining with pride and…hope…Not for himself, but for us.

I gasped for breath, as if I could breathe for him. But the light in his eyes guttered.

Eloi.

I tucked my tears deep and shanked a soldier who was going for Quill’s back.

Then I made it to Quill. I sheathed Azzad, and reached for him, “Quill!”

He didn’t respond, but he didn’t kill me either. He plunged his sword into a soldier.

“Naran and Hess!”

Quill spared me a glance, then. He knew. His eyes were hard, his soul locked behind yards of stone, but I saw it anyway. I put a hand onto his back, moving with him as he spun and ducked. I pressed him toward the balcony, using Shiharr to block blows as we moved. Kicking out knees and stomping on feet that came too close to us.

I was vaguely aware of Trinh, Namal and the others, gaining the dais—but the Queen was already gone. They picked up Tarr’s body and, like us, started fighting for the balcony.

There shouldn’t be this many of the Queen’s guard here. Had they all been hidden in the ballroom?

Quill’s sword caught in someone’s armor—he abandoned it—and in that moment, I grabbed him around the waist and lunged at the balcony.

An arrow pierced the throat of the soldier who followed us into the night, and we leapt over the railing and into the icy river below.

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85-Midwinter

The day for the Queen’s arrival dawned and Ayglos had still not returned. Anxious, Namal and I watched the Queen’s arrival from the warehouse rooftop with spyglasses, having avoided the soldiers sent to round up a welcoming crowd. Green pennants bearing her black dragon lined the main thoroughfares and people waved handkerchiefs and cheered as she stepped from the barge to the docks where Tarr and Khattmali awaited her. From the distance, I couldn’t really see the Queen, just a long green cloak and dark head that barely paused to greet the King before stepping into her waiting carriage. The garrison had turned out in full dress uniform to escort the High Queen to the palace. I wondered where in the group Quill and Jemin were. The Captain of the Guard would scarcely miss such a ceremonial occasion, and I figured Quill would be keeping his most trusted men close to Tarr the whole time the Queen visited.

When the procession was over, the crowd dispersed but we lingered on the rooftop to watch the debarkation of the Queen’s troops. Four barges disgorged soldiers in orderly rows. Namal swore softly as he counted. “There must be eight hundred of them, at least.”

“We were already outnumbered,” I commented.

“Yes, but now we are hopelessly outnumbered,” replied my brother.

“Only if it were an open attack.”

“Yes,” he conceded, not looking comforted.

“If they’d caught Ayglos wouldn’t we be arrested by now?”

Namal’s mouth twisted and he shook his head. “He could be dead. Or resisting torture.”

The thought made me feel sick. I turned back to watch the soldiers and search for any indication of a prisoner among them. There was nothing. Once the soldiers disappeared from view, we returned indoors. Far too tense to sit, we spent the rest of the afternoon sparring in the warehouse. We didn’t talk. The only thing on our mind was what was keeping Ayglos–and talking about that wouldn’t help anything.

Trinh and his hulking second, Baldric, joined us for our unimpressive dinner. I did miss the food at the palace, that was certain. With the Ball the day after tomorrow, all the pieces already in motion, no one felt like talking. Trinh looked even more grim than usual. I wondered if he was thinking about his arch enemy eating a splendid meal in his palace while he hid in a tiny apartment in the warehouse district eating day old bread and stew from the dumpy tavern two streets down.

Domjoa arrived a little after dinner. He’d brought Haystack the vandal with him. Taking off his gloves and cloak, Domjoa bowed first to me, then to the princes. He wasn’t smiling.

“Haystack brought word,” he began, approaching the desk where we all sat, “There is an army coming from Gillenwater, and another from Charispol.”

“Moonie an’ I almos’ didne make back int’ th’ city,” said Haystack, his accent making me blink as I struggled to parse the words.

“Whose armies?” asked Trinh. As if there could be any question.

“They carry her banner,” replied Domjoa with a glance at Haystack, who nodded.

“This is her show of force,” Namal pushed inkwells around on the desk. “Whether she intends to use the armies, camping them around the city flying her banner is sufficient to remind people that even if one or two succeed in defying her, that she is far too strong to unseat.”

I grunted, “We haven’t even properly rebelled yet.”

“It changes nothing,” said Trinh, firmly. “The men in those armies are from Gillenwater and Charispol, they will not fight for her once she is dead.”

Namal nodded, his mouth a thin line.

It was a gamble. We all knew it was a gamble.

Leaning forward, I asked, “Domjoa, has there been any word of Ayglos?”

The black-haired thief shook his head. “Nothing. His raven has not returned…and neither have any of my contacts heard of a prisoner in the Queen’s party.”

Baldric spoke, his voice deep and resonant, “The prince is smart, I expect he is having to move more slowly than any of us anticipated to avoid detection.” I looked at him, surprised he’d used words. He continued, gently, “There are significantly more troops in play than we expected. It would be foolish to send up a raven anywhere in sight of the river.”

“That’s true,” agreed Trinh, casting a quick glance from Baldric to me. “We must assume for the present that he is merely delayed and proceed.”

“Eloi,” muttered Namal, rubbing his hand across his face. An entire prayer encapsulated in a single name.

“Did,” Trinh hesitated, “did Zam and his queen move farther away?”

“They did,” replied Namal.

“Good.”

“If there is nothing else, your highnesses,” Domjoa gestured to Haystack, “Haystack and I will be on our way.”

“That’s all, thank you,” replied Trinh.

Domjoa put on his cloak and turned for the door.

“Domjoa,” Namal raised his eyes to the black-haired thief.

Domjoa paused. I sucked a breath in, waiting for Namal to order him off his heist and for Domjoa to refuse. And then what?

“Don’t get caught,” said my brother gravely.

Domjoa’s lips tipped up in a half smile. He touched his forehead in salute, then walked out with Haystack behind him.

*

Midwinter Day dawned with skies gray with cold and the promise of snow. The day dragged by like a plow in tough soil. We sparred for a couple hours in the morning, serenaded by the lilt of distant music. At lunch, we ate and reviewed the plan for the millionth time. As the day went, the music and voices that drifted around the city grew louder. As if for a time everyone decided to forget they were turning their neighbors in for coin just a few days ago. It was Midwinter, time to celebrate that each day brought us closer to spring.

