What’s next?

Hi Everyone!

What’s next for Zare now that the Hoop Skirt Job is over? I’m planning to take a few weeks to focus on editing The River Rebellion and The Badlands Job. I’m not 100% sure what story I’ll tell next, but I have a feeling we’ll be returning to the Empire so you can see the inside of Narya’s reign.

I’m also looking into other platforms to see if there is a better place to be found by readers. Eventually, of course, all of these stories will be published in book form and available on Amazon and anywhere else I can manage it, and I’m also aware that plenty of people use Kindle as a publishing platform not unlike this serial. Imagine reading Zare in three chunks, 4 to 6 months apart, instead of sixty three chunks roughly a week apart?

Does that appeal to you more than the serialized version?

It’s an idea I’m exploring, though I confess I’m not wild about it.

Apparently Kindle is launching a serialized story platform, so I’ll be looking into that as a possible other distribution method.

I’ll be releasing Badlands in Chapter format to Patrons . Might be a little confusing since it’s now set before Hoopskirt. I apparently can’t tell a big story in order. XD

The Jobs both clock in around 80k words, and the Rebellion is right around 130k words. If it gets much longer in edits (doubtful) I may have to split it. I don’t love that idea, though. So far for every thousand words I’ve added in fleshing out plot, I’ve cut a thousands words in excess.

Fun fact, Charles Dickens and Dostoyevsky both published their novels serially in magazines. Of course, Dickens owned his magazine and Dostoyevsky did not, but they both wrote voluminous manuscripts.

100 – The Road Ahead

At dusk, we laid the King of Dalyn to rest in an over grown walled garden beside the ruined house. The knights had slowly gathered stone rubble on their patrols throughout the day, and now we all helped raise a cairn over Tarr Kegan’s body. We had nothing to bury with him to indicate rank or honor besides the thin circlet he’d worn in the ballroom. We had no flowers. No tapestries. Not even a sword we could spare. Just broken stone. Hess watched us work from nearby, Tarryn in her arms and Naran clutching her skirt. The other four children clustered around her, watching solemnly as the cairn rose higher. I wondered if any of them had met the man assumed their sire. The man whose generosity and craftiness had backfired on them and torn them from their mothers. Would they hate him if they did understand?

Rock after misshapen rock passed from one calloused hand to another until Tarr’s form was entirely protected by the shattered pieces of Rhydderhall. Nothing but starlight and the glow from the rising moon illuminated Trinh as he climbed up our little mound and set a white piece of marble at the pinnacle. The marble was part of a carved frieze, but all that remained was a ship with three masts riding a wave. Trinh stepped back down and stood facing the cairn, his hands hanging at his sides. For a moment, I could almost see his thoughts: They swirled around him, condemning ghosts crushing him with the enormity of his defeat. It was as if he finally believed, for the first time, that his family had died six years ago and his beloved had not been seen or heard from since. He finally believed, and it would tear him apart.

Hesperide approached the cairn and sank to her knees, putting one hand on the stones. Naran, still at her side, did the same, bowing his little head. Her presence calmed the chaos radiating from Trinh with a leaden blanket of sorrow.

No one said anything.

After several long moments, Trinh put his hand on Hess’s shoulder. She looked up at him, then accepted his help up. Time to mourn was another thing we didn’t have to give Tarr.

We had miles to go tonight, to get as far as we could in different directions and fade into trade routes from different cities. Eventually, we’d all flee west. West, to bright Magadar. To lick our wounds, and to hide Tarr’s heirs. And for my brothers and me, to find our court.

Trinh led Hess back into the ruin where our carefully portioned packs and supplies waited. The rest followed one by one; knights, children, and my brothers each laying a hand on the cairn in farewell before filing back into the desolate villa. I heard one knight mutter, “May the immortal Breath bear you swiftly to Eloi in paradise.” Traditional words.

When it was only Quill and I left in the walled garden. I approached the cairn, stopping at the base and staring at it while I fingered my gold pendant with the sailing ships. How could this cold white pile of rocks contain the red tipped hair and burning blue eyes of that mad, brave, king?

I felt Quill stop beside me. The few hours we’d both been up had been busy dividing the supplies and the money from Tarr’s gifts between the four traveling groups. We’d talked just enough for me to learn that he had barely a scratch after last night’s battles, and that he and the doctor’s son were going with Hess and her children tonight. The children were divided among Trinh’s knights. The Galhirim would be entirely on our own for the first time in our lives. Strange to think we’d made it this far without experiencing that.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you we were staying to face the Huntsmen,” I said, eyes on the cairn, “I wanted to thank you for coming back for us.”

Quill nodded, “It’s what we do, come back for each other.”

I looked at him, then. The moon touched the angles of his face, and I found myself wanting to do the same as he gave me a small smile. I didn’t, but my answering smile felt like a promise. Even as I said, “You still owe me.”

He scoffed, “I don’t think the doctoring counts as many times as you think it does.” He plucked my sleeve right above my stiches. “And stop using your arm to block blades.”

My lips quirked. “I learned from the best.” I tugged his sleeve where he’d taken a sword in Gillenwater, so long ago.

His eyes sparked. Then he asked, “Which of you killed Khattmali?”

I drew a breath and let it out, “I did.”

A pause as satisfaction painted itself across every line of his face.

I continued, “She said she was the foremost of the Queen’s Huntsmen. That she had been rewarded the position in Dalyn to woo Tarr.”

“Huntsmen,” repeated Quill. “Ayglos mentioned them. Said they hunt without hounds.”

I thought of the golden woman who’d helped both Ayglos and I; who had undoubtedly been the one to keep Ayglos from being hit squarely in the spine when the Huntsmen first caught up with us. “I think they hunt,” I hesitated, “…by magic. And I don’t think we killed them all.”

Quill looked thoughtful. “I will find out more about them. Once Hess is safe.” He looked over his shoulder at the villa.

“You’re coming back?” I asked. No one had discussed coming back yet, and I feared he would say no. That he’d stay with Hess, wherever she holed up, and leave this fight for good. For me, the only road away from Dalyn curved right back to it.

Our eyes locked, the moon brightening his gaze with white fire. He was angry. I realized with some surprise that I’d never seen his anger before. Not like this. Quilleran Rhydderick was angry. Not at me, but at Narya Magnifique. Perhaps at himself, too. His voice was low, “We still have to be the ones to write the history.” To tell the real story of Tarr Kegan.

Something in me unfurled, like someone breathed on kindling at just the right moment to give life to fire, and I nodded. Then, crouching, I placed my hand on the stones. My fingers curling around a jagged edge as if I were holding Tarr’s hand. “We’re not done here,” I said half to Quill, half to the silent cairn and the man underneath. “We will be the ghosts who haunt the Nether Queen. The ones she could not catch. Could not kill. The light she could not smother.”


This is the end of The River Rebellion. Zare Caspian will return.

Special thanks to my Patrons, you help make the Legend possible!




By the time we arrived at the ruins of Rhydderhall I had forgotten we had a destination at all. The tunnels let out north of the city, and near the Bandui. We’d crossed the river in the same little boat Trinh and his knights had used when they first returned in secret to Dalyn. The children were in cold stupors, and Quill was all but carrying Hesperide when we stumbled down the remote lane to Rhydderhall. Namal and Baldric were waiting for us in the desolate little garden outside the kitchen, presumably alerted to our approach by sentries. Their eyes went wide as we dragged ourselves in, the sky graying to dawn behind us.

