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78-Sundering

While Quill was gone, I changed into a billowy pair of pajama trousers and one of Tarr’s night shirts. I picked the softest and thickest robe from the dressing room, not caring which of us it belonged to, and pulled all the pins from my hair and pulled at the braids until it tumbled around my shoulders in a frenzy. Hesperide procured me a tray of cheese, bread, and dried fruit, which I took to the chairs by the fire in the sitting room.

Reluctant to leave me alone, Hess nestled on the couch with Naran tucked under an arm. She settled into reading; the boy fell sound asleep. I wondered if she had spent many hours like that when I’d been injured. Naran acted as if the room was familiar and unremarkable, though I had only ever seen him in the gardens. I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised. Tarr would have found some way to see his son. I wondered if the boy knew who his father was. Or who I was.

I lost myself in my own thoughts while I slowly ate the food from Hess. I was very hungry but didn’t dare rush the meal for fear of spooking my stomach into a panic. The food helped my headache—which was a relief. Hess had offered to find me a painkiller, but I wasn’t in the mood to take tonics. By the time Quill returned I had mostly cleaned the plate and was staring at the fire, sipping wine and feeling fairly well, if tired.

“You look much better,” Quill said, sitting in the wing chair opposite.

“Thank you, so do you.”

He rolled his eyes and unbuttoned the first few buttons of his blue captain’s uniform. I tried not to notice. “I’m suitably relieved to have not lost a princess today. Especially on the heels of yesterday’s disappointments.”

“Two armies in as many days would be rather crushing,” I smirked. It was a terrible joke in so many ways. Only half true. Not remotely funny.

But he laughed, poured himself some wine, and said, “Tell me what happened.”

I related my story in hushed tones, just in case Naran wasn’t as asleep as he looked—and again left out the voice that had awoken me.

Quill listened quietly, tension evident in his jaw and shoulders. When I finished, he said, “I should hang Bel Valredes from the wall by his toes.”

“Quill.”

“He deserves it.”

“Maybe. At least he has more class than Khattmali—if barely.” I leaned my head against the chair, “It turned out alright.” I looked at him sideways, “And I’m counting on you to help me keep Namal from exacting revenge in a reckless manner.”

Quill’s eyes sparked with mischief. “Namal is never reckless.”

No. I was the reckless one. I shook my head and turned away with an exasperated sigh.

After a moment Quill asked, “What was in the note you left him?”

“I said I was sorry to leave him while he was sleeping, but I needed to get back before the king wondered where I was.”

“Clever. Do you think he’ll believe it?”

“I hope so. I wanted him to think he had a chance with me. It’s certainly in his best interest to believe he does. Khattmali’s revenge is probably more frightening than the King’s.” I tucked my feet under me in the chair. “If I’d had more time I might have added a line about how much I enjoyed his kisses…”

Quill stiffened.

“…but I wasn’t sure that would be wise. All sorts of ramifications from that I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to.” I arched a brow at Quill, whose face had grown dark, then I added, “There were no kisses, Quill.”

He grunted and took another drink of his wine. “Hopefully we can keep Khattmali and her wolves at bay with that chance.”

“Maybe…” I stole a glance at Hesperide reading on the couch, “It might be time for Tarr to show a little more interest in the Ambassador…”

“With you living here?”

“It might be time for me to move out, too.” I set down the glass, “You brought me here to keep me safe, giving Tarr a distraction was an extra benefit. And now the safety is over. Maybe the distraction has run its course, too.”

Quill grimaced. “You’ll probably have to leave the palace entirely if you move out of these chambers.”

“Yes, I agree. It wouldn’t make sense for us to stay, and Namal and I are a liability inside the palace.” I took a deep breath, “Originally we were only here to treat directly with the King about an alliance, and I think we’re rather past that now. Obviously, we’re all committed to this thing—the purging of the nymphs made that decision for us. Outside the palace we can be helpful; Namal can keep after the underground, and I’ve got my men and criminals to look after.”

“It will make coordination harder.”

“But I’d be much less interesting to everyone here.”

