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82-Plots and Plans

 

 

“We’re going to kill Narya Magnifique,” replied Trinh, mildly.

My breath caught, but Mistress Cadenera didn’t choke or recoil. She met Trinh’s stare with such knowing it was evident she’d guessed our purpose already and had simply wanted to know what we’d say. Then she smirked. “I like you. They say you’re the lost prince.” Her eyes flicked to Namal, “Course, they say you’re the lost prince, too. I find that a touch confusing.”

“It seems the Nether Queen leaves a trail of lost princes,” said Namal with a shrug. “Conquest has consequences.”

Mistress Cadenera snorted. “Consequences? That witch doesn’t get consequences near enough.” She leaned forward, “Look here—my son-in-law died in the Cathedral Square and my poor daughter and her babes haven’t stopped weeping since. I like that you’re straight forward, and I like what you aim to do. But if you fail, more heads than yours will roll.”

Trinh remained relaxed in his chair, fingering the handle of his tankard. I had to admire his composure. “We’re aware of that, that’s why I told you our goal.”

She pursed her lips and studied Trinh, then Namal, then Trinh again. She fished a handkerchief out of her pocket and mopped the sweat off her face. “How many of you need in?”

“Four,” replied Namal.

She nodded. “Strapping fellas like you?”

Another nod.

“I could use a few stage hands, to set up beforehand. But, normally most of the hands clear out of the Ball before the performance.”

“That’s fine, if we can get in, we can slip away inside,” replied Trinh, then, seeing the Mistress’s frown he quickly added, “—after we help set up, of course.”

“For this to work,” said the woman, sternly, “I need you and whoever else to report to my theater tomorrow, and every day between. You need to be trained as a hand, and paid as a hand, and work as a hand. I am innocent of your treachery, should you fail.”

“Of course,” said Namal, “They can also perhaps disguise themselves while they work at your theater, and then change at the Ball, so they perhaps won’t be connected to you at all.”

“They?” the woman looked at him sharply, “You’re not one of them?”

Namal inclined his chin slightly, “I have another way into the Ball.”

She chuffed, “Pity.”

I smirked.

Namal looked uncomfortable for a heartbeat before sliding back into his easy bearing. “There is little we can offer you in payment.” Namal slid a slip of paper across the table to the theater mistress.

She looked at the paper, then slid it back. “Pay me double if you succeed. If you fail, I don’t want anyone looking my way or asking where I got my extra money.”

The princes exchanged glances. Then Namal said, “You have our word.”

“Is this agreeable to you, Mistress Caderena?” prompted Trinh.

She drew a deep breath and let it out. Her face burned with intensity. “Yes.” She nodded, as if to herself, then said again. “Yes.” She raised hard eyes to the princes. “Tomorrow, one hour after dawn, I expect your four at my theater ready to work. The other extra hands are reporting at the same time.”  Mistress Cadenera finished the ale in her tankard and stood up, “May Eloi guide your steps,” her voice was gruff, somehow turning the traditional farewell into a raw wish. She turned and made her way back through the crowded room and out through the little door.

“There’s one piece,” said Namal. He looked at Trinh, “You’ve picked your men already?”

“Yes, Baldric and I are too likely to be recognized, so we will sneak in through the tunnels and join the nobility in disguise,” Trinh tipped his head at Baldric, “I’m sending the twins, Rakov and Rae’d, and also Elaer and Jasem, to the theater.” Four of the eight knights who’d been with him when he struck out for Dalyn and arrived six years later. “Have you heard from your brother?”

“Yes,” Namal flicked his eyes to me, “I sent the captain back to him with a raven to go with him. He is leaving tonight to scout up the river.”

Alone. Worry niggled through me, and I reminded myself that one half-blooded prince would be hard to detect, much less catch. Even if his only back up was a bird. Ravens were exceptional birds, many of which would speak human language and they were unparalleled as scouts and messengers. But they were still just a small ball of wings and feathers if you got into a fight.

“Good,” Trinh lifted his tankard. “I’ll pass word to my men tonight. I sent them to find out what barges would be on the river providing lights for the ball. My hope is to set up my marksmen on the river if any of the barges will be tall enough this year.”

“I would get your other two men into the ball, also, if at all possible,” said Namal. “We need as many bodies as we can get, if anything goes wrong I don’t want to be relying on the King’s personal guards to get us out.”

“Moonie knows which bakers are coming in to help the night before,” put in Domjoa. “Perhaps they might need someone to carry bread…”

I leaned out of my shadow, “If we are open to smuggling them in early, couldn’t they take the tunnels, and get someone to steal servant uniforms for them so they can get into the ballroom?” The men looked me. I shrugged, “Assuming, they aren’t all so huge people would get spooked…”

Trinh looked to Baldric, who looked thoughtful. I wondered if he ever spoke. After several long seconds Trinh said, “I’ll talk to Tarr.”

When the ale was finished, we left. Buttoning shirts and over shirts as we ascended the stairs and wrapping up in cloaks when we entered the relief of the cool crisp night and lost ourselves in the swirl of snowflakes.

