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75-Voices

I was waiting for my cue, but something was wrong. I couldn’t hear the music. The horses shifted under me, eager to run into the darkened tent. The tent shouldn’t be dark. The show didn’t go that way—or had I missed my part? Where was the music? Without waiting, the horses surged forward, charging into the darkened ring. Suddenly Balleck was there, spinning his burning poi. He smiled broadly, offering me his hand. I took it, stepping into the light as if I wasn’t standing on galloping horses. He spun me into a dance, the poi spinning around us, and then spinning away from us to become the glass tree in the Market Square in Gillenwater. We danced alone, without music, without other people…and he pulled me close for a kiss.

But something was wrong.

Wake up.

A woman’s voice slipped through the darkness. Hess?

I was falling, the roar of a waterfall and the crush of water tore us apart. The water turned to fire, and I was running. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see through the darkness and flame. I could sense her, though. I could feel the weight of the Nether Queen’s presence—of that thing she worshiped—it was hunting me and I ran, walled in by flames. I would die here. I would drown in fire.

Damn it, Zare, wake up.

I slowly became aware of my body, someone was shaking my shoulders. I still had a body, that was good. Probably not dead, then.

Come on.

She was urgent.

I was laying on something cushioned and velvety, my head propped on something stiffer than a bed pillow. A couch? Was I back in the king’s chambers again? My head was pounding as I tried to sort through the mud and find something firm.

The wine.

The poison.

Wake up!

The voice was commanding, and a hand slapped my face.

I forced my eyes to open. My vision swam, and I grabbed my head immediately, stifling a moan. I felt like I was going to be sick. I closed my eyes again, and only reopened them once I’d convinced my stomach to reconsider its plans. The walls were creamy, and the drapes were navy blue. I saw a bed draped in a burgundy coverlet. This was not one of the King’s personal chambers. It wasn’t any part of Khattmali’s chambers that I’d seen, either.

And I was alone.

My heart hammered.

What in Serrifis? Who had awakened me? Where was I? I struggled to breathe deeply. To calm the roaring of my blood. Slowly, carefully, I pushed myself into a sitting position. My shoulders hunched, as if they could protect my head from the awful pounding. I looked around, trying to ascertain if my other senses were right. How was I alone?

I was on a velvet couch, one lamp burned by a door on the other side of the room. The deepness of the shadows spoke of evening. There were voices on the other side of that door.

I took some more deep breathes and gathered my strength to rise. I wouldn’t have called myself tall, but suddenly my full height felt so very far from the ground. My stomach reeled. I covered my mouth with one hand and took a step forward.

There is a washroom through that door to the right.

My spine tingled. I looked to my right and saw another door.

Cautiously, I walked to the door and put my free hand on it. I had the sense to put my ear to it and listen before pushing it open. It was, in fact, a washroom. I went to the sink and turned on the water, allowing it to run over my wrists, and splashing it on my face. After a few moments of indecision, my stomach twisted and I retched into the sink. I thought I felt a comforting hand on my back as I gave the meager contents of my stomach back to the world, but I felt too awful to care about the impossibility. I’d been poisoned, Eloi only knew what it was doing to my senses.

At last, the nausea finished, leaving me weak and sweating. My cheeks were wet with tears. My ribs ached from the effort of heaving. The water was still running and had washed the bile away. I splashed more water on my face. My head still hurt, yet my vision was clear, and I could move more easily. Finding a towel, I dried my face and inspected myself in the long mirror beside the sink. My long skirts and embroidered bodice were wrinkled, and even in the dim light I could see that I was pale as death. Otherwise…I looked unscathed. I checked, and my stiletto was still in my bodice. Brushing at the wrinkles out of habit, I cautiously stepped back into the room where I’d awoken.

“Are you still there?” I whispered to the empty bedroom, feeling ridiculous.

The voice in my head didn’t answer. No invisible hands touched me in response.

I didn’t want to push it. Not when there were still voices behind that other door. Perhaps my waker had been a figment of the poison. Though, that seemed insufficient. Since when did poison provide helpful hallucinations? That wasn’t important at the moment: I needed to find out where I was, and why. I went to the window and looked out: Gardens, barren from winter, a few levels below me. To the side, I could see the undulating gray walls of the palace. So, I was still in the palace. Good. I crept across the room toward the door by the lit lamp. Light streamed from the other side. Stopping, I laid my fingertips and then my ear to the door to listen.

“It’s not a difficult task, darling.” Khattmali’s voice was lazy. “Why do you look so put out?”

“Your grace,” a man’s voice. Bel’s voice. My lips curled in a snarl. “I am merely hurt that you felt the need to drug the girl. I could have seduced her.”