Baldric took one look at Hesperide’s pinched face and darted forward to scoop her into his arms. She sagged against his hulking body as he turned and rushed her into the ruined house. We followed slowly, unable to muster any enthusiasm to cover that last few steps with anything resembling speed. Quill lifted Naran from my arms and I was too tired to protest that I could carry him.

Namal swept his gaze over us, taking in the extra tiny beings bundled in miscellaneous fabric and the blood frozen to our clothes. I could see him putting all the pieces together. We were alive, walking, and he knew exactly why we had so many children with us. He turned and gestured us to follow, “Come, there is water and a little food.”

“Did you have any trouble?” asked Trinh, his voice gravelly with exhaustion.

“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” replied Namal. “We set the horses loose well away from here and made good time over bare ground. The men are covering your trail from the main road. We should be able to rest the day, at least. If the cold masks our scent.”

As we entered the narrow stairwell down to the old wine cellar a woman’s groan floated up to greet us. Fantasies of curling up someplace warm to sleep for a few hours vanished like little puffs of breath on a cold wind. I should not have been surprised.

Trinh finished the stairs in two leaps—impressive with the pack on his back and the child in his arms. Namal and Rakov were right behind him, but Quill didn’t bother to rush. He knew already, of course. He’d been her walking stick for the last few hours. My feet were dragging as I closed the cellar door behind us and descended last.

“She’s in labor,” Baldric was standing in gap in the furniture wall that split the room, holding a steadying hand out to Trinh. The rightful king looked very much like he should be holding a giant sword in his fists instead of a heavily bundled child. He stared blankly at Baldric a moment before all the action drained out of him, leaving him with a dazed expression.

I had never been anywhere near a woman in labor—and though the cooks at Galhara were very educational human beings. I looked around the cellar. A few lit candles showed that it was as we’d left it. It was, while not warm exactly, warmer than it was outside. A couple of Trinh’s knights were standing on one side of the room, rumpled blankets on the floor behind them as if they’d been trying to rest before we arrived.

“I don’t think it will be long, now,” continued Baldric.

“Her labor started when running in the tunnels,” said Quill very quietly.

She hadn’t said a word or made a sound. Tears stung my eyes.

“We have to risk a fire,” I said, “We’ll need hot water.” Babies needed cleaning, if nothing else. We needed heat, too, and there were plenty of wounds which also needed attention if we were to survive long enough to escape.

Two of the knights sprang to action, darting past me and up the cellar stairs into the dawn.

I slung my pack off my shoulder, dropping it with a heavy thunk next to the lone table before opening it to fish out Boitumelo’s satchel. Satchel in hand, I headed behind the make shift wall. Hess was hunched over, back propped against the cold stone wall, her head in her hands. Her underthings were already in a pile next to her and her dress was hiked over her knees. A knight was crouched beside her, stroking her hair. I blinked in surprise when I realized the knight was a woman. She was dressed in warm clothes reinforced with leather armor. Her hair was restrained in a long dark braid. She turned to look at me when I entered, her chin dipped, “Your Highness.” She was a few years older than me. Her face was not delicate, but she had a fearsome sort of beauty with thin lips and large dark eyes.

My steps slowed as I approached. “I don’t remember you,” I said. Too tired, apparently, for manners.

She gave me a small smile, as if I’d revealed her greatest secret. “I am Athrynel Hasreda, the King’s Marksman.”

Pausing, I looked at her again, remembering the hail of arrows which held the Nether Queen’s soldiers back while Quill and I leapt into the river. I met her eyes, “You probably saved our lives.”

Her smiled broadened a little. “You’re welcome.”

I opened the satchel, surveying the contents as if I had any idea what I was looking for. Athrynel stood and came to look over my shoulder. “Do you know how to use this?” she asked, eyeing the kit.

“For wounds,” I replied, helplessly. “I grew up during a war.”

Hess moaned again and my eyes flew to her. She still had her head in her hands.

“Well, I wouldn’t expect you’d learn midwifery in peacetime either,” Athrynel clucked and crouched to sift through the satchel.

She pulled a couple bottles out, then pushed the rest of the satchel back to me. “Most of the men have one scratch or another, do what you can. I’ll stay with Hestria. You find me some blankets or something and hurry them up on that fire.”

“Do you know anything about midwifery?” I asked, picking up the satchel and gladly moving away.

“No,” Athrynel turned back to Hess. “But I helped a cow once, long ago. And someone will fetch Gyreon off patrol. He picked up some of his father’s physician trade before deciding war was easier.”

I didn’t know who Gyreon was and wasn’t sure how much help he’d be if he’d left doctoring because he preferred fighting. Perhaps still more helpful than me. I returned to rest of the cellar to find that Trinh had recovered somewhat from his shock. He and his knights were busy unwinding children from their individual bundles, chafing cold little hands back to warmth, and rearranging the clothes and blankets into a den where they could tuck all the children together for maximum warmth. I stole one of the blankets, and as an afterthought pulled the servant’s warm clothes out of my pack, carrying it all back to Athrynel and Hess. As I left them, a knight came barreling down the cellar stairs and straight past me to Hess. Gyreon, I guessed.

Ayglos was sitting at the table, his wounded arm hanging limp. I started pulling things out of the satchel. “Namal, help him take the uniform off.”

Namal joined us in the puddle of candlelight and helped Ayglos unfasten the buttons of the uniform and shrug it off his good shoulder. Ayglos leaned forward and just gritted his teeth as Namal peeled the blood stiff jacket off the wounded shoulder and down the arm. Domjoa would not be pleased we’d destroyed his expensive fake uniform. The shirt underneath was thoroughly dried to Ayglos’s skin, and after prying at it we decided to wait for water.

While we worked, the door opened again, and another knight came down the stairs. I was surprised to see another woman, this one with short, dirty blonde hair, wearing the same sort of clothes and armor as Athrynel. She carried a bundle of wood in her arms. She scanned the room till she found Trinh, and said, “We’ve got a little fire going, and I found a pot for boiling water. I think we should consider building a fire down here so the babes don’t catch their death.”

The knights had wrapped themselves in their cloaks and alighted around the bed of children like migratory birds. Hew was burrowed in the center of them, his nose and his tail just visible amongst the folds and mounds.

“There’s no chimney,” protested one of the knights.

“We could use the stairwell,” countered another.

“And leave poor Jasem and Rae’d stranded on patrol all day?” teased a third.

Trinh jumped in, “Jasem could jump over the fire—and Rae’d is very lucky, I’m sure he’d be fine.”

Gruff laughter rumbled through the flock of knights.


I dragged my eyes to Trinh, surprised to see a smile teasing at his mouth.

“The bigger problem is we’ll have to jump to get out,” someone said.

“Better rest up, then.” The blonde smiled and dumped her armload of wood right next to the stairs.

Quill emerged from the huddle to help the blonde set up a make shift hearth just a foot away from the stairs, and to prop the door at the top of the stairs so it stayed open wide enough to lure the smoke out.

While we waited, I laid out astringent, salve, and the few bandages we still had. Namal hunted down the pitcher and basin we’d used last time we were here. Then we sat shredding a sheet from the villa into long strips. Who knew cloth would become so precious to us?

And while we waited, Hess’s moans became cries.

