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Read Chapter Two of Alexandra Rowland’s A Taste of Gold and Iron – tor.com

Kadou, the shy prince of Arasht, finds himself at odds with one of the most powerful ambassadors at court—the body-father of the queen’s new child—in an altercation which results in his humiliation.

Today we’re thrilled to share Chapter Two of Alexandra Rowland’s A Taste of Gold and Iron—available from Tordotcom Publishing on August 30th. If you missed Chapter One yesterday, you can still find it here!

Kadou, the shy prince of Arasht, finds himself at odds with one of the most powerful ambassadors at court—the body-father of the queen’s new child—in an altercation which results in his humiliation.

To prove his loyalty to the queen, his sister, Kadou takes responsibility for the investigation of a break-in at one of their guilds, with the help of his newly appointed bodyguard, the coldly handsome Evemer, who seems to tolerate him at best. In Arasht, where princes can touch-taste precious metals with their fingers and myth runs side by side with history, counterfeiting is heresy, and the conspiracy they discover could cripple the kingdom’s financial standing and bring about its ruin.


Chapter Two

Late on Tegridem afternoon, the day before the promotion exams began, Evemer went to accompany his mother to the temple near her house, where she lit candles to Usmim and prayed that Evemer’s trials would be easy ones. Kneeling beside his mother as she prayed, his hands flat on his thighs, he made calm and steady eye contact with Usmim’s statue. He was ready. His training and practice and studies were sufficient. He had done his best. That was all that Usmim ever asked. After this trial, there would be another, because Usmim always sent another trial—such was the nature of life. Evemer would be ready for that one too, and he would do his best again. He could not imagine any situation he could not handle. He had always done his best, and it had always been sufficient.

He went home to his mother’s house that night instead of the kahyalar dormitories in the palace, and she made him his favorite meal, and when he’d finished eating, she took his face between her cool hands and looked hard into his eyes. Evemer looked back, open and honest and wordless, thinking I’m ready as firmly as he could, and then she nodded to mean You’re ready, and he’d gone upstairs to bed.

On İkinç, two days later, he finished the exams and knew he had done well. They had not been difficult for him; he had been ready. Usmim had never sent a trial that was truly beyond Evemer’s ability, only some that required greater determination, preparation, and care. After all, what would be the point of a trial that you were supposed to fail?

On the evening of Törtinç, two days after that, he returned to the palace, taking the winding road up the cliff by foot, passed through the immense double doors of the Copper Gate, and went to the dormitories, where he found the entire garrison in chaos and heard the terrible news of what had happened on the hunt that day.

The next morning, he reported to his commanding officer, who handed him a chit of passage and ordered him immediately to present himself before Commander Eozena, who could be found past the Gold Gate. By this, Evemer understood that he had done well enough to earn promotion to the core-guard, and felt a quiet bloom of satisfaction in his chest, which he carefully kept from reaching his face.

Sergeant Benefşe did not deign to provide him with any further indication of what his new assignment would be, and so Evemer did not ask her for any clarification. He bowed himself out, went through the Silver Gate, where the daily business of the government happened, and then through the Gold Gate. The area beyond was as splendid as he had been told—quieter and cozier than the Silver Court, with jewel-like mosaics framing every window, all of which seemed to look out over cool shady gardens. He could hear birdsong and the bubbling sound of fountains whenever he stopped and listened, broken only by the murmur of distant voices.

He had never been past the Gold Gate, even as a cadet—he’d given his service years in the city watch instead. Balaban had mentored him there for a year or so, before he himself had been promoted to the core-guard.

Balaban was dead now. He kept forgetting. It was strange to think that someone he respected was just… gone, and uselessly. That was the part that stung most—not that Balaban had died, but that he had sworn to give his life to protect the royal family and then his death had been pointless.

Evemer set the thought aside firmly. It was not the time.

Commander Eozena was waiting for him in one of the courtyards leading into the residential wing of the Gold Court. During the winter, the provincial governors would swarm in from their holdings in the countryside and set up households in the palace’s apartments. As it was the end of spring, they had all left again, so the Court was serene and quiet.

“Morning, Hoşkadem,” Eozena said as he approached. She was an inch taller than him, dark-skinned and dark-eyed, her hair styled in hundreds of long, thin locs and decorated with a scatter of bright silver bands and charms. Besides knowing her by reputation and at a distance, he’d also had the great honor of meeting her on the sparring fields on several occasions. He’d been utterly trounced, of course—she was the commander.

If it had been anyone else, it might have been embarrassing to lose so definitively, but in Evemer’s estimation, being beaten by the commander was better than winning against anyone else. She had always smiled and helped him up out of the dust, offered him brisk words of advice and encouragement as he brushed himself off, like she was pleased to see his progress and more pleased at the thought that he could progress further still. She was his direct commanding officer now, and that thought made the glow of satisfaction burn in his chest again.

“Commander,” he said, saluting.

“Congratulations on your exams, and welcome to the core-guard. Did they show you the results?”

“No, Commander.”

She smiled at him in a way that made her look terribly like his mother, though Eozena was more than a foot taller than her. “Best marks out of everyone. You should be very proud of yourself.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

“Now, I expect you have questions—they didn’t tell you anything before they sent you over, did they?”

“No, Commander.”

“Good. You’re being given a great honor, you know. A very important assignment.”

“Yes, Commander.” Promotion to the core-guard was indeed an important assignment, although… it was odd that he was receiving orientation all on his own. He’d expected that he would be inducted in a small group. There had been years when only one person had marks high enough to merit the core-guard, but only rarely.

“Her Majesty picked you for this one herself,” Eozena said. That was… alarming. That Her Majesty knew his name was something he wouldn’t have ever dared to hope for. “Are you a nervous sort, Hoşkadem? Do you need a moment?”

“No, Commander,” he said. Perhaps if anyone had given him a hint about what the assignment was, he might have.

She clapped him on the shoulder. “Good man. Well. Let’s go introduce you, then. I don’t think you’ve had a chance to meet him properly yet.”

Him? Evemer had a sudden horrible suspicion of whose service, precisely, he was being assigned to.

Eozena led him inside, through doors guarded by pairs of kahyalar in full dress uniform, armed to the teeth and glittering in the sun—he himself had not yet been issued his core-guard uniform with its darker blues and bright silver braid. If it had been mandatory, he would have been sent to the requisitions offices first to be outfitted properly. He concluded, therefore, that he should not feel embarrassed to be underdressed.

The commander stopped at a pair of carved mahogany doors. “Listen,” she said in a soft voice. “He’s not a difficult charge. Very quiet, keeps to himself. I’ve known him since before he could walk—he’s always been good. Do you understand?”

Oh, no. Evemer knew exactly who he was being assigned to. “Commander,” he said, faintly strangled.

She nodded once and rapped on the door before cracking it open. “Pardon, Highness. Hoşkadem is here. May I introduce you?”

Highness. The prince.

Damn.

There was a long silence. “Yes,” came a tired voice. “He can come in, if he likes.” Eozena nodded briskly and opened the door the rest of the way, waving Evemer in before her.

He looked at her. He looked at the doorway. He looked at her.

She raised her eyebrow at him, the most fearsome expression he could possibly conceive of.

He entered the room.

It was just as splendid as the rest of the Gold Court. The vaulted ceilings were painted with a lace-like pattern of delicate vines and flowers, rich-colored carpets covered the floors, and the windows stood wide open, the curtains fluttering in the spring breeze.

In the center of the room there was a low table, set for a breakfast that had not been touched. On the opposite side of the table, not touching his breakfast, was the prince.

The prince—Kadou—was but two or three years younger than Evemer, smaller and slighter than him in every respect. His hands, wrapped around a brimming cup that was no longer steaming, were slender and well-manicured. His ink-black hair spilled long and shining in waves and soft curls down to his elbows, and his eyes were large, luminous, and the blue-black color of the ocean on a dark night.

Evemer had noticed all those things before. The first time he’d laid eyes on the prince up close had been at the Grand Temple on the night of Princess Eyne’s birth when Commander Eozena had brought him and several other of the fringe-guards to run messages for her in the wake of the Shipbuilder’s Guild break-in. That night, His Highness had looked tired, harried, distracted—and rather like he’d rolled out of bed in a hurry and only flung on a dressing gown over his nightshirt to run to the temple. A little disrespectful to the gods, Evemer had thought, but excusable in the circumstances.

The second time he’d seen the prince had been at the Shipbuilder’s Guild itself the next morning. Evemer had been posted on guard at the door, and His Highness had arrived on horseback to hear the first reports from the investigation. Evemer had held the bridle while His Highness dismounted. He’d already looked exhausted, but he had paid enough attention to smile at Evemer and say thank you, and then he’d asked tentatively if Evemer could be spared to fetch him a cool drink—the morning had been unseasonably warm, and His Highness had been wearing heavy, high-formal court robes. Evemer had run off to do just that, thinking that mere well water wasn’t nearly good enough for the prince of Araşt, that he would have to seek a street merchant willing to sell him something nicer.

Prince Kadou had gone inside to see to the hysterical guildmaster. When he’d come back out, he’d mounted up on his beautiful milk-gold horse again as if he’d forgotten the request. Evemer had offered him the flask he’d bought from a vendor down the street, and he watched His Highness’s face as he took a deep draft from it and tasted the sharbat sekanjabin, cold and sweet and snapping with the refreshing edge of vinegar.

The exhaustion had cleared from His Highness’s face, and a sparkle of light and pleasure had come into his eyes, and he’d looked down at Evemer, smiling gratefully, and he’d said, “Oh, you’re a godsend.”

All Evemer had done was bring him a cool drink, but it had felt like that one smile had shoved him six inches out of alignment. He’d been thunderstruck with that moment for days afterward, and still felt a little of it now when he remembered it. He’d thought perhaps he’d been embellishing it in his own memory.