And each minute brought us closer to reckoning. Second by dragging second.

Finally, finally it was late enough in the afternoon to reasonably start getting dressed.

The celebrations felt very far away as I slipped into the black trousers from our light armor. Instead of the long sleeved black shirt that normally went with it, I wore an undyed sleeveless shirt of the same cloth between my skin and the leather straps and scabbards which held my knives. The emerald dress settled overtop and laced up the front. The back of the dress swooped with graceful folds that casually hid Shiharr and Azzad from view. My stiletto slipped into a loop in the bodice between my breasts, disguised in boning and embroidery that swept down my ribs and ended in the gems trailing from the waist. The dress had deep pockets, though they hadn’t been sewn across the bottom so I could access the slim knives strapped to my thighs. My boots, intensely practical knee-high leather, had fine jeweled toes to disguise just how utilitarian they were. Each boot held a long fighting knife.

Domjoa had procured some cosmetics for me, and I carefully lined my eyes, powdered my nose, and tinted my lips. My curls I piled on my head and secured with pins. A glittering emerald comb completed the look. After some consideration, I pinned Valredes’s brooch to the trousers inside of on of the dress pockets.  Just in case. Last, the gold pendant with the sailing ships hung around my neck. Calm settled around me, and I felt myself slipping into the narrow and clear focus of battle.

I found Namal in the office looking dashing in his dark green doublet. My brother looked up when I reached the bottom of the stairs, “You look beautiful, Zare. It’s almost like old times…except with knives in every cranny.” Dry humor twisted his lips as he patted his own ribs where an assortment of blades hid beneath the doublet. Alban Meredithe wouldn’t be embracing anyone at this party, for certain.

“I like knives,” I smiled, then curtsied with all the grace of my breeding.

With that, we donned our winter cloaks and stepped out into the street. A few blocks brought us to busier streets where we hired a carriage to take us the rest of the way to the palace. It took the carriage a long time to wend its way through the streets which were crowded with revelers. We watched the twilight deepen and lamps spring to life all through the city as we went. One of the squares we passed even had a bonfire surrounded by dancers. I remembered the bonfire at Gillenwater’s Harvest Festival, so long ago.

The crowds thinned as we reached the fine houses nearest the palace and joined the line of carriages depositing nobles and the wealthy at the doors to the magnificent stone palace. A weird unreality surrounded me as we approached. The palace’s beauty was scored by the green and black banners of Hirhel. A footman in blue livery opened the carriage door and gave me a hand down. The courtyard had been cleared of snow and the path to the palace doors was lined with a dozen ice sculptures, each the size of a pony but carved like a dragon. Countless tall lamps illuminated the ice sculptures with an eerie glow. Namal showed the footman our invitation, then offered me his arm. At the entryway, another servant took our invitation and our cloaks, and we joined the procession of arriving guests walking down the lamp lit hall to the ballroom.

The ballroom doors were wide open, flanked on one side by the blue clad King’s guard, and on the other by the black clad Queen’s guard. I didn’t dare look at them as we passed into the ballroom and lost ourselves in the crowd of glittering people. The last time I’d been in a crowd had been Khattmali’s soiree. But this crowd…this crowd had to be every single soul in Dalyn who had anything resembling a title or fortune.

Chandeliers dripped from a vaulted ceiling, casting so many shards of light that the room was entirely bathed in an otherworldly glow. Huge arching doorways filled the entire side which faced the river, these doors were open also, each guarded by a large ice sculpture which was backlit by the torches on the balcony beyond.

At one end of the ballroom was a stage—currently occupied by dancers performing a duet—the other end housed the dais, with a solitary throne in the center. It must be the High Queen’s throne, and she must intend Tarr to stand in his own palace.

Namal guided us through the throng, slipping around clusters of laughing people and making our way toward both the balcony and the dais.

I let go of Namal and snagged two wine glasses off a tray carried by a passing servant. Handing a glass to Namal, I said, “Beautiful party.” A reminder to blend in. He accepted the glass and slowed his pace. We had time. And we’d look much more natural loitering near the dais with drinks in our hands. I looked around. There were a few faces that sort of looked familiar, but I didn’t see Bel Valredes or Lucian Tene, the only two people I really remembered from the soiree. If all had gone according to plan, eight of the men in this crowd were Trinh and his knights. Though, I did not know any of them well and was unlikely to recognize any of them through their disguises.

I sipped my wine, one hand on Namal’s elbow as I turned to take in the splendor of the room…and count the guards. At intervals along the wall, as expected, stood stone faced guards in full dress uniform. There were two in black for every man in blue. It was a good thing we only need to hold off the ones nearest the dais. Namal continued moving through the room and I relied entirely on him to keep me from walking into anyone. I caught the attention of young men here and there, but I glazed over them, keeping my eyes large and flitting around the room as if enthralled with the beauty everywhere.

We were almost to our position by balcony nearest the dais when a voice called behind me, “Analie!”

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84-Visitor

 

Trinh had left by the time I got back. Before I could pester Namal for details or tell him about Domjoa’s little project, the King’s messenger rapped on the door to deliver our official invitation to the King’s Midwinter Ball. The invitation came with a large white box and a note in Tarr’s hand that read, As promised, in honor of what was.

If Tarr and Analie had truly been in love, she should stay far away from that ball. As it was, however, I couldn’t help the delight when I opened the white box and lifted out an exquisite green gown. The color was as deep as forest shade, and vibrant as emeralds. Tiny gems winked like wood sprites from the sweeping neckline and trailed from the waist like the tendrils of a willow. I resisted the urge to try on the gown immediately.

Under the dress and a layer of paper Tarr had included a coordinating ensemble for Namal, complete with a new set of shiny black boots. Namal was less thrilled than I was.

We just finished stashing the clothes in the sparse little bedroom above the office when another knock rattled the door. We froze, eyes meeting. That wasn’t the pattern Trinh used.

Namal cautiously descended to the door, me a few steps behind him, and opened it. “Can I help you?” asked my brother, mild like merchant who was only average.

