The invitation arrived by ship, hand-delivered by the captain of The Halstarr. The paper was heavy, honey-yellow as if it had tanned in the sun. Inked in rich blue, the script spilled across the page, purposed and beautiful. Every corner was sharp as the day it was folded.
Kariel accepted it carefully.
Motioning the captain back out of the room, she shut the heavy doors with a thud that barely shook the silence. The couches behind her were empty and still covered in shadow. Threading back through them, she returned to the shallow pool of morning light around the windows. It turned the curtains brilliant red and shadow gray, and warmed the air around the wing-back chairs.
Dropping the invitation into her brother’s hand, she sat back down in her chair. Out the window, the city streets were already full, wound up and ready for the day, while the light sifted through the buildings. She rested her chin on her fist and watched.
“This is for me,” Leonathan said.
Kariel didn’t look at him. She understood the question in his tone, but knew she couldn’t give him a better answer than he would find in a moment.
“Who is this from?” he asked.
She hesitated. She could make him open it. She could also speak, she realized, and without reading it, he would know what was inside. They could leave the polite little envelope perfectly unopened, something sharp, something sheathed. It was kinder, she thought. Kinder to see the edge, but not feel it. Kariel met his eye, forcing a gentleness that almost felt like hesitance.
“Damion Reanden,” she said.
Leonathan looked back at her. Then he threw the invitation lightly onto the table between them.
Kariel hadn’t taken her chin off her hand, and she was aware of it suddenly as he looked out the window and mimicked the motion. He ran his thumb along the underside of his jaw, thinking – too quickly, probably – or testing his morning shave. His hair was still wet from washing, still showed the deep comb lines where he had smoothed it back from his face.
“Did you know this was coming?” he asked.
Kariel nodded. “Amera Severin’s little brother was called to court a month ago. All the Derristan cousins were there a month before that. Corbin Palomer’s little sister. Dera Palomer, too. Ambre Sargent. Noel Tailler. Reine and Hermine Lavoy.”
“They make sense,” Leonathan said. “Their families took a little too long to swear fealty.”
Kariel offered him a smile for his optimism. “Then, I suppose, we should take it as a compliment.”
Turning, he caught her smile, and then, silently, began to laugh. His shoulders shook, and he ran his hand over his face. “Of course. You’re so terrifying, he’ll hold me to keep you in check.”
She gave him a slow, sharp grin and lifted her chin just a little. “Yes, I am.”
He laughed, louder.
“I had forgotten for a moment that I actually am a second son now,” Leonathan said after a long moment.
“Mmm.” Kariel turned her head just enough that her cheek rested against her fingers instead of her chin. “That’s what I get for still letting you sit in my chairs.”
He shot her a look. When then were children, he would have reached out and kicked her. Now, he shook his head, eyes bright, and she imagined he marked the joke for later repayment.
“A year ago, this would have been you,” he murmured.
“That’s what you get for falling in love with a land-locked taproom girl and handing the title to me,” Kariel said. He shot her another look. It had not been his choice, but a twist of luck and an order from their mother. But she would spend her jokes while she could.
“Will you go?” Kariel asked.
Leonathan considered her. His gaze lingered, while the sun crept farther into the room and rose higher on his face. There was a noise outside, dulled by the glass, and very far away. “Would you let me stay?” he asked.
She took a breath, looked around the room. “Yes,” she whispered. “If you wanted to, I would hide you. We could say you and your new wife never returned from the mainland.” When she looked back at him, he was watching her, intent as if she might drop something dangerous from her lips, and he might have to catch it before it shattered. But there was hope there too.
“Or, you could run,” she said. “And that might be safer for you. The Reandens could come and search all they liked, and you would only need to find an edge of the world too far for them to care.”
“Damion would take Anders instead,” Leonathan whispered.
Kariel nodded. “Or, you could go, as asked. You could live quietly, and Lord Damion Reanden could forget about us again.”
Another moment of silence. Another long look that felt like it might take something from her.
“I’ll go,” he told her.
Kariel took a breath, relaxed gently into her chair. “Thank you,” she said.