Chapters 1-6 are here:
Dain stopped short when he saw Liselle helping to make Dynan comfortable on a lounge that had been moved into the sun. “I wish something would suck her into the damn pit,” he muttered. “It’s where she belongs.”
Dain Ardin smiled at that. “Did you see the guest list?”
“Yes. Idiot that he is, he’s decided he can trust her. I said all along that he would.”
“Well this time, we’re going to let him. No. I’m not going through all that mess again. We don’t get involved.”
“How can you say that?”
“It didn’t work last time, did it?”
“Sure it did. He didn’t marry her, did he?”
“There’s a difference between what happened then and what’s happening now. A lot of them actually, but the one that comes most directly to mind is that Dynan is the one in charge. If he wants to go down that road again, there isn’t anything either of us can do to stop him.”
“So what’s the point of trying, right?”
“I just don’t want him to end up hating me, us, all right? It isn’t going to happen anyway, for a number of reasons. He may care about her still and enjoy her company, but he loves Loren.”
“And if he can’t marry Loren?”
“He can’t marry Liselle either. She can’t have children.”
“Or so she claims.”
“You’re getting paranoid in your old age, you know that?” Dain Ardin smiled. “Don’t look at me like that. You see it as him making the same mistakes over again. I see it as him trying to resolve a really unpleasant time in his life. Let him. If it doesn’t work out, he’ll learn something in the process. If it does, he’ll learn something else.”
“He still thinks we were wrong.”
“Maybe we were.” Dain Ardin smiled again. “This is your alter ego talking, remember? I was there. I hated her just as much as you and you know why. She took him away, and she didn’t care.”
“He didn’t seem to care so much either.”
“That’s what it looked like, sure. Now we know what it feels like to really be in love with someone. How was he supposed to choose between us? Was it right that we made it so clear to him that he had to? Was it right that she did the same thing? No.”
“So how do you explain what she did, with the drugs and all, trying to make him think she was pregnant?”
“She was desperate. She didn’t want to lose him. That was her motivation. We turned it into a quest for the crown single-handedly.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this.”
“I can’t believe you’re trying to deny it to me. I was in your head at the time. If you want to deny it to everyone else, go ahead. It won’t work with me.”
“So you’re saying that because we were wrong way back when, she isn’t up to anything now.”
“More or less. I don’t exactly trust her, but I don’t think she’s a viper the way you do.”
Dain nodded after a moment, smiling sardonically at Liselle when she noticed them. “You go right ahead and think that. Not me.”
The guards around Dynan came to attention as they approached and Liselle dropped into a curtsy. Dain turned to Messel. “How long has he been down?”
“Liselle, go away.” She rolled her eyes at him, but did as she was told. Dain Ardin laughed, watching after her. Dain waited until she was out of earshot. “Do you have any word on our guests? Did they arrive all right?”
“Yes, Your Highness. I believe Lady Bronwyn is seeing to their needs.”
“Is Marc with his family?” Dain Ardin asked.
“No, Your Highness. The Lord Chancellor is missing.”
“Missing? What do you mean, missing?” Messel explained and Dain shook his head. “I’ll find him. Wake him up.”
“I’m sorry, Your Highness. I’m under orders from Dr. Elger. If he’s resting, no one bothers him.” The guard hesitated, and then told them about Maralt.
“Would you relax?” Dain Ardin said. “Maralt can’t do anything to him. Look, I’ll stay here. You sit down and find Marc. Just let Maralt show up here.”
“You don’t know how to take him.”
“I think I can figure it out. Go.”
Dain grumbled a little, but sat and made himself comfortable. He found Marc easily enough sitting on the beach at the dune line. He had his arms wrapped around his knees and he stared out at the rolling waves. Here, that was a gentle hiss and rumble, as opposed to the roaring crash of the sea against the rocky shoreline in Rianamar. Dain sat next to him, realizing belatedly that he was the wrong person to convince him to face this. “Aldridge is dead.”
“I know. I was watching. Glad you didn’t do it?”
The image of Avry activating a laser cutter into the assassin’s brain at his temple, flashed through Dain’s mind. It killed him instantly. It was almost too neat and tidy an ending for a man who used to torture him. He shrugged. “Maybe. A little. As long as someone keeps reminding me that executing a murderer is supposedly beneath me, I’ll be all right.”
“There are laws involved too, which means the people who are bringing the accusation, regardless of how well-founded, shouldn’t also be the ones to execute the penalty. I think Avry deserves a medal for stopping you. Your three witnesses too.”
