The King shifted on his throne. It was a very quiet sound – smooth cloth whispering on smooth wood – but the room was silent and Seryn could count the exact seconds as he resettled. Then she started counting the seconds again, as he looked them over. She didn’t move, eyes trained on the flag stone beneath her.
“You may rise,” he said finally.
Seryn let Macsen stand first, counted one more breath and came up behind him. Aled stood at the same time, perfectly in time. He’d known her so long, she thought they could breathe, blink, think at the same time, if the need came. Watching the King pull his spine straighter to mirror them, she knew what they must look like: a pair of devils in his court. Even seated on a dais above them, he gathered every inch he could. His son, standing just to the right of his throne, pulled his head back a little. His queen, standing on the left, shifted toward her husband, raising her chin until it was parallel with the floor.
Seryn looked them over once, enough to catch the king’s blonde hair and rounded features, the queen’s brown hair caged in ribbons all the way to her waist, their son’s square shoulders and sandy hair, enough to memorize the look of them, then she dropped her eyes right back to the floor.
“So this is them,” the king said slowly. “You brought your keimon soldiers straight to me, without warning.” He sounded amused, but Seryn tensed anyway, just for an instant.
“I brought you soldiers,” Macsen said respectfully. “They follow orders, like any other. They’re no greater danger than your own men.”
“You’d trust them with your life?” the queen asked.
Macsen turned to her, ducked her head in half a bow. “Yes, milady.”
“What are your names?” the king asked. He looked over Macsen’s shoulder, and it was as firm as if he had used his hand to brush the man to one side. Macsen look one step back, and both Seryn and Aled dropped into another bow.
“Seryn, your majesty,” Seryn said.
“Aled, your majesty,” Aled echoed.
“I’ll have your surnames too,” the king said quickly.
Aled glanced sideways at Seryn.
“We don’t have any,” Seryn said, without looking at either of them. “We don’t know our parents’ names, or where they were from. We were raised at Rendren Barracks. We come from the first contingent, third briggad, and we need no other name.”
“Rise,” the king said.
Seryn planted her foot, and stood. She looked the king in the eye, steady. He looked back, eyebrows slanted together, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of her statement.
“How old were you when they found you?” he asked.
“I was four years old, your majesty,” Seryn said.
The king turned to Aled, just long enough to collect his answer – five, your majesty – and he looked back at Seryn. “Did you like Rendren?”
Seryn hesitated. She had not. She’d traded a mattress beside the fire with Momma’s hand always in reach, for a bunk sandwiched between children who cried in the middle of the night. It had smelled. By morning, the crowded room was so warm, she went running for the door before the morning bells clanged the others awake. She hadn’t slept much that first year, but it seemed far away now.
She remembered not liking the barracks, but couldn’t feel it anymore. It was too familiar, and Momma’s hand seemed too strange.
Macsen glanced at her, reminding her to answer, and she tilted her mouth into a smile.
“I missed my father’s dog,” she said.
The king and his son laughed. Aled bent his head.
“How long did you train?” the king asked.
“We start when we come to the barracks,” Seryn told him. “And receive our assignments the summer after we turn eighteen.”
“How old are you?” he asked, and now he just sounded curious.
“Twenty-two, your majesty.”
“And how long will you stay with your king’s army?” the queen asked, sharp.
Seryn and Aled looked at her in surprise.
“Until we die,” Seryn said haltingly. “Your majesty.”
The king and queen glanced at each other.
“As you can see, my lord, my lady,” Macsen said. “It’s a good solution.”
“I can see someone calling it heavy-handed,” the king said. He looked at Macsen, sharply, without moving his head. “That’s a long career to demand, and no way out.”
“The problem is wide enough, you need a heavy hand to cover it,” Macsen told him.