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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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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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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.