As halls went, it was half as grand as the best Jaera had ever seen. She had spent hours waiting just inside doors in the First Lord’s mansion. On infrequent occasions, she had patrolled the edges of great rooms that belonged to the Clan Lord himself. The comfortable house of the First Lord’s younger brother did not impress her.
But she had never stood so long in the center of a room like this. The ceiling seemed a little higher than she was used to. The walls seemed wider. The hall was not particularly full, but she was used to watching the array of rich, heavy fabric and sparkling gem lines from farther away. She kept her elbows close to her sides, and moved her feet a little at a time.
“I hope you won’t take it as an insult if I say you look lost.”
Jaera looked over her shoulder at the tall man who had stopped behind her shoulder. He had her friend Zain’s shaggy blonde hair, though he was a decade older and did a better job of taming the curls. His shoulders were wide, and the muscles in his arms looked a little too large for his green jacket.
He smiled like Zain, too, the same genuine tilt in it. She assumed the smile he made a mask for other things would look like Zain’s too, and smiled back.
“I am lost,” she admitted quietly.
His smile stretched and he ducked his head, politely hiding it. “Honesty is a good tool. I’m glad you’re not afraid to use it.”
Jaera’s eyebrows lifted in mild disbelief, and she faced the rest of the room, echoing his etiquette. “You’re Kashel?” she asked, gently.
He nodded. “Though, under the circumstances, I think you could call me Kash.”
She paused, then decided to say nothing.
“How are you doing?” he asked, voice low enough to make it more than a surface inquiry. Again, he reminded her of Zain, and a little of their cousin, Terius. They had the same gentle narrowing of the eyes when they were earnest, the same square set to their jaws. Jaera watched him for a moment, then looked away again.
“I’m doing all right,” she said. She felt him examining her face. She only took a breath and reinforced her light smile.
“I’m glad,” he said after a moment.
“I’ve been wondering if you would find me tonight,” Jaera said.
He shifted, turning to her curiously.
“I have to admit,” she said very slowly. She wasn’t sure if she should be saying this, wasn’t sure if she would allow herself to continue much longer. “I’ve wondered if you thought I had stolen something from you.” She glanced up at him, quickly, just to see his reaction before it faded.
He had already set his face in a polite skin. His smile had not slipped. His shoulders and back remained relaxed.
“Because you’re marrying my cousin,” he murmured. “And gaining a First Lord’s mansion, authority, and privilege.”
“Because, under different circumstances, it might have been yours,” Jaera said.
Kashel’s mask broke, just long enough for him to smile. “Honesty can also be worth hiding,” he told her.
“Well…” she said slowly. “I figured if I’m allowed to call you Kash, then I’m allowed to be honest with you, too.”
Another smile, and his face relaxed back into its easy seriousness.
“When I was told you were engaged to Terius, I didn’t want to talk to you,” he said. “I wanted to talk to Lyneth. I thought as the current First Lord’s partner, she was the first person who should be able to voice an opinion on the fact that you just signed on to take the role.”
Kashel watched Jaera’s face carefully. She allowed herself to blink, look down, then waited for him to continue.
“I only asked her two things,” Kashel told her. “I asked if you were capable of doing her job – managing an estate like that, defending it, helping to organize a fleet, listening and helping the people under you – and I asked if you could be happy doing it until the day you were too old to continue.” He rocked forward, turning to better catch her eye. “You’re aware that it’s a job. That fire tales about the rescued guttermen taken to the lap of luxury by their noble lovers, are just fire tales. You’ve agreed to more than just a lifetime of loving one man, which is hard enough work for most.”
Jaera took another breath. Then she nodded. “I know.”
Kashel’s eyes moved from her eyes, scanning her face, touching on the set of her shoulders. When he looked back at her, he was more serious than before, his smile faded almost to nothing.
“She told me you could,” he told her.
She almost swallowed her next breath, felt it catch at the top of her lungs and fall too slowly to where it was supposed to be.
“And I don’t feel robbed.” He shook his head. “I feel relieved that I won’t have to take any of that.”
“Oh,” Jaera said.
Leaning in, he held her gaze for a moment longer. “If you think you’ve robbed me,” he whispered. “That says more about you than me. If I were to give you one piece of advice, which I know you have not asked for, it would be for you to forget that. This is yours.”
Jaera looked back at him. And she nodded.
Taking a step back, he gave her a shallow bow. He met her eye, gave her one more easy smile, and turned to leave.
“Thank you, Kash,” she said.