Dain grunted, and glanced at him. “Your brother looks just like you. He’s not too much shorter than you either.” Marc smiled, but the next moment there were tears in his eyes. Dain shook his head, wishing there was something he could do to change what they were all heading for. When he said so, Marc only shook his head. “Well why not? You got your wish. Why can’t I have mine?”
“I don’t think I can do this. I don’t know what I’m going to tell them.”
“You don’t have to tell them anything. Why don’t you leave it at that for now? And if you feel like you have to tell them, then I’ll do it. I’ll say exactly what you want me to. If you want them to know about all this, I’ll even tell them that you accept it, and that they have to, which, you know, they won’t, but I will do my absolute best to convince them that you’re right. But for now, they just want to see you. They aren’t going to care about your eyes, or what you can do. Come back with me. Come see your family. I really don’t think you’ll regret it, once you get there.”
It was enough to break his heart, seeing the anguish in Marc’s face. It was another goodbye he would have to accept, one he never thought would even happen. Seeing his family was only an idea he had to let go of before. Now the idea was reality.
“All right,” Marc said finally. Even though he didn’t look nearly ready, he stood. He nodded without looking at him, and Dain took them back.
More time had elapsed than Dain thought. First, he realized that he was starving, and then that they were alone except for Avry. The sun was sinking behind the mountains. “How did that happen?”
Marc didn’t answer, walking away from him as he headed for the arbor door. “He doesn’t look so good,” Avry whispered. “I thought having his family here would be a good thing.”
“You’d think. How much grief and pain can a heart take before it’s broken?” He stopped abruptly. “Lest heart be broken, he will be…”
“Where’s your brother? I mean the other one.” Avry activated his receiver even as Dain concentrated.
“Damn! What? Marc? Where? I’m on it. Dynan is up talking to his parents right now.”
“Dynan, don’t tell them anything.” Now Dain knew why they had been delayed, why so much time had gone by at the Palace when it hadn’t seemed so long at the beach – and Dynan had seen Maralt. “Don’t tell them. Something just kept Marc and I from being back a long time ago and we didn’t even know it.”
“What are you saying?” Dynan asked.
“We’re being toyed with again. Marc doesn’t know how to deal with this. His family was brought here to tempt him. He isn’t ready for them to know. Don’t tell them.”
“I already did. I didn’t want him to have to do it himself.”
Dain swore. “All right. Tell them, uh, tell them they can’t let Marc know that they’re aware of this.”
“Can’t let Marc know? Marc? There’s no way. We’ll have to tell him. Never mind. I’ll tell him.”
“Wait until I get there.”
Dain Ardin interrupted. “We can’t just drop this on him. We need to stall him. I’m on the stair and he’s not here.”
“He just left the arbor and he’s not in a hurry either. I can catch up to him.”
“I’ll wait here,” Dain Ardin said. “Take your time.”
“No kidding. That’s the point.” Dain got a flash of the three maids that Dain Ardin was watching. “Now, wait a minute…”
“Don’t you even talk to me about it. Besides, the best way I know to distract someone with a problem is to give them another one.”
“The key phrase here is the way you know,” Dynan said.
Dain shut out the rest of that debate, and stepped up the pace. Avry followed him. “Get everything straight?” he asked.
“Good. What are we doing?”
“Worried it won’t work?”
“I’ve seen what happens when he loses control. Yes, I’m worried.”
“We have to break this to him slowly. Dynan told his parents the whole damn story and Marc didn’t want that. Maralt’s man brought the Talryns here. Maralt paid a visit to Dynan today while we were all busy somewhere else. Marc and I were kept and didn’t know it. Dynan may have been influenced in the same way.”
“Influenced to do something Marc wouldn’t like on purpose?”
“Yes. Dain Ardin is waiting on the stairs. Dynan is on his way down to tell Marc what he did. Marc’s reaction depends on how we handle this. Action. Reaction. They’re messing with us again. Here’s where it gets worse. There’s no way to tell whether it’s the Gods or the other side who are fiddling with events. The Gods could be the ones who want the Talryn’s to know, regardless of what Marc wants. Could also be that they don’t have any idea how this is supposed to go, only that it’s supposed to happen. Leaves us to try and figure out who is doing what.”
They followed after Marc, keeping their distance while Dain explained quietly. Avry glanced at him again. “What are you going to do?”
Avry almost stopped when Dain shrugged. “It’ll be all right. Really.”
“Unless he turns into a dragon, in which case it won’t be all right.”