But then His Highness was also the one who had gotten Balaban and Gülpaşa killed.

Evemer found that he was angry. The shock was beginning to settle in now. Balaban had been someone he admired. Gülpaşa was the closest thing he’d had to a friend—not a particularly intimate one, but he had respected her. They had both helped him prepare for the exams. They’d each, on separate occasions, heard him confess in a whisper that admittance to the core-guard was what he’d wanted most in all the world. It was the one thing he had been striving toward for as long as he could remember.

He felt as if His Highness had somehow deceived him with that shining moment at the Shipbuilder’s Guild—as if he’d tricked Evemer into thinking well of him and only then revealed the truth in his heart.

Evemer thought again of that moment, of His Highness on his milk-gold horse, resplendent in blue and silver, glittering in the sun with the light on his hair and in his eyes, as radiant as a god-kissed prince out of legend as he asked graciously for Evemer’s service. That kind of display should have meant something.

But it hadn’t. Perhaps it was Evemer’s own fault. Perhaps he was lying to himself if he thought any of that could have been real and true.

“Hello,” said Prince Kadou.

“Hello,” said Evemer. “Your Highness.”

“Your Highness, this is Evemer Hoşkadem, newly promoted to first lieutenant in Her Majesty’s service.” She pronounced his first name with a little of the city accent, closer to Afennür, the standard form—not the worst mispronunciation he’d ever heard, but he was used to it and had learned to answer to it. “I will personally vouch for his loyalty and devotion to duty—I would quite readily trust him with any of my own secrets, were I required to confide them in someone, and I assure you on my honor that you can do the same. He is the best we have, and I know he will serve you well.” Evemer heard the praise distantly, like it was someone talking in the next room. He was too busy schooling his face into blankness. Duty, yes.

He was not serving this… man. He was serving Her Majesty and Commander Eozena. He was obeying their commands. “I am honored to serve, Your Highness,” he said, because that was nearly true.

“Hoşkadem, His Highness Prince Kadou. I trust he needs no other introduction.”

“No, Commander,” said Evemer.

“Good,” said the commander. “You’ll be His Highness’s primary until further notice. If you have any questions, please consider me your first resource.” This was said with enough of an edge that it wasn’t, apparently, empty invitation. She sketched an alarmingly casual bow to the prince. “Unless you need anything else from me, I’ll excuse myself,” she said, and His Highness nodded morosely.

The door clicked behind her as she left.

Silence settled into the room like a cat curling up in a basket.

Evemer was completely at a loss for what to do or say. He stared hard at His Highness, studying his face, his hands. He was wearing a loosely belted dressing gown over his snow-white underlayer, and his hair was tousled. No one had bothered yet to groom and arrange it. No one had even bothered to give him a shave.

Evemer clenched his jaw. He’d been under the impression that there were certain standards in the Gold Court. Someone should have attended His Highness this morning. Even if Evemer was the new primary, there was no reason to wait for him to arrive and be officially appointed and introduced—someone should have attended Prince Kadou. It would be shameful, a dishonor on Evemer, if His Highness were to appear like this in front of anyone else.

His Highness looked… unhappy. Tense. Perhaps he knew something of Evemer. Perhaps he was just as disappointed with this situation as Evemer was.

Likely he would have preferred it to be one of his favorites. Like that Tadek Hasira. His lover.

Everyone in the garrison knew about Tadek—when Evemer had still been on fringe-duty, he’d known about Tadek. Even before then, from their time as cadets in the kahyalar academy together years and years ago, Evemer had been vaguely aware of Tadek, and he had despised him almost instantly. They had never spoken, so far as Evemer could remember, and Evemer had never heard anything about the man that would recommend him: Tadek was vain and had a reputation for being rather free with his affections. He wasn’t serious; he was careless, flighty, and negligent—qualities he shared with the prince, evidently.

And, of course, he too was also directly responsible for the deaths of two good and loyal kahyalar.

Tadek should have been court-martialed for his part in what he’d done, but the prince had saved his life, though none of last night’s gossip could quite agree on the exact truth of what had happened. Evemer had collected at least eight different ludicrous tales from twelve different kahyalar and cadets, and the only thing that was the same across all of them was that the prince—this prince, this careless, flighty, negligent man—had knelt at Her Majesty’s feet to ask her to show his lover mercy instead of allowing him take his punishment with honor.

No wonder they were lovers. They must get along splendidly.

His Highness seemed… shy? He kept glancing at Evemer and away, worrying his lip with his teeth, his brow all twisted up. The sign of a guilty conscience, maybe, or perhaps a simple weakness of character.

“I’m sorry about this,” His Highness said suddenly.

He didn’t sound sorry. He sounded like he was offering words to Evemer like carefully arranged sweets on a tray at a banquet.

“I beg your pardon, Highness?”

His Highness looked away, then down at his hands, twisting in his lap. Evemer took the opportunity to freely clench his jaw. What sort of a prince was this, who couldn’t even look at the person he spoke to? “I suppose you know that I’m not exactly held in high favor at the moment.”

“Your Highness,” said Evemer.

“I don’t want you to think that—that you’re being punished, or that this is going to be an obstacle to the advancement of your career.”

Of course he hadn’t been thinking such a thing—Her Majesty had appointed him to this post specifically. “Is there anything that Your Highness requires?”

His Highness sighed and looked at the breakfast things, looked down into his cup—coffee rather than tea. Rather luxurious for so early in the morning, Evemer thought. If His Highness had regretted yesterday’s events in the slightest, he might have confined himself to more humble and modest fare to reflect his repentance. Evemer eyed the myriad array of small plates and bowls on the table as well, far more food than one person could eat—several kinds of cheese, olives, eggs poached in red sauce, a startling selection of jams, su borek, sliced and fried sausage, and three types of bread. One of the breads was the same ring-shaped, sesame-crusted simit that Evemer and his mother ate in their own house—this, of all things, gave him pause. It was a ubiquitous bread down in the city, one that everyone ate. But Evemer hadn’t expected “everyone” to include the prince.

He didn’t know how to feel about that.

Frustrated and angry, he decided after a moment’s reflection. Princes were not normal people, so they oughtn’t eat the same foods that normal people did.

“If you’ll summon a cadet to clear breakfast away,” His Highness said, and got to his feet. He still wore sleep trousers beneath his underlayer, and his feet were bare. “And then I suppose you can come dress me.”

When the first order had been attended to, Evemer silently followed deeper into the prince’s apartments—the other door in the room led into a bedchamber, as expansive and airy as the parlor had been, though since they were both north-facing, the light was a little dim. His Highness was standing at a massive wardrobe, rummaging shoulder-deep. At the front of the shelves, Evemer could see dozens of neatly folded robes and kaftans in colors as bright as flowers and butterfly wings, but deeper within there was the rustle of paper—the finer and more rarely worn items, he could guess.

His Highness pulled out a parcel and unwrapped it. He nodded, tossed it onto the bed, and turned to Evemer. To his credit (and Evemer begrudged him even this), he didn’t ask if Evemer knew what he was doing—Evemer wouldn’t have been allowed within a hundred yards of these apartments if he didn’t meet the required standards of the position.

His Highness silently took a seat in the chair by the window and said, gesturing to a dresser nearby, “Everything’s in that drawer.” By everything he meant brushes, combs, nail files, pumice stones, several different types of scissors, straight razors, a leather strop for sharpening, shaving soaps, oils, lengths of clean white linen. Evemer took a careful inventory—it was neat enough, he supposed. It could be neater. He would have to inspect everything in one of his free moments.

He stropped the razor to a perfect edge and lathered the soap. His Highness tipped his head back, baring his throat. Evemer didn’t allow himself to think of anything those next few minutes but the careful glide of the blade, the scrape of the edge against skin and hair.

His Highness kept his eyes closed, kept perfectly still and silent until Evemer had finished, and then he took the damp cloth and wiped the rest of the soap from his face. “Arrange my hair for mourning, please.”

Mourning, was it? He cast an eye to the paper-wrapped parcel on the bed—was it going to be mourning clothes too? “Highness,” he said, and even to his own ear his voice sounded cool.

Mourning, at least for the upper classes and royalty who wore their hair long like His Highness’s, meant severe arrangements—Evemer brushed out the heavy, silken mass of black until it shone like wet ink, braided it as tightly as he could, and pinned it up into a knot at the nape of Kadou’s neck. His Highness sprang out of the chair the moment the last pin was in place and went to the bed as if the parcel were a vicious animal that was going to spring up and bite him.

It was, indeed, mourning clothes. There was a velvet kaftan in funereal colors—a red so dark it was nearly black, lined with black silk, a deep purple underlayer embroidered with mountain laurel and acanthus, and black trousers. By the time Evemer had gotten all the soaps, brushes, razors, and cloths tidied away, His Highness had already changed into the trousers and was doing up the tiny black-pearl buttons of the underlayer with shaking hands.

Evemer silently took over. He could not resist the temptation to firmly brush His Highness’s hands away—even in this, he wasn’t the man Evemer had expected him to be. A prince ought to accept service graciously, rather than scrambling about trying to do trivial things for himself that should have been beneath his notice.

Evemer shook out the heavy velvet kaftan next—the cloth was so dark that it seemed to draw light into it, except where it flashed bright at the folds. Being more formal, it was fitted tighter through the shoulders than usual, with sleeves so restrictively narrow that they had to be buttoned from the elbow—His Highness, thankfully, did not attempt again to do these up, nor the silk-and-black-jadeite frog closures at the front. He stood as still and quiet for this as he had for the shave. There was just the terrible weight of this silence between them.

Surely he must know that Evemer knew.