Quill had just coaxed the flame to life when the blonde left again and returned carrying a steaming pot. She edged around the fledgling fire and brought the pot to the table, filling the pitcher and basin I’d set out. She took the pitcher and headed behind the furniture wall.

Then, like the bells of the Cathedral calling worshippers to prayer, the squalling of a baby filled the cellar, reverberating off the stone walls. We all stopped to listen. Relief blossomed so tangibly from the cluster in the blankets that I turned to look at them. Soft voices slowly soothed the crying behind the wall. Quill left the fire and went to stand hesitantly in the opening. Tarr should be here. Trinh was staring, obviously feeling responsible, but also uncertain what his role should be. Quill was family by blood. After a moment, Quill disappeared into the back.

I turned away and soaked a rag in the basin—the water was warm, but I doubted it had been boiled. I added a splash of astringent and set to work on Ayglos’s shoulder, wetting the shirt enough to peel it away, then off entirely. The throwing knife had left behind a fairly small slit, but it was deep. I cleaned the wound as gently as I could before pasting it with salve and awkwardly wrapping bandages around his entire shoulder and across his chest to get them to stay. Ayglos had a few other nicks and slashes, and I treated them all. He bore the sting with a few hisses, and Namal helped him re-dress with clothes Quill and I had brought from the apartment.

I did my best to clean out the cloth and Namal took away the basin to dump the water and refill it with clean water.

“Who’s next?” I asked the room.


A figure loomed above me, black against the lamplight. I stiffened, then I recognized Ayglos and bleated in relief. I went limp as he grasped Khattmali’s shoulders with bloodied hands and pulled her off me. He crouched by my side, “Are you alright?”

“I don’t know,” I groaned. Since I wasn’t dead, I decided to try pushing my arms under me and sitting up. My right arm protested, and my chest seized a little…but I sat up.

His hands went to my arm, gleaming with blood, and then he gingerly touched the gash in my breastplate and whistled. “That blow would have felled a boar.”

Craning my head down, I could see the ravaged leather. And beneath…shining silver links caught the lamplight. The links were damaged, but not sundered. I touched the gash. I’d gotten used to the weight of my chain link armor and had forgotten about it. I drew a deep breath. Dear Heaven, breathing hurt. But it wasn’t the same sort of pain as the pain from my broken ribs. It was more radiating than stabbing. I turned to him. “What about you?”

He grimaced. “That fight was a long time coming. I’m fine.”

I looked him over; in the lamplight, I could see the blood slicking his shoulder, and over his armor. It didn’t appear to all be his—couldn’t all be his. “You look terrifying.”


I looked over at Khattmali, tumbled where Ayglos had left her. “Is she dead?”

Ayglos crawled forward and put his fingers to her neck. After a moment he said, “Yes,” and crawled back to me. The Ambassador who’d killed and imprisoned the nymphs of the Bandui was dead. The irrational, slinking, terror that had filled the passages was gone, leaving nothing but quiet in its wake.

We scooted to lean our backs against the wall, the space so narrow Ayglos’s knees bent to fit, and his feet propped against the opposite wall.

“I don’t like Huntsmen,” I said after a moment.

Ayglos coughed a laugh. “I’m sure they don’t like you either.”

In silence we took inventory of our bruises. It was a small victory. But it was a victory. I waited for pain, or joy, or perhaps sorrow…now that the deed was done, and the lightning had ebbed from my body. Instead of emotion, I became acutely aware that we were still in the palace and needed to get out. Now.

I grunted, “We should go,” and shifted to crawl across the passage and pick up Shiharr and Azzad from where they’d fallen. I wiped them clean before sheathing them on my back.

Ayglos was also moving carefully as he gathered his feet under him and walked to retrieve the lamp. When he reached the lamp, he froze, head cocked and one hand raised to signal a halt.

I was on my knees still but obeyed, holding my breath to listen. There were footsteps running toward us…from the direction our friends had gone. Ayglos doused the lamp and I bit back a curse as total darkness enveloped us. The footsteps slowed to a cautious pace and got very, very quiet.

Aching, I got to my feet. There was no light at all in these tunnels. I drew a knife from my thigh and edged along the wall, wincing when I came to the Huntsman’s corpse, his sword still wedged in the wall right at head height. I ducked under the sword, right at the crossroads, with Ayglos only steps away.

“Zare?”  The voice was right beside me.

I jumped straight up, and narrowly stopped my hand mid-strike. “Quill!”

“You’re alive!” his voice had the gasp of relief.

“You gave me a heart attack,” I replied, sheathing the knife. “Why are you back here?”

He snorted. “Needful heroism aside, Namal would kill me if I left you two behind. Even if you did try to get left behind.” The last few words had a bite that made me blink.

“Are you…angry with me?” I asked.

“Even if you were obvious about trying to sneak off, you should have said something.”

“Wouldn’t you have just tried to stop us?”

A match fizzed to life as Ayglos re-lit the lamp.

Golden light again illuminated our pale faces, Quill looking straight at me, eyes burning with fury. He’d certainly processed his relief quickly. “Holy heaven, no! I know what needed to be done. But you don’t leave without saying something. Even if–especially if–you think you’ll die.”

“You would have let us go?” I asked again, sharply. “You wouldn’t have argued or tried to go in my place?”

The fire in his eyes flickered, but he growled. “You don’t leave your unit ignorant they’ve lost their rear guard, you don’t leave your friends wondering what happened to you.”

Ayglos broke in, “You’re right, we’re sorry.” He looked between us, his expression firm. “I’m glad you came to get us.”

Then I noticed that Quill’s clothes were spattered with blood, and he was holding a long talon shaped knife that was dripping red.  “What happened?” I demanded, cold fear shooting through me.

“Met some soldiers on my way back to get you.”

Ayglos whistled. “That could have been more exciting than I would have liked. Again, thank you.”

Quill had the good grace to tip his head in acknowledgement before looking us over critically. He noted the jagged hole in my breastplate, and then looked at the corpses past us. “Is that…a woman?” he asked.

I glanced back, “Khattmali.”

Quill paused, obviously collecting all the questions he wanted to ask and putting them somewhere safe to bring out later. “We should go.” He turned to leave, offering his free hand to me. “You can douse the lamp again, I know the way and I would rather not broadcast our presence.”

I took Quill’s hand and offered my other to Ayglos. My brother again killed the light, finding my hand in the darkness as we already started to move. I could still feel Quill’s anger simmering off him as we moved through the tunnels. I wanted to talk to him, to explain, to justify, to argue. Then I thought of the blood covering all of us, and instead squeezed his hand in silent apology. His fingers tightened in response.

Quill led us quickly, and silently, stopping only once or twice to listen. The only noise we made was when we tripped over the bodies of the men he’d killed. I had no notion of where we were in the palace, and thought ruefully that Ayglos and I would never have found our way if Quill hadn’t come back for us. Eventually, Quill stopped and let go of my hand. I heard a clank and the sound of a heavy door swinging. Quill’s fingers closed around mine again and we stepped through the door, he turned back to close the door and I heard the grind of a lock. This passage was colder than the other and felt damp. Our breaths bounced off the walls and echoed back at us. Here, everything was stone. The floor dropped in a smooth, steep descent, that had us shuffling our feet for fear of slipping before it leveled off. I heard water dripping somewhere. The sounds bouncing around us changed, and I guessed that the passage had widened into a proper cavern. I couldn’t sense the walls close beside us any longer, and Quill moved more slowly.

