Authors: Breeana Puttroff
There were the burning cheeks – his.
If she noticed, she didn’t react. “I wasn’t sure if you cared to hear any of it, but I have purposely included you because I think you’ve earned it. Since it seems you have actually been listening, I would like to hear your thoughts on the situation.”
He swallowed hard, wondering for a second if she was humoring him – but she wasn’t. Everyone, even Marcus, was looking at him with interest. “I just don’t think – as far as Tolliver goes, anyway – that it makes much difference whether you arrested this guy yesterday or not. Arresting
didn’t help. I sincerely doubt arresting some maybe crony of his would have helped you find him. It sucks that it sounds like he might have escaped now, too, but that doesn’t mean you made the wrong call.”
She sighed. “I appreciate that, Zander, but I’m pretty sure I’ve made about a million wrong calls on all of this.”
“Well, that’s what they want you to think, isn’t it?”
“Excuse me?” This time it was Marcus who spoke.
“Look, feel free to tell me to stop talking, because I don’t know the whole story here, but from what I can see, that’s what Tolliver does – tries to do things that tie your hands so that whatever you do can be portrayed as the wrong choice. I mean – how many people in Eirentheos still hold Stephen at least a little bit responsible for children being poisoned by their schoolbooks?”
Thomas’ eyebrows dug deep into his brow. “How much have you been thinking about this?”
Zander looked up at the ceiling for several seconds, debating how to answer. “I’m not sure I think about much else,” he finally admitted. “I know you don’t think I’m listening when you talk about Tolliver and what’s gone on in the past, but just hearing his name… I can’t help but… I don’t participate in the conversations because I don’t trust myself to speak.” Even now, his hands were balled into tight fists at his sides, and he was sure his voice was shaking.
Everyone was quiet for a long moment.
“Is it terrible that I wish I’d killed him, too?” he whispered.
Thomas chuckled, though it wasn’t a joyful sound. “Not in this room it isn’t.”
“Anyway…” Zander looked at Quinn. “I think that’s what he does – puts people in impossible positions so that every choice is the wrong one – everything puts his enemies in discord that they have to deal with and be distracted by. Even his escape from prison makes it look like you made the wrong choice not executing him, but if you
“Then I’d be the new queen who murdered my half-uncle.”
“Well, I’m sure he didn’t plan on being arrested in the first place,” William said.
“You don’t think arrest was a possibility he considered when kidnapping a princess? It was sort of win-win for him, don’t you think? And lose-lose for you.”
“I’m not sure Tolliver is smart enough to pull something like that off,” Thomas said.
Quinn leaned her hands against the back of a couch, staring down at the cushions. Even without looking at her face, he could see that she’d caught on to his line of thinking. “Not to do all that himself, maybe. But he had Hector and Rahas. And clearly others as well. Who knows who else he’s working with. I don’t think even Rahas could get him out of prison all by himself.”
Zander nodded. “I hope I’m wrong. I want to be completely wrong here. But there’s just something… not right. I don’t know. But I think you need to be careful. And not about whether innkeepers know you’re investigating Tolliver’s allies.”
“If he really has disappeared,” Thomas said, “the innkeeper likely knows something anyway.”
As he twisted his hands in the bottom of his shirt, Zander wished the pants he was wearing had pockets. “If he’s gone and left his horse and carriage at an
, then someone probably tipped him off.”
Quinn and Marcus exchanged a look that contained an entire conversation nobody else could hear. Finally, Marcus’ chin tipped down in an almost imperceptible nod. “I’ll send a detail to question the innkeeper and search the inn.”
“Will you ask Dorian to lead?” she asked.
“Of course, Your Majesty. I assume you’d like James to stay here? He followed us and is outside the door now.”
“I know. And yes, I would like him to stay with us, please. We need to speak with Stephen and his guards as well about protecting their family.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I will also compile a list of all the guards who were involved in following Callum along with anyone who might have heard about the mission.”
“Thank you Marcus.”
Rather than heading to the door immediately, which is what he expected, Marcus turned to face Zander. “Thank you for your willingness to be open and share your thoughts.”
“I don’t think I said anything you wouldn’t have figured out.”
