Leap Day Snippet (Dreaming Death world)

Something I’m working on when not doing all the other things I need to: This is about a revelation that’s going on at The Horn, the home of the farthest north of the Six Families, who live near the edge of the glacial plain.  Not only is the Family there called the Horn Family, but the Anvarrid House that rules the province has interbred for so many years with that Family that they’re basically indistinguishable, and a couple of generations before simply changed the name of the house to Horn as well.  


The Horn


Amal leaned out over the stone railing, her eyes watching the pathway that lead down from the keep into the town. The wind ruffled the fur lining her hood. She tucked her scarf around her face more tightly as snow drifted down from the steep roof of the keep’s main tower.

“They’re not going to eat Dalyan down in town,” Nora said from behind her.

No, he’s more likely to have them all eating from his hand. Dalyan had a gift for making people think he paid attention only to them. “I worry.”

“I know.” Nora grabbed Amal’s coat sleeve and drew her back into the keep, closing the terrace door securely after them. “You can watch from inside.”

That was a lie. This time of year, what small windows the keep did possess were fogged over with the heat of the fires and the humidity of melting snow. The occupants inside its stone walls were never as warm as those who lived in Horn Fortress deep beneath it. That underground building didn’t contend with the icy wind coming off the mountains. The keep, built far later, wasn’t nearly as sound. Wind whistled through every tiny chink and crack. As soon as the servants plastered one, another bit of plaster elsewhere would crumble, creating an endless fight against the harsh temperatures this far north.

Compared to the Anvarrid palaces in the great cities of Larossa, Horn Keep was tiny. It had only one main hall atop the mountain, and a small residential wing maintained for official visitors who never came. The kitchens and servants’ hall were dug into the lee side of the mountain, offering those parts of the keep some protection from the weather, but the main hall was chilly. The walls were draped with hangings of black wool, the province’s main export. The hangings weren’t there to entice the few traders who came to inquire into the wool and mutton trade, but to provide a layer of warmth.

Amal pushed back the hood of her overcoat and strode across the hall to the fireplace. A large inglenook surrounded the hearth, keeping the heat in. In winter, most of the business of the province was conducted there. There were only two sentries guarding the doors, their black uniforms against the black wall hangings making them shadows in the room. Amal knew they were aware of her every move, even if she wasn’t of theirs. They were the quarterguards, and sensitives. Their attention stayed on the ambient in the hall–the emotions cast out by every visitor or servant. That was their purview. Unlike the quarterguards of the other Anvarrid Houses, they weren’t there to look imposing. The sentries of the palace in the capital strove for unnerving uniformity, but the Horn sentries did as they wished. Clean-shaven Mikks wore his hair cropped close while Nohr had a full beard and shaggy hair the sled dogs would envy.

On one of her rare trips to the capital, Amal was certain she’d heard the word savages applied to her guard.

They liked it that way. They didn’t seek to impress in Horn. Warmth was more important than silks, fine embroidery, and intimidating sameness. After a quick wave to Nohr, Amal tugged off her mittens, buttoned them together, and slid them into a pocket. She joined Nora in holding her hands out toward the fire and sighed.

This was the first time Dalyan had left the walls of Horn Keep in over six months. In theory, he was under arrest; in practice, Jan treated Dalyan like a younger brother instead of a self-confessed spy. On Jan’s recommendation, Amal hadn’t turned Dalyan over to the throne, a decision that still worried her in its recklessness. Jan believed they could win his confidence, but there were some secrets Dalyan seemed unwilling to spill, even now.

Nora’s dark eyes turned in Amal’s direction as she began to unbutton her overcoat. “Jan will keep Dalyan safe.”

“Who will keep Jan safe?”

Nora laughed and shook her head. “There’s a second team down there. At a distance, but they’ll be close enough if anything happens.”

“No one told me,” Amal protested.

“Guard decision,” Nora offered with a partial shrug.

There wasn’t any possible retort. Not one that wouldn’t be foolish, at least. Jan had control of her guard, and when he was absent, Nora stood in command. Amal had no say in how her guard actually ran. They rarely reminded her of that fact. She, in turn, tried not to act in a way that demanded they do so. They had all grown up together, the twenty-sevens, and although Amal was Lady Horn, Mistress of Horn Province, she was more one of them than she was their liege.

“Do you want me to rebraid your hair?” she offered instead of arguing. Nora’s blonde hair was tucked back into a dozen braids to keep it out of her eyes, but it was mussed this afternoon. Actually, that wasn’t unusual. That likely had something to do with Jan and their two children.

Nora hung her overcoat on a hook on the outside of the inglenook. Then she touched her hands gingerly to her hair and grimaced. “You can do it while we wait.”

Amal had correspondence awaiting her. There were three court decisions that had been forwarded from the town for her to settle, and she needed to sign paperwork for the Family on a request to replace equipment. But she was distracted this afternoon and none of those things were urgent.

So they settled on a bench in the inglenook where the heat of the hearth was held close. One of the servants brought her a comb and waxed string, and Amal helped untangle Nora’s hair. It was calming, something they’d done since they were girls together. She gathered a section of Nora’s hair, combed it out, and began braiding. They talked of simple things; their children, dinner, and when the spring would come–the eternal topic in the Horn.

Amal had almost forgotten her worries when she heard Jan and Dalyan talking in a hallway, their voices echoing along the hard stone walls. With her fingers twisted into Nora’s hair, she couldn’t jump up to see if they were safe, but their laughing tones reassured her. Nothing happened.

Nora patted Amal’s thigh. “See? He’s fine.”

That wasn’t Amal’s greatest concern.