Pausing, Quill crouched and tapped his knife on the rocks, the same little knocking pattern that opened the King’s secret door. I fully expected the rumble of moving rock, but instead there was an answering tap from somewhere ahead and to the left. Quill adjusted his course and I stumbled as my foot caught on the uneven floor. The tap sounded again, much closer this time. The walls were getting close, not because the cavern was shrinking but because we were heading into a small corner of it.

“Stop!” a voice hissed from the darkness ahead.

I froze, sensing Ayglos go rigid behind me, and Quill said, “Lord Rakov?”

“Quilleran, you return. Were you successful?”

“I have them.”

“Good, come ahead—careful, it’s narrow.”

Quill led us forward. He grunted in pain, “You aren’t kidding.”

“Sorry,” Rakov’s voice floated ahead of us, “The door is very heavy, we didn’t open it far.”

“Watch your feet,” muttered Quill. I felt him swivel ahead of me and I copied his movement best I could. I sensed stone at my back and leaned into it, shuffling gingerly until my boots bumped the threshold and I could step up and wiggle through the narrow opening. I would have been more graceful if my hands weren’t monopolized holding onto Quill and Ayglos. Once Ayglos cleared the door I heard Rakov say, “Watch yourselves.” Then a slow grind rumbled behind us and the distinct sound of a lock thunking into place. This space was significantly smaller than the cavern on the other side of the door. The air was colder and more fresh.

Rakov moved around us, I felt him brush against my shoulder in the cramped space. “The others are this way, a little closer to the cave mouth.”

Ten more steps, then we stopped again, and I noticed new smells: dirt, straw, and possibly animal scat.

“They’re back,” said Rakov.

Movement, shifting clothes and the faint clink of armor. Trinh’s voice came from the left, and low, “Good. We should get moving. Only a few hours before dawn.”


“Eloi,” muttered Trinh.

I just stared back at the children who were staring mutely at us. Dark cloaked strangers carrying weapons filled the doorway and they did not move or cry out. Naran was the eldest at six years, the others were clearly younger, two were only just toddlers. I wondered if they could see the blood staining our gear or knew the violence that had swept through the palace. Poor things.

Hess peeled back from Quill, and wiped her eyes, “What are you doing here?” Then, noticing his blood-spattered clothes and weapons, “How did you get in?”

“We’re here to rescue you,” replied Quill.

“Did Tarr send you? They told me he…” she trailed off. Quill said nothing, but his face must have conveyed the truth. Hess bowed her head, her grip tightening on Quill’s biceps till her knuckles turned white.

Quill squeezed her shoulders, “He was brave.”

“He died thinking of you and Naran,” I offered quietly from the doorway.

Hess’s eyes flicked to the door, noticing Trinh and me for the first time. “You’re alive, too,” she managed a weak smile, her eyes bright with tears. “He would be glad.”

“Did they hurt you?” asked Quill.

Hess shook her head. “No,” her lips gave a bitter twist and she laid a hand on her belly, “Too valuable. But these poor babies would be here alone if it weren’t for this child.”

Trinh took a step forward, “We have to go now.”

One of the children on the bed whimpered. Hess looked over and quickly went to them, reaching assuring hands to caress each, “It’s alright, little ones, these are friends.”

“I want momma,” sniffled one child, a little girl with wispy blonde hair.

“No, baby, I’m sorry.” Hess reached out and pulled the little girl close. “I can’t bring you to momma.”  She raised her eyes to Trinh, “I can’t leave them to her.”

Trinh hesitated, then he walked to the bed and sat on the edge. He opened his arms invitingly, addressing the little girl with a tenderness I found surprising from the taciturn prince, “You’re alright, I’ll keep you safe.”

The child looked into his eyes, and then, ignoring the blood on his clothing, reached for him. Trinh picked her up and snuggled her close. He looked at Hess, “There are five of us: We’ll carry them all out.”

One of the other children crawled toward Trinh, reaching to be picked up too. I turned to the closet as Trinh shifted the girl to one arm and scooped up the other child. These babies were not dressed for the cold outside, and if we got out of the palace they were in for a long night and a long cold day. After that, if we were still alive, who knew how far we’d go before sleeping indoors. The closet was about the size of Bel’s, and about as well stocked. Probably belonged to one of Khattmali’s entourage. I managed to find one fur lined cloak and three fine winter weight dresses. When I emerged, Rakov had joined the group in the bedroom. Hesperide had wrapped two of the children in the blanket from the bed, and these were in Rakov’s arms. There had been another blanket on the couch, and this was now wrapped around the children Trinh carried.

“Where is the nearest entrance to the servant’s passages?” asked Trinh as Hess finished tucking the blanket around his charges.

“The Ambassador’s rooms,” replied Hess, “But the next is in an alcove down the hall.”

I extended the fur cloak to Hess, who caught my hand and squeezed it before taking the cloak. I met her eye only briefly, not knowing what to say on this terrible night of terrible things.

“We’ll go there, then,” said Trinh. “Get out of sight as quickly as we can.”

Turning away, I moved where Quill was crouched by Naran. The little boy had one arm around Hew and was listening seriously to whatever Quill was telling him. Naran smiled when he saw me, “Miss Meredithe,” his voice was watery from crying.

“Call me Zare,” I replied, kneeling to wrap the dresses around him. I used their sleeves to tie them around his waist and crisscrossing his chest. Hopefully they would keep him reasonably warm.

“Zare,” Naran tried the name on his tongue. “That’s a funny name.”

I smiled. “No funnier than yours.”

“My name isn’t funny.”

“Exactly,” I patted the bulky knots. It would do.

“Ready, Naran?” asked Quill.

The boy nodded, and Quill picked him up. I collected Hew’s leash and got to my feet. With a glance at the others I led the way out of the room. The door to the hallway was cracked open, letting a thin beam of light slice the room. I could see Ayglos’s shadow shift as we approached, and the door pushed open slowly.

“Are you ready?” asked my brother, without turning to look at us.

“We are,” I replied, pulling the door open just a little further.

“Come quickly, then.”

“Turn right,” said Hess from behind me.

I strode out with Hew, my fingertips brushing the knives on my thigh for comfort. The others followed, Trinh, Hess, Rakov and then Quill. I could imagine the double take as my brother noticed the number of children. Other than Hew’s panting and the occasional sniffle, we were surprisingly quiet. It felt as though we were all holding our breath, and we certainly weren’t moving as quickly as on our trip in. We passed the hallway we’d taken to get here, continuing straight for an excruciating time before Hess whispered, “See those alcoves ahead? Just before that junction? We want alcove on the right.”

I nodded and angled for it. My steps slowed as we got closer to the junction, my skin starting to crawl. It took a second to place the feeling, but it was the same I had felt in the Queen’s rooms when Quill and I had found the remnants of that evil rite. Lightning crackled through me. I scanned the halls, looking for any sign, expecting to see ash, blood, and black feathers. There was nothing. I couldn’t hear anything over Hew’s breathing and my own heartbeat. Gingerly, I approached the alcove and peered inside. It was empty. A couple chairs and a table framed a tapestry. Hess touched my elbow and I jumped, “Behind the tapestry,” she offered, kindly not commenting on my spook.

I stepped into the alcove, every breath expecting something to jump out. I drew a knife before approaching the tapestry and lifting it aside. The passageway was dark. I hooked the tapestry over a knob in the wall and stepped in enough to look for a lamp. There was one, just inside, hanging on a hook just within my reach. Lifting it down, I lit it with a match stored in the base.