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81-Heat

We slipped through the dark, silent streets. Three shadows, soon joined by another, Trinh’s Hand, a quiet hulk of a man named Baldric. Our goal was in the food district, which was several long blocks away—longer because of the checkpoints we had to skirt around. Once or twice I looked up at the roofs and wondered if we might just be better off climbing up a building and jumping from one roof to the next. Most of the buildings were close enough to one another. Though, I supposed, such a path would carry us further out of our way. And…Baldric’s close-trimmed beard was gray. He might not be in favor of such endeavors.

The night air was crisp, and flurries of snow began to spiral down from the heavens; Catching light from mysterious places and passing it from one glittering flake to another.

Warehouses turned to row houses, then to buildings with awnings, some with large glass windows. In an alley that reeked so much I tried to hold my breath, Namal knocked on a narrow door. A pair of eyes appeared in the peephole, then disappeared. For a long moment, we waited in silence, listening to the snow. Then, there was a scrape, and a clink, and the door opened. A narrow man stepped back for us to enter. I recognized Shayn, the murderer, and nodded in greeting before following Namal.

Namal led the way down a cramped hall to an even more cramped stair. The smell of pipe smoke, sweat and alcohol reached us only a step before the lilt of a fiddle and the sound of voices. I struggled not to cough as smoke tickled my nose and filled my lungs. The next moment we reached the cellar, which had been converted into a proper tavern. Tables and chairs filled most of the room, and people filled most of the chairs. A tall counter shielded the room from the kitchen which had been set up around the iron stove which normally heated the building above. Between the stove and the number of people, the room was unbearably hot—especially bundled as we were. Most of the people were half undressed, like field hands on an unexpectedly brutal summer day. Namal had already shucked his cloak and unbuttoned his collar. I scrambled to follow suite before I suffocated. This was why we had forgone armor tonight.

A few men and women were dancing in a corner as far from the heat of kitchen as they could get. The fiddler played a jaunty tune—but quietly. Indeed, the whole scene should have been louder—a room full of people drinking, eating, and dancing…but everything was hushed. People talked and laughed in the hushed tones of a library. The cloaks of the revelers lined the room and soaked up the low sounds before they could get far. No patrols would stumble on this place because they heard noise, for sure.

Domjoa, the master thief, swaggered out of the crowd to meet us. “My lords, milday,” he bowed, that smooth, rakish smile on his lips as he kissed my hand. Even sweaty, with his sleeves rolled up and his hair ruffled as if he’d been dancing, Domjoa was handsome. “This way, I’ve got a table for us.”

Trinh and Baldric had also shed their winter cloaks and we all followed Domjoa to the table furthest from the kitchen, positioned against the wall. We were scarcely seated before a young woman delivered two fistfuls of tankards to the table, smiling at Domjoa, who winked at her when he thanked her. Domjoa passed the tankards around. Ale wasn’t my favorite, but it was a cold drink in a hot room. I sat back from the table, sinking into the shadows with my tankard to watch and listen. I was between Namal and Baldric and would be easily overlooked in the shadowy corner.

The lamps lining the room and hanging from a handful of simple chandeliers were hardly enough to pierce the smoke hazed room. It was too hot for hoods, but the underground tavern wasn’t interested in us. Even so, we had each shifted our chairs slightly to angle our backs to wall. Trinh sprawled comfortably, one hand fingering the tankard on the table while the other elbow hooked over the back of the chair. His manner so similar to Tarr’s. Baldric, the gray bearded hulk, hunkered down over his tankard as if it could provide relief from the heat. I thought it disguised his size a little, too. Namal and Domjoa sat nearest the door, both relaxed and angled to watch the room with amused disinterest. I wondered when Namal had mastered this character who oozed lazy charm.

Trinh looked to Namal. “Is she coming?”

My brother nodded, “She said she would.”

“She’s coming,” said Domjoa.

As if in response, a thickset woman entered the dim, hazy room. She already had her cloak over her arm, and she waved the smoke out of her face with a frown.

“Here she is!” Domjoa was already on his feet weaving through the crowd to meet the woman. I watched her approach with interest. She wore plain clothes, dark, but faded, and the cloak over her arm was lined with fur. She was plump, gray haired, and already sweating—and I felt she ought to be a kind cook, beloved of children, instead of the owner of one of the finest theaters in Dalyn with a face lined by heartache.

Domjoa greeted her respectfully, not even gaining a smile in response before leading her to the table. A hard woman indeed, to be unwarmed by Domjoa’s greeting. The woman sat down without waiting for introduction, and immediately claimed one of the tankards. She swept critical eyes over Trinh, Baldric, Namal, and then me in the shadows.

“So, you’re them?” she asked, taking a swallow from the tankard. Sweat beading on her brow.

Namal recovered first, “Mistress Cadenera?”

“I think I expected someone older,” she replied. “Though, I’m not sure why. It’s not as if your ambitions are especially wise.  Stories favor the young and reckless.”

My brother chose to ignore the comment, “Mistress Cadenera, you run the theater which is providing entertainment for the King’s ball, is that correct?”

Mistress Cadenera lifted her chin, “One of them.”

