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?”

mounter archer

It’s been a bit crazy for me the past few months. I’m just now starting to get enough traction to write again–put out a couple hundred words the other night! Baby steps, right? The past couple days have also seen me working on some watercolor pieces. I’m attempting to come up with and capture more headlining-type art for this blog. It’s harder than you would think. It’s almost like cover design.

I’m fairly happy with how this picture of Zare and Hook is coming, but it’s not yet what I was imagining. And…it’s not a header image, not in this form, anyhow.

Fan wear

One of my old friends sent me these pictures of her representing Zare at her aerial class. Totally made my day–one, to see her wearing my t-shirt, and two, to see her rocking such an awesome hobby!

55-Trinh

 

I was next to the King now, and stopped as if I’d been struck. “All of them?”

“She hasn’t done anything like this since she hunted down the most loyal and the seers. It’s been taxes, monuments, rules and favors…people died undeserved deaths but they weren’t hunted like rabbits.”

“There must be hundreds of nymphs in Dalyn,” I said, still disbelieving.

“For generations, the River Folk have been part of the kingdom and commerce of Dalyn. A few hundred souls out of ten thousand…but a few hundred innocent souls in cold blood. A few hundred souls I should protect.” He kicked the grate in front of the fire, I flinched, then he continued, his voice hollow, “I was never going to be the figurehead of this rebellion, but I would have liked to have been a good king. Not remembered as Narya’s pawn.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. Not the figurehead? He was King. Who else would be the figurehead?

“I have to give the order, Zare,” Tarr finally looked at me, pleading, “If I do not, Khattmali will. They will all die brutally, and many in my household will die with them for my insurrection. I do not have the men to resist her, not yet.” His blue eyes were unguarded and radiating pain

I saw another fear in his eyes and whispered it, “And how will they trust you after you have done this?”

Tarr turned back the fire and looked at it as if he might crawl into it. “It’s alright, they don’t have to.” His voice was quiet and I realized suddenly that the Galhirim—that the ghostly girl claiming to be Nelia of legend—was the figurehead for this rebellion.

The thundering in my blood quieted into a smooth and deadly current. I reached out and peeled one of the King’s hands off the mantel then tugged him toward the couch. I perched on the edge and pulled him down next to me, still holding his hand. An idea was forming. It was probably an awful idea. I looked to Quill, he was already watching me as if he could sense what I was thinking.

Before I could say anything, however, a knocking pattern sounded on the secret door. The panel of the wall slipped aside and a man stepped in, followed by a palace guard. Quill and Jemin both bowed, and Tarr turned his head. I stared at the newcomer in shock: He was dressed in dark clothes of fine make, and was wearing a sword. He had blue eyes, light brown hair tipped with copper, and his face…was just like Tarr’s. He stopped short when he noticed me sitting with the King.

“Your Highness,” said Tarr, squeezing my hand. “I would like you to meet my brother, Trinh Kegan, King of Dalyn.”

I should’ve stood up and curtsied, but I sat and stared. Trinh looked a little taken aback himself, but he bowed slightly, “Princess Zare, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I wasn’t expecting you to be here tonight.” He gave his brother a sharp glance.

“Your army disappeared,” I said. “You disappeared.”

Trinh grimaced.

“You rode away and never returned.” I cast a sharp look of my own at Tarr, letting go of his hand, “My father was the only conquered king not personally killed by the Nether Queen.”

“That’s still true,” said Tarr, “It’s a long story.”

“I’m listening,” I growled.

Trinh came around to the front of the couch and Quill brought the chair from the desk for him. “It’s not a story I intended to be telling tonight,” Trinh gave his brother another hard look as he sat down. “We have more pressing matters.”

I was astonished at the sight of a long dead prince, and I was angry at him for being alive while Dalyn fell. He also looked so much like Tarr they could have been twins, though I knew that Trinh was several years older. “Give me the short version,” my tone was tart.

The brothers looked at one another, Trinh was irritated and Tarr was not sorry. My hearted warmed toward him a little. “The Galhirim deserve to know,” stated Tarr, coolly.