The lamp cast yellow light on the wooden walls of the passage, showing it was empty and devoid of dark rituals. Comforted, I handed the lamp to Hess. “Do you know the way?” I asked.

“Yes,” she looked at Trinh, he nodded. Hess took the lead, the men filing in behind her, each heavy laden with wide eyed and silent children.


Special thanks to my Patrons! I am so grateful for your support!


Behind us, I heard Trinh suck in a breath through his teeth, then command Hew in that language only he and the hound knew.  Hew hesitated, then skidded to a stop, looking pathetically over his shoulder at Trinh.

“We’re near the ambassador’s chambers,” explained Trinh quietly, catching up with Ayglos and me.

“Do you think they’re in her chambers?” I asked.

Trinh gave me a look, “Would you wish a frightened child in your rooms? No. But I imagine they are close.”

“We’ll have to check each room individually—”

“—dealing with whatever we find there—” cut in Ayglos.

“–or use Hew,” I finished.

Trinh looked down at the hound, who was looking down the hallway as if staring could transport him. “We can’t have him baying and bringing the whole army to investigate,” said Trinh “We check the rooms.”

Without a word, we split to different sides of the hallway. Trinh and Rakov slunk along one side, Quill and Ayglos along the other. I walked a little ahead, keeping a tight hold on Hew. The gentle swish of our cloaks mingled with Hew’s panting and the click of Hew’s nails.

The hound glanced from Trinh to me to the hallway over and over again as we walked. I got the impression that the hound’s distress wasn’t about the hunt any longer, it was about Naran being close by. I considered letting him off the leash to find Naran on his own, but a vision of him spitted by soldiers stopped me. The first door we came to was locked. Quill started pulling out lockpicking tools and I kept walking with Hew. As we neared the end of the hallway I slowed, listening. Hew whined. I put my hand on his head and found wet nose instead. There were voices coming from the right. I leaned against the wall, as if that would help me listen.

“…heard a dog…”

“…You’re a…”


“…doesn’t matter.”

I edged forward trying to get an eye around the corner. There were four guards standing in front of a door at the end of the hallway. I pulled back and looked over my shoulder, beckoning to the men. Ayglos was the first to join me. Then, with a glance back at the others, he stepped around the corner and strode toward the guards.

I peered after him, aware of the others approaching as quietly as they could.

The guards straightened, watching Ayglos’s approach with interest. “What is it?” asked one.

“Have you seen or heard anything unusual?” asked Ayglos when he was just steps away.

“I heard a dog,” replied one.

“He thinks he heard a dog,” said another.

Ayglos’s fist cracked across the jaw of the first guard and he dropped. I ran forward, but before Hew and I could reach the conflict it was over. Ayglos was even better than I remembered. He clearly had not been sitting on his hands these months. Ayglos stooped over the bodies and looked back at me, “Look for keys.”

By the time Quill, Trinh, and Rakov arrived I was handing Ayglos a key pulled from a dead man’s pocket. We all stood poised for action as Ayglos turned the key and gently eased open the door. The room beyond was dark. Hew whined when we didn’t go in immediately. I looked at him, then I took a few steps out of the torchlit hallway and into the dark of the room. Hew followed eagerly. To our left, the only light came from an orange glow seeping under the bottom of a door. Quill and Trinh moved in flanking us. We stood for a moment, listening.

When we heard nothing over Hew’s panting, Trinh spoke, “Find a lamp.”

There was carpet under my boots, and it swallowed my and Hew’s footfalls as we proceeded into the room using the light from the door. A lamp sprang to life to the right, casting a warm light around the room that grew in strength as Quill turned it up. This was a sitting room, well furnished with plush furniture. The fireplace to the right was cold, and there was no one else in the room.

Rakov and Ayglos dragged the bodies inside while Quill and Trinh silently walked through the room checking for anyone or anything dangerous. Hew was interested in the other door but I held him back.

Once the four guards were inside, Ayglos stepped out, mostly closing the door behind him.

Trinh and Quill approached the door with the light behind it. I joined them, gathering Hew’s leash in my left hand and drawing a knife from my thigh with my right. After a grim exchange of looks, Trinh turned the knob and gave the door a push. It swung open slowly, revealing a fourposter bed and a fireplace with a healthy fire.

“Who’s there?” a woman’s voice demanded.

Quill exhaled, “Hess!” and sheathing his blades he rushed into the room.

“Quill!” Hesperide rose from a chair by the fireplace and Quill engulfed her in an embrace. Her dark hair was a loose tumble as she buried her face in Quill’s shoulder. Quill curled around her, as if he could shield her from everything that had happened this night. A rock strangled my throat. I felt like an intruder as I stood in the door. I wondered if Trinh felt the same way, because he didn’t move to enter either. I dropped Hew’s leash and the hound bounded to the bed. He stood on his hind legs and thrust his nose into the face of the redheaded child sleeping on the pillows.

Naran sat up with a cry and threw his arms around Hew’s neck.

I started when the bedcovers began to move, rising and falling like the coils of a sea serpent. Then, other heads popped up from the pillows, faces white with fear, eyes red from tears. There were more children here. The rock sank from my throat to my stomach as I looked at five little faces. The children Tarr supported. The Nether Queen was taking all of them.

92-Into Danger


The next part was my idea. Trinh’s tunnel connected us to the warren of narrow passages the guard and the servants used to move about the palace, and there we divided. Rakov and Trinh went ahead to scout Naran and Hess’s quarters while the rest of us went to get Hew, Naran’s favorite hound, from the kennels. The palace was unnaturally quiet, as if all the inhabitants had disappeared into thin air. They had probably all done their very best to do just that rather than risk becoming a target of the Queen’s wrath. We didn’t pass close to anyone until we were entering the servant’s quarters with Hew in tow. A few men in servant’s gray, who had clearly been on their way somewhere, stopped moving when they saw Ayglos—who was walking in front wearing the black uniform of the Queen’s guard. They shrank against the wall, eyes averted, until we passed by in a swirl of dark cloaks and silence.

When we reached Hesperides’ door, Quill pushed it open without knocking. Rakov and Trinh were waiting inside, weapons drawn.

Putting away his sword, Trinh stepped forward and crouched in front of Hew. The hound, being only half bloodhound, was enormous and stood nose to nose with the crouching King. In the weeks I’d known Hew he’d already started to fit his long limbs far better than he had when we’d met. He’d come with me eagerly when I’d woken half the kennel to get him. Though I’d never taken him anywhere he followed with the trustful enthusiasm which made dogs so disarming. Sensing our urgency, he hadn’t made a sound for the entire trip, and had stayed so close to me that the leash seemed entirely unnecessary. It would be different once he was hunting.

Trinh held a bit of cloth out to the hound and Hew reached for it eagerly. My heart seized as I realized that it was a shirt. Was Naran really so small?

Trinh said something in a language I didn’t recognize but Hew did. The hound immediately dropped his nose to the ground and headed out the door. I had to trot to keep up and could hear the others fall in behind us.

Hew’s nails clicked on the polished wood floors, and I was grateful he didn’t bay as he darted down the hallways with unwavering fervor. We quickly left the servants quarters and entered the main palace, passing anti-chambers and ministerial rooms until we came face to face with a wall of black clad guards.

Hew would have plowed through the wall without stopping, but I checked him. Without missing a beat Ayglos strode past me and snarled at the guards, “Let us through, the hound is on a scent.”

