Chapter Thirty

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Rinnet was ready. She'd spent the whole night awake, unable to sleep and numbing her mind with the thin, sharp whistle of her knife against the belt pin. It was filed to a fine point now, the knife dull and worn in one spot. She rested her finger lightly on it. A tiny drop of blood squeezed out. She stared at the dome of red, transfixed, then wiped it away on the hem of her shirt.

Eagerness consumed her, but she knew better than to rush. Delayed gratification, though infuriating, tasted richer in the end. She thought fleetingly of Kozua — how she would have liked to see the full scale of his power, use it for herself, and then someday kill him herself, just because she could. And now, knowing all that he had hidden from her...

Not a useful thought, but something about it made her mouth water. She made herself slow down in her preparations. Line the knives up, the dull-edged one in the back, the sharpest closest to her hand. Testing her ability to draw them from under her cloak. Throwing each several times. The scrubby wilderness around her wallowed in silence in the purpling dawn. Even the brushbirds, raucous and inescapable as they could be, hid from her. She settled for hitting a round knot in a knobby trees' bark with a heavy thwock. Then she tried all three knives in a row. The first struck the center of the knot, while the others she lined up above and below in a near-perfect row.

She was getting bored.

It wouldn't do to be in Villotta so early, though. Rinnet preoccupied herself with fastening and re-fastening the belt, keeping her fingers nimble around the sharpened pin. When she tired of that, she tried tying her cloak different ways to hide the knives. She thought of slipping one into her boot or somehow tucking it into the back of her shirt, but both made her uncomfortable and hindered her movement. She'd have better luck sweet-talking her way through with the knives in full view.

She unfastened the belt pin, re-fastened it. In her travel sack, she found the locked box of poison and drummed her fingers on the lid, listening to the hollow sound it made under her nails.

Finally, when she could hear the low rumble of the city waking up, Rinnet fastened her belt one last time, checked that her knives were in order, and headed down the low hill she camped on and out of the brush onto a packed-dirt backroad. A coachman driving a wagon saw her but took no note, holding his head high as he rode past. Rinnet ignored him too, unblinking and focused straight ahead to the city even as dust rose into her eyes. Otherwise the road was empty, for now. Rinnet savored these last moments of solitude by imagining, over and over, the many ways she might kill the queen of Coreti.

Above her, the brushbirds began to cackle.

***

"Listen to me, you thick-headed blasted oaf!"

Distya sighed, wishing she could cover her ears as Tregan once again showered the Guardsman keeping post with every insult he could dream up. His voice was beginning to fray at the edges. He'd been shouting all night to no avail, but every time she hoped he would stop, the noble would start all over again.

Sobriety wasn't treating him well, Distya thought. She almost liked him better drunk.

But maybe that was due to circumstance. Distya had had to put up with Tregan for a while now, but never in such dangerous quarters, and never so enclosed. The stone walls and floor of the room ricocheted his piercing, nasally yells until Distya thought her eardrums might burst. That was the least of her worries, really, but maybe because she was afraid Distya felt more annoyed than ever. The shackles around her wrists and feet kept her from doing anything. Had they not been there, she imagined she would have shut Tregan up long ago.

If she had to be grateful, at least being chained up made all her limbs ache as much as her bad arm. The pain was easier to ignore that way. And Distya knew their imprisonment could be much worse — might be, in the future. For now, she and Tregan sat facing each other in a small room in one of the castle's towers near the keep. There was even a small window in the thick stone wall, and had Distya not been chained to said wall, she would have been able to stand on her toes and see what lay beyond the tower. Instead she stared at the sliver of blue sky that slipped through and tried to remember what the ocean sounded like.

Tregan broke his string of insults to wheeze, winded. Distya muttered that he should save his breath in case it was his last, but either he didn't hear her or he ignored her. "I'm a bloody noble, for the love of the queen!" he shouted at the back of the Guardsman's head, just visible through another small, barred window in the heavy wooden door across from him. "I have privileges that are not being met. I demand an audience with ... with ..."

"Everyone within three square miles of us?" Distya said.

Tregan sputtered. "With the queen herself, if I have to!"

"You don't have to," the Guardsman outside said.

Distya almost felt a sense of camaraderie, since the Guardsman had to listen to Tregan all night too. But she also felt a much stronger sense of hatred — and, again, fear. "How long are we going to wait?" she asked, craning her head to look up and behind her to the window in the door. "What's the point of keeping us here?"

"That eager to be executed?" The Guardsman must have been tired, judging by his flat voice.

Distya stared at the tufts of red hair sticking between the bars on the window as the Guardsman leaned back against it. "If it gets me some peace and quiet."

"She's my captive!" Tregan shouted. "If anyone gets to execute her, it should be me. I'm the one who brought her here. It's my right as a noble!"

Distya scowled at Tregan. He was too busy straining against his chains and shooting his bloodshot, contorted gaze at the back of the Guardsman's head.

At last she slouched lower against the wall and tilted her head back. "You're hardly a noble if you can't pay your dues," she said, closing her eyes.

Tregan started screaming again. The Guardsman slammed something against the wooden door, maybe the hilt of his sword. "Quiet!" he yelled. Tregan stopped railing against Distya, but she could still hear him heaving with rage. "The queen is being informed of your presence, both of you," the Guardsman continued. "She'll decide what happens next."

"I've never felt so important," Distya mumbled, mostly to herself. She tried to stretch her stiff arms and legs, as best she could with them anchored to the stone. Then, with Tregan finally quiet and exhaustion from the sleepless night setting in — aware of her total helplessness, yet finding a strange kind of solace in it — she drifted off.

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