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67-The Chambers

 

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

“I have no idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

There was nothing here.

Nothing.

At least, not anymore.

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

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

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

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

“We should leave.” Quill caught my eye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ravens.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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66-SOULS

His deep brown eyes opened straight to his soul. How had I forgotten that? I had meant to sound confident, but now as our souls met, I knew he could see the fear deep inside me. Because I could see his.  I looked away, brushing at the dried dirt on my dress. “I’ve never seen this side of you before.”

“What side?”

“The dark side.”

“This is not my dark side,” Quill scoffed. “Trust me.”

“Alright,” I conceded, “the side that feels.” He didn’t contradict me as I brushed the last of the dirt off and started picking at another spot. I stole a glance at him and continued, “I’ve been meaning to ask you how you’ve managed to not be bitter about everything that has happened. This is the closest I’ve ever heard you come to being angry.”

Taking a breath, Quill paused before answering. “It’s a choice. Bitterness only takes the luster off my life, not hers.”  He picked up his head, I knew he was looking at me but I wasn’t ready to let him look into my soul again. “Eloi knows some days are easier than others.”

I nodded, admiring his outlook, and carefully scraping at the dried mud instead of meeting his eyes. I thought of life in Galhara, before the siege. The first time I’d smelled battle, the first time I put Remko’s training to use. The sickening sounds of death, a hospital slick with blood, and the reality of rationed food.  Then of life in the circus, as we snuck through the Nether Queen’s realm hoping only to reach exile in Magadar. I thought of Balleck’s strong hands over mine, teaching me how to spin poi and dance with fire. Of Balleck hiding me when I panicked in the Market Square of Gillenwater. Then of Remko, thrashing and unconscious as Boitumelo stitched up his side and I tried to hold him down.  Of happy, gentle Olena standing over the flaming corpse of her first kill. I remembered crying uncontrollably into Hook’s mane on Ironsides’ farm. The first time I’d cried since leaving my grandfather’s kingdom under the sea. The last time I’d had time to cry at all. I pictured the prison, full of nymphs languishing without water, the Cathedral Square wet with their blood.  I hadn’t had time to think about bitterness, to evaluate how much I hated the woman who had caused all the death in my life. I was busy trying not to be crushed by the weight of everything that needed doing, and everything I could not do. How could I fix this? I, with my injured ribs was not Nelia of Legend.

“Stop that.” Quill’s voice interrupted.

“What?” I was surprised into looking up at him.

“I can see you spiraling, don’t do it.” He was stern. “You’re not despairing by nature, don’t wallow because it seems like the thing to do.”

“I’m not despairing,” it came out as a grumble, “I was just telling you not to despair.”

“Yes,” chuckled Quill, “and then you tripped as you tried to shoulder the sole responsibility of fixing everything yourself.”

I stared at him, wondering how he’d gotten all that from me sitting in silence picking at the dirt on my dress and marveling at the fact that he was right. “I do have a fair amount of responsibility, here,” I said, sounding much more pathetic than I had intended.

“But not alone,” he reminded firmly.

I looked at him, at that soul whose strength ran deep. Part of me wanted to argue, to remind him of all the news he’d just given me, but I smothered that thought. We would be the ones to write the history of this war. Which meant we had to win. We. Warmth bloomed inside, and I let it spread, allowing myself to be buoyed.

Quill smiled. “That’s better.”

I shook my head, trying to stifle my own smile so he wouldn’t see just how soundly he’d succeeded. My mind helpfully reminded me of something else I had to worry about. “So,” I hesitated, “I ran into Khattmali today.”

He stiffened. “What?”

“She came down to the kennels…I’m worried she may have come specifically to meet me.”

“Me too.”

“She said she wants to meet with me to get to know me better, and hear a commoner’s perspective on growing up in Dalyn—because she loves the city so much.”

Quill rested his head against the wall again. “That’s a bit of a joke. She just wants to know what the King sees in you, and how she can use that to her advantage.”

“I know, but…I don’t think I can avoid it.”

“Heh, probably not.” He paused. “Have you ever been a spy, your Highness?”

I scrunched up my face. “No, I don’t think so. Not unless you count infiltrating the circus.”

He smirked.

“The secrets of performance are no small matter.” I tipped my chin up and sniffed with affected pride. “No one guards their secrets like the magician—never did learn how he made doves appear.”

“I believe that,” he rubbed his hand across his face again, the smile lingering. “Do you have a plan?”

“Well, I’ve been playing the invisible merchant girl for weeks, now I just have to add words.” I looked over, “Right?”

“Basically.” After a pause he added, “People see what they want. You have to figure out how to work that to your advantage.”

We fell silent. I began to feel sleep tugging at my eyes. It probably wasn’t safe to return to the King’s chambers, and if we stayed here I would probably fall asleep and keel off the bench. As a child, I would have fallen asleep on my guard’s shoulder without a second thought, but that didn’t seem appropriate anymore. I tended to forget Quill was Captain of the Guard, anyway. “I don’t suppose we could go into the queen’s chambers and find a couch for me to nap on?”

