“Don’t let it get away!” a lad cried in a voice still pitched high with the trappings of youth. Ilarion turned in time to see the boy round a corner, his hands stretched out in front of him as he ducked low to the ground, his fingers grasping for the scaly tail of a moggy. The creature slipped and slid in its haste to evade him, its little claws scrabbling at the courtyard’s stones.
The boy wore a deep scarlet tabard emblazoned with the Eye of Serrona. A squire, then. Likely the son of one of Feronin’s vassals. With that flaxen hair, it was anyone’s guess.
He wasn’t alone in his efforts to snare the moggy, either. Three more boys were hot on his heels, all dressed in the sort of elegant and implicitly expensive attire that made Ilarion question why they were rampaging around hollering and stomping like heathens. His frown of disapproval deepened when he caught on to what the young men were saying.
“Smash it on the head!”
“Little piece of shit, that’ll teach it!”
He glanced up and over his shoulder, meeting a large and equally unimpressed dark eye with his own icy pair.
“My thoughts exactly,” Ilarion murmured, lifting his hand to pat the reindeer on his snowy white nose. “I’ll be right back, old boy.”
His stride was longer than the boys’, and his path far less confused. Ilarion caught up to them in no time at all. The gang of them had cornered the poor moggy at the far end of the courtyard, where it had taken refuge in a drain and was hissing and spitting while the lads yelled and kicked at the grating.
“I’ll get it,” said the one in the tabard, crouching down low and snatching something off the paving stones. When he straightened, Ilarion could see that it was a badly bent spearhead. It had likely been tossed aside because of the damage, but its edge still gleamed sharp in the orange light of the setting sun.
As the boy lifted the spearhead like a wickedly curved dagger, Ilarion seized his arm.
“Drop it,” he barked. Stiffening, the boy gasped and obeyed without question, his brown eyes wide as the scrap iron clattered to the courtyard floor. The other boys took a collective step back. One of them trod across the grate and immediately regretted it, hopping away with a yelp; the moggy had been awaiting him. Ilarion hoped it had gotten the lad good enough to leave a reminder.
“Who are you?” The ringleader in the tabard had recovered from the shock, it seemed. He successfully yanked free of Ilarion’s hold, largely because Ilarion allowed him to. “What gives you the right to touch me that way? Do you know who my father is?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Ilarion replied frankly, staring at the lad unblinking. He’d been told before how unnerving it was when he did that, and he’d never hesitated to put such a weapon to full use- whether it be to full grown lords in his council chambers or a spoiled little bully like this one. “But I can imagine he’d not be too pleased to hear you address the visiting king of Edaymar that way.”
The boy’s face went ashen.
The king of Edaymar took a moment to enjoy it. He couldn’t blame the lad for not pegging him as royalty. His hair and beard were longer than was fashionable for the Serronan nobility’s militaristic palate, and Ilarion was still wearing his clothes from the road. The leather doublet, wool tunic, and riding breeches were of high quality but practical. Ilarion had never seen the point in wearing fancy garb with no one but servants, his men, and his family to see it. Nonetheless, the dawning realization on the boy’s face was priceless. He looked a bit like he’d swallowed a particularly wriggly lizard.
“I didn’t mean-”
“I know what you meant. Leave the moggy alone,” Ilarion ordered, his hands on his hips as he leveled his gaze on each of the boys in turn. “Your nice feast clothes will be covered in dirt. Wouldn’t want that.”
Muttering to one another, the little gang ran off. Ilarion waited until they were clear from view, then knelt down beside the drain. The moggy yowled, a spark of flame issuing up between the metal bars.
“There now,” he told it in a far more gentle tone than the one he’d used on its tormentors. Taking up the abandoned spearhead, he wedged the blunt end under the grate and lifted it wide “You’ll be alright. They’ll not be coming back.”
“Such a soft touch,” a familiar voice teased from behind him as he watched the moggy skitter out and away over the courtyard wall. Soft lips ghosted across the whiskers of his left cheek, spurring him to grin wide.
“I can be a hard touch as well, I think you’ll find,” he answered drily. That earned a peal of dusky laughter. Ilarion lifted his head to silence it with a fierce kiss.
“My king,” Ylvia breathed, her lips still curved in a smile as she pulled away. Her fingers curled against his jaw, twining in his beard. His eyes narrowed as he tried valiantly to resist the urge to close them and lean into his wife’s caress. “I think you’ll find I know which is more true to the heart of things.”
He stood so that he could face her properly without her having to lean down, his hand stroking a lock of her golden-brown hair. His eyes searched her face; the trips to Serrona had been hard on Ylvia since the previous year, but she insisted on keeping up the relationship with Feronin and his son. It made sense, but Ilarion couldn’t help but worry… Especially considering she’d been feeling poorly as of late. Had it been wise for her to come, so soon after losing the baby?
“Good that those weren’t my sons, I’ll say that much,” he went on despite the self-doubt clawing inside his chest, tucking his thumb under Ylvia’s chin. “I hope young Etienn still has his wits about him, at least.”
“Etienn is a good boy,” Ylvia chuckled. “Besides, you know our Elaina keeps him well in line.”
“I should hope so.” He pursed his lips. “He is getting to be that age, Ylvia-”
Her fingers pressed against his mouth.
“He’s a good boy,” she insisted. “He takes after Delphee far more than he does his father. I never did know quite what she saw in him.”
“I’ll take your word for that.” He sighed, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “Where is Elaina?”
“Getting ready for the feast. She’s excited.” That was an understatement by his reckoning. Ilarion had heard little else from his fifteen-year-old daughter for the last week. Serrona this, Etienn that, and most of all her first feast with the court.