Trinh tipped his head and turned to me. “The short version is that I rode out at the head of the army to succor Shyr Valla, which was again under siege by the armies of Hirhel. When we arrived, the armies had withdrawn, leaving an empty camp before the city walls. Fearing something was afoot, I sent scouts into the hills, and myself turned back toward Dalyn with eight of my knights. We were thrown to the ground by wave of power that swept through the forest like a mighty wind. When we got up, we rode hard for Shyr Valla—for that’s whence the power flowed—we found no trace of our army, the camp, or the city. In dismay we turned back to Dalyn. By the mercy of Eloi we met a peddler on the road who told us that Narya had conquered Dalyn and Tarr had been her vassal king for six years.” Here Trinh paused and shook his head, while I tried to grasp what he’d just said. “So I did not ride through the city gates in my golden armor, but snuck in by ways known only to my family and sought to learn where my brother’s loyalties truly lay.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “You were knocked down…and six years passed?”

“Essentially,” replied Trinh.

“But how?”

“I don’t know, it wasn’t my doing.”

“My brother gave me quite a scare when he showed up,” cut in Tarr, picking up my hand again, a gesture of comfort. “I naturally assumed he was a ghost—not only did he look just as I remembered him, but he got past my guards.”

Quill cleared his throat, “He did not sneak past your guards, your Majesty, he convinced them.”

“She stopped time,” I whispered, remembering my first audience with Tarr Kegan.

“She is a petty and jealous human being,” there was a snarl of derision in Trinh’s voice that reminded me that he was perhaps the only living general who had defeated the Nether Queen in battle. I thought of my brothers’ skepticism and looked at Trinh and Tarr closely. Now that I studied, Trinh did look a touch older than Tarr, but certainly not by the ten-year margin he should have been. Either Trinh’s fantastic story was true, or the Tarr had gone through a great deal of trouble to find a look alike. But to what end? What could he possibly gain from such a bizarre story?

53-Messages

Three weeks passed pleasantly enough. I certainly didn’t mind having a hot bath every night, and a seemingly endless supply of fine dresses. We snuck out to the gardens to spar in the mornings, then usually spent the afternoons lying low in our rooms or the library. Most of the time it was Quill and Vaudrin with us in the little house under the poplar trees, but sometimes one of them was on duty and Jemin filled in. Namal and I thrived under their instruction; besides grappling, we also practiced with swords, knives and staves. I was thrilled to be getting stronger again, having both good food and several hours of training time every day. It was good that we already insisted on bathing alone, however, as the bruises from our sparring would have certainly raised eyebrows.

We learned the way to and from the library on our own, though Namal still insisted that someone accompany me if he wasn’t going. I didn’t mind since I found Quill, Vaudrin and Jemin to be good company. There is nothing like a companion with whom you can sit in silence. This was especially important since, even though the library was generally deserted, we couldn’t very well talk about the Nether Queen or our pasts, and eventually the list of things you can’t discuss drowns out the things you can.

The atmosphere of the palace, overall, was not friendly. We avoided courtiers, and when we did encounter them I felt their looks drag down me with disdain so tangible I checked my dress the first time it happened. They had no doubt heard that the King had taken…interest…in a humble spice merchant’s daughter. I was an otherwise unimportant object of derision, and I did not enjoy it. I tried to focus on the fact that there was great safety in this perception, but that didn’t help as much as I hoped it would. The red-headed child who walked the young hounds was the only soul at the palace who was warm toward us, and we sometimes played with the hounds when we came upon him in the garden.

I did not see the King—though each morning another note arrived with his seal, bearing a sweetly worded invitation to join him for a few hours in the morning. I took to keeping these notes in a drawer, tied with a ribbon–figuring that’s what a girl in love would do. I knew Amantha had found them, and doubtless read them.

