61-Soup

 

The next time I woke up it was dark except for the fireplace and a lamp flickering on the wall. Tarr was gone. Ache still laced through my body when I tried to move, but overall I felt better than the first time I’d woken. Except I was very hungry. Possibly even ravenous. Carefully I pushed myself into a sitting position.

Movement by the couch caught my eye, I stopped. Quill.

He had been watching the fire, but heard the covers and swiveled. Seeing me, he rose and came to the bedside, his face earnest. “Your Highness, it’s good to see you awake.” He was dressed in the blue uniform of the royal guard, but the first several buttons were undone, declaring him off duty. He was not quite so rakish as the King always appeared, but the overall effect was startlingly disarming.

“Thank you for bringing me back,” I said. “Tarr—the King said you brought me back here.” As if I could have gotten back another way.

He smiled. “How do you feel?”

“Hungry.”

His smile broadened a bit. “That’s good. I will send for food. Everyone else is at dinner, keeping up appearances and all that.” He turned and walked to a door I had never noticed and, opening it, he stepped out, leaving me alone. Before I could be surprised he’d left, he returned and closed the door again. “Food is on its way.”

“Thank you.”

He picked up the chair from the desk and carried it over to the side of the bed. “I guess we’re even, then.” He sat down.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, still feeling like all my energy committed to tasks one at a time.

“You have carried me through a city wounded, and now I have carried you.”

“Oh.” That was…deflating, somehow. As if it were just a score settled. Then I noticed the glint in his eye and growled at him.

The glint blossomed into another smile. “Glad to see you’re not entirely in a fog.”

“You are impossible.”

“So are you,” he leaned back. “Breaking out the King’s prisoners, any old prisoner you wanted. As if they all belonged to you.”

I rolled my eyes, I didn’t think he was really upset with me, but apparently my expansive jailbreak had caused some irritation all around. “What was I supposed to do, leave them behind?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Quill sighed. “Because they were in prison and you didn’t know why they were there.” He lifted a finger, “Their word doesn’t count in this instance.”

“Didn’t one of them find the men a safe place to hide?”

“Yes,” he inclined his head, “For the moment, it seems they are honoring their vow to you. In fact,” the smile was back, “they were extremely distressed when you collapsed.  I think they were worried what I would do to them without you.”

I moaned, “I’m very embarrassed about collapsing.”

“Why?”

“I’m supposed to be this inspiring figure but made a stupid mistake and then fainted in the street before finishing the mission.”

Quill studied me.

I continued, “Then I slept for two days while everything went on without me.”

He folded his arms. “I believe,” he said at last, “they found your toughness while wounded inspiring.”

“I got tackled from behind again—caught by the cloak, then tackled.”

“Stop letting that happen.”

“It’s definitely not something I enjoy.”

“Don’t give up your back—” he leaned forward, “And perhaps we need to get you a cloak that tears off easily.”

“That wouldn’t have helped last night. We were wearing them for disguise.”

“Night before last,” Quill corrected and I grimaced.

There was a knock on the bedroom door, Quill rose and opened it, accepting a tray from a servant and closing it again. He returned to the bedside. I scooted to make room for the tray on top of the covers.

The smell of food made me even hungrier. It was some sort of chicken and vegetable soup, with generously buttered slabs of warm bread on the side. I barely remembered to bless it before starting in on the deliciousness. The soup curled into me, gently filling up the gaping emptiness inside—and much faster than I could have anticipated. “It’s very good,” I commented to Quill, then stopped. “Have you eaten?”

“I had lunch,” he shrugged.

I offered him some bread, “Please…eat something.”

“That’s not necessary,” he said, but accepted the bread. “I’ll eat in the mess hall later.”

I was skeptical but as soon as I was full I pushed the bowl toward Quill. “You can finish this, it must be better than what’s in the mess hall.”

Quill quirked an eyebrow, glancing from the soup to me. “Someone has been in the circus too long. I could have called for food for me, also.” But he picked up the bowl and sampled the soup. Still steaming, and by his look, still delicious.

