61-Soup

 

The next time I woke up it was dark except for the fireplace and a lamp flickering on the wall. Tarr was gone. Ache still laced through my body when I tried to move, but overall I felt better than the first time I’d woken. Except I was very hungry. Possibly even ravenous. Carefully I pushed myself into a sitting position.

Movement by the couch caught my eye, I stopped. Quill.

He had been watching the fire, but heard the covers and swiveled. Seeing me, he rose and came to the bedside, his face earnest. “Your Highness, it’s good to see you awake.” He was dressed in the blue uniform of the royal guard, but the first several buttons were undone, declaring him off duty. He was not quite so rakish as the King always appeared, but the overall effect was startlingly disarming.

“Thank you for bringing me back,” I said. “Tarr—the King said you brought me back here.” As if I could have gotten back another way.

He smiled. “How do you feel?”

“Hungry.”

His smile broadened a bit. “That’s good. I will send for food. Everyone else is at dinner, keeping up appearances and all that.” He turned and walked to a door I had never noticed and, opening it, he stepped out, leaving me alone. Before I could be surprised he’d left, he returned and closed the door again. “Food is on its way.”

“Thank you.”

He picked up the chair from the desk and carried it over to the side of the bed. “I guess we’re even, then.” He sat down.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, still feeling like all my energy committed to tasks one at a time.

“You have carried me through a city wounded, and now I have carried you.”

“Oh.” That was…deflating, somehow. As if it were just a score settled. Then I noticed the glint in his eye and growled at him.

The glint blossomed into another smile. “Glad to see you’re not entirely in a fog.”

“You are impossible.”

“So are you,” he leaned back. “Breaking out the King’s prisoners, any old prisoner you wanted. As if they all belonged to you.”

I rolled my eyes, I didn’t think he was really upset with me, but apparently my expansive jailbreak had caused some irritation all around. “What was I supposed to do, leave them behind?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Quill sighed. “Because they were in prison and you didn’t know why they were there.” He lifted a finger, “Their word doesn’t count in this instance.”

“Didn’t one of them find the men a safe place to hide?”

“Yes,” he inclined his head, “For the moment, it seems they are honoring their vow to you. In fact,” the smile was back, “they were extremely distressed when you collapsed.  I think they were worried what I would do to them without you.”

I moaned, “I’m very embarrassed about collapsing.”

“Why?”

“I’m supposed to be this inspiring figure but made a stupid mistake and then fainted in the street before finishing the mission.”

Quill studied me.

I continued, “Then I slept for two days while everything went on without me.”

He folded his arms. “I believe,” he said at last, “they found your toughness while wounded inspiring.”

“I got tackled from behind again—caught by the cloak, then tackled.”

“Stop letting that happen.”

“It’s definitely not something I enjoy.”

“Don’t give up your back—” he leaned forward, “And perhaps we need to get you a cloak that tears off easily.”

“That wouldn’t have helped last night. We were wearing them for disguise.”

“Night before last,” Quill corrected and I grimaced.

There was a knock on the bedroom door, Quill rose and opened it, accepting a tray from a servant and closing it again. He returned to the bedside. I scooted to make room for the tray on top of the covers.

The smell of food made me even hungrier. It was some sort of chicken and vegetable soup, with generously buttered slabs of warm bread on the side. I barely remembered to bless it before starting in on the deliciousness. The soup curled into me, gently filling up the gaping emptiness inside—and much faster than I could have anticipated. “It’s very good,” I commented to Quill, then stopped. “Have you eaten?”

“I had lunch,” he shrugged.

I offered him some bread, “Please…eat something.”

“That’s not necessary,” he said, but accepted the bread. “I’ll eat in the mess hall later.”

I was skeptical but as soon as I was full I pushed the bowl toward Quill. “You can finish this, it must be better than what’s in the mess hall.”

Quill quirked an eyebrow, glancing from the soup to me. “Someone has been in the circus too long. I could have called for food for me, also.” But he picked up the bowl and sampled the soup. Still steaming, and by his look, still delicious.

“I suppose I have been away from this life a while,” I smoothed the blue coverlet over my legs. Between the siege, the circus, and the long days on the road, it had been a long while of seeing food as finite. In the palace of the victor’s pet, there was no need to share food, but I found satisfaction in it anyway. I settled back on the pillows. “What was your life like, before the fall?” It was something I had wanted to ask for weeks, and now—aching, tired, and full—I was finally able to ask.

Quill swallowed his soup, his brown eyes growing distant. “Life was good.”

I waited a moment as he took another spoonful of soup and then realized he thought he had answered the question and wasn’t going to say more. “But what was it like,” I asked again. “What did you do? How did you live?”

He looked at me. “I did what noblemen’s sons did. I learned etiquette, history, strategy, and combat. I served in the palace, but also had plenty of time to be a child climbing trees—and walls, and buildings,” he caught my eye and winked. “l was a very good climber.”

“Were you close to the royal family?”

“You mean, did I know the King well, before all this?”

“Either of them.” I waved a hand. I wasn’t just interested in Tarr.

“Trinh is much older than Tarr, though you wouldn’t know it now. He knew me only peripherally. He was often gone, because Shyr Valla and Hirhel were always fighting sporadically, and Dalyn, as you know, supported Shyr Valla in those conflicts.” Quill finished the soup and set the bowl down. “Tarr is only a year older than me. We were playmates, a few of us were, but we weren’t extremely close.” He shrugged. “The city wasn’t expecting Narya’s army, there was no flight of the women and children as there might have been. When my mother saw that the gates would fall before Dalyn’s army could return, she hid as many of us courtly children as she could get in an orphanage in the city. Clothed in rags so no one would give us a second look.” For the first time, sadness seeped into his posture, permeating even the air around him with weight. My chest tightened just looking at him. “In so doing she preserved the lines of several families, because by day’s end we were orphans in truth.”

“I’m sorry.” The words were inadequate. In a sea of ill fate, I felt untouched. I had lost everything but my family, and so I had lost nothing. How many in Galhara and Dalyn had the same story? My eyes smarted. “I’m so sorry.”