Evemer unfolded the sash that went with the kaftan—a long length of black silk veiling, fine enough that even soft hands might snag the fabric if it was handled carelessly. His Highness raised his arms, and Evemer looped it around his waist twice and knotted it neatly in a sober style—one of the more fashionable knots wouldn’t have been at all appropriate. The trailing ends of the sash reached nearly to the ground.

Evemer stood back and assessed him from head to toe.

“Do I pass inspection?” His Highness asked with a watery smile—an attempt at a joke.

“Highness,” Evemer said in clipped tones, and His Highness’s expression shuttered off again, into that closed and miserable wretchedness. “How long will Your Highness be in full mourning?”

“Five days,” His Highness said. It was uncertain, almost a question. Was he looking for Evemer’s approval?

Five days was excessive. Evemer risked another sharp glance at him—five days was how you mourned a parent, spouse, sibling, or child. Five days for a pair of kahyalar, even if they had been ones that Kadou knew well, smacked of performative grief. As if His Highness were publicly showing off how contrite and unhappy he was. “Highness,” Evemer said, and his anger mounted higher to see His Highness wince.

***

The sentient, walking blank wall which had been assigned to him followed Kadou out of his chambers, out through the Gold Gate, and into the Silver Court, silent every step of the way.

At least, sort of a blank wall. He must think himself very accomplished at that stony facade, and Kadou was sure that it probably worked on most people. But Kadou could read him at a glance, just as he’d been able to at the Shipbuilder’s Guild, when he had thanked the distractingly handsome kahya at the door for fetching him something to drink, and the kahya had straightened his shoulders and glowed at him without changing his expression a hair’s breadth.

What he was reading now was cold, hidden fury that Evemer apparently thought he was concealing. He wasn’t the only one who was upset—Melek had cried a bit, the night before, but pretended like çe hadn’t. Istani had, unusually, refrained from grumbling about anything at all. Selime and Hafza, who had stood guard at the door, hadn’t even made eye contact with him when he returned at last to his chambers, let alone smiled as they usually did. The cadets bringing in his meals had fled as quickly as possible.

This one, though, had worked himself up into a rage. Kadou had watched the storm brew darker over Lieutenant Hoşkadem’s face as he’d entered the room and pinned Kadou in place with only the weight of his cold eyes and colder judgment. It made Kadou want to huddle down as small as possible.

Kadou led the way to the offices of the intelligence ministry—the kahyalar here were stiff and cool to him too, and he swept past them quickly with his eyes fixed on the ground and Evemer’s steady step just behind him.

Lieutenant Armagan was waiting in one of the ministry’s chambers, solemn faced. “Your Highness,” çe said tonelessly. “I would have been more than happy to come to you instead. You needn’t have made the walk.”

It sounded almost like a rebuke—perhaps Armagan didn’t want to be seen with him either. Kadou wouldn’t blame çem for it. “It’s no trouble. I’m happy to meet with you wherever you’d prefer,” he said softly.

Armagan grunted. “That’s the thing, Highness. I don’t think we will have much reason to meet anymore.”

Kadou’s heart nearly stopped in his chest, and for a moment he thought Armagan might be about to declare that çe couldn’t possibly work with Kadou’s oversight. “What do you mean?” he managed.

“The investigation. It’s a dead end, Highness.”

“But you said just the other day that there was progress. You said slow, but… is that not the case?”

“I’m sorry that you came all this way for such bad news, Your Highness,” Armagan said. “We’re wasting our time on it, in my opinion. There’s nothing that would give us clues about the identity of the thieves or how to track them, and nothing to suggest they actually got their hands on any sensitive information.”

“But surely there’s something—it’s only been a few days, surely we can’t just give up.” It was too important. Araşti ships, shipbuilders, and sailors were the best in the world, and getting better every year—the guild had been responsible for recent developments in hull technology that several very clever people had attempted to explain to Kadou using lots of new terms like fluid dynamics. All that research had been stored in the guild’s records room, but that wasn’t what Kadou was most concerned about. The research being stolen would be a blow, but the nature of research was that anyone else would have been able to re-create it, if they had enough time.

No, the thing that kept Kadou up at night, the thing that had made this break-in an issue of national security was that besides all the research, the Shipbuilder’s Guild held one-third of the most precious and lucrative secret in, arguably, the world: the trick of passing safely across the sea when the serpents of the deep rose for their breeding season and roved lust-maddened and hungry near the surface, or clustered in their writhing, frothing mating swarms, powerful and violent enough to tear holes in the bottoms of even the thickest-hulled vessels. For six weeks in the summer, the Sea of Serpents—the mercantile center of the world, it was said—was functionally impassable to all but Araşti ships sailed by Araşti captains. Six weeks when theirs were the only ships that would dare leave port for open waters. Six weeks when only they were safe. Six weeks of a total monopoly on trade, at least in this part of the world.

But that secret had been endangered, and so the investigation, in Kadou’s opinion, remained quite literally a matter of national importance.

“Highness, we don’t even know what they used to batter down the doors,” Armagan said. “All we know is that they used the noise of the fireworks on the night of Her Highness’s birth to cover up the noise—that’s it. There is nothing to go on. Highness, I’ve seen a dozen cases like this. There’ve been times I’ve worked my fingers to the bone only to turn up nothing. There are better ways to spend our energy—reinforcing security at the guilds, perhaps, so that it doesn’t happen again; learning from what mistakes or infelicities happened here. That sort of thing. But with the search for answers or explanations…” Çe sighed. “Sometimes we just have to accept failure.”

Those last words lodged in Kadou’s chest like a crossbow quarrel. “I see,” he said. “Well. I’ll… I’ll have to tell Her Majesty—”

“No need. I’ve already sent a report to Her Majesty and to Minister Selim.”

Çe had gone over Kadou’s head, in other words, likely because çe really couldn’t stomach the idea of working with him and probably hadn’t thought that he could be relied upon to accept good advice. “Oh. I see.” There was an awkward beat of silence, and Armagan’s eyes flicked to the door. Kadou got the hint immediately. “Well. Thank you for your service, then. I’m sure you did the best you could, and I’ll be sure to commend you to Her Majesty.”

Empty, rote words. Words that felt wrong in his mouth, that he knew were wrong. He should have insisted. He should have demanded answers. But he was no expert in such things, and he wasn’t trained for this—the purpose of ministers like Armagan was to provide wisdom and counsel, but what good was that if their expertise was not heeded?

Kadou felt the familiar shivering beginning at the core of him, the cracks that would run through all his glass-fragile nerves until he shattered to pieces. He paused just long enough for Armagan to bow, and then he fled.

***

Evemer’s duty was to the sultan, he reminded himself again and again that day. Not to the prince.

He followed His Highness from the embarrassingly short meeting with Lieutenant Armagan to a series of equally short ones with other people, watching as the prince got quieter and more withdrawn with each person he spoke to. Evemer didn’t know how to interpret it—was His Highness surprised that so many people were upset with him? Was he taken aback that no one was commenting on his performance of mourning? He was quite pale by noon, his face stark against the deep black-red of his kaftan, and he kept having little spells of shivering, as if he were cold.

He remembered, belatedly, that His Highness had not touched his breakfast, and promptly decided that it was not within the required standards of a kahya for Evemer to remind him to eat lunch. It would build character and discipline for him to go a little hungry.

By midafternoon, the prince’s posture was terrible, like a meek child who thought they might be slapped at any moment. Evemer mentally shoved at him, willing him to straighten and stiffen his back, to raise his chin, to stop fiddling so with his cuffs. He knew His Highness was capable of it. He’d seen it in his effortless seat on that fine horse at the Shipbuilder’s Guild.

Evemer straightened his own spine until it was as eret and rigid and unyielding as cold iron. His muscles ached in protest.

He could show enough discipline for both of them. He wouldn’t allow himself a dram of ease as long as His Highness was slinking around like that as if no one were watching him, as if there were a single soul in the palace who wasn’t paying attention to his every move. Evemer wondered how a person could be so oblivious, and then remembered—not oblivious. Just careless and negligent.

Evemer served the sultan. He obeyed Commander Eozena.

***

The very moment that Kadou felt he could reasonably return to his chambers, he did so, charging through the doors and striding across his parlor to his bedroom without waiting to see who, if anyone, followed. He staggered toward the bed and collapsed into it, rolling onto his back and clasping both hands to the center of his chest.

His clothes were far too tight—the collar around his neck, the sleeves, the waist. He couldn’t move in them, couldn’t breathe. The velvet was too heavy and too hot, even in the mild warmth of midspring.

“Highness,” Evemer said from the door. “Do you require a doctor?”

“No. Don’t. It’s nothing.” Kadou struggled suddenly back to his feet, stumbled across the room, and fumbled at the latches on the window. “I want this open. It’s so stuffy in here.”

Evemer came forward and brushed Kadou’s hands aside, swinging the glass open to the inside and propping it open with the chair so the wind couldn’t blow it closed. Kadou clawed at the black silk frog-closures of his kaftan with shaking hands and leaned against the windowsill—he managed a few of them, and even that was a sharp relief.

He’d failed. Zeliha had been right—he should have let her send him away somewhere to be useful. He shouldn’t have talked her out of it, because now here he was, a failure and an embarrassment who couldn’t even oversee the simplest investigation, let alone a crucially important one. What more could he have done? Surely there must have been something.

“I was not made aware of Your Highness having any medical conditions,” Evemer said.

“I don’t. It’s nothing,” Kadou said firmly. “It’s not a medical condition. There’s nothing wrong.” He forced a laugh. “You might as well know. You’ll find out eventually anyway. What’s the point of hiding it? It’s not a medical condition. I’m just a coward.”

Evemer said nothing.

“You needn’t worry,” Kadou said. He closed his eyes and, though his hands were shaking, managed to undo two of the closures of his underlayer at his neck. The cotton stuck to his skin, sticky and overwarm, and Evemer had braided his hair so tightly that morning that his scalp was aching. “It comes upon me unexpectedly. Or… expectedly. Cowardice, after all. But that’s all it is. Pay it no mind.”

