Cerestine heard the front door open, then shudder shut, and she turned the next page of her book without looking up. The stained glass window spilled shards of blue and white light onto the carpet around her feet, but she had turned her chair so that only white light covered the pages across her knee. The trees and tangled walls outside were only shadows on the other side of the glass, and her hall was pleasantly dim, warm in its seclusion.
There was a moment more of quiet. Then, a light set of footsteps rounded the corner, echoed by heavier boots behind them. Cerestine glanced up without moving her head, then turned and smiled when she saw her granddaughter.
“Hello, Kadie,” Cerestine said. Smiling, she closed her book as the girl approached. Kadelyn was gentle on her feet as she had always been, but there was an evenness to her step that hadn’t been there a few months ago. She had gotten taller, too, but that was expected in a twelve-year-old. She would be taller than her mother by the time she was grown, and she was quickly learning her father’s confidence in motion.
Kadelyn smiled back. “Hello, grandmama,” she said. She wrapped arm around Cerestine’s shoulders in a hug, and kissed the top of her head. Her dark brown hair was gentle against Cerestine’s cheek.
Kadelyn’s guard stopped a few feet behind her, his hands folded carefully in front of him. He ducked his head in a shallow bow. There was no mandate for such respect, and Cerestine nodded her thanks.
“You remember Haldard?” Kadelyn said, pulling back a little. She looked back at her guard, but left her hand warmly on Cerestine’s shoulder. “My bodyguard?”
Cerestine took a breath. She looked at Kadelyn’s smile, then exhaled slowly. Folding her hands across her lap, she tilted her head to meet Haldard’s eye.
“I remember,” she murmured to Kadelyn. “And you remember that I don’t keep bodyguards here?”
Haldard bowed again, though he didn’t look Cerestine in the eye. He only unclasped his hands, took a careful step to the left to vacate his place behind Kadelyn, and seated himself on the edge of the chair beside Cerestine.
Kadelyn’s smile slipped, disappeared, and came back weakly on her next breath. “Father says you don’t have the power to make a rule like that.”
Cerestine nodded. “Your father is right,” she murmured.
But Haldard didn’t leave his seat.
Cerestine gathered Kadelyn’s hands reassuringly between her own. Looking up, she gave her granddaughter a brighter smile, clearing the tension before it could settle and tighten. “Where is your mother? You don’t usually come without her. Is she all right?”
“She’s fine,” Kadelyn promised. She nodded quickly. “I just didn’t want to bother her.”
“Bother her?” Cerestine asked. “Is she busy?”
“Everyone is busy,” Kadelyn said. “They’re looking for Brance.”
Cerestine sat up straighter. She glanced quickly between Kadelyn and Haldard. Haldard looked down. His shoulders shook, as if he were holding in a laugh. Kadelyn actually rolled her eyes, and her smile tilted to one side.
“You see,” Kadelyn told her. She leaned her hip against the arm of Cerestine’s chair again. “He’s missing. Hiding, I think, and no one can find him. I’m pretty sure he climbed out a window, but Mother says that even he wouldn’t be stupid enough to climb out a seventh-floor window.” She fixed Cerestine with a steady look, one eyebrow raised. “He’s gotten very stupid lately.”
Cerestine laughed before she could stop herself. Kadelyn bit her lip, wanting to laugh too, but holding onto her seriousness.
“Yesterday, he ruined his clothes helping the servants scrub floors,” Kadelyn told her. “The day before that, he challenged some of the other heirs to a horse race in the great hall. Last week, Mother found him in the kitchens, black from head to toe, after helping them clean out the oven. Last month, he told the entire city that Father was looking for the most beautiful chicken on the island to crown it Heir of the Feather and would give its owner twelve golden eggs. The throne room was full of chickens for days. Father had to order a crown for a chicken.”
Cerestine blinked. She almost laughed again, but paused to take a breath instead. “Some of that… sounds like your brother,” Cerestine said.
“And now,” Kadelyn said. “He’s hiding.”
“And you came to me?”
“No one has looked here yet,” Kadelyn said.
Cerestine hesitated. “Perhaps because every door of this house is guarded against escape and intrusion?”
“But not every window,” Kadleyn pointed out.
Cerestine looked at her, and laughed once more. “That’s true. Why would he be here?”
Looking to Haldard, Kadelyn paused, then swung slowly back to her grandmother. “Because,” she said. “He refused every bodyguard that Father offered him.”
“Oh,” Cerestine said. She nodded, to Kadelyn, and then to herself.
“Is he here?” Kadelyn asked. She ducked her head to catch Cerestine’s eye.
Cerestine raised her head quickly to meet her gaze and shook her head. “I haven’t seen him,” she promised. “But if I do, I will send him back.”
Kadelyn watched her for the space of a breath. She considered Cerestine’s face, while she pulled air in, then nodded as she let it out. “Thank you, grandmama,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” Cerestine said.
Kadelyn motioned for Haldard to follow, and turned away. In her gentle stride, she crossed the hall and disappeared behind the corner. There was a quiet moment, and then the front door squeaked open on its heavy hinges. Cerestine waited for it to settle shut, then two moments more.
“Brance!” she called.
There was a rumble in the next room. The door swung open, and Brance raced into the hall as if she’d yanked on a string tied to his teeth. Immediately, he straightened, ducked his head, and grinned at her.
“Did you get in through a window?” Cerestine asked.
“Yeah,” Brance said.
Cerestine looked toward the front door. “She knows you well.”
“Would I get in more trouble, if I said that was part of what made this fun?” he asked.
Cerestine gave him a sharp look. He straightened further.
“You should tell me when you decide to hide in my house,” Cerestine told him.
He nodded obediently. Then he hesitated. “Why?”
“So, I can tell you that you can’t hide in my house,” she returned.
Slowly, he blinked. He went a little too still, the curve of his smile held too firmly.
“But you can stay.”
He let out a breath, and dropped into the chair beside her.