In the early morning, Ineli could wrap a blanket around her shoulders and sneak through the palace. From behind, the rich drape of the fabric made her look like just another wealthy little girl in a cape whose family held rooms in the massive complex.
If she encountered anyone ahead of her, she needed only to duck her head, giggle and put them behind her as fast as she could. They heard the giggle, saw the flash of cape, and thought nothing of a ten-year-old with brown curls at play. Maybe they saw the brocade of her skirt, and the heavy embroidery on her jacket. They never saw enough of her face to bow, or to politely question why she was out by herself.
Ineli held her blanket in one hand, and bunched her skirts in the other to run down the hallway. The windows on one side slid gray light across the floor as the sun fought to find its way through the maze and tangle of the palace walls. A long carpet under her feet kept the chill of the stone from seeping through her thin slippers. She slid on it as she reached the end of the hall, and let the slide take her around the sharp right turn that ended abruptly at her brother’s door.
Knocking firmly, she bounced on her toes. And waited. The rooms beyond were the usual three-fold living quarters – sitting rooms, guard’s rooms, bedroom. It might take a person a minute to make their way from the back room. It took Brance a while longer.
She knocked again after a few minutes, turned into a little rapping beat, and spun to look out the window while she waited a while longer.
The third time she knocked, she heard a latch clack open somewhere inside and she smiled. She slid one step back.
There was a shuffle inside, then a pause. Something paper hissed. Something glass rattled. Another shuffle and Brance opened the door, leaning one arm heavily against the frame. As always this early in the morning, he looked out at her sleepily, dark curling hair finger-combed and still falling into his eyes. He wore light breeches and his favorite red leather jacket, with the lacing hanging loose from his neck. His feet were bare, and it was obvious from the skin at his wrists and neck that he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Ineli beamed up at him and swept him an elegant curtsey, still holding her blanket around her. “Good morning, my lord,” she said.
He chuckled as he saw her. Releasing the door, he dropped into a perfect bow. “My lady,” he said.
“May I come in?” she asked.
He pushed the door wide with a lazy tap, and gestured her past him.
His sitting room was furnished in rich browns and golds, and always seemed a little like a king’s cave to Ineli as she stepped inside. It was comfortable, warm, and always just a little dim. The windows on the left side of the room were drawn, and the lamps from last night were carefully put out. A short stack of books rested on one of the couches that formed the circle of seats at the center of the room. A few others sat open around the room, or resting crookedly against each other. An empty wine bottle rested in the crook of one of the padded chairs. Another stood upright almost under the couch.
Ineli took a seat beside the books as Brance shut the door behind them. She threw her blanket back off her shoulders and settled her hands politely in her lap.
“So?” she asked.
Brance looked at her curiously, moving to the windows. He pushed open the windows, squinted at the gray light and turned back to her more suspiciously. “So?” he repeated.
She held back a laugh at the way his eyebrows crinkled together. “Did you talk to Father yet?” she asked. “About my bodyguard?”
“I talked to Vardan,” Brance said. He took three long, slow steps to the chair opposite her and sank into it, leaning forward on his knees. “Who talked to Kadie, who talked to Mother, who talked to Father, who offered Aithan the job.”
“Aithan,” Ineli repeated to herself. “That’s who you wanted him to ask?”
Brance’s face cracked into a grin. He winked at her.
“So, I do have a bodyguard?” Ineli asked.
Brance shook his head. “Not yet,” he said.
“Because,” Brance said. And his grin stretched wider. “Aithan said no.”
Ineli paused. Brance had a habit of liking people who said no to their father, but she couldn’t see why he would like it now.
“But you want him to be my bodyguard,” Ineli said slowly.
“I do,” Brance assured her. “I expect he will be.”
Ineli opened her mouth with another question. Then she shut it, unsure what question was necessary. “I don’t understand,” she said.
Brance nodded. “Trust me,” he said.
She met his eye and held it. She had no doubts in him. His honesty was a twisting thing, but she knew how it looked. Still, she studied him, trying to read what he knew that she didn’t. His brown eyes stayed steady, happy, and indecipherable. As always.