He stumbled back toward the bed, but Evemer caught him by the shoulder. “Your clothes, Highness.”

The velvet was not so delicate that it would have been the worse for Kadou throwing himself into bed. A curse on all kahyalar and their universally inconvenient obsession with his presentation. Suppressing the impulse to scream, he propped himself up against one of the bedposts and shoved everything within him away while Evemer unknotted the sash, made quick work of the rest of the kaftan’s buttons down Kadou’s front and at his wrists, and peeled the mourning kaftan off of him. Then Evemer turned away, as if he didn’t care at all now whether Kadou toppled into bed or not, now that he’d saved the velvet from being crushed.

It was desperately more comfortable without the weight of it dragging him down, at least. “Send a message to the kitchens,” he said, falling into the sheets. “I’ll be eating here in my rooms for dinner.” He wondered when Evemer’s relief shift would be sent. Perhaps he’d have to choke down a few bites of food under that cold gaze. He deserved it—it so clearly said that he had taken Kadou’s measure and calculated precisely how much he’d fallen short.

“Yes, Highness,” said Evemer. He folded the velvet kaftan neatly and laid it atop the dresser. Then, as if the words were being drawn from him with a team of oxen, “Is there anything else you require?”

“Send for Eozena,” he said, barely keeping the quaver out of his voice. He was utterly appalled with himself. He’d be burdening her. She had better things to do than come to talk to him. “And—and can you please find out where my armsman is?” And then bring me quite a lot of wine, he did not add. Better to wait a little longer for that.

Evemer’s moment of silence had a vaguely astonished quality. “Your armsman, Your Highness?”

“Tadek Hasira. He’s—he’s somewhere in the palace, unless they’ve sent him on leave—but they wouldn’t have, because he’s under my command now, and I didn’t tell him—just send someone to find out where he is. Please.”

“Yes, Highness.”

He pulled all the pins out of his hair and unbraided it—his scalp ached even more to be released from that tight binding—and spent the next half hour staring into nothing and reviewing every word that he had said to anyone that day, inspecting each interaction from several angles to determine which ones he should be crushingly embarrassed about, and to what degree.

Eozena saved him from himself. Coming in, she shut the door and dragged the chair over to the edge of the bed, turning it around so she could straddle it with her arms crossed on the back. “Rough day?”

“Are you angry at me?”

“Nope,” she said. “A tiny bit exasperated, perhaps. Is everyone else angry?”

“I think so.” He took a miserable breath. “Lieutenant Armagan is shutting down the investigation.”

She frowned. “Already?”

“That was my response too.” He rolled onto his side to face her. “Did I ruin it?”

“How could you have ruined it?”

“I must have, somehow.”

She shook her head. “Nonsense. But what did Armagan say?”

“Just that there wasn’t any progress, no clues, no leads. Çe said it would be a waste of time, and that çe already informed Zeliha and Minister Selim that çe was going to recommend shutting it all down.” Only that thing about the fireworks—which meant the thieves had been prepared, which meant… probably nothing except that the gossip mill in the palace was in fine working condition. It had not been a secret that Her Majesty was pregnant, and it definitely wouldn’t have been a secret when her labors started.

“That’s unusual,” Eozena said, her frown deepening. “It’s been—what, just over a week?”

Kadou pushed himself up to a seat, crossing his legs tailor style and picking at a loose thread in the quilt. “I didn’t know what else to say—I barely know what I’m doing with this. Just… taking reports and saying, ‘Yes, good job,’ right? If Armagan says there’s no point, then who am I to contradict that?”

“You could ask çem for the reports. You could review everything yourself. You could go back down to the Shipbuilder’s Guild. I’d go with you.”

Kadou squirmed with discomfort. “I don’t know.” His nerves were getting worse now—just the thought of indicating to Armagan that Kadou thought çir work was lacking in some way was too horrific to contemplate at the moment. It was all too much.

“Are you all right? Are you getting sick?”

“Maybe.” That was easier than explaining—it was one thing to admit his cowardice to Evemer, who already was contemptuous of him. It was another to say it to Eozena, who might well be the only person in the palace who didn’t hate him. “Do you…” He swallowed. “Do you know where Tadek is? He hasn’t come.”

“Of course he hasn’t. He’s not a kahya anymore. He isn’t even allowed into the Gold Court except by royal decree, and… you haven’t decreed it. They found him a room in the cadet dormitory for his lodging, I think.”

Kadou swore and rolled out of bed. The cadet dormitory? For someone who, two days ago, was a kahya of the core-guard? Gods, how humiliating it must be—Tadek of all people didn’t deserve to be humiliated.

Kadou went immediately to his writing desk, scrawled out a note, and marked it with his personal seal in sapphire-blue wax “So,” Eozena said, behind him. “You’re going to continue things with him, then?”

He froze. “What do you mean?”

“You’re summoning him to your side right away? What’s he going to do here? Will you keep him in jewels and silks”

Kadou flushed and dropped his eyes. “No. Just… he could serve as my valet, I suppose. Take some of the burden off the kahyalar.” Then he wouldn’t have to suffer through any more of those endless awkward silences with Evemer, or watch him glower from across the room, or have his hair braided so tightly that it hurt him all day. Strange how someone who had at first made Kadou look twice was now making him want to look anywhere but at him. “How long have you known about me and Tadek?” he asked. “It was the palace’s gossip network, I suppose?”

“I’m commander of the guard, Kadou. I’m privy to ninety percent of the intelligence the crown receives. And… well, yes, you’re partly right; kahyalar are gossips. If it was supposed to be a state secret, you could have done better.”

“It wasn’t. Not really.”

“You were reasonably discreet, except for that little romantic walk at the party the other night. I certainly don’t blame you for having something with him. From all I’ve witnessed and heard, it seems you treated each other well, before yesterday’s… incident.” Her expression turned sympathetic. “And I know it must be lonely. I imagine that it felt easier to turn to someone who had already sworn himself to you, someone you knew you could trust. Someone who made you feel safe.”

Kadou nodded miserably. Not many courtiers his own age in the palace, and fewer that he was interested in, and fewer still who returned his interest. The boating accident that had killed his parents when he was ten years old had also taken a great many of the young people who should have grown to be Kadou’s peers and friends. These days, the palace was only crowded around holidays and during the winter—the rest of the year, the families of the provincial governors resided at their country holdings. The kahyalar assigned to his service, rotating out every six or eight months, were and had always been the greatest part of his social life. As for them, there were many who, regardless of interest, wouldn’t cross that line or be comfortable with him crossing it. Especially in the core-guard, the ones Kadou had the most interaction with—they had a tendency to be upright and tight-laced, as Evemer was.

He looked down at the letter in his hand. He was letting his weakness get the better of him again. One bad day and he was already backsliding, ready to dump everything on Tadek…

But what if Tadek was angry too? What if he would have preferred to be dismissed from the kahyalar corps entirely? Kadou hadn’t asked what he wanted. He’d just… done what he thought he had to do to protect someone who was almost a friend. But if that had been some new violation of correct and caring behavior, then… then Tadek would be well within his rights to be furious at Kadou.

He was mortified that the thought hadn’t even occurred to him before this moment. Eozena was right—Tadek was safe and comforting, and… And it wasn’t fair for Kadou to use him like that, just for his own benefit. So, therefore, he shouldn’t summon him. He knew what the right thing to do was—he ought to meet Tadek quietly in some neutral space, and let him be angry if he was angry, and then offer him whatever he wanted to make up for what Kadou had done to him. Maybe that would help.

Or maybe that too was another opportunity to fail spectacularly. Another opportunity to upset everyone, or give them material to gossip about. Another opportunity to disappoint Zeliha and Eozena.

He put the summons back on his desk. Tomorrow, maybe. He needed to agonize about it first. “I’m quite tired,” he said. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long day.”

Eozena nodded and got up. “You going to be all right?”

“Yes,” he lied. “Just fine.”

“And the investigation? Do you want me to come with you to the guild tomorrow?”

“Perhaps not tomorrow.” He was fully planning on staying in his chambers all day tomorrow, preferably with the sheets pulled over his head.

“I’ll have all the reports brought here, then,” she said.

“Oh—oh, no, you needn’t go to the trouble.”

“Kadou.” He stopped, looked at her. She looked steadily, calmly back at him. “I’m going to commandeer the reports and say you wanted me to fetch them for you. Then I’m going to take them back to my own rooms and read them. Then I’m going to bring them here. But I can’t do that middle bit without the first one. Do you mind terribly?”

The thought of even this little subterfuge being discovered sent another shockwave of nausea through him. But he trusted her better than he trusted himself, and so he said, “If you think it’s best.”

She looked askance, but nodded. “Send for me again if you need anything, all right? Day or night, you know that.”

“Of course,” he lied, again.

And then he was alone, with dinner and dusk still hours away, with a growing sense of unease pressing upon him—it felt very much like it had in the early months of Zeliha’s pregnancy, when he’d worried himself into fits of shuddering terror on a near-daily basis. Tadek had been here then. Tadek had been his primary.

The letter to grant Tadek access to the Gold Court lay on his desk, taking up a disproportionate amount of space in his mind for such a small and unassuming object.

He shut his eyes and turned sharply away from it, pacing through the room, shoving his hands into his hair to rub his aching head and banish away some of the shattered-glass feeling he was developing along all his edges.

He couldn’t stay cooped up in his rooms. He’d worry himself to bits in here, or drive himself mad.

He whirled toward the wardrobe and yanked out the first kaftan his hands fell on—green linen, delicately embroidered along the bottom hem with an elegant, masculine profusion of flowers—and pulled it on, charging out the door a moment later, still doing up the buttons.

