There was a sharp knock at the door to Karleigh’s rooms. She folded her book shut, left it on the table, and answered it with a slow step back to keep her skirts out of the way as it brushed against the thick carpet.
When she saw her uncle, she smiled. “Back so soon?” she asked. It had only been two years since she’d last seen him.
Toar looked tired, as he always did, with a smile hovering one good breath under the surface. It took him that breath to catch the full weight of her joke, and then he did smile, his usual slanted twist of the lips. Shaking his head, he stepped inside.
“Good to see you, too,” he said, and gave her a sharp little bow.
She dipped a shallow curtsey and motioned him farther into her sitting room. He followed her hand, and his apprentice, Jaera followed him, one and a half steps behind him in her proper place.
She had gotten a little taller since they’d last met, her hair a little longer. She still kept it in the same dark knot on the back of her head, loose like she’d thrown it up that morning and hadn’t bothered to touch it since. The rough, salt-air curls, and the pieces that fell away to frame her face gave her a careless elegance that never would have held in the grandeur of a court hall, but filled a small room like this well.
Jaera smiled, too, as she met Karleigh’s eye. It was a deeper thing, easier to miss in the movements of her face, so that it was sometimes hard to tell just what had set her smiling, and the shades that changed it from mask to genuine happiness were close together. Today, though Karleigh caught the happy edge of it.
“Don’t worry,” Jaera murmured, her voice raised just enough to know that Toar would overhear. “He just doesn’t like having to listen to his own sense of humor.”
Karleigh feigned a sigh. “Oh, please tell me I didn’t sound like him.”
Jaera’s smile stretched and Toar made the politest grunt he’d ever put together, warning them to stop before he left politeness far back.
Karleigh shut the door and swept back into the room. Pulling a cord on the wall, she stepped back to her seat in the rough circle of couch and padded chairs that made up the center of the room.
Toar sat across from her. He leaned back, folding his long frame into the curve of the chair. Meeting Karleigh’s eye, he held it for a moment, and that passed for a cordial greeting between the two of them. Karleigh imagined sometimes, that she asked him how he was, and he asked her how she was, and they pleasantly explained their good health and situations. It seemed a good enough way to explain their silent examinations of each other. They simply took away their own answers to questions they rarely asked.
Satisfied that Toar was well, and as happy as he ever was, she looked to Jaera. The younger girl was still hovering just behind him, looking at the chairs as if it had occurred to her that she might sit. But she didn’t, and, eventually, she lifted her head.
“I’ve been hearing rumors about you again,” Karleigh told her.
Jaera raised her eyebrows, curious and amused. Karleigh had never received anything else from her.
Toar straightened a little, and glanced between the two girls, interested in a good story as well. “Is she breathing fire again?” he asked. “Because she almost can now.”
She cut him a glance, curiosity turning to dry patience.
“The tail is completely false though,” Toar clarified.
Karleigh only acknowledged him with a quick look, and looked back to Jaera. She spoke slowly, sweetening and darkening her tone, until it almost dripped with the sticky gossip. “They’re saying you’ve snagged yourself a Visade.”
Jaera blinked once and her eyebrows rose slowly.
Toar set one lip between his teeth to stop a grin. “Really?” he said.
“Really,” Karleigh said. She let her voice fall back into its normal tones and shook her head. But she watched Jaera out of the corner of her eye. She had expected a more surprised laugh from her, something to say it was ridiculous since she held two of the Visade boys as her best friends.
“And pray,” Toar said. He leaned forward over his knees. “Who exactly are they saying she’s hooked?”
“Well, that’s really the trouble, isn’t it?” Karleigh said. “There are so many of them.”
“Eleven currently living,” Toar said.
Jaera looked at him sideways. Whatever had crossed her face was scrubbed away again, back to patience and a low smile.
“Well, I’ve never heard Ryden or Cade mentioned,” Karleigh said.
“How disappointing,” Toar said. “That would be deliciously salacious. But they are rather stupidly in love with their women.”
“Kashel and Brex have been tossed around,” Karleigh said. “Brex especially. He was always a little rough, and no one here has seen him in years.”
“Oh, they would like that,” Toar said. “One of them would murder the other if they spent that much time together, and then they’d have another story to spin around the wheel.” He paused, and glanced up at Jaera. “Kash might work for you.”
Jaera blinked again. Then she nodded, disbelief folded across her forehead. “Yes,” she said. “He might.”
“Most people do rule out the married ones,” Karleigh agreed with her.
Toar laughed at both of them. “That still leaves us five.”
“There’s the theory that she’s corrupted the young and impressionable Silas,” Karleigh said.
“Jaera would never pull together the guts to do that,” Toar said.
Jaera snorted. “Thank you,” she said.
“People like to talk about Terius,” Karleigh said. “I think they’d like to put a mark on his white record, and see something scandalous happen to an heir. But I don’t think anyone honestly believes it when Zain is in the offering.” She looked at Jaera. “You looked thick as thieves the last time you were here, you know.”
She watched for Jaera to hold her breath, or swallow, or blink a little too long, or deliberately do none of those things. She thought she saw the other girl resettle her jaw, as if she were reminding it of the proper place to be. Her smile shifted, one tone to the next, and Karleigh thought it had definitely hardened into a mask.
“Zain?” Toar repeated. And he looked slyly up at Jaera, purposely obvious.
Jaera said nothing.
“I’ve heard mention of both Stuart and Trent,” Karleigh continued slowly. She watched Jaera closer. “But I think those are copies of the stories for Zain – shipboard romances, and secret meetings in the rigging, and nights without sleep in the landdweller cities where anything can happen – repackaged and details altered so they could tell them again.”
Jaera shook her head, just a little.
Karleigh paused. “Would you tell me?” she asked gently. “If any of them were true?”
Jaera brought her head up, quick. She looked at Karleigh, and blinked, once, twice. She looked at Toar, then back up, just as quick. “If we’re being honest, I wasn’t going to.” But her hand was already pulling at a chain hidden under her shirt.
Karleigh held in a smile. “I could have guessed. The rumors have been thick on this one, and every time I saw you last you were here, Zain was right next to you.”
Jaera’s engagement pendant dangled under her hand. It was beautiful, a dark stone hidden somewhere under the gold case of twisting, knotted vines. The soft rounded edges caught the light, not sharply enough to gleam or shine, just gently glowing.
“Not Zain,” Jaera murmured. “Terius.”
Karleigh looked back at her face, surprised.
Jaera’s smile was brightening her face again, only now, it was not the slow thing that Karleigh had always seen. It stretched quickly, sparked in her eyes, and rounded her cheeks, and she almost bent her head to hide it. But it curved up even more, fast as wildfire, fresh and uncontrollable.