“My associates and I need to get into the ballroom on that day,” Trinh’s blue eyes caught the lamplight, his expression measured and sure, “Perhaps you could help us?”

The Mistress decided to drink half her ale in one swallow before answering. “What are you going to do there?”

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80-Simple

 

Our new little apartment was situated in a warehouse, above the tiny office, in the heart of the warehouse district by the wharfs. Normally, it would’ve housed the clerk or bookkeeper who staffed the office, but we’d stuffed two cots into the tiny room. The apartment’s solitary window looked out on a dirty street, dirty buildings, then a long dirty wharf lined with sad, empty, ships. Beyond the crowded anchorage I could see the mighty Bandui River; strong, wide, deep, and gray as the darkening winter sky above. There were not many people about the wharfs, partly due to winter, partly due to the setting sun, curfew, and the nightly checkpoints that choked the warehouse district.

I turned away from the window and surveyed the bare little bedroom. There was a fireplace and two cots made up with linens far finer than had any right being in this part of town. A door led to a tiny washroom with a toilet and small tub. There was running water…but not warm water. I was glad for my nymph half, which made cold water relatively insignificant. We had no kitchen, but Domjoa had turned up this morning with a small icebox and ice, which he put in the warehouse to help reduce trips out to buy food. Not that we intended to stay past the Midwinter Ball.

Two days had passed without incident while Namal made preparations for this move and Hesperide spread whispers that the King and his mistress were fighting. I had sparred with Quill and Jemin in the King’s chambers and walked morosely through the frozen gardens in hopes that spies would confirm that Analie was unhappy.

Then, on the third morning, Analie had left the palace, sniffling into a handkerchief with her brother in tow. A carriage with three trunks had followed a couple hours later. Gifts for a departing lover.

It was probably the first time the King’s gifts had included sheets, blankets and pillows. Or armor. He’d also sent all the clothes and jewelry I’d worn while living at the palace, most of which we’d sold on the fourth day. Most, but not all. I touched the spot where the gold pendant stamped with ships sat against my skin underneath my tunic.  I had also saved Tarr’s nightshirt—I couldn’t part with it once I’d found it in the trunk tucked beneath my armor. We’d used some of the money to purchase much less conspicuous clothing, as well as some additional…tools. The rest we would dole out slowly and carefully—probably for food, bribes, and possibly even wages.

Now, it was the evening of the fifth day, with five days left before the Nether Queen’s arrival. Seven before the Midwinter Ball. I walked to the only trunk that we’d kept and checked the lock before heading downstairs to the office.  Namal was sitting behind the desk. Bookshelves full of ledgers lined the little room. The ledgers belonged to whomever owned the warehouse before the purge, and they added a feel of legitimacy to the room. The desk, was covered on one side with paper full of numbers which didn’t matter to us, and the rest was spread with maps of the city and surrounding countryside. The room was illuminated by one sad little lamp hanging over the desk, as Namal had already covered the window with thick canvas, tied down tight to keep light from escaping.

Namal looked up when I reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped into the office. “Trinh will be here soon.”

“I can hardly wait.”

My brother gave me a look. ­

I shot the look back at him. “I don’t have to like him.”

“I’m sure he says the same thing about you.”

“Don’t worry, I’d still pull him out of a burning building,” I grumbled, checking my knives. I had a new harness for Shiharr and Azzad that crossed them higher on my back and kept them much better hidden than before. Especially with my thick knit capelet around my shoulders. My stiletto still hid in my bodice—though this bodice was all cotton and wool, rather than silk or taffeta. I’d traded dresses for brown wool trousers that tucked into my tall boots. It wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for a middleclass girl to dress this way for work, sans the knives, and I was happy to embrace the freedom. I dropped into the worn leather chair across from Namal and put my feet on the desk. “Any news from Ayglos?”

Namal nodded. “The captain just left. Says that last night they delivered game to some farmers, rang a bell so they would come out and see Nadine’s silhouette leaving.” My brother paused to roll up the maps. “Your dysfunctional horse has been quite useful for their little project.”

I smirked. “Hook? Glad to know someone’s keeping him moving.” Besides helping to smuggle people farther from the city, Nadine and Ayglos had taken most of the men from Gillenwater to do small good deeds to keep hope alive. Nothing too dangerous, with Namal and I so deep in Dalyn, it would be foolish to have all of the royals in extreme danger at once. Nadine and I, with our matching physical descriptions, played the part of one person. I’d conflated myself and Nelia at the Cymerie, and we’d determined that we didn’t mind confusion on that point. One ghost or another, as far as the world was concerned.  My skin prickled as that voice came to mind and I wondered if Nelia minded her name being used in this fight. I pushed the thought away. “How long will they stay at Sinensis, do you think?”

“Everyone in court has probably forgotten all about them, and it’s not a stretch that the King would have forgotten them as well. They should be perfectly fine to stay put until the ball. Although, Father is considering moving Mother farther away,” Namal’s eyes dropped, “in case the worst should happen.”

“He should. And Nadine. And himself. Maybe Ayglos, too.” Since the worst would be pretty incredibly bad.

A wan smile teased at Namal’s lips, “We need Ayglos.”

