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.

47-Dinner with the King

Ambassador Khattmali from Hirhel was not the man who had been ambassador to Galhara. For starters, she was a woman. She was perhaps in her thirties, raven haired and breathtakingly beautiful in her evening gown of gold silk. Her long fingers flashed and glittered with rings in the candlelight. She moved like honey, smooth and without waste. Her eyes, which raked over me sharply when we were introduced, were dark and cunning. I didn’t like when she looked at me, as if she were peeling back each layer of my skin to learn everything about me. She was seated on the king’s left and often touched him possessively. Her presence motivated me to keep quiet unless spoken to.

King Tarr Kegan of Dalyn, however, lounged in his gilded chair and threw smiles around like rose petals at a wedding. His hair was light brown, and looked reddish in this light. He was handsome, of slighter build than Quill, or even my brothers, and left the throat of his very fine shirt unbuttoned for a rakish look. After we’d been presented—and he’d gushed about the bravery of his men who’d happened upon our trouble—Tarr didn’t say much to us. He also didn’t seem to mind the petting from Khattmali—even once picking up her hand and kissing it. But he kept catching my eye and winking, and I had no difficulty at all blushing like a merchant’s daughter. Which I hated.

The general and chief advisor were there, also. The advisor was a gray-haired man, but the general was baby faced and looked about the same age as the king. Neither man was eager to talk with Namal and I present. It was a mercy when the king called for musicians, and their music filled the many voids in conversation. The food was excellent, but it was difficult to enjoy it in this strained company. It was also so much more food than I was accustomed to, especially of late, that I was dangerously full and feeling awful far before we reached the end.

I wished I dared examine the royal guards who were tucked unobtrusively in the shadows. I would dearly love to see a friendly face, and wondered if I knew any of the men present.

Finally, dinner ended, the king and his courtiers left, then Namal and I were guided back to our chambers by a servant dressed in gray. I walked into my rooms, glad of the fire, and glad of the open door leading to a welcoming canopy bed. I didn’t bother undressing, just kicked off my shoes and crawled under the covers. Wrapping my arms around my poor stomach I wished I felt well enough to truly appreciate my first night back in a good bed.

When I woke up, Amantha was tending the fireplace at the end of the bed and sun was streaming through a window that had been covered yesterday. I was hungry.

“Good morning, Miss Meredithe.” Amantha walked to the bed. “May I help you out of that gown?”

I pushed back the covers and sat up slowly. The dress would recover, I supposed, looking at the horrible wrinkles. I’d slept quite well and had no regrets. “Good morning.”  I slid my feet to the floor and stood blearily.

“I came to help you change last night, but you were already asleep.” Amantha began unbuttoning the dress. “I did not wish to disturb you.”

“I was very tired,” I replied, stepping out of the dress and into the robe she had ready.

She draped the dress over her arm, and I caught curiosity in her eyes before she said, “The bath is ready for you.”

“I bathe alone,” I announced. Then, wondering if I’d been to assertive, added, “If that’s alright,” and dropped my eyes shyly.

“As you wish,” Amantha turned away. “I will get your clothes ready.”

We parted ways in the sitting room; she to the dressing room and I to the steam filled washroom and closed the door. Someday, I promised myself, I would have a slow bath. Today, however, I rushed through the washing and got to the drying quickly enough that my stripes barely had a chance to bloom before fading. Then I presented myself to Amantha who quietly slipped a chemise over my head and then helped me into a sumptuous dark green overdress. This one had gold embroidery about the cuffs and throat instead of black, and was as flattering as it was comfortable. I had missed clothes like this. Amantha fussed with the frothy cuffs and part of me wanted to tell her about the wildly uncomfortable dinner the night before. Part of her obviously wanted to know. Instead, I asked, “What is happening today?”

Amantha shrugged and walked me to the stool so she could start fixing my hair. “Breakfast is ready for you in the sitting room. After that you are welcome to explore the palace and gardens as much as you like.”

“That’s all?” I asked.

“You are here at the king’s disposal,” replied Amantha, “You are free to entertain yourself until he sends for you or releases you.”