“That may be true, but I don’t have time for uncertainty.” Khattmali paused, then continued with an edge to her voice, “Today, dozens of courtiers saw the King’s mistress in the arms of another man. By tonight, the rumors will be all over the palace and the King himself will have heard. When she is not there to answer his call, he may move on—or at worst send men looking for her. You should be able to get her out of the palace tonight, but if not, he’ll still find her with you.”

“And what if she tells him that she was drugged, and he believes her?” Bel’s voice was laced with tension. He really was upset.

“She will only be out another hour or so, you should have time to address her feelings.” A pause, “There will be no evidence that she was drugged if he investigates—and even if he does, somehow, believe her anyway, I will protect you. The king has no stomach for violence.”

Silence. I doubted that Bel was convinced.

I had to strain to hear Khattmali purr, “You did excellently today. I was watching you.”

“Were you?” Bel was smooth as honey, “Enthralled by my charms?”

“Belledi,” She laughed softly. I wanted to throw up again. “I will remember you, when I am queen.” She sounded like she was moving away—toward the chamber exit?

“How long should I keep her? If the King doesn’t look for her?”

“As long as you like, darling. It makes no difference to me.” Her voice was careless, self-assured, even bored. She truly didn’t care. She believed I was a merchant’s daughter, and she’d just given me to one of her pets to be used however he saw fit. This was better than being found out and handed over to her Queen, but anger began to burn inside me.

 

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73-Belle of the Party

 

Khattmali was the perfect hostess. She put her arm through mine and led me from group to group, presenting me as only a socialite could. People who had never spoken two words to me out in the halls were now all smiles and bows. As if they hadn’t been painting me with disdain whenever they glimpsed me for the past few months.

Courtly parties had been just another pleasant memory of my pre-siege childhood. Now, facing a roomful of beautiful vipers, I felt that I must have always hated court life. Hated it. Perfectly and completely.

“How do you do, Miss Meredithe?”

“So pleased to meet you, Miss Meredithe.”

“Enchanted, Miss Meredithe.”

I smiled, blushed, and curtsied with just a touch of unpolished bounce. I also invented new curse words in my head. There were more men than women at this party. Most of them thirty or younger, though there were a few older. When Khattmali ran out of people, I realized that I hadn’t retained a single name, and had glazed over most of the faces, too. I started angling for the wing chairs near the fire, but Khattmali steered me toward the couch instead.

I accepted a tea cup from a passing servant and settled onto the couch, Khattmali beside me.

She lifted a jeweled hand, “Bel, darling, come sit with us!”

A good looking young man in a fine white shirt under a navy doublet redirected his path to sit in the chair across from us. He smiled, the expression brightening his face so much that I thought it might be a real smile. “My name is Lord Belledi Valredes,” he bowed slightly to me as he sat, his eyes sparkling in a way that made me think we’d just been introduced but he’d seen the utterly blank look in my face.

Valredes…one of the older families to survive the fall. “Analie Meredithe,” I said, narrowly keeping myself from offering him my hand like a princess. I made an effort to mark his features: High cheek bones, brown eyes. Short brown hair. Broad shoulders that hinted at active pass times. His coat had the faint shimmer of silk, and a gold brooch in the shape of a leaping fish sat over his heart.

He kissed my fingers and sat back in the chair. “How have you found the palace, Miss Meredithe?”

“It’s lovely,” I said. “Just…really beautiful.”

“I’m sorry we haven’t met before now, for surely the palace is made even more beautiful by your presence.”

I looked down demurely to keep from rolling my eyes.

“Bel, you charmer,” said Khattmali with a light laugh. “Oh, Lucius, come here!” she beckoned to another young man even as she stood up. “Keep Miss Meredithe company for me, I must greet the other guests.”

I thought it was a thin excuse, even if new people had just entered the chambers. How many people had she invited to this luncheon?

Lucius had blonde hair, and he smiled as he kissed Khattmali’s hand before taking her place next to me on the couch. “Miss Meredithe,” he flashed the same smile at me. “Lord Lucian Tene. I hope you won’t be too bothered by our company.” His doublet was a pale blue that intensified the blondeness of his hair and the blueness of his eyes.

“Oh, not at all!” I said quickly, wrapping my hands around my tea cup as I watched Khattmali disappear into the crowd. It was happy coincidence, that an irritated and sulking princess could so easily pass for a shy and overwhelmed common girl.

“The Ambassador told me your father is a spice merchant,” said Lucius, “She failed to mention that you were stunning, though.”