“What if,” I leaned forward, “Narya dies in an avalanche on the way here?”

“If she’s arriving in five days then she’s already passed the highest parts of the mountains.”

“A miraculous avalanche.”

“Probably should have started praying for that weeks ago.” Namal bent and retrieved a pair of short swords from under the desk and belted them on. Then he produced another long knife from a drawer and passed it to me. I strapped it to my waist. “Do you have everything you need?” he asked.

“Everything I have.” Which was different, and truer.

“I don’t expect trouble tonight, but it’s best to be prepared.”

“Domjoa set up this meeting, right?”

My brother nodded, “He’s been tremendously free with advice, contacts, and ideas. Makes me suspicious.”

Arching a brow, I said, “He owes me his life.”

“Which is why I am working with his contacts at all,” replied my brother. “I don’t know how much fealty means to a man like Domjoa. Just…keep to the shadows and keep watch, will you?”

I would forgive my brother’s paranoia. It made him rely on me like he would on Ayglos, and I liked that. The sun should be well down by now, I was eager to be off. A little knocked pattern sounded at the door. Finally.

Namal stood and turned down the lamp while I palmed the knife and answered the door.

Trinh stood on the doorstep, face shrouded in the shadows of his cloak. I stood back and he entered. “Are you ready?” he was talking more to Namal than me.

I closed the door and grabbed our cloaks off the hook by the door, tossing Namal his.

Namal smothered the lamp, and then we left. Locking the little office behind us.

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79-Gifted

 

We both straightened at the sound of movement in the King’s bedroom, and then Namal entered the sitting room, having come from the hidden entrance. I scrambled to my feet in time for him to gather me into a crushing embrace. “Zare, you stupid, lucky girl,” his voice was muffled by my shoulder.

I crushed him back, then pinched him to get him to release me.  “I’m alright.”

“Thank Eloi,” Namal inspected me, his blue eyes bright with emotion “Are you hurt? You were gone for hours. What happened?”

“I’m not hurt,” I stood straight, aware that this time I wasn’t pale as a ghost, rumpled, or wracked with pain. Wild hair excepted.

Namal started to relax much more quickly than Quill had.  “Did she know who you were?”

“No, not at all. Khattmali was trying to make it look like Analie was with another man.”

Wariness came over my brother. “How?”

I put my hand on his arm, looking into his eyes, “Drugged me and set me to his rooms. But I escaped. I’m alright.” We had to sit down, then, and I had to relate the day’s events again. Quill gave his seat to Namal. Hesperide took Naran to bed. Namal got the shortest version yet.

I was just finishing when Tarr and Vaudrin came in through the suite’s main doors. Vaudrin gave me a smile, bowed to Namal, and, seeing Quill, left again without searching the suite. Tarr, handsome in dark green, dropped his swagger and found my gaze. I dipped my chin in assurance. His eyes cleared, and amusement flickered as he noticed I’d stolen his shirt. His questions answered, he nodded to Namal before crossing to the couch and lounging across it.

“Well,” said Tarr, “Analie certainly has some explaining to do.”

I swiveled in my chair to look at him better. “I was thinking about throwing your fourteen children in your face again, instead.”

Namal choked.

“To which I’d reply that at least my women were one at a time.”

“I would throw another pillow at your head.”

“And then,” said Tar, “We’d either devolve into insults about one another’s skills, or we’d make up.” Our eyes locked. Tarr inclined his chin. He’d hoped I would talk him out of it, but I could see that he agreed with me: It was time. “Should I throw you out tonight or tomorrow? Or should we stew a few days?”

“I think we could make any of those things work…it just depends how long my brother needs.”

Namal leaned forward, “To leave the palace? Domjoa could find us a place to live in a day or two, but money to feed us and keep feeding the men could become difficult.” He was plainly in favor of this plan.

“I’ll send a generous gift with my departing mistress, as usual. That should help,” put in Tarr. The conversation spun away into details, timing, and even got side tracked into discussion of the Nether Queen’s visit. Eventually, Namal and Quill left through the secret door, and Tarr and I retired to the bedroom. I crawled into the King’s bed while he went to change into nightclothes. I was so tired, but couldn’t sleep yet, so I sat, legs crossed under the covers. Tarr came out of his dressing room fluffing his hair. He’d mostly buttoned his night shirt this time. He paused when he saw me sitting up. “Is everything alright?”

“Tarr…” I started. I had no idea how to say this.

He came over and sat on the bed in front of me. “What is it?”

“Have you ever heard…voices?”

Tarr arched a brow, “What kind of question is that?”

“I mean a voice when no one is there. You’re alone, and someone talks to you…” I bit my lip, “and when you look, no one is there.”

Tarr’s blue eyes grew cautious. “My madness has never included voices in my head.”

“No,” I moaned and covered my face, “Not like that…I don’t think…Eloi, I hope not.”

The King peeled my hands off my face until I met his eyes. I wondered if I looked as terrified as I felt. “You hear voices?” asked Tarr.

“Someone woke me up,” I blurted. “In Bel Valredes’ rooms…I heard a woman yelling at me to get up—I even felt her slap my face. And then once I was up she told me where to find the washroom and comforted me while I threw my guts up.”