Quill eyed the door for a moment. “I…guess we could…it’s probably very dusty in there.” Turning, he evaluated me. I gave him a bleary look. After a moment’s hesitation, he stood up and tried the door. It stuck, then with a tremble and creak it popped open. A rail crossed the doorway, Quill stepped under it and gingerly crept out of my sight into the chambers beyond. He returned a moment later and offered me his hand, his face unreadable.

Stiffly, I followed him through the tiny door, ducking under the rail and stepping onto a pile of torn cloth. The rail was a curtain rod, one side ripped out of the wall, the other still mounted, so it hung haphazardly, the curtain in a shredded heap beneath it. This chamber was round, like the King’s, but it was in ruin. Images of Rydderhall flashed before my eyes as I followed Quill further in. The bed linens had been tossed around the room, the mattress battered and disgorging feathers.

My foot caught on a broken table leg, I kicked it out of the way. A desk with all the drawers ripped out, an overturned chaise, doors hanging akimbo. We stepped out of the bedroom into the sitting room, where the slaughter of furniture had continued with no mercy. By the balcony doors, a couch lay on its back, with its cushions disemboweled.  There was a pile of shattered wood and glass against one wall, as if someone had practiced throwing chairs like a game of darts—the target had been a large oval mirror with a gilded frame. The frame remained on the wall, bits of glass rimmed the inside like shark teeth

“I’m afraid we won’t find a place for you to rest here,” said Quill.

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65 -Dark Gathers

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I blinked. “He’s…your son? But…Hess said…” I trailed off.

The rakish twinkle returned fully to the King’s eyes and he finished his tea, watching and waiting for me to understand.

A blush crept up my cheeks. “But that means, you and Hess…she’s your…are you still…?” I was far more flummoxed by this than I ought to be. Though, that did explain Naran’s red hair.

“Yes,” Tarr sat up and set his empty cup on the tray. “She is, and I’ve gotten to see much more of her than usual thanks to you.”

I shifted on the couch, trying to readjust my perception of Hesperide. I’d assumed he liked having her around because she was beautiful and kind—somehow her pregnancy had made me think that there was nothing else. An absolutely ridiculous assumption. I turned to Tarr with a start, “Does she think we—that you and I—like the rest of the palace does?”

Tarr gave me an amused look and tugged on his doublet. “You can ask her if you like.”

I stared at him, he couldn’t possibly mean that. “Tarr.”

The King met my eye for a moment then relented with a smirk, “She does not.”

I slumped with relief, and then cringed at the stiffness of my torso. “The baby is yours?”

He nodded, pride warming his features.

Quill returned from his circuit of the chambers the same moment Hesperide returned with a bottle of wine and a glass. They both relaxed a little as they noticed Tarr’s brighter mood. Quill paused behind one of the large chairs in the sitting room and Hesperide came to the couch. She set down the glass and started to pour wine but Tarr reached out. He snagged her hand and tugged her toward him. Hesperide started and stared at him in confusion.

“It’s alright,” he assured her, “Zare knows.”

Hesperide looked at me apologetically, and then allowed herself to be pulled into Tarr’s lap, his arms circled around her. I scooted away to make room for her knees. She snuggled closer to Tarr, settling one arm behind his neck and twining her other hand in his doublet. Tarr closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on her shoulder. A shudder ran through him, not unlike tremors of a wounded man receiving treatment for an awful injury. My insides cringed with foreboding. Hesperide felt the shudder and immediately looked over her shoulder at Quill, a question in her eyes. What had happened today?

The grim look returned to Quill’s handsome face, he gripped the back of the chair. “Thirty nymphs were executed in the Cathedral Square today.”

My stomach grew heavy.

Hesperide began to stroke Tarr’s face. “Oh, Tarr…” her voice was soft.

“Khattmali ordered it this morning; they were charged with attacking the Queen’s forces on the Cymerie River,” continued Quill.

“But they weren’t involved,” I whispered.

“That hardly matters to the Nether Queen.” Quill lifted a shoulder.

“Men and women. I couldn’t do anything to save them,” mumbled the King. “They begged. They all died because I could do nothing.”

Hesperide pulled him close.

“They died,” Quill’s voice was sharper than I’d ever heard it, “because the Nether Queen ordered a public execution to make the people think we’d caught the ones who defied her.”

Tarr didn’t answer.

“They are not the first, and won’t be the last,” Quill snapped. “Not until we can get out from under her.”

“Everyone is dying,” said Tarr, his voice dull.

Hesperide tossed a glance at Quill that said ‘let me handle this’ if ever a look did. Quill grimaced and turned to go. I rose to follow him, giving Tarr’s shoulder a pat as I went. Tarr had become my friend, but with Hesperide there I felt like an intruder. I was also pretty confident she could handle his despair much better than I could. The quiet of her face assured me I was right.

Quill saw me coming and waited for me at the door. “Where can I take you, my lady?” he said wearily.

I looked back at Hesperide and the king. She had taken his face in both her hands and was whispering something to him. “Anywhere you like.”