“Is Analie Meredithe here?”

That voice.

Namal looked back at me. “You know this man?”

“Alban,” I stepped up to the door, “This is Lord Belledi Valredes.” I was too surprised to have any idea which manners to use or not use. I hadn’t seen Bel since I’d choked him unconscious in his rooms. Did he know?

Bel bowed quickly. His cheeks were pink from the cold, a small carriage stood in the street behind him. “May I come in?”

Namal looked like he would say no, but I said, “What do you want, Bel?”

“I heard you left the palace, I’ve been trying to find you. I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“I’m fine.”

Bel shifted on his feet uncertainly. “Good, I’m glad.”

I nudged Namal to get him to move away from the door, “We have only a few minutes.” Stepping back, I gestured for Bel Valredes to enter. “Sunset comes quickly these days, and they are quite serious about the curfew down here.”

He stepped in gratefully, looking around the room and hopefully missing the silent exchange Namal and I had before Namal growled, “I’ll be back down in five minutes,” and stalked up the narrow stairs.

I closed the door and turned to face Bel, crossing my arms.

“You look well,” said Bel.

“Thank you,” I replied.

Silence.

“I’m sorry about what happened,” Bel looked at me earnestly, “Between you and the King.”

Incredulous, I swallowed several responses before managing to croak, “Are you?”

There was more bite in the words than I had intended, and Bel’s features became more guarded; I turned away, lifting a hand to my face, hoping to hide just how much I knew about his involvement in Analie’s broken heart. “I was happy, you know,” I said thickly.

“I know, I’m sorry.” His hand brushed my elbow hesitantly. “But it wouldn’t have lasted. It’s not his way.”

“Is he with the Ambassador now?” I asked, lacing my tone with bitterness.

“Maybe,” replied Bel, gently turning me to face him and tugging my hand down. “I’m not sure. Analie, I know it is terrible right now,” he tipped my chin up so he could look into my eyes, “And I know you won’t believe me, but this pain will pass and you will find real love. You will feel whole again, alive again.”

I swallowed. Hard. Heat climbing my cheeks at his touch and the offer in his dark eyes. Either he was a truly world class liar…or I was. The thought made me look down, suddenly interested in his snow spattered boots. I’d been playing one role or another since Galhara burned, and in this moment, I was tired of it. What would Belledi Valredes think if he knew the truth about me? About Tarr? Which side would he be on if he thought he had a choice?

Bel, mistaking my silence, put a hand on my shoulder comfortingly. The touch was inviting, but not pushy, like a charming shop with an open door. But I was keenly aware of the knives still strapped to my back under my knit capelet. There could be no comforting embrace for Analie today, and it was just as well. I forced myself to look up at him, “I appreciate your concern,” my voice warbled as I cast a significant glance at the window, “But you should be going. Curfew.”

Bel followed my look, “Curfew,” he repeated, his voice taking an edge and I could almost hear him blaming the King for the state of the wharfs. He started to turn toward the door, but paused, “Tell your brother to come to my office on Savlong Street, should he ever wish to pursue a trade deal.” Our eyes met again as Bel took my hand and pressed a small metal disc into my hand. “Or if you need to get away from the city for a while. Be far away from the festival.” He closed my fingers around the disc and brought my hand up to his lips. “Good evening, Miss Meredithe.”

He left with a swish of his cloak and I watched him climb into his carriage and disappear down the street. Only after I’d closed and locked the door did I look down at the disc in my hand. It was his brooch, his family’s crest of a leaping fish. I leaned my back against the door and rubbed my thumb over the brooch. If I needed to get away from the city for a while? Dread curled in my gut.

“You made quite an impression,” commented my brother, descending the stairs.

“I hope he doesn’t come back,” I growled.

We settled on chairs in the office, and I told Namal about the exchange, and showed him the brooch. My brother turned the brooch over in his hand, examining it in the lamplight. “It’s certainly fine workmanship. I wonder if he planned to give you the brooch, or if he was being impulsive.”

I rubbed my hands across my face. “Does it matter?”

“Well, if he was being impulsive that makes it feel rather less likely that he’s laying a trap for you.”

“What do you think he means by telling me to get out of the city for a while?”

Namal handed the brooch back to me and leaned back in his chair, “Everyone knows Narya is coming, that’s as good a reason as any to leave town. We prevailed upon our parents to leave Sinensis and get further away—even tried to get Ayglos to join them after scouting, though I doubt he will unless father explicitly commands it. But…Valredes sounds like he has experience with heartbreak. I think he just knows it will be easier for Analie to move on if she moves away.”

Our family was hardly a good example, but he was probably right. I tucked the brooch into my pocket, then remembered everything I wanted to ask Namal. “What were you and Trinh arguing about?”

“Arguing? We were having a stimulating discussion of tactics.”

I raised my brows.

“I’m serious. Trinh Kegan was—is—an excellent general.” Namal shrugged. “It’s also refreshing to talk to someone who has read the same tacticians, philosophers and military histories.”

“Oh.” I was glad that I had left rather than waste time eavesdropping on general debate. I was also glad for Namal to have a friend. Even if it was Trinh Kegan.

My brother picked up some ledgers and placing them on the desk. “I think that there is no chance of us being able to overwhelm the Nether Queen by force.”  He pointed to the ledgers, which he’d arranged in a line across the desk. “Ballroom,” then to the empty desk, “the Bandui,” he placed a ruler in the “river,” “Queen’s barge—most likely—” then scattered ink wells around the barge, “Small craft, lit up to make the river shine.”

I leaned forward, setting my elbows on the desk.

“The King’s guard is made up of men mostly picked and trained by Quill, they can be relied upon to protect the King of Dalyn—so inside the ballroom we have some support if everything really goes badly. The small craft will be crewed partly by the King’s Guard and partly by the Queen’s Guard.” We’ve found a spot we think will work for one or two marksmen to take position on the far side of the river,” here Namal pointed to a spot near my left elbow. “Hopefully no one else will notice that line of sight.”

“The men from Gillenwater are tasked with causing a distraction near the garrison—most of Narya’s force should be stationed there, and we would like to keep them away from the ballroom as long as we can.”