“But you didn’t see her?”

I shook my head. “I looked for her, but never saw her. And once I was done in the washroom, I never heard or felt her again…”

Tarr frowned. “Well, enough people have been killed here that she could have been a ghost.”

A shudder ran through me. “She didn’t feel…evil.” I suppose that didn’t necessarily rule out ghost. But who stuck around if they could be in paradise?

“You don’t think it was the poison.” Not a question. Tarr searched my eyes.

“Since when is poison helpful?” my voice trembled.

“Have you ever heard anything before? Had premonitions? Known things you shouldn’t?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so.” I spread my hands helplessly. “Not that I know of.”

The King looked thoughtful. “Well…you might be a seer. Not, you know, a terribly gifted one. But a seer nonetheless.”

I stared at him.

“Seers see what most people cannot—the spiritual world, the past, the hearts of men, sometimes the future—”

“I know what a seer is,” I cut him off.

“You looked confused.”

“That doesn’t help me know what I heard!” I didn’t think it was accurate, either.

It was Tarr’s turn to spread his hands, though he was much less distressed than I was. “Could have been anything: An agent of Fornern, or Tirien, or of Eloi himself, or even the real Nelia. Or a ghost.” He shrugged. “She was helpful, though, keep your ear out for more.”

Fornern was the spirit who had been charged by Eloi with protecting the north and the seas, and Tirien was his consort, who protected the south and the lands. I sighed.

“Hearing things while drugged doesn’t make you mad, if that’s what’s worrying you,” continued Tarr, “Remember, my brother fell down and got up six years later…I’m just glad to hear of a good supernatural occurrence.”

A sort of comfort, I guess.

Tarr laid back on the bed, his leg still dangling off the side. “You should probably start with what could she be. You’ve got a long list of names to choose from. And without a physical description…” he trailed off.

I’d told Tarr about the voice because he’d believe me, but it was still surprising to have it taken so in stride. My lips tipped up, “I will miss you, you know.”

He looked over at me, his expression tender. “I’ll miss you, too.” Then he lifted a hand to gesture at the couch, “I won’t miss my couch.”

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78-Sundering

While Quill was gone, I changed into a billowy pair of pajama trousers and one of Tarr’s night shirts. I picked the softest and thickest robe from the dressing room, not caring which of us it belonged to, and pulled all the pins from my hair and pulled at the braids until it tumbled around my shoulders in a frenzy. Hesperide procured me a tray of cheese, bread, and dried fruit, which I took to the chairs by the fire in the sitting room.

Reluctant to leave me alone, Hess nestled on the couch with Naran tucked under an arm. She settled into reading; the boy fell sound asleep. I wondered if she had spent many hours like that when I’d been injured. Naran acted as if the room was familiar and unremarkable, though I had only ever seen him in the gardens. I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised. Tarr would have found some way to see his son. I wondered if the boy knew who his father was. Or who I was.

I lost myself in my own thoughts while I slowly ate the food from Hess. I was very hungry but didn’t dare rush the meal for fear of spooking my stomach into a panic. The food helped my headache—which was a relief. Hess had offered to find me a painkiller, but I wasn’t in the mood to take tonics. By the time Quill returned I had mostly cleaned the plate and was staring at the fire, sipping wine and feeling fairly well, if tired.

“You look much better,” Quill said, sitting in the wing chair opposite.

“Thank you, so do you.”

He rolled his eyes and unbuttoned the first few buttons of his blue captain’s uniform. I tried not to notice. “I’m suitably relieved to have not lost a princess today. Especially on the heels of yesterday’s disappointments.”

“Two armies in as many days would be rather crushing,” I smirked. It was a terrible joke in so many ways. Only half true. Not remotely funny.

But he laughed, poured himself some wine, and said, “Tell me what happened.”

I related my story in hushed tones, just in case Naran wasn’t as asleep as he looked—and again left out the voice that had awoken me.

Quill listened quietly, tension evident in his jaw and shoulders. When I finished, he said, “I should hang Bel Valredes from the wall by his toes.”

“Quill.”

“He deserves it.”

“Maybe. At least he has more class than Khattmali—if barely.” I leaned my head against the chair, “It turned out alright.” I looked at him sideways, “And I’m counting on you to help me keep Namal from exacting revenge in a reckless manner.”

Quill’s eyes sparked with mischief. “Namal is never reckless.”

No. I was the reckless one. I shook my head and turned away with an exasperated sigh.

After a moment Quill asked, “What was in the note you left him?”

“I said I was sorry to leave him while he was sleeping, but I needed to get back before the king wondered where I was.”

“Clever. Do you think he’ll believe it?”

“I hope so. I wanted him to think he had a chance with me. It’s certainly in his best interest to believe he does. Khattmali’s revenge is probably more frightening than the King’s.” I tucked my feet under me in the chair. “If I’d had more time I might have added a line about how much I enjoyed his kisses…”

Quill stiffened.

“…but I wasn’t sure that would be wise. All sorts of ramifications from that I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to.” I arched a brow at Quill, whose face had grown dark, then I added, “There were no kisses, Quill.”