“We’re not going to let that happen. He’d leave first.” Avry didn’t look like that thought gave him any comfort. Dain shook his head and caught up with Marc. He draped his arm around him as they entered the main hall. “You don’t have any sisters do you?”
“No,” Marc said, looking at him. “Why?”
“Too bad. Not for me, you understand. I’m perfectly happy with Bronwyn, but my brother, now he’s a different story.” Dain nodded to Dain Ardin who was talking with several pretty girls and doing a good job of disrupting their work. “I was just thinking how convenient it’d be if you had a sister. Easier on everyone else, too. Speaking from experience, there’s nothing worse than someone like me running around loose on the world.”
“If I had a sister, I wouldn’t let her near him.”
“Don’t go up yet,” Dain said, and pulled on him. “He’s actually making some progress, and she’ll feel like she has to go back to work if you’re around.”
“Really? You think?”
“Help us out here, Marc.”
“I don’t want him thinking he can go near Bronwyn.”
“Now that’s an interesting problem, considering that you’re the same person,” Marc said.
“We’re not the same.”
“And he’s been with her before.”
Dain glared at him. “We’re not the same.”
Marc shook his head and smiled for a second. “How is Garan taking all this anyway?”
“He’s a little confused. How would you feel if you went from not having a father to having two practically overnight? Double the opportunity for punishment. Poor kid. So we decided that Dain Ardin would be like an uncle instead.”
“Is that where the brother reference comes from?”
“Have to call him something. Damn, there’s Meg.”
Meg Wrinn was a large, matronly woman who’d acted as surrogate mother for as long as Dain could remember, even before their mother died. She wore the usual crisp black and white Palace uniform, and had her hair up in a tight bun. He didn’t know her official title, except to know she was in charge of everything that went on inside the Palace, and everyone as well.
“It must be interesting for you to watch yourself work the girls,” Marc said.
“We’re not the same.”
Marc smiled again as Dain Ardin was shooed away and the maids sent back to their work. The one girl he’d taken special interest in offered a rewarding smile as she went up the stairs, which Dain Ardin happily returned. Meg, however, wasn’t smiling at all. “Nice to know I can still do it,” he said as they joined him.
“That remains to be seen,” Marc said. “I don’t think Meg is going to let you near that girl.”
“I’ve gotten around the iron fortress before.”
“You know, I was just thinking,” Dain said, frowning a little as the implications sank in. “Once we’re joined, how do you think Bronwyn will feel about your, or our lack of fidelity?”
Dain Ardin smiled. “I’m not with Bronwyn right now. You are.”
“But you will be at some unknown time in the future and doesn’t that complicated things just a little?”
“Not for me.”
Dain frowned again. “Maybe I should ask her.”
“Ask her? Are you crazy?”
“I don’t want you wrecking what I have now just because you can’t wait.”
“Then I guess you better not tell her.” Dain Ardin rolled his eyes at the thought.
“Then I guess I’ll have to tell Meg how you intend to get around her, and every other trick we’ve ever used.”
“All right. Fine. Then I’m taking Bronwyn to the Ball tonight.”
“No you’re not.”
Dain Ardin gaped at him. “Then you’re not telling Meg or Bronwyn anything.”
“Yes I am.”
“It’s been two years! What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t think you want me to answer that. Besides, what’s another week in the larger scheme of things?”
“No it isn’t.”
Dain Ardin held his hands up to stop Dain from going on. “What if, just for argument’s sake, it’s longer than that? What if we’re never joined again? What then?”
Marc held up his hand. “You two can stand here and argue about this if you want. I’m going up.”
Dain smiled after him, and glanced at Avry. “One mission objective complete. He’s in a better mood.”
“You better not be serious about this,” Dain Ardin said.
“Of course I’m serious. You’re not going to fool around on her.”
Dain Ardin stared again. “I can’t believe that you, of all people, are telling me this. You!”
“You, me. What’s the difference? One day, we’re going to be stuck with each other.”
Roland moved ahead and Avry got between them while as they followed Marc up. “Why don’t you both do without? It’d be fair that way.”
“What’s fair about that?” they both said together. Dain Ardin shook his head and caught up with Marc.
Avry pulled on Dain’s arm. “So that’s all there is to this? He’s in a better mood now?”
“Not quite. Dynan has to tell him that his parents know the whole story. That good mood isn’t going to last and we don’t know if God or Demon is going to stick their finger in again. We can hope not, but that’s about it.” They reached the ballroom, but found the entire entrance covered by a large blue drape. Marc was talking to Loren. “What’s this?” Dain asked, looking up at the curtain. When he moved to look inside through a break in the drape, Loren stopped him.