Picking up one of the inkwells I rolled it in my fingers. I knew the plan. “Do you think we should warn Quill that if they see someone sneaking onto the Queen’s barge it’s probably only Domjoa and they should leave him be?”

Namal stilled, blue eyes flicking to me as he growled, “What?”

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83-Scheme within Scheme

 

The second day after meeting with Mistress Cadenera, Trinh arrived at our little apartment and closeted himself in the office with Namal. My brother and I had just finished a couple hours of sparring in the desolate warehouse, and after I cleaned up I sat down at the top of the stairs to try to listen to the men’s discussion. Their voices were only a resonant hum with no definition. After a few minutes I gave up, brazenly walked down the stairs, grabbed my cloak and left. Namal saw me go but didn’t try to stop me.

I walked with my hood up, and a scarf swathed across half my face. A light coating of snow still covered everything but wasn’t enough to slow down the carriages on the streets. The sun was out, and the air was cold enough that I felt as though I glittered like the snow. A few blocks of bleak warehouses gave way to the stores and open-air markets of the shopping district. The markets were crowded. So close to the Midwinter Festival, everyone who had money to spend was out to prepare. It was the biggest festival of the year, as many spent the whole winter planning it. There would be parties all throughout the city, from the highest to the lowest. Entertainment often started early in the day, with musicians and dancing anywhere there was space big enough, and parties continued on into the night and even the morning following. Almost all the nobility and wealthy would start the evening at the palace for the King’s Ball, then later adjourn to parties at the surrounding homes. I wondered what would happen this year. After we interrupted.

The market bustled around me and I enjoyed how normal it felt…except for the fact that I was fairly certain I had never been alone on a city street before. Even with the circus I had always gone places with others. I spied Domjoa flirting with a pretty milliner and stopped by a cart of squash to watch. The squash vender was haggling with someone and paid me no mind as I lingered, watching the black-haired knave over the round vegetables. I wondered who Domjoa had been before becoming a master thief—where had he learned his manners? Was he a rich man’s bored son, or a noble blooded survivor like Quill?

The woman selected a broad brimmed hat and settled it on Domjoa’s head, clucking in admiration. Domjoa postured for a moment, to her delight, before she showed him a hand mirror and he took time to seriously evaluate the hat. This was hardly the weather for a broad brimmed hat, even if it looked like it was made of wool. He bought the hat but had the woman box it up for him. I shook my head and peeled away to follow him just as the squash vender was starting to notice me.

Domjoa stopped at several venders, sometimes buying, sometimes not. He steered clear of the guardsmen who happened through the market on patrol. I took the time to practice being inconspicuous. Jemin would have been proud of me slipping through the crowd and examining wares like someone bored and waiting for someone else. Eventually, Domjoa entered a clothier with a display of ball gowns in the window. I paused at a cart of sweets in sight of the door. I really had no particular reason to follow Domjoa, or to hide from him. I walked up the steps and into the store. Inside, there were a handful of gowns and men’s clothes on display, but mostly the room was tables lined with bolts of fabric of all colors and textures. At the back, there were tall mirrors and a little platform, for fittings. A pair of decorative screens cordoned off the back corners and a long counter graced one wall. A young girl sat behind the counter, her hands full of some dark material she was stitching. An apprentice, most likely. A reedy little man was fussing over a gown on a dress form by the mirrors. I couldn’t see Domjoa.

The apprentice looked up, “Good afternoon, miss. What can we do for you?”

I smiled and approached the counter, wishing I could order a gown or set of clothes or something. It looked like they did excellent work. “I was looking for my friend, a tall man with black hair? I thought I saw him come in here?”

The apprentice’s expression remained warm, but something shifted in her manner. “Black hair?” she asked, setting down her sewing, “I’m not sure if we have had anyone like that in here today.”

The reedy tailor had stilled.

“Oh,” my suspicion thoroughly aroused, I filled my voice with disappointment. “Well, would you mind if I browsed your fabrics?”

“Of course not,” the apprentice smiled. Relieved? “Please, look, my name is Rading if you have any questions.”

“Thank you.” I moved off slowly, taking my time to examine every brocade, silk, cotton and wool to admire the weave, sheen or color. The tailor and apprentice appeared to relax as I browsed, not caring that I made my way closer to the screens at the back of the store. When I reached the end of the tables I slipped behind the screen. As suspected, it was a changing area, with a couple chairs and a clothing rack. A long mirror stood cock eyed from the wall, and I blinked at it for a second before I realized it was a door standing ajar. I stepped forward and eased the mirrored door open enough for me to peer through. A second dressing room opened up before me, and my heart stammered as I saw a man in a black uniform with a black dragon curling across the chest.  A heartbeat later I recognized Domjoa.

My daggers came out almost of their own volition as I stepped in and closed the door behind me. Domjoa looked up and our eyes met in the mirror. Surprise flashed across his face before he smiled. “Your highness, I did not expect to see you here.”

“Explain this.” I let my gaze rake down his body.

“It’s a little side project,” replied the thief, dismissively.

“Side project?”

“Yes,” Domjoa straightened the already straight jacket and fussed with the collar before again admiring himself in the mirror.

“Explain, or I will get blood on your new suit.”

He met my eyes again, this time noticing the violence in them. “It’s nothing that will harm your little scheme.”

I tilted my chin down. Not enough.

With a heavy sigh, the thief continued. “I am not required at the ball, utterly useless in a fight. So, I’ve thought of something productive to do while I wait.”

I waited.

Domjoa shifted, “Narya Magnifique is a monster, and she is incredibly rich and has some of the finest jewels this side of Kelphas. She is obviously going to bring some to wear while she’s here.” Domjoa spread his hands, “I’m going to steal them.”

I should not have been surprised, but for a moment I stared mutely at the thief before throwing my hands in the air, “Domjoa!”

Stepping away from the knives still in my hands, Domjoa said “Don’t shout!”

I sheathed Shiharr and Azzad, readjusting my warm cloak overtop, still glaring at my thief. “Firstly, those jewels will belong to my family or the Kegan’s if we succeed in our mission. Secondly, don’t you think we have enough going on that night?”