“I suppose I have been away from this life a while,” I smoothed the blue coverlet over my legs. Between the siege, the circus, and the long days on the road, it had been a long while of seeing food as finite. In the palace of the victor’s pet, there was no need to share food, but I found satisfaction in it anyway. I settled back on the pillows. “What was your life like, before the fall?” It was something I had wanted to ask for weeks, and now—aching, tired, and full—I was finally able to ask.

Quill swallowed his soup, his brown eyes growing distant. “Life was good.”

I waited a moment as he took another spoonful of soup and then realized he thought he had answered the question and wasn’t going to say more. “But what was it like,” I asked again. “What did you do? How did you live?”

He looked at me. “I did what noblemen’s sons did. I learned etiquette, history, strategy, and combat. I served in the palace, but also had plenty of time to be a child climbing trees—and walls, and buildings,” he caught my eye and winked. “l was a very good climber.”

“Were you close to the royal family?”

“You mean, did I know the King well, before all this?”

“Either of them.” I waved a hand. I wasn’t just interested in Tarr.

“Trinh is much older than Tarr, though you wouldn’t know it now. He knew me only peripherally. He was often gone, because Shyr Valla and Hirhel were always fighting sporadically, and Dalyn, as you know, supported Shyr Valla in those conflicts.” Quill finished the soup and set the bowl down. “Tarr is only a year older than me. We were playmates, a few of us were, but we weren’t extremely close.” He shrugged. “The city wasn’t expecting Narya’s army, there was no flight of the women and children as there might have been. When my mother saw that the gates would fall before Dalyn’s army could return, she hid as many of us courtly children as she could get in an orphanage in the city. Clothed in rags so no one would give us a second look.” For the first time, sadness seeped into his posture, permeating even the air around him with weight. My chest tightened just looking at him. “In so doing she preserved the lines of several families, because by day’s end we were orphans in truth.”

“I’m sorry.” The words were inadequate. In a sea of ill fate, I felt untouched. I had lost everything but my family, and so I had lost nothing. How many in Galhara and Dalyn had the same story? My eyes smarted. “I’m so sorry.”

Quill met my gaze and dipped his chin, graceful acknowledgement, before continuing; “When Tarr was crowned, we older boys joined the guard under new names. Tarr, of course, knew who we really were and did not betray us to the queen’s agents.” Sadness pulsed off him again, “The King was in the same situation we were, except in many ways much worse. As captain, I have done my best to fill the King’s personal guard with men who serve the Dalyn, not Hirhel.”

“The King is lucky to have you,” I said.

“Yes, he is.” Hints of a smile played around Quill’s eyes.

Then I asked, “Were you always intending to rebel? Or did this start because of Trinh’s return?”

Quill set the soup bowl on the tray, and then moved the tray to a side table. “She took everything from us, left the greatest houses in ruin.” He said the words without malice. “The tribute she requires is too much, it is stripping the city resources just as surely as a leech. We have never thought of ourselves as serving her. We serve the Kegan line. Everything we do undermines her power. If only a little.”

I watched him appreciatively. I would have expected bitterness. Revenge, or maybe even defeat. But he sat, pensive in the glow of the fireplace, handsome and emitting only strength, sadness, and surety. “What would you be doing now if Dalyn hadn’t fallen?” I was apparently feeling very bold.

“Heavens, I have no idea.” He straightened, extinguishing the mourning that surrounded him. “Enough about me, your Highness. What was your life like before all this?”

“Oh,” I replied, “it was good.”

Quill arched a brow, amused.