“Who are you?” demanded one of the guards.

“We are the Queen’s Huntsmen,” replied Ayglos, stepping closer to the line of guards. “We are hunting an intruder.”

“No one is to be admitted to this wing by order of the Queen,” replied the guard.

“Fools, someone is already inside.”

“We have heard nothing.”

“Unsurprising,” snorted Ayglos.

The guard bristled.

We didn’t have time for this. In two strides I was holding a knife against the guard’s throat and stillness fell over the others. “Don’t risk the wrath of the Queen,” I purred.

He glared at me. “You Huntsmen,” he spat, “So high and mighty. You think you’re the only ones worthy to serve the Queen.”

So, there were Huntsmen. I thought Ayglos had been making things up.

The man continued, “No one has entered this wing, and even if they had, half the army is behind us. We can protect the Queen just as well as you.”

He wasn’t going to let us through. As tremulous and desperate as this plan was, it was our only plan. If we didn’t get Naran and Hesperide out tonight, there might not be another chance. We were too few, and she had too many and too much. For a single breath I considered the blade against the guard’s skin and thought of the blade in Tarr. My voice was thick as I asked, “Can you protect her from ghosts?” I stepped back and swung my free hand flat against his temple; senseless, he fell back into the other guards.

Startled cries and the sing of weapons filled the hallway. Hew backed up a step, his tail tucked. I dropped the leash to reach for Azzad.

A guard swung his sword at my head and I dodged, my knife sinking into him and my other hand clubbing his temple with Azzad. I was aware of the men tearing into the other guards without a word. The fight was over in moments, and we were five cloaked figures standing over a pile of black uniformed bodies.

“I guess it’s time to adjust the plan,” commented Ayglos, stooping to clean his knives.

“Well, they’ll know something is up,” replied Trinh drily.

“Do we leave them here?” I asked.

“Hide half of them,” said Quill. He opened a nearby door, revealing an empty anti-room.

The bodies were heavy and awkward, but we moved six bodies out of the hallway and scattered the others a little to obscure the streaks on the floor. Some were just unconscious, we tried to make sure these were in the room. Anything to add confusion and delay to any who hunted for us. Perhaps they would think they had traitors among them. It was gruesome work and I was as glad to leave as Hew, though perhaps for different reasons. Trinh offered the hound the shirt again, in case he’d forgotten because of the fight, and Hew barely looked at it before returning to the trail only he could find.

Ayglos kept pace with me, the other three fell in behind us like geese.

“How did you know she has Huntsmen?” I whispered.

My brother glanced at me, “They are why I was late getting back. They sensed me one night when I got close to the Queen’s camp. I spent the rest of the trip trying to stay ahead of them without running into the armies or patrols.”


“They never used hounds—at least that I saw—but they always seemed to find me. Or, to get close,” replied Ayglos, keeping his voice low. “I gathered from listening in at campfires that they are called Huntsmen, but not for hunting game. They hunt people, mostly. Special order of the Queen, and some serve as her personal guard. They are disliked and feared by the army.”

I frowned. “They sound more like…assassins?” Hew charged brazenly around a corner. When an empty hallway opened before us I asked, “How did you elude them?”

“I…” Ayglos hesitated, “…don’t…know…”

“You don’t know?” I was incredulous.

“There is a lot going on here that doesn’t make sense,” added Ayglos hurriedly, as if getting words out before he could change his mind, “I am good at remaining unseen and leaving no trail, but they would find me anyway—it was either the worst luck or magic because they nearly caught me dozens of times but…” he swallowed, “an apparition of a woman with golden-hair always warned me. I know it sounds crazy, but she stayed with me that whole scouting trip. I couldn’t always see her, but I know she was there and she saved my life on several occasions.”

My steps faltered. “You—” I stammered, “You saw her?”

Ayglos shot me a startled look: As if that had very much not been the response he’d expected. “You saw her?” he demanded.

“No,” I shook my head, “Not exactly…She slapped me—and she yelled at me—to wake me up when I was drugged—did you hear about that?”

“You were drugged?” asked Ayglos, then he shook his head, dismissing his own question. “We’ve hardly been in close conference these months. But I am comforted that I’m not alone in encountering her.”

“Assuming it’s the same spirit,” I replied. My mind was sprinting from one thought to the next, barely holding an idea long enough to draw conclusions I was so excited. Golden hair, though, ruled out Nelia. “Did you talk to her?”

Hew bayed, causing both of us to jump in a manner quite unbefitting our rank and costume. The hound lunged eagerly against the leash. We must be getting close.

91-The Tunnel

Before departing, we tossed the office. We left the windows open, and as a final touch Rakov smashed the lock on the door. If any of our people came back to the warehouse, they ought to see the door and windows and stay away. If they got all the way inside, they shouldn’t linger. I sent Domjoa off with a long list of tasks—including finding out what had become of my men who’d been distracting the garrison. The rest of us followed Trinh through the city.

There were still crowds in the streets, but the atmosphere had changed. It was only a matter of hours from the King’s death, but the column of smoke from the palace was much bigger and darker than the ones from the celebratory bonfires throughout the city. Rumors of soldiers on a manhunt poisoned the revelry and leached the joy out of the night.  The closer we got to the palace, the thinner and more furtive the crowds, until it was just the five of us slinking in the darkness between streetlamps.

Trinh took an unexpected turn down an alley to the left, then he stopped and shifted some garbage bins around. Rakov stepped up to help and I tried not to think about the smells in the alley around us. The men grunted and metal clanked as they hauled open a sewer grate. I moaned at the thought of the things found in sewers as I watched Rakov nimbly sit on the lip and then drop from view. I didn’t hear a splash, but maybe I was deaf. Ayglos approached the hole, then after only a second’s hesitation followed Rakov. I made myself step up to the hole and peer into the darkness, Rakov stood maybe eight feet below, holding a hooded lantern. I didn’t see water, but I did see a ladder, which the men had forgone. Not to be outdone, I sat on the lip and then jumped into the hole, bending my knees and tucking into a roll before I could think through the wisdom of such a move. I bounced back to my feet, still on dry stone. Mercy of heaven. The lantern splashed patterns on the cylindrical room, and revealed two dark passages, one leading north toward the palace, one leading west.

Quill dropped in, then Trinh climbed down using the ladder as he lowered the grate.

“It’s not connected to the sewer,” said Trinh, answering everyone’s unasked question. “Though it does drain into the sewer.” He took lantern from Rakov and started down the northbound tunnel at a brisk jog, Quill behind him, then me, then Ayglos and Rakov.

The air was dank, but not foul. The tunnel was so narrow that occasionally Rakov’s scabbard scraped against the stones. The walls were dotted with carvings. Kings, castles, hunting parties, dragons, knights…I wondered if they told one story or many. Trinh led us with unfaltering steps through several junctions, as if he knew these tunnels very well. This must be how he went in and out of the palace so readily. Perhaps also how he got into the city without being seen that first time after he woke up.

Trinh stopped abruptly, holding up his hand to hold back the rest of us. Quiet, inconsistent murmurs accompanied by the occasional shuffle drifted back from around the bend ahead. Dousing the lamp, we edged forward until we were close enough that Quill exclaimed, “It’s Vaudrin!” and slipped by Trinh before any of us could react.