“Perhaps not, but having more perspectives always helps in making a complete picture. And sometimes it takes a person saying the difficult things that nobody else wants to think out loud.” He glanced at Quinn and then back to Zander. “If you decide to take Her Majesty up on the offer King Stephen spoke to you about, I would be honored to train you myself, Sir Zander.” Without waiting for a response, he turned and disappeared through the door.
For a full minute, he couldn’t even look up at the four pairs of eyes he knew were trained on him. Heat flashed through his whole body and trickles of sweat formed at his brow and under the collar of his crumple shirt.
“Nothing like putting you on the spot, huh?” Quinn said softly.
“What offer?” Linnea asked.
Thomas and William both shot her looks that should have been able to bring a train to a halt, but which Zander knew were powerless against a determined Linnea. He couldn’t even be irritated by it. Instead, he found himself stifling a grin as he answered her question. “An offer to train as a guard.”
Quinn took a step toward him. “Sudden pressure notwithstanding – it’s an offer, not an obligation.”
“I don’t know. I’m starting to get the impression that you need me more than I need a job.”
“Who could have guessed you’d be as good at reading situations like this as you are at trig?”
That hit him like an arrow in the gut, but he took a deep breath and met her half-smile. “I’m way better at this than I am at trig – you were just bad enough at it that you didn’t know the difference.”
“I might need to count on that.”
“If I agree to be your guard.”
“The fake hesitation has outlived cute now, Zander.” Linnea said, rolling her eyes.
“Fine,” he sighed. “Does it at least mean I get to carry a sword?”
Quinn smirked and held up one finger before crossing the room to the area behind the desk. At first, he didn’t understand what she was doing as she ran her fingers down the line between two of the polished wooden wall panels, but then she pulled a panel back, revealing a dark cupboard. Reaching inside, she retrieved a long, heavy-looking object wrapped in green velvet.
He knew what it was before she reached him with it, but he still wasn’t expecting what he saw when she laid it on the back of the couch and opened the cloth.
The sword was brand new; the shiny steel glinted in the light of the fire when he pulled it from its sheath. There wasn’t a scratch on it.
Everyone stayed back as he lifted it to look; it was sharp enough that he could have sliced through the couch cushions without making a noise – but it was also perfectly balanced and exactly the right length.
“I wasn’t just being measured for clothes, was I?”
Quinn smiled. “What fun would that be?”
“You were this sure I’d say yes?” The sword was the same as those carried by Quinn’s highest guards – Marcus, Dorian, James … the same sword Ben had carried. The hilt was overlaid with swirls of gold surrounding the Philothean crest, and underneath that was an inscription.
Sir Zander Cunningham.
“No. When I said the offer wasn’t an obligation, Zander, I meant it. I…” She looked at William. “We commissioned this shortly after Ben’s death, even before we returned to Philotheum.”
There was something in his throat that was making it hard to speak – hard to breathe, really – so he just nodded.
with that one, unless you aren’t especially attached to your fingers,” Thomas said, breaking the tension.
Zander slid the sword back into its sheath. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He looked back and forth between Quinn and William. “Thank you… I don’t really know what else to say.”
“I know,” Quinn said. “But you deserve it. Thomas is right, of course, that you still need some more training before carrying it everywhere, but we’re all learning on the job in this castle.”
“Yeah.” He ran his fingers along the leather carrying strap of the sheath, feeling the smooth, oiled texture.
Just then, the baby started squeaking in William’s arms – though he’d been sound asleep only moments before.
“All right,” Quinn said, sighing. “We have one more day with our family here, and we’re missing it. Whatever is going on with Callum Haddon can wait until we either have news, or until they’re gone. Tolliver’s taken enough without taking our time with them, too.”
* * *
In spite of the obvious tensions in the castle, and the constant interruptions Quinn had to deal with surrounding the missing Callum Haddon – the last full day of being with his family was a good one for Thomas.
Bedtime stretched late into the evening, as William, Thomas, Quinn, and Linnea took long turns with each of the younger children while Charlotte and Stephen snuggled and played with Samuel for hours.
Not until nearly midnight did Alice fall asleep – she’d fought it the longest, not wanting to separate from Will.