Quill met my gaze and dipped his chin, graceful acknowledgement, before continuing; “When Tarr was crowned, we older boys joined the guard under new names. Tarr, of course, knew who we really were and did not betray us to the queen’s agents.” Sadness pulsed off him again, “The King was in the same situation we were, except in many ways much worse. As captain, I have done my best to fill the King’s personal guard with men who serve the Dalyn, not Hirhel.”

“The King is lucky to have you,” I said.

“Yes, he is.” Hints of a smile played around Quill’s eyes.

Then I asked, “Were you always intending to rebel? Or did this start because of Trinh’s return?”

Quill set the soup bowl on the tray, and then moved the tray to a side table. “She took everything from us, left the greatest houses in ruin.” He said the words without malice. “The tribute she requires is too much, it is stripping the city resources just as surely as a leech. We have never thought of ourselves as serving her. We serve the Kegan line. Everything we do undermines her power. If only a little.”

I watched him appreciatively. I would have expected bitterness. Revenge, or maybe even defeat. But he sat, pensive in the glow of the fireplace, handsome and emitting only strength, sadness, and surety. “What would you be doing now if Dalyn hadn’t fallen?” I was apparently feeling very bold.

“Heavens, I have no idea.” He straightened, extinguishing the mourning that surrounded him. “Enough about me, your Highness. What was your life like before all this?”

“Oh,” I replied, “it was good.”

Quill arched a brow, amused.

Rewarded, I continued, “I don’t remember a time when Hirhel wasn’t warring. But generally, it didn’t really matter. It was frightening, but far away until I was fourteen or so and she started moving toward Galhara. I had school, of course, lots of school. Plenty of court functions, and regularly training with Remko and the guard…and I was teaching my horse, Aurum, to sit. He could already come when called, and rear on command…” I looked down at my hands and absently smoothed the coverlet again. “Nadine was starting to court the prince from Charpolia, Gebbert. He seemed nice, I think they would have been a good match. Father was after Namal to prioritize marriage, too, but Namal resisted for the very reason Father pressed—Hirhel’s rise had them both worried. It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Namal didn’t marry. Otherwise he might have had a wife and infant to get out of the palace when it fell.”

“How did you get out?” asked Quill, quietly.

I looked up, “The same way I got the girls out at Gillenwater.”

Understanding sparked in his eyes and spread across his features. “Of course. But,” his brow furrowed, “Shouldn’t the Nether Queen have known that was a possibility? Didn’t she know Zam the Great married Ayglara of Daisen?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “But Galhara sits atop a cliff, or it sat atop a cliff, and we didn’t have a cistern like Gillenwater’s. Just an underground river that leads to the bay in a fall. The way we left was difficult, even for half-nymphs.” Grueling, really. I shuddered. “We saved only fifty of our household.” My voice was small.

“Fifty!” exclaimed Quill. “All the stories say there were no survivors from the palace. None.”

“All the stories say she called fire upon us from hell, also.” I retorted.

He inclined his head. “Even so. She wiped Shyr Valla off the face of the earth. Before your father climbed up in that wagon, I had no reason to think there were any survivors. Much less fifty.”

Despite the topic, the memory of Quill arguing with Boitumelo in the doctor’s wagon made me smile. It seemed so long ago. “You took it in stride,” I said.

“Good news isn’t hard to take in stride,” he replied.

I smiled again. “I suppose.” I was feeling tired again, which hardly seemed fair since I hadn’t been up that long.

Quill studied me, and I could see in his eyes that he’d noticed my weariness. He leaned forward and handed me a small cup from the side table. “The doctor left this, to help with the pain. Drink, sleep, heal.”

“Please don’t leave me,” I said, surprised at how pathetic I sounded.

“I won’t,” he assured, his voice tender. “Don’t worry.”

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60-Waking

I was lying on something very soft and I didn’t want to move. I was just the right temperature, and there was a pleasant weight cocooning around me. Slowly I became aware of light. And throbbing pain. My left arm, my left side.

I jolted awake as everything rushed back: The jail break! The street! My eyes flew open and my mind reeled in confusion. I wasn’t in the street anymore. The ceiling vaulted high above the four-poster bed where I lay. Mesmerizing gold patterns laced across the dome and dripped down the walls of the round room. I could see the mantel of a large fireplace across from the bed. Sunlight blazed through a crack in the curtains along one side of the room. Gingerly, I drew my right arm up under me and tried to push myself up.

“You’re awake!”

I startled, yelping in pain.

“Lie still, you’re safe.” A man was laying on top of the covers next to me. He put out his hand, palm down, to calm me, and I found myself looking at the gold touched hair and concerned blue eyes of King Tarr Kegan.

“Your Majesty,” my voice croaked. “What happened?”

“As it turns out, you’re not invincible.”

“What?”

“I know. I was starting to believe you were—too long dealing with an invincible Nether Queen, I guess.”

Exhaustion hit me like a wave and I lay back. Not that I’d risen far. “Why are you in my bed?” Good heavens, I sounded awful.

A rakish grin tipped his lips as he sat up and inspected me. “Actually, your Highness, you are in my bed.”

I stared at him dumbly.

With a laugh, Tarr swiveled and hopped off the bed. “It’s the safest place for you, right now,” he explained, walking to a nearby table and pouring a steaming drink from a kettle. “If I keep you here I don’t have to explain your real injuries to the my less trusted servants, or deal with the rumors mysteriously smashed ribs might’ve started the day after a jail break. This will start other rumors, but those shouldn’t lead to your death.” He walked around the bed and set the mug on the side table next to me.

I eyed him. He was dressed, at least. His very fine shirt unbuttoned at the throat, as usual.

“Come on,” he leaned close, slipping one hand under my back. “I’ll help you. You should drink something.”

Tarr’s strength surprised me, though I wasn’t sure why, as he helped me sit up and then piled pillows behind me with the skill and care of a handmaid. Once he was satisfied he presented the mug to me. “Tea.” He said. “Drink.”

I sipped obediently. It was warm and pleasant, I felt my body relaxing as the tea curled through my core. “What happened?” I asked again.