“No peeking. You’re not allowed.” She smiled at him, but then turned on Dain Ardin. “What’s this I hear about you flirting with one of my girls?” While Dain Ardin stammered over his answer, Loren firmly told him to seek his pleasures elsewhere. “Lyeda is just a girl. She’s too young.”
“Those are the best kind.”
Dain cringed when Loren’s face flushed in anger. She pulled Dain Ardin off a few paces, frowning darkly as she spoke. Before long, he was nodding quickly to everything she said. Marc laughed and turned for the stairs while Dain Ardin managed to extricate himself away from Loren. Dain smiled over at her and she winked at him before disappearing behind the curtain. “Even better.”
He saw Dynan then, coming out from the Royal quarters. He was already dressed for the evening, all done up in silver and blue, and he seemed better for the sleep he’d gotten. Most of the bruises on his face were hardly visible anymore. The long scar on the side of his face was less pronounced. His hands remained bandaged and he still carried a comboard, which meant he couldn’t hear yet. He looked worried as Marc drew near, and Dain felt his own nervousness start anew. He doubted that Marc would react well and hurried to catch up with them as they went back into the hall.
As Dynan explained, Marc stopped short, and stared at him before he shook his head and walked off. Dain Ardin went with him, but Dain went to Dynan. “At the time,” he said, “it seemed like the right thing to do. Now I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“He’ll be all right, Dynan. We’re being manipulated you know, which means there’s a purpose of some sort to the entire sequence of events.”
Dynan shook his head. “I can see that now. Maralt said Marc would turn against me.”
“Maralt is an ass. You know better.”
“Except it seems likely that he’s the one who suggested I tell the Talryns.”
“We don’t know that for certain. It just as easily could have come from the other side. They’re grinding him down. Taking away every last bit of resistance. Making him accept it, no matter how difficult or heartbreaking.”
“Lest heart be broken.”
“That’s right, and I really hate it that they’re sucking me into this thing.”
“Maybe you better go on.” Dynan nodded to where Marc sat at the end of the hall with Dain Ardin. “I have to go see if I can’t appease Danetha. She’s horrified that I’m…well, never mind.”
“Taking Liselle to the Ball? At least some good will come from it.”
“It seems like I can’t make it through a single day without making someone really mad at me. The Talryns think I’m the biggest jerk who ever lived.”
“They don’t mean it. They’ll feel better when they see Marc. He isn’t going to let them blame you.”
He shook his head. “I have to go.”
Dain stopped him with a hand on his arm. “I’m not mad at you. Just worried.”
His brother smiled a little at that. “Thanks Dain.”
“What I’m here for.”
He went to join Marc and Dain Ardin, meaning to sit with them, but Bronwyn came from her room looking absolutely stunning in an emerald green gown with her hair done up with a few strands framing her face. Dain was instantly enamored. He started to smile and say so, but she was frowning. “Your son was in the arbor again today, and so was Prince Durnin. This time, Dynan got involved. I was informed that Garan is to be suitably punished. You’re going to go in there and do it. He’s waiting for you.”
Dain stared at her, then clamped his mouth shut again. “No.”
“What do you mean no? You have to.”
“No, I don’t. I’m not going to give him a spanking Bronwyn, so save your breath. It doesn’t work. It didn’t keep me out of trouble and it won’t keep him out of it either. All that brand of punishment did for me was make me afraid of my father. I mean, it’s not like he did it that often, but I never forgot it, and I’m not going to do that to Garan. I’ll talk to him. I’ll figure out some other way to get it through his thick little head how he’s expected to behave around here, but I will not resort to hitting him.”
“All right, Dain. You do what ever you think you can stomach. When it doesn’t work, maybe you’ll come to your senses and stop acting like a little boy yourself. I have to attend the Queen. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Dain watched her go, mumbling that maybe she wouldn’t see him, and sat with Marc. Dain Ardin smiled after Bronwyn. “Sure you don’t want to change your mind? Because I’m pretty sure I can handle her if you—”
“Oh shut up.” He turned from him and found Marc only managing a half smile. He forgot about Bronwyn, or put her as out of mind as he could manage. “Come on, Marc. Let’s go see your folks. They’re probably convinced by now that we’ve been lying about everything.”
The Talryn’s were waiting in the back parlor of Marc’s rooms, talking with Ambrose, and the moment Marc heard their voices he stopped where he was. He backed up and started shaking his head. “I can’t do this. No, I can’t. Let go of me, Dain.”