Rewarded, I continued, “I don’t remember a time when Hirhel wasn’t warring. But generally, it didn’t really matter. It was frightening, but far away until I was fourteen or so and she started moving toward Galhara. I had school, of course, lots of school. Plenty of court functions, and regularly training with Remko and the guard…and I was teaching my horse, Aurum, to sit. He could already come when called, and rear on command…” I looked down at my hands and absently smoothed the coverlet again. “Nadine was starting to court the prince from Charpolia, Gebbert. He seemed nice, I think they would have been a good match. Father was after Namal to prioritize marriage, too, but Namal resisted for the very reason Father pressed—Hirhel’s rise had them both worried. It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Namal didn’t marry. Otherwise he might have had a wife and infant to get out of the palace when it fell.”

“How did you get out?” asked Quill, quietly.

I looked up, “The same way I got the girls out at Gillenwater.”

Understanding sparked in his eyes and spread across his features. “Of course. But,” his brow furrowed, “Shouldn’t the Nether Queen have known that was a possibility? Didn’t she know Zam the Great married Ayglara of Daisen?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “But Galhara sits atop a cliff, or it sat atop a cliff, and we didn’t have a cistern like Gillenwater’s. Just an underground river that leads to the bay in a fall. The way we left was difficult, even for half-nymphs.” Grueling, really. I shuddered. “We saved only fifty of our household.” My voice was small.

“Fifty!” exclaimed Quill. “All the stories say there were no survivors from the palace. None.”

“All the stories say she called fire upon us from hell, also.” I retorted.

He inclined his head. “Even so. She wiped Shyr Valla off the face of the earth. Before your father climbed up in that wagon, I had no reason to think there were any survivors. Much less fifty.”

Despite the topic, the memory of Quill arguing with Boitumelo in the doctor’s wagon made me smile. It seemed so long ago. “You took it in stride,” I said.

“Good news isn’t hard to take in stride,” he replied.

I smiled again. “I suppose.” I was feeling tired again, which hardly seemed fair since I hadn’t been up that long.

Quill studied me, and I could see in his eyes that he’d noticed my weariness. He leaned forward and handed me a small cup from the side table. “The doctor left this, to help with the pain. Drink, sleep, heal.”

“Please don’t leave me,” I said, surprised at how pathetic I sounded.

“I won’t,” he assured, his voice tender. “Don’t worry.”

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57-Role: Persuade

 

No one stirred at my proclamation. Who could possibly be sleeping in the middle of the night? I gestured to Quill and he picked a cell and unlocked it. The scrape of metal elicited some shifting among the men stretched out on the stone floor. Quill held the barred door open and I stepped inside, pausing while he closed and locked it behind me, then approaching one of the sleeping forms. I prodded the man with my foot. His uniform was dirty, but when he rolled over I saw the rumpled black dragon of the Nether Queen.

He blinked in the lamp light. “Is it time?” he asked, wearily.

“Yes,” I replied.

Confusion filled his face. “You’re a woman.”

“How keen you are,” I said drily.

“Lady Khattmali?”

“No, I am not your hangman. I have come to offer you your lives.”

He rubbed his hand across his face. “What?”

“Wake up the others, I’m only going to explain once.”

He looked bewildered, but thwacked the man nearest him, who grunted in protest. “Someone’s here,” said the first, turning to kick another. “Hey, someone’s here.” Slowly, the prison filled with the sounds of sleepers groaning and cursing to wakefulness. I waited, breathing and willing peace and authority into my body. It had been my idea, but I still didn’t want to be here. We gathered more attention than just the four cells full of Gillenwater’s disgraced men, but that was alright. As long as no one saw Quill’s face we’d be fine. When I judged that most of the doomed detachment was awake, I asked, “Where is your officer?”

“I am their captain,” a man in the back of my cell struggled stiffly to his feet and I turned to him. He was chained to the wall, unlike the others, and his face was bruised and bloodied. All the men in the cells were suffering from prison-hair and a couple weeks without shaving…or bathing, for that matter. I imagined this man was probably in his thirties and not horrible to look at when he was clean and his face wasn’t mottled purple.

“You will all be killed in the morning by order of Narya Magnific.”

“We know that.”