“Quill brought you here after you collapsed,” explained Tarr, returning to the other side of the bed. “It seems that your criminals found your soldiers a safe place to hide, and Quill deemed them safe enough and carried you back here right away.” He hopped up, scooting to sit beside me. “You gave us quite a scare, you know. The doctor says you’ll recover, but you have to lay low for a while.”

I will have to thank him, I thought. Even I must’ve gotten heavy being carried all that way. I looked down at myself. Half of me was hidden beneath a dark blue coverlet. My armor was gone, I was dressed in loose trousers and a man’s shirt, the sort that buttoned down the front. One of Tarr’s shirts, I realized with a blush.  Beneath it, the bandeau that covered my breasts blended into the bandages wrapped tightly around my torso. My left arm was bandaged also.

“It’s a good thing I made you armor,” continued Tarr, gravely. “You might be dead without it.”

“That fight did not go especially well,” I said, lifting my left arm and inspecting it. “That’s the second time I’ve been tackled to the ground from behind. What happened to my arm?”

Tarr narrowed his eyes, “You don’t know?”

I wrinkled my nose. “I was busy.”

“Judging from the gash in your bracers, I’d say you pretended it was a shield.” He shook his head, “Your arm isn’t bad, the bandages are mostly to keep the salve on the arm and not my sheets.”

“What about my side?” I remembered that blow well enough.

“Broken ribs. Some horrific bruising and a little broken skin. The doctor was afraid you might be bleeding inside, considering how far you went after injuring them, and how long you stayed unconscious.”

I looked at the king sharply. “How long have I been unconscious?”

“Well, then he gave you something to keep you sleeping so you could recover. It’s been almost a day and a half.”

“What?” I demanded, recoiling.

“Don’t get up!” Tarr put his hand on my shoulder, stopping me before my side could. His blue eyes commanding. “You might injure yourself.”

“Tarr,” I grasped his hand. “Where is my brother? What happened yesterday? The men…the nymphs!”

Tarr squeezed my hand. “Namal is safe. Last I knew your men were safe. The nymphs, well,” his face darkened. “They aren’t all safe. But Namal was able to give them advance warning, and I have been quite studious in overseeing the Queen’s decree personally. I’m sure the garrison commander would prefer I left him to manage the search himself as he would be much more efficient without my help,” a wicked light brightened his face for a moment before he sighed and passed his hand over his face. “Which has been exhausting in every way imaginable. I had just come back for a nap. Sent Quill away, since he could use a nap, too.”

“Quill was here?” I asked.

Tarr nodded. “He was quite worried about you, and no doubt feels responsible.”

“That’s silly. I wasn’t anywhere near him, I neglected to watch my back and I’m paying for it.”

“Yes,” Tarr arched a brow, “I suspect it is the ‘nowhere near him’ part he finds distressing. Also, the part where no one else saw you get injured—though, I’m not sure I would have confessed seeing it if he was asking me. And someone needed to stay with you, and my most trusted servants can’t actually be here constantly without arousing suspicion from my less trusted servants.”

This was a great deal to take in, so I fell silent and sipped my tea. Tarr leaned back and lounged comfortably next to me. “The escape was magnificent, by the way,” he said, looking at the ceiling. “We’re searching everywhere for those men, and haven’t found them. The commander thinks they are heading for Magadar.”

I smiled, even as a stab of worry shot through me. The circus, carrying what remained of the Galhara household, was on its way to Magadar. But they were taking a much different route, there shouldn’t be any way for Narya’s soldiers to stumble on them again.

“We’ve gotten the raven back from Sinensis,” continued the King, almost absently. “Your brother and sister have already started missions into the countryside to warn the nymphs and maybe recruit support.” He turned to look at me, “I’ve been told your sister looks a great deal like you. I’ve asked that she give your name if asked—this hides how many of you there are and makes you seem larger than life.”

Nodding, I wrapped my hands around the mug and breathed in the steam. My ribs made the breath slow and careful. I wasn’t sure what I thought about being turned into a legend, but it didn’t feel that different from playing a wild spirit in the circus. Except, in the circus most people didn’t really believe I was a wild spirit. “Where is Namal now?”

“At the wharfs. I gave Alban Meredithe an escort and a letter of recommendation to help him expand his spice business.”

I turned my head to look at the king. He’d hooked one arm behind his head and was still looking at the gilded ceiling. This was the same room we’d made all our plans in before the mad jailbreak, but I hadn’t noticed the gold in the ceiling then.

Tarr looked over at me, “Ostensibly, anyway. He’s probably really looking for nymphs to hide.”

“Is he angry with me?”

‘No, but I am. You let out a bunch of criminals, one or two of which were very difficult to catch the first time!”

I opened my mouth to defend myself before noticing that Tarr was smirking. “He might be a little angry with you for getting hurt,” said the King, after a pause, “Not nearly as angry as my brother is with me for bringing a seventeen-year-old girl into such war.”

I bristled. “Your brother needs to grasp that you had nothing to do with it. There is a wicked would-be-empress who burned my home to the ground! Besides, there are plenty of girls my age raising children and ruling kingdoms. They hold lives in their hands just as I do.”

“It’s probably their regents doing most of the ruling, and children are, if complex, an arena in which most consider women to have an advantage.” Tarr shrugged dramatically to dissuade me from arguing. “You’ll have to forgive Trinh. He’s a good man. Much has changed in the last six years, and it’s difficult for him to adjust. He has much to mourn, and he doesn’t want to accept that Narya is so strong—I’m also certain he doubts my sanity and fears for his own.”

A wry smile tugged me out of my huff: King Tarr Kegan was definitely unsettling. However, I felt as though I were already catching the rhythm of his moods. Or at least, that’s how I felt at this moment, with him calm.

“I’m not sane,” announced Tarr, reading my face. He shook his head and looked back at the ceiling. “I’m definitely not sane.”

“Doesn’t thinking that way mean you are sane?”

“Then it is the only thing keeping me sane in these times of madness and sorcery.”

“Please, don’t be upset by that,” I wasn’t sure the plea made sense, but if he got up and started looking like he’d jump in the fire, I’d have to stop him. Somehow. If I could get up.

He smiled at the ceiling. “I don’t mind very much. Most of the time.” After a moment he added, “I was serious about taking a nap. Do you need anything before I do?”