Finally, William and Quinn retrieved their child from Stephen and Charlotte, and – after many more hugs – retreated to their room with him just as the guard shift changed outside their door.
“You’re both still sure about this?” Charlotte asked, handing fresh mugs of tea to Thomas and Linnea. “There will be plenty of room in the carriages tomorrow to take you back with us.”
“About leaving the two of you – and the rest of them?” Thomas shook his head. “No. But about being here in Philotheum with Will and Quinn and starting a life here…”
“I know,” Charlotte said. “I know.” She sank down on the couch across from them. Stephen held her cup out to her before sitting down beside her. “And you, sweetheart?”
Linnea nodded in a way that wasn’t convincing, but that also wasn’t going to change.
Stephen held his hand out to the side and Linnea crossed to him, curling up under his arm as if she were still a small child. He stroked her hair.
“One of us will try to make it out in six moons or so,” Charlotte said. “Even if we can’t both be here.”
“I’ll take care of her,” Thomas promised.
“I expect you’ll need her care just as much.” Charlotte reached across the short space between them to tap his knee. “You listen to her, especially when it comes to whatever is going on between you and Mia.”
“I don’t think I could do this if you two weren’t going to be together,” Stephen said. “I thought it was hard just leaving William here. This…”
Charlotte took his free hand.
“This is what you get for being too wonderful at parenting,” Thomas said. “Maybe you should think about scaling it back for the little ones.”
Stephen chuckled. “Oh, we’ve got that one taken care of. Just ask Emma – we give her far too many math assignments.”
When the teacups were finally empty and stacked on the table, Charlotte sighed. “Are you sure you want to go all the way back to your own rooms?”
“Well,” Thomas said, “it would be a shame to let these nice couches go to waste.”
IF ZANDER HAD ONCE thought that life in the Philothean castle would be less busy after Stephen and Charlotte left with ten of their children plus assorted spouses and grandchildren, he realized now that he’d been mistaken.
It was quieter, perhaps, and there were fewer people to talk to – especially people he
to talk to, like William’s brothers – but he’d never been busier in his life.
Guard training was intense. After three weeks of solidly continuing the sword training and horseback riding lessons he’d begun in Eirentheos, Marcus added a nearly full-time apprenticeship to his schedule.
At the end of his third day of working for ten hours alongside Dorian Blackwelder, and then another hour of sword training, he was practically crawling up the stairs, wanting nothing more than to collapse in his bed. He wasn’t even sure he had the energy to ask a servant to draw a bath for him.
“Hey Zander.” Linnea stood at the top of the stairs holding Samuel.
“Hi.” He tried to smile at her, but wasn’t sure if he was successful.
“You must be starving.”
? Maybe. He
have been, anyway. “Yeah, kinda.”
“Ruth is bringing up dinner to the common room in a few minutes. You should join us. William, Thomas, and Nathaniel will be on their way up, and Quinn and Marcus are finishing up something and then coming too.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Is Sophia gone, then?”
“Yes. She left for several days to visit a friend of hers somewhere. Jonathan is escorting her, but he’ll be back tomorrow morning.” The look on her face was a little too gleeful to be polite.
Not that Zander blamed her. “Nice to have her gone?”
Linnea grimaced. “There was a big fight this afternoon before she left because she wanted to take Samuel with her.”
His eyes bugged. “For several days?”
“So he could starve to death?”
“Oh, no, no. That was part of her argument. Samuel needs to get used to a wet nurse. Her friend has one, but Quinn really needs to spend some time while she’s gone looking for one to hire. Sophia left a list of suggested ones, of course.”
“Yeah, this just went into territory above my pay grade.”
Linnea giggled – he hadn’t seen her this happy in a while. “Anyway, she’s gone, the fight is over, and Samuel is right here. We’re celebrating. Join us.”
Most every evening, Sophia insisted on a formal, four-course dinner in the dining room. Two nights ago, he’d had to stand guard in full uniform while everyone ate at the long table attended by servants who cleared the dishes between every course.