“He didn’t run away,” Nora added, correctly reading Amal’s reaction.

Both of them were sensitives but Nora was, by far, the stronger of them. She could sense Amal’s reaction from across a room, whereas Amal had to be within a few feet to feel another’s emotions.

Once the two men entered the main hall, the wool hangings muted their voices, but as Jan and Dalyan approached to the inglenook, they seemed in perfect accord, so nothing had gone wrong. Jan, his cheeks ruddy with the cold, nodded once in Amal’s direction and continued his discussion with Dalyan. Amal only caught the words Little Brother, the way that Jan had taken to addressing him.

The two men could pass for family, although more likely cousins than brothers. Both had opted for the shaggy winter choice of beard and hair left uncropped. Dalyan was almost as tall as Jan as well, although not as large. From his Horn Family mother, Jan had inherited the heavier build and fairer skin usually associated with the Six Families, but like Amal, he had their Anvarrid father’s dark hair and eyes.

Dalyan’s heritage was a mystery, though. While he spoke freely about his mission in Larossa and his training, he’d refused to talk about his parents or his childhood. He had to come from one of the peoples of the Cince Empire, but his coloration wasn’t far different from Jan’s, with dark hair and fair skin. At a distance his eyes looked brown, but Amal had spent enough time close to him to know they were dark blue. His nose curved like an Anvarrid’s, and he had the lean build and height one usually associated with that people, yet the Anvarrid didn’t fall under the Cince’s reins, so he must be from some similar race. Dozens of peoples had fallen under the Cince’s power over the centuries, many of them such small groups that no one paid attention to them. Unless Dalyan decided to explain his past, they likely would never know where he came from.

He spotted Amal then and smiled, making her feel warm all over.

It was one of the more rash things she’d done in her life, falling in love with their prisoner. For the head of an Anvarrid House, becoming involved with an acknowledged spy was foolish enough. Doing so without knowing everything about him made her look idiotic. She could stretch the truth to make it sound like a strategic move on her part–taking him to her bed to seduce information out of him–but she would never be able to lie to a sensitive about that, particularly not with Dalyan in her presence.

Amal wasn’t sure it was love, but she knew she would bury the whole world for the man. The intensity of her reaction to him had worried her from the beginning. She had instantly distrusted him. Although she couldn’t pinpoint the moment when it had happened, he’d won her trust and her response to him had swung in the opposite direction.

It was a dangerous thing for an oathbreaker to trust a Cince spy.

And she was the queen of the oathbreakers, the most awake of them all.

His plain black overcoat carrying with it the icy feel of winter, Dalyan sat down next to her. When he set his bare hands on her cheeks, Amal yelped. She couldn’t defend herself without letting go of Nora’s hair, and his mind laughed with his enjoyment in having shocked her. “Did you not wear your gloves?” she asked.

He dropped his hands to rub them briskly together. “I gave them to the smith,” he admitted, now leaking apology into the ambient—the stew of emotions hanging around the four of them like a cloud. “Down in town, I mean. He was admiring them. What could I do?”

Leaning against the wall of the inglenook, Jan rolled his eyes. He let Amal feel his exasperation before tucking it away. Nora didn’t react, cautious with her emotions as always.

Amal forced herself to resume braiding. “You visited the smithy?”

“He would have stayed there all day if I’d let him,” Jan rumbled.

“The man’s fixing the town clock,” Dalyan informed her.

Amal finished the braid she was working on and tied it off with a piece of waxed string. If there was one native gift that Dalyan had exhibited so far, it was the ability to fix anything with gears or levers. He seemed to understand how they were intended to work with only a glance. That explained his interest in the smith. “You didn’t take him to see the well pump?” she asked Jan.

He gave a short bark of laughter. “That won’t ever happen. I’d never get him back out.”

The steam pump was designed to both provide water in warmer months, and prevent the town’s well shaft from freezing in winter. With the workers constantly greasing the pistons and feeding coal into the boiler, it was never clean in there. Amal had surveyed it a couple of times, part of her official duties as Lady Horn, but she’d kept her distance from the engine itself. And while Jan might look the part of a savage to someone from the capital, he shared her fastidiousness. As she recalled, he’d stood behind her on those visits.

Dalyan regarded her with his brows raised, curiosity bubbling up in his mind.

Amal gave in. “It’s a steam-driven pump engine.”

He blinked, and she caught a flash of surprise from him. “Your people have steam engines?”

That was why she shouldn’t be sleeping with this man. He knew what a steam engine was. Was he Cince military after all?

She pressed her lips together. The Cince Empire used steam engines to power the trains that moved their military, but didn’t share that information with their people’s industries. Most technologies stayed in their government’s hands. In Larossa, steam engines were used widely in the larger cities for manufacturing. “Have you seen one before?”

“In a book,” Dalyan admitted quietly, his surprise buried in consternation. Clearly he recognized that the conversation had slid into uncomfortable territory.

Had it been a Cince book? Or one the Anvarrid had stolen from the libraries of the Six Families? Most of those volumes had ended up in the Cince Empire. Amal licked her lips. And why does he not think we’d have steam engines here? 

So far she’d not learned much from Dalyan about the Cince government’s understanding of technologies. Her own people had long held that the Cince stole everything, and didn’t understand what the Founders had left behind. Perhaps the Cince thought the same thing of the Six Families.

She licked her dry lips again. She needed some ointment. “They’ve held dinner back for the two of you,” she told the two men. “Let me finish up with Nora and we can eat.”

“I thought you’d forgotten I was here,” Nora complained.

Amal tugged gently on the hair between her fingers. “When have you ever let me forget you?”


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