It didn’t surprise me at all that he fully intended to sleep on his bed still. I was certain the propriety of it hadn’t so much as crossed his mind, though I supposed we were long past propriety. I looked down at my tea. It was nearly gone, and I was feeling the pull of sleep even though I’d just awoken. “Help me lay back?”

hoopskirt job

The more I write in the River Rebellion, the more of this story I learn. You might get it someday. I know I post about it often, but that’s because there is an absolutely outrageous dress and a massive headdress and veil. Such things are fantastic fun to imagine.

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59-One Foot in Front of the Other

 

I discovered that I could, in fact, walk. As long as I breathed carefully and kept my hand pressed against my side—which was fine, I wasn’t ready to know more about the wound anyway. I followed the soldiers to the alley and considered sheathing Shiharr but the movement to reach my back was far too much. The dagger stayed in my hand, useful for nothing but catching the light of the moon.

Quill joined me, “That’s all of them.” His voice was low, “How many wounded?”

I looked at the men, two of them were heavily leaning on their peers. “At least two.”

He nodded. “Not bad. Let’s go, then.”

I realized suddenly that I was still supposed to be leading, so I started down the alley. My ambitious steps were quickly tempered by the pain in my left side and my shoulders hunched. But I kept moving. The men followed, trailing behind us like the train of a gown…only louder and more grim. By the time we reached the end of the alley I’d sort of found my stride, perfecting the art of moving around whatever blasted betrayal was going on down there. “Hoods up, fall in formation, best you can,” I tossed the command over my shoulder, and was aware of it being passed behind me. Then I stepped into the deserted street and marched. Or. Tried to march. Shiharr still bare in my hand.

I felt Quill’s touch on my elbow, “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I replied. But the word came out like a gasp.

He did not remove his hand, and I didn’t say anything else. Talking would only mean having to refill my lungs sooner.  I hoped Quill was right that the garrison would divide its forces between the city and the land directly outside the city walls. We had exited quite close to a city wall, but instead of making a break for the countryside we were wending through the city, toward the slums near the warehouse district and the river. We had a head start, of course, but were moving more slowly than a search party ought. And a few of the soldiers were being carried, which was certainly not very search party like. I tried not to think of how much walking we had to do. Instead, I wondered how things were going for Namal: Had the Bandui River been agreeable, and had he been able to persuade any of the prominent nymphs to trust him? Though, I didn’t know what he could possibly gain by lying to them. We were relying on the nymphs to find us a safe place in the slums, and also to start spreading the word to get out before the Nether Queen could take her revenge. Had the ravens reached our father and Ayglos? Would the messenger birds even be discovered before morning? Would that be soon enough? It would have to be. Just like my hand holding my side was enough. One foot in front of the other—not too fast. Breathe, not too deep—not too fast.

The prison bell grew faint behind us, and the city grew less fine. Dogs barked here and there, and there were undoubtedly legitimate squads of soldiers pouring out from the garrison to search the surrounding area. I struggled to keep caring.

“Oy!” a voice stage whispered behind us.

Quill stiffened and I slowed hesitantly.

“Oy! There’s a group of soldiers coming behind us.”

I ventured to look over my shoulder. The speaker was the bearded thief. I couldn’t see anything behind us, but if he was right we needed to hide. I didn’t want to fight again—one, everything hurt already, and two, I didn’t want them to know we’d stayed in the city, or which direction we’d gone.

The thief came a step closer, “I have a place we can hide.”

“Alright.” I inclined my head. I was certain Quill would disagree, but he said nothing.

The thief didn’t hesitate. He took the lead and turned us down an alley so narrow we had to pass single file. On the other side, he turned right and trotted directly to the third house on the left and knocked. Nothing happened. He knocked again. When there was still no answer he stepped back and started eyeing the window. My feet slowed to a halt in front of the house. I could feel myself losing will. I wouldn’t mind going back to that alley and laying down.

Or maybe just laying down here.

I could lay down right here.

The thief stooped and gathered something off the ground and started chucking things at the windows. A light flickered to life inside.

I wobbled.

“Zare!” Quill sounded far away.

I tried to say I was alright, but the air just slipped away and I wasn’t sure where my legs were anymore. They couldn’t have gone far, though. Could they?

I heard Quill curse, and was vaguely aware of his arms around me. Then everything got very peaceful.

58-Jail Break

 

We’d been in the prison over a half hour, and we needed to get out quickly before the change of the guard. Six criminals had taken the chance to swear their lives to the Galhirim, falling in behind the twenty-two men from Gillenwater. As Tarr had intended the soldiers’ confinement to be temporary, their wounds from the fight at the river and their subsequent flogging had been treated. I hoped this mercy would be enough. My hood was up again as we approached the barred doors. The unconscious guards were still slumped where we’d left them.  We exited the prison and moved through the halls of the garrison with me in the lead. Quill stayed close at my back, acting as a shield and also giving me subtle cues for each turn. We wanted it to look as if I knew the way—I sort of did since he’d told me the way—but with Quill’s nudges I definitely did.

The hallways closest to the prison didn’t have much, just meeting rooms, and some closets. We headed generally back toward the training yard, and cut through the sleeping quarters toward the middle of the garrison where the armory was.

“Changing of the guard soon,” Quill’s voice in my ear made me jump.

I nodded. We might meet men on their way to and from their bunks. I quickened my pace down the long hall of closed doors. There was no point in listening for movement, it would all be drowned by the breathing of the twenty-nine men behind me. I reached the end of the hall and turned left, just then I heard swearing and a scuffle behind me. I spun in time to see three of the soldiers lowering a body to the ground in front of an open door.

“Drag him inside,” I hissed, and didn’t stay to see if it was done. We needed to hurry. Two turns and another scuffle later we were almost at the armory. Quill’s hand on my cloak kept me from making the last turn toward it. He jerked his head to the men behind. I took his meaning and motioned to the men to wait. Then I turned back and walked out with Quill at my side as we had done at the prison. I told myself we belonged here, and we moved purposefully, as if we had a destination beyond the big iron girt doors.  We got fairly close to the two guards before one of them said, “What’s your business?”