He’d attended some of the meals himself, as well, but he usually tried to avoid them. Conversation around the table was stiff, polite, and boring – though with Sophia boring was often preferable to
Dinners back in Eirentheos had been the opposite. William’s family rarely used the formal dining room outside of special occasions and entertaining guests. Although they shared a number of meals together at a table in a smaller dining room, the evening meal was almost always upstairs in the family’s private common room, with everyone in comfortable chairs, children running in and out, several games going, and raucous, teasing laughter ringing from every couch.
When he’d first come here, he’d found those dinners overwhelming. He’d often taken a plate of food back to his room so he could eat in peace. It surprised him now to realize he missed it. Exhausted as he was, he didn’t want to miss the Philothean version of one tonight.
He followed Linnea to the common room near Quinn and William’s rooms.
James Blackwelder had recently begun his shift watching the infant prince and whoever was caring for him. He maintained a respectful distance behind them, but when they reached the common room, Linnea invited him inside as well.
Although he wanted nothing more than to collapse on one of the couches and close his eyes for a minute, the presence of the guard stopped him. James was around the same age as Zander, but he’d completed his apprenticeship over a cycle ago – what would have been ten years in Bristlecone. He knew James often completed a ten hour shift only to turn around and take on an extra one after only a few hours’ rest.
So, instead of sitting, he asked Linnea if he could hold the baby for a few minutes, to give her arms a rest.
“Sure,” she said, handing him over. “He needs a diaper change, too.”
“Where’s Mia?” he asked, only half joking.
Linnea’s eyes narrowed. “She’s joining us for dinner as well. She ended up spending half the afternoon packing trunks for Sophia, so I sent her to take a break and get a bath if she wanted. The diapers are in that bag over on the chair.”
He didn’t actually mind spending time with the baby, though at times it was hard because being around small children made him miss his own little sisters at home. It hurt too much to consider the possibility – the likelihood – that he would never see Ashley or
Purposefully keeping his mind from going there, he carried Samuel over to one of the couches on the far side of the room, pulling a blanket off the back to lay him on before opening the diaper bag.
This common room itself was a brand-new addition to the castle, built in an impressive day and a half of work by Stephen and his sons when they’d dismantled one of the empty apartments in this wing, knocking out the walls between the sitting room and the bedrooms to create a big, open space.
There was no kitchen area like the common room in Eirentheos, but it was cozy, filled with an eclectic assortment of chairs, couches, and low tables dragged from all different corners of the castle. Charlotte had even managed to find several tall bookcases and a number of paintings and rugs to make it warm and homey.
Over on the other side of the room, Linnea was smiling at something James was saying, although Zander never got to find out what it was. Just as he was slipping Samuel’s pants back over the clean diaper, William, Thomas, and Nathaniel appeared in the doorway.
They, too, were smiling and relaxed – apparently feeling accomplished over whatever they’d managed to get done in the space they were renovating into a clinic. William’s grin grew even wider when he saw Samuel, and he darted across the room to the baby.
“Wow,” he said, picking up his son. “Did Zander just give you a nice, fresh diaper?”
“Yep, although you’re pretty lucky you were only wet, Samuel, or I might have made you wait for your daddy.”
William chuckled, tucking Samuel’s legs into the crook of his elbow so the baby could sit up face-out the way he preferred. The infant joined in his father’s laughter. “Thank you, Zander. It’s much appreciated.”
“How was training today?”
“Not bad. I can
lift my arms over my head again after all the throwing of weighted balls last week.”
“You must be exhausted.” William’s eyebrows forked into a concerned shape as his gaze swept over Zander. “Have you even had a chance to sit down for a minute? You’re still in your boots.”
“It’s all right.”
“No it’s not. You’ll have to forgive my sister. She doesn’t stop to remember that not everyone can keep going after ten hours of manual labor.” As soon as the words were out, though, William visibly paused, his eyes flicking away from Zander and down toward the ground.
They both knew why Linnea didn’t consider that a guard might be tired after a single shift. She was too used to a man who could probably have worked three shifts without hesitation.
“Anyway…” William didn’t quite manage to meet Zander’s eyes again. “If you want to take a minute to go get changed and comfortable before dinner, we won’t start without you.”
Of course he didn’t. He did find a chair – the firmest one in the room – and he perched in the middle of it rather than leaning back, too afraid that if he did, his will would lose out to his fatigue.