He followed my glance, his lips turned up wryly, but not enough to chase the sadness from his eyes. He looked back to me, evaluating my muddy dress. “Come on,” he pushed open the door and led the way out of the king’s chambers. The guards at the door saluted him as he passed. They didn’t even look at me.

We didn’t get far down the main corridor before Quill pulled aside a sweeping blue drapery to reveal a dim servant’s passage through the stone. The passageway was barely wide enough for Quill’s shoulders, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Jemin could even fit through these crannies. They weren’t meant for guards, or even food service beyond small plates. These passages were so staff could be ever present, ever invisible, and able to accomplish errands quickly. And indeed, Quill moved swiftly through the little maze and I, already tired from my trip to the kennels, was soon struggling to keep up. Sweat dripped down my back and I concentrated on breathing as I trundled after him, using my hands like another pair of legs propelling me along the walls.

It wasn’t until Quill darted into a side passage to avoid voices ahead that he looked back at me. One glance and worry painted itself across his face and he quickly closed the distance between us. He took my hands, brushing my hair off my sticky forehead and inspecting me. “You’re pale,” his voice was low as he bent close. My heartbeat quickened and I stood very still, finding it very hard to catch my breath with Quill standing so close. “Can you keep going?” he asked.

I nodded quickly. “Just, slower,” the words came out in a gasp.

He grimaced. Keeping hold of my hand, he led the way again, but at a much gentler pace. We took a couple more abrupt turns to avoid servants, and then we came to a narrow stair that smelled dusty and deserted. Quill hauled me up billions of stairs, until we came to a small landing with a window. The landing was only about four feet wide, but after the staircase it felt spacious. A bench sat under the window, and a door opposite. A tiny side table sat beside the bench. The stair continued on after the landing, but Quill directed me to the bench, I sank down gratefully.

He peered out the window for a moment before sitting beside me. “This is a servants’ alcove for what used to be the queen’s chambers. They have not seen use since the fall. We should not be disturbed or heard here.”

I leaned back against the wall, the cool of the stone felt good after our climb. “Thank you.”

Quill grunted, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “The king trusts you a great deal, he doesn’t let many people see him with Hesperide.”

Rolling my head on my neck, I frowned. “You mean, that they are lovers?”

Quill shook his head. “That they are equals. He’s had other women, but Hesperide is special—for a number of reasons.”

“She said something about being in love,” I stopped rolling my neck and leaned my head back against the wall. “She also doesn’t act like any of the servants I’ve met in the palace.”

“Yes, true,” Quill passed his hand over his face, “She is excellent at reading people, and has behaved more like the Hess I remember these past weeks than I have seen…” he trailed off.

The silence stretched for several minutes. I was vaguely aware that I should be feeling more—between the news of executions, my pending interview with the Nether Queen’s ambassador, and of course the curious hints about Hesperide. But I didn’t feel. I was just very, very tired.

Quill’s strained voice interrupted my weary musing, “One moment, I see Hess joking and teasing like when we were kids, and I cannot help but believe we will succeed. The next, I’m watching my king preside while innocent heads roll in the Cathedral Square.”

I looked at him. One hand still covered his face and his shoulders drooped. I was reminded of how he’d looked when we finally got him to Boitumelo’s tent, months ago now. A handsome ragdoll dropped on a bench and left in a desolate posture. Except now instead of black armor he was wearing the blue uniform of the guard.

He continued, “How have we not defeated her yet? How does she take what she wants with barely a fight?” He gestured limply with his free hand, “We have the King of Dalyn—both of them—shouldn’t they be able to just declare us free from her rule? Should not the army rally and push her authority out of the city?”

“The army she built?” I reminded gently. Dalyn had nothing after Shyr Valla fell. The garrison was full of men hired by Narya Magnifique.

“Ah, yes. Her army.” Quill straightened and unfastened the buttons at his throat before leaning against the wall.

“We’re working on building an army of our own,” I reached out and touched his shoulder, “Namal is in the city now meeting with people. You said yourself we have hope now. They will rally around Trinh.”

“Even if they do, history will not be kind to Tarr Kegan.” He paused, his face twisted, “The Nether Queen’s pawn.” He laughed hollowly. “Did he tell you we’re now offering a reward for the capture of nymphs? We’ve had forty souls turned in already and it’s only been a few days. We’re going to have to start building more prisons at this rate—Some have turned out to not be nymphs, and the King had them released. Small comfort.”

No one told me anything, it seemed. I closed my eyes. Tarr’s moodiness was completely justified.

“He gives Namal and Trinh all the information he can, and they save as many as they can before the King’s dragnet sweeps through. It’s like fighting a barn fire with one bucket. A barn fire you’re forced to stoke with your other hand.”

Tarr was the ultimate spy, playing a horrific role in an unreal drama. If he was discovered, he would die, and his efforts would be wasted. If he wasn’t discovered, he would be reviled by the people he strove hardest to protect. I straightened and looked into Quill’s eyes, “Then we just have to make sure we are the ones writing the history.”

He smiled, then. Just a small one. “These will be dark chapters.”

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that one job

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

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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.”

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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.”

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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?”

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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.