“Just passing through.” I tried to sound like a man.

“You…What?” The man looked astonished. I guess I hadn’t succeeded.

Quill struck like a snake. One guard was falling and the other’s cry of alarm died in a gasp as I planted a kick in his center. He stumbled back, reaching for his sword but I followed and clubbed him with Shiharr’s pommel. Quill was already fishing around for keys and stepping to unlock the double doors.

I trotted back up the hallway to the corner and motioned for the men to come ahead. By the time the men and I got back to the armory Quill had the heavy door swung wide open. We gathered in a circular entryway, surrounded by tidy rows of weapons and supplies. “Get cloaks,” I ordered, “and your weapon of choice. Don’t be greedy. We don’t have time for that.”

The men scattered like ducks before a hound. Quill and I dragged the inert guards inside and took their posts outside the door. The seconds stretched excruciatingly long, and I was just going to go round up the men when they began gathering at the door. Each now cloaked in the dark blue of Dalyn. As soon as they were all present, including my six criminals, we locked the door and left. The men put their hoods up without needing to be told, and fell into an orderly column behind us as we walked. It was a thin ruse, but if someone only saw us from a distance they would assume we were a squad of soldiers, rather than escaped prisoners.

We’d almost gotten to the training yard when I heard the clanging of a bell.

“Prison bell,” grunted Quill.

I glanced at him and picked up a jog. We entered the empty expanse of the training yard and cut across it diagonally at a brisk pace. Commotion was building in the garrison, and I wanted to run faster. It was alright if they found the prison, it was the armory we needed a longer lead on. Finally, we reached the shadow of the wall. The men behind us were panting—of course, their last several weeks hadn’t exactly been spent eating well and practicing. Suddenly I wasn’t sure this next part would work.

Beside me, Quill shrugged a coil of rope off his torso and started to spin the glinting grappling hook on the end. I held my breath as he stepped back from the wall and threw the hook. It snagged and he tugged on it. When it held, he handed the rope to me with a nod. Briefly, I wondered if sneaking out of his own garrison and fighting soldiers of Dalyn was odd for Quill. Though, I supposed he’d spent his entire career viewing the garrison as disloyal. Pushing those thoughts aside, I gave my weight to the rope and flipped my feet onto the wall. The hook didn’t budge, so I started to climb the wall. It was taller than Gillenwater’s wall, probably twenty feet instead of ten. I thought of the circus acrobats as I walked up the wall, then, reaching the lip, rather ungracefully hauled myself into a sitting position at the peak.

The wall was over a foot a thick, and the top was spiked with jagged bits of stone. I moved very gingerly as I eyed the drop on the far side. There were no sentries in sight at the moment, so I unslung the rope I was carrying and did my best to secure the grapple among the wall’s teeth. I tossed the rope to the ground and scrambled down the same way I’d climbed up. I gave a soft whistle to let Quill know it was clear, then I waited. There was a wide paved street, and then the stone walls of a fine house. A short distance to the right was the alley that cut behind the house, used mostly for deliveries and the servants. To the left was another wide street, with more fine houses past it. I suspected that the houses on the garrison side of the palace were lesser nobles—doomed to live close to the sounds of sword practice and scent of the stables—but next to the palace nonetheless. The streets were quiet, and still bathed in the silver light of the moon, though the shadows were finally getting longer.

I heard scrambling and a curse as the first of the soldiers encountered the spikes at the peak. In a moment, the man was standing next to me rubbing his hands and hissing. It was the first man I’d woken, and the first to pledge his allegiance after his captain. I smiled at him from under my hood. “It’s not supposed to be easy.”

“No, your Highness,” he replied, straightening his shoulders to military attention. “What are your orders?”

Orders. Right. Even during the siege, I was more accustomed to watching orders given than giving them myself. “You keep an eye to the right,” I said, gesturing. “I’ll watch the left. If necessary, we fight as quietly as possible.”

He nodded and turned to keep watch.

The next man I sent across the street to stand in the shadow of the alley. We had three more waiting in the alley and another on the wall when a sentry marched into view and stopped in surprise

He gave a shout and I whipped out Shiharr and Azzad, charging forward. He leapt sideways, reaching for his sword. If he got his sword out, this would take far too long. I drove after him, striking at his reaching arm to make him pull back. He shouted again and I cursed, “None of that!” and with a reckless leap I caught his sword arm with one dagger and stabbed him with other. He cried out and fell back, just as my soldier reached us and dealt a killing blow with his sword.

“Thank you.” My words were automatic, my mind had already moved on to the next danger. It wouldn’t be long before other guards responded to this sentry’s shouts. “Stay here, I’ll send someone to join you.” I headed back to the rope, wiping my daggers clean and putting them away just as another soldier arrived. I sent him to guard the other direction. The next two men also went to guard duty, then I started sending them across to the alley again. Two more men had made it to the alley when I heard another shout and scuffle from the other direction. I turned in time to see my soldiers fell another. The prison bell was still ringing and I shifted impatiently.

There were twenty men in the alley and two more standing guard before a group of soldiers rounded the wall and came face to face with our operation. It was a group of five, and the instant they saw us they started to shout. My three guards were outnumbered so I called to the others and ran to help. One of my men fell with a cry before we reached the fight. My knives spun as I ducked to the side and struck low: Aiming for any exposed limbs. The other three reached the fight and immediately the five guards started to withdraw. Two fell, one broke away and ran. Why hadn’t anyone grabbed a bow? I started after the fleeing soldier. If I could catch him, I could slow down our discovery. Probably.

Something grabbed my cloak and yanked me backwards. I stumbled, gasping. I tried to keep my feet under me but something heavy crashed on top of me. I fell to the cobbled street, barely keeping my head from smacking into the stones. I struggled to rise, landing my elbow in the man’s side. He grunted and suddenly his weight lifted off me. I scrambled, reaching for where my daggers had fallen, then pain seared into my side and I cried out. I rolled away from the blow and back up onto my feet. Sword against knives. His size, my speed. This was a familiar equation but I was feeling sluggish. Armor made things more difficult. The soldier followed me, sword raised for another strike. He brought the sword down and I leapt sideways, then dove for Shiharr and Azzad. I brought the daggers up, Shiharr blocking his next swing and Azzad driving into his leg. It was his turn to cry out as I spun to my feet and attacked again. My guard was sloppy, but so was his. His sword slid down my bracers as my knife slashed across the joint in his arm pieces. I continued past him, whipping around and striking at the seam of the breast plate. He dropped with a gasp.