“That’s what’s so perfect about this,” replied Domjoa, “No one will be the slightest bit worried about the Queen’s jewels.”

“Domjoa, you’re stealing from me,” I put my hands on my hips.

He held up a finger, “I really don’t see it that way.”

“If you get yourself caught and jeopardize our plans…”

“I won’t be caught,” broke in the thief, “and even if I was, your plans would already be underway. When you succeed, you can set me free at your leisure.”

I shook my head. Domjoa waited a moment before turning again to face the mirror. I watched him adjust the collar, then bend his body this way and that, trying the flexibility of the outfit. I wondered if ordering him to stay would have any affect. It seemed so unlikely that I was too proud to try. “Do you know for a fact this is what her guard’s wear?”

“I do,” Domjoa looked down at himself. “I have connections.”

“Could we get more of these?”

“No.” His tone was firm. “It was a great risk getting this one. You do not want to know what I’m paying the tailor. Additionally, we haven’t the time.”

A knock sounded at the mirrored door, I spun to see the tailor poking his head in. Chagrin spread over his face at the sight of me in his secret dressing room, “Master Domjoa, I apologize for this intrusion,” he pointed at me with his chin.

“It’s alright, Hardy,” replied Domjoa, “She’s one of mine.”

I shot Domjoa a dark look, and he winked.

The tailor nodded. “Is everything to your liking?”

“Yes, it is. You’ve outdone yourself.”

The tailor nodded again, casting a critical eye up and down Domjoa’s dashing figure. “I agree,” he said, without emotion. “Is there anything else?”

“No, thank you.” Domjoa sent him a charming smile, which was ignored as the tailor disappeared back into his shop. The thief turned to me, “Was there anything else, your highness?”

I crossed my arms. “Would you like me to leave?”

“I would like to change out of these clothes.”

I swiveled on my heel and marched out the door after the tailor. I didn’t bother sticking around in the shop, instead slipping into the streets and eventually making my way back to the apartment.

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82-Plots and Plans

 

 

“We’re going to kill Narya Magnifique,” replied Trinh, mildly.

My breath caught, but Mistress Cadenera didn’t choke or recoil. She met Trinh’s stare with such knowing it was evident she’d guessed our purpose already and had simply wanted to know what we’d say. Then she smirked. “I like you. They say you’re the lost prince.” Her eyes flicked to Namal, “Course, they say you’re the lost prince, too. I find that a touch confusing.”

“It seems the Nether Queen leaves a trail of lost princes,” said Namal with a shrug. “Conquest has consequences.”

Mistress Cadenera snorted. “Consequences? That witch doesn’t get consequences near enough.” She leaned forward, “Look here—my son-in-law died in the Cathedral Square and my poor daughter and her babes haven’t stopped weeping since. I like that you’re straight forward, and I like what you aim to do. But if you fail, more heads than yours will roll.”

Trinh remained relaxed in his chair, fingering the handle of his tankard. I had to admire his composure. “We’re aware of that, that’s why I told you our goal.”

She pursed her lips and studied Trinh, then Namal, then Trinh again. She fished a handkerchief out of her pocket and mopped the sweat off her face. “How many of you need in?”

“Four,” replied Namal.

She nodded. “Strapping fellas like you?”

Another nod.

“I could use a few stage hands, to set up beforehand. But, normally most of the hands clear out of the Ball before the performance.”

“That’s fine, if we can get in, we can slip away inside,” replied Trinh, then, seeing the Mistress’s frown he quickly added, “—after we help set up, of course.”

“For this to work,” said the woman, sternly, “I need you and whoever else to report to my theater tomorrow, and every day between. You need to be trained as a hand, and paid as a hand, and work as a hand. I am innocent of your treachery, should you fail.”

“Of course,” said Namal, “They can also perhaps disguise themselves while they work at your theater, and then change at the Ball, so they perhaps won’t be connected to you at all.”

“They?” the woman looked at him sharply, “You’re not one of them?”

Namal inclined his chin slightly, “I have another way into the Ball.”

She chuffed, “Pity.”

I smirked.

Namal looked uncomfortable for a heartbeat before sliding back into his easy bearing. “There is little we can offer you in payment.” Namal slid a slip of paper across the table to the theater mistress.

She looked at the paper, then slid it back. “Pay me double if you succeed. If you fail, I don’t want anyone looking my way or asking where I got my extra money.”

The princes exchanged glances. Then Namal said, “You have our word.”

“Is this agreeable to you, Mistress Caderena?” prompted Trinh.

She drew a deep breath and let it out. Her face burned with intensity. “Yes.” She nodded, as if to herself, then said again. “Yes.” She raised hard eyes to the princes. “Tomorrow, one hour after dawn, I expect your four at my theater ready to work. The other extra hands are reporting at the same time.”  Mistress Cadenera finished the ale in her tankard and stood up, “May Eloi guide your steps,” her voice was gruff, somehow turning the traditional farewell into a raw wish. She turned and made her way back through the crowded room and out through the little door.

“There’s one piece,” said Namal. He looked at Trinh, “You’ve picked your men already?”

“Yes, Baldric and I are too likely to be recognized, so we will sneak in through the tunnels and join the nobility in disguise,” Trinh tipped his head at Baldric, “I’m sending the twins, Rakov and Rae’d, and also Elaer and Jasem, to the theater.” Four of the eight knights who’d been with him when he struck out for Dalyn and arrived six years later. “Have you heard from your brother?”

“Yes,” Namal flicked his eyes to me, “I sent the captain back to him with a raven to go with him. He is leaving tonight to scout up the river.”

Alone. Worry niggled through me, and I reminded myself that one half-blooded prince would be hard to detect, much less catch. Even if his only back up was a bird. Ravens were exceptional birds, many of which would speak human language and they were unparalleled as scouts and messengers. But they were still just a small ball of wings and feathers if you got into a fight.

“Good,” Trinh lifted his tankard. “I’ll pass word to my men tonight. I sent them to find out what barges would be on the river providing lights for the ball. My hope is to set up my marksmen on the river if any of the barges will be tall enough this year.”

