Well, if it isn’t my long lost little brother!” Prince Ferryl exclaimed, throwing his arm around his brother as soon as he reached him in the palace corridor. After having spent a day in the city meeting with some of the nobility to discuss the presence of Midvarish rebels, he had returned to Benalle Palace as soon as he had seen the horses and wagons coming up the road—Commander Titus’s men, returned from their long stint on the other side of the kingdom. He had quickly finished up the last of the pointless meetings his father had scheduled and rushed back to greet his wild-tempered little brother who was anything but little.
Derwin returned the embrace with equal enthusiasm. “Brother,” he said, clapping Ferryl’s shoulder whilst inadvertently crushing him under the solid girth of his arms. “It’s good to see you.”
“How was Qadim Province?”
“As much of a wasteland as it has ever been,” said Derwin, his tanned skin even darker from the days he must have spent in the sun the past few months, his auburn hair a mess of disheveled curls atop his head.
“You smell like shit,” laughed Ferryl.
“Well,” said Derwin. “At least I have an excuse.”
Ferryl punched his brother’s arm with a chuckle. “Any updates?”
“The commander is still under the impression that he has everything under control. But from where I stand, the rebels are only growing. The border was teeming with them. Much more than we had anticipated.” Derwin walked past his brother, trudging down the black and white marble corridor, shrugging off his dusty riding cloak and handing it off to a servant girl who waited patiently, her hungry eyes practically devouring the returning prince. Derwin ignored the ogling servant, a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed by his older brother. Flirtation with any female in the vicinity had been a favorite pastime of the brothers since the moment they realized they were surrounded by a gaggle of willing candidates.
Derwin marched off, and Ferryl could see the tension practically trailing him. “Well that was new,” said Ferryl, following in step behind his brother.
“Please don’t tell me three months on the road with the army and you’ve lost your taste for women.”
Derwin didn’t attempt to hide the ire in his glare. “Spare me, Ferryl. She’s been eyeing both of us like that for years.”
“Which seems an awfully long time not to do anything about it.”
“I thought you, of all people, had tired of court games.”
“Indeed, but I didn’t think you had. Unyielding service to king and country has changed you, brother.” He had meant it as a joke, but the humor was painfully lost on his little brother.
Derwin ignored him, rounding a corner, pushing into his private receiving room, Ferryl following after. “Derwin, are you alright?”
“I’m tired. I’ve been on the road with a group of a hundred stinking brutes for the better part of three months. I’ve seen nothing in the way of progress toward ending this ridiculous rebel threat, and I’ve had to bite my tongue about it because of a commander who is only interested in ignoring the problem for the sake of so-called peace. Indeed, Ferryl, I’m tired.”
Derwin collapsed into a plush chair before a warm and otherwise useless fire that his servants had no doubt lit in anticipation of his return. He scrubbed his face with his calloused hands and sighed heavily. He might have been Ferryl’s younger brother, but in that moment he looked a thousand years old. Weary. Worn. What had happened in Qadim?
“Dinner is in fifteen minutes,” Ferryl said, hoping to lighten the mood.
“Mother and father can wait to hail their returning warrior. I’m in no mood for mother’s prying.”
A sentiment Ferryl could understand entirely.
“So what has happened here since I’ve been gone?” Derwin asked.
Ferryl made his way across the spacious room—large, certainly accommodating, but nowhere near as vast as his own. The second son, that’s what Derwin was. The second-born son to the greatest king Navah had ever known. And yet his chambers were modest in comparison to the rest of the royal family—a fact that had puzzled Ferryl most of his life. He crossed the room and took a seat near his brother, pushing a hand through his hair. “It’s the same as always. Mother is busy plotting advantageous matches with the most groveling of noblewomen she can find. Father shakes his head and says nothing of it. And I get to sit and wait for the puppet strings to be pulled like a good prince.”
“How is father?”
Ferryl looked his little brother in the eye, knowing the weight of the question, the worry that had been plaguing them both for months. “He’s still having headaches. I think they’re getting worse.”
Derwin turned his head, resting it against the back of his chair as he rubbed his temples. “Do you think he is ill, Ferryl?”
Ill? Ferryl would have been lying if he hadn’t wondered the same thing many times. But his father was still young, capable. A formidable king, only approaching his mid-forties. There could be no reason for him to be ill. “I think he’s unhappy with his marriage. That’s what I think. He’s fine, Derwin. Mother is just—”
Ferryl chuckled, albeit a bit sardonically. “Yes,” he said.
“And what of Elizabeth? Any news?”
Ferryl had to think a minute about whom he was referring to. “The stable girl?” he finally asked, wondering why in the world Derwin was asking about the new stable girl, of all people. The unfairly beautiful stable girl who had not apparently one iota of knowledge of horses. Or court protocol.
Derwin only scoffed. “Yes, the stable girl, you ass.”
“I suppose she’s busy working in the stable,” Ferryl answered, thinking he was just about done tolerating his brother’s foul mood for the evening.
Derwin laughed. “Well then it seems we are both biding our time then, doesn’t it?”
“Biding our time for what?” Ferryl asked.
Derwin rolled his eyes and this time, the gesture was lost on Ferryl. “I’m tired, Ferryl.”
And Ferryl knew he was being brushed off. “I’ll make your excuses at dinner,” he offered, standing to his feet.
Ferryl returned to the door, but he didn’t get a chance to open it before a smiling blonde servant pushed it open. “Hello, Leala,” Ferryl said warmly. “Come to greet our returning warrior?”