I started to take a deep breath and nearly crumpled to the ground myself at the pain that shot through my side. I sheathed Azzad and grabbed my side, turning back toward the rope and the brawl. The fight had ended and two of my men had started toward me while the others appeared to be helping one another. I noticed a familiar form atop the wall coiling rope. Quill. That meant everyone was on this side.

My men reached me. “Your Highness.”

“To the alley.” I managed, before regretting the air spent.

57-Role: Persuade

 

No one stirred at my proclamation. Who could possibly be sleeping in the middle of the night? I gestured to Quill and he picked a cell and unlocked it. The scrape of metal elicited some shifting among the men stretched out on the stone floor. Quill held the barred door open and I stepped inside, pausing while he closed and locked it behind me, then approaching one of the sleeping forms. I prodded the man with my foot. His uniform was dirty, but when he rolled over I saw the rumpled black dragon of the Nether Queen.

He blinked in the lamp light. “Is it time?” he asked, wearily.

“Yes,” I replied.

Confusion filled his face. “You’re a woman.”

“How keen you are,” I said drily.

“Lady Khattmali?”

“No, I am not your hangman. I have come to offer you your lives.”

He rubbed his hand across his face. “What?”

“Wake up the others, I’m only going to explain once.”

He looked bewildered, but thwacked the man nearest him, who grunted in protest. “Someone’s here,” said the first, turning to kick another. “Hey, someone’s here.” Slowly, the prison filled with the sounds of sleepers groaning and cursing to wakefulness. I waited, breathing and willing peace and authority into my body. It had been my idea, but I still didn’t want to be here. We gathered more attention than just the four cells full of Gillenwater’s disgraced men, but that was alright. As long as no one saw Quill’s face we’d be fine. When I judged that most of the doomed detachment was awake, I asked, “Where is your officer?”

“I am their captain,” a man in the back of my cell struggled stiffly to his feet and I turned to him. He was chained to the wall, unlike the others, and his face was bruised and bloodied. All the men in the cells were suffering from prison-hair and a couple weeks without shaving…or bathing, for that matter. I imagined this man was probably in his thirties and not horrible to look at when he was clean and his face wasn’t mottled purple.

“You will all be killed in the morning by order of Narya Magnific.”

“We know that.”

“I’m not overly fond of any of you, given your treatment of my family,” I let venom fill the words easily enough, “But while the Nether Queen wants to stop the rumors of the Galhirim, I don’t.” I tossed back my hood and shook my curls free, letting the light from Quill’s lantern illuminate the likeness they all knew so well from weeks on the road with my sister. I turned to make sure that all four cells got a good look.

The men stared at me with wide eyes.

“You!” said one of the men in the next cell.

It was the man who’d tackled me in the woods by the Cymerie. I looked directly at him, my eyes cold, and tilted my head to one side, “Didn’t I tell you I was your last prisoner?”

He blanched.

Raising my voice, I continued, “I want the rumors of the Galhirim to grow,” I drifted my gaze around the cells, lingering on any man who met my eye. “So, I give you a choice: Swear fealty to the Galhirim, and I will do everything in my power to get you out of Dalyn safely.” I paused.  “Or, you can stay here and die.”

Silence swallowed long seconds before one man protested, “Fealty? What about Gillenwater?”

I bit back a snort. Barely. “Right now, you serve your oppressor, not your city. I would see all the cities freed. But if you want an assurance; when the Nether Queen is defeated, your debt to me is paid and you may return your troth to your city.”

The captain crossed his arms. “What’s to stop us from overpowering you here and trading you for our lives?”

That had been Namal’s objection, too. I shrugged one shoulder, hopefully emoting complete unconcern, “Then my guard will kill each of you like fish in a barrel.”

All eyes shifted to the hooded and silent figure at my back.

“How will you get us out?” asked the first protestor.

“They know who we are,” said another, “we can’t go home.”

“We’d never get out of here alive,” scoffed a third.

“You’re right. You can’t go home. With the Nether Queen in power you will never go home. Come fight with me and there is a chance you someday might.” I leveled my gaze on the captain, “What say you?”

Their captain regarded me for a moment before saying, “A chance is better than nothing.”

Tension released in my chest. “Swear fealty to me.”

He hesitated. Then, collecting himself, he met my eye, “In sight of Eloi, I swear my loyalty to the Galhirim.”

Stepping back to the door, I extended my hand to Quill. He handed me a key and I walked through the men—most of whom were still sitting—to the captain.

I stopped in front of him and held aloft the key. “Know that if you break this oath and betray me—even if the Nether Queen somehow spares your life—Eloi will know what you have done. And,” I added darkly, “my brothers will find you.” Then I crouched and unlocked his shackles.

As soon as he was free, he stepped away and bowed. “Princess.” Then he surveyed the men under his command. “Make your choice,” he said gruffly.

Shuffling sounds filled the prison as the men around us got to their feet. I moved to the door of the cell. Quill allowed the captain to step out, then I planted myself in the doorway. The men approached hesitantly. The man I had first awoken came first, bowed, then made the same pledge the captain had made. Then they came one after another, each making the same pledge before I would let him step out into the aisle. It was exhausting. I stared each man in the face as he pledged, holding my chin high and trying to read their souls. Some were more sincere than others. Some admired me. Others did not. They were all grim. When they stepped past me, Quill took over. I heard him behind me, his voice deeper than I remembered as he gave terse instructions to my new soldiers.

We had just finished emptying all four cells when one of the other prisoners, not one of the men from Gillenwater, piped up. “Hey! What about us?”

I felt Quill stiffen even as he gave the last soldier an order. I looked over at the speaker. He was a lanky man, utterly disheveled with a long scrappy black beard that testified to months in prison. He leaned on the bars as if he were in a tavern, not a prison. Stepping closer I asked, “Why are you in prison?”