“I would get your other two men into the ball, also, if at all possible,” said Namal. “We need as many bodies as we can get, if anything goes wrong I don’t want to be relying on the King’s personal guards to get us out.”

“Moonie knows which bakers are coming in to help the night before,” put in Domjoa. “Perhaps they might need someone to carry bread…”

I leaned out of my shadow, “If we are open to smuggling them in early, couldn’t they take the tunnels, and get someone to steal servant uniforms for them so they can get into the ballroom?” The men looked me. I shrugged, “Assuming, they aren’t all so huge people would get spooked…”

Trinh looked to Baldric, who looked thoughtful. I wondered if he ever spoke. After several long seconds Trinh said, “I’ll talk to Tarr.”

When the ale was finished, we left. Buttoning shirts and over shirts as we ascended the stairs and wrapping up in cloaks when we entered the relief of the cool crisp night and lost ourselves in the swirl of snowflakes.

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81-Heat

We slipped through the dark, silent streets. Three shadows, soon joined by another, Trinh’s Hand, a quiet hulk of a man named Baldric. Our goal was in the food district, which was several long blocks away—longer because of the checkpoints we had to skirt around. Once or twice I looked up at the roofs and wondered if we might just be better off climbing up a building and jumping from one roof to the next. Most of the buildings were close enough to one another. Though, I supposed, such a path would carry us further out of our way. And…Baldric’s close-trimmed beard was gray. He might not be in favor of such endeavors.

The night air was crisp, and flurries of snow began to spiral down from the heavens; Catching light from mysterious places and passing it from one glittering flake to another.

Warehouses turned to row houses, then to buildings with awnings, some with large glass windows. In an alley that reeked so much I tried to hold my breath, Namal knocked on a narrow door. A pair of eyes appeared in the peephole, then disappeared. For a long moment, we waited in silence, listening to the snow. Then, there was a scrape, and a clink, and the door opened. A narrow man stepped back for us to enter. I recognized Shayn, the murderer, and nodded in greeting before following Namal.

Namal led the way down a cramped hall to an even more cramped stair. The smell of pipe smoke, sweat and alcohol reached us only a step before the lilt of a fiddle and the sound of voices. I struggled not to cough as smoke tickled my nose and filled my lungs. The next moment we reached the cellar, which had been converted into a proper tavern. Tables and chairs filled most of the room, and people filled most of the chairs. A tall counter shielded the room from the kitchen which had been set up around the iron stove which normally heated the building above. Between the stove and the number of people, the room was unbearably hot—especially bundled as we were. Most of the people were half undressed, like field hands on an unexpectedly brutal summer day. Namal had already shucked his cloak and unbuttoned his collar. I scrambled to follow suite before I suffocated. This was why we had forgone armor tonight.

A few men and women were dancing in a corner as far from the heat of kitchen as they could get. The fiddler played a jaunty tune—but quietly. Indeed, the whole scene should have been louder—a room full of people drinking, eating, and dancing…but everything was hushed. People talked and laughed in the hushed tones of a library. The cloaks of the revelers lined the room and soaked up the low sounds before they could get far. No patrols would stumble on this place because they heard noise, for sure.

Domjoa, the master thief, swaggered out of the crowd to meet us. “My lords, milday,” he bowed, that smooth, rakish smile on his lips as he kissed my hand. Even sweaty, with his sleeves rolled up and his hair ruffled as if he’d been dancing, Domjoa was handsome. “This way, I’ve got a table for us.”

Trinh and Baldric had also shed their winter cloaks and we all followed Domjoa to the table furthest from the kitchen, positioned against the wall. We were scarcely seated before a young woman delivered two fistfuls of tankards to the table, smiling at Domjoa, who winked at her when he thanked her. Domjoa passed the tankards around. Ale wasn’t my favorite, but it was a cold drink in a hot room. I sat back from the table, sinking into the shadows with my tankard to watch and listen. I was between Namal and Baldric and would be easily overlooked in the shadowy corner.

The lamps lining the room and hanging from a handful of simple chandeliers were hardly enough to pierce the smoke hazed room. It was too hot for hoods, but the underground tavern wasn’t interested in us. Even so, we had each shifted our chairs slightly to angle our backs to wall. Trinh sprawled comfortably, one hand fingering the tankard on the table while the other elbow hooked over the back of the chair. His manner so similar to Tarr’s. Baldric, the gray bearded hulk, hunkered down over his tankard as if it could provide relief from the heat. I thought it disguised his size a little, too. Namal and Domjoa sat nearest the door, both relaxed and angled to watch the room with amused disinterest. I wondered when Namal had mastered this character who oozed lazy charm.

Trinh looked to Namal. “Is she coming?”

My brother nodded, “She said she would.”

“She’s coming,” said Domjoa.

As if in response, a thickset woman entered the dim, hazy room. She already had her cloak over her arm, and she waved the smoke out of her face with a frown.

“Here she is!” Domjoa was already on his feet weaving through the crowd to meet the woman. I watched her approach with interest. She wore plain clothes, dark, but faded, and the cloak over her arm was lined with fur. She was plump, gray haired, and already sweating—and I felt she ought to be a kind cook, beloved of children, instead of the owner of one of the finest theaters in Dalyn with a face lined by heartache.

Domjoa greeted her respectfully, not even gaining a smile in response before leading her to the table. A hard woman indeed, to be unwarmed by Domjoa’s greeting. The woman sat down without waiting for introduction, and immediately claimed one of the tankards. She swept critical eyes over Trinh, Baldric, Namal, and then me in the shadows.

“So, you’re them?” she asked, taking a swallow from the tankard. Sweat beading on her brow.

Namal recovered first, “Mistress Cadenera?”

“I think I expected someone older,” she replied. “Though, I’m not sure why. It’s not as if your ambitions are especially wise.  Stories favor the young and reckless.”

My brother chose to ignore the comment, “Mistress Cadenera, you run the theater which is providing entertainment for the King’s ball, is that correct?”

Mistress Cadenera lifted her chin, “One of them.”

“My associates and I need to get into the ballroom on that day,” Trinh’s blue eyes caught the lamplight, his expression measured and sure, “Perhaps you could help us?”