Evemer was sitting in a chair by the parlor door, cradling a half-full glass teacup in both hands. He looked up immediately and took in Kadou’s mismatched clothing. “Highness,” he said.

“I’m going for a walk in the garden.”

“Highness.” Evemer set aside his tea.

“You don’t need to come with me.”

Kadou turned away before he could see Evemer’s expression, whatever it was—and Evemer followed him anyway. Kadou strode forward as if he could outpace the fear-creature lurking around the edges of his brain, growling a low and throbbing snarl and waiting for the moment to pounce and devour him. He went aimlessly, not always keeping to the paths, ducking his way under branches and clambering over low walls while Evemer followed behind without a single grumble. Damn him. Did he have that sharp stare of judgment fixed on Kadou now? The moment he had the thought, he could almost feel the weight of Evemer’s eyes at his back.

He went until he was breathless, and then he found himself in front of one of the palace’s smaller shrines—it had twelve in total, including the Grand Temple, each dedicated to one of the two gods.

This one was for Usmim, the Lord of Trials. Of course his feet would lead him here, of all places. The building was no bigger than a large cottage or his own chambers, and inside it would be dim, cool, and quiet. Perhaps if he begged Usmim ardently enough, he would take pity and grant Kadou a moment’s peace from his own mind.

***

Her Majesty was a strong leader, someone Evemer was genuinely pleased and honored to be sworn to—the sort of liege he had thought of when he was a child: Someone powerful, armed and armored and on a white horse, blazing in the sunlight, a banner snapping above, with eyes both stern and kind. Someone you could kneel to, swear your life to, and serve with honor, receiving equal honor in return. Someone you could die for, and not feel that your life or your death had been wasted.

His Highness, by comparison, was only affirming Evemer’s assessment of careless-flighty-negligent.

At this moment, Evemer was profoundly embarrassed to be seen out in public with him, inasmuch as the extremely secure enclosure of the Gold Court could be considered public. His Highness had re-dressed himself, which was both annoying and offensive. If it had been anyone else, Evemer might have thought they were hinting that his service was somehow unsatisfactory.

He knew that it wasn’t. His service was more than sufficient—the exams had proven so. Kadou was just… like that. Evemer hadn’t tried to stop him at the doors of his chambers, hadn’t tried to argue him into putting on something nicer than a linen kaftan that looked like it was more appropriate for a hunting excursion or a sweaty, dusty day at the training grounds than for hurling oneself aimlessly around the paths of the formal gardens. The skirts of the beautiful purple underlayer showed in vibrant flashes whenever the prince turned, garish and odd next to the subdued green outer layer.

His Highness swerved toward a little shrine to Usmim, paused, started forward again, paused again, repeated this five or seven times until Evemer allowed himself a brief moment of speculation about whether he’d be convicted for treason if he were to strangle him.

No, Evemer didn’t actually want to do that. Shaking him, though, yes, very much. He’d grab this stupid little prince by his shoulders and shake him until his bones rattled and then maybe, just maybe, he’d come to his senses and stop being so much… like this.

His Highness charged forward to the shrine so suddenly that Evemer mentally cursed and had to scramble to keep up, and then stopped so abruptly on the threshold that Evemer nearly crashed into his back.

It took Evemer’s eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom, and then he saw the person sitting there on the floor in front of Usmim’s altar. Whoever it was hadn’t lit any candles as they would have if they were properly praying, and something about it scraped across Evemer’s instincts and set him on edge. He had the sudden impulse to step in front of Kadou, put his body between the prince and… whoever that was.

“Sorry,” His Highness said. “I didn’t know there was anyone in here.”

The person turned, and in a wintry voice said, “Your Highness.”

Evemer didn’t notice how much restless, fidgeting energy Kadou had actually been carrying until it vanished. “Oh,” His Highness said. “Siranos.”

It took Evemer a moment to place the name—the princess’s body-father? What was he doing in the Gold Court? He didn’t belong here. The urge to put himself between them grew keener, but the doorway was too narrow to sidle around Kadou.

Siranos turned back to the altar. “Come in or don’t. I don’t care.”

Kadou did five more verses of that stop-start hesitation before he slunk forward, keeping close to the wall as if… as if he were afraid of Siranos. Something really was wrong, then.

His Highness took a candle from the filigree box by the wall. When he’d lit it and stuck it into a sconce—the one furthest away from Siranos—he retreated to sit an awkward distance away from the altar. It took him a moment, evidently, to center himself: He flexed his hands open and closed for a minute before he moved into the first position of prayer.

Evemer kept an eye on Siranos and a hand on the hilt of the sword at his hip. He had only ever seen the man at a distance before, and would not have been able to put the name and face together before this. He was of a height with Her Majesty, lean and well-formed, with sharp narrow features, excellent cheekbones, and an immaculately trimmed beard. Oddly, he wore his hair very short, like a commoner, though it was styled with an expensive fragrant oil that Evemer could smell faintly even from ten feet away. The short hair showed that he didn’t have his ears pierced—also like a commoner, though he wore a large gold ring with a yellow stone on his right hand. To Evemer’s eye, the whole effect was of incompletion and inelegance: a man rich enough to afford fine clothing and jewels, but either too miserly to employ a competent body-servant who might advise him on how to better present himself, or else too obstinate to listen to that advice.

Evemer didn’t like this. Why didn’t he like this? Less than ten words from Siranos and he was wound tighter than the warp on his mother’s loom.

His Highness had progressed to the third position of prayer when Siranos spoke again: “I’m told that it is thanks to you that I have been granted residence here,” he said. His voice echoed oddly against the bare stone floors and walls, the high ceiling. Evemer was too appalled to do anything but stare at him. Who did he think he was to interrupt someone at prayer? That was only permissible for temple dedicates—even Tadek wouldn’t be so rude.

“It was nothing,” His Highness said. He kept his eyes squeezed closed, his hands raised in orans.

“So you don’t expect me to show gratitude. Excellent.”

A long silence. Evemer shifted closer to Kadou until he was nearly touching him—Kadou, sitting tailor-style, could have leaned back against Evemer’s knees.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Siranos asked suddenly. “That night you were in Her Majesty’s offices, rummaging through her things?” Evemer calmly filed this into his inventory of everything objectionable about His Highness, then paused, took it out again, and mentally turned it over once or twice. With a grain of salt, said his mother’s voice in his head. Possibly a handful. Evemer had accompanied His Highness and Commander Eozena to those very offices before he’d been sent off to run messages.

“I wasn’t harming anything,” His Highness said. “I was supposed to be there.” True, as far as Evemer knew. The commander, whose years of service and heroism had proven herself beyond reproach, had asked him to accompany her.

“It was about the matter at the Shipbuilder’s Guild, wasn’t it?”

His Highness lowered his hands. “How did you…?”

“You told me yourself,” Siranos said.

“Did I?”

“Yes.”

Exasperatingly, His Highness didn’t seem to care about the interruptions to his prayer. Evemer wished with some annoyance that Siranos would at least address His Highness properly—whether or not the prince was careless-flighty-negligent, he was still the prince, and Siranos just some rich, good-looking nobody from Oissos. But then, the Oissika didn’t understand about princes in the first place—they didn’t have them. So Siranos could not be expected to behave with proper comportment.

“I don’t remember what I said,” His Highness murmured.

“You said,” Siranos replied, a little too smoothly, “that there was something the matter at the Shipbuilder’s Guild and that you had to write orders to someone about it. An investigation, I suppose.”

His Highness shifted and said nothing, just… looked at Siranos. His head was turned just enough that Evemer, standing behind and above him, could see how knotted his brow was.

“How is the investigation going?” Siranos asked. “Well, I hope?”

“I’m sorry, but it—it wouldn’t be right for me to—discuss state matters like that.”

“What harm is there? I live in the Gold Court now, don’t I? Now and for the foreseeable future, evidently. And I am the law-father of your niece.”

“Body-father,” His Highness said. “The word is body-father. I know it must be confusing if you’re not familiar with the language. Easy to mix those words up—they must sound very similar to your ear.” From another person’s lips, this might have been a dig, but Evemer couldn’t read a drop of sarcasm in His Highness voice.

Siranos made an annoyed noise. “Body-father, law-father, love-father,” he said these mockingly, mispronouncing each of the three words. “I can’t see what the distinction is, but you fussy Araşti keep insisting there is one!” Evemer filed this away too—he had heard some rumors that Siranos didn’t understand this either. As a cadet in the academy, Evemer’s teachers had told them that in Oissos, children automatically belonged as much to their sire as they did to their mother, even if the two weren’t married, which seemed a strange and backward way of doing things. Perhaps that was why the Oissika took such a funny angle on marriage. In Araşt, it all came down to claim: Someone who became pregnant retained full claim on their child unless they specifically shared that claim with the child’s sire. That was the reason Her Majesty had very wisely not gotten married, and indeed wouldn’t be getting married, because then another house (or, gods forbid, another country, if Her Majesty married some foreign noble) would have claim on any of the future heirs to the throne. Far more prudent for Her Majesty to get her children from lovers, as she had with Siranos—it was the main benefit of having a sovereign capable of bearing: House Mahisti would maintain full and exclusive claim on their heirs. His Majesty the former sultan, on the other hand—Kadou and Zeliha’s grandfather—had had to get married, since he wouldn’t have been guaranteed claim on his body-children otherwise.

And then there were His Highness’s parents. That, Evemer had heard, was a simple love story. An outlier. His Highness couldn’t reasonably expect a love-match, though they were unremarkable and commonplace in the lower classes.

“In any case,” Siranos was saying bitterly. “What’s the harm of me knowing anything? Who am I going to tell?”

“Whether or not you have anyone to tell,” His Highness said softly to Siranos, “it doesn’t make it right for me to speak of it. I shouldn’t have even told you about the Shipbuilder’s Guild. It’s a state matter.”