Quill was silent for a long time. He was watching the reflection of the fire in his wine glass—and he was thinking. I waited, content to study the way the firelight fell across his face and lit his eyes. Melancholy rested on him, deepening with each breath. I felt it spreading over me, also, as I realized that if we left the palace, then I would no longer see Quill. Or Tarr, or Hess, or Naran. Probably not Jemin or Vaudrin either. They were not just my friends, they weren’t even my subjects. They would stay with their King and I would miss them. Even as my heart thrilled to think of doing something other than trying to be underestimated.

At last Quill spoke, “I don’t like especially like it, but you may be right. Besides putting you in a better place to build the rebellion, the Nether Queen is due to arrive three days before the Midwinter Ball. If she took any interest at all in you, as Khattmali has, we’d have a whole lot of trouble on our hands.” He put down the wine glass and looked at me. “The King could still invite you to the ball so you wouldn’t have to sneak in on the big night. And should we fail, there is a chance, however slim, that it won’t come back on him.”

I nodded. “It’s worth considering, at least.” If we failed, I doubted anyone would survive whatever tortures awaited, much less have one of us escape entirely. Though, perhaps with the underground refusing to help with the assassination, they would be hidden enough to help us vanish if we needed to. If they were so inclined. “I wish,” my voice was a whisper, “They had found Trinh’s speech more compelling.”

“More compelling than vanished cities, hell fire, and lost time?” Quill’s voice was wry. “I suppose it was a fool’s hope. They’ll come alive when she’s gone.”

We fell quiet again. I curled up in the chair and pulled the blue robe close around me. Quill undid another button on his uniform, the white of his shirt peeking through, and finished what was left of the dried fruit on my plate. We were comfortable. It was strange to think that this might be the last time that we would sit together like this. Even if we defeated the Nether Queen at the Midwinter Ball, raised an army and defeated any remaining of her minions…Quill was Tarr’s Captain of the Guard, and a noble holding lands in Dalyn if all were put right. This camaraderie would not be repeated.

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Overshadowing

I have several different versions of this in my notebooks. Still haven’t managed to make it come out quite the way I want.

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72- Armor

I was delirious with exhaustion by the time Namal and I made it back to the palace. It was a long walk to start with, but add in avoiding patrols and making certain we weren’t followed and it became a lengthy, predawn walking tour of the city. One of the royal guard, one we’d traveled with from Gillenwater, was waiting to bring us back through the tunnels to our chambers. Once I’d shucked that blasted armor I found Quill waiting in the sitting room to hear how our little meeting had gone. I told him everything and felt better for it. The sky was turning gray when I finally crawled into bed—after checking on the king who slept on the couch.

The sun woke me up hours later. I stared at the huge arching windows, feeling as if all the sand in Daisen were in my eyes and piled on my body, making it far too heavy to move. I had gotten used to sleeping at night. I liked sleeping at night.

The winter light was bright and cold, and I felt it wasn’t high enough in the sky for me to be awake yet. This wasn’t a fair exchange of hours. Perhaps I could close my eyes again and convince the bone crushing weariness to leave. Something moved in my peripheral, I turned my head to see Hesperide laying out a deep burgundy gown. With a groan, I rolled over and buried my face in the pillow.

“Good morning, my little owl,” I could hear the smile in Hesperide’s voice.

I lifted my head enough to squint at her. “Is it good?”

“It is good that it’s still morning, because you have that luncheon today.”

Right. I rolled onto my back and starred at the gilded ceiling.  Khattmali hadn’t wasted any time pulling together a little lunch party to introduce Analie to people. Everyone was unhappy about me mingling with the nobility, but short of faking illness I didn’t know how to get out of it. I had been a small child the last time I’d been to Dalyn, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would recognize me. The Midwinter Ball was mere weeks away and I was certain Khattmali wanted me out of the King’s bed by then. Did a second visit make poison more or less likely? What hideous thing would she tell me about Tarr today? I rubbed my hands across my eyes and tried to reconcile myself to being up. “Next time I’m impersonating someone of higher rank, so I can say no to more people.”