The Mistress decided to drink half her ale in one swallow before answering. “What are you going to do there?”

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80-Simple

 

Our new little apartment was situated in a warehouse, above the tiny office, in the heart of the warehouse district by the wharfs. Normally, it would’ve housed the clerk or bookkeeper who staffed the office, but we’d stuffed two cots into the tiny room. The apartment’s solitary window looked out on a dirty street, dirty buildings, then a long dirty wharf lined with sad, empty, ships. Beyond the crowded anchorage I could see the mighty Bandui River; strong, wide, deep, and gray as the darkening winter sky above. There were not many people about the wharfs, partly due to winter, partly due to the setting sun, curfew, and the nightly checkpoints that choked the warehouse district.

I turned away from the window and surveyed the bare little bedroom. There was a fireplace and two cots made up with linens far finer than had any right being in this part of town. A door led to a tiny washroom with a toilet and small tub. There was running water…but not warm water. I was glad for my nymph half, which made cold water relatively insignificant. We had no kitchen, but Domjoa had turned up this morning with a small icebox and ice, which he put in the warehouse to help reduce trips out to buy food. Not that we intended to stay past the Midwinter Ball.

Two days had passed without incident while Namal made preparations for this move and Hesperide spread whispers that the King and his mistress were fighting. I had sparred with Quill and Jemin in the King’s chambers and walked morosely through the frozen gardens in hopes that spies would confirm that Analie was unhappy.

Then, on the third morning, Analie had left the palace, sniffling into a handkerchief with her brother in tow. A carriage with three trunks had followed a couple hours later. Gifts for a departing lover.

It was probably the first time the King’s gifts had included sheets, blankets and pillows. Or armor. He’d also sent all the clothes and jewelry I’d worn while living at the palace, most of which we’d sold on the fourth day. Most, but not all. I touched the spot where the gold pendant stamped with ships sat against my skin underneath my tunic.  I had also saved Tarr’s nightshirt—I couldn’t part with it once I’d found it in the trunk tucked beneath my armor. We’d used some of the money to purchase much less conspicuous clothing, as well as some additional…tools. The rest we would dole out slowly and carefully—probably for food, bribes, and possibly even wages.

Now, it was the evening of the fifth day, with five days left before the Nether Queen’s arrival. Seven before the Midwinter Ball. I walked to the only trunk that we’d kept and checked the lock before heading downstairs to the office.  Namal was sitting behind the desk. Bookshelves full of ledgers lined the little room. The ledgers belonged to whomever owned the warehouse before the purge, and they added a feel of legitimacy to the room. The desk, was covered on one side with paper full of numbers which didn’t matter to us, and the rest was spread with maps of the city and surrounding countryside. The room was illuminated by one sad little lamp hanging over the desk, as Namal had already covered the window with thick canvas, tied down tight to keep light from escaping.

Namal looked up when I reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped into the office. “Trinh will be here soon.”

“I can hardly wait.”

My brother gave me a look. ­

I shot the look back at him. “I don’t have to like him.”

“I’m sure he says the same thing about you.”

“Don’t worry, I’d still pull him out of a burning building,” I grumbled, checking my knives. I had a new harness for Shiharr and Azzad that crossed them higher on my back and kept them much better hidden than before. Especially with my thick knit capelet around my shoulders. My stiletto still hid in my bodice—though this bodice was all cotton and wool, rather than silk or taffeta. I’d traded dresses for brown wool trousers that tucked into my tall boots. It wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for a middleclass girl to dress this way for work, sans the knives, and I was happy to embrace the freedom. I dropped into the worn leather chair across from Namal and put my feet on the desk. “Any news from Ayglos?”

Namal nodded. “The captain just left. Says that last night they delivered game to some farmers, rang a bell so they would come out and see Nadine’s silhouette leaving.” My brother paused to roll up the maps. “Your dysfunctional horse has been quite useful for their little project.”

I smirked. “Hook? Glad to know someone’s keeping him moving.” Besides helping to smuggle people farther from the city, Nadine and Ayglos had taken most of the men from Gillenwater to do small good deeds to keep hope alive. Nothing too dangerous, with Namal and I so deep in Dalyn, it would be foolish to have all of the royals in extreme danger at once. Nadine and I, with our matching physical descriptions, played the part of one person. I’d conflated myself and Nelia at the Cymerie, and we’d determined that we didn’t mind confusion on that point. One ghost or another, as far as the world was concerned.  My skin prickled as that voice came to mind and I wondered if Nelia minded her name being used in this fight. I pushed the thought away. “How long will they stay at Sinensis, do you think?”

“Everyone in court has probably forgotten all about them, and it’s not a stretch that the King would have forgotten them as well. They should be perfectly fine to stay put until the ball. Although, Father is considering moving Mother farther away,” Namal’s eyes dropped, “in case the worst should happen.”

“He should. And Nadine. And himself. Maybe Ayglos, too.” Since the worst would be pretty incredibly bad.

A wan smile teased at Namal’s lips, “We need Ayglos.”

“What if,” I leaned forward, “Narya dies in an avalanche on the way here?”

“If she’s arriving in five days then she’s already passed the highest parts of the mountains.”

“A miraculous avalanche.”

“Probably should have started praying for that weeks ago.” Namal bent and retrieved a pair of short swords from under the desk and belted them on. Then he produced another long knife from a drawer and passed it to me. I strapped it to my waist. “Do you have everything you need?” he asked.

“Everything I have.” Which was different, and truer.

“I don’t expect trouble tonight, but it’s best to be prepared.”

“Domjoa set up this meeting, right?”

My brother nodded, “He’s been tremendously free with advice, contacts, and ideas. Makes me suspicious.”

Arching a brow, I said, “He owes me his life.”

“Which is why I am working with his contacts at all,” replied my brother. “I don’t know how much fealty means to a man like Domjoa. Just…keep to the shadows and keep watch, will you?”

I would forgive my brother’s paranoia. It made him rely on me like he would on Ayglos, and I liked that. The sun should be well down by now, I was eager to be off. A little knocked pattern sounded at the door. Finally.

Namal stood and turned down the lamp while I palmed the knife and answered the door.