“Only if you promise not to run away. We can go back to the beach.” Dain looked up and saw Trey in the doorway behind them. “No, don’t turn around. We can go anywhere you want.”
Dain started shaking his head because Trey was going to speak, even as Dain Ardin moved to make him leave. “Trey, listen,” he said. “He’s all right, but this is more complicated than you think. Let’s just go in here—”
Dain followed Marc down to the floor, afraid to loosen his grip. Marc was in sudden pain and trying to control it. “I’m right here, Marc. I’ve got you.”
“I can’t stop this.”
Ambrose appeared in the far doorway. “Don’t come in here,” Dain said, and behind him a vacuum opened, a black hole that surged toward him even as he tumbled away from it, trying to pull Marc with him. He couldn’t. An unseen force lashed Marc in place.
A whispering hiss reached Dain’s ears, joined by another and another, tripling in intensity and nearing. Words formed on the edge of hearing. You can stay with them, they said. Join us, and you will keep your family forever.
Dain grabbed Marc, pulling back with all his strength. Dain Ardin joined him. Beneath them, Marc cried out, but the sound grew quickly to a cry of agony. That changed to a suppressed scream when they managed to move him a half pace away. He curled in farther, tightening into a ball and hardening beneath their hands.
“He’s shielding us.”
“Marc, don’t do it!” Dain pulled on him again. “Hold on to me, damn it! Don’t listen to them. You have to fight this, or we’re all going in there together, because I am not going to let you go. They’ll have to peel my dead hands off you before I’ll do that. So you better start…”
He gritted his teeth and tightened his arms, hauling as hard as he could. At the same time, he beat through the shield Marc had erected. It was like stepping inside a bolt of lightning. “Take my hand, Marc.”
When he did, a loud crack erupted over them. An immediate pitched ringing took its place. Dain fell back as counter force disappeared. Marc and Dain Ardin fell with him. The vortex sealed closed, leaving the room just as it had been, silent except for the sound of them gasping for air.
“There see? I knew you could do it,” Dain said, trying to catch his breath. He collapsed back on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. “Yes, sure, I’m ready to go to the Ball now. What about you?”
Dain Ardin leaned up on his elbow. “You think they’ll wonder why if we’re not there?”
Dain looked at the other faces watching them and straightened. Marc was curled up and shaking. He gathered him up and held him. “We’re all right. Another test passed.”
Farina Talryn moved to his side, and Dain handed Marc over to her. It took him a long time to summon up the courage to look at her, slowly relaxing under the soothing litany of her assurances.
Dain tried to stand, but found that he couldn’t, so he crawled over to lean against the couch next to Dain Ardin. “I feel like someone just hit me over the head with a rock.”
“More like a boulder.”
“Can we at least skip the display?” Dain asked.
“You promised Loren we would do it.”
Dain groaned. “Then it has to be shorter.”
“You’ll be fine when we get around to it. I think we’re last anyway. Right after the Prince’s Guard comes in and does their bit.”
“What are they doing?”
“They’ll march around and show off, and then we get to do our mock battle between them.”
“Do they know that?”
“I guess. Come on, we need to get dressed.” Dain Ardin struggled to his feet, wincing as he did.
Dain looked over at Marc. He was still shaken, but talking to his family in a whisper. Ambrose stood in the doorway, smiling as he watched. “I’ll stay with them. I’m not expected at the Ball anyway. Go on,” he said.
Dain nodded, but scooted over to sit by Marc. “We’re going to do our civic duty here. You going to be all right?”
“He’ll be fine,” Farina answered for him when Marc only managed a nod.
“If you need us for anything we’ll only be downstairs. Just ask Pop and he’ll get us. Marc might need to rest,” he said, “and that could happen pretty fast. Don’t let him stand by himself.”
Marc straightened a little. “You see, Mother, Dain has been my surrogate father, mother and brother all in one.” He smiled, and then winced when he moved too fast. “Are your ears ringing?”
“Mine too,” Meril Talryn said as Dain nodded, and Trey agreed.
“What was that?” Trey asked.
Dain stood, groaning at how stiff he felt. “Something you’ll want to run from if you ever see it again. Are you going to be able to shield them, Marc, or do want Dain Ardin and I to try?”
“I’ll do it.”
“All right. What do you want me to tell Shalis?” Dain realized as he asked that the Talryns probably didn’t know about his sister’s relationship with Marc, and he got a look for the question.