I blushed. “You’re too kind.” And I could easily take you in a fight.

“I heard that your family was rescued by the King’s men after being robbed on the road,” added Bel, leaning his elbows on his knees and taking a sip of his wine. “That must have been terrifying. I’m so sorry you had to experience that.”

“Yes, it was awful—I’m so grateful to the men who rescued us, I can’t even imagine what would have happened if they had not come along.” I kept my eyes wide and earnest.

“Bel,” Lucius interjected, “This is a party, don’t remind the lady of such things.”

“My apologies,” Bel dipped his head, apologetic.

“It’s alright,” I assured him. “Much good came out of it.” I flicked my lashes down. Love makes you stupid. I tried to imagine being in love, but instead thought of throwing a pillow at Tarr’s head. My neck heated, which worked well enough.

“Have you ever been to a party like this before?” Lucius asked.

“Yes—well,” I hemmed, “I’ve been to large parties—just not with so many lords and ladies, of course. And not in the palace.”

“The Ambassador means well,” said Bel, kindly. “Though I fear a party of this size might not have been the kindest way to introduce you to people.”

I titled my head, uncertain what to make of even the gentlest criticism of Khattmali. Also, uncertain if he actually believed she meant well.

“Though, we’re certainly glad to meet you at long last,” said Lucius, leaning back and lifting a hand to wave over a servant carrying a decanter. “The palace is much improved by your presence. And I believe your brother is here, also?”

I didn’t want to talk about my family. “He is, yes. But he’s often out working the family business. It pleases the King for him to continue on restoring trade.” In the economy your High Queen shattered. I looked at Bel, “Lord Valredes…your family owns half the fishing boats, doesn’t it?”

“We do, yes,” he nodded, “Please call me Bel, Lord Valredes is my father.”

“Bel,” I smiled at him. I almost asked how they were affected by the purging of the nymphs but thought better of it just in time. I also almost asked how in Serrifis he’d managed to keep his parents through the fall, but I knew the answer to that already thanks to Quill and Tarr preparing me for this luncheon. Some hadn’t been given a choice to bow to the new Queen; Yet others had, and most took it after watching the executions and rituals.

Bel continued, “Lucius’s family owns hundreds of acres along the Market Road.”

“It’s a spectacular amount of work, but has some excellent soil and beautiful views,” said Lucius.

“Sounds wonderful,” I took a sip from my tea.

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72- Armor

I was delirious with exhaustion by the time Namal and I made it back to the palace. It was a long walk to start with, but add in avoiding patrols and making certain we weren’t followed and it became a lengthy, predawn walking tour of the city. One of the royal guard, one we’d traveled with from Gillenwater, was waiting to bring us back through the tunnels to our chambers. Once I’d shucked that blasted armor I found Quill waiting in the sitting room to hear how our little meeting had gone. I told him everything and felt better for it. The sky was turning gray when I finally crawled into bed—after checking on the king who slept on the couch.

The sun woke me up hours later. I stared at the huge arching windows, feeling as if all the sand in Daisen were in my eyes and piled on my body, making it far too heavy to move. I had gotten used to sleeping at night. I liked sleeping at night.

The winter light was bright and cold, and I felt it wasn’t high enough in the sky for me to be awake yet. This wasn’t a fair exchange of hours. Perhaps I could close my eyes again and convince the bone crushing weariness to leave. Something moved in my peripheral, I turned my head to see Hesperide laying out a deep burgundy gown. With a groan, I rolled over and buried my face in the pillow.

“Good morning, my little owl,” I could hear the smile in Hesperide’s voice.

I lifted my head enough to squint at her. “Is it good?”

“It is good that it’s still morning, because you have that luncheon today.”

Right. I rolled onto my back and starred at the gilded ceiling.  Khattmali hadn’t wasted any time pulling together a little lunch party to introduce Analie to people. Everyone was unhappy about me mingling with the nobility, but short of faking illness I didn’t know how to get out of it. I had been a small child the last time I’d been to Dalyn, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would recognize me. The Midwinter Ball was mere weeks away and I was certain Khattmali wanted me out of the King’s bed by then. Did a second visit make poison more or less likely? What hideous thing would she tell me about Tarr today? I rubbed my hands across my eyes and tried to reconcile myself to being up. “Next time I’m impersonating someone of higher rank, so I can say no to more people.”

Hesperide snorted. “The King is out already, and your bath is ready for you,” she headed back into the closet and returned with a couple pairs of slippers, which she then set next to the gown and eyed critically. “You should probably get started on that.”