Leala’s laugh chimed with mirth and beauty, her wavy blonde hair cascading over her shoulders and down her back. Ferryl was well aware of how his mother preferred her maids to keep their hair in perfect, polished braids or sleek buns. And he also knew that Leala had just enough of a mind of her own to ignore such asinine demands from the queen of Navah. “Hello, Ferryl,” she said, but when she turned to say her hello to Derwin, Ferryl could have sworn he spotted a hint of rose coloring her cheeks.
Derwin immediately stood to his feet and ambled over to the door, his hands in his pockets. “Hello, Leala,” he said casually, but Ferryl did not miss the smile in his eyes. It was…consuming. For Leala was not just one of those ogling servant girls. She was one of Derwin’s closest and most trusted friends. Derwin hesitated for a moment, but soon gave Ferryl a sidelong glare before pulling their childhood friend into his arms and hugging her rather unashamedly. Leala seemed to melt right into his embrace.
“How was your trip? Successful?” she asked, her eyes sparkling.
“If by successful, you mean that we made it out of the province alive, then yes, it was successful.”
Leala laughed again, and this time, Ferryl didn’t miss the lingering look she gave his brother.
“I got your letters. It sounds like things are more complicated than you anticipated,” she said.
“To say the least,” Derwin responded, his arm still slung casually around her. “Ferryl was just leaving,” he added, nodding his head in Ferryl’s direction without taking his eyes off of her.
Derwin and Leala had always been close. Much closer than Ferryl had been with her. She had grown up in the palace right alongside the princes, and no one had batted an eye when their friendship extended into adulthood, even though she was merely a servant and they the sons of the king. Never in all the years he had known her had he recalled feeling like a third wheel. But now—
“Yes. I have to get to dinner,” said Ferryl, glad of an excuse to leave. “I’m glad you’re home, brother. It’s been painfully dull without you.”
“I’m sure you were able to find something to do,” said Derwin, a twinkle of mirth in his eye.
“Right,” said Ferryl, thinking his brother seemed a bit addled from his trip. “Enjoy your night off.”
“Goodnight, brother,” said Derwin, and Ferryl didn’t even bother to wave as he walked out of his brother’s chambers, thinking Derwin had been in a strange mood, indeed.
“Your brother isn’t joining us?” asked Queen Meria, her perfectly arched brow striking a healthy amount of fear into her eldest son. Her garish russet gown filled her chair, billowing in yards and yards of fabric like a cascade of shimmering autumn leaves. Her jewels shone around her neck like a crackling fire. She had a habit of over-dressing, no matter the occasion. Tonight she looked more appropriate for a banquet with every nobleman from the province, not a quiet family dinner.
Ferryl sat down at his father’s dining table and cleared his throat. “He is tired, mother. He sends his apologies.”
“Yes, I’m sure he is exhausted,” said King Aiken, already digging into the first course. Asparagus soup—his favorite.
“But not too exhausted to see you,” said the queen, eyeing Ferryl with her cold gaze. Her golden hair had begun to gray in recent years, just as his father’s had, but she still had it fashioned into the most complex and elegant styles, which of course only added to the long list of reasons why Queen Meria of Navah was perhaps the most terrifying person on the planet. Ferryl didn’t miss the growl in her voice either. It seemed that no matter what Derwin did, it was never right for their mother. No wonder he had stopped trying years ago.
The queen didn’t release her cold glare from her son for quite an excruciating moment, and Ferryl found himself particularly interested in the consistency of his soup as a result. His mother had a way of striking fear in even the most innocent of subjects. Ferryl wondered why she had such a powerful effect on him, considering he had done nothing wrong.
He sipped on a spoonful of his soup, wincing at the earthy, acrid flavor. Asparagus soup was anything but delicious.
A servant ambled by offering wine, and Ferryl didn’t hesitate to have his goblet filled. To the brim. Despite the summer heat, the room seemed uncomfortably cold, and he welcomed the warmth the wine offered.
“Has Derwin anything to report from the east?” asked the king.
“I’m sure he can fill you in on the finer details,” answered Ferryl, thankful for the conversation. “But he did tell me that the rebel situation is worse than we had assumed.”
The king looked up from his soup. “What do you mean?”
“I do apologize, father. I did not pester him for more information. He was particularly tired. I assumed we could discuss it with the council tomorrow.”
“Well, there’s no reason to get our feathers ruffled,” said the queen. “Derwin is not exactly level-headed when it comes to things about which he is passionate. I am sure that Commander Titus has the situation under control.”
The king only gave his wife a sidelong glance before he returned to his soup, and Ferryl knew why. If there was one rule they followed religiously in the palace, it was to never argue with the queen.
Alas, the anticipated return of his warrior brother and here Ferryl was, participating in yet another uncomfortable dinner with his parents with no little brother in sight. Indeed, Ferryl was tired as well. It had been an off day, to be sure—like a misty, icy fog had settled on his mind, never mind that it was never cold in Navah, even in the dead of winter. And besides that, it was summer, the sun beating down hot, the humidity making his hair particularly unruly. There should be no reason for such a winter-like weight to be coursing through his very veins. But he had concluded the mental heaviness had something to do with the absence of his entertaining and smart-mouthed sibling and the quiet worry that pulled at the back of his mind any time he let himself think too long about his father’s strange, untreatable headaches. Whatever the case, he was more than ready for a sense of normalcy to return to the routine he called life.