Never has Stellia seen anything like it. She’s come across mentions of snow in some of her books, but they did not give her any idea of the real thing, and though they mentioned that snow falls only where it gets very cold, nothing she read prepared her for this freezing mountain weather. Even in Sedwin’s cloak—which he told her to keep, Garroth having provided him with a spare—she shivers, and she feels a bit guilty for sitting in her saddle while Phylia has to plod up the steep mountain trail. But the mare shows no sign of discomfort because of the cold or the snow that covers the ground.
The languid tumbling of the snowflakes is mesmerizing. They drift like feathers shaken from a pillow, until a gust of mountain wind hurtles them more swiftly. Though they melt on Stellia’s face and lips, they do not drench her hair and clothes.
Tylvanor—no, Nevynne!—rides alongside her on the dapple stallion, her short, unruly hair dusted with snow.
How did she ever take her for a boy?
Even with the short hair, unwashed face, and rugged clothing, her features are too mild, her lips too curved, and her dark eyes too soft for a young man. But that is hindsight knowledge, of course. Hopefully, those lacking it will still believe Nevynne to be a boy.
Garroth briefly suggested they might pose as two newly-wed couples, dispensing with Nevynne’s deception. Nevynne was adamantly against this, preferring to be able to conduct herself with the freedom accorded a man. Later, she confided another reason for her objection to Stellia: “Next thing you know, each couple will have their separate room at the inn. Best not to give them ideas.”
Nevynne notices Stellia’s gaze. “Must you keep staring at me?”
Stellia looks away. “Forgive me. I still have trouble accepting it.”
“What? That someone of your piercing wits was fooled by my disguise?”
Stellia can’t decide right away how to react to the taunt. Knowing of Nevynne’s noble birth makes her condescension sting more keenly. On the other hand, it is difficult to be angry at her, after hearing how much she has suffered and lost. “No, not that. Sedwin told me about your father, and what happened to your family.”
“You stood only a few paces away, and I’m not deaf,” Nevynne says. “Though I almost wished I was, with that bearded beast snoring across from me. Besides, your conversation didn’t strike me as the kind one courteously chooses not to hear.”
“It wasn’t, of course,” Stellia mutters. “Most of it was dreadful, and heart-rending.”
“Spare me your commiserations, please. I’ve suffered enough as it is.”
“A little respect would be nice, however,” Nevynne says.
“Respect? I don’t think I gave you reason to—”
“Not from you, from those two.” Nevynne nods toward the men riding ahead of them on the narrow mountain road. In the falling snow, their outlines look soft, half faded, as though they might disperse into the wind at any moment. “They know who I am now, after all.”
Stellia is taken aback. For a moment, Nevynne appears every bit the haughty noblewoman, and she feels painfully out of place next to this girl whom only yesterday she thought little more than a roving thief.
“Don’t worry,” Nevynne says. “I won’t demand that you address me as My Lady, or anything like that. But think about it. They have no reason to doubt me. Not only am I from a noble house, my father was a hero who died fighting a vicious tyrant. And yet they refuse to tell me who they are, or why they follow your clergyman. Why?”
“Perhaps it’s nothing to do with doubting you,” Stellia says. “You heard what Sedwin said to me. He hinted that their tale, too, is worth lives.”
“I’m sure of it,” Nevynne says. “But to whom, I wonder?”
“What do you mean?”
“My father’s struggle against Ingharad was a secret business. Even I knew little about it. That he was in her bad graces, yes, I knew that, and also that he thought her unfit to rule, and had friends who thought the same. But much of what Sedwin told you I, too, heard for the first time. That my father led an alliance, that they had reached out to the Emperor, and were seeking to prove Ingharad guilty of murdering her brother, I knew none of these things.”
“Your father never told you?”
“He meant to protect us, no doubt. My brother knew more, I think, but not I.”
“I never knew you had a brother.”
“There are many things, obviously, that you didn’t know about me,” Nevynne says. “And why would you? Sedwin on the other hand has remarkable knowledge. Heraldry, birthmarks, rumors that were hushed up long ago, conspiracies, even the secret meetings of Emperors. How does he know so much about my father and the alliance against Ingharad? You don’t learn things like that from tavern gossip, no matter how well you listen. Even you can’t be naïve enough to believe that.”
With some effort, Stellia forces herself to ignore the gibe. “I’ve no answer to that. But since you heard everything he said to me, you must know that he and Garroth have no love for Ingharad.”
“I wouldn’t be riding freely now, if they did.”
“And they don’t serve the Guardian, either. In fact, they distrust her deeply. I’ve seen nothing but decency from them, Nevynne. They are good men.”
“Maybe.” Nevynne’s gaze remains fixed on the backs of the two riders. “But whose men?”