Trinh stood on the doorstep, face shrouded in the shadows of his cloak. I stood back and he entered. “Are you ready?” he was talking more to Namal than me.

I closed the door and grabbed our cloaks off the hook by the door, tossing Namal his.

Namal smothered the lamp, and then we left. Locking the little office behind us.

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79-Gifted

 

We both straightened at the sound of movement in the King’s bedroom, and then Namal entered the sitting room, having come from the hidden entrance. I scrambled to my feet in time for him to gather me into a crushing embrace. “Zare, you stupid, lucky girl,” his voice was muffled by my shoulder.

I crushed him back, then pinched him to get him to release me.  “I’m alright.”

“Thank Eloi,” Namal inspected me, his blue eyes bright with emotion “Are you hurt? You were gone for hours. What happened?”

“I’m not hurt,” I stood straight, aware that this time I wasn’t pale as a ghost, rumpled, or wracked with pain. Wild hair excepted.

Namal started to relax much more quickly than Quill had.  “Did she know who you were?”

“No, not at all. Khattmali was trying to make it look like Analie was with another man.”

Wariness came over my brother. “How?”

I put my hand on his arm, looking into his eyes, “Drugged me and set me to his rooms. But I escaped. I’m alright.” We had to sit down, then, and I had to relate the day’s events again. Quill gave his seat to Namal. Hesperide took Naran to bed. Namal got the shortest version yet.

I was just finishing when Tarr and Vaudrin came in through the suite’s main doors. Vaudrin gave me a smile, bowed to Namal, and, seeing Quill, left again without searching the suite. Tarr, handsome in dark green, dropped his swagger and found my gaze. I dipped my chin in assurance. His eyes cleared, and amusement flickered as he noticed I’d stolen his shirt. His questions answered, he nodded to Namal before crossing to the couch and lounging across it.

“Well,” said Tarr, “Analie certainly has some explaining to do.”

I swiveled in my chair to look at him better. “I was thinking about throwing your fourteen children in your face again, instead.”

Namal choked.

“To which I’d reply that at least my women were one at a time.”

“I would throw another pillow at your head.”

“And then,” said Tar, “We’d either devolve into insults about one another’s skills, or we’d make up.” Our eyes locked. Tarr inclined his chin. He’d hoped I would talk him out of it, but I could see that he agreed with me: It was time. “Should I throw you out tonight or tomorrow? Or should we stew a few days?”

“I think we could make any of those things work…it just depends how long my brother needs.”

Namal leaned forward, “To leave the palace? Domjoa could find us a place to live in a day or two, but money to feed us and keep feeding the men could become difficult.” He was plainly in favor of this plan.

“I’ll send a generous gift with my departing mistress, as usual. That should help,” put in Tarr. The conversation spun away into details, timing, and even got side tracked into discussion of the Nether Queen’s visit. Eventually, Namal and Quill left through the secret door, and Tarr and I retired to the bedroom. I crawled into the King’s bed while he went to change into nightclothes. I was so tired, but couldn’t sleep yet, so I sat, legs crossed under the covers. Tarr came out of his dressing room fluffing his hair. He’d mostly buttoned his night shirt this time. He paused when he saw me sitting up. “Is everything alright?”

“Tarr…” I started. I had no idea how to say this.

He came over and sat on the bed in front of me. “What is it?”

“Have you ever heard…voices?”

Tarr arched a brow, “What kind of question is that?”

“I mean a voice when no one is there. You’re alone, and someone talks to you…” I bit my lip, “and when you look, no one is there.”

Tarr’s blue eyes grew cautious. “My madness has never included voices in my head.”

“No,” I moaned and covered my face, “Not like that…I don’t think…Eloi, I hope not.”

The King peeled my hands off my face until I met his eyes. I wondered if I looked as terrified as I felt. “You hear voices?” asked Tarr.

“Someone woke me up,” I blurted. “In Bel Valredes’ rooms…I heard a woman yelling at me to get up—I even felt her slap my face. And then once I was up she told me where to find the washroom and comforted me while I threw my guts up.”

“But you didn’t see her?”

I shook my head. “I looked for her, but never saw her. And once I was done in the washroom, I never heard or felt her again…”

Tarr frowned. “Well, enough people have been killed here that she could have been a ghost.”

A shudder ran through me. “She didn’t feel…evil.” I suppose that didn’t necessarily rule out ghost. But who stuck around if they could be in paradise?

“You don’t think it was the poison.” Not a question. Tarr searched my eyes.

“Since when is poison helpful?” my voice trembled.

“Have you ever heard anything before? Had premonitions? Known things you shouldn’t?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so.” I spread my hands helplessly. “Not that I know of.”

The King looked thoughtful. “Well…you might be a seer. Not, you know, a terribly gifted one. But a seer nonetheless.”

I stared at him.

“Seers see what most people cannot—the spiritual world, the past, the hearts of men, sometimes the future—”

“I know what a seer is,” I cut him off.

“You looked confused.”

“That doesn’t help me know what I heard!” I didn’t think it was accurate, either.

It was Tarr’s turn to spread his hands, though he was much less distressed than I was. “Could have been anything: An agent of Fornern, or Tirien, or of Eloi himself, or even the real Nelia. Or a ghost.” He shrugged. “She was helpful, though, keep your ear out for more.”

Fornern was the spirit who had been charged by Eloi with protecting the north and the seas, and Tirien was his consort, who protected the south and the lands. I sighed.

“Hearing things while drugged doesn’t make you mad, if that’s what’s worrying you,” continued Tarr, “Remember, my brother fell down and got up six years later…I’m just glad to hear of a good supernatural occurrence.”

A sort of comfort, I guess.

Tarr laid back on the bed, his leg still dangling off the side. “You should probably start with what could she be. You’ve got a long list of names to choose from. And without a physical description…” he trailed off.

I’d told Tarr about the voice because he’d believe me, but it was still surprising to have it taken so in stride. My lips tipped up, “I will miss you, you know.”

He looked over at me, his expression tender. “I’ll miss you, too.” Then he lifted a hand to gesture at the couch, “I won’t miss my couch.”