Cade’s brother, Ryden had a very reasonable face. He had a firm jaw that never set hard enough to be called square, and his features were cut in rounded lines, balanced and a comfortable shade off perfect. His blonde hair leaned toward sensible brown in the right light without losing its shine. As a kid, he’d been able to ask for outrageous things – a solitary hunting trip, a fifth dog for the great hall, permission for the two of them to raft the white rapids on the south side of the island by themselves – and get them, because they sounded as easy as requesting a fork with dinner. As an adult, Cade didn’t hear the absurdity of Ryden’s requests until someone else echoed them.
“You want to take one of our sons?” Tamzen repeated.
Cade glanced at his wife, surprised at the soft edge on her words, then just as quickly back to Ryden.
Sitting across the room, he smiled weakly, eyes on the floor, head tilted to one side. “I said I wanted to take one of your sons home with me,” he said. “Somehow it sounds so much harsher when you shave off the extra words.”
“Why?” Tamzen asked.
Ryden looked to Cade for help, but continued smoothly. “My house is large and empty with only one of my own. My boy spends most of his time alone, or with tutors. I’d rather see him getting into trouble, running with a friend. It would be good for him.”
Tamzen glanced at Cade as well, maybe for permission. Cade shrugged.
“Most lonely boys get to pick out a pet dog,” she said slowly. “Not a pet cousin.”
Ryden turned to her slowly, eyes narrowed. “Don’t sell me so short. That’s not what I’m suggesting.”
“Perhaps you’d better explain it again,” she returned.
“You have seven sons,” Ryden began.
“And no spares,” Cade told him.
Ryden paused. Leaning his elbow against the arm of his chair, he covered his mouth while he glanced between the two of them. Somewhere on the other side of the heavy door, Cade could hear the boys running, shouting, playing some war game with rules he couldn’t trace. He waited until he heard one of the servants outside as well, until he knew he wouldn’t be called in to sort out a broken rule or a broken arm, before he returned his attention to the study with its muted sound and soft fire in the grate. He thought Ryden was listening to the game as well from the way he turned his ear toward it. He listened longer, and his expression was caught between a smile and rough wishfulness.
“It’s only fair for you to gang up against me,” he said. “This is your house, your island, your place to say no. But the fact is that you have seven sons.” He nodded politely toward Tamzen. “And you’ll have eight in a few months.”
Tamzen touched her stomach. She wasn’t really showing yet, but there was a roundness to her skirt that hadn’t been there a few weeks before. Cade put his hand on top of hers. They both liked the surprise.
“You have three already on the water, signed and happy on ships,” Ryden continued. “You should have four.”
Tamzen laughed, short and sharp. “Are you trying to make my house as empty as yours?”
Ryden shook his head. “Lainan is twelve. He’s two years past when he should have started hauling sail. Don’t pretend you haven’t been complaining loudly about not finding him a post yet.”
“I hate it when I feel like you have me in a corner, and I don’t even know what corner it is,” Cade told him.
Ryden smiled. “How hard do you think it will be to find the next four a post? I’m offering to help you. Let me take one home with me. Let him run around with my boy, get into all the trouble he’d get into here, and when he gets old enough, I’ll put him on a ship and give him everything I can. It’s a better opportunity than he’ll have here with six brothers ahead of him.”
“Oh,” Tamzen murmured, too low for Ryden to hear. She looked at Cade with raised eyebrows. “At least we know which one he wants…”
“I’m not trying to steal a son from you,” Ryden said. “He’d still be yours. I’m just offering a way to help us both.”
Tamzen kept her gaze on Cade, eyebrows high, taking a deep breath and letting it out as slowly as she knew how.
Cade shook his head. “If that’s what you’re offering we don’t want it.”
Ryden sat up straight.
“You heard me,” Cade said, serious, before Ryden could question him.
Ryden blinked, uncertain.
“You’re asking to take our boy out of reach,” Cade said. “I won’t be able to raise him. He won’t be able to come to me for help. He won’t wake me up in the middle of the night because he’s done something stupid and he needs me to cover it up or fix it or rub his nose in it. If you’re going to take him that far, I’ll need a promise you’ll do those things yourself. I’ll need a promise that you’re going to steal him, and do it so well, he never knows that a crime was ever committed.”
It took Ryden a long moment to burst into laughter. He hung his head until he could catch his next breath, then looked up at Cade. “Should I smuggle him out at midnight then?”