I squelched the offense rising inside me. I am a merchant’s daughter. Not a girl who, under different circumstances, would have been presented with pomp and ceremony and courted as a potential queen. It’s an honor to be here at all. That thought reminded me of the real cover for any meetings I had with Tarr. “I didn’t know the king was so handsome.”

Amantha smiled faintly. “That he is, Miss Meredithe.”

So ended our conversation for the time being. She finished with my hair—a loose but complex braid—and left me to eat alone.

A knock sounded at the door, and Namal entered. He had also been dressed in green, with black pants and boots. He pulled up a chair across from my little table. “Good morning,”

“Good morning,” I replied, “Did you sleep well.”

My brother grunted. “May I have a biscuit?”

I nodded and he began to spread butter on a still-warm biscuit. Despite my hunger, I hadn’t gotten far in the breakfast Amantha had left. “So…”

Namal looked at me, arched brow.

“So…now we wait?” I asked.

“We are permitted to explore, it would behoove us to do so.” He bit into the biscuit and rolled his eyes up in pleasure. “I think your handmaid likes you more than mine likes me.”

“You have a handmaid?” I was surprised. In Galhara, the men had manservants, the women had maidservants—at least in the palace and among most of the nobility. An older tradition aimed at keeping the peace.

He nodded. “I do. It’s very awkward.” Namal leaned back and looked out the window. His hair was darker than mine, almost black, and he had our mother’s blue eyes. Like our father, he had a natural presence and authority to go with his extensive education and skills. “What did you think of the ambassador?”

I wrinkled my nose. “She’s stunning, smart, and dangerous. And she didn’t like me.”

Namal nodded. “I would wager that she was chosen as ambassador to Dalyn because she is beautiful, and Tarr Kegan is known to like women.”

“Do you think she is angling to be queen?”

“Probably. Though if it is her own ambition or her queen’s, I can’t say.”

“A merchant’s daughter is hardly a threat to that ambition.”

“Zare, what woman wants to share?”

I inclined my head. “Point.”

“Be careful, is all,” said my brother.

“You’d better get used to calling me Analie. Who were you again?”

Namal smirked. “Alban.”

“Alban,” I repeated. Then I leaned forward and grabbed his hand excitedly.  “Alban, dearest, I should dearly love to see every inch of this palace. It’s so exciting to be here!”

He huffed, “It’s disgusting how good you are at this.”

“Civilization is all playacting,” I retorted.

“To you, maybe,” Namal rolled his eyes and offered me a hand up.

We spent the entire morning exploring the palace. No one spoke to us, though we saw many courtiers and many more servants. The servants paid us no mind, though some of the courtiers looked at us with varying degrees of interest and archness. It didn’t take long to find the limits of our movement indoors, the parts of the palace where the real governing happened were barred by grim looking royal guards with spears. After lunching in our rooms, we took winter cloaks and spent the afternoon exploring the gardens behind the palace. Since it was winter, there weren’t many people in the gardens, and we both breathed easier. We saw some servants running errands, and met a few of the king’s young hounds and their keeper—a boy of about seven with reddish brown hair.

The day’s exploring was perhaps the most time I had ever spent with Namal. He told me little things about the spice industry while we wandered around learning the layout of the grounds, and I was sort of surprised how pleasant his company was. Namal was eight years my senior, the crown prince—always away or busy with work or study. I was the baby—my world had been entirely different from his. Nadine was almost as old, but we shared the bond of sisters—and all the unique travails of both women and princesses. Ayglos and I were alike enough in temper and age that we were natural conspirators. I blamed Ayglos. None of this had really changed during the siege, or at the circus.

Namal and I shared a quiet dinner in my rooms, served by the silent Amantha. I was not the least bit surprised or disappointed that we hadn’t received an invitation from the king.  Namal didn’t linger after dinner, he looked exhausted, but his blue eyes were softer than I had ever seen them when he bid me goodnight. Impulsively, I hugged him before he left. I stared at the door for a minute, then went to my dressing room and hunted for a nightgown. There were several, I picked the softest—a long white gown that skimmed my body and pooled at my feet deliciously. I grabbed a book off the shelf next to the fireplace and curled up in a wing backed chair to read and watch the flames. I would bask in this luxury as much as I could before it ended.