Siranos snorted. “Fine. As you wish. I suppose I’ll ask Zeliha instead.”

Evemer would not stand to let that sort of ill manners slide. A prince was one thing, the sultan quite another. “Her Majesty,” Evemer said. His Highness and Siranos both started. “You will address Sultan Zeliha with the proper honorifics, whether or not you are in her presence.”

In the light from the single candle and what light spilled through the doorway behind them, Siranos sneered. “Do you always let your guards speak out of turn?”

His Highness’s spine stiffened until his posture was nearly one that Evemer could approve of. “He’s not a guard, he’s a kahya.”

“Even after a year, I fail to discern the difference there too.”

“A guard is just someone you hire off the street,” His Highness said, and now he even sounded a bit like a prince. There was a banked fire in his voice. “The kahyalar are the future ministers of the government and military. They’re educated in law, history, literature, the skills of war, and a hundred practical matters. I imagine Evemer could shoe a horse if there were no farrier available, or measure and sew clothing, or play music, or navigate by the stars, or run through all twenty verses of Beydamur’s progression for the sword upon command.” All of this was true, and more besides, but Evemer didn’t give His Highness any credit for it—might as well applaud him for knowing that the sky was blue. “And they take oaths,” His Highness added. “So yes, we let our kahyalar speak. They’re people, not automatons. If we are entrusting these people with our lives, if we trust them to know when to draw their swords, why not trust them to know when to hold their tongues?”

“And his hypocrisy? He rebukes me for rudeness but I don’t even get a sir?” He looked at Evemer again as if daring him to reply. Evemer stared back at him. “If it were me, I’d have him whipped. I’d do it myself.”

His Highness dropped his hands from orans and folded them on his knees. “If my kahya’s words have offended you, then I shall take it upon myself to apologize.” His voice was soft again. “I beg your forgiveness.”

Evemer snapped his eyes to the altar and glared hard at it. Siranos wanted him whipped? He ought to be whipped himself for speaking like that in the presence of his betters.

And the apology! His Highness was a prince; he owed no apology to anyone, particularly not to Siranos, of all people. Evemer had done absolutely nothing that could be considered even mildly improper—how dare the prince apologize for him?

At least Siranos could find nothing to say in reply. He turned back to the altar, and after a moment His Highness raised his hands again and returned to prayer.

“Is it true your mother was an adulteress?” asked Siranos quite suddenly. Evemer very nearly drew steel on him.

“No,” Kadou said. His voice had gone rather… vague. Distant, perhaps, or dazed.

“Are you sure—”

“Yes,” Evemer snapped. “And Her Majesty will thank you not to slander her mother like that.”

“I thought it a reasonable question,” Siranos said, with the silky satisfaction of one whose fencing riposte had landed just right.

“It isn’t.”

“One hears such rumors.”

“Hold your tongue.” Except yes, one did hear such rumors—the kahyalar were all terrible gossips, and Evemer had often received a whispered piece of gossip framed as, Now, you must be aware of the things people say sometimes so that you won’t be surprised…

Kadou’s mother, the princess Mihrişah, had married Lord Arslan, a very minor landholder from the back-country, barely more than a gentleman farmer. His holdings had been only a day’s ride from the mountain village where Evemer had been born. The fact that the crown princess had married at all should have been the first big scandal, but… Well, even now, thirty years later, the kahyalar in the garrison were still sighing over the sweeping, splendid romance of it all.

The second scandal had been when Kadou’s grandfather had sent Princess Mihrişah on a diplomatic mission to Vinte without her husband, yet she had returned, fourteen months later, with a five-month-old infant son. Perhaps it might have blown over with no more than a few grumbles from the worst busybodies, since most people could add nine months to five months and come up with fourteen, and therefore there was no reason to suspect that she had violated her oaths by having a child with someone besides her husband… Except for the fact that she’d named the child something funny and foreign. Kadou. Vintish, apparently.

It had been just enough to cast a shadow of a doubt as to whether the claim she and Arslan shared on the child was tainted, though everyone who had told Evemer this story was quick to assure him that Prince Kadou was the spitting image of the late prince-consort Arslan, only with better hair and the Mahisti eyes.

Siranos was looking over his shoulder now with a strange smile. “I beg your pardon? Hold my tonue?”

His Highness heaved himself to his feet. He hadn’t finished the prayer—there were three more positions to move through. “Good day,” he mumbled to Siranos, already scuttling toward the door. Evemer clenched his jaw and followed. Evidently the prince hadn’t been lying about cowardice. Well, at least he knew that about himself.

Siranos laughed behind them as they left.

Kadou moved more slowly now. His face, when Evemer caught a glimpse of it, was wide-eyed and expressionless. He stumbled once, catching himself before Evemer could catch him, and sat down heavily on the first bench he came across. His hands clutched the edge of it, white-knuckled.

Evemer said nothing. He stood at parade rest nearby, angling himself to face the way they’d come, just in case Siranos decided to follow them.

“I’m sorry,” His Highness said. “I’m sorry he spoke to you like that.”

“His opinion is beneath me,” Evemer said. As it should be beneath yours, he added in the safety of his own thoughts.

“He shouldn’t have threatened to have you whipped. He shouldn’t have called you a guard.” Life and fire came into Kadou’s voice.

“That was hardly the most upsetting thing he said, Highness,” Evemer allowed himself to say.

“He can attack me all he likes. He doesn’t get to turn on my kahya.”

It was just words. What did words matter? Evemer lifted his chin. “Highness.”

“Oh, for the gods’ sake—would you speak? Don’t just Highness me.”

“As you wish, Your Highness.” And then, for reasons he couldn’t have quite identified, he said, “I would have killed him if he talked about my mother like that.”

His Highness laughed hollowly. “You got assigned to me because Her Majesty thought there was a chance I might have him killed, Evemer.”

Evemer barely suppressed a flinch. “Apologies, Highness.”

“Shall we go tell her that I’ve already beguiled you into my faction?” He laughed again, now wild and nervous, almost manic. “You can tell her how I convinced you to hate Siranos, just like I convinced the others.”

Grain of salt, his mother’s voice whispered in his head again. “Did you convince them? Or did they witness something like this?”

“He laid hands on me, the night of Eyne’s birth. Bruised my arm, threatened me. Melek saw it. Çe can tell you everything, if you won’t believe me.”

“Highness,” Evemer said, because that was all that could be said.

Kadou dragged himself to his feet—he was wavering like he was tipsy, like he’d forgotten which way was up. Evemer did not offer his arm, and Kadou didn’t ask for it, just wove his way down the gravel path. “Do you—” he began, and then stopped.

“Highness?”

“Do you have any questions? About… anything he said back there?”

About his mother, he meant. Evemer should say that everyone knew those rumors were nonsense, that His Highness should put it out of his mind. He wouldn’t, of course. He didn’t owe Kadou comfort or care beyond what was professionally demanded. “No, Highness.”

“Nothing? Nothing at all?”

Why was he pushing? Did he want Evemer to demand answers of him? Evemer carefully kept all emotion from his face and stared steadily down the path, but the ill-mannered, undisciplined parts of himself bared their teeth with annoyance. Those parts had several impertinent questions and wouldn’t have minded making demands at all.

He must have taken too long tamping down his irritation, because His Highness said dully, “If you don’t ask, I’m going to feel like I’m waiting for a sword to fall on my neck the rest of the day.”

There was a moment, just one, where Evemer could nearly feel the mass of the questions on his tongue, filling his mouth. “I have nothing to ask, Highness.”

Kadou could be as upset as he pleased; Evemer wouldn’t budge for him.

***

Kadou’s heart was racing, and had been since he had first laid eyes on Siranos—since before that, too, but that moment was when he had started to feel it against the back of his ribs. He had to stop and rest twice more on the walk back to his chambers—he longed to run for them, but he was barely able to stay upright.

It was nothing, he kept telling himself. It was nothing. It was nothing. Perhaps if he said it enough times, it would become true.

He felt Evemer’s presence at his back like a looming dread , and several times he thought of whirling to face him, shouting at him, striking him, begging him—whatever it took to get him to just say something. Please, Kadou would cry. Please, just look me in the eye and tell me you hate me, because it can’t be as bad out in the open air as it is inside my head, and it’s eating me alive. Please.

But because Evemer hated him, because Evemer knew that Kadou would suffer more this way, he would hold his tongue. He wouldn’t say a word besides “Highness,” even if Kadou dropped to his knees in the dust and cried.

Kadou’s mind whirled from Evemer to Siranos to Zeliha, round and round: Here is how you’ve failed, and also here, and here, and here and here and hereandhereandhere—

The kahya at the door to his chambers opened it, and Kadou hurled himself through. Dinner had been laid out—he ignored all the food and seized on the carafe of wine, pouring far too much of it into the glass. He could feel Evemer’s cold gaze boring into the back of his head as he drank deep. It was a white, as sweet and fresh as snowmelt and honey. “Send for more of this,” he said, refilling his glass and pouring that down his gullet too. He heard Evemer open the door again, speak quietly to the other kahya.

He forced himself to slow down when pouring the third glass emptied the carafe. He sat heavily at the table and surveyed the food. The wine had hit his stomach with a rush of warmth, and he was acutely aware that he had not eaten all day. It would help his nerves if he could manage a few bites, but… No. No, he couldn’t do it. The idea of having to spend energy on chewing was unaccountably upsetting and pushed him right to the edge of tears.

What was wrong with him? Why was he like this? Why did he let his own mind terrorize him so?

Evemer was moving around the room, lighting lamps and tidying the arrangement of the cushions and furniture. Kadou wondered wildly if he meant it as a code of some sort, an unspoken criticism of Kadou himself.

He couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t endure this, no one could possibly endure this.

“My armsman,” he choked out.