“Tell her I’ll be down in time for the Ball, but not dinner.”
“The Ball? You’re not coming to the Ball.”
“I have to be there. We have enough unflattering talk going around as it is. Besides,” he said, and with his father’s help pushed to his feet slowly, “I’m not going to let them stop me.”
Dain understood who he meant and smiled grimly. “The devil be damned? All right. We’ll see you there.”
They left him in the care of his family and Ambrose, with Marc asking about some food. Lady Talryn informed him that she’d been fixing one of his favorite meals and Marc smiled at that. Dain turned for the door out.
“We’re getting better at this,” Dain Ardin said, as they walked to their rooms. “Just think what would have happened had we not known it was coming.”
“He’s probably going to fall over some time tonight.”
“He’ll have to beat me to it then,” Dain said. He stopped short outside the door to his rooms. His room this time, instead of Dynan’s, walking with Dain Ardin without thinking about where he was headed.
“Trust me, there aren’t any rats in here. I don’t tolerate them too well either.”
“I haven’t been in here since Logue killed my attendant.”
“I know. I know why. Your new attendant, his name is Lin, brought these two really big dogs with him. They’ve taken care of the three rats that the guards missed.” Dain brightened at that thought. “They’re trained too. Besides, I don’t think you have any clothes in Dynan’s room that aren’t ripped. The clothier is about to lose his mind every time he hears you need more.”
“Are we making him a rich man?”
“Rich and busy. He’s happy. He has a brand new shop. We’re giving him enough work that he’s hired two new hands, and he’s now having to send business down the line.”
As he spoke, the door was opened for them, and Dain Ardin walked in. He stopped in the study and whistled. There wasn’t much else to do except follow him, but Dain couldn’t go in the room. He felt the walls start to close in on him and almost turned to leave, but the next instant two dogs bounded in. They were silver-grey, had thick fur and a broad face. Dain wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of those teeth either. Dain Ardin held up his hand and they dropped obediently to the floor. They seemed pretty happy to see him, tails wagging.
“This is the other one I’ve been telling you about,” he said and smiled. “Get him.”
“What? Wait a minute.”
Dain instantly had two dogs in his face, licking him before they knocked him down to the floor. He didn’t have a prayer of avoiding a bath, so he gave up trying. “All right. Yes. Thank you,” he said after a few minutes of being researched. “That’s enough. Thanks.”
When he sat up, he realized he was in the middle of his study. He could still see the two dead men covered in rats. The dogs’ presence did help ease his fear that more would somehow materialize. “Too bad for them,” he said petting the darker of the two. It put its head on his shoulder and made him smile.
Dain Ardin reappeared in the doorway. “Come on. We’re not going to get there in time to eat if we don’t hurry.”
They ended up not bothering to try, learning that a third of the meal had already been served. Instead, they went to the kitchens. “Don’t you two come in here,” Meg Wrinn said the moment she saw them. “I’ll not have you disrupting the work in here. Not tonight.”
“We’re starving, Meg,” Dain Ardin said, smiling at her. “Please?”
“And you missed half the meal that you were intended to have.” She looked at them skeptically. “You’re here just to eat and go?”
“Yes, exactly. We’ve had enough trouble for one night anyway.”
She relented slightly, pointing them to the table in the corner. They’d eaten more than a few meals in the same spot. “I suppose you mean when the temperature all of a sudden turned cold down here and your brother had a spell about the same time.”
“What kind of spell?” Dain asked while she got them utensils and a glass of wine.
“Nothing anyone else really noticed. Distracted is what they said. It was more than that, but he covered it well enough. I noticed our Lord Chancellor isn’t attending.”
“He’ll be at the Ball, but yes, that’s the trouble we mean. So we have a good reason why we missed dinner. Can we eat now?” Two serving maids came in, talking and laughing until they saw them. They steered a large tray that had three covered servings left. “See, you won’t even have to go through any extra trouble.”
“I’ll not have any of it from you either.” She nodded briskly to the girls. “Go get the rest of what they missed. I expect they’ll eat it all.
She turned to the guards – Avry Tor, Roland Clarke and a new guard, whose name was Kenon Knoll. Like the others, he was a high-ranking Lieutenant, large and well armed. He was the replacement for Jarrid Rohn, who’d died at the Governor’s Ball. He was taller than Ralion, had the same build, but reminded Dain of Sheed. He was probably brought in as another double just like Avry and Roland. In a crowd, they would walk right next to him and take the first laser hit, or thrown dagger if there was an attack. Dain had to wonder why they had three guards following them around. Maybe Dynan was worried they wouldn’t show up at the Ball like they were supposed to.