“I’m not overly fond of any of you, given your treatment of my family,” I let venom fill the words easily enough, “But while the Nether Queen wants to stop the rumors of the Galhirim, I don’t.” I tossed back my hood and shook my curls free, letting the light from Quill’s lantern illuminate the likeness they all knew so well from weeks on the road with my sister. I turned to make sure that all four cells got a good look.

The men stared at me with wide eyes.

“You!” said one of the men in the next cell.

It was the man who’d tackled me in the woods by the Cymerie. I looked directly at him, my eyes cold, and tilted my head to one side, “Didn’t I tell you I was your last prisoner?”

He blanched.

Raising my voice, I continued, “I want the rumors of the Galhirim to grow,” I drifted my gaze around the cells, lingering on any man who met my eye. “So, I give you a choice: Swear fealty to the Galhirim, and I will do everything in my power to get you out of Dalyn safely.” I paused.  “Or, you can stay here and die.”

Silence swallowed long seconds before one man protested, “Fealty? What about Gillenwater?”

I bit back a snort. Barely. “Right now, you serve your oppressor, not your city. I would see all the cities freed. But if you want an assurance; when the Nether Queen is defeated, your debt to me is paid and you may return your troth to your city.”

The captain crossed his arms. “What’s to stop us from overpowering you here and trading you for our lives?”

That had been Namal’s objection, too. I shrugged one shoulder, hopefully emoting complete unconcern, “Then my guard will kill each of you like fish in a barrel.”

All eyes shifted to the hooded and silent figure at my back.

“How will you get us out?” asked the first protestor.

“They know who we are,” said another, “we can’t go home.”

“We’d never get out of here alive,” scoffed a third.

“You’re right. You can’t go home. With the Nether Queen in power you will never go home. Come fight with me and there is a chance you someday might.” I leveled my gaze on the captain, “What say you?”

Their captain regarded me for a moment before saying, “A chance is better than nothing.”

Tension released in my chest. “Swear fealty to me.”

He hesitated. Then, collecting himself, he met my eye, “In sight of Eloi, I swear my loyalty to the Galhirim.”

Stepping back to the door, I extended my hand to Quill. He handed me a key and I walked through the men—most of whom were still sitting—to the captain.

I stopped in front of him and held aloft the key. “Know that if you break this oath and betray me—even if the Nether Queen somehow spares your life—Eloi will know what you have done. And,” I added darkly, “my brothers will find you.” Then I crouched and unlocked his shackles.

As soon as he was free, he stepped away and bowed. “Princess.” Then he surveyed the men under his command. “Make your choice,” he said gruffly.

Shuffling sounds filled the prison as the men around us got to their feet. I moved to the door of the cell. Quill allowed the captain to step out, then I planted myself in the doorway. The men approached hesitantly. The man I had first awoken came first, bowed, then made the same pledge the captain had made. Then they came one after another, each making the same pledge before I would let him step out into the aisle. It was exhausting. I stared each man in the face as he pledged, holding my chin high and trying to read their souls. Some were more sincere than others. Some admired me. Others did not. They were all grim. When they stepped past me, Quill took over. I heard him behind me, his voice deeper than I remembered as he gave terse instructions to my new soldiers.

We had just finished emptying all four cells when one of the other prisoners, not one of the men from Gillenwater, piped up. “Hey! What about us?”

I felt Quill stiffen even as he gave the last soldier an order. I looked over at the speaker. He was a lanky man, utterly disheveled with a long scrappy black beard that testified to months in prison. He leaned on the bars as if he were in a tavern, not a prison. Stepping closer I asked, “Why are you in prison?”

The man smiled, “Lots of reasons.” He straightened and pointed at one of the others in his cell, “I’m a master thief. Shayn killed a guard, Haystack vandalized a statue, Moonie stole a horse or six.” He swiveled back to me, still smiling. “And that’s just my cell. There are a few others down here I haven’t had the pleasure of making acquaintance.”

I arched a brow. “Why should I release the likes of you? You had better talk fast. I don’t have a lot of time.”