“Armsman Tadek Hasira,” Evemer began, prompt and serene, “is quartered in cadet dormitory seven—”

“Send for him. Now, please. There’s a letter on my desk.” He waved his hand toward his bedroom door. Did he dare to order them to hurry? Did he dare to flex his power needlessly like that? Well, who could it possibly harm that he hadn’t harmed already? He had already ruined everything that could be ruined. “Have the messenger run,” he said, gripping the edge of the table. “Tell them to have Tadek run too.” Best to find out whether Tadek was angry sooner rather than later. Best to throw himself at it and get it over with, so he would know whether or not he should completely surrender to despair.

“Highness,” said Evemer tonelessly, and went to Kadou’s room to fetch the letter.

Kadou lost himself for a moment, staring unfocused across the room. He felt unmoored, but only a little, just enough that it was a welcome relief from the screeching of his own mind. The Vintish ambassador had brought a troupe of musicians from his homeland several years ago—one of them had a violin, a funny stringed instrument played with a bow. It had been rather like an oddly shaped kemençe, but in tone it had been more similar to the yowling of a cat, and it had set Kadou’s teeth on edge. It had hardly been music at all, but that’s what Kadou’s brain sounded like in moments like these.

When he came out of the moment with a sharp jolt, Evemer was moving around the room again and the second carafe of wine had appeared on the table. How deep had he been drifting that he hadn’t noticed a cadet enter to deliver it? Had Evemer already sent off the letter? He must have, or he wouldn’t have returned to his previous task.

He was touching nearly everything in the room, it seemed like. Nothing satisfied him as it was. It all had to be aligned with military precision to everything else, all crisp right angles and symmetry.

Kadou sloshed some of the new carafe of wine into his glass and thence into his mouth, and promptly choked, the acridness of the dry wine turning bitter on his tongue against the remaining sweetness of the white. Evemer glanced over at him sharply. “It’s nothing,” he said, coughing.

“Highness,” Evemer said, and returned to his tasks.

Amazing vocabulary on that man. He had such a way of using a single word for so many different meanings. That one, Kadou supposed, meant You’re a lush and an embarrassment; please stop.

He was, though. He was a foolish, stupid thing.

He peered down into the glass—it was a black wine, heavy and thick, more suitable for the evening. He would have preferred a red, if he’d been given the choice, something faintly floral that wouldn’t clash so wretchedly against the lingering sweetness of the white.

He gulped the rest of his glass down, grimacing, and pushed aside the carafe. He ought to eat. He hadn’t eaten all day. He ought to.

Evemer was fussing with the alignment of the cushions on one of the divans, and it was going to make Kadou cry. He forced himself to watch—could Zeliha have known how incisive a punishment this would be? How deep it would cut to have someone like Evemer looming behind him at every step, judging his every word and gesture, exerting his will on Kadou’s environment to demonstrate how overwhelmingly insufficient he was in a thousand tiny ways?

How could anyone have thought that Kadou was competent enough to repair his relationship with his niece’s body-father? Or oversee the investigation at the guild?

So Kadou kept watching, dully letting it all wash over him while the wine settled in his stomach and then crept into his blood, until everything was wonderfully soft and even the embarrassment and humiliations he was hoarding like a magpie’s pile of baubles were blunted into irrelevance.

There was, at length, a tap on the door. Kadou’s heart lurched in his chest and he got halfway to his feet—but Evemer swung the door open first and let Tadek in.

Kadou froze.

He’d never seen Tadek wearing anything but the deep, rich cobalt of the core-guard’s uniform. He’d been stripped of that honor with all the rest, of course. To replace it, they’d given him the uniform of a cadet, trousers and an ill-fitting knee-length kaftan of the palest blue, two shades off white.

That particular shade came from a dye made of dogwood bark and hyacinths—cheap materials, in comparison with those used for the fringe-guard and core-guard’s uniforms. There were nearly three times as many cadets as the two upper levels combined. As a person rose through the ranks, they were given uniforms made of more precious materials—finer cloth and buttons, better tailoring, more vibrant dyes… An outward expression of the increasing value in which House Mahisti held them, the investment of time and training and education.

Someone had looked Tadek in the eye and told him that he wasn’t valuable anymore. They’d taken his beautiful cobalt uniform which had been made just for him, and they’d put him back in this.

Kadou swallowed a lump of anger. Tadek was his armsman, wasn’t he? He was of Kadou’s household now, and Kadou could see him dressed in whatever colors he wished. He could put Tadek back in—well, not actual kahya blues, not unless he wanted to step on the toes of the entire garrison, but… Something else. Something that wouldn’t be such a public humiliation as cadet whites.

“Hello,” Kadou said.

“Highness,” Tadek murmured in reply. He wasn’t meeting Kadou’s eyes, but he had his chin tipped up in that way he had, as if he weren’t going to let anyone see that he was shamed.

Kadou sat back down, swallowed another lump of complicated emotion. He was too drunk for this. “Come in, please.”

He’d made a mistake. He’d made an awful mistake. Tadek clearly didn’t want to be here.

“How can I serve you?” Tadek asked, still in that low, uncharacteristic voice. No brightness in his voice, none of that sly, sidelong laughter that seemed to laden every word with two or three layers of meaning and scandal.

“I… I don’t actually need anything,” Kadou began. “I just…” Mistake. Mistake.

“If His Highness does not require you, you can come help me change the sheets on the bed,” Evemer said flatly.

Then Tadek met Kadou’s eyes. The life flashed back into them, a moment of anger and then hilarity, as if he were inviting Kadou to share in a joke—can you believe this? “Of course,” he said lightly, no hint of anything in his voice. “If you need an extra pair of hands, I’m happy to assist.”

Kadou put his head in his hands as the two of them went out of the room—they left the door open and he could hear the murmur of Tadek’s voice as they worked, but he was too drunk to make out any words. It didn’t sound like Tadek was going to try to murder—

That wasn’t a good joke. Even in the privacy of his own mind, that wasn’t a good joke at all.

He staggered to his feet and contemplated the wine for a moment before drifting toward his bedroom.

“Well, you’re so new,” Tadek was saying, very kind and warm, “so no wonder you’re still folding the corners like that. Scripture-perfect, aren’t they? There’s faster ways I can show you.” Kadou leaned on the door-jamb and watched Evemer’s shoulders go tense and his posture stiffen in that secretly offended way he had. “Speaking of that—listen, I had five years in the core-guard, so if you have any questions, just let me know, all right?”

“Yes, I expect after five years, you would know your way around bedsheets, Evemer said tonelessly, and Kadou’s heart skipped a beat.

Gods. Of course he knew Kadou had been sleeping with Tadek. Everyone did, by this point, didn’t they? Kadou met Tadek’s eyes—he shrugged minutely, and Kadou mentally wrung his hands and shoved the thought aside.

Evemer smoothed the last wrinkles out of the sheets and stood at attention. “Your Highness, may I be excused for dinner?”

“Of course,” Kadou said, waving vaguely. “You can eat mine, if you want. I’m not going to.”

Evemer paused for half a heartbeat. “Highness,” he said, and walked out.

Kadou stood aside to let him pass, and shuffled into the room to sit on the edge of the bed, ruining all the work they’d done to smooth the sheets.

Tadek stood before him, hands empty at his sides.

“Can we talk sometime?” Tadek said. The door was still open. Neither of them moved to close it.

“What have we to talk about?” Kadou said. “Everything is terrible. My fault. I ruined it.”

“You saved my life,” Tadek said. “I want to talk about that, if you’ll allow me. I haven’t had a chance to say thank you.”

“It was nothing.”

“You asked Her Majesty to lay my life in your hands.”

Kadou flushed hot. “I couldn’t just leave you to it. You ought to be angry—it’s my fault that you—”

Tadek sank to his knees before him, took Kadou’s hands in his own, pressed the backs of them to his forehead. “Highness,” he said. The warmth and assurance of his manner finally broke on that word, like a cliff crumbling into the sea.

“Don’t. Don’t,” he said. Gods, he was tired. And drunk. Tadek’s forehead against his hand was very warm. “You serve me, I protect you. That’s the—the oath, isn’t it? I was only doing what I thought was my duty—I’m so sorry.”

Tadek lifted his head. “Oh, bullshit, Kadou—what duty? You could have left me behind. You could have told Her Majesty anything you liked!”

“What happened,” Kadou said slowly, “was my fault. I gave you orders that led us to this. It was only right that I take responsibility. Don’t thank me for not being horrible. It’s my job to look after you, and if I failed the first time by giving you bad orders, then I wasn’t going to fail the second time. And—and I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’ve ruined your career.” His voice cracked. “If I hadn’t interfered, you could have—you would have been court-martialed, but at least you could have defended yourself. You could have… done better than this, maybe, if you were lucky. But this was the deal she offered me, and I couldn’t leave it to chance, or to someone else’s decision. I had to make sure you were safe.”

Tadek flinched. “I won’t try to convince you I’m not upset about—about being cut off. But there is no possibility I would have been able to remain with the kahyalar corps. There is nothing I could have said.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t better. I really was afraid.”

Tadek pressed his lips to the back of Kadou’s hand, then turned it over and kissed his palm. “When you fell off Wing, you were lying so still I thought you were dead,” he whispered. “In all my life, I don’t think I’ve ever been truly afraid, not until that moment.” He looked up at Kadou. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. About what it was like to see you get up and then start shouting—I went straight to Usmim’s temple as soon as I was able and left bread and honey at his feet.” He laughed bitterly. “I hardly recognized myself—I don’t even believe in the gods, and there I was, groveling in gratitude to the Lord of Trials, just because I’d seen your face again after I’d thought you were dead.”

Kadou’s heart skipped another beat, this time rather more pleasantly. Tadek wasn’t at all angry with him, and after the day he’d had, that felt almost too good to be true. He really was terribly drunk. His eyes flicked from Tadek’s bright hazel eyes down to his mouth, lovely and clever and soft.

