Kadelyn paused in the hall as she neared her rooms, listening to an echo from behind her door that didn’t match her footsteps. Noach slowed behind her. She could feel him glance down at her, catch the look on her face and drop into immediate silence. The echoes continued, and the shuffling behind her door sounded clearly in the open hall.
Immediately, Noach stepped in front of her and put a hand to the sword on his hip. He glanced behind them, sighting down the empty hall for anything they might have missed as they walked past. Kadelyn listened closely, trying to still even her own breath. Whoever was inside was slowing as well, as if he’d heard them coming. Silence settled in heavily, like ice, echoing everything that didn’t belong.
Slowly, Noach turned back to the door. “Wait here,” he said, and gently pressed her toward the stone wall. She straightened her spine and pressed her hands to the stones, watching him slide his sword out of its sheath. Holding the blade between him and the door, he eased the latch open. Kadelyn watched his face as the light from the room slid across it. His eyes turned with the door, scanning the room the instant it was revealed. After a moment, he stepped inside.
“Good evening, Lord Brance,” he said evenly.
Kadelyn shut her eyes, sighing, and stepped in behind him.
Paper streamers spun around the walls and crisscrossed the ceiling in white and blue twists. Candles flickered on the table, the mantle, the walls, perched on almost every surface that could hold them. Some burned in clean white flame, others in smoky blue, others in deep purple, all of them throwing shadows and light as they pleased, so the floor looked a little like an ocean deliberating between the tides. The high table just inside the door was piled with cakes, large, small, dripping with icing, and richly plain-faced. Fruit lined the plates, shining in the firelight. Brance still stood by the wall, spinning streamers and tacking them in place.He looked up at her, smiled, and continued.
Circling the room, Noach glanced through the inner door to check on her private rooms and looked back to Kadelyn. He gave her a tiny shrug, and a straight face.
“What are you doing?” Kadelyn asked Brance.
Brance happily put the streamers down. “I’m celebrating,” he told her. When his smile didn’t change her expression, he spread his arms wide, and gestured to the room, as if it could explain everything.
“Why?” Kadelyn asked.
“Because we’re alive,” Brance said.
Kadelyn waited for him to continue.
He laughed at little to himself. “I know, I know,” he said, taking a few steps toward her. “It’s one of those things that most people don’t think warrants seventeen cakes.” He pointed idly to the table. Kadelyn glanced at them, vaguely impressed with the number.
“But in a war,” Brance continued. “I thought it might be more understandable.”
Kadelyn drew in a deep breath and slowly turned back to face him. She blinked at him.
“And,” Brance said. He paused, holding back a grin as if this was the best part. “It turns out, that I’ve already missed sixteen days that I could have been celebrating. So, I had to start big.”
Kadelyn met his eyes dully. “I’m surprised you kept it to such a small party,” she said and slipped past him.
“You knew,” Brance said. His voice dropped quickly, turning low notes like cards from the dealer’s hand, pinning her attention.
She looked over her shoulder to meet his eyes. “Yes,” she said.
“You knew that sixteen days ago, our father ordered eight ships to attack the Isander, without any warning, and you decided not to tell me?” Brance asked.
Kadelyn shook her head. “We didn’t hide it from you. If you had attended council, you would have known.” She hesitated. “You could have even argued against it.”
“Did you?” he demanded.
Kadelyn stopped. Slowly, she turned faced him. His shoulders were squared with tension. His hands were curled into fists and she wasn’t sure he knew it. And they were shaking. Kadelyn swallowed, looking down to take away the feeling of looking in a mirror. Deliberately, she untwisted her fingers. She ordered the buzzing under her skin to stay just where it was, not to touch her bones and set her shaking too. It ached, and she ignored it.
“Of course, I did,” she said. She held his gaze to make sure he heard every word. “And of course, it didn’t matter.”
Brance took a breath.
“I could have used your help,” Kadelyn whispered.
Brance watched her. He opened his mouth a little, and she waited for the joke he would lay against her statement. Without meaning to, she raised her chin and braced against it. It was nothing he hadn’t done a thousand times. He shut his mouth again.
“That wouldn’t have mattered either,” he told her gently.
Kadelyn watched him turn for the door, pull the latch, swing it open, step out into the hall. Before he pulled it shut, he stopped and looked back at her.
“Please eat some cake,” he said. “It’s good.”