Lord Brance slipped into the room quietly. Nodding to the servant waiting at the wall, he let the door settle shut behind him, and took a few steady steps across the flagstones. On a good day, he would have entered at a stride that would make a lion jealous, the door swinging on its hinges, and moved immediately to the center of the room. So, Winton concluded, today was not a good day.
Glancing over his shoulder, Winton began slowly closing his ledgers, some of the day’s reports still between the pages.
“Can I help you, my lord?” he asked calmly.
Brance continued his measured pacing around the other side of the pillars that ran down the long line of the room. “The rumor is that you needed my help,” he said pleasantly.
Winton finished closing the last book, stood, and turned to face him. Leaning back against the desk, he crossed his arms. Then he uncrossed them, set his hands beside him on the edge of the desk.
“But then, is it really a rumor when you send a messenger to my door?” Brance asked.
“I don’t recall using the word help,” Winton told him.
Brance stopped, exactly where he was, half in shadow behind one of the pillars. “I don’t recall you using any words at all,” he said sharply. “You sent someone else.”
Winton stopped, pressed his lips together, looked down for one instant, then right back up.
Brance eased into his next step. “I spent a lot of money this month.”
“You did seem to enjoy yourself, my lord. If the receipts say anything,” Winton said.
“I spent too much,” Brance said. “And you’re nervous about presenting the balances to my father. Again.”
“I was supposed to cut you off, my lord,” Winton said.
“And here, I thought you did,” Brance said. He paused, just long enough to give Winton a wide-eyed, innocent look, then stepped around the last pillar, and doubled-back toward him. “I thought you’d drawn up the papers, signed them, passed them to me, that I’d signed them, and it was put down in the records that I no longer had unvouched credit in the royal treasury.”
“Yes, my lord,” Winton said.
“So, it’s not your fault that I’m well-known in town and that my name itself is a line of credit with them,” Brance said. “And it’s not your fault that the crown’s pride can’t let them go unpaid.”
“Not technically, my lord,” Winton said.
“You can go to my father, and he’ll shout at you, but not half so loud as he’ll shout at me. He’s reasonable enough not to blame you for more than a minute, and you know it,” Brance said. “But you send someone straight to my door, asking me to see my father and explain myself before you have to.”
“Is there something so wrong with that?” Winton asked.
Brance took his last few steps, closing the gap between them until he was close enough to touch Winton, close enough he might have reached out and hit him. Carefully, Winton looked up to meet his eye.
“You sent Ineli to ask me to see my father,” Brance said, voice low.
“Yes,” Winton said.
“She’s eleven,” Brance said, clean and crisp, like a knife sliding out of a sheath.
Winton looked down, without meaning to, tried to stop, and ended up looking past his shoulder. He blinked slowly, took a breath.
“You’re right,” Brance said. “I will always listen to every sweet word that comes out of her mouth. She will always have my attention, always have my time, always be the first person that I let through my door, and the last I ask to leave. But my little sister is the daughter of a Clan Lord, and you have no right to order her to carry messages like a common-trained hawk.”
Winton swallowed slowly. “I’m sorry, my lord.”
“I’ve told you before,” Brance said. “I will never put you in danger with my father.”
“Yes,” Winton murmured.
Brance leaned a little closer, dropped his voice a little lower. “But if you ever stand her in the middle of my muddy business again, I will prove to you, beyond any doubt a man can hold, that I am my father’s son. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly, my lord,” Winton said. “I apologize. Should I send my apologies to Lady Ineli as well?”
“You might,” Brance said.
Winton nodded. Brance took one smooth step back, leaned on his heel for a moment and nodded. Another breath, and he moved slowly toward the door. His stride was a little sharper than when he’d arrived, a little quicker. Winton watched him go, blinking, and catching the breaths he didn’t know he was holding.
“My lord?” Winton called.
Brance didn’t stop, only slowed as he reached for the door latch.
“Will you talk to him?”
“Of course,” Brance said without turning. “How could I let her down?”