Trinh turned up the lamp and moved forward as cries of joy greeted Quill. Around the bend, the tunnel was strewn with men in blue uniforms who were scrambling to their feet. They saluted Quill, but when they saw Trinh they whipped to face him instead. Hope lit their faces at the sight of a living Kegan. Their uniforms were splattered with blood, and almost all of them were bandaged one place or another. Several of the standing men were missing shirts under their blue coats. The shirts, I realized, had been sacrificed to bandage the wounded. My heart twisted as I remembered days traveling with these men. I flinched for my pack. I still had the satchel from Boitumelo—I hadn’t used it since leaving Rhydderhall—but there was no way I could treat this many.

At a word from Trinh the men sunk back to the floor, exhaustion evident in their every move. Trinh and Ayglos walked to join Quill and Vaudrin in the center of the tunnel. Rakov stayed behind me.

I stopped at the first man and crouched to inspect the bandage on his arm—I met his eye and smiled at him, as if there was anything I could do about his wounds. I smoothed his hair off his forehead and he smiled back at me. I stood and turned to another man before I could drown in the emotions rising inside.

Vaudrin bowed to his King, “I am glad to see you, your Majesty, and your Highnesses.”

“I feared there would be no one,” Trinh was talking, “How many did you save?” Not, ‘how many did we lose.’

“I have forty here, only the men who could run were able to escape when we withdrew from the ballroom. The Queen must have expected the guard to react violently to the King’s murder, for she had us outnumbered at least three to one, and her army was clearly ready and waiting for the order to move in.” Vaudrin shook his head. “Jemin and I were lucky to pull out this many.”


I hadn’t gotten very far down the tunnel—stopping at each man to wish I could help him with more than a gentle touch—but now I stood and looked for the burly form of the guard with whom I’d stormed Gillenwater’s garrison.

“There is a chance the men in the barracks were able to escape to one of the other tunnels.” Vaudrin continued. “I have sent two of my men through the tunnels to see if they can find any others.”

I spied a hulk on the floor just past the conference of princes and hurried forward. Quill and Ayglos made room for me to pass and I dropped to my knees next to Jemin. He smiled wearily at me. Alive.

“Your Highness,” his voice was tired but lacked the rasp of death.

Tears pressed on my eyes and choked my breath, it took me a moment to manage, “Are you hurt?” I didn’t know why I felt so overwhelmed to find a friend survived even when I’d forgotten to worry for his life.

“I’ll look like a spotted cow tomorrow I’ve got so many giant bruises,” replied the guard. “But I’ll be alright.”

“We have returned for Naran and Hestria,” explained Trinh, and I blinked at Hesperide’s real name.

Vaudrin nodded, his expression turning grim. “I wish I could tell you where they were.”

“I believe they are still in the palace; we will find them or find where they are.” Trinh looked around the company, then said, “Focus on getting these men out. Fade into the countryside. Head for Magadar. If you find the men from Gillenwater, tell them the same.”

Vaudrin looked surprised. “My King, we’re leaving?”

“I will not lose more men in this fight,” replied Trinh, the blankness of his expression more frightening than anger, “You’re leaving. That’s an order.”

I waited for someone to argue with him, but no one did. Our plan for Naran’s rescue hadn’t factored them in, they were battered and had suffered heavy losses. Magadar seemed far for a regroup, but perhaps it was best given the Queen’s armies closing in on the city.

“Are we ready to go, then?” asked Ayglos after a moment’s silence.

Trinh nodded, and after clasping Vaudrin’s hand, he turned and led the way again down the tunnel.

90-the apartment

Trinh led the way as we skulked through the darkest shadows. Once or twice we cut through buildings to avoid passing near a patrol. There weren’t as many as I’d expected. Perhaps we’d left the palace in more disarray than I’d thought…or else things had been relaxed for the festival and the military had yet to mobilize fully. It wouldn’t last, but for now we moved quickly. At least until we reached the warehouse where our little apartment was.

Then we waited.

After a few eternities standing in the cold watching for movement or patrols, we scouted the alleys and rooftops. Then, when we found nothing, Quill and I crossed the street. I unlocked the door and Quill stepped in first. He quickly searched the office, then darted upstairs to search up there. I closed and locked the door behind us.

Doubtless, we would have employed this caution regardless. After all, we didn’t know what had become of Lucius Tene, the King’s Guard, or even Domjoa. However, I’d told Bel Valredes my name, and Bel knew where we lived. I could still see the utter incredulity in Namal’s eyes when I’d confessed. As if I’d instead told him I’d decided to marry the noble.

I had spread my hands defensively, “I was angry. He knew what she was going to…that she would…” I couldn’t say it.

“So you decided to trust him with your big secret?” Namal had retorted, aghast.

“No!” I exclaimed, then took a deep breath, trying to be measured, “I called him a traitor. I was angry.”

“Damn it, Zare, he was always a traitor—why did you think differently?” my brother’s voice rose in frustration.

My anger mingled with shame and helplessness. “He might not be evil” really didn’t feel sufficient as an explanation. Nor did “I’m tired of lies.”

“It’s clear,” Quill called from the top of the stairs.

Brought back to the present, I ran up the stairs. Quill had lit the lamp which hung on the wall, the flame was turned down quite low, but it felt bright after the night. I had the trunk unlocked in a moment, and we started pulling out the armor, clothing and bags of money and heaping them on the closest bed. Quill started packing and I grabbed my clothes and armor and went behind him to change. “Don’t look,” I said.

“My lady,” acknowledged Quill, sorting the bounty.

Tarr’s pendant with the sailing ships swung as I stripped off my daggers and ill-fitting clothes.  I shivered as the cool damp of my hair—now contained by a braid—touched my back. Then my fingers touched the cold metal of Bel’s brooch. I nearly threw it across the room. I had thrown it when I’d found it at the villa, still pinned to my trousers. Then I’d wasted several minutes hunting for it on the floor. The brooch might be useful, and it would be silly to get rid of it now.  I pinned the brooch to my shirt before pulling it over my head.  It might as well be within easy reach.

Behind me, Quill said, “Don’t look,” and I heard his shoes drop to the floor, “Namal’s got a lot of clothes in here.”

I narrowly restrained the reflex to look over my shoulder. “Probably not enough to dress all twelve of you, though,” I replied, “Will his armor fit you?”

I slipped on my boots and started buckling on my thigh scabbards.

Quill snorted, “No, that armor was custom made for him.” His feet thunked to the floor again and he walked around the bed to stand in front of me. “The rest of his clothes fit, though.” He was dressed in a shirt and pants that might have been black, and while they weren’t fancy, they were nicer, better fitting, and darker than what he’d had on before. He hadn’t buttoned the collar and he looked like a rogue. It was a good look for him.

“Help me buckle?” I said, turning away to pick up my breastplate. Quill stepped forward, stopping when the lamplight flashed on the brooch.

“Don’t you start,” I growled. “The Valredes crest might be useful. That’s all.”

“I didn’t say anything,” he replied, reaching to help guide the breastplate over my head.

“Out loud.”

He started with the buckles and I contorted to don on my vambraces.

“Why did you tell him your name?”

“I was angry.”

“Do you always spill your guts when you’re angry?”

I shot Quill a look. He shot it back.

“I wanted to hurt him with what he’d done,” I said tersely. “It was stupid and I regret it.”

“You think he really cares for you?”

“I think he probably cared for Analie.”

Quill finished with the buckles and stood back to survey me.