My father and Namal exchanged a few coded letters which covered the high points of the negotiations with Tarr and also dropped little tidbits about the family. Father was recovering from his wounds, Mother was doing well. Nadine and Ayglos were keeping themselves occupied. Which I hoped meant someone had worked out a way for them to spar in secret.  I didn’t press Namal for details, but I knew he’d met with Tarr at least once more to discuss strategy and alliance. It didn’t seem to be a question of friendship between our kingdoms, but more a dispute about how to move forward with subversion.

It was evening, and I was curled up in front of the fire in my rooms, finishing the epic poem I’d started the first day, when a knock came from my dressing room again. I didn’t lounge about without a robe anymore, so I looked up and called, “Come in.”

The door opened and Jemin stepped in. “Good evening,” he managed. “The King wishes an audience with you, in his chambers.”

“Alright,” I said slowly, surprised. I closed my book and rose. “Like this? Now?”

He nodded. He looked grim, and that made my stomach tighten.

“Alright,” I said again, moving uncertainly toward him. “Through the dressing room?”

“Yes, your Highness,” Jemin stepped aside and held the door for me as I walked into my dressing room. At the back of the room, part of the wall had swung back into a dark hallway. A lamp hung on a hook just inside the hallway. I stepped forward and Jemin followed, swinging the door closed behind us. He took the lamp off the hook and led the way down the hall. It was a narrow space, but I could stand and move comfortably. Jemin barely fit.

“Is something wrong?” I asked quietly.

“Ravens came from Hirhel today.”

I balked. Hirhel. The Nether Queen’s seat.

Jemin looked at me, “She has not discovered your hiding place,” he guessed my worst fears easily enough.

But it wasn’t good news. How could it be? The hall curved, and here and there other narrow passages opened up. After a while Jemin turned right and, then left, and then went up a narrow flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs was another door, on which he knocked a little pattern.

A bolt slid and the door opened, Jemin stepped in and offered me a hand. I accepted and with a deep breath crossed the threshold into the King’s chambers.

The door, disguised as a panel of the wall, slid closed behind us. The room itself was round, and it had with a vaulted ceiling. A huge four poster bed covered in rich blue covers was to the right. There was an ornate writing desk in the middle and a monstrous stone fireplace on the left. A long couch tossed with furs faced the fireplace.

The King was leaning both hands on the mantel and staring into the fire. He was wearing fine trousers, and an open collared white shirt that had clearly gone under a doublet of some sort. He looked as if he’d gotten distracted while getting ready for bed. Standing to the right of the fireplace, clearly intent on the King, but now looking at me, was Quill. Our eyes met, he dipped his chin.

“Your Majesty,” said Jemin, “Princess Zare is here.”

“Hello,” said King Tarr, not turning.

Hesitance wouldn’t accomplish anything, so I walked forward until I reached the couch. “Your Majesty.”

“They will all die tomorrow,” said Tarr, so quietly I almost didn’t hear him.

A chill shuddered through me. “Who?”

“The soldiers from Gillenwater who lost the King of Galhara.”

I actually wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Those soldiers hadn’t been the best to my family, and we had killed a few in the rescue…but still this was different.

“Narya is angry,” continued Tarr, “because even if the men from Gillenwater were wrong about who they caught, it’s sown doubt that her conquest was complete.” The King lifted his head, looking up at the empty wall above the fireplace. “So she ordered me to have them killed. Immediately.”

“Oh.” He’d have to give the order. I moved around the couch and ventured closer to him. He still hadn’t looked at me. My eyes flicked to Quill, his mouth was a thin line and the look in his face warned me there was more.

“She also,” the King’s voice strangled, then he continued, “wants the nymphs in the Dalyn and the surrounding towns rounded up for questioning and execution.”

Click here for Episode 54.

52-In the Library

It took a good twenty minutes of walking to reach the library after lunch. Though I didn’t think Quill had taken the most direct route. We saw a few servants, and very few others on the walk. Quill maintained his military demeanor and I rounded my shoulders and tried to look awed by every graceful hallway instead of merely appreciative. Between the play acting and the stiffness setting in from the morning’s work, I was very relieved when we arrived. The library was so heavily shrouded in quiet that silence stretched into the surrounding halls. Carpet swallowed our footsteps when we entered the dim room. Long gauzy curtains covered the windows on the western wall while splendid chandeliers descended like angels from a vaulted blue heaven to cast a warm golden glow on the room.