“What about you men?” Meg asked the guards. “Have you eaten?”
“We have, but thank you, Meg,” Roland answered.
“Well there’s more if you want it.” She went off.
“Sit down, Avry. You’re blocking the view,” Dain Ardin said, trying to see around him.
“Don’t you even start,” Dain said.
“What? I’m not allowed to look either?”
“No, because looking leads to come join us, which leads to what are you doing later.”
“Is that the way it works? I didn’t know that.” He smiled at the girl who brought out the rest of the food. “I can skip all the preliminaries if it’ll make you feel any better. What are you doing later on?”
The maid gasped as he pulled her down on his lap, but she didn’t try to get away from him either. “Your Highness, you’re going to get me in trouble.”
“Meg is down at the other end of the kitchens.”
“She’ll be back.”
“Not before you can tell me your name.”
She smiled, but shook her head as she maneuvered herself off of him. “My name is Reisha Leis, and I’m not doing anything later on.”
Dain rolled his eyes after she’d slipped away. “I can’t believe you.”
“You don’t have much room to complain.” Avry laughed.
Dain glared at the guard. “When I need your help, I’ll ask for it.”
“He can help all he wants to,” Dain Ardin said, smiling around his fork.
Dain didn’t have a chance to reply as the room started filling up with servants returning from the task of putting out the main course. After the initial surprise of finding them there, they settled to what they normally did between serving responsibilities, which was eating their own meals. It took all of five minutes before Dain Ardin had three girls sitting with them.
Dain didn’t feel like arguing with him, fairly certain of the futility of doing so. He didn’t know why it bothered him so much anyway. The girls were nice, unpretentious and only interested – at the moment – in pleasant conversation. They also seemed to take turns with them, sitting for a visit before hopping up to go take care of an errand. Dain had to admit it was a nicer way to spend his dinner than out in the dining hall. Despite his misgivings, he found himself enjoying the rotating company. If Dain Ardin was more serious in his quest for a good time, Dain supposed he couldn’t really blame him. It still scared him to death what Bronwyn would think about it once he was all one person again.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Dain Ardin asked him during a momentary lull in feminine attention. “You really don’t want me with anyone else.”
Dain shrugged and picked at a piece of fruit. “I don’t know. It’s not like this situation happens to just anyone.”
“No, only you and I.” Dain Ardin chewed his lip a moment and seemed reluctant to go on. “All right. If it’s that important to you then I won’t.” He rolled his eyes then, as if he couldn’t believe he’d just given in.
“You’re just saying that so I won’t keep an eye on you.”
“No, I’m not.”
“I’m not.” Dain Ardin frowned at him. “I realize that you’re in love with Bronwyn. I’m sure I would be too, if I was given half the chance to be around her, like ever.”
“It wouldn’t be cheating on her that way.”
“Or the other way around for that matter, being one and the same as we are.”
“We aren’t the same. Not that much anyway.”
Dain Ardin laughed at him. “You’ve had her all this time. I think it’s perfectly fair—”
“You’re turning into an old prude.”
“I’m just figuring out what’s important in life while you’re busy acting like you’re sixteen.”
“I’m not going to talk to you about this anymore. Believe what you want. I said I won’t and I mean it. You’ll see soon enough.” He stood, taking an apple with him.
Roland moved off with him, and Kenon followed. Avry waited until they were gone before he turned. “It seems to me that you and he shouldn’t be fighting with each other just before you’re going to be fighting with each other in front of a lot of people.”
“He can just get over it.”
“You’re being a little unreasonable. Bronwyn is a lot more forgiving than you’re giving her credit for. If you just talked to her—”
“Like I said, Avry, when I want your help, or your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”
“I know it’s a strange position to be in—”
“I just think you could stand to be more tolerant, but then you’ve never really been known for that particular trait, have you? If you don’t like something, you let everyone know it, loudly, and most of the time you get your way. Except this time, it’s yourself you’re fighting with. Someone who doesn’t have any tolerance either, though it seems he learned a little from where he’s been. Just think for a minute about how you would feel if your situations were reversed, and I’d appreciate it if you did that before you face each other with a sword. Which, by the way, I think is completely insane, even if you weren’t mad at each other.”
“Are you finished?”
Dain bit back a smile. “I’m ready to go now.”
“What are you smiling about? I don’t find the prospect of having to stop you two from hurting each other very amusing.”
