Flash Fiction: What They Earned (1251 words)

It was not so simple a thing anymore, to leave Kadelyn in her mother’s care. Once, Haldard would have followed the girl into her mother’s receiving room, sunk to his proper place, standing guard at the door, and just waited. In the closed familiarity of the room, Kadelyn would have forgotten he was there. Then he could slip out the door and she would only look up in happy surprise when he returned.

But she had gotten sharper in the last few months, learning – perhaps from her parents – to pay attention to where her bodyguard stood. She saw when he shifted toward the door now, and she pinned him in place with her quiet gaze.

“Are you going to find Brance?” she asked.

Haldard glanced at Kadelyn’s mother, sitting across from her on another padded couch with their afternoon drinks and sweets spread between them. Her mother shifted her cup of tea into both hands, and didn’t look at him. She had kindly been ignoring the fact that Haldard was meant to have both the twins with him, and that Brance kept slipping out of his hold. He never imagined that she would hold her silence when Kadelyn pointed out so baldly that the boy was somewhere wandering on his own, but he thanked her silently.

“That was my intent, my lady,” Haldard told Kadelyn quietly.

“Good,” she said. “I haven’t seen him since yesterday.” Kadelyn looked to her mother, then her mother’s guard standing at the wall opposite Haldard. “Go,” she told him. “I’ll stay here.”

Haldard bowed before he left.

Brance’s favorite places were spread all over the palace. He liked the corners, the little hidden places, but not the dark. He had found a dozen places where he could clamber onto the roofs, and a dozen other little rooms that no one else seemed to know about because they were hidden behind so many turns. It took Haldard three hours to check them all. When he was finished, he realized he might just as well look again, as look somewhere else. It had been so long since he checked the first set, the boy could have slipped into any one of them.

Haldard spun another slow circle around the last room, checking again that there was no place a twelve-year-old could have tucked himself away, and left slowly. It seemed absurd to check them again. He should have gone back to Kadelyn hours ago. The longer he was gone, the less likely her mother was to hold her silence.

But Kadelyn would ask where Brance was.

Or maybe Brance was with her already, slipping in on a whim, as he liked to do now.

Haldard hesitated in the hall. There was no way to know. He chased his options for a moment, trying to trap one in a decision. Then there was a scuff on the floor. There were half a dozen more light footsteps muffled by the carpet covered stone. Claws tapped on the bare stone of the doorway and the Old Hound nosed his way into the hall before Brance appeared behind him.

For a moment, Haldard and Brance both stared at each other. Brance had the good manners to look like he had been caught, and Haldard thought he himself managed something that looked sufficiently bored with the boy’s antics. The windows down the right side of the hall spilled daylight between them, and dust drifted in the air. Brance seemed very far away, stopped at the top of the hall runner. From the shoulders down, he was blurred in the shafts of light – The Old Hound all but disappeared – but his face was covered perfectly in clear shadow.

The Old Hound’s collar clinked as he sat down.

“Were you looking for me?” Brance asked after the silence had stretched far enough.

“I was,” Haldard told him.

Brance nodded, mostly to himself. “Who else was?”

Haldard turned his head to look at him uncertainly.

“Did you need me for something?” Brance almost looked curious. “Usually someone sends you. My father? My mother?”

“Donnemey,” Haldard said. “He told me that you walked out on him this morning.”

Brance smiled, a little too quickly. “You don’t have to answer to him anymore,” he said. He shook his head. “I’m not training with him anymore.”

“He told me you said that,” Haldard said.

Brance paused. “Are you going to make me go?”

Haldard hesitated too. Then he nodded. “You need to.”

“How will you make me?” Brance asked. It sounded dangerous, rolling smoothly off his tongue, as if he wanted to know exactly how a fist curled together, how a grip locked tight.

The Old Hound looked over his shoulder at the boy’s change in tone. Haldard stared.

Brance smiled. It just a small curve on one side of his lips, and he looked down to hide it, but Haldard pulled back on his heels. It didn’t belong on the boy who once had to ask his permission to cross a room. But he looked at Brance framed in the doorway, shoulders already broadening like his father’s, with his arms crossed carelessly over his chest, and knew that it fit him perfectly.

“I’ve been curious for a long time,” Brance murmured. “What did you do in the rebellion?”

Haldard’s lungs turned brittle inside his chest. He took his next breath carefully, and didn’t move to keep from cracking them.

“I’ve never heard you say anything about it,” Brance continued. “But I know you were in it.”

“I fought,” Haldard said tightly.

“Did you?” Brance asked. He titled his head and there was easy disbelief in his tone. “On whose side?”

Haldard went still again.

Brance smiled again, no wider than before, and held Haldard’s gaze. “I know what Donnemey did for my father to get his position. I know what Vardan did to get his. What did you do to get yours?”

Haldard opened his mouth, gathering an answer.

“And was it a gift, or a punishment?” Brance asked, stunning Haldard into silence again. He tilted his head expectantly, mouth firm, eyes expressionless, a look stolen directly from his father. “You’ve been following children around every day for the last seven years. You don’t have time for anything else. Unless you never sleep. You think I don’t know that you didn’t choose this?”

Haldard pushed a step farther into the hall. “It is an honor, my lord.”

Brance eased forward as well. “That’s what you tell him.”

Haldard didn’t disagree.

Brance’s gaze slowly settled on the carpet and he considered the silence.

“I don’t think I need you anymore,” Brance said slowly. He met Haldard’s eyes, curiously, as if he wasn’t sure what reaction he had just earned.

“You are the twelve-year-old son of a Clan Lord who traded blood for a throne,” Haldard snapped back. “You need me.”

Listening, Brance took one more step into the hall and buried his fingers into the fur at the scruff of Old Hound’s neck. He blinked once, eyes focused on the floor, then again.

“If that’s the only reason why,” he said. “Then I don’t want you, and I don’t care what I need.”

Brance gave him a long moment to argue. Haldard watched him, could almost see the certainty gather in his expression and saw his slow, steady nod coming. Even then, Brance waited before he turned.

Haldard let him take three steps away. Then, “Kadelyn was looking for you too,” he said, a little too loud.

Brance turned back smoothly. “Where is she?”

“With your mother.”

Brance nodded at that too. “I’ll follow you.”

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