He grunted and took another drink of his wine. “Hopefully we can keep Khattmali and her wolves at bay with that chance.”

“Maybe…” I stole a glance at Hesperide reading on the couch, “It might be time for Tarr to show a little more interest in the Ambassador…”

“With you living here?”

“It might be time for me to move out, too.” I set down the glass, “You brought me here to keep me safe, giving Tarr a distraction was an extra benefit. And now the safety is over. Maybe the distraction has run its course, too.”

Quill grimaced. “You’ll probably have to leave the palace entirely if you move out of these chambers.”

“Yes, I agree. It wouldn’t make sense for us to stay, and Namal and I are a liability inside the palace.” I took a deep breath, “Originally we were only here to treat directly with the King about an alliance, and I think we’re rather past that now. Obviously, we’re all committed to this thing—the purging of the nymphs made that decision for us. Outside the palace we can be helpful; Namal can keep after the underground, and I’ve got my men and criminals to look after.”

“It will make coordination harder.”

“But I’d be much less interesting to everyone here.”

Quill was silent for a long time. He was watching the reflection of the fire in his wine glass—and he was thinking. I waited, content to study the way the firelight fell across his face and lit his eyes. Melancholy rested on him, deepening with each breath. I felt it spreading over me, also, as I realized that if we left the palace, then I would no longer see Quill. Or Tarr, or Hess, or Naran. Probably not Jemin or Vaudrin either. They were not just my friends, they weren’t even my subjects. They would stay with their King and I would miss them. Even as my heart thrilled to think of doing something other than trying to be underestimated.

At last Quill spoke, “I don’t like especially like it, but you may be right. Besides putting you in a better place to build the rebellion, the Nether Queen is due to arrive three days before the Midwinter Ball. If she took any interest at all in you, as Khattmali has, we’d have a whole lot of trouble on our hands.” He put down the wine glass and looked at me. “The King could still invite you to the ball so you wouldn’t have to sneak in on the big night. And should we fail, there is a chance, however slim, that it won’t come back on him.”

I nodded. “It’s worth considering, at least.” If we failed, I doubted anyone would survive whatever tortures awaited, much less have one of us escape entirely. Though, perhaps with the underground refusing to help with the assassination, they would be hidden enough to help us vanish if we needed to. If they were so inclined. “I wish,” my voice was a whisper, “They had found Trinh’s speech more compelling.”

“More compelling than vanished cities, hell fire, and lost time?” Quill’s voice was wry. “I suppose it was a fool’s hope. They’ll come alive when she’s gone.”

We fell quiet again. I curled up in the chair and pulled the blue robe close around me. Quill undid another button on his uniform, the white of his shirt peeking through, and finished what was left of the dried fruit on my plate. We were comfortable. It was strange to think that this might be the last time that we would sit together like this. Even if we defeated the Nether Queen at the Midwinter Ball, raised an army and defeated any remaining of her minions…Quill was Tarr’s Captain of the Guard, and a noble holding lands in Dalyn if all were put right. This camaraderie would not be repeated.

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77-Lost and Found

My headache returned and my stomach wobbled as I walked purposefully through the halls, head high, having no idea where I was going. I’d never been in this part of the palace before, and didn’t know where I was in relationship to anything else. I didn’t look at any of the people I saw, didn’t dare speak to anyone to ask for directions. I just walked, hoping I’d eventually find something familiar. When I finally came upon the heavy doors to the library, my heart leapt. I quickened my pace. From here, I knew my way to the guest quarters from those weeks spending afternoons in the library. I at last slipped into my old rooms—they were cold and pristine—and went straight to the dressing room. With some effort, I managed to trigger the secret door and step into the dark, cobwebbed passageway. I closed the door behind me and refused my body’s begging to stop. I vaguely remembered the way to the King’s chamber from here and felt my way forward in the blackness. A long, straight, walk. Then a right…a left…a narrow stair, then I was at the hidden door.

I entered the familiar gilded bedchamber. The bedroom was silent, but still warm from the fire dying on the hearth. I found the bell cord and leaned on it again and again until Hesperide walked in, her eyes wary.  When she saw me, she clapped her hands over her mouth and started to cry, then she ran forward and pulled me into her arms. She held me so tight that her baby kicked me. I clung to Hess, breathing in her comforting lavender scent and absorbing the fact that I’d made it back.

After several long moments she held me at arm’s length and used her thumbs to wipe the tears off my face. “I will send for them,” she squeezed my shoulders and rushed off.

I went into the sitting room and sank onto the couch. Exhausted.

My stomach hurt. My head hurt. But still…I’d gotten out. Without betraying any of my secrets. The thought filled me with immense satisfaction.

Hesperide returned, carrying a pitcher and cup. “I’ve sent for tea—do you need dinner? You’re so pale—are you alright? What happened?” She sat down on the couch beside me and poured a cup of water for me. I accepted it, but only managed a few small sips. “We were so worried,” she continued, “Everyone is out looking for you as quietly as they can. The guards are sending word that you’re back safe.”

“Mafeisan,” I said, “I woke up in Belledi Valredes rooms.”