I noticed alcoves niched in the walls, some with tables and chairs, others with wing chairs. It was a long room, though not as long as I had been expecting, with a fireplace roaring at the far end. There didn’t appear to be a single soul around. My heartbeat quickened as I took in each delightful detail—each curve of woodwork, the height of the ceiling, the white stone of the fireplace, and above all, the books.

Quill left my side and quickly checked every single aisle and alcove before returning. “We are alone at present.”

I turned slowly and surveyed the tall shelves full of beautiful books. “No librarian?”

He grimaced. “We have one who tends the books, but he doesn’t have much to do.”

“But who answers questions about history, land, and philosophy?”

“There are not many questions that are safe to ask.”

I walked forward, “Do you know where the histories are, at least?”

Quill spread his arms, “The Library of Dalyn is arranged chronologically, you will find history on every shelf, as well as philosophy, economics and literature from the same period.”

My brows shot up in wonder and I picked an aisle at random. Trailing my fingers along the spines of the books as I walked. “Why?”

“Do you arrange yours differently?”

“By subject…you know, history, in one place, philosophy in another…”

“Why would you do that? You can’t truly understand Beltrain’s Treatise without knowing about the wars and famine that led to his writing it?”

“I’d never thought about it. I read the history, and if I want to know what Beltrain wrote I’ll go find that in the philosophy section.”

“But what if someone started in the philosophy section?”

“Then I suppose they find out of Beltrain’s ideas work without context.”

“They don’t. But that person would likely think Beltrain a fool, which he was not.”

I paused, “What on earth did this man write?”

“Satire.”

I stared at Quill.

“It’s brilliant, but makes no sense at all unless you know the story behind it.”

“Maybe I should read that.”

“You’d have to read two hundred years of history first, possibly more.”

“I’m not completely ignorant of history, you know. I had an excellent library and tutors.”

“An excellent library that was organized wrong.”

An excellent library that burned. I pulled a book off the shelf at random and gave Quill an arch look. “Don’t you have work to do?”

“I told your brother I would accompany you. Paperwork can wait.”

I headed for one of the alcoves with comfy chairs and Quill grabbed another book and followed behind me. I settled into one of the chairs, deciding that a merchant’s daughter would certainly pull her feet up under her—something a princess would never do in public. I’d gotten fifteen pages into my book before I realized I wasn’t actually reading, and this was an economics book. I closed it.

Quill looked up and watched me rise and stiffly march down the aisle to put the book back. I returned with Dalyn 2100c-2400c. Amusement glittered in his eyes.

I snuggled back into the chair. “This should be more interesting.” I waved the book.

He dipped his chin. “Most likely.”

“Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking about me getting in my history so I can read that satire.”

“I didn’t say anything.” A moment of silence passed before Quill added, “Anyway, that’s the wrong era of history.”

I shot him a glance, and then deliberately turned the page and made a great effort to actually read the words on the page while looking as stately as possible. I was aware of him smirking and returning to his own book. Then I did truly get drawn into the history book. The eight cities of Daisen Bay had had their share of wars over the ages, and I lost myself in the politics, skirmishes, weather and trade deals of two hundred years ago.

I was reading about a dispute centering on renovations to the cathedral when Quill cleared his throat. “I should bring you back to your rooms.”

I looked up. The dim light from the windows had faded to black, leaving the library to the golden lamps. “What time is it?”

“Dinnertime.”

That hardly seemed possible, but I when I examined my book I was a third of the way through. Come to think of it, I was hungry. I closed the book and uncurled slowly. My body protested and I winced. “What were you reading?” I asked, filling the time as I coaxed myself to stand.

Seven Swords, a novel,” he replied.

“You read novels?”

“Surprised?”