I wasn’t four stanzas in—some epic poem about something—when a knock sounded. I was on my feet and armed with the dancer statuette the second I realized the knock had been on the dressing room door.

The door opened slowly, and Quill stepped cautiously in to the room. He saw me, didn’t bat an eye at the statuette poised for defense, and bowed, “Your highness.”

“Captain,” I lowered the statuette, relieved and happy to see a friend. “Do come in.”

He stood aside from the door, “Princess Zare Caspian, may I present Tarr Kegan, King of Dalyn.”

43-Thrilling Gossip

Rydderhall?” I demanded. “Any relation to Quilleran Rydderick?”

Jemin followed my gaze. “I will tell you, my lady, if you will come back inside the villa.”

Fair enough. I followed him back through the doorway and as he kept going over the pile of pillars and down one of the hallways that was still reasonably intact. We stopped at a circular room lined with windows that looked out at a tiny walled garden. “You know your way around this house, too,” I accused, taking a seat on a windowsill.

“Yes, I do,” confessed Jemin, settling in the next window. “Vaudrin does, also.”

“It belongs to Quill, doesn’t it?”

“By rights, it is his. But the Nether Queen forbade it from being rebuilt—there are many in the city who support her reign, she would find out if she were defied. Add that Quill’s survival was very likely an oversight, and you can see why it remains a ruin.”

I waved my hand, “That part isn’t a mystery. Who are the Rydderick’s that they garnered such treatment?”

“Quill told you that when you arrived,” replied Jemin, “Lord Rydderick was a formidable officer in the war, and the rumors say he came close to reaching the queen herself in a battle.”

I was unsatisfied, and apparently looked it because Jemin added, “You can ask Quill yourself if you want more details about his past. It’s not my place to tell his secrets.”

He was right, of course. “Alright, then, tell me about you.”

Jemin opened his mouth to object, then closed it. “Alright, your highness,” he used my proper title to show his displeasure. It made me feel delightfully at home. “I’m the lesser son of a lesser lord with a small holding. I joined the guard the same time Quill and Vaudrin did, and we became friends.”

“That wasn’t too terribly hard,” I replied. I wanted to ask him more but decided to press my luck in other ways. “Now,” I said, “Tell me about that gossip you mentioned earlier.”

Jemin leaned back and rubbed his hand through his beard, as if this wasn’t really an improvement in topics.

“Oh, come now,” I exclaimed, “It can’t be more scandalous than anything I heard while I was princess in Galhara.”

“No,” Jemin shifted again and took a deep breath. “I was going to have to tell anyway, I expect. You, well…you have made quite an impression on a number of soldiers between here and the garrison in Gillenwater.”

I stared at him, “What do you mean?”

He continued, “Soldiers love to talk even more than court ladies. When we went down to the taverns in the city everyone was talking about a girl—perhaps a ghost or a sorceress—who was attacking soldiers and freeing prisoners. They say she spoke of judgement and vengeance at each turn. Of course, there are those who believe she is flesh and blood, but most of the stories agree that she is undead or magical somehow—because how else could a mere girl wreak such havoc among the queen’s armies?”

I laughed. “Really?” There must be a downside to this, but at the moment I was entertained.

“Really. If they didn’t believe initially, they may have convinced themselves thusly to save their own hides.”  Jemin shook his head. “There are stories I recognize from our mission in Gillenwater and the rescue by the Cymerie. But it seems that every strange happening or failed duty is turning into a ‘I saw her also!’ story.”

“Incredible.”

“Indeed.”

“Is it useful, you think?”

“Maybe. The king thinks it might be.”

“King Tarr? You have spoken with him?” I asked, leaning forward. Tarr Kegan was seventeen or eighteen now, but had been crowned five years ago when Dalyn was conquered. A mere lad, he’d been set up as a puppet—the rightful heir, so harder to argue with—but really controlled by the Queen and her ambassadors. I wondered what he was like.