The man smiled, “Lots of reasons.” He straightened and pointed at one of the others in his cell, “I’m a master thief. Shayn killed a guard, Haystack vandalized a statue, Moonie stole a horse or six.” He swiveled back to me, still smiling. “And that’s just my cell. There are a few others down here I haven’t had the pleasure of making acquaintance.”

I arched a brow. “Why should I release the likes of you? You had better talk fast. I don’t have a lot of time.”

His smiled faded and he stepped close to the bars again. “You’re starting a rebellion, right? I should think you’d need as many men on your side as you can get. We’re smart—well, some of us are—and able bodied.  Most of us don’t expect release anytime soon—if ever.  We have very little to lose by following you, and a lot to gain–potentially.”

“You must swear fealty to me,” I replied coldly. “And do not think that freedom from this cell means you can do whatever you like. If you leave this prison, your life is mine to direct. If you betray or desert me, it will be better for you to have stayed here.” I could sense the disapproval rolling off Quill and could only imagine what Namal’s reaction would be.

The scrappy man inclined his head, “A chance is better than none.”

“Very well.” I stepped forward, my eyes boring into him. “Swear.”

56-Moonlight and Iron

The night air was tipped with ice, but I breathed it in gladly. It calmed the adrenaline zipping through my body and helped me focus as I slipped from shadow to shadow behind Quill. Tarr was the only one who’d liked my plan, and truth be told even I was unenthusiastic about it. But no one had anything better, and with only a few modifications we’d agreed. Then, as if he’d been expecting this, Tarr produced neat piles of dark clothes and black leather armor for Namal and me. The clothes were thick, fitted and supple, a second skin. The black leather greaves, vambraces and breastplates also fit perfectly. It was some of the finest light armor I’d ever seen and I could move almost as freely as in my leafy circus clothes. I recognized the make, the same Quill’s raiding party had worn. Only this had been custom made for us and the emblem of Dalyn was not tucked inside. Rather, in plain view of any close enough to see, the albatross of Galhara spread its wings over the breastplates. Namal was displeased with the presumption, but I could see him swell to be wearing our crest again. My vambraces were also embossed with the geometric blossoms of mountain laurel. “The symbol of Nelia,” explained Tarr, his eyes alight. He had clearly embraced the stories.

Jemin had kept my pack, with Ironside’s old leathers and my knives, so Shiharr and Azzad were now snug against my back. They were comforting, as if I had Remko again.

Quill put out his hand and I stopped, one foot poised to step. Ahead, and to the left, a blue-cloaked guard walked on one of the winding garden paths, his lantern swinging with each step. The palace grounds were a stark landscape of silver moonlight and deep shadows. If we could have picked the night for this madness, we would have waited a week for the moon to wane. The only benefit of the great silver orb in the sky was that the light which lit our path also showed us where the sentries walked. We waited, motionless, until he passed, and then waited some more. Finally, Quill lowered his hand and moved forward. I followed on his heels. We weren’t trying to leave the palace grounds—at least not yet—just cross them unnoticed. The secret hallways had provided us with an exit in the gardens, sparing us from crossing any of the open lawns or courtyards that ringed the palace. I would have considered the gardens lush, even for winter, if I hadn’t been relying on the trees and shrubs for cover. But Quill was the Captain of the Guard, and picked us a twisting path far from the sentries on their patrols. We only saw one more before we reached the great hedge that separated the palace gardens from the training grounds outside the garrison.

Here Quill hesitated, moving slowly along the hedge as if he didn’t know exactly where to go next. Behind him, I tried to stay in the thin dark shadow cast by the hedge. I was just starting to worry when he stopped and reached into the bush, beckoning to me with his other hand. There was a hole in the hedge, not a big one, and he was holding back several branches to make it wide enough to squeeze through. I slipped past him and thought thin thoughts as I slipped through the opening and shrunk against the hedge on the other side to wait. The training yard was a wide rectangular expanse. Thick poles for weapon practice lined the perimeter and a strange tower strung with rope ladders stood at one end. The rest was horrifying open space. With a rustle of branches Quill joined me. He was wearing a black mask that hid everything but his eyes. We couldn’t very well have anyone recognize him and I worried that even his eyes would give him away. I hadn’t wanted him to come—the last thing we needed was the Captain of the Guard being fingered as a rebel—but he’d insisted. And no one knew the grounds or patrols like he did.

Quill slung a bundle off his back and shook it out into two cloaks. He handed one to me, and put on the other. I slung the cloak around my shoulders and lifted the hood. It was the dark blue cloak of the guard. Hunching our shoulders against the cold as if coming in off a long patrol, we stepped away from the hedge and walked across the training yard and into the garrison side by side.

It was an hour or two after midnight, and there was no one about. The only souls who should be stirring were those who had guard duty. I was reminded of my venture into Gillenwater’s garrison and reflected how much nicer it was to have help and be disguised as a soldier rather than a captive. We made our way quickly through the barracks and came at last to the entrance to the prison. There were two guards, and they stood up when we approached.

“What’s your business?” asked one.

This part…I had wanted it to go differently. I had suggested a thousand different cons for getting in but each one required one or both of us to show our faces, which we could only do if we were fleeing Dalyn after this. I stepped forward and held out a folded piece of paper. The guard accepted it, squinting to see my face under the shadow of the hood. When he looked down to read the paper I struck his temple hard with the flat of my palm the way Quill had taught. The guard reeled as he lost consciousness and I caught him, vaguely aware of Quill lowering the other guard to the ground as I panted under the weight of this one. Quill propped first his guard, then mine, against the wall, before snagging the keys off their belts and unlocking the iron gate. I followed him into the prison. It had the dank cold and the disgusting smell, the iron bars and the darkness.

I would be glad when we could leave.