Hess went still. “Are you alright?” she asked, more softly this time.

I nodded. “I’m fine, I woke up earlier than they expected.” I summed up the adventure—leaving out the voice that woke me—and Hesperide gave me another hug.

The door opened and Naran walked in carrying a tea tray. I smiled at the red-headed boy. He smiled back, his blue eyes bright. He deposited the tray on a side table, Hesperide gave him a proud look. “Naran was with me when you rang,” she explained.

“Are you well, Miss Meredithe?” asked the child.

“I’m quite well, thank you, Naran. How are you? And how’s Hew?” I replied, trading my water cup for a mug of tea.

“Hew is fast, and has a good nose,” replied Naran. “I’m learning the hunt commands with him.”

“That’s wonderful, I’ll try to come see you soon.”

Naran beamed.

“Off with you now, Naran, I’ll send for you in a little while,” Hesperide pulled her son close for a kiss before shooing him on his way.

A moment later, Quill stepped in, tension swirling from him like a cyclone. He found my gaze immediately. A breath stretched between us, then he was striding across the room and dropping to a knee at my feet. He reached out his hands to my face, the gentle touch a sharp contrast to the storm in his eyes. “Are you hurt?” he asked.

I shook my head, putting my hands over his, trying to catch the breath that he’d stolen with that look. “I’m fine.”

“I got word you were back just as I was heading to Valredes’ rooms—heard a rumor that you’d been cozy with him at the party…” he trailed off, as if the words burned up before he could get them out. He took my hands and started again, his voice deadly low. “Zare…did he hurt you?”

“No, he didn’t.” I shook my head again, more firmly, then winced from the headache.

Quill caught the wince and narrowed his eyes.

“Honestly, Quill, he said they gave me a drug called mafeisan—it’s a sedative, I remember Boitumelo used it for surgeries when he could get it—I woke up earlier than I should have and I feel awful, but I’m alright. I just need to eat something and sleep it off.” I paused, and allowed myself a wicked grin, “He’ll feel awful when he wakes up, too.”

Quill inspected me; studying me for any sign that I was lying to him. He took in my rumpled clothes, my pale skin, messy hair…I produced the stiletto dagger from my bodice to answer his next question before he could ask. I was still armed.

Finally, almost reluctantly, the cyclone of tension lessened and relief started tickle at his features.

“I promise I’ll tell you all about it. You’ll be proud. But please, sit down, you’re making me tired.”

“I can’t,” he squeezed my hands, then released them and stood up. “I have to go tell the King. And make sure that someone gets word to your brother before he burns down any buildings looking for you.”

“How long was I gone?”

“It’s nearly nine,” said Hess, quietly. “Naran was just about to go to bed.”

“The party wrapped up a couple hours after noon—you never came out of the Ambassador’s rooms that Jemin saw.” Quill turned to go, “He was turned away when he tried to go in to fetch you. We’ve been trying to track you down, since.”

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76-Slippery

Sounds of a door opening and closing, then of Bel moving around and muttering to himself. Lightning coursed through me as I realized he might, at any moment, decide to come check on me. I spun, looking around the bedroom for anything useful. There was a small table by the sofa. A sideboard held a selection of wine and liquor against one wall. There was a fireplace with a nearly dead fire.  Spying the dressing room door, I headed for it. Maybe all the dressing rooms had secret passageways. The room was dark, and Bel’s clothes hung in neat rows, his collection nowhere near as large as the king’s. The room was much smaller, also, and it didn’t take long to tap on the walls and pry at moldings with no results. Swearing softly, I reentered the bedroom.

This was complicated. I didn’t want to go with that handsome snake. I wasn’t worried about my relationship with the king, except that was the main excuse for our being in the palace. Apparently, failing at turning Analie against the king, Khattmali was trying to turn the king against Analie. She must be in a terrible rush to be taking such bold, drastic measures. I returned to the couch and lay down. I rubbed my temples to ease the ache that lingered, and contemplated my next move. By the time the door to the bedroom opened, letting in a widening spray of light, I had a plan. I dropped my hands, closed my eyes, and lay still. Bel’s shadow crossed the light and as he drew near I could hear his muttered stream of curses. Had he been swearing since Khattmali left?

I sensed him approach the couch, then felt him sit on the edge. I shifted, then moaned very softly.

“Analie?” he asked, sounding very concerned. His fingers brushed against my cheek. It was all I could do not to flinch. “Are you alright? Can you hear me?”

I fluttered my eyes, then brought my hands to my face, wincing as if the light hurt. I squinted at him through my fingers. His brown hair was mussed, as if he’d been running his hands through it, and he looked so blasted worried.

“What happened?” I asked, not having to fake the croak in my voice.

“The wine,” he explained, “It was drugged. I was so frightened you wouldn’t wake up. I brought you here to recover.”

“You drugged me?”

“No!” he recoiled in horror, “I don’t know who drugged you—a rival, maybe? One of my enemies, or one of yours.”

How close he skated to the truth.

He drew a hand over his face then blew his breath out. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

I let my hands curl under my chin. Defensive, but no longer covering my face. “I feel awful.”