“Please don’t shut me out,” Tadek whispered. “I’ve been waiting for you to summon me. I thought you might be angry with me. But then I thought that wouldn’t make sense. Just don’t do that again, Highness, please. Don’t shut me out. You’re all I have now.”

“I know,” he rasped. “I’m going to try to do better.” But what did better mean, in this new, strange world where Tadek’s very life had been laid in his hands? Tadek was right, that was the thing. Kadou was all he had now.

A life was a terrifying burden to carry.

He squeezed Tadek’s hands, and Tadek pressed his forehead to them again. “May I sleep here? On the divan?” he whispered into Kadou’s palm, looking up at him beseechingly. His cheek was a little rough under Kadou’s fingertips. He hadn’t shaved that morning. “I don’t want to go back to the cadet dormitories. I could stay, and we could talk. We can sort this mess out.”

Kadou closed his eyes. How good would that be? Oh, very. They were the only two who really understood what had happened—they could speak honestly and openly to each other about it. That was all that Kadou really wanted. They could talk, and then Tadek would flirt, because Tadek always flirted, and Kadou would let himself be convinced into bed—it wouldn’t be very difficult, especially not after the day he’d had—and Kadou could lose the rest of himself in Tadek’s arms, in his soft mouth. Just like before, months ago, when his terrors over Zeliha’s pregnancy had torn him up and Tadek had been there to help him past it.

He’d be making a liar of himself, of course, if he did that. Everything he’d said to Eozena and Zeliha about how that part of things with Tadek had ended ages ago, how he wasn’t going to do that again—well, all of it had been true when he’d said it. What did it matter, anyway? He’d wrecked everything else already, what was a little bit more? And wasn’t he allowed to want anything for himself? Wasn’t he allowed to ask for comfort? Wasn’t Tadek allowed to offer it, or ask for the same for himself?

“Highness,” Tadek breathed against his skin. “Please. I’m yours.”

It couldn’t make anything worse, and it might make both of them feel a little better. Tadek was really the only one here who knew how he felt, who understood the whole story in all its complexity.

He wondered vaguely if this was one of Usmim’s trials, sent to test the mettle of Kadou’s character. The only problem was what the trial concerned—was it about the struggle of resisting temptation? Or was it about the struggle of accepting warmth and comfort when he felt that he didn’t deserve either? Perhaps it was both, and Usmim was only interested in seeing which path he would choose to face.

He opened his eyes. He’d been rubbing his thumb against Tadek’s cheekbone. He’d only just noticed. “Yes, all right,” he whispered. Maybe Tadek wouldn’t even have to convince him.

No, he definitely wouldn’t. Tadek’s eyes were so bright and pretty, his mouth so soft, his presence and scent so familiar that it hurt a little in the center of Kadou’s chest… He wouldn’t have to be convincing in the slightest. Kadou was eighty percent of the way there himself already.

Maybe closer to ninety percent. Certainly no higher than ninety-eight and a half—

Kadou gave up on thinking that he wasn’t going to do it. He licked his lips. “Can I—” He dipped forward just a little, hesitant, and Tadek surged up, meeting his mouth with an eager noise, burying his hands in Kadou’s hair.

This was probably a very bad idea.

***

Evemer sat at the table and felt no shame at all in listening to what he could hear of the quiet conversation through the half-open door while he ate from the untouched platters of Kadou’s dinner, right up until it got conspicuously silent for a time.

Then, even more conspicuously, the bedroom door slammed closed.

He was still eating when Melek tapped on the door and let çemself in. “Here for the night watch,” çe said with a smile. “Ah, good, I was so hoping to pass you at the shift change when I heard you were joining us! Congratulations on the promotion, the gods themselves willed it. I had a feeling it was going to be you, you know.” Melek beamed at him, and Evemer inclined his head politely in thanks. “Everyone’s pretending like they’re not mad with jealousy about your exam scores—the whole garrison is talking about it,” çe added impishly, then eyed the food. “Is that all your dinner, or…?”

“His Highness didn’t eat today,” Evemer said. He wasn’t about to go reminding the prince about it, but someone else should know. “Other than approximately five glasses of wine.”

“Oh.” Melek frowned. “Is he already in bed?”

“He is in his room. In private conversation.”

“With whom? The commander?”

Evemer weighed his options—a kahya should be discreet about his lord’s activities, but Melek had been serving His Highness for months now. In all likelihood, çe already knew about it. “He’s with his armsman,” Evemer said. If Melek knew, then çe would know what that meant. If çe didn’t, then it revealed nothing.

“Oh.” Melek gazed at the bedroom door for a long moment. “So it’ll probably be a while before he needs anything, then.”

“I don’t presume to make assumptions about His Highness’s plans for the evening.”

“Right, of course, yes,” çe said, nodding. “But it’s not really an assumption, is it.” There was some soft noise from behind the door, just loud enough for them to hear, and Melek gestured grandly at the door, as if to say, You see! “Look, I haven’t had a chance to eat dinner properly yet either—I know I’m supposed to take over for you now, but you’re not finished with your food… Will you be angry if I go to the kitchens for a bit?” Melek pressed çir palms together in supplication and adopted a pleading expression. “I won’t take long, I promise.”

“I won’t be angry,” Evemer said. “Go, if you want to go.” Things were… surprisingly lax here in the core-guard, he was discovering. There was less attention paid to strict routine than in the cadets or the fringe-guard. Perhaps it was just Prince Kadou’s tendency toward flightiness—his kahyalar had to be ready to adapt and be flexible. It wasn’t like Evemer had anywhere to be. As Prince Kadou’s primary, he had a small room down the hall. As soon as Melek returned, he’d go there, read for a little while, write a letter to his mother, and sleep.

“I’ll owe you one,” Melek said, grinning.

“I do not require you to do so.”

“Just keep it in mind.” Çe paused at the door. “Actually, do you like the day shift? Getting up at the crack of dawn to attend him until he falls asleep?”

“I am honored to serve however I am commanded.”

“Well, sure, yes, me too. But if you wanted to sleep in… We could ask His Highness if he’d mind us adjusting the shifts. I’m not much of a night owl, honestly—I’d be happy to take the dawn shift if you didn’t like it. We could divide it at noon and midnight instead of dawn and dusk.”

“I would never presume to ask His Highness to accommodate my trivial preferences.”

Melek opened çir mouth, closed it again. “All right. I’ll be back in a bit, then.”

Evemer finished eating, packed all the platters up for the cadets to clear away, and made a circuit of the chambers to check the fastenings on the windows, peer out into the darkness to observe the watch pairs circle past on the garden paths and, farther away, on the walls that bounded the Gold Court.

Every now and then, there was a barely audible noise from the bedchamber.

He hadn’t really wanted to believe the rumors, but here he was, and there they were, not even doing him the courtesy of being loud enough that he could easily block it out. They were mostly terribly quiet about it, so that every time he settled into patient vigilance, he’d hear some rustle, or someone’s voice, and all his instincts would lock up and scream, Listen!! Danger?

Tadek was irresponsible. What if someone managed to get past all the kahyalar on the walls and in the gardens, and climbed into His Highness’s room through one of the windows? What if Tadek was distracted until it was too late?

Evemer hadn’t any call to be finding fault with His Highness’s personal affairs, but it was outright stupid to be carrying on with someone who had also proven themselves to be as useless and impulsive as Tadek. Surely His Highness couldn’t think that Tadek was any good for him—but perhaps that was the root of the attraction. Careless-flighty-negligent, after all. And there’d been that outrageous situation with the corners of the bedsheets; Tadek clearly didn’t give a damn about propriety or doing small things the way they should be done just because that was the way to do them. If he did, neither of them would have gotten into this situation, and Evemer would have gotten some other assignment.

They deserved each other.

Evemer was just starting to wonder fiercely where Melek had gone off to and whether çe was actually planning on returning when Tadek stuck his head out the door, wildly rumpled, his color high. “Oh, good,” he said, seeing Evemer. “I was hoping you were still there. Is there any food left? Now he says he’s hungry,” he added with an eyeroll.

“Yes,” Evemer said.

Tadek opened the door the rest of the way and Evemer stared stonily out the window. Tadek hadn’t bothered to get properly dressed again but for his trousers. “He needs to eat regularly,” he said, picking through the trays for whatever tasty bits Evemer had left. “Keep a closer eye on him in the future—sometimes you have to bully him a little, especially if he’s in one of his moods.” He picked up a platter in one hand and the wine in the other and looked around. “Hm. Also, could you pop out and get us a basin of water and some cloths?”

Evemer stared at him.

“What?” Tadek said, smirking. “Something wrong?”

“You ought to at least attempt discretion,” Evemer hissed.

“But you already knew.”

There were murmurs about the sort of relationships that might occasionally develop between a kahya and their liege—the consensus was that it was only to be expected from time to time, when two people who trusted each other became close and spent a great deal of time in proximity. There were stories, too, of more than one former kahya who, upon being promoted out of the ranks of the core-guard to illustrious political office, had then married one of the people to whom they had formerly been appointed in service.

But on the other side of the coin… All through the time he had been in the cadets and the fringe-guard, they had gotten lectures about procedures for addressing unwanted attentions from both superiors within their own ranks and from those whom they were otherwise sworn to serve. Just because such things were not unheard of did not make them entirely proper, and it certainly didn’t make them a matter that Evemer would have entrusted to two people who had already shown themselves to be careless, flighty, negligent.

But all Evemer said was, “Do you think His Highness wants you to advertise it?”

“I think His Highness doesn’t want to go to sleep sticky.” Tadek swept back into the room and kicked the door closed.

Excerpted from A Taste of Gold and Iron, copyright © 2022 by Alexandra Rowland.

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