“Quill spoke with the king,” corrected Jemin. “Once the doctor is finished I am to speak with your father about the next steps.”

“Are we to go into the city?”

“That is ultimately for your father to decide.”

“If we did, would we have to sneak in as peasants? Or would we pose as visiting nobles to make it easier to move about the court? With better tack Hook and Sinker would fit that part well enough.”

Jemin shifted, “I’m not certain. Some of that depends on what your father decides. But also, you could not all come openly—your parents are too recognizable, and the soldiers from Gillenwater are still in the city. We could not risk them seeing your parents or sister. Possibly not even you.”

“I suppose that means Ayglos and Namal will get their chance for daring deeds.”

“That’s possible.”

I wrinkled my nose. I tried not to be too disappointed as I thought of weeks closeted in hiding somewhere waiting for things to happen. It would be restful. Restful was good.

Jemin laughed. “You are the most unusual princess I have ever had the pleasure to fight beside.”

“What?” I tried not to grin. Pleasure to fight beside.

“You look like a puppy being left behind by its master at the mere thought of being out of the action.”

“I want to help.” My protest sounded thin, even to me.

Jemin stood to his feet, his eyes sparkling, and offered me a hand up, “Shall we go check to see if the doctor is through?”

“Jemin,” I accepted his hand and then swept down the hall as regally as I could, “Is Quill the Captain of the Guard?”

“Yes.”

“How on earth did he get away for so long?”

“It was a holiday.”

I stopped, “What an awful holiday. How does he explain his wounds?”

“Hunting trip,” Jemin grinned. “He will not be hunting with that neighbor again.”

“How is he Captain of the Guard when his family was so singled out by the Nether Queen?”

“You are full of questions.”

“Yes, but this hardly qualifies as prying into his past.” We were climbing over the rubble before the great hall now, where my brothers were wrestling and the horses loitering.

“He took a different last name when he joined the guard,” explained the big man. “He goes by Quilleran Silver.”

“Huh,” we crossed the great hall and headed for the kitchen. “I don’t think I like it so well as a Rydderick.”

“I don’t think he does, either.”

Click here for Episode 44!

42- Rydderhall

 

Nadine and I sprang to our feet and darted away from the window opening. “Blast it, Hook,” I hissed. The riders were approaching quickly and if they hadn’t been headed to the villa already they certainly would be now. One hand on my daggers I started moving toward the kitchen, Nadine followed. I could hear the horses turning in to the little court yard before the back door. Stopping by a hole, I peered through the wall at the two men dismounting on the other side. I grinned when I recognized the burly form of Jemin. “It’s alright!” I cried, as Ayglos and Namal came running from the great hall. “It’s Jemin!”

My brothers heard me, but kept their hands on their weapons as they reached the door and stepped out to meet the arrivals.

Jemin came to meet them with a grin and a bow, “How have you fared, my lords?”

“We are well,” replied Namal, inclining his head in princely acknowledgement, and then turning his gaze to the stranger with Jemin. “Who is your companion?”

“I have brought a doctor.” Jemin gestured, “This is Rawyn Drayk, one of the finest doctors in all of Daiesen.”

Rawyn Drayk stepped forward, saddle bags slung over his shoulder, and bowed. He was old, but wiry and radiating energy. He had close trimmed white hair and beard, and his dark clothes were both well-made and unassuming. “I have been told that there is a wounded creature here who needs my help,” said the doctor.

Namal bowed slightly and moved aside, “Please, come in, and welcome.”

Namal led the doctor inside, and Jemin and Ayglos followed with the horses. Nadine was gliding to meet them even before they were in the entryway. “Doctor,” she stretched out her hand, “Thank you for coming.”

The doctor took her hand and bowed, touching it to his forehead. “My lady,” he replied.

Watching the exchange, it was easy to forget that there was no roof on this place and the walls were blackened and crumbling around us. I wondered how much the doctor had been told about us, and how much he would know once he saw our father.