“I was expecting military history…or satire.”

“I read those, too.” He shrugged. “But today, a novel.”

I stretched and almost shook my head, but my neck was sore also. “May I take my book back with me?”

Quill rose, “Of course. You may take as many as you wish, no one will mind.”

We turned and made out way out of the deserted library. There was a bit more of a bustle in the palace halls—people on their way here or there to dine. I wondered how far the gossip had gotten—that the king had given me gifts, and sent for me to join him somewhere for a few hours. Quill seemed to sense my thoughts and moved closer to me. I made myself small and unnoticeable beside him and we made it to my chambers without a single person looking me full in the face, even though a few had greeted the Captain of the Guard.

In my chambers, Quill strode in and habitually checked the entire suite for intruders before coming back to the sitting room where I had stopped to set down my book.

“I have rung for Amantha,” he said, pausing by the settee.

“Thank you.” I shifted, “Should I be expecting the king tonight?”

He shook his head. “The King is not planning to come tonight.”

“Good, because after dinner I’m going to take a long, hot bath. Something I would prefer to do alone.” My cheeks reddened but I continued with just a touch of umbrage, “So unless his Majesty has something truly urgent to discuss, I’m not available this evening.”

Quill bowed slightly at the waist. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought I saw a smile cross his face before he said, “As you wish, milady. I’ll see you in the morning, then.” He turned to go.

“Quill.”

He turned back.

“Thank you—for lessons, and the library.”

“You’re welcome.” He bowed again, then left.

51- Lessons

 

The door opened with a groan and Quill stood behind it. “Come in,” he bowed and stepped out of the way.

We entered and were greeted by a delightful breath of warm air from a cheery little fire. The inside of the building had been carved to resemble the sweeping innards of a gnarled tree. The windows were scattered at irregular heights and sizes, and shaped like knots.  Shelves and a counter ran along the far wall, completely cluttered with bottles, bowls and jars. Most of which looked full, and had labels. The dry, earthy smell of drying herbs made me look up to see the ceiling lined with hanging bunches of rosemary, sage, thyme, and plenty of other plants I didn’t recognize. There was a table shoved against the far wall, and pair of chairs by the fire. A decorative screen, painted with a hunting scene, looked very out of place walling off one corner. Quill’s second in command, Vaudrin, was standing by the fireplace, but the King was nowhere to be seen.

“The King sends his regrets, he will not be joining us today,” said Quill, closing the door behind us.

I could feel Namal’s displeasure and absolutely didn’t look at him.  

“Your Highness,” Quill looked at Namal, “Did the Princess tell you about the training we have to offer you?” He and Vaudrin were both dressed in plain trousers and tunics that allowed for free movement. The matching muted blues suggested this was standard issue military clothing. Except they weren’t wearing shoes.

“She mentioned it,” replied Namal. He was using his schooled, diplomatic tones now. Probably reminding himself that he was upset at the King, not at the guards.

“It is good to keep in training, especially with the coming conflict,” continued Quill, picking up on the diplomatic tones, “Vaudrin and I will teach you some grappling—things learned in dark times and dark places when blades were not practical.”

 “With me in a dress?” I touched the long green skirt of my winter day dress.

“I did think of that,” Quill gestured to the screen. “You’ll find what you need over there. We have clothes for your brother, also.”

I went straight for the screen, smiling in greeting to Vaudrin, who bowed. Behind the screen was another chair, on top of this, folded neatly, were two sets of clothing just like Quill and Vaudrin’s. The buttons on my dress had me calling for Namal, but once freed I changed quickly and left my dress and cloak carefully draped over the back of the chair, shoes and stiletto underneath. I emerged barefoot and Namal headed behind the screen to change also.

Quill and Vaudrin had just finished tossing thick mats across the floor. “Milady,” Quill gestured invitingly at the mat immediately in front of him.