His smiled faded and he stepped close to the bars again. “You’re starting a rebellion, right? I should think you’d need as many men on your side as you can get. We’re smart—well, some of us are—and able bodied.  Most of us don’t expect release anytime soon—if ever.  We have very little to lose by following you, and a lot to gain–potentially.”

“You must swear fealty to me,” I replied coldly. “And do not think that freedom from this cell means you can do whatever you like. If you leave this prison, your life is mine to direct. If you betray or desert me, it will be better for you to have stayed here.” I could sense the disapproval rolling off Quill and could only imagine what Namal’s reaction would be.

The scrappy man inclined his head, “A chance is better than none.”

“Very well.” I stepped forward, my eyes boring into him. “Swear.”

56-Moonlight and Iron

The night air was tipped with ice, but I breathed it in gladly. It calmed the adrenaline zipping through my body and helped me focus as I slipped from shadow to shadow behind Quill. Tarr was the only one who’d liked my plan, and truth be told even I was unenthusiastic about it. But no one had anything better, and with only a few modifications we’d agreed. Then, as if he’d been expecting this, Tarr produced neat piles of dark clothes and black leather armor for Namal and me. The clothes were thick, fitted and supple, a second skin. The black leather greaves, vambraces and breastplates also fit perfectly. It was some of the finest light armor I’d ever seen and I could move almost as freely as in my leafy circus clothes. I recognized the make, the same Quill’s raiding party had worn. Only this had been custom made for us and the emblem of Dalyn was not tucked inside. Rather, in plain view of any close enough to see, the albatross of Galhara spread its wings over the breastplates. Namal was displeased with the presumption, but I could see him swell to be wearing our crest again. My vambraces were also embossed with the geometric blossoms of mountain laurel. “The symbol of Nelia,” explained Tarr, his eyes alight. He had clearly embraced the stories.

Jemin had kept my pack, with Ironside’s old leathers and my knives, so Shiharr and Azzad were now snug against my back. They were comforting, as if I had Remko again.

Quill put out his hand and I stopped, one foot poised to step. Ahead, and to the left, a blue-cloaked guard walked on one of the winding garden paths, his lantern swinging with each step. The palace grounds were a stark landscape of silver moonlight and deep shadows. If we could have picked the night for this madness, we would have waited a week for the moon to wane. The only benefit of the great silver orb in the sky was that the light which lit our path also showed us where the sentries walked. We waited, motionless, until he passed, and then waited some more. Finally, Quill lowered his hand and moved forward. I followed on his heels. We weren’t trying to leave the palace grounds—at least not yet—just cross them unnoticed. The secret hallways had provided us with an exit in the gardens, sparing us from crossing any of the open lawns or courtyards that ringed the palace. I would have considered the gardens lush, even for winter, if I hadn’t been relying on the trees and shrubs for cover. But Quill was the Captain of the Guard, and picked us a twisting path far from the sentries on their patrols. We only saw one more before we reached the great hedge that separated the palace gardens from the training grounds outside the garrison.

Here Quill hesitated, moving slowly along the hedge as if he didn’t know exactly where to go next. Behind him, I tried to stay in the thin dark shadow cast by the hedge. I was just starting to worry when he stopped and reached into the bush, beckoning to me with his other hand. There was a hole in the hedge, not a big one, and he was holding back several branches to make it wide enough to squeeze through. I slipped past him and thought thin thoughts as I slipped through the opening and shrunk against the hedge on the other side to wait. The training yard was a wide rectangular expanse. Thick poles for weapon practice lined the perimeter and a strange tower strung with rope ladders stood at one end. The rest was horrifying open space. With a rustle of branches Quill joined me. He was wearing a black mask that hid everything but his eyes. We couldn’t very well have anyone recognize him and I worried that even his eyes would give him away. I hadn’t wanted him to come—the last thing we needed was the Captain of the Guard being fingered as a rebel—but he’d insisted. And no one knew the grounds or patrols like he did.