“I’m sure you do. My physician said it was mafeisan—just a small amount, so not deadly, just knocks you out and makes you wake up with a hell of a hangover.”

“How would I have enemies? I don’t know anyone—hadn’t met anyone before today.”

Bel’s face twisted with…sadness? I hadn’t been expecting that look. “Unfortunately, that’s not how the court works.” He paused. “Are you feeling well enough to try sitting up?”

I nodded, and he took my arm, standing to support me as I shifted into a sitting position, then reseating himself next to me at an angle, so close his knees touched mine and he could look into my face. I looked down, pretending the world was spinning and wondering if he could smell the bile on my breath. Bel watched me for a few moments before reaching to a nearby side table to retrieve a glass of water. The tray with glasses and a pitcher hadn’t been there before, he must’ve brought it in with him. I allowed myself a quick sniff of the water before drinking it. It was fresh, clear—not poisoned—and it soothed my bile scorched throat.

“You’re staying with the king?”

I nodded again, lacing my fingers around the cup.

“I’ll take you back there as soon as you feel you can walk.”

Eyes wide, I stared at him. “Thank you,” the words came out a whisper.  This was his way of convincing Analie to stay with him? But, then again, as I looked at his handsome, concerned, face, I did feel a part of me warming to him. Desiring him, even. Bastard.

He turned away and poured himself some water. When he turned back he asked, “Do you love the king, Analie?”

“I do.” I blushed.

“Why?” he asked, his voice sharper than I expected.

I looked up at him, surprised.

He shook his head, as if he regretted his tone. “I’m sorry…I can easily see why the King wants you. But why would a kind girl like you be taken in by a cruel, womanizing profligate like him?”

With great effort I swallowed my incredulous retort. Inside, I chanted love makes you stupid, and said meekly, “He said he loves me.”

Chuffing out a bitter laugh, Bel stood up abruptly and crossed to the sideboard to pour himself something stronger than water. I watched him, fascinated. The best lies are mostly true, and I didn’t think this bitterness was faked.

“Analie, I know you don’t want to hear this, and I know you might not believe me, but I have to tell you: You’re sweet and beautiful, and the smartest thing the king ever did was enthrall you. But he doesn’t know how to love. He’s mad, vicious, and petty.  He will make you think you are the center of the world, and you will be,” Bel stopped and tossed back his drink. “Until he’s done with you, and then you’re nothing.”

I just watched, wide-eyed.

“He’s king, and he takes whomever he pleases to his bed. He should be courting a woman of rank and nobility, not seducing her.”

By the time he turned to face me again I had tears glistening in my eyes. “Is that why you’re angry?” I whispered, choking on the words, “Because I’m not noble?”

It took a split second for him to trace his mistake, and he hurried back to the couch, contrite. He sat beside me and took my hands; I scooted away and sniffed loudly. “No, Analie, no…” he moaned, “That’s not it at all.”

I stood up quickly, the world only tilted a little, “I’ve been in this palace for months and not one soul made any attempt to be my friend except the king.” I started pacing erratically through the room. “No one wanted to be my friend, or talk to me, or anything like that. I was nothing to everyone—” I paused and glared at Bel, “Except him.”

Bel looked at me helplessly. “I’m sorry.”

“And now you tell me that he doesn’t really care for me?” I moved behind the couch, pacing between the couch and the bed so Bel had to swivel to watch me. “Why should I believe you? Who are you? Why do you care?”

“A few years ago, he took an interest in my sister.”

Oh dear.

“I’d never seen her so happy…but then, just like that it was over,” Bel snapped his fingers. “For him, anyway. She cried for months.”

I stopped pacing. “I’m sorry.” It didn’t even matter if he was lying. There was almost certainly a girl with that story, even if she wasn’t his sister.

Bel turned away, facing front. “It’s not your fault.”

I came up to the back of the couch, hesitated, then leaned down and slipped my arms around Bel. I smoothed my hands down his muscular chest before wrapping my arms across his front and putting my head on his shoulder. He relaxed into my touch, and I felt just a twinge of guilt as I kissed his cheek so he wouldn’t notice my arms shift toward his throat. “I’m sorry, Bel. It’s just…I’m so confused. He’s been so kind. But now you tell me these things about him, and I just don’t know what to think. I thought he loved me.” I kept whispering in his ear, and if Bel ever noticed my tightening arms on his neck, he didn’t move. He didn’t move till he sagged slightly and I released the pressure on his neck. He slumped over. Quickly, I pressed my fingers to his neck, and was relieved that he was still alive.

I didn’t have much time.

Moving round to the front of the couch I struggled to reposition Bel so he was laid out on the couch, head on a pillow, as if he’d chosen to take a nap.

I found a writing set in the sitting room, and left a hastily scrawled note tucked under his hand. Then, straightening my skirts and taking a deep breath, I walked out of his chambers.

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All the Watercolor

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I went a little crazy the other night. You can tell the dress was the culmination of the evening’s practice. By far the best use of light and dark. Also another chapter in me torturing mixed media paper and forcing it to carry watercolors (which, its not REALLY meant for…hence wrinkles).