Quill took a lit lamp from the wall and walked steadily down the center hallway. There were tiny horizontal slits of windows close to the ceiling, they mostly showed that the moon made it brighter outside than in. Most of the prisoners were asleep, or trying to be. All we saw were the pale limbs that caught the lamp light, and occasionally a face. One or two had open eyes that watched us blankly, not at all surprised to see two guards in the prison. We reached the end of the hallway and took the stairs down one level. This part of the prison was even darker. The cells were still large, and held multiple people in each. Now Quill paused every couple steps and showed his lamp into the cells to see who was inside. He gestured to me to wait, so I stopped while he walked the entire length of the hall and then returned to me.

Leaning close he breathed in my ear, “These four cells,” and pointed to four cells on my left.

I centered myself between the cells, drew in a deep breath and announced loudly, “Well, well, well. Looks like I’m just in time.”

55-Getting Acquainted

“So, you haven’t aged a day?” I asked. “You didn’t have an enormous beard when you got up?”

Trinh looked at me strangely. “I…did not. No one has asked that before.”

“And your horses didn’t wander off?”

“I told you, we were knocked to the ground, then we got up. Most of us never even lost our grip on the reins.”

“Shyr Valla was—is it really gone?”

“Do you think I didn’t look thoroughly?” growled Trinh, a bitter edge to his voice.

“I’m sorry,” I recoiled a little at his tone, “Many of the rumors I’ve heard about Galhara’s fall are so far from the truth that it’s hard not to believe the same is true for other cities.”

Turning his hard look to his brother, Trinh said, “I don’t like to tell my story because it doesn’t make sense. I would not believe it myself if I wasn’t looking at twenty-year-old version of my baby brother.”

“Sometimes not even then,” commented Tarr.

“My brother, Namal, should be here,” I said firmly. When they hesitated, I leaned forward, “He does not believe the Nether Queen is a sorceress because you will not provide him with evidence. You cannot expect us to follow your plans if you will not tell us the truth. Namal has met you in the past, Trinh, he would recognize you.”

Trinh scoffed. “Skipping six years in your twenties isn’t quite so visible as fourteen to twenty.”

“But why would you lie?”

“I don’t know, maybe I’m one of the Nether Queen’s agents.”

“If you were, you would have already captured my family.”

Tarr cut in, “I agree with Princess Zare.”

Trinh’s eyes flicked down to where Tarr still held my hand and my cheeks heated.

“Jemin,” continued Tarr, unmoved, “Please go invite Prince Namal to this counsel.”

Jemin bowed and left by way of the secret door. The room was silent except for the crackling fire for several long moments after he left. Trinh was angry, and I got the feeling he was only quiet because I was present. He stood and began to pace in front of the fireplace.

Tarr began tracing circles on the back of my hand, agitated by his brother’s pacing. “This is long overdue, brother.”

“We are wasting time,” replied Trinh with a growl.

“I am not a child and we need their help,” replied Tarr. This was an old disagreement, and Tarr had just forced his brother’s hand. I could appreciate such tactics. This room was going to be all kinds of fun when Namal arrived.

“You should not have brought her into this,” Trinh gestured to me without breaking stride.

He said it as if I had corrupted his brother and that was so entirely ridiculous that I scoffed and all the men turned to look at me. I lifted my chin, “I am Zare Caspian, daughter of Zam the Great of Galhara, I should have been brought in the moment I arrived.”

Trinh stopped and crossed his arms. “How old are you?”

Was that his problem? “Diplomacy isn’t your best skill, is it?” I retorted.

Trinh waited, unmoved.

Against my better judgement, I answered him, “I am seventeen.”

“You should not be involved in a war, much less leading one.”

Trinh apparently had a variety of objections to this meeting, and my impulse to kick his legs out from under him would very likely not help matters. “Tell that to the war, maybe next time it will skirt around me out of deference for my tender years.” Much better.

Tarr jumped in, “The Galhirim have already been thrust into the war, and they have stirred hope in the doing. She,” he tipped his head toward me, “has stirred hope in the doing.”  Standing, Tarr released my hand and moved back to lean on the fireplace. “Narya Magnifique is more now than the feuding queen you faced. Her latest command is most grievous. I can’t refuse her yet, and I can’t very well expect the city to rally around me while I’m giving orders to sift through my subjects to execute whomever the Queen wills.”

Trinh had no answer. He stood like stone with his arms crossed and his eyes fixed on his younger brother. Pain seeped into his face like it was overflowing from somewhere deep, then he sucked it back in again.

“How long ago did you…arrive back?” I ventured.

“Three months ago.”  He said the words as if he’d be back an eternity and was chafing that nothing had changed yet.

I looked at Tarr, who was again watching the fire with an alarming fascination. Quill was watching him, too, I noticed. I wondered suddenly if Trinh was the hope that Quill had mentioned so many weeks ago. I wasn’t so sure about pinning hopes on him. He seemed more like just another sign that we were up against someone with more and darker power than we could possibly imagine.

It felt like an eternity before the knocking pattern sounded and the hidden door slid open to admit Jemin and my brother—who had taken the time to dress. That left only myself and Tarr in less than public outfits, and that made my cheeks heat again. It didn’t matter, though, because Namal recognized Trinh immediately.

“Prince Trinh!” he exclaimed, striding forward and extending his hand in friendship. “You are alive! This is glad news.”

Turning, Trinh clasped my brother’s hand. “Prince Namal. I am sorry to hear of the loss of Galhara.”

Namal inclined his head, “We yet live.” No small thing. “I am eager to hear how you survived, and what you know of Narya’s plans.” He glanced around the room, noticing now who all was present. His eyes narrowed when he spotted me in my robe. I lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. He looked back to the Kegan brothers. “May I ask why we have been gathered, so quickly and so late?”

Tarr supplied wearily, “The Nether Queen has ordered all the nymphs in the city to be rounded up for questioning and execution. I cannot refuse. I have also decided it is high time that my brother meet with the Galhirim himself.”

Namal looked as I had felt at the news: Stunned and sick.

“I have a plan!” I said quickly, feeling the need to stand since everyone else was. “But we don’t have a lot of time.” I faced Tarr. “What if you…got drunk…and slept in tomorrow? How suspicious would that be?”

Tarr’s brows furrowed and he turned his head to evaluate me suspiciously. “Not terribly.”

I didn’t need to look to feel the burning skepticism of Trinh and Namal. “Good, and do you have any ravens?”