A bath made getting up more tolerable. Mostly because it bore so many similarities to staying bed with the added perk of being in water. Hesperide yelled through the washroom door at least twice to hurry me along. Finally, I presented myself to her, clean, dry, and un-striped, and she helped me get into the gown. It was a different look than the others, the long skirt a separate piece from the fitted brocade bodice that buttoned down the front. The embroidery of the brocade had a metallic blue sheen that caught the light. A collar swooped down into a flattering point that showed off the gold necklace which hung around my neck. Another gift from the king. I touched the pendant—a gold disc imprinted with ships traveling in the gilded circle of trade. He’d tried to give me a sapphire surrounded by a river of gold, but I’d argued that giving a mistress jewelry that mimicked his seal did, perhaps, send too strong a message. I found Hesperide’s eyes in the mirror.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I feel like this is really yours,” I tapped the necklace before letting my hands drop into my lap.

“Ah,” she was braiding my hair, but she freed a hand to reach forward and tap my heart. “This is what’s mine of his. You, and that,” she looked at the reflection of the pendant, “Are armor to protect us. They are all armor.”

I started to nod, but couldn’t with her grip on my hair. I tried a grim smile instead.

“Be careful with Khattmali today,” Hesperide returned to braiding. “She got Tarr drunk last night after dinner, but he didn’t even try to kiss her. In her ideal world, she’d drive him so mad with desire that he’ll think her proposition of marriage is wonderful—or, even better, he’ll come up with the idea himself.”

“I know, I know…I’m in the way.”

Hesperide nodded, “After so many failures in recent months, I suspect the ambassador is eager to have a success to show her mistress when she arrives for the ball.  It’s becoming an urgent need.” Finished with the braid she began to coil it on my head, pinning as she went.

It seemed a little unfair to have to deal with intrigue of this nature without any of the intoxicating feelings of being in love to give it dazzle. Then again, it had to be a miserable situation for the people in love, so I shouldn’t feel too left out. There was a distant look in Hesperide’s eyes and I wondered if she was thinking of a version of her life where she didn’t need decoy lovers to protect her life and the lives of her children. “How do you know all these things, anyway?” I asked.

“I’m a servant,” Hess scoffed, “Servants know everything.”

“Oh. I’d forgotten.”

“If you want to know what’s happening in a palace, befriend the cooks, or the washer women.” Hesperide stepped to the front and eyed my hair. She pursed her lips, plucked at a curl, then nodded to herself.

“Not the maidservants?” I asked.

“No,” Hesperide shook her head, turning to collect the remaining pins, “Too much politics there.”

I grunted. “I’ll steer clear, then.”

“Wise.” She smiled at me as she left the room, “Jemin will be here soon to take you to the ambassador’s chambers.”

I thanked her and moved to the sitting room to pick up a book. There was a tray with tea, muffins, and a few pieces of fruit sitting by the fire and I happily dug into them with one hand—the other held the book. I was very hungry and hadn’t realized it. As I ate, I felt sleepiness returning to remind me that I’d been out most of the night.

When Jemin entered the sitting room, I jolted awake, book tumbling to the floor.

The burly royal guard was smiling. “Good morning, my lady.” He bowed slightly. “Are you ready to go?”

I straightened from being curled up in the wing chair and made a few faces, as if stretching and scrunching my face would wake it up more quickly. Blinking, I stood, and said primly, “Of course.” Then my lips quirked up in a dubious half smile, which Jemin rewarded with a matching one. Ready or not, it was time to go. There wasn’t anything either of us could do about it.

“Should you drink another cup of tea before we go?” asked Jemin, kindly.

I shrugged. “The ambassador has tea.” But I did pick up my cup and finish the last sip, now cold.

Jemin held the door open and then guided me to the ambassador’s chambers. The ambassador’s guards opened the door for me, and the sound of music and voices greeted me. The ambassador’s opulent chambers were even more spectacular today. Had she brought in more chandeliers? The crystal chandeliers cast splintered gold light and occasional rainbows everywhere through the main room. The windows were open, making up for the monstrous fire in the fireplace and the heat from the thirty men and women milling about in beautiful clothes. A few tables sat about, laden with meats, breads and fruits, and gray-clad servants bustled here and there carrying tea pots and decanters to ensure that no one saw the bottom of their cups. Four musicians sat in a corner playing stringed instruments.

Khattmali was in the center of it all, resplendent in a blue gown with a neckline that swooped deeply from one shoulder to the other, showing off both her skin and the layers of sparkling jewelry. She saw me immediately and came to greet me with a sweet smile on her face. As if greeting a favorite pet. “Analie! Darling! I’m so glad you’re here. I have so many people I want you to meet.”

Dear heaven.