“Please, follow me.” Nadine turned and the doctor followed her down the hallway toward our cellar.

The rest of us lingered in the entryway. Helping Boitumelo with Remko had been hard enough, I didn’t want to have to help with my own father. My brothers were likely entertaining similar thoughts, because Ayglos said, “Let’s see to the horses, shall we?”

The four of us led the horses to the great hall where Hook and Sinker were already grazing. As we walked, Jemin explained their cover, “We’re expected back in the city before nightfall. I have ridden with the good doctor in escort on a visit to one of the nearby villas—the caretaker is old and much loved by the family; he has been ill and the family wanted him checked on. Rawyn Drayk is one of the best physicians in Dalyn. He is a kind soul who only wants to heal, he will not betray your secrets.”

We tied the horses to the water fountain with enough line to let them graze a little. Hook and Sinker investigated the newcomers and settled into grazing nearby.

“Well,” I said, “I was going to explore the villa.”

“Don’t wander far,” Namal replied. He was already moving off to a spot clear of the horses and taking off his sword belt. “Ayglos and I will be here wrestling for a while yet.”

“Jemin?” I asked, “Would you like to join us?”

Jemin hesitated.

“If you’re worried about me getting into trouble, then you should come along, because I am going to explore.” I was quite experienced with persuading reluctant companions.

The burly man grimaced. “I will accompany you.”

“Excellent.” I turned and headed toward the front of the villa this time. The past two days we’d stayed at the back of the villa, Nadine and I had started at the back and hadn’t gotten far, so I wanted to start someplace new.

Jemin jogged to catch up with me. He was wearing an unremarkable gray cloak, but underneath was a dark blue uniform trimmed in gold. The golden river of Dalyn circled on his shoulder. I remembered back to the tavern in Gillenwater and marveled at how unlike the simple country workman he seemed now.

“So, what news from Dalyn?” I asked as we reached the end of the great hall.

“We all arrived safely back in our various ways,” replied Jemin, giving me a hand over some fallen pillars. “Dalyn is much as we left it. Though…” he paused and I looked at him with raised brows.

“Though?”

“Though the gossip is more thrilling than when we left,” he hopped off the pillars.

“I would imagine they have a lot to talk about.” I ignored the hallway crossing our path and moved into what must have been a beautiful foyer—the floor was scattered with rubble, but underneath I could see a mosaic depicting fields and trees. The walls had been faced with smooth white stone, though now only pieces remained in place. “I bet they had a skylight in here,” I commented, picking my way forward and gesturing toward the sky.

“Why?” asked Jemin.

“Because I would have,” I replied. There were alcoves off to either side of the foyer. I could see the remains of chairs tucked in them. The front door to the villa was a dark, heavy wood that was bowed and splintering as if it had tangled with a battering ram. It hung half open, its hinges partially ripped from the door posts. Hunting scenes were carved all over both sides of the door. I touched the door gently, tracing my fingertips over the horsemen and stags until they were obliterated by the bludgeoning. I felt as if I were touching the embodiment of loss.

“My lady,” Jemin’s protest came as I slipped through the front door and stepped onto the front stoop. There was even more debris out here. Once, carriages would have been able to pull right up to these stairs, but now the generous courtyard was full of weeds, smashed crockery and furniture…as if the Nether Queen had first had her men break things by hand before burning the place down. Thorough of her.

Jemin squeezed himself out the front door and I turned to greet him, but the words died in my mouth. Across the lintel was carved the word RydderhallThis place must belong to Quill. 

 

39-Behind the Hedge

Nadine and I walked together leading the horses, father on Hook and mother on Sinker. Jemin walked next to Hook, unobtrusively ready to catch our father if he fell as we picked our way up and down hills. Our brothers walked ahead with Quill and a few of the men, the rest were behind, or scouting. We’d spent so much time sneaking through the woods in these past days that I wasn’t sure I could be loud if I tried.

Nadine leaned close to me, “Ayglos said that you were able to rescue the girls from the circus who were taken when we were, I am glad.” She kept her voice low enough that I doubted even our parents could hear us.

