Sunrise was an acquired taste. A bitter wash of gray on the horizon, scrubbing away the heavy night sky. A light brush of pink, and purple, and yellow, sweet almost to the point of cloying after the weight of the scouring that came before. A following brightness, fading through the last of the stars. Light that sept gently into blood and bone and breath, bright as mint. All of it drawn out, one insistent moment after another, to make it palatable.
Brance blinked into the growing light. He yawned. His tongue felt thick in his mouth, and his shoulders ached dully. Every thought was slow and flighty as a breeze, and constantly interrupted by the notion that shutting his eyes would be very comfortable. Laying down would be pleasant as well, but not necessary. He could sleep just where he was. And yet, after drinking in too many dawns, one more was hard to turn down.
It was strange to actually see her in the flesh. The rumors were richer than she was, making her stand taller in his memory than she did on her own two feet. She had a habit of looking down. Not at her toes, the floor, or the dirt. Not pretending interest, just eyes idly lowered, always a foot beneath what it would take to match his gaze. Quietest spite. That he remembered perfectly, but not the way her shoulders rounded, or the way she measured each breath as if she needed the count to steady her. He forgot all her smallnesses.
Then he saw her again, almost overlooked her, and marveled that she had survived when he had ordered her dead.
She was a mouse who hadn’t collapsed in the snap of the trap. Glass that hadn’t broken under the swing of the smith’s hammer. Some moments, he would have given the order again, just to prove that she would shatter. But she shrank with every step she took toward him.
Taking a long breath, Damion leaned back in the High Seat. He settled his shoulders comfortably against the padding behind him.
Taryn hesitated on the balls of his feet, wondering how there could be so much hazard in the cut of a smile. Blinking across at Lord Brance, he tried to decide if the twenty feet between them had played with the lines of his face. There was smoke enough in the Practice Court to twist things, but the look in the older boy’s eye was sharp as anything.
He had heard some stories about Lord Brance, of course. He’d had his ears covered or been sent out of the room for others. Not even the things he’d eavesdropped for had prepared him for the challenge that felt like a command rolling off him as easy as a whisper. The smile felt like a promise. It sank into Taryn’s stomach like a threat.
Not that he would back down. The Practice Court clattered on around him, hissed and cracked with fire and speech. No one else in the wide hall had bothered to be alarmed, so he rolled into his next step, taking his place on the sparring line. As soon as he moved, it became absurd that he had stopped.
He had been a conqueror between these pillars for the last two years, an untouchable and, sometimes, bored devil.
“Ready?” Lord Brance asked, just loud enough to be heard over the clamor.
“Lower your voice,” Kadelyn said. “I promise, Luck and Fate will still hear you, they just won’t have to cover their ears at the noise.”
Standing at the porch rail, Brance looked over his shoulder at her, slowly. His smile crept in, sneaking up on her, and maybe even on him, as he met her eye. He looked surprised at her sharpness. He looked pleased with her.
She tried not to be the one to drop his gaze.
At the end, his smile tilted up at one side, turned into something edged and honed. “I don’t have to,” he said, even as he dropped his voice to a murmur. He pushed off from the rail and took four easy strides toward the wall where she sat. With a lazy thud, he spun and leaned his shoulders back against it, hands shoved down into his pockets.
Then Kadelyn did look down, and she took a silent breath. She had won that time. She couldn’t help feeling that she didn’t know what sort of weapon she had just used on him. Or if she should have. Or if it would work the next time.
A firm hand drew the decanter away from him. Brance watched it leave his hand with a dull focus, as if he were watching the air roll it away, as if those weren’t his fingers wrapped around the patterned glass. Then he just blinked at his fingers for a moment. When he finally realized how slow he was being, he snickered at himself.
Vardan pulled the decanter another six inches toward him across the table. With his hand over the open top, he looked down at Brance wordlessly.
Leaned all the way back in his padded chair, Brance carefully tilted his head back to look at him. “I don’t remember giving you a key,” he said, unoffended and still amused. Turning his head made the world spin delightfully. It was almost a puzzle, working out how to meet Vardan’s eye. And he was pleased with himself for solving it so efficiently.
“Your lock is easy to pick,” Vardan told him.
Brance nodded. He knew that. But he had a dog, and he trusted Kelb’s iron jaws more than he trusted iron tumblers.
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.
Brance was waiting. The sun was barely above the horizon, the breeze still pretending to be one of the cool midnight whispers as it curled between the pillars of the practice court. The shadows were all dull in the weak light, but stretched out across the whole length of the floor, lazily. And Brance was already waiting.
Coming up the last of the stairs, Donnemey was pleasantly surprised. It was the first time the boy had been on time in almost a month. Last year, he would have complained to Brance’s bodyguard, Haldard, – last year, he had – but Brance had begun slipping away, disappearing, leaving his guard behind. Haldard wouldn’t have had any better luck than Donnemey himself.
He went to Damion instead. Seeing Brance standing in thick jacket and breeches, he knew he had done right. Striding through the pillars, he started to smile.
Brance turned to watch him come. It was so sharp, Donnemey missed the motion in a blink, then paused in his next step. Brance had gone still, his hands in his pockets, his chin set dangerously high. Donnemey’s smile widened. Let the boy yell a little. It was in his blood to dislike being told where to be. Nothing in his words or tone could matter, because he had already come when called.
It had been a cold night, one of those nights that bit at fingers and ears and made Brance happy to walk slow so that the chill didn’t cut into his chest. He had been happier still to duck into his favorite tap-house, where the music was a little too loud and the dancers a little too drunk for real grace, but the room was warm and spiced and everyone was smiling.
He played cards for most the night, happily losing money. He emptied his purse on the table, bought himself a few more friends than he’d had before, and laughed with them, though very few things were funny. Then he danced – two or three wild songs – before he ordered his first round of strong drink, then sat down near the band and traded jokes with folk deeper in their cups than he was.
Someone insulted him. Taking a long drag from his mug, Brance considered punching the man for it. It had been a while since he had been in a good brawl, but it was too cold outside to be thrown out tonight. He settled for draining his mug to the last drop, smacking it down on the table, and giving the man a dirty, seventeen-adjectives-in-a-string insult in return. Brance was impressed when the man understood him and amused when he attempted to retaliate.
He was a thing of time and stone, and quick wits simply confused him. His natural expression was to look down at the world as if it was lying to him and he would dedicate the next week to sorting out the pieces of the trick. His mouth stayed in a straight line and his jaw was almost too relaxed, while his eyebrows came down as low as they could. Looking up at his carved stone features, Brance expected him to blink in the next moment. He never did.
Brance wondered, from time to time, why someone had carved a statue of a muscular idiot. Late at night, wandering past it on the paved paths between one nowhere and another, he had asked it. The statue just looked at him, head leaned forward and seemed to pick through his words to figure out if any of them had been an insult. Brance almost felt badly, but didn’t have the heart to clarify it for him.
“There’s no need for us to stay,” Haldard said. He looked over at Kadelyn.
Sitting beside him on the bench, she leaned forward on her hands, and didn’t bother to meet his eye.
Her brother, Brance stood in the middle of the room with Donnemey. He had his hands in front of him, hidden between them, but the shadows had started to play wrong on the floor around them. The early morning light colored everything in gray or laid down lines of shine, but he broke the lines and shadows, smeared them under his feet as he shifted. Kadelyn tilted her head, ear almost on her shoulder, and wondered what exactly he had made with his hands. Blinking slowly, she continued to watch.
“How long do you think this will take?” she asked.