Ineli might have held him there for a while longer, and it might have fallen into a staring contest that she would have won, but there was a soft knock on the door.
Brance straightened and looked at it. A soft knock meant it was either a person who was holding hard to the idea that his rank deserved their respect, or just someone who did not often call on his door. He tilted his head, considering it, then looked back to Ineli.
“Do you want to spend the day with me?” he whispered.
Ineli nodded quick.
He bobbed his head over one shoulder, ordering her into the next room. “Better get hidden then,” he said. “Just in case it’s someone come looking for you.”
Ineli smiled. Grabbing up her blanket, she ran on her toes, tucking herself into the next room. She pushed the door shut with both hands, and stopped when there was just a crack left big enough for her to catch a glimpse of who it was.
Brance watched her. When he was convinced she was covered and had become still enough not to be noticed, he swung the first door open.
A large man waited outside, hands shoved restlessly into the pockets of his jacket. He looked down at Brance, a full three inches taller, with light brown hair roughly pushed back from his forehead. His cheeks were cleanly shaven, and his shoulders were broad. He wore heavy boots, and his jacket and breeches were an elegant light gray, but were thick enough to work in. His jaw was square, and his eyes were sharp even in the dim light, meeting Brance’s gaze immediately.
“My lord,” he murmured, and bowed.
“Aithan,” Brance said. Ineli thought he said it a little too loud, just to make sure that she heard.
She caught her breath before she made a noise, and watched Aithan hesitate when Brance invited him inside. After a long moment, he finally took a long step over the threshold.
“What can I do for you?” Brance asked.
Neither of them sat. Aithan settled his hands back in his pockets.
“I came to offer my service,” Aithan said.
Brance paused, head tilted so that he could look at the other man sideways. “You changed your mind?” he asked. Ineli looked at the square set of his shoulders, the straightness of his spine. There was some surprise in him, but little doubt in his voice.
Aithan looked down for just a moment. “No, my lord. I’m here to offer myself as your bodyguard.”
Aithan stayed as he was. His mouth twisted as if he could appreciate the joke, at least a little.
“No,” Brance said, pleasant as a sunny day, firm as an iron rod. He smiled, his laughter barely pushed behind his closed lips.
“With greatest respect, I ask you to consider it a moment longer,” Aithan said.
Shaking his head, Brance looked at him. Brance’s smile did not fade. Ineli thought there was some admiration mixed into his amusement, but his laughter still hung on him. “Whose idea was this?” he asked. “Yours?” He paused, reading the slight reactions in the other man’s face. “My father’s? Kadelyn’s? Vardan’s?” He rattled through the names, a little faster, then paused again.
Aithan said nothing.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Brance assured him. “If it was you, I would give you a load of thanks for your concern, but there’s not one of them that could convince me to change my answer.”
“My lord,” Aithan began carefully.
“How long have you known me?” Brance asked him. Ineli heard the smile melt out his voice before she saw it leave his face. Even then, he looked calm, nerveless, almost cheery. “And in that time have you ever heard me say I wanted a bodyguard?”
“Seven years,” Aithan answered quietly. “And I’ve heard it said you need one.”
“Have you ever seen me need one?” Brance countered.
Aithan delivered another moment of silence. Ineli watched him, wondering if that was what he did to cover all his thoughts that weren’t perfectly polite. She liked it, the way he matched Brance’s gaze with the steadiness of a stone. She knew Brance was as wild as they came, and, looking at them, she couldn’t help seeing a sandy brown cliff face daring a dark ocean storm to sway it. She almost laughed, imagining it, but pressed her fingers to her lips.
“I take care of myself well enough. And I’m happy to do it,” Brance told him. “I’m afraid that the only Reanden looking to hire a bodyguard is Ineli. I don’t need a bodyguard.”
“But perhaps you could use-” Aithan began.
“And it just so happens that the reason I don’t need you is also the only difference between she and I.” Brance paused to examine Aithan’s expression again. “And, I suspect, the reason you’re trying to hire yourself to me instead of her.”
“My lord…” Aithan protested, drawing his shoulders back.
“I’m not accusing you of being a coward,” Brance said, just as quickly. “I couldn’t be that stupid.”
They stood quiet for a minute. Ineli held very still to make sure they wouldn’t hear her feet shift, and leaned back from the door so it wouldn’t creak.
“I think it’s what I would do, if I were in your place,” Brance said quietly. “Because of the weight of really being a bodyguard. But I suggested you to my father because I think you’re a better man.”
More silence, but Brance let him hold it, let him be the one to break it.
“If you could still suggest me,” Aithan said, voice low. “I could return to your father and accept.”
“I can do you one better,” Brance said. His smile flashed back into existence. “Ineli’s just there.” He pointed toward the door, still cracked open.
Ineli almost snapped it shut, then felt silly at having jumped.
“She would be pleased to meet you, I think,” Brance said.
Aithan looked to the door, caught Ineli’s gaze through the crack, eyes just as wide as hers. “Of course, my lord,” he murmured.