Hesperide snorted. “The King is out already, and your bath is ready for you,” she headed back into the closet and returned with a couple pairs of slippers, which she then set next to the gown and eyed critically. “You should probably get started on that.”

A bath made getting up more tolerable. Mostly because it bore so many similarities to staying bed with the added perk of being in water. Hesperide yelled through the washroom door at least twice to hurry me along. Finally, I presented myself to her, clean, dry, and un-striped, and she helped me get into the gown. It was a different look than the others, the long skirt a separate piece from the fitted brocade bodice that buttoned down the front. The embroidery of the brocade had a metallic blue sheen that caught the light. A collar swooped down into a flattering point that showed off the gold necklace which hung around my neck. Another gift from the king. I touched the pendant—a gold disc imprinted with ships traveling in the gilded circle of trade. He’d tried to give me a sapphire surrounded by a river of gold, but I’d argued that giving a mistress jewelry that mimicked his seal did, perhaps, send too strong a message. I found Hesperide’s eyes in the mirror.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I feel like this is really yours,” I tapped the necklace before letting my hands drop into my lap.

“Ah,” she was braiding my hair, but she freed a hand to reach forward and tap my heart. “This is what’s mine of his. You, and that,” she looked at the reflection of the pendant, “Are armor to protect us. They are all armor.”

I started to nod, but couldn’t with her grip on my hair. I tried a grim smile instead.

“Be careful with Khattmali today,” Hesperide returned to braiding. “She got Tarr drunk last night after dinner, but he didn’t even try to kiss her. In her ideal world, she’d drive him so mad with desire that he’ll think her proposition of marriage is wonderful—or, even better, he’ll come up with the idea himself.”

“I know, I know…I’m in the way.”

Hesperide nodded, “After so many failures in recent months, I suspect the ambassador is eager to have a success to show her mistress when she arrives for the ball.  It’s becoming an urgent need.” Finished with the braid she began to coil it on my head, pinning as she went.

It seemed a little unfair to have to deal with intrigue of this nature without any of the intoxicating feelings of being in love to give it dazzle. Then again, it had to be a miserable situation for the people in love, so I shouldn’t feel too left out. There was a distant look in Hesperide’s eyes and I wondered if she was thinking of a version of her life where she didn’t need decoy lovers to protect her life and the lives of her children. “How do you know all these things, anyway?” I asked.

“I’m a servant,” Hess scoffed, “Servants know everything.”

“Oh. I’d forgotten.”

“If you want to know what’s happening in a palace, befriend the cooks, or the washer women.” Hesperide stepped to the front and eyed my hair. She pursed her lips, plucked at a curl, then nodded to herself.

“Not the maidservants?” I asked.

“No,” Hesperide shook her head, turning to collect the remaining pins, “Too much politics there.”

I grunted. “I’ll steer clear, then.”

“Wise.” She smiled at me as she left the room, “Jemin will be here soon to take you to the ambassador’s chambers.”

I thanked her and moved to the sitting room to pick up a book. There was a tray with tea, muffins, and a few pieces of fruit sitting by the fire and I happily dug into them with one hand—the other held the book. I was very hungry and hadn’t realized it. As I ate, I felt sleepiness returning to remind me that I’d been out most of the night.

When Jemin entered the sitting room, I jolted awake, book tumbling to the floor.

The burly royal guard was smiling. “Good morning, my lady.” He bowed slightly. “Are you ready to go?”

I straightened from being curled up in the wing chair and made a few faces, as if stretching and scrunching my face would wake it up more quickly. Blinking, I stood, and said primly, “Of course.” Then my lips quirked up in a dubious half smile, which Jemin rewarded with a matching one. Ready or not, it was time to go. There wasn’t anything either of us could do about it.

“Should you drink another cup of tea before we go?” asked Jemin, kindly.

I shrugged. “The ambassador has tea.” But I did pick up my cup and finish the last sip, now cold.