Quill slung a bundle off his back and shook it out into two cloaks. He handed one to me, and put on the other. I slung the cloak around my shoulders and lifted the hood. It was the dark blue cloak of the guard. Hunching our shoulders against the cold as if coming in off a long patrol, we stepped away from the hedge and walked across the training yard and into the garrison side by side.

It was an hour or two after midnight, and there was no one about. The only souls who should be stirring were those who had guard duty. I was reminded of my venture into Gillenwater’s garrison and reflected how much nicer it was to have help and be disguised as a soldier rather than a captive. We made our way quickly through the barracks and came at last to the entrance to the prison. There were two guards, and they stood up when we approached.

“What’s your business?” asked one.

This part…I had wanted it to go differently. I had suggested a thousand different cons for getting in but each one required one or both of us to show our faces, which we could only do if we were fleeing Dalyn after this. I stepped forward and held out a folded piece of paper. The guard accepted it, squinting to see my face under the shadow of the hood. When he looked down to read the paper I struck his temple hard with the flat of my palm the way Quill had taught. The guard reeled as he lost consciousness and I caught him, vaguely aware of Quill lowering the other guard to the ground as I panted under the weight of this one. Quill propped first his guard, then mine, against the wall, before snagging the keys off their belts and unlocking the iron gate. I followed him into the prison. It had the dank cold and the disgusting smell, the iron bars and the darkness.

I would be glad when we could leave.

Quill took a lit lamp from the wall and walked steadily down the center hallway. There were tiny horizontal slits of windows close to the ceiling, they mostly showed that the moon made it brighter outside than in. Most of the prisoners were asleep, or trying to be. All we saw were the pale limbs that caught the lamp light, and occasionally a face. One or two had open eyes that watched us blankly, not at all surprised to see two guards in the prison. We reached the end of the hallway and took the stairs down one level. This part of the prison was even darker. The cells were still large, and held multiple people in each. Now Quill paused every couple steps and showed his lamp into the cells to see who was inside. He gestured to me to wait, so I stopped while he walked the entire length of the hall and then returned to me.

Leaning close he breathed in my ear, “These four cells,” and pointed to four cells on my left.

I centered myself between the cells, drew in a deep breath and announced loudly, “Well, well, well. Looks like I’m just in time.”

55-Getting Acquainted

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

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

“And your horses didn’t wander off?”

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

“Shyr Valla was—is it really gone?”

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

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

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

“Sometimes not even then,” commented Tarr.

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

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

“But why would you lie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinh waited, unmoved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

53-Messages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is something wrong?” I asked quietly.

“Ravens came from Hirhel today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” said King Tarr, not turning.

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

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

A chill shuddered through me. “Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for Episode 54.

52-In the Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you arrange yours differently?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Satire.”

I stared at Quill.

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

“Maybe I should read that.”

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

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

“An excellent library that was organized wrong.”

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

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

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

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

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

He dipped his chin. “Most likely.”

“Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Dinnertime.”

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

Seven Swords, a novel,” he replied.

“You read novels?”

“Surprised?”

“I was expecting military history…or satire.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quill.”

He turned back.

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

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

51- Lessons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I eyed him distrustfully. “Not especially.”

He grinned. “Turn around.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True enough,” concurred Quill.

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

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

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

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

“I will go with her,” replied Quill.

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

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

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

49-Fists

 

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

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

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

Quill scoffed, “When he likes.”

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

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

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

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

I hissed and threw my other fist at his gut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I lowered my chin. “I forgive you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swelled a little. Boitumelo would be proud.

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

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

He shrugged. “I did what was necessary.”

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

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

“Does the King know your real name?”

“We knew each other before.”

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

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

“Can we trust him?”

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

“Why?”

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

“Oh.” I sunk deeper in the chair.

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

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

“What about Namal?”

“I doubt it, he has a handmaid.”

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

I arched a brow at being given a task.

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

“Is it good?” I asked.

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

48-Tarr Kegan

48- Tarr Kegan

 

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourteen.  “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was well familiar with the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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