Aric doesn’t stop me from leaving with his brother. He just gives me another one of those warning looks as we depart.
Ruvan catches it, but he waits until we’re out in the hallway, the door closed safely behind him, before he turns to me. “What was that for?” But then he shakes his head. “No, don’t answer that.”
He starts forward, forcing me to hurry to keep up with his long strides. Gael is directly behind us, so unobtrusive that he seems to sink into Ruvan’s shadow.
I didn’t know Gael could make himself disappear like that. But maybe it’s a simple enough trick, especially with His Highness ahead of him.
Ruvan walks with an air of command, as if he’s already king. Aric doesn’t have that skill. My master walks like a soldier, but not in a way that would turn heads and make everyone pay heed. I suppose the king, his wife and his mistress raised Ruvan to rule and Aric to—to what? Did they all teach him, from the day Ruvan was born, that he should see himself as a servant of his little brother?
I don’t mean a servant in a wear-his-livery sort of way. Although Gael wears it, and Aric said outright that he had wanted Gael’s position. He wanted to be Ruvan’s personal guard. I think Ruvan must have wanted that too before their father forced Aric into the legion.
Aric obeys his brother. He probably obeyed his commanding officers without hesitation too. Perhaps he was raised to be a good soldier. The role would have come naturally to him. And yet he had the backbone to disobey his father on a matter of principle—and on behalf of some cowardly deserters who were already dead and past helping.
I don’t know if I admire him for that or if I want to shake some better sense into him.
We pass a number of guards as we make our way through the halls of Snail Rock. They all wear the king’s livery and they all salute Ruvan. I keep my head down so that my eyes will escape their notice. It seems to work. For one thing, their attention is on the prince. And for another—well, we’re walking too fast for anyone to take a second look at me.
At length we reach Ruvan’s rooms. The tailor and his minions are here with rolls of linen and even some cotton and silk. I expect the linen is the best I can hope for—but it’s far better quality than what I had at Crevlock. Finer even than the robes I wore in Rokto-xar.
“Stand up on that stool, Shocha,” Ruvan orders. Then he turns to the tailor. “We haven’t much time, I’m afraid.”
“Ah, but Your Highness, perhaps we should, ah—”
I bite back a sour grin as I step up onto the stool. This man’s afraid to touch me. I ought to shrink into myself, or at least look down so he can avoid my eyes. But I widen them instead—they’ll be glistening red in this light—and stare straight at him.
“This man is, for all practical purposes, my brother-in-law.” Ruvan tells him. “Kindly treat him as such.”
My sour grin transforms into a gloating one—at least until Ruvan smacks my ass. Hard. So hard that I have to struggle to keep my balance on the stool.
Fuck! How dare he. Even Aric’s never taken a liberty like that. I feel my face heat up. It must be as red as my eyes. I’m not lost enough to attack Ruvan, but I glare at him for that assault on my dignity.
He’s not impressed. He just shakes his head at me, as if I were a wayward younger brother. “You know better than to terrorize my staff.”
That fond, familial look robs me of any annoyance. I don’t know why—I’ve lived without family this long. And until recently I never felt the lack of one.
At any rate, it seems that fond expression, coupled with that humiliating smack, served another purpose. The whole exchange set the tailor’s mind at ease. He’s suddenly looking at me as if I’m human and not some murderous monster. Before I know it, he’s draping me in his cloths and barking orders to his minions as to where to pin or cut.
Ruvan rushes them a bit, though. He must have an appointment for us to keep, though he hasn’t bothered to tell me about it.
Once the cloth is off me, Gael hustles the tailor and his men out of the room.
“Where are they?” Ruvan is all but pacing now.
“On their way, I’m sure,” Gael answers.
I jump down from the stool and cock my head at Ruvan.
He understands the question. “We’re waiting on Anvis and Renic. Anvis is my wife. Renic is my manservant. He’s not a guard, like Gael here. More a cross between a valet and a secretary. I trust him, same as I trust you two.”
And trust matters for this meeting, apparently. This must be his inner circle: Gael, his wife and this Renic person. And now me as well.
He trusts Aric too, though. So why would he keep his brother out of this? We could have met in Aric’s quarters. No one would have thought twice about his sister-in-law visiting him. And it would have seemed natural for Ruvan’s guard and manservant to be present.
But Ruvan was keen to separate me from Aric for this. If it’s not a matter of trust, then he must be afraid that Aric will disapprove of whatever we’re about to discuss.
Is this about their father? I don’t want to get my hopes up. I have a plan that will allow me to move against the man. No, let’s call a spade a spade. It will allow me to kill the man, should he prove a danger to Aric. It’s not an easy plan, though. Ruvan’s support would make all the difference . . . .
No. I can’t believe that Ruvan is ready to talk treason. Family means something to him. On the other hand, he would choose Aric over their father. I’m sure of that. But only if Aric’s life were on the line, and it hasn’t come to that. Not yet.
There’s a sharp rap on the door. Ruvan nods to Gael, who goes to answer it.
I inhale long and deep, seeking a measure of calm. I want a clear head when I find out what all this is about.