Kadelyn knocked on the door three times before she determined that Brance wasn’t going to answer. She hadn’t expected him to come to the door, so it was easy to wait, easy to follow the quiet polite rules in the quiet stone hall. Then she slipped the key out of her pocket and unlocked his door.
“Wait here,” she told her bodyguard softly, and stepped into the room.
Paper crackled under her feet. She rocked backward, half to shut the door firmly behind her, and half to escape the heavy map laid out on the floor. There was another map beyond it, and another half propped against the legs of the couch. Maps covered the table at the center of the room, leaned into the seat of every leather chair around it, fell off each of the side tables and continued around the floor on the far side. The windows on the right side of the room were still covered over in heavy curtains from the night before, but the papers glowed dimly yellow in the light of the single lamp on the far wall. The light caught in the long sides of scattered empty bottles, and the whole room smelled like wine. Kadelyn picked up her skirts, stepping carefully across the maps on the balls of her feet to keep the narrow heels of her shoes from tearing them.
“Brance,” she called, heading for the doorway on the far side of the room. The door there was canted open, like someone had tried to shove it shut behind them and been too tired to carry out the job. She heard him shift in the next room. He reached the door before she did, squinting out at her with mussed hair and his shirt untucked over his breeches.
“Kadelyn?” he asked. He looked surprised to see her, and pleased. His mouth tilted up into a smile, even as his eyebrows pulled together. He leaned one shoulder against the inside of the doorway. “What are you doing here?”
“You missed a council meeting,” she said quietly.
His expression slowly flattened and he pulled back. “Oh. So they sent you.”
“I volunteered,” Kadelyn told him. “Vardan told me, in more colorful terms, that he was tired of seeing your bare rear.”
Brance laughed to himself. “Really? Vardan dared use colorful language around a lady? I’ll give him a black eye for you.” Kadelyn hated the false edge on his smile. There was a brightness to his eyes, sharper than amusement.
She shook her head. “I think you owe him something better.”
Brance considered her for a moment. “So they decided to try shaming me today, instead of another lecture?”
“I suggested throwing bricks at your head until you behaved,” she told him. “But the financial advisers said we couldn’t afford that many bricks.” He laughed in surprise, really laughed, and she smiled at him.
Stepping into the room, he gave her a fast, firm hug. “I’m glad you’re looking out for me,” he said. He pushed past her and started peeling the maps up off the floor, roughly folding them back down into manageable squares.
“What’s all this for?” Kadelyn asked, turning to watch him.
He glanced at her, but finished folding the heavy paper in his hands before he answered. “I was trying to calculate the farthest place on earth. The farthest place from here.”
Kadelyn watched an empty wine bottle roll out as Brance picked up another map. “Alone?” she asked.
“Yes,” he laughed. “I was perfectly alone, I promise.” He flicked another look her way, assuring her, while still laughing at her.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” she told him quickly. “Where’s your bodyguard?”
“I don’t have one,” he told her lightly. The paper crinkled in his hands, too loud, and he watched her while he folded it, daring her to try to continue the line of conversation over the noise.
“Father hired one for you,” she said, as soon as it was quiet enough.
“He can give money to whoever he likes,” Brance told her. “It doesn’t mean that I have to keep them around.”
“And did all this take you the entire night?” Kadelyn asked. “It’s not a difficult calculation. Smart as you are, it shouldn’t have taken you long.”
“Well…” Brance turned back to her and shrugged, hands full. “It didn’t start out difficult. I could point to the other side of the world in a second flat, tell you the name of a desert as many miles away from us as physically possible inside half an hour. The Asranin Desert, it seems. But there’s a river that cuts it in half, fed out from the Beel Sea. It makes it very easy to get to, as opposed to say, the Red Run Jungle, which is hundreds of miles closer, but you have to walk through miles of woods to get into the heart of it. So, is the Asranin Desert, really the farthest? Or is distance less important than accessibility? It ended up a very philosophical question, you understand.” He laughed again. “And very detailed. I was running routes and calculations and tallying up travel days and travel costs. It took me all night, and I still don’t have an answer.”
Kadelyn looked down at the maps at her feet, noting the hash marks and notes in his sloppy, drunk writing.
“Are you going to leave?” she asked him, quiet.
He stopped exactly where he was.
Kadelyn waited for his answer, slowly dragging her gaze back to him. He watched her until she looked him in the eye, then gently shook his head.
“I can’t, Kadie,” he said.
She measured the lie, outlining the truth it was hiding.
“You shouldn’t,” she said, and strode out of the room.