Jemin held the door open and then guided me to the ambassador’s chambers. The ambassador’s guards opened the door for me, and the sound of music and voices greeted me. The ambassador’s opulent chambers were even more spectacular today. Had she brought in more chandeliers? The crystal chandeliers cast splintered gold light and occasional rainbows everywhere through the main room. The windows were open, making up for the monstrous fire in the fireplace and the heat from the thirty men and women milling about in beautiful clothes. A few tables sat about, laden with meats, breads and fruits, and gray-clad servants bustled here and there carrying tea pots and decanters to ensure that no one saw the bottom of their cups. Four musicians sat in a corner playing stringed instruments.

Khattmali was in the center of it all, resplendent in a blue gown with a neckline that swooped deeply from one shoulder to the other, showing off both her skin and the layers of sparkling jewelry. She saw me immediately and came to greet me with a sweet smile on her face. As if greeting a favorite pet. “Analie! Darling! I’m so glad you’re here. I have so many people I want you to meet.”

Dear heaven.

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70-After Tea

 

In the safety of the King’s chambers, I stormed. I wanted to change clothes and go find the hounds, or do anything active…but the shimmering blue gown laced up the back. I couldn’t get out of the dress without help. I didn’t want to call for Hesperide because I didn’t know if she knew about Tarr’s fourteen children, and I knew I would probably blurt it out the moment I saw her.

In frustration, I fetched out my daggers.  Fine gown or no, I started to practice with them right in the middle of the bedroom. Finding solace in the motions Remko had taught me so long ago, and distraction in the newer techniques that Quill and Vaudrin had taught us. I moved slowly at first. It felt good to move. To bend. I spun slowly, striking and slashing imaginary enemies, and trying out crouches and low kicks in my fine slippers. Frustration released with every blow. The dress limited my motion, but I kept working, moving faster was my confidence grew, as I let myself disappear in a flurry of emotion. Sweat slicked my skin under the dress, and I was vaguely aware of my curls whipping free of their restraints.

I almost didn’t hear the door to the chambers open. It registered a second later and I stopped mid-motion. Straightening, I flipped Azzad casually in my hand, trying to decide if I should put the knives away on the off chance it wasn’t someone I knew in the outer chamber.

Quill appeared in the doorway on his way through his usual circuit of the rooms. He paused, his eyes swept over me, taking in the sweat on my brow, the tumble of my hair, and the knives. I met his gaze, blowing a strand of hair out of my face.

He leaned on the doorframe and crossed his arms across his muscular chest. “How was tea?”

“I drank too much.”

Amusement flickered across his face. “Was it just tea?”

I sheathed my knives and marched to slide them under the pillows of the bed. “As far as I know. I’m not dead yet.”

“How’s your side?”

I inhaled deeply. At the moment I was still warm, even panting a little from my exercise. “Fine.”

“Don’t overdo it,” he straightened and turned back toward the sitting room.

“Is the King with you?” I asked.

He glanced back at me. “He’s just here for a change of clothes.”

Tarr came into view, dressed in riding clothes. His boots were dirty and he smelled faintly of the stables. Quill stepped aside to let Tarr through the doorway. The King smiled when he saw me. “How was tea?” he asked.

“Fine.” I crossed my arms.

Quill leaned toward Tarr, “Don’t believe her.”

Tarr grunted, “Of course not,” and continued past me into his closet. He would be ringing for Hesperide. The thought made me so angry I followed him in. Tarr was in the middle of unbuttoning his shirt, he looked up at me, surprised. “Yes?”

“Fourteen children!” I snapped.

“Excuse me?” His brows quirked in confusion.

“You have fourteen children?” I repeated, stopping just inside the closet and lifting my chin.

“I have,” Tarr hesitated, processing, then he threw back his head and laughed. “Fourteen? By Fornern, the number just keeps getting bigger.”

“How is this funny?” I seethed. “You’re irresponsible! It’s demeaning and vulgar and rude! And what about Hess? She loves you.”

Tarr kept laughing.

When several seconds passed, I began to fear that I would throw something at him. Then I began to think throwing something would be a good idea.

Tarr tried to speak, but every time he looked at me he started howling again. Stepping back, I grabbed a pillow from the bed, glared at Quill, who was still in the bedroom doorway, and came back to hurl the pillow at Tarr’s face. I wished it was something heavier as it pegged him. He laughed harder, but covered his head with his arms as he struggled to regain control.

