Dardo flicked an ear back again, picking out a new echo in the little garden square. Over the last hour, she had swung her head a dozen times to investigate, and had to shift on her hooves to keep turning as she found the gentle end of her lead line. Snorting to herself, she looked back at Vardan where he sat on the stone bench, as if to ask why he wasn’t concerned by the wolves lurking in the high windowed walls around them. He only held her line loosely, and smiled. He knew they were being watched.
It was a strange place to have brought a horse. The garden was thirty feet to a side, a tangled spiral of stepping stones and the winter dark branches of low trees. The paved walkway that wrapped around it was hardly long enough to ride around without getting dizzy. He might have attracted some curiosity just for bringing Dardo here, when there were fit fields and trails closer to the stables.
But this square was also where the Clan Lord’s twins liked to run wild. And Vardan was confident that he had been watched every day of the last ten months, every day since he had left his prison cell.
Leaning over his knees, he smiled at Dardo, slowly drawing her close enough to rub her nose. He had stopped caring a while ago.
Dardo flicked her ear back again, and shifted away from him to raise her head. Vardan smiled at that, too. He was obviously a little too reckless for her taste.
Patiently, he waited another hour, contentedly warm in his long coat while Dardo warmed his face every once in a while with an inquisitive snort. Then Kadelyn arrived in the little square, trailing her bodyguard, Haldard like a too-tall shadow. Haldard’s easy smile disappeared when he saw Vardan, and his eyebrows snapped down. Slowing, Kadelyn narrowed her eyes.
Without looking at them, Vardan gathered Dardo close again and stood, not caring about that either. He had been handed worse things than suspicion as a greeting.
It took another moment for Kadelyn to decide to approach him. When she did, she came down the walkway just to one side, as if she were leaving room for someone beside her. Haldard held his place behind her, one step back and one step to the right, and made no move to fill the place she left.
Vardan bowed. “Happy Festival, my lady,” he said.
“Happy Festival,” she returned. She held her hand palm up to allow him to rise again, and met his eye watchfully when he did. “What are you doing here, sir?”
It was barely past noon, and she was already dressed for the evening’s events. Her dark blue gown brushed the ground as she moved, though the train had been pinned up in elegant folds to keep it from gathering dirt outside. The fabric of her skirt caught a gold sheen in the direct sunlight, and the shape of an open jacket had been laid over the bodice in gold lace and fitted tightly. She’d had her face painted with a lace mask to match, cheeks and chin bare while her brown hair was drawn back in line with the paint as if it were the ribbons holding it in place.
Haldard, too, was in his best uniform, strips of silver lining the seams of his gray jacket. Dark stains from last night’s mask still marked his eyes and jaw, giving his low glare more edge that he intended.
“If I could have the honor to be honest, I was waiting for you, my lady,” Vardan said carefully.
She glanced up at Haldard, then back at Vardan with a twisted, narrow smile. “I can think of wiser things to do.”
Vardan shared her smile, and inclined his head, half a nod and half a second bow.
“I trust the day is treating you well, my lady?” he asked.
Kadelyn paused, perhaps considering whether she wanted to allow him such small talk. On a breath, she seemed to decide it would be all right. “I think so,” she told him.
Vardan fixed her with a steadier, questioning glance. “You think so, my lady?”
She shrugged. “It hasn’t really started yet. We woke late after last night’s party. And we’re waiting for my brother to finish his training.”
That wasn’t unexpected. He had seen her wandering in the mornings, aimless, and seen how closely she and her twin brother ran together for the rest of the day. He glanced understandingly at the space she had left on the paved walkway.
Kadelyn looked down too, and took a faster breath than usual. “Who is your friend?” she asked. Looking up, she shook her hair out of her face and nodded toward Dardo. “Does she make good conversation?” She tilted her head just a little, as if that helped her hold back the smile over her own joke.
Vardan smiled freely and gave Dardo a friendly scratch in the flat hair between her eyes. “No,” he told Kadelyn. “No, she does not.”
“Then why did you bring her here?” Kadelyn asked pointedly, emphasizing her punchline.
“I suppose, she was waiting for you as well, my lady,” Vardan said.
“Why?” Kadelyn asked.
Vardan hesitated. There was less humor in her tone than before, and not quite enough curiosity to explain the lack. Kadelyn’s expression had barely shifted, but she had shown her sharpness. Vardan spoke carefully, despite the fact that she was a head shorter than him and decades younger than him. “She’s a gift, if it pleases you, my lady.”
Kadelyn’s eyebrows rose gradually. It was hard to tell if it was surprise or blunt disbelief.
“For Festival,” Vardan prompted, his voice low. He held the lead line out. Kadelyn let him put it in her hand wordlessly. Shaking her head, Dardo drew Kadelyn forward a step as the girl tried not to lose her grip. Then Dardo nudged her shoulder, and held still until Kadelyn brushed a hesitant hand over her nose.
“I don’t know what I’d do with a horse, sir,” Kadelyn said. She didn’t look at Vardan though, her eyes caught trying to trace the exact lines of Dardo’s face under the pretty shine she took in the sun. “It’s not exactly a useful gift.”
Vardan let her brush Dardo’s nose again, and smiled when she was surprised by a snort.
“More useful than you might think,” Vardan murmured. “Her name is Dardo.”
Kadelyn glanced up at him. “There’s no use for her aboard ship.”
“No,” Vardan agreed. “She’s not much of a mouser.”
Kadelyn turned back to the horse before she let herself laugh, but Vardan heard it clearly enough.
“She is fast,” Vardan said. “And there’s a large amount of fun in riding her. She likes to jump, and to run as far as she can. She was born for hill racing.”
Kadelyn looked at him over her shoulder again, sharpness in her eyes now as she examined him. She said nothing, but he understood she was waiting for him to find his point.
“There’s a use in knowing how to ride a horse like that,” Vardan said firmly. “A great use in knowing that you can get to the other side of the island faster and cleaner than any one else. Going by foot is hard, my lady, carriages are slow, and not all of your business will be inside these walls.”
She blinked at him, and took a long time about it. “Thank you,” she murmured. Her voice was almost dull, unwilling to be convinced, but unable to argue. “She’s beautiful.”
Vardan bowed his head. “I’m pleased you like her, my lady.” he said. “Happy Festival.”
He felt his dismissal when she faced her horse again, and he bowed more deeply before he moved past her to the edge of the square. In two easy strides he passed Haldard, and aimed for the narrow alley that led away from the corner. A few more strides, and he heard Haldard start after him. He shut his eyes for half a moment, then felt Haldard’s hand on his arm, pulling him back to face him.
“What is this?” the bodyguard asked. Standing in the shadow of the walls, the air was cooler, and his whisper seemed to hiss on the stones.
Vardan looked at him in silence for a moment.
“You might have just given the horse to her tonight along with every one else,” Haldard said tightly. “Why do this?”
Vardan shook his head a little. “Because if I did, everyone watching would expect me to arrive with a horse for her brother as well,” he murmured.
Haldard waited expectantly, eyebrows high, to hear what was wrong with that.
“How long ago did Brance start his training?” Vardan asked him. “A year and a half ago? And she’s still waiting to start her day when the two of them can run together?”
“It’s what pleases her,” Haldard said.
“I’m sure that it does,” Vardan said gently. “And I don’t mean to speak of what I don’t know. I only imagine that they might be old enough to appreciate gifts all their own.”
Haldard did not argue and Vardan bowed courteously, but quickly before he left the garden.