Kadelyn allowed her bodyguard to step through the door ahead of her, let him sweep the hall for all the usual dangers, then gently dismissed him. He looked at her questioningly and glanced over his shoulder as he went. She left the door open, and stepped farther inside.
“I called for your brother, not you,” Damion said, sitting at the long redwood table under the windows. He was leaning his chin against his bent fingers, one eye lit by the afternoon sunlight and the rest of his face cut by shadow.
“I know,” she said, without looking at him.
She stopped in front of the servant standing at the ready near the door. “You can go,” she said. The girl bent in a quick bow, and hurried out.
Kadelyn turned, eying her father over her shoulder. “But I know what’s coming.”
“Did you know about it?” Damion asked.
She hesitated in her next step. Then she shook her head. “I don’t have any idea what’s happened.” She nodded to the steward, waiting at the next wall. He lowered his eyes and bowed, deep and slow as manners dictated. Then he moved for the door too.
“Paper,” Damion said. He lowered his hand, slid something on the table top. It glinted oddly in the light, but was otherwise white and square with some black ink scrawled carelessly across its face. “With gold flakes in it.”
Kadelyn raised her eyebrows appreciatively.
“He wrote his laundry list on it,” Damion said flatly.
Kadelyn looked down and took her next step. She nodded to the pair of guards at the far end of the hall. They abandoned their post at the far door slowly, but without hesitation.
“He’s been doing it for weeks,” Damion said. He clipped out the words at a tightly held steadiness, but it was starting to pick up speed.
Kadelyn met his eye carefully. She didn’t nod, or shake her head, or do anything more than look back to show him she had heard. Then she slid her eyes a little to the left, found the clerk sitting rigidly on the other side of the table, and nodded for her to leave as well. She shut the books in front of her, collected them onto one arm, bowed to Damion, to Kadelyn and excused herself from the table.
Damion didn’t look at her.
Kadelyn watched her go. “Please close the door behind you,” she said.
The clerk turned with her hand on the latch, bowed again, and eased the heavy wooden thing shut as she backed out.
“He’s been doing it for weeks,” Damion said. Now his consonants cracked harder on his tongue, clicked off his teeth. “Sending the most expensive paper I’ve ever seen to the washers just to list how many sheets he expects back!”
A knock sounded politely on the other side of the door. Damion snapped to look at it, said nothing, and a moment later the door creaked open warily.
Kadelyn caught Brance’s eye through the crack. Nodding him inside, she let out a low breath. She didn’t look at either of them as he stepped inside and shut the door again, just gathered the heavy folds of her skirt in one hand and moved to the table. Taking a seat, she set her back to Brance, and met Damion’s eye, monitory.
“Hello,” Brance said, and she could hear him smiling around the word. She resisted the urge to give him the same look, and just held still.
“Hello,” Damion returned. He tilted his head a little as he spoke, and it was a much more dangerous word in his mouth.
“You wanted to see me?” Brance said, lightly still.
Damion nodded. “Do you want to explain this to me?” He slid the paper on the table again. It caught in the light, glinted, and even the ink looked brighter than it should have been, like it hadn’t dried, never would.
There was a quiet pause on the other side of the room, then Brance started toward the table in slow, even strides. Sliding the paper off the table, he held it in both hands to examine it, tilted it from one side to the other. He glanced sideways at Kadelyn, one eyebrow creeping upward, and glanced the other way at Damion.
“I spilled a bottle of wine in bed,” Brance said. He pointed to the paper. “I thought I’d tell them it was just a very good vintage, not a violent murder.”
“With gold?” Damion demanded. “I’ve sent treaties to other Clan Lords on poorer paper.”
“Oh.” Brance dropped the offending note idly on the table. Immediately, his expression flattened, as if that was a problem that hadn’t occurred to him, and didn’t need fixing. “Well, I have a reputation to hold.” He rolled his head just to the side to give Damion an easy, proud smile.
Kadelyn dropped her head onto her fingers, shut her eyes for just a moment.
“This is absurd,” Damion snapped.
“Most of the best things are…” Brance mused. He played his finger tips along the edge of the paper, happy still. But he didn’t look at Kadelyn.
“I disagree,” Damion said. And it might have sounded like laughter, if he had given it more breath, if his voice wasn’t holding an edge like the best steel.
“You didn’t call for me over one piece of paper,” Brance said. Fingers still resting on the table, he looked at Damion, and shrugged a little. “Why am I here?”
“I can call you over a piece of paper,” Damion told him firmly. “I don’t need to mention the feather dusters made of peacock feathers that I’ve seen hanging off every hip on the palace staff. Or the pony races through the market square with a prize to the man who breaks the fewest and the most things. Or the drinking games on the roof, and the gambling in the practice courts, and the morning you set pigs loose in the great hall. You know, it was kind of you number them, though as I remember, that was gold paint on their sides, and we still haven’t found number three.”
Brance’s mouth twisted. Kadelyn heard him swallow a laugh, quiet, though he didn’t breathe for a moment. “It’s been a busy week,” he managed.
Damion rose out of his seat. “You child,” he hissed.
Kadelyn shut her eyes again. When she opened them, Brance’s smile had flattened and his eyes were focused duly in front of him.
“You’d think I raised you in the back of a horse stall, for all the way you turn everything you touch into this muck,” Damion snapped. He leaned in behind Brance’s shoulder, eyes trade on the side of his face. “You idiot. You rotter. What gives you the right? Whose money do you think you’re spending? What–”
“My own,” Brance said evenly.
Damion paused, pulled back.
Brance turned sharply, but paused before he spoke again. “I’m paying for all this,” he said. “With the money my ship has earned. So, I can do anything I like.”
Damion stared at him. Straightening slowly, Kadelyn pressed herself into the back of her chair. She took a careful breath.
“No,” Damion said, voice lower, stretched taut. “You can’t.”
Brance tried to laugh. “I think you’ll find, I can.”
“Sooner or later you’re going to look around,” Damion snapped. “And see what you’ve surrounded yourself with. And you can keep building your palace of shite, or you can remember what you actually are, and that you’re supposed to be the one to turn muck into something better.”
Brance looked back at him. And said nothing.
Taking one more breath, maybe to say something more, maybe just to fill time, Damion leaned back. He spun for the door, and slammed it behind him when he passed.
Brance pulled in a breath of his own. His shoulders rolled forward. Kadelyn leaned forward carefully, setting her elbows on her knees. She waited for him to turn toward her. He rested his hands on the table again, touched the paper and listened to it hiss on the soft wood as it slid. He took another breath.
“You didn’t have to be here for this, Kadie,” he murmured.
She looked at the floor, blinking. “When is it going to be enough?” she returned. “How angry does he need to be with you?”
He didn’t answer that. Another moment and he pushed himself straight again. “Would you do me a favor?” he asked slowly.
She nodded immediately, leaning closer to catch the look on his face.
“Tell Father’s steward to stop looking for pig number three,” Brance said. He paused, then broke into a smile, though he bit down on it immediately. Shaking his head, he looked at her. “There is no pig number three. And tell him he should remember more of how boy’s pranks work when he deals with me.”