I nodded. “Jemin and I found them and got them out—I was looking for you, too, but you weren’t there.”

Nadine grimaced. “No, the officer who found us knew father and mother on sight, and guessed about me well enough. He took us straight to the Regent of Gillenwater.”

“Regent?” I asked. “Not the queen?”

“The queen!” scoffed my sister, “Don’t you remember? Queen Glykeria is only twelve, and I got the impression she spends most of her time at Hirhel. Prisoner or protégé, who can tell? We wouldn’t even have learned where she was had father not demanded to see her. No, Gillenwater is ruled by the Regent, a weasel of a man named Fotios.”

I glance at Nadine, her voice carried a bite I wasn’t used to hearing.

She continued, “He immediately packed us into a carriage and set us on the road to Hirhel. I believe he sent ravens ahead of us, so when we do not arrive we will be missed.”

“We figured they would have,” I agreed.

“I have never been more grateful for the steep slopes of the Magron Mountains,” said Nadine, “They prevented us from going straight to Hirhel, but sent us the long way to take the Bandui. We were plagued with wagon trouble, which meant little to us except that the guards were ill tempered and some were rough with us before their commanding officers could intervene. The officers were determined to bring us to the Nether Queen in tact, for her to have the full privilege of taking us apart, I guess.”

“But it made all the difference. We were able to catch up,” I pointed out, looking at my sister and trying to fathom just how close we’d come to missing them. The mercy of Eloi manifest in a few bad wheels.

We walked in silence for a time until Ayglos came back to walk with us. He addressed our father, who was looking pale under his copper tipped beard. “Quill has suggested a hiding spot outside the city walls: This side of the river is lined with villas and summer homes. Some of these have been abandoned since the conquest. They are much closer to us than the city walls, and we could rest there until he can get us a secret audience with the king.” Ayglos eyed the king with concern.  “With your permission, father, he would take us there rather than make you travel further in your condition.”

Zam the Great nodded. “That sounds wise,” he replied, further confirming to his worried offspring that he was in dire condition.

Ayglos bowed slightly, nodded to Nadine and I, and returned to the front of the column to bring word to Quill and Namal. After another hour’s walking, Vaudrin and the few other men at the front came trotting past us and on back down the line. Then, to my surprise, the whole column split off and headed to the left, leaving us with only Quill and Jemin. Ahead of us the forest ended at a low rock wall. Beyond the wall spread a well-groomed lawn and flower gardens.

Quill turned right and led the way alongside the kept estates—keeping well under the cover of the trees. We passed so many hedges, orderly rows of Cypress trees, and walled gardens that I had no idea where one holding ended and another began. Occasionally there was a flock of sheep or goats and once or twice I saw the peak of a house in the distance.

The sun was just starting to sink when we came to some fields where the grass was overgrown and the cypress trees had gotten woolly without a gardener’s love. Here, the rock wall, which had run largely unbroken along the edge of the forest, had been knocked down and scattered. Quill led us over the rubble and through the overgrown meadow. Another overgrown meadow awaited on the other side of the wild cypress, and yet another beyond that. These meadows weren’t just lawns gone wild, but fields left fallow that now grew a varied assortment of grains and weeds. I noticed a lane running along the edge of the meadows to the left, but Quill led us diagonally across the lumpy, overgrown land as if he knew exactly where he was going.

Quill’s shortcut finally led us out onto another lane which in turn came to a tall but crumbling rock wall. The wall was shrouded by gangly climbing roses which were clearly enjoying their freedom. I was admiring their late fall blooms when the wall ended and Quill turned right abruptly.

We followed, and before us, rising out of the weeds and bedecked with ivy like a naiad of song, was all that remained of the villa. What had clearly once been a multi-story structure was now a burned out shell. The limestone facing for the first floor had survived, but was battered beneath nature’s adornment. A few blackened wood beams stuck out against the sky like ribs on a carcass.

Quill was standing in a huge arching doorway—though the door itself was in splinters on the ground nearby. “Please,” he bowed, “come in.”