Tiernan would have liked to pretend that he had just heard a joke. He knew how to react to a joke. He could just give his brother a dry smile and sigh, as if he was put out to be leaving home as well. He could make a joke of his own, slide along the easy, old line about how the world just didn’t seem capable of turning without him. Then Callix would slap him on the back of the head like he always did. Unless Tiernan got his arm up in time.
But Tiernan knew what he had heard, knew how subtly his brother could lay a serious tone under a question when he was hesitant to say anything at all.
Turning slowly, Tiernan abandoned the view to give his brother his full attention. “What are you asking?”
Callix didn’t look at him, absorbed in perfecting his thoughts before he carefully spoke them out loud, head bent. “I’m asking if you’re sure that now is the time to leave again.”
“Do you need me here?” Tiernan asked.
“It’s always good for the city to see the whole family here,” Callix said, too easily. “Especially when there’s so much trouble flying around.”
“Folk did seem happier than was reasonable to see us all together at the feasts,” Tiernan agreed.
Callix smiled and let out a small breath, nodding. Tiernan felt a twist in his stomach at the relief hidden in his expression. Callix’s shoulders relaxed, as if the argument were already passed, when Tiernan knew whatever was coming hadn’t even touched the ground yet.
“They also liked seeing Eoin dancing with a cat on each shoulder after the night had stretched a little long,” Tiernan said, quick and gentle as he knew how. “Are you here to recruit my help in convincing him to do it all day long?”
Callix shut his eyes, a moment too long to call it a blink, and pushed himself off the window sill.
“It does seem like the sort of thing he would do, though,” Tiernan said. “Is it the cats that are giving you trouble? I never thought I would see the day when Eoin gave us less trouble than cats.”
Callix let out another breath, and it rasped on its way out this time, like he would have liked to give a very different reaction to Tiernan’s inanities.
“Do you need me here?” Tiernan asked again, more pointedly.
“No,” Callix said quietly. Meeting Tiernan’s eye, he turned to face him squarely. His expression was too sharp to be called flat, but there wasn’t much to it. His jaw was closed, not tight, and he held Tiernan’s gaze no steadier than he usually would have behind a smile. But there wasn’t even the shadow of a smile. “I’m just not sure I need you outside these walls, digging more pits for us run to headlong into.”
“I haven’t packed any shovels,” Tiernan said.
“You’ve spent too long with Eoin,” Callix said.
“Probably,” Tiernan agreed.
They both looked away, took a breath, took a moment. The breeze hissed in the hall, sliding around the corners as if it were running on sheets of paper. It was an annoying sound, not the calm that either of them had expected in the silence, and they both tossed an annoyed look around the corner. Seeing the other in the same motion, they almost laughed, but Callix only groaned, and Tiernan looked down to study his hands.
“If you go, you’ll be standing toe-to-toe with King Vardeck with all the wrong fingers pointed straight up,” Callix said. “If you succeed perfectly in your goals, we’ll still be sending up prayers to every thing listening that you don’t arrive home with new trouble kissing your heels.”
“Kissing is…” Tiernan began.
Callix flicked a dry, curious look at him.
He had spent too much time with Eoin. “Optimistic,” he finished shortly. He looked down again. “I know what this brings down on us, but Eoin and I split families when we did what we did. It was the best we could do with the two dozen men we had. We can’t ignore the ones we left behind.”
“I understand that,” Callix said. “So, we go after King Vardeck with a bought army…”
“We’re going after King Madden,” Tiernan corrected him. “Which is a much brighter future. I’m not even sure where he keeps his mind, anymore. And if you had doubts about the army, you might have mentioned it during the eight hours we spent haggling it out with Father and Deorsa. That was a long day, brother.”
“Oh, we can use them,” Callix assured him. “We can use them here.”
Tiernan hesitated. “What?” he asked.
“Have you considered what would happen if we kept Deorsa on, but you didn’t leave for a little while yet?” Callix asked carefully. “What if we used her here?”
Tiernan blinked, then tilted his head to invite him to continue.
“Deorsa is disinherited,” Callix said. “But she still has ties to good families, who answer to King Gabreal. He won’t take any offense to her lending us her people then he did to use declaring independence and holding onto our mountain.”
Tiernan coughed through a laugh.
“But, he might take notice,” Callix said. “We’ve kept Deorsa as great a secret as we can so far, so we have the opportunity to deliver the news that she’s helping us in whatever way we like. If do it right, we could start the quiet rumor that we have all the support of his subjects that they can risk giving without actually committing treason. Said right, we can send the message that his subjects have every intention of remaining loyal, but see no threat in letting us go. Let the mountain stand alone, as it always did in the old days.”
Tiernan shook his head a little. “I think the kissing was more likely,” he murmured.
“With Deorsa’s added force, he might want to see it that way,” Callix told him. “Let the history books say that he let the benign mountain Lords sit in their high stone seats because he didn’t care about them and they stupidly didn’t care about him, not that there was a rebellion that he couldn’t crush.”
“You think she could lend us that much leverage?” Tiernan asked.
“We don’t need much,” Callix said. “Gabreal is just playing with us anyway. He hasn’t closed off the east road. If he really wanted to take us, he would make this a siege and box us in. And we need to do is prove that we’re strong enough to resist the small effort he’s willing to put into shoving us back into line.”
Tiernan’s eyebrows rose slowly, taking in his bitter tone in the midst of his surprise. “We haven’t even been able to do that?”
Callix glanced at him ruefully. “When we pushed him back far enough and he gave up, then it would be a right enough time to go back for the ones you left.”
“How long do you think?” Tiernan asked.
Callix paused, though he didn’t seem to be thinking as he watched Tiernan’s face. “A year,” he murmured.