“Maybe you should stay out of this. I don’t think you want to be publicly humiliated anyway, so don’t get involved.”
“I’m your guard. I’m supposed to protect you from harm. I took an oath that I would, no matter where the harm comes from.”
“You’re a Palace Guard first, Avry. That means Dynan owns you.”
“So what if he orders me to stop you? I don’t like that idea either.”
“Then don’t do it.”
“You’re impossible. I can’t believe…I’d rather stop it before-hand.”
“So far, you’re not doing a very good job.” Dain turned from him because he had to, or he was going to start laughing. He glanced after his other half, and then spoke to him across the distance. “All right. Avry is buying it. Who else do you want to convince that we’re going to kill each other tonight?”
Dain Ardin laughed. “Roland and Kenon just left to talk to Messel. You know, Dynan could throw everyone at us.”
“He wouldn’t do that,” Dain said and started making his way out of the kitchen.
“Sure he would.”
“Whose idea was this anyway?”
“It was your idea, stupid!”
“Well, why didn’t you talk me out of it? Never mind. Just never mind.”
“I think we’re going to be earning that meal we just had,” Dain Ardin said.
“More like the right to even live here. He wouldn’t send everyone. Especially not our guards. The entire point was for us to win together in the end, not beat us into the ground. It wouldn’t go with the ‘we’re all in this together’ theme he’s got going for this thing. He’s not mad at us for anything.”
“That could change.”
Dain paused as he reached the back hallway off the main parlor to think about that a moment. Outside, the courtyard was awash in light. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the parlor…with Loren.”
“You’re going to get us slaughtered!”
“Guess we’ll just have to see about that,” Dain Ardin said.
“And Avry calls me impossible.”
“If you’re coming, you better hurry up. Dynan has already told me to get away from her once, and she says that she knows we’re up to something.”
Dain walked into the parlor. Avry went by him into the dining hall where he took up his station just inside the door. Roland and Kenon followed. Dain Ardin turned from Loren, flashing her a smile that spoke only of trouble. Her eyes widened when she saw Dain and read his expression. He grabbed Dain Ardin by the arm and was immediately shoved back; all in plain view of every person in the hall. About four hundred sets of eyes turned their way, even as Dain Ardin backed off before they could really tell what had happened.
Loren, however, wasn’t fooled. She was close enough to see the steely glare in their eyes. “What are you doing?”
“Tell her,” Dynan said suddenly.
Dain Ardin smiled at Dain. “You tell her. I’m going in.”
Dain gritted his teeth, realizing he’d lost that point, but smiled at Loren’s bewilderment. “We’re playing a little joke on a few people,” he said in a low voice so that no one else could hear him.
“That moment at the door was pretending to be furious?”
“Exactly. But you can’t tell anyone else.” He smiled again, and felt Dynan’s presence more strongly. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see,” Dynan said through him. He took her hand, running his thumb across the finger where she used to wear her crest ring. “With maybe a little tension thrown in to make it intriguing.”
“Don’t you think there’s enough of that going around as it is?” she asked in a whisper.
“Yes. Too much. Everyone is watching Dain Ardin right now. They’re good for distraction.” Dain frowned at Dynan and pushed him out. “We aim to please, Princess. It’s what we’re here for.” He kissed her cheek. “I have to go. Don’t tell anyone.”
She rolled her eyes at him, remaining back in the shadows while he turned for the dining hall. It was a room almost as cavernous as the ballroom and was one of the more ornately decorated spaces in the building. Everything was pale yellow gold. Even the chairs were accentuated with it along the arms and back. The plates were gold rimmed, as were the glasses, stamped with the Telaerin crest. Every utensil, and even the napkins were trimmed with it. All of it was meant to convey an outward sense of immense wealth, when behind all the glitter, in reality they were pushing right up to the edge of flat broke. No one else knew that though, so all the opulence on display did its job. The hall was dazzling and the people inside it all thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Dain paused in its entrance. Normally, he would have been announced, but that didn’t happen. He turned to find the servant whose job it was to do that sort of thing.
“Which, Your Highness…which one are…”
“I’m the original. He’s the impostor.” Dain frowned at the man. “Never mind. I think everyone knows we’re both here.” Without stopping, he went straight to Dynan, who sat at a table perched on a raised dais with the other Royals. He managed to get past Dain Ardin as he greeted Marella. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Just in time for dessert, as usual.”
“We’ve already had our dessert,” Dain Ardin said, smiling suggestively as he moved to stand beside Dain, across the long table from their brother. “We’re ready for the party now.”