I resisted the urge to cross my arms. “I don’t think he’s all bad.”

“I don’t think many of the men we’ve killed tonight were.” Quill looked me in the eye, “I wouldn’t worry about Valredes. He would have figured out something was up when you started stabbing people, anyway.”

A crash reverberated in the office below. Quill was faster than I was, whipping out a knife and darting down the stairs. I paused to grab the lantern off the hook before following him. Two men were struggling in the office, one was clearly the better fighter and had his opponent pinned to the desk—the ledgers were scattered across the floor. I recognized both men, “Domjoa!” I exclaimed.

“Rakov! It’s alright!” cried Quill at the same moment, sheathing his knife and rushing to intervene before Rakov plastered Domjoa’s face with his fist.

The knight stepped back reluctantly. “We saw him pick the lock and enter the warehouse, I was sent to make sure he didn’t get the jump on you.”

“Thank you,” said Quill.

I hurried to help Domjoa peel himself off the desk. “Are you alright?”

Domjoa straightened his collar, “I’m fine, no thanks to this gentleman.”

“Rakov, this is the Princess’s Thief, Domjoa.” Quill gestured between them, “Domjoa, this is Rakov of the King’s Knights.”

The men eyed each other, then Domjoa turned to me. “What happened at the palace, your Highness?”

“The Queen killed the King before the ball even started, we did not kill her, the palace caught fire, and now we’re racing to rescue the King’s true heir from her before she brings him to Hirhel.” Might as well get it all out.

The thief took a breath, “Is that all?”

“So far. Were you successful?”

A sparkle entered Domjoa’s blue eyes. “Perhaps, your Highness.”

“Good, I need your uniform.”

89-Into Darkness


We left as soon as the men could move. By some mercy we had not been descended upon by hordes of black clad soldiers, though we’d taken the time to thoroughly ransack the villa for supplies. There had only been a handful of horses in the stable, but Namal and most of the knights took them and blazed a trail leading away from the city. Something for the Queen’s soldiers to follow. When they were done being decoys, they’d send the horses on their way, meet up with Trinh’s marksmen, and circle around to the ruins of Rhydderhall to await our return.

I crouched under the bridge to the city between Quill and Trinh. One of Trinh’s knights, a black-haired man named Rakov, was crouched on Trinh’s other side.  Ayglos had gone ahead to steal us a little boat, and there was nothing to do while we waited.  My pack scraped against the stone behind us. It was a miracle we’d gotten this far, picking our way along the stone banks of the river, doing our best to not disturb the snow. The bridge above our heads was lit with so many torches it was one thin strip of day slashed across the river. It had taken a great deal of patience and timing to cross the patch of barren shoreline close to the bridge without being seen. Guards patrolled the road, and we’d heard two mounted companies pass overhead since we’d been here. At least the light above us made the darkness deeper where we hid.

I stared at the dark water of the Bandui, thinking of Tarr’s body, wrapped tightly in stolen sheets. He was strapped to the back of a horse, surrounded by bundles of damp clothes, and unable to enjoy participating in the adventure. So much had happened so quickly. Tarr would be entombed at Rhydderhall. For now, it was the best we could offer him. There hadn’t been time to mourn—or time to rejoice and find out how Ayglos had managed to show up at the right moment. I grimaced. There had been words tossed around while ransacking a winterized villa making frantic new plans, that was all. I’d had no trouble outfitting myself with warm clothes from the combined dressers of all the female servants. The men, though, had had a harder time of it, being as there were a lot more of them. I hugged the bundle of Ayglos’s clothes to my chest. We didn’t have spares, so Ayglos had left his clothes behind on his pirating mission.

The waves on the Bandui sloshed, evidence that boats were moving around somewhere nearby. The river would be busy tonight, especially by the palace. There were waters to search, bodies to dredge, shores to patrol…With my free hand, I caressed the water with my fingertips.

“Zare, are you alright?” Quill’s voice was low.

I looked back at him, not that I could see him in the darkness. “Are you?”

I heard the grimace as he said, “Fair point.”

“What happened in there?” I asked, “How did you get separated?”

The river filled the silence before Quill replied, “When we arrived at the anterooms,” his voice was so heavy, “She said she wanted to speak with him alone.”

Of course, it was that easy. She was the High Queen.

“I came as soon as I heard they’d entered the ballroom without summoning us. When I walked in she already had the knife.” The weight of his failure was tangible in every word, and I felt it gathering in my chest.

I shifted closer to him, cautiously reaching out to find his hand. “There wasn’t anything you could have done. She drew the knife pretty much immediately.”

Quill closed his hand around mine, and I felt myself growing warmer at the strength in his touch.  After a moment he said, “Thank you for coming for me. I probably wouldn’t have survived if you hadn’t come charging over like you did.”

My mind immediately painted a vision of Quill lying dead in the ballroom. I shuddered, closing my eyes to shut out the image behind them. But to Quill I said, “You owe me again.”

“Owe you? I think that makes us even.”

“How’s that?”

He tapped his fingers on my arm to count, “You saved me in Gillenwater, I saved you at the Cymerie, then I saved you again after our little jailbreak, and now you’ve saved me here.”

I wrinkled my nose. “I’m not sure about the jailbreak.”

“Do you think your criminals would have brought you back to the palace where you could recover in style, in character, and with a proper doctor?”

“What about how I kept your wounds from rotting?” I replied, “You were not an easy patient.”

Quill scoffed, “I would have been fine.”

“Something’s coming,” Trinh interrupted.

I put my hand back in the river. He was right. A tiny boat crept along the city’s bank. We held our breath as it crossed the torchlit waters until it finally passed into the shadow of the bridge and disappeared. My spirit was lighter as I drew myself into a crouch and listened to the faint slap of the waves against the boat as it came directly across the river’s current. Moments later, the dark form of a rowboat nosed up to the bank, then Ayglos—a mere black shape himself—surfaced and propped his elbows on the stones. “Need a ride?” I didn’t need to see him to know the satisfied grin on his face.

“Did you have any trouble?” asked Trinh quietly.

“No,” replied Ayglos, “the wharfs are too extensive for them to have a strong net yet. But you’d better get in, the sooner we go, the better.”

We obeyed. Trinh and Rakov, first, then Quill and myself. The men lay down, feet to shoulders, in the bottom, squished together uncomfortably. I spread a blanket over them, and half over myself, curled up in a ball at the stern. If any eyes saw us, hopefully this dark mass would only be a shadow in the night. As soon as we were situated, Ayglos disappeared under the water and towed us into the current. The Bandui did most of the rest, carrying the boat swiftly away from the bridge and its light. I watched the city pass by; the faint glow of celebratory bonfires mingled with the lamplight from windows and carriages. I wondered how many were still celebrating, and how quickly word of the events at the palace would spread through the city.

Eventually, the lights thinned, and we reached the dark, low buildings of the warehouse district. Ayglos guided us in from the center of the river, choosing a smaller wharf full of fishing boats. I wondered if they all belonged to the Valredes family. As soon as we were close enough, I stood and hopped onto the dock, catching the side of the boat and pulling it in. The three men were quick to follow. In a moment Ayglos, too, was standing on the dock dripping puddles everywhere while he untied the rope from his waist that connected him to the boat.

I handed my brother a towel from my pack. He accepted and hurriedly dried off before dressing again with the clothes I handed him. The puddles were turning to ice when we left the docks and faded into the black of the desolate warehouses.