I had no idea what to do, his reaction was so unexpected. Laughter tugged at me, coaxing me to come dance with it, but I absolutely would not allow it. I crossed my arms and waited, frowning.

Finally, Tarr regained control of himself, barely, and said, “I have three children. Though I support seven.”  His blue eyes were still rich with mirth. “As soon as word gets around that you’ll take care of your offspring, they start materializing in places you’ve never been.” He picked up the pillow and lightly hefted it back to me.

“Three?” I asked, weakly, catching the pillow.

“Rumors credit me for ten, last I heard. But fourteen.” He laughed again, “That’s a new number. I wonder if Khattmali made it up just to frighten you or the rumor has grown.” Tarr resumed unbuttoning his shirt. “It’s really just Hess’s two, and I have a daughter who lives at Sinensis. She’s three years old, and doesn’t belong to Hess.”

“But…” I was trying to readjust my picture. Jemin had told me of the King’s reputation, but I’d somehow replaced it with a completely different perception—hard to imagine my nursemaid as a philanderer—and now I was trying to reconcile the two images. The truth was somewhere in the middle. “What about Hesperide?”

Tarr stopped, his shirt hanging loose now, and turned to look at me. As if finally realizing how serious I was. He pursed his lips, weighing, then stepping forward he took the pillow out of my hands. “Zare, you might not believe me when I say that Hestria,” here he looked over my shoulder at Quill, “is my heart and soul. Nothing terrifies me more than the thought of losing her the way I lost everyone else. If Narya knew I loved her–knew who she really was…” Tarr trailed off and looked away. His jaw worked. Silence stretched between us for a long, thick moment, then he continued, “So I hide her among many others and hope no one will learn the truth. Though I would be lying if I said I have not enjoyed the other women I’ve been with.”

Hestria? I took the pillow back and shook it at him, “I don’t regret throwing this.” But there was no venom in my words.

He inclined his head as I turned and walked out of the closet. Quill was still by the door, watching the whole exchange with his arms crossed. I tossed the pillow back onto the bed. “Weren’t you going to save him?”

“Only if you’d grabbed your knives instead of the pillow,” he replied, a smile in his eyes.

I moved to the couch and sat down, then fixed him with a look. “Hestria?”

“You’re not the only one with secrets.” Quill walked to one of the chairs perched on the arm, again crossing his arms over his chest and looking incredibly comfortable.

“Is she your sister?” I’d seen the way Tarr looked to him.

Quill shook his head, his expression said he’d been expecting the question. “First cousin.”

“Ahhh.” That certainly explained a number of things about Hess’s humor and manner. We were quiet another moment while I re-processed tea with Khattmali. “Dear heaven,” I breathed, “She’s a witch.”

Tarr emerged from the closet, half dressed in a fine shirt and pants, instead of half un-dressed in his riding clothes. A black coat hung over his arm as he buttoned his clean white shirt. “I haven’t got a lot of time, but are you going to tell me about tea?” he asked.

I drew a deep breath and explained, “The ambassador was very chummy, wants to throw a little soiree so Analie can meet people. Warned me about your…reputation…assured me you would be bored soon because you’re a cad who somehow had fourteen children in only six years—and resolved to help me find a way to stay—rich? At court? Like this.” I waved a hand at my dress and jewels. “She was very persuasive.”

Tarr paused beside Quill and put on his jacket. “Impressive for one little tea. What did Analie do?”

“She was mostly quiet and didn’t say no to much,” a wry smile tweaked my lips. “She’s obviously not sure what to think anymore, though she’s devoted to you. I think my eyes dried out from being wide with innocence so long.”

Quill coughed out a laugh.

“Well,” Tarr winked, “Her loyalty is admirable. Even if yours was a bit more fragile”

I rolled my eyes. “I only threw a pillow, you should feel quite loved.”

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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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that one job

That job we’ll always refer back to. It was exotic. It was risky. It was when we stopped lying to ourselves. It’s also when you made me wear that ridiculous dress. #hoopskirtjob

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