“Well we’d better not embarrass her, I suppose,” he deadpanned. “Can you imagine her first dance being with her father? That would be absolutely the worst. I’ll hurry and get ready to be sure that doesn’t happen.”
His wife’s cackles followed him all the way up to the castle.
“If I ever get my hands on that filthy little beast, it’s going to be dinner for my Nightmare,” young Count Martrand said hotly, picking at his red tabard’s hem and resting his boots up on the table. The other boys were seated in a semicircle around him as if he were the one holding the principality court, rather than the prince.
“I can’t believe that damned old man stopped you,” Lord Balmont added, toying with the edge of his dagger. He slammed the hilt down on the table with a crack, leaving a dent in the wood. “He may be a king but he’s the king of Edaymar. My father told me it’s not more than twice the size of the First City.”
“He’s still a king-”
“King of the mountain,” Balmont sneered.
“Don’t be stupid, Balmont.” That was Martrand again. “Edaymar might be small but without them we’d be worse off.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Draguerres.” For all of the boys, that name conjured images of iron giants churning through bloody fields, and so a brief hush fell over their assembly.
“So they’re the ones we get the Heartsilver from?”
“That’s right. Shame the men there look like ugly, hairy women.” Martrand leaned over and spat on the polished marble floor.
“That’s my lady’s father you’re talking about,” interrupted a new voice. “Watch it.”
“Etienn!” cried Martrand, clapping his hands. He sat up and let his boots fall to the stone with a thud. “Good to see you finally joining us. I’d begun to think you’d forgotten your best chums.”
Etienn Valtieren, Crown Prince of Serrona- Prince of the Sun, Duke of the First City- stepped through the doorway and frowned at his cousin. The two bore a loose resemblance, but Martrand’s face was more square and his eyes were a dark brown rather than Etienn’s pale blue-grey, and Martrand was an inch or two taller.
“Don’t you look grand, cousin,” Martrand was whistling. “You’re finally joining us in the feast hall proper today, isn’t that right?”
“Don’t change the subject, Mart.” Etienn pushed away the older boy’s hand as it tugged at his doublet. “You shouldn’t talk that way about a king.”
“A king? Uncle is a king. That man… Oh, right, I’m sorry. Your lady’s father, that’s true. Apologies.”
Etienn’s face went hot.
“It’s not like that,” he snapped. “Princess Elaina is- Just leave it alone, Mart.”
The other boys chuckled. Lord Balmont elbowed Lord Lorenin at the far side of the table.
“But you are going to marry her, right?” asked Martrand. His eyebrows rose. “You’re betrothed.”
Reaching up to toy with the hair at the back of his neck, Etienn shrugged his shoulders.
“You suppose? What, don’t you want to? The two of you spend more time together than you do with any of us, and she lives in another country. I’d understand that maybe, but last I saw she was flatter than Emres. Edaymar’s women don’t seem to fare much better than the men.”
Balmont barked a laugh and clapped Baron Emres on the back. Emres socked him in the arm in turn, and the two boys began to quietly tussle in the background.
“Don’t say things like that,” growled Etienn.
“Oh, am I wrong? Did she grow breasts since her last visit? Have you seen them? I know you got your Nightmare just last month. Maybe we should take the fair princess to meet her and test if she’s still a maiden-”
Before Martrand could finish the sentence, Etienn swung.
The cousins went down together in a flurry of fists as the other boys jumped to their feet and started to chant and jeer. Etienn couldn’t say for certain whether they were cheering for or against him, but he didn’t care. He was too intent on bloodying up Martrand’s mouth as best he could.
“I said don’t say that!” he yelled, struggling to pin the older boy to the floor. But Martrand outweighed him, and the larger boy rolled, shoving Etienn backward hard enough that he skidded a foot across the marble.
“Oooh, sorry, did I offend your lady’s honor?” taunted Martrand. “Don’t be such a girl! This is how men talk. Get used to it.”
“My father never-”
“Your father fucks his way across the battlefield, like a REAL man, probably what killed your weakling mother-”
Snarling, Etienn lunged and pushed with all his weight direct into Martrand’s underbelly. The Count wheezed, and Etienn seized the opportunity to shove Martrand prone. He clamped a hand over the boy’s temple and knocked him none too gently down. Martrand spat.
“You don’t deserve to be prince if you’re this pussy-whipped,” he hacked out as he tried to buck Etienn back off of him, but the prince dug his knee viciously into Martrand’s solar plexus. “Wound around the pinky of some- scrawny girl. If you’re a man, prove it!
“I am prince, so that’s all that matters,” seethed Etienn, and landed a punch to Martrand’s nose with a distinct crack of breaking cartilage. Blood spurted everywhere as the Count’s nose broke. Some of it struck Etienn across the cheek. “Now when I say shut up, shut up!”
The other boys’ mocking had gone quiet by the time Etienn hauled himself up, panting. Martrand likewise staggered to his feet, clutching at his bleeding nose.
“That’s more like it,” he praised, wiping his face with the back of his knuckles. He let out a nasal laugh. “Good show, cousin.”
Etienn looked down at himself. His clothes were a mess, torn and covered in grime from the floor. His knuckles and face were spattered in blood, both Martrand’s and his own.
His stomach plummeted.
“I’ll see you at feast,” he heard himself say.
Without looking any of the other boys in the eye, he turned and exited into the corridor, making his way back toward the stairs. He exhaled raggedly, sliding his hands up into his hair and tearing at it.
What was he going to do now?