As far as Cerena could see, Arnaud was just a boy with big hands, a permanent confident smile, and brown hair cut too short for fashion and too long to keep from spiking at sprightly angles. He was built like a real sailor, muscle-rounded shoulders padding out his silver-green jacket, palms bulked with old calluses, his stride permanently modified by the roll of the ocean. He was sweet, every word balanced on the line between polite and genuinely friendly, and Cerena had a hard time finding things to dislike about his company.
But when he approached, Leonne returned his greeting as if it bored her. She stopped and smiled, asked him how he liked the cooler weather they’d been having, asked if he’d heard any news from home and how his mother was doing, and never managed to lose the impression that she had somewhere she needed to be at the far end of the hall. She was polite, as she always was, but nothing more and very soon Arnaud bowed to her, said he hoped he would see her again soon, and let her and Cerena continue on their way.
They had nowhere to be and continued wandering down the open air hall in lazy steps.
Cerena glanced over her shoulder after a moment, making sure that they had sufficiently distanced themselves.
“We don’t like him?” Cerena murmured.
Leonne shoulders shook in a quick, silent laugh. “We?” she said evenly. “The clan likes him just fine. He’s been a very reasonable ambassador for the Naeris. My father was quite pleased with one of the trade agreements he proposed. They have some excellent oil refineries on their island, which we need, and Arnaud knew it, but he was still good to us.”
“You don’t like him?” Cerena corrected.
“I think that anyone who can speak that gently to a Clan Lord’s daughter should not be able to be so cutting toward servants,” Leonne said.
“No…” Cerena said. She winced in anticipation.
“I was only walking past,” Leonne told her, lips curved tensely to cover her distaste. “I was treated to every syllable of his chastising some poor girl for being ten minutes late in bringing his afternoon drink. It was like listening to a rhinoceros screaming.”
Cerena shook her head. “So, how long will you let him stay in the island?”
Leonne looked at her. “As long as he likes, as an ambassador.”
“He’s here for you,” Cerena said slowly. “Just like every other handsome moneyed man who just suddenly decided to attend the court of the Clan Lord with an unmarried heir.”
“I know,” Leonne said, just as heavily. Her mouth was tilting into a more natural smile. “I didn’t ask them to come, so I can’t ask them to leave. The most I can do is show no interest in the mean idiots and hope they notice that they bore me.”
Laughing quietly, Cerena looped her arm through Leonne’s, hugging her friend’s arm briefly as they walked. “If I’ve never said it…”
Leonne rolled her eyes. “You’ve said it.”
“… Allow me to tell you with full earnestness…
“And bombastic extravagance,” Leonne said.
Cerena squeezed her hand. “… how fortunate I feel that you are the Clan Lord’s daughter, and my grandfather milks cows.”
“On your father’s side,” Leonne said, half-glaring at her. “On your mother’s side he advises my father on homeland law, or you wouldn’t be living in my palace.” She shook her head.
Cerena pretended to sigh. “Which is a pity. I’d fit so much better in a barn.”
Leonne made a deep clicking noise, as if she had cut a groan short.
“Besides, the point is, I’m not envious of you,” Cerena said. She made a point of facing forward, though she knew that Leonne was looking over at her, still almost glaring, but too used to Cerena to really be offended. “Not at all. Couldn’t be if I tried.”
“Thank you,” Leonne said, almost eloquent enough to make it sound honest.
“And really, you’re the best one for this,” Cerena said. “You can always point out the mean idiots before they get the chance to surprise you with it. You’re so much better about it than the rest of us that break our own hearts on friends that are more artful than amiable.”
“Oh, please don’t,” Leonne murmured.
“It’s very intelligent of you,” Cerena said with a smile.
Leonne shook her head. “Go back to not being envious of me, please.”
“What?” Cerena asked.
Leonne pulled her to a gentle stop. “It’s not intelligence, Cer,” she said. “It’s suspicion. Just… horrible suspicion. I meet anyone and I assume they’re idiots, then wait very patiently and without any real expectation for them to prove that they’re not.” Leonne held her eyes, waiting for that to sink in.
Leonne looked down with a sharp, tense smile, and turned to continue on.
“I think,” Cerena said, moving on beside her. She paused on a breath she didn’t need to take. “That might feel better if you could make fun of the shape of their noses after they become confirmed idiots.”
Leonne glanced at her.
“Or their ears, or their shoes, or the way they stack their peas on their forks,” Cerena said in quick surrender. “Whatever suits you.”
Slowly, quietly, Leonne laughed.