Chapter Twenty-nine

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Walking in the busier parts of Villotta, Distya jumped at every shout, every crash of hooves that could be a Guardsman coming to arrest her. She cringed when Tregan pointed out her obvious tension.

"I can't help it," she said quietly. "I'm not used to being this helpless. Usually when I'm surrounded by enemies, I have armor and a sword. Now?" She tugged at the ends of the scarf. "I have a square of cloth and the hope that people don't look too close."

"They won't," Tregan said, running a hand through his curls. "If you're not high nobility or the queen herself, no one will spare you half a glance."

"I hope you're right," Distya muttered, still keeping her head low and her eyes keen. She watched a young girl, her hair so dirty it looked gray instead of red, swipe a gold pin from a passerby's pocket and run off. The man didn't so much as blink. The streets were so busy — not crowded this early, but in constant motion — how could he notice one droplet of water in a river of happenings?

It helped Distya relax, if only a little. Tregan played a good foil, confident he belonged in Villotta and showing it. For the way he rode — head up, eyes straight ahead, never once acknowledging another person on the street — Distya imagined he'd been robbed a time or two and never noticed. And she, alongside him, could be anyone. A servant. An advisor. A distant cousin from a part of Coreti these city dwellers had never heard of. Despite his shortcomings, she relied on him to get her through the streets.

When they stopped, a tall, white house towered before them. The windowsills shimmered with golden paint, and four columns supported a small balcony overhead. The limestone gleamed. A man stood out front, polishing the low ring of dust from the nearby road that stained the lowest part of the pillars.

Distya raised her eyebrows, but maintained a wan smile. "This is yours? After all that time you spent complaining about how hard your life is, I expected you to live in a hole with a plank of wood over the top."

"You're impressed?" Tregan countered disdainfully. "Have you seen some of the other villas? I might as well live in a hole for all this place is worth. This isn't even one of the nicer areas of the city."

Distya admittedly had not looked too closely at the mansions lining the streets, having been more concerned that someone might see her. She looked now. The surrounding mansions looked similar in style, with white limestone accented by painted rims and pots of red and orange flowers. Maybe by comparison, Tregan's place lacked a certain décor, but it hardly lived up to the grim picture Distya had in mind.

She couldn't begin to imagine what the so-called "nicer" areas of Villotta looked like.

"Well, don't stand around gawking," Tregan said, having already dismounted and handed his horse off while Distya absorbed the scene around her. "No one's going to think you're from around here if you look so impressed by something like this."

Distya shook her head, half annoyed, half knocking the lingering bewilderment from her mind. She leapt down and reluctantly handed her horse off to what she assumed was one of Tregan's servants. The noble stood on the short steps leading to the double front doors. He beckoned with a stiff wave, and she started toward him.

"Where are the stables?" she asked. "I might want to—"

She trailed off. Tregan's face had taken on a dark shade, his lips tightened into a curt sneer. Distya froze, then realized his gaze passed over her head to something on the street behind her.

She turned to see a small party of Guardsmen on foot, three in total, with one she recognized leading the group toward her. His burgundy hair was slashed through by a white scar. Panicked, Distya fleetingly thought to run, but stood her ground — she'd only look more suspicious if she took off.

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