I padding over I could hear Remko’s gruff voice barking “Counterattack!” so clearly it nearly took my breath away. He had taught all the royal children how to use a sword. He’d allowed us to choose the order we learned other weapons, Ayglos had gone straight for the quarterstaff, and I for the knives. Namal the mace, Nadine the bow. We’d learned to use our fists, too. But grappling was new. I pushed aside the memories as I arrived in front of Quill. “He bathes alone,” I announced—quickly, before Namal could finish changing and come out. “You’re welcome.”

Amusement flickered in Quill’s eyes. “Good. Would you like to try a punch again?” he asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

I eyed him distrustfully. “Not especially.”

He grinned. “Turn around.”

I turned slowly. When my back was to Quill he stepped close and snaked his arm around my neck, drawing me against him and squeezing. I gasped and my hands flew to his arm—the sudden panic to breathe distracting me from being snug against his chest. “How do you get out?” his voice was right next to my ear. I threw an elbow back into his ribs, but the angle prevented a good hit. “That’s not how.” If he tightened his arm I would black out, but he was waiting for me to get myself free. I forced my whole body to go limp, deadweight in his arms. Quill’s laugh chuffed in my ear, “Clever, but I might let go and stab you before you could do anything.” I picked up my weight again and lifted a foot as if to stomp on his. “Might work in the right circumstances. Not reliable, though.” He released me and stepped back. I turned to face him, panting, and again irritated at his ability to ask the exact questions I couldn’t answer.

He turned his back and slouched. “Choke me.”

Reluctantly I approached and put my arm around his neck like he had done with mine. He positioned my arm just so, gagged when I squeezed, and then nodded in satisfaction. “Now, pull me back a little so you’re not standing on your toes.”

I did. Then he neatly stepped back and flipped me onto the mats. Flat on my back, I stared up at him in surprise, “What did you do?”

“I’ll show you.” He tugged on my arm and I accepted the help up.

Quill patiently walked me through the movement—deceptive in its utter simplicity—until I could confidently fling him on the ground as easily as he’d tossed me. I barely noticed Namal and Vaudrin working just a few feet away as we worked on chokes and getting out of them for the better part of the morning. When we stopped, I was sweaty, thirsty, hungry, and heady from the work. We sat on the floor and sipped at water that Vaudrin poured for us.

“What’s next?” I asked, after draining my cup.

“Lunch, like as not. Vaudrin is on duty in an hour, I’ve got some work of my own this afternoon,” replied Quill. “There is a library in the palace, if you would like a pleasant way to pass the afternoon.”

“That sounds better than trying to make friends in court,” I replied.

“I don’t think we should be trying to make friends in court,” said Namal. “There are a thousand ways that could go very badly very quickly.”

“True enough,” concurred Quill.

“You won’t find many people in the library,” Vaudrin added, refilling our cups from a large pitcher.

“Where is it?” I wouldn’t mind wandering around the king’s library.

“In the wing opposite the one where you’re staying.”

“I would like to write to my father,” said Namal. “You may go, Zare, if Quill or one of his men will accompany you.”

“I will go with her,” replied Quill.

Not minding the chance to talk with Quill, I decided not to bring up that one of his men was always shadowing us. Instead, I stood, “Well, I guess I’ll go put on something a little more appropriate for lunch.” The heat from the fireplace was oppressive when I passed close to it, and it took some effort to get into my dress with my skin still sticky from the workout. I again had to call for Namal to deal with the buttons. When I was dressed, the building was far too hot, so I stepped outside to wait for Namal. The wet bite in the wind had become a light rain, and I raised the hood of my cloak. I breathed in the cool air and the scent of wood smoke letting the quiet cement the morning’s lessons.

In a few moments, all three men stepped out. “I will come to escort you to the library in an hour, miss,” said Quill, returning to formality in the open air.

I nodded, “Thank you.” Then Namal offered me his arm and we turned to head back up the path toward the palace.

Fire

Scribbling with watercolor crayons. I like the concept here…(don’t look so surprised, this reveals nothing that wasn’t revealed in the very first episode.) I suspect I would actually need acrylic or oil paints for it to look the way it looks in my head.

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