Brance aged a decade the moment he realized his father was frightened. He aged another decade each second that he watched his father’s face, waiting to be wrong, before he finally tore himself away. He glanced around the High Hall, crushed to silence under the weight on his chest. Tired eyes made familiar things hazy. Things he had never seen before stood out, blatant, severe.
He sat beside his father in this hall for years, watching men come and go. A dozen common petitions a day on court days. A dozen advisers with their agendas any other day. He’d heard all the news brought before a Clan Lord since he was ten, installed in the heavy wooden seat beside his father’s ornate chair. Fleet movements. Trade agreements. Laws amended, recanted and made. Court rulings. Alliances shaped and broken.
His father gave him callous instructions the first day he’d been invited into the hall: Watch. Learn. Understand so that you can do the same in your time. Watch. Learn to follow hard orders until then. He had watched for six years, learned consequences and commands, but never understood the thoughts that ran through the pause before a heavy decision.
Now he caught it. Not thought: a hitch, the paralysis on the edge of a cliff, the tightened grip on a lifeline. Fear.
Brance looked around the hall, trying to shake the image of it and found it creeping in the corners. His mother sitting on his father’s other side. His sisters behind her. The nobles milling at the back, wary or timid or resigned, or content to hang on this line and watch the world rock. It was in the guards at every door, lacing their heavy armor tight to their chests. It was the fitting of the stones in the walls, unbreachable and immobile. He looked and he wondered if he had ever taken a breath without taking it in as well.
There was a man speaking, standing on his knees in front of Brance’s father. He’d come in from one of the other islands. Brance watched him take a breath between words and wondered if he could feel it sneaking into his lungs.
Brance looked back at his father. He’d always been a mirror image of him. Same dark eyes, same curling hair. He was earning the same muscular build, the same bright, calculated smile, the same sword calloused hand. And he finally caught the other reflection: the hesitation and the retreat.
And he stripped it away, with one fierce thought.
Standing, he stepped down from his seat. The man giving his petition stuttered to a stop. Brance nodded to him, bowed sharply to his father and strode off across the hall.
“Brance!” his father barked.
Brance kept walking, bootsteps echoing in the empty hall. The nobles murmured to each other, filling the edge of the room with a low hiss as his father called his name again. He didn’t turn back until he was almost out the door. “My lord,” he said, and left immediately.