The room grew busy quickly. Mia came in just as Zander was sitting down. She
gone and had a bath, it seemed, since it was one of the rare instances he saw her in regular clothes, with her hair down. She still went immediately to check on the baby, but William shooed her away.
At times like this, Zander realized what a pretty girl she was. She had the blackest hair he’d ever seen, which contrasted beautifully with her pale skin and bright green eyes. There was clearly something going on between her and Thomas, though he wasn’t sure what the status of that was. The two of them were overly polite to each other, every great once in a while slipping into a more comfortable familiarity. Either they were thinking about dating – or courting, as he’d heard it called here – or they
courted at some point in the past and were negotiating their way through an awkwardly half-hearted breakup.
Back in Bristlecone, he’d thought gossip was stupid, but here he sort of wished he had friendships comfortable enough to at least clue him in on background information.
He was staring absently at the door when Quinn and Marcus arrived. The look on Quinn’s face while she was still in the hallway woke him right up, though by the time she entered, she’d stifled it and was smiling instead.
William went to her immediately, greeting her with a delighted smile. He didn’t kiss her – Zander had learned by now that he almost never did if there were other people around.
At first, Zander had considered that a failing on William’s part – that he could have a wife like Quinn and not want to kiss her at every opportunity.
But now when he watched them he saw the other things. He saw the way William directed his entire attention to her, how as soon as he saw her, there was nothing in the room – nothing in the kingdom, probably – that was more important than simply saying hello to her.
He now saw how William consciously touched her, placing his palm right on the small of her back as they walked together, and that when he did it was like flipping a switch, one that lit up something in both of them.
They were fascinating to watch, actually, even outside of the feelings he still fought over Quinn. Honestly, he couldn’t really see her that way anymore. If he struggled with jealousy, it was no longer over the simple fact that she was with William instead of him. He was jealous over what they had
They weren’t two parts of a whole, the way he’d always imagined marriage to be – the way he’d had secret thoughts of being with Quinn back in Bristlecone – not two broken pieces that needed to be together to be complete. Instead, they were two complete pieces that when they were together became something more. They became a whole that was much larger than the sum of its parts – much more than a public display of affection.
He knew now that she’d made the right choice. Zander would have given her a kiss. William gave her – herself.
“Plate, Zander?” Marcus was standing in front of him, holding out a steaming plate of roasted lamb and dark purple root vegetables – he still couldn’t remember what they were called, but he’d finally learned to eat them.
“Oh.” He blinked several times. “Yes, thank you. I didn’t even see Ruth bring in the food.”
Marcus smiled as he sat down in a chair to the side and reached for another plate on the table in front of them. Someone had already set two large metal mugs of milk on the table, too. Zander had missed the whole thing.
“It’s this hard for
at first,” Marcus said. “I know it doesn’t seem like that’s true, but it is. You’re doing better than you think you are. When Ben had his first moon of official training, I don’t think he made it through dinner even once – he ate three breakfasts. And he’d been training with horses and swords since he was a toddler.”
Zander blinked at him, not knowing how to respond.
“It’s okay to talk about him, Zander. It helps to remember he was real – and also that he wasn’t a perfect, mythical creature. He was a young man much like you. You remind me a lot of him, actually.”
“Is it all right if I take that as a compliment without really believing it?”
Marcus chuckled. “Eat your dinner, son. Before you fall asleep and drop it.”
The difference in the castle, this relaxed dinner in the common room was palpable. Laughter flowed as freely as the second helpings. Somewhere in the middle of it, as Zander scooped more of the purple vegetables onto his plate, he realized he’d grown to like them, rather than simply tolerating them because he was hungry.
Not everything was as happy as it seemed, though. Underneath all of the casual pleasantries, Quinn and Marcus were both stressed about something. Several times, Zander caught them glancing at each other, silently communicating with a mouthed word or a furtive shake of the head.
At first, he wasn’t sure if he was the only one who noticed. William, Thomas, and Linnea joked with abandon, making silly faces to see if they could get Samuel to giggle. But when the dinner dishes had finally been cleared – replaced by a large bowl of thick, creamy pudding – it was Thomas